Pulling Punches: Kill Bill, Movie Violence and Bringing Eyeballs to the Screen

Kill Bill and movie violenceSo my wife Trudi and I are watching Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) on TV the other day. The fight scene involving Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman. Thurman’s “Bride” plucks out the eye of Hannah’s hitwoman. Then steps on it as her adversary writhes.

Trudi squirmed. And I thought: Did I really have to see this?

Once upon a time, there was a lot of controversy with films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969) about how violence was portrayed onscreen. Every once in a while, that sort of hullaballoo rears its ugly head again – particularly, it seems, when it comes to Mel Gibson extravaganzas such as The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006). Yet I wonder if there’s really a serious conversation going on currently about the amount of violence in motion pictures. Are we too used to computer-generated blood and gore to make this a real issue anymore? Have we succumbed to the lure of 300 (2006)?

Violence is popular. That’s a given. It’s a standby in comedy slapstick; it’s an old hand at drama. It’s really nothing new. It is, however, much more prevalent in the cinema today than it was 40-plus years ago, and technology has reached a point where any kind of gore shown onscreen is feasible, thanks to the glories of CGI. My question is whether all of it is really necessary. I see something like an extracted eyeball, and I’m not thinking: That’s something I want to see. I’m thinking: Get me the hell outta here.

One could make the argument that the eyeball scene is integral to the plot of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 – that it shows the supreme martial-arts skill of The Bride and her ruthlessness, which is comparable to that of the villains out to eliminate her. One could also argue that this scene is essential to understanding how The Bride prevents Hannah’s hitwoman from doing any more damage, as the latter character only has one eye to begin with. One could even point out that this sequence is no different in motive from the famous shock scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929) involving a man with a razor purportedly slicing open a woman’s eyeball.

But I’m not going to support any of those arguments.

Kill Bill and movie violenceTo me, it seemed gratuitous, spawn of a tendency in the movies these days to tell, not show – to let no steak be underdone. Excess, as much as possible. Gore? Certainly. And let’s make it as uncomfortable as possible for the audience watching it.

Strangely, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) featured an equally – if not more – violent sequence involving masses of swordsmen being mutilated and wiped out by The Bride’s blade that I had no problem with. I found that scene more about cinematic style than substance, à la the opening and ending massacres in The Wild Bunch. Crisp, flashy cinematography. Deft editing. Varied perspectives. And a whole lotta blood. They worked … very well. I don’t feel the same way about the eyeball grabbing and squishing in Vol. 2.

I guess disgust is in the iris of the beholder. It may be that I was too sensitive to this type of thing. There was a time in my youth when I couldn’t watch certain scenes in the movies that featured a significant amount of gore, and to this day, I still can’t view selected moments – say, some of the gratuitous stabbing in Suspiria (1977) – without covering my eyes. A lot of the CGI bloodshed of today, however, is not anathema to me, and I was able to take most of the Kill Bill volumes in stride.

Why, then, did this eyeball scene bother me so much?

Part of the reason, I think, is because the rest of the movie is so well done. I like Quentin Tarantino; when he’s on, he’s a strong director with a distinctive worldview and appealing style. For some reason, though, I thought the addition of this bit of violence was beneath him. Imagine that: a burst of violence that’s beneath Tarantino! What is this world coming to?

In this case, I thought he slipped. Every director makes mistakes. This was one of them. There was certainly no need to show the eye coming out or the little orb being smushed by Thurman’s foot. It just wasn’t needed in a film that really was admirable for its economy. Kill Bill, methinks, is not an excessive duo … unlike, say, 300.

14972What’s the difference, then? Why is the violence, in general, of Kill Bill so much more worthwhile than that of 300?

To my mind, it has to do with perspective. For a pair of films with such a high body count, Kill Bill’s mayhem really had more to do with a homage to sword-swishing films than enjoying the gore for its own sake, and I appreciated this outlook. On the other hand, 300 wanted the audience to revel in the blood while clinically appreciating the many ways a person could be killed CGI-style. That, in my opinion, was gratuitous. It was cosmetic, gloss. Violence without merit.

At some point, the industry does need to sit down and talk about how violence has permeated its celluloid and whether it’s more than just a selling point. Ratings are a big part of the problem, and the relatively bloodless violence of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), rated PG-13 in the United States, still has a higher body count than formerly controversial films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), a PG-rated flick that caught a lot of flak for a scene in which a man’s heart is torn out of his chest. There’s something wrong with that, isn’t there? Or have we evolved, become more jaded, more used to onscreen butchering?

I haven’t. I don’t think Trudi has, either, judging from her reaction to the eyeball stomping in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. So far, subtlety hasn’t won out in the end. I can only hope that quality directors know it’s still there as a tool to replace brute force.

 

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

12 thoughts on “Pulling Punches: Kill Bill, Movie Violence and Bringing Eyeballs to the Screen

  1. I think you raise some good points, Charles, but I definitely think this is a matter of taste. Even if the eyeball scene is a homage to Fulci and other ultra-violent films, I think it sticks out like a sore orb. It just doesn’t work for me. Also, I have to respectfully quibble with your assessment that the violence is more “realistic” in Vol. 2. The Bride plucks out the eyeball from Hannah’s socket in a lightning-fast way — that hardly seems realistic to me; in fact, it’s as cartoony as the gore in Vol. 1. But the dramatic, set-piece fight scene with the gang in Vol. 1 had a certain panache that I appreciated outside of its homage-istic appeal to lovers of chambara films. That was partly why I thought it fit well within the context of the film, while the eyeball-plucking scene didn’t.

  2. To echo James, the eyeball scene, like so much in Tarantino, is an homage. But, more than that, the violence in Vol 2 is more realistic and graphic than that in Vol. 1. This is on purpose. Vol. 1 is flashy, in-your-face Tarantino, whereas Vol. 2 is dramatic Tarantino. You refer to the “gratuitous” nature of the eyeball scene but also say that the argument could be made…and then proceed to give valid reasons for the scene that move the narrative along visually (showing) rather than having voice-over or dialogue (telling). On the contrary, the fight scene in Vol. 1 that didn’t bother you serves only a stylistic purpose, not a narrative purpose, and is therefore the more gratuitous of the two scenes. The violence in it is more akin to ‘300,’ but the violence in the eyeball scene, with the directness of its brutality, is more akin to Scorsese. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be bothered by the eyeball scene. In fact, that’s the point: you SHOULD be bothered by the eyeball scene. It’s supposed to make the audience that has become desensitized to violence uncomfortable. Tarantino is a talented filmmaker because he wants us to have this conversation (just as he wants us to have a conversation about racism after watching ‘Django Unchained’). He is, on one had, paying homage to the films of his youth, but, on the other hand, elevating the artistry of these films so that they are more than simple bricolage.

    • I think you raise some good points, Charles, but I definitely think this is a matter of taste. Even if the eyeball scene is a homage to Fulci and other ultra-violent films, I think it sticks out like a sore orb. It just doesn’t work for me. Also, I have to respectfully quibble with your assessment that the violence is more “realistic” in Vol. 2. The Bride plucks out the eyeball from Hannah’s socket in a lightning-fast way — that hardly seems realistic to me; in fact, it’s as cartoony as the gore in Vol. 1. But the dramatic, set-piece fight scene with the gang in Vol. 1 had a certain panache that I appreciated outside of its homage-istic appeal to lovers of chambara films. That was partly why I thought it fit well within the context of the film, while the eyeball-plucking scene didn’t.

  3. Good piece Simon. Michael Medved once said that American movies are excellent at depicting physical violence and not nearly as good at depicting emotional violence. It’s the one thing I agree with Medved on. I worry that without much attention paid to the consequences of violence, it does indeed have a desensitizing effect. But I fear the horse has long since left the barn on this. There’s barely a debate on movie violence these days. It seems to have moved over to a debate on video game violence, a topic which has its own set of conditions. (Regarding Kill Bill, as soon as you saw Daryl Hannah and the eye patch, you just had to know the other eye was coming out at some point.)

    • Thanks, Jon. Unfortunately, I think you’re right about the conversation about violence and how it has gravitated to video games. And I agree with you about the desensitizing effect of violence in films that can become pervasive without attention paid to the consequences of violence. For some reason, I’m reminded of the movie Odd Man Out, whose protagonist kills a man in a bank robbery and is wounded, then spends the entire film dying of his injuries. That picture had more to say than just that violence is bad, but I think it’s interesting that a movie made so many decades ago still seems so topical today on the subject.

  4. I am torn between the trend for gratuitous violence, and the sanitised violence so common years ago. People were shot, there was little blood, and they clutched their arm, and carried on fighting, or wrapped a bandana around the wound. Saloon-bar fights showed men being hit with chairs, thrown through windows, and falling from rooftops. In most cases, they did little more than shake their heads, and carry on.
    This was not sending the right message about the results of violent acts, shootings, or being hit with heavy objects. Once the likes of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘Straw Dogs’, and ‘The Wild Bunch’ appeared, we did at least get some idea what happens when someone is shot with a shotgun, machine-gunned multiple times, or dragged behind a car. It may not be pleasant, but it is certainly more realistic, and hopefully off-putting, as it should be.
    The ‘cartoon’ violence of films like ‘Kill Bill ‘, with scenes like the one you describe played as comedy, is a little more worrying. As James remarks, it has been done before, but not to a generation brought up on video games, first-person shooters, and a casual attitude to murder and gore. I am somewhere in the middle. If it is necessary to show violence, I feel it should be graphic, as a warning. The hard decision is, what actually needs to be shown?
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • You know, it’s funny, Pete — I definitely see what you’re talking about in the films of old, which were comparatively bloodless but still had certain kinds of violence, particularly in the shoot-outs of beloved Westerns or gangster movies. I think I read an interview with Harvey Keitel a long time ago in which he suggested that movies should be more violent to show how terrible violence is. There’s definitely an argument for that. I do agree with you on the question of what needs to be shown. It may be impossible to provide an objective response to that — it was my personal feeling about the eyeball scene in Kill Bill Vol. 2 that led, in part, to my disgust. And you’re right … what is too violent for the generations of today? And what is the difference between the cartoon violence of Kill Bill and the comic-book violence done to monsters in The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit? Less blood, sure, but limbs/heads get lopped off in both of them. (This is coming, by the way, from a fan of Lord of the Rings!)

  5. Interesting article. While I think there is an important place for extreme violence in films for an adult audience, so long as the film itself has a strong, worthy narrative drive (it’s interesting that you use the eyeball, an almost tongue in cheek b-movie moment, as an example when Michael Winterbottom’s The Devil Inside Me has some heartstopping and incredibly violent sequences), your point about the pg-13 rating being used to give bloodless violence a pass is something that’s been bothering me. The pg-13 and 12a rating here in the UK are becoming more and more simply marketing tools by the distributors to push movies in front of a wider audience. There has been a spate of examples in the UK where studios have actively sought advice from the BBFC on how to cut films to achieve a lower rating which has resulted in the likes of The Woman In Black and Jack Reacher going in front of an audience that is far too young for the content. To that end, it’s also becoming harder as a parent to know which films will be appropriate for my youngster when the ratings system is so broad.

    • Thanks, Andrew. It’s a disturbing issue that you bring up, and it doesn’t surprise me, unfortunately. I guess when it comes to orcs and other monsters that don’t shed red blood, PG-13 is OK! More OK than the plentiful use of the “f-bomb” in “The King’s Speech,” which garnered a bizarre “R” rating here in the States. In the U.S., the ratings have provided a bit more clarification — citing the reasons for the ratings (a brief scene of sensuality, graphic violence, pervasive strong language, etc.), but I think a big problem is measurement. How are these cinematic ingredients measured, and what are the prerequisites to garnering a certain rating? There definitely needs to be an examination of this issue, and you’re right: The system in place still makes it difficult to determine what content is appropriate for family viewing.

  6. Thanks, Simon – interesting piece. It’s worth noting that the eyeball scene is a homage to similar scenes in Italian exploitation films like Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombi’ and ‘The Beyond’, and Ruggero Deodata’s ‘Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man’. Although it’s fairly likely you won’t be a huge fan of those films either 😉

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