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Blood, no guts

With 'Kill Bill' packing theaters, gore is golden in Hollywood. And the ratings system winks, then slaps on an R. Can the industry find the will to stem the dehumanizing crimson tide?

November 02, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't quite as historic as watching crew members rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic (or maybe it was), but I was in the audience on a cold January night in 1992 when Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" had its Sundance Film Festival world premiere. * A traditional Q&A session followed this very untraditional ultra-violent film, and a hand went up from what was clearly an anguished liberal seated near the back of the venerable Egyptian theater. How, he wanted to know, could Tarantino defend the level of violence on the screen? * "Defend it?" the director, never one to avoid an issue, roared back like a character in "The Treasure of Sierra Madre." "I don't have to defend it, I love it!" Period. Close quote. End of story. * Given the wild-eyed Old Testament-prophet fervor of that remark, it's not a surprise that Tarantino has returned with "Kill Bill," perhaps the most graphically violent film ever made by a mainstream American company, Disney-owned Miramax. What is surprising is the absence of any kind of sustained outcry about that unprecedented level of mayhem. Where's that guy near the back when we really need him? * Defenders of the "Kill Bill" kind of violence like to characterize it as cartoonish and over the top. But special-effects work in this area has become so expert that the mayhem can't be excused as being "stylized" anymore: It looks and plays terribly real. "Kill Bill" revels in its graphically amputated limbs, realistically lopped-off heads, a body count so high even Tarantino says it's incalculable. * Did anyone mention blood? "Kill Bill" luxuriates in Old Faithful-style geysers of blood, gushers that bring to mind the oil well that made James Dean's Jett Rink filthy rich in "Giant." So much blood that even Tarantino, who's been quoted as saying that this would be a great film for 12-year-old kids, found a way to have enough. "He picks up -- I swear -- 5 gallons of blood and pours it over my head," actress Julie Dreyfus told Entertainment Weekly. "It took weeks to get it off." * Except for unhinged responses like the unmistakably anti-Semitic attack on Miramax and Disney that appeared on the New Republic's Web site, "Kill Bill" has been overall quite the media darling. Vanity Fair devoted thousands of words to respectfully investigating Tarantino's psyche, Entertainment Weekly put his star Uma Thurman (the daughter, ironically, of an expert on Tibetan Buddhism) on its worshipful cover, and gossip doyenne Liz Smith typified it all when she gushed "the stylish, super-bloody, martial arts film hommage has reestablished Tarantino as a director to be reckoned with." Thanks, Liz, I needed that.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Film violence -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about violence in films misidentified the movie "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" as "The Treasure of Sierra Madre."

Reasons for this lack of protest are not difficult to find. For starters, there are people who make money off this as well as people, largely young adult males, who, like Tarantino, can't get enough of gore on screen. "Kill Bill" had a $22-million-plus opening weekend, the equally violent "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" earned $29 million the following week, "Jason and Freddy" opened at the top of the charts, in fact it almost seems that not a week goes by without a film targeted to this free-spending audience segment.

Then there is the Vanity Fair glitterati crowd, people who are more frightened of being labeled Not With It than Puritan Jonathan Edwards ever was at being found in the hands of an angry god. Finally there are the great majority of Americans, people who are ignorant of just how bloody things have gotten on screen because they have simply trained themselves via bitter experience to look the other way.

Lack of outcry

As someone who would give a lot to be among the ignorant but is compelled by occupation to sample these wares, I find it as difficult to speak up as to remain silent. Though it's counterintuitive to believe, given film's acknowledged power to influence hearts and minds, that the endless barrage of violence we're subjected to has no effect on our society, people are frankly bored by hearing that. A kind of mayhem fatigue has set in, which is yet another reason for the lack of outcry. Naysayers are always considered a drag, and it's likely Noah's dinner invitations drastically declined the more he insisted that there really was a flood in everyone's future.

There are, however, two points "Kill Bill's" insistent violence brings up that are worth returning to. Most obviously, the film's R rating underlines for about the millionth time how crass and bankrupt the Motion Picture Assn. of America's rating system is.

When a friend asked me if I was surprised that this film, an acknowledged high-water mark in home-grown violence, didn't get an NC-17 rating, I was surprised he even asked. No major American film has ever gotten that rating for violence, and no film ever will. It's one thing to make yourself feel important by giving an NC-17 to a fringe operator like Rob Zombie and quite another to give a financially ruinous rating to a major player like "Gangs of New York" or "Kill Bill."

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