' ' Cinema Romantico: Q & U: An Appreciation

Monday, August 09, 2010

Q & U: An Appreciation

Mad scientist Quentin Tarantino has a severe Uma Thurman fetish and of this there can be no doubt. At the conclusion of Kill Bill Vol. 2, upon the initial go-around with the acting credits, Tarantino re-indulges in the acting credits, super-imposing them over black and white images of Uma Thurman as The Bride, a retired hitwoman, who takes a journey around the world to eliminate those who tried to kill her, driving. Just driving. That's all. Nothing more. Shots from the front and the back and from the sides. And when the credit reciting Written & Directed By Quentin Tarantino emerges it is paired with a shot of Uma winking at the camera, as if she's winking at the Tarantino credit to say 'thanks,' or as if Tarantino is having her wink at his credit. Perhaps there is a psychology term paper to be written on all of this but that is not what I am here to discuss.

I have said before and will now say again, simply because I love saying it so much, that for me there are two cinematic pairings which stand above all the rest: Bogie & Bacall and Quentin & Uma. Lauren Bacall was often good, of course, but she was never as good as when she was opposite Humphrey Bogart. Uma Thurman is often good, of course, but she is never as good as when she is opposite Quentin Tarantino, and even though he never shares the screen with his favorite leading lady you can always sense his presence just off camera, lurking, looming, presenting her just so.

Uma is a fair woman. Like, you know, duh. But so often filmmakers make her extensive beauty the whole point and nothing but the point. In "Beautiful Girls" she's, well, probably the most beautiful of all the girls, uber-attractive but also "completely cool," the one girl over whom the many guys in the cast most lust. In "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" she is supposed to be the bedazzling counterpoint to Janeane Garofalo. Even in "Gattaca," a film which I fervently adore, she is essentially Bo Derek in "10," The Perfect Woman. Now Uma is beautiful in "Kill Bill." Don't get me wrong. I reckon she has never been more beautiful than when she is face to face with Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishi in the infamous House of Blue Leaves, O-Ren up above on the balcony, The Bride below, literally glowing, Uma's face streaked with blood.

But that's the whole thing - her face is streaked with blood. I mean, the atrocities Quentin commits against his mighty muse.....oh my. She gets shot, knifed, samurai sworded, kung fu kicked, thrown against walls, through glass, bloodied, bruised, battered, and even buried alive. Yet for all the choreographed mayhem in "Kill Bill" Quentin is asking Uma to do so much more and she is does it so well, and so easily and effortlessly, that what gets lost amidst prescient and hilarious observations on the "Superman" comic and Japanime and The Crazy 88's is an intricate leading performance.

When a Yakuza bodyguard dressed like a schoolgirl named GoGo turns up with a giggle and the reveals a ball and chain Uma lets a convincing smile of amusement play on her face. It says: "Well, this is all rather ridiculous, isn't it?" But a mere five seconds later when GoGo is swinging that ball and chain above her head, readying for the attack, Uma lets a bit of very real fright show up on her face instead. It says: "Oh, shit. I am in for it now. Breathe deep, breathe deep. You got this." Earlier, when she wakes up from her 4 year coma, she is, of course, shocked and she proceeds to poke at the bullet lodged inside her head, which gets a nice audience laugh, before feeling her belly where four years earlier her baby had been and, realizing it is gone, breaks down into hard-hitting sobs unaccompanied by any helpful soundtrack cues. To go from one to the other is a jarring shift and she handles it all with skill so simple you hardly even sense it. Again and again, over and over, this is what Quentin is asking of his muse: to be the wirewalker and to be the person who makes sure the wire stays up. She's art deco but she's also the brick and mortar.

What she also manages to achieve is an actual sense of peril. Certainly there are moments where she shows off a most cocksure and cunning smile, which would have to be part of her arsenal to earn the codename "Black Mamba," but in there is a moment when she is completely surrounded by The Crazy 88's, all intending to, you know, kill her good and dead, and she loses that smile and gains an intense concentration. And later, and better, when she and O-Ren finally have their one-on-one showdown Thurman's face actually projects a little bit of fear - "Oh boy. O-Ren is better at this then me. She knows it. I know it. Here we go." These faces pop up all over the place in "Kill Bill," if you're paying attention, and successfully squash any sense of her being a superhero, even though that's kinda what she is. Like a voiceover says, since revenge is her only concern, and she has no daughter of which she is aware, she can go to extremes the others can't.

What becomes most apparent on seeing "Vol.1" and "Vol 2." back to back is the arc from the opening scene of Thurman taking Vivica A. Fox's Vernita Green, now a Pasadena housewife, away from her daughter by killing her in cold blood to the closing scene when Thurman is re-united with the daughter that was taken from her. Truly, and regardless of the reams of violence, this is a journey of motherhood. (I also had somehow never noticed the cereal box in which Vernita stows her gun was called Kaboom!) This initial scene presents the viewer a distinct sense of the balancing act required by Uma throughout. Without so much as a word she and Vernita wind up in a knife fight that winds up in things getting broken and faces bloodied and then Vernita's daughter returns from school and immediately Thurman (and Fox) have to settle down and then banter over coffee without ever losing the edge two women who 37 seconds ago were trying to kill each other with knives would have. And then seconds after ending Vernita's life she has to perform a 180 and address Vernita's daughter in the politest terms about having, uh, just murdered her mother. It would be so easy to hate The Bride at this point but Uma impressively maintains vulnerability. The limbo stick is, like, three inches off the floor but Uma, unstoppable Uma, dances right under without even skimming it.

Tarantino films are filled to the brim with nods to other movies and with kitsch and visual superlatives and so he desperately need actors who can insert themselves into these hyper-stylized universes he creates and hold it all together while maintaining a sense of playfulness. Amused gravitas, perhaps, and no one - that is, no one - can bring the Amused Gravitas quite like the U.


Castor said...

Nice article on the relationship between Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarentino. I definitely would not mind seeing them teaming up again in the future.

Also, just to let you know, we tagged you on (another) internet meme, the Happy 101 Award:


Chief Brody said...

QT has said many times, when it comes to fetishes - that his rampant foot fetish is partly attributed to Uma Thurman. Hence why we see a lot of female feet in his movies, and he also features at least two (that I can recall) scenes or sequences that focus entirely on Uma Thurman's feet!

Great article though. One thing that QT does well is write great (macho) female characters.


Simon said...

Lovely article. I really can't wait for the next UQ pairing.