Bruce Lee in “Game of Death” and Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill Vol. 1″
To appropriate is to borrow images from popular culture, advertising, the mass media, or other artists and incorporate them into a new work of art, according to University of Chicago Law professor William Landes. It is important to add to this definition that appropriation can also be the act of borrowing a style, not just an image. Other forms of borrowing that fall under the umbrella of appropriation are homage, pastiche, allusion, reference, and forgery. All of these terms have slightly different definitions, but in general they all involve the act of reusing something already existing for numerous purposes.
Director Quentin Tarantino’s use of appropriation in his films have allowed him to fashion his auteurist style, labeling his films “Tarantino-esque.” The characteristics that define this style of filmmaking include extreme violence, extended dialogue sequences, retrospective soundtracks, the “essence of cool”—as claimed by many critics—and most importantly, innumerable references to other films. Tarantino is the master of appropriations when it comes to cinema due to that fact that anywhere from his character names to his mise-en-scene are taken from previous works. His appropriations are most discernible in Kill Bill Vol. I and Vol. II, which are drenched in references to samurai and Kung Fu films, Spaghetti Westerns from the 1970s, Japanese anime, blaxploitation cinema, and film noir. It is not merely his allusions alone that serve as attractions by paying homage, but it is his auteur style assemblage of the borrowed elements that allow the films to become a product of his own style, and of a completely new style. The appropriation of Eastern and Western style filmmaking in Kill Bill Vol. I and Vol. II serve as attractions by creating a hyper-genre of cinema through transcending genre expectations, and operating as modes of personal storytelling.
While watching Kill Bill, the average American moviegoer will undoubtedly recognize that there are references and allusions within the work, regardless of whether or not one can identify the original sources. It is not difficult to recognize a Western-like score, acknowledge the soft focus black-and-white sequence as a reference to classical Hollywood, or realize that samurai swords are not of American culture. These references are apparent to anyone familiar with American filmmaking and therefore it is evident that Tarantino’s Kill Bill is not entirely original, while also not entirely American.
Blogger and Oxford University professor Geoff Klock, noted in his Kill Bill post series that a Tarantino allusion can be read as a “quotation you are supposed to notice, with an aim toward increasing the power of the work it is embedded into.” On one hand, appropriations can simply been seen as cinematic attractions because they evoke the original work they derive from. It is no doubt an appeal for one to sit through a movie and identify allusions to other films they know, just as one may pinpoint the original artists remixed together in a mash-up. Quentin Tarantino’s appropriations are furthermore an attraction for fellow cinephiles like him, since he fills “his movies with so much cultural arcanum that only a junkie like himself could possibly get all the references,” as a Denver Post article contended.
However, Tarantino is not merely tipping his hat to other directors. The creative force that fashions Kill Bill into an entity of its own, of Tarantino’s own, are what place it at a level beyond homage and pastiche and allow the film to defy and surpass established genres of film. Just as the mash-up reinvents original music to create an entirely new sounding song, Tarantino’s conglomeration of various cinematic aesthetics from multiple cultures and eras distinguish Kill Bill from any other film, including the films he takes from. By piecing together elements and sequences from Asian cinema and numerous varieties of American cinema or American-inspired cinema, Tarantino forms an amalgamation of Eastern and Western filmmaking. This in itself creates a hyper-genre: a fusion of existing genres that gives commentary on them while re-contextualizing and reinventing them. A hyper-genre is constructed when multiple established genres are sampled from, recreated, overlapped, and pieced together to construct a new type of cinema. It is specifically Tarantino’s refreshing and consistently surprising method of formulating, combining, layering, super-stylizing, and enriching the original elements he borrows that make Kill Bill a hyper-genre film, and deny it from fitting into just one genre.
The broadest appropriation of Kill Bill is its narrative, which is a direct reference to the theme of Spaghetti Western films of the 1970s. The entire movie is an extended—so extended it needed two parts—showcase of brutal showdowns, the good guy facing off with the bad guy, as is the highlight of any Spaghetti Western film. The Bride must kill off each assassin from her old gang in order to get to and kill the boss, Bill. This “Saturday matinee level of morality (an eye for an eye)” is representative of both Eastern and Western cinema, as discussed by author and film critic D.K. Holm. Tarantino goes further than just reusing a common narrative; he borrows sequences, costume styles, set designs, props, soundtracks, and even exact shot set-ups from several films to create his film. One of the most visibly obvious appropriations is The Bride’s costume, the famous yellow-and-black tracksuit worn by Bruce Lee in the 1978 Chinese martial arts film Game of Death. By wearing a similar outfit, the character of The Bride is automatically elevated to the status of the martial arts master Bruce Lee, and can be interpreted as the modern, American female version.
There are expectations that come with every genre of film, such as the sentimentality of a drama, the violence and fast-pace that comes with an action film, or the gore and suspense that are anticipated with a horror film. Although films can incorporate diverse elements that fall outside of the boundaries of a specified genre, there has not been a film that continually weaves in and out of multiple types of cinema as relentlessly and patently as Kill Bill. The film can be understood as a hyper-genre through its transcendence of the cinematic expectations associated with the many genres Tarantino plays off of, such as Kung Fu, Spaghetti Western, action, horror, and so on. Tarantino’s appropriations of these multiple elements of film strive to be more than what we expect from these genres, they attempt to break barriers by crossing boundaries—Tarantino wants to tell the heartfelt tale of a mother fighting for her child, while also portraying the ultimate feminist badass, while simultaneously shocking us with instances of gruesome violence not seen in the typical American action film. And this style of continually switch things up is intentional; Tarantino said in an interview that he wants “each reel to play like it’s a reel from a different film,” he wants to repeatedly throw us off guard, never letting us sit too long in one genre before throwing something else unexpected in our faces.
Through mixing the soundtrack and visuals of different cinematic cultures Tarantino is able to manipulate the mood associated with the original sound or visual. In his thesis, Peter Romanov of Wake Forest University contends “Tarantino’s soundtrack works as an aural companion to the film’s narrative and demonstrates what happens when different film genres are fused together.” An audio and visual analysis of the famous and climatic fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. I, where The Bride fights the Crazy 88s, is perfectly emblematic of this amalgamation of various types of cinema. The beginning of the scene is the very similar to the set up of a fight scene in the 1972 Chinese martial arts film Fists of Fury: a wide overhead shot of The Bride in the middle of a Kung Fu-looking set, surrounded by a myriad of men. As The Bride draws her samurai sword a funky 1970s sound effect plays, reminiscent of blaxploitation films. The Bride then fights the men and she bends backwards to slice them with her sword, then jumps in the air into a 360 flip, both moves which are evocative of the fight choreography in The Matrix. The Bride then lands and rips out a man’s eyeball—an extremely gruesome act not expected from most American action films—while a segment of a Spaghetti Western score, “I Giorni Dell’Ira,” plays. The segment played, although so short it is almost unnoticeable, is the climatic trumpet blaring moment of the song, which emphasizes the heightened suspense of the shocking eyeball ripping action. The scene suddenly turns black and white as the fighting continues, a reference to the violent fight sequence from 1962 black and white samurai film Sanjuro. Another Spaghetti Western reference is made when an axe is thrown and hits a man in the head, in which the slowed down tracking shot of the axe is reminiscent to the Wachowski’s style in The Matrix, and the actual sequence is similar to a scene from film Navajo Joe (1966). The scene gets more violent as blood furiously spurts out from the men’s bodies in an exaggerative, almost comical fashion, and The Bride slices a man in half, an allusion to the same action in Japanese film Ichi the Killer (2001). The martial arts genre is unmistakably referenced when the theme song of the Japanese film Champions of Death (1975) plays as The Bride fights main Crazy 88, Johnny Mo.
It is plain to see the various cinematic cultural references layered during this scene alone, in which the moods associated with Kung Fu, Spaghetti Western, blaxploitation, and even the violence in foreign films, or violence non-existent in mainstream American cinema, are brought together to elevate the energy and suspense of the scene. It is impossibly to strictly characterize this scene as one of the many genres it references, but it can be understood as a conglomeration of them playing off of each other. This scene defies genres and genre expectations so interminably and successfully because of its “leaps of time and space,” by sampling films from various cultures and eras, as author Ruby Tapia highlights in her essay on Kill Bill. Once analyzed for its multitude of appropriations, it is evident to see how the fight scene perpetually shocks the audience and catches them off guard by simultaneously reinventing and blending together various characteristics of genres.
Tarantino also fuses the associated moods of two genres when “I Lunghi Giorni Della Vendetta” from Spaghetti Western, The Long Days of Vengeance (1966), plays over the anime sequence of O-Ren Ishii’s father’s death in Kill Bill Vol. I. The slow and dramatic rising of the trumpet, paired with the mournful guitar strum and drumming play as the camera slowly pans up the bloody samurai sword stabbed into O-Ren Ishii’s father’s head. While the visuals are of Japanese style animation—which can be somewhat emotionally and realistically limiting due to the 2-D images suggestive of a comic book—the music evokes the doleful mood of a Spaghetti Western after which a hero has fallen. This musical association with the Western genre saturates the scene in emotion and turns the animation highly dramatic and realistic, like that of a death scene from a Spaghetti Western. The connotations of the song translate the pain and hurt evident in young O-Ren Ishii’s eyes into a look of promising vengeance. This juxtaposition of cinematic moods inverts our expectations of cartoons and characterizes the Eastern visuals with the traits of a Spaghetti Western, allowing the scene to look as if it’s from different movies, but feel like one.
The violence in Kill Bill is significant to note in relation to the film’s distinction from mainstream American cinema, not just in its magnitude, but also in the actual content. Kill Bill differs from the kind of violence seen in American cinema because its horrific and gory scenes are so blunt, quick, unusual, and extremely unexpected. It is unlikely that there is an American film, pre-Kill Bill, in which one can find such extreme and recurrent violence occurring to limbs and eyeballs, and even the stabbing of the groin, unless of course the film was of the horror genre. Such graphic violence is expected of that genre, but the average moviegoer would not usually walk into an American action film and anticipate such explicit sequences. This is where Kill Bill goes beyond just mixing the moods and tones of various cultures of cinema and employs incidents specific to a universal genre: horror. The vividly gory scenes in Kill Bill are usually unanticipated, as is characteristic of horror films, however it is not just the surprise of the act of violence that unsettles us, but the actual excessive grotesqueness of it that mainstream American film is void of. When The Bride and Elle are fighting in the trailer the last thing the audience expects is for The Bride to suddenly and so easily rip the woman’s eyeball out of her socket. Although this sequence is entirely original and not appropriated, it is this style of suspenseful violence that breaks the boundaries of mainstream American cinema.
However, many violent and terror sequences in the film are taken from foreign horror films. Tarantino alludes to the Italian horror film City of the Living Dead in Kill Bill Vol. I and Vol. II. In Vol. I, The Bride kills Gogo by swinging a wooden plank with nails jutting out of it into her head, causing blood to stream down her cheeks from her eyes, identical to a scene from the Italian film. In Vol. II The Bride is buried alive and Tarantino emphasizes the fright and claustrophobia of the scene by replicating a shot from the Italian film in which the camera is close up to the woman’s barely lit face as she bangs on the casket to escape. Japanese thriller Battle Royal (2000) is mimicked in Vol. I when Gogo stabs a man in the groin with a knife, exactly as the character, played by same actress Chiaki Kuriyama, does to a man in the Japanese film.
Tarantino’s appropriations are not only attractions for defying cinematic genres, but are also evidence of his style of personal storytelling. After working in a video store for years, it is no question as to how Tarantino came up with all the references within his films. On one hand we can read Tarantino’s appropriations as a commentary on the history of film since they represent various elements of genres across cultures and throughout time, and who is better to show us than the film buff himself. However, his redeveloping of genres can also be interpreted as his personal exegesis in which he borrows his most favored pieces of cinema, and mixes them with “his own reality” to produce a film that feels both recognizable and novel at the same time. Tarantino “turned up the heat under his memories,” and repurposed the sequences he loves most in making Kill Bill, as Roget Ebert contended in a review. The ingredients of his hyper-genre are ones every moviegoer is familiar with, and Tarantino is the cinematic chef with an auteur vision that uses these ingredients to form an entirely new, refreshing, and surprisingly unexpected dish. In an interview Tarantino said, “What will bring [Kill Bill] together is one voice—my voice, my personality.” It is Tarantino’s personalization of appropriations that make Kill Bill a hyper-genre film by concurrently evoking cinematic history and exhibiting the essence of a freshly reinvented style that surpasses our expectations.
This essay was written for NYU Cinema Studies course “The Cinema of Attractions,” was published in the NYU Comparative Literature Dept.’s Brio Literary Journal in Fall 2012, and won the Brio Best Critical Essay award.
 For the sake of avoiding repetition, and since they are two components of the same entity, I will refer to both volumes of the film as Kill Bill, unless other wise specified.
 Dave Wadsworth, “Tarantino Too Hip for His Own Good,” Denver Post, 6 November 1994, magazine section, p. 9
 This addition is important to note, since Spaghetti Westerns do not fall under American cinema
 Peter Romanov, Soundtrack: The Significance of Music in the Films Written and Directed By Quentin Tarantino, Thesis Submitted to Graduate Facility of Wake Forest University, May 2006, p. 38
 Kristen Coates, “[The Classroom] Hyperreality in ‘Inglorious Bastards’: Tarantino’s Interwoven Cinematic World in 1940s France,” The Film Stage, 26 June 2010
 Ruby Tapia, Volumes of Transnational Vengeance: Fixing Race and Feminism on the Way to Kill Bill, Visual Arts Research, Vo. 32, No. 2(63), Papers Presented at a Visual Culture Gathering November 5-7, 2004. The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio (2006), p. 33