Friday, March 27, 2020

The Three-Night-Five-Ratings-Points-Palm-Exploding-Heart Technique

For as much as there have been thousands of words written in regard to the lifetime of hours that Quentin Tarantino has spent in a cinema seat, there should also be a significant amount of discussion about how many hours in his youth were spent with television, and his ability to distinguish and appreciate the details unique to that medium that would otherwise be in conflict with the theatrical experience. In multiple interviews, when discussing laudable moments of actors, he has frequently cited guest star roles on television on an equal level of praise as film appearances. His occasional forays into directing for TV, helming episodes of "E.R." and "C.S.I.," resulted in strong ratings and are cited as standouts of those series. And his recent blockbuster ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD spends more time addressing how it has been television rather than the movies that has made and could break Rick Dalton's career, as well as provide shaky foundation for the Manson acolytes' violent behavior. Most importantly, over-the-air television contributed to the budding cineaste's education long before VHS tapes and video stores were a viable option. In a 1992 interview with Michel Ciment & Hubert Niogret, he stated, "I just watched TV in my childhood all the time...during the weekend in Los Angeles, these old movies constantly played on TV all day long..."

Thus it's an irony that while his catalog has enjoyed plenty of cable and on-demand play, only one of Tarantino's feature films has ever been aired on free broadcast TV. Granted, the amount of language and violence contained within any of his stories would be a nightmare for the average editor trying to create an edition suitable for the FCC; when Miramax and Disney prepared such a cut in 1997 for a first-run barter syndication premiere, the Los Angeles Times' news story headline literally asked, "PULP on TV?" Their reedit eliminated most of the curse words, several lines of dialogue, and even eliminated The Gimp as a character, using strategic cropping of the 2.35 image to keep him offscreen. Not an optimum way to watch one of the most important films of a decade, to be sure. The whole situation likely was a love/hate moment for Tarantino - on one hand, appreciating seeing his own movie on TV the same way he consumed movies for years, but also having to see it severely altered the same way Jackie Gleason may have reacted to seeing himself confoundingly scream, "Scum bum," with someone else's voice in the 1979 NBC network premiere of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

A year ago, a slow ripple of shock made its way through several fandoms when Netflix began airing an expanded edition of Tarantino's 70mm epic THE HATEFUL EIGHT, broken into 4 episodes of roughly 50 minutes each. Talking to SlashFilm after its stealth debut, he detailed how the platform approached him about this alternate idea, and why he accepted. "[I] thought, wow, that’s really intriguing. I mean, the movie exists as a movie, but if I were to use all the footage we shot, and see if I could put it together in episode form, I was game to give that a shot....We didn’t re-edit the whole thing from scratch, but we did a whole lot of re-editing, and it plays differently...It has a different feeling that I actually really like a lot. And there was [already] a literary aspect to the film anyway, so it definitely has this 'chapters unfolding' quality." He further elaborated, "Well if you like the movie, the movie is a movie, and I worked really hard [on it]. So even if I come out with a version that has more stuff in it, that doesn’t invalidate the first version...But now if you’ve seen that, and you like that, and you want more, this version gives you more…and it gives you more in a slightly different format...if you’re just watching it like a chapter at a [time], which is basically 50 minutes at a time, then you’re able to absorb it. And in a fun way, you’re able to look at it slightly differently. Do you want to keep watching it? You can, but you don’t have to. Each episode ends it an emotional place and you’re also able to see the whole original narrative complexity of the whole piece." Naturally, the question was raised if his other films would be revisited in a similar fashion, and while there were frequent musings that ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD could see an expanded episodic revision in the future, he stated that, "in the case of KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR, KILL BILL is the one movie I’ve made where everything I shot is in the movie..."

More than one critic observed the similarity between this reconfiguration, and the 1977 NBC presentation of THE GODFATHER SAGA. Seeking additional revenue to fund his expansive APOCALYPSE NOW, Francis Ford Coppola made a deal with Paramount and the network to create this hybrid blend of his two Academy Award-winning films, reedited in chronological order by editor Barry Malkin, and also including scenes that had been removed from each film. The four-night event was a ratings smash, and even drew rave reviews from those who had not cared for the theatrical editions: TV Guide's Judith Crist, who had panned THE GODFATHER in New York magazine saying, "The film is as ‘good’ as the novel; essentially immoral and therefore far more dangerous," said of the reconstructed miniseries, "[It's] a knockout...a brilliant editing job by Barry Malkin...he has come up with a gangster-oriented 'ROOTS'...the 'charms' of the Corleone family have been de-emphasized; we have instead a chronological study of the blood bond of the Mafia and, most particularly, of the father-to-son or don-to-heir transmission of character." The four-night event was a ratings smash, with NBC re-airing it in 1980, and holding onto the rights until 1987. Variations of this linear version were created for home video and other cable channels; more recently, AMC aired a slightly more violent edition in HD in 2012, and HBO offered a full-strength R-level edit for streaming in 2016. Generally all fans of Coppola's films, in direct rebuke to Crist, will always caution the first-timer to watch each GODFATHER film as its own separate film experience, but after that is done, many also enjoy the alternate miniseries option, and Paramount's multiple solicitations of such are testament to its enduring appeal.

KILL BILL has always held a special place to me in the Tarantino canon, because even though it has been described by its creator as a story that exists in a stylized "movie world" as opposed to the slightly more realish "Tarantinoverse," (to borrow from its originally intended male lead Warren Beatty, it is DICK TRACY versus BULWORTH) it's that stylization that speaks to me as a early film devotee. I can't really point to one single moment or screening from my childhood that pounded in the Golden Spike to make me a lifelong obsessive, but somewhere in 1976 the switch flipped and I started poring over Friday newspaper ads and drawing studio logos in my notebook. And as all this was developing in parents had a very acrimonious divorce, an event that put a wedge between my mother and I that's never fully healed. Like, I call her every Sunday and check up on her and pray for her health, but as Nick Nolte softly growled in THE PRINCE OF TIDES, she's done a lot to piss me off, and I don't know when my parents began their war against each other - but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children. In those early months when my dad moved out of the house, and they were hashing out property divisions and visitation access, in some ways, I can understand how she would have identified with The Bride: feeling like her true love and all their friends had abandoned her and left her for dead, and her in turn making sure they would viscerally know her pain long after everyone else had ostensibly moved on. And yes, I know she loved me, in her own Conroy-esque hardness, and would have fought against anyone who tried to keep me from her. But I won't associate her with The Bride. For starters, she would not have appreciated the significance of falling asleep with SHOGUN ASSASSIN playing in the background. While she found my found my film addiction cute, she never took it seriously - she kept referring to it with the "H" word, and if you've ever heard someone use that word to describe the only thing that gives you elevation and a sense of purpose in the world, then you know why it's an epithet. More importantly, The Bride, even in her righteous fury, exercised an enormous amount of nuance in how she regarded her ostensible enemies list, and everyone else that was in the path; my mom was much more binary in her thinking. Basically, middle school was me devouring TV, teaching myself how movies work, and trying not to stir up more trouble between the folks so I could have some peace. And while I had a rollicking time watching KILL BILL as an adult, I would have downright plotzed if such a film existed in my tweens.

The rub is that if KILL BILL had existed in my tweens, I would have had no way to see it at the cinema. Definitely neither of my parents would have taken me: my mom can't even abide the word "damn" in her presence, and my father, who to his credit loved INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and ONCE UPON A TIME  IN HOLLYWOOD, wasn't a fan of "low" culture. Even with the rise of cable and videocassettes, it would have been too hard to sneak something like that past them. And I did not yet have any cool friends or relatives who could drive and were willing to take me to movies like it. So, yes, I would have to wait until some ridiculous edited version showed up on one of the Big 3 in prime time, or if I was lucky, on the local pre-Fox independent station where they often got uncut 16mm prints and sometimes ran them in the late night hours. Sure, it would have been sanitized and full of commercials and not the high-octane experience I deserved, but in light of my options then, I would have been satiated. I knew there'd be opportunity to see the "real" thing when I was older and on my own.

Thus, as an enthusiastic fan, an incurable collector of movies in multiple edits and formats, an empath to the less-digitally-advanced, and a hopeless nostalgic for the era before media overload where there was a thrill of catching movies on free analog television, with the broadcast to millions at once and the pageantry of the network intros, much like the alternate history proposed by ONCE UPON A TIME..., I have envisioned my own divergent timeline:

It's 2007. To shake up the February "Sweeps Week" programming, and in anticipation of the highly-touted GRINDHOUSE, NBC approaches Disney's now-brothersless Miramax, and expresses their interest in having the network television premiere of KILL BILL. In the retro spirit of the drive-in double feature that has yet to open in theatres, they're even going to revert to the old '70s "Big N" logo and their old "THE BIG EVENT" imprimatur to promote it. However, rather than simply air KILL BILL VOL. 1 one night and KILL BILL VOL. 2 a following night, they make the unusual proposal to present the unified story over three nights as a miniseries!  Their argument is that VOL 2 is too long to air in one night anyway, this will allow them to sell more commercial time for this unique premiere, and besides, they're not going to completely yield the schedule over because there's no way they're giving up those sweet hour-long ratings that "DEAL OR NO DEAL" and "TO CATCH A PREDATOR" have been delivering. Bucking conventional wisdom, Tarantino and Disney agree to the proposition, and thus comes...

The terrific art repurposed here is by Joshua Budich, see it in full color at his website!

In order to accommodate this three-evening structure, and agreeing in this fantasy that most but not all of the inherent carnage will be allowed to remain in the film and still be acceptable to run on the public airwaves opposite "7TH HEAVEN," "TWO AND A HALF MEN," and "DANCING WITH THE STARS," there will indeed be some radical rearrangement of the scenes. Indeed, the whole chaptering of the film will be different than any theatrical presentation.

I can already hear thousands of Hattori Hanzo swords being unsheathed at this point, ready to cut me down for speaking this kind of heretical idea in public. As your admittedly hubristic correspondent, I often anticipate, and indeed encourage you from time to time, and always in a respectful manner, to question my logic. If you're unconvinced that a particular opinion I've espoused is the wisest, tell me so, but allow me to convince you and I promise you right here and now, no subject will ever be taboo. Now, back to our program.

If you think very deeply about the emotional arc of the film, while there are five people on The Bride's kill list, there are three characters that are of the most paramount significance in her quest for bloody satisfaction. So, each evening's installment allows those three confrontations to be their respective climax. Remember the quote regarding the segmenting of THE HATEFUL EIGHT: "a slightly different format...a chapter at a [time]...look at it slightly differently...Each episode ends it an emotional place." 

This was something already understood in the theatrical releases. We see The Bride fight Vernita Green first even though she is second on the kill list. Why? Because the O-Ren fight is a larger battle in all senses, there's no way to top it, so Volume 1 has to end shortly after it's done. But it's going to be a while to get to that point, so in order for the captive cinema audience to not be left like Milhouse van Houten waiting for Itchy & Scratchy to get to the explosives factory, you get to see The Bride in action early in another nicely-staged fight, and once that's done, now you're ready to learn how she came back from a bullet in the prologue. It's like Ed Sullivan in 1964 knowing that the teens in his studio are chomping at the bit to see The Beatles, so it's better to let them go up front and then promise they'll come back later than make them wait through Topo Gigio and get restless.  A TV miniseries, conversely, can be a little more deliberate with allocating story elements. "TWIN PEAKS" opens with Laura Palmer found dead, the viewer is willing to start meeting all the suspects because they know something important's going to happen later.

So, here is how the story would play out under the auspices of the Sheinhardt Wig Company:

Night 1: ROAR

The episode opens as V1 does, with its ShawScope and Astro Dater teases, the black-and-white prologue of The Bride in her "final" moments as Bill sends her off with a gunshot, and the mournful "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" credit sequence. However, after that, the broadcast goes directly into "The Blood-Spattered Bride," which now becomes Chapter One, and everything from there unfolds as it did in the V1 theatrical edition, albeit with each subsequent chapter within ("The O-Rigin of O-Ren," "The MAN from OKINAWA," and "Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves") being bumped up a digit. The teases of V2 from the end of V1, which were not included in THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR, are retained, but Bill's cliffhanger final line is not uttered at the end of the episode, to help further the surprises to come later on.

In this incarnation, the initial two-hour installment becomes even more focused on The Bride's recovery, and her appointment with O-Ren Ishii. Even though it would ostensibly be easier to find and kill Vernita and Budd first, since they don't command a literal army like O-Ren does, The Bride has chosen this path precisely because if she can take out a now world-famous criminal warlord, it's mostly downhill from there. It'll put a little more fear into the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. And most importantly, besides Bill, O-Ren is the squad member that she loved most. It is why she is given an entire chapter for her backstory - O-Ren's rise from trauma to a level of untouchability to rival Bill himself is something The Bride respects. It is also why, after having the kind of friendship where they finished each others sentences, it hurts the hardest that she willingly agreed to betray her. By decimating all of her lackeys, to the point where they must fight one to one, O-Ren will now have to respect what damage she did to her former friend. And by killing someone she still carries fondness for, The Bride will be better prepared for her confrontation with Bill.

Night 2: RAMPAGE

The episode opens with a reprise of The Bride's trunkside warning to Sofie Fatale, then after fading to black on "They'll all be as dead as O-Ren," goes straight into "2," the chapter which previously opened V1 but has now been moved here to start this evening's installment, making it Chapter Five. That is followed by the "We deserve to die" conversation between Bill and Budd, and the remainder unfolds as it did in the V2 theatrical edition, up to the finish of the "Elle and I" chapter, upon which the episode ends.

By delaying the prologue and chapter which would otherwise open the theatrical version of V2, this installment is all about delivering retribution to the remaining members of the Squad, but most importantly to Elle. If O-Ren was The Bride's best friend, Elle is her worst enemy and emotional antithesis. Besides her general misanthropy, Elle particularly fumes over the fact that she is always in the shadow of The Bride, as a fellow student of Pai Mei, as the rebound girl for Bill's affections. The only reason she even utters a single sentence of respect for The Bride, saying that she deserved better than Budd getting a lucky ambush on her, is because she knows the only witness to that statement will soon be dead. Elle knows that no matter how skilled and fearsome she is, she will always be compared to The Bride, and The Bride knows Elle's been starving for her head before she showed up at the church. Vernita and Budd certainly put up a significant challenge, but Elle as the anti-Bride is the climax to this group vendetta, and closing the night's broadcast on the finish to their feud is a clean breaking point to stop and breathe before the final showdown.

Night 3: REVENGE

The episode opens with The Bride's driver's seat address which previously opened V2, followed by the chapter "Massacre at Two Pines," and then going into the final chapter "Face to Face." Again, when watching in a theatrical setting, the Massacre is put at the front of V2 so that it is always in the back of your mind as the Vipers are dispatched and the march to meeting Bill advances, but in a TV setting, reshuffling to put the final episode entirely on the fall and finish of The Bride and Bill's relationship fulfills the same concept as the HATEFUL EIGHT Netflix edition, to look at the story slightly differently and put it in its own emotional space. And in these final two hours, concentrating all their history together and estranged, when all the secrets Bill and The Bride hid from each other come out on the table, it's a conclusion that, while perhaps forgone at the start, the TV audience would still excitedly anticipate the way they did Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph hooking up in "THE THORN BIRDS," which, oddly enough had its ABC network premiere on Tarantino's birthday, March 27, 1983.

Which is as good a time as any to break for some commercials from that broadcast date. Even fight master Pai Mei himself would agree with Sheer Elegance's proposition that nothing beats a great pair of legs.

No, if this alternate 2007 had happened, it would not be any proper way to discover KILL BILL for the first time viewer. It would have at best been an interesting experiment like THE GODFATHER SAGA or THE HATEFUL EIGHT series, or at worst a mutation excoriated by fans yet still coveted by tape traders and torrentors alongside NBC's two-night stretch re-edit of EARTHQUAKE in 1976.
But that's the thing with artists of any discipline - it's not enough to behold the perfectly assembled watch, there's always the desire to look at its parts and attempt to assemble it another way...

So happy birthday to Mr. Tarantino, one of the best watchmakers in the business.

And here's to any sheltered child today who doesn't have cool parents and/or easy access to cinemas or streaming or DVDs, that is still fending for themselves with what constitutes "free" TV: may they find something that, even in a family-friendly edit, blows their mind and spurs their own creative fancy.

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