I was watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1 the other day, not thinking much about it. Then a question sort of popped into my head: What is up with the House of Blue Leaves, the Tokyo nightclub where the whole end third of the movie takes place?
Over the course of more than 30 minutes, the House of Blue Leaves becomes much more than a backdrop or a location. It takes on the properties of a palpable space that has volume and a kind of complex presence. We’re used to considering nuanced characters and relationships, but spaces, not so much. Watching Kill Bill, though, I have the sense that Tarantino’s treatment of the set creates a sense of space that is nuanced and specific.
Describing how, though, will take some doing.
the set as a stage
What strikes me first about the House of Blue Leaves is that it often has qualities reminiscent of a theatrical stage. Consider, first, that much of the action takes place in the one big room that is used and reused over the more than a half-hour — first for a party, next for a little cat-and-mouse, then for a face-off followed by a full-on battle, and finally for the aftermath of that battle. In other words, the space evolves over some length, much like in the theater, where it takes more than a simple cut to move the action to a new locale. In the theater, it’s more likely that long stretches of action will unfold in a single place, and that’s what’s happening here.
And check out that impossibly long tracking shot, embedded above. Yes, it takes us out of our one big room, which contradicts the impression that the Kill Bill set is a theater stage. But the tracking shot, if anything, reveals the back halls of the club as stagey themselves. The camera passes up through where the ceiling would be and reveals that there isn’t one. The walls don’t meet anything; they just end. Notice also that the walls are mostly made of paper. They’re flimsy, easy to move (in fact, they were moved to make the tracking shot possible), and even completely see-through in the right light. In other words, they are more like suggestions of walls than actual walls, more like a theater’s set than the real walls of an on-location shoot.
By way of comparison, take The Shining, known for its own extensive tracking shots that create a sense that we’ve penetrated deep into the bowels of the Overlook Hotel. In that movie, however, I never have the feeling that anything is insubstantial or stage-like in any way — it always feels like a solid old building. Next to that, the House of Blue Leaves seems shallow, like a space created only for the presentation of the drama.
but, yeah, it’s still a movie
Yet there are times that Tarantino also seems to go out of his way to make the House of Blue Leaves feel much more three-dimensional and voluminous.
For example, while the super-long (1:45 long or so) tracking shot shows us some stagey-looking walls, it’s still a tracking shot, which means it pushes through doorways and halls and so develops a sense of an elaborated, three-dimensional building. (And there’s actually even another fairly involved tracking shot before the super-long one, one that is impressive in itself but overshadowed by the more famous one mentioned above.)
There’s another sequence that gratuitously extends this three-dimensionality. It begins when Gogo has been dispatched to look for Uma Thurman, the Bride.
Gogo opens a door and steps out into the big room:
Then, pointedly, she looks left:
Then the camera does a couple of quick movements that literally show Gogo’s POV, swooping back and forth in the club, moving up-left then cutting then swishing down left, settling on the dancers in the center.
It’s hard to describe the effects of these shots, but it’s something like a probing and a pushing that makes us briefly aware of the whole scope of the room.
Finally, we are shown the Bride by means of a super-low angle:
Then reverse to show the Bride’s perspective.
It would have been enough to just show Gogo looking around, then reveal the bride, but there are several shots more here, shots whose only purpose seems to be to make you aware of the depth, size, and complexity of the club.
The House of Blue Leaves is both a stage and a movie set, even a movie set more fully realized than your average one. It’s a bit of two things at once.