Friday, January 15, 2016

The Hateful Eight

(Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2015)

Sometime in the not-too distant future, after seeing the last of Tarantino's oft-promised career total of ten films (if he sticks to his guns, and do pardon the pun), I may look back and decide that The Hateful Eight was the one that did it. Turned me off to his shtick, once and for all.  Ever since the commercial disappointment of Jackie Brown, Tarantino has been in what I'll call his Spatter Period.  Kill Bill 1 & 2, Grindhouse, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now this one.  The common thread, or at least the easiest one to spot, has been his use of copious amounts of faux human blood, sprayed every which way.  That, and, if you want to get a little more thematic about it, revenge.

I've always viewed this as a squandering of his early promise.  After the cinematic pinnacle that was Pulp Fiction, and the sober, sensitive characterizations of Jackie Brown, it has been disappointing to see Tarantino's descent into complacency.  He has basically admitted to the reasons for this artistic shift, saying that he was chastened by Brown's poor box-office performance, and resolved thenceforth to make movies that would make a lot of money.  Not in so many words, but the point was clear enough.  And his subsequent movies have made lots of money,  turning him into a "global brand," and good for him, if that's what he wants.  But for lovers of cinema, it's been a sad tale, even if it shot through with some fond memories.  Tarantino hasn't totally lost the sharp instincts and visual acumen he exhibited early in his career (even Reservoir Dogs, which shares some of this recent film's rampant, puerile sadism, as well as its claustrophobic, stage-like setting, had a certain visual snap to it), but he's mostly traded them in for hollow, unimaginative spectacle.

It's as if, looking back at the success of Pulp and mining it for a winning formula, Tarantino took the most reductive approach to his own movies.  What did he see?  Digressive, rambling dialogue, witty and profane, a nonlinear structure, with seemingly arbitrary shifts in the chronology (that mirror, to a certain extent, the superfluity and digressiveness of the dialogue), and sudden, shocking acts of extreme violence.  He's mostly dispensed with the nonlinear business, although he still likes to utilize the occasional out-of-the-blue flashback, but the two other elements, violence and talkiness, constitute what is now an aesthetic trademark, emphasis on the trade, if you get what I mean.

Possibly, I've got this wrong, and those early high-water marks in Tarantino's career were exceptions to his real interests and preoccupations.  But he is, for better and for worse, an artist who invites a comprehensive and personal approach to his body of work.  He does have, after all, on the promotional material and in the opening credits of the movie itself, the declaration that this isn't just A Film by, but The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino.  We're by now used to cutting QT some slack for this bluster, but it does demand a certain approach to his films.  So I remain persuaded, and disappointed, that my narrative is accurate.  Once upon a time, Tarantino was a contender for greatness.  Now, more and more, he's traded this in for pandering to what he imagines his audience demands: a high body count, silver-tongued palaver, and great gouts of sticky, Red 40 blood.

The Hateful Eight, if we're lucky, will be the nadir of this tendency.  Filmed in "glorious 70mm," which was also how I saw it screened, it makes no remarkable use of this rare and beautiful medium.  The opening vistas are a sight to behold, but after a while, once the film goes mostly indoors, the format feels unwieldy and excessive.  Unlike Anderson's The Master, which used the vast canvas of the 65mm frame to innovative effect, here it is merely ornamental.  So much for the visual schema of the film.  What about the story?   Tarantino has always been a first-rate storyteller, for all of his other faults, and his palpable joy at doling out some information and withholding other information has been an enduring virtue of his movies.  Unfortunately, even the storytelling can't save Eight.  It starts strong, with intimations of secret alliances and not-so-secret grudges, but then, desultorily, it introduces a sudden whodunit side plot, which is shortly thereafter resolved, and which is quickly followed by the inevitable bloodbath.  Whereas previously QT made a virtue of syncopated yarn-spinning, in Eight the pacing is clunky and unmotivated.  We aren't given space to savor the mysteries of the plot, to speculate on the true nature of the characters, or to feel the tension of a dramatic buildup.  Perhaps it was just me, but I know QT well enough to merely brace for the bursting squibs of blood.

I'll admit that I've never been much of a fan of onscreen violence, and as I get older, I enjoy it less and less.  I don't have much of a moral argument against it; or at least one I feel tempted to trot out at this moment.  Mostly, it's just not to my taste.  But I've always accepted it with Tarantino, because it does feel - some of it feels - native to his cinematic world, and because it's interspersed with other things I do enjoy: finely wrought dialogue, well-delivered by talented actors, and the other aforementioned virtues of QT's style.  But as he gets less good at those virtues, the flaws become more prominent and less easy for me to stomach.  The bloodiness of Eight, the serial dispatching of characters, and the apparent glee with which QT orchestrates all of this, are finally too much.  Beyond my own tastes, I can't think of a reason why they ought to be enjoyed.  They do not constitute an authentic rumination on the nature of human evil.  That would require insight, and it would require an awareness of actual human suffering, which has never been QTs strong suit, and which here is entirely absent.  The only explanation, beyond the aforementioned desire to pander, is that QT likes orchestrating onscreen violence - it gives him pleasure.  The motivation of pleasure is one of the central imperatives of any artistic creation, perhaps the fundamental one.  Of course, your audience will have to agree upon the pleasure, and here, I don't.  Taste can only be met, or argued with, by other taste, and so I must simply state that QT's giddy penchant for extreme pain and gore is gross.  And absent any redeeming qualities (or allowing certain minor ones), this makes the movie, largely, gross.

But there's another angle to take on this matter.  While Tarantino's pleasure with simulating pain is real - and it's not just physical pain, but mental torment as well, as Warren's pre-homicidal tale of torturing General Smithers's son, told to Smithers simply to cause him as much anguish as possible before killing him, illustrates - he offers very little of this pleasure to the audience.  The thrills are cheap and faux-shocking.  We're not meant simply to feel good, of course, but also to squirm, the way that audiences in horror films are.  And part of the uncertainty we are meant to experience arises from the subtext of the film, which is the political dimension that Tarantino has decided to haul into the scenario.

Overall, this is both the most sincere and and potentially valuable aspect of the movie.  It shows that QT actually does think abstractly about hatred and violence, at least in a political context, but it also shows just how callow and opportunistic his handling of these subjects is.  The simmering hatreds that the Civil War has left behind are, when all is said and done, the principal drivers of the action of this movie.  Tarantino's fondness for revenge as motivator has never been very interesting; like most treatments of this theme, it is exploited for its visceral appeal, and for its compression of a character's motivation.  Nothing excuses violence - at least emotionally - like the retribution for previous violence, and so revenge, from the perspective of a storyteller, is an expedient means.  No other contemporary American filmmaker has taken this to the bank more times than QT.  But here, QT deepens it, connecting it not to philosophical questions about human evil, but to the historical atrocities that the Civil War both addressed and gave rise to.  In the film's final flourish, the recitation of the phony "Lincoln letter," the cynicism of the film's take on race relations reaches its bitter apogee: reconciliation, reconstruction, and redemption are pilloried as grotesque lies, pathetic homilies that are as false today as they were in the 1880s.

This is big, worthy stuff, and if it weren't mired in the midst of QTs increasingly unimaginative theater of gore, it would offer, ironically, a shot at the film's own redemption from mediocrity.  But QT is uncommitted.  He has over his career revealed himself to be obsessed, even tormented by, the history of what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called "the black body." The physical fact of dark skin, connected with its terrible suffering at the hands of American white supremacy, clearly troubles and fascinates QT.  But his treatment of his obsession in his art has been haphazard and puerile.  His Tourettes-like use of "nigger," both by himself and in his actors' lines, his frequent pairing of black sexuality and violence, are resolving into a very troubling portrait of a man caught in a kind of anguished self-exorcism.  His public explanations and protestations only feed into this conundrum.  It's true, he has written some of his best parts for black men and women, and his recent appearances in support of Black Lives Matter are admirable on their own, but the aggregate is a welter of contradictions.  The near-castration of Django in Django Unchained, and the achieved castration (via shotgun) of Warren in this film, not to mention the story Warren tells of black-on-white male rape, are just two recent examples.  But while I don't think this makes QT an open or a closet racist, he also shows only an occasional interest in exploring these themes in a more daring and honest fashion.  As long as he is tethered to the reflexive use of slick violence and cheap suffering, he won't be among the echelon of artists who have dealt squarely and bravely with America's dark history, and the role that race plays in it.  On the basis of this film, I think QT wants to be among that echelon.  If so, he'd better grow the fuck up. 

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