Goddamn what a time to be alive. Quentin Tarantino has not yet joined his cast of characters, and is thankfully still alive, to deliver us with an absolute cannonball of a film.
The Hateful Eight was seen by my eyes last week, in its glorious (unfathomably glorious) 70mm Roadshow Presentation in the Odeon at Leicester Square, London England. Without a doubt, regardless of the content of this film, if you’re a lover of film, a cinephile, a man who doth adore the silver screen, it would be wise to see it in this format if possible. It might never happen again, period, and what an odd graceful send off this would be for the 70mm Roadshow presentation of the celluloid dreams.
So now that is out-of-the-way, I can wade into the veritable shitstorm that is any new Quentin Tarantino film. I’m finding it tougher and tougher to write about films without dragging in their meta context, as I want these essays to be about the artistic content of what is contained, not about their outside influences and swirling drama. Enough think-pieces have been written about Mr. Tarantino and how he’s either an artistic Jesus or racist Devil or somewhere close to either. I’m going to try not to add another mindless voice to this, so I’ll try to sidestep it as much as possible. I’ll say this though.
Quentin Tarantino is a master of cinema and injecting cinematic self-awareness into his films. Now since everyone seems to be on a veritable existential crisis as to whether Mr. Tarantino is allowed to be as black as he thinks he is, I’ll say this; QT is without a doubt one of the few distinctive voices left in cinema, a man who appreciates storytelling over meta contextual diversity rows, and a man not stupid enough to allow knee-jerk reactionary political leeches to affect the way he makes films. I find it personally very disturbing the amount of vitriol spewed at him simply because he’s low hanging fruit. It’s very tough to dismantle sociopolitical systems in place which induce systemic oppression of minorities. It is however, incredibly easy to look at a Tarantino film, mathematically declare his usage of the word nigger/nigga and his skin colour to add up to him being a pretend black man/intentional racist. QT is one of the few people who acknowledges race while not letting it be a defining factor for his films. People are resentful of him whilst being appreciative of him, for bringing women and BME characters to the forefront without being either. Everyone loves Jackie Brown because of Pam Grier, whilst most forget or fail to care about the entire history of Blaxploitation which supports the film. Simply put, QT made race and sex/gender equality more digestible, by combining it with violence. It’s not pretty, but it works, and I hope he continues till he feels finished. The man is a great director, period, and uses the form of cinema like he’s wielding a sword. And clearly it cuts deep.
Now onto The Hateful Eight. And my what a feast. What a gorgeous, gorging feast of film. I’m not going to fill in the plot for you, but essentially, a stranger danger mystery unfolds between eight bastards, and just what it is they all need.
My god, these characters. What serious bastards. Trying to decide which one is the most evil is a lost cause, and the film revels in this fact. We’ve past the road to redemption, and we’re left to stew in the pool of the unsaved. The driving force behind this all is Major Marquis Warren, a blistering performance by one Samuel L. Jackson. Now my love for Samuel L. Jackson extends little outside of his film roles, since I’m just not a fan of his real life persona. However the man’s acting talent is undeniable, from his turns in QT’s flicks to his role in Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee’s infamous first joint, he brings here a towering presence, a walking anachronism to the times its set in, a powerful Black Man unfazed by the bitter resentment displayed by the Southerners. Each character in this is absolutely drenched in hatred, righteousness, hypocrisy and bastard-ism. What a world to look into. A thing that has always felt so vibrant about QT’s cinematic work is that it eschews the dramatic conventions. There isn’t really a classic hero to be found among his characters, no one who at some point doesn’t do something morally corrupt or damning. So what you’re left with is the cognitive dissonance of associating, empathising and even rooting for characters who are criminals, liars, cheats, murderers, butchers and cleavers of humanity, nothing less than the scum we live in shadowy fear of. QT takes them, stylised as they are, and regurgitates them back on-screen, safe in the voyeuristic comfort of the cinema audience.
We end up being complicit in their crimes, their brutal assaults and murders, but their motives are usually so damn human that we can’t help but want for them. Here in this film, what are the motives? Well, Maj. Marquis Warren and John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) are driven by their jobs, their commitment to their work. Maj. Marquis Warren later on, driven by his shrewd disdain and outright enjoyment of the cruelty he can inflict from his position of raw emotional power. Daisy Domergue and the company she keeps driven by criminality, and familial loyalty. These themes and motivations all bleed into each other, along with the political and racial tensions of post Civil-War America lend themselves to a fully fleshed, complex map of psychological highways which connect each character in many forms. How can you not join them for this ride, when everyone invites you to? When every character truly believes they will be the winner of this scenario.
By the end of course, is there even a winner? Can a winner even logically exist by the end of its fallout? After all, what can be said of the massacre at Minnie’s Habadashery in terms of its morality? Even the most seasoned philosopher would have to spend many a lifetime unpicking each individual act, where each character crosses each line. In fact, in the world it might be easier to abandon morality altogether, to abandon it to something simpler, biology would be an obvious choice. Thankfully though Tarantino has none of that, and by the end of the film, what remains is a blood splattered, tattered and torn sheet of a moral doctrine. Not telling you what to do, dictating any authority, but rather leaving you to work it out, to try to make peace with your inner self as to just how the ethics of what just transpired work out.
I’m getting a bit heady here, so I’ll try to bring it down a bit. The cinematography is these words and more: Sumptuous, rich, phenomenal, spectacular, incredible. Incredible in its original use, because it almost seems non-credible. There is just no reason to believe a film made today can look this gorgeous, not in the age of digitisation and reduced budgets. Gone are the epics of old, and The Hateful Eight is no location picture (well outside location picture). In contrast to the silly accusations of using the very rare Ultra Panavision 70 format only in interiors, in contrast it brings a richness and greatness to everything inside the screen, transforming the film from a closet chamber piece to the equivalent of seeing The Wedding at Cana in its full glory at the Louvre. The score is also fantastic, Ennio Morricone proceeds to induce a searing dread and operatic tenseness which only helps to heighten the films drama. The set designers must also be given strong crediting, along with the costume department, each character and setting an absolute treasure trove of intricate and interesting design features (I could really do with a pair of O.B’s spectacles). Finally the editing, and sound design is nail-biting. Every single gunshot, an explosion in the snowy silence made me leap from my seat.
Talking of gunshots, violence aplomb. And what’s on offer here is not the old, hyper inconsequential violence. The violence here does not play out for laughs (bar the unfortunate demise of John Ruth and O.B) and instead what permeates is an induced dread, broken only by moments of extreme violence. The film is a set of powder kegs constantly going off, but the kegs go off in such visceral ways that it is difficult to tear your eyes away. People are killed in here not because its necessary, there is no cold functionalism or righteous mechanics on play to justify any acts, no in fact to these people killing is what keeps them alive, both in body and in spirit. In this world, violence is respected, and a very integral part of the world functioning. No one can just put their weapon down, and if they did then more fool them. It’s weird to suddenly inhabit this world, where violence and hate is tied to more than just the previous works of Tarantino, of violence being an interpersonal act, rather than standing for something. In its most disturbing scene, Maj. Marquis Warren uses the irrational hatred and resentment of black folk by General “Sandy” Smithers (God bless Bruce Dern) and combines it with the trauma of losing his son into a possibly true almost demonic account of the cruelty and torture of Smithers’ son before killing him, to induce him into a state where he draws his gun so Maj. Marquis Warren can shoot him legally in self-defence. If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is. The violence has so many threads entangled in it, that it becomes an outlet for these ideas and the destruction of ideas, rather than being its own novelty in itself.
I know this all sounds a bit pretentious, but in his most infamous film, Pulp Fiction, the violence serves the purpose of visually shocking the audience and not much else. Violence happens to people just as much as it is induced by the characters themselves. Vince Vega accidentally shoots Marvin, the rapists kidnap Butch and Marcellus because they’re rapists, the world is violent as well as the characters. In contrast, the inhabitants of Minnie’s Habadashery are positively regular, normal delightful folks. People who love each other, who from the little we see, are happy and content with their current lot. All of that upturned, by the cast of violents who sweep in with all the force of a hurricane. It’s difficult to understand fully (especially at 1:14AM in the morning), but the cast we see are the products of the violence which has surrounded them, but for the first time QT showed that not everyone who inhabits his world is just as villainous and reprehensible as the characters we follow. Which really does help to ground the violence, into more than just a mechanic of a crazy world, because suddenly it really is a curious poison picked up by its characters somewhere along the line. And as we watch, as their brutal shoot-offs, shoot-outs, murders, lies, tricks, dirty deals and cruelty reaches its inevitable end, you can’t help but feeling something oddly noble about the whole thing. As Maj. Marquis Warren and Sheriff Chris Mannix (an impeccable turn by Walter Goggins) lie dying in their own blood, a hanging Daisy Domergue (also an impeccable turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh) watching them, and Mannix reads the Abraham Lincoln letter, it all feels very…well very epic. Like wandering through a lost jungle only to find its edge, you suddenly realise that when all is said and done, maybe, just maybe, justice really did get served.
It’s hard to love. But as Quentin Tarantino illustrates here, it’s also pretty hard to hate. Have respect for those who feel passionate for both.
The Scorpion and the Frog
A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The
frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion
says, "Because if I do, I will die too."
The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream,
the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of
paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown,
but has just enough time to gasp "Why?"
Replies the scorpion: "Its my nature..."
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