Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Hateful Eight: Meh

The Hateful Eight is at once Tarantino's talkiest and dryest film, and his bloodiest. It is definitely not his most entertaining. In an odd way, it repairs my respect for Tarantino a little, which has been foundering for awhile; but I can't really say I enjoyed it.

A friend of mine who will go unnamed (and whose icon is on another computer, but hint, he's playing the drums in it) has described it as a play - not in the sense that it ever had or was intended for a theatrical run, but in that it basically IS a piece of theatre: its limited sets and action and dialogue-driven, character-heavy story suggest a stage play far more than cinema. It could easily be staged, would be perhaps more fitting to the stage. His observation is that it's absurd and unnecessary to shoot such a film in 70mm; my only theory - cooked up before I saw the film, and maintained now, since it's all I've got - is that this is, in fact, part of the joke. Cut-and-pasted from an email exchange: "Tarantino is playfully encoding the luxury of his present circumstances into the very technology of his film, like he's striking an absurd superhero pose, a Michael Cimino pose, or what-have-you, and doing it publicly so you can appreciate the absurdity of it: lookit what I can get away with, folks! Nuts, right? Undercutting the gesture by making the film as stagey and indoorsy as possible fits with this reading. This is the sympathetic reading of the gesture, the one that endears him back to me, because, I discover, i would actually like not to have lost Tarantino to Darkside, USA."

...that latter being, kind of, a reference to Django Unchained, a film I really did not enjoy, and have not revisited, finding it self-indulgent, obnoxious, and derivative (of big chunks of Mandingo, and probably films like The Legend of Nigger Charley, though I don't know such movies well). It was the weakest of a run of films by QT that I did not enjoy much, also including Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino having won a couple of Oscars for Django put the worries in me, that he would, as seems to happen, lose all bearings and humility and, having decided he was a Great Artist, make a movie to revel in his success, to validate his ego.

In fact, he has done just that, except his ego apparently wants to be appreciated less for crowd-pleasing, spectacular action films (Kill Bill, say, the last film of Tarantino's that was actually easy to like) than for being a great writer. The Hateful Eight is his most self-consciously writerly film, where the main pleasure of the film is in its dialogue, where if you're not coming to the party to appreciate his way with words, you're going to be left sitting in the corner, bored and frustrated. And the thing is, I kind of agree with Tarantino's ego on this one: that is where his gifts are greatest. And I can't deny having respected the film, and having been engaged by its language, until, say, the last half hour, when the various situations he sets up ("who poisoned the coffee?" "What is Daisy's plan?") come to their pay offs.

What didn't I enjoy that much? For one, there's a distracting amount (as aforementioned friend also observed) of violence directed against its main female character, Jennifer Jason Leigh; it's so brutal and so frequent that it would appear somehow to be thematically significant, but I have no great ideas what is being said ("men are pricks?") or why Tarantino is saying it. It doesn't ring as particularly truthful or provocative. All other female characters are killed off within minutes of appearing on screen, as well, and never really get to be developed or stand on their own. There's a lot of nasty bloodiness, in general, that sits slightly at odds with a story that seems to be, on some level, a comedy. And the ultimate question of what it all amounts to, what we've been asked to participate in, is not an easy one to answer.

Mild, thematic spoiler: perhaps the most curious thing about the film is that it seems to directly address itself to questions of plagiarism, of forgery, of lying. Since Reservoir Dogs - the film of Tarantino's career that The Hateful Eight most resembles - Tarantino has been interested in questions of how to lie well, but he's also been accused of stealing other people's stories and presenting them as his own - for example, see the whole kerfuffle with City on Fire and that Who Do You Think You're Fooling? video. He has skillfully reworked material from other films, other genres, into his own, from the start; he's the only major filmmaker I'm aware of whose movie soundtracks are often comprised predominantly of soundtracks from other movies. Those who haven't praised him for post-modern manipulation of codes and genre savviness and such have occasionally talked of plagiarism in this regard, or at least regurgitation. It doesn't help matters that his girlfriend (at the time, anyhow - no idea what's what, now) was caught red-handed in a plagiarism scandal awhile back, involving film journalism - an odd genre to even consider plagiarising, since really, these days, who cares?

The question in The Hateful Eight - still a mild spoiler alert, here - is not plagiarism, but forgery, but it still seems to be pretty significant to the film, and it does seem to be self-referential, pointing not out there into the world, so much, but backwards onto the film's creator. That's curious, I suppose, but I'm pretty sure that people who are not close observers of accusations of plagiarism around Tarantino will have absolutely no reason to give a fuck, anymore than they will find it interesting that he sometimes puts closeups of women's feet into his movies (also apparently revealing and personal). To end the film in discussion of forgery, to privilege this element so much, seems kind of strange, ultimately - a sort of grand-scale, lint-picking bit of navel gazing that is on the one hand personally rich and revealing of the author, but on the other really too small and unimportant to merit the extreme luxury (in terms of talent, budget, technology and runtime) in which the question is raised. Two hours into the film, you'll be thinking: well, this is dry, but I'm hooked; I wonder where it's going? An hour later, when its last act plays out, I challenge you not to be disappointed, underwhelmed, wondering what the point of all that was.

Many people, mind you, had similar questions of Reservoir Dogs, but I think there are really interesting, provocative answers to be given to that question. I'm less sure about The Hateful Eight. Unless your main interest in life is Quentin Tarantino - unless you're some film scholar who has chosen QT as your main area of study (hi to UBC's Lisa Coulthard!), unless you're okay with the idea of seeing a movie the main purpose of which is to shine a flashlight into the psyche of its creator, you're going to leave the theatre a bit non-plussed, I think. The Hateful Eight reminded me of the way that Woody Allen shines flashlights onto questions of unpunished guilt every now and then, because apparently he has things in his life he feels guilty about. It's a 3 hour long, 70mm piece of self-examination that really is a bit too small in what it accomplishes for the effort it will take most people to consume it.

But it is writerly, and entertaining, in a way. I didn't enjoy it, but as self-indulgent gestures go, I've seen worse. (Atom Egoyan's Calendar, for instance).

Proceed with caution, folks.

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