Monday, August 29, 2016

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)




Eight is enough

Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (released on DVD earlier this year) is reportedly his most middling production yet, with decent (not great) boxoffice numbers, with critics divided more than usual--some calling it "a high-wire thriller" and "quintessentially American," others declaring it "Tarantino's worse." 

Disagree with both assessments. Always thought Tarantino was at most a fitfully clever writer and massively overrated director who privileges dialogue--pages of em, every character sounding mostly like his faux raconteur self--over the onscreen image. His movies reflect these priorities and my favorite (most tolerated?) titles often upset that order in the Tarantinoverse: Jackie Brown, an Elmore Leonard adaptation with Tarantino serving as well-behaved traffic cop (you remember mostly the lines and characters, where with a real filmmaker adapting Leonard--Steven Soderbergh or better yet Delmer Daves--you remember the images as well), and From Dusk Til Dawn, where the genre-mashing script is granted some visual snap by director Robert Rodriguez.

That all said, this lumbering misogynistic misfire of a movie perversely showcases Tarantino's best directing yet. I've always complained of the lack of feeling in his landscapes; Eight opens with widescreen vistas of Wyoming, nicely done (by Tarantino's latest fave cinematographer Robert Richardson) and made ominous by Ennio Morricone's lowing music.

After which of course the movie perversely (the picture's key quality I suspect) spends the next two hours plus (nearly three, total running time) mostly indoors, cooped up in a log cabin. Granted the cabin in the manner of Sergio Leone looks and feels about the size of the Met museum, with vast lobby branching into differing alcoves on each side (the kitchen, the workshop, the guest bed)--Tarantino makes full use of this theatrical space to set and stage his little black comedy. Light and shadow single out crucial objects (an old man on a fireside chair, a coffee urn percolating on a potbelly stove), the frame carefully slicing the floor area into more manageable spaces, and there's even use of rack focus and a split-diopter to alternately link and separate people and objects. Tarantino seems to understand that the story is really a classic Agatha Christie whodunit playing out on a classic stage, and moves shoots lights the characters accordingly.

Tarantino probably didn't mean to channel Christie, more Howard Hawk's Rio Bravo by way of John Carpenter's The Thing, going so far as to use both Kurt Russell and parts of Morricone's leftover score for the latter title (not to mention parts of Morricone's score for John Boorman's great Exorcist 2: The Heretic). His visual treatment nevertheless harks back to adaptations of Christie's work especially her 1943 stage success And Then There Were None and the Rene Clair film made two years later--the precise grouping of people, the camera gliding back and forth (to emphasize depth urgency menace), the growing sense of paranoia and panic simmering away in relatively confined space.

Not saying Tarantino is on the level of Hawks or Clair or Carpenter of course; merely noting that he's using his superiors' visual strategies better, has hobbled along further in his development as a director (from clunky to halfway fluent). 

As for Tarantino's supposed misogyny--I have to laugh. When wasn't he a misogynist? His supposed feminism has always struck me as opportunistic at best, something he'd immediately discard if only to shock yet another movie critic. Even his most overtly profeminist picture Kill Bill (co-written by his star Uma Thurman and--uncredited--Toshiya Fujita (Lady Snowblood)) basically reduces the heroine to yet another vengeance-seeking killing machine slashing and hacking her way through men, the same approach he applied to blacks in Django Unchained, and Jews in Inglourious Basterds.

Of course there's the aforementioned Jackie Brown--but remember that's really an Elmore Leonard property with a rent-a-cop attached.

Brief note on Tarantino's homophobia: granted he's often dealing with men not known for their sensitivity and granted their (his?) likely worse nightmare is sexual assault by a fellow man and granted further that an openly gay man (or woman) would likely refuse to be involved with such folk--never mind. Too much to grant, in my book. 

Maybe my biggest knock against the picture is its running time--roughly three hours (168 minutes regular screening, 187 roadshow) for a whodunit? Most examples of the genre come in at a relatively lean 116 minutes (Clair's is a remarkably austere 97 minutes); those with a larger cast might stretch out for 140. At the very least the people onscreen should demonstrate enough charm to allow us to enjoy three complete revolutions of the minute hand in their company (not saying they have to be of sound moral character, just charming--see Michael Caine in Sleuth (1972), or Deathtrap (1982). The Hateful Eight is a trifle, all things considered, and for the record my favorite (least loathed?) Tarantino to date; at three hours' running time though it's a congealed trifle stuffed with secondhand ideas (from his own and other far better films), smelling not a little rancid. 

First published in Businessworld 8.19.16

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