A story, possibly apocryphal: in 1895, the Lumiere brothers caused mass panic in a Parisian cinema with their film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, in which a train careens towards a camera, cutting out at the apparent moment of contact. In the apocryphal version, people screamed, ran to the back of the theatre, even collapsed. Another instructive tale: during an early screening of Reservoir Dogs, horror director Wes Craven, finding the infamous amateur ear-ectomy too much to bear, walked out of the cinema. It is difficult to imagine that Quentin Tarantino didn’t get some pleasure from this tacit endorsement by one of his heroes, a man who once killed a character by having him bleed to death after having his penis bitten off.
Something of the Lumiere spirit survives in Tarantino; a desire to discombobulate and disgust, a pride in his ability to harness the monumental ‘affectiveness’ of cinema. It is present in his new picture, The Hateful Eight, most notably in a monologue delivered by Samuel L. Jackson in which he describes, with characteristic specificity, the oral rape of a white racist. Wes Craven, who died last year, would no doubt have approved.
Tarantino is an auteur, one of only a few remaining in Hollywood. Something true of all auteurs, from Hitchcock to Haneke, is that even their failures are interesting, because they are outgrowths of a singular vision, not hashed together by a committee in a studio.
Tarantino’s worst feature, Death Proof, was interesting because it told us something about him – that, as is so often the case, vice is an excess of virtue. Tarantino’s genius always lays primarily in grand, provocative excursions in style: this is why complaints about the violence in his movies ring hollow. He’s a pure cinematic aesthete. His violence is never misogynistic, or racist; it’s pure spectacle, dramatic metaphor, operatic flourish. It’s as much a part of the mise-en-scene as the lighting or set design. Tarantino practices, better than anyone, cinema as artifice; where characters all speak in basically the same manner and violence is transformed from an object of moral concern into one of aesthetic beauty.
This helps to explain a few things. Firstly, there is a cloying, slightly superior critical consensus that Jackie Brown, rather than Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, is really Tarantino’s greatest film, because he treated his characters (particularly his female ones) less callously, giving them new levels of depth and emotion. This surely comes from a failure to properly engage, to appreciate his project as a director. It also clarifies why Kill Bill works where Death Proof doesn’t: an excess of virtue. The former gets just right his feverish blend of aesthetic surfaces, whereas the latter indulges them too much, and drops eventually from heart-attack excitement into ineffectual, anodyne banality.
With Death Proof, Tarantino was paying homage to the exploitation movies he grew up watching, but he seemed to forget that they had a political function. Films like The Last House on the Left were shown in Grindhouse theatres because they were reactions to Hollywood’s censorship and the contemporary moral consensus. B-movies such as Death Wish were often produced very quickly to reflect, and critique, some element of the public consciousness. Death Proof is an exercise in nerdy over-indulgence: all the gore and sex of exploitation, but absent of any of its insurrectionary content.
This is why, for my part, I found Inglorious Basterds so peculiar and disappointing. Tarantino took the greatest moral battlefield in history, and stripped it not just of moral nuance but of moral feeling. He constructed a world where violence is cleansing, not in an emancipatory sense, but as a grand simplification, where all interesting complexity is wiped out at the muzzle of a gun. The Manichean morality of Basterds isn’t really morality at all and as such it suggested that perhaps he wasn’t a fit for the subject matter.
Last year, Tarantino made an appearance at a Black Lives Matter rally, calling the killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner ‘murderers’. Police unions organized a boycott of The Hateful Eight in response. Tarantino, for his part, said he didn’t set out to make a political movie, but it is unmistakably that – the result of a growing awareness of events. Despite its post-Civil War setting, the film is today’s America incarnate, replete with all its ingrained racial and ethnographic tension. The clue is in its supremely clever final scene, in which Samuel L. Jackson and Walter Goggins, black northern general and unreconstructed southern racist, read a letter to Jackson sent purportedly by President Lincoln but established as a fake. Ennio Morricone’s rousing soundtrack is overlaid, and it brings to mind Spielberg’s sanitised hagiography Lincoln, which suggested that the suffering of black people is redeemed by the greatness of the system that enslaved them. In The Hateful Eight. American Exceptionalism, like the Lincoln letter, is a sham, an absurdly grandiose simulation that demands blind faith to exist at all.
Alfred Hitchcock, upon viewing Jaws, said that Steven Spielberg was ‘the first one of us who doesn’t see the proscenium arch’, meaning he was able to escape the fettering dynamics of theatre. Tarantino, reared on Blaxploitation and Video Nasties, is one of the first true children of Cinema, a symbol of its maturity as an independent art form. But where this filmic intensity sometimes manifested as self-referential insularity, The Hateful Eight combines it with an awakened political consciousness. It suggests a filmmaker ready to speak to, and for, America.
Image: Gage Skidmore; Flickr.com