How to Watch a Tarantino

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Let me exploit the existence of Heat (1995) on screen a little further. As written and directed by Michael Mann, it is an absorbing picture, a suspenseful narrative for its full 171 minutes. I watch it a lot, and I can tell myself it is for the craft, the art or the performances (it is one of De Niro’s last good pictures). But I know I am drawn to it by the licensed fantasy of watching cops and robbers strutting their stuff—with guns, but with talk, too. It is a potent males dream. The women in the film are often intriguing, but they are not permitted to rival the male ideology. And Heat is a fire that doesn’t burn me. I can watch its immense street gun battles with excitement; I can be carried away by the notion that De Niro and Pacino are alike in their characters. But my wife once was mugged and I know that their suggestion of parity is insane. A brush with violent crime in lie can be searing and traumatic. Yet on screen it is indulged. Film only works in the dark, and because of safe distance from life.

The intrinsic deal in the movies was to say, Look, for a very modest sum—a nickel, say—we’ll give you an opportunity to see no just the wonders of the world, not just people who are beautiful beyond your dreams, but a set of conditions to which we know you aspire; sexual splendor, thrilling violence, clothes, decor, space, timing, and ultimate happiness; in short, the chance to bathe in the light. It’s the treat of the new age, and here’s the kicker: you can watch the sex and violence without ever being identified, or known. …

-David Thomson, How to Watch a Movie

Opening a piece on Quentin Tarantino’s new snow Western The Hateful Eight with this passage from David Thomson’s new film book seems serendipitously apt, the passage leapt to me as I read it days after receiving the small book for Christmas, the same day The Hateful Eight appeared in limited release. The passage cuts right into much of the random thoughts I’ve had bouncing around in the snow drenched atmospherics of Tarantino’s new film. As such, I’ve decided to write a piece entering Tarantino’s catalogue and specifically this new one in much the same way as I’ve done several Recent Cultural Happenings pieces.

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What Thomson’s above quote does for me the most is articulate an ability of certain people to understand the dissonance between real life and real cinema art. Films often spring forth from the real world in the form of realism or documentary, or handle plot and characterization within a close resemblance to our lives. When films work this way (or fail), they should be critiqued or applauded justly. Or, in the example of our truest masterpieces, heighten reality to show truth, often in a whimsical or nonsensical, fantastical way; something like Tati’s Playtime or Godard’s Pierrot le Fou work in this way, they move towards a contemplative reality that isn’t wholly born from our day to day lives (and the technique unique to film being employed creatively to heighten the action). I don’t want to confuse or muddle my point here though, as Tarantino, while working in a heightened alternative reality of his creation, couldn’t be farther from Tati or Godard (even if his early works were certainly homages to Godard’s early crime homages) in tone or analysis. But Tarantino is a universe where the jokes and the joy need to be had by first accepting his palette. What Thomson responds to in Heat he apparently feels something akin to most people’s guilt, as if admitting that a good many of us like seeing cartoonish violence, or extreme sexuality, or delirious camp, and that another part of our populace will think of him as a deviant person. It’s a thought that had me spiraling towards Momus’ 1988 masterpiece Tender Pervert. The Scottish singer-songwriter put his intent right there in the idiosyncratic title, that you can have dark joys and perverse exhilarations met within a work (or worldview) while still feeling and desiring incredible tenderness towards those maligned within our society. It’s an ability where one is strong enough to admit you’re a pervert, someone with dark recesses in your mind where laughter and enjoyment is often had at seeing brutal, or extreme imagery. Gallows humor, after all, is as old as the belly laugh. But more importantly, it’s an ability to not have others shame you into running from these pleasures, as if there has been anything ruined by the blockbuster movement it’s how self-serious and ‘un-perverse’ our gutter entertainment now is. Suddenly something like Jaws—can you think of anything more inherently stupid and in need of trash than a giant killer shark?—is made as an adult thriller, with safe enough sexuality and gore to enable the largest audience able to pass through the turnstile (and it’s only gotten worse in the passing 40 years).

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That the perversity of Tarantino is a little hidden after the buffoonery of violence, is, to my eyes his chief limiting aspect to his talent. His films aren’t very sensual, limiting our most guilty carnal thoughts. He pays peculiar attention to the performing aspect of life, but he seems unable to exhibit the idea of that into a sexual one. Performing, in real life, is so often a flirtatious dance, one that Molly Haskell understood as the power that the female holds within an ordered world of the Male Gaze, but one that Tarantino sees as wholly cinematic, as if, for him, the only striking poses are ones he’s seen in a cinema or checked out from a video store (and they’re predominately male ones). At times it robs him of moving beyond violence for his entertainment, beyond the thrill of the kill, the humor of the eccentric gore spectacle.

Both of these points however bring forth some flaws in this new Tarantino (I’m being as careful as possible to not proclaim The Hateful Eight as good or bad), moments where the internal aesthetics he’s laid out imply contradictory or offensive ideals. His moralizing is exacting, and has been discussed much elsewhere (yes, the first lines of the film—the one Kurt Russell’s character utters to Samuel L. Jackson—had my mind thinking about Florida’s terrible Stand Your Ground Law, or the implications made about a Sheriff, or any law enforcer, being this racist is clear), but to me taking his characters at their face value prompts forth a misogynistic thread. I wouldn’t call Tarantino a misogynist, because that’s an easy reading and I don’t actually think his work is (though, lets be careful how often we attempt to put ‘feminist’ onto Kill Bill please), but you can’t deny that by the films close Walton Goggins’ Sheriff Mannix and Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren have moved to a common ground version of humanity with their characters becoming archetypes for the arguments Tarantino’s making about overcoming racial divides. If we accept that, and for the film to have any lasting resonance we have to, then our female characters have to have some sort of archetypical meaning as well, and each are foils for constant bludgeoning and debasement. You can write off the treatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s (who is terrific by the way) Daisy Domergue by saying how miserable of a person her character is meant to evoke, and it’s the argument I’d assume Tarantino would make, but in the end her character is next to the two previously mentioned others, so it’s inconsistent story-telling to have some characters mean something larger, while others being tied so tightly to the material in the filmed universe (and this isn’t saying anything about the quick murder of every other female we see in the film in one key scene).

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Revenge, while not a totally elevated philosophical vantage point, isn’t as base level as one has read elsewhere either (plus, to use just one recent example, a good many American’s found endless joy in how we avenged 9-11 by finally killing Osama Bin Laden). Shakespeare, for example, was no dummy and has a canon that is littered with bloody retribution, and Tarantino draws more from specific sub-genres that are revenge-centric; men-on-mission films, kung-gu, blaxploitation, giallo/slasher (often their gloved or masked killers were earlier bullied, teased, or wronged and kill in response to trauma) and the spaghetti western. The spaghetti western is the one most are seeing in The Hateful Eight* (perhaps too obviously, most are narrowing in on Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence as the sole reference point), but for me it’s more classic era (snow) Western, De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw (1959) is here in spades; a blizzard ridden Wyoming setting featuring a theater-like presentation for most of the action. There’s a bit of moral redemption in both too, from previously sordid individuals; which links it to its other, perhaps more obvious connection, Anthony Mann’s 1953 masterpiece, The Naked Spur. That one’s pretty obvious, Kurt Russell’s transporting of Jennifer Jason Leigh amidst so many thieves and outlaws in place for James Stewart’s reward cargo that is Robert Ryan (and in turn, Janet Leigh too, since she’s precipitously attached to Ryan). I don’t see much reliance on revenge here either too—thank god I’d say that Tarantino’s promised ‘revenge trilogy’ might just remain three films after all†—a relieving of the worlds great burdens of the last 150 years (the holocaust and American Slavery) was never something Tarantino should have felt he needed the events of his films to shoulder, but more a theater like piece where everyone is a doomed player.

Granted, we can talk about how Tarantino should elevate himself above these (lower) sub-genres, but that’s generally an argument I’m not comfortable with; dictating what an artist should make to satisfy my sensibilities. Couple that with the inherent condescension within such an argument, one that foolishly says that not all (sub-) genres are created equal. But, many are right, Tarantino is (some say ‘was’) talented and lowering his sensibilities wholly to low art sub-genre homages robs him of his total scope; Pulp Fiction is great because it’s as much low sub-genre exploitation as it’s French New Wave. It remains his more strikingly apparent ‘adult’ work (in terms of subtext), even if his latter works are littered with moments of such depth and interest. He’s regaled himself with exploring the sub-genres he loves, even if a good many of us (thought not me) don’t. Perhaps that’s his greatest lessen, one I’m sure Thomson wouldn’t disagree with, that to be a ‘cinephile’ means to like it all and we don’t deserve the title if we don’t. His is a cinema of tawdry raunch, the enlightened sitting next to the juvenile, so much so in fact, that we don’t notice (or even care to) some of his more astute cultural and aesthetic commentaries running throughout. The most striking one in The Hateful Eight is one such moment; Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren delivers his (now famous) monologue to General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern in a masterful mix between nonchalance and highly bigoted rage) about the fate of his missing and presumed dead son, and as we’re listening to Warren’s tale of torturous oral sex we’re apt to get caught up in the audacity and outrageousness of it all, but we should be careful to note Warren’s line near the story’s climax. His idea that the truth of the story is of little value, only that it creates a lasting and devastating image in the mind of Smithers. Either Smithers can reach for the gun that Warren has conveniently placed at his side in spiteful rage and thus free Warren from murder charges when he (Smithers) loses the eventual draw, or he can sit tight and live out the rest of his days unable to get such an image about his son from his mind. It’s Tarantino, in a single line, brilliantly articulating the power of both story telling and creativity (creator and receiver), and combined, the allure of the movies. What happens in the movies doesn’t matter, because it is never real, only the lasting images he places into our heads. Within a mature mind, Tarantino would argue, we can separate the two. Or, more poetically put by David Byrne, “children only believe what they see on television when they have parents who act like television personalities.” Or, something along those lines.

*A fact no doubt also brought on by commissioning an Ennio Morricone score. Much of Morricone’s most memorable scores are contained in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima, and he’s at the top of his game here, with one central theme riffing on his own Days of Heaven music (itself a reference to ‘Aquarium’ in Camille Saint-Saëns, The Carnival of the Animals.

†The three works are Kill Bill (volumes 1 and 2 being counted as one film), Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. While the latter two are often overlong, and over-labored they do have their fair share of wonderfully crafted moments and performances, but it’s seeing the unreleased ‘complete cut’ single Kill Bill (available online in bootleg form pieced together from various officially released DVD cuts by fans following the original shooting script), that shows Tarantino’s ability in the novel like low art epic. Running over 4 hours, the film (titled Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair) feels like less than half that as it breezes along with enough ideas for a film twice that run time. For me, it’s probably his gonzo masterpiece.

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Thomson wanders elsewhere in his book too, eventually settling on the topic of obvious need in a book about watching movies: repetition. He starts it with a discussion on Pauline Kael, a critic who made herself famous by claiming she only watched films once and never again. Like Thomson, it’s not something I totally believe or agree with; Thomson makes the point that he had the opportunity to be at one critic screening with Kael to only find her constantly jotting notes in a notebook during the film, with the implication being that if she was seeing films only once and spending a good deal of her time with her eyes not at the screen and her mind only partially dealing with the flickering images, that her opinion would always be on some level suspect. He enters a discussion on Citizen Kane in such a matter, as he thinks the Welles to be a film that gets richer only on repeated viewings (in fact, he claims to have been puzzled by it after his debut screening) and, thusly, the reason that the single viewing Kael would famously never have use for Citizen Kane.

The reason I bring all this up is how Tarantino enters into it; Pauline Kael loved the works of Brian de Palma, a filmmaker that when on his game is a creator of highly exciting sequences and sensory delights, but, on repeated viewings sees his work be that of little subtext and philosophical underpinnings. This is OK, or course, so long as we always enter the cinema desiring nothing but thrills, but in the times we reach for repeated viewings with thrills not totally on our mind, de Palma will fall short. Quentin Tarantino has called Kael his favorite critic (he’s lamented the sad fact that while he always wanted Kael to review a Tarantino film her March 1991 retirement just missed his January 1992 screening of his debut Reservoir Dogs at Sundance) and Brian de Palma his ‘rockstar’ director. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch then to state that all Tarantino’s works, especially post-Jackie Brown, are looking more for thrilling instantaneous reactions in the theater then they are for probing depth on repeated watchings (he’s gone as far as to call the ratcheting up of tension and release in Death Proof to making an audience ‘cum’, and the more we cum, the better his films are). I’ve thought it with regards to each of his last few, the initial watch in a crowded theater leaving me floating home on a cloud of cinema delirium, then seeing much of it leave when I return to the films without that initial prizefight audience charge. Alone, watching the films for a second or third time, I see the overstuffed exposition, or unnecessary plot lines, the need to return to something like the 99 minute Reservoir Dogs. Not because it was a better film, but because it, on some level, seems tighter focused and from a creator more assured of his skills. Giving just that amount and knowing it was enough speaks against including everything and hoping everyone leaves happy.

But again, who am I to say how he should work? I’m sure I’ll chuckle at his next deheading.

One thought on “How to Watch a Tarantino

  1. Well, this is an incredible essay brilliantly written, penetrating, and with a terrific entry point of David Thomson, which you return to effectively in cross reference. Yes I am not so sure if I agree with Kael’s strategy either, watching the film once, though of course as noted she took plenty of notes. I do agree that THE HATEFUL EIGHT is more del Toth and less Corbucci in the snow setting affinities. Yes the monologue from Samuel L.Jackson delivered to Brace Dern is a hoot, and I was riveted to your discussion of revenge, including that apt reference to the Bard. Though you are careful not to come down firmly on the side of either the nay sayers or the haters, it is clear enough from your wrap that you connected as I did with the exceeding entertainment the film award marathon viewers with, and that’s pretty much as you subsequently discuss the verdict on Tarantino.

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