January 02, 2016
The Hateful Eight
Going to be spoiling this one too,a bit, as I will in most of my film writing this year; mostly I'm looking at the beginning. I won't necessarily feel the need to disclose this all the time, when I talk about older movies, but in new films I think I will.
The film-making is fantastic. The landscapes of the opening scenes are beautiful, and that beauty extends to the interior where much of the film takes place. The choices of camera placement and shot are wonderful. It makes me long for more opportunities to see more films in the 70mm format (as did The Master before it).
The acting is terrific, from Kurt Russell's channeling of John Wayne to Samuel L. Jackson's balding bounty hunter to Tim Roth's foppish hangman to Jennifer Jason Leigh's unrepentant criminal to Bruce Dern's old Southern general, sitting bitterly by the fire. Nearly every performance completely crackles just as that fireplace does.
The script is clever and taut and tense and replete with both the casual racial and gendered slurs we expect from Tarantino and also the falsely elevated almost Shakespearean speech of something like True Grit that makes a certain breed of Western stand apart. The cadences, the puffery, the storytelling that'll just bring you to the edge of your seat. The script has all of this.
And in the end, it's all in service of what feels like the most artful "fuck you" to an audience from a writer-director I've ever seen. I couldn't like this movie, even though I've managed to quite enjoy his last couple (and loved his earliest work), which have further extended the violence that has always been his hallmark.
This is really a shame for me. I can see what Tarantino is doing from the very opening moments. In a series of opening shots, we see a stagecoach tearing across a snow-covered landscape. It's all slopes, criss-crossing the wide frame and each other. For minutes, there isn't a single straight line: there's the bowed outward wood of the stagecoach doors, the curves of the horses' backs, the drooping reins, hell, even the fences through the woods are crooked, zigzagging as they poke through the piled snow. We come prepared for everything being false. In the literal opening shot, Tarantino even gives us a close-up of a Crucifix -- invoking Fellini both by having that be the first image we see after reading "The 8th Film from Quentin Tarantino" simultaneously calling bits of the opening to both La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.
I'm a film nerd and boy howdy do I love this stuff. The image of a snowed over Christ carved out of an unvarnished and aging wood, suffering on a stone cross, amongst all of these images out of true point us directly in the direction of just how little traditional senses of morality or ethics are going to figure in this film. It's everywhere in these early scenes: in the wave of Russell's mustaches to the curved hem of Jackson's cape.
If only the story and the interactions between these characters weren't so ugly.
I mean, I realize, this is sort of the point. There's something of a corrective at work here, both in how ugly the West really was and not the mythological frontier of Western movies two generations ago, of just how deep a scar our nation's founding sin of slavery has left in us, and how powerfully it and the Civil War to attempt to end that sin drove us all apart. In a time where nationalism again is center-stage in America, with an election coming up, it's probably a good idea to shine some bright light in the corners of our national identity. Sadly, it sometimes feels like we haven't learned anything.
He establishes these as the themes; Jackson's Marquis Warren is able to enter the stagecoach with Kurt Russell's John Ruth in part on the strength of a letter from President Lincoln that Warren carries in his pocket. It's a totem, and it carries the power of a totem, and so naturally soon thereafter Leigh's character spits on it. No symbol is safe. The war is over, but it'll be a long time before the wounds are healed. If ever.
Leigh's Daisy Demorgue is the fulcrum on which the drama rests -- John Ruth is bringing her in for the bounty on her head, and it is a quirk of his that he prefers to bring in his bounties alive. Russell's old and weary John Wayne impersonation is spot-on; his populist motivation is that he likes to keep everyone employed, even the executioner. But having Demorgue chained to him for days is like putting a wolverine on a leash and constantly poking it with a stick. She bites back as often as she can, and he does what little he can to tame her, elbowing her in the face or throwing hot stew all over her.
They pick up another straggler and make their way for shelter, Minnie's Haberdashery, a sort of inn and store and home all in one, and with the blizzard hard on them they put away the horses and run a line out to the barn and the outhouse, before settling in for good to wait it out. And here they meet four more who will make up the rest of the Hateful Eight, and the drama and mystery will ratchet up considerably.
Although there's a bit of violence in the stagecoach, accompanied with both verbal and slapstick comedy, Tarantino really starts to unwind once he gathers all his characters together. Ruth knows right off that something isn't right, and he enlists Warren's help in keeping guns trained on the large single-room cabin's occupants. There have been enough doubts sowed along the way -- the missing Minnie and Sweet Dave, the normal proprietors, and the Mexican who is watching the place in the meantime. The mystery and tension are palpable -- just how is all this going to shake out?
What follows is where Tarantino loses me, tonally, and he never gets me back. Having deprived the occupants of their weapons, Warren puts one of his own close at hand to Bruce Dern's General Smithers, late of the Confederate Army, come out to Wyoming to try and find out what happened to his son. Warren hypnotically weaves a tale of that son's death, which I won't repeat, but whether it's even true isn't the point -- it's to goad Smithers into reaching for that gun so that Warren will be justified in shooting him.
The Intermission comes up right then and following it there are more revelations than one can count and a level of gore that wouldn't be out of place in an Evil Dead movie. Everyone is made out to be a snarling beast, and if it weren't clear how much Tarantino was relishing this I might have had a different reaction. In Inglourious Basterds, I could kind of get behind it, because the animating spirit seemed to be that Melanie Laurent figure in the smoke of her theater, getting her revenge on the evil men who had taken her family and the life that should have been hers. Art and film with its beautiful lies triumph there. In Django Unchained, I similarly could give way to the underlying animating force -- Django's love for his wife driving him to track her down and rescue her. Love conquers even the worst of what our country has had to offer.
Here? Here there's nothing but a sneering, laughing, mocking nihilism. Nothing: not law, not religion, not family, not even that greatest of Presidents, but nothing counters the beasts inside these characters. If Tarantino could have shown a little less glee while gazing into that abyss, I might have found more to like here amongst the beauty of its craft. It's the most wonderfully made movie I've ever hated. I guess that means it does what it says on the tin.
January 01, 2016
2015: My Year in Books, Films, and Games
Every year I like to look back and muse a bit about how I was feeding my brain, media-wise, and evaluate that against prior years. It's mostly navel-gazing, but I do it anyway.
The big thing about 2015 was that I was going to read more women, and I certainly did that -- everything I read this past year had a woman author (though in a few cases, there was a male illustrator, in some graphic novels). This was quite rewarding for me, though in all I read fewer books than in 2014. I read about 120 books, with a few interesting trends:
- I read quite a few ghost stories. I didn't set out to do this, but it kind of just happened -- there were some terrific novels by women that turned out to be ghost stories (and often I didn't even know this going in). Siobhan Abcock, who wrote one of them (The Barter), also wrote a pretty good essay about Why Every First Novel Should be a Ghost Story. I don't know if every one should, but certainly the conceit affords the author a way of examining some kind of trauma or misdeed or lost hope. In addition to Abcock, there was The Orphan Choir, Lake of Dreams, The Telling, The Little Stranger, and one I haven't quite finished yet. That's to say nothing of Sarah Lotz's two horror novels that weren't quite about ghosts.
- I read a ton of genre books generally. Way more than I usually do, and this was in part because I was reading or re-reading Rendell (a tad) and Christie (a bunch) but also encountered authors like Jo Walton and Lois McMaster Bujold (whose oeuvre is so large it has been daunting to know where to start) as well as Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon. Surprisingly, I didn't actually get around to Ursula K. LeGuin, who I expressly wanted to re-read. No idea why. I finished up reading everything Sharon/SJ Bolton has published, including her newest. I tend to plow through books like these pretty quickly (and Christie's books, in particular, are brief). But in terms of genre, I definitely appreciated and enjoyed the difference in authorial voice of a woman writer, mostly. Whether it was a greater focus on romance (Outlander) or class relationships (Christie) or what-have-you, they felt different and enriching for it.
- Elana Ferrante is great as they come. I read the four Neapolitan novels this year and they were probably the most pleasurable sustained reading experiences I had all year. I want to read them all again. There's an honesty and a frankness and an exploration of the complexity at the heart of this friendship that is just so engrossing. The runner-up for a series of non-genre books would probably be the Regeneration trilogy, by Pat Barker -- those are also fantastic books, and it's interesting to read a woman mostly writing about male relationships (though admittedly, under the strain of wartime). Fascinating stuff.
I could go on and on about the books I read this year but those are a few trends. In the end, what's going to last this year is going to be maintaining more of a balance between men and women in my reading; in the short term, particularly, I'll probably still be reading mostly women because I'll be getting to the end of all those Poirot stories and probably reading more Rendell and yes, I do want to get to Morrison. Plus I've got a few still checked out from the library. I'm also champing at the bit to get to a few Stephen King novels that I haven't read yet, so those will probably appear in the next few weeks.
The big reason I read fewer books than the previous year was just how much time I spent on films and games. But looking over the more than 200 films I watched, it's hard to detect any real trends, and that's because I had no real goals for my film viewing this year. Sure, I watched quite a few Asian crime dramas, and a fair amount of horror and action pictures (mostly to watch with my son, particularly all the Fast and Furious franchise but a handful of other stuff). I didn't see much in the theater, really, at just nine -- nine! -- that is not many.
This year, though, I'm planning on spending more time writing for this blog about the films I watch, with a specific goal in mind. I've picked up the Pauline Kael collection For Keeps and I'm going to make my way through it, perhaps one or two films a week, and write up my thoughts both of the films and her writing about them. I love film and I'd like to learn to think more critically about it, both from a narrative perspective but also from the perspective of visual language. I feel like I have a good handle on the former, and not so much on the latter. Whether those thoughts appear here or elsewhere is yet to be decided; I kind of like the idea of making it its own thing. (I'll repost the Star Wars essay there if I do. That kind of kicked it all off.)
I also played more games! I finished what is probably a lifetime high of 42 games in the past year -- substantially more than in previous years. Part of this was down to having a fair period of bed rest in the middle of the year, and part of it was just feeling like playing games, which I take as a good sign considering the career I've been in for 18 years now.
Not only did I play more games, but I invested more in those that I played -- I know it's not interesting to talk about trophies/achievements/what-have-you, but I achieved the platinum trophy in several games this year: Infamous: Second Son, CounterSpy, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Everyone's Gone to the Rapture, 4 (4!) Ratchet and Clank games, and The Swapper, Volume, and Guacamelee. So there were quite a few games where I was very invested.
If I had to pick a favorite of the past year, it'd probably be Guacamelee, which completely captivated me. I spent a fair amount of time in the world of Far Cry 4, and really enjoyed both Dragon Age: Inquisition and the heart-poundingly frightening Alien: Isolation. I finally finished Wolfenstein: The New Order which I also quite loved, but for me, the balance of player skill acquisition, Metroid-y level exploration, and aesthetic freshness of Guacamelee really won me over. Although I haven't finished it yet, and therefore it doesn't appear here, I have been completely loving Persona 4: Golden, and it would probably edge out Guacamelee had I finished it.
I don't really care whether I'm part of the up-to-the-moment discussion of games, but in the next year I'd like to write more about them. I had thoughts about Beyond: Two Souls and what I felt were some of its biggest missteps in gameplay and narrative structure that I never jotted down. I had things to say about Far Cry 4 that I didn't get to either. I should get in a better habit of publicly sharing my thoughts -- I do write down my critical thoughts, often, but don't polish them up to some sort of publishable form, and I'd like to do more of that.
So, there's my thinking. Going forward, I'd simply like to write more -- about film, about games, and maybe even about books. Check this space for some of that in the future.
Cheers, and a happy 2016 to you.