“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” – W.B. Yeats, 1919.
It’s become rather fashionable to be anti-nostalgia nowadays. You can’t talk about how things are going to hell in 2016 without someone pointing out that people thought things were going to hell in 1916 or 1716 or 1016. And of course, people who invoke that cliché to dismiss the complaints of others often turn around themselves and complain about how something else today is worse than it’s ever been. It’s really just a way people who are happy with the way things are dismiss those who are unhappy with the same. And it’s true that we in 21st century America look back and see an inexorable tide of progress that has brought us to this point…but how do you think things looked to the Europeans living in the middle of the Dark Ages? Or Russians or Syrians living right now? Do you think Mayans living in the time before Christ imagined their society that grew and prospered over the centuries would ever simply collapse? Do you think people of the Islamic world a thousand years ago, which had public hospitals when medieval European “doctors” were still bleeding their patients, ever considered that their future would look like this?
Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.
What is true of the world is true of people, even genius filmmakers, and that is what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will take on as we pit “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) against “The Hateful Eight” (2015) to see if there’s anything the sad decline of Quentin Tarantino can teach us about ourselves and where our world is heading.
“Reservoir Dogs” was a tale of a diamond heist gone wrong that catapulted Tarantino from some dude floating around the periphery of Hollywood to one of the hottest young filmmakers of the 90s. Full of naturalistic wit and an artistic appreciation of violence and profanity, it was a little too rough and tumble to be a commercial success but “Reservoir Dogs” heralded the arrival of a new and unique vision to our popular culture. Tarantino fused a variety of filmmaking and storytelling techniques with a clearly defined sensibility and palpable energy to reinvigorate and redefine the template for the noirish crime drama. Almost a quarter-century later, it’s hard to find a film of this type that doesn’t carry some faint imprint of Tarantino.
The heist in question was organized by an imposing mastermind named Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). He recruited six veteran thieves and christened them with monochromatic code names. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) was an old associate, still looking for his next score. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) was a newly released convict who had proved his loyalty. Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) rounded out the team, with Mr. Orange carrying an extra secret beyond any of his fellow criminals.
With Joe’s son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), acting as a middleman, “Reservoir Dogs” jumps back and forth through its story in a non-linear fashion but spends most of its time in a warehouse after the heist has gone horribly wrong, with Mr. Orange bleeding to death from a gunshot wound and the surviving members of the crew trying to figure out what to do next. And it is an absolutely marvelous motion picture.
It begins with a bunch of guys in a diner discussing the subtext of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and the virtues of tipping and goes on to touch on subjects of loyalty, criminal professionalism, the craft of acting, personal vanity, the naked brutality of violence, human guilt and how the codes we all choose to live by often lead us to destruction. What really got the attention of critics and fans, however, was the style employed in telling all of that. Visually, there are parts of “Reservoir Dogs” that come straight out of the earliest days of cinema when films were shot more like plays, with characters at a distance going to and fro across the stage, and there are parts that even seem modern today, plunging the camera into the story almost as if it’s another character. The script is one of subtle erudition, where characters both sound memorably clever but not more so than normal human beings should be. And Tarantino’s paradoxical treatment of violence here may be the more influential thing he’s ever done. One the one hand, a lot of it functions on the cartoonish level of the old Western but it then lingers over the graphic bloody aftermath. It captures both the primitive exhilaration and civilized horror of hurting and killing other human beings but it’s hard not to see Tarantino opening the door to the pornographication of violence that has infested our stories. He kept the melodramatic fun of violence but then immersed it in the dramatic milieu of graphic pain and suffering. It is “adult” in the same way as porno flicks are “adult.” The subject matter isn’t for kids but it engages grownups on a baser level.
Aided mightily by an amazing cast, Tarantino created a genre classic…and he was just getting started. He followed it with “Pulp Fiction” (1994), one of the best motion pictures ever made. And then he followed that with “Jackie Brown” (1997), a masterpiece that might be the best thing he’s ever done. Unfortunately, it was also an attempt by Tarantino to grow both emotionally and stylistically as an artist and the critics and the public responded with a resounding “Meh. Give us more of that stuff you did before.” Tarantino, probably wounded by that rejection, certainly did that. “Kill Bill: Vol.1” (2003) was a bloated, self-indulgent bit of fluff. “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004) was a self-indulgent, bloated bit of fluff. “Death Proof” (2007) sucked. Just plain sucked. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) was good. Not great. Good, but it was also Tarantino just doing more of the same shtick.
“Django Unchained” (2012) was his biggest commercial success since “Pulp Fiction,” probably because it was also the mostly plainly fun movie he’d made since then, but it was also the first of Tarantino’s films to be fundamentally flawed on a technical level. His previous films suffered from poor creative choices but those choices were always executed with a high level of skill and even mastery. “Death Proof” sucked because the grindhouse flicks it paid homage too also sucked and Tarantino was faithfully following their example. “Django Unchained” had some poor creative choices, like presenting an ugly, graphic picture of American slavery and then ending like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but it was also badly plotted. To use an analogy, it was like a “Star Wars” movie where Darth Vader died at the end of the first hour, the Emperor died at the end of the second hour and the last 45 minutes concluded with the death of Boba Fett.
Which brings us to “The Hateful Eight” (2015). It is pretentiously titled “The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino” and it is a disaster. To be fair, I watched the three hour and seven minute version. The one released in most theaters was 20 minutes shorter, so it was likely less excruciating to sit through but no amount of editing could make this film anything but an aggravating and dispiriting experience. It concerns a motley collection of folks trapped by a blizzard in an outpost in the wilderness of post-Civil War Wyoming and that’s about as much as I’m going to get into the plot because it simply isn’t worth it.
“The Hateful Eight” is a passionless and frequently stupid exercise by a filmmaker with more bile than remaining ability. Scenes go on too long. Shots go on too long. The script is painfully repetitive in that it not only covers the same ground again and again but has its characters repeat the same lines again and again like everyone is half deaf. There is not one single person in this tale that is either likeable or for whom the viewer can root. Every scene shot somewhere other than the snowcovered countryside is bland and homely. Even the set design is incompetent. The film mostly takes place inside one building where there are gaps in the boards that make up the wall big enough to stick your arm through. I know building codes weren’t quite a stringent back in the late 19th century, but no one would do that shoddy a job with a structure that had to make it through a Wyoming winter. But Tarantino thought it looked cool, so that’s how it had to be. And no one, not any character at all, at any point sounds like a real human being.
There are awful creative choices all over “The Hateful Eight.” Tim Roth spends most of the movie giving a terrible performance, only for it to be revealed that it was Roth’s character who was giving a terrible performance. But that revelation has no meaning or point, so it’s still just forcing the audience to sit through over two hours of Tim Roth giving a terrible performance. Tarantino’s only instruction to Kurt Russell appears to have been “Your character is like Rooster Cogburn, but an even bigger a-hole.” And it really damn obvious that Tarantino decided to make two films back-to-back in the same Civil War-ish time period so he could have characters saying the N-word all the time and no one could complain. He sure loves him that N-word.
But catastrophic creative choices are often what you get when genius is coddled with success and adulation. Look at how many actors or filmmakers win an Oscar and then immediately follow it up with these miserable, ego-flattering projects that lose them all the stature they gained with the general public. What’s disturbing about “The Hateful Eight” is that is looks like Tarantino is forgetting how to tell a story onscreen.
Let me give you one example. There’s a scene where a pot of coffee is poisoned. The viewer knows it is poisoned because we’re not only shown it being poisoned but a narrator comes out of nowhere to tell the viewer it is poisoned…and I’m not even going to get into how jaw-dropping dumb and awkward the sudden appearance of a narrator is, especially when he specifically calls the people in the movie “characters.”
Anyway…in the scene, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is in the foreground playing the guitar. In the background, a couple of other characters are going to get a cup of the poisoned coffee. When Leigh is looking at the guitar, the camera is focused on her. When she turns to look behind her, the focus shifts to the characters in the background getting the coffee. This happens twice, at which point Tarantino could have just easily stopped the film, walked onto the screen and yelled at the audience “Hey, dummies! Something important is happening in the background of this scene! Pay attention, idiots!” The third time it happens, however, the focus stays on the background characters for a half-second or so longer when Leigh turns back to the guitar. Before, the focus had perfectly followed the movement of her head, then there’s this momentary lag. I will bet anyone $10 there was no creative, aesthetic or narrative point to that delay. Tarantino or his camera operator were simply slow shifting the focus that third time, Tarantino didn’t care and no one had the testicular fortitude to point the mistake out to him.
“The Hateful Eight” is a bad movie. It is the sort of bad movie you get when genius curdles, when it loses the edge of imagination but continues to believe it doesn’t have to follow the rules that apply to non-geniuses. When I saw “Inglorious Basterds,” I knew we were never going to get another great movie out of Tarantino. “The Hateful Eight” makes me doubt if he’ll ever make even another good one.
And what can we learn from that for ourselves and our world? It’s that people and their world don’t always get better, or even stay the same. Sometimes people and their world do get worse and that usually happens when those people stop valuing the little things. They become so impressed with themselves and what they’ve accomplished that they forget about all the hard work and attention to detail which made those achievements possible. They start cutting corners, making excuses and rationalizing how rules and standards don’t really apply. And then one day they look around, notice their world isn’t the way it used to be and begin complaining, only to be dismissed as an old relic yelling at the kids to “Get off my lawn!”
Is that what happened to the Mayans? Could that happen to us? Did you see who just got elected President and what the reaction has been? If America in the 21st century is Quentin Tarantino in middle age, I pray better golden years are ahead for both of us.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Staring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Eddie Bunker, Quentin Tarantino, Randy Brooks, Kirk Baltz and Steven Wright.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, Lee Horsely, Gene Jones, Keith Jefferson, Craig Stark, Gemma and Channing Tatum.