“Okay, How About This? I Talk Him Into It”: On Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Death Proof
It’s difficult to pinpoint the reasons for Quentin Tarantino’s notoriety for a single thing – as provocateur, as cinephilic filming through a teenaged boy lens, as social commentator through film, as a Baby Mamet — and maybe to do so would be a disservice to his work, and to him as a filmmaker as a whole. Trying to determine his biggest strength’s might be a fool’s errand because they’ve fluctuated from film to film: while his work has been arguably consistent in its quality, the things that stand out, discomfort, inspire has ranged the gamut from his filmmaking craft to his ability to bring postmodernity to mainstream audiences, from his inventive dialogue to his carefully illustrated characters (he’s often highlighted for his female characters). I’ve looked at his work with admiration, but usually at a distance. This is more on me than it is on him. For all of the feting that Tarantino regularly garners in conversation, I’ve felt at arm’s length with his work less in an experiential way and more post-experience; in the midst of conversation with peers, there’s something jarring to me about the way certain people talk about him, at least in my experience. A fanboyishness, if you will, and a willful desire to not recognize flaws within his work.
It’s with that in mind that I was dreading seeing The Hateful Eight. His built in fan base packed the ornately decorated screening room in the East Village, and whoops, laughs, and cheers reverberated off the walls clearer than the sound of the actual film. The Hateful Eight, in its grandiosity, represented to me everything about Tarantino that incites criticism about his work: messy racial and gender politics, an adoration towards the grotesque in both violence and ideology, and a universe that, as Glen Weldon suggests, engages more with Tarantino’s cinephilic tendencies than it does with the real world politics it seems to want to comment on. Its vagueness rather annoying, it’s not necessarily its ideological impreciseness that irked me: it was the sloppiness. Here, more than ever, it became apparent to me that, through this three hour odyssey – overture, intermission, and all – Tarantino’s exploration of self-narratology and self-mythology was maddeningly unfocused and undisciplined. His words meandered in a way that represented particular tics and habits that are present in all of his work, but never to this degree. His use of space with relation to his words seemed to also lack the discipline of the razor sharpness of Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds.
The Hateful Eight seemed to reveal to me that Tarantino as screenwriter primarily writes in limited character archetypes: the hyper articulate morally ambivalent one (Hans Landa, Bill, Stuntman Mike, Oswaldo, Dr. Schulz, Calvin Candie, O-Ren Ishii), the steely, strong woman (The Bride, Mia, Shoshana, Daisy, Bridget, Jackie Brown), the “red neck” (Lt. Aldo Raine, Chris Mannix, Bud, Louis Gara), the black character (Abernathy, Jungle Julia, Jackie Brown), and Samuel L. Jackson. His dialogue isn’t bad, but after eight(ish) films, habits die hard. The meter, the rhythm, the word choice, the construction of each sentence sticks out like a sore thumb in The Hateful Eight, and when one isn’t tracking the authenticity of the words, one might be prone to being jarred by a sense of déjà vu.
Authorship, as I said, isn’t bad. In fact, for Tarantino, it’s mostly good. In his words, the ups and downs of the timbre, the (usual) precise nature hidden under the guise of lackadaisical delivery, is a game. In certain sequences, even entire films, Tarantino is best when he understands language as a duplicitous game, with characters and audience members trying to track the direction and the authenticity of his characters’’ words. This is most notable in Jackie Brown, a film in which language is the con; the opening to Kill Bill, in which language holds the duality of being sadomasochistic; and in the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds, in which language is, as aforementioned, a game. (It’s also ’put to good use in Reservoir Dogs, where language is a heist.)
Language doesn’t really have the same impact in The Hateful Eight for me, as it drags its feet, wears very briefly the clothes of a locked room mystery, and quickly sheds it off in favor of working its way to (possibly) acknowledge inequality, or the lies of historical revisionism, or misanthropy.
His politics on race and gender have always been provocative, at once empowering in his tales of authentic women (Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds) and men adrift (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), and others. These elements are aided by Tarantino’s proclivity towards reference: his films work not only as remixes, but even as reclamations. Inglourious Basterds as a propaganda exploitation film, where WWII is dominated by the face of a Jewish woman watching over as a theater full of Nazis die. Kill Bill as a film where the samurai phallus is granted to a female character, cognizant of the same politics of honor. (I think Kill Bill has a weird ending, which almost suggests that her power through the bulk of it was masculine driven, and is then stripped of her when she finds her daughter is alive, reducing women to a biological thing.)
But I think, for all of his provocations, even his obliviousness to certain things, Tarantino might have reached his apex in his 2007 film Death Proof. Once the back half of a collaboration between he and Robert Rodriguez called Grindhouse – a project where hubris is both advantage and disadvantage – it was released in a longer form at Cannes, and on DVD. Working with a dominantly female cast, it might occur to one that maybe Tarantino’s dialogue is best spoken by female performers. One is that noxious emphasis of Tarantinoisms and instead, it’s, if not naturalistic, rolling off the tongues of his players in a less self-conscious manner, and in a narrative con that presents itself as inert until it matters.
His dialogue, though, shifts in its focus slightly. It doesn’t feel just like Tarantino characters talking about women; it’s Tarantino characters that are women that are talking about their own lives. Where they’re going for the weekend, what they plan to do, what they’re smoking, whom they’ve fucked, whom they want to fuck, whom they won’t fuck, and the relation of all this to the conception of their “selves”. It transcends the archetypes he usually writes. Here, because there is no set objective of a Point A to Point B narratively, Tarantino (who DP’d this) and his players let you live in their lives for a short while. Shooting on 35mm, Tarantino frames his ensemble intimately, and the eyes are seldom on anyone else.
Crucially, these characters, in both halves of the bifurcated film, are being “conventionally irresponsible”. The first gang – lead by Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Poitier, and Jordan Ladd – are ready to get drunk. The second – of Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, and Tracie Thoms – play a dangerous game out on the backroads of Tennessee. And Tarantino has the words these characters use just seep in easily into one’s ears, so relaxed and so lived in. It’s uncharacteristic comparably because there is no violent catalyst or imperative. And while these characters do their thing, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) looms at the corner, ready to strike.
The juxtaposition of the focused nature of Stuntman Mike’s dialogue and the lax nature of everyone else’s is pointed: it’s another motivation to harass and provoke. A couple guys plan how they’re going to get the first group of girls drunk on their way to a lake house cabin, the same kind of predatory figure as Stuntman Mike, but wearing the face of a hunk. By all means, the fact that the male characters’ dialogues have a specificity in objective that the others’ do not is representative of using “focus” and “objective” as kinds of excuses to take advantage of people that do not have those things.
The way in which Stuntman Mike pressures Arlene (Ferlito) to give him a lap dance is indicative of the kind of gas lighting Tarantino’s best/worst villains are guilty of. It’s a step towards him using her as a sexual conquest and object, and her “wounded angelic ego” is hardly an excuse for this gas lighting. The peak of this results in the core murder that closes the first half of the film. Blasting “Hold Tight”, Stuntman Mike speeds directly into the car carrying Ferlito, Poitier, and Ladd, again using lack of focus, and even lack of inhibition, as excuse to dominate them.
In the second half of the film, Bell, Dawson, Thoms, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead mirror the first group in the way they go into detail about the power dynamics that exist in their personal relationships. Whether someone’s being watches as she pees, someone else is getting jilted by an on set “husband”, or another is using a gun as a way to protect herself, Tarantino’s examination of these kinds of power dynamics is at its most incisive in this film. When the group learns that Kim (Thoms) is carrying a gun, she’s met with disapproval from Lee (Winstead) and Abernathy (Dawson).
Kim: And you can’t get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped.
Lee: Don’t do your laundry at midnight.
Kim: Fuck that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the fuck I wanna do my laundry.
That’s when Tarantino lays his thesis out on the table. Maybe inadvertently, by making his acts of retribution, or their acts of retribution, both personal and political, Death Proof has a strength in every scene because of how its every scene leads to it high tension sequences. Not only genre mashups of slasher film (with a car) and gear head film, but – as I watched Bell attack Stuntman Mike with a lead pipe after knocking into her during Ship’s Mast, and I heard Thoms growl “I just want to tap that as… one… more… time!” (a much more interesting interplay of gender and race than in Pulp Fiction or The Hateful Eight) – I got the sense that Death Proof was evidence of all of Tarantino’s strengths and provocations, rolled into the cinematic answer to the words, “She was asking for it.”
Reconciling with my distaste with some of what Tarantino does, and what his admirers do, is a matter of contemplating what Death Proof’s thesis might mean in the wake of The Hateful Eight’s. There are much better examinations of that film than this, from Adam Nayman to Nick Pinkerton to Forrest Cardamenis, but if the film, as some suggest, is like a nightmare version of what people love about Tarantino in the sense of its audacity and cruelty, reveling in it in a way that doesn’t feel as safely aestheticized as Kill BIll, does that mean the audience was asking for it?