Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Hateful Eight: A Little Talk about a Possibly Relevant Movie

It's been out nearly a year now, but fellow Do Some Damage blogger Renee Pickup and I have finally gotten around to a discussion we've long meant to have - about Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. The funny thing is, I'm glad it's taken us so long to have this talk. I saw the movie when it opened and liked it well enough, though I did find it a little long. I rated it mid-level Tarantino, not top tier like Jackie Brown or Kill Bill Vol. 2, but better than Death Proof and Django Unchained. Rewatching it the other day in preparation for this talk, I liked it more than I did on first viewing, and the length didn't bother me at all. And in the current political environment, it seemed to me, the film had a certain resonance it didn't have last year.

Anyway, overall, both Renee and I are big Tarantino fans (or should I say, we remain Tarantino fans after all these years of debate pro and con about his movies), and speaking for myself at least, I quite enjoyed our discussion.

It's a two part talk, starting here and resuming Friday on Renee's day to post.

So, here we go...

Scott: So it's been almost a year now since The Hateful Eight came out, to overall good but maybe not great reviews. And in what's become a regular feature in Tarantino film responses, there were a good number of people who didn't like it at all. One of the criticisms, I recall, was that the film is filled with hateful characters (though that is the title) depicting a United States in the grip of all sorts of toxic divisions. It does take place soon after The Civil War of course. You've got racial and regional differences, to name just two, that are front and foremost. Really highlighted and nasty in a way you don't get in a lot of Hollywood movies. But does what may have seemed a little over the top in terms of divisions a year ago seem more relevant now, with all that's going on? What do you think of Tarantino's vision of the US and US history, at least as it's reflected in this movie?

Renee: It feels that way, doesn't it? I wanted to see this one in a theater, I'm a huge Tarantino fan, but with babysitting and all of that we didn't get to it before it was gone. So I finally sat down with this movie in the worst throws of the election - where we were seeing so much blatant prejudice toward race, religion, region, and sex (among other things). I thought, "Man I'm really excited to talk to Scott about this," because to be honest I didn't think Tarantino would have much to say about race, or even misogyny - but whether he said it or not, he showed us some things that viewed through recent events feel really relevant.

Just the decision to have Samuel L. Jackson's Major Warren in the same room with Bruce Dern as the Confederate General, you know it's going to get ugly. Every dance move the two pull off through the course of the film revolves around this knowledge they hate each other. I think a lot of us felt that way around the Thanksgiving table this year.

Oh yeah. It's been a tense holiday season so far, that's for sure. With Jackson and Dern's characters, I think you get something Tarantino's been exploring in his last three films - Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now The Hateful Eight. In one way or another they are all sort of alternate history stories. Basterds most obviously. Tarantino catches all this flack for making movies that are just about other movies, but I don't think that's primarily what he's doing anymore. Of course he has all the movie references and the more you get them the more you appreciate that stuff, but the last three movies definitely indulge in fantasy revenge scenarios as if to undo some of the horrors of the past. The Jewish band of avengers in Basterds, Jaime Foxx's character blowing up the mansion in Django, and that scene with Major Warren telling the Confederate General what he did to his son. You could take that scene as risible or as "Man, if only these things happened."

That scene was so uncomfortable, so horrific, and so fucking satisfying. And I think that's exactly how it was intended.

Samuel L. Jackson was in rare form through the whole movie. I'm assuming we're avoiding spoilers here, but his speech about why he carries that Lincoln Letter was perhaps the most timely and relevant commentary in any Tarantino film, would you agree?

Totally agree. Tarantino has had a lot of great black characters in his films over the years, but Major Warren is, along with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (who's totally different obviously), his most fascinating one. He's not contemporary so he really has to use his cunning, his wiles, to survive. And he's not a character like Jamie Foxx is in Django. Jamie Foxx has this contemporary attitude toward taking shit that I'm sure is intentional but makes him a kind of fantasy character. Jackson's totally plausible in how he has his dignity but can't get outraged or strike back every time racism pops up. He wouldn't last very long in that world doing that. If he has to take a racial insult he will, but he's always using his brains to negotiate through and do pretty well in a dangerous white-dominated world. If he has to lie a little bit, be a trickster at times, he will. Great character. And you're right. It's Jackson at his best, under total control.

What I like too is how none of the other characters are totally color blind towards him. Which is also real, especially, I assume, for those days. There's a scale, from Bruce Dern's outright racist to the slightly patronizing but polite British attitude of Tim Roth's character to the fairly no-nonsense way Kurt Russell approaches him. A part I loved was how genuinely upset Russell's character is when he finds out the truth about the Lincoln Letter. It's like a grain of idealism in him was mistreated, and he almost gets emotional about it.

So we have all these men in the story and there's Jennifer Jason Lee as Daisy Domergue. First of all, I don't know about you, but I was very excited when I heard Tarantino had cast her in the film. She's one of my very favorite actors - so many great performances - and casting her sounded right in line with him writing plum parts for John Travolta and Pam Grier and so on. I was thinking how good it would be to see her back onscreen with a complex part.

Well, first, I loved Kurt Russell in this. We watch the Escape movies and Big Trouble in Little China a lot in our house and I felt like he was capturing what made him so fun and interesting in those films while also bringing a real menace to his character. And you're totally right about when he finds out about the letter. It's powerful because I think it shows more depth than we really expected from John Ruth, and also proves Major Warren's point to an extent.

His no-nonsense attitude really served the film well, too. Both in how he interacted with Major Warren, and how interacted with Daisy.

When the movie came out I remember a lot of uproar about the amount of violence Daisy suffers at John Ruth's hand. I found it really interesting, watching the movie, because I felt like there were some gems in there about misogyny and sexism. First, Jennifer Jason Leigh was amazing! I wasn't as excited about the casting as you were - I had total faith in it, because Tarantino does so well bringing actors that haven't been around much and getting fantastic performances out of them. Leigh captured the real brutality of Daisy so well. I never doubted that she was an awful, dangerous criminal. So when you pair that knowledge with the expected hard violence of Tarantino - it felt a little different than blanket "violence against a woman."

A lot of that is owed to Leigh's performance. She was scary. But there are those passing moments where the other characters ask Ruth how he feels about hanging a woman, and he doesn't acknowledge the part of the question they want him to. He doesn't get into any fantasy about the sanctity of women or a need to protect women, he is, like you said, no nonsense. She committed a crime worthy of hanging, and he was going to do his job. While everyone was debating whether the violence against Daisy was misogynist, or if all his films were misogynist (maybe a whole different post for a different time) they missed this subtle message, I think. There was something really precise about how the film dismissed the idea of "woman" being equivalent to purity, special care, or a certain set of personality traits.

Daisy was a bad motherfucker - dangerous, incredibly smart, equal to the men around her when it came to both cunning and propensity for violence. So it was interesting that of all the people in the room, her bounty hunter was the only one willing to acknowledge that having her hung was the same as having any man in the same position hung.

That's true. You could say Daisy got the respect and drew the hatred any male criminal of her stature would get. At the very end too, when her ultimate punishment finally comes, Major Warren basically says it should be by hanging, as John Ruth would have wanted, instead of perhaps the more humane way of just shooting her in the head. Like you say, no breaks for her because she's a woman. She's also an unregenerate racist so there's the clear irony of seeing a black man participate in what's basically the lynching form of punishment. Still, because it's so uncommon, I do have to admit, though I understood what Tarantino was doing, that it was a bit disturbing to see Daisy punched and elbowed and kicked around so much by men. You just don't see that in mainstream movies often - all stuff you know Tarantino is aware of as he pokes and prods his audience.

By the way, love that brief scene where she plays the guitar. As always with Tarantino, the worst sort of human being is given at least a little humanity. He's very effective at that. And it's telling how John Ruth at first likes listening to her play and sing, then gets really mad about it. I guess he doesn't want to humanize her too much in his mind.

I do try to be careful with the discussion on the brutality she suffers because it's definitely uncomfortable. You /don't/ see it on film and I am definitely empathetic to people (especially women) that just can't stomach it. We started out talking about viewing the racial/regional differences through today's lens and I don't think you can view a man beating a woman outside of today's lens, either. These are bad men, and she's a bad woman - but if you're watching it and you're made uncomfortable that's understandable. I also think it's intentional.

Like the moment with the guitar! Every character beat has intention behind it. Watching Walton Coggins as Chris Mannix, you have to believe he'd take Major Warren's side, you have to believe they'd share that moment of camaraderie with the letter at the end - and you do! But would you believe Daisy ever saw Major Warren as anything other than a black man? I wouldn't.
Also, you opened my eyes a little about Ruth's reaction to the song. I thought it was a reaction to her line about getting away to Mexico (the idea she could still get away when he knew at least one person in the room was working toward that goal), but I think you're right, he was also angry that he was seeing something about her that made her human.
Speaking of Mexico, I find the oddest part of the movie - and it's another one with a weird resonance after the recent election - to be the entire flashback scene that shows how Daisy's accomplices arrived at the store before the blizzard. It's odd because the owner and main employee of the store, Minnie's Haberdashery, are two black women who seem very friendly and open to customers coming through on stagecoach, yet we hear from Major Warren how Minnie absolutely loathed Mexicans and refused to let them come into the store. For one thing, it shows Tarantino doesn't glorify any one group - blacks can have their racial prejudices too - but overall I found the entire segment a little strange and clumsy. What did you make of that part and the "Mexican angle"?
So I have to break this into two parts to really get my thoughts on it clear.
First: Minnie hates Mexicans. I had no issue believing that. I grew up in an area with a huge Hispanic and Portuguese population (I'm Portuguese) and everybody had blatant racist attitudes toward both groups, regardless of their own race. And within those groups, there were perceived hierarchies - obviously, who you thought was at the top depended on what group you were in. This played out toward the Asian communities and within them as well, but I wasn't experiencing that, so I hesitate to speak on it. But I definitely was involved in conversations where people "ranked" the Hispanic/Portuguese groups, and I saw how people who felt oppressed and discriminated against sometimes just needed to feel like "but at least I'm not a portagee". (Scott's Note: The word "portagee" is a racial slur with a gnarly history historically). You can kind of see this in race relations among the "white working class" we keep hearing about, too. You can kind of see this in race relations among the "white working class" we keep hearing about, too. Discriminating against other races, genders, sexualities won't bring them jobs, and I don't think they believe it will.
Second: That scene - yeah, it was a little weird. You have to assume they've never been there before, but it plays out like it's planned to the millisecond. Then, the decision to keep the General, but not, say, the new hire who fled, that might actually lend a "real" authenticity seemed forced.
A rare instance from Tarantino of just poor story construction. It's awkward also because we never actually see evidence of Minnie's distaste for Mexicans. Major Warren describes for us and the other characters in the film how Minnie felt about Mexicans, but nothing more is presented to us. It's all telling, no showing. But Tarantino clearly wanted to get in something about this particular type of animus, so it's there.
We'll stop the talk here and take an intermission.
The discussion will continue at DSD Friday.

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