There was only one feature to generate almost as much copy as a certain nostalgia-driven toy commercial within the last six weeks, and that feature was Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
To navigate the thinkpieces and impassioned debates while successfully discerning between the sycophants and the trolls takes an intellectual dexterity which is not normally required when dealing with a standard movie. The issue here is that we are not dealing with a standard movie. We are dealing with a Quentin Tarantino movie and, as a result, everyone has an opinion.
To be reminded that The Hateful Eight is only Tarantino’s eighth feature as a director (not including guest spots on TV and collaborative affairs such as Sin City) is stunning for, in the past two decades, he has secured himself status as one of the most significant filmmakers alive today. In the process of attaining such a title, however, Tarantino has become cinema’s whipping boy, being dragged into the hot-topic debates of the era with almost tiresome regularity. His films have been banned and chastised around the world for their purported (mis)handling of content which is deemed to be offensive by various bastions of morality and wholesomeness. There does come a point where it becomes important to ask whether the claims, given their longevity, are in any ways justified, or if the filmmaker is simply an easy target in a cultural climate which lasciviously courts outrage with insatiable desire?
Tarantino has created a fine career which is, in part, based on his rich cinematic literacy; both in archival knowledge and technical skill. This was formed in an age which pre-dates the time of the self-appointed IMDB cineaste, who can feign expertise at the click of a button. Through his time working in the Video Archives rental store at Manhattan Beach, California, combined with a youth spent in the theatres, he taught himself how the language of film worked within a narrative. It wasn’t long before he began writing screenplays.
The gambit paid off. His debut, Reservoir Dogs, would become one of the most-lauded films of the 1990s, defining low-budget crime features for a generation to come. Two screenplays which he sold, True Romance and Natural Born Killers showcased Tarantino’s skills as a writer. Although the latter was altered significantly from Tarantino’s original vision, the former was very much a Tarantino script, with its punchy dialogue and memorable characters. One almost wishes that in the interim, Tarantino would have allowed more directors to adapt his writing over the last few decades, as it would have allowed for very interesting results.
It was Reservoir Dogs that opened to doors to Hollywood for the young Tarantino. Controversy, by way of bad timing was to hit the film on the other side of the Atlantic though. Originally released (to a rapturous response) in the UK in 1993, the film became embroiled in an ambiguous mixture of classification regulations and public furore. Still caught amidst a second wave of the Video Nasties debate, the British Board of Film Classification felt differently when it came to the Home Video release, as they did when it had first been submitted (for a theatrical certificate).
The work was next submitted in 1993 for its home video classification, but the video release would be delayed until 1995 because of the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill in 1993 and its lengthy passage through Parliament. In response to concerns about the effects of media violence, largely in the wake of the James Bulger murder in 1993, part of the Bill’s remit was to make amendments to the (VRA), under which the BBFC had been appointed as the statutory regulatory body for video.
The BBFC’s then director, James Ferman, played an active role in the drafting of this aspect of the Bill which clearly had implications for the video classification of works such as Reservoir Dogs. This is because, on its passing into law in 1994, it established within the VRA a specific ‘harm’ test. This ‘harm’ test required the BBFC to pay ‘special regard (among the other relevant factors) to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with [such issues as] criminal behaviour [and] violent behaviour and incidents’.
The criminal themes and violence (most notably the torture sequence) in Reservoir Dogs had therefore to be revisited in the light of potentially harmful effects – particularly to younger viewers – in the home viewing environment. In fact, the BBFC concluded that these issues could be robustly defended at 18.
Tabloid sensationalism followed. Tarantino was now lumped in with horror film directors and porn peddlers as one of the dangerously subversive figures staining the very nature of a nation’s youth.
Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s sophomore feature (which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) would further set the template for numerous filmic imitators. Razor sharp, culturally-aware dialogue, rich in pomo nuances, sheltered a frenetically edited, experimentally structured narrative that has since been subsequently referenced and homaged so much it’s almost become a pastiche of itself (but not quite). ‘It’s Pulp Fiction meets….‘ cried a thousand video covers for the next 15 years.
Unwilling to follow any kind of predetermined (or even more horrifying, expected) path, Tarantino chose to adapt an Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch, for his third film, a wry Blaxploitation character study called Jackie Brown. Rum Punch was, incidentally, inspired by Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which featured a hip gun runner named Jackie Brown. The result was a mature, star-studded melodrama with a subtle, slow burn that is still resonant 19 years on.
Since then he has made two kung-fu films (Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2), a road / revenge movie (Deathproof) a war movie (Inglorious Basterds) and two westerns (Django: Unchained and The Hateful Eight).
Oddly enough, despite filming countless decapitations, bludgeonings and more bloody deaths than you could shake a Bear-Jew’s club at, the 2003-2007 period of films passed with barely an arched eyebrow. That, however, was before the gateways opened and film journalism became a free-for-all. In just a few short years, everyone was given a platform with which to voice their opinion; for better or worse.
The early-2013 press tour for Django: Unchained felt like ’94 all over again, with a highly-publicised incident involving Tarantino and Channel 4 reporter Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Tarantino refused to be dragged into a debate about the effects of cinematic violence on the real world and, in all fairness, why should he have? As he attested throughout the report:
Don’t ask me a question like that – I’m not biting. I refuse your question. I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey. I don’t want to talk about the implications of violence… because I’ve said everything I have to say about it. I have explained this many times in the last 20 years. I just refuse to repeat myself over and over again because you want me to for you and your show. And your ratings.
The interview culminated with Tarantino’s now-infamous line ‘I’m shutting your butt down.”, but the more significant fallout was the legion of thinkpieces which were to emerge in the wake of the film’s release. The question was not so much if Django: Unchained was violent, but whether or not it was racist? Amidst the furore, Justin Charity of Complex boldly stated:
Quentin Tarantino is frustrated with criticism of his wildly entertaining and wildly successful movies. So he runs to his generation’s quaternary man-fetus, Bret Easton Ellis, to talk shit. Both Tarantino and Ellis frequently lapse into this particular role: vulgar and vengefully white beta males defending their creative authority against second-guesses from restless Others.
The subject matter, the derogatory racial language used within the film sparked a landslide of debate. Most of it seemed to forget one crucial factor which is often disregarded completely when it comes to these movies:
Quentin Tarantino is an Exploitation filmmaker!
To clarify, Exploitation Cinema as a genre is not generally ‘exploitative’ cinema, insomuch as it does not directly misuse or abuse subjects, cast and crew members (All that much. Anymore), but there is always someone who is marginally exploited in the process and that is the audience. That, however, is by our own choosing.
Exploitation Cinema dates back to the ’20s and ’30s, when particularly lurid delights were promised to those who were daring enough to step inside and watch them. The subjects ranged from booze (Ten Nights In A Barroom) and drugs (Reefer Madness, The Cocaine Fiends) to the white slave trade (Slaves In Bondage).
It was a small step up from the world of the carnival barker, a subject which Dracula director Tod Browning stepped in to when he made Freaks in 1932, a film which effectively ended his career.
For the next few decades, Exploitation Cinema exploded. With help from characters such as William Castle, Jack Hill, Roger Corman and Russ Meyer, nothing was off limits. Sex, violence, drugs, more sex and bad taste aplenty. That was what roped them in and kept them coming back, no matter how rickety some of the films were. Many of the features were lambasted by both the moral voices and prominent film critics of the time, but each movie contained something unique, daring and special.
If one were to merge the Exploitation Cinema of say, 1920-1980 with the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the early works of Samuel Fuller and Stanley Kubrick, then a concoction would be revealed which resembles the bones of a Tarantino production. For those who have experienced similar filmic educations as Tarantino had, working in a video store, taking random titles home to watch as well as building knowledge by interacting with customers, a pattern emerges. It starts to become clearer why Tarantino chooses the actors he does, the character names and the stories he tells.
Lawrence Tierney, Eddie Bunker, Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel didn’t end up in Reservoir Dogs by accident. David Carradine wasn’t dragged out of cinematic limbo to do Kill Bill for no reason either. Tarantino takes actors he knows are great and gives them career-defining roles. Characters which have quotable, punchy dialogue. He creates sequences which stick out and play in the memory like no other.
When The Hateful Eight opened over Christmas 2015, it was met with an amount of vehemence which is almost boringly predictable when it comes to a Tarantino movie. The most prominent gipes allude to the perceived misogyny of the film (accusations which have already been refuted by the producer Harvey Weinstein, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tarantino himself), and are reflective of the current favourite hot button topic in post millennial film criticism. It’s not a topic without merit and relevance. The danger comes when it is applied as a blanket criticism, void of all context and thesis. Tarantino is a soft target, one whose name will almost undoubtedly generate a certain degree of response.
Within the construct of The Hateful Eight, the character of Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the one prominent female performer and, for the most part, she is being held captive by John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter intent on transporting her to the town of Red Rock, whereupon she is to be tried and hung. Domergue is subjected to a number of brutal physical assaults throughout the running time. This seems to have triggered an onslaught of objections.
If it is forgotten that we are dealing with a Tarantino film, which are laden with tongue-in-cheek motives, and even the slightest amount of historical contextualisation is brought into play, then it would suggest that a group of bounty hunters in the late 1800s probably would not have possessed the eloquence, manners and grace to treat a female character (particularly a captive outlaw) with any less aggression than they would a male counterpart, nevermind enough to placate the delicate sensibilities of a Twenty First Century online movie critic.
Additionally, drawing from the narrative context, Daisy Domergue is a convicted murderer and therefore is to be treated with caution. She’s not exactly Laurel Sommersby. When HBO’s Deadwood ran over a decade ago, where were the cries of misogyny and outrage when Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen character pummelled his lover and confidante Trixie (Paula Malcomson) with a barrage of blows (even standing on her neck at one point) in the first episode?
They were absent because internet criticism (which operates on a horrendously predictable call and response template, the loudest voices being echoed by those who wish to be as loud someday) wasn’t yet in full swing. It still took a bit of effort to make your voice heard a decade ago. In the current cinematic landscape any time a female character is not treated by an invisible list of guidelines that the barrage of self-appointed critics jump down a filmmaker’s throat, historical setting or not.
Is this a defence of misogyny? Of course not, but then again, this is coming from a standpoint which firmly believes that Quentin Tarantino is not a misogynistic (or racist, homophobic, transphobic or arachnophobic) filmmaker.
Inequality is present in Hollywood and that needs addressed, but that is an industry problem, not that of the storyteller. To compromise a narrative to appease the voices of the masses goes against the very nature of why art exists in the first place, but that even suggests that this was a consideration when it came to the screenwriting process which, undoubtedly, it was not.
The violence against Daisy has been criticised for being almost slapstick in tone, therefore, created to elicit humor in the violent domination of a female character. Something about that moment brought to mind James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy. It’s a boorish, unpleasant moment, but one which is both powerful and memorable. Above all else, it’s contextually fitting.
There have been accusations that Tarantino can’t write female characters, which is nonsense for an abundance of reasons. Such accusations merely showcase an inexperience with his oeuvre.
The defense presents the following examples for the jury’s perusal.
- Mia Wallace
- Alabama Whitman
- The Bride
- Elle Driver
- O-Ren Ishii
- Kim Mathis
- Broomhilda von Shaft
- Daisy Domergue
- Mallory Knox
- Melanie Ralston
- and…..Jackie Brown
At the height of his fame, Tarantino cast a middle-aged actress of colour as the lead in his movie and he get’s criticism that he doesn’t know how to treat women on film? How soon we forget. This, thankfully is not an unshared opinion. In 1997, how many mainstream Hollywood movies had a black leading lady over the age of 40? Jackie Brown. That’s how many.
To hear even whispers of such a debate is infuriating. The accusations of racism have been present since the Pulp Fiction days and the origins of the Spike Lee war of words that still exists today. It is, however, a question of context. Even if celebrity muck-rakers Gawker are brought into the forum for a brief moment. Their recent infographic about Tarantino’s use of a certain term has fluctuated with his various features simply solidifies the fact that it has been more prevalent in the movies in which a subculture or demographic is being portrayed within the context of the feature. It’s part of a greater vernacular. That of Melvin Van Peebles and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song when it comes to the gangsters. A historical point being made when it comes to Django: Unchained or The Hateful Eight.
In The Hateful Eight, the characters mostly originate from racist backgrounds in which they actively slaughtered people of other beliefs and races. It is virtually impossible to portray them without using such terms, as violent or as hateful as that tone of speech may be.
Then there is ‘that’ scee. The one when Samuel L Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren confronts Bruce Dern’s General Sandy Smithers with a salty shaggy dog story of ambiguous legitimacy. A blue barroom joke in the guise of a revenge story. It works. It becomes one of the most memorable scenes within the film, and definitely one of the first to be made reference to in the aftermath of the credit sequence.
With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has also raised the profile of 70mm film, a feat he has achieved against numerous odds and is still receiving criticism for. He has brought Ennio Morricone on board to create a new score (which recently won a Golden Globe), and has, once again, chosen the finest ensemble of actors to tell an unconventional tale in a manner which only he can. It’s his most mature film to date and brings us to an exciting phase in his career.
Accused of being ‘self-indulgent‘, ‘tough to love‘ and a ‘miserable play‘ The Hateful Eight is not without its legions of detractors, but the rewards are there for the attentive cineaste. The ones who get where he’s coming from. Who get the subtle (and not so subtle) references and how he utilizes his own inimitable skill set to build upon his aforementioned filmic knowledge. His filmography is like no other, as incendiary as it may be. Quentin Tarantino is not a perfect filmmaker, but he’s marching to the beat of his own drum and if that beat were to be silenced by the petty nitpicking which has plagued him for his entire career, then that would be one hell of a loss for cinema.