Archive for Quentin Tarantino

Stone Groove

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2016 by dcairns

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“Have you seen Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States? It is BRILLIANT!” So said Richard Lester, evincing intense enthusiasm. Stone’s series could almost have been made for Lester, a news junkie with a fondness for uncovering the hidden story around the back of what we think we know.

Stone was in Edinburgh, taking part in a couple of onstage discussions for Edinburgh University with my colleague Jonny Murray, and I attended the first. I must say, he was very generous with his time.

A mass of contradictions: Stone could at times recite complex statistics (whether accurately, I don’t know) and at other times was unable to recall the names of important collaborators (but he’s had a lot of those in his long career). There was a lunch break partway through and Stone was visibly sharper thereafter. One friend made a knowing expression when I mentioned this. A student remarked that he may have been jet lagged and suffering from the pressure change because he kept squeezing his nose. I said there might be another reason for that,

Stone was charming and affable — still, it was notable that usually when asked about collaborators, he gleefully trashed them. He remarked that Anthony Hopkins had the great quality of seeming to think onscreen, the thoughts flickering dimly but perceptinly behind his eyes. “Having worked with him, I’m not so sure what he actually does think.” This was followed by a story about Hopkins’ nerves on NIXON which didn’t make Hopkins sound remotely stupid but made him sound like an anxious actor who had taken on a very familiar character and was struggling to do the voice. Obviously it added considerably to the strain for Stone when Hopkins showed signs of wanting to flee the set…

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A lengthy clip from NIXON was shown in which one could appreciate the precision of much of Hopkins’ impersonation, and the way the screenplay captures the late, disgraced president’s weird, garbled syntax. Over the three hour running time, I’m sure one would come to disregard the lack of physical resemblance and the wandering accent. It’s a mesmerising perf (note to self: watch NIXON). But nobody’s going to top Philip Baker Hall in SECRET HONOR, are they?

There was a fair bit about PLATOON but I always preferred SALVADOR, and it was good to hear plenty about that, too. The scene selected showed an improbable discussion of Robert Capa taking place while a mass corpse dump site is photographed — I recognized Stone’s tendency to overreach and to get very on-the-nose with his dialogue. If you want to make John Savage’s reporter seem a bit like Capa, why not have a discussion about Capa right in the script? Stone was frank and jocular about the way he inserted his lead character — a real person — into every major event in the period, even if he wasn’t there. Lots of good talk about the tension between being a political filmmaker telling true stories, and being a dramatist compelled to make GOOD stories. Stone seemed to jump that fence quite a bit.

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I remember a South American student being offended by SALVADOR because Stone couldn’t even be bothered getting the name of the country right. I’ve read an interview in which Stone said he purposely left off the “El” of El Salvador to make the title more forcibly suggest the protagonist’s salvation. But my student had a point — it’s not very respectful, like leaving out the “New” in New York. In discussion in Edinburgh, Stone actually twice referred to the country as “Salvador,” as if the film and the place had merged in his mind.

Stone defended JFK’s factual basis. My own impression is that the film’s weak domestic scenes and tendency to cliché is a dramatic flaw more serious than any historical distortions. But surely the claim that JFK was assassinated because he planned to de-escalate the Viet Nam War is a dubious one?

Too much stuff about WALL STREET.

Barely a mention of THE DOORS and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which I see as triumphs for Robert Richardson but problematic pictures for Stone. In a way his uncritical love of Jim Morrison is a problem for the first film, and his love of the serial killers and hatred of everything else is a problem for the second.

 

Two gibes at Quentin Tarantino — Richardson stopped working with stone because he thought U-TURN and NBK were two violent, making his present collaboration with Tarantino ironic (can this be true?). Morricone’s Oscar-winning score for THE HATEFUL EIGHT was “his worst ever” (certainly NOT true, though everyone’s entitled to their opinion).

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Nothing on Stone’s recent features except the WALL STREET sequel, and mention of W. — Stone reckons the financial crash killed the film as nobody wanted to hear that guy’s name (or middle initial). My thoughts on that one are here. I felt the problem was not so much timing as making the wrong film. Bush’s story, told in close-up, can only work as a comedy. He inverts the usual dictum about comedy being long-shot. Here. the long-shot is 9:11 and white phosphorous and Abu Ghraib. The close-up is Bush reading his goat book. As with STRANGELOVE, there is unavoidably ludicrous stuff in his personal story and the concept of an idiot becoming president is simultaneously horrific and silly. Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” incarnate.

Stone, rightly, was very enthusiastic about The Untold History of the United States, seeing it as a kind of crowning achievement. He didn’t seem interested in TV drama (he tried it with Wild Palms), and his claims of being a dramatist rather than a political filmmaker disappeared when he discussed this project. The thing has flaws — I find the music rather obvious, and the editing sometimes becomes illustrative in a pointless, literal way — the most fleeting reference to Tolstoy will be accompanied by a quick shot of  copy of War and Peace — and then Stone repeats his dodgy faked-Super 8 device from JFK, this time with audio — genuine quotes from historical figures, read by actors, treated with phony audio distortion and crackle to make them sound period. This is dangerous — makes you less inclined to trust the filmmaker. And Stone, who has a great voice for VO, sonorous and incantatory, reads the script like he’s only just been handed it, pausing mid-clause to sight-read the next few words.

But the stories told are all either unfamiliar, so you’re shocked you haven’t heard them, or come at the facts from a different angle so you’re shocked at how they’ve been misrepresented. The “moral dilemma” of Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb is the strongest one, I think, built up to over the first three episodes. The whole idea that it was a choice between invading Japan or forcing their surrender with the bomb is a lie, accepted and folded into history books and then repeated in good faith by those who read and taught the books. I identified with Stone’s opening VO about having been misled in school, because I was presented with the bomb narrative in just this dissembling way.

See this series — we can almost forgive Stone his many sins…

Being Obstructive

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 8, 2016 by dcairns

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Apart from his TV show The Kingdom, which delighted me, the only Lars Von Trier joint I have any time for is THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS. It’s a great teaching tool — Von Trier and his collaborator, Jorgen Leth, show how an artist can triumph over all sorts of arbitrary, seemingly impossible handicaps. It’s a very hopeful film, in that sense, which cannot really be said of DANCER IN THE DARK or NYMPHOMANIAC.

Von Trier, knowing Leth quite well, can pick obstacles he knows will truly vex his old friend, and I thought it might be amusing to invent obstructions for other filmmakers, based on their particular ways of working.

For Quentin Tarantino, you might pick almost any of Trier’s Dogme 95 rules, especially —

  1. Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.
  2. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden.
  3. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  4. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

Tarantino is practically the only filmmaker in the world who might be forced to raise his game by these rules. Since he already obeys rule 9 by not listing himself as director, a useful fifth rule for him might be

5. Samuel L. Jackson may not appear.

Peter Greenaway should be disbarred from symmetry. In fact, he should be forced to work with asymmetrical actors — Ian Dury’s appearance in THE COOK THE THIEF was a god step in this direction. And he should be prevented from hiring actors who speak in arch, mannered tones, or flat, boring tones. No Michael Nyman. Instead, the Yakkety Sax chase music from The Benny Hill Show should be played every ten minutes, no matter what is happening. Oh, and his tripod should have one leg shorter than the others.

Michael Bay shouldn’t be allowed special effects. Or music. Or sound. Or a camera. And he has to direct it while gagged, blindfolded and wearing a straitjacket, locked in a cupboard in a coal cellar in a country at least five hundred miles away from where the shoot is taking place.

Of course, Lars himself needs to fall victim to his own foul scheme. No suffering women. No miserable ending. Shoot it on film. Shoot it in Danish, for God’s sake, your English dialogue is terrible. In fact, get someone who can write to write it.

Actually, none of Lars’ obstructions are really obstructions. He doesn’t need obstructions, he needs help.

Who would you obstruct, and how?

A Hatful of Hateful

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2016 by dcairns

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To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to see THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm, complete with overture and intermission.

Last 70mm opportunity was THE MASTER, which it was hoped would be projected at Filmhouse — they were promised a print from London. The London cinema put their best projectionist on the job. But for the press show, they handed it to someone with less experience, since it was only critics, only the people whose verdict might help bring the public in… and he wrecked the print. So no Edinburgh 70mm of that one.

I’m not really a film snob, though watching TRUMBO recently it was obvious to me that for certain kinds of period feel it’s always going to be superior. And the look of Tarantino’s film (apart from, surprisingly, one flickering shot at the start — not sure if this was a projection problem or a filming issue) benefits from the rich, fine grain of Super 65mm Cinerama. But as to the projection, were it not for one tiny scratch and the “cigarette burns” signalling reel changes, I wouldn’t have known it was film and not a DCP. Still, those little imperfections have a nostalgic value.

I have simultaneously been impressed and amused by the last couple of Tarantino films, while also finding them wildly offensive. A lot of negative reviews on this one made me suspect I might really hate it — more violence, more dubious use of racial epithets, more over-extended talk scenes. In fact, I didn’t find it quite as obnoxious as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or DJANGO UNCHAINED. It wasn’t about the Holocaust or slavery, is the simple reason why. It does purport to deal with race in America, however, and like its predecessors it comes up against the limitations of genre cinema in addressing complex, serious real-world issues. It doesn’t manage to highlight these problems in the way that IB arguably does, which might be that film’s redeeming trait (if we leave aside the funny bits and tense bits and clever bits), but its failure to bend the rules of the Tarantino universe to incorporate a coherent state of the nation address did not, for me, result in a film more unpleasant than DJANGO UNCHAINED.

Those who were incensed or bored by the film’s excesses do have my sympathy, but I got to that point two films ago, so I’m less upset about this one.

In the spirit of kindly critique — since I went with very shaky expectations, I don’t feel outrage is appropriate — I want to offer some thoughts on how the film might have succeeded better at some of its apparent goals.
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(ONE)

It feels like Tarantino has been trapped by his cool title. He’s compelled to populate his wide frame with horribly obnoxious characters. Yet while every single one of the protagonists of RESERVOIR DOGS was a career criminal, several of them were at least somewhat likable some of the time, and there were certain gradations of nastiness. Fiona, who first saw the movie on VHS, was snarling “Shoot him!” within five minutes of Mr. Blond’s appearance.

If this seems like I’m calling for the film to use more conventional, hence more boring characterisation, maybe I am, but would RESERVOIR DOGS be improved if Harvey Keitel were shown laughing at a woman being beaten, or if Steve Buscemi were a virulent racist? Wouldn’t the tension of HATEFUL 8 be increased if Kurt Russell were less brutish, Samuel Jackson less psychopathic? Wouldn’t everything get better if the characters weren’t all so SIMILAR? It’s my view that if you’re going to spend most of three hours shut in a room with a small crowd of characters, the more varied they are then the more entertaining the experience will be. Making them all variations on the cold-blooded killer model seems wasteful.

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(TWO)

Yes, the N word. And the repeated woman-punching. The explanations Tarantino has offered for his infatuation with that particular term do not satisfy. But he may believe some of them. I felt it was a bit ridiculous to protest the word’s inclusion in DJANGO UNCHAINED, given the social context — it was more worthwhile to protest the film’s falsification of that context (the fantasy of “Mandingo fighting,” for instance). But there’s one use of the word right at the end of DU, where the word is used as punchline to a Lone Ranger reference, which is pertinent here, because Tarantino is now using the word as punchline to jokes in which Samuel L. Jackson is the butt. (And I worry about how history will regard Jackson for his participation in these two films.)

As with the “humour” around Jennifer Jason Leigh’s frequent pummelings, it’s probable that Tarantino intends us to find this comedy uncomfortable. But it isn’t the comedy of discomfort you might find in, I don’t know, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The jokes are played straight, and it’s up to the audience to find them difficult IF the audience is sensitive enough. Straightforward racists and misogynists can just laugh.

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(THREE)

The films Tarantino admires include many taboo-busting, challenging movies from the seventies. He also likes lots of exploitation movies which gleefully present shocking and distasteful scenes. He wants to replicate the WTF factor of these movies, but either he knows he can’t get away with some of their excesses, or doesn’t wish to go there. His attempts to combine serious, shocking cinema with frivolous, shocking cinema seem foredoomed to me, because the two justifications he uses, “What? I’m making a serious point, here,” and “What? It’s only a bit of fun!” do not in fact reinforce each other, they cancel each other out. To use a western analogy, it’s a bit like the man accused of stealing another man’s horse, who says “I don’t steal horses, and anyway, you have a lousy horse.”

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(FOUR)

This is the second film (RESERVOIR DOGS being the first) Tarantino has made which essentially remakes John Carpenter’s paranoia/cabin-fever chiller THE THING. Here he even has the wintry locale and the same leading man and some of the same music. One character even accuses another of acting paranoid, a term I sort of doubt was common parlance at the time the story is set. The question of how historically accurate the film is meant to be, or feel, is frankly unanswerable, with “Completely” and “Not at all” both seeming possibly valid interpretations of the filmmakers intent.

The sense that QT is running out of ideas is exacerbated by the familiar play with time, which here mainly amounts to a long-ish flashback designed to explain and recontextualize the set-up we encounter at Minnie’s Haberdashery. In fact, the flashback supplies almost no important information we couldn’t guess (the mystery I was most concerned with — how the door got busted — is unaddressed, unless I missed something). The main point of showing this sequence seems to be to reveal that the people killed before the story begins were all lovely and innocent. Minnie, who we have been told hates Mexicans, seems a wholly delightful person, in a mixed-race marriage herself, and she betrays no prejudice when dealing with a Mexican character in the flashback. The suspicion grows that the stuff about her barring Mexicans was essentially only included because Tarantino couldn’t resist a racist joke.

Tarantino has invoked Agatha Christie, an odd reference since the only clear whodunnit does not arise until after the intermission, and the question is answered within what felt to me like twenty minutes. What I’m saying is, the film is not structurally as interesting as other QT movies have been (though I recall DJANGO UNCHAINED essentially plodding through its narrative in chronological fashion — have I forgotten something?)

I felt when I saw TRUE ROMANCE, a non-linear QT script straightened out and played in sequence by director Tony Scott, that QT’s stuff didn’t stand up to the clear overview provided by a chronological ordering. Had the film used the script’s “answers first, questions later” approach, I might have been less bothered by Christopher Walken vanishing from the story after killing the hero’s father, and I might have been less bothered by the hero generally causing death and destruction to other people wherever he goes, out of sheer idiocy. I like to think I would still have been quite bothered, but maybe a bit less. Getting dropped into the middle of a situation deprives you of an overview to be judgemental with — “you can’t see an environment when you’re in it” — and you just have to watch the characters attempt to deal with the situation. You can relate as soon as you understand the basic urgent situation. So the missing heist scene in RESERVOIR DOGS really helps — the problem of Tim Roth’s critical injury is allowed to outweigh his participation in an armed robbery, and his betrayal of his gang.

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(FIVE)

Roth (doing a mix of Terry-Thomas and what seems like David Puttnam) and Michael Madsen are back here. In each QT film, rather appealingly, he uses his clout to restore to prominence a star who has fallen by the wayside. Here, with a kind of full-circle inevitability, he rescues Madsen, whom he had initially boosted with his first feature. The eight are a patchwork of actors QT has mostly used before, with Jennifer Jason Leigh as standout new-to-the-fold star. I’m glad to have her back, but not sure I want her back like this. Though she does some nice physical stuff, scratching her head after removing her hat (because hats make your head hot and itchy), extruding a tongue to catch snowflakes. Odd, this emphasis on the tactile in a character virtually indifferent to extreme pain. Daisy Domergue’s ability to shrug off atrocious bodily harm is probably the best claim the movie has to be “like a cartoon,” as composer Ennio Morricone has said. But KING-SIZE CANARY is shorter. I could watch it twenty-three times during THE HATEFUL 8.

Walton Goggins is doing Burton Gilliam’s performance from BLAZING SADDLES. He doesn’t try to make Jackson sing “De Camptown Ladies” but he might as well.

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(SIX)

Here I get into spoilers, maybe — I won’t tell you what happens but you might guess some of it from my discussion of what doesn’t happen.

Is this a state-of-the-nation address, as Tarantino has claimed? I think if the ending had more of the horror of THE BIG SILENCE, we could buy that. I mean, it’s unpleasant, nihilistic and blackly ironic, but nothing about it is likely to disturb QT’s core audience. Had the sheriff made a deal with the bandits, killed Samuel L. Jackson, and ridden off happily into the sunrise, we would have been upset, despite the Jackson character’s frequent unpleasantness. We would have felt something wrong. But Tarantino doesn’t really want to distress the viewer in that way, so his films are only ever going to flatter his constituency — their knowing laughter is always going to be the correct response.

Like I say, I got more enjoyment out of this nasty, brutish and long film than I expected. Kurt Russell and Jackson and Roth and Leigh kept me entertained, and there’s something to be said for lingering over group dynamics in a single space for a looong time.

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