Archive for The Thing

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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The Madness of Crowds

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Re-watched QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) — not to be confused with family R&B act Quatermass and the Pips — because Fiona was on a Nigel Kneale kick. It stands up very well. I was shocked last time I watched the first Hammer QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT to discover that the studio’s warping of the title character from Kneale’s BBC serial, to make him an arrogant bully, in fact a model for the studio’s vision of Victor Frankenstein, really worked quite well. Of course, Kneale wasn’t an anti-science, pro-church, pro-military conservative, so he was horrified by this, but as a statement of the studio’s philosophy it is coherent and compelling.

Roy Ward Baker’s film, however, restores the sympathetic Quatermass of the original series, embodied here by the feisty Scot Andrew Keir, a Hammer stalwart, who plays him like an angry terrier in tweed. James (“Madness! Madness!”) Donald, another Scot, plays heroic archaeologist Dr Roney. Nothing like Indiana Jones — he’s a heroic intellectual, the one character who seems to have out-evolved our deplorable Martian inheritance (read a plot synopsis elsewhere if I don’t seem to be making sense).

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We were debating whether the Jumping Leaping Man was played by the same actor in both TV and movie version. It turns out he wasn’t, but the performance is quite similar. Remarkable, since Duncan Lamont (ALSO raised in Scotland) would not have been able to refer back to the TV serial, since it went out live and no recording was known to exist. Happily, it’s since been found. (Nigel Kneale complained that the BBC had junked his ground-breaking series while keeping all the Oxford-Cambridge boat races — “They’re all the same!”) Both actors deliver the line “Jumping! Leaping!” with demented brio, but only Richard Shaw in the original supplements this with a creepy, hilarious and bizarre lolloping gait, which Fiona will impersonate at parties for interested parties.

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Very taken with the closing credits, which simply show an exhausted Keir and Barbara Shelley in the burning rubble of Hob’s Lane. Kneale was inspired by racist riots in his depiction of a breakdown of civilisation in which part of society tries to “purge” another. The credits rise somberly as the shot goes on, and on — actually it’s on a loop, with dissolves linking each repeated section, but that doesn’t seem to matter, might even be better. It’s a solution to the possible abruptness of the ending — Kneale doesn’t need to have Quatermass make a speech summing up what we’ve learned, as the unfolding story has already made its points. But simply solving the immediate problem and fading up a THE END title would seem too sudden. This approach suggests lingering unease, trauma and real consequences.

It also reminded Fiona of the ending of John Carpenter’s THE THING, where the face-off has even grimmer implications (or maybe not — the two survivors in the snow are fearful of one another — Keir and Shelley’s characters are alarmed by what they have found within themselves). Carpenter is a huge Kneale fan — an attempted collaboration on HALLOWEEN III rather fell apart, and PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a sort-of tribute, but Carpenter’s emphasis on pure emotion was always slightly at odds with Kneale’s intellectual, even didactic aspect. Two guys who should never approach each other’s material.

Although THEY LIVE is distinctive in Carpenter’s oeuvre, isn’t it? Ideas-led. And the central notion, that the aliens are already among us, quite established and in fact running our society, can be traced back to QUATERMASS II.

Befuddled

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2014 by dcairns

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Hey look it’s Pierre Blanchar! (See comments for correction.) With Louis Jouvet in Salonican drag. What gives?

I have a Pabst-related gig, so I’m watching Pabst films. No hardship there.

But when I come to MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR, a 1937 French spy thriller (Pabst was working in France before the war, which adds to the mystery of why did he go back to Germany when war started? He’s like Rudolph Hess in reverse. Or something) I hit a subtitles snag. The subs have been created by a fan. This is one of the great phenomena of modern cinephilia — fan subs have opened up vast uncharted areas for study and enjoyment by the monolingual — but of course sometimes the results are imperfect. I can remember Ozu’s sublime I WAS BORN… BUT sliding out of focus, mentally, as I gradually realized the subtitles had been auto-translated and didn’t make a lick of sense. It’s surprising how long it can take to notice. You patiently wait for a film’s narrative to resolve, but it never quite does because all the words are wrong.

The problem with the Pabst is different. The subs are simply unfinished, with whole scenes untranslated. Since it’s a twisty spy flick with moral gray areas and dubious characters adopting shady masks, it could prove challenging to my Earthling brain anyway, but the abrupt subtitle dropouts make it even more abstract, like watching Tinker Tailor as a child. (The problem Truffaut diagnosed, that whenever a character in a film refers to someone not present by name, we become confused, because unlike novel-readers we can’t flip back a few pages and remind ourselves who the hell Emma Flume or Argentine Filibuster or Rudolph Sasquatch *is*, largely disappeared for me when I read his statement of the problem, and I started paying attention to the dialogue. The bad one is still Carpenter’s THE THING, where somebody self-immolates offscreen and I can never work out who is meant to be smouldering in the ashes. I scan the beards, trying to work out which one is no longer present, which is no kind of fun.)

I was trying to think, what is this sensation reminding me of, as the film slipped in and out of comprehension like those little animated plasticine worms in ERASERHEAD, weaving above and beneath the riddled surface of my capability. I think it’s a childhood feeling, when you’re listening to adults and they suddenly shift the subject to politics or taxation or something you don’t understand and they might as well be making brass instrument noises like the adults in Charlie Brown.