The release of a Quentin Tarantino film always follows the same routine. Hype, great reviews and then following release, the backlash. The Hateful Eight appears to be no exception, with soap opera drama of leaked scripts and cancelled productions. Only with Tarantino should the production be part of the plot!
The criticism is always along the same lines: too long, too violent, too indulgent, rips off everyone else. But is the casual criticism founded? The comments come from both those who like and dislike his films; “I hated it because…” vs “I loved it, but…”.
What you see is what you get with Tarantino. Complaining his films are too long or that he’s self-indulgent is like saying you enjoy the winter and then saying it’s too cold. All his films take their time and are laden with influences.
Reservoir Dogs is a reasonable length, as is Kill Bill or Death Proof. But consider that Reservoir Dogs is possibly part of the Pulp Fiction universe, hence the Vega character link and Kill Bill was merely part of a four-hour opus, as was Death Proof, it starts to become clear that Tarantino likes to wallow.
I enjoy his indulgent nature. I know if I’m going to see a Tarantino film chances are I’ll be there a while, but then I’ve always enjoyed narrative more than anything else; to see the director as the hidden voice, the story teller. Accept Tarantino’s method and those three hours for The Hateful Eight fly by without much of anything happening, particularly if you try not to assume anything about what is going on and just let it unfold.
Some directors plot films like they’re telling you a knock-knock joke, straight to the point. Others, more like a limerick with a dash of poetry. A romantic analogy, but Tarantino is like a guy at a campfire telling ghost stories, or an old man in a pub who knows everything that happened in the town for the last fifty years and likes to playfully tease those that bother to listen.
He is also like Spielberg or Hitchcock, or even Orson Welles, though he takes a lot longer than any of them to tell a yarn. He shares their thirsty nostalgic love for cinema and makes the films he would want to watch himself. To be one of the audience. And like a lot of this generation’s filmmakers he draws on what he’s seen before, but that’s not to be dismissed as talentless ripping off, especially not when done with the skill and brio he brings to it. Martin Scorcese made a documentary some years ago (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies, which is brilliant by the way) where he spoke of the director as a smuggler, demonstrating that motifs and sequences have been reused repeatedly since cinema began.
Quentin Tarantino is one of cinema’s most brilliant modern storytellers because while he boasts his influences a little more than he should, the films are still original. In Reservoir Dogs there are at least three plot lines nested together in a terrific piece of audacious writing. Pulp Fiction is just as fresh now, the perfect example of how his brand of procrastination can work. Only Death Proof tries my patience as it does with many people, but what he attempted should be congratulated; a modern twist on Psycho, proving that what Hitchcock achieved was extraordinary: Kill the central character halfway through, yet keep hold of the audience. It was the second bit Tarantino couldn’t quite grasp.
Since Inglourious Basterds, he has shifted into a more character based and confident style. A style that exaggerates Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: that the drama is not in the bomb exploding, but in waiting for it to explode. A Tarantino movie is now typically people nattering while the tension builds and focuses to a point of cathartic, extreme violence. While some yearn for his leaner Dogs days, maybe this is the film-maker he always wanted to be.
So why is Tarantino so indulgent? Why can’t his films quite escape his shadow? Or should they? It’s worth considering him in relation to Sergio Leone and Once Upon A Time in The West in particular. He isn’t shy about any of his influences, but that one he positively shouts about, right down to Ennio Morricone creating original music for him. I can’t blame him as I think OUATITW might be the pinnacle of cinema as an artform pre-1970. I’m not dismissing the subsequent 50-ish years of film, but our modern view of cinema was formed in the 70s with the birth of the blockbuster and the rise of independents. It’s hard for us young(ish) film-nerds to put film history into context, avoiding nostalgia and revision. For the purposes of the example, we need to look at where Tarantino came from, which is Leone’s era.
Leone’s sprawling Western is the perfect marriage of Hollywood escapism and European restraint. From its earliest days Hollywood churned out movies in the mould of Romantic Realism (as Mark Cousins would call it); we recognise the worlds and situations the films present, but realise they aren’t necessarily real or of our time. The Italians, artistically speaking, responded to this sentimentality with neo-realism in the 1940s. Bicycle Thieves, Il Posto, etc., were fictional, but set in real places and acted by regular people often playing themselves. Camera style and editing were almost documentary-like. Neo-Realism then developed further with Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. It contains a couple of mistakes, but Pasolini left them in because… well, they happened. This led into Fellini’s 8½, a fascinating journey through the brain of a director. We see his dreams, his fantasies, his reality, all the while he is trying to make an actual movie, partly the one we’re watching. A bridge between the artist and the audience had been created.
Genius it may be, but 8½ is not an easy watch. That’s the job of the Western to at least start with an intention to entertain, and so we reach Sergio Leone and his spaghetti. If we take it for granted that he has been brought up in a neo-realist world, but loving Hollywood, what kind of film is OUATITW?
It’s long, indulgent and operatic, but importantly the indulgence comes from not trying to hide that it is a film, the basic ‘rules’ of which Leone ignores. He tells his story with exuberance as if he himself was relating it. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly we have the famous Ecstasy of Gold sequence, a perfect example of taking a simple moment and making it huge. Same with the opening gunfight in OUATITW. I wonder if people came out of the cinema saying, “fantastic! But a bit long. That Leone bloke and his ego, etc”.
A typical movie today might be more fun if just occasionally it would acknowledge that the audience is in on the joke. Consider the Bond franchise vs their inspiration, North By Northwest, a film fundamentally better because Hitchcock embraces the absurdity. Deadpool represents an opportunity to play with narrative again and break that trend, an opportunity that will more than likely be squandered.
Unlike Clint Eastwood who learned from and ultimately rejected Leone’s style, Tarantino embraces it. He does so, I would argue, naturally, not as a mimic, indulging where Romantic Realism couldn’t. It’s his stage, his sandpit and his play-pen. He interrupts The Hateful Eight with narration, so the narrative is literally embodied by the director, happy to remind us he’s part of the fun. Just as you would remember details about the camp-fire and the old man trying to scare you with shadows, so you remember his story.
One has to be careful defending Tarantino’s excesses because we end up only considering him in isolation. The development of realism is just one thread in cinema’s rich tapestry and can be mirrored across the world, for instance, Japanese cinema. Tarantino certainly isn’t the only one who can employ that history. In 2015 Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Best Picture Academy Award for Birdman, a love letter to 8½ that arguably manages to be more entertaining than Fellini’s masterpiece. He has a chance of taking the same award this year for The Revenant, tackling Tarantino’s current favoured genre and stealing his thunder. He does all this quietly, without hype.
Tarantino is frustrating because he can be selfish and petulant. Jackie Brown was superb, but its relative misunderstood failure at the box office led Tarantino to say he’ll never adapt someone else’s work again, so he can’t take a direct hit to his ego. And while he can pull together as good a soundtrack as anyone, on the flip-side, this is only because he can’t work with a composer. Ennio Morricone did segments of original music for The Hateful Eight, but only segments. Then there’s the usual noise around sequels and prequels and uncut versions (will we ever get Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair?) or the rubbish about retiring. Perhaps he simply needs to shut up and let his work speak for itself.
Put his ego aside (if you can, it’s got some weight to it) and separate his films from his personality and there’s nothing else quite like anything in his oeuvre; all are brazenly violent, entertaining and artistically credible in equal measure. You might baulk at the running times (Kubrick covered the evolution of mankind in less time than an average Tarantino flick), but peek under the surface and question if it really could be shorter. You’ll find a rarely matched standard of screenplay and mise en scene from a master film-maker who simply loves movies as much as the rest of us.