Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Seven Like A Gatling Gun

The music plays in your head over and over. Only you can hear it. I was talking to someone on the phone the other night and before I even realized it the conversation took a turn towards my becoming semi-confessional about a certain subject. I wasn’t sure if I should be talking about such things yet at the same time I didn’t really care. But later on, even right now, I find myself insecure about all this not because I said what I said but because I didn’t say enough. Even in the middle of what I was confessing I felt myself semi-censoring the truth in an attempt to leave who I was talking to out of this personal narrative and how she fit in with it. If I had, if I’d totally opened myself up, what would she have said? So now I’m wondering about fear and where all of that ever gets us. I can ask myself what do I really want and I can even answer that but will I be telling myself the truth? And do I even really know the answer?
Sometimes when a person disappears from your life it’s like you’re missing a limb. Out of nowhere that sense of connection you once had is gone, that feeling which made the emptiness in your life a little more nourished. You feel incomplete. Robert Altman’s CALIFORNIA SPLIT understands that feeling of incompleteness, of the desperation of what the hell are we looking for. The film feels like the secret code to unlock so much of the Altman mythos yet it’s somehow become a deep cut in the director’s extensive filmography, an A-side turned into a B-side, for no apparent reason other than lack of availability presumably due to music rights issues which is a damn shame. The films surrounding it during the same period—McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE LONG GOODBYE, NASHVILLE—have become venerated by now, deservedly so. Released by Columbia Pictures in 1974, CALIFORNIA SPLIT also deserves to be on that list but right now it’s as if the film wasn’t allowed to ever escape the clutches of the early 70s. There was never a VHS and the one DVD release actually removed several minutes to help get around the music rights and it’s out of print now anyway. When the film played on TCM a few years back during a night hosted by guest programmer Bill Paxton (RIP) who discussed it with host Robert Osborne (RIP) what was shown seems to have been the complete film except it was cropped to 1.85 instead of the full Panavision 2.35 frame, tampering with that badly needed widescreen Altman vibe. Which isn’t good enough. CALIFORNIA SPLIT remains elusive, out of our reach, just like that high of pure connection we always find ourselves hoping for. So aside from anything that may exist within the bootleg grapevine the best we can do for the moment is wait for the occasional screening at a place like Cinefamily, which did play it recently and I was there, of course I was there, even though I’d seen it before. I just needed it right now. And in the middle of everything going on lately I walked out of that screening totally exhilarated. That feeling doesn’t last, of course, but there’s a reason why we chase that high whether cinematic or otherwise. It’s important even if we know it’s fleeting. It’s never going to be anything but fleeting, of course, especially when you feel incomplete.
Meeting one night after a scuffle at a poker table, Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) begin a fast friendship bonding over all the things they can bet on whether cards or the horses. Bill, working at a magazine, is the would-be responsible one who actually worries about how deep in the hole he’s getting with his bookie while Charlie, the real pro at this stuff, is the one who seems to float through the world looking for more and more stuff to put his money down on. Bill gets sucked into Charlie’s world, including hanging out with two female friends Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles) who work as prostitutes but gets more determined to win big, hocking many of his belongings and the two men set out for Reno looking to finally score at the card tables.
The friendship between the two guys just happens. That’s probably the way it’s supposed to be. Bill and Charlie don’t even really meet, they just find themselves at the same bar after the poker game and they start at it like it’s the most natural thing in the world, drinking, looking for things to bet on, talking over each other, talking over other people in that Altman patter. They bet on who can name the seven dwarfs, “Here comes seven like a Gatling gun,” Bill drunkenly spits out ready to list them, then unable to get past just a few (“That’s four.” “That’s three.”). Searching for those names, groping for the next bet, the film is really George Segal and Elliott Gould sitting at that bar, the coolest guys anywhere, and it doesn’t need to be much more than that. They also get beaten up together by the guy who lost the poker game as soon as they leave that bar but it almost doesn’t matter. It chains them together on this hot streak of a friendship and you feel Bill desperately trying for this partnership, you feel Charlie gliding along from one bet to the next just as he presumably always does. Since it’s an Altman film, there may very well be a good deal of improv mixed in with the screenplay by Joseph Walsh but it knows to focus on the desperation the characters always feel whether at the card tables or not, unable to keep a straight face about it for very long. On the surface CALIFORNIA SPLIT is about gambling and what that means but it’s also about friendship and everything that means, made clear in the quickie how-to movie on poker Charlie Waters stops to watch at the start. “Every player plays for himself,” is pointed out in the narration, almost a warning of what this world is really like and how a partnership, no matter how much the two of you can insist on it, is really just an illusion, you can only ever play just for yourself. The rush of CALIFORNIA SPLIT doesn’t just catch the fever of making those bets but that feeling of wanting to be in synch with another person so badly that it happens but of course that can never last, no matter how cool the two of you can be sitting at a bar for a few minutes, gliding along thinking all is well. I don’t know if the 70s were always this desperate and aimless or if it’s just what looks like the Robert Altman 70s, everything drenched in smoke and booze and Froot Loops and beer while floating through the world discovering that everyone is apparently named Barbara. CALIFORNIA SPLIT moves like a rocket even if it’s a patchily assembled Robert Altman rocket where it feels like story chunks were pulled out at random but everything comes together, everything about it clicks.
“Avoid conversations about matters not related to the game,” goes another line in that how-to doc about playing poker. Of course, that’s impossible. It’s impossible to avoid the way things are, even though they try, Bill sneaking off from his real life and Charlie avoiding anything that might be an actual responsibility. It’s not even clear what Charlie does for a living, if he even does anything at all beyond just betting, observing, going to the track, knowing how to read the faces of everyone around him. His behavior is all he’s got and he’s not going to change any more than he’s going to even consider changing seats on that bus to the track when he’s asked—everyone else there is either willing to do it or not based on their own reasons, none of which makes sense to anyone except for them. Altman doesn’t ask why, he doesn’t try to explain it, he knows that people don’t really change and I’m not sure there’s another film where Altman loved the faces he got to work with, whether the main characters or just people sitting around the card tables, as much as he clearly does here. Unlike the dreamy look of THE LONG GOODBYE courtesy Vilmos Zsigmond zooming in and out of the frame there’s a harshness to the look of SPLIT courtesy DP Paul Lohmann (who also shot NASHVILLE for Altman; later credits include HIGH ANXIETY, TIME AFTER TIME and MOMMIE DEAREST), a scorched out mid-70s L.A. setting, the stoner vibe of the earlier film turning into a harsher cigarette smoke hanging in the air and everyone seems hungover through the entire film, just waiting for the next drink, the next nicotine high, the next roll of the dice. I’d almost want to live in this film if it wasn’t for all that cigarette smoke but I know Altman wouldn’t want to make it easy for me.
Forever in search of more cash to bet with, George Segal’s Bill doesn’t know what he wants, he’s just caught up in trying to win as he looks for a good reason to flee from his job and not go broke. It’s like he suddenly depends on the hot streak that’s kicked off with this new friend of his and when Charlie disappears at one point he has no idea how to get the feeling back. Even when he finds himself alone with the more than willing Gwen Welles the first shot of reality into the situation causes him to flee. She’s almost like a little girl in her footie pajamas and doesn’t seem to have any idea what a real date is anyway but she’s also not swept up in that fear—‘those are the chances you have to take’ she says about going off to Hawaii with a man she’s never met, but even when he’s right there with her Bill has no idea what he really wants. Ann Prentiss’ Barbara is clearly the most stable person in the film in comparison, never worried about anywhere she’s going and just sailing through life, looking for nothing but her TV Guide. The two women at least have each other but when it comes to the two guys Bill can’t quite figure out Charlie who’s almost too much of a force of nature, forever determined but easily distracted as if he’ll put all the money he has into the first slot machine that comes along. If we were going to talk plot structure, which we’re not, I’d argue that since the film is Bill’s story we should never see Gould’s Charlie in a scene without Segal but I’d never expect Robert Altman to have much interest in those rules.
Besides, it makes sense that we see Charlie on his own, particularly during the second encounter at the racetrack with the poker player who beat them up which is one of the most purely satisfying scenes in the film between Gould’s admiration at the first punch thrown and the bathroom fight that follows with all the believable clumsiness and pure determination that makes it clear this is one guy who doesn’t give up. “Stick some toilet paper in your nose, it stops the bleeding,” Charlie tells the guy lying on the ground right before he leaves, as if that’s nothing less than his very philosophy of life. There’s an anger to Charlie that Bill doesn’t quite see, enough anger to stare down a guy holding a gun on him, enough anger that it’s not even clear how much he cares about anything beyond the split second of the win even more than the money. He’s got that rhythm ticking away in his head that Bill can’t quite hear and maybe that’s for the best. They may talk about partnership, they may need the other one as they sit at that bar but ultimately each of them pushes the other away, knowing they have to play for themselves, just like Charlie talks that woman heading out to the track on the bus played by Barbara London (another Barbara; everyone’s named Barbara) out of betting on his horse. After disappearing for a few days Charlie shows up out of nowhere telling Bill about a dream where he won big in Tijuana only to go there and lose it all. “You weren’t in the dream, William,” when Bill asks why he couldn’t have gone too. We all live in our own heads. We’re never really with the other person.
CALIFORNIA SPLIT is like that zone between your own personal hot streak and the feeling of walking out into the harsh morning light by yourself, having lost it all. Segal and Gould together in the frame here is like they got the two of them at the exact right moment and no one else is allowed to be near the groove they’re in—the appearance of Altman regular Bert Remsen as a cross-dressing client of the two girls is maybe even more uncomfortable than any of the humiliations in MASH maybe because that sort of punchline to the scene never comes and one imagines Robert Altman loving the response of an audience who’s not sure if they’re supposed to laugh, thrown by the presence of another person who is just as scared and desperate to figure things out as the leads of the film. Altman, who we kind of know wasn’t exactly the sweetest person himself, doesn’t care about making these guys endearing and it makes them that much more human. In a 70s film like this one you can feel the cynicism and desperation in the air and yet it feels so fucking life-affirming in every grubby desperate face. Maybe it’s the exhilaration of that last half-hour in Reno in the way it builds, from Gould describing the other people around the poker table to the steely determination of Segal to the last big streak with that Phyllis Shotwell jazzy music (one of the reasons for the rights issues) burning all the way through it. There’s no grand crescendo to that climax, just the ongoing rush of it all as if to drive home that there’s never one big moment of that special feeling. It doesn’t come, even when you get what you think you want, just that splash of cold water on your face and where you think you’ve ended up. CALIFORNIA SPLIT glides all the way through. It isn’t just one of the best Robert Altman films, looking at it now with the world it portrays almost seeming like science fiction it feels like a fucking miracle and the shabbiness it contains is absolutely beautiful.
George Segal and Elliott Gould are on fire in this film, doing some of the best work they’ve ever done. Segal’s everyman covers the range of his desperation whether baffled at his surroundings or laser focused during a game to at times barely responding at all because his character is so drained. There are times where it looks like Segal is doing less than he’s ever done in any other film, just sinking away into himself with nothing left but the truth of his soul. Gould seems ready to explode as if everything he’s been muttering to himself as Philip Marlowe can’t be held in any longer and from his one armed piccolo player routine to the way he and he alone calls Bill “William” as if to make his friend feel that much more special he knows how to play people. “There ain’t nobody there!” he shouts at a car in Reno, for a brief second synching up with the song on the soundtrack, as if he’s a ghost floating through the world of the film and the film we’re watching. Ann Prentiss (Paula’s sister and she looks just like the sister of Paula Prentiss) brings a genuine edge to her quirkiness making it all the more unpredictable and Gwen Welles who also memorably appeared in NASHVILLE combines a sense of being truly beguiling with something else deep down that we can’t quite peg as if there’s something off but we’ll never know the truth. The way she waves at George Segal as he drives off is the stuff entire essays are written about.
Jeff Goldblum, looking about 12 years old, appears as Segal’s boss while screenwriter Joseph Walsh who was one of Craig T. Nelson’s buddies in POLTERGEIST watching football (he’s the one who shouts “I bet my life on this game!”) also plays Segal’s bookie. There’s not a false note in his performance as if he’s been on the receiving end of these diatribes himself and it gets an extra edge out of Segal’s performance for this scene with a growing awareness of how deep into this he really is. Jack Riley gets one of the film’s biggest laughs in his brief appearance as a bartender and the barmaid in the Reno section is played by Barbara Ruick, yet another Barbara and the wife of John Williams who had scored IMAGES and THE LONG GOODBYE for Altman. Her pleasure at Gould’s descriptions of the other poker players around the table looks totally genuine and it’s all the more shocking to learn she died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on location in Reno. The simple dedication to her as the end credits roll—“For Barbara”—maybe causes some confusion due to the running gag in the film of multiple Barbaras as if it’s just one more joke and that in itself almost seems like an extra tribute to her from Altman. He doesn’t mind if the real meaning isn’t clear. You have to find the real meaning for yourself.
Whether or not the rules of poker apply to real life that doesn’t mean you can always follow them. The way you really are is going to get in the way no matter what. As the film opens the two guys silently walk past each other, not having met just yet. At the end one of them walks off away from the other. And they never really did meet. The three Robert Altman-Elliott Gould films could also be said to make up an informal trilogy about friendship and its ultimate impossibility. In MASH it ends when they’re thrust apart by greater forces, in THE LONG GOODBYE the pairing is destroyed by selfishness and in CALIFORNIA SPLIT it ends because it has to. There’s no way to keep going, much as we want that feeling of these guys singing “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown” to go on forever. You may never be complete, but sometimes all you can do is spin the wheel and who the fuck knows. So please, Criterion or somebody, figure out those music rights and give us the whole thing on Blu. Until that happens, we may need someone to screen this film at least twice a year so we can get our fix. Because we need to be able to remember those people, the ones who have shouted “Fuck you!” at us the loudest. In some ways, being able to remember them is the only way to keep trying.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What Civilized Society Calls Justice

Things change. They don’t change at all. Over a year since its release it feels a little like we never actually talked about Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Sure, we’ve had discussions regarding various things surrounding the film going back to the initial leak of an early draft of the script which temporarily canceled the project—I received it from a few people but under those circumstances I could never bring myself to read the thing. Attention was also paid when it started up again and Tarantino himself directed a live reading of the script featuring many, but not all, of the actors who would eventually appear in the film. And then by the time it was finally coming out the talk focused on the 70mm release and all the issues surrounding that including how it didn’t get booked into the all-important Cinerama Dome because THE FORCE AWAKENS was set to play there. That’s the film more people were paying attention to over Christmas 2015 anyway but now maybe we can go back to THE HATEFUL EIGHT since I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
Whether intentional or not, the film plays like after DJANGO UNCHAINED Tarantino decided that while he’d loved making a western the epic sprawl of the whole thing may have become a little too unwieldy, Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or not, box office success or not. This time he tightens things down setting much of it in a single location, forcing a specific structure to the story and mostly implying the grand epic going on outside in the world of the film, to focus simply on what’s happening to the characters right at the moment. Filming it in 70mm affects it, more than I think was really discussed beyond the surface, and it definitely affects the way the story is told although as much as I loved someone, anyone, trying to accomplish that sort of thing at this late date and as stunning as it looked when I saw it at the DGA Theatre maybe selling the release so much on that presentation wasn’t the greatest idea. Maybe, just maybe, like the film geek-centric approach of GRINDHOUSE what was being sold to the masses was simply something people didn’t care much about. But now maybe we can move on from that. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was about certain things when Tarantino wrote the various drafts of the script and when it was finally made. Maybe it’s about other things now, in 70mm or otherwise.
Of course, you know the plot or you wouldn’t be reading this, but just in case—as a blizzard is about to hit in late 1800s Wyoming, bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L.Jackson) trying to get a few bodies back for his reward, hitches a stagecoach ride with fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is taking the still alive-outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang. They’re soon joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) also on his way to the town to assume the job of sheriff, or at least that’s what he claims. But with the blizzard coming down fast they bunk in at Minnie’s Haberdashery to stay at least until morning. They have no choice, even though Minnie and her regulars strangely aren’t there—only a Mexican who calls himself Bob (Demián Bichir) running the place in their absence along with Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who identifies himself as the hangman heading to Red Rock, cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) formerly of the Confederacy who more than any of them just wants to be left alone. With little to do but try to keep warm, things seem suspicious but Warren and Ruth have no choice to stick around waiting for the blizzard to die down and for whatever’s going to happen to happen.
I got in two 70mm viewings at the time and even after the second was still unsure how I felt. The friend with me for the second viewing, the one at the DGA, speculated that the film played like it needed one more draft. And I’m still not sure that he was wrong. But THE HATEFUL EIGHT is not easy. It’s not meant to be, even if it was designed to be shown in the most old school style with all sorts of ballyhoo imaginable. It also may be the most difficult Tarantino film to get comfortable in since for much of the lengthy running time it’s hard to imagine ever actually wanting to be in this place with these people—it could have been done with a 78 minute running time but then it wouldn’t be able to trap us there. It’s a hangout movie where we don’t want to hang out with any of the characters. I’m definitely settled into its rhythms now that I’ve seen it a few extra times but there’s also the blunt truth that the film feels more appropriate at this moment. Things were different back during Xmas 2015—maybe not better but different enough that if it had come out one year later as things all around us have turned into the carnage in Minnie’s Haberdashery it might have all made more sense.
Unless I’m mistaken, the exact time period of THE HATEFUL EIGHT is never specified, only that it’s set some years after the Civil War. Long enough for things to move on but not long enough for the worst memories to be forgotten, the tensions of the era still falling to the ground as fast as that blizzard. The past is barely past and there are a few lines, beyond just the expected use of the n-word, that make my ears perk up a little more now. Chris Mannix with the anger of his Confederate past refers to suspicion of newspapers printed in “Washington D.C.” dragging out those two letters out making it clear what he thinks of the so-called real news that he’s been reading as things get too close for comfort in that stagecoach before trying to diffuse that tension by protesting, “You got me talking about politics!” as if that’s going to actually ingratiate him to anyone. The anger that Major Marquis Warren still has is there, simmering, with his Lee Van Cleef pipe close at hand constantly figuring out how to use that anger so no one can get the better of him ever again. And once we flee the snow into the uneasy atmosphere of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the ugliness only grows and the anger doesn’t have to be spoken out loud but of course that’s exactly what happens. Since everyone is trapped there’s no time element, just the awareness that things are going to boil over at some point and, appropriate for a western, several characters mention how they’re willing to wait until it does. The silences hang there as well and some of them don’t even bother to waste much energy claiming they are who they say because what’s to be gained.
For a movie in which at least a few of the characters are understandably paranoid (a word spoken, possibly anachronistically) about the immediate situation a surprising number of them seem to know, or at least have heard of, each other but that still doesn’t relax anyone. The two bounty hunters begrudgingly agree to watch out for each other as Chris Mannix reacts to their stalemate with an “Ain’t love grand,” a phrase spoken in THEY LIVE, another film about trying to determine who you can trust and it’s not even the most pertinent John Carpenter film referenced here. Even the names are murky--Domergue is pronounced several different ways and I’m pretty sure none of them are how namesake Faith Domergue of THIS ISLAND EARTH was ever referred to. As straightforward as John Ruth’s name is he’s still oddly called Bob a few times which he angrily corrects and his nickname is “The Hangman” even though part of the point of that moniker is he’s just a guy who delivers outlaws to a hangman, never doing the job himself while the hangman they meet in Minnie’s Haberdashery…well, you get the idea. “That’ll be the day,” Ruth spits out just as John Wayne once did in a certain John Ford western and the bounty hunter is so assured of his personal code that he just assumes everyone else has agreed to it too, just as he clearly wants to believe in the mythology of Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter, a cherished piece of correspondence from the beloved President that he keeps by him at all times, because what other truth could there be?
Kurt Russell plays the part with a little bit of that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA twang back in his voice and the west Ruth lives in is basically the John Wayne mythology, one where you just know he wouldn’t shoot someone unarmed or in the back. At one point he even wipes a piece of food of Domergue’s face, a small piece of affection towards the woman he’s taking to her death which is definitely not going to be returned. Maybe it says something about Tarantino’s supposed dislike for John Ford, that this stuff about code and honor is all nonsense and even though he comes off as a guy who’s cracked a book or two in his time Ruth never seems as clued into the reality of things around them as Major Warren seems to be as if he knows from his own history that he can never afford to relax for as long as it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, meanwhile, is the son of the man who was the leader of the Confederate renegade army ‘Mannix’s Maurauders’ a name which recalls Sam Fuller’s MERRILL’S MARAUDERS—a World War II film, yes, but either way the Fuller America is a scrappier, much more incendiary mythology of America where the hatred can’t avoid bubbling to the surface sooner or later. For all the film’s focus on family, whether fathers, mothers or siblings, John Ruth never says anything about that as if he’s just been floating above history and never believes he has to get personally involved.
I don’t claim to be an expert on spaghetti westerns, even though I’ve seen a few that don’t have the name Sergio Leone on them, and I’m also not particularly versed in the sub-sub-genre of westerns set in the snow—there’s certainly McCABE & MRS. MILLER but that doesn’t seem to be much of a factor here. The Grindhouse aesthetic you’d maybe expect with crazy zooms, grainy Techniscope photography isn’t the approach taken here at all, with the use of 70mm becoming its own style. Putting aside all of the accoutrements of overtures and intermissions the grandeur does affect the film, it gives the whole thing a certain visual weight that makes every shot matter. And for all the surprise over Tarantino filming in 70mm but setting much of it in a single large room, there hasn’t been much talk of how that’s clearly affected the visual approach to that interior and while certain profile shots are very Tarantino-esque it always avoids standard coverage, there’s a decided lack of cutaways to characters listening to others talking unless it’s absolutely necessary. The stage play-like approach makes it extremely controlled in allowing for what we’re seeing or deliberately not seeing, as well as feeling that cold as we see their breath while they speak or getting us to wonder what that stew tastes like (seriously, I really want to know) as the actors play off each other-it’s not blithely cutting in closer to speed everything up. This keeps us correctly off balance and it’s for the best anyway since certain reactions at crucial points would reveal too much but of course it also means that we sometimes lose track of characters for way too long. Various silent glances register differently on multiple viewings when we can pay more attention to what they’re not doing and, I swear, it sure looks like Bruce Dern glances right at the camera around 37:05, an almost subliminal tell of what General Smithers is keeping from us. Close-ups are doled out carefully but they’re there which partly feels like a Leone approach but also works as its own thing—even if he has less to do than anyone I get the feeling Tarantino loves finding as many crevices as he can in Michael Madsen’s face and he clearly revels in the cracks of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s features covered in blood or otherwise. We want them to go outside and take in the glorious vistas but similar to how Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER was really looking into the faces Tarantino it’s all about those faces and the hatred behind them.
From the angle where we get our first look at the interior of Minnie’s Haberdashery there’s something deliberately unwelcoming about it allowing us to soak in the unease immediately, an oppressive feel that never really goes away. On first viewing the later flashback to a normal day in the life of the place (featuring Dana Gourrier as Minnie, who I wish there was more of, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’S Gene Jones as Sweet Dave and the now obligatory Zoë Bell cameo) comes as a genuine breather after the downright oppressive feel after so much time in that darkness which seems to be part of the point as well. Watching that section again now that difference is felt even more, flashing back to a more innocent time, almost as if they were shooting this section on a totally different set. It’s a fanciful multicultural portrayal of the old west and whether it has anything to do with reality or not it seems like a nice place to be. It’s a picture of a more innocent time which we can picture for ourselves, the 90s, the early 2010s, pre-June 2015, pre-August 2015, pre-Election Day 2016, hanging out with our friends, joking around talking about movies and everything seems ok, no awareness of what’s coming. Yes, there are reminders of things like racism around us—if Minnie really did have that ‘no Mexicans or dogs’ sign up once upon a time she’s not exactly a total innocent, making me think of the fabled ‘FAGOTS – STAY OUT!’ sign which apparently hung in the West Hollywood Barney’s Beanery until 1984. You can take down those signs but it doesn’t mean that everything is cleared up. Doesn’t mean that we can fall asleep any easier tonight since that hatred is just lying in wait.
A few of the actors still don’t get to do very much even with that lengthy running time—Tim Roth, for one, is given a few enjoyable monologues done Terry-Thomas style after his introduction but after that doesn’t make much impression at all, certain characters forced to stay silent for a little too long in that second half standing up against a wall with nothing to do. Maybe there was some stuff left out, maybe there’s some things in there we don’t need—technically there are two versions of the film with the one available on DVD & Blu the standard release cut (167 minutes) while the roadshow 70mm version, overture, intermission and Cinerama logo aside, is only slightly longer so the differences between the two versions seem to be relatively minimal almost as if Tarantino made one of them slightly longer just because he could and have a little extra fun with the whole thing. In theory that roadshow cut could give us another version to buy at some point but I’m guessing it will have the same release date of a KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR Blu that we’ve all stopped holding our breath for. But what’s a Tarantino mythology without footage being withheld from us, after all.
It isn’t always as good as its best moments and a few points feel even weaker, RESERVOIR DOGS in the old west but not really. As punchy and dense as some of the dialogue is at times it also sounds a little too familiar to anyone who knows the Tarantino parlance, maybe a reminder that it needed the one extra polish my friend suggested. The confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Dern that leads up to the intermission (in the roadshow cut, anyway) is honestly my least favorite scene, as well played as it is by the two actors, feeling shoehorned in there no matter how much the film needs this sort of reminder of all the things that have led some of these people here; some Bruce Dern dialogue heard on the soundtrack CD that was cut from the film might have helped the buildup to it. But even with the weaker points we still get Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography both outdoors and indoors adding to the hellish cold and placed up against it is the pure scorching fire that is the original Oscar-winning score by Ennio Morricone who brings to the film a spectacular main title along with that ticking feel that burrows underneath the film, a clock ticking down continuously as if just waiting for the brutality to reveal itself. There are also several Morricone tracks from John Carpenter's THE THING and one from EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC in there—the brief use of HERETIC music is appreciated because that score is all-holy but it’s the tracks from THE THING which make the most sense here, almost becoming part of the text itself coming from another film set in the remote cold with Kurt Russell, another film where you can’t trust who you’re trapped with, making THE HATEFUL EIGHT in part a prolonged examination of that film from an alternate genre perspective or maybe just the western that John Carpenter never made. Like other Carpenter films it’s a story mostly set in one place trying to keep out a greater force only in this case it’s not just the blizzard (referred to as a ‘white hell’ which itself brings to mind THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU, referenced in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS—movie titles are part of the Tarantinoverse before movies are even invented) but the world itself with all the hatred and racism imaginable.
Carpenter’s THE THING of course featured an all-male cast so the presence of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue who is at least as nasty as everyone else could almost be a commentary on what that film was missing, as if a demonstration of proof that the hatred which takes over everyone makes any specific treatment of her as a woman of secondary concern so the hatred consuming humanity is what really takes precedence. When she gently sings “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” for a moment strumming that guitar, John Ruth drops his hostility towards her for a moment and look where it gets him. “We’re gonna die...we ain’t got no say in that,” is heard near the end just as “We’re not getting out of here alive…but neither is that thing” was uttered near the end of THE THING. Major Warren’s Lincoln Letter is the false symbol which asks the question that stands for much of the film, either saying that the final image is either an expression of hope between these two guys who have always been on opposite sides or a realization of that lie, saying that hoping for any better is just a waste of time. I’m not sure I want to say which side I’m leaning on right now, but the answer doesn’t make me happy. The evil of the past is what makes the present after all and maybe the best way to look at the future is to laugh at it, showing no fear. There’s no chance of getting out of this alive, anyway. But, as another film once reminded us, neither is that thing. Maybe that right there is a sign of hope.
No one person gets the star role but Samuel L. Jackson takes full command of the frame, energized by this part and with total confidence in each gesture right down to his silences, figuring things out before anyone else is, as Tarantino points his camera directly at him assured in the history of his anger and just as assured in his righteousness. Kurt Russell with that enormous mustache thingamajig seems to love settling back in his scenes and playing off the other actors and he brings to John Ruth a cocky determination that shows how he’s keeping a close eye on everything in front of him but never anything else, right through to his very last moment which maybe more than anything reveals so much about who he is. In some ways it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who really gets the showcase part you’d almost expect more of the actors here would have, taking being chained to Kurt Russell for most of the film and on repeat viewings we can see just how much she’s willing to sit back, crack a few jokes and wait for what she knows is going to come without fear, opening her mouth to get a taste of the falling snow while waiting to reveal her true feral nature. We never know what she’s done specifically to face the hangman’s noose but by the end we have no problem believing it. Veering from comic doofiness to deadly seriousness from moment to moment, Walton Goggins becomes the spirit of the film, even if it is a nasty, racist spirit unable to wipe away the war between the world and his father in his head, firmly believing that the renegade army was justified. Among the other guys, Bruce Dern has maybe less screen time than any of them but he still gives the most underappreciated performance in the film, the n-word is the nastiest coming from him just as the desperation when he thinks he might hear something about his son is palpable and the way he wraps his mouth around some of Tarantino’s words has more fury than it does from anyone else. And his scene with Channing Tatum making a crucial star cameo drives home much of the thesis. He doesn’t care about anyone else, certainly not anyone dying. Land of the free, after all.
As we wait for the day when THE HATEFUL EIGHT finally plays at the Cinerama Dome (I know one person who saw it there at the premiere and I’m still jealous) we can remember the majestic 70mm images at the film’s opening, a reminder of the cold, uncaring nature that continues amidst all this hatred. By the time we reach the end of the last chapter we don’t emerge back out into the snow as a brighter morning dawns, but instead stay on all their bloody faces where the darkness remains. I’m still dealing with a few things in there but right now the film makes perfect sense to me. These are characters who have done too many things, hurt too many people for it all to be wiped away and there can’t be peace, just as we can’t wipe away the ugliness of the modern world and a so-called president who proudly mocks the disabled. Looking all around you see reminders of how much they hate you, how much they hurt you and how much they want to kill you. It’s the unanswered question of what civilized society calls justice and if the possibilities of that civilized world can ever be attained. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” one character observes but of course it’s up for debate if that person really meant what he said and, in the end, the film seems to say that dispassionate justice isn’t possible anyway. One of the Morricone pieces from THE THING titled “Despair” is heard near the end at a very crucial point as a character tries to answer for himself the all-important question, Who Are You? How much of a person are you, really? At the very least, movies do have the power to change for us deep down as times goes on. But nobody ever said that people change too.