Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Agony and the Ecstasy: THE HATEFUL EIGHT's 70MM Dreams



It all starts with the wind, the ever-present white noise humming behind all that takes place. Or maybe it starts with the ambient rattle of the stagecoach, which, paired with the steady vibrations of the vehicle itself, seem to promise a gradual descent into sleep for at least one of the wayward travelers housed within. Or maybe it really all starts with the pulsating orchestral thrum of Ennio Morricone’s main titles, all horror film menace and military march precision, the perfect doomsday sturm und drang for that lone stagecoach on its way to a rendezvous with bloodshed and slaughter. All of them forming the persistent, haunting aural landscape that allows for no escape from the brutality of the land, of the people, of the country.

That wind raged through the air on the day that my cohorts and I ventured forth across the barren winter landscape of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois on our pilgrimage to see The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Situated, as we were, in Columbus over the long Christmas week, we had the option of visiting a multiplex in suburban Cleveland to see Quentin Tarantino’s newest cinematic brainchild in its original format, our only viable in-state option at the time. But it made sense to venture forth across the frozen tundra for this filmic experience, to brave the elements and the passage of time in order to pay tribute to the communal art of the filmgoing experience, to see a 70mm presentation in a theater which we knew had a track record of flexing its large format screening chops.

Throughout the essays that have gradually, sometime meanderingly weaved their way toward this final literary destination, I’ve focused so much on the vitality that Tarantino’s films bring to a jaded, spectacle-deprived modern audience. How their profane, bombastic, panache can only be fully appreciated on the big screen, preferably with a crowded house of like-minded enthusiasts (or people who just enjoy a good night out at the movies.) The Hateful Eight is the ne plus ultra of this stylistic verve, filmed in a format that hasn’t been used since the ‘60s, ensuring that any theater wishing to screen it in said format would have to shell out the time and scratch to retrofit their 35mm projector for the cause. A dead format being used to revive a dying format. Let the exorcism begin.

Or maybe, as Jim Morrison once invoked, the ceremony is about to begin. In being tailor made for the theatrical setting, Tarantino’s films have served as a stern rebuke to the much-promised democratization of media that modern technology’s siren song has offered forth. The widescreen tv, the tablet, the phone: all information portals that have allowed us to permanently embed cinematic memories and experiences into the immediate fiber of our beings, yet also the vessels that have transported so many of those memories and experiences into the dreaded, debased realm of “content.” Lawrence of Arabia becomes just another distraction from work, or part of a multi-screen experience. Blue Velvet is an oddball story flashing across your palm in broad daylight, not a terrifying experience that you’re forced to give yourself over to in the dark, like Jeffrey Beaumont on Frank Booth’s nocturnal thrill ride. None of the ceremonial imperative that was once an integral part of the moviegoing experience remains.

But all the accoutrements associated with the 70mm Hateful Eight screenings, the programs, the overture and intermission, the limited seating (only one screen per venue), the pure thrill of being told that this was a rarity…these all work to summon once again what lies at the heart of the classic cinematic experience: the shared sense of partaking in something that is literally bigger than ourselves. Godard might have famously noted that cinema is truth 24 frames per second, but it’s also dreaming at that frame rate, a mass hallucination into which we willingly enter. If cinema is a church to some, and religious ecstasy has often been proven to be a temporary fantasy…well, connect the dots. Our voyage on that frigid winter’s day served as the perfect backdrop for The Hateful Eight because it transformed a mere film screening into a two day commitment to eventually sitting with 500 other movie maniacs, communing with the unexpected (I studiously avoided plot details beforehand), encased in a room together in defiance to the elements, much like the titular bandits and lawmen.

If we sought to tap into that dream state that cinema at its best invokes, then the 70mm format held the promise of providing the deepest representation of that state. Digital cinema can serve as a mighty evangelist for those living where film is no longer readily available, but it also remains a simulacrum, a series of 1’s and 0’s being thrown onto a screen playacting the part of the image. In a world where veracity is in question like no time before, 70mm (or even 35mm) is a tactile summoning of the purity of the image, light literally being forced through a physical strip of celluloid, film grain a constant, ever-changing, luminescent dance. I’ve heard stories of stories of Hateful Eight audience members swearing off film screenings afterward due to the inherent mild bob and weave that can crop up in the image. But that’s part and parcel of the aforementioned purity: the knowledge that what we are watching is a living element, re-animated from a dormant state by mechanical gears and electric illumination.

Having seen it twice in 70mm (a local venue eventually screened it in that format) and once in its slightly reduced DCP presentation, I can attest that while the digital version is engaging, the original film version is absorbing, enthralling. In digital, DP Robert Richardson’s lush use of color and his signature hot spotlight effects feel slightly pale, but on film they’re warm, vibrant, hypnotic. Morricone’s score can be cranked up as much as you want in digital, but it doesn’t approximate the full power and majesty it possesses when being read directly off an analog film source. Even the second time, with an audience that was maybe a tenth the size of my maiden voyage, the tactile nature of film being projected was a thrilling sensory experience.

All of this discussion of truth in presentation for a film that is premised on the fine art of lying and performance. For once again, we’re in Tarantinoland, in which the storyteller is king, and in which the tale being spun holds more power than any firearm or axe. What’s new here is how QT portrays this liar’s paradise, or, more accurately, where he chooses to portray it. This is the third straight period piece he’s directed, and it’s not hard to believe that it’s been a conscious choice predicated on allowing his legion of talkers to match wits without the modern equalizers of cell phones and the internet. But even though they’re obsessed with language, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained carry with them the allure of mobility, the movement from one physical space to another. Those two films might feel slightly alien to our contemporary sensibilities, but The Hateful Eight’s daring gambit is to craft an environment that might be even more alien: a single room in which people are essentially trapped and forced to deal with each other. Remove the classic locked room mystery nature of the plot and you have a societal microcosm which can feel completely befuddling to a modern audience trained to annihilate even the hint of boredom by retreating to their devices when things get slow. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a societal microcosm wherein the only escape is interior in nature. It can be a discomfiting viewing proposition: a few friends have felt like the film takes forever to get to its point. I would argue that that is the point, the experience of this motley crew of refugees navigating their way through the minefield of deception an often circuitous, frustrating, comedic, human endeavor.

And just as Scherazade prolonged her life with a tale well told, lying proves to be a survival mechanism for these characters. What might be less obvious is the larger world in which Tarantino situates them. Much of The Hateful Eight feels like a spiritual cousin to Django Unchained, which served as a hopeful alternate historical stab at the destruction of slavery. This film surveys a post-Civil War society in which unity and brotherhood compose the grand communal mythos, but in which the hard reality is composed of back-stabbing and naked self-interest. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) might not have physical enslavement to worry about, but he’s a slave nonetheless to society’s rampant racism and the legacy of supposed cowardice that earned him exile from the military. Fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is about as close to traditional moral authority as the film gets, but he’s so hardened by the nature of his work as to be more hollowed out mercenary than heroic figure. Daisy Domergue (a show-stealing Jennifer Jason Leigh) seems for quite a bit to be the victim of a deeply ingrained misogyny before revealing herself to be the most devious character in the whole film. Among the lead eight characters, only Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) ultimately proves to be exactly who he presents himself as. The fact that he’s a dumbass good ol’ boy still in thrall to the philosophy of the renegade Confederate army that his father led tells you a lot about the moral landscape of the film. To be a liar is to be suave, intelligent, urbane, cunning. The chessboard at the center of the Haberdashery (a lie in and of itself) is the most apt metaphor: to paraphrase that old axiom about gender relations, all of these characters are playing chess while Chris is stuck in a checkers world.

But it’s his checkers mentality that ultimately serves as what comes closest to passing for redemption in this story. Goggins really commits to the relative unlikeability of the role, playing Mannix in such broad fashion as to seem almost cartoonish at times. It proves to be a canny choice, throwing the audience’s admiration toward the more restrained, scheming charisma of the other characters, only for their self-interest to backfire as they’re systematically murdered in a daisy chain of violence. Ultimately, it’s Mannix’s basic morality that ends the cycle of bloodshed. The chess player would take Daisy’s offer of easy bounty money for her escape and Marquis’s murder, but Chris decides to live up to his new role as Red Rock sheriff at least once by doing the right thing.

Maybe, even above the omnipresent wind, and Morricone score, and rampant lying, it all comes back to that infamous Lincoln letter that Marquis Warren uses to disarm so many white folk. In a desolate moral landscape defined by the hyper-libertarian code, the ghost of Lincoln still hangs over the proceedings as the one possible unifying force, so much so that when Warren reveals the letter’s false nature, John Ruth is (for probably the only time in the film) genuinely hurt (just as he was genuinely touched to read it.) In one sense, that letter is representative of the big lie that society has bought into, the one that says we can actually live together and transcend matters of race and class. In another, it’s a symbol of the myths that we need to believe to continue on. Take the final shot of the film, in which a dying Chris reads it aloud for the first time. Even though he knows of its falsity, those inspiring, forged words serve as a temporary balm for his pain, mirrored in the visual of his passing away in tandem with the black man that he was raised to hate. After finishing it, he tosses it to the side, and the audience is left to wonder how much power he takes from it and how much he’s dismissing it as a temporary salve.

It’s such a powerful tableau that it can be easy to ignore the other figure in the shot: the now-hanged Daisy, dangling from the rafters on the left side of the frame. Her presence recalls the film’s extended opening credits shot, in which a wooden statue of a crucified Christ is also prominently featured on the left side of the frame. From the beginning, the audience is being told of the agony and suffering that are to come, while also being given a visual hint of the secret martyr at the center of the story, the slavery-battling president shot down before his time. It can be tempting to read that final scene as confirmation that, yeah, maybe we can all just get along. But nobody gets out of this tale alive, and the enduring bracketing images of the narrative are of two of the most agonizing forms of death. Hope might be society’s necessary illusion, but it’s a much more nihilistic philosophy that dominates this tale. Which, perhaps, makes it even more of a contemporary story than it would appear to be, a fitting parable for an era in which, at times, we seem to have made negligible progress toward the unity that Lincoln strove for. Just like that wind that persistently howls outside the Haberdashery, there’s ultimately no escape from the inhumanity that has dominated mankind’s existence from the beginning.  

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