Hateful Dead: The Emergent Neoclassicism of Quentin Tarantino

KurtRussellSamuelLJacksonHatefulEight

It seemed fitting to see a 70mm roadshow screening of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful Eight, in the director’s hometown of Knoxville. So much of this movie is built upon a delicate homage to a vanished past. Not just in terms of the genre of the Western that once ruled Hollywood, but of the medium of image and sound that captured many of those epic tales. Filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 – a 70mm format with 2.76:1 aspect ratio last used in the 1966 Charlton Heston film Khartoum – using the same lenses that captured the famous chariot race from Ben-Hur. Musical score by Ennio Morricone, his first for a Western since My Name is Nobody in 1973. For the roadshow tour, the audience is treated to an overture, an intermission, and a glossy souvenir program featuring stills from the movie and sparse biographical details about the characters.

In the program, Tarantino delivers a telling quote about his intention behind a special roadshow release concurrent with the standard mainstream release of the film on Christmas Day:

The thing about the roadshows is that it made movies special. It wasn’t just a movie playing at your local theater…. If you’re going to shoot your movie and release it in 70mm, it’s really the way to go: twenty-four frames a second flickering through a projector, creating the illusion of movement.

The likelihood that Tarantino experienced one of these films while living in Knoxville is vanishingly small (his family moved to Torrance, CA before his fifth birthday in 1968). But its fun to think that a director who mines to nostalgic value of film history as intensely as anyone would have first experienced the grandeur of the classic silver screen during his short time here in East Tennessee.

And The Hateful Eight is, if nothing else, an exercise in stylized nostalgia. The Ultra Panavision 70 print captures the wind-swept desolation of Colorado’s Wilson Mesa, playing the role of the post-Civil War Wyoming Territory. But very little of the action takes place in this rural majesty that the format is most apropos to capture. Rather, most of the dialogue-driven run time feels as if this film were an adaptation of a stage play set in a claustrophobic cabin. Here manifests the crude humor, dime-store philosophy, and gory violence that we’ve come to expect from Tarantino films. If I was inclined to write a more formal review of the film, it would be something as follows: if you dig Tarantino’s shtick, you’ll like The Hateful Eight; if you don’t dig it, The Hateful Eight will do nothing to change your mind. Come for Samuel L. Jackson, stay for Walton Goggins, and leave wondering about the convoluted plot or Kurt Russell’s vocal cadences giving him a dark veneer of John Wayne.

David Sims at The Atlantic argues that the movie plays out as a “dark chamber piece” lacking deeper motivation or purpose. I’m inclined to agree to an extent, but also wonder if this analysis misses some of the film’s broader significance. If there’s any film genre for which the senseless, nihilistic violence of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is at home, it’s the Western. More than any other setting, Westerns have served as a device by which the dark edges of American masculinity could roam free away from the intimate communitarian ethos of Main Street. Tarantino, for all of his self-indulgence, adds nothing conceptually new to this status. John Ford beat him to the isolated personal despair and questionable frontier morality. Sam Peckinpah beat him to the excessive, visceral violence. Even an element like sexual violence, which most contemporary audiences would assume to be something gritty and new, has long been an element of Western storytelling.

The familiarity of the Western with excess makes the most surprising twist of The Hateful Eight what it represents in the broader resonance of Tarantino’s career. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction cemented him as a young filmmaker of repute, one who mined the seedy underbelly outside of the Hollywood system and brought the aesthetics of the exploitation film to mainstream audiences. Over the next decade, he became the most widely known filmmaker from a generation coming of age during the 1990s (David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan) that have pushed the aesthetic boundaries of Hollywood cinema. Part of this popularity has been his in the consistency of style and theme in his films, developing into the Tarantino ethos. When you see a Tarantino film, you’ll get exactly what you expect. Strangely enough, this gives him more in common with a director like Ron Howard than with any of his aforementioned contemporaries.

With The Hateful Eight and all of its formulaic allusions to the grandeur of Hollywood’s past, Tarantino has emerged with a status that would have seemed unthinkable even five years ago: as the preeminent neoclassicist filmmaker in American cinema. In using this term, I’m not referring to the broader strain of neoclassicism related to the revitalization of aesthetic properties from ancient Greece and Rome during the Enlightenment. Rather, I’m looking at the way the term has been used in conjunction with Western art music in the twentieth century, when composers like Sergei Prokofiev and Paul Hindemith took compositional inspiration from Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. They combined the forms and compositional pedagogy of the eighteenth century with the more florid harmonic language of modernism, giving a new coat of paint to an old and familiar building.

The use of musical neoclassicism to talk about Tarantino’s recent work invites a most interesting and unexpected comparison from the world of Western art music: Igor Stravinsky. In 1914, the Russian composer famously drove a Parisian audience to riot with the transgressive harmonic language of his ballet The Rite of Spring. Less than a decade later, his Octet for Strings signaled his interest in the structured contrapuntal textures of the Baroque. One can see a similar career arc for Tarantino as his excesses have become more ingrained into the heart of mainstream cinema. If Pulp Fiction was Tarantino’s Rite Of Spring, then The Hateful Eight is most definitely his Rake’s Progress.

Of course, Stravinsky had a third phase to his career in which he shed his neoclassical skin in favor of a more esoteric aesthetic voice. Should Tarantino make a similar transformation late in his career as a filmmaker, I’m very interested to see what his In Memoriam Dylan Thomas might be. With respect to the theme of Knoxville origins, I hope it involves James Agee (played by Goggins) and Hank Williams (played by Channing Tatum) teaming up to fight communist vampires at the Bijou Theatre.

 

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