Yoinked from the comments at AUFS, because why not.
I saw The Hateful Eight as self-critique of Tarantino’s previous pair of movies, which were both alternative history by way of violent fantasies, the twinned Hitler-killings (and accompanying brutalization of Nazis) of Inglourious Basterds and the plantation carnage of Django Unchained.
The establishment of civilization requires that a man be hanged by the law instead of lynched by the mob. This is axiomatic to the Western (not to mention the Orestia). It’s the first scene of Deadwood, and it’s posed by “Oswaldo Mowbray” at Minnie’s.
Meeting after the Civil War on “neutral” ground, the characters are animated by fantasies and experiences that mirror the what-ifs of IB and DU. Marquis’s swath of fiery vengeance and $30,000 “head” makes him a close cousin of Django. And Tarantino doesn’t need to indulge in relativistic both-sides-do-it to show that Mannix sees his daddy’s raids as motivated by violent redemption for history’s losers as well.
The most critical violent fantasy, though, is the one that concludes the first half (coming before intermission in the Roadshow presentation). Marquis traps General Smithers in an inescapable, sexualized, racialized revenge fantasy. He stays on the right side of the law, or at least of custom, by getting the old man to raise his weapon first. But it’s a paper-thin justice.
This is mirrored in the “justice” of Marquis’s and Mannix’s final act — hanging Domergue under color of law rather than shooting her in the heat of revenge. For Domergue, there’s very little difference, and her hanging leaves the floor only slightly less wet with brains, but under the terms set out by John Ruth and explained by Mowbray, it makes all the difference. It’s achieved in the most bald of metaphors for postbellum peace: freedman and raider united to execute justice that, if not blind, is at least not motivated by any of the passions that drove the Civil War.
In the most simultaneously cynical and earnest gesture (up there with Liberty Valance‘s “Print the legend”), Tarantino lets his coalition expire while reading, admiring, and truly basking in Marquis’s fake Lincoln letter. It’s another kind of fantasy altogether: benevolent, paternal, intimate, and audaciously, inspiringly false.
Since Josh brought it up in comments and Pat gestured at it in his “my computer is in too weak a state to write a post but is dandy for purposes of writing a New-Yorker-length comment” post, let’s have a post specifically about C‘s use of codes in the first week’s reading. (I’m sure none of us are so gauche as to require them, but I’ll suggest SPOILER ALERTS for any discussion ranging into the rest of the book.)
I don’t have anything quite so developed as an argument, but I’ll throw out some of the elements I’m tracking. First, a list of codes and cants:
- Sign language, which Carrefax deprecates in favor of speech (“Are you sure they’re not signing?… You have to make them speak. All the time!” (7)
- Ciphers in the Times’s personal notices
- The hand-motions that Widsun and Sophie exchange during the pageant
- Sophie’s wall
The first of these provides a backdrop for the story, but it’s not particularly germane. The second belongs primarily to Carrefax and Serge. The last four are implicated in Sophie’s fate.
Each of these codes is susceptible to corruption, accident, mis- or malignant use; none appears as simply a neutral field for the free play of meaning. There’s the spycraft that Widsun appears to be recruiting/seducing Sophie into, and the explosion yielded by Sophie and Serge’s experiment. You could also add Serge’s vibrant dyslexia to the pile, a corruption of the written word as its learned: “He keeps switching letters round… He see letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents occupying a zone beneath the threshold of the comprehensible…” (38). (Mrs. K-sky reports experiencing a similar effect.) Does it seem that language and code as a field for power games and dreadful mistakes will be a running theme?
Some stray thoughts:
“—in the beginning, ladies and gentlemen, was the Word” (14). Carrefax goes onto pronounce that “speech is divine.” I’m not sure what role exactly Carrefax’s exalted logocentrism will play in the development of the above, but McCarty sure unfurls it boldly, and it seems as if he’s inviting us to get the reference and extrapolate from there. Maybe some of you professionals can better pick up what he’s putting down, here.
Josh, you mentioned Proust’s extended visual metaphors in McCarty’s approach to language — anything further to expand on that here? What about the rest of yinz? Pat, did I cover a tenth of what you were going to put in your Unwritten Blog Post?
I’ve been a slouch on the first book, but I promise to step it up for Tom McCarty’s C, coming to summer book club at The Weblog soon.
The swiftly dawning realization in the first few pages of The Flame Alphabet that the narrator is about to abandon his child is powerful to the point of verging on kitsch. I had two simultaneous reactions to it.
The first was a straightforward emotional reaction. Reading as a relatively new father, it struck me as unbearably, chokingly sad, triggering the same feeling I get from catastrophizing about my daughter.
The second was in a more familiar mode for me. Reading as a critical reader (or as a jerk, take your pick) it struck me as slightly de trop. Dead babies, man, to steal from Martin Amis. I have a similar feeling about the movie Gravity, although family tragedy makes more native sense in a family horror story than in a space adventure. But there’s still a level on which it works and works hard. (I stopped discounting my sympathetic reaction to Gravity after talking to a friend who had lost a child and admired the movie.)
At the same time, the book is also an extended riff on how annoying teenagers are (with a Jewish girl teen at the center). Take my daughter… please!
A few years ago, The Weblog hosted a summer book club to read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Pat has volunteered to host the proceedings once again, and a small group of us, including Big Josh* who was here last time decided to read Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet followed by Tom McCarthy’s C. Please join in! We aim to kick things off on June 1st or thereabouts.
*Big Josh and I are really about the same size, but that’s how we told each other apart when we were cob-loggers.
In keeping with past practice, here are my top 2012 movies I haven’t seen and want to:
- Les Misérables – please don’t ask how it’s possible that I haven’t seen it. Since Christmas, it’s been hard to invest an outing with the appropriate amount of hysteria.
- Take This Waltz
- This Is 40
- Your Sister’s Sister
- The Master. I reviewed it here, and even after reading Kent Jones’s magnum opus review in Film Comment, I still couldn’t get over the feeling I came away with — that the movie’s circle was too tightly closed around Freddie and Master. But I wish I’d seen the movie Jones did, and I’m very glad to have read his review.
Owing to our holiday schedule, this week’s Monday Movies appears on Saturday instead. Who knows, maybe we’ll get another one in on Monday.
Have you seen Django Unchained yet? What did you think?
Quentin Tarantino’s films are such excesses of signifying that I get headachey trying to write anything comprehensive about what’s becoming known as his slavery revenge epic (not entirely accurately, for reasons I’ll get to). So I’ll throw out a couple of thoughts I had and hope that by now some of you will have enjoyed it and will throw in.
If you haven’t, I’m going to spoil away below the fold. You may prefer to prime your Tarantino pumps with this seemingly unending, possibly ouroborean, Kotsko-Canavan-et-al Twitter battle royale on the subject of Tarantino and revenge. I wrote a scattered summary of my thoughts on Tarantino before IB came out, and wrote about the use of language in its first scene here (with the return of polyglot performer Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, it remains relevant). AUFS discussed IB here, in many terms that pertain to Django.
Holy Motors — Begin in a dream (at least, call it a dream) of pushing through a forest wall into the balcony of a movie theater; a child, or a dog, walks on the red-carpeted aisle below. The audience pays no attention. A girl watches through a window.
“Goodbye, Papa!” You are stout and grey, and you walk down the driveway of a compound where men stand on the rooftops. “Good morning, Monsieur Oscar,” says the driver of your limo, an elegant, tall blonde d’un certain age. So that is your name.
There are nine appointments today. In the limo, you dress for the first one, and emerge as a hunchbacked gypsy woman with a cane and a cup. You walk away from the limo and find yourself on a bridge, where you panhandle, muttering aloud — or maybe to yourself? No one stops. No one even sees.
Back in the car, you strip it all away. You are no longer the gypsy woman–what’s more, you are no longer stout or grey, but wiry and shaven bald. For each of your appointments, you will don prosthetics, clothes, years, emotions. You will commit acts of violence, some savage, some skilled, some simply by dint of parenting, some by way of motion capture. You will murder; you will die. You will repeat your lines.
It will emerge that you are performing, seemingly for cameras smaller than the eye can see. This idea of a total theater is complicated by some of its impossible effects: how is it that you can confront a man who resembles you entirely? Your patron appears in the limo, neither exiting nor entering. He suggests your heart isn’t in it.
Your heart… by some chance, your limo bangs into another performer’s. The two of you steal what appears to be a genuine moment — itself an aria sung from a balcony — before she gives a performance that appears to be her last.
Is this a world of total surveillance? Is it our own? Is the self a prison which only your costly exertions can obliterate? Is the home you start in and the different one you end in an impossible odyssey, a parody of permanence in a Heraclitean river of a life?
Merry Christmas, Weblog! Have some additional cheer.
Is the The Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell, a romantic comedy? You might start to think so — clearly the story exists to unite Bradley Cooper’s broken motormouth Pat with Jennifer Lawrence’s angry widow Tiffany. Is the movie a romantic tragedy, about two people whose best hopes are ultimately misplaced in each other, or whose families’ inadequacies and suspicions trash their chances at happiness? It almost seems possible, as both crash over and over on the shoals of mania and heartbreak, that they’ll founder on them forever.
We first meet Pat leaving a mental institution. His mother, unsure but determined, has sprung him with the court’s permission and against his doctors’ judgement. It’s not immediately clear what he’s done, but it’s fairly obvious he’s not over it, as he lashes out against everything he comes back to, including his sports-obsessed father, the employer where he’s no longer welcome, the restraining order that underlines that condition, and A Farewell to Arms, lifted from his estranged wife’s high school syllabus, hurled through an attic window in fury at its downbeat ending. Downbeat endings aren’t for Pat, who preaches a gospel of optimism, forcing himself and others to see silver linings in every setback.
Tiffany, the sister-in-law of his one remaining friend, is his perfect match, a teller of awkward truths with a complementary menu of psychotropic prescriptions. She meets Pat at the tail end of a tantrum of promiscuity, a reaction to the sudden death of her cop husband. When he declines her invitation — he’s holding out hope for a reunion with his wife, TRO be damned — their relationship begins.
The movie, set in the shabby working-middle-class burbs of Philadelphia, feels of a piece with Russell’s last film, The Fighter, set in a similar white ethnic milieu in Boston, and with an equal nervy energy. As Pat’s father, Robert de Niro substitutes for Melissa Leo — as an OCD sports bookie, he’s a softer presence on the screen, but he’s been kicked out of the Eagles’ stadium for fighting, a living and live backstory for Pat’s rage.
De Niro’s nest of symptoms isn’t alone. Pat’s friend bursts with suppressed rage. His parole officer doesn’t think twice about trying to take advantage of Tiffany’s reputation. His brother is a dumb, successful jerk. His psychotherapist pranks him with a trigger stimulus in the clinic lobby. No one in the movie qualifies as normal, which saves it from Benny and Joon territory.
Russell’s gotten less obviously weird since I Heart Huckabees (one of my all-time favorites), but he remains aware that the world hasn’t. The editing is thrillingly shaggy, allowing the scenes to run past pat cuts and into new episodes, giving Pat and Tiffany a chance to reflect on the conflicts and obstacles that have just played out. Russell doesn’t allow mental illness to make them prophets. He just listens closely to what they have to say.
If you must see The Hobbit, and pace event-movie evangelism it really is not a must-see, under no circumstances see it in high frame rate or 3D. The 3D adds nothing remotely interesting, and the frame rate makes it look like a telenovela. Or a little like this:
The Hobbit is more of a children’s tale than the LOTR trilogy (which I loved), and it has a certain kind of children’s-story narrative shape to it. Something happens! Then something else happens! Mostly jeopardy, followed by a quick save from Gandalf. Which wouldn’t be so damning if Peter Jackson hadn’t expanded the single volume into three installments without doing anything about it. There are a couple of moral-of-the-story points that provide emotional structure: Thorin doubts Bilbo’s bravery! But then comes to respect it! But the movie doesn’t make it very clear why Bilbo decides to go on the adventure in the first place — Gandalf teases him a bit, but we don’t see that there’s anything wrong with Bilbo’s life that an adventure would fix.
The exception, of course, is the Gollum sequence. Andy Serkis’s physicality is the best argument for motion-capture technology; it’s a lonely point in favor, but a sublime one. My memory of the book is that once Bilbo has the ring, Gollum doesn’t show up again until the trilogy, so I can’t see much reason to go back for the next two installments.
Barcelona — Mrs. K-sky and I blew off our families, got on a plane, and spent Thanksgiving and the following week drowning our jet lag in small plates of small fish in the Catalonian capital. She’d never seen anything by Whit Stillman, so we queued up his 1994 sophomore effort for the flight back.
In high school and college, I’d loved Metropolitan and Barcelona (Last Days of Disco less so; recently, Damsels in Distress was a pleasant but underwhelming return) and I was a little nervous about going back to them. Without question, the movie holds up.
Ted and Fred Boynton are fractious cousins living together in Barcelona at the end of the cold war. Ted (Taylor Nichols) runs a sales office for a corporation whose purposes are so generic they approach Platonic forms; between Dale Carnegie, Glenn Miller and the Bible, he theorizes himself a Boy Scout’s life of rectitude, spooling out a plan to abandon the distracting pursuit of trade-fair-girl pulchritude in favor of “plain or homely girls.” Fred (Stillman’s muse Chris Eigeman) is an advance man for and passionate defender of the U.S. Navy.
Despite their immaculately wordy debates, the two function as a recognizable comic pair, even classical: hapless Ted and thin-skinned bullying barnacle Fred. Paired off with local girls (Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen, fondly bewildered), they splash through a wave of anti-Americanism. As practically religious emissaries for American capitalism and militarism, they pout and protest as they draw the ire (and fire) of their hosts.
It’s said that Woody Allen showed just how far Brooklyn was from Manhattan, creating in Alvy Singer and his other fictional substitutes a figure who was always traveling towards the center while gripping tight his baggage from the periphery. Paradoxically, even though Stillman’s figures represent the WASP power structure, his success — the reason his bald conservatism is never sour or reactionary — comes from giving his “urban haute bourgeois” (as Metropolitan put it) characters some of this same marginal quality. They lash out at the modern world, but their bafflement and insecurity takes the place of that resentment holds among their more politically oriented relatives.
There’s no question that Barcelona’s heart is with Ted, Fred and America. The men of Barcelona are deluded, angry leftists. Stillman doesn’t stint on their arsenal — I can’t imagine another movie that would reference George Meaney and labor imperialism with the old epithet the “AFL-CIA” — but they misfire it (they think it’s an actual union; of course, Fred doesn’t know whether or not it is, and, sublimely, Ted points out that it should technically be the AF of L-CIA). The cousins’ ultimate imperial victory is total, even classical: having triumphantly spirited away their Catalonian beauties to a Midwestern lakeside, they show them the makings of a proper American hamburger.