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The Day Quentin Tarantino Stopped Winking to Us.
It's now the new year: 2016 has existed for a little less than three entire days at the time of this writing, and today I'd finally found myself walking into the cinema to see Quentin Tarantino's “8th Film”, The Hateful Eight, and seeing the poster over the marquee as I went to purchase my sole ticket for the matinee on January 3rd, exactly eight days after originally threatening to see it this holiday season, I noted that the director's self-imposed credit over the image and title of the poster appeared to be something of a movie-joke, 8th Film – Hateful Eight; coming from a director who used to gleefully throw in-jokes, movie nods, and playful winks to his audiences, inviting us to actively participate in his joy of cinema by watching his films. I couldn't put my finger on why his last three feature films had felt so contrasted to me over the rest of his pre-Inglourious Basterds repertoire... but this was just it – he'd stopped winking to us.
I am not a hipster Tarantino hater – I have loved many of his films. But I have also used the P-word, in the past, when describing his work. I have since changed my mind somewhat, in reflecting on how much instinctive depth and designed symbolism Tarantino has given us within his homages to countless other films, and yes, he has undoubtedly stolen some of his best scenes from those other films. But as I reflect down what is now a long line of films that he's created, like many (or all) artists, Tarantino's work is highly dependent on artistic work that has come before it, and before him, and this, I must admit now, transcends the ideas of outright plagiarism (to the extent that it might not be as black-and-white as I'd once vocally opined). In a way, Tarantino was more honest about what it was he'd been stealing for any given film of his (other than the time he lied about never having seen Ringo Lam's City on Fire when he'd made Reservoir Dogs), as he continually threw his influences up on the cinema screen in a most blatantly obvious manner, for us to receive them back as his personal homages to his cinema heroes and to entire sub-genres of film history, so that we may (if we so desired) track down and explore these influential works – works that were also inspired by their own times and places in history, and, by other people's works before them. By doing this, he was overtly inviting us to join in on his world of cinema.
However, sometime around the end of the 00s, this cinematic communication between artist and audience – these winks – stopped coming from Tarantino, and his films began to take on a whole new feel; things to be admired from a distance. To illustrate, I'll begin with a highly simplified progression of cinematic homage (and as an audience our access to it), as it relates to Tarantino's body of work, in order of creation:
Reservoir Dogs – homage
Pulp Fiction – homage
Jackie Brown – homage disguised as being based on a book – or, the other way around.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 – homage
Kill Bill Vol. 2 – homage
Death Proof (from Grindhouse) – post-modern take on the slasher-film sub-genre
Inglourious Basterds – remake
Django Unchained – remake
The Hateful Eight – a remake of his own work
As mentioned, it's no secret that Tarantino's work has continually relied on the works of other cinematic art and artists before him. For this, he is no different than any other artist. This is simply what art does – it influences the next round of artistic expression, and so on, just as Tarantino himself (and his own work) has influenced others that have come to the table after him. Interestingly, with The Hateful Eight, through his artistic journey of moving from blatant homages to outright credited remakes of films from Italian cinema, he has somehow come full-circle in that he has now seemingly remade his very own Freshman film from 1992 – Reservoir Dogs – only twice as long and far more snowy. But we'll get back to that momentarily. For now, I feel the desire to clarify my simplistic take on Tarantino's artistic and creative journey, and to show where exactly he stopped including the audience in his films by cutting off a point of access that he'd previous built up as being the main point of access to understanding his work (although I do not think this latter part of the statement was in any way intentional – it was merely circumstantial). And so then, when did Quentin Tarantino stop winking to us from the heights of the cinema screen? In 2009, with Inglourious Basterds.
What Inglourious Basterds shows us at face value is a remake of an Italian film of nearly the same name by Enzo G. Castellari, although Tarantino's version runs at almost double the length, and includes Tarantino's original sub-plot of an escaped Jewish woman hiding out as a cinema manager in Nazi-occupied France. However, despite Basterds being a remake (or half a remake), this was far, far more a film that came directly from Tarantino's own mind that any other of his works thus far – no plagiarized dialogue or scenes; Tarantino's writing was now giving us a new rhythm, a direct translation from his brain to his script to the movie screen as only he saw fit; and as a result, the stolen moments and collage of homages that had constructed his entire catalogue (up to this point) that he had previously used as his access point to connect with audiences were suddenly no longer a part of his creative process. So, even when he did throw in the sporadic in-joke in Inglourious Basterds (like the name “Hugo Stiglitz”, or the use of the song “Cat People”), those minuscule in-jokes did not have the cinematic weight nor connectivity towards the audience that his more overt homages did. Inglourious Basterds had suddenly moved Tarantino's cinema completely into the realm of Tarantino. Also taking away from the thrust of the in-jokes is that clearly in the absence of The Homage, the filmmaker himself fails to know now if he's making a satire or not, something that annoyingly, and at times awkwardly, plagues his latest trilogy of movie remakes.
I returned to thoroughly enjoying a Tarantino film with his 2012 follow-up remake Django – which again provided in-jokes to those who had seen the original Django film or Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. The comedy in Tarantino's Django is more pronounced, the dialogue rapid-fire and witty, and the several times that he might have been unsure if he was filming an all-out satire or not (something which annoyed a cinephile friend of mine to no end), the whole of the film is such a “crowd pleaser”, as one of the film's critics put it back in 2012, that it overcomes these ambiguities that Tarantino himself appears to be completely unconcerned with.
Of course, when it came to both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the irony of Tarantino fully finding his cinematic and literary voice along with his full creative potential within what are, by nature, generally seen as the opposite of creativity (i.e. The Remake), is something that had not escaped my attention – but consider the idea that finally calling out an influential film in its entirety (Inglorious Bastards, Django) as the construct in which you might be presenting your creative cinematic work, could be entirely creatively freeing. It's about forgoing the dance of deception that comes along with having to hide plagiarism, or certainly in Tarantino's case, obsessive copying and over-borrowing. Finding a high point in artistic creativity within a movie remake is nothing new – I think back on John Carpenter's intent on remaking, but ultimately owning, The Thing.
Which now, in the third day of the new year which is 2016, brings us back to Tarantino's most recent cinematic effort, The Hateful Eight, a film that I'm honestly not entirely sure if I liked or not. There is no denying the film's power to stay in your mind, that's for certain. Also, I like that he's so far rounded off his trilogy of remakes by remaking his own damn movie – that feels like a great artistic circle to me, it's something I can appreciate with irony and humour, two things I very much enjoy. The Hateful Eight is still loaded with his second-nature cinematic nods – like the use of the score from The Thing, and the visuals that might recall, for some, Alejandro Jodorowski, and even the casting of the main characters – but overall, I stand by what I said: there are no winks to us directly, the jokes are disconnected from us now – the jokes that are there appear to be there more for the creator to enjoy over anybody else, perhaps so that he can revel in how clever he is. The Hateful Eight is completely Tarantino's film, just as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained were also completely his by design, made the way he wanted them to be made and shown to us exactly how he wanted to show them to us, with Tarantino even going so far as to dictate the theatrical formats, as far as he possibly could, in which his films would be presented – his last three films are constructed for us like an elaborate and meticulous collection of toys might be set up and shown to an acquaintance by an equally meticulous collector. Here, look at what I've got, isn't it fantastic? But you can't play with it, I have it exactly as I want it, so that nobody can touch it. Tarantino's films are exciting and visceral and need to be seen, much like a meticulous collection of (art, toys, cars, whatever) is there to be seen, but like the artwork hanging in the Louvre, I guess as a spectator we're not allowed to lean over the ropes and touch it anymore. And for me, that's a shame.