At Brett Smiley's wake on the evening of January 13, a week after he died in his Carroll Gardens apartment (thank God), his people had set up a small TV display, and were playing DVD-Rs of some of his performances in the early aughts, backed by a band that featured his childhood pal Errol Bulut on lead guitar. They were taped at places like Pianos, the Lower East Side back room, and some joint on Chrystie Street where there's a sliding glass door leading to the sidewalk behind the stage. As we watched, another friend, a musician himself, observed of Brett, "He's really on point here." He was/is; singing voice strong, his right hand steady and straight across the strings of his black Ovation Celebrity. He sang some songs from his much-hyped but abortive 1974 debut album Breathlessly Brett, which was finally released to what they call "cult acclaim" in 2003, and a bunch of newer tunes. solid if not world-shaking stuff. The exception being the anti-anthemic "I Ain't So Cool Anymore," in which a onetime cock-of-the-walk looks back on some ruins. "I went to the doctor and he looked at my blood/a Fifty-five Scotch and a forty-five slug/He said you ain't/so cool/anymore." Of course the fact that the character/singer/Brett could still stand up and sing the song suggested that there was some cool in reserve. And anyway, yeah, he and his band were delivering. We asked Errol when the performances dated from; he said 2005, 2006.
I first met Brett in 2010. Something had clearly gone wrong, or maybe I should say further wrong, in the interim.
Brett and I made our acquaintance a short while after I had taken my last drink. The correspondence was not coincidental. We had a shared interest in staying away from drink and drugs, and in short order, a mutual friend—a well-intentioned but somewhat brash and pushy fellow in certain respects—suggested it would be a capital idea were I to "work" with Brett on more actively promoting that interest. I did not consider myself competent to do so in any way, shape, or form, but Brett was actually rather eager for me to help him out, so there I was.
Even though he could be very chatty, I was not the recipient of the raconteur material Brett could lavish on wide-eyed interlocutors from various and sundry fanzines as they tracked him down over the years. The story of how at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles he was in a woodshop class with Michael Jackson, and how he and Jackson were partnered on making a chessboard and how they got a D on the project—I only heard about that the other night, at Brett’s wake. I had seen the Breathlessly Brett CD at Other Music when it had came out, and I knew of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star: Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley, but I never put together my Brett with Brett Smiley, not until about seven months after we’d really started to get to know each other, and someone said, “Oh you’ve never seen Brett’s infamous British talk show debut?” I had not. Eventually Brett had mentioned the book, and I looked at the clip from the Russell Harty Show in 1974 on YouTube. "Well, that was interesting," I said, discussing it a little later. He looked at me as if he was expecting me to follow up with "What the hell did you go and do to yourself," but I did not, so he said, "You know, I was never really into glam rock." And I said something like "Pshaw. You were into rock, and you were into dressing up. Of course you were into glam rock." As a Broadway baby, though, he was more enamored of traditional "quality" vocalizing than the contorted, strained post-Anthony-Newley-isms of David Bowie's Stardust period. Nor did he have much use for Varispeed Munchkinized backing vocals. A bit of a classicist, as his "Over The Rainbow" on Breathlessly Brett testifies.
By spring and early summer of 2012 we'd developed a bit of a routine: early morning at the place where we got coffee, then off with one or two other coffee-drinkers to Court Street Grocers, where we'd get a proper breakfast. When Brett was in an up mood, he could get awfully garrulous. "Eat your sandwich, Brett," I'd have to say to him periodically. I once timed him. Ninety minutes for one Breakfast Sandwich. It was unbelievable. I don't remember what he was talking about.
There had been one time when we were chatting, about stuff he was going to do—there was always stuff he was going to do—and he mentioned that he'd recently found some demos he'd made in the late '70s, that Del Shannon had produced. "Ooh, Del Shannon," I said, as one will. Yes, Brett replied, Del Shannon. This time in Del's life had not been good, he continued, laying out some observations on Shannon's drinking, and some struggles involving sexuality. "Hold on, hold on," I interjected. "Del Shannon was gay? Wow, all of a sudden so much makes sense..."
Couple months later and we're doing the Breakfast With Brett Club and somehow the subject comes up again, out of my mouth. And Brett looks at me like I'm nuts.
"Del Shannon wasn't gay." His somewhat nasal speaking voice crackled a bit when he was mildly agitated. "Who told you Del Shannon was gay?"
I sputtered, as one will. Okay, as I will. "Dude, you did."
He rolled his eyes. "Oh forget it. Del Shannon wasn't gay." He paused reflectively and looked at me again. "Everyone experiments."
He had me there.
If I were going to write a memorial of Proustian length I would make it about Brett's Roommate Situation, because I could, but I'll limit myself to one anecdote, which I file under "Brett Smiley's Iron Will." Sometime wintery time in 2011, I think, Brett had acquired a roommate, a sort-of musician who looked like an aged prototype for Father John Misty and/or one of the Deliverance rapists. I did not really warm to him, and kept my distance. One day Brett told me the fellow had found a turntable out on the street, brought it back to the apartment and worked on it a bit, and now, when they weren't sniping at each other over nothing, they were enjoying Classic Rock (Beatles, etc.) On Vinyl. Groovy. Eventually Brett decided this guy had got to go, and he asked that I come by the apartment on the day of the move and help the guy take his stuff down from the fourth-floor walkup, and make sure nothing untoward happened during this fellow's departure. "Sure," I said.
"There's one thing though."
"I'm keeping that turntable."
So I spent about ninety minutes reasoning with Brett as to why if this guy wanted to take the turntable out with him, he was entirely entitled, and that this kind of self-centered thinking went against several important principles and that insisting on keeping the turntable would hinder Brett's SPIRITUAL GROWTH. And Brett was very calm and very receptive and said, "Everything you are saying is absolutely one hundred percent right."
"But I want to keep the turntable."
How could you not love this guy? Really.
Anyway. The time came when the beardo was pretty much all packed, and he didn't even mention the turntable, so that was the end of that. "Don't gloat," I said to Brett. "Oh I won't," he said.
For all that steel, he could not get it together to do what he had done on those stages a relatively mere half-decade before. I will not go into the shambolic gigs I and his good roommates would escort him to and from. Suffice it to say that if you think the bottom of the barrel in New York rock-and-roll is sitting in the Continental at 2 a.m. enduring some seventh-billed band while trying to shake off the cocaine and Jagermeister sweats, you ought to consider yourself lucky. The poor guy. A couple of years ago I acquired a snazzy new Gibson guitar of storied model number and I showed it off to him one day. "It's heavy," he said as he lifted it. He played a verse and a chorus of "I Ain't So Cool Anymore." Without swagger. It was pretty heartbreaking. His body was dealing with a huge variety of ailments—various outlets have named hepatitis and HIV. I don't want to be indiscreet but honestly that was the tip of the iceberg. He was pretty funny about it sometimes. There was this outpatient facility he went to that he called "HIV Romper Room." Addicts in recovery like to say that drinking and drugs had made their lives unmanageable, but the thing about Brett that I often got was that he'd never had any schooling on managing his own life in the first place. And by the time I met him, he was in such crummy shape physically that I don't think there was a single day that he wasn't in some kind of pain. I took him to the hospital at least once for every year I knew him. After which I'd buy him a Vonnegut book (that was his favorite author) and encourage him to stay in the hospital for as long as he could. He needed full time care, I always thought, but the intersection of America's highly frayed social safety net and the aforementioned Iron Will meant this was not possible.
What stories he told me in these down times weren't of past rock and roll glories, but of lost loves and fuckups. He was gratified that I knew of Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, with whom he costarred in a '70s softcore pastiche of Cinderella (which I have on DVD but have never had the heart, or lack of it, to watch), and who died of a heroin overdose in 2002. A tale of a particularly harrowing arrest in Broward County—he still had a warrant outstanding in Florida in recent years, and we were both rather flummoxed about what he could do about it—was how I learned that he had actually had a bit part in American Gigolo, because he associated his part in the picture with his time in jail.
That's Brett at far left, number 1. Richard Gere, far right, is number 5.
Once or twice in our travels, Brett and I ran into a female friend of mine, someone not in our shared circle. She told me recently that, his haggardness and slightly distracted mien notwithstanding, she could see a "flare" of his still-present charisma emanating from him. Indeed. But even that started to go out once he injured himself in a way that further damaged his appearance, and at that time, a few months before the August 2013 photo was taken, I began to worry even more about what life was going to bring to Brett. At his wake, Brett's brother-in-law, the writer Richard Pyle, observed that throughout his life, Brett had experienced "all the luck in the world." ALL OF IT, he emphasized—the good and the bad. In the past couple of years the luck had been a lot of bad. It was absolutely a mercy that when his terribly, terribly frail body went out on him for the very last time, he was at home, not out on the street, out on the subway, out in some bad company. It's a shame, though, that he was alone. I miss him terribly. He drove his poor sister Brenda completely crazy over so many years, and at his funeral, she quoted Hamlet—yes, Act Five, Scene Two. "Now cracks a noble heart/good night, sweet prince." And yes, exactly, I feel exactly the same goddamn way.
UPDATE: With respect to Cheryl Smith's cause of death, see Paulina Victoria's comment below. My citation derived from a recollection of a conversation with Brett. The Wikipedia entry cites complications from liver disease and hepatitis. I don't want to be the cause of more confusion so I've struck (as of January 20 2016) the information in this post.
Personal thanks to Gered Mankowitz for allowing me to use his beautiful images, and supplying me with the materials.
For Jaime Grijalba
In the last scene of Bigger Than Life, the 1956 film directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by its star, James Mason, Ed Avery, the middle-class teacher played by Mason, is lying in a hospital bed after a psychotic episode brought on, ostensibly, by cortisone abuse. That episode was previously depicted in a scene much beloved of cinephiles, a scene in which Avery enacts the Biblical passage in which God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. When Avery’s wife Lou (Barbara Rush) reminds Ed that God subsequently rescinded his merciless demand, Ed thunders, “God was wrong!” In any event, Ed, now subdued, and having experienced what his doctor (Robert Simon) describes as “a deep, refreshing sleep,” may now see his family. A moment of truth awaits. If the psychotic episode was indeed a definitive break with reality, Ed may not be the same kind and thoughtful family man he was before cortisone began twisting up his personality.
Ed’s awakening is not initially promising. “Turn out the sun,” he says, referring, as it turns out, to his room’s overhead lamp. Then, looking at his doctor, he asks the usual questions and admits: “I’m disappointed.”
“About what?” asks his doctor.
“You’re a poor substitute for Abraham Lincoln.”
The seeming non sequitur strongly suggests that Ed’s still loony, but no: he recognizes his family, he remembers his breakdown, he grows emotional, beckons for his son, and says, “I was dreaming. I walked with Lincoln. He was as big, and ugly, and beautiful, as he was in life. Abraham.”
And then he remembers.
“Abraham!” he shouts.
No one, save for a very willful person, would insist that Quentin Tarantino is an artist with an overweening, or maybe one would better say primary, interest in morality. Either in the abstract or in practice. Tarantino is, though, an artist who has a great deal of interest in manipulating audiences with respect to affinity and empathy. And as a filmmaker whose biggest point of reference is genre cinema, he owes a lot, in terms of ideas if not overt technique, to the genre cinema artist nonpareil, Alfred Hitchcock. Tarantino’s affinity for genre cinema also ties in with a certain sadistic streak (we should remember that no less a figure than André Bazin detected a similar streak in Hitchcock, and found it largely if not wholly objectionable). This sadistic streak, more than just compelling him to depict galvanically hyperbolic acts of violence in the goriest of details, also drives him to concoct ethical conundrums that place audience in uncomfortable and uncomfortably shifting positions.
So, The Hateful Eight. It opens, more or less, with a shot of sadly hanging wooden Christ in the snow, and for a long time the image seems merely generically cheeky. There’s a stagecoach, with John “The Hangman” Ruth inside, chained to Daisy Domergue, a prisoner for whom he intends to collects $10,000 for in a town called Red Rock. On a sled ahead of the stage, stranded in snow are piled several male corpses. These belong to another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren, an African-American Civil War veteran who prefersto kill his prey before bringing them in for his reward. These three, and the exempted-from-hatefulness stage driver O.B., are the first characters the viewer meets in the film.
While they are played by movie stars who are expert at turning on the charm, and they participate in several exchanges that peg them as intelligent, articulate, and even ingratiating, Kurt Russell’s John Ruth and Samuel L. Jackson’s Marquis Warren are not “good” guys, or “good guys,” except in the context of their circumscribed and mutually agreed-upon worlds. These men are killers; they make their living at it. I think one has to take Tarantino’s word with respect to his title—these and the characters to come are indeed hateful, regardless of how the movie will continue to undermine that fact. As for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue, she does not charm, not in a conventional sense—her greeting to Warren is an dryly perky “Howdy, nigger!” about which more in a bit. She is unusually cheerful for a woman chained to a man who continually elbows her in the face and smites her with the butt of his handgun. Tarantino’s film, like several of his others, is divided into designated chapters, and the chapter right after is intermission is called “Domergue’s Got A Secret.” But Daisy acts as if she has a secret very early on, giving Warren insinuating looks, and even a wink at one point. Could be she’s crazy—her wild eyes and seethingly inappropriate grin suggest as much. As it happens, she is not, at least not in the sense of being delusional.
On the ride to Minnie’s, Ruth and Warren revive an acquaintance that had begun some months before, and buttress their affinity via the sharing of what they refer to as “the Lincoln letter,” that is, a letter to Marquis from Abraham Lincoln that the Major keeps as a particularly proud souvenir.
Just as the viewer may have begun to cozy up to Major Warren, who is one the one hand a bounty hunter, but on the other hand isn’t persistently punching a defenseless woman in the face, a new stage passenger, Walton Goggins’ would-be Red Rock sheriff Chris Mannix, tries to pour cold water on any coziness. After Mannix recounts the tale of just how Warren escaped from a Confederate prison. Warren shrugs at Mannix’s indignation. “The whole damn place was made out of kindling…so I burnt it down,” he notes. Everybody in the stage laughs except Mannix, who points out that the fruits of Warren’s labors, his escape aside, were “47 men, burned to a crisp.” He then raises on his hand, so to speak, claiming that those men included more Union casualties than rebel. “You joined the war to keep niggers in chains,” Warren says with no small irritation. “I joined the war to kill white southern crackers.” John Ruth finds this amusing enough.
The interactions between the four male characters that turn out to not be in cahoots with Daisy are all about, as it happens, overturning whatever positive impressions the viewers may have formed. A basic knowledge of Civil War history will enable one to connect the dots between “Mannix’s raiders Marauders” and “Quantrill’s Raiders,” and the resultant pictures a viewer may derive from that are not pretty. Marquis Warren’s grudge against confederate general Smithers extends beyond the general fact that Smithers was a leader of white southern crackers and harks back to a specific incident suffered by Warren. So, the guys we are offered as possible heroes (I’m including Smithers in this bunch not because it’s particularly logical, but because you never know, especially up until five minutes or so before the film’s intermission) are, to recap, a bounty hunter who’s especially meticulous about making sure his captives are subjected to a grisly and sadistic method of execution; a man who shrugs off the indiscriminate slaughter of nearly 50 souls that resulted from his deliberately undertaken actions; and two out-and-out war criminals at least.
This is not, I would have to argue, insignificant. These really are not good people. But the audience’s sympathies and their manipulation rely on some of them being considered at some point in time to be less non-good than some of the others. And then, more. The twists in the moral dynamic do bring to mind the action of a corkscrew, but by the same token the movie’s narrative is so dispersive and discursive—such a splatter, eventually—that another metaphor might be that of a ping-pong game in which the ball very frequently gets banged far away from the table. Whatever the metaphor, one is obliged to admit that even the characters capable of behaving in a charming, ingratiating, sympathetic way all lack a certain, shall we say, emotional maturity. (This may also be true, as seems to be a particularly popular line these days, of the man who wrote these characters. But let’s not get carried away, either; Tarantino, as far as I know, has never actually killed anyone.)
Given these circumstances, it’s only proper in a certain scheme of things that these characters all behave in ways that ultimately doom them. The critic Armond White has astutely pointed out that in this film Samuel L. Jackson’s character serves as an alter ego for the director himself. This conclusion can be bolstered via examination of some of Tarantino’s more ostentatiously fulsome interviews, in which he’s claimed explicit forms of identification with African-American men. Inasmuch as Warren can be seen as the ultimate “hero” of The Hateful Eight, it is also noteworthy that he’s the character who solves, at least in part, its central mystery; he’s the Hercule Poirot of what Tarantino’s called, more than once, his “Agatha Christie mystery.”
But he is ultimately a self-defeating character. The big scene that ends the first half of the movie shows Warren at first (seemingly) caught in a lie, and then, having rationalized his lie, shows him settling, rather arbitrarily, a very personal score. It’s here that the movie, which up until this point has been so narratively straightforward as to seem not just conventional but stage bound and potentially stagnant, starts to break out of its shell. Tarantino’s manic declared “hatred” of John Ford notwithstanding, it’s also here that the ironies of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance relative to truth and fable start to resonate in a rather ghastly register. After the authenticity of the “Lincoln letter” is very credibly dismantled by Mannix, Warren seems genuinely crestfallen, but rather than dismiss his interlocutors in a huff, he deigns to rationalize his choices. He seems particularly unhappy to have disappointed John Ruth. (“Guess it’s true what they say about you people. Can’t trust a fucking word that comes out of your mouth,” spits a disgusted Ruth, and perhaps the word he’s looking for is “shifty?” Polite but defiant—and obviously trying to maintain relations out of a certain self-interest—Warren counters, “I know I’m the only black son of a bitch you ever conversed with so I’m gonna cut you some slack.”) But, he insists, he has his reasons, and they are, he insists, good. The man whom everybody in the cabin save Ruth, stage driver O.B., and the Mexican Bob call “nigger” over and over says ““The only time black folks is safe is when white folks is disarmed. And this letter had the desired effect of disarming white folks.” As for his ultimate justification, he reminds John Ruth that the Lincoln letter was, in a very real sense, the thing that got him on to the stagecoach with Ruth. Saved his life, in other words.
After which Warren starts right in on General Smithers. While it may well be “true” that Warren did meet and kill Smithers’ son, the evidence that Warren is making up the story of torture and sexual abuse is strong indeed. It’s in the visual language: not so much the “flashback” visualizing the incident in the tale Warren tells (which, like the soon-to-come narration, are bold strokes of meta-directorial intervention), but the close-ups of Smithers’ eyes when Warren’s tongue rolls out another particularly juicy detail. “Big black pecker out of my pants,” say, and then that near-avuncular smile as Warren explains “it was full of blood so it was warm.” This leads up to what is currently and will likely remain the films most famous and quotable line: “You’re starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?” Indeed he is, as is the audience, literally, because Tarantino’s putting the improbable images up there. In a recent interview in the Guardian, the poet Claudia Rankine said “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people” and continued “When white men are shooting black people, some of it is malice and some an out-of-control image of blackness in their minds. Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he looked ‘like a demon.’ And I don’t disbelieve that.” When Smithers goes for his gun, Warren looks even more like a demon to him than he did when he first entered the cabin. Warren was, of course, counting on that. It enables him to get the drop on the guy, and blow a hole right through his chest.
But this ultimately will prove a pyrrhic victory. Consider: when Marquis Warren arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, he notices that Bob’s a Mexican, he notices that the chair that only Sweet Dave is allowed to sit in is occupied by another person, he notices that a jellybean is on the floor. But rather than try to get any of this sorted right away, he indulges in a diversion that ends with him killing a man who, as it turns out, is of no material threat to him. And he does so in a way that creates a sufficient distraction for one of Daisy Domergue’s cronies to poison the coffee. (Or, as Tarantino’s in-need-of-a-copy-edit narration puts it, “something equally as important happened.” Oy.)
“Domergue, to you this is MAJOR Warren,” John Ruth says as he’s about to let Warren on the stagecoach. Daisy gives a droll little wave and says “Howdy nigger,” implying a bit of unspoken knowledge: here, she sees, is someone a rung or two, or three, below her on the social ladder—despite her being both a woman and a despised criminal.
Nevertheless, up to the point when Warren kills General Smithers in “self defense,” as Tarantino’s narrator (who is Tarantino himself) tells us was the general consensus of the cabin’s inhabitants at the time of the shooting, Daisy Domergue has been the only person on the receiving end of staggering physical violence, which she almost invariably grins at once the smarting stops. In an article for Variety by Kris Tapley, about the notion that the film is misogynist, Tarantino insists, “You’re supposed to say, ‘Oh my God. John Ruth is a brutal bastard!’” Okay, but by the same token, most of John Ruth’s shots at Daisy are performed and timed like gags in a Three Stooges short, particularly the bit where he tosses a bowlful of stew in her face. You don’t have to be a woman-hater to laugh, because the brutality—its realism in a certain dimension notwithstanding—is played for comedy.
Tapley’s piece also quotes critic Stephanie Zacharek to the effect that Daisy’s continued defiance in the face of her abuse registers as the “triumphant opposite” of misogyny.
But is Daisy’s triumph, if you want to call it that, really worth celebrating? For me the most staggering sequence in The Hateful Eight is its Chapter Five, “The Four Passengers.” It represents one of the most audacious and effective uses of flashback structuring I’ve seen in a Tarantino film, and if you know Tarantino’s films, you know he does a lot of flashback structuring. The chapter shows just what happened at Minnie’s Haberdashery prior to the arrival of Warren, Ruth, Domergue, and O.B.. It introduces the audience to the only good, and only truly likable, characters in the film: The coach drivers Ed and Six-Horse Judy, and the crew of Minnie’s Haberdashery: Minnie, Gemma, Sweet Dave, and a day laborer named Charlie. These folks are total innocents, kind, welcoming, good-humored. And given what the audience knows at this point in the film, the audience now also has to know that it is about to see them die.
It is kind of droll that Tarantino cast Channing Tatum, the Prom King of Gawker Nation (this is through no fault of his own, I feel compelled to note), in the role of what is in fact the movie’s most loathsome character, the ringleader of the killers “Mobray,” “Joe Gage,” and “Bob.” Tarantino even obliges Tatum to utter the phrase “pile of niggers,” which is close to Pulp Fiction’s ostentatious and perpetually distasteful “dead nigger storage” on the objectionability scale, not once, but twice. (Discussing the supposedly rampant use of the racial epithet at a recent panel, Jackson amusedly speculated that prior to having to say her first line in the film, Jennifer Jason Leigh had probably never uttered the word “nigger” in her life. He continued: ““It’s not disingenuous, it’s honest, and it’s coming out of characters’ mouths from an honest place, especially in that particular time. People are just getting past a war that divided a country, that freed a bunch of people that a bunch of people didn’t want freed, and they’re running around free, so who are we talking about? Oh those ‘free colored people?’ Um, no. Nobody was saying that.” Discussing the supposed preponderance of the word in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in 1998, the novelist Elmore Leonard said, ““Spike Lee said the word was used 38 times. I wondered how many would be acceptable. Maybe 19? If that’s the way the character talks, if that’s his sound, you gotta go with it. You can’t say, `Oh, he has to stop at 20.’”) This is really not very nice at all. But nothing in this scene is nice or comforting. The violence isn’t choreographed or played out for the least comedic effect, as it has been and will be a little later.
“Mobray” and “Gage” and “Bob” dispatch their victims with brisk relish; it’s particularly awful to see Tim Roth’s impassive Pete/“Mobray” put a second bullet into Brenda Owino’s Gemma. And then to watch Michael Madsen’s “Joe Gage” do the same to Zoe Bell’s Judy. (It has been noted that Tarantino, fond of what are likely first-draft nomenclature in-jokes, gave Madsen’s character’s alias the name of a director of all-male porn; similarly, Marquis Warren is a gloss on Charles Marquis Warren, a real-life Western movie and TV director.) It makes all the male bonding stuff Tatum’s Jody and his gang engage in play as masculinity at its most toxic. And the violence is so immediate that it’s easy to forget, I suppose, that it’s all being executed for Daisy’s sake, and in Daisy’s name. And nothing she says or does in the actual diegesis suggests that she has any objections whatsoever, which fact could lead a viewer to infer that she’d have no problem doing it herself. This perhaps opens up the question as to whether any of the violence done to her, or her grisly final moments, were “deserved.” Like the man in Unforgiven (the Western in which no single character even commented on the fact that the main character’s companion/hunting partner was African American) said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” and he may have been right. But if he was right, it's cold comfort for the victims of the massacre in this movie.
Like Bigger Than Life, a film many critics have interpreted as being about a very particularly American kind of grandiose madness, The Hateful Eight ends with an invocation/evocation of Abraham Lincoln. As the probably mortally wounded Mannix and Warren hang Daisy Domergue, Mannix reads aloud Warren’s “Lincoln letter.”
Previously decried by Mannix as a fake, it’s at his request that Marquis Warren retrieves it, for what the audience has every reason to believe is its last reading anywhere. For some reason, Mannix now wants to believe. “Nothing can bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them,” the critic and historian Nick Tosches. But what’s bringing Mannix and Warren together at the end is…a thirst for vengeance? Well, sure, but one ought to remember that unless he really is lying, Mannix is the duly appointed sheriff of Red Rock, and by putting in with Warren and executing Daisy Domergue, the fellows form
one nation under God perpetrating the opposite of “frontier justice.” But deriving great personal satisfaction from their work nonetheless. Regardless of how you interpret what they’re up to, what they’re up to is very nasty indeed (the hanging figure of Domergue does come to perversely resemble the hanging wooden Christ of the movie’s opening), and part of this film’s cinematic jolt, if it carries any power for you at all, derives from the sensibility dissonance in which a grindhouse ethos is mounted in an overblown “distinguished” presentation. The UltraPanavision, the overture, the intermission; the second-rateness and claustrophobia of Ice Station Zebra do not quite provide precedent for the Italian zombie-movie gore and Euro-redolent extremes of pessimism and cynicism that distinguish this movie’s vision. (By the same token, much Euro-sadistic cinema doesn’t have the visual clarity and fluidity that Tarantino brings to this largely in-close-quarters narrative; in terms of making every space a cinematic space, Tarantino is not Kubrick, it’s true, but he gets the job largely done.) Said pessimism and cynicism has sent more than one writing viewer of the film to the Good Liberal Fainting Couch, and I can’t say that’s not understandable. Tarantino’s approach does have, undeniably, more than a touch of “giggly viciousness.” I think “giggly viciousness” is Martin Amis’ phrase, and if I continue to remember correctly he coined it as a description of something he’s proud to have grown out of. Some people, some artists, never do. It’s an open question as to whether unexamined self-righteousness is the most apt response to an artist who does not.
I don’t think it’s particularly constructive to spend a lot of time speculating as to whether the cynicism and pessimism of The Hateful Eight is “earned” or not. One recollects Sam Fuller’s original ending for his 1957 Western Forty Guns. This would have showed his ostensible hero, Griff, as a guy who would actually kill the woman he professed to love in order to then gun down the foe who shot his brother. This was not permitted, so Fuller concocted a ridiculous but ultimately very pleasing compromise: he made Griff so good a shot that he could plug the woman he loved so accurately that the woman he loved would fall but not suffer permanent or even vaguely life-threatening injury, clearing the way for him to then kill the foe who was holding her as a shield. Had Fuller been permitted to go with his original ending, could he have been said to have “earned” it?
Whatever Tarantino’s intentions or aspirations, the cynicism and pessimism of the movie is, I think, inarguably pertinent. Because Tarantino arguably revels in a mess rather than even trying to offer a solution, does that make him part of the problem? The extent to which this is or is not genuinely troubling would depend on the extent to which you rely on film and film criticism to be “problem”-oriented.
But let’s go with it a little. If Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in December can be seen as the most inspiringly optimistic vision of race relations in America in 2015/2016, The Hateful Eight can be seen as a purposefully rebarbative nightmare vision of same. This ought not surprise. As an individual, Tarantino may well have a social conscience, and even a social consciousness, but there’s no way that he’s ever been what you could call a socially responsible filmmaker. A few years ago, in a “State of the Cinema” address at the San Francisco Film International Festival, Steven Soderbergh, with mordant facetiousness, advised young filmmakers, when seeking financing, to “in the process of telling [your] story, , stop yourself in the middle of a sentence and act like you’re having an epiphany, and say: “You know what, at the end of this day, this is a movie about hope.’” One ought give credit where it’s due, finally: Tarantino, cinema sensationalist nonpareil, has made a movie entirely not about hope, for what it’s worth.
One of the many limitations of an early education in auteurist-based cinephilia is that you tend to look exclusively for directorial signatures. Or you tend to look at just about everything noteworthy in a given film as an indication of the directorial signature. Yes, the art is collaborative, and yes, Orson Welles put cinematographer Gregg Toland on the same title card as his on Citizen Kane, but unless we'd also read Bazin's rhapsodies on the deep focus in The Little Foxes, we weren't necessarily identifying a Toland style. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was reportedly proud of the fact that no one film he shot looked the same as another, but that's not to say that he didn't have a signature, a style, a vision.
It was My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ who first pointed out to me what he considered a classic Zsigmond effect, in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are several shots in the scene a little under 45 minutes in, in the Mission Control Receiving Center, when Bob Balaban's character blows everybody's minds by revealing that the signals they've been getting from outer space are coordinates. Zsigmond shoots the high-ceilinged, gray-walled, largely blue-lit room so that the backgrounds are always a little out of focus; in the shot where Balaban's character is picking up the readouts coming out of the printer he's the only actor in perfect focus. The white-haired actor in the blue suit in front of him is also a little blurry, and a little blue light glints off his white hair. These manipulations of focus and lighting marked Zsigmond, to my mind, as a kind of stealth Impressionist. There was never a skimping on filling the frame with the visual information to get the point of the shot across, but there were also pockets of evocative beauty in the frames; in this scene they offset the workaday realism of the speculations and the calculations of the befuddles scientist and kept the film's other foot where it always wants to be, in a realm of wonder.
When MCPFRG™ hipped me to this, it was pretty early in our relationship, late 1978 I guess, and we soon embarked on a several-year-long-project of getting high and seeing lots of movies in Manhattan rep houses, and I determined to pay more attention to cinematography. So when I saw McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the first time shortly thereafter, Zsigmond's impressionism, or Impressionism I guess, walloped me again, despite it being in an entirely different register than that of Close Encounters. And it worked wonders in the context of director Robert Altman's gritty, cold, frontier pessimism and fatalism as it did in that of Spielberg's wish-upon-a-star vision. It also works a treat in Altman's The Long Goodbye, and in a lesser-known Altman that's raggedy and brittle and doesn't quite pull off its conceit, but which I love anyway because of when I saw it, who's in it, and how it looks. That is, 1972's Images, from which I took the top image and from which the next three still captures are derived (the other actors besides York and Harrison are Rene Auberjonois and Hugh Millais).
Like Lee Garmes, like Gregg Toland, like John Alton, like Raoul Coutard, like his friend and fellow emigre László Kovács, like Gordon Willis, Michael Chapman, Michael Ballhaus, and many others, Zsigmond's way of shooting (and exposing) film derived directly from a way of looking at the world, and processing what he saw, not from the pursuit of a contrived ideal. He was one of cinema's great artists, for sure.