by Sanjay Perera
Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin—“Whispers of Immortality,” Eliot
I see commonalities between humans and potatoes that speak to our relationship as individuals within a collective species. Generally, the life of a harvested potato is violent and taken for granted. I use the potato as a proxy for the ontological study of the human experience.–Kevin Abosch, on selling his photograph of an Irish potato for over a million dollars.
[H]e knew the moment he lay down in his bed that night ‘the great burden of human decline into madness, imbecility, dullness, thick-headedness, gracelessness, tastelessness, crudity, infantilism, ignorance and general stupidity’ was not something that could be slept off even in fifty more years–The melancholy of resistance, László Krasznahorkai
The anodyne calls for a boycott of this year’s Academy Awards by those who think the acting nominations have been whitewashed for a couple of years thereby leaving out diversity in talent are nothing more than lip service against the cultural panjandrums and entertainment poohbahs of the Academy: by some well-heeled members of Hollywood. The ‘protesting’ group are elites with their multimillion dollar salaries and investments and mansions who have deemed it necessary to ‘speak up’ by providing a spectacle of mild non-conformism. The social ghettoes, immiseration and rise of the precariat class carry on, but Hollywood’s purveyors of carefully manicured activism are worried about why some of their family and friends are not nominated for acting awards; what they seem silent on for the most is any concern over the advent of Donald Trump and the continued attempt to hijack politics by the second tier of the ultra-wealthy— the Bushes and the Clintons.
To add to a year of Hollywood extravaganzas which will include Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we are served the impending US presidential election: which provides a perverse form of cinéma vérité where there are laughs, gaffes, rhetoric, aggression, crudity and promises (which are usually never kept unless it is to wage war or kill someone).
Nor is there concern among Hollywood types, it appears, over Barack Obama’s inability to close down the Guantánamo detention camp due to resistance from, for instance, Congress. It seems that what we need to worry about is why, in a country that has its police shoot black people in the back and choke-hold them apparently to keep America safe, the Oscar acting nominations are all white.
(Incidentally, Obama won the biggest nomination and acting award that even the Academy could never bestow: he was elected to be the US President, twice. Even with the right skin tones, what good has Obama’s ‘win’ done for anyone and/or African Americans–are they having a better or safer life? The corporations-bankers still call the shots–pun unintended).
Such Oscar concerns are a distraction for minorities who should not be focused on America’s inane celebrity culture; whether a black actor gets some nomination should not cause sleepless nights by any member of the black community at large which has basic survival needs to worry them. Surely of greater importance is the lack of proper housing, healthcare, well paid work opportunities, and physical safety—and if it is not too much to ask, good affordable education.
In the desperation to be nominated by the Academy and in the need to have an Oscar to prove that they have talent, the minority actors protesting the lack of diversity have only made it clear that the faith in their abilities and anxiety over what people think of them if they do not win such awards are determined in the end by what the white power structure dictates. It is their right to protest but it speaks of an insecurity that no amount of Academy wins can ever erase.
But something must be said then of Quentin Tarantino’s film and his honest comment about American cops and their habitual brutality which seems to target the wrong people and gives the term ‘street justice’ an even more sinister meaning. In The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has written perhaps his strongest screenplay and made arguably his most restrained film (which means there is still a lot of blood and gore and profanity, yet some attempt to keep things under control). This is not a review but more a critique of the film’s attempt to make an important statement on America’s history of violence, race relations, corruption, the viciousness of capitalism and, indeed, evil.
So aspects of the film are looked at in detail and those who prefer not to spoil their viewing of a movie that can be tendentious as it is plot-heavy—if Tarantino is your idea of entertainment–are advised not to read further.
The film opens with a memorable take that is given resonance via the plangent score by Ennio Morricone on what turns out to be a wooden image of Christ crucified stuck along a wagon trail during a blizzard in post-Civil War America. Whether the crucified image is literally there or imaginary (as being purely symbolic) is up to the viewer. But there is no mistaking that this is the mise-en-scène for a Dante-like vision of hell in a cold place. And the use of ultra large lenses for the film that is also about the claustrophobia of being trapped in a small place, or a type of cabin fever, which brings nothing but death to everyone within it is meant to emphasise the vastness of the inner space of the twisted psyche of the principals in the film (the brutal nine characters: Tarantino hides an extra one that is sprung as a surprise towards the end).
Minnie’s Haberdashery where the action takes place during the blizzard is (in a flashback sequence to earlier that fateful day) a postbellum outpost of community and camaraderie en route to the town of Red Rock–apparently awaiting its new sheriff who will pay bounty hunters for their harvest and ensure the hanging of violent criminals. The place is run by an enterprising and good humoured Minnie who is black and whose partner is white and they are assisted by blacks and a cheery New Zealander (who sounds Australian); on the day of the blizzard they are shown hosting a bigoted southern ex-general. And they soon suffer the consequences for being a pit-stop for the ‘hangman’ John Ruth and his bounty, Daisy Domergue (wanted for multiple murders). With Ruth is a black ex-cavalry officer Marquis Warren and the apparent sheriff-designate of Red Rock, Chris Mannix, a southerner.
What is also revealed in the flashback is that four thugs who belong to a desperate gang of cutthroats trying to escape to Mexico call at Minnie’s well before Ruth arrives to take over the place and install themselves as ‘guests’; this is in preparation to killing Ruth and freeing Daisy (who is the sister of the gang leader). When the gang of four arrive that morning they wantonly murder Minnie and everyone there save the ex-general. The three (its leader hides beneath the floorboards) then play the roles of guests stuck in the cabin with the ex-general due to the blizzard just in time for Ruth and company. The film’s action then moves towards its inexorable bloody finale with some ‘whodunit’ tropes thrown in. Importantly, Warren carries what turns out to be something other than a MacGuffin as it is central to the theme of the film, that is, the ‘Lincoln letter.’
Just as Minnie’s joint becomes a microcosm of American race relations and its culture of violence, the ‘Lincoln letter’ is among other things a metaphor for, perhaps, the US Constitution or Emancipation Proclamation or a military citation (or a combination of them). The letter, which is a forgery, is supposed to be one of a series from the late president Abraham Lincoln to Warren: the two were supposedly pen-pals and Lincoln in the letter—which carefully reflects his homey style—expresses gratitude for Warren’s war services. It also mentions Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd and his being summoned by her which is the excuse for ending the letter reminiscent of the style of the times: this enhances verisimilitude and adds a touch of nostalgia that makes the letter convincing.
There is much to say about the film’s symbolism (note the black and white horses that lead the carriage in the picture at the top of page) but it is also replete with the instability found in many narratives that are sometimes malleable enough to be shaped into what one wants them to be. The film’s narrative has its twists and turns and undermines the viewer’s sympathy and allegiance toward any of the (what at often times are) unlikeable key characters: it is manipulative in the way most entertaining narratives are meant to be but it also forces an uncomfortable empathy towards people who are racist and cruel in a film where malice is rarely absent. The polarity of good and evil in the characters is apparent but the film is clearly a trip to the dark side and it could aptly be given the same title as that of the final chapter of the film: Black man, white hell.
The characters tell tall tales and it is difficult to know whom to believe. Warren creates the fictional ‘Lincoln letter’ as it helps him gain some importance and a modicum of acceptability in the eyes of whites (we may also view this as an unintended harbinger of protesting to get oneself on an Oscar nomination list). And as a bounty hunter with a price on his own head who also has to kill to stay alive: the letter may offer just a moment of hesitation from anyone hostile to him that could in turn give him the edge.
Ruth is perhaps an honest man in his own way but gullible enough to believe that the ‘Lincoln letter’ is real, yet shrewd enough to be doubtful of the others in the cabin. Yet his gullibility leads to his being poisoned and shot, just as his sense of justice is also partially responsible for his death. Honesty is not always the best policy it seems. Daisy in the final chapter of the film turns out to be as vicious as the men. She is adept at forging narratives in trying to trick Mannix about other non-existent gang members who will come to her rescue when the blizzard stops. She uses this to incite Mannix to kill Warren and save his own neck and Red Rock which would be decimated by her gang if he does not listen to her. But as Warren and the bigoted Mannix are seriously wounded they are forced to form a temporary alliance to stay alive and finish off the remnants of Daisy’s gang in the cabin (everyone is wounded in a shootout).
In the final moments with the rest of her gang dead, the injured Mannix manages to get a rope around Daisy’s neck and with the help of the prostrate Warren hoists her to complete Ruth’s mission of justice which Mannix ‘officiates’ over as the sheriff he will never be. As Daisy is strangled by the rope rather than hanged (Ruth wanted to be present to hear her neck snap which is what a technically proficient execution would result in), both Mannix and Warren point and laugh at her and are entertained by her death throes: it makes one wonder why we even need to watch this but complicity in the desire for revenge by the audience is what Tarantino counts on.
In fact, it may hardly be a coincidence that Warren’s first name is Marquis. During the final brutalization of Daisy (who is beaten, has her teeth broken, vomited upon with blood, has brains spattered on her face and shot) when she is hoisted up and strangled, both Mannix and Warren lie bleeding on a large bed laughing even as they are in the process of dying: this is a toned down version of what we could expect from the writings of the even more disturbing Marquis de Sade. Warren also laughs when he blows off Daisy’s brother’s head and when she is later shot in the foot. He is also seen as laughing in an imagined scene (but which could be real) when he delivers a questionable narrative about sexually abusing the ex-general’s son before killing him. This is meant to get a rise out of the old soldier who takes the bait and is shot by Warren.
The laughter and sense of revenge and pleasure from another’s suffering could also be Tarantino’s attempt to get us to question why we find violence, cinematic or otherwise, entertaining: the media is chock-full of reports of violence on a daily basis. Moreover, the militant ‘terror’ group ISIS clearly has learnt how to market their brand of real life ‘Hollywood’ violence in videos and attacks that are then recorded and disseminated across the world via all forms of media.
But then, all of Isis’s video output is inspired by our own entertainments – in its subject matter, its soundtrack, its editing. Islamic State hasn’t invented new narrative tropes, it’s simply lifted them straight from Hollywood. All it’s done is to go one step further, trumped Hollywood at its own game. It has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us. If there were grizzly bears in the Syrian desert, there’s no doubt that they’d put one in a cage and let us see what it really looks like when one rips a man apart.
Are we entertained by Tarantino’s display of brutality or repelled or both. If there is an element of entertainment in the graphic violence and schadenfreude it must go beyond aspects of human nature, for in our time, the media has been the great desensitizing medium for violence as we are force-fed news reports that convince us that mayhem and murder is a natural way of life for humanity. Is it any wonder that Tarantino and films like The Revenant need to ratchet up the violence to simulate a reality that perhaps inadvertently makes ISIS videos palatable for some: since it could all be an act if we didn’t know better. And what would be better than popcorn or tacos to go with the bloodbaths since it is only natural to have a snack when someone is sexually brutalized or murdered, isn’t it? People munch away even when watching Tarantino films.
But the most important lie or delusion in Tarantino’s film is the one created by Warren and his ‘Lincoln letter.’ The letter presumably crafted by Warren has a mythical status and is treated with reverence by Ruth who asks to read it early in the film. And though the letter is a fake, Warren punches Daisy in the carriage when she spits on the paper for even he has come to believe in the reality of his fiction. The need to believe is so strong that even as they lay dying with Daisy’s strung up body and Ruth’s severed arm hanging still handcuffed to her, Mannix asks Warren for the letter. Warren passes his bloodstained narrative to Mannix who reads it aloud and it almost seems that despite themselves both want to believe that whites and blacks can live peaceably in the US even when they know the letter is forged.
And that is one of the strong points of the film. The need to believe that the US Constitution is genuine in intending ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ reveals how much people need convenient fictions to this day. Freedom is meant for the haves and the rest are meant to be the precariat. Moreover, it is not just that social and racial inequality are rampant in the US, but it has become more sophisticated in that the glamour gang of celebrities who want to believe that more colour in an Oscar line-up can downplay or compensate for minority lineups in police stations goes to show that they are living in a world of their own.
But what ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ has ever existed in the US or the world’s known history? They are all convenient fictions with good historical narratives weaved around them. World history to date has been, it seems, largely nothing but instances of bloodshed and the quest for dominance. The controllers of the world continue to hoodwink people into thinking that, for example, the farcical US presidential elections are about genuine choice when they are usually about choosing one corporate shill for another. So much also depends on how much money can be raised from donations and what bids are given for tables at fund raising dinners.
This brings us to that final chapter in Tarantino’s film when bids are made by characters on the price of bounties for the dead and the dying in the cabin. Daisy and another character try to bribe Mannix into killing Warren by calculating the money he will earn from turning in the corpses; it is what capitalism does best, monetizing everything, including the living, the dying and the dead. The only value given to life is in dollar signs and the only other reality in a world built through the help of the media as being one of fear, violence, hatred and prejudice–is death. Even our entertainment is death-driven: how different is it from the Romans and their gladiatorial sports and feeding people to the lions as a form of mass entertainment? Does something in celluloid or digital form that is acted out for cameras makes all it enacts and is edited to represent therefore alright? And if an actor is sufficiently realistic in being sexually violated or hacked to bits or shows convincing psychopathic joy in eviscerating someone: should that be termed artistic? And if that performance of brutality and suffering and psychopathology causes possible trauma for the performers they should be rewarded by an Oscar? And producers and filmmakers who want people to watch gore spilled all over as realistically as possible should also be feted with awards? So that is the difference then with the Romans’ sense of having a good time: after all Hollywood can only aim for veracity, since it is ultimately peddling fiction.
Notwithstanding, America in its politics and culture of cruelty fully deserves to utilize the eagle reminiscent of that used by the Romans and the Nazis as its national emblem for it has successfully carried out much of that way of life since its inception: genocide, enslavement, environmental destruction, imperialism, greed and unadulterated cruelty.
The US is the warmongering state par excellence and has the distinction of introducing nuclear warfare to humanity.
Obama in his final state of the union address also offers some jingoistic entertainment: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. (Applause.) Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. (Applause.) It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. (Applause.)”
To much of the suffering of the world, alleviated by Hollywood products and action toys, this is all America has, alas, largely been: a state that has given violence to the world as it also imposes it on its citizens who all the while believe it represents ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’; things that are worth fighting, killing and, of course, dying for.
What, or rather who, is there to resist this? The people who try and resist are themselves divided, and the death grip of a monetized way of life, addiction to media, mobile phones and violent entertainment have prepared the way for even greater control and systematic destruction of life and the planet itself.
And then there is that woeful image of Christ impaled on a cross in the snow that opens the film. What else can anyone expect when someone who tries to bring out the good in people arrives in a world that is driven by death? He too can only expect physical death. It does not take much imagination these days to see that in his martyrdom on the cross there would be those who would have pointed and laughed and found it all rather entertaining.
Why then do we need to even say more about all this when the outcome for most is becoming increasingly clear? Perhaps like Tarantino’s dying characters we need narratives to believe in even as we leave this world, for they offer the possibility of another world where martyrdom and punishment are not required; we still can have a vision of a different world far more interesting and exciting than the one we are imprisoned in: one quite other than the world we are successfully killing—for real.
 This is based on a first viewing of the film and if discussion of the plot loses the film potential viewers it will certainly not impoverish the producers etc.
 The theatrical version of the film is shorter by several minutes than the roadshow release which runs just over three hours (it includes an overture and an intermission). But given a reference by Oswaldo Mobray to Mannix about the ‘Lincoln letter’ it seems that more was said of it in the longer version: for Mobray thinks the letter resides with Mannix for he assumes the letter (thinking it to be genuine) would be carried by a white man; Mannix confirms it belongs to Warren. In fact, Mannix calls Warren’s bluff on the letter by stating that Lincoln would not be a pen-pal to a black soldier with a bounty on his head. Mannix’s discernment in this and his disbelieving Daisy’s attempt to con him at the end give credence to his having potential to be sheriff (an appointment Ruth keeps saying is a concoction by Mannix to give himself a sense of importance).
 For an honest statement on violence in cinema, see The Revenant is meaningless pain porn.”‘s: “
 Additionally, obsession with box office earnings especially after a film opens and making bids/auctions for purchasing rights to screenplays (or creative material for the entertainment industry), salaries and perks for actors etc. are all part of Hollywood. The movie industry is just that–a business whose concern is making as much money as possible. Hollywood is more concerned about wealth, status and privilege than artistic merit but has the temerity to cite realism and art for some reason when it comes to extreme violence–which coincidentally does not seem to hurt box office takings.
The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change. [Lead picture credit: WSJ/David Gothard.]
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