It was my first time seeing a Quentin Tarantino film with an audience. I’ve seen all of his previous movies, sure, but only on my own or with a friend or two. I was too young to see any of them up to Kill Bill 2 on initial run, when I saw Grindhouse the theater was deserted, and Django and Basterds both slipped my mind until they fell out of the big screen with me catching up with both on home video formats. But a 70mm roadshow production of The Hateful Eight? Well I snatched up tickets as soon as they were available. It was more than getting to see a new film by a reliably outstanding director; it was a chance to have an experience that, after the run ends, I’d never be able to have again. So I sat down (a bit closer than I’d have preferred, but such is the cost of arriving only a half hour early), ready for something different from what I’d ever experienced in a theater before. And I was correct to be ready, but not for the reason I expected: after seeing The Hateful Eight in a full house, I think it’s possible that Quentin Tarantino’s films are too entertaining to be ethical.
What I mean is, when Tarantino makes a film, and when one watches a Tarantino film, it exists, explicitly, in the context of other films. Every film of course exists in this context, but Tarantino more than possibly any other director makes it very, very clear and very, very important that his film exists as part of a broader film history, as part of a broader cultural history. They bring with them baggage that has to be unpacked before the film itself can be brought into focus. And this certainly isn’t a bad thing; Jackie Brown, his most consistently underrated film and in the running for his best, immeasurably benefits from Pam Grier’s existence outside of the movie itself. Another actress with a different history in the industry wouldn’t have been able to do the same things she did in that film. Inglourious Basterds‘ incredible juggling of tones requires the audience’s knowledge of everything from film genre to Brad Pitt’s public persona to the history of the war (and the ways the film departs from it) to work even half as well as it does. His films are never meant to stand alone outside of the form, but instead to exist within it as a single part of a continuing dialogue.
The problem is that Tarantino expects the audience to know more of that dialogue than can reasonably be expected. Like anyone who knows a preposterous amount about his chosen obsession, Tarantino ended up divorced from the average person’s knowledge base a long time back, and this prevents him from making movies that can be understood in their entirety by the average movie-goer. There’s a hundred references, call-backs, homages, in-jokes, and just general back alleys of cinematic geekery in every one of his films that will slip by the average audience member, because unlike Tarantino, the average person doesn’t have a working knowledge of both 70’s exploitation film and the French new wave, of Spaghetti westerns and martial arts films. When he uses particularly sensitive forms of violence and language, specifically sexual and racial violence and hatred, he’s placing those same things into both the continuum they came from and a re-contextualization that we as a modern audience put on them. I’m not here to argue one way or another about whether this is successful—being white, I don’t really have much to add to the conversation “does Quentin Tarantino need to use racial slurs so fucking much”—but we merely need to agree that the use of these things is purposeful, and that purpose extends beyond just entertainment. He’s using the form to comment on the culture, updating and mixing things together to, when he does it well, illuminate something about race or gender in the modern world.
And this is precisely the problem. We have an act that needs context being provided to people who can’t be expected to have the proper context. Tarantino is not making small budget art films for an audience of fellow cinephiles who can dissect and discuss his films within the forms that he’s operating in. He’s making movies that gross hundreds of millions of dollars. He is a popular entertainer, in every sense of the word. So when he presents racism and sexism to the audience, often in violent forms, it’s not necessarily surprising that they can miss that there’s a commentary going on, that there’s reasons those painful and continuing forms of oppression are being invoked. If you’ve met even a handful of twenty-something white dudebros who list Pulp Fiction as their favorite film, you know exactly what Pulp Fiction‘s use of racial slurs ends up as in the hands of people without the tools to dissect and understand it as it was meant to be used. Instead of acknowledging the way the language is coded in negative characters, the way it’s used to dehumanize and degrade, the way that the 70’s influenced production design comments on that same use of such language in the past and the ways that has changed or remained the same, you end up with a bunch of guys quoting Quentin’s own character (bad move there Quentin, by the way) without a single piece of knowledge gained about oppression or the cultural context of racism. Hell, not even much gained about the way race is treated in exploitation movies themselves.
The reason this can happen is because Tarantino makes movies that are so entertaining that the average movie-goer, one we are assuming is not considering these things in the same way they were intended to be considered, can still walk away feeling like they got their money’s worth. Because his violence functions so often as both violence and comedy, the subtleties and complexities of the tone and of the message can get lost without losing an ounce of the visceral fun. And that’s a problem. By using charged actions and language, actions and language that continue to harm people in the world today, but not requiring the audience to understand what those themes mean or how they’re being used, Tarantino is presenting a film that can argue against oppression while continuing to perpetuate it. Hearing an audience laugh out loud to nearly ever utterance of a racial slur for the first hour of The Hateful Eight proved to me pretty conclusively that this isn’t a side effect of the uneducated or the actively prejudiced. In fact, I would assume that people seeking out a 70mm screening of a three hour film would, on average, actually be more versed in the kind of contextual knowledge I was talking about than your standard movie audience. No, it seems that a blurring of the lines between laughing at the hateful and laughing with them is a disturbing part of the Tarantino experience for many, many people.
Now, I don’t want to make this sound like I’m arguing that all movies should be pitched to the lowest common denominator, or that someone misinterpreting art is the fault of the artist. I don’t want to limit art to only the obvious and easily understandable. We need movies that operate at levels that require specialized knowledge; through the basis they assume, more specific insights can be reached, new questions can be explored, and the form can be advanced. An art form that has to explicate itself is absurdly limiting. But that doesn’t mean that a creator of art has no social responsibility, and, as much as it may suck, that responsibility grows with success, fame, and accessibility. The Michael Bays of the world have a greater responsibility to be clear in their intentions than the Béla Tarrs.
In 1977, writing as Richard Bachman, Stephen King published a novel called Rage about a school shooting. Though not the best of King’s work, it has a lot of interesting things to say about American attitudes towards death, teenage emotional states, and the ways in which certain kinds of violence are sanctioned and certain kinds are decried. I read it myself as a teenager (thanks dad for having seemingly every King book imaginable lying around the house), and found it affecting and sympathetic, but clearly not in support of school shootings in any way. Unfortunately, and tragically, more than a few people interpreted it differently. At least four incidents of school violence have been linked to the book either directly or indirectly, leading to six deaths and a number more of non-fatal injuries. After these incidents, King let the book fall out of print, going so far as to even say of the novel in the introduction to his book Blaze, “Now out of print, and a good thing.” What I think King realized is that it doesn’t matter what the artistic intention is, or at the very least it matters far less than human lives; when a piece of art causes harm, the people being harmed should be of higher priority than the art.
Now, that’s an extreme example. As far as I know, Tarantino’s work has not been directly linked to any acts of real world violence, and I wouldn’t imagine it to be either. It’s clearly, even to the untrained eye, meant most often to be cartoony, a form of entertainment clearly distanced from reality. But it can’t be denied that, when you make your films so entertaining and easily accessible, exposure to the misogynistic and racist violence in them without the knowledge required to contextualize such violence can be damaging, both to the privileged and the oppressed. Hell, as a person who does this whole “thinking about film thing” in-depth very regularly, even I had problems parsing the exact tone a few times in The Hateful Eight. It’s not that I want my art “dumbed down” or anything like that, and I certainly don’t want artists to be shackled to making art that can be easily understood and parsed by the average film-goer. It’s more that we need to remember that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor does it exist outside of people. Art exists, or should exist, to help us in some way. That may be explicitly progressive moralizing, sure, but more often it can simply be providing entertainment, or giving emotional solace, or widening perspectives, or informing a broad range of people, or a million other things, from the large to the small. What art shouldn’t be doing is harm to the already vulnerable. Utility and impact overshadow intent in this way; what you meant to do and what the audience got out of it aren’t really connected, hard as you might try. There’s no be-all, end-all solution to this, because it’s not an easy problem to solve. It requires individual evaluation, an open dialogue, and a willingness to constantly reevaluate. Which is a long way to say: as a film, I really, really enjoyed The Hateful Eight. As a part of the culture, I kind of hate it.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino; written by Quentin Tarantino; starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and James Parks; 187 minutes.
The Hateful Eight is currently experiencing a wide release, as well as a limited release in a special 70mm roadshow version.