Saturday, October 1, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "The Hateful Eight" (2015)

Scene from The Hateful Eight
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

The Hateful Eight (2015)
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Running Time: 197 minutes
Summary: In the dead of a Wyoming winter, a bounty hunter and his prisoner find shelter in a cabin currently inhabited by a collection of nefarious characters.

The Movie

There are few directors from the 1990's as eccentric and singular as Quentin Tarantino. While best known for Pulp Fiction, he has made a career out of redefining archetypes and cinematic tropes. In his most recent films, he has started to tackle more political themes such as racism. This was most evident in Django Unchained, where the film infamously used racial slurs to excess. He has become a provocateur in his old age as well as a full on western enthusiast. Following Django Unchained, he made his first traditional western with The Hateful Eight: a film that is best seen as a dinner murder mystery, albeit with more violence, misogyny, racism, and grotesque imagery. At over three hours, it is probably the director's most difficult film simply on an enjoyment level, especially considering the unconventional nature in which the slow burn doesn't have an attention-grabbing twist until two hours in. 

It is this type of confidence that signifies Tarantino as a writer. He thrives on self-indulgence, and often makes films that reflect this for better or worse. The Hateful Eight is as much a self-indulgent film as it is a commentary on America's modern racial climate. The film uses telling imagery, such as a "Lincoln Letter" that defines Major Warren's (Samuel L. Jackson) freedom. Still, there's disbelief and tension throughout, and the film definitely wants you to hate everyone on screen. If nothing else, it's the only way to appreciate the dark humor that envelopes in the abusive nature of its characters. It is by no means an easy film nor one that most will enjoy. However, it is the most significant of Tarantino's shifting fascination not with style, but with substance. How much substance you believe to be underneath is speculative.

The Hateful Eight likely will be considered a secondary Tarantino film due to its desire to borrow from western directors like Sam Peckinpah instead of friendlier faces like Howard Hawks. It isn't the worst thing, but it embodies a shift between a pleasing auteur into a director who wants to turn history into a creative context for public discussion. He may not be as literate in activism as his peers, but the film definitely shoots for the moon in ways that are fascinating and isolating. The story of its incarnation alone is a baffling tale of the world trolling Tarantino, of which it refused to give up on until the very end. Most of it wasn't his fault. However, it does make the film the most likely to deserve a book based around its production.

The Campaign

The Hateful Eight began as a sequel to Django Unchained in a novel called "Django in White Hell." However, the story began to shift and Django wasn't going to fit into the context that was inspired by TV series like Bonanza and The Virginian. By late 2013, he had a screenplay finished. Then in January of 2014, it leaked online. It halted the production indefinitely, causing Tarantino to substitute the film with a "one night only" live table read at the United Artist Theater. He eventually sued Gawker over the matter with most of the eventual cast - of whom were announced almost a year after the initial cancellation - taking credit for the leak. 

Tarantino announced that Ennio Morricone would be composing the score: a first for any Tarantino film. In October of 2015, a few months before the film's release, the director attended a Black Lives Matter to decry police brutality. His anger left an impression, causing a temporary boycott by police of The Hateful Eight. Along with setting Morricone up for his potential Oscar nomination and first win, he spent interviews praising co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh, calling her a Bette Davis type. It was also during this time that he proposed two versions of the movie. An extended "Roadshow" cut would play in limited release during the Christmas season before the original was released in January. The plan was that the Roadshow cut wouldn't be seen on any home video and that the Roadshow version would have more of a theatricality. To his credit, the Roadshow cut was in 70 mm and became the widest 70 mm release in 20 years. However, his goal to play in the Cinerama Dome at the Arc Light Theater failed when Disney planned to show Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a move that "hurt him emotionally."

The boycotting police claimed that it was a box office bomb because it didn't perform as well as Tarantino's previous works. While the latter is true, it earned over 10x its budget internationally. Yet the other hurdles were only beginning to arise. A week before the film was set to open, The Hateful Eight became victim to a series of online screener leaks that included Carol, The Revenant, Brooklyn, Straight Outta Compton, and Creed. It didn't damage box office too incredibly, but marked the latest moment when online culture trolled Tarantino's film by sabotaging its chances. Along with a drunken acceptance speech at the Golden Globes for Morricone's Best Original Score win, The Hateful Eight was starting to look like a train wreck for the prestigious markets.

The film suffered other backlash, especially for its racial and gender politics. The excessive violence and disregard for human well being helped the film receive some of the director's most negative reviews. This was especially true in the case of Leigh's character, who was physically abused for comedic sake. All the while Tarantino suggested that it was purposeful and that it all fit into a grander narrative. Some would suggest that, despite having limited diversity, it was a tale of modern America. Whatever the case may be, it was a film that brought controversy both in themes and in execution. The fact that he directed it finally was enough to consider it an achievement. The fact that he's still planning to adapt it into a stage version puts it over the top.

The Payoff

Compared to Tarantino's previous two films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight may as well have bombed. It didn't get Tarantino any nomination for Best Picture, Best Director, or even Best Original Screenplay: three fields that he had been included in almost frequently. With only three nominations, his most politically charged film to date may have struck the wrong nerves with voters. While his embrace of film likely is what got him to the nomination circles, it is telling that the divisive film wasn't honored in most capacity for its ambitious structure or eccentric performances. In fact, it became baffling that in a year where Oscars So White was largely seen as an issue that critics favorite Samuel L. Jackson failed to get nominated. While Tarantino's Bette Davis comparisons likely helped Leigh get into the circles for a rude, unapologetic performance, it wasn't enough for a film that was quintessentially about acting.

The film's only win was for Best Original Score. While, like Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), it could be seen as a legacy win; there were talks that Morricone's win was in part because he would show up. The score was no slouch, but paled in comparisons to the legendary composer's other work. Considering that there were misunderstood rumors that Morricone hated Tarantino during production on Django Unchained, it's a miracle that the score turned out halfway decent. Considering that Tarantino had previously gotten drunk and called iconic historical composers "ghetto," it was also a miracle that he was even invited to the ceremony in the first place.

Most (like myself) consider The Hateful Eight a frustratingly singular film. This is actually a good thing, as it marks the achievements of what cinema could be. While it isn't likely to have as revered a legacy as Pulp Fiction or even Django Unchained, it does have quite the story behind its rise from page to screen. If nothing else, it sets an impressive bar for the burden that Tarantino must go through to get his work out there. Maybe he should just avoid westerns. Maybe he should have made another film. Whatever the case may be, The Hateful Eight is a fascinatingly divisive film that failed with the sloppiest, most confusing trajectory imaginable. The only silver lining is that the film was recognized at all.

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