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Non-specific plot details discussed herein.

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight opens with a close shot of Christ’s face as he hangs on a cross; the frame widens to show us it’s a roadside crucifix somewhere in a desolate snowscape. Along that road sweeps a stagecoach bearing a bounty hunter—whose dual nature is revealed in his nickname, “the hangman,” and his surname, which is Ruth, meaning mercy—together with his prisoner, a murderer and thief.

The film so swiftly displaces the lingering shot of the stationary crucifix with the rush of the coach, which is seeking to beat a blizzard to shelter, that perhaps by the end of the film a viewer has forgotten the opening invitation to contemplate the image, and concept, of redemption-through-suffering. But that is where the movie starts, and also where it ends.

The opening shot looks a lot like the beginning of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, which also opens on a long close shot of a crucifix, this one in France during World War I—or rather, in the hours just after the armistice, when Fuller’s protagonist slays one more German before finding out his license to kill has expired.

Fuller’s movie is largely about how arbitrarily, but how completely, the declaration of war permits human slaughter. It mocks the idea of meaning emerging through violence; it mocks meaning altogether, I think. There is only survival and, where permitted, empathy. By invoking it—we know Tarantino admires Fuller, and shares some of his preoccupations—is the Hateful Eight doing the same?

Maybe; I think it may go further. In Fuller’s movie the hate between antagonists switches off instantly once the war ends. In Tarantino’s, the hate persists and intensifies after the war. Denied the outlet of legitimate killing, hate finds other ways to erupt. War gives way to guerrilla fighting, terrorism, outlawry; murder after murder.

For Tarantino, “war” here is specifically the US Civil War. In the film, the artifact embodying the myth of this war’s meaning is revealed literally to be a lie. The Christ crucified of the Civil War—Lincoln—has brought no redemption. Indeed the only “Redemption” in the offing—the end to any attempt at Reconstruction of the defeated South—will repudiate the purpose for which the war was fought.

Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction can only give its main characters what seems like a happy ending by twisting the order of the tale, and ending in (what the film lets us know is) the middle of the story. Apart from a fairly conventional flashback, The Hateful Eight proceeds more or less chronologically to its conclusion. That flashback shows us an evidently idyllic Minnie’s Haberdashery in the hours before the movie’s main action begins—a place where black and white people live in blissful harmony and women are in charge, driving the action.

On an uncareful reading, one might assume this flashback is supposed to tell us that the West really could have been a new and better society (it is, after all, Wyoming territory, the first to enact woman suffrage)—but Tarantino undercuts this illusion too, making Minnie’s hatred of Mexicans into a plot point. There was already a serpent in the garden then.

Straightened out, the film’s narrative begins with this false Eden and ends with a mocking Calvary. One of its most thoughtful monologues comes from Tim Roth’s character, who muses that justice demands that an executioner act without passion. A passion play ends with a crucifixion. This movie ends with another kind of execution, and none are saved.

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I recently re-watched Do the Right Thing and found the ending a little shocking. No, not the violent part – which has, sadly, only become more familiar in the quarter century since 1989 – but the actual last scene.

The morning after the movie’s climax, the camera shifts up and away from the street while in voiceover we hear the storefront DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson). He has served throughout the film as a kind of Greek chorus and now he’s the last voice we hear, after the assault and the murder and the burning of Sal’s, and he says … “Register to vote. The election is coming up.”

Which struck me, in 2015, as awfully anemic. Is that really the conclusion we’re meant to draw, after all that heat, after repeated invocations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X? Register and vote?

I wondered if maybe Jackson’s performance had thrown me off and made me expect more of Love Daddy than I should have. After all, Jackson’s real talent is for the veneer of geniality over the threat of violence (see Jules or, in a different register, Nick Fury) – for conveying hidden weight, in the manner of a lead-filled sap with a polished leather finish.

But those roles came later. Maybe Mister Señor Love Daddy is supposed to be a bit of a buffoon. After all, during the climax of the movie, the camera catches him in his window, and his response to the police turning firehoses on his neighbors is to yell and … change his hat. Maybe we’re supposed to see him as impotent, inept – the kind of guy who would, on reflection, respond to brutality by delivering the Polonian advice, “Register to vote.”

Or maybe Spike Lee meant it seriously. There’s evidence he does, or did. On the twentieth anniversary Blu-ray, you’ll find an interview in which Spike Lee mentions he wrote and filmed Do the Right Thing in the midst of Ed Koch’s administration – but now, he says, everything’s different.

Those were heady days, 2009, to be sure, when maybe elections could fill you with hope and change. But: enough to, in retrospect, justify that flat-footed ending? “Vote”? After a movie that began with Public Enemy urging, “Fight the Power!”, and whose first line of dialogue had Love Daddy himself shouting, “Wake up!”?

RIP Levon Helm, who was not only of course the voice of The Band, but also of The Right Stuff, the voice warning softly,

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

Helm also played Ridley, the trusted friend of Chuck Yeager, as depicted by Sam Shepard. I thought it was a kind of subversive genius, casting those two countercultural Dylan-associated types as these otherwise strait-laced American heroes.

As Pierce says, and as seems appropriate in this particular sidelight on Helm’s career, Godspeed.

Did anyone notice that Steve Rogers’s politics are basically those of PM?

Everybody knows Casablanca is a great work of art (and a great work of art generated by a Cornellian, at that). Everybody knows, too, that Casablanca was embedded in a particular historical moment, too – it served to vindicate the recent, necessarily wrenching American volte-face1 on the subject of Europeans and their war.

History also bled through to the screen in the movie’s best scene – the singing of the “Marseillaise”:

Casablanca was shot in 1941 during the German occupation of France, at a point where many questioned whether or not the United States would ever step in to help, [UPDATED: Not true. Though the play was written before US involvement.] when nobody knew how the whole thing was going to turn out.

And the scene included actors who, in real life, had a lot at stake. To shoot Casablanca as a believable port town, producers brought together one of the most ethnically diverse casts in film history, and a lot of these extras turned out to be Europeans who had fled to America to escape the Nazis — that is, they were basically real-life refugees. They had left homes, friends and families behind, and at this point really didn’t know if things could ever return to normal. Which makes us wonder if the director didn’t stage the whole war just to get that scene.

It’s the scene that makes Laszlo believable as a resistance leader: in front of the singing Nazis he orders the band, “Play the ‘Marseillaise’. Play it.” It’s the scene that justifies Rick’s decision at the end, which is based in part on self-knowledge – when Rick snaps “Play it,” it’s so he can wallow in nostalgia; when Laszlo snaps “Play it,” it’s so people will kill Nazis.

Casablanca: one of those rare things that’s really as good as everyone says it is.


1If I can’t use French in a post about Casablanca when can I?

Near the beginning of the new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, just after he gets kicked out of the Circus, George Smiley gets a new pair of glasses.1 In contrast to the horn-rims he’s been wearing, the new frames are squarish bifocals that magnify his eyes.2 They remind us Smiley has, in exile, become a watcher, rather than a player.3 He’s removed from the action, behind glass.

And throughout the movie, so are we. Read the rest of this entry »

Front to back: Sanger, sure; Carr; eh, okay; Letters, no; Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me, yes; Bruni, no, any of his restaurant reviews; Murphy, meh; McFadden, Tom Tomorrow is better; Seidel, no, “Fake semi-hipster sociology”; Shourd, yes, but also “Ohmigod, you mean bad things happen in the US, too? Who could have imagined? My stars”; Emanuel, no, “No one understands health care but me”; McGrath, no, having “Lindsay Lohan” tattooed on your forehead; Data Points, no, “Look! The ‘Fall of the Yuan Dynasty’ has critical and important implications for today’s world. Gee, we’re brainy”; Edsall, sure; Galston, no, reading other pieces advocating policies that will never, ever, ever, never get established in the US; Gessen, no, “Wow, those Russians are wacky. And the Chinese, too”; Editorials, Jesus Christ, no; Week Ahead, no, “Russians, Asians, and Ohioans are sure dangerous”; Kristof, sigh, no, reading John Dewey’s “The School and Social Progress“; Friedman, NOFUCKINGNO, Being held down while pages from The World is Flat are fed to you; Dowd, do I have really have to come up with a way to say no emphatically enough that your eyes water? Being stabbed in the brain with the stiletto heels of the Manolo Blahniks Dowd waxes on about as if they meant something and were not really the kind of consumerist name dropping porn that makes the Pulitzer Committee weep as they read and wonder about the process for revoking an award; Backhouse and Bateman, no, “Hey, we just noticed that economists have no idea what they’re saying”; Letters to the Public, no, “The Times is corrupt/compromised/besides the point/elitist”; Douthat, the kind of deep space NO that accelerates past light speed, confuses CERN scientists, and generally threatens the end of the universe, “Our elites are TOO smart, I’M NOT FUCKING KIDDING HE’S ACTUALLY SAYING THIS and that’s the root of all our problems, and those wise earthy Republican voters are seeking JESUS I THINK MY EYES ARE BLEEDING NOW instinctive humble leaders to take over, but oh sadness Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain,” Every single thing possible in all the universes.

A seven-year-old girl is killed by police in an ill-considered botched no-knock raid.

I’ll admit that it’s a non sequitur, and probably necessary for fair and balanced reporting since one of the foreseeable results of a flashbang grenade is lots of chaos and no one knowing what’s going on, which one would think might be a reason not to use grenades in duplexes, but the passive constructions used to describe the killing of the girl is driving me up the wall.

Apparently people don’t kill people, it’s just the officer’s gun firing.

This is actually an interesting article on newish research into the complexity of obesity, but the word “obesogen” is making me laugh.   Obesogens make you obese!  This sleeping pill is chock full of the dormitive virtue!

We need a tag for lame Scholastic jokes.

People keep pushing the 70-minute Phantom Menace video review at me. After all, Damon Lindelof thinks it’s great. And if you have seventy minutes and really don’t mind a creepy persona explaining to you why George Lucas messed up so badly, be my guest. For the record, though, my concern with the Star Wars prequels is not that they’re bad movies, they’re immoral stories. And it will take you less than seventy minutes to read why. And it will probably be less creepy.
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From the web edition of Jobs for Philosophers, put out by the American Philosophical Association:

306. SAINT MARY’S COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA, MORAGA, CA. POSTDOCTORAL RESIDENT, COUNSELING CENTER. Saint Mary’s College of California – Moraga, CA. For the 2010-2011 academic year. The Residency requires a 9.5 month, 5 day per week commitment in order to meet California licensing requirements of 1500 hours supervised postdoctoral experience. Qualifications: Psy.D, Ph. D. in Clinical/Counseling Psychology. College/University Counseling Center experience at practicum and/or internship level (desired). Fluency in Spanish (desired). Salary and benefits are competitive and subject to the availability of funding sources. Complete details are available at http://jobs.stmarys-ca.edu. Preferred deadline is 01/18/10. Open until filled. EOE. www.stmarys-ca.edu. (184W), posted 1/11/10

Yes, that’s right.  Once again, our esteemed national organization has accepted a listing for someone with a psychology degree. Wrong APA!  I’m sure there are charitable explanations, but my preferred non-charitable one is that the national organization is suffering from the same confusion as the typical acquaintance who hears a philosopher explain that he does philosophy and then asks if he’s allowed to prescribe Prozac or if he needs a medical degree to do that.

Ari tells me I’m the last person to notice this, but what the heck: it’s totally obvious that Disney’s Robin Hood is a fable for the modern American right wing, isn’t it? I mean, the Merry Men, these guys who are traditionally English yeomen, are instead depicted and voiced as country music-lovin’, church-goin’ good ol’ boys who just want them some tax rebates. No, really, Andy Devine’s Friar Tuck actually says “tax rebates.”

Want to push this reading untenably further? Notice that Robin Hood and Little John shrug off the idea of running up enormous debt while cutting back taxes. Notice Little John stoutly defends what’s clearly, within the narrative, a foolhardy military adventure as a “great crusade.”

This has been another edition of too-close readings.

So, now that nobody cares anymore, about that Star Trek movie.
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