Tarantino’s Tension

In my opinion, Tarantino’s greatest gift as a screenwriter is his ability to generate tension by crafting genuinely open-ended set pieces. For me, the locus classicus is the scene in True Romance where James Gandalfini is interrogating and torturing Patricia Arquette. Even though Patricia Arquette is one of the primary characters, the viewer gets the sense that she really could die — not only in the moment, but in the context of the film as a whole. The outcome is not preordained, and that contributes to the triumph when she finally does overcome him.

There are countless setpieces like that in the films Tarantino actually directed. In fact, it’s fair to say that Tarantino is fundamentally a creator of setpieces rather than a builder of large-scale narratives. This is clearest in his most successful film, Pulp Fiction, where the different segments take place in the same narrative world without necessarily cohering into a single plot. The structure of Inglourious Basterds is very similar — everyone winds up in the same place in the end, but that represents the convergence of two separate plots to kill Hitler rather than the culmination of a unified narrative. When he needs to create an overarching plot, Tarantino tends to rely on genre conventions to do that work for him, as in Django Unchained.

And this brings me to my disappointment with Hateful Eight: there’s not enough of that Tarantino tension. The only classical setpiece is the face-off between Samuel L. Jackson’s character and the Confederate general. That scene, it seems to me, could have gone either way. Everything else is too preordained. You know everyone is going to die, and you don’t have enough investment in most of the characters to be genuinely curious as to how. Worst of all in this regard is the flashback that reveals the initial setup — it’s the opposite of a Tarantino scene, because you know precisely what will happen.

I’m willing to be convinced that Tarantino is doing all of this on purpose in the service of some greater aesthetic goal. Indeed, I hope that someone has a theory in that regard, because it would help to “save” the film for me by making it interesting — but I’m just not sure anything could make it seem as intuitively entertaining and enjoyable as Tarantino’s best.

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Why a Star Trek film would never work

Making a Star Trek film was always a strange project. Both the original series and Next Generation were meandering affairs, with few clear villains and many episodes with confusing premises. The movies have been many different things — sometimes fan service (Search for Spock), sometimes glorified children’s fare (Voyage Home), and sometimes little more than a way to give paying work to series regulars (The Undiscovered Country, Generations, Insurrection, Nemesis). There are films in the franchise that attempt to do essentially a really long episode with better special effects, above all the first (The Motion Picture), which closely followed the plot of an original series episode (“The Changeling”). And sometimes they’ve been embarrassing indulgences (The Final Frontier). At their best, though, they have combined a clear villain with a conscious awareness of the questionability of the undertaking.

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Why do the Gremlins love Snow White?

gremlins watching snow white

It’s a strange moment. The Gremlins, having eaten after midnight and turned from teddy bears into evil reptilian creatures, find themselves in a movie theater. Suddenly, Snow White starts playing — and they are transfixed. They all sing in unison along with the seven dwarves: “Hi ho!” Indeed, their love of Snow White proves to be their undoing, as their absorption in the movie is what ultimately allows them to be defeated when the protagonists start a fire, burning down the theater.

The use of Snow White cannot be random. Gremlins was not produced by Disney, and so the producers had to pay extra to use the film. But what does it mean? Read the rest of this entry »

Cath Kidston as Utopia

In the essay “Utopia as Replication”, Jameson suggests we consider Walmart as an example of how “the most noxious phenomena can serve as the repository and hiding place for all kinds of unsuspected wish-fulfilments and utopian fantasies”. Jameson intends this as a bit of a provocation, but I wonder if Walmart isn’t actually too easy a choice for the “paradoxical affirmation” of “what is most exploitative and dehumanizing in the working life of capitalism”. Walmart’s vastness of scale and remorselessness give it an aesthetic alibi, allying it with a tradition of modernist creative destruction which is likely to be attractive, at least to the sort of people who read Jameson. To really follow through Jameson’s project of unearthing the “utopian impulse”, we need to consider an aspect of capitalism that is not just exploitative but also in bad taste; for a certain strand of contemporary opinion, that would be “twee”, the kind of cutesily-retro faux-petit-bourgeois capitalism of cupcake shops and Cath Kidston.

We need, that is to say, a dialectical appreciation of twee. There is an indie lineage that runs from The Smiths to Keep Calm and Carry On posters, and we need to explain both how it is that The Smiths are David Cameron’s favourite band and how this lineage was the basis of a genuinely oppositional subculture (“twee as fuck”). Tom Gann suggests that the utopian core within twee is “gentleness”, which sounds right, or at least part of the answer, but I want to consider a couple of slightly different aspects, although ones which might end up themselves adding up to a certain type of gentleness. The occasion for my thinking about twee is having recently seen Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film turns out to be in large part a painstaking defence by Anderson of his work, and, because Anderson is often criticised as twee, this defence is also inevitably a defence of twee. Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday Movie: Haneke’s The Seventh Continent

Thanks, biblioklept.

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Antigone and Abraham in Melancholia

One of the most striking scenes in Melancholia comes when Justine and Claire step outside the mansion to see the sky lit up by two large heavenly bodies: the moon and the planet Melancholia. Claire suddenly notices that Justine is missing, and when she finds her, Justine is splayed out nude, basking in the uncanny light. This is a striking contrast to Justine’s previous behavior — during the wedding sequence, she can muster up no desire for her new husband, and when she takes aside a young man and has sex with him, it is more an expression of dominance and spite than lust. In the second half of the movie, she has difficulty sustaining any kind of affect whatsoever, recoiling from a warm bath and declaring that a favorite meal tastes like ashes. Yet here she is, responding to the prospect of the world’s annihilation with unmistakable erotism.

This scene serves, for me at least, as a kind of “quilting point” tying Melancholia to the story of Antigone. Read the rest of this entry »

Painting on film: A minor observation on Melancholia

Bruegel - Hunters in the Snow

Last night, The Girlfriend and I rewatched Melancholia and cast an analytical eye on the opening sequence. (I would include a video here, but the only YouTube versions I can find have alternate music, which makes me kind of sick to my stomach.) Many of the scenes in this abstract prelude are in extreme slow-motion — for instance, in one Charlotte Gainsbourg is carrying her son across one of the golf greens, and you can only faintly tell that the flag is blowing in the wind and the boy’s arm is moving. The Girlfriend observed that the presence of motion actually makes it more like a painting than if it were a still shot, and after teaching art for a few weeks, I can’t help but agree. The kind of motion portrayed in the scene with the golf green is exactly what a traditional painting would try to imply. Traditional paintings aren’t really “snapshots” of an isolated moment in time, but attempt to create the impression of a flow of time or sequence of events — to portray a whole historia, as Alberti would say — just as they use perspective techniques to create the experience of a space contiguous with the viewer’s.

One might think that technically proficient paintings from the early modern era were anticipating the photograph, but I think Lars von Trier is showing us that they were actually anticipating an extremely slow film. He reinforces this connection by actually introducing a painting into the sequence of images, indeed one of the first that Kirsten Dunst’s character selects when she angrily trades in her sister’s calm modernist paintings for less refined representational paintings. Perhaps we can even hear the recurrent Tristan motif as a particularly “painting-like” piece of music. Already Wagner stretches things out far beyond the usual compressed and rapid pace of classical music, and piling repetition on top of that only emphasizes the effect. It’s as though the slow emergence of the infamous Tristan chord is transposed into the same kind of slow-motion painting we see in the opening sequence.

Now I wonder if we can read this painterliness into the end of the film as well — if the collision with the planet Melancholia is somehow the perfect subject for a painting even as it marks the impossibility of any future painting. We hear repeatedly how beautiful the (supposed) near-miss with Melancholia will be, and of course all of the scenes portrayed in the opening evoke that moment. It’s as though von Trier is trying to turn his whole film into the subtle implied motion of the painted cloth blowing in the wind or the painted tensed muscle, but instead of opening out onto an idealized (or at least stylized) painterly world, his film-painting definitively closes down all possibility of worldhood.

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