The Hateful Eight, billed as "the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino", has opened in selected cities in 70mm format. I'd thought by this stage that some new young hungry film critics would have emerged who'd like to make their names by having a go at the aging enfant terrible. But, judging from the reviews, that does not seem to be the case. On the other hand, I gather there's some sort of boycott being mounted by those offended by Tarantino's recent remarks re black men who get shot by cops. It would be, as they say, ironic were the director to be damaged by a political stance he took off-screen, since as James Wood wrote in The Guardian two decades ago:
Tarantino represents the final triumph of postmodernism, which is to empty the artwork of all content, thus avoiding its capacity to do anything except helplessly represent our agonies... Only in this age could a writer as talented as Tarantino produce artworks so vacuous, so entirely stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest.
James Wood made his observation with regard to Pulp Fiction, but it has held up pretty reliably over the years. "Pulp fiction" used to mean a lurid style of American serial writing so-called because of the cheap quality of paper used. But I would imagine today that far more people recognize it as the name of a famous Tarantino movie than the genre he was riffing off. As a helpful dictionary entry at the start of the movie reminds us, "pulp" has two meanings: aside from the fiction style, it's also a "soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter". Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, a trio of gangster storylines told in mashed-up chronology, is not pulp in the first sense: writers at, say, The Black Mask (the hardboiled crime magazine, whose name Tarantino intended to borrow for his movie's title) favored heightened, pacey prose, tense plotting, surprise twists, cliffhanger endings. Quentin Tarantino inclines more towards that second definition: a soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter, its constituent parts smoothly mixed and purÃ©ed until the whole is as consistent as a light, fluffy scrambled egg â€” or, as French cinÃ©astes would say, a scrambled oeuvre. Most fiction is a question of weighting : this moment of high drama is more important than that moment of domestic banality. But, once Tarantino's pulped it, it all comes out the same: tense trigger-cocked stand-offs or long, querulous conversations about what's in a five-dollar milk shake. In 1994 the latter sequences passed instantly into the language as the acme of cool.
Normally in this sort of motion picture there's a point where, numbed by the prolonged trivialities, you duck out and take a leak only to find you've missed the key event. Tarantino, in what may be the ultimate conceit of post-modern film-making, saves you the trouble and has John Travolta visit the men's room for you â€” in real time, not once but thrice: one piss and two shits, as he explains. And, every time he's in there, he misses the key event: Uma Thurman (the gangster's moll) ODs on heroin, Bruce Willis (the punchy fighter who won't take a fall) returns suddenly to the apartment, and Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer (the punks on the lam) stick up the diner. The plot moves only when Travolta's bowels do. You never saw Cagney or Bogey or Edward G on the can having a pulp but, boldly, audaciously, Travolta gives you his runs for your money.
Is this a commentary on contemporary life? Oh, perish the thought: this picture doesn't raise any questions bigger than why the French call a quarter-pounder with cheese a Royale ("They got the metric system there. They don't know what the fuck a quarter- pounder is") or what the ingredients of a Big Kahuna Burger are. Tarantino described the script as arising from what happens when "genre characters" in "genre situations" collide with real life - like the need to go to the men's room. In almost any other context - the Santa elf or Disney princess dumped in modern-day New York - the critics would mock such impoverished ambition, but here it was the making of him: In the month Pulp Fiction opened, he generated more column inches than those pulp writers of the Thirties got in a lifetime.
The opening theme music sets the tone: halfway through the titles the song is jerked away as the radio re-tunes to another station. Thus, Tarantino appears to be making a point about an ADD "surfing" culture while, in fact, simply surfing off it. In a broader sense, the film's music embodies the limits of the director's invention: in the Eighties, many movie soundtracks prioritized old pop records over whoever had been hired to write the orchestral score, but Pulp Fiction took it to the next level; it's unusual not because it uses early Sixties surfing sub-culture songs but because it dispenses completely with any score at all. The entire film is "scored" only by Tarantino's ransacking of his record collection. This is innovative, but it's the innovation of a circular, self-referential culture that can no longer create but can only comment on what has already been created. He would raise this to near-art in Kill Bill, but near is as close as it gets.
Back in 1994, he'd only been a star for ten minutes, but already a certain over-egging of the pudding was necessary. It's not enough to be tortured by men in dark suits anymore; now it's hillbilly S&M sodomites trailing hooded, zippered slaves. If Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino's quarter-pounder â€” spare, clean, plenty of beef â€” Pulp Fiction was his Big Kahuna Burger: same basic design, but overlaid with novelty fruits. So, when Travolta and Uma Thurman visit a diner, it's a fabulous fantasy diner, where they sit indoors in a Fifties Chrysler to be served Douglas Sirk steaks by a Buddy Holly lookalike while Ed Sullivan and Marilyn Monroe host the floorshow. Brilliant: a pseudo-film set in a pseudo-diner. Back then, the controversy over this director was: Does he glamorize violence? Actually, in the famous Travolta/Thurman dance duet, he violates glamour, reducing American pop culture to a garish karaoke singalong of the real thing. As for the "violence" - the bits of exploded human tissue and whatnot - that's as smoothly pulped as elevator muzak: in that sense, Quentin Tarantino is the Mantovani of mayhem.