On the Monoculture, with regard to “The Hateful Eight” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Consider: As of Decmber 31, 2015, The Hateful Eight holds a 77% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens holds a 94%. Why?

The two are very different films. The Hateful Eight is ostensibly a Western, ultimately a verbose piece of whodunit dinner theater. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a bloodless space opera. While both are throwbacks to antiquated styles of filmmaking (or wish to be perceived as such), they represent opposite ends of the continuum. The most important difference to understand is this: The Hateful Eight is a hand-wrought film, the product of one man’s mind, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a commodity manufactured by a content conglomerate. Eight exists because it must; Star Wars exists to increase value for Disney shareholders.

Given that, it should be expected that critics are more fond of The Hateful Eight than of Star Wars. And yet they are not. Why?

The Hateful Eight is not easily enjoyable. The film is three hours long, begins with an overture showcasing Ennio Morricone’s stomping score, pauses for an intermission just as the fireworks begin. Plot is driven exclusively thru dialogue for the first one hundred minutes; the film is “read” more than “watched.” Tarantino takes pleasure in taking his time – with shots, revelations, shootings.

These are all merits. With The Hateful Eight, QT has reached the logical conclusion of his fetishization of film history. The picture is not an emulation of classical studio epics, it is one. It is shot (and projected – more on this shortly) on vivid 70mm, with 2.76:1 super super wide Ultra Panavision lenses. DP Robert Richardson photographs Minnie’s Haberdashery at the same epic scale as the vast expanses of snowbound Wyoming wilderness – think McCabe & Mrs. Miller with the production budget of The Searchers. The country looks like a Hudson River Valley painting in motion. You learn the geography of Minnie’s; the space feels truly inhabited. Gregg Toland’s influence continues to this day, long takes walked like tightropes, unreal dual focus shots illustrating every inch of the frame. An ensemble of eminent professionals delivers Tarantinoisms as passionately as ever. Costumes are impeccable. There simply was not a more well-made film this year.

But it’s not easily enjoyable. The Hateful Eight is a difficult film to parse. There’s a lot going on – in the frame, in the plot, in the minds of these characters. The titular eight are at once broad symbols and fully realized human beings. The dynamic between characters shifts constantly, nowhere more than with Sam Jackson and Walton Goggins, both of whom turn in career performances. The film is relentlessly violent as it builds towards the conclusion. Some of the imagery borders on disturbing, the final punchline especially.

This is all by design. Tarantino has something to say about his country here. He uses archetypes – the bitter Confederate, the son of the soldier, the bounty hunter – to lay out a vision of the nation, diagnose its ills, and point to a possible way forward. It’s political and, as nihilistic as it can seem at points, ultimately hopeful. But it isn’t all spelled out for the audience in bold Comic Sans. Again, it’s read more than watched. And you have to read the thoughts and actions of eight piece of shit motherfuckers to figure it all out. Yeah, it’s murder, mutilation, and the word “nigger.” But it makes you think.

And then there is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. An exercise in nostalgia if there ever was one, the most easily enjoyed film of the year; a film designed by a battalion of screenwriters, editors, VFX guys, data interpreters, focus groups, JJ Abrams, and Bob Iger with the express purpose of being enjoyed easily. They’ve achieved their goal. The Force Awakens is a master class in giving ’em what they want.

The film begins with a battle, proceeds to neatly mete out another every fifteen to twenty minutes. They are held in familiar locations – desert planet, forest planet, ice planet – and tied together with the thinnest scraps of plot, the bare minimum needed to string together a semi-coherent narrative. Familiar things happen: an adorable droid wanders the desert planet with a vitally important MacGuffin, the leads stumble onto it and escape the First Order (née Empire) on the Millennium Falcon, one is captured. A desperate, implausibly easy assault is launched, an old favorite is struck down by a new villain, a massive globular superweapon is destroyed by one fatal flaw, and good triumphs over evil – for now.

That summarizes Star Wars (1977) just as well as it does The Force Awakens. The latter’s narrative is a shameless reskinning of the former’s. Direct lines can be drawn from story beat to story beat, and with a bit of character trait mix and match, Luke, Leia, and Han Solo become Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. The more known the quantity, the more easily enjoyed. It’s the basis for the entire Hollywood business model now, the connected universe. You give ’em what they want, and then you give ’em more.

It’s all quite competently done. The score is rousing enough, if not as memorable as the prequel trilogy’s (John Williams is 83 years old). Performances are good. Adam Driver makes for a compelling Sith lord. The film looks decent – Abrams shot on 35mm before stitching in all the computer effects, “to preserve the look of the originals” or somesuch. But economic necessity dictates that the film be exhibited on DCP, so why shoot on film in the first place? It’s an empty gesture to the Star Wars faithful, a mea culpa for the new, decidedly less-successful direction the prequels took. “Look, here it is just how you want it, just like it used to be.” Gross missteps are avoided completely.

So is anything new, anything remotely compelling. The trappings are all there: X-wings, Lightsabers, Chewbacca. But the trappings are all there are. The Force Awakens is pieced together out of everything you used to love. It’s a greatest hits album. We’re going thru the same motions we did in 1977, it just looks better this time. “Ok, sure, but why?” is the question to be asked. Abrams and company have no answer.

As of this writing, Star Wars: The Force Awakens holds an 81% on review aggregator Metacritic. The Hateful Eight holds a 69%. Why?

Certainly not because The Force Awakens is a better film. It may be more enjoyable/more easily enjoyed, which would explain an audience’s preference. But in every way, so far as the two are comparable, The Hateful Eight is superior. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic aggregate the reviews of professional film critics, women and men who are ostensibly comfortable viewing and interpreting difficult films. We should expect their opinions of the superior film to be higher than those of the inferior film, even if the superior film is especially difficult (which The Hateful Eight is not). And yet it is the other way around. And so we must conclude that the two films are being critiqued on measures other than quality.

Common talking points have emerged. The length of The Hateful Eight is pointed out often, especially with regard to its idiosyncrasies. The Verge’s Tasha Robinson calls the overture “pretentious.” Todd VanDer Werff, in a three out of five review for Vox, says it’s “unnecessary,” casually adding, “oh yeah, The Hateful Eight is almost three hours long!”

Critics also seem to have had difficulty interpreting the film’s meaning, which they mark as a strike against. A. O. Scott, in the New York Times:

Some of the film’s ugliness is therefore a sign of integrity, and of relevance. But much of it seems dumb and ill considered, as if Mr. Tarantino’s intellectual ambition and his storytelling discipline had failed him at the same time.

Vox’s VanDer Werff:

You know what things are supposed to look like, and you have a pretty good sense of how the full picture comes together, but you’re missing just enough information to feel like something’s not quite right.

Robinson seems to take exception to the fact that the film was even made by Tarantino:

We’ve been dealing with Tarantino’s gleeful gorehound side for more than 20 years. If he really does decided to retire in the near future, here’s hoping he’s able to put it to rest sometime before then.

Evidently she believes the film could have been improved by being more similar to others.

Issues have been raised with The Force Awakens as well, mostly with regards to the film’s familiarity. Vox’s VanDer Werff, in a four out of five review, says “it’s hard to escape the idea that the film is a remix of something else, an attempt to rework story elements that felt more original elsewhere.” The AV Club’s A. A. Dowd, who gives the film a B, states it “borrows so much from the 1977 original — environments, relationship dynamics, action scenes, even a basic plot structure — that it often resembles a remake as much as a straight sequel.” Others, such as Motherboard’s Derek Mead, note the issue but pay it little mind, claiming “all the blunt in-jokes eventually take a back seat to a film that is both designed to reestablish Star Wars’s bonafides and open up an entirely new saga.”

Design is a key concept here. The Force Awakens fails for precisely that reason – it was not made, but rather assembled. Dowd’s review prods at the issue (“There’s a very good chance that most diehard Star Wars fans are going to love The Force Awakens. They’re going to love it because it’s been made to their exact specifications, relayed through years of constructive criticism and very vocal bellyaching.”), but most overlook it, if they confront it at all. Even in Vox’s “Critics are going too easy on Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which attempts to retcon the site’s positive review and copious continuous coverage, the author undercuts his entire argument by concluding, “Anyway, for what it’s worth, I give the movie a B+ on second viewing.” When it comes to Star Wars, critics seem to be frightened or otherwise unwilling to do their job.

Elsewhere, The Force Awaken’s gender (and to a tellingly lesser extent, racial) politics have been universally praised. That the new ensemble would include just one woman was noted immediately upon initial casting announcements, inspiring the classic thinkpiece “Hey Star Wars -- Where the Hell Are The Women?” The wave of facile internet fury that followed led Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to “transform” Captain Phasma, a shiny Stormtrooper with approximately five lines of dialogue, from a man to a woman.

Her existence, along with that of Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Maz Kanata, an androgynous orange computer creature voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, is celebrated in virtually every review. Manohla Dargis for the New York Times:

[Abrams’] most far-reaching accomplishment here is casting Mr. Isaac, Mr. Boyega and Ms. Ridley — a Latino, a black man and a white woman — in this juggernaut series. It’s too early to know how this will play out as the whole thing evolves, but the images of Mr. Boyega and Ms. Ridley each holding a lightsaber are among the most utopian moments in a Hollywood movie this year.

David Edelstein, Vulture:

Many critics over the years have complained that Lucas’s is a boys’ universe, but nowadays princesses fight their own battles — with lightsabers.

Ridley’s character in particular has inspired a host of cheerleading thinkpieces focused on the fact that she is indeed a capable human being who happens to be a woman. Vanity Fair proclaims “Star Wars: The Force Awakens’s Rey Is the Bechdel-Busting Intergalactic Hero We Were Promised.” The Verge ran a piece with the puzzling title “With Star Wars’ Rey, we’ve reached Peak Strong Female Character.” Casey Cipriani, in a Bustle post entitled “Why Rey In ‘The Force Awakens’ Is The Feminist Hero We’ve All Been Waiting For,” states plainly, “Rey is everything a feminist could want in a Star Wars movie.”

Call it focus group feminism – ask, internet, and ye shall receive. Whatever is best for the cultural narrative, and in turn box office results, is best for the film. This particular moment in time demands acknowledgement from Hollywood’s power elite that women are people too. Make no mistake, it is a good and necessary thing that the cast of a major studio blockbuster include women and people of color. But it feels like a hollow victory when the move is so transparently patronizing, so clearly financially motivated. That only one woman (Lucasfilm jefe Kathleen Kennedy) is counted amongst the film’s eleven credited producers is apparently insignificant.

And here is where Tarantino ultimately loses the battle. The Hateful Eight stars precisely one woman and one person of color (or two, if Demian Bichir is counted in a supporting role). The white male leads act brutally, reprehensibly toward Sam Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh – just as one might expect of killers and ex-Confederates snowed in on the American frontier. Tarantino has specifically written it this way:

When John Ruth cracks [Daisy Domergue] over the head that very first time, you feel this ripple going through the audience – because it almost does seem like one of the last taboos left. You’re supposed to say, ‘Oh my God. John Ruth is a brutal bastard!’ That is what you’re supposed to say. I want your allegiances, to one degree or the other, to shift slightly as the movie goes on, and frankly, depending on where you’re coming from.

In this sense, he has succeeded spectacularly. The ultimate hero of The Hateful Eight begins as perhaps the most hateful, a throwaway caricature who only begins to reveal redeeming qualities well into the second hour. Black comedy blends seamlessly into utterly nihilistic violence, confounding the audience’s established expectations. That Jennifer Jason Leigh is a woman does not preclude her from her fair share of beatings – beatings which, were her part rewritten as, say, Dale Domergue, the audience would find well-deserved. Tarantino is a contrarian and a teller of truths. The outrage he elicits is purposeful; it’s not the film one finds objectionable, but rather its subjects. Which is to say, it’s us.

That’s not good enough for arbiters of the monoculture. Value-based judements seep into nearly every piece of criticism. Liberal use of the word “nigger” is difficult for many to stomach. Vulture’s Edelstein calls it “Tarantino’s patented promiscuous use of the N-word.” The Verge goes much further:

The big exception comes in Tarantino’s dreary, repetitive use of the word “nigger.” It’s still his favorite go-to for shock effect, though he’s long since reached the point where he’s worn it down to an embarrassing personal tic. He’s insisted to the press that The Hateful Eight is about the impact of institutionalized racism, and that the film connects in a real and vital way to modern racial conflicts. But that doesn’t hold water, given how shallowly and smugly he addresses the issue. Jackson gets one telling, touching speech, but for the most part, the exploration of racial tension in Hateful Eight consists of the entire cast repeatedly putting Warren in his place while he stews over the abuse.

This is an utter misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight’s white men (and woman) are reflections, our shared history given stylized voice and visage. As bad as this country is today, it was much, much worse not too long ago. It may be difficult to reconcile one’s Facebook activism with the fact that one’s grandparents were virulent racists, and that their grandparents before them actual slave owners, but that doesn’t mean it ought not be confronted. The word “nigger” has been a casual fact of life for millions of black women and men. Those who would object to its usage in The Hateful Eight are the same who would seek to censor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They seek to whitewash America’s blood red past. It is a dishonest and cowardly effort.

The film’s treatment of women presents an even larger issue (here it is worth nothing that four of eight credited producers are women). A. O. Scott calls it “an orgy of elaborately justified misogyny.” Vox’s VanDer Werff:

…there are numerous points in The Hateful Eight where it seems like Daisy is simply present so that all involved can work out some rage issues against women. The film all but suggests, for instance, that men of different races might be divided by racism, but can at least bond over a shared disgust with women.

That very well may be what Tarantino is suggesting. It’s undoubtedly a compelling argument, that we hold greater allegiance to our anatomy than the color of our skin. But why take exception to that? Why criticize the film for containing uncomfortable, disagreeable, thought-provoking ideas? It is the critic’s right to disagree with Tarantino’s views, but to judge the film’s quality based on whether or not those views align with their own? That’s groupthink. That’s monoculture – the urge to purge every voice of dissidence, anything and everything anybody could conceivably find objectionable in any way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a competent film, but it is not a good film. The Hateful Eight is a virtuosic vision. That is how I see it without accounting for values one way or the other. What a film has to say and whether it is any good are entirely separate matters. Whether it has anything to say at all – sure, judge the meek, milquetoast products of financially-motivated conservatism harshly. But the critic is not to allow their prejudices to impact their qualitative assessment. How else could we appreciate The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Triumph of the Will, even Taxi Driver?

This generation has developed a taste for the simple, the simply “fine,” shit which asks no more of us than fifteen dollars and two hours of our time. Inoffensiveness is the ultimate virtue. Fuck that.