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The Unmaking Of America: What Tarantino And Salinger Have In Common

19/01/2016 8:38 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 11: Writer/director Quentin Tarantino speaks onstage at Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight' panel during Comic-Con International 2015 at the San Diego Convention Center on July 11, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

In the 1960s, J.D. Salinger was the darling of the American literature world. In him, they had found their indigenous, homespun giant with an authentic

"American voice". He was loved and hated, his books were prescribed and banned, and The New Yorker was granting him almost entire editions to publish his work. Yet no one quite knew what to make of his last few published pieces and there was a general anxiety in literary circles as to what he was trying to achieve. Most commentators and critics focused on his obscure prose and obsession with morbid themes, and reported that he was not quite the force he was in his earlier works.

In many ways, Quentin Tarantino is the Salinger of cinema of our times, universally celebrated and spoken about. Infinite commentaries have been written about his craft, the violence, the dialogues, the narrative technique, etc. But now, the entire generation of cinema connoisseurs who have grown up on his work, who have looked up to him as their personal rockstar-prophet are now wondering which the direction his body of work is growing towards. It has been some years since a Tarantino film came out and the reviewers made any credible sense of it.

One wonders if like that other eccentric "American voice" under the harsh glare of the circus and the spotlight, Tarantino too has decided to forsake playing to the galleries...

No one is quite sure of what to make of The Hateful Eight, much in the same way, the reviewers were unsure whether to celebrate or deride Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. In most reviews, one finds them taking a middle path -- lauding some aspect of the film, but concluding overall, that it was perhaps not his best work and that he has begun falling victim to his own legend.

In one of Salinger's later works, the double-novella Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, the reclusive legend humbly addresses a specific type of person in his dedication: "If there is an amateur reader still left in the world -- or anybody who just reads and runs..." The others, the galleries and the literary circles, were not dear to him. And once he finished his long-winding Glass family saga, he retired. Over the next 45 years of his life, he never published another word and eventually died as an enigmatic recluse.

Tarantino has already announced that he plans to retire after his 10th film. One wonders if like that other eccentric "American voice" under the harsh glare of the circus and the spotlight, Tarantino too has decided to forsake playing to the galleries and step forth to create a syntax for the "amateur-viewer", and leave with her with a visual grammar beyond the cliches of cinemadom reviews and hackneyed analysis. And if so, what is his legacy? What is he building up to?

Tarantino's appetite for voraciously consuming cinema from the decades spanning across cultures, and theorizing upon it, is legendary. It makes him one of the most astute theorists of cinema, and as a practitioner of the craft himself, he is best placed to understand the lacunae in the filmic imagination of American cinema. Having mastered the art of the narrative and the mise-en-scène in his early classics Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1 &2, it would seem that the maestro's oeuvre is going for the greater gods. Beyond the narrative-storytelling, Tarantino is audaciously attempting to remake an entire imagination of conceptualising "'images". And in doing so, he is attempting to remake what "being American" means.

Beyond the narrative-storytelling, Tarantino is audaciously attempting to remake an entire imagination of conceptualising "'images". And in doing so, he is attempting to remake what "being American" means.

In an era where Slavoj Žižek is suggesting that the political correctness of the "West" is the biggest instrument of violence, where Louis CK is calling out newsreaders for saying the "N-word" instead of "nigger" -- Tarantino is going about creating a library of images and sequences which force and shock White America to come face to face with its repressed past. And if the events of Ferguson are anything to go by, it is an endeavour that is the crying need for the times.

The Hateful Eight is an unqualified triumph in that sense. In a tightly choreographed chamber drama (does he have the mastery of the narrative or what?), Tarantino brings together the ghosts of the American past and makes them stare at the face of the Black man. In the richly penned characters that abound this drama, if one listens carefully, one can hear strains of contemporary American commentary cutting across the political spectrum. (Warning: Spoiler alert) And the last image of the film leaves us with a White rightwing confederate and Black bounty-hunter from the war sharing a laugh over a fake Lincoln letter -- the promise of racial unity in the US, hanging by the thread of a false promise. They laugh after hanging a woman, whose story and life we know nothing about. A nod surely to deeply sexist American society where men, Black or White, will make common cause to shut out the stories of women. (End of Spoiler)

[O]ne can almost see Tarantino make his way into the sunset chuckling at the circus whose hypocrisy he's dismantling even as they wonder who the joke is finally on.

That such thinking is not mere conjecture may be concluded on the basis of the fact that Tarantino himself has already clarified several times that he is interested in creating a cinema of "cathartic violence". Hence, for the connoisseurs of narrative-storytelling, his last few films will be puzzling. And indeed, if one approaches The Hateful Eight with the expectations of a narrative that will push one's sensibilities in the way his earlier works did, then the result will be a disappointment. The stale, confused reviews are therefore not surprising. However, if one were to put on the hat of that "amateur-viewer" who watches and runs, perhaps the film will leave questions, images and sequences that will expose the naked ugliness of the American promise.

And just like Salinger, who cast a garish light on American consumerist optimism and disappeared in the wake of the galleries wondering what he was up to -- one can almost see Tarantino make his way into the sunset chuckling at the circus whose hypocrisy he's dismantling even as they wonder who the joke is finally on.

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