Saturday, January 2, 2016

On Justice and Hatred

I had an online discussion at Dawg's Blawg about the primary theme of Tarantino's newest film, The Hateful Eight, and it got a bit too provocative to manage a sincere response in the window of a comment, so I brought it here. Unfortunately I can't discuss the ideas without spoiling the film, so do see it first before continuing to read. This is a movie you won't want spoiled.


The film traps ten characters in a cabin in the middle of a blizzard: two bounty hunters, a prisoner, a Sheriff, a General, four disguised gang members out to free the prisoner (one in hiding), and the coach driver. The coach driver, O.B., clearly doesn't count in the hateful eight, but it's debatable which miscreant is excluded from the tally. The movie poster above suggests the hidden outlaw doesn't rate regardless his acts of violence, but John Ruth is the only one that doesn't actually shoot anyone.

First of all, a few things stood out to me as I watched. The film celebrates ruggedness and tenacity. Daisy, the prisoner, garners our respect for being able to take a punch with a wicked little smile. She is one tough cookie. The bounty hunters argue over the merits of John Ruth's insistence on taking prisoners in alive for the hangman as opposed to Major Warren's refusal to work harder than necessary for the same pay. I'm not convinced Ruth is more moral, but that he better enjoys the game of bringing his work to its final conclusion, perhaps of toying with his prey. But this lengthy discussion serves to open the question of the right way to complete a despicable act such as watching a woman die, which, I'd argue, primes the audience to consider the type of morality necessary within a sphere of the kind of harsh reality expected of this setting. This is key.

O.B. is the only soft character in the bunch. He can barely tolerate the cold much less any violence. He's the designated "bitch" of the group, sent on errands he barely manages. One outlaw kindly offers him food, but a little later another poisons him. His softness warrants him no favours.

The film also celebrates cunning. The Sheriff is on to Warren and outs his Lincoln-letter ruse to the cabin, but later he commends the little touches included in the piece of writing. There are all sorts of cleverness and sneaky goings-on here.

Also notable to me was the spotlight cast on the many documents of import: the Lincoln-letter, the bounty hunters' respective warrants, and the faux hangman's order of execution. These acted as proof of the acceptable boundaries of their brutal behaviours and the respect duly afforded to them.

There were curious little loyalties among the group, spoken or unspoken contracts. The outlaws were tight and purposeful. The General was keeping their secret on a promise of being released at the end. The two bounty hunters made a deal to watch over either other's bounty. And Ruth and Daisy, although the most brutal relationship, show a camaraderie from time to time, like when he genially offered her a shot of whiskey and drinks with her.

One of the gang members, Oswaldo, playing the part of a licensed hangman, gave a speech about the necessity of cool heads in the pursuit of justice. He argues that the hangman's impartiality is what makes a hanging moral: "The good part about frontier justice is it’s very thirst-quenching. The bad part is, it’s apt to be wrong as right." It's the dispassionate act of killing that makes it more likely to be a moral act. But the courthouse is just another venue where a good story can win the case, and many characters here might be spinning a convincing tale. The fun in the film is figuring what's actually true, and not everything is clarified by the end.

And at the end, against Warren's first impulse to put a quick bullet into her, the Sheriff insist on stringing up Daisy under the guise of right action because it follows the letter of the law, yet clearly there was some joy garnered in watching her dance. That was a mere show of morality hiding an ulterior motive.


So, here's how I understand it all: We can't know what really is right or wrong in many cases. We can't deliver justice accurately, with any certainty, even in a court of law. Justice is a slippery notion and relative to each perspective. It's not to say it can't be found, but that it can't be done easily or with certainty, and I'm not convinced the justice metered out by a society is necessarily more fair than that determined by individuals within the claustrophobic confines of a cabin.

With respect to the debate at Dawg's Blawg, Dawg argues that the theme of the film is hatred, but I see the slipperiness of justice dominating scenes far more prevalently. By way of comparison, The Revenant was a movie about hatred. One character is driven by hate from the pivotal act of injustice to the very end. I think it can be argued that the deaths in The Hateful Eight are from a sense of survival of the self or a kinship affiliation; sometimes the murders were awash in hatred, but that hatred wasn't the primary motive of most of the acts. The film is a symposium of sorts with each key player bringing his or her own philosophy of justice to the fore leaving the audience to sort out the coherence of each claim, and a variety claims to justice do exist. Keep in mind Plato argued in favour of slavery: "Justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior" (Gorgias section 483). It's an argument we abhor now, but there it is, on the table with the rest of the ideas.

From the outlaw perspective, saving one of their own is an act of bravery. They murdered many innocents before the beginning of the story, then continued as necessary toward their final end of freeing Daisy. Dawg suggests "Their casual killing highlights the underlying theme of hatred," and, in the comments refers to hatred as "the binary opposite of love." None of these murders was an act of hatred, but of indifference, which I'd argue is the antithesis of love. The moral fortitude of the outlaws was such that two of the gang members, Gage and Jody, gave themselves up to Warren as soon as Daisy's life was threatened.

When O.B. and Ruth are mysteriously poisoned, Warren doesn't open fire on the unarmed suspects or threaten them with torturous acts, but lines them up for questioning. He has a different set of rules than us civilized folk, but he's still operating within a system. One notion of justice is that we respect other's free actions without interference unless they violate other's rights. In that respect, he acted justly.

Warren kills the General, but it's not an impassioned acting out, but a patient game of preventing the General's hot revenge against him for a provocative tale. He manipulated the situation so he wasn't directly punishing the General for the inequities of years past but for taking aim to shoot at him. Now this was an act awash in hatred. Hatred demands pain and suffering - the kind Warren imposed on the General by implanting a horrific final memory, and the kind Warren and the Sheriff put Daisy through when an expedient death was a far easier and more merciful option. But the rest of the killings were basically collateral damage in the quest for life.

If they all acted from hatred, we might expect more torturous scenes. However, for the sake of argument, if we accept hatred as the opposite of love, then consider how a cast acting from loving kindness might behave in each situation. Warren might forgive the General his transgressions and the many derogatory comments he was asked to endure. The gang members might trap the household in the stable with adequate provisions and enable them to be found long after they escape with Daisy. And if they were caught, Warren and Ruth might have brought the outlaws to be held in a prison where they could be rehabilitated without risking harm to anyone. It might look something like O Brother Where Art Thou, a lovely film, but then we wouldn't get to see their heads blow off!

The discussion that precipitated this post ended with Dawg's very provocative point:
"Justice, to me, is based upon a social contract, and this was the most anti-social bunch of miscreants imaginable! I am wondering if we unconsciously expect hatred to be enacted in anger, given how bound up in destructive violence it is. Yet Eichmann did not strike me as an angry man. He was, however, enacting hatred at Auschwitz."
I'm not sure the analogy rings true unless we look at it from the point of view that Eichmann was working to rid his society of a perceived "Jewish Problem," and the bounty hunters were working to rid their society of the outlaw problem. Clearly these differ in that outlaws, by definition, have done some damage to society than requires punishing consequences. But they're similar in so far as the murderers are, within the perception of each time and place, acting for the greater good of their society (of their people). The law, acting from the power given it by the people, put those names on paper, not the bounty hunters. They merely acted as agents of the law - so long as they had those warrants in their pockets.

This brings it all back to the slipperiness of justice. Is the social contract the objectively true determinant of Justice, or is it just the best we've got so far? And the more I think of it, the more it occurs to me the film really is a mirror of Plato's Symposium with arguments of justice in place of love and certain death replacing party crashers ending the final scene! Cool.

ETA - Check out this review too!

5 comments:

  1. Interesting. I think you're reading a lot into the film. Of course, reading things into creative works is a time-honored practice. YMMV

    I think Tarantino lacks a particularly deep notion of justice and morality. He is an excellent technical filmmaker, and he likes a good shock -- and knows what his audience considers shocking -- but his talent ends there.

    A huge part of the problem is that the plot of the movie makes absolutely no sense. It's not just tropes and dramatic license; these are just cartoon characters doing and saying things just to advance a cartoon plot to set up a lot of cartoon gore... and to throw the n-word around (Tarantino loves him some n-word). I neither like nor dislike any of these characters (I don't believe any of them for a second), and I'm completely unmoved by their deaths.

    Not only is the film unengaging, but there are jarring technical flaws. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Tarantino can write badass dialog, but he spends way too much time telling (and telling again and again) rather than showing. The clunky narration (telling us what he was about to show us) destroyed even the minuscule suspension of disbelief I was just barely able to maintain.

    The Hateful Eight is just another self-indulgent film by a filmmaker who has a talent for self-indulgence. Tarantino has a flair kitsch, and when he turns his attention to a world where the plot doesn't matter and the characters don't need to have any humanity (as in Pulp Fiction), he can create real art. But Tarantino cannot actually tell a coherent story about actual human beings.

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    1. I'm okay with the cartoonish nature of the characters; I accept that as part of his schtick. It wasn't my favourite of his films, as I said here, "it's a movie about patience, and it's not just the characters who need it." That being said, even a cartoon can have a theme and provoke a discussion of right action.

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    2. I mean "cartoon" in the sense of unbelievability and lack of real affect, not in the sense of distilled or idealized. Perhaps a better term would be "wooden."

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  2. Well, two things. First, your noting of the place of documents in the film is very interesting. Even in the anarchy of the Wild West there are rules. That goes to some degree (but only to some!) to your notion of justice being the overarching theme in the film. One can add English Pete's disquisition on frontier justice if you wish, but since when does his discursive intrusion become privileged? Better to see it as fairly heavy-handed irony, since he is, after all, one of the dispensers of the very frontier justice he so piously deplores.

    But I still can't see how a private notion of justice can work. Justice is social.

    The issue that kept me awake after reading your objections, however, had to do with love and hate. We are accustomed to seeing hatred as bound to an object upon which it depends. Like particle and anti-particle, the extirpation of one causes the extirpation of the other (for a time, at least). It's the mirror of love in that respect: a bond of destruction rather than of creation.

    My argument--and admittedly I'm not entirely comfortable with it--is that hate objectifies what it seeks to destroy, not only such that the destruction of the object is an end in itself (which is the way we popularly perceive hatred), but also as a means to an end.

    My reference to Eichmann was not Godwinning the discussion. I'm old enough to remember him in the dock. His wholesale destruction of the Jews seems to have been carried out without any particular rancour. And yet I think we can agree that it happened *because* of hatred, which imbued the Nazi worldview. The Shoah was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    So, on reflection, I would try to fuse your notion of indifference as the antithesis of love to the general understanding of hate as fixated directly upon the object. Your use of the term is unproductively broad, in my opinion, but it does remind us that binaries are not all there are in the world. Still, QT works with binaries--he's a Manichaean!

    The indifference with which the outlaws slaughter the people in Minnie's Haberdashery, who almost caricature love with their effusive welcome (his characters are, in fact, tropes), is meant to convey the fragility of the latter. It inverts the classic doctrine about good being creative while evil is essentially passive. In THE, evil is the creative force.

    Hatred is purely destructive: it's the way that evil is enacted in the film. Indifference, in the way that you mean, is hatred's handmaiden.

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    1. Sorry for the delay in posting your comment - I'm at the computer infrequently.

      I agree that a private notion of justice doesn't work in that it's not tenable in society, but I do believe it exists. For example, drug dealers have their own code of ethics that's entirely criminal, yet works for them within their system of buyers and sellers. I'm also brought to mind the episodes of the show Rake (the British version - if you've seen it) in which prisoners hold court within a prison. Or does it no longer count as a justice system because it's only beneficial to a sub-set of society?

      I agree that hatred is part of some of the murders, but I think murders also happens without hatred. For example, if my young daughter were about to fall onto subway tracks, and I could only prevent it by knocking a few people on the tracks in order to reach her in time, my primitive sense of kinship would have me push my way to save her regardless the unfortunate deaths necessary to my final purpose. In that sense, I wouldn't be acting from a sense of hatred. I think it can be argued that the outlaws acted in this manner. If people classify my action of saving my child as an evil, it's at least a lesser of two evils. Now, in the film, Daisy doesn't warrant our sympathies the way a child might, so we find it hard to see killing to save her as anything BUT evil. But is it only ethical to save our praiseworthy or innocent family members?

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