Over the last decade or so, the Western has been in decline. While there have been no shortage of actual Westerns, these have tended to construe themselves in a self-consciously “minor” light, eschewing the horizon line for smaller and more chambered indie dramas. In large part, that is because the Western, as a genre, has always been peculiarly intertwined with advances in cinematic technology, from the earliest experiments of the silent era to the growth of widescreen formats in the 1950s and 1960s. As the rise of torrenting, streaming and straight-to-video formats has qualified the splendid isolation of the cinematic screen, so the Western has had to turn inwards, making for introspective exercises along the lines of Meek’s Cutoff and Slow West that seem destined for festival, repertory and private screenings, as well as self-consciously classicist Westerns that recreate epic sightlines and horizons as an analog nostalgia effect. By the same token, the rise of quality television has proved a fertile ground for this new brand of nostalgic Western, most notably in Deadwood – which takes place largely indoors or at night and barely features a horizon – but also in the general Western tendencies of a whole lot of recent fantasy, horror and science fiction television, which often finds itself forced to resort to other worlds to recover the sublime vistas and epic spaces that once characterised this cinematic genre above all others.
In other words, we haven’t really seen a genuinely digital Western, or at least a digital Western that manages to remediate the scopic sublimity of the genre at its most classical and spectacular, a situation that Alejandro G. Inarritu aims to redress with his latest film, The Revenant. Based on Michael Punke’s novel, which is in turn based on the actual experiences of frontiersman Hugh Glass in 1823 in the American Northwest, the film follows Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has to make his way back to safety after he is mauled by a bear and his American Indian son is murdered by a fellow frontiersman. Apart from a few moments of plosive and visceral action, most of the film follows Glass’ efforts to survive and traverse a wintry landscape that is really the main character of the film, part of a wider movement towards the wintry west that has characterised revisionist Westerns over the last decade or so. As might be expected, it’s the ideal venue for the kinds of actorly “intensity” that DiCaprio has made his own over the latest part of his career, and yet it also seems to consummate and exhaust this aspect of DiCaprio’s acting life as well – hence the Oscar – not merely because it is so suited to his screen persona – it couldn’t have been performed by anyone else – but because of the way Inarritu’s direction and Emmanuel Luzbeki’s cinematography disembody, detach and alienate us from the visceral kernel of DiCaprio’s performance.
In many ways, that disembodiment marks The Revenant as the spiritual and stylistic successor to Birdman, even though at first glance they might appear to be universes apart. Indeed, in many ways The Revenant is the polar opposite of Birdman, replacing its tightly constrained theatrical spaces with an endless, expansive and quite sublime apprehension of the natural world. Yet that sense of continuous space was also present in Birdman as well, specifically in the way in which it gave the illusion of occurring in a single unbroken take. In many ways, the unbroken take is quite an old-fashioned auteurist gesture, insofar as it belongs to an analog era in which the process of orchestrating and organising a single camera movement was far more unwieldy and inconvenient than it is in the digital era, when virtually everyone has access to portable filming devices and every space feels as if it has already been mapped and recorded as a single continuous digital representation anyway. By constraining the unbroken tracking-shot to an exclusively theatrical environment, Birdman seemed prescient that this most bravura of analog gestures – and analog cinema itself – had become as old-fashioned, dated and “classical” as actual theatre. Pauline Kael once remarked that cinema was America’s theatre, and Birdman seems to have set out to prove that by this stage in cinema – or in post-cinema – that pronouncement has literally come to pass.
At the same time, however, there was a kind of disembodied mobility to Birdman’s tracking-shots that made them more than a mere nostalgia effect as well. One of the most titillating aspects of the traditional tracking-shot was all the little imperfections that signalled the hand of the director – or the hand of the camera operator – as well as the tousle between the camera’s yearning for autonomy and the director’s manual control. In Birdman, however, the mobility of the camera was too fluid, seamless and perfect to allow us the illusion of any kind of real directorial or cinematographic agency: here was a camera that had already in some sense transcended the corporeal world, which is why it was such a perfect vehicle for Birdman’s own very particular take on the rapturous upwards gaze that has become such a hallmark of the superhero genre. In other words, the tracking-shots in Birdman felt like nascent drone shots, positioning the film itself, in retrospect, as a transitional moment between tracking-mobility and drone-mobility in mainstream cinema, as well as possibly the last film to authentically mine the extended tracking-shot as a source of visual and visceral frisson.
The Revenant, on the other hand, is a film that feels almost entirely composed of drone shots, allowing Inarritu to move ceaselessly from the microcosmic to the cosmic in the space of seconds. Not only does that open up the expansiveness and magnitude of the west but it also reintroduces a sublimity only glimpsed in even the widest of widescreen westerns, as the apparently limitless movements of the camera permit Glass to contemplate inaccessible and almost unimaginable spaces and vistas over the course of his journey, to the point where it feels like the camera is less a representative device and more a kind of imaginative or spatial limit to his sensory world. While Inarritu may have returned to discrete shots, the sense of continuity is much greater and more profound here, partly because the Western horizon seems to expand and evolve over the course of the film from a horizontal to a vertical to a vortical phenomenon, as Glass’ journey takes him into ever more rugged, jagged and mountainous territory. At the same time, the drone cinematography is not merely reserved for establishing shots or sweeping panoramas but for incidental moments as well, with the camera’s floating, hovering disembodied quality thrown into even greater relief when it is set at ground level, in the same way that aliens always seem more alien once they actually make contact with the earth.
For all that the film has been applauded and revered for its visceral content, then, it is the presence and operation of the camera that is its most “intense” feature, although it is an unusual kind of intensity. On the one hand, there is something undead, uncanny and unnatural about this camera’s palpably mechanical presence in such a naturalistic and historical environment, not least because it is continuously accompanied by a pointedly electronic score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. At the same time, however, with the camera largely remotely controlled and jettisoned from the manual touch of the director, it feels as if the lens has exceeded human perception to commune in some more direct and unmediated way with the natural world as well, in a kind of visual counterpart to the equally pointed pastoral elements to Sakamoto’s electronic soundscape. More palpable than a regular camera – you are always aware of the camera – but more ethereal at the same time, it feels as if the entire filming apparatus has been broken down to the same elemental materiality as the landscape it depicts, creating a profound synergy between form and content, especially whenever the low winter sun is paired with time lapse sequences. In a very real sense, this camera doesn’t document so much as simply participate in the world it depicts, which both intensifies but also disperses DiCaprio’s own intensity. Indeed, the genius of the film lies in the way in which the camera precisely mirrors Glass’ own situation as a revenant: an entity that has somehow transended its human self to be reborn and returned through the natural world. Narratively, that process is figured in terms of Glass increasingly communing with his deceased American Indian son – and American Indian culture more generally – and in many ways it feels as if Luzbeki’s cinematography is a way of retaining the sublimity of the American West without necessarily excluding its First Peoples either.
I saw The Revenant at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard as part of a two-night double bill that also included Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Together, these were the first two films that I had ever seen in Los Angeles, and their widescreen aspirations made them the perfect introduction to the city, while their very different approaches to the Western rendered them the perfect summary of a metropolis that feels poised between analog and digital, and cinematic and post-cinematic, ways of knowing and representing itself. For where The Revenant is keen to envisage something like a digital Western, The Hateful Eight is possibly the purest exercise in analog nostalgia across Tarantino’s entire career. Framed as the last instalment in a trilogy that also includes Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, it takes the equation of analog cinema and stage drama present in Birdman and identifies with it, rather than trying to exceed it, making for the only film by Tarantino to date that could conceivably unfold as a play, at least across its first half. For this is also Tarantino’s only film to be released in a Roadshow format – a format historically used for just the kinds of event cinema associated with the rise of widescreen mid-century – and is designed to be seen as a three and a half hour event separated by an interval. Even the structure of each act is pointedly pre-cinematic, with Tarantino dividing the action into a number of chapters, many of which feature great swathes of screen time devoted to reading or singing.
As with both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight focuses on a band of historical misfits thrown together under extraordinary circumstances – in this case driven by bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is transporting prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leight) to Red Rock, Wyoming in the wake of the Civil War, during a snowstorm that forces him to stop for the night at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a remote outpost along the way. As the storm builds, a motley crew of characters turns up at Minnie’s – played by Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern amongst others – and John Ruth starts to suspect that all is not as it seems, leading to a cat and mouse game of psychological manipulation that starts to devolve in the second act. Jackson, in particular, puts in a show-stopping performance as bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, as well as delivering one of the greatest monologue’s in Tarantino’s career. In many ways, this monologue, which is delivered just before half-time, is the high point of the film since – for me, at least – the second act played almost as self-parody, with Tarantino rehearsing and revising most of the tropes that have preoccupied his career in a fairly diluted and watered-down fashion.
The first act, however, is one of the most magnificent outings in Tarantino’s career, and as stylistically striking, in its own way, as The Revenant. I’ve now seen The Hateful Eight twice – both times in a Roadshow format – and I’m still struck by the difference between its first and second halves, which almost play as two separate films. Although I never got around to it, I was curious to see how the regular theatrical release looked, since it’s my bet that omitting the interval and shortening the running time would tend to be most destructive to the opening act, which subsists on an extremely slow intensification and long periods of suspenseful downtime. Although it was close to two hours in length, I would have been happy for it to run for twice as long, since part of what is so problematic about the second act is how quickly it accelerates and intensifies things. I’ve often read that Tarantino shoots his films as five or six hours in length and then edits them down grudgingly, and that has never felt more the case than it does here, with the first half exuding the kind of deep time and sustained duration so critical to the elaboration of a classically Western atmosphere, only for the second half to suddenly and somewhat arbitrarily hasten it all along to a fairly underwhelming conclusion.
Leaving aside any further speculations on what could have been, however, the first act almost plays as a perfectly crafted feature length film on its own terms, as well as the part of the film that would be transferable to the stage with almost no diminution of impact. Obviously, that can be said about a great number of films, but the achievement here is that that theatrical quality never prevents The Hateful Eight feeling cinematic either. Instead, Tarantino manages to draw on the peculiar cinematicity of a sound stage in the same way as his Western forebears, a quality that was evident in some of the strongest interior scenes in the previous two films – the bar room sequence in Inglorious Basterds, the dinner table sequence in Django Unchained – which play as rough drafts for the brooding suspense on display here. In effect, the first act only takes place in two spaces – John Ruth’s carriage and Minnie’s Haberdashery – and yet Tarantino manages to flesh out and luxuriate in every reticulation and nuance of those spaces, reminding me of Siegfried Kracauer’s insistence that the camera can effectively “cinematise” theatrical spaces by taking us into all those micro-features that would be unavailable from the vantage point of a regular theatrical patron. In a very real way, the first act of The Hateful Eight subsists upon and suspends us across those micro-spaces, just as it settles and lingers in the silences between dialogue and the blankness of small-talk to build its distinctive and exquisite sense of suspense.
As a result, The Hateful Eight plays as something of a counterpoint to The Revenant, recreating an older mode of theatrical cinema – and theatrical Western cinema – whose very claustrophobic constrictions make the occasional and occluded glimpses of the Western horizon far more sublime and majestic than the introspective, indie Westerns of recent years. Whereas those indie films often avoid the horizon altogether or at least deal with it in an incidental, offhand manner, Tarantino pulls back from it so emphatically that it is always hanging around the fringes of the action as an imaginative limit, just as the increasing constrictions of the escalating snowstorm only makes everyone in Minnie’s Haberdashery more desperate to get outside and peek over the next rise. Just as Sakamoto’s score perfectly complements Inarritu’s camera, so Tarantino’s aesthetic is beautifully served by Ennio Morricone’s original score, which is one of the most plastic and architectural in his career, setting up a series of nested musical spaces that always seem to be heading towards some final catharsis and climactic horizon but never quite glimpse it and never quite get there. Only Jennifer Jason Leigh’s haunting rendition of “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” comes close, and yet it also marks the precise moment in the film – at the very beginning of the second act – at which the sublimity of Tarantino’s theatrical vision starts to give way. Up until that point, however, The Hateful Eight stands as the perfect rejoinder to The Revenant – and vice versa – while even its devolution in the second half speaks quite poetically to something about Tarantino’s brand of theatricality that simply can’t hold any more, which just makes the austerity and focus of the first act all the more impressive by comparison. Taken together, there’s no better summary of the Western as it currently stands, as well as its ongoing negotiations with the simultaneous expansion of digital technology and contraction of the cinematic screen, with both offering visual and conceptual pleasures of the most exquisite kind.