Publish, then Perish?

jdA couple weeks ago, film director Quentin Tarantino learned from his agent that his screenplay, “The Hateful Eight” had been leaked. He rightfully threw a fit, laid down some surmised accusations (actors Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen, producer Reggie Hudlin), and promised to shelve the project – at least to the extent that “The Hateful Eight” would not be his next picture as once planned. (Sidebar: just today more news has come out suggesting Tarantino will do the film after some substantial rewrite) As reported in Deadline Hollywood, Tarantino said, “I’m very, very depressed. I finished a script, a first draft, and I didn’t mean to shoot it until next winter, a year from now. I gave it to six people, and apparently it’s gotten out today.”

This news followed on the heels of the revelation in November that three unpublished short stories by J.D. Salinger had been made public against Salinger’s wishes (he stipulated that certain materials not be published until 2061 – 50 years after his death – although it is not clear whether the three leaked stories were among the trove of writings considered for eventual publication.)

(UPDATED 2/5/14 – Apparently even a Pope cannot escape the treachery of his confidants, as this story in the NYT reveals: Entrusted to Burn John Paul II’s Notes, Cardinal Publishes Them Instead. )

If you consider the sentiment of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s seminal “The Catcher in the Rye,” you may conclude Salinger despised voyeuristic types – the “dopes” who would read unauthorized stuff from a writer who might prefer to write for himself: “I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddam closet.”

Although conflicted about the ethics of reading material intended to remain unread, I decided to download the screenplay as well as Salinger’s trio of stories: “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” “Birthday Boy,” and “Paula.” I don’t countenance the practice of releasing privileged content (in Tarantino’s case it’s a draft screenplay under development; in Salinger’s case he may not have considered the stories to be of high enough quality to see the light of day) but once material becomes available, it seems inconsequential whether or not it is read. How much additional harm does the author suffer for each unauthorized perusal?

Holden Caulfield makes a brief appearance in “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” the best of the three unauthorized shorts – a story about Kenneth, a headstrong 12-year-old boy narrated by his brother, a writer named Vincent. The tale is full of rich imagery, and the handful of characters are well-developed inside of 15 pages. Kenneth wears a baseball glove on which he’s written lines of poetry he enjoys reading when nothing much is happening on the ball field. Blake, Keats, Coleridge. Vincent notes, “They weren’t such hilarious lines quoted by a kid with the severest kind of heart trouble.” A kid with the severest kind of heart trouble who yearns to swim in a turbulent ocean that beckons him. “Birthday Boy” introduces Ray, an ill young man who’s just turned 22. Salinger provides just a hint of the reason for Ray’s presence in a hospital, as well as the source of friction between him and his girlfriend. “Paula” is just a strange tale of insanity that didn’t hold up for me (but what do I know.)

Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is quintessential Quentin – a character study set in the snowy West shortly after the Civil War that involves deception, treachery, ultra-violence, and the word “nigger” at least 50 times. A bounty hunter and his female prisoner are traveling by stagecoach just ahead of an enormous blizzard when they happen upon a black man wearing a Union army officer’s uniform. He too is a bounty hunter in possession of three frozen stiffs worth $8,000. His horse died which is the reason he needs a ride, and subsequently convinces the other bounty hunter to let him and his dead booty aboard. They come to an agreement that each will protect the other’s financial interests.

Soon enough they come across another man on the trail – the future sheriff of Red Rock, the town that is their destination. His horse also bought the farm, and he needs a ride. Once aboard we learn this lawman is a died-in-the-wool Confederate which turns close quarters with the black bounty hunter tense. When the three men, one woman and the stagecoach driver arrive at Millie’s Haberdashery outside of Red Rock, they discover an unexpected situation: Millie and her husband ain’t there, but several strangers are: a cowboy, a hangman, an old Confederate General, and a French caretaker. The story then morphs into something akin to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” with the white bounty hunter querying the odd collection of guests on their backgrounds and motivations, Hercule Poirot-like, trying to determine whether anyone might be thinking of interfering with his pursuit of bounty money. Convenient to the plot is the fact that just about every character seems to be familiar with one or more of the other characters, even though things take place in the socially-constricted mid-19th century hinterlands of the Wild West. The white bounty hunter knows of the sheriff’s father, the black bounty hunter fought in a battle against the general, the general knows the sheriff.

After each character’s background is established, and interpersonal relationships are formed as a result, the story flashes back to when the strangers first arrived at Millie’s, and reveals the nastiness they engineered upon poor Millie and her husband. We learn that the men are there to free the female prisoner from incarceration. The story flashes forward to where it left off and proceeds to the blood-soaked climax.

Like so many of Tarantino’s movies, this one culminates in a crazy free-for-all shoot-out where just about everybody dies a horrible death. Think “Django Unchained,” “Kill Bill” and “Inglorious Basterds.” By now, Tarantino must feel the pressure to deliver ever more gory spectacles lest his hard-core fans wallow in disappointment.
bloody

The writing in “The Hateful Eight” is evocative and the scene descriptions creative and strongly visual as you would expect of any decent script. One particularly powerful scene involves the black bounty hunter taunting the old Confederate General with details of the death of his son – details the old man shouldn’t know and would never have wanted to hear. If the film ultimately goes forward intact, that scene will stand out as one of the more brutal in the Tarantino oeuvre, which is saying a lot.

RIP PSH

Philip Seymour Hoffman died the other day at the age of 46. I remember first seeing him perform in the 1996 movie “Hard Eight” along with noted character actor Philip Baker Hall, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With so many players using their full three names, I often confused the bunch. The two Philips – Hoffman and Hall – also appeared together in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Magnolia” further exacerbating the confusion. Soon enough though, Hoffman would distinguish himself such that no one would ever mistake him for another actor.

Although more famous for his work in film, including a Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Capote,” Hoffman was also an accomplished stage actor. I saw him in 2000’s revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York. The spare stage was set in the middle of the floor surrounded by the seats like a boxing arena. Which seemed appropriate for this two-man play.

The play centers on estranged brothers – one a screenwriter (Austin), the other a drifter (Lee) – who meet up after two years of no contact. The characters are basically complete opposites. The night I saw the play, Hoffman was in the role of Austin, a docile man who tends toward subservience to his older brother, played by John C. Reilly. The director of the play arranged it so Hoffman and Reilly exchanged roles every other performance – a novel concept which undoubtedly challenged both actors. Both received Tony nominations that year.

The last time I saw Hoffman was just the other day on a Turner Classic Movies special “And the Oscar Goes To…” He commented on the great honor of snagging an Oscar for “Capote” – and he looked like shit. Someone who didn’t know better would peg his age north of 60. The transformation from a pudgy kid to a haggard-looking geezer over just 15 years is on a par with that of Orson Welles.
hw
Dedicated actors often tear themselves physically and mentally to get into a character – few more thoroughly than Hoffman. He paid for it, and so did his fans ultimately.

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