The Knicks always gleam; all that changes is the hue they throw off. They gleamed terribly through a half-decade of Isiah Thomas’s mismanagement, gleamed ugly when Pat Riley turned them into brawlers, gleamed by dint of Bernard King’s gleaming when they were otherwise mediocre, gleamed like a smile before Mike D’Antoni ran Amar’e Stoudemire into the ground, and they gleam in the memory–even more brightly in the minds of folks too young to remember and left to fill in their lack of memory with legends and apocrypha—as freewheeling, beautiful, and perfect in the days when Clyde Frazier’s dribble was a stream through a canyon and the Garden was a mix of Coliseum and cookout.
So it follows that the Knicks could pervert the superteam like no other franchise. The Lakers tried something like this a little while back, when Dwight Howard was still chasing Shaq and Hakeem and Steve Nash wasn’t quite yet weightily meditating on his own mortality in front of a documentary crew, but that project was meant to work.
These Knicks were conceived over a five-cocktail lunch. Derrick Rose hasn’t been right since the first time he felt a pop in his knee and these days he strikes the comically pitiful figure of a man who can no longer live up to his idea of himself. Joakim Noah, while Rose was sidelined, wouldn’t let the Bulls sink completely, so he plied his manic, ostrichian trade on a bum foot that finally gave out a couple summers ago. These two are rich characters, tragic in their own specific ways, but they’re not particularly good anymore.
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The Hateful Eight is a Quentin Tarantino movie in the extreme. He’s in his 50s now, and if there has ever been anyone who could tell him what to do, they’ve been silenced by box office motherlodes Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. It’s fitting that Tarantino, awash in creative capital, would make a post-Civil War alternate history flick that takes place mostly in a single-room cabin while a landscape-blotting blizzard howls outside, because it reads like a film conceived of and executed in a world apart from the one we inhabit. It’s three hours of one of our great directors getting away with stuff few others would be allowed to try.
Tarantino pushes the auteur-as-god metaphor a few inches closer to reality and births a toweringly indulgent work: a chamber piece shot in 70mm that features a 35-minute prelude in which Kurt Russell does a lot of operatic grunting and scowling and Jennifer Jason Leigh gets socked so hard she falls out of a stagecoach. There’s a mannered Tim Roth soliloquy on justice; a long, childishly pornographic Sam Jackson whopper; Bruce Dern as a hardcore racist; lakes of blood; an exploding head; liberally and strangely applied slow-motion; a Twain novel’s worth of racial slurs; and, at the film’s conclusion, a gleeful lynching that sends two of the eight titular villains into unsettling throes-of-orgasm groans.
There is—it’s not blitheness with Tarantino, is it? Maybe the best way to put it is he knows what he’s doing and doesn’t. Which: don’t we all, but Tarantino’s ignorance feels purposeful, like he chooses the exact point at which his knowledge ends, so he can write a text without reading it. He provokes but doesn’t fully think through the reaction it will inspire; he presents problems and offers no solutions.
He photographs what’s almost a stageplay in 70mm because he wants to and can, and because he’s a genius, he finds novel applications for the ultra-wide frame. Hushed conversation and furtive scheming populates the film’s background, in focus but out of earshot. The site of a poisoning and a shooting appear over the shoulders of characters who are themselves threatening murder. By the time The Hateful Eight’s plot starts to rumble downhill, the room is haunting itself. Tarantino finishes with a grisly punchline of a hanging because it’s an audacious thing to do, but also because his two previous films ended with righteous, audience-pleasing retribution against Nazis and slave-owners. Here, he twists that idea ninety degrees: what if a scoundrel gets approximately what they deserve and it’s appalling?
By and large, critics didn’t love The Hateful Eight. The consensus among the dissenting is that Tarantino lead-foots the plot into a gore-filled ditch in the third act. David Edelstein of New York Magazine describes it as “shock-jock territory that dishonors his early work.” I think the movie’s a masterpiece, but I agree with people who think The Hateful Eight lapses into nihilism and needless cruelty. That is sort of its point, in fact. Or its lack of a point is its point: puttings these things on screen is an end in itself. Were The Hateful Eight more morally conscientious or its pulp bound to some broader, coherent message, it would lose some of its effect. In communicating only in the basest tongue, its luridness is able to exist as itself and becomes fully, horrifyingly legible. The movie is mystery, jokes, arguments, and philosophy, but finally, it’s a descent into profanity, into Tarantino-osity.
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What else were the Knicks going to do? Don’t answer that with the part of your brain that understands roster construction and cap strategy; use the part that knows what the Knicks are and what they seem bound by some cosmic law to always be. Derrick Rose is a name in a contract year. Joakim Noah has New York roots and finished fourth in MVP voting not so long ago. They’re both metaphysical Knicks. They’ll slot in well alongside Carmelo Anthony, who has spent the past few seasons as the subject of a Socratic dialogue about whether greatness and sleepiness are mutually exclusive, and less well alongside Kristaps Porzingis, who’s going to be pushed out of his best position by Noah.
This gaudy, incongruous roster is what the Knicks invited when they hired Phil Jackson. The two belong together in the sense that they’ve both spent decades burnishing myths whose shadows now obscure them, and they’re both more flash than substance, if only because there are canons of literature less substantial than Jackson and the Knicks purport to be. Each is helping the other toward apotheosis. Bringing Jackson on board as a paterfamilias who also, for reasons certainly not having to do with expertise or experience, makes personnel decisions is a quintessentially Knicksian move, and returning to the spiritual home he hasn’t lived in since the 70s to play karma doctor and avuncularly chide Melo twice per season is quintessentially Jacksonian. Together, they’ve predictably under-delivered.
Most of the intrigue in Manhattan is morbid fascination—if this all breaks perfectly, the Knicks are looking at something like a 4-2 defeat in the Eastern Conference Semis—but there’s also satisfaction to be found in the franchise’s predictability. When people make decisions we believe speaks to their essence, we hear the sound of tumblers aligning in our minds. Because essence is illusory; nothing is exactly like what we think it is. The intrinsic qualities we attribute to friends, artists, and institutions is just a way of making sense of their contradictions. But we’d like to believe in essence anyway. It’s sanity-salving, or at least saves us some time and thought. So when the Knicks fame-hound their way into a couple of washed-up stars, the universe seems a little more comprehensible, because they would do that sort of thing, wouldn’t they? That they actually have is a gift.
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