Wednesday, May 20, 2009


So with Quentin Tarantino's new movie premiering right now, as I type, to the piranhas out at Cannes, I feel it's time for  a bit of a public announcement regarding this hotly anticipated film...


We need to be expecting a lot from Inglourious Basterds.  

And no, I'm not saying we should expect a lot because we are going to get a lot. I'm saying we need to expect something in this film because "it" is a something we very well might not get, and we must acknowledge the step back - if it ultimately is a step back - for Tarantino. Because of my high esteem for Tarantino's last picture, Death Proof, I feel we need to raise our expectations higher than ever before for Inglourious Basterds, in terms of the level of thematic and subtextual elements it has to offer us... and thus be ready to call the film out if it falls short of achieving genuine relevancy, and creating truly meaningful statements about the real world - something that Tarantino has often been criticized for not doing, opting instead for the hermetically sealed artifice of his alleged "pop art" or "pulp cinema" inclination.

There is truth to this criticism.  I believe Death Proof, though, was a considerable step in the right direction, especially after the geeksploitation piffles that were the Kill Bill films, as good as they could often be.  Death Proof is his most rhetorically insinuating, hawk-eyed, and socially critical genre homage yet. This is because it breaches the parameters of mere homage and riffing, and finally makes the leap into more closely discriminating genre deconstruction, as he was more wont to do in the 1990s. 

Even Tarantino's iconic 1990s output somewhat pale in comparison to the edge he reveals in Death Proof.  Those early films indulged his tendency for sparkling homage to genre and incessant hagiography of his characters and their respective, idealized archetype. This less evaluative approach tended to defang his pictures of any trace of critical faculty. Attempted genre deconstruction strikes a viewer merely as flattering imitation.  While Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown have the credit of their revisionism and some choice subtext, we also get the sense Tarantino is too in love with the sensibilities, narrative elements, and aesthetic styles he draws from for these films.  This lack of a distanced eye really prevents him from zeroing in on the functionalism in genre representations, as is so inherently the subject under scrutiny in his films, which are, without exception, reflexive works revealing realities and nuances in film worlds.  Tarantino certainly shows true invention within his virtuoso filmmaking, but he is consistently criticized for his proclivity to "borrow" styles and aesthetics.  This is a tricky and often reactionary criticism, but it underscores the seeming "essential lack" that is consistently perceived by his viewers - a lack of true social and real-world commentary in his films.  There is certainly pathos and gravitas, emotionalism and dramatic parallels, etc. in his films, but while Jackie Brown is an affecting look at the business of living a life, and Pulp Fiction a dismantling look at the absurdities and romances of criminal codes, neither really dig deep or excoriate.  Both are blithe commentaries instead of incisive ones.  They brush upon things only to sink back into the amiability of the story and the story's sentimental value to Tarantino.

In Death Proof, I believe he finally goes the step further and chooses to reveal dysfunction and ugliness in the representations he appropriates, doing this by making us thrill at what are actually truly off-putting illustrations of brutal murder and remorseless victimization. The text seems to revel in the typical formula of the slasher film, the revenge film, the badass babe flick, but instead he imposes on this spare formula the spare structure of an Apichatpong Weerasathakul film and dares us to seek entertainment in what is essentially a thoughtless skeletal formula (slasher films and revenge films = exploitation at their purest), constructed only to make us cheer on violent death and, in the end, ugly retaliation on a helplessly injured and out-numbered old man.  The film's rich and painterly compositions, the story's allegorical simplicity, and the aforementioned structural build give this film the self-containment of a poem, and sets itself apart from Tarantino's other films in its lack of oh-so-clever plot machinations that often come as requisites to the cinema of escapism and pulp diversion.

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino is simply asking for this heightened critical eye. We're getting subject matter from him different from anything we have ever gotten before: a historical piece and war piece dealing with the most harmfully systematic Fascist rule recorded in history.

Tarantino, in the past, has mined depth in the purely personal and emotional, but rarely-to-never has he ventured into the territory of the political or the grand social arena.  But now - with such subject matter as we have in this particular Quentin Tarantino movie -
 then incisive social and historical commentary is, pretty necessarily, what we need to be looking for, if we want this to be anything worthwhile in light of what Tarantino achieved with Death Proof.  He needs to prove he can illuminate critically on history as resonantly and astutely as he did on the correlative between vulnerability, power, and genre thrills in the work prior.  

And, considering my lack of enthusiasm for him before the existence of Death Proof, what I personally need from this film is just proof that he can illuminate in profound ways again... that he has continued to grow since Death Proof; that making that film further cemented in him a belief in the value of the most deliberative of allegory and the sharpest of critique.

Check out that colorful and stylish map they've got going on there. Does the Third Reich's have some Art Noveau-adherent cartographers under their commission, or will Tarantino make a point about the garish ideological branding that characterized Hitler's regime?

"Ridiculous" and "cartoonish" are not necessarily bad, and word is the film is both these things, but will it be at the service of nuanced historical considerations or simplistic Nazi-comeuppance fantasy?  I am cautiously optimistic, for while Tarantino's films may not all reach the heights of meaning, none of them can be called outright juvenility.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Lars Von Trier's new film Anti-Christ premiered in Cannes this past Sunday, and apparently it's a mood-conceived provocation consisting of elements of explicit sexuality and extreme acts of violence.  One comparison levied at the film is "Bergman meets Saw."  As cautious as I should be towards valuing pithy analogies such as that one, I do find it enticing to see just how much meaning a true aesthete (which may or may not be Lars Von Trier) can shake out of a film whose premise, trailer, and, now, reception makes it look like a work of unadulterated exploitation cinema.

I am confident there will be much to find profound and revealing about this film, in spite of alleged grue and naughtiness.

A Daily Mail reporter in the Cannes Press Conference (pictured above) made a concerted effort to be particularly combative.  Initially in a perfectly acceptable manner, he asked Von Trier to, for "his benefit," explain and "justify" why he made this film.  When Von Trier gave an also perfectly acceptable, very reasonably conveyed answer of "No," due to the use of the word "justify" and likely its inconsistency with a certain regard he has for the meaning this work has to him, the reporter went on to interrupt him with a very stern, "No, you must," insisting he has an obligation to explain himself as a filmmaker at Cannes - because Cannes is such a big deal, ya know?  As big a deal as the Vatican.  Or a 17th century Spanish tribunal, I guess, in terms of having to perform moral auto da fe to the Cinema-Gods.  Well, I guess more like the Vatican, considering all the yacht parties, sun-bathing celebrities, and less immediate life-and-death business dealings.

Then proceeds lots of murmuring and one reporter coming to Lars' defense, proclaiming Lars an "artist" and the reporter-douche "not-an-artist," which is a defense against criticism I find a bit limited, but works in this circumstance.

But wait, how do I know this?  Am I at Cannes right now?  No, I'm not, goddamnit, because if I were, I, my brain, and all my senses (and I mean all my senses) would be right this second taking in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.  

No, there's video coverage available on the official Cannes website.  For the Anti-Christ conference, just click the following and enjoy:

Some further thoughts about Lars Von Trier's foray into the horror genre: 

Speaking as a fan of the horror genre, I would actually have preferred the film received more traditional, sober praise (or scorn)... but, all evidence considered, this response was much more in-the-cards (the love/hate/rioting/disgust/arousal).  I still lament the fact that we have a filmmaker here who has evoked incredibly precise, incredibly stimulating sociological treatises in his previous films, and when he makes his big, high-profile leap into the horror genre, remarks about the film's philosophical "plumbings" seem relegated to the usual horror tropes of "the depths of depravity and evil," and this idea of taking the genre to the "extremes" of abject violence as if that's the only place for horror films to meaningfully go.  I would've much preferred an alternate universe where Von Trier came up with a film consisting of scares and supernatural elements that tackled his usual lofty, highly discursive subject matter, instead of him exploring what are essentially the excesses of the horror genre - although, again, I look forward to this film greatly and expect a lot from it.  It doesn't seem like Lars did much to "class up" the genre, though... not that I necessarily would have wanted that.  Films like The Orphanage are said to class up the horror genre... and man was that film boring and often the opposite of classy.  What I ideally wanted was a classic philosophically-dense and challenging Von Trier dissertation that happens to be scary.  But I am very cool with what it seems like we've got - a mood piece-turn-shock cinema nightmare painting from a thinking-man provocateur.