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.


Bowler said...

i'm looking forward to the newest mumbling alter-ego that Brad Pitt has concocted for this movie

JR said...

As his soft-spoken Benjamin Button channeled the gentle humanist drawl of William Faulkner, Pitt's Aldo Raine will surely pay tribute to a Drunken Cowboys Fan.