Friday, September 4, 2009

Did Tarantino prime us for Cheney, Part III: The Incompetent Basterd

What Aldo Ray might have done to QT after seeing his latest.

I confess, I feel a little silly. I was girding up for a kind of epic takedown of Quentin Tarantino, after my mentioning of the obvious fact that his cult of vigilantism and torture matched precisely that of torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney.

But then I finally caught Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds, and was forced to view the situation in an entirely different light.

Not that Tarantino isn't pernicious (he still is, and how), and certainly the political case against him is still worth making.

But in a word, his movie sucks, which in a way makes it hard to take this debate too seriously. I expected to be perhaps outraged, perhaps angered, perhaps revolted by Inglourious Basterds. I didn't expect to have to fight to stay awake. Indeed, à la Dick Cheney, I found myself looking forward to the promised atrocities, if only to clear the current slate of cardboard characters trading film refs in French and German. Worse still, over the movie's course its director is revealed as so incompetent that his proponents' adulation looks utterly ridiculous. I feel a bit foolish for having ever taken them seriously.

For to be blunt, the only feeling a mature adult could have after watching Inglourious Basterds is "I wish I could get those two and half hours of my life back from that bastard!" But oh, you so can't. Carving a swastika in the perp's forehead might be some solace, but would it turn back time? No. And you'd still be left with the depressing realization that with Basterds, Tarantino hasn't merely jumped the shark, he's turned around and blown it, too. He has become Generation X's answer to George Lucas: a soulless director whose obsessions once overlapped those of the zeitgeist, but who was revealed as an artistic shell once history moved on. And recognized Inglourious Basterds as his Phantom Menace.

Still, the discovery of the movie's mediocrity does lead to a whole new arena of Important Cultural Discussion. Which I think I'll initiate right now! I promise to get to the insidious political import of Tarantino's oeuvre, really I do. But first I have to savor the sheer shittiness of the work in aesthetic terms. And taking a tip from the auteur himself, I've decided to divide my critique into chapters. To wit:

Chapter 1
In which our hero deploys the Holocaust as a marketing tool

Some have been offended by the "jewzploitation" aspect of Inglourious Basterds. I'm not sure how they've managed to maintain their indignation, however, as there is nothing at all Jewish - not a shred of that great culture, identity or spirituality - in the movie, aside from Eli Roth's missing foreskin, I suppose (which isn't there either). Sure, the spirit to offend that longest of humanist traditions is willing, but the execution is weak, because frankly, QT couldn't care less about Judaism except as an excuse for his own goy perversions. Thus the "Jews" in the movie are "Jews" the same way the homosexuals in Pulp Fiction are "hillbillies" - they're called that for marketing purposes, but they might as well be ninjas, or nuns on the rag, for all QT cares. In short, Inglourious Basterds is about as "Jewish" as Midnight Mass at St. Peter's. So sorry, but they still don't get to kill Hitler.

Chapter 2
In which it is revealed why our hero cannot handle a camera

The true mystery of Quentin Tarantino's career is how he managed to watch so many movies without learning anything about how to shoot one. Well, maybe it's not such a mystery - after all, he only really liked the bad ones. And while there may have been some effective chases in Reservoir Dogs, in Inglourious Basterds, as in most of his work, Tarantino seems to be handling the camera with boxing gloves on. Medium shot is followed by coverage shot which maybe is jazzed up with a POV - the gap was all the more glaring as I'd just seen the brilliantly nimble District 9, but it's hard to think of any other well-reviewed movie that's as clumsy as this one. (And you can completely forget about QT ever reaching the conceptual heights of, say, Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock. Not no way, not no how.) Inglourious Basterds plays, unsurprisingly, like some grindhouse flick from the 70's - which, I know, is the whole idea! And since 70's grindhouse flicks were often badly made, QT's aesthetic requires that things be done cheaply and crudely. You have to admire this strategy from a career perspective, but it's worth noting that many directors of trash, like say Mario Bava or Dario Argento, nevertheless look dazzling next to Tarantino. They did their trash up in high style because they had talent. But Tarantino doesn't, so we're stuck watching Mr. Majestyk over and over again, only this time with the occasional high-production-value money shot.

Chapter 3
In which our hero learns to destroy even his pretty-good sequences with a ridiculous soundtrack

No doubt you've heard about David Bowie's Cat People ditty popping up in Occupied France. What you haven't heard is that there are disastrous music cues sprinkled liberally throughout Basterds. Soemtimes there's a film-junkie justification at hand - mashing "Für Elise" with Ennio Morricone I guess would make sense if you were QT - but this doesn't make the resulting dislocations in tone any less laughable. Only of course I suppose QT fans will tell you that's the idea, too, just as an awkward little kid who trips and falls will insist, "I meant to do that."

Chapter 4
In which our hero discovers a postmodern disguise for an unfortunate gap in his writing ability

Back in the day, the fractured narratives of QT's movies seemed innovative. Now, they look like a crafty way of covering up the fact that he can't tell a story to save his life. Jackie Brown meandered, Kill Bill was clunky, and Death Proof stumbled repeatedly until its closing chase. But with Basterds, QT seems to have reached a whole new level of embarrasing incompetence, script-wise. He thinks he's juggling three or four separate story lines, but instead he's constantly dropping and picking them up again. There are the "Basterds," the fantasy pseudo-Jewish "band apart" who scalp Nazis, and then there's Shosanna Dreyfus, who escapes the clutches of the "Jew hunter," Hans Landa, and then there's the Paris cinema where the Basterds and Shosanna and Hitler himself converge, and then there's the German spy and the British film critic - and oh, what a godawful mess. People get offed before we even care who they are, and then sometimes return when we really don't care if we ever see them again. Given the lack of any actual dramatic development, the actors do the best they can, and a few (Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Til Schweiger) manage to impress with their skill, although not with the kind of genuine characterizations that should win awards. Meanwhile we hope - indeed we pray - that the torture's going to come quick, to spare us from the aesthetic pain of all the awkward exposition and labored film parlance. As for those who insist that various scenes in the movie are "unbearably tense" or that Tarantino "orchestrates the suspense superbly" - you really should get out more often.

Chapter 5
In which our hero demonstrates that quotation shorn of context is meaningless and insulting

As Inglourious Basterds grinds on, we realize that its many "plots" have been devised merely to create little scenes in which characters reveal that they're sourced from within movies, and that they're within a movie that's itself about movies, and that - are you still awake? Probably not, because somehow meta was never so meh. Yet the refs keep coming - QT even begins to add substitles, or even scrawled IDs, to the frame to help us out with who and what he's referencing. Perhaps the director does perceive at some level the airless absurdity of his conceit; that may be why his characters seem to float, untethered, in a weirdly empty environment. But at the same time, QT doesn't seem to comprehend the sense of vacuum his direction produces as anything like self-critique. That the meaninglessness of his own method should resonate with us seems to be lost on him. Likewise the fact that the great films of the past depended for their meaning on their own contexts likewise seems to fly right over his fanboy head. And thus the many, many "references" within Inglourious Basterds begin to feel more like smears. Aldo Ray in particular, who saw action at Iwo Jima, would probably choke to see how Tarantino has parodied him here, but something tells me G.W. Pabst, Sergei Eisenstein, and even Leni Reifenstahl would also gladly kick him until he was dead once they saw his weirdly pointless, yet somehow always patronizing, "homages." So Eisenstein was a Commie, and Reifenstahl was a Nazi - both choices begin to look rather good against Tarantino's vaguely libertarian vacuity. At least they "meant" something. And isn't that the bottom line of anything you'd want to call "art"?

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