Monday, September 14, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is a hype monger. His films are so kitchy, so absurd and yet so popular they defy all reason and logic. His cult-like following has been growing exponentially since his emergence in the early 1990s. However, the quality of Tarantino's films since the turn of the century has been inversely shrinking. His neurosis, which waxes alongside his stardom, is threatening to engulf him. Constructing a fictional universe out of his spectacular awareness of film history, Tarantino has always stood apart from the rest of the major Hollywood film directors. Originally his films were boldly unique and unnervingly occult. Their intense visual stimuli was appeased by subtext, something just out of sight like a gold light emanating from a brief case. It was this subtext, this profound and exciting sense of mystery, in the early Tarantino films that culled the sycophantic behavior most of us are familiar with in his fanbase. The trouble is that that enticing Esotericism has all but disappeared and in its place violence and indolent carnal pleasure have taken up a position of self-satisfied, smirking hedonism, casting occasional condescending glances towards a devout viewership who still believe these delights mask anything meaningful.

Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's worst film to date. The follow up to 2007's Death Proof which, although surprisingly well focused given both Kill Bill's vague vagrancy, felt more like a warm up to a full length feature rather than a feature itself, Inglourious Basterds is the culmination of what feels like too much thought and far too much money. It is a sprawling war epic described by Tarantino as a “spaghetti western with WWII iconography,” which should come as no surprise. By Tarantino's loose definition of Spaghetti Western half his filmography has been some iteration of that short lived genre. The formula is relatively simple: take clear cut villains and good guys, both of whom possess a pathological tenacity, mix with a generous portion of memorable/inventive cinematic effects and plenty of gutsy violence and you have it. Nevertheless, there is a unmistakable aspect of IG which separates it from the rest Tarantino's filmography: realism. Despite being a questionable transposition of socio-political history, the film is, in many ways, shockingly grounded. Even if any parts of Tarantino's other films were possible they were more importantly unbelievable. What's different about IG is the potential for the film to drag you into its universe and not in a surrealist, dreamy way like Pulp Fiction.

Of course that is aided by its premise: the Nazi occupation of Europe and more specifically, France. Tarantino's universe becomes a tangent universe to our own. What disappoints about the film is the potential for it to unveil something deeply subconscious about our relation to this memorable time in international history. Tarantino could have suggested something about our relation to history and how much we take it for granted; how where we are today is largely due to history we hardly consider consciously but which nonetheless is ingrained in us from our earliest years onward. Instead Tarantino takes the easy route, lamentably inserting his stylistic and thematic cues into a genre they are not suited for. Like a child's play toy with shapes that correspond to holes for those same shapes to pass through, Tarantino obstinately tries to make a square peg fit in a round hole. His Nazi's are one dimensional clowns, unlike the humanized WWI German foot soldiers of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the high water marks in war cinema. Tarantino's Nazis are brutal and merciless, inducing the same fear that Michael Meyers or Freddy Krueger might, imparting a sense of fantasy that moves far beyond plaintive “suspension of disbelief”. The symbols of the Nazi party, like the rising strings that suddenly cut to silence as the college coed creeps through a silent, dark forest, will always terrify. They contain an unstoppable emotional inertia, but without creativity we are simply crushed by their blandness. Even the film's sympathetic German Sergeant Yorke is a Fascist at heart. Which is not so terrible because he is a Fascist, but because he is only an idea.

This is my biggest complaint about Tarantino's characters. They are almost always some variant of Sociopathic personality. Tarantino's Sociopath archetypes are, in many ways, the type of people we want to be: goal oriented, inhumanely focused, and capable of doing anything that “needs” to be done. Much in the same way Tarantino does everything that “needs” to be done in order to continue being recognized. More than just sacrificing content for style, Tarantino is trading genius for wit, at best. He is cutting himself off from the industry, rather than expanding beyond it. Tarantino is one of the most recognizable names in the industry and also its most indulgent. Like his characters he refuses to interact with a reality that he is quickly losing touch with. His own Sociopathic tendencies are beginning to show.

With pathetically underdeveloped characters, slapdash cultural innuendo, and so much graphic violence that it literally detaches the viewer from any emotional relationship with the travesty he is portraying, Inglourious Basterds is a severe low point in Quentin Tarantino's career. It relies far too heavily on his reputation instead of the skills that define it. His films operate within an insular sphere of the Intelligensia and conversely the myth making Fanboy. The hype that surrounds them is almost indestructible. The ensuing post-release intellectual debate is insusceptible to doubt. What Inglourious Basterds forces us to confront is exactly why that is.

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