Arrougant Basterds

Inglourious Basterds really is a revenge movie: not for Jews, but for the long-oppressed defenders of Quentin Tarantino. Minor spoilers for the movie.

basterdsshoshana.jpgWherever there’s a discussion about a Quentin Tarantino movie, the topic invariably turns to Tarantino’s other movies and the director himself. That’s not by accident; he’s got the ego to put himself forward as the star performer whose vision is responsible for everything on the screen (as a director, if not as an actor), and he’s got the talent (see previous) to be able to pull that kind of thing off.

And the conversation always ends up with everyone lining up into a well-worn and pre-defined slot:

  1. The Defender of Cinema: These are the ones quick to mention video stores and still regard Tarantino with the same condescension as old money has for the nouveau riche. One gets the sense that one finds films such as these alarmingly populist, eschewing the transformative power of cinema in favor of common entertainment. A pretty good example is Manohla Dargis’ review in The New York Times, you can almost see her turning up her nose and entering Margaret Dumont mode as she fills her review with condescending touches like “…the Bear Jew (the director Eli Roth, dreadful).” If this were Entertainment Weekly and not the Times, the review would have not only a letter grade but a stern “Mr. Tarantino, please see me after class.”
  2. The Reluctant Moviegoer: There’s some of this in Kenneth Turan’s review in The Los Angeles Times, where he acknowledges he’s not the ideal audience for Tarantino movies, and ends up seeing the violence and gore but no point to it all.
  3. The Cinema Studies Whistle-Blower: These are the ones who complain that Tarantino says nothing original; he just rips off other movies and wants you to be impressed at how many movies he’s seen. Then, they go into a shot-by-shot filmography to demonstrate how many movies they’ve seen. See Steven Rea’s review in The Philadelphia Inquirer, which makes it sound as if he spent the entire movie playing spot-the-reference and then complains that there’s no movie there.
  4. The Everything-Sucks-Since-Reservoir Dogs Guy: See Rick Groen’s review in The Globe and Mail, where he dismisses Basterds as nothing more than a pastiche of Tarantino’s earlier movies. For an even better example, see the comments on the New York Times review, especially Joe Slovo of Minneapolis who dismisses the movie as pretentious and self-indulgent and makes sure to point out that he was one of the first to see Reservoir Dogs in art house theaters before it got all popular.
  5. The New Yorker: Okay, not really a type, I guess, but I was amazed at how David Denby’s review in The New Yorker manages to combine every single one of the above in one non-stop stream-of-superciliousness.
  6. The Reluctant Fan: These are the people who are quick to point out the pervasive self-indulgence in Tarantino movies. The pandering post-modernism. The touches of arrogance where perceived coolness and actual coolness can’t match up. The over-long dialogues that are supposed to be filled with dazzling wordplay but instead just come across as tedious. But they can’t help but acknowledge there’s still something undeniably awesome going on, those hipster-targeted moments that we should be able to dismiss as a gimmick but can’t help getting excited by.
  7. The Tarantino Devotee: These guys love Tarantino movies, have seen each one multiple times, and can most likely provide an ordered list from best to worst at a moment’s notice. They acknowledge that Tarantino’s a genius, and even if they don’t like a movie, they just need to watch it a few more times before they “get” it, as Todd Gilchrist of implies in his review.
  8. The Sycophant: These are extreme versions of the Devotee, who believe Tarantino is the Father of Modern Cinema. They update wikis and the Trivia sections of IMDB pages, and discuss references and casting and music choices and props and lines of dialogue with breathless reverence.

For the record: I usually start out in group 2 before I’ve seen one of the movies, and then find myself squarely in group 6 immediately after. I unashamedly and unreservedly love the first half of Kill Bill, and the whole sequence showing the flight from Okinawa to the Godzilla-model version of Tokyo (complete with sword holders on the plane) is one of those transcendent moments that just makes me love movies.

I remember watching Pulp Fiction and being completely split on it; I enjoyed it, while still thinking it was an offensive, gruesome, disjointed, arrogant mess. The person who summed up that movie better than any other opinion or review I’ve read since then was the office manager at my first job — someone who I’d never have expected to watch it in the first place. She said just “I loved it, but I felt like I needed a shower afterwards.” I still think that movie is a case of the parts being better than the whole, and of novelty working in its favor: I can’t recall if I’ve seen the movie since the first time in a theater, and I’m not sure I even want to, but the parts that I enjoyed still stand out crystal-clear in my mind as if I’d seen it yesterday. (Also for the record: I still haven’t seen Jackie Brown).

And the reason I’m talking about all this instead of talking about Inglourious Basterds is because I can’t see it as anything other than a culmination of all of this: the other movies, the references, the director, and the audience’s reactions. It’s got all of the things I hate about the other Tarantino movies I’ve seen, but here, they don’t drag the movie down into a mess with occasional flashes of brilliance. Here, it all just works, somehow.

It’s shamelessly self-referential, but here it feels more like a genuine homage than self-aware parody. (That could be because war movies are just more inherently charming and entertaining than kung-fu films or revenge fantasies or exploitation flicks). It’s got plenty of jarring bits of post-modernism, like the random insertion of 70s titles and Samuel L. Jackson voice-overs, but they really work like they’re supposed to: they’re clever and memorable, instead of feeling like the director jumping in and announcing how clever he is. There are long monologues, but they’re in character (unlike Death Proof or Kill Bill, where the characters just suddenly start channeling Quentin Tarantino). And long stretches of inaction, but they do genuinely build tension (again unlike Death Proof, where it just felt like slavish recreation of bad movie-making). There are wildly anachronistic music cues, but instead of knocking you out of the movie, it snaps you back to attention and sets the mood and importance of the scene. There are subtle (and not-so-subtle) callbacks to other movies — whether intentional or not, the glass of milk reminded me of Suspicion — but they work within the context of the movie, instead of just shouting “Hey look at this other movie I saw that time.”

And all that serves as a base for the moments that Tarantino’s always been able to get right. The opening sequence is a fantastic example of how to do suspense. The climactic scene in the theater is just a long sequence of unforgettable images. The shot of a screen in flames, the face of a woman condemning the audience, the voice still filling the hall and the image projected on the smoke like a vengeful ghost — that’s just plain virtuoso filmmaking. If it’d been made by anyone with less baggage attached to his name (and, to be honest, if it hadn’t been at the end of a two-and-a-half hour movie) then it would be more widely acknowledged as such.

The impression I had overall was that Tarantino’s style had finally matured past arrogance and into confidence. It’s a movie made by someone who loves movies, is actually quite good at it, and most importantly: loves them for their own sake, and not for the interpretation or social analysis that drives cinema studies majors and film critics. There are still obviously plenty of people who just see self-indulgence and empty, meaningless post-modernism, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the movie that proves Tarantino’s success isn’t a fluke. He really knows what he’s doing. It’s not my favorite Tarantino movie, and there weren’t any moments here that thrilled me in the same way the best moments of Kill Bill did, but it’s the first one I’ve seen that works as a solid piece of filmmaking from start to finish.

In fact, I was all ready to say that Inglourious Basterds was Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece. Until the last line, where he directly tells the audience that this is his masterpiece. But at least he saved it for the last 15 seconds. I guess it’s impossible to completely give up self-indulgent arrogance after you’ve made a career of it.