Film: Quentin Tarantino: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

At its inconsistent best, Inglourious Basterds illustrates just how District 9 fails.  Quentin Tarantino has a way of folding all things into his own unique world, regardless of real live culture, geography, or, in this case, history.  If he chooses to be crude – and that is often – he does so without requiring us to realign our moral assessment of the universe he’s constructed, because it has nothing to do with the world as anyone else knows it.  This is his greatest strength as a filmmaker, and the source, I think, of his spectacular, monumental irrelevance.  Like Coppola reworking the jungles of Cambodia for Apocalypse Now (1979), or Dreyer fabricating the cramped, angly world of Vampyr (1932), Tarantino is a remarkable sculptor of his own cinematic reality.  It’s spatially unpredictable, garnished in precise color and texture, and photographed with a surgeon’s attention to its inevitable susceptibility to violence.  What’s missing is not a voice so much as an intellect to feed it whole sentences.

It’s certainly not a shortage of words or inattention to their flow that gets in Tarantino’s way, nor a sense of how to fashion structure out of (frequently little more than) characters speaking.  The problem is that behind his flourishes, there’s a vast emptiness to a Tarantino film.  The man simply has nothing to say about being a human being, and few apparent interests or compulsions beyond the need to make and watch films.  We’re left, then, with a choice to make: whether startlingly pleasurable filmmaking of utterly no consequence is sufficient over the potentially less carbonated films of better thinkers.

Or it could be that there’s no choice to make, that Tarantino makes the films he wants to make, and that among his saving graces – behind a strangely flawless casting sensibility in particular – is his refusal to even attempt to make a deeper film than he’s capable of.  He did try that once – Jackie Brown (1997) is sort of a puzzling wreck, desperate to be both involving and emotionally coherent but unable to get past the screwball kinkiness that makes Bridget Fonda’s character so goddamned fascinating at the expense of the conventional rest (he’s also proven that to be Tarantinoesque is not enough; his own relative failures (Brown, the Kill Bills (2003, 2004), Death Proof (2007)) reek of the pitfalls inherent in such vapid, mealymouthed dialogue).  With the exception of three or four beats in Basterds in which his characters are allowed to actually react to things, he’s content to be lowbrow, referencing obscure spaghetti westerns and samurai films with the impotent relish of a fantasy league baseball fan.

If that’s the worst one can say about him, though – and I think it is – then critical analysis of his work serves little purpose.  He’s neither saying anything nor causing actual offense by action or by omission.  Tarantino’s films are self-contained galaxies of quirk and bodily damage, consciously disregarding any insight into the human condition in favor of allusions to the ways other films have fetishized the act of both making and watching films.  So then…so what?  He makes visual candy bars, and to lend greater credence to a Tarantino film is to indulge in fetishism over substantive content.  Things like taste and tact don’t even get off the bench.  And that’s where I get hung up, a little.  How much appreciation does a film deserve if it only operates on a fraction of my faculties and sensibilities, content to wallow instead in thick, bubble gummy inanity?

I only ask because a film like Inglourious Basterds – beginning with its scrumptious potroast of a title – offers up great bellowing slabs of visceral zest.  Heads are scalped, slowly, peeled away from the bloody skull with slick Apache expertise; strudels with cream are consumed with ravenous aplomb, between honeyed words from a wolfish mouth.  That’s very much the way Tarantino works: serving up beautifully baked strudels of dialogue, and topping it off with a dollop of violence – the whole thing tastes pretty good.  Like Kill Bill, Basterds swims in tangible lush color, reveling in the red/white/black chiaroscuro of Nazi pageantry, deep European forests, and the soft luminescence of a movie theater marquee (a pacifying effect on Tarantino, no doubt).  And he’s found yet another actor, in Christophe Waltz, who brings the right degree of theatrical showmanship that Tarantino relies on, and that occasionally – not often, but now and then – suggests the kind of films Tarantino might make if he felt films were a place to explore the complicated process of living.  For now he’s happy to sidestep the question.

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