I can distinctly recall the first time I saw Quentin Tarantino interviewed--on television. It was not long after he had made Pulp Fiction . Critics were gushing over its excesses, and there was a lot of pleasant talk about how it had enabled John Travolta to resuscitate his worn-out career. I found Tarantino to be rather like an apoplectic, slightly demented teenager. In my own youth, there had been a boy rather like this in my neighborhood. This guy, let's call him Tommy Caffey, was the only child of two grossly overprotective parents who spoiled Tommy to an inordinate degree, indulging him in every single one of his cooped-up fantasies. Tommy developed a weird fascination with all things Nazi, and eventually acquired dozens of Nazi memorabilia and authentic souvenirs--uniforms, weapons, insignia'd ephemera, etc. (As I later came to understand, such spooky interests weren't that unusual, even among otherwise healthy-minded individuals--Ian Hamilton Finlay, for instance, was also obsessed with Nazi imagery and symbolism.) My point here isn't that Tarantino is a Nazi-obsessed freak, but that he exhibits all the usual symptoms of a cooped-up adolescent mind, undisciplined, credulous, faddish, and immature.
In the interview, it was clear that Tarantino trusted in, invested in, his own enthusiasms to a degree unbecoming, and dangerous for a creative talent with the authority to command significant amounts of capital and influence. Somehow, on the strength of two cartoonish blood-and-guts Black Comedies, he'd taken Hollywood by storm and was set to try out all his childhood dreams of movie-making.
Hollywood has seen other directorial talents gone awry in this way, though seldom so early in their career(s). Sam Pekinpah, for instance, who began as a hack Westerns writer-director in the late 1950's (Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, etc.), eventually ended up making ridiculous, overblown, blood-and-guts showpieces like The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, etc. The Wild Bunch was most notable, for instance, as being, at the time of its release, the most obsessively, gratuitously, ghoulish violent movie ever made, in which dozens and dozens of men are gunned down, with evident relish, accompanied by guffaws and resolute conviction. A movie whose raw brutality suggested troubling, deeper levels of psychological abnormality than even his most ardent fans had been led to expect. Anyone who thought this kind of portrayal represented some kind of verite vision of the true wild west needed to have his head examined. Spaghetti Westerns had been based on an aesthetic of the gesture and lyricism of the prairie and desert landscapes, the cliches of maverick heroism and graphic contrasts, but they could be forgiven for misinterpreting the meaning of the American Westerns genre.
Brian De Palma, another, younger director--about mid-way in generational terms between Pekinpah and the younger Tarantino--is another director who shares an interest in extreme versions of genre fantasy. In such examples as Obsession, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and The Untouchables, he showed a certain flare for setting up "classic" situations and relationships, built out of the stock B- and C-movie tricks and techniques, creating suspense, using sexual innuendo, sadistic undertone, and fixing upon gratuitously gory detail--all traits which mainline cinema had once shunned.
The idea of combining the worst aspects of B-movie horror, porn, noir and surreal comedy is not new. A thin line separates the sharp-etched satire and black comedy of Dr. Strangelove , or Catch-22 , from, for instance, the bizarre semi-mainstream work of Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) or the chain-saw movies so beloved of Joe Bob Briggs, or something indefinable like Blue Velvet .
Tarantino's metaphorical cross-dressing style in Inglourious Basterds derives from a complete dressing down of the serious war movie drama, just as Pulp Fiction was a deconstruction of latter-day Noir. But Tarantino is no caricaturist, no well-meaning or mischievous satirist out to puncture people's pieties or offend the tender sensibilities of academic movie-critics.
What's most obvious--and undoubtedly most thrilling to his fans--is the lack of allegiance to any vestige of dramatic purpose, tragic or comic, in favor of a distorted sequence of exaggerated, misconceived, and ultimately meaningless scenes.
In pulp fiction--the kind of badly written, one might even say deliberately bad writing, which characterized the popular pulp magazines and story pamphlets of the 1930's and 1940's--improbable actions and cardboard personae, vied for the attention of an audience no more sophisticated than that of the standard comic book fan-base.
"Bam!! Bop!! CarraackK!!!" Dull serial material and low-grade radio and early episodic television fodder. The expedient excuse for this kind of stuff is that it's cheap to make, and no one invests much emotionally in any of it. With the rise of camp, and cult, critics began to think of this kind of pap as a separate set of vagrant generic categories. A series like Wild Wild West [1965-1969], with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, which turned the standard Western into a hybridized, synthetic spoof on itself, was one marker in the evolution of the type.
If Tarantino's style owes something to the blurring of categories brought about by television, his ambition has been, on the contrary, to exploit that confusion, by manipulating stereotypes, pushing the limits well beyond improbability, and then depending upon the audience's flexible tolerance to suggest that the whole history of narrative is somehow nothing more than a playground, as if a precocious 8-year old had been given a blow-torch and invited to burn half the books in the Library of Congress. Ha ha ha.
Post-Modern audiences, already massaged and softened up with liberal doses of New Wave absurdity and European automatism--having graduated from Bogart to Belmondo to Giancarlo Giannini to Sean Connery to Arnold Schwarzenegger--have shown they're ready for anything, even movies couched in tiresomely familiar "pulp" plots and settings, with equally over-the-top stylized wooden acting, stoned editing and cinematography.
Ordinarily, directors will get the benefit of the doubt from audiences when they take liberties with generic order. But what about the inside-out appreciation of violence and gore and fake romance and action for action's sake? Is it possible to make a movie in which the audience's suspension of disbelief--and its patience with bad patches--is sublimed into a state of absurdity in which anything--even slicing up bodies or bashing in heads with baseball bats--becomes the occasion for hilarity? When Schindler's List was first shown in local theatres in the Bay Area, it was reported that young audiences would begin to snicker, then break into full-throated guffaws, when Jewish characters were thrown from five-story windows by Gestapo thugs. It was even reported that many teenagers thought it must all have been an elaborate put-on, a fake bit of apocryphal history to cover up the sins of the Yids!
If Tarantino's the harbinger of some new kind of conceptual cinematic vision, I wonder what its ultimate message is. If the end of the first 75 years of ambitious movie-making is the gleeful conflagration of all of its most impressive traditions--i.e., the burning of the celluloid--what is there left to do?
Despite whatever dramatic involvement adult audiences may find in serious movies, the celebration and lionization of this kind of trash by the industry audience itself--the movie was nominated for (count'em) 8 academy awards (!)--does give one pause.
The purposes to which the raw material of human experience can be put, in art, are dependent upon the desired ends. Making movies is a very complex endeavor, involving the cooperation and participation of hundreds of individuals, all working towards a single vision, a carefully constructed set of sequenced visual events, interactions, effects. Cynics like Tarantino will suggest that chance and laziness and impulsive decision-making can be as useful as story-boards and precise dialogue. Differences in style, after all, are what make different directorial efforts unique. But deliberately planned ideas and insight--such as that of Hitchcock, or De Palma--aren't accidents. When they make a "mistake" it's a clear failure of intention, or a misinterpretation of the medium.
But with Tarantino's movies, you get the sense that such mistakes don't matter, or, if they do, they're just incorporated into the complacent, confused, opportunistic flow of his imagination. Casting Brad Pitt--an actor who, though with somewhat limited range and limited looks, has managed to put together a pretty impressive string of roles--as a savage, naive, middle-aged hick Army officer in charge of a party of blood-thirsty Jewish assassins, is painfully wrong. And yet, one has the feeling that Tarantino grooves on this kind of absurd wrongness, that he'd rather Pitt act against type, than have it played the way Tom Hanks played Captain John H. Miller in Saving Private Ryan.
Ask yourself how Tarantino would have made Schindler's List, or The Pianist, or Saving Private Ryan. It's not enough simply to say that these aren't movies that Tarantino would be unlikely to choose, because they lie outside his area of skill or concern. He'd be unable to do them competently because he lacks an essential ability which is crucial to any movie director: He fails completely to see dramatic material except in the way a selfish, capricious, mischievous, spoiled teenager would see it: As the chance to get away with murder.
Giving people like this unlimited budgets and big-name actors to work with is disastrous--a waste of resource and talent hardly seen before, in the whole history of cinema. It's almost Shakespearean! It would take a Robert Altman just to document the chaotic misappropriations and false notes of a full-scale mess like the making of Inglourious Basterds must have been.
But it wouldn't be a comedy, it would be a tragedy.
Oddly enough, I find I've spent a whole blog discussing a movie, without even outlining its plot or individual performances. That's because the movie, as a whole, left so little impression on me that I felt no compulsion to account for the intricacies of its shortcomings. When you come away from a movie that has this much faux-history, this much violence and weirdly twisted emotional strain, without any sense of resolution, or participation, or concern for any of the characters or their outcomes, you know something's terribly wrong. In order for audiences to care about whether the guy gets the girl, or to care about people who get casually killed, you have to make them care about those people in the first place, an ability which Tarantino not only lacks, but which he seems to feel is really unnecessary to the making of narrative. You begin to wonder if the guy isn't just a little cracked in the skull.
At least pulp noir was occasionally fun, even when it was bad. Inglourious Basterds is very bad, and no fun at all. Unless, perhaps, you're Quentin Tarantino himself.