Brad Pitt declares that Quentin Tarantinos Inglourious Basterds is the last word in World War II movies, and after it theres nothing left to cinematically be said on the subject. One might hope his interviewer misheard Pitt, because rather than any definitive word the film is simply a turd fetid crap from the most overrated filmmaker of our time, perhaps ever.
I went to see it truly hoping it wouldnt be as bad as I feared. Tarantino is not without talent: an incredibly enthusiastic cineaste with a facile sense of style and a cunning instinct for what plays well with the trendy zeitgeist.
And admittedly, statements made by some of his more avid fans in and around my circle of acquaintances have had as much to do with my views on his work as the work itself. One makes the preposterous claim that Tarantino has changed the language of cinema. Another made the even more moronic assertion that the director has influenced every filmmaker that has come after him. Such hogwash only invites my cynicism to differ.
But its his films that have gone from impressing me to piquing my critical faculties and coming up short. Reservoir Dogs was an arresting debut, even if its final scenes could have stood a cut. Theres no denying that Pulp Fiction is a sharp piece of modern filmmaking with its non-linear structure, some fine performances (perhaps John Travoltas best) and absurdist humor. But with Jackie Brown, Tarantino began showing weaknesses, being overly long and giving no emotional payoff when the payoff in the plot finally happened. From then on, I had no interest in seeing his works that followed. (Im also no fan of the silly and tacky From Dusk Till Dawn, which Tarantino wrote and was directed by Robert Rodriguez.)
Now with Inglourious Basterds, theres a whole raft of issues that make it problematic. Like Jackie Brown, it fiddles on far too long in sections, especially its third chapter (German Night In Paris). It has plot holes one could drive a freight train through: How does a French Jewish girl who escaped her familys murder end up running a cinema in Paris? (The explanation she offers a German officer attracted to her that she inherited it from her aunt and uncle only begs more questions.) And how does she have a black lover and projectionist, given Nazi racial policies? Plus even larger, how is it that Adolf Hitler ends up at a film premiere in Paris when the Allies have already landed in France? None of it makes much, if any, sense at all.
Even worse, theres the core premise of a Dirty Dozen-style group of Jews operating underground in France wreaking bloody vengeance on the Nazis that spins so far out from the reality of history that it would be downright silly if it werent so offensive. Similarly distasteful is the character of SS Colonel Hans Landa, aka The Jew Hunter. Yes, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz gives a bravura performance, but the character makes a mockery of such genuine analyses of German behavior in World War II as Hannah Arendts banality of evil. Its a caricature that simply goes over the top and beyond, as is its Adolf Hitler. Brad Pitts East Tennessee leader of the Basterds is equally overdrawn, especially his accent (even if Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tenn.). Some obviously find these characters humorous. I felt them insulting to Germans, rednecks and even, God forbid, Hitler.
To its credit, the movie boasts some sharp cinematography and moments of what may be homage to some but to me feels more like clumsy appropriation. Its meant to be a salute to cinema, yet in the final chapter when Nazi bigwigs are identified with visual tags, it ignores one of the basic rules of film: show dont tell. And the final revenge fantasy that wipes out the German leadership in one fell swoop is Tarantinos worst moment of the excess and gratuitous violence that plagues many of his works childishly cartoonish, base, and as with much of the rest of this mess of a movie, overdone to the max.
Its supposedly meant to be an alternative history of the Second World War. But the movie is so many parsecs removed from history itself that it lacks any believability even as a fantasy. Its all effect and no affect without any historical and emotional credibility. Although the premise is supposedly revenge against the evil Nazis (the Nuremburg trials notwithstanding), Inglorious Basterds is a prime example of what I feel is Tarantinos greatest weakness as a filmmaker: His movies have no moral center.
In the same Pitt interview cited above, the actor compares it to the recent Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, a dreadfully bad work about a genuinely dramatic and heroic attempt to kill Hitler and end the war. Inglourious Basterds may not be as lifeless as that movie, but it feels to me like a monkey slinging its feces for fun rather than a worthy work of cinema. In the end its a telling example of the dumbing down of modern culture in a way that ignores the huge moral, cultural and political issues of World War II. And that is sad indeed if not in this case irredeemably pathetic.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2009
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