Not being a proper film buff, I can’t claim to know all the films and genres referred to in Tarantino’s most recent film “Inglorious Basterds”. But despite the enjoyment film buffs likely get from all the nods and allusions tucked within the film–a film even a dummy like me can see is about the power of film–I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an element of self-sabotage going on here.

To cite just one instance (something that won’t be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it), Tarantino follows a very tense, emotional opening scene with a 70s exploitation trope, including lurid on-screen text and a voiceover introducing characters’ background information. It pulls you from the film, refuses you the comfort of sympathizing with the characters, and forces your attention on the film itself, technique replacing content.

This is of course a common criticism of Tarantino–that his movies are too show-off-y–and there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to resort to such self-awareness or self-reference within a narrative. It puts the film itself on a level of critique, for instance, which can have practical consequences, like multivalent dialogue between director and viewer. But some of the elements of “Inglorious Basterds” are so jarring, that I began to wonder if they weren’t in some way safety valves which, by refusing to let the viewer engage on a purely emotional level, were actually there first and foremost to protect Tarantino himself from his own feelings.

Critiquing a filmmaker as tricky and self-aware and ironic as Tarantino puts one at an immediate disadvantage–it’s extremely easy to become an apologist, and resort to structural and functional explanations for every decision the director has made. But for Tarantino himself, who is clearly as giddily taken up with violence as he is interested in exposing and critiquing our and his own fascination thereof, it seems like the story may be more psychologically complicated than that.

Is there, amid all the winks, nods and allusions, an auteur afraid to admit that his subject has never really been film itself, but the characters he sculpts so beautifully before undermining with clever disctraction?

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

23 responses to “Listen all ya’ll, is this sabotage?”

  1. Joe says:

    I met a guy in 2001 who, as a TA, had taught Tarantino at the University of Texas. This guy hated Tarantino for his smugness, and he reviled the level of violence he used in Pulp Fiction. I told him that the level of violence he was using was actually a way of making fun of violence, of undermining it, as you’re saying he does in Inglorious Basterds with the emotionally jarring scenes. I actually think, having seen most of Tarantino’s films, that Basterds is probably his most balanced and my favorite, probably because of the safety valves you’re talking about and the way he uses them. I think with any story that has such extremes, there has to be some level of relief tucked in for the audience, otherwise they feel like they’re being assaulted. Comic relief, absurd relief, whatever you wanna call it. I think that’s all he’s doing. In his previous films, I don’t think he’d quite mastered that, yet.

  2. Greg Olear says:

    I think you make a good point, Shya.

    Have you ever seen the movie Parenthood? That feels like three movies, of varying quality, rolled into one. The Steve Martin stuff is middling, an average C of a movie. The Dianne Wiest/Martha Plimpton sections are much better, a strong B+. And the Jason Robards/Tom Hulce scenes feel like they’re taken from some Tony-winning Broadway play — so much better than the rest of the movie, you wonder why the whole movie isn’t them.

    I think IB does the same thing. The “Basterds” are not as interesting as the rest of the action. I think Joe is right about the valves — being entertaining while telling a horrible story is difficult to accomplish, and humor is the best way to do it.

    But man. The scenes that are good in IB — and most of them are — Jesus. The opening scene, the way he takes his time…wow. Smug or not, QT is one of the best writers alive. Period. I think IB, being a period piece, liberated him from talking about Royales with cheese, and gave him an opportunity to show off his chops. And he has tremendous chops for showing off.

    I can’t wait for Walz to waltz away with the Oscar.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      “Ooooo, that’s a bingo!”

      • James D. Irwin says:

        ”No, it’s just bingo.”

        Waltz’s performance is amazing. I read something in a magazine where QT said he would never make Inglorious Basterds unless he could find an actor to do that role justice. Absolutely brilliant character.

        I was a bit worried going into it that I’d hate it. I’ve spent most of the last four years studying Nazi Germany and Pulp Fiction is the only Tarantino film I really like (unless you count True Romance).

        But what it lacks in historical accuracy or emotional enagagement it makes up for in sheer entertainment. And to be honest, that’s all I’m interested in.

        It’s fantastically entertaining and highly rewatchable.

        And that last line is fantastic.

  3. Cheryl says:

    Shya, I think Joe’s on to something with the safety valves. Stopping short of calling the violence cartoonish (which he directly addressed and brilliantly so in Kill BIll Vol. 1, by having one of the most violent sequences actually animated), Tarantino seems to have a sense about when to go full throttle and when to pull back. Even in that animated sequence, it should be noted that the sequence involved the story of child whose parents were killed in front of her, and who then, as a 12 year old, seduced the murderer so that she could kill him. It would have been very hard to tell that story with child actors, realistically. By animating the sequence, he establishes distance, so that it can take its place as an establishing backstory for one of the characters.

    I enjoy Tarantino’s movies. Without those safety valves, it would be hard for me top enjoy those movies. He has a great sense of catharsis. More than anything, I think he is motivated by homage to specific genres – mostly b-movie dramas like spaghetti westerns, exploitation and revenge flicks. From that standpoint, the safety-valve idea is for the audience. He’s not as interested in an in-depth exploration of character, or of using violence a way to shine a light on an issue, or to drive home a message. Nazis are a great target because, well, they’re Nazis. And the idea of killing Hitler – how much more cathartic can you get?

    Joe, I have to mention something about your comment, though. No disrespect to you or your friend, but Tarantino was never a student at UT. He dropped out of high school and never attended college. He is a sometime resident of Austin, and from 1997-2006 he held occasional film festivals at UT’s Dobie Theatre and the Alamo Drafthouse theatres called QTFest, where he screens his favorite exploitation movies. I am sure he has spoken in lectures as well. Maybe your friend met him at some of those appearances. From every interview I’ve seen of him, he is certainly a smug S.O.B, and he kind of gives me the creeps besides.

    • Joe says:

      Maybe he just dropped in on this guy’s film class lectures without actually being enrolled and disrupted them with his commentary? It’s possible. All I know is, this guy had said he had him in a class at UT.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      I read Joe’s comment to mean his friend taught Tarantino’s *work*, but maybe you’re right, and he’s full of it.

      I agree with all of what you said above, Cheryl, but there’s no way around the fact that, because these techniques make the film easier to consume, they also skirt the deeper issues and emotional dimensions they propose to explore. You’re right, without them, the films would be much harder to watch–in fact they would be entirely different films. So it’s a bit absurd, I realize, to imagine them. They’d probably look more like Michael Haneke’s films–which are amazing, powerful, and nearly impossible to sit through, at least without squirming. I imagine you don’t like them at all. But this is all to say that, beyond the technical reasons for using “safety valves”, there are psychological reasons as well. And that they might be worth exploring.

      The same question may be raised, I realize, regarding a lot of pop culture and/or postmodern literature. Playful is good–but at what cost to seriousness, sincerity and depth?

      • Cheryl says:

        Oh, Shya, you’re right. A big ol’ mis-read on my part. Joe, I’m sorry. It was the “Tarantino is smug” part that threw me off. I imagined him in a class making smug remarks – which he probably would. Color me embarassed. La-di-da – on to Tarantino.

        Tarantino vs. Haneke. What a match. I have never seen a Haneke film, but I love to read all about them, for exactly that reason. It is not that I am not concerned or interested in the issues he wants to explore; nor is it that I am some sort of Pollyanna who only wants to see the bright side of things. It is simply that I enjoy sleeping.

        Now writing is another story. There are only a few books that I have to “prepare” myself for. Maybe it is my own psychological disconnect. Movies are for me primarily an entertainment medium. Darker more serious films often keep getting pushed lower on my Netlix queue. It was not always that way. I used be more of a film buff. These days, it’s more of a time issue. Less time for movies, less time for reading. While I read “serious” books, I am usually wanting something less consuming for film. I appreciate the artistry, and the medium. That’s just how it is for me right now.

        Tarantino would probably say that there are others out there, like Haneke, to chew on the issues. Maybe there are psychological reasons; maybe he just doesn’t see an obligation to address the stories in that way. Another way to think of it is to turn to question you raise on its head. Does a playful tone in some parts make the sudden shift to seriousness more compelling – shock one into consciousness, so to speak?

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Can you believe I have yet to see ?

    I hate myself right now.

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, I haven’t seen it either.

      I haven’t liked anything he’s done since Jackie Brown, so I wasn’t in a rush to go see it in the theater.

      • Shya Scanlon says:

        I kept on thinking of Jackie Brown when writing the above, Matt, because if I remember correctly, he really let his characters develop without too much distraction in that film. I liked it a good deal, too, for this reason. I didn’t bring it up because I haven’t watched it in a while, so could be wrong.

  5. I like Tarantino but I rarely move out there to defend him. I’m the sort of guy who likes little jokes and references that others don’t get, and when I don’t get them I also like it…

  6. Andy Johnson says:

    I think you’re crediting the man with way too much intellectual heft in terms of a putative critique of violence. I don’t think he’s interested in critiquing violence at all. He’s interested in what it looks and what it sounds like. Exhibit A: The car crash in Death Proof, which has to be nigh-on the most graphic sequence in recent cinema – mainly due to what it does to the characters you’ve just spent an hour getting to know. I don’t think he’s even interested in what his films do to an audience, unless he happens to be in that audience. It’s all of the eye, all of the spectacle.

    I couldn’t make head-nor-tail of Inglorious Basterds. I thought it was an unmitigated disaster. Unless it was some kind of kinky Holocaust revenge movie at the personal behest of the Weinsteins, I don’t understand how the f-ing thing could have been granted financing. It’s absolute tosh from start to finish.

    Tarantino only works when his movies stay in their own world: Tarantino’s world. When they stray into the world of real history, real emotions and real people it smacks of taking upskirt photos at a funeral.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Two things: I think it was indeed a kinky Holocaust revenge movie. And that “upskirt photos at a funeral” line is hilarious.

      And whether or not you think it’s a valid point, there’s something in there about the transformative potential of art in there, too. Though IB certainly isn’t bringing anyone back to life.

  7. Andy Johnson says:

    I’m not German, but I can’t really see how Inglorious Basterds helps the cause of Germany getting past Hollywood’s perverse obsession with Nazism and the holocaust. Surely having Tarantino make a shlocky exploitation flick about the worst aspects of C20th history is about as offensive as you can get.

    Is concentration camp-themed porn transformative?

    Germany is even denied the right of reply in this situation. They just have to sit there and take it. There’s no sense of balance. Just imagine if Volcker Schlöndorff made a Busby-Berkeley-style musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second world war. Let’s call it, ‘Banned-zai!’

    It’s bad enough people making Dachau comedies. My grievance is, do we need this retrograde bollocks, culturally? Especially when genocide is happening every single day around the world.

  8. Connie says:

    I enjoy QTs films but generally get caught up in the technique rather than the content, whereas my hubby HATES all things QT. QT never captures my hubby’s imagination, never engages him, never lets hubby bond to any characters .
    I enjoyed IB but would not recommend it to my history teacher son.
    Great read Shya

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