Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino
The penny finally dropped: Quentin Tarantino simply has no imagination. He can’t create characters so he borrows bits from characters in films he’s seen. He can’t create a believable setting or narrative, so he echoes, parodies, de-constructs those of others. He is either passive or unaffected by reality or possesses no imaginative resources with which to express the feelings and emotions it arouses. He’s like a guy who takes an armchair to the beach because he’s never seen a film with a deckchair in it.
Tarantino’s film career – always derivative, always parasitic on other Directors, writers, genres – is a desperate struggle to spin imagination and original creative thought out of mere fantasy and the increasingly desperate fanciful manipulation of commonplace ideas and concepts. That is why his films always mark the triumph of style over substance; visceral shock over sustained tension or suspense; scabrous humour and adolescent rebelliousness over wit, comic originality or genuine dissent.
Do your own test: the dictionary associates the following qualities with ‘imagination’ – constructive, creative, mental creative ability, creative act of perception. The qualities associated with ‘fantasy’ are: illusion, hallucination, whimsical, far-fetched – ‘a series of pleasing mental images usually fulfilling a need not satisfied in reality’. Has Tarantino ever created a character you can imagine having a life off the screen? Do any of his characters convey any sense of having a ‘life’ a history before we meet them in his movies?
The inability to create characters is aesthetically fatal for Tarantino. His films track a downward path driven by the law of diminishing returns. Credible characters do so much for you: they drive narrative, establish context, create a base from which variation from the norm and the unexpected generates the surprise from which wit, irony and humour emerge. Characterless, so to speak, Tarantino is forced to rely on those things he is, or was good at – words, homage, reference, and assembling but not conceiving of images. This void at the heart of his films is now making him increasingly desperate to control what he can control: dialogue, shocking images and an increasingly anal pre-occupation with songs and music in his films. I heard a documentary, a documentary, God help us, talking of Tarantino’s ‘genius’ in his nerdish precision in fitting obscure song tracks precisely to the frame in his movies. This is anorakism that only fellow anorak’s can understand and no one but fellow anoraks would want to.
Inglourious Basterds is a paradox: a poor, even tedious film containing one superlative performance. This was justly recognized at Cannes when experienced Austrian actor Christoph Waltz walked off with the best actor award. Quite an achievement when you consider that poor Christoph’s beautifully nuanced character, Nazi ‘Jew-Hunter’ Colonel Hans Landa only has one credible character to play off who disappears after the first and best scene in the movie.
Tarantino’s writing qualities are evident in this first scene when French farmer Perrier la Paditte (Denis Menochet) and Landa have a chillingly banal conversation with the amiable tone of a census officer ticking boxes but with the subtext of Jewish fugitives listening under the floorboards. Landa knows and la Paditte knows he knows and the surreal little game Landa plays, veiling implacable inhumanity with ineffable courtesy, charm and politeness is tense and chilling. Maybe characters frighten Tarentino: threaten his control. This tense, superbly written and played scene is suddenly blown apart for a cheap Pythonesque laugh about the relative size of the two men’s pipes. Of course we laugh: but everything built up in the scene is thrown away – for a giggle. Pure Tarantino but the great directors he admires used to say implicitly ‘look at my film – if you would know me’; Tarantino can’t stop himself saying ‘look at me – if you would know my film’. And when we look we just see the insubstantial flash, not the clever writer who can make us listen.
IB has a comic book plot. It is 1941 in occupied France: Landa is proving diabolically good at mopping up any remaining Jews in France. Meanwhile, in the spirit of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) a group of vengeful Jewish GIs are formed led by Brad Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Raine suffering from the self-inflicted wound of an accent sounding like George W Bush auditioning for Rhet Butler; and looking like a square-jawed, stiff-necked Sterling Hayden just out of re-hab. Raine claims part Indian blood* (along with half of North America, but that’s a different story) and tells his men they will embark on a Nazi-killing spree using scalp-collecting, mutilation and torture to strike fear into the Nazis. He likens this campaign to that of the Apaches in resisting white settlers and the US Army.
As with most of QT’s films one gets the overwhelming impression that the actors are having a whale of a time, sending up each other, their characters, the narrative and any sense of seriousness about making movies. The whole enterprise comes over as an ‘in’ joke cleverly pitched to the audience to say ‘if you’re cool, you’ll get it, then you can join our gang and take the piss out of the poor schmucks who don’t.’ There were a few people in the cinema who started by laughing exaggeratedly at moments which at best warranted an ironic smile. But as the invention and style of the first scene was not recreated in the rest of the film, even these afficionados fell silent. QT suffers from the law of diminishing returns – both between and within his movies.
In the risible narrative, one survivor from Paditte’s farm, Shoshanna Dreyfus, escapes to return mysteriously later in the movie re-born as Emmanualle Mimieux, running a cinema in occupied Paris. ‘Apache’ Raine and Co are now operational, their star turn being the terrifying ‘Bear Jew’ (Sgt Donny Donowitz) whose fame is spreading…………. Nazi brains………..with a baseball bat.
Emmanuelle meanwhile attracts the amorous attention of Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl – Bourne Ultimatum, 2 Days in Paris), a German crack sniper whose exploits in killing 300 GIs are celebrated in a propaganda film ‘A Nation’s Pride’ set up by Goebbels. Zoller persuades Goebbels to hold the premier of ‘A Nation’s Pride’ in Emmanuelle’s cinema to ingratiate himself with her. As the premiere is to be attended by all the top Nazis, eventually including Hitler himself – interlocking storylines have Emmanuelle, the Basterds and a British covert operation led by Lt Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) hooking up with the common objective of ending the war by killing all the top Nazis in one go with the aid of a British double agent, German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark ((Diane Kruger).
Much mayem, blood-letting, brain-spattering ensues generating not a moment’s moral engagement or pause. OK “that’s the point you schmuck” I hear QT intone. Mea culpa. But what might have been grotesquely, dangerously funny becomes increasingly laboured, lacking even the visual wit and style of the Kill Bill or especially Pulp Fiction products. Despite some good moments much of this plays like out-takes from ‘Allo ‘Allo. The violent scenes do elicit in some what we might call the Tarantino ‘giggle’ – manic, slightly embarrassed and oddly conspiratorial.
It is quite impossible, except for the superb Waltz, to tell when the dreadful, clunky acting is intentional or just dumb; because it is so clunky, so transparently dumb it just ain’t funny most of the time. Like a second rate joke told badly by someone who apologetically announces ‘I can’t tell jokes’.
The film is in four languages – French, English, German, and ‘Italian’ (you’ll realise why the ‘ ‘). This could have been really funny but apart from a subtle use in the opening scene, QT simply fails to exploit the possibilities – except perhaps in an overlong scene when an SS officer unmasks the British agent because of a crap German accent and signalling ‘3’ with his fingers in a non-German way. No I have no idea if Germans do have a distinctive way of indicating ‘3’ with their fingers: though I do know Brits do with ‘2’. So maybe it’s an esoteric German joke – if that’s not an oxymoron.
Inglourious Basterds for me lacks by definition (see above) creative imagination. Even QT’s characteristic sense of visual style – shallow but shiny, fails him and the usual flashily funny or wittily ironic dialogue just clunks. It is the film of a persistently over-praised Director who simply refuses to grow up, come out of the garage where his mates always laugh at the in-jokes, and start trying to mature a talent for dialogue and a genuine love of movies into a film about the kind of world the rest us live in – even if only to mock it.
IB is a mess: QT left out the pace, the style, and the wit – and without these there is nothing left in a QT movie; no characters to identify with; no coherent narrative to engage; no substance to provoke.
As with all Tarantino movies the hype is being superbly orchestrated, no doubt funded by the producing Weinstein Company which by all accounts desperately needs a money-spinner. The hype will tweak the admission price from Tarantino fans – for the rest, I’d save your money.
If I am right about QT’s lack of creative imagination, it would be a smart move for him to do a straight adaptation where plot and character are provided for him. He might even try to be funny in his own right using his talent for sassy, ironic dialogue to make something like an update of the Myrna Loy, William Powell Thin Man series of the 40s.
Either way this almost 20 year ‘enfant terrible’ of the movie business has reached a point where he only rates half the description. Either half. Not both.
* It is an especially white, racist conception that someone can be ‘half-breed’ part ‘blood’: for the Cherokee for example if you have any Cherokee blood – you are Cherokee.