UPDATED 8/20 1:33 p.m.
“I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.”
-- Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Inglourious Basterds had its none-too-earth-shattering premiere at Cannes in May, and for those inclined to turn such things over in their heads (and I would include myself in this group, certainly), it’s been an interesting process observing from afar as the movie has navigated the cultural geography from perceived disappointment up the scale toward the can’t-miss status most of Tarantino’s movies have shared by the time of their release out into the big, bad marketplace. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I am extremely eager to see what the director has up his sleeve this time out, and I’ve been even more eager since reading Scott Foundas’ exuberant assessment of Basterds in Film Comment last month (not, unfortunately, available online). In the past week, equally animated praise from Glenn Kenny and David Edelstein, and an e-mail from a good friend and fellow movie fiend who saw Inglourious Basterds at last week’s Hollywood premiere assures me that it is a movie worth seeing many times over. Even Andrew O’Hehir’s more ambivalent consideration of reaction to the film so far, has piqued my already active interest:
“Some of these (discussions) just concern the question of whether QT's typographically impaired World War II actioner is a subversive, genre-defying masterpiece -- as some people appear to believe -- or, say, an incoherent and brainless mishmash made by a director who has forgotten that even movies about movies should have some dim and distant connection to human life, and furthermore should not be boring. Am I tipping my hand here a little? Just a tad? Not me.”
Glenn Kenny’s prediction that the debate over the movie is going to be “a doozy” seems destined not only for accuracy but perhaps even understatement, in light of some of the moral alarms that have already been sounded. Nikki Finke has boldly led a charge of outrage against the movie-wthin-the-Basterds-movie which, unless my guess is completely wrong, is a piece intended as a parody of Nazi propaganda. Finke claims the trailer has somehow “fooled” people. (Into what, I wonder? Thinking that it’s straightforward propaganda? Curiouser and curiouser.) On much less shaky ground, Jonathan Rosenbaum has entered the fray, recommending Daniel Mendelsohn's Newsweek article "When Jews Attack" and positioning Basterds as "morally akin to Holocaust denial." (Rosenbaum has, unlike many of the detractors on Kenny's site, actually seen the film.) The doozy has officially begun.
It is, of course, good form to withhold judgment on a movie till one has actually seen the film-— not for me the vitriolic arguments for or against a movie that have been the bane of the comments columns at Glenn’s place this week re Basterds, or on Rotten Tomatoes when Armond White dared rail against yet another movie (District 9 this time) guaranteed to stir the passions of those who haven’t yet seen it. All that said, Tarantinos track record has been, for me, damned solid, and I’d be lying if I weren’t hoping against hope that he delivers again.
But what is it we hope for from a Tarantino movie? What are those who are eagerly anticipating Inglorious Basterds going to line up on Friday (or perhaps Thursday night at midnight in some theaters) to see? Eli Roth bashing a Nazi’s skull in? Third Reich scalps strung up on a line and flapping in the breeze like a fresh load of laundry? Maybe. But as the last few years of horror and action movies have proven, just about anybody can dish up the grue. But those writers who have attempted to emulate the real meat-and-potatoes of a great Tarantino movie, from Pulp Fiction to Jackie Brown to Death Proof, usually fail in garishly annoying fashion. Those writers are after the teasing build-up to the explosions of violence in Tarantino's movies, the poetic choreography of people talking, enjoying equally the cascade of words and the protracted silences that often come between them, and that’s what I’m most excited about when I think about the possibilities in store with Inglourious Basterds.
Of course I’m hoping that it’s every bit the movie Foundas claims he saw in France amidst the chorus of critical indifference. But even if it’s not, I’d be silly to think that a director as talented, as obsessed as Tarantino, wouldn’t have a reason to have made the film that I might find at least compelling, if not enthralling. For me, Tarantino’s track record gets me on his side. He’s now made seven features, not a single one without its troubling aspects, but each and every one—and some more than others—I hold in high regard. I would even say that two of them-- Jackie Brown and Death Proof-- are masterpieces of their kind. His body of work has compelled me, in much the same way as did that of the Coen Brothers, to help me sideline worry in favor of enthusiasm in the anticipation of what’s coming next. The detailing of the actual reaction, as problematic or blissful as it may be, must wait.
And I can’t think of a better way to anticipate the new Tarantino movie that by revisiting some of the most sublime moments of dialogue his pictures have offered up to date. Ambivalent Tarantino appreciator Matt Zoller Seitz, in collaboration with the much less ambivalent Keith Uhlich, has compiled a beautiful, fizzy and funny new video essay called ”Quentin Tarantino: In His Own Words” which will have you running to your DVD racks to cue up your own favorites and prime your pump for the release of the movie on Friday. Matt has had his difficulties with Tarantino in the past, but in a nifty essay introducing the video piece, comes to terms with what it is that drives the Tarantino universe:
“Tarantino’s talk is not just the fuel of his movies: it’s the engine, the wheels and most of the frame. It’s where the real dramatic and philosophical action takes place. The gunshots, car crashes and torture scenes are punctuation… Tarantino doesn’t just explore language’s capacity to reveal and conceal motives and personality, he shows how people pick words and phrases (consciously or subconsciously) in order to define themselves and others, and describe the reality they inhabit (or would like to inhabit). Even low-key and seemingly unimportant exchanges are as carefully choreographed as boxing matches. Clever flurries of interrogatory jabs are often blocked by witty responses; the course of conflict can be shifted by deft rhetorical footwork that re-frames the terms of debate.”
The essay is proof of Matt’s contention as well as a potent reminder of the moments we all may remember even more vividly that the fate of an unfortunate cop in a warehouse, or a crime kingpin in the basement of a pawn shop. These are the real gems Tarantino offers up. Enjoy them here, and check out Matt’s new writing, as well of all of his video work, at L Magazine.
What are your thoughts on Tarantino? Is he a force for good or evil in modern cinema? Are you more looking forward to Inglourious Basterds, the movie, or Inglourious Basterds, the argument? What’s your favorite Tarantino moment that may not be included in Matt’s piece? Let the discussion begin.
UPDATED 8/20 1:22 p.m.
Dennis Lim asks the question, “Has one of the most overrated directors of the '90s become one of the most underrated of the aughts?” in his Slate piece on Tarantino.
And kudos all around to my favorite femme fatale, Kim Morgan who gets Tarantino to sit down for a session in which they riff on Joseph Goebbels, the would-be David O. Selznick of the National Socialist Party, and UFA, the film studio under his control, wax rhapsodic on Ralph Meeker, profess admiration for Aldo Ray, and generally just hang out and talk about movies, one of which happens to be Inglourious Basterds. Read all about it on Kim’s blog Sunset Gun.