Friday, September 04, 2009

ACHTUNG!: THE BEST YET ON OPERATION KINO



Who was it that said the best was yet to come? I just saw Inglourious Basterds again last night (my third helping) at the most glourious cinema in Los Angeles, the Vista, and while I’m still buzzing from that, here comes what could, after all is shaken out and time gives us even more perspective, the definitive piece of cogent, well-reasoned appreciation of Tarantino’s movie, courtesy of writer (and friend of SLIFR) Chris Stangl. Chris was on the front lines with me re Speed Racer last year too, but as I never assume allegiances will carry over from year to year, let alone movie to movie, I was eagerly awaiting his thoughts on the movie. Now the wait is over, and it has been worth it. Of course I encourage you to click on over to Chris’ site The Exploding Kinetoscope and read the entire piece for yourself. But on the off chance that you need an excerpt to prime the pump, as it were, I cannot resist, and I hope Chris will forgive me for being so liberal with my cut and paste capabilities. This is the kind of writing I wish I was capable of, and the best thing I can think of say about it that won’t go on for another 500 words is that I wish I had written it myself. Here’s a taste:

“That the living tissue of his cinema is a successful graft of 10,000 movie donors should be particularly appealing to film critics, who more than any of us live with perpetual projector bulb tan and a Geneva Drive tattoo over the heart. What Tarantino does by crafting the fabric of cinema history into fully wearable new garments is not dissimilar to the life's work of Brian De Palma and Jean-Luc Godard. Tarantino is less black-hearted than De Palma, less politicized than Godard, less schematic than either. To single him out for ridicule as a filmmaker with film itself as a ruling thematic concern is bizarre. Most of Generation X's directors don't even have ruling thematic concerns.

Tarantino is not without his authorial tics. He punctuates suspense with hyperfocused extreme close-ups of food, feet, arcane detail, peers out of car trunks incessantly, frames characters in doorways and crams metatextual declaration into dialogue. But his technique possesses no faddishness. In an age where most directors flatten their visual field magazine cover thin and alternate between big head TV close-ups and impotent camera flailing, Tarantino composes for the entire frame, constructs screen geography by holding shots as long as possible and, in Basterds in particular, uses deep focus to impart as much information as possible in a shot. Take some time with the scene in which Zoller pesters Shoshanna in a cafe. She just wants to smoke, sip coffee and read, but the soldier tries his damnedest to chat her up, fending off her rebukes and disruptions from ardent fans, then recognizes the opportunity to impress the girl with his celebrity. Tarantino places Shoshanna by the storefront window and keeps everything mostly in focus from the woman in the foreground to the buildings across the street. Sidewalk pedestrians recognizing Zoller are fully visible as they move from exterior to interior space, and several interlocking stories are being told at once.


Inglourious Basterds luxuriates in the pleasures and pains of the movies and meditates on film as a force shaping our lives, interior identities and human history. That second clause is the writer-director's great step forward in his sixth feature, though his concerns have not changed, they are articulated with emphatic force in Basterds. The breadth and depth of reference is impressive by its own right, but less canny filmmakers pull similar, less encyclopedic stunts all the time: naïve accumulation of a hundred years of film cliché may also cause the sensation of a thousand films overlapping on one screen.”


It likely will not convince anyone who sees things differently. But I would challenge those who do to come up with a piece this clear-minded and resonant in rebuttal, one that is equally cognizant and extrapolative of Tarantino’s influences and their ultimate effect without simply condemning the director for having been influenced at all. Once again, more evidence that the year’s best movie has resulted in some of the year’s best, freshest writing and thinking, about Inglourious Basterds, other movies, and yes, about the ways movie bounce around in real life.

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David Hudson provides a complete roundup of basterds talk at The Auteurs Daily.

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11 comments:

Alonzo Mosley (FBI) said...

Great read. Stangl had me from the first with the Tom Waits lyrics, though they wouldn't be my first choice to kick off that particular essay.

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Robert Fiore said...

Quentin Tarantino is full of crap. I say this as someone whose main complaint about Tarantino is that he doesn't make movies fast enough. I take pains to point it out because I feel I have to be aware of this to enjoy his movies in good conscience. A perfect example is in Reservoir Dogs. Mr. White has formed a bond with Mr. Brown, the undercover police officer, and despite being determined to fulfill his duty Mr. Brown has come to respect Mr. White. When the heist goes bad Mr. White feels responsible for allowing Mr. Brown to be wounded, and he tries to live up to this obligation to the point of taking Mr. Brown's part against people he's been loyal to for years. Despite his bond with Mr. White, Mr. Brown knows it is his duty to bring the robbers to justice. Once the robbers are cornered and the police sirens are heard in front of the hideout his duty has been fulfilled, so rather than face Mr. White after having betrayed him utterly, he confesses that he is a cop, essentially offering Mr. White the opportunity to kill him, which Mr. White takes. Now, what Tarantino is asking you to believe here is that someone who has been staring death in the face for hours, suffering one of the most painful kind of wounds imaginable, is going to sacrifice his life on a point of honor. And what Tarantino is doing is making the choice that is most comfortable for the audience. Rather than telling them that fear of death will rob us of our nobility, he is telling us that honor still exists even in our tawdry materialistic times. And there's some point of bullshit like this in all his movies except Jackie Brown and Death Proof, I think. In Inglourious Basterds it’s the idea that it would have been more just for individuals to take the kind of vicious personal revenge the Basterds take, an idea the movie itself refutes. I find it hard to believe that any viewer takes satisfaction in watching the Nazis get scalped; rather, the feeling is that if we did this we'd be taking the stigma on ourselves. It also becomes clear why we don't do things like this in life (or didn't until we were ruled by idiots): Two can play at that game. Anyway, if you think that the Nazis got off easy because of the gentlemanly ways of the Allies, allow me to reassure you. Let me explain World War II to you. The main reason the Allies were able to fool the Germans into committing defensive forces to Calais before the invasion was that the Germans couldn’t believe that the Allies would kill so many French civilians in bombing raids merely as a decoy. That's World War II. One of the first great Nazi atrocities was the terror bombing of Rotterdam. The Allied reaction to this was that it was that the Nazis had thus set the terms of engagement, and they were going to get as bad as they gave. The upshot was that by the end of the war the Allies must have done at least a dozen Rotterdams themselves.

The real revenge-on-the-Nazis movie is Downfall because it gives us the ultimate Scene We'd Like to See, Hitler trapped like a rat and knowing it, hysterically cursing the fate that's upon him. The Downfall parody has become such lingua franca that we can all imagine our own ("I don't vant Eva Braun, I want Werner von Braun, I want to drop an atom bomb on the motherfuckers!" "But, mein fuhrer, ve don't haf an atom bomb . . ."). I was kind of half expecting one where they break the news of Inglourious Basterds' first weekend grosses to Hitler, but nobody's bothered, nor has there been an Obama health care one, which is a little surprising. Actually, the genre has become recursive lately. There's a great one now called Silent Downfall, where Oliver Hirschbiegel is unavailable to direct the familiar scene and the only director they can find is Mack Sennett. It's altered to resemble a worn herky jerky silent print with rinky tink music and title cards.

Robert Fiore said...

[Continuing]

But despite the bullshit factor what we get in Basterds are insights into Nazism we've seen in no other movie. What I was expecting going in was a romp in something of the spirit of Mel Brooks, the kind of movie where you see Hitler screaming "Who vill shtop these verdammet Inglourious Basterds!" What I saw was the opposite of that. There were no Colonel Klinks or Sergeant Schulzes or Concentration Camp Erhards. What most anti-Nazi movies try to do is humiliate them. What Tarantino is showing us is Hitler's willing executioners. He is showing us the Nazi machine in all its formidability. He shows how the uniform was part of the seduction, that where the Americans (in life, not in Aldo Raine's unit) almost went out of their way to look as drab and shabby as possible, the Germans dressed their soldiers up as romantic death angels with the expectation they would live up to the part.

Now, Private Zoller is as far as he goes a decent person. He is the Jimmy Stewart type transferred intact to the other side. He sees himself as a lawful soldier like any other on any side. Though he takes it in good grace he is honestly uncomfortable with his role as a war hero, and the only use he has ever found for it is the possibility that it will help win him this girl he's fallen in love with at first sight. He expects that like most French people he encounters, Shosanna will see that the war for her is over. He thinks he can take the position that the war is between the politicians and that they can cross the lines and love one another. What he doesn't realize is that he is in a context historically where you didn't have the option of being apolitical, when you couldn't just let yourself not know what was going on around you. If he were in any other uniform, if he were in the context of World War I instead of World War II, it could have worked, he could have been Jules of Jules & Jim. And even as it is there's that moment at the end where Shosanna almost softens towards him, as if her resolve were at the breaking point.

It really amazes me that people can condemn Tarantino's movies as "imitative" when there are no other movies like them. The fallacy is that the movies he steals ideas from are the truly original works of art. The movies he steals from are lousy. He's the kind of cinema lover who, like the science fiction reader who is willing to overlook bad writing for the sake of idea content, will tolerate the badness of a cheap movie for the sake of the original aspect of it. What he intends to do when he steals is to take these things and put them into the good movie their originators didn't have the ability to make. Of course, much of cinema is a rationalized form of plagiarism. Frances Ford Coppola takes plot, characters, and whole sections of dialog from The Godfather (it's actually one of the most direct and faithful adaptations of a book ever made, most of the moments we all remember coming directly from the source) and even entitles it Mario Puzo's The Godfather and it's a Francis Ford Coppola film. The fact that his backers have paid for the privilege does not change the fact that the act itself is identical to plagiarism. What is irksome about the generic Tarantino detractor (and they tend to be awfully generic) is that they're not saying "Your taste is lousy and my taste is good," they're saying "You've been fooled and I haven't." It's high toned philistinism.

Chris Stangl said...

Jeez, thanks Dennis! Even after writing a customarily long-winded essay, I'm still suffering from post-envy after your week-long smörgåsbord. I mean like, woah!

Jason Bellamy said...

Robert ... Wow! What a perfect comment to illustrate how difficult it is to come to terms with Tarantino. Often even those who love him find him maddening. Often even those who find him maddening take offense to the way Tarantino is ridiculed. I can relate to that. We don't see eye to eye on each of your points, but the spirit of your response is familiar.

Just to pick a few things out ...

This is very well said: "It really amazes me that people can condemn Tarantino's movies as "imitative" when there are no other movies like them. The fallacy is that the movies he steals ideas from are the truly original works of art."

This I disagree with passionately: "The movies he steals from are lousy." I don't even know where to start. Ford? Godard? Leone? Lousy? Really?

This is true and false: "What is irksome about the generic Tarantino detractor (and they tend to be awfully generic) is that they're not saying "Your taste is lousy and my taste is good," they're saying "You've been fooled and I haven't." It's high toned philistinism."

On that last point: Sure there are those who refuse to give Tarantino any credit in order to prove their knowledge of film history, even though, as you point out, often the so-called originator that Tarantino copies isn't even the originator. But in many instances it remains true that many (by no means all) QT fans are fooled, or were fooled the first time around, thinking QT was revolutionary when in fact he wasn't.

Ultimately I agree with you that QT makes original work. That's what matters. Those who refuse to give him credit are in the wrong. However, this doesn't mean people haven't been "fooled," thus giving QT more credit than he deserved in some instances. Of course, as you point out, QT wouldn't be the first fooler. In part Tarantino is ridiculed because he does what he does very well.

Robert Fiore said...

There are things that Tarantino can be genuinely criticized for; if great movies are seldom perfect movies then Tarantino's movies always have at least this attribute of great movies. However, I have never felt that the line of criticism that centers around Tarantino stealing ideas has any validity whatsoever. I'm not hip enough to Godard to have an opinion, but if you're saying that Tarantino's work is merely derivative of John Ford then you're more full of crap than Tarantino. If taking ideas from other works of art is a crime then Akira Kurosawa is far more guilty of it than Tarantino (and owes far more to John Ford, incidentally), and Kurosawa is a far greater artist than Tarantino. It's like this. Artist A has an idea, and as near as anyone can tell he is the first one to have it. Artist B sees the idea and wants to use it, so he takes it and uses it for his own purposes. There's a certain mentality that sees this as a crime on the same level as property theft, that Artist B ought to be condemned for his crime and stripped of his artist status, and his work of art should be put in Art Jail so Artist A can retain sole ownership of his idea. In reality, if Artist B's work of art is better than Artist A's then it will outlast Artist A's work, though there's no reason they can't coexist. If you steal my car then I can't use my car; if I steal an idea from your work of art the idea is still going to be present in your work of art. There are circumstances in which one person's intellectual property will be protected from an infringer, and in these cases the infringing piece of art will sometimes be destroyed and the infringer enjoined from reproducing it, but this has more to do with the property's status as property than its status as art.

A perfect example of the uses Tarantino puts to other peoples' ideas is the idea of the robbery gang who are known to each other (except for the mastermind) only by pseudonyms based on colors. In Reservoir Dogs Tarantino steals this idea from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and it is a cold swipe, but Pelham does absolutely nothing with the idea. It hardly qualifies as a plot point. Tarantino makes brilliant use of the idea; the scene where the robbers bicker over their names might be the high point of the picture. To say that what Tarantino is doing is an merely an imitation of Pelham lacking in all originality is ludicrous.

Jason Bellamy said...

"if you're saying that Tarantino's work is merely derivative of John Ford then you're more full of crap than Tarantino."

Good grief, man. Read my comment again. Your latest comment expands on the area where we (for the most part) agree.

"Tarantino's work is merely derivative of John Ford"?

I said nothing even close to that. I said I disagreed with this statement: "The movies (Tarantino) steals from are lousy."

Patrick said...

I saw it a few hours ago and found it disappointing. It seemed cartoonish to me. Don't care how many references to how many movies and directors are cleverly sandwiched into the movie, the underlying story is still lightweight mush. I suppose if you get a kick out of spotting the references and there are a bunch of them (maybe I'm too cinema illiterate to get them all) then you'll get more from the movie, but that starts to seem almost like movie incest. You still need the story. If I went into this movie with no expectations I probably would have find it slightly more amusing, but knowing IMDB has it at #33 all time left me expecting more than some sort of jokey Hogan's Heroes level story telling.

bryce16 said...

Hey Jim, could you point me to where you got that screenshot of Shoshanna laughing? Thanks!

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