Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Quentin Tarantino & "Inglourious Basterds"

In the last 20 years, no American director has made a better film than Pulp Fiction. I borrowed that line from Owen Gleiberman, except he was writing about Blue Velvet, and Velvet has now been more than 20 years ago. So I lifted it for Pulp Fiction, and it's every bit as true.

Pulp Fiction was one of those very rare things, the perfect collaboration of story and direction and acting. It was electrifying in its confidence, the way it took a familiar world but just twisted it this way and that to show something different. We know about mobsters and boxing and breakfast diners and armed robbery, or think we do: we've seen it before. We've seen heroin use before. But never quite like that, set askew and cranked up to 10 or 11 and turbocharged with wit, sharply observed and just ambiguous enough at the right times. What's in the briefcase? Why is Winston Wolf wearing a tuxedo early in the morning - is it that he's at a party that's gone into the morning hours, or at some bizarre gathering that requires formal attire at 7 am? Who is Russell and what happened in his old room? Being the fan of ambiguity that I am, that scores big points with me. Those unresolved questions ring up cherries every time I watch the movie. I think you've gotta have balls as a filmmaker to tell a story but know exactly what parts to leave out.

Quentin Tarantino has been chasing Pulp Fiction ever since 1995. It's the kind of work that redeems an entire career; let's say Pulp Fiction were a rock album, and you could say "well, the band's career was pretty much shit, but they DID make Pulp Fiction," and everyone in the room would have to nod and stop bashing the band, if only for a second or two. Or if The Beatles had only done Sgt Pepper's, they would have still done at least that (although I like Revolver better).

Now, Tarantino really hasn't done that much since Fiction, if you really sit down and look at it. In fourteen years, this pretty much sums it up: Jackie Brown, which I never saw and can't comment on; an episode of the television show "ER," which I used to watch and like, an episode that was tonally out-of-step with the rest of the show and a mistake the producers never repeated; some cameos and bit parts in some terrible movies, like Desperado (awful) and From Dusk 'Til Dawn (worse); Kill Bill parts 1 and 2, fetishistic drivel that I wish I'd walked out on, instead of hanging with in the vain hope of some redemption that never came; half of the stunt / vanity project Grindhouse with Robert Rodriguez, something called Death Proof that bored me stupid for the five minutes that I watched. Oh yeah, there might've been a vignette in a collaborative movie called Four Rooms somewhere in there. Didn't see that, either.

And now there's Inglourious Basterds, which stars Brad Pitt and concerns a band of Nazi-killing Jews in Germany sometime near the end of World War II.

What makes Inglourious Basterds an almost complete non-event for me is the fact that, over the course of his nineteen years as a director, Tarantino has exhibited very nearly zero artistic growth. He's making the same movies with the same flourishes and bratty penchant for over-the-top macho situations and violence. It's patently obvious after watching only the TV commercials for Inglourious Basterds that you could transplant a great deal of it into almost any other movie in Tarantino's oeuvre and the world would be no poorer culturally; to put it another way, the scenes I've seen look exactly like they were taken from the part of Pulp Fiction that didn't measure up to the rest and was cut out.

I personally can't think of much I find more boring than an artist that doesn't push themselves a bit, that doesn't try to stretch, at least to a degree. Pearl Jam is my favorite band, and the Pearl Jam of today doesn't sound anything like the Pearl Jam that came on the scene in 1991 - around the same time as Quentin Tarantino, in fact. They realized that they and their audience would grow bored quickly with the same riffing on "Evenflow" and "Jeremy" album after album.

Look at Bob Dylan. Look at the Beatles. Look at Pablo Picasso. In a more modern and cinematic context, look at Paul Thomas Anderson. I'm not a huge fan. I liked Boogie Nights pretty well, but the movie has a lot of flaws. I couldn't get into Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love. There Will Be Blood was very good, but I agree with the Academy Awards that the better film of 2007 was actually No Country For Old Men.

But one thing you can definitely state about Paul Thomas Anderson is that he tries something different with each movie; There Will Be Blood, a period drama, is absolutely nothing like Punch-Drunk Love, a contemporary black comedy with fairy-tale underpinnings. And that's nothing like Magnolia, which is nothing at all like Boogie Nights. He stretches himself, and that makes him interesting to watch, whether or not I can embrace everything he does.

Well, anyway. I suppose that there's a market for consistency - after all, a Big Mac tastes pretty much the same in Florida as it does in Texas or California; and after all, they made eight or nine or ten Friday the 13th movies, and they all made money, even though they're all pretty much the same thing over and over and over again.

I think I'd rather watch Pulp Fiction again; there's bound to be more energy in almost any given scene than the entirety of Inglourious Basterds*, which just has the feel to me of rich people jerking off into piles of money.

But if you want to see QT churn out more of the same sausage, slightly different seasoning--in this case, Brad Pitt's cartoonish accent--Basterds is now open nationwide.


* - To Tarantino's credit, he hasn't really tried to explain the oddball spelling of the movie's title, outside of owning up to it as an artistic flourish; my guess is that it's to distinguish this movie from an older one called Inglorious Bastards, which apparently shares a fairly minimal set of characteristics. Kind of like the way the movie Kalifornia (also starring Pitt - wow!) spelled its title with a "K" to make it stand out from another film called California -- but in Kalifornia they actually tried to work the misspelling into the movie itself instead of letting it stand on its own, which was stupid.

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