Saturday, August 22, 2009
A scene from Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds"
When I was in fourth and fifth grade, my social studied teacher--who had quite the library of young adult historical fiction in her classroom--leant me the book The Upstairs Room, about two Jewish girls hiding in an attic in German-occupied Holland during World War II. I remember waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning and sneaking out of the bedroom I shared with my sisters in order to finish the book in solitude, tears streaming down my face by the end. It was the beginning of a mild Holocaust-literature obsession: Number the Stars, The Journey Back, Letters from Rifka, Anne Frank and, a couple years later, Survival in Auschwitz.
This is, I think, not an uncommon obsession for a certain type of young girl. The amount of young adult Holocaust novel aimed at females (that is, with young female protagonists) is quite staggering, and there were few girls in my (Catholic) fourth grade home room who weren't entranced by Anne Frank. There was--still is--something sacred, horrible and profound in the suffering portrayed in these works about the war and the Holocaust. I think most girls--myself included--gravitated toward the ones of Jews in hiding because while they reminded us of the terrible atrocities conducted by human beings, they also demonstrated the other human extraordinary capacity for kindness and bravery--I always liked The Upstairs Room best because those girls survived; there was a happy--but not naive or untruthful--ending.
But something about Quentin Tarantino's (also, I guess, happy) revisionist ending of his new revenge World War II flick, Inglourious Basterds [sic], was deeply unsettling to me. (I am not alone.) Still, I was surprised by my bristling response. Tarantino's ultra-violent, clearly fantastical postmodern revisionist pastiche is far less exploitative than, for example, Herman Rosenblat writing a fake Holocaust memoir. At least Tarantino's motivations, if misguided and naive, seemed pure. And part of me wanted to find Tarantino's gleeful, unconventional and pop treatment of the war and particularly of the Nazis refreshing. Richard Brody, on his blog, said, on this point, "If there's a virtue to the ostensibly transgressive aspect of [Tarantino's] pulp-fiction obsessions, it's precisely in his willingness to use despised or downmarket forms to bring up difficult or controversial matters.") Yet the film still felt wrong.
I think maybe this had to do with the film's oscillation between "serious film" and "grindhouse flick." Tarantino has been able to seemlessly meld the two before, as in Pulp Fiction, for example, but this time the two tendencies seem disjointed and jarring. The film isn't straight-up B-movie fun because it poses too many troubling--and interesting--questions (about history, Jewish identity, the power of film, etc.). Yet it doesn't examine these questions in any interesting or meaningful way. The problem isn't that the movie is revisionist or funny or ultra-violent, it's that it is so half-baked that it provides neither the cathartic cinematic escape that it promises nor the gravitas that the subject deserves.
A lot of this also rests on one big problem with Tarantino, made more and more apparent with each of his subsequent films: He wants desperately to be a formalist. The arcane references, the anachronistic music, the jarring voice-overs that take you out of the narrative (there's one part in Inglourious Basterds where Samuel L Jackson, in voice-over explains the flammable qualities of nitrate film), the schlocky over-the-top cartoon violence--all the things that make a Tarantino film a Tarantino film. Ostensibly. The thing is, though, that Tarantino isn't a formalist, he's a storyteller--and, generally, a pretty good one. There's nothing wrong with being a good storyteller, and Tarantino should highlight this gift, rather than obscure it or throw it out the window, as he has in this film. A group of Jewish Nazi hunters who scalp their victims isn't a story--it's a conceit. There was a sliver of a story in Basterds--the one about the Jewish cinema owner in occupied France who seeks vengeance for the death of the rest of her family in the hands of the Nazis--but Tarantino obviously thought cute jokes and postmodern flourishes and bloody beatings and shoot-outs were more important.