I was in high school when Pulp Fiction came out. I remember my high school English teacher standing in front of my senior-year class asking us what was so good about the movie. “Did it have to be so violent?” he wondered.
Of course, asking high school students if movies have to be violent is like asking skydivers if they need airplanes. It betrays a generational forgetfulness, the complaints of someone trying to slow their fall instead of hastening an ascent. That was almost half of my lifetime ago.
So I was sitting in a theater in Manhattan watching Inglourious Basterds with my friend P, who had also been with me in that classroom fifteen years earlier. And I was bored to desperation. I hate admitting that. Boredom is a useless reaction to have to anything. It’s colloquial shorthand that makes it easy to not interrogate your reactions any further. If something is boring, it’s just not worth the effort.
And if I’m honest, this is the single most common response to culture that I have.
I didn’t like Pulp Fiction when it first came out and I still don’t. I admire it in principle. It was a great clarion call of nihilism, a proof that media doesn’t matter nor do our reactions to it. We can see anything, terrible violence, mundanity, and a near psychotic deconstruction of our rotted popular culture and, so long as the pulp has dramatic subtext (e.g. suspense), we will be entertained. Though we like to tell ourselves otherwise, the sheer whoosh of momentary titillation justifies the loss of a few hours in the flickering darkness.
I like this idea. I admire a filmmaker who’d set out to make a two and a half hour movie about nothing but mammalian frisson. This idea was especially poignant in the mid-90’s racing towards the implosion of commercial media and its narrow control of content distribution. I just didn’t like the movie that much. Its subversions weren’t the product of human randomness but a mechanical reframing of obviously pointless schlock.
Tarantino tells us, ventriloquizing through Brad Pitt, that Inglourious Basterds is his “masterpiece.” It’s got all the randomness of Pulp Fiction, contains as much hapless gore (though it seems quaintly restrained and almost safe in comparison to the wallowing carnage of his earlier movies). It even has some genuine sentimentalism, setting up its final movement with a swooning ode to the orphaned Jewess in a montage set to David Bowie’s “Cat People;” the heavy grays and browns in which the movie draws itself are split with bright gashes of red.
It’s also supposed to be a comedy, but I can’t make out the jokes. Tarantino treats history with the same self-serving focus he did Madonna in Reservoir Dogs. What’s wrong-headed about the whole thing is WWII is more interesting than his reduction, while his monologue about dicks was generally more interesting than the song it was deconstructing.
Is it a satire, twisting the conventions of romance and narrative against one of the most complex and traumatic events of human history? Is it a defense of fantasy and popular escapism, outlasting the pomp of history and the inconclusive chaos it leaves behind?
Inglourious Basterds might have made a better case for itself had it applied to history the same verve for deconstruction Tarantino casts on popular culture. But it seems to me like Tarantino doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. The joke about Churchill is that he’s a fat alcoholic who sits in the corner saying almost nothing. The Nazi’s are homo-neurotic girly men on-loan from the Mel Brooks school of historical humiliation.
The Jews don’t have a voice at all (some of you might brave the depths of intellectualism to find a message here, like the image of a black man ball-gagged and raped by a cop in Pulp Fiction). And the hero is a brazenly witless hack who squints when confronted with accents, though his is the thickest of the lot.
Pitt’s signature move is a willingness to spare Nazi’s only if they endure a swastika being carved into their foreheads so that everyone will be able to identify them by the team colors they wore. This might be satirical if it didn’t seem like Tarantino took such relish in Pitt’s role as the movie’s alpha male.
Living up to the standard of the American action movie, Basterds reminds me that it’s not the smartest guy in the fight that wins, it’s the guy that punches the hardest. In asking audiences to take an exceptionally well-documented and staggeringly complex war and reduce it into a handful of cinematic derivations, Tarantino is asking me to become stupider than I am.
Basterds is a kind of de-evolution through cinema. It shows off the irascible and tired stereotypes of history because they’re necessary for the telling of a cinematic yarn. And this undoes the nihilism that is Tarantino’s sharpest gift. After years of having made movies that informed against the very idea of a masterpiece, Tarantino has crafted his own opus. It’s a love letter to his own career, the work of an ageing author suddenly afraid of the deeper implications of his violent youth.