August 26, 2009

While watching Inglourious Basterds, I had time on my hands to ponder once again whether Quentin Tarantino’s variegated gifts and inclinations would have made him even more suited for other careers. Reviewing Kill Bill: Vol. 2 back in 2004, I wrote, “€œHis talents, while broad, don’t mesh well together. He should instead direct others”€™ scripts, while reserving his own writing”€”with its vivid but absurd monologues and grandstanding convolutions”€”for the stage.”€

Having worked on the screenplay for Inglourious Basterds since the last millennium, Tarantino intends this to be his masterpiece, which suggests he deserves more imaginative career aptitude advice.

Surely, for example, Tarantino would have made an ideal Artistic Director of the Roman Colosseum during its heyday under the Emperor Commodus. “€œI”€™ve got it! We”€™ll start with a Mexican standoff among three gladiators, 27 Christians, two Nile crocodiles, and a giant squid. They eyeball each other tensely … suddenly, all hell breaks loose!”€

He would also have served admirably as the Idea Man in the Ministry of Truth’s Fiction Department. Here’s an extract from Winston Smith’s diary that’s Tarantinoesque avant la lettre:

April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him. First you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water. Audience shouting with laughter when he sank.

Granted, if Tarantino worked for Minitrue, this bit of action would have been preceded by 17 minutes of exhaustively clever dialogue riffing on sinking ship scenes from old movies, famous and obscure. The default trajectory of Tarantino’s screenwriting is to dissipate momentum until the story lies dead in the water, only to desperately jolt it back to life via carnage.

Still, Tarantino’s establishing shot of the ship would no doubt be framed, lit, and set-decorated sensationally. Just as his Pulp Fiction featured some of the most memorable stills and posters in recent movies, his refugee ship would be the most glamorous refugee ship in the history of high-class prolefeed.

For all of his study of the history of cinema, Tarantino still has an aversion to the “€œmotion”€ part of “€œmotion pictures.”€ Perhaps his true calling would have been to mount something more inherently stationary, such as pageants and orations. Imagine what Tarantino could have done with, say, the Nuremberg Rallies, triumphantly combining as he does Albert Speer’s gift for spectacle with Joseph Goebbels’s verbal ingenuity.

Inglourious Basterds has been profitably dis-marketed as an action movie about eight Jewish-American commandos scalping 800 German soldiers. (In case you were wondering, an amusing Brad Pitt plays the Basterds”€™ commanding officer, a gentile Tennessee hillbilly of part-Indian blood, evidently embodying Tarantino’s self-image.) Yet, the movie actually dwells far more on the auteur‘s idiosyncratic obsession with the Nazi-era entertainment-industrial complex headed by Goebbels.

The movie emphasizes that Hitler’s Propaganda Minister sees himself more as the hands-on David O. Selznick of the German film industry than as the supervisorial Louis B. Mayer. Other major characters include a Jewish blonde who owns a Parisian movie theater, two German movie stars, and a British film critic who has written two books on German cinema.

In truth, Tarantino gives the Jewish “€œBasterds”€ only two or three percent of the verbiage in the movie, an order of magnitude less than he allots to Hans Landa, a mannered and sadistic SS colonel who is infinitely loquacious in French, German, English, and Italian. (Movie-Going Tip: If, during Inglourious Basterds‘s 152-minutes, you start wondering whether you have time to go buy a box of Junior Mints before anything important happens on-screen, trust me, whenever Col. Landa shows up, you”€™ve got time.) Goebbels himself get more lines than the Basterds.


Of course, the commando scenes are ludicrous. For one, foreigners wandering around in enemy-held territory are at extraordinary risk. Of the 76 men who made The Great Escape from a Luftwaffe POW camp, most of them RAF officers, only three avoided recapture. Conversely, when Air Force pilot Scott O’Grady (played by Owen Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines) was shot down over Bosnia in 1995, he successfully avoided capture by Serbs by hunkering down in the bushes for six days, noting later: “All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to survive.”

Indeed, the greatest English-language novel about what it felt like to be a commando behind German lines during WWII is Richard Adams‘s epic about the escape of anxious rabbits, Watership Down. Captain Adams is a survivor of Operation Market Garden of September 1944, Field Marshall Montgomery’s attempt to win the war by Christmas in which 34,600 troops were air-dropped behind German lines to seize nine bridges. (The Allies captured all but the last, crucial “Bridge Too Far” over the Rhine.)

Yet, the film’s lack of realism is far less debilitating than Tarantino’s sheer apathy toward the war part of his World War II movie. As Tarantino knows better than anybody, commando movies have certain de rigueur sequences”€”the assemble-the-samurai recruitment scenes, the training montage, the infiltration, and so forth”€”but Tarantino skips most of those. Like the economist in the joke about the three professors on the desert island who lack a can opener, Tarantino implies, “€œAssume all that boring military stuff happened offscreen while we were watching more fascinating matters, such as Goebbels considering in minute detail which theatre to choose for the premiere of his latest propaganda film, and let’s just cut to watching the Basterds act like gangsters torturing their prisoners.”€

Compare a good war movie, such as the still-playing Hurt Locker about U.S. Army bomb disposal techs in Iraq, to Inglourious Basterds. Sure, the plot twists in The Hurt Locker are over-the-top, but director Kathryn Bigelow has obviously closely studied the kind of soldiers she portrays. In contrast, Tarantino is allergic to thinking about anything martial”€”except the gore. So, his commando segments wind up resembling self-parodies of the ear-chopping scene in Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs.

Tarantino reminds me of George W. Bush in his lack of curiosity about anything outside his specialty (Bush: interpersonal dominance. Tarantino: movies.) C”€™mon, Quentin, you”€™re not a video store clerk anymore. You”€™re 46 years old. Grow up.

Jeffrey Goldberg has a memorable article in the new Atlantic Monthly, “€œHollywood’s Jewish Avenger,”€ about how watching Tarantino’s Jewish soldiers torture Nazis left him “€œso hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank.”€ Yet, when Goldberg interviewed Tarantino, the director didn”€™t volunteer much interest in Jewish vengeance. Instead, just as the distribution of screen time would suggest, Tarantino found other topics more alluring:

He is a polite and enthusiastic host, and he spent part of a July afternoon with me analyzing German cinema of the 1920s, World War II iconography, and the career of Joseph Goebbels, which seems to fascinate Tarantino endlessly.

In contrast:

Tarantino was less thoughtful on the subject of torturing Nazis, but deliberately so.

Tarantino helpfully points out to Goldberg the parallel between Goebbels”€™ relationship with Hitler and his own relationship with mogul Harvey Weinstein:

Goebbels provides one of the most amusing moments in Inglourious Basterds, crying when Hitler praises his latest film. “€œIf Hitler says that this is the greatest movie you”€™ve ever done, I can see Goebbels getting choked up,”€ Tarantino said in explaining the scene. “€œWhen Harvey Weinstein does that, I get a tear in my eye.”€

Still, stimulated by a “€œstory of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to their would-be exterminators,”€ Goldberg never quite notices that Tarantino’s portrayal of Jewish-Americans as mindlessly vicious is, well, anti-Semitic.

Besides not getting any good lines, the poor Jewish Basterds look like they were cast by Goebbels himself for an SS training film. Despite the numerous charismatic and handsome Jewish actors in Hollywood, Tarantino managed to pick a sorry bunch of stereotypes who all look alike.

Apparently, the director is one of the very few people in the world who rather identifies with the repulsive Goebbels. The parallels between Tarantino and Goebbels, while not extensive, are not elusive either: the Nazi Propaganda Minister, a popular culture innovator, was a literary intellectual with a Ph.D. in Drama from Heidelberg. He was a film nut with screening rooms in each of his three houses, where, despite his busy schedule, he watched a movie every day. Both Tarantino and Goebbels were in the racket of glamorizing violence.

Tarantino is a smart guy; thus, all this is no doubt intentional. Perhaps Tarantino just wants to show that he’s so cool that he can get away with the ultimate transgression.


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