[This two-part post about Quentin Tarantino’s style and the release of Inglourious Basterds was originally published at Good Letters, the Image blog.  I have also posted a guest review of the film by Ryan Holt.]

NOTE: The following post contains spoilers.

Part One

In elementary school, I read an interview with the young star of my favorite sitcom, Mork and Mindy. That was thirty years ago. But I still recall Robin Williams’ remembrances of childhood — particularly his love for model-making. And it wasn’t just ordinary model-making. He’d take several plastic model kits, mix up their pieces, discard the instructions, and glue the stuff together into bizarre machines, robots, and vehicles of his own invention.

This comes to mind whenever I see a Quentin Tarantino film. Does any contemporary filmmaker work with more childlike enthusiasm? Tarantino’s movies are audacious pictures made with pieces from the puzzles he loved as a young man. Recently on Jimmy Kimmel, he explained that his dream of adulthood was shaped by his father’s mastery of movie trivia. He wanted to become a “movie expert.”

Mission accomplished: Tarantino’s scenes can be footnoted as heavily as T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Few directors demonstrate both an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and command of its techniques. Few deliver bolder images, develop more colorful characters, or pen dialogue that sticks the way his does.

But you can also tell that the young Tarantino wasn’t raised on kids’ stuff. His imagination drew from reservoirs of violent media. The story goes that, on his seventh birthday, Tarantino was “treated to” a double-feature of The Wild Bunch and Deliverance. He lived on a diet of crime flicks, martial arts and samurai epics, and exploitation films.

Speaking of Williams — there’s a moment in The Fisher King when his character pulls a champagne-cork wire from the garbage, cleverly twists it into a dollhouse chair, and remarks, “You can find some pretty wonderful things in the trash.” That’s what Tarantino does again and again, crafting memorable moments of cinema from the lurid, the crass, and especially the violent.

I haven’t come to bury Tarantino, but I haven’t come to praise him either. No filmmaker leaves me feeling so conflicted, torn between admiration and revulsion. Two things complicate my experience. First, the violence. It’s not that his movies are violent; it’s how they’re violent. He knows how to make us squirm like bugs pinned to a board. He cultivates riveting suspense through conversation and editing, until the threat of violence becomes certainty. The violence itself isn’t so remarkable — it’s that edgy and tangential talk during the buildup, and in the bloody aftermath. But he does it so often, and to such extremes, he makes me feel tortured.

Which brings me to the second point: He never lets me forget that he’s there, enjoying his own power over the audience.

I’ll never forget Reservoir Dogs. Those gun-toting crooks came to life through dialogue that was both hilarious and profane. And despite its extreme violence and nerve-wracking suspense, the film’s conversations were riveting — they were musical, percussive, hilarious, ironic, tangential, and full of surprises. Every scene seemed to be a place set for unexpected discussion.

Still, in that now-legendary scene in which a merciless torturer smugly carved up a captive policeman, he tested the limits of his audience’s endurance. But for what purpose? I went out feeling as if I’d been tricked, seduced into witnessing something obscene, something harmful. No justification I’ve read seemed sufficient; the whole sequence seemed designed to frazzle our nerves.

A friend praised the film — specifically excited by the torture scene — saying “I haven’t felt so alive in a long time!” It made me wonder: Is Tarantino drawn to the adrenalin of violence because, having lived on a steady diet of the stuff, he’s become “comfortably numb”? I’m still wondering.

By contrast, I loved Pulp Fiction. It wasn’t the violence. Its cast of buffoonish crooks were hilarious in their obvious error and moral relativism. When Vincent Vega, purchasing drugs from a dealer, lamented the moral depravity of a young punk who had scratched his car with a key, I howled.

So much stylistic mastery, so many conventions overturned — and all of it stitched together with affection and humor. Meanwhile, the short stories progressed from tales of wish-fulfillment revenge to a conclusion in which a violent man cast off violence and determined to “walk the earth” as a nonviolent savior. It was full of Tarantino’s typical “Look what I can do!” bravado, but I began to hope he was maturing.

Jackie Brown impressed me even more. Tarantino the Show-Off took a step back. He submitted to the conventions of a genre story, and lifted up his actors and the storyteller — Elmore Leonard. I walked away believing in that world and thinking more about the story more than its artist.

I wrote admiring reviews of Kill Bill, Volumes One and Two, exhilarated by its amusement park ride through the styles of fight flicks from around the world. But something troubled me. It was the sense that Tarantino was showing off, switching genres and tones acrobatically to prove how adept he was with each. Worse, he couldn’t resist those sequences that put us on the rack again, to see how far he could stretch us. And that opening line — “Do you think I am… sadistic?” — seemed like just another wink to the audience, making it all about him.

But by the time I saw Grindhouse, I was tired of the exhibitionism. For all that he did well in his half of the film, Death Proof, he was still in show-off mode, his own expertise on other movies becoming the very subject of his work.

While I can agree when critics point out all that he does so well, I’m not drawn in anymore. I can’t suspend disbelief. My enjoyment of his strengths is failing because he’s always pointing to himself, even as he jolts the audience to see how much they can take.

Do you think I am… moralistic? Whatever. I don’t want to be a bug squirming on a pin, justifying the abuse because the torturer’s bait is tasty and the violence makes me feel “so alive.”

So…what about Inglourious Basterds?

Part Two

Inglourious Basterds is one of the year’s most talked-about films. And rightly so.

It takes chutzpah to tell stories of Jewish-American soldiers who hunt Nazis, capture them, then bash their heads in and scalp them. And an additional dose of ego to illustrate an alternate ending to World War II, in which various agents set a trap for the Nazi leaders.

Most viewers relish the sight of an enemy defeated. So Inglourious Basterds, offering audiences the chance to see history’s most notorious criminal suffer as his victims suffered, seems a shameless ploy for box office success. Sure enough — Basterds is a huge success. And you could feel the celebratory glee in the audience as Nazis were beaten to a bloody pulp onscreen.

But the movie is audacious in ways that impress me as well, ways that typically sentence a film to obscurity. I won’t argue with critics who praise Tarantino — or should we thank Brad Pitt? — for drawing American moviegoers to a lengthy, subtitled picture built primarily of long conversations across tables. That should broaden the horizons for many moviegoers — and, hopefully, the studios.

And while Brad Pitt gets the marquee credit, Basterds’ true star is a little-known German actor named Christoph Waltz. Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa, the Nazis’ own Sherlock Holmes, known as “the Jew Hunter” for reasons that become obvious. Many call it a “star-making” performance, but Landa’s performance is so complex that I wonder how many future scripts are worthy of his gifts. Landa is frightening, funny, unpredictable, and inspired — the most interesting villain I’ve seen since Hannibal Lecter.

Also compelling, Melanie Laurent plays the Jew that Got Away — a young woman who slipped through Landa’s fingers. Shosanna looks like the younger sister of Kill Bill’s The Bride, and carries the same capacity for long-term revenge. By comparison, the titular Nazi-killers are not much more than comic relief. Shosanna is the film’s beating heart, a rhythm that quickens as she finds opportunity for spectacular vengeance.

But in spite of the film’s marketing pitch — Come to the hyperviolent hootenanny! — Tarantino has something better than vengeance on his mind. The film subverts its much-anticipated finale so that viewers’ vengeful impulses are challenged. Tarantino has never told a story of white hats versus black hats; he knows that Nazis can have moments of nobility, just as righteous Allied warriors can exercise craven bloodlust. There’s a lot here worth discussing. I’ve come to appreciate that this really is a brilliant film. Read Ryan Holt’s review here, and a lengthy conversation at The House Next Door: Part One, Part Two.

Nevertheless, the movie’s failure to captivate me has a cause: Quentin Tarantino. How was I to see the film’s strengths clearly? This is a guy who pumps up a crowd of fans before a screening, shouting, “YOU GUYS WANNA [EXPLETIVE] UP SOME NAZIS? LET’S BRING IT!” Does he enjoy this? Is he baiting them into a situation where their eagerness for revenge fantasies will be complicated?

Further, if I’m to appreciate any of his provocative questions about violence, he would do well to leave behind the gratuitous, graphic images that have become his trademark and inspired so many time-wasting imitators. Torture scenes, on-camera sodomy, eyeballs plucked out and squashed underfoot, an ear carved off with a pocketknife, and on-camera scalpings have not added any value to the movies in which they occurred, and they’ve disrupted my suspension of disbelief. His urge to affect his audience interferes with his capacity to inspire and enlighten them.

And if you want to encourage thoughtful reflections on violence, why glorify the notorious “torture porn” director Eli Roth with a major role in the movie — especially when he can’t act?

Some of Tarantino’s defenders have summoned the words of Flannery O’Connor: “To the hard of hearing you have to shout.” But the shocks in O’Connor’s work came in a context that made them revelatory, and from conviction that the “hard-of-hearing” should be jolted out of complacency. Isn’t it also true that too much gratuitous shouting might be the cause of cultural deafness in the first place? Can’t too many unnecessary jolts make us numb?

Tarantino’s words in the second paragraph of this article — (caution: graphic sexual terms) — demonstrate his preoccupation with playing the puppeteer and making us jump when he pulls the strings. Such declarations make me reluctant to join his audience again. I don’t go to the movies to be manipulated, tortured, or violated in any way.

I’m interested in art that leads me to something more than what I think I want, and something bigger than the artist’s ego.

Tarantino also disrupts my interest during the movie, interrupting my attention with “stunt casting” (like Mike Meyers in a distracting cameo) and references to his own past triumphs. In the opening scene, Landa gulps down a “tasty beverage” provided by his host — his target — in an obvious reference to Pulp Fiction’s Jules. Later, the voice on a telephone is obviously Harvey Keitel — a clever but distracting cameo included as a wink to his fans.

We’re also constantly informed, through allusion and dialogue, of his commentary on other films. Each scene seems to announce the scenes that inspired it. (Basterds’ climax revises the end of Cinema Paradiso.)

Tarantino is, at times, like one of those popular, flamboyant, egomaniacal orchestra conductors, gesticulating wildly and turning to the audience to make sure we know that the show’s about him.

It’s a shame, because the concert really is impressive.

Increasingly, I’m grateful to artists who refrain from speaking publicly in a way that disrupts the audience’s experience of their own work. Some have gone to almost preposterous extremes to remain invisible. The novelist Cormac McCarthy is reclusive, and the director Krzysztof Kieslowski was tight-lipped, downplaying any suggestion that his work might be meaningful and inspiring.

By contrast, Tarantino has boasted that some of cinema’s greatest masters are his “peers,” and he praises Paul Thomas Anderson’s powerful There Will Be Blood because it encourages him to “step up his game.” It’s a sport, you see, and the best director will win.

He concludes Basterds by declaring a personal victory. A smug, knife-wielding character smirks at the audience — yes, we’re given the perspective of the victim — boasting, “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” To seal the deal, the director sucker-punches us with the bold text: “Directed by Quentin Tarantino.”

As if anyone could have forgotten.

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