By Jeffrey Overstreet
NOTE: The following article contains spoilers about scenes in the film Inglourious Basterds.
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 larger than my desires and 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.