Friday, August 21, 2009

Review :: Inglourious Basterds

The last lines in Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds, go like this: "You know... I think this might be my masterpiece," (or, you know... something like that). It's hard not to think, when you hear lines like these, that the filmmaker is talking to us; hard not to think he's smirking at us from within the tangles of his complex-seeming layers of cinematic self-reflexivity. But I don't really care who you are or what you have directed, those lines have no business ending a film. Any film. But they especially have no business ending a film when they are simply not true.

Inglourious Basterds (and yes, that's how it's spelled), though displaying real moments of creative brilliance, is indulgent, nearly bereft of humanity, and far, far too long. I've been on-board with QT for much of his career. But now he's making it hard to support him. Kill Bill was an explosive, highly entertain homage-slash-pastiche-another slash-tribute to what we are now, rightly or wrongly, calling "grindhouse" cinema. And it was fun. It was fun seeing him revel in these absurd conventions, adapt them with winks and nods to a modern film context, and so produce a set of films that simultaneously reworked and yet revered the ridiculous and tired formulas we've seen used in countless B-grade films for years. And after making films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction or even Jackie Brown, Tarantino had built enough of a reputation that I think many people were willing to let him indulge and create something absurd. If nothing else, it was a successful experiment in cinematic self-awareness. But then came Death Proof, the partner-film to Robert Rodriguez's regrettably bad Planet Terror... and that's when this whole grindhouse thing started to get a little awkward. For while Death Proof was still fun and goofy, even if it's cinematic heritage was much more myopically fetishistic and less accessible than anything else he'd produced (carsploitation, after all, isn't really all that big in the theatres these days), it left me wondering if films like this and Kill Bill weren't just the indulgent digressions of an otherwise talented director but instead the trajectory of all future QT projects. This nagging suspicion, along with a quick survey of the sorts of films he's been producing and helping get off the ground... it was all very worrying indeed. With Inglourious Basterds Tarantino needed to prove that he was still the same man who made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

He did not. Not to me, anyway.

The film takes place in Nazi-occupied France and follows several characters as they move around and do generally unpleasant things. There's Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his titular troupe of Basterds - a small but viciously efficient squad of Nazi killers who have been parachuted into France to wreak as much havoc and retribution as possible. There's Col. Hans Landa of the SS (Christoph Waltz), the so-called "Jew Hunter," whose job it is to, well... hunt Jews, and who we see coldly and with sliding smiles massacre a Jewish family at the film's opening. And then there's Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of that massacre, who flees to Paris where she eventually runs a small theatre, and where she will eventually be offered her own opportunity for vengeance. And there are other characters. And their stories intersect and overlap and all come together for the film's impressive, if by then long-overdue, finale. It's essentially a Jewish vengeance film. It riffs on that most suspect of film genres, the Nazi exploitation film. It winks and it nods and it swaggers and it smirks. And it all feels a little tired. This is the first time in a Tarantino film I was bored. The dialogue, for which he is often and rightly celebrated, simply becomes indulgent and sloppy; it is in desperate need of a maniacal editor. Unlike the "Royale with Cheese" discussion in Pulp Fiction, most of the talking in this film lacks the verve, the edge, that dizzy delirium that Tarantino can bring to it. It rarely advances the plot, except for a few expositional moments. And it hardly reveals character either. It's just there, taking up time.

But unlike Kill Bill or even Death Proof, which were goofy and campy and allowed to get away with pretty much anything, Inglourious Basterds exposes Tarantino to some awkward questions he doesn't seem capable of answering. In his hands, this material - the slaughter of a Jewish family, the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the rightness or wrongness of vengeance - is roughly handled. Actually, I think mishandled. His "wouldn't this be cool" style of filmmaking reduces WWII to a aesthetic exercise. And that might be okay if he had anything to say. I have nothing against style. But as his last two films have already suggested, Tarantino can throw a lot of words and great images at the screen and yet manage to say nothing at all. And if you're gonna take on WWII, you need something to say.

What is Inglourious Basterds about? It's ultimately only about itself. Even the characters seem more like stylistic foci than actual people. QT does have a gift for characterization. But he doesn't use it here. One of the worst things I think a filmmaker can do is ignore his characters' humanity and treat them like objects. And Tarantino does just this. Never once do you believe any of the characters mean anything or that they are on screen for any other reason than for Tarantino to push them around and use them as props. I don't think Tarantino despises his characters like some directors do; I just don't think he cares about making them seem real. People show up, they talk and talk and talk, and then some of them die in quick moments of explosive action. The only two characters in the film that seem interesting are Waltz' Hans Landa and Laurent's Shosanna Dreyfus. Waltz brings a disarming charm to his vicious Landa. He owns this movie when he is on screen. And Melanie Laurent is simply stunning. If nothing else, Inglorious Basterds has introduced her to North American screens, and I hope we get to see more of her. Unfortunately, and this is not her fault, she doesn't have much to do here. As a survivor of a massacre, she's supposed to be sympathetic, a tragic figure and, unless I'm wrong, she's supposed to be Tarantino's representation of the Jewish struggle. But QT doesn't give us much to work with here. He gives us a few cues and tells us to go with it, which is sloppy. But for much of the film Laurent is tasked with playing it cool as she plots her revenge. And she does. Play it cool, I mean. But in those few moments when the turbulence underneath breaks through, she's gorgeous and haunting and I wish Tarantino had given her more to do. Instead, she's often forced to play her character Uma Thurman in Kill Bill style - stilted and stony and more and more unsympathetic as the film progresses. I wanted more. And from what I can tell I think Laurent can give us more... but not with QT as her director.

With Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino exploded the cinematic landscape with almost New Wave-style brand of energy and vibrancy. But since then he has slowly slid into self-aggrandized autophagia, the victim of his own awareness and reflexive proclivities. Inglourious Basterds is about itself and it is about movies in general. Or at least we're supposed to think it's about movies. But aside from the pastiche feel of many of his projects and the obvious references to other films scattered throughout his work, Tarantino just doesn't have anything to say about film. He's no Godard. This isn't film as criticism. So all those moments of media self-reflection in the end feel more masturbatory than meaningful.

I think all of what I am trying to say can be best explained by the film's worst misstep. Hitler is here. Yes, Hitler is a character in Inglourious Basterds. And he comes off as a cartoon, an offensive mindless cartoon. If these are the sorts of films Tarantino really wants to make - these experiments and exercises in retro-exploitation B-disguised-as-A-grade films - then I'd suggest he stay away from historical representations or subject matters that require a more deft and sympathetic hand. Stick to samurai swords and vehicular homicide.

If the film had been a good forty-five minutes shorter (it clocks in at a solid 2.5 hours); if it had paid greater attention and been more sensitive to its characters instead of treating them as elements in an excited little boy's set-piece; if Tarantino seemed at all interested in telling an actual WWII story instead of tactlessly using WWII as the backdrop to his own stylistic obsessions, Inglourious Basterds might have been his masterpiece. He didn't and it isn't. There are things to like in this film. Of course there are. But they are outweighed and shouted down by all the things the film gets wrong.

Liel Leibovitz over at Tablet puts his finger right into another one of the film's open wounds. I wanted to touch on this, too... but this is a much better articulation than what I would have said. Link.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sharon Tate

Sharon Tate was a rising star in Hollywood. She was married to Roman Polanski, who she met when he directed her in The Fearless Vampire Killers. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in Valley of the Dolls. She was a 60's symbol of beauty and sexuality. On 9 August 1969, forty years ago next Sunday, she, along with four other people - close friends who were at the house that night while Polanski was away in London - was murdered in her home by the followers of Charles Manson. She was stabbed sixteen times. She was eight and a half months pregnant. Her murder, I think, closed the 60's and brought us the 70's.

I tend to crawl through the internet, picking things up and poking at others, until something explodes in front of me and spiral through link after link until a full picture - sometimes wondrous, other times horrifying - rises up. I knew about the Tate and LaBianca killings and the Manson family's murderous rampage, of course. Who doesn't? But it was only recently, as I was researching a few things for a short story I am writing, that I followed an incredibily convoluted trail of links and the Sharon Tate story opened up to me, and then I spent the evening stunned almost to tears by what I was reading. She was pregnant. She was 26. She was gorgeous. She was lovely and loved. And they destroyed her.

I don't want to treat her as a symbol. I want to preserve her humanity. But if anyone's death symbolizes the senselessness and the injustices that so often torment this mortal shuffle, it may be Sharon Tate's.

In these images she looks nearly immortal. There are crime scene and coroner's photographs on the internet. I found some of them. I won't post them or encourage finding them for yourself. Beauty can be destroyed - viciously, senselessly, and without mercy. It can be left broken. It is the task of the living to preserve the beautiful, however... not to shrink from evil but to stand against it. And so I stand and celebrate beauty.

For those who do not know the story, here is her Wikipedia entry.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pornographic Reflections

This article is about pornography, yes, but it is not explicit and should likely not offend. Still, it's about porn. Also, this is more a collection of thoughts than an argument... just a few things that have lately been running through my mind...

I've been thinking about pornography lately. Wait, let me start that again. As part of the writing process for The Execution, I've been thinking about what pornography means and what it does to the people who view it and make it, porn being not so much a theme as a recurring image in the novel. In the spirit of full disclosure, let me just get it out there (as if it weren't already obvious) that I am a white male fast approaching thirty. And so I, like so many men growing up in this slide between centuries, have a history with pornography, especially the internet variety... you know, the kind that so easily entangles.

OED time. Pornography, n. "The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings." As one crude distinction between "art" and "porn" puts it, if after you've masturbated to it you are bored with it, it's porn and likely has no artistic value, despite whatever pretensions it may play at.

A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary called 9to5: Days in Porn, a film that followed (loosely, I think) several people in The Industry - girls (some now famous), directors, agents, producers, the like - for two years. No real thesis emerged - the filmmakers, as much as documentarians can, remained invisible (their attempt, I guess, to remain "objective," whatever that means). A recurring theme emerged amongst the subjects, however: their own happiness and sense of achievement. They claim to enjoy what they do, even the husbands and wives of pornstars, who themselves are often involved in the biz. While I don't necessarily think they are liars, and while I feel certain that no one could survive in that business without at least some measure of self-deception, I also think that the kind of people who produce and participate in porn and purport to find pleasure in it (okay, I'll stop alliterating P now...) actually lack the apparatus and capacity for true happiness (... sorry, I tried). Let me put it like this: I think it takes a certain damaged personality to willingly sell yourself, and an even more damaged one to film your wife or girlfriend with other men. I'm not talking about a history of abuse, or drug use, or anything like that. I'm talking about moral and spiritual devastation. Maybe they are happy, but that's only because they are not whole enough to reach for anything higher.

But I won't lie and say that porn doesn't have a certain attractiveness, especially for the consumer. I won't say that it isn't erotic or arousing or that I'm immune to its enticements. But I've found that the eroticism of porn is tyrannical, and the more time you spend with it the more it rearranges your own ideas of the erotic. In a sense, porn reveals to you your own impulses and sexual imperatives. You could tell a lot about someone, I'd guess, from the type of porn they look at, were they willing to tell you (most of us probably aren't, and that shame is, I think, a good thing). But in another sense, a much more dangerous sense, porn not only reveals them but guides and shapes those impulses, so that after consuming it for any length of time it no longer reveals but dictates, and you find yourself somewhere entirely different and often not pleasant.

The pornographic camera is, for the most part, extremely myopic; it's sexual epistemologies are hermetically sealed and reduce sexuality and eroticism to a function of organs and anatomy, which is simply tragic and repulsive. I myself have several times had to undergo a "cleanse," a deliberate re-mapping of the erotic and sexual, in order to purge myself of these broken images and put back together the sort of mentality and desires that I want. This is hard. Re-mapping your own mind is a very hard thing to do. But it is very valuable and freeing.

I bring all this up because the writing of The Execution has in many ways been a cleanse. For those of you who have read some of my drafts, this may sound odd, given some of the novel's more unflinching episodes, several of which contain elements of sexual cruelty. But it's true, at least for me, the bewildered author. I think Christian literature, and I mean modern Christian literature, lacks a full confrontation with the erotic. It wasn't always like this. Dante certainly didn't avoid such a confrontation. Neither did Milton or Blake. For all three of them, the sexual and the erotic are major themes; and all three of them put the sexual and the erotic into an intelligible and, I think, valuable context (even if Blake's context was... idiosyncratic). I am trying to do that as well. Of course, I'm no Dante, Milton, or Blake, and would never claim to be. But they are my models, my spiritual grandfathers, if you will. In a world where porn has, as keeps getting repeated, gone mainstream, I think it is important, and only going to become more important, to fight back in order to keep the pornographic camera from being the only hand shaping society's vision of the erotic.