The level of critical debate currently being generated by Tarantino’s latest postmodern bricolage of nerdy cinephile delights and obscurities could be deemed healthy for film journalism. It also seems to give the critics something to write about whilst they’re not busying themselves serving at the altar of high concept mediocrity. Tarantino has always maintained a distinguished, if not slightly obnoxious, knack for selling his movies regardless of being labeled as an underachiever. I’m not going to get into the debate about plagiarism and the seemingly lack of originality that is supposed to characterise his work as it would mean having to declare Tarantino’s cinematic sensibilities as an elaborate yet pleasurable conceit. No one doubts his knowledge of cinema, but ‘Inglourious Basterds’ takes place in a dimension called fandom. It’s a film that similarly like the 'Kill Bill' Volumes and 'Death Proof' deals exclusively in hyperbole. One gets the distinct impression with a director like Tarantino that he thinks he is the only one exploiting the unenthused reality of Hollywood cinema - very few of the film makers around him who we might collectively refer to as his contemporary peers do not have much of an idea of what constitutes cinema.
The interview with Tarantino in the latest issue of the Sight and Sound film journal has him candidly defending the merits of his latest pastiche, stating quite categorically that the reason critics still consider ‘Jackie Brown’ to be his most mature film to date is largely an insincere observation regarding the presence of older characters. Certainly, the world weary faces of Pam Grier and Robert Forster (both cult figures) contribute significantly, but when compared to Tarantino’s recent films; ‘Jackie Brown’ has an emotional depth to it which he seemed to have lost or traded in after his rapid ascension to the echelons of auteur worship. I still consider his debut feature, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ to be his best film - perhaps this is the only unpretentious Tarantino film. However, a viewing of Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong heist film ‘City on Fire’ will certainly wash away the unchecked euphoria and hype surrounding a film like ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Rather than laying claim to having produced a consistent and notable body of work, the films of Tarantino are marked by a series of enterprising, dialogue driven moments.
The truth is that Tarantino doesn’t make films, he knows cinema and adores movies. The rest is merely window dressing. To be a fan of his work is simply a means of acquiring an attitude; appreciating ‘Pulp Fiction’ instantly makes one hip, cool and beatnik. Yet could one say the same about Godard and the 60s? I think a difference remains; Godard films were in the often repeated words of Truffaut able to say something about cinema and something about life. Unfortunately, Tarantino’s films struggle to say something, anything about life; he seems more interested in the fabric of cinema, deconstructing the film making process through a litany of obvious self reflexive devices and gushingly name checking film canons of personal favourites.
‘Inglourious Basterds’ opens with an extended interrogation sequence in the otherworldly interiors of a French farmhouse. This first chapter titled ‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France’ refers explicitly to the universe of Sergio Leone and for those discernable cinephiles sets up quite nicely the prospect of a violent massacre. Tarantino’s ear for dialogue and German actor Christoph Waltz’s intimidating dialect makes this a memorably directed sequence in what is an overlong film. The opening sequence is so rich that by the time Tarantino introduces the notorious Basterds, I had genuinely lost interest. It seems to be the case that everything Tarantino wants to explore in the film he does with great distinction and pleasure in the opening sequence, subsequently the rest of the film becomes somewhat of a redundant afterthought.
Much of the mainstream critical response has argued whether Tarantino should have been allowed to make a film in which the Jewish characters are turned into bloody thirsty savage’s hell bent on revenge, as their brutality equates them with the Nazis, thus making a mockery out of the holocaust and cannibalising historical fact. Though this may be true in some respects, I think it would be much wiser if critics would at least try to bear in mind those events and characters in the film are constructs of an imaginary history, one which takes place in the context of a bombastic pastiche. Like ‘Kill Bill 1 & 2’ and ‘Death proof’, this is just as hollow, just as empty and just as emotionally uninvolving. The demise of Tarantino continues in earnest, from one pointless film to another.
As is the case with most of Tarantino's films, repeated viewings unlocks multiple cinematic references. The IMDB trivia section for 'Inglourious Basterds' is steadily building up a range of such links, references and influences. I'm afraid the world of movie nerdom starts here.