3.9.09

Inglourious Basterds

Hey, tis the first time I've seen a Tarantino film in a cinema. Knockout... not. Inglourious Basterds is too long and too dull.

For a Tarantino film, you understand. I mean, there is plenty of fun to be had here. No one can construct a set-piece like Tarantino. Scenes play out like theatre -- the toing and froing of dialogue slowly building into a complex, thrilling climax. It's also a visual treat. As always, Tarantino is riffing on every genre b-movie he has ever seen. In particular, he repeatedly smashes the lingering camera of the western with the superspeed action of the martial arts film, to great effect. Finally, there's the usual freakish, unsettling and plain out weird cast of characters -- from Mike Myers's ridiculous British minister to the clinical and disturbing Colonel Landa.

All very well and good, but why do I find myself preferring the early works in Tarantino's oeuvre. I mean, he is pretty much doing exactly the same thing now. Mark Kermode grapples with the same dilemma. After the brilliant Jackie Brown -- which introduced actual character development to Tarantino's writing -- Kill Bill and Death Proof fell back on the same genre thrills. Kermode believes this has something to do with Jackie Brown bombing at the box office. Tarantino, he claims, is going after the money and crowd approval. He's a sellout, not an artist. Inglourious Basterds just goes over the same ground. That's why it's uninspiring.

Personally, I doubt whether Tarantino needs to care about the box office anymore. He's enough of an established name for his films to find an audience, however crazy they are (and Inglourious Basterds is pretty crazy). I suspect what Tarantino really craves is recognition from people just like Mark Kermode. He's already won the fans. What he wants is respectability.

All this leaves our question unanswered. Why are Tarantino's first three movies better than his last three? The writing style, the visual sensibilities, the music is the same. What changed?

I'll point towards editing. Tarantino's films tend to sprawl of late. Death Proof was originally much shorter, designed to fit in as part of the 'Grindhouse experience'. When that idea got abandoned, it was released on its own, with a bunch of deleted scenes restored. They pretty much ruined the film, making it too talky, baggy and long. Most distressingly, Tarantino seemed not to notice, continually stressing that Death Proof was a film that could stand on its own, and should be treated as such. He seemed to expect all of us to swoon over two hours of Tarantino talking to Tarantino.

Let's shift towards Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. Sprawl pretty much defines the former. It became so bloated it had to be cut into two volumes. Sprawl is also a significant feature of the latter. Both films have a chapter structure -- dividing the overall work into six parts. I think this is proving to be Tarantino's undoing, as it encourages him to max out. He makes six different short films and then strings them together. There aren't enough unifying elements to give the story sufficient momentum. In the end, these films collapse under their own weight.

Inglourious Basterds has some great moments, and some interesting ideas (for more, see here). But you get the feeling Tarantino is stuffing everything he can think of into it. This impulse kind of reminds me of Salman Rushdie's novels -- where digressions, character sketches and language experiments frequently take you away from the central narrative. It's strange, but you can pretty much get away with that in a novel (especially one written by Salman Rushdie). You can read it over a month if you want to. Tarantino only has two hours.

My advice. He should remember that Pulp Fiction only had three parts, and that they interwove to create a picture that had unity, and finality. Tarantino desperately needs to recapture that discipline.

4 comments:

  1. I'd agree that his recent work is pretty sprawling, but I think Pulp Fiction contains by far the weakest and draggiest section of his work, the Bruce Willis story. There's parts of it that work, but it never quite comes together, and the lengthy conversation about potbellies really drags. I also think it's the most "juvenile" sequence, in the sense of the term that people use to criticize Kill Bill or Inglorious.

    I love Jackie Brown, I think it's one of his best, but I also think that certain sections of Inglorious, particularly Chapter 3 with Shoshana and the stuff at the bar in Chapter 4 have the emotional and interscene complexity and reality that made Jackie Brown so special. And, I think the finale with Shoshana is arguably the most emotionally affecting part of any of his films.

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  2. I've never been a big fan of Tarantino. I can't even finish watching Kill Bill (none of the 3, 2...? I don't know how many films). Anyway, I tried with them all.

    As I first read this I thought 'Say something, you have to say something' but I found myself completely speechless and exhausted (now I have some time to comment, at last!).
    I warn I have kind of a grudge against Tarantino, but I believe (here I go) Rushdie's narrative method and his are an altogether completely different thing. Rushdie was commited to a purpose (refering to Midnight's Children), to the purpose of conveying India's experience, to make us understand its history, thinking that the linear narrative would be inadequate and restricting. Taking into account India is a quite heterogeneous nation, a mixture of languages, religions, with an extremely diverse population, I find all those digressions and language playfulness just to be serving to reflect it. I remember Saleem/Rushdie saying somewhere in the novel "reality is a question of perspective" I don't know, it was something like that, I think he tries to capture all of those 'flashes' of reality to, in this case, finally reconstruct India's/Saleem history. I don't believe it necessarily takes you away from the central narrative. As for Tarantino's case, ok, I don't know, maybe
    you're right, I can't say that Tarantino does it just..., just because.

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  3. On Pulp Fiction: See, I think the conversation on potbellies is essential, because it gives the characters solidity and the relationship force. We start to understand why Willis is in love, and what he is risking by going on his crazy quest. For me, that part of the film was incredibly tense and involving. I don't see it as a weak link.

    We didn't see this with Shosanna, because Tarantino wanted the exchanges with Zoller to be charged with expectation. However, this meant that we really only scratch the surface of her relationship with her true love, Marcel. This left the character too opaque. She didn't feel like a real person to me. Consequently, I wasn't particularly moved by her story.

    On Salman Rushdie: Confession time. I haven't read Midnight's Children. But what you say makes sense. Rushdie is definitely interested in different viewpoints, and a whole mishmash of ideas. The thing is, I think Tarantino is as well. He gives a lot of time to characters that should remain sideshows. His stories and visuals are packed with knowing references and sly playfulness. Basterds has a perverse Cindarella scene, and an inversion of a Romeo & Juliet death scene, for example.

    The link probably shouldn't be pushed very far. Rushdie is a far more thoughtful and interesting writer. I was just struck by the the way both Rushdie and Tarantino structure their stories in similar ways.

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  4. Mishmash seems to me like a funny word..., a new one for me, ahem, sorry.

    You have to read it, I'm sure you will love it (everybody does). The Brass Monkey (Saleem's sister) is a very good reason for reading the book as well. Amazing characters. The very first page is already striking. O, beautiful memories..., I laughed a lot with that book.

    PS.: An advice. It could be interesting to know a little about Hindu deities before reading the novel. I wish I had known this.

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