I have wanted to say something for a long time about Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” I have a complicated relationship with QT; most people of my generation regard him as an unquestioned genius, whereas my opinion of him is usually inclined towards the critical. I didn’t really like the “Kill Bill” movies, wasn’t moved by “Pulp Fiction,” or “Reservoir Dogs,” and in general thought that Tarantino’s best film was the film that was least “like” him, “Jackie Brown.” So I can’t say that I had any a priori disposition towards liking “Basterds.”
Nevertheless, fairness demands that I acknowledge the film’s general quality. There’s probably no other filmmaker of such a renown who can film conversational scenes of the quality that Tarantino pulls off. Indeed, I think that the scene in the German tavern may well be some of the best 40 or so minutes ever shot on that theme. The way it’s written and played is simply beyond reproach; Tarantino keeps the entire situation balanced on the point of disaster which, when it inevitably comes, strikes with cruel efficiency and swiftness. In fact, one can probably say that about several of the longer scenes in “Basterds,” including Landa’s initial interrogation and Shoshanna’s preparations for the theater fire: they are exquisitely constructed set pieces that unfailingly hurtle towards a violent and (sometimes literally) explosive resolution. But insofar as this is Tarantino’s great strength and a demonstration of his best qualities, it seems also to be an exhibition of his greatest weakness; to wit, nothing about “Basterds” really feels like a complete movie. Rather there is a feeling that the whole thing is stitched together from disparate, somewhat related scenes which don’t particularly add up to a coherent whole.
That’s a stylistic observation, but there’s a content-related observation that’s worth making too. Which is: why does this movie eixst? What, exactly, is it for, anyway? That question is directly related to the entire fake-history conceit that drives the movie’s secondary (non-Shoshanna) plot. After all, if you’re going so far as to conceptualize a world in which Jewish death squads terrorize the German countryside during World War II, there must be some kind of idea behind it. I’ve engaged in arguments elsewhere on the Internet (specifically, on Pandagon, around the time “Basterds” came out) where one explanation offered was that this was meant to stand the traditional view of Jews as passive victims on its head. But having thought about it since then, that doesn’t seem at all right to me. The Basterds as characters are only barely fleshed out; they have minimal personalities just adequate to make them slightly more appealing than cardboard cutouts. Moreover, it seems pretty odd that this group of Jewish fighters isn’t actually being led by a Jew, but by a half-Apache, half-Italian from Tennessee (if I remember this right). One sure way of demonstrating Jewish agency might have been, you know, to actually put a Jew in charge of the whole operation (never mind acknowledging the Jews who actually contributed to the war effort; that would defeat the fake-history premise). Outside the general premise of the Basterds’ existence, they and their storyline are actually incredibly boring (with, again, the notable exception of the tavern scene). The Shoshanna storyline is, at least, generally comprehensible (and the movie is far, far more about her anyway than it is about the actual Basterds) and probably could have stood on its own as a complete film. But the Basterds’ half of the film (if it can even be called that; it’s really Aldo’s half of the film), seems tacked and unnatural.
The violence in “Basterds” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either. Unlike in, say, “No Country for Old Men,” much of the violence in “Basterds,” doesn’t seem in service of any particular goal. The Bear Jew? The two Jewish suicide bombers? The glee with which frankly gruesome and cruel acts are committed? It’s rather hard to find intrinsic motivations for any of this. Is the point that Jews could be just as cruel in their retalliation to their oppressors? That seems to be one possible reading, but certainly another equally plausible one might be that once you descend to the level of a Nazi executioner, it’s hard to tell the two apart. Perhaps this moral ambiguity is intentional. Amanda Marcotte argued that the unapologetic violence is intended as a reaction to movies like “The Reader,” which tried to look at the personal lives of Nazis, but it’s hard to pick this out from the actual contents of the film. If that thesis is true, then the ambiguity I’m referencing is a weakness, not a strength. And, most puzzlingly, when Aldo has a chance to commit an act of violence which would have some real meaning and consequences for him, he chooses to forgo killing Landa, though of course he would have been eminently justified in doing so. The carving of the swastika into his forehead has the air of an act of showmanship more than anything.
The films ending leaves me deeply unsatisfied. I’m thinking in particular of the scene at the end in which Shoshanna is killed. It unfolds thusly: as the German soldier (I forget his name) lies bleeding to death, Shoshanna catches a glimpse of a film in which he starred on the screen. Momentarily enchanted by his handsome visage, she bends over him, whereupon he shoots her with a concealed gun just as Marcel sets fire to the theater. A warning about the seductive power of images and the hazards associated with taking them for a truth? Yes, I would say so, but in the context of “Basterds,” it feels a bit cheap. After all, we’ve just sat through more than 3 hours of an alternative history which may have had a point other than offering a fantastical version of WWII, and to have such a coda to it is almost like an admission that it’s all been a joke. For surely, if we heed the scene’s warning and apply it retroactively to the movie itself, that’s a plausible conclusion to draw. And it brings us right back to the question of “Basterds’” purpose and whether it can sustain any idea beyond “beware the treachery of images.” Furthermore, it would call into question any interpretations of previous scenes that could lead to anything resembling moral engagement. If in the end, everything is an ironic inversion, then how can we be justified in taking any individual part of it seriously?
Maybe it’s unfair to criticize Tarantino according to canons that he may not necessarily adhere to. But I think a lot of people do see a kind of seriousness in his work, so at least from that persepctive, I think these criticisms are relevant. At least to me, it seems that Tarantino is perpetually unable to let even movies ostensibly attempting to address a serious theme take their course without, in the end, giving the game away with a typically ironic maneuver which makes it hard to take seriously anything that came before it. This is really disappointing to me, because I think with his talent and his ear for conversations, Tarantino could be a truly great filmmaker if he could only let go of his constant need for ironic posturing. Instead, for me, he remains an unquestionable technical talent that resides below the upper tier of directors. Of course, for some people, that ironic posture is one of his greatest merits; de gustibus, etc. Perhaps there isn’t even a way to separate it from his other skills. I suppose we’ll see in the not-too-distant future if a 60-year old Tarantino moves beyond this.