Yesterday I saw Inglourious Basterds [sic], Quentin Tarantino’s latest project. It’s an epic tale of World War II intrigue, assassination attempts and gory Jewish revenge fantasy. In style, it was typical Tarantino. The film began with a long, talky scene fraught with tension, and moved through the series of long set pieces we’ve come to expect from the director of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction.
While I enjoyed Tarantino’s latest project, it left me feeling a little hollow inside. It really feels like the writer/director has utterly failed to develop as an artist. He’s technically astute, and has an incredible repertoire of film history in his head on which to draw. This seems to make him an incredible writer and director of individual scenes and set pieces. Inglourious Basterds, for example, begins with a fay Nazi officer interrogating a French farmer about some Jews he may or may not be concealing. Depending on how you feel, it’s an homage to or highly derivative of the work of Sergio Leone.
It’s a riveting scene, but, much like Kill Bill, it’s preceded by a title card that explains that this is ‘Chapter One’. Other title cards follow. See, Tarantino can’t seem to resist reminding us that we’re watching a film. And not just any film–one of his films. Hence the title cards, the self-aware performances his actors give, the conspicuous song choices, the film-within-a-film in this movie and so forth. They’re all post-modern tricks that felt very hip in 1994.
Today, his films feel like sweet confections with hollow centers. There’s nothing wrong with plain old entertainment, but I really wish Tarantino would explore some themes beyond ‘how cool is retro?’, ‘the world is full of sudden violence’ and ‘I am a master film aesthete’. Here’s a quote from Cannes that kind of sums up my frustration with Tarantino-as-egotist-auteur. It’s in response to a question about the title’s mispelling:
Here’s the thing: I’m never going to explain that. You do an artistic flourish like that, and to describe it, to explain it, would just take the piss out of it and invalidate the whole stroke in the first place. Basquiat takes a letter ‘L’ from a hotel room door and sticks it on his painting. If he describes why he did it, he might as well not have done it at all. That’s my answer!”
Guess what, dude: you’re not Basquiat. I don’t actually mind his misspelling the title. It’s just that his films seem to reflect a kind of aesthetic snobbishness which I find frustrating.