Monday, October 5, 2009

On Maturity or: Quentin Tarantino's Arrested Development

If you haven't read David Bordwell's thoughts on Inglourious Basterds (2009) in the second part of his blog entry, "(50) Days of Summer (Movies), Part 2," I highly recommend that you do as it's plainly the best and most detailed analysis of Quentin Tarantino's new film that I've come across. I was a little surprised to see Bordwell call it Tarantino's most "mature" film since Jackie Brown (1997), but what he meant is simply that the film "exploits [Tarantino's] strengths in fresh but recognizable ways." While I can't find anything here to disagree with, I must say that's not how I would've defined maturity in the cinema, and it's got me thinking about some different ways of looking at the issue.

Personally, I tend to think of maturity as an attitude towards content. A film might be considered mature for its philosophical outlook (reviewers routinely praise certain movies for their enlightened humanism), or its representation of history. Robin Wood likes to quote the literary critic F.W. Leaves, who thought that great art was characterized by an "intelligence about life." None of these definitions even remotely apply to Inglourious Basterds, so as much as I admire the film, I can't figure out why Bordwell regards it as less juvenile than Tarantino's previous revenge fantasy, Boulevard de la mort (2007), which he evidently hated.

Oh, the Humanism!

In a defense of Jafar Panahi's Offside (2006)--an exuberant comedy from Iran about a group of teenage girls who get caught trying to sneak into a soccer match disguised as boys--Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "What some critics are calling sentimentality may be simple humanism. Panahi refuses to make a villain out of anyone and I'm not persuaded that demonizing the mullahs who enforce gender apartheid (which bans girls from attending soccer matches, among other things) would have made us any wiser." In other words, Panahi's film rejects the simplistic, black-and-white morality that Tarantino requires to even function.

Tarantino's last three movies have all had villains who are soft-spoken, civilized psychopaths. In Kill Bill (2003-04), the title character (David Carradine) was capable of making a sandwich for his young daughter as well as shooting the heroine (Uma Thurman) in the head on her wedding day. Boulevard de la mort is about a movie stuntman and serial killer (Kurt Russell) who's similarly soft-spoken and genial when he isn't murdering women with his car. And in Inglourious Basterds, we not only get Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who recalls Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in The Godfather (1972) when he's making a French farmer an offer he can't refuse, but also the young German officer, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who spends much of the film politely (if insistently) attempting to court the movie's French heroine, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), unaware that she's Jewish. Eventually both characters drop the civility and go totally berserk, each attacking a different blonde woman--Landa at the discovery of a spy; Zoller at Shosanna's rejection of him. Given the film's numerous allusions to fairy stories, perhaps Tarantino sees these characters as big bad wolves dressed in Grandma's clothing. (Is Shosanna's dress supposed to remind us then of Little Red Riding Hood?)

Histoire(s) du cinéma

One of the things that the cinema can do is represent history, which it seems to me often supplies the most potent subjects for any kind of art. Some of my favorite films of the last few years have been Philippe Garrel's Les Amants réguliers (2005), about the events of May '68; Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (2006), about the Dutch Resistance during World War II; Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. (2007), a sort of bio-pic of Bob Dylan; Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes (2006), another World War II film, this one about North African soldiers fighting for France; Lars von Trier's Manderlay (2005), about slavery in America; Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006); Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis (2007), adapted from Satrapi's autobiographical comic book about the Iranian Revolution; Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006), about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam; André Téchiné's Les Témoins (2007), about the AIDs crisis; and Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero (2008), set in Chile during the Pinochet-era. All of the above function as myths about the past.

This kind of myth-making is the explicit subject of Inglourious Basterds. In the first chapter ("Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France"), Landa tells the farmer that he's thrilled about the nickname he's been given by the French populace, "The Jew Hunter"; he's literally become a legend in his own time. Similarly, one of the Basterds has earned the nickname "The Bear Jew," and word of his earlier exploits is what led to the Americans recruiting him in the first place. Myths aren't the same as reality, but I'm a little skeptical of Tarantino's motives for rewriting history in the way that he does here.

When Edward Zwick's Defiance (2008)--which I haven't seen--was released last winter, its director wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times stating that one of his reasons for making the film was to replace the image of Jews as victims during the Holocaust with, I guess, Daniel Craig kicking ass in the forest. And Tarantino has upped the ante here by fabricating a myth about Jews brutalizing Nazis. In any historical event, there's always more than one truth (Zwick's film is, as they say, "Based on a true story"), but Tarantino, by demolishing any pretense of accuracy, lays bare the motive for representing Jews as macho action heroes: He wanted to make a film about the Holocaust that makes us feel good.

Of course, Steven Spielberg did the same thing in Schindler's List (1993), a film that I love. At least Tarantino is being honest about what he's doing, beginning with "Once Upon a Time...," while Spielberg's use of onscreen text to convey factual information--as well as Janusz Kaminski's naturalistic black-and-white cinematography, and the appearance of real Holocaust survivors in the film's final sequence--make the movie feel almost like a documentary. (Of course, documentaries are myths too.) For better and for worse, Inglourious Basterds ultimately has less in common with Schindler's List than The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), including an equivalent for the close-up of the villain's face melting. (Don't get me wrong: I like The Raiders of the Lost Ark a great deal, but "mature" isn't one of the words I'd use to describe it.)

Life, and Nothing More...

The phrase "intelligence about life" could be interpreted any number of different ways, but what Wood means specifically are questions of value: What do we live for? What should we live for? What might we live for? One of his favorite movies is William MacGillvray's Life Classes (1987), which ends with a self-referrential sequence set in a shopping mall. On a TV set under a banner reading "Clearance," we see the film's leading lady, Jacinta Cormier, giving an interview as herself at the premiere of Life Classes, which we're told was sparsely attended. For Wood, this is a profound statement about the debased values of capitalism, which reduces everything to its market value. Therefore, a low-budget film from Nova Scotia without stars is doomed to languish in the clearance bin in order to make room for more commercial fare from Hollywood. (Personally, I'm more inclined to read it as a swipe at Canadians for not supporting Canadian films, as if it were our obligation.)

I don't know if Wood has written anything on Inglourious Basterds, but if he does, I'm sure it'll be worth reading. Perhaps he gave us a preview in his essay on MacGillvray's films, which was published in CineAction! a few years ago. Defending his decision to vote for Life Classes in the 1992 Sight & Sound poll of the ten greatest films, Wood says that he much prefers it to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), which he grudgingly admires for its technique but doesn't find sufficiently intelligent about life. For Wood, that MacGillvray's film offers no formal interest whatsoever is, it would seem, entirely to its credit. To be sure, in the same essay he praises Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle (2005) in passing, calling it undeniably masterful. (I don't have the exact quote with me, but I believe that's correct.) Yet in the piece he wrote about Chereau's film for Film Comment, Wood makes no mention of its aggressively unusual formal strategies, including abrupt switches from colour to black-and-white and silent movie inter-titles. Does he regard these stylistic flourishes as merely empty, Wellesian technique? In the article on MacGillvray, Wood confesses that, while watching Chereau's film, his thoughts often drifted away from the story to the expense of the upscale furnishings and Isabelle Huppert's fat paycheck. He's not claiming that the film would be improved if, like MacGillvray's, it did without the extravagance of Chereau's attractive mise en scène and a charismatic star, but that he prefers Life Classes anyway because it has more resonance. Then again, returning to Inglourious Basterds, maybe he'll surprise me and really enjoy it. Lord knows he's full of surprising opinions.

Conclusion (Development Arrested)

It's possible that Bordwell is defining "juvenile" in a different way than I am when he applies this label to Boulevard de la mort (or Death Proof, if you want to be an American about it), but judging from his phrasing, I don't think that's the case. Somewhat like the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours [2002], Tropical Malady [2004]), the movie is divided into two part of roughly equal length, both telling more or less self-contained stories, and both variations on a theme. In the first half, a group of empty-headed, profoundly uninteresting working class women make boring small talk about obscure pop music from forty years ago until the movie's macho villain, Stuntman Mike (Russell), comes around to kill them all with his car. Tarantino lingers on the grizzly details of the fatal car crash with almost as much relish as he did the women's conversations, replaying the crash several times to show each character's death in turn and in slow motion. In the second half, a group of empty-headed, profoundly uninteresting rich women make boring small talk about obscure car chase movies from thirty years ago until Stuntman Mike returns to harass them. But this time, the women manage to turn the tables on him. After chasing him down in their car while delivering stupid one-liners about tapping Stuntman Mike's ass, they drag him from his car, and he's quickly killed off with a stiletto heel to the face, crushing his skull instantaneously. What's truly alarming about the film is that Tarantino seems to think this adds up to some kind of feminist statement.

The underlying situation is basically the same in Inglourious Basterds with the Jews turning the tables on their Nazi oppressors. Tarantino even announces his solidarity with the Native Americans, I guess, by having the Basterds scalp their victims in homage to the Apache Resistance. That the film is doubtlessly more interesting than Boulevard de la mort doesn't necessarily make it less juvenile.

So while I agree with Bordwell that Jackie Brown is one of Tarantino's most mature films to-date (and I would go so far as to call it the most mature film he's made), my reasoning for this is simply that the characters played by Pam Grier and Robert Forster seem closer to real people than any other characters in any of Tarantino's films. This is in part because they have more conventional jobs (a flight attendant and a bail bondsman, respectively, as opposed to, say, a hit man). And much of the credit for this achievement can likely be traced back to the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch (1992), that the film is based on (which I haven't read), as well as the actors, who bring a real sense of weariness to their scenes together. They're almost too tired and worn out to have a relationship with each other. The film feels like the work of some one who's had some life experience. Inglourious Basterds feels like the work of a young kid who's seen a lot of old movies.


  1. what the hell are those pictures from?

  2. They're from Down With Love. I was looking for a film that embodied maturity, but then I decided to go in the total opposite direction.

  3. Hi Michael,
    I would agree with you that Jackie Brown is Tarantino's most mature film.
    I see you are a fan of Demy's Les demoiselles de Rochefort. Me too.