Inglourious Basterds may save Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood production company from bankruptcy, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest and most financially successful film earned only grudging words of praise from elite film critics. They have long condemned Tarantino for lacking real “artistic ambition,” for his cartoonish characters, his geeky-goth adolescent sensibility, and his perverse fascination with violence. He has been called an idiot savant, his films nothing more than pastiches of old B-movies that should have been forgotten.
Some of his harshest critics are put off by his public persona. The high-school dropout has a permanent intellectual chip on his shoulder and carries himself as a pontificating, self-promoting narcissist. He famously declared, “when people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’” A self-made man, simultaneously arrogant and insecure, Tarantino must take some satisfaction from the fact that students now study his movies and acknowledge his pathbreaking creativity. Tarantino has become one of the leading auteurs of the international film industry.
Perhaps the most constant criticism of Tarantino is that one about merely recycling old movies (New Yorker critic David Denby dismissed him as an “idiot de la cinémathèque”). This criticism confuses creative assembly with recycling. Tarantino shares the nouvelle vague’s appreciation of Hollywood’s genre films; he has a deep understanding of how they were made and what their directors achieved. Unlike most French directors, Tarantino also has an encyclopedic knowledge of international genres, such as Chinese wuxia, Japanese yakuza and samurai cinema, and Hong Kong kung fu action films. While his movies pay homage to all these martial arts genres, his most persistent reference is the spaghetti western that crescendos in kill-or-be-killed violence.
But while Tarantino inhabits the world of violent films, he is an autodidact, whose tastes, opinions, and predilections have never been tested in serious interchange with others. He has, therefore, the eccentricities of a true original, faithful to the aesthetic of his adolescent pleasures. (Maybe “childish pleasures” is more accurate, considering that he is still a big fan of The Three Stooges.) His films are dipped in nostalgia as well as gore, and his greatest fans enjoy that unexpected combination.
In Kill Bill (2003), when “The Bride” (Uma Thurman) cuts off the top of her opponent’s head in a single stroke that leaves the cap of bone briefly in place, we experience a quintessential Tarantino moment. His fans respond, “Shocking . . . gruesome . . . funny, thrilling! It’s a trip.” His critics respond, “Shocking . . . gruesome . . . repulsive. The man is an idiot with no moral compass and nothing to say.” The critics miss the point. In Tarantino’s world, one has no need for moral direction. Revenge as the expression of justice is as close as we get. And his fans could not care less. They go to his films to be entertained, not to be instructed about life. From the opening sequence of every film, Tarantino tells his audience that this is not the real world. He does not ask them to suspend disbelief, but to escape into make-believe, where sex and violence run riot without consequence.
Anyone who thinks Tarantino is simply a fool needs to see (or revisit) the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. SS Colonel Hans Landa, played by the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, interrogates a French dairy farmer suspected of hiding Jews. The dialogue was written by Tarantino—who says the screenplay was ten difficult years in the works—and brilliantly teeters on the edge of the crudest stereotypes: Germans are like hawks, Jews are like rats. Yet it alone keeps the audience intrigued. Waltz compared this opening to a theater piece in which the dialogue has to sustain the drama. His Colonel Landa is at once droll and menacing, a mix of gentility and violence, good cop and bad cop rolled into one. The scene ends when German troops machine-gun the Jewish family hiding under the floorboards. One young woman, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), escapes. She will eventually exact her revenge.
Revenge of the Jews is the film’s simple premise, but it is not—as some critics bitterly protested—constructed on any moral or historical scaffolding, and represents nothing that anyone concerned about law and justice could imagine. It is conceived solely in Tarantino’s cinematic universe of violent retribution.
The plot, like all Tarantino narratives, is too complicated to explain, but it revolves around Shosanna, Colonel Landa, and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a U.S. Army officer descended from a part-Indian Tennessee mountain man. Eight Jewish soldiers take their orders from Raine, who tells them they will parachute into occupied France, where they will terrorize the Nazis with the Indian tradition of scalping victims. One of the “basterds,” Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, Tarantino’s friend and fellow filmmaker), earns a reputation among Nazis as “the Bear Jew” by beating his victims to death with a Louisville Slugger. (It can be no accident that the Bear Jew is a Red Sox fan.)
Tarantino reverses the stereotypes: the smart guy is a Southern redneck; the dumb brutes are Jews. And Raine (a gesture at Aldo Ray, the WWII veteran whose acting career featured tough-guy roles) is a redneck in another sense. When we first see him talking to his Jewish recruits, each eager to bring him one hundred Nazi scalps, close-ups reveal the red scars of a failed hangman’s noose on his neck. Tarantino emphasizes but never explains this. It is a conceit typical of his films: a strand of the plot left for audiences to figure out.
Throughout the film, segments of Shosanna’s story alternate with the exploits of Lieutenant Raine and his men killing and, yes, scalping Nazi soldiers. The main characters’ paths finally cross in a French theater where Nazi higher-ups and Hitler himself—a nincompoop who looks and acts more like one of Tarantino’s beloved Stooges than the Führer—are attending the premiere of a Goebbels film. After a brief excursion through Nazi-era German films, Tarantino gives us his version of the Jewish revenge: Shosanna, under an assumed identity, owns the theater, and, with her black lover, plots to burn it down with the Nazis locked inside. Lieutenant Raine and his Jews show up with their own plan. Two will take out the Nazis—and themselves—with bombs strapped to their bodies. The quick-witted Colonel Landa could foil both plots, but defects to the Allies instead. He is not the incarnation of the Jew-hunting Nazi we have been led to suppose. Instead, like many Tarantino characters (and Arendt’s Eichmann), he is faithful only to his own banal self-interests.
The cinema goes up in flames, and the Jewish suicide bombers, instead of detonating their explosives, make their way to Hitler’s box. They turn their machine guns on him and, in an orgy of violence, the assembled Nazis. The Nazis are already certain to die in the fire, but Tarantino’s Jews need the satisfaction of murder and choose it over their own lives. Lieutenant Raine ultimately gets the better of the conniving Colonel Landa: Tarantino’s version of a happy ending.
The pastiche unfolds like a vintage quilt with the sum of its parts surprisingly complete and original. Even the performances have their own reference points. The players might better be understood as providing caricatures of actors who had similar roles in earlier films. By this standard, Brad Pitt is exemplary. And even Tarantino’s critics agree that Waltz steals the show in a bravura performance that is entirely original, yet fits into the structure and spirit of partial imitation. Waltz, a stage and television actor unknown to most moviegoers, won best actor at Cannes and is expected to earn an Oscar nomination.
If you are still not convinced of Tarantino’s artistry, consider the aesthetic sophistication of the soundtrack. Much of it is taken, of course, from old movies. Some of the selections are from Ennio Morricone’s work on spaghetti westerns as well as his superb collaboration with Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers. Morricone and the Bach-inspired Pontecorvo are joined by David Bowie, Lalo Schifrin, Charles Bernstein, and others, all brilliantly contributing their rhythms to the film. Tarantino assembles all of his soundtracks, and fans believe all are masterful. This is his most impressive.
Before critics attack the ahistorical, amoral features of Inglourious Basterds, they should remember the disclaimer at the end of all fictional movies: “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” Inglourious Basterds, like all Tarantino’s works, is a movie about movies; it is, if you will permit, art for art’s sake. Tarantino may not be an intellectual, but, as his newest film demonstrates, he is an artist—and a very good one.