At last, after wading through a manic grab bag of early promise, cultural transformation (not the good kind), rambling self-indulgence, and, with 2007’s Death Proof, off-the-rails irrelevance, Quentin Tarantino has brought the whole of his career to a brilliantly realized summation. Though not quite the masterpiece implied by the film’s cheeky closing line, it can be said that, despite moments of frustration, diversion, and cloying self-regard, no film of recent memory has so fully realized the blissful intoxication of the cinema: our lusts, our dreams, that dangerous dance with our unreal, unnatural selves. Firmly put, Inglourious Basterds, despite daring me to tick off its numerous flaws over a superhuman running time, just may stand as the medium’s most balls-out defense of the notion that the silver screen is the very essence of life itself. More courageously, if it exists, or even should exist, it’s all there in the dark. And if not, it is but a flicker away from realization. Through this seemingly preposterous re-interpretation of what amounts to the whole of World War II and, one surmises, the unfolding of a newer, cleaner history in its wake, Tarantino happily, and without a trace of smugness or academic sleight-of-hand, dispenses with truth altogether. Lies not only win out, they’re all we’ve ever really been after. History is not simply written by the winners, it often yields to the better imagination.
How clever, then, for this admirer of Godard (A Band Apart, indeed), to invert his famous dictum – “Cinema is truth 24 frames per second” – and pursue the polar opposite as a matter of course. It’s where his career has been tending, needless to say, but now, he just might have uttered the final word on the subject. Tarantino’s films are not only detached from any semblance of reality, they exist wholly within the cinema itself; as if the characters lack the ability to refer to anything other than their own artificiality. They are more than caricatures, they are clockworks lacking a point of reference beyond their fellow travelers, those other doomed figures that sprang from the same demented pen. In the past, QT has been content to leave his men and women in unrecognizable landscapes; where the harsh light of life’s sting dare not intrude for fear of imposing an unjust morality, or unnecessary judgment. From the soundtrack to the set design, all was lovingly crafted with an eye towards allusive assault. It was more than a geek’s unhealthy obsession with pop culture, it was the insistence, without debate, that nothing need be addressed unless it could be found in the movies of yesteryear. As much as it flirted with downright theft, it’s more honest as homage. A hard-on, yes, but one that springs from true love.
So while Inglourious Basterds is overlong and not always faithful to its central conceit, the sheer audacity of the conclusion (held, appropriately, in a cinema) pulls together every conceivable loose end and renders them mere trifles in the face of their cumulative power. A tavern scene drags, yes, and a character or two operates on the margins of success, but how else to confound expectations than by naming a film after a group of terrorists who occupy but a sliver of the overall running time? Unquestionably, the film comes alive whenever scalps are taken, bodies are beaten Pesci-style with Ted Williams-like efficiency, and throats slit with all the excitement our improved effects masters can muster, but instead of merely updating The Dirty Dozen (which Tarantino could do quite well, thank you very much), he is conceding that war itself, from battlegrounds to bunkers, is so beyond the capacity of the cinema to capture accurately that it’s best to dispense with pretense and cut straight to the cartoon. Again, the admission is not without that wicked, boyish charm that sees the base humor in nearly every human endeavor, but for QT, it’s all propaganda; bullshit with the pedigree of noble intentions. In this way, Tarantino just might well admit he’s no different than fellow cinephile Joseph Goebbels, a man not above tearing up when praised for his efforts. Sliding moral scale aside, the two men are united by a common cause: creating a world, controlling it, and convincing the audience of its authenticity.
If Tarantino finally made the war picture everyone has been waiting for, why not use it as a canvas for cultural blasphemy? No, the official record does not in fact prove that Hitler was assassinated in the box seats of a theater, Lincoln-style, or that the entire Nazi political structure was locked inside of a burning movie house, only to explode a full year ahead of schedule, thereby saving untold numbers of Jews, soldiers, and civilians alike. In this vision, the Jews not only shaved some time from the Holocaust, they channeled their passivity into a group of Grade A men that sent all of Europe into hysterics. Jews had power, strength, and the weaponry to match, with a slicing and dicing efficiency that reached the Fuhrer himself. No easy suicide here, only a lifeless dictator being so pumped full of lead, he practically splits open to release the hounds of hell. And if the final, flame-filled plot had anything left to give (I’ve seen more security at a baseball game, for example), the Jewish woman, bent on revenge for having witnessed her family’s murder in the opening sequence, is joined by a black man, a tag-team that all but says the Civil Rights movement starting then and there. No one believes it happened, but who wouldn’t want it to? As Papa himself said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”�
Among the rogue’s gallery of half-baked, firmly fictional personalities, few could ever hope to stand as tall as Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Hans Landa, a character so delightfully nuanced, one pleads with the movie gods for him to live on and have a movie all his own. Sure, he’s the standard-issue Nazi who uses wit and cunning to mask a brutal sadism, but by the end, he’s making a deal like a used car salesman to secure an estate in Nantucket. Clearly, he’s a man so absent a higher purpose, he’s happy just finding his niche. He is paid to find people, and so he does. Dismissing his nickname “The Jew Hunter,” he prefers to think of himself as a brilliant detective; a keen judge of character, as well as the only man in the room who knows every move being made. He’s so sharp, he’s practically one step ahead of himself. It’s an acting tour-de-force, with all the expressions, tics, and gestures to remind us of the old school, but in some ways, he’s too good for the room. In the end, though, he might be the ultimate concession to reinvention: the only interesting Nazi in the whole damn enterprise was but a phone call away from becoming a red-blooded American. Under the skin, they’re all after our treasure. That’s the lie, at any rate, and no less true for being continually resurrected from D-Day forward. We are always at risk because, at bottom, they world wants to be us. Tarantino doesn’t believe it, of course, but he proudly supports the images that reinforce the falsehood. It’s all part of the show.
At some point, I became so enamored with Tarantino’s theatrical thesis that I stopped caring about the ridiculous pipe prop, the left field Samuel L. Jackson narration, the from-the-shadows Harvey Keitel cameo, or even the unabated foot fetish that here, leads to a Cinderella moment, only with more strangulation. Even Mike Myers’ impersonation of a silly Brit couldn’t break me, as I had come too far to go back to a stubbornly unfair past. It’s swill, but with the sophistication to know better. If I was ever bored, it was only when the screenplay insisted on pushing the plot forward, as if the damn thing had any right to be taken seriously. As it is, it’s only about one gun removed from a camp classic. There’s even a ridiculously-accented Brad Pitt hamming up the works, put in the even more unreasonable position of faking an Italian dialect at a movie premiere, all with Wile E. Coyote dynamite strapped to his leg. Speaking of said movie, some Goebbels production with a dim war hero posing as an actor, it’s all the more uproarious because from all appearances (we catch snippets throughout the final act), the piece is a non-stop bloodbath punctuated by mindless applause. Still, how else to portray the story of a man who picked off 300 enemy soldiers from a bell tower? But the rabble are pleased, and swallow it whole. Don’t we all? Move around the furniture a bit, and old Joe G. himself could have been at the helm of Warner Brothers.
And yet it works, all of it, even if only in the abstract, because it never compromises its sheer absurdity. If we are lucky, it may yet signal a new direction in historical drama, where the stuffed shirts and fact checkers are sent to bed without their supper, all so we can get back to the business of telling stories. Changing the world is for suckers and fools; better yet to find a new one all its own, where everything is possible because the only dream worth pursuing is just a hair shy of delusion.