Well, my mind is newly filled with cultural jelly, and so I’m ready to talk about a few topics. Where to start? Well, for one, last night I went and saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds. My attitude toward Tarantino is basically this: his films are hip (though actively, aggressively hip; not laid-back hip like Jarmusch), cool, fun, sexy (Uma), etc. They’re also fairly, albeit superficially, intelligent, self-reflexive, and knee-deep in homage (especially to his pet subjects – Godard, kung fu movies, blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns). I think highly of him as a maker of funny, blatantly postmodern films; however, I don’t exactly think he’s breaking new ground. More like reshuffling old soil. As I read in Paul Schrader’s essay “Canon Fodder“:
It’s been said assemblage is the art form of the 20th century and Joseph Cornell its Godfather. If so, Tarantino is its Michael Corleone.
My point is that what I gathered from Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and the Kill Bill duology was further confirmed by Inglourious Basterds: these are cool, neatly stylized movies, but don’t go digging too deep. I think the phrase “all flash, no substance” becomes very appropriate. Just take the example of Basterds. We’ve got two parallel plots: one about a group of gung ho Nazi killers led by Brad Pitt whose main drive, ambition, and desire is to “kill [and scalp] Nazzies”; the other is about a Jewish escapee running a movie theater in Paris. The Nazi killers kill a lot of Nazis, the Jewish woman orchestrates a massive (and strangely undetected) revenge plot, and it all ends with lots & lots of fire, shooting, and Nazi deaths. Including gratuitous shots of Hitler’s face being machine-gunned.
So what do we take away from this? Is there much to discuss (as there is with the book I’m reading, Art Spiegelman’s Maus) about the conflict of good and evil in WWII, or the Nazi attitude toward and treatment of the Jews? Can we learn something about our perceptions of history – how it could have turned out vs. how it really did? Or is the most likely initial impression, “He carved a swastika into that guy’s forehead! Awesome!”? You want a high-class brand of mindless escapism that does some thrilling tricks with the hoary war movie genre? You got it. But I still don’t recommend Inglourious Basterds very highly. It’s just a question of what you want out of your movie. E.g., despite the often jarring presences of race- and gender-based conflict in his films, Tarantino never really seems obliged to say anything about them. He retools stereotypes, but at the end of the day it’s still because “the ass-kicking black chick is cool” or “Uma Thurman’s feet turn me on” (Basterds also has its fair share of QT foot fetishism).
There’s a sequence in Basterds that made me think maybe Tarantino had seen Ms. 45 a few too many times (though I can’t say for sure if it’s an actual influence on him, it wouldn’t surprise me), and I think this could be indicative of part of the problem: yes, exploitation can be cool and informative, as I indulge every time I watch Sex Madness or some other shitty opus. And so yes, it’s fun to make a self-conscious homage to exploitation. But at the end of the day, it’s still self-conscious exploitation, stuck in a netherworld between actual exploitation and an actually thoughtful, meaningful movie. So that’s, for now, what I have to say about Mr. Tarantino.
Out of the other subjects to address: a couple weeks ago I rewatched that great classic-among-classics, Casablanca (see, the title even sounds like the word “classic”). And one aspect of the film to which I paid especially close attention was Claude Rains’ performance as Captain Renault, a character who’s described as “amoral” even in the intro paragraph of Rains’ Wikipedia page. Now first, Rains himself: amazingly versatile, moved between leading and character parts in a huge number of films across decades.
He could be a great villain, or a great hero. He was the original invisible man (a part that showed off his voice, which was capable of rapidly going from dignified to menacing); he was the corrupted senior senator Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (his attempted suicide at the end always brings a tear to my eye); and of course he was Sebastian, the mother-dependent but sympathetic Nazi villain of Hitchcock’s Notorious. He could be a supportive friend, as in Now, Voyager or an overbearing father like in The Wolf Man and Kings Row. Or he could be an ineffectual, sleazy, and easily amused officer of the law as he was in Casablanca.
I’m running out of time, so I’m afraid I can’t do justice to his performance and the beautiful balances and flourishes it adds to the movie. Rains has a very light touch here; his character’s snide quips give the film a levity it might have lacked if Bogart were left to brood alone. The city of Casablanca is, among other things, an absurd place, and Renault is a man who recognizes the absurdity and gives in to it. From his position of meager authority (a Vichy official being perpetually overruled by the Germans), he practically runs an industry of delightedly taking bribes from young ladies (with some undisclosed added benefits). One of my favorite parts is when a young woman tells Rick she’s about to give herself to Renault, and the following exchange ensues:
Woman: My husband is with me, too.
Rick: He is? Well, Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.
That’s right: even Casablanca has a pretty clear (yet still under the radar) reference to Renault’s bisexuality. And, after all, Casablanca is a mixed-up town full of people escaping from the brand of normality imposed by the Nazis. It only makes sense that the gatekeeper should be, well, “broadminded.”
I’m afraid my time’s up; hopefully I can explore this topic at greater length on another date. Here’s looking at you, kid.