08.24.09

Tarantino's Hollow Violence

Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction exposed the absurdity of Hollywood violence, says Lee Siegel. But Quentin Tarantino’s latest is everything he once tried to parody. So why is everyone still taking him seriously?

Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction exposed the absurdity of Hollywood violence, says Lee Siegel. But Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Inglourious Basterds—which grossed $37 million opening weekend—is everything he once tried to parody. So why is everyone still taking him seriously?

The standard defense of Quentin Tarantino’s films is to wearily dismiss the standard criticisms—i.e., they’re movies about movies; the violence is hyped up and out of context; the atmosphere is juvenile—as if they were outdated and banal. But don’t fall for it.

Because such a tactic is like a lawyer defending his client by wearily deriding a “guilty” verdict as uncool: “I know what you’re going to say, members of the jury, that killing a candy-store owner is wrong, heinous, morally repugnant, blah blah blah. Could we just get over it and talk about the defendant’s technically impressive approach to crime, and about his phenomenal knowledge of the history of murder?”

There is a gross disconnect between the proprieties of movie criticism and the assumption behind Tarantino’s work, which is that horrendous violence is casual, manageable, and pretty cool.

In other words, murder is a crime no matter how “old” the judgment sounds. And Tarantino’s films are parochial, disconnected from the imagination, and tediously puerile—crimes against time and money—no matter how often such criticisms are made.

Paul Cullum: Tarantino's Glorious Nazi

Lloyd Grove: Tarantino's Star Also a Critic

Kim Masters: My Father, The Inglourious Basterd

Caryn James: Heil, Tarantino! His Best Since 'Pulp Fiction'
Inglourious Basterds does not even have the virtue, as Tarantino’s early films did, of introducing a new style of Hollywood film making. The film’s intense violence and its fanzine allusions to other films are as passé as the melodrama of Gone With the Wind.

Now I’m no prig. The film’s emptiness has nothing to do with Tarantino’s choice of subject. The Holocaust can take care of itself.

It’s been addressed creatively or foolishly in one work of popular art after another, yet it retains the power to strike us dumb. The right wing's association of Barack Obama with Adolf Hitler is sickeningly obscene, but at least Hitler and the Nazis represent evil for these otherwise twisted people. When they start comparing Rush Limbaugh to Hitler as a compliment to Limbaugh, then memory of the Holocaust will have lost whatever moral force (the irony of that!) it still possesses.

In fact, the only aspect of Inglourious Basterds that I found original had to do with its commentary—deliberate or not—on the way the Holocaust has been used in Hollywood.

Critics, even some of those who didn’t like the film, are greatly impressed by what they consider Tarantino’s bold reformulation of Jews as the brutal victors and the Nazis as their victims. No need to be impressed. By the end of just about every Hollywood film about the war against the Nazis, you are left not with the devastating revelation of the tens of million of people killed in that conflict—soldiers and civilians—but with the uplifting impression that the Nazis were actually thwarted and that goodness and decency triumphed. Hollywood has been making Inglourious Basterds for more than 70 years.

Even more provocative is the film’s allusion to François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, in which, among other complicated things, a Jewish stage-theater owner and his gentile wife use their medium to try to thwart the Gestapo.

For in Inglourious Basterds, film itself is the ultimate weapon of revenge used by a Jewish movie theater owner against her German oppressors. In other words, Hollywood having always been a mostly Jewish affair, perhaps all Hollywood films are revenge films on some level or another. In that sense, since we all go to the movies partly to redress and to escape from our secret grievances and wounds, perhaps we are all Jewish.

But all this movie-think is precisely why I find Tarantino unendurable.

The only purpose his films seem to have is to comment on other films in order to establish imitation as a kind of meta-authenticity. Yet the outrageously explicit violence—originally Tarantino’s commentary on the convention of American movie violence, remember?—now serves the function of balancing all the movie-think with pure distracting action. It’s like breaking up footnotes with color photographs.

Films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction revealed and reveled in the absurdity of Hollywood violence by exposing it as overdone, exploitative, insincere, and decontextualized. But now those qualities that Tarantino played with have become, in Inglourious Basterds, sincere elements of parody that are parodiable themselves. All the overdone, exploitative, insincere, and decontextualized violence is now an autonomous statement about the world. Tarantino has come to associate his arch, knowing, ironic Hollywood horror show with reality itself.

But because he is able to attract superb actors—I would pay to watch Harvey Keitel read the phonebook—or because catching his endless allusions to film history satisfies critics’ vanity (I couldn’t resist myself), or because his very knowingness makes anyone who criticizes him seem like he’s “not getting it,” Tarantino’s self-referential cartoons get a free pass.

He is the only Hollywood director I know of who receives, in lengthily solemn reviews, involved analysis of his tracking shots, camera angles, and the like. He’s pure box office, but some critics talk about him as though he were Godard.

When you get through all this film-school extolling of rudimentary techniques that you don’t even learn in film school but have to know beforehand in order to get accepted into film school—he creates tension by doing closeups of people’s hands: just like De Palma!—when you have kept yourself awake through the critics’ extended excavations of references to other films, you are never sure just what, exactly, Tarantino’s merits are, except that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of film making techniques, and of film history.

It is a kind of brutalization itself to read reviewers of Inglourious Basterds proudly making the connection between Brad Pitt’s character’s name—Aldo Raine—and the great B-actor Aldo Ray, who often played an American soldier. Some critics thought the scene where the Jewish commando beats a German soldier to death with a baseball bat a brilliant commentary on…the relationship between baseball, American violence, and revenge! Ouch. (“Insights” like that hurt.)

Even the kudos being showered on Christoph Waltz’s virtuoso chilling Nazi seem, all of a sudden, too shy about movie history. Waltz may be doing a sadistic S.S. agent to a T, but the T he’s really doing is Tim Roth. You can see nearly every shade of Waltz’s performance in Archibald Cunningham, the villainous aristocrat Roth brought to life nearly 15 years ago in Rob Roy.

Tarantino’s actors are, like his movies, links you click on to discover who they are echoing. Add this to Inglourious Basterds’ lack of plot, absence of character, dearth of wit, and interminable dialogue, and you have to wonder whether Tarantino has hit that American sweet spot of universal adulation: He wears his lovable mediocrity on his sleeve.

All this would be bad enough if it were not for the relentless graphic violence. Watching Inglourious Basterds, I suddenly felt a horrible Philistine urge to use reality as a tool of chastisement. As Tarantino’s Basterds and his Nazis shoot, scalp, strangle, and incinerate their way through the film, you think of real guns, real Americans going berserk, real wars, real pain. And it occurred to me that there is a gross disconnect between the proprieties of movie criticism and the assumption behind Tarantino’s work, which is that horrendous violence is casual, manageable, and pretty cool.

So let me try for a new type of criticism that might match idioms with Tarantino’s films and rise to meet them on their own terms. I would like to challenge him to a fight that will decide the validity of hollow, movie-think violence. More particularly, I would like to knock his fucking teeth out of his mouth, break the bridge of his nose and push it up into his head. To hell with seven types of ambiguity, the objective correlative, and the anxiety of influence. Let the blood flow out of his ears, and then let him watch as I shatter his kneecaps, pulverize his ribs, and—yes, indeed—rip the scalp off his fucking vacant head.

I’ll meet this glorified videogame programmer anywhere in Manhattan he wants. (As long as I’m home to pick my son up at nursery school at 5.) And don’t let him tell me that my invitation is out of context, full of movie-talk, and juvenile. I’m not buying that. Not anymore.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.