Quentin Tarantino is such a punk.
Against all reason, Inglourious Basterds might just be cinema’s final word on World War II and the Holocaust. And, Tarantino is a punk for making it that way.
Without giving too much away by suggestion, the much-discussed ending of his highly stylized, spaghetti Western influenced movie explosively rewrites history.
Now, it’s one thing to remake history as propaganda or delusional fantasy, but Tarantino does it as pure entertainment. What Tarantino does to the memory of World War II in Inglorious Bastards — and if you haven’t seen it yet, put down the Daily Trojan, skip your next class and go to the theater — is not necessarily to cheapen it, but rather to end it. His finale is final, a curtain-closer on one of cinema’s most enduring topics and settings.
After all, how many more unique stories coming out of World War II and the Holocaust can there be? As the surviving generation disappears, what untold stories could possibly remain?
Certainly it would be an insult to the memory of such a horrific event for any nonparticipant to try and create an original story. Inglourious Basterds, as a treatise on the power cinematic fantasy can hold over history, stamps an exclamation point on the darkest period of modern history. Postmodern master Tarantino even had the gall to set the film’s climax in a movie theater, a choice that fills the proceedings with blatant subtext about the very nature of cinema.
Until Inglourious Basterds, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist might have rightfully been called cinema’s last substantive thesis on World War II and the Holocaust. For Polanski, whose entire career has illustrated the horrors and tragedies he suffered as a child in concentration camps, The Pianist was an artistic salvo by a true survivor against all films that would cheapen the memory of the event.
But Polanski’s film, like Tarantino’s and all other non-documentary films about the war, is essentially fiction — though of course it is based on a true story. Tarantino just takes Polanski’s thesis to its logical conclusion, using the power of cinema as history-changing fiction as a means to close a chapter of history recycled repeatedly by a culture obsessed with it.
So Tarantino is clearly an irreverent, annoying and uniquely brilliant punk. The asinine final line of Inglorious Basterds — a smug Brad Pitt staring into the camera and drawling out, “I think this might just be my masterpiece,” before a startling cut to Tarantino’s name in the credits — is a virtual ejaculation of the director’s massive, obnoxious ego.
Alas, for all its great importance as a work of art and politics, Inglourious Basterds still bears the curse that made his Kill Bill films inferior to Tarantino’s true masterpieces — Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. At this rate, he’ll never make any films to equal those two true masterpieces.
Sure, Inglourious Basterds will be long-remembered for the unique way it smashes history with the power of cinema — as well as for Christoph Waltz’s performance as the diabolical Nazi Col. Hans Landa — but the film showcases once again that Tarantino is spinning his wheels.
The director has built his career on the backs of filmmakers famous and infamous, with every frame of every film he’s ever seen influencing his choices as a director. Tarantino is some kind of savant; I remember Kurt Russell once telling a group of film journalists, “He’s got something with 24 frames a second, he’s a genius.” That perfectly sums up the brilliance of Tarantino, but it also pays tribute to his flaws — flaws that are becoming all the more evident with each film he makes.
Inglorious Basterds may be the director’s greatest ode to cinema, but by bogging down such a unique plot with pastiche — specifically, strikingly overt and distractingly out of place references to his favorite cinematic moments — he takes away from his own message. His first works used their references and riffs covertly, often in service of creating a more memorable shot or scene. With the Kill Bill films and his latest piece, Tarantino’s plot almost works in service of his movie reference file. To use a tiny example: in calling his protagonist Aldo Raine — a tribute to pretty-boy war movie veteran of yesteryear Aldo Ray — Tarantino draws attention to his passions in a disorienting way.
His films have been rightfully called masturbatory. Luckily for Tarantino, short of his overdone foot fetish, the kind of cinema that gets him off appeals to a broad range of filmgoers. From the first frame to the last, Inglourious Basterds is a work of pure, relentless entertainment. It is one of Tarantino’s most memorable works (though nowhere near his masterpiece), yet at the same time it shows a regression in his storytelling ability.
Only a brilliant punk like Tarantino could use cinema to tear down the World War II genre of film. Only a punk with an ego like Tarantino could bog down a great story with pastiche. He remains a true original — flawed, brilliant and always exciting.
John Wheeler is a senior double majoring in cinema-television critical studies and East Asian languages and cultures. His column, “The Multiplex,” runs Fridays.