The New Yorker
Dear David Denby,
In discussing the way Inglourious Basterds invokes film and filmmakers -- Goebbles, the Art Deco theatre, the cinemaphile characters (including actors and actresses, theatre owners and projectionists, and critics) and the Basterds themselves ("A kind of Jewish Dirty Dozen") you write, "Tarantino has gone past his usual practice of decorating his movies with homages to others. This time, he has pulled the film-archive door shut behind him -- there's hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside of a nutbrain fable."
I don't understand why creating what Tolkien called a "secondary world" should be such a problem. I understand that that is a different project from trying to make a film "about something" (rather than a film that "is that something itself"); I fail to see why the former is necessarily better than the latter. I am also puzzled why of all people a film critic should be so bothered by a film that is soaked in films. It seems to cater to those of us that love film. Also: there are so many plays about plays for example, including Midsummer Night's Dream -- are they all deficient on principle as well?
I say this without conceding that this is what Inglourious Basterds is doing. When you say that "there's hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside of a nutbrain fable" you seem also to mean that Tarantino's film is empty because it focuses on film and not on say, real world issues. But isn't film PART of the real world, and so when Tarantino "pulls the film-archive door shut behind him" and begins to comment on the vault -- don't we all have access to that vault through netflix? And don't you and I especially, as people who care enough to write about films, care especially for this very subject? If you got access to a great vault of films wouldn't you be excited? Tell people about it? Get people excited about what you found in there? Isn't that sort of what Tarantino does (especially in Kill Bill)? Isn't at least a small part of what Tarantino is doing is going after those Oscar grabs like The Reader that humanize Nazi's? Isn't he responding to the real world when he tells the audience, and the people who make and enjoy those films, "A Nazi ain't got no humanity. He needs to be DE-stroyed." Agree or disagree with the sentiment, I think it is unfair to make it seem like he is just in his own fantasy land here.
You write "Whether the Basterds are Tarantino's ideal of an all American killing team, or his parody of one, is hard to know. Very little in Basterds is meant to be taken straight, but the movie isn't farce either. It's lodged in an uneasy nowheresville between counterfactual pop wish fulfillment and trashy exploitation, between exuberant nonsense and cinema scholasticism.... The cinema it seems is both innocent and heroic; it creates great art and it will end the war."
I think comic book fans are faster to get what Tarantino is doing, partly because comic books go to a lot of trouble to create a kind of detailed secondary world (and fans help with that project) and also because the characters inside walk that line you describe: The Silver Surfer and Beta Ray Bill for example, or Kirby's New Gods could be described equally as ideals or parodies. The difference in communities is that comic book fans don't see this as an "uneasy nowhere" -- there is a energizing dissonance, a sense that anything could happen and be somehow justified aesthetically. "Exuberant Nonsense" is a great phrase and I wish you meant it in a complementary way, as Blake did when he said "Exuberance is Beauty" or the critic Stephen Booth did when he described the best poetry as "Precious nonsense." (I know there is a good quote somewhere from Auden about poetry being nonsense, but I am not going to look for it now).
And there are many films that make great claims for art, and I am sure you do not dislike them or mock them for that reason.
You write "Tarantino is mucking about with a tragic moment of history. Chaplin and Lubitsch played with Nazi's too, but they worked as farceurs, using comedy to warn of tragedy; they didn't carve up Nazi's using horror-film flourishes."
The other thing comic book fans know is that Nazis make great villains, and always have. I suppose it is sad to think that comics and other pulps (including the recent Nazi Zombie film Dead Snow) are held in such low regard that this is the first time I am seeing someone really chase after using Nazis as villains. Hellboy, with it's Nazi-Satanists, was probably beneath mention. How do you feel about their use in something like Indiana Jones, I wonder? Tarantino is obviously edgy, but that movie was pure family adventure fun. The comparison to Chaplin and Lubitsch seems unfair in part because it stacks the deck against Tarantino -- he comes too late in history to warn. Thankfully, he knows how to make the most out of coming late in the day -- by learning from and remixing all the movies Chaplin and Lubitsch missed out on, what with their being dead.
You write, "Tarantino's hyper-violent narrative reveals merely that he still dreams like a teen-ager."
Well, fair enough, I guess. That is an easy swipe because New Yorker readers are a demographic all ready to look down on teenagers. And what with spending 800 Million on Transformers 2 (which I did not see to be fair, but will when the Rifftrax.com commentary comes out), fine, yes, teenagers. But in taking Tarantino to task for the cliche of Hans Landa ("The role may be a cliche but Waltz is brilliant in it" -- and why isn't that enough?) you ought to avoid cliches yourself. "Those darn Kids!" We should do better than that. Teenagers have a lot to be ashamed of but what wouldn't you give for the teenage energy and enthusiasm Tarantino displays. He LOVES things. And he wants to TELL you about them. Where exactly would film be without a little wish fulfillment? Even the most critically acclaimed grim existentialist drama's fulfill the pessimists wish to be right about how the world really is.
You write "The film is skillfully made but, but it's too silly to be enjoyed, even as a joke. Tarantino may think he is doing Jews a favor by launching this revenge fantasy (in the burning theatre, working class Jewish boys pump Hitler and Goring full of lead), but I somehow doubt that the gesture will be appreciated. Tarantino has become an embarrassment."
"Too silly to be enjoyed." Try taking that out of context for a minute and looking at it. Do you really believe that something can be "too silly to be enjoyed." If I believed that I would be concerned what it said about me as a person. Combined with the crack about teenagers, you present yourself as sort of humorless, which is surely not what you intend (especially since you present yourself as ready for a lighthearted romp when you positively review Julie and Julia along side Inglourous Basterds under heading "Americans in Paris").
To call out Tarantino as an embarrassment fails on a couple of levels. The main one is that you reveal yourself to be writing something other than a movie review -- this is a kind of moral criticism, which is sort of outside of your scope, or at the most auxillary to your scope. You have to engage the film in its own terms first, which you seems largely unable to do for Tarantino (though you do do it for Waltz).
But I have to say that the real embarrassment is the New Yorker. Many weeks ago in an issue I cannot locate Anthony Lane (I believe) reviewed Watchmen. I am going by memory here, but he clearly disliked it about as much as you disliked this, and was also unwilling to engage it on its own terms (he laments the lack of comedy and lightheartedness for example, not noticing Moore's wry joke that a character named "The Comedian" is thrown to his death at the opening). Now I enjoyed Watchmen, but it was hardly a favorite movie of mine -- as Inglourious Basterds is. Regardless of my feeling about this I still cannot understand the mean-spiritedness of both you and Lane striking at these films that you did not enjoy by SPOILING THE ENDING FOR YOUR READERS. The New Yorker was kind enough to print a letter to the editor in regards to Lane's spoiler, but you followed up not too long after by telling everyone that the film ends with Roth shooting Hitler and Goring, the shock that the 152 minute movie builds towards. This seems to be a betrayal of the principles of your job, when even if you did not know better before, The New Yorker brought to you attention with that letter to the editor.
I would like to submit myself as a candidate for your replacement at the New Yorker. I have written two books, hold a doctorate, and have learned (just recently) not to use words like "farceur" and "idiot de la cinematheque" to bludgeon readers into submission.
The AV Club (Keith Phipps)
Dear Keith Phipps,
You write, "Inglourious Basterds is a film years in the making and hours in the watching, but it seems designed to inspire mere minutes of reflection. ... its moments of greatness—and there are more than a couple—feel weirdly disconnected, stuck in a movie that doesn’t know how to put them together, or find a good way to move from one to the next."
I actually don't want to get into this opinion of yours too much. I think that the stylistic clashing is part of the fun, but like noise music I can concede that it is an acquired taste. The thing that really bugs me is that your site gave the movie a B-, when you gave Crank 2 an A. I thought it was wonderful that the AV Club responded to a complaint along these lines so reasonably. But I have to feel that by the AV Club's own criteria described in that article Inglourious Basterds deserved better. Surely, for example, Tarantino was AWARE that his movie was stylistically uneven, what with the kind of random narration to name one case. The question is did the film succeed on its own terms, and I think that it really did.
The thing is Kieth Phipps, I really don't have a problem with you. It is just that your publication makes me feel OLD, as the New Yorker makes me feel young (in the worst way). I am 30 years old and I find that my values corespond neither to the New Yorker (which I always unconciously assumed was up ahead, waiting for me) or to the AV Club, which I have been reading for years. I don't know what to do with claims like in the Terminator Salvation review where the 3rd Terminator movie was referred to in passing as "adequate" rather than say "risible" -- and that was YOU writing that review. You gave Terminator Salvation a B-, the same grade you gave Inglourious Basterds. Would you like to reconsider, seeing those grades side by side like that?
Dear Dana Stevens,
I would like to answer a question of yours.
"But Tarantino's signature nastiness and his juvenile delight in shocking the audience undercut the movie's larger purpose. Which is what, again? Watching someone get beaten to death with a baseball bat, or having a swastika carved into their flesh in tight closeup, is sickening whether the victim is a Nazi or not. In the scenes where the bloodthirsty Basterds (one of whom is played by Eli Roth, the director of the ultra-sadistic Hostel movies and a friend of Tarantino's) perpetrate these exploits, are we supposed to be cheering them on? Is the best way to work through the atrocities of the 20th century really to dream up ironically apt punishments for the long-dead torturers?"
(I really wanted the word yes to be my only comment here, but I cannot stop myself, now that I am on a roll).
Dante, for example, did it when he dreamed up ironic punishments for history's greatest villains.
It is a basic film tenant that you set up tension, then resolve it, as for example, when you have a bad guy, and then you punish them. Basic but reliable. Nazi's are the worst of the worst -- but even if you had never heard of them, Tarantino himself has demonstrated, just in the context of his film, what monsters they are. So yes, when terrible things happen to them we cheer. It is just an illusion, but I am sure you have cheered on illusions before, when you knew it was not real. If a magician sawed a woman in half then put her back together the fact that you know she is not being hurt -- but that she looks like she is -- is part of the fun. It is significantly more kind than say people who watch certain stunts and sports and HOPE someone gets hurt for real.
Also in Slate
Dear Dennis Lim
Inglourious Basterds addresses head-on many of the standard anti-Tarantino criticisms. You say he makes movies that are just about movies? You think they present violence without a context? Luring the elite of the Third Reich to an Art Deco cinematheque in Nazi-occupied Paris, Basterds gleefully uses film history to turn the tables on world history; its context is nothing less than the worst atrocity of the 20th century. This only seems to have further infuriated Tarantino's detractors, some of whom are appalled that this terminal adolescent would dare to indulge his notorious penchant for vengeful wish fulfillment on such sensitive and sacrosanct material.
Needless to say, Tarantino's movie shares little common ground with—and, indeed, is probably a direct response to—your typical Holocaust drama. It has no interest in somber commemoration, and it refuses to deny the very real satisfactions of revenge. Like all of Tarantino's films, Inglourious Basterds is about its maker's crazy faith in movies, in their ability to create a parallel universe. His films have always implicitly insisted that movies are an alternative to real life, and with Inglourious Basterds, for the first time, he has done something at once preposterous and poignant: He takes that maxim at face value and creates his own counterfactual history. It may not be his masterpiece, but for sheer chutzpah, it will be hard to top.
THANK YOU DENNIS LIM!