Sunday, September 06, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino meets Oscar Wilde, with a shout-out to Joseph Pearce



I left the Cinema Center in Newark, DE* after Inglourious Basterds with a smile on my face and a satisfied mind. I also brought away a rekindled respect for Quentin Tarantino- nay, a love even, begrudging but true, a love I cannot help but have for intelligent, crowd-pleasing, controversial creators of indelible works of art. Quentin Tarantino is one of these. He has irritated me for years, but that's my prejudice against all cocky white males who are not related to me personally. The man is a true artist, say what you may.

Inglourious Basterds is a work of brilliant audacity that takes me back to the work of Oscar Wilde and the decadents of the late-19th century. And it is inspiring the same kind of criticism as Wilde's pre-gaol work, which while wildly successful, and praised by many, infuriated another host of critics for being derivative and shallow.

Consider, for example, Oliver Elton’s censure when the Library of the Oxford Union solicited and received a signed copy of Wilde’s first book of poetry:

It is not that these poems are thin – and they are thin: it is not that they are immoral – and they are immoral: it is not that they are this or that – and they are all this and all that: it is that they are for the most part not by their putative father at all, but by a number of better-known and more deservedly reputed authors. They are in fact by William Shakespeare, by Philip Sydney, by John Donne, by Lord Byron, by William Morris, by Algernon Swinburne, and by sixty more… The Union Library already contains better and fuller editions of all these poets: the volume which we are offered is theirs, not Mr. Wilde’s: and I move that it be not accepted. (from Henry Newboldt, “My World as in My Time”, quoted by Joseph Pearce in his excellent book “The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde.” )

Now read what Ed Gonzalez had to say about Tarantino in Slant Magazine:

Everything is an allusion, a pose, in the films of Quentin Tarantino, right down to the font and colors he uses for his title sequences—even the name of his production company, A Band Apart (with it, he arrogantly asks us to think of him as our generation's Godard, and how willingly we indulge him says plenty). More curator than creator, Tarantino's overbearing cinephilia appeals to audiences who not only lost it at the movies but can't seem to live without them: From Reservoir Dogs to his Kill Bill diptych, Tarantino's films are solipsistic totems to his favorite things, and even when I've liked them (Jackie Brown) they've still managed to make me feel suffocated—as if I were being cornered at a party by some creep whose lunatic ramblings suggest someone completely unable to talk about anything beyond the movies he's seen and wants to make, the music he's heard and wants to play for you, and the girls he wants to fuck but doesn't know how to talk to.

Sounds a bit like Elton's view of Wilde, eh? I hope that the work of Joseph Pearce will nudge us towards the time when Oscar Wilde’s personal life (whether you view it as notorious or iconic) will cease to overshadow his literary reputation. Even so, Wilde’s work has stood the test of time. Critics no longer denounce his stylistic adaptations of his literary forbears. Tarantino’s notoriety is not nearly as polarizing as Wilde’s, resting as it does on nothing more titillating than his allegiance to B-movies, grind house films, and knowledge of movies both famous and obscure acquired as a video store clerk. In the end, I think his films too will stand up as some of the best and most representative art of the turbulent times of the late-20th, early 21st century.

Contra distinct Gonzalez’ scoldi of Tarantino with Bret McCabe's more appreciative opinion, in the Boston City Paper:

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has always proudly worn his encyclopedic film nerdom on his sleeve. His movies and scripts are buckshot-riddled with knowing cinematic in-jokes, endless moments of unabashed homage, and outright narrative and musical and costume and character names and sound effects and typefaces and scene set-up rip offs. If his set pieces and frenetic dialog sometimes feel like overindulgent pastiche, at least he does so with entertaining brio and an inclusive camaraderie: His cinema allusions feel less like somebody flaunting his insider knowledge than invitations to share in the little-known-movies love-in. That element makes his films, for all their modern violence, unabashedly nostalgic, but Pop Art is always filtered through the past. With Inglourious Basterds, though, he does something rather daring: He offers unadulterated cinematic love as a way to rewrite the 20th century's darkest moment.

And my own feelings about Inglourious Basterds? Harry Knowles at Ain't It Cool News comes close to expressing them:

I’ve had a lot of problems with this review. More than I’ve had with any film in a very long time. Why? Well, it is very complicated and I’ve been struggling with how to phrase it.

I love every moment of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Every shot, every scene, every performance, every bit of music. I love it.

BUT…

This isn’t the World War II film I really wanted from Tarantino. And the reason has more to do with me, than with Quentin.

I love the WWII genre and its infinite permutations. I love the universe of WWII. A global conflict, perilous intrigue, unforgivable inhumanity, toweringly charismatic leadership, trench heroism, the toughness of being a survivor… the design, imagery, scope… it’s all just so damn awesome.

...

And that isn’t this film. This is the fictionalized history of how WWII came to a close in the European arena, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino’s fevered brain. And it is something unto itself.

...

Forget any expectations or beliefs of what you’re getting out of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, it isn’t the movie you think it is. Not the one in trailers, not really even the script. It has a unique life unto itself. I really liked the film on first viewing, on second – those feelings intensified. There’s just something so delightful about the film. It isn’t stuffy, which is a problem that most modern WWII films have going against them. In this, you know that anything can happen. And that’s very refreshing.

Watch it and you’ll see. It truly is its own thing and it kicks ass.

Was the term "Jewish revenge porn" coined for this film or did it exist before? I love that folks are debating its ethical significance. I love that the film is inspiring questions about the relationship of cinema to history. I love that the movie is generating serious discussion like that which greeted books and plays in Oscar Wilde's day. Do yourself a favor and read Jeffrey Goldberg's essay in Atlantic Monthly, Hollywood's Jewish Avenger, which itself contains references to even more serious analysis of Tarantino’s film.

I am thankful that the US Catholic Council of Bishops gave Inglourious Basterds an "L" (limited audience) rating rather than "O", (morally offensive). It embarrassed me when the USCCB reviewer gave All That Jazz a condemnation, and far too many of the movies I enjoy are rated given that "O" rating. I have spoken to at least one USCCB reviewer and know that it's a tough job because their mission is to serve the average Catholic family looking for entertainment that is not morally problematic. And they do a great job of educating folks as to the delicate balancing act between art and morality, one that walked the tightrope in Wilde's day and will no doubt continue on as long as we endure.

(*Cinema Center in Newark, DE – my favorite Delaware movie theater, just two miles from where I live, and home of the upcoming Newark Film Festival)

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