Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cinema Sampling, or How To Be Sergio Leone with a Few Easy Beats

After reviewing "Inglourious Basterds" and dismissing it as a rather thin movie that seemed to exist strictly for Quentin Tarantino to wank off on the screen and prove his love for the cinema to be greater than yours or mine, I did not think that I would need to revisit the subject again. I had, in some ways, hoped that the test of time (even just a few weeks after its release) would temper the initial raves for "Basterds" that practically suggested this movie was the Savior of Modern Cinema (though there are considerably more nuanced discussions here and here). Maybe the critics who went nuts over the film would have thought about the movie and considered that perhaps the depth they attributed to the film was perhaps not actually on the screen.

Alas, that has not been the case, which has left me perplexed and also straining to understand what others actually saw in this film. "Inglourious Basterds" is not merely a bad movie, but an important bad movie that I believe reflects something about our movie culture. Okay, bad may be too much of a harsh word, but a movie I consider more than troublesome. Hell, if other film writers are going to write multiple pieces declaring this movie a masterpiece, then I could, at least, take another crack at dissecting it. Besides, I have begun to find the pieces praising "Basterds" less thought-provoking as time has passed and entering into the realm of fanboy gushing with a slightly more intellectual bent. Strangely enough, I think this Onion piece was maybe the most spot-on assessment of both Tarantino and his film.

I also think the arguments against the film have been sidetracked too much into a debate about its depiction of Jews and World War II, which I still believe gives the movie too much credibility that it does not ever quite earn. I would rather argue the movie on its own terms than attempt to make this into an issue because my belief is that Tarantino's film never attempts to connect with history and should not be judged according to its historical accuracy. I do not fault the movie for that, but I do fault the movie for being such a lackluster experience that failed to engage to me on the most basic emotional level.

There has never been any doubt that all artists have their influences. Some may wear them on their sleeves more than others. Directors have often taken from other directors, often filtering them through their own sensibilities. The best filmmakers are those that rarely remind you of their sources of inspiration. Those directors are the ones who serve the stories, characters and emotions of their films rather than turn them into self-congratulatory film trivia contests where the audience spends the running time guessing the references. That's the difference between a filmmaker that aims for greatness, as opposed to those whose films have a disposability that rivals a VH1 clip show where comedians riff lamely on pop culture.

I am one of those people that thought the 1970's was an untouchable decade in film. Although my feelings about that decade have tempered a bit due to some films not dating well and the recognition that there was still a lot of crap made in that time, I still believe that the best that decade had to offer still dwarfs the best that the subsequent decades produced. We have been in the Age of the Familiar from the 1980's onward. With movies such as "Star Wars" smashing every box office record at the time, it became more acceptable and profitable to rehash and repackage past successes, sometimes as sequels and other times, under the guise of barely-veiled "new" identities. "Star Wars" itself was an appropriation of sources such as "The Hidden Fortress", "The Lord of the Rings" books and science fiction serials.

I am aware that this tendency has been existent in Hollywood from early on and always will be there. However, though most artistic cultures will be comprised of work that is derivative, there are also a strong minority of inventive artists that keep it alive. The problem with the last three decades or so of film has been the balance between the derivative and the groundbreaking tipping far more to the former than the latter.

Ideas from past movies are not simply being appropriated and re-imagined, but are dropped into newer movies without any deeper meaning than signaling to the audience that the director has watched a whole lot of movies. Movie culture has become the ouroboros, devouring itself to the point where there is not much left. We have been rifling through, as Al Pacino in "Glengarry Glen Ross" put it, our nostalgia files, patting ourselves on the back that filmmakers who are rampant Cinema Samplers enjoyed the same stuff we did. When Quentin Tarantino uses part of an Ennio Morricone score to remind you of Sergio Leone, we sit back and smile at the screen, self-satisfied that we too love Sergio Leone movies with Ennio Morricone scores. The problem with nostalgia though is that it is the enemy of invention. Not only that, nostalgia is the mask that hides a certain level of dishonesty, a mask to put over the face of human emotion. It is a remembrance of moments past through a Vaseline-smeared camera lens guaranteed to never capture the messiness of actual events.

The concept of sampling is most attributed to music. Although it had existed as early as the 1960's, it became more popular in use during the early years of rap music's popularity in the 1980's and eventually became commonplace and practically a necessity from the 1990's on. For me, the low point of music sampling was "I'll Be Missing You" by Puff Daddy & Faith Evans in 1997. A song meant to pay tribute to the murdered Notourious B.I.G., it did not merely sample but straight out lifted the entire melody of The Police's "Every Breath You Take". So, basically, a song meant to memorialize the death of a close friend and a spouse could not be bothered to come up with a melody straight from the creative mind and heart. In effect, the artists behind this tell us that they needed to borrow someone else's inspiration to plug the gaping holes in their own. Not only that, the melody came from a very popular song from about 15 years before that never stopped getting played on the radio. It is at that point when you wonder if they could have let their tribute to a loved one be untarnished by their desire to score an across the demographic hit record by using one of the most recognizable songs in recent times.

Films have been plagued by its own version of sampling during the same period and with the same results as the music industry: the creation of disposable entertainment. Sure, you can point to the number of sequels, rebooted franchises and remakes of movies that were not even that old to begin with as evidence of the lack of creativity in Hollywood. I would. I am sure most of the critics who praised "Inglourious Basterds" would agree, much like shooting fish in a barrel. The problem I have reading all the pieces on "Basterds" is that somehow Tarantino's film is the antidote to the crap Hollywood cranks out, as opposed to being part of the problem. What makes Tarantino's film particularly specious is its rather strained attempts to worship cinema itself. I don't know about you, but I do not want to see something I love get reduced to the simple-minded dogma of religious belief.

As I stated in my review of "Inglourious Basterds", I generally have enjoyed Tarantino's work, though have found him to be considerably overrated, as most of his films, with the primary exception of "Jackie Brown", do not exactly hold up to repeat viewings and seem to work better in parts than as wholes. I do agree, in some ways, that "Basterds" is a significant work in his career. Although others have claimed that it represents Tarantino's brilliance as a director, I believe the movie revealed his limitations and shortcomings as both a writer and a filmmaker. It only reinforced my issues with his early movies that he is a Cinema Sampler who has problems making a cohesive movie that are not about much beyond other movies. I would say that his propensity to sample other movies results in a film where each scene seems to exist as its own, but does not actually contribute much to the whole. They are pieces from different movies and inspirations awkwardly cut together with chapter titles used as loose splicing tape.

For example, the famous tavern sequence functions strictly as a showpiece, but little more. If anybody thought about the set-up to that sequence for a few minutes, it is clearly an example of the Idiot Plot. Basically, we have a nearly half-hour sequence predicated on the notion that the best place for a German double agent to pass secret information is the most public place imaginable to make it easier for an undercover British agent to get caught. Even Brian DePalma set up his Hitchcock-like suspense pieces with more common sense than this and would not have had a scene before it laboriously trying to convince us that the sequence's concept makes sense.

There are other aspects of "Inglourious Basterds" that border on the level of film school-level amateurism that seems to have been ignored by much of the critical community. I have to admittedly wonder if the film had not contained any movie sampling and, more importantly, a story that never came within a mile of a movie theater disabling Tarantino from framing the story with his big ideas about cinema itself, whether anyone would actually see the depth in "Basterds" that they seem to be seeing now?

As I had admitted in my review, I had read the leaked script for "Basterds" last year. Although there are a few minor scenes missing, the final film is a fairly faithful representation of the screenplay. Knowing little about the movie before I read the script, it was at the moment when it was revealed that Shosanna inherited a movie theater that I began to sink in my chair. It was, to me, the moment, when Quentin Tarantino completely decided to live in the Land of Movies and Movie References. Not only was the script referencing other movies through concepts for scenes as well as dialogue, Tarantino had finally decided to make the movie literally about movies themselves. The idea that the film's supporters consider to be its most brilliant revealed to me that Tarantino was on the edge of creative bankruptcy. About 30 pages into the script, I simply kept waiting for the inevitable climax in this movie theater, long before the screenplay itself reveals any details about staging the climactic movie premiere there.

I am aware that many critics point to how the movie audience's reaction to the depiction of violence in "Basterds" by the Basterds themselves contrasting with the reactions of Hitler and other Germans to the cartoon violence in "Nation's Pride" as some serious substance that Tarantino is putting out there to chew on. I never really believed that for a second and almost feel this has been one of those arguments critics put out because they have faith that Tarantino, due to his reputation, would not depict his violence with the same level of glee that someone like, say, Eli Roth does.

For me, the most horrific violent scene in the movie is when Col. Landa chokes Bridget von Hammersmark to death, but that almost seems like an accident (more powered by the performances than the direction) considering the Basterds' cartoonish scalping and baseball bat head-smashing earlier in the film. I even found the theater burning down played more like cheap catharsis than any serious statement on violence. It is empty shock value meant to inspire little conversation after the movie beyond, "Did you get a load of how they shot up Hitler's face?" For all of the violence that is in Tarantino's films, you rarely feel the weight you should when someone's life is taken away. The acts of violence in his movies feel like punchlines to jokes with extremely long setups. For me, a director shows his humanity depicting the aftermath of violence, which generally gets short shrift in Tarantino's movies with the exception of "Jackie Brown". You never actually see the bullets kill characters in the four deaths in that movie making the deaths genuinely shocking and disturbing. When Ordell Robbie kills Louis Gara, the camera remains in the back seat of the van concentrating on their facial expressions when their heads are turned toward one another. Did anyone care remotely about any of the people killed in the "Basterds" tavern sequence or is it merely a stunt reverse-engineered from its Mexican standoff conclusion?

I am not going to say that someone like Tarantino would understand violence more if he drew from life experience because which director really can? The problem with Tarantino is that the entire experience he brings to his movies is through watching other movies. How exactly is referencing Sergio Leone films in "Basterds" actually commenting on those films? Leone's films already commented on other westerns and particularly their neutered depictions of violence, by focusing not only on how those films treated life so cheaply but the machismo that leads men to kill one another to prove their masculinity. It is not by accident that Leone's films featured spare dialogue between men who often tried to one up each other in the tough guy department before eventually resorting to bullets. Death was not something romanticized or, as in Tarantino's case, something to get his rocks off. Leone treated the taking of a life as both operatic and absurd, not something which you can shrug off a minute later.

When Tarantino frames shots in the opening sequence like Sergio Leone, is he really saying anything beyond "Sergio Leone is an awesome filmmaker"? This is Tarantino sampling Leone to appeal to his cinephile disciples, which includes himself as the Onion piece I linked to earlier notes. Do these shots say anything about the characters up on the screen or are they merely action figures to be posed and propped up to resemble what Tarantino has seen in previous movies? This is not helped by Tarantino sampling Ennio Morricone's old music (although I have read that Tarantino's initial intention was to get Morricone to imitate himself) with instrumentation that makes little sense for the time period, location or even the genre. In fairness to Tarantino, even one of the greats like Martin Scorsese stumbled when he tried to ape Leone in "Gangs of New York", although he usually is one of the strongest directors to keep his influences in check. I would argue that, as much of a mess that "Gangs" is, it has a lot more on its mind than "Basterds" does. Perhaps too much, as that movie in the last hour struggles to figure out what it wants to be about.

Tarantino's cinema sampling becomes truly problematic with the character of Shosanna, who is the one character who we should feel the most empathy for, considering we see her entire family wiped out in the opening sequence. She should have been the heart of "Basterds" because there is no way that Tarantino could filter what she was going through references from other films. But, somehow, he did. As the movie progresses further, Tarantino does not take you deeper into Shosanna's anger and madness (she would have to some madness to carry out her plan to burn down the theater and kill herself in the process). Instead, Tarantino poses the actress Melanie Laurent in berets and dresses (in the script, the early scenes at the movie theater were intended to be shot in black & white in the style of the French New Wave), culminating in the ridiculous Getting Ready for the Big Night montage complete with the David Bowie theme song from "Cat People" where she appears to model Facial Expressions of Vengeance for Fashion Week. There's nothing genuine there, no matter how hard Laurent tries to convey something more. But the sequence borders on spoof of sequences from previous vengeance films much like Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" movies contained montages of Bruce Campbell strapping on weapons to parody every Stallone and Schwarzenegger movie from the '80's. Except Raimi was actually commenting on the bloodthirsty absurdity of those movies, not merely sampling them like Tarantino does.

What exactly separates Quentin Tarantino's direction from the mentality of fanboys? Instead of fanboys trying so very hard to convince you how rabid they are for anything Batman and Star Wars, we have Tarantino making movies about how much of a hard-on he has for Leone and Godard. Much like fanboy film appreciation, Tarantino does not use his movies to explore the new and unexpected, but the been there and done that. He had even commented recently that Stanley Kubrick was not "all that". But can you imagine Tarantino going from "Dr. Strangelove" to "2001: A Space Odyssey" to "A Clockwork Orange" to "Barry Lyndon", exploring new ideas and new locations for each subsequent film, while still having recurring themes about humanity itself that runs through all of his work?

Much like fanboys' attention to details as costumes and special effects as opposed to human behavior, Tarantino's filmmaking is the cinema of useless minutiae. He will focus on things such as a plate of strudel, a giant pipe and even digress into a Samuel L. Jackson-narrated short on how well film can burn. Sometimes, I wonder if Tarantino hopes to coast on his enthusiasm for film to overcome his deficiencies as a filmmaker. Most critics seemed to convince themselves that Tarantino is a strong visual stylist, but his shot selection often serves the preservation of his too precious dialogue. Outside of the occasional dynamic shot (most of which are lifted from other directors and feel somewhat pale in comparison), Tarantino's coverage is pedestrian, almost on the level of the most dialogue-driven television. He often plops the cameras down in front of actors to watch them talk and talk and talk. Even the reaction shots of characters listening to these monologues seem off, as if they are merely there to break up the monotony of the chatter, as opposed to being cut in a way to add to the drama of a scene. This movie was shot on location in France and Germany, but feels like it could have been shot on a Hollywood backlot, considering how little feel Tarantino seems to have for creating a world through images instead of words.

The big question I am posing is what exactly does all of this cinema sampling build up to or am I supposed to be simply content that Tarantino can borrow a few beats from Sergio Leone and other directors to be considered worth mentioning in the same breath as them? Is it wrong for me to want Tarantino to invest his movies with something I can relate to, something that demonstrates that perhaps his life experience extends beyond the movie theater? What puzzles me about the praise for "Inglourious Basterds" is that this level of cinema sampling is something I remember primarily from film school. The first shorts that I and other students made were often derivative and pale imitations of our favorite directors. But, it is understandable that young filmmakers would not have much to say, although, most likely, most of them never will. The directors you knew who had something were those most willing to explore beyond what they have seen on a movie screen before or expand upon what they have seen so considerably that it is something truly visionary and truly their own. They were the ones who were willing to put their emotions up on the screen, even if they did not quite know what to do with them.

These days, it is the directors who simply lift from other movies who are given a pass, even more so when they resort to self-reflexive notions about cinema into their narratives. Are those who are praising "Inglourious Basterds" responding to Tarantino's images or his narrative or are they reacting to his passion for cinema matching their own? Of course, Tarantino has better taste and, despite my harsh criticisms, more filmmaking and writing ability than most of the hacks out there whose sense of film history does not extend pre-1977. That does not mean Tarantino himself has created a movie that is alive with emotion and passion. It probably means he created a movie that is a decently constructed museum piece of his tastes, but revealing little of Tarantino's soul. What an artist bears of his soul is what makes the movies exciting and alive for me and is the essence of those moments when cinema actually does transform me. No offense to critics out there, but what Tarantino seems to be more suited for is film criticism. Although I have read some great film criticism over time, those pieces will never reach the transcendence of a truly great film from someone with an original vision.

I hoped that for people to get something out of this piece than merely that I think "Inglourious Basterds" was significantly overrated by many critics. It is not about most people out there disagreeing with me because I have little interest in attempting to insult and tar and feather the majority opinion in an effort to "recruit" people to my ideology, much like what has happened the last few years with several notable films. I wrote this piece because I believe these thoughts are important and need to be put out there. More importantly, I have felt that this needs to be discussed as an important aspect of our current movie culture.

I can understand how many have celebrated "Basterds" because I was probably no different years back when "Pulp Fiction" was released. Time changes your perspective on certain movies. For me, "Pulp" was one of those movies for me. I am sure most of you have seen a movie at different times in your life and wondered why the movie seemed so different. Back in 1994, "Pulp Fiction" changed cinema in my mind, but, over time, it became clear the hype was deceptive. Every viewing of that film displayed more cracks in its structure. That combined with my interests and what I wanted to get out of a movie changing, as I grew older. I would admit that during my days in film school that "Inglourious Basterds" might have blew my mind, but, now it plays like a relic, its sampling dating it almost immediately while making me wonder aloud if Tarantino is not much more than a skilled one man tribute band.

I do believe that, as the first decade of this century has produced a mostly uninspired output from our current crop of filmmakers, we need to demand a more progressive movement in our cinema. What bothers me about Tarantino's style of cinema sampling is that it reeks of cheap nostalgia and promotes the notion that passion for cinema is measured by how much you celebrate it rather than how much you demand from it and challenge it. I would hope that the up and coming filmmakers in the next decade are those willing to put themselves out there and take risks by going to areas past directors never explored.

Cinema sampling is too easy. Taking someone else's melody and dropping new words on top of it is not quite the same as sweating over every note after starting with a complete blank page. If we are going to level the accusation that Zack Snyder's cinematic output consists of tracing over someone else's work, then why do we excuse Tarantino simply because he dresses it up in a more artier fashion and has better taste in his cinematic influences? When a movie like "Inglourious Basterds" has been hailed as being original and audacious, as well as referred to as turning point in our cinema landscape, I have to admit that it bothers me that some out there believe that the future of cinema will be found through recycling our past.


Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: This is an awesome piece -- one I'm going to have to read a few times. I hardly know where to begin with a reply, but a few points:

Obviously I'm one of the Inglourious Basterds ravers. But, as I assume you know from the first part of my conversation with Ed Howard, I'm hardly a Tarantino Kool-Aid-drinking fanboy (not that you implied such). So all through your piece I found myself nodding in agreement many places, and yet I do feel like Basterds is a different film, a richer one, a more successful and moving (yes, even moving) application of the same familiar tricks. Having said that, I do find it hard to put the "why" into words to some degree; but I trust my feeling, which hasn't evaporated any over three viewings.

As I said pre-Basterds, and I still believe it, Tarantino is showing us his soul. The difference is that his soul is tied to the movies. That's the extent of who he is, for better or worse. I believe that. So while I can see why you'd want him to create something deeper, I've come around to thinking that it's unfair of us to suggest that Tarantino doesn't bare his soul just because it's made out of celluloid.

On the more meta issue of sampling: I wonder if we've reached a stage in which there's very little actual originality to be had. I can see why someone who has suffered next to film-school mimics would see QT as just a more accomplished version of those copycat wannabes. But at the same time I feel like Tarantino sometimes gets criticized for jumping into Sergio Leone's car when all the other filmmakers around him are using other cars. Thus, in other words, why should we demand that Tarantino reinvent the wheel if no one else is up to it?

Further, I disagree with the notion that QT's movies work best for those who can spot his allusions. Yes, many QT fans (including me) have geeked out a time or two upon spotting such references. But let's not overlook that the first 'problem' with QT was the legion of fans he won with Pulp Fiction who were naive enough to think that Tarantino was a wild original. I have no hard evidence to back this up, but my experience is that Pulp Fiction's core group of initial fans were those who couldn't spot the allusions.

That's important because while I agree with a great many of your arguments, I've also come around to thinking that Tarantino quotes scenes because he knows how they work -- and that they can work for a knowing audience and an ignorant audience is the sign of some kind of achievement. In other words, he uses Leone's hammer and nail where he needs it and De Palma's glue where he needs that. He's just blatant about it.

I still have many QT problems. Many. Basterds did nothing for me to suggest that he's reformed in some way and will never go back to some of his more empty habits. But Basterds marks the time that his scavenger efforts produced something that feels old and new in unison. It's the first time I've really "fallen" for a QT picture.

I'm not trying to convince you here, just like you're not trying to lead a mob against Tarantino. I think this is a thoughtful, measured and well-argued analysis, and I'm grateful for reading it. In a way, this is the kind of piece I expected to write after seeing Basterds. But, much to my surprise, I found something more.

Craig said...

Wow. This is tremendous, Steven. I can't possibly respond to everything in one sitting, so I hope you'll forgive me if I'm initially reductive to one or two points.

Like we've discussed before, Tarantino is a filmmaker I struggle with, maybe more than any other. When I think back on a film like "Inglourious Basterds," part of my thought is how I wouldn't make the movie the way he does. I'd deepen Shosanna's character, like you suggested. I'd show more of the mise-en-scene. That's the way I would do it. But then I think that that's too obvious, and Tarantino doesn't do the obvious. He does what interests him. And he achieves what any great artist is able to do: he gets me interested in what interests him.

How does he accomplish this in "Inglourious Basterds"? I think I figured it out on the second viewing, and it ties into the role of war movies in American culture. I'm not a big fan of war movies: the jingoism, the self-seriousness, the high-handed use of violence as a dirty means to a noble end. You can see these elements back in John Wayne's films, and you can see it as recently as "Saving Private Ryan." There are good war movies, of course. But nearly all on some level bother me as a means to celebrate war.

This is where Tarantino's sampling comes in. I know you disagree (as do others), and I respect that, but I think there's more to the method than Tarantino simply saying he's a fan of Leone or anyone else. Because if it were truly knee-jerk fanboyism, I think Tarantino would simply sample from other war films and be done with it. (He does sample Aldrich; more on that in a moment.) What does he do instead? He riffs on Leone. On Spaghetti Westerns. On John Ford's "The Searchers." And by blending one genre with the other, he effectively rejects the high-handed moralizing of "Private Ryan" and other like films. He's saying that war is like a Leone western in that violence is a dirty business. There's nothing inherently noble about it.

Is Tarantino consciously making a statement? I've no idea. But the role of genre in his movies, which Ed Howard persuasively argued, is such a constant that I don't think it's a coincidence. Nor does it seem coincidental that pretty much the only war movie echoed by "Inglourious Basterds" (other than, of course, "Inglorious Bastards") is "The Dirty Dozen." But Aldrich's picture, essentially a B-movie potboiler, is one of the few that gets down and dirty about the nature of combat and doesn't come up smelling like a rose.

Your thoughts about the past and future of cinema, and what Tarantino means to these things, are another matter, and too complex for me to grapple with at the moment. I had a similar reaction to Boone's piece, where he seems to be arguing for a return to formalism as the solution. Whereas you seem to be arguing (with equal validity) for new ideas and approaches. My gut reaction is each artist needs to be considered individually, that Paul Greengrass or Chris Nolan shouldn't be lumped in with the ADD directors any more than Tarantino can be easily pigeonholed with the cinephiliacs. I think he is an original, though. And by sampling like he does -- in a subversive and sophisticated, rather than purely random way -- I think he is challenging how we think about genre conventions and how movies shape our understanding of things apart from our own experiences.

Craig said...

Thought of a couple more things:

1. The piece of Morricone that kicks off Chapter One of "Basterds" includes a repeated riff from Mozart. How is that form of sampling different/better than what Tarantino does? Don't all artists do it in varying degrees, and isn't it better to be up front about it, as Morricone and Tarantino do?

2. You wrote that the WWII/Jewish angle gives the movie unearned credibility. I see it as the first movie in ages to even remotely address those themes that's not using them as glorified Oscar-bait. "Basterds" may end up being one of the 10, though I think its actors (Waltz, Kruger, Laurent) stand a better chance of being recognized. In any case, Tarantino's dispensing with all pretense on these topics, and I see that as a good thing.

3. The question of going to the tavern was brought up by Raine, I believe, in the scene prior, who warns of the dangers of "fightin' in a basement." In any case, they weren't expecting any Nazis there, so I just went with it like they did. As for Shosanna owning a cinema, I don't recall that plot point in too many other movies, so I just went with that as well.

4. Regarding your last question again, on "recycling the past." In my view, a corporate entity like Pixar is much more of a problem there. They hide the same tired plots, ideas and even emotions behind a veil of first-rate animation, and on top of that have attained a Classical Era Disney level of bullying toward the precious few critics who call them on it. The second half of "Wall-E" was pure dreck (a "2001" gag - never seen that before!), but you wouldn't know it from the reviews. I think that's a bigger threat than a divisive, singular artist like Tarantino.

I hope it's clear I think this is a great post, Steven. You're making me work a hell of a lot harder.

Steven Santos said...

Jason & Craig - Thanks for the kind and intelligent responses to the piece, considering I respected both of your opinions regarding the film. I went back and forth about writing it, as I didn't simply want to write a contrarian piece burning down the theater with all the critics inside. Although my criticisms are harsh, as with all Tarantino movies, his talent ensures there will be things I still enjoy about the film even if the film lacked depth for me. However, when I began to focus on cinema sampling, it raised issues that are beyond Tarantino and his film while hopefully providing a stronger counterargument to the film than I've read so far.

First, let me address some of Jason's comments-

I do agree with you that Tarantino is showing us that his soul is movies and that perhaps that is the best way to approach his work. I think all of us can actually relate to that. The issue I have with this is that it's almost the equivalent of only watching films that reaffirm your political or artistic or even religious beliefs. Basically, I already pray at the church of Sergio Leone, so I don't need Tarantino to preach to me he exists.

Does Tarantino get a bad rap while other filmmakers get off the hook for their sampling? Possibly. Michael Bay (Sure he's an easy target but what the hell?), rips off shamelessly from Spielberg, both Scott brothers and probably watches a montage of all the macho moments from "The Right Stuff" every day. But no one confuses Bay or most hack directors like him, McG or Roland Emmerich with being serious.

I think it is about the degree to which those influences show and how they are filtered. Directors like Scorsese, Spielberg or Almodovar are up front with their samplings but, for the most part, you see these samplings filtered through their imagination so well that they come out as something fresh onscreen and the thoughts of their sampling become an afterthought.

The problem with "Basterds" is that I never felt Tarantino's sampling was filtered through anything beyond appreciation. His sampling is text instead of subtext. If he was commenting on genre like Robert Altman did with films like "The Long Goodbye" or "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", I could get into it more. But Tarantino's images in this film felt hollow.

Although I consider someone like Brian DePalma to be wildly inconsistent, his good and even not so good sampling are filtered through his fevered imagination for better or worse. I think Tarantino's skills as a director are somewhat limited and his appropriation of images does not get out of fan mode which, for me, lacks a point of view. Even if Tarantino's purpose is to make movies about movies, I still never get what makes him tick. I thought "Jackie Brown" did reveal that in many ways, but Tarantino has recently said that he doesn't feel that movie is completely his, as much as it's a collaboration between himself and Elmore Leonard.

Steven Santos said...

Craig -

First, I want to address this:

"And by blending one genre with the other, he effectively rejects the high-handed moralizing of "Private Ryan" and other like films. He's saying that war is like a Leone western in that violence is a dirty business."

This certainly crossed my mind, but I think Tarantino as a director has issues portraying violence that negates this somewhat. I think he has a difficult time reconciling portraying realistic violence without revealing his thirst for blood (a problem with many directors). Sometimes, he's successful at it (Landa choking von Hammersmark) and other times, it turns into a bullet show like the tavern sequence. Because his characters are underwritten and their deaths feel more like punchlines than tragic absurdities (which the Coen brothers excel at), I felt nothing. I actually think "Private Ryan" gets a bad rap for moralizing (that film would play better without the heavy-handed framing device), but the one thing I can't fault Spielberg on is giving death its proper weight. I truly felt the horror of violence in "Private Ryan" for even soldiers we never get to meet who are killed instantly. I shrugged off most of the deaths in "Basterds" because I feel Tarantino was more excited about staging violence than having anything to say about it. Leone has both extremes running through his violence scenes, the elation of staging an operatic shootout and the thoughtfulness to acknowledge the human beings holding the guns.

To clarify, my thoughts about Boone's piece are exactly like yours. I think there is room for different directors out there. As I mentioned in my piece, directors will sample until the end of time to varying levels of success, but there is room for all voices whether you like them or not. The problem with his piece that it declares a movement that negates directors like Greengrass and Nolan in favor of Tarantino. It is essentially an example of misguided ideology to suggest Tarantion's methods are superior at all times rather than acknowledge his methods come with their own set of problems. As I also talked about, I think it is important to have directors to have new ideas and approaches to keep cinema alive. It doesn't mean we negate the methods of the past, as much as I would like to hope we're constantly moving forward in some way.

Steven Santos said...

Craig, as far as your additional thoughts:

1) As I said in response to Jason, there is sampling that works. I can't really comment on Morricone's sampling of Mozart because I didn't recognize it because I probably don't know the Mozart piece. That is actually the admitted fallacy of my argument, as it often depends on how aware you are of the source of inspiration and how much the original means to you. That's why I don't expect anyone to necessarily agree with what I'm saying but can point to examples of other directors where they can understand.

2) The WWII/Jewish credibility thing was more to address Rosenbaum's issues with the movie which I think chose the wrong argument to make. "The Great Escape" is one of my favorite films but I sure as hell don't think it's a realistic depiction of being a POW during WWII. I'm not knocking "Basterds" for being unrealistic, as much as I wanted to reiterate that I wanted to argue the film and not real world issues because I saw the film as a stylized depiction of war filtered through war movies. The thing is that I felt the characters and story should have been more three-dimensional even with the movie operating on that level.

3) I felt the need to bring this up because I felt the scene was reverse-engineered. That Tarantino wanted his Mexican standoff and worked backwards in logic to make it happen. The sequence would have worked better for me if Hickox and the others had no choice to be there. But to pick a place where it was more than possible to run into Nazis just to pass some secret info seemed like something they could have easily avoided. I'm willing to suspend my belief to a point, but for such a central scene in this film, I needed the logic to not have such a glaring hole in it.

4) The funny thing about Pixar is that I keep thinking their latest film won't be much different from their last, but they often still surprise me where they take those characters. I certainly don't think they hide recycled material behind animation, considering I truly believe the characters to feel more three-dimensional and human than most live-action films. In fact, Tarantino's characters like Aldo Raine seem to be inching more toward cartoons. You may feel that the second half of "Wall-E" was dreck, but I believe there is a true point of view. Maybe the 2001 gaga was a little obvious, but it wasn't inserted in there simply to celebrate 2001, but to illustrate how getting off our lazy asses is the first step to being reborn as whole beings again, which I consider a valid idea.

"You're making me work a hell of a lot harder."

Same here. I have no interest in making this post inspire consensus as I hope it inspires others to think as much as the responses inspire me in the same way.

Craig said...

Thanks for your repl(ies), Steven. My beefs with "Private Ryan" and Pixar could and perhaps should occupy separate posts. In the latter's case, it's sort of a Corporate Feel-Goodism (did Armond coin that? How troubling) that rubs me the wrong way. I rarely detect a distinctive voice emerging from all the worker-bees impressive-yet-chilly craftsmanship. (Except for Brad Bird, with whom I have other issues.) It's a feeling that's hard to explain, but something in me resists it.

As for "Ryan," Spielberg does give death its due -- a good thing, considering he enjoys killing people as much as (more than?) Tarantino -- but the weight is slanted entirely to one side. (And, in the case of Miller's death, incredibly contrived.) The Germans are nothing more than vermin in SPR, whereas in IB at least they have some human qualities. I did feel badly for poor Wilhelm's death in that tavern scene, and for Hicox's noble demise and Bridget's leg wound. (The latter actually leads to a real problem I have with Tarantino - his fascination with torture.) Not all the characters are as well-defined: Aldo is indeed a cartoon. But may all cartoons -- including Pixar's -- be so lively.

Anyway, I don't mean to turn this into one of those reductive "A" is better than/less than "B" arguments that is Armond's specialty. All these movies can co-exist fine in my book. I just know which world I prefer to live in for a few hours.

Steven Boone said...

Great piece, Steven. I disagree with about 99.9% of it, but it got me to seriously take stock of my own position, which is what these kinds of articles are supposed to do.

I suspect if I had read the leaked script to Basterds ahead of time, I might have had a less enthusiastic response. Definitely not the outright disdain you have for it, but probably a lot of qualms about its dramatic logic, style-jacking, preciousness, adolescent abandon, etc.

That's sort of what happened when I went to see Kill Bill after reading the mammoth draft posted online. My initial reaction to the script was, "What's all this shit?" It took a gorgeously projected print of Volume 2 to stifle many of my objections.

I went into Basterds cold. Hadn't read anything other than Glenn Kenny's stirring appreciation of it, and studiously avoided the smug, lazy trailer.

What I saw was something far more invested in human beings and history and morality than anything else Tarantino has done (including that divine reveal of Tim Roth blasting away at Mr. Blonde in the nick of time in Reservoir Dogs).

Hell yeah, Tarantino is movie-obsessed. Absolutely, he's wearing blinders. (To paraphrase a recent QT soundbite: "Obama got elected? Who cares? I'm making my movie.") But in Basterds, what he manages to frame in between those blinders says a whole hell of a lot about human nature. The people crowding this bloody fantasia are as vibrant and true as those on display in The Rules of the Game, The Awful Truth, Do the Right Thing and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. (How's that for random?)

Engaging history? Tarantino engages the hell out of it. Even his soundtrack-swipes betray a sophisticated, extra-political understanding of life under occupation. Putting the Battle of Algiers theme over a scene of the Basterds rescuing Hugo Stiglitz tells us that all occupations, all bullying regimes get their comeuppance from passionate resistance movements. Nazis or French colonials or commies or (most subversively for American audiences watching an audience full of civilians get shot in the back) Iraq Invasion troops.

There's so much more going on in this film than Tarantino's quotation quota. But it's his loving quotations that deliver some of his most bracing insights. You say his violence doesn't inspire contemplation. Man, this movie and its meaning have been on my mind for a month. The latest thought bubble: Like Once Upon a Time in the West, Basterds is also a stealth romantic comedy surveying different types of macho men and the way they handle women.

Jason is dead-on: This guy is giving us his soul. It's all there in Stoller, Stiglitz, Raine and Landa, every bit as much as Travis Bickle is Scorsese/Schrader/DeNiro.

Samuel Wilson said...

Steven, I liked Basterds but I appreciate your apprehensions. The "movie movie" aspect of the film hasn't really been a big deal for me. My own take is that it was more than a riff on Leone but an attempt to tell a World War II story in Leone's style, with "good," "bad" and "ugly" characters colliding with each other and revenge having priority over other motivations. I think there's something to be read into the film regarding the juxtaposition of revenge into a war story. Shoshanna never gets revenge on her actual persecutor, Landa, but war entitles her to extend the scope of her vendetta to the entire German leadership. I could go on, but I remain uncertain of how much of this was conscious on Tarantino's part.

I also remain troubled by the most obvious form of Tarantino's sampling, his use of music. I know that when I envision some scenario in my own head, pre-existing music will form my imaginary soundtrack. But I also know that I wouldn't want to lay down that exact soundtrack were I actually filming my scenario. I can't guarantee that the music will mean the same thing to the audience that it does to me, and my choices might alientate as many as are entertained if the former don't "get it." As much as I get a kick out of recognizing some of the music in his films, I can't help but regard Tarantino's use of older film scores as a shortcut or a crutch or, worse, a failure to think his way past that same first impulse I might have or trust a composer to complement his material in an original yet effective way. Tarantino's impulse is equivalent to Leone sampling Dmitri Tiomkin rather than trusting Morricone to enhance the originality of his own approach.

You essay is the most impressive piece of true criticism of Basterds that I've yet read online because you have something more substantial to express than mere visceral outrage. If someone ever thinks of anthologizing the blogosphere debate over this movie, you've earned a prominent part in that book.

Steven Santos said...

I just wanted to let everyone know I appreciate the responses. That this is getting responses with wildly different levels of agreement and disagreement is admittedly exciting. And the responses have been thoughtful and intelligent.

I am sort of limited in time to respond to everything due to my current work schedule, but I encourage anyone to add their thoughts. I'll try to publish them as soon as I can and I will read all of them when I'm at home at night.

billmunny11 said...


1) I think it's unfair to evoke the Puffy version of "I'll Be Missing You" in comparison to Tarantino. I think your Zach Synder is more appropriate in that both are basically tracing a more popular piece, adding the minimal amount and making it there own (btw, I love that song, both versions, so its not a diss.)

What Tarantino's sampling is more akin to is early Public Enemy or any mid-late 80's multiple source sampling (before you had to pay for sampling). Where Tarantino does sample from recognized Classics (Leone, Scorsese) or cult classics (Bruce Lee), he also throws in random references and homages to lesser known works (Linder, Pabst, etc.) To continue the analogy, he's not just taking "I am the Walrus", adding a baseline and spitting over it; he's taking the drums from "Walrus", the guitar from a Cash album cut, the funkline from an obscure disco one hit wonder, and putting them together to make something (insert adjective here).

2) Does he bare he soul? Maybe not, but I think he soul is just filled with film reference.

Maxim de Winter said...

Great, thoughtful piece, which chimes exactly with my own feelings about IB (I sat in the cinema feeling glum, depressed, horrified at times by the glib and pointless charade unfolding in front of me - it was the first film in years I felt like walking out of after forty-five or so minutes). It hurt all the more because I was one of those who once considered Tarantino a saviour. I sat thru two consecutive screenings of Reservoir Dogs. I strained to like Kill Bill Part 2 despite myself. I figured I'd get to like Deathproof better on a second viewing, and still haven't managed to force myself to watch it again... anyway, you've put my thoughts into words, and for that, thanks.