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.