Academy of the Overrated is a column which seeks to reassess highly-praised art and artists through a more critical lens in response to entertainment news.
What do you get when you mix Brad Pitt, Spaghetti Westerns, Nazi-occupied France and B.J. Novak? Apparently you get the upcoming Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds. The trailer for the movie premiered on Entertainment Tonight last Wednesday, and the film promises to be as bloody and profane as Tarantino’s previous works. The film follows Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) and eight Jewish-American soldiers on their mission to terrorize Nazis and collect their scalps.
Tarantino consistently produces quality entertainment. He knows more about the movies than most of us could ever hope, and he has yet to direct a bad film — I would willingly watch Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown any day. However, that does not mean he has made a genuine masterpiece or that he is the 12th greatest director of all time, above Jean Renoir whose work influenced the likes of Citizen Kane director Orson Welles.
Tarantino has somehow emerged as the torchbearer for independent filmmakers, with Pulp Fiction hailed as “the most influential American movie of the 90s” and as a cult classic. He was even the head of the jury for the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, a position indicative of his appeal to movie watchers other than American fan-boys. Yet, he has not proven himself as the movie-making master he is often made out to be.
The greatest filmmakers were all able to experiment and master cinematic technique in order to convey important truths about the world in which we live. For Renoir, the camera was both a paintbrush for the silver screen canvas and a weapon against societal ills. But for Tarantino, it is merely a toy. As much as I admire Tarantino’s work, he often struggles to reconcile his attempts at mature filmmaking with his violent antics and obsession with pop culture. We have yet to see if he is capable of delivering a great film with a sense of balance, and Inglourious Basterds does not look to be that film.
The 1994 flick Pulp Fiction was produced by Tarantino’s production company, A Band Apart, named after the 1964 Jean-Luc Godard film, a film which influenced Tarantino’s style with its unconventional, postmodern approach to filmmaking. However, naming the production company after Godard’s film was an unfortunate move for two main reasons. First of all, what I am sure was meant as a compliment was shot down by Godard, who said of the homage, “He’d have done better to give me some money.” Secondly, it inevitably leads to comparisons to Godard, an all-time master of the cinema.
On the surface, Godard and Tarantino have a surprising amount in common. They both include frequent references to pop culture in their work, and their films are characterized by self-reflexivity and unconventional structures. However, the differences cut much deeper. When Godard used jump cuts and referenced Humphrey Bogart in his 1960 masterpiece Breathless, it was to set up the film as a parable about the death of an American ideal. Godard always has a sense of purpose when he experiments with his films. Tarantino certainly has a great understanding of cinematic aesthetic, yet unlike Godard, he does not effectively employ these skills in order to say something important.
This is not to say he hasn’t made attempts to convey thematic messages. In fact, Pulp Fiction is essentially a collection of moral tales in which lowlife characters experience redemption in the city of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, when Tarantino aspires to having any sort of substance, it often comes off as contrived or forced. Perhaps his cheapest device was Bruce Willis riding away on a motorcycle labeled “Grace” after being forgiven his debts by mob boss Ving Rhames. This cute detail reveals the limited sophistication of Tarantino’s writing, explicitly stating a key thematic element of the film. Either this, or “Grace” is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and Tarantino is simply unable to take on such a subject without smirking at us.
His next work, 1997’s Jackie Brown, was a change for the better. To me, this is Tarantino’s best film because of the level of maturity and character development. However, this film was not as well-received as Pulp Fiction, and I believe this is largely because it is simply not as memorable or refreshingly bold. For all its flaws, the 1994 film did have the Royale with Cheese, the Wolf and, of course, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin. For Tarantino, there is an apparent tradeoff between his ability to entertain audiences and the development of story and characters.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times said Jackie Brown “isn’t sharp enough to afford all the time it wastes on small talk, long drives, trips to the mall and favorite songs played on car radios.” While I personally felt these elements worked in this particular film, Maslin hints at a larger problem: Tarantino’s apparent inability to restrain himself. In Death Proof, the far superior half of the double feature Grindhouse, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and Zoe Bell simply sat around a table and talked for an extended period of time about pop culture and sex, showing off Tarantino’s dialogue-writing skills. It is apparent he has a gift for writing natural-sounding dialogue. Yet as Tarantino’s pop culture-saturated style has become so familiar to audiences, it borders on self-parody in the movie when the conversation continues on and on for far too long. After all, audiences can sit through diversions about obscure B films for only so long.
Tarantino is tackling heavier subject material with Inglourious Basterds, so he might be forced once again to say something “important” in what appears to be a high-energy, bloodthirsty event. We understood long ago that the feature film follow-up to Kill Bill was going to be an indication of whether or not Tarantino is mature enough to be named as one of the greats as he so often is, but judging by the Inglourious Basterds trailer, it look like this is not the case. I will probably watch it on opening night, and I will probably end up choosing one film from my complete Tarantino DVD collection to watch with friends beforehand just for fun. He knows how to entertain, but he lacks the versatility and maturity to be considered a true master.