Quentin Tarantino loves cinema. If anyone ever doubted that, fifteen minutes of Inglourious Basterds should put that doubt to rest.Also, Quention Tarantino knows cinema. He knows its history, he knows films, he knows how to construct a scene, how to film it, how to make it work. As I’ve argued before, he is in control of his material like few other directors.
He may also just be the most radical of the big-name film makers working in Hollywood today.
Now, “radical” does not mean “independent” – or, more aptly, “indie”. The current indie film scene in the US, while gems keep coming out of it, is disappointingly generic, with quirky comedies about geeky weirdoes we’re supposed to love having become as predictable and stale as mainstream romantic comedies. What makes Quentin Tarantino radical is he doesn’t pander to his audiences. In the end, he makes films entirely for himself. If the audience enjoys them, all the better, if not, well, fuck them.
Which may go some way towards explaining why Tarantino is one of the filmmakers who is either loved or hated. If you don’t like what he’s doing, his films will grate like mad. There are no compromises for a broad audience. Tarantino is a lucky bastard (or “basterd”) who can be indifferent to what test audiences may say about his films. (Actually, I’d be curious as to what test audiences would make of his movies.)
One of the things that is most striking about Inglourious Basterds is how little the Basterds are actually in the movie, and how, in the end, they are not the heroes of the film. That honour goes to Shosanna Dreyfus, played to perfection by Mélanie Laurent. The Basterds themselves are pretty much a team of goons and thugs, a bunch of self-admitted terrorists, and they are only seen as the good guys because they go after Nazis (or “Nat-zees!”, as Brad Pitt insists with over-the-top relish), perhaps the easiest target in cinematic history.
And that’s where the second intriguing thing comes in: while the Basterds remain cartoony and one-dimensional, Tarantino takes a number of “Nat-zees” and humanises them. He doesn’t make them into the good Nazi, they’re not Germans with hearts of gold who happened to end up, against their will, wearing Wehrmacht uniforms – but they become human beings. While the surface of the film is all about Our Heroes wreaking terrible, deserved revenge on the Hun, the subtext – which may even be more prevalent than the text – is much more ambivalent.
And that’s what may be most radical about Tarantino: he’s managed to fool a large part of critics and audiences into thinking he’s a B-movie geek with an affinity for trash and violence, when his films are intricatedly crafted, wittily written, much more complex (and much less violent) than they’re given credit for. Many people have watched his films and seen only slickly made trash. He’s been hiding with incredible success that he’s that most elusive of cinematic beasts: an auteur. God bless his narcissistic, self-centred, infuriatingly post-modern little heart – and may he make many more films!