Quentin Tarantno

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Many have said it, many more have employed it in their work. Shakespeare took many of his plays’ plots from popular vocal stories and historical figures, Picasso took from African art styles (allegedly) and Brian De Palma continues to take from Hitchcock (and most everybody else).

But few people borrow/steal with such fervor as Quentin Tarantino – a filmmaker built from films past and little else, most especially film school (which he is gleefully against). His debut Reservoir Dogs takes from everything from Rashomon to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. His masterpiece Pulp Fiction takes from Breathless, and now the man has the power to make makes films that directly pay homage to lost film genres (see his Grindhouse-inspired Death Proof).

His most recent homage, Inglourious Basterds, pays to WWII films and film noir alike, the film centering its conflict around a Parisian movie theater and a young woman named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), the sole survivor after her family’s brutal slaughter at the hands of Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (played by the every-single-scene-stealing Christoph Waltz). Her plan for vengeance eventually bumps square into the Basterds’, a ragtag group of American soldiers determined to scalp every Nazi in Europe – led, of course, by Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt in one of his most awkward performances in a long, long, long long, time (since the Meet Joe Black/The Devil’s Own years).

And what of the Basterds? Or Shosanna for that matter? Who are these characters and why do we care about them? Aldo made moonshine in the American South and most all of the Basterds are Jewish (implying the obvious vendetta against the Nazis), but we hear nothing about any of them aside from a strangely out-of-place flashback concerning the character Hugo Stiglitz.

These characters are, like most Tarantino characters, window dressing to the film at hand, the key word here being FILM. Sure, Shosanna survives her family’s slaughter, but who cares? We never know much of anything about Shosanna, and Laurent is given little to do with the character aside from be scared towards the beginning and strong at the end (that being said, Shoshanna does have one moment of vulnerability at the end that’s rather heartbreaking so, for that, cheers Quentin). Most of the emotions on display are one pitch, that pitch beind loud.

Not tonally loud but rather cinematically loud. Every scene is built to a feverish crescendo and most of the time it is exciting – a credit to Tarantino’s directing abilities. All the players in Basterds are “in” movies – Shosanna runs a cinema, Diane Kruger’s a German movie star, Michael Fassbender’s a film critic and so on and so forth. All of them use their close relationship to cinema to help defeat “zee Germans,” and all the while Tarantino is doing the same. Even Brad Pitt uses his movie star-ness to overplay the overwritten lieutenant. Aldo Raine isn’t in movies per se, but who’s honestly watching Raine and not just seeing Brad Pitt with a silly mustache and jutted jaw. Tarantino knows this and capitilizes (as much as he can) on the star power.

After all, all of Tarantino’s movies are about performance, movie-to-movie pop culture adaptation of the oft-quoted line from Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage.” Whether the stage is Jackrabbit Slim’s or a forest in German-occupied France, Tarantino is constantly performing for an audience; an audience which continues to grow. Basterds is some of the most successful property Tarantino’s stolen in some time; potentially the most successful if it can hold on and out-gross Pulp Fiction.

Thankfully, this is not theft for theft’s sake, which is what Death Proof feels like up until the near-brilliant final car chase sequence. Tarantino has taken from the best for Basterds and, in turn, delivered some pretty good stuff to chew on. Consider the opening scene of the film, which is  by far its best and most powerful scene. Or the slow burning “bar in a basement” scene, which ends (SPOILER ALERT) in a shootout that feels more like a heart attack thanks to amount of time Tarantino devotes to his characters NOT firing their weapons.In these scenes the camera moves deliberately, dictating where the action is rather than the other way around.

Sure, the writing can be cut down and refined and all of that jazz, but it’s a Taratino film and it won’t be so why complain? This writer has no problem (the pretentious Death Proof and select scenes from the Kill Bills aside) listening to Tarantinian talk for a few more minutes than necessary. God knows Tarantino could (and probably does) listen to it all day.

This is all well and good. Tarantino still makes good films and Basterds is quite near a return to form, certainly his best film since Jackie Brown.

But should we not want more from this cat burglar among petty purse snatchers? The art of the personalized homage is all over the place this year, and in films better than Basterds (Duncan Jones Moon, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9), meaning the competition is out there and bringing their A-game.

What would a Tarantino film look like without the filmic pretense? Say a film in which Jules Winnfield, Sam Jackson’s character from Pulp Fiction, struggles to break free from the world of crime he promised to abandon? A character with a backstory to invest in, something like an extended version of the brilliant Christopher Walken speech to young Butch about is father’s gold watch, for example. Characterization like that is sorely missing in most of what Tarantino offers.

Until then, keep the homages coming, Mr. Tarantino. It keeps the promise of perhaps something more.

What do you think of Tarantino’s legacy? Of Basterds within said legacy?

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