Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction took cinema and the culture at large by such storm in 1994 that people weren’t sure what to make of it in its wake. The film was so ineffably there, so alive, so self-satisfied and confident in its own powers, that it almost seemed to defy explanation—it emerged in the right place at the right time, and it coasted on thrills endemic only to its medium: in narrative, dialogue, character, performance, and photography it felt complete, sustained, and monolithic, even as it referenced a bunch of things that its unintended core audience—impressionable teenagers on the cusp of being cultural tastemakers—had little knowledge of. The impact of Pulp Fiction was palpable, but of course the aftereffect of any immediate and swift sensation is the questioning of its purpose and meaning. Did the film resonate beyond its intimidating surface pleasures? Tarantino’s breakthrough seemed then (as it does now) a shocking mix of the puerile and the sophisticated, a game being played with the audience that respected them as much as it gleefully toyed with their feelings and expectations. Digging deeper—to justify the profound emotional response it elicited—one would always return to the same question: If there’s a true philosophy providing the backbone to the film, is it one purely of cinema or of life? Then the confounding follow-up: But what’s the difference, especially to a devoted, maniacal cinephile such as Tarantino, for whom life is defined by cinema?
At the time, we only had the Bible-quoting hit man Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) as evidence—his ultimate disavowal of “the life” at Pulp Fiction’s trick non-ending seemed a fairly apt demonstration of man’s (and therefore a filmmaker’s) capacity to reject violence and find inner nourishment. Now, in 2009, we have five more Tarantino films to help us make sense of him, yet the same questions remain. What should not be ambiguous anymore, however, as we view Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume One and Two, and Death Proof from the rear view mirror, is that Tarantino is indeed a deeply philosophical filmmaker—however it’s become increasingly clear that philosophy manifests as more analytical than moral. He is too aware of his legacy (to a fault, one gleans from interviews) to devote his considerable craftsmanship to what could be perceived as negligible entertainments, so he builds mythos around his characters and scenarios as much as he does around himself (remember “the fourth film from Quentin Tarantino” credit that opened Kill Bill Vol. One with a literal bang?), and he always sprinkles enough highbrow bread crumbs—film historical references, complex narrative parallels, sophisticated camerawork—for the critics to find their way back from the leveling, crowd-pleasing action spectacles he deploys with aplomb. For Tarantino is himself a film critic, yet the screen is his text, and his area of study is the ignominious genre film. His clearest example of this is Death Proof (the refreshing half of the lopsided Grindhouse flop venture), his 2007 deconstructed cine-essay on the rape-revenge movie, which both utilized and inverted that subgenre’s syntax.
Tarantino is after something similar with his new one, Inglourious Basterds, a long-in-gestation World War II saga that, like Death Proof, aims to constantly comment on its own construction even as it provides satisfying, intricate mass entertainment. However, whereas Death Proof could have been easily dismissed as a nasty nugget and an introverted experiment, Inglourious Basterds, which evokes historical atrocities and includes a handful of real-life figures as characters, opens a fresh can of worms for Tarantino. Even if Tarantino is here clearly excavating that most disreputable of genres, the Nazi exploitation film—which could be said to include everything from The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen; to The Damned, The Night Porter, and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, to even Raiders of the Lost Ark—Basterds can’t help but bring questions of Tarantino’s artistic philosophy roaring back.
Click here to read all of Michael Koresky’s review of Inglourious Basterds.