[27 August 2009]
In 1981, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came together to produce my favorite film of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film takes place during World War II. Its heavies are Nazis and their collaborators. The plot revolves around the Nazi’s discovery of the Ark of the Covenant. The film states that Hitler was a nut about the occult.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a non-stop rollercoaster ride. It’s also a complete fantasy. Hitler never organized archaeological digs. All the Nazis in the film are depicted to a cartoonish degree.
David Denby, at the time the film critic for New York magazine, wrote: ‘Synthesizing [Raiders of the Lost Ark] out of trashy pop elements—occult and religious mumbo jumbo, cursed tombs, buried temples, cardboard Nazis—[Spielberg] has produced a work that is like a thirties serial, only grander, funnier, and blessedly free of interruptions…’
Last week I saw the release of Quentin Tarantino’s World War II alternate history, Inglourious Basterds. The film’s heavies are Nazis. The plot revolves around the exploits of a secret United States Army platoon charged with killing as many Nazis as possible. The end of the film finds the Basterds sharing theater space with Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann, and der Führer himself.
Inglorious Basterds is a non-stop rollercoaster ride. It is also complete fantasy. The German high command would never come together at such a public event. All the Nazis in the film are depicted to a cartoonish degree.
Denby wrote this in his review of Inglourious Basterds for The New Yorker: “Inglourious Basterds” is not boring, but it’s ridiculous and appallingly insensitive—a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war, or the Resistance seriously.’
What gives? If we throw out the possibility that the Denby who wrote for New York magazine in 1981 is not the same critic at The New Yorker today, how could two films which muck with the same tragic moment of history compel such divergent opinions?
One word: snobbery.
Tarantino drives critics nuts because he loves movies. Not films, movies. He loves the highbrow, art house canon. He loves lowbrow, grindhouse fodder. His films liberally mix conventions from both, plus comic books, cartoons, and any and all pop detritus which washes up on the shores of his self-conscious. The man has no filter. And therein lays his brilliance.
A brilliance scoffed at by the Denbys of the world. The Denbys of the world sneer at the bright colors, the false allures of our oversaturated modern media. They’d rather artists lead a hermetic existence, develop their films from intense personal examination and devote countless hours absorbing the lessons of the old masters. Not to appropriate these masters, no. Only to celebrate them, celebrate the glory of film.
Denby claims that with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has ‘pulled the film-archive door shut behind him—there’s hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside the cinema except as the basis of a nutbrain fable.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything in the outside world exists in Tarantino’s world. David Bowie makes an appearance. The block lettering from ‘70’s B-movies shoots out of the screen. Samuel Jackson narrates. All of these touches reflect Tarantino’s generation. They not only represent him. No, they entertain and amuse because they represent us.
Denby also takes issue with the violence in Inglourious Basterds. Really? World War II was without a doubt the most violent cataclysm to ever shake the globe. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg never missed the opportunity to literally splatter the viewer with blood and guts. Denby’s reaction:
‘Before you have watched more than a few minutes of this—and the sequence goes on for perhaps twenty minutes in all—you know that it is one of the greatest, most appalling things ever done in movies. Not just the violence, but the strangeness of it, is overwhelming. In literature, Homer and Tolstoy have attained a comparable cruel magnificence, but there are things here that literature cannot do—a sense of the simultaneity of many little dramas within the struggle to claim the beach; complex shifts of expectation and emotion that occur in just a second or two; and, in every shot, a blood-pounding rage, senses straining to the utmost, which brings men close to extinction and ecstasy at the same time.’
So the man’s not squeamish. Scalps are taken in Inglourious Basterds. People are beaten with a bat—seen from a distance. But there is nothing in Tarantino’s film which even begins to compare with Spielberg’s World War II snuff film. World War II gave modern man our most intimate knowledge of human cruelty. Anything you can imagine was not only done, but done with a mechanized, merciless methodology. How can you knock Tarantino’s over-the-top gore when the historic reality is itself so incomprehensible?
In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg wants us to remember how brave, how constant in the face of imminent death the American soldier remained. Tarantino wants none of that. Heck, we know World War II no picnic. But it also does not need to be treated with arm’s reach reverence. Tarantino is really doing his version of a Leone western with Inglourious Basterds. Leone’s Westerns had very little to do with the real history of the American West. They were creatures of his imagination.
You can’t tell a true story of the American West without a reference to the genocide of native Americans. Yet Leone only makes vague references to their plight. Leone’s films, like operas, used history as a stage. Why can’t Tarantino use World War II as a stage? If Denby believes that stories of World War II need to be handled in a specific way, then he might at least explain to us how. What does Spielberg know that Tarantino doesn’t?
Let’s return again to our Raiders of the Lost Ark / Inglourious Basterds comparison. What is the most shallow difference between Tarantino and Spielberg? Yes. Spielberg’s Jewish. Tarantino’s not. In Denby’s attack on Inglourious Basterds, I hear a tone very reminiscent of Spike Lee’s anger when Warner Bros. first contracted Norman Jewison to film Malcolm X. How dare some young Gentile director toy with the epic tragedy of World War II! Denby does point out that both Chaplin and Lubitsch joked around with Nazis (he forgets Mel Brooks, which is a grievous error), but Denby grants them a pass because he gets their jokes. Tarantino, on the other hand, is a silly, sophomoric fool.
Political correctness has no home in Tarantino’s films. Hallelujah! The man makes the films he wants to watch—and they are far from perfect. Like all of his films since Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds could use a grown-up’s firm editing. His love affair with his own words borders on the tedious. But the man can write! Finally we get popcorn films unmarred by the assembly line of lazy hacks for hire, clueless studio execs, and careless focus groups. His films have personality. They have flair. We need more Quentin Tarantinos, not less.
Of course, no one has the same taste. I believe the Farrelly brothers are geniuses. My wife can’t stand them. Seems everybody loves Family Guy. I think it’s so-so. Denby has the right to hate Inglourious Basterds. But he writes for The New Yorker, which I love and read religiously. His review negates everything I find enjoyable about Tarantino’s films. Denby just doesn’t get it. And if that’s the case, maybe he shouldn’t review Tarantino films. Let’s hope in the future, Anthony Lane reviews the Tarantino films for The New Yorker.
In the mean time, I extend an open invitation for Mr. Denby to visit me in Chicago. We’ll pick up some comics. We’ll watch some episodes of The Fall Guy and The A-Team. We’ll listen to some Roxy Music. Maybe then Denby will see that all pop garbage is just like his pop garbage. We can end the day with a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hey, at least we can agree on something!