Inglourious Basterds, Dir. Quentin Tarantino; Passing Strange, Dir. Spike Lee,
It’s my fate to see Tarantino premieres in the boondocks. On the Friday night of Jackie Brown’s national release, I sat in the back row of a mall megaplex in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. Before me, four hundred blonde heads gaped up at the screen in earnest, confused credulity. They seemed to take Jackie Brown for a documentary. An upbringing in urban Utah apparently provides a poor grounding for understanding Tarantino’s sense of narrative or humor. Every time I laughed, half the theatre turned around to stare at me suspiciously, as if I were that loon at the end of the subway car cackling to himself for no reason.
I saw Inglourious Basterds at a matinee at the Dawsonville 400, which, sadly, despite its name, does not offer four hundred screens; the theater’s located in a Waffle House-dotted redneck exurbia along GA Highway 400, up the road from an outlet mall built on a scale of delirium. It was a sunny Friday afternoon and the theater was, like so many public places in rural north Georgia, packed with fat white people. They took audible satisfaction—quiet sighs of contentment—from the smooth Nazi villain’s worst remarks about Jews. These elicited as many nods of complacent recognition as did the old-school bloodletting. As long as machine guns were firing, the fat white folks could take the film as a WWII actioner. When Jew-wielded baseball bats began bashing Nazi brains, the crowd murmured in discontent; the universe was upside down. I expect audiences had the opposite response in NYC, with the crowd tensing at every anti-Semitism and nodding with a connoisseur’s delight at every moment of gleeful deranged violence.
However the two audiences might respond—to utterances heard in no other forum than Tarantino films and to violence that appears nowhere else—what they are responding to are no longer moments of cultural undermining or illuminating boundary-pushing. They are simply Tarantino tropes. It’s what he do. He’s always done it, and if in 1992 slicing off a cop’s ear was transgressive, then maiming Nazis in 2009 merely maintains the brand. Basterds is Tarantino’s first film that is in no way groundbreaking. It’s a collection of his habits: weird pacing, endless dialogue shot like the fate of the world depended on each syllable, brief bursts of stellar violence choreographed with originality, vast amounts of time spent on plot adjuncts that end pointlessly, a great, bemused directorial confidence and a constant knowing wink at the audience.
Even though the film’s ordinariness—by Tarantino standards—proves disappointing, you still smile all the way through. Just as Tarantino’s sense of the transgressive remains stuck at the pre-bar mitzvah level (“My Walther is aimed directly at your testicles.” “Well, old boy, my pistol is aimed right at your testicles.”), his sense of joy, of the pure thrill of making movies, is equally pre-adolescent, as if QT himself can’t believe he’s allowed to do what he does. Either you like it as much as him, or there’s little point in buying a ticket. It’s rare to find a director whose love of the craft is so palpable, so charming.
The same cannot be said for Spike Lee. He’s so damn dour, so desperate to convince us of both his street cred and his gravitas. That’s a tough assignment, and Lee seems to fulfill it by never having any fun. I can’t think of a moment in any Lee film since Do the Right Thing that radiates or transmits joy or charm. There’s always some obvious lesson Spike wants to teach, or some lugubrious social point that only he properly understands. And Lee’s going to assert the superiority of his moral vision over all narrative or visual considerations.
Of course, Lee’s in a much different career position than Tarantino. QT’s an original—if limited—thinker, a visionary pastichist and a natural cinematician. Lee’s a hack. He edits with a sledge hammer, signposts every emotional moment and, as Norman Mailer said of Tom Wolfe, has yet to create a convincing woman. Every woman in a Spike Lee, uh, joint, is either a righteous mother presented with a sentimentality that would make Scorsese blush or a redhot mama lust object, usually with enormous breasts pushed up under her chin and big doe eyes. Lee did not create the characters in his new documentary of the stage play Passing Strange, but his joyless, charmless insistence on his own preeminence takes over, and wrecks the film.
Strange chronicles the youthful rebellious escape to Europe from LA of its co-creator and narrator, Stew. The play attempts to use rock forms—a two-guitars-bass-drums-and—keyboard band—and cleverish songwriting to deliver a supposedly subversive version of a Broadway musical. Since I never saw the play, I really can’t tell whether its screechiness and slowly winding down from great promise in the first act to disappointing vagueness at the climax stems more from the original material or Lee’s presentation.
Things commence with great energy on a bare stage, and for a few hopeful moments it appeared that Strange would take as its model that postmodern masterpiece of capturing a stage show, Jonathan Demme’s documentary of the Talking Heads in concert, Stop Making Sense. In Sense Demme made a point of letting us know he was filming, and he scaled the cinema to the action, as all great directors must. When David Byrne opened the show solo with his acoustic guitar, Demme shot him simply, capturing Bryne alone against the immensity of the empty stage and the crowded auditorium. As the band members grew in number and the songs in complexity, Demme brought in more cameras, and camera movement that matched the songs.
Lee shows no such flexibility or understanding of his material. He starts off with one style and clings to it throughout. That style is all medium shots intercut with relentless, wearying closeups. No one seems to have told Lee that the play takes place in a theater, and that an occasional wide shot of the entire stage might bring the powerfully minimal staging to life. Lee’s happier asserting directorial authority than understanding the nature of the play. Thus our perception of the show must filter through his.
Lee seems unaware that an endless full-screen close-up of a Broadway actor singing at the top of his/her lungs with his/her quivering mouth wide open and the camera acting as his/her dentist might lessen rather than increase the dramatic impact of the song. At one moment late in the first act, the stage backdrop explodes—from floor to ceiling—into a pulsating rainbow of brightly colored lights. Taken from the middle of the theater, say, that sudden burst must have illuminated the various players on the bare stage and the story itself, and suggested the transcendence Stew felt at a certain change in his life. But Lee almost refuses to acknowledge the complete alteration of the stage environment. He keeps to his regimen of closeups. We observe the lights—the dominant motif of that moment—as a glimpsed afterthought.
Lee has the opposite problem of Kenneth Branagh. That great stage actor never understood how stage was not cinema, and shot all his Shakespeare films as if the camera were a proscenium. Lee fears that if he let the play stand on its own, we would not understand his contribution to the enterprise. In other words, the dude cannot understate. And that overstatement springs from the sole aspect he shares with Tarantino: literal-mindedness.
Neither Lee nor QT are much when it comes to metaphor. Tarantino’s never trafficked in such before, and Lee has always been about the most direct presentation of an “idea” possible. So his diminishing of the play in favor of his inferior vision is no surprise. The one shock, which comes at the end of Basterds, is that Tarantino seems to have discovered metaphor at last.
When Jews with machine guns stand over a theatre full of Nazis and gun them down en masse, QT’s giving us a powerful vision of ethnic cleansing, only through a reverse of history’s telescope. When a triumphant Jew empties a full clip into a squirming, wounded Hitler, blasting his face into goo, Tarantino actually creates a symbol. A symbol of his own rage at tyranny, of ours, of our longing for revenge against history and of the likely satisfactions inherent. In other theaters, those in New York City maybe, the crowds might have reacted with shrieks and wild applause. In north Georgia, they nodded thoughtfully.
As the crowd filed out of the Dawsonville 400, one fat white person said to another: “The war as we would have liked it to end.” The other replied: “Maybe.”
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.