Vainglourious Tarantino

Tributes and take-downs: critics fall on "Inglourious Basterds" like scruffy mongrels on a twenty-pound sirloin

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One can only imagine the newsroom fracas as critics brawled over coverage rights to the professional Rapture that is Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Not that the critical pileup been limited to industry specialists; the Atlantic's own Jeffrey Goldberg has explored the film's reaction among Jews, while the Wall Street Journal featured an editorial on "the problem of revenge," an unavoidable theme in a story about a crusading band of Jewish combatants, tasked with matching Nazi brutality, blow for pornographically-documented blow. Realizing that some readers might want a mere summary of the debate--or, heaven forfend, an opinion on whether or not actually to see the movie--the Atlantic Wire has waded through the editorial-artistic carnage to find some of the most thought-provoking and entertaining responses:

  • Exhilarating and Only Occasionally Exasperating, decided Christopher Orr of The New Republic. Orr was one of the few to accord Tarantino, overall, a measure of approval. "There is a great deal to like here," he wrote, "from the strong roles afforded to women [...] to the exceptional set design and a meticulous eye for detail." These strengths, however, weren't swoon-worthy, it seems: "'Inglourious Basterds [...] is still, in some fundamental sense, less movie than 'movie.'"
  • Exhilarating? It's Endless!  The New York Times's Manohla Dargis was unenchanted with the movie's length, calling the experience "interminable." Identifying "filmmaking" as the movie's chief concern, she delivered a low grade to Tarantino, who she said has "turned into a bad editor of his own material." Her high marks went to Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, though his captivating portrayal of the Nazi colonel led her to some thoughtful musings on the central controversy of the piece:
Mr. Tarantino’s Nazis exist in an insistently fictional cinematic space where heroes and villains converge amid a welter of movie allusions. [...] Mr. Tarantino is really only serious about his own films, not history. In that sense “Inglourious Basterds” [...] is simply another testament to his movie love. The problem is that by making the star attraction of his latest film a most delightful Nazi, one whose smooth talk is as lovingly presented as his murderous violence, Mr. Tarantino has polluted that love.
  • No, Exhilarating ... And Endless ... And Nauseating  "'Inglourious Basterds' is not boring," declared the New Yorker's David Denby, determined to continue the magazine's tradition of stylistically breathtaking take-downs, "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. Not that Tarantino intends any malice toward such earnest people," he continued. "The Nazis, for him, are merely available movie tropes--articulate monsters with a talent for Sadism." Attacking Tarantino's talent for entertainment and provocation without "moral accountability," Denby delivered a paragraph of pure gold:
Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque. “Inglourious Basterds” is a hundred and fifty-two minutes long, but Tarantino’s fans will wait for the director’s cut, which no doubt shows Shirley Temple arriving at Treblinka with the Glenn Miller band and performing a special rendition of “Baby Take a Bow,” from the immortal 1934 movie of the same name, before she fetchingly leads the S.S. guards to the gas chamber.
  • Points for Military Strategy, added the Washington Post's Ann Homaday, affirming other critics' impatience with the endless references: "If only the Allies had had Tarantino on their side; he could have made Hitler's head explode." Her reasoning? "'Inglourious Basterds' often feels like a windy tutorial in prewar German cinema history, broken up by the odd firefight or brutal murder." It also, apparently, despite its richness in "action and metaphor," feels "trivial, the work of a kid who can't stop grabbing his favorite shiny plaything."
  • Europeans React  Richard Brody, another New Yorker writer, covered some European reactions to the film, quoting a withering response from Libération's Philippe Azoury: watching Inglourious Basterds is like "being plunged cold into the brain of a total nut who knows exactly which shelf he put the VHS tape of who-knows-what junk on but can’t quite remember whether Hitler really existed or whether he was invented by Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator.'" Brody also contributed his own thoughts: "That his film becomes a sort of litmus test is indicative of its main, indeed its sole, virtue: though Tarantino is in water far too deep for him, the questions his film raises, and which he himself answers unsatisfyingly, are real ones [...] but nobody less intrepid, or, perhaps, less shameless, than Tarantino would have dared to raise them in a commercial feature."

That leaves us with Jeffrey Goldberg's investigation of Jewish feelings on the movie. "When I came out of the screening room," he acknowledged, "I was so hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank--and possibly the East Bank." But ultimately Goldberg and the film critics seem to have come to the same conclusion: "Inglourious Basterds is the first Tarantino movie to reference real historical events. Which might be why I find his anti-Nazi excesses--there’s a concept--disconcerting"

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