Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Proof/Death Basterds

As those of you who read this blog regularly (or anyone who has the capacity to look slightly to the left) will know, yesterday I saw Inglourious Basterds, the latest film about Quentin Tarantino. With the sort of synchronicity that so often befalls in life, I saw the film almost two years to the day after I wrote this long but not too bad article for [sadly now defunct website], which I re-read to see what I had written about his career up to that point.

Apart from my pleasant surprise at seeing how good it is (aside from a few dalliances with grand sweeping statements, a pet hate of mine since it runs the risk of rendering the writing pompous and amateurish, though I think I get away with it), the biggest shock to me was how positive I was about Death Proof, Tarantino's half of the Grindhouse project. This surprises me because, in the subsequent two years, I have become quite hardline, regarding it as a sign of a director of great talent sliding inexorably into a regressive state of creative adolescence and obsolescence. Looking at my article then, I realised that much of what I wrote about Death Proof echoes what I wrote about Inglourious Basterds, and I began to wonder why I turned so strongly against Death Proof, and whether or not, by the time that Tarantino's next film comes out, I will regard it with the sort of barely suppressed contempt that I currently reserve for Death Proof.

Why do I dislike Death Proof so much?

Well, it's at least partly the result of discussions I have had about the film with people who like the film. Being somewhat on the fence about it when it was released, I was always in the centre of the arguments surrounding the film, and the more I encountered people who defended the film, the more I found to dislike in it. It's like an allergic reaction; I produced vitriol as a response to intrusions of contentment.

Aside from this, though, my problem with Death Proof can be summed up fairly simply. The film is (1) too long, in its uncut form, and even in its 90 minute/one half of Grindhouse form it felt sluggish and there were long, dull patches in which (2) the dialogue between the main characters dragged inexorably. Tarantino's dialogue is often the focus of the praise he receives, often justly so, but in Death Proof it falls completely flat. I can't tell if this is the result of the writing or the performers (I lean towards the latter, though more on that in a second) but the language feels tired and strained, it's like a bad cover version of Tarantino-esque dialogue. The film also (3) clearly doesn't know what it wants to be, and it's clear to the audience that Tarantino doesn't know what he wants it to be, though it is ironic how a film that is so unclear so clearly demarcates between the disparate elements that constitute it. Tarantino claims to love exploitation cinema so much and that the film is an homage to it, yet the film seems to feel that it is above the very kind of film that it seeks to emulate. Unlike Robert Rodriguez's half of the Grindhouse project, Planet Terror, which gleefully embraces the sleaze and shittiness of that style of film, Tarantino only really pays lip service to it in his film. The central concept, of a stunt driver who 'Death proofs' his car so that he can get involved in accidents that will kill his passengers but leave him unscathed, is rife with possibilities for a dark and dirty piece of sleaze, yet that aspect of the film so rarely surfaces, and is instead obfuscated by interminable stretches of dialogue between (4) uninteresting characters. Finally, (5) the film is rife with indulgences that distract, most notably the casting of Zoe Bell, a stunt double friend of Tarantino's, as 'Herself'. It's a piece of casting that might have added to the intensity of the film's (too) few chase scenes if Bell could act, but she sorely cannot. This is not wholly her fault, there are few things more daunting than being told to just act naturally in front of a camera or to 'be yourself', especially in a fictional film, but it's a self-consciously quirky idea that detracts from the film immensely.

So, those are my problems with Death Proof, are there any parallels to be drawn between it and Inglourious Basterds? Yes and no.

Both films are overlong, though even though Inglourious Basterds is clearly the lengthier effort, it is Death Proof that feels longer, thanks largely to its boring conversations between boring characters. Basterds gets one over on it thanks to its compelling characters, in the form of Hans Landa, Shoshanna Dreyfus and Bridget von Hammersmark (note how all the best characters in the film are and are played by non-Americans) and from having actors who can deliver the sort of fizzing dialogue with which Tarantino made his name. As much as I love Kurt Russell, he wasn't able to imbue Stuntman Mike with half the malevolence, sadism, intelligence and, perverse as it may seem, charm as Christoph Waltz is able to give to Hans Landa. So there seems to be a pro-, or at least lack of re-, gression on display here.

However, both films show signs that Tarantino's problems as a film-maker are deep-rooted and not down to problems of material or casting. Both films suffer from that confusion - no doubt the result of a hyperactive mind cartwheeling between ideas at the blink of an eye the shutter of a camera the tap of a key - that arises when Tarantino can't decide what film he wants to make. Both films have elements of the sleazy exploitation cinema that Tarantino so adores, yet they also seem like attempts to improve on it, make it serious, essentially stop it from being exploitation cinema anymore. This just doesn't work, making the moments that could be genuinely, unabashedly fun seem arch, and the serious moments seem out of place. Basterds is a better film than Death Proof because its non-exploitation moments (those featuring Hans Landa and Shoshanna) are so compelling, but they highlight one of the main problems with Inglourious Basterds; the Basterds themselves. Only two, maybe three, of the Basterds have any degree of flesh put onto their bones, and they don't show up in the film nearly enough to deserve a title being named after them. They often serve only to divert our attention from the interesting stuff that is going on elsewhere.

Thinking on it, Inglourious Basterds is a Frankenstein's monster of a film that has been assembled from two distinct, possibly unwilling, organ donors. It seems as if Tarantino came up with the subplot about Shoshanna and her cinema, realised how good it was, but was then lumbered with the Basterds, so he cut down their screen time but kept them in to keep the title (and the financial viability it entails). The two stories at no point cross paths, at most they come within an inch of touching each other when they happen to reach their respective crescendos in the same building, and even then they, independent of each other, achieve the same goal. The lack of integration between the plots (in every sense of the word) means that they could, like siamese twins, be surgically removed and the two could survive separated. The Basterds' film might be the weaker twin that dies shortly after the surgery, but it could still function shorn of its stronger sibling.

The two films also share moments of stunt casting that unbalance the film as a whole. Though Zoe Bell does no favours to Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds features the more egregious lapse in judgement on Tarantino's part since he decides to cast that odious spectre of former comedy glory/society's brief descent into idiocy, depending on your take, Mike Myers, in a brief role as a British general. With Zoe Bell you can kind of excuse her performance - she's a stunt person, who could have guessed she would be a bad actress? - but we all know how terrible Mike Myers can be. We've seen Goldmember, and we all fell over ourselves to avoid seeing The Love Guru. Surely any residual warmth felt towards him over Wayne's World can't extend to giving him a small role that you know he will ruin? Apparently not. He is allowed to inflict himself on the audience for an awkward scene of (Basil) exposition that serves only to introduce a character who, despite being played by the brilliant Michael Fassbender, doesn't make any real impact on the story beside being charming and spiffingly British.

Having exorcised some of my demons (and exercised my fingers), what conclusions can we draw? Will I look back on Inglourious Basterds as unkindly as I have looked back on Death Proof? I'd say 'no'. Both films show that Tarantino, whilst talented, has reached a point at which he has stopped trying to improve as a director, instead preferring to work within his own parameters and aiming his work at his fans, but there is more of a spark of the old magic in Basterds than there ever was in Death Proof. The moments that work show how good he can be, and even though the final package disappoints, it gives me a vague sense of hope that he could one day be the man who made Jackie Brown.