Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” has been the most discussed film of 2009, and so I’ll assume you’re fluent with its narrative’s yards of entwining taffy and with Christoph Waltz’s entrancing piece of supporting-perf gamesmanship, and so on, and move on toward simply saying it is the best American movie of the year, and an impossible-to-dislike rocket of fuming movie love. (The legions of teenagers who went expecting… whatever the Brad Pitt-heavy advertisements led them to expect, came out surprised and delighted.)
Still, I think it’s an only mildly understood movie, one that, in Tarantino’s obsessive way, entertains blithely as it subverts the conveniences American audiences ordinarily crave. You ask the average filmgoer what the movie’s about, and they won’t say The Movies (in Umberto Eco’s definition of “Casablanca”), which is the stone-cold truth, but Nazis or WWII, or a playground-fun alternate version of them, which isn’t far from the truth, either. They might not get most of Tarantino’s allusions, or grasp the larger meanings at hand, but they will have rocked out, and such is Tarantino’s genius.
Cut “Basterds” open, and you’ll find the Godard gland pulsing, secreting, hyper-charged. It is exactly this reality about the film, and about Tarantino and so much of the best modern movies, that goes unacknowledged in our culture; a paradigm shift is required that’s feared by the broader populace, not unlike the manner in which they fear learning anything substantial about public policy and choose their political alliances instead by way of “liking” Bush or Obama or Sarah Palin. Trying teaching “Breathless” to undergrads — they will not abandon the idea of a clean-cut diegetic “reality” within the film itself.
Of course, commercial culture is on their side, and never favors the Godardians, because hundreds of millions of dollars stand to be made with loud, distractive, digitized movies about giant robots or earthquakes or aliens. As with food production and environmental poisoning, commerce rolls happily forward the more we are oblivious to what’s really going on. Godard himself was terribly aware of this conflict, of course; he may have begun as a radical, but his four-dimensional mode of cinema through the ’60s pushed him inevitably toward full-on anti-narrative activism, whether or not the films in question were political at all.
What we’re talking about, simply, is redefining cinema away from an enveloping half-dream you have in the dark that encourages you to forget life, and toward a modern artwork that embraces life as it unwinds. It’s simple, really. Comatosity vs. wakefulness. Tarantino isn’t the only Godardian at play in the fields of movies today — Gerardo Naranjo’s “I’m Gonna Explode” and Hong Sang-soo’s “Night and Day” made 2009 a knockout bout of neo-JLG — but he is the most passionate, and the most guileless.
No other living director exudes such adolescent joy with what Orson Welles called “the biggest train set a boy ever had” as Tarantino, and his palpable élan behind the camera is part of the whole equation, as much as the actors’ enjoyment, the anarchic glee of narrative breaks, the intersection of “Basterds” with the living legacy of movies in dozens of different ways, the deliberately protracted bolero-like elongation of suspense sequences, what you had for lunch, the weather outside, and so on. Making himself, as the director, obtrusive to “the story” isn’t the point — Tarantino is the story, and so are we, because the story is about making and watching cinema, inside the movie and out, and therefore about real life experienced and observed, and the sooner we accept the fact that movies are not separate from our experiences but part of them, then we can be free.
Freedom is the question at hand — it’s no mistake that Tarantino’s filmography, like Godard’s, is filthy with parables of open rebellion and endearing chaos. These are not alternate realities we’re intended to “believe,” but conversations we have with the filmmakers, full of modesty, vanity, digressions, duplicity, self-destructing jokes and a context that’s big as history.
But even as these perspective-rupturing statements are intrinsic to the thrust of “Basterds,” Tarantino also fashions the “normal” aspects of his film with an old-fashioned maturity that’s impossible to find in new films anymore. Can you think of an American filmmaker whose films are less visually like video games (the genre-borrowed martial arts of “Kill Bill” notwithstanding)? “Basterds” is in no hurry, trifles not with digital effects, contains rafts of long shots encompassing two or three characters at a time, never opts for overdesigned coolness over character or copious dialogue, respects its audience’s cognitive abilities, never exploits violence, rarely manipulates our reactions and never cuts or moves when it doesn’t need to.