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Tarantino Mocks, Masters the Past

Classical Hollywood style, based on genre and continuity — on expectation — finds itself shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, choked and blown up in “Inglourious Basterds”

Classical Hollywood style, based on genre and continuity — on expectation — finds itself shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, choked and blown up in "Inglourious Basterds." If any of Tarantino’s movies deserves the descriptor “postmodern,” it is this one.  

Instead of extending from past process, here Tarantino gleefully turns on it, mocking it severely. Yet, while turning Hollywood norms (among others) on their heads, he continues to show mastery of those very norms, making a movie whose accessibility is achieved through accepted industry and audience channels, through the very things he mocks. And, though he makes an intelligent and “self-aware” film, he continues his disdain for the remaining avant-garde, if there is one, for an avant-garde that still believes popular art is cheap and naïve art, if it is even art at all.

He continues it by making his cheap and naïve art that is never cheap or naïve.

Just look at the movie’s title: “deviant” spellings. But the meaning comes through. After all, the spelling of “basterds” is closer to American pronunciation than is “bastards.” So what’s to complain about? What is the point, Tarantino seems to be asking, of our spelling conventions when they aren’t needed for clarity or for understanding?

This is a fundamental challenge that few but dialect writers ignore. Why doesn’t spelling change with the times? Why not spell something as we want, even if spelling conventions don’t change? What’s the point of judging people by their spelling anyway?

The want of hard-and-fast spelling rules didn’t hurt the language of the 16th and 17th centuries after all. If Shakespeare wanted to spell his name differently at different times (as he did), more power to him. And if Milton wanted to spell “he” as “hee,” who are we to question him? No less than George Orwell, in “Why I Write,” says he once found youthful pleasure in reading Milton’s “hee.”

Why shouldn’t Tarantino aspire to similar artistic freedom? Simply because of the tyranny of the dictionary, a constraint that has grown since Milton’s time and that most every one of us, today, takes for granted?

Whatever his secret reasons for the idiosyncratic spellings in his title, Tarantino, known for his weak command of conventional spelling (he spells “soldier” “soirjer” in his sketch for an apartment for "Death Proof"), doesn’t turn defensive about it. Instead, he attacks the mindless conventionality and judgmentalism of insistence on standardization — and makes this one of the themes of the film more generally as well. The strength of spelling conventions is incalculable, logic and usage notwithstanding, and the audacity of attacking them in the title of a major film should not be underestimated.

Tarantino, by snubbing conventions that are used as much for weeding out those who just don’t make society’s grade as for keeping the language from chaos, shows right from the start of "Inglourious Basterds" that something unusual is going on here, that this is a movie that is not going to follow rules or worry about consequences. It’s an impudent movie and daring. That doesn’t mean it’s a great movie or even a good one; such judgment rests on other grounds. It means, instead, that this film steps willfully beyond boundaries. 

But it is never experimental, distaining the elitism that word implies, relying instead on the tried and true, though the “tried” in new ways and the “true” only insofar as it never attempts to fool anyone.

History this is not, though Tarantino does work to reproduce the feel of an era half a century past. In this, he works in a New Hollywood tradition, one growing from the explosion of home viewing — and re-viewing — that began with the birth of the VCR in the 1970s. One result of this is that, today, anachronisms chase filmmakers across the Internet, haunting them for years.

Fearful directors (and even ones as confident as Tarantino) spend long hours getting little details right — even when they are playing fast and loose with historical probability and possibility, as Tarantino most certainly does.

This is a voluntary restraint on the directors, of course, a convention such as that surrounding the way sound effects are used, not realistically, but meeting audience expectations developed over generations. Some deviations are acceptable, others not. But constraints, of course, can even be one of the tools of the filmmaker. In "Modern Times," Charles Chaplin only allows recognizable speech to intrude through electronic devices, diegetic parts of the movie. This allows him to keep to his old constraint, eliding conversation as a narrational device. In this way, his movie retains features and strengths of the silent cinema while still making use of a soundtrack for more than effects and score.  

One way Tarantino also does, in fact, constrain himself in "Inglourious Basterds" is through insistence on a reasonably accurate image of occupied France.  Also like Chaplin, he uses an internal electronic device — in this case, a movie projector — to make a point. 

Where Chaplin made comment on the artifice of sound, Tarantino makes clear the distinction between his picture and what is often called a “war picture,” all the while making use of the sensibilities and characteristics of the genre — and making fun of them, as well.

From Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes" (Praeger).

Aaron Barlow writes about film, new media (especially blogging) and whatever else happens to pique his interest. Past owner/operator of a cafe, a store, and a gallery (among other activities), he began teaching at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) four years ago. His newest book is “Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes.” Visit him online at www.aaronbarlow.com.

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