Has one of the most overrated directors of the '90s become one of the most underrated of the aughts?
Like their creator, Tarantino's characters never shut up and are plainly enthralled by the sound of their own voices. More than the spasms of violence, the lifeblood of his movies is their ornate dialogue, which tends to unfurl at great, meandering length. (Tarantino was sly enough to call attention to this hallmark early on: In Reservoir Dogs, when Tim Roth's character, an undercover cop, is handed the scripted anecdote that he will have to perform to pass as Mr. Orange, he balks at the sheer level of detail: "I've got to memorize all this? There's over four fucking pages of shit here.") Tarantino movies are known for two kinds of verbal expulsions: the stem-winding monologue (Samuel L. Jackson's Old Testament shtick in Pulp Fiction) and the micro-observational tangent (Steve Buscemi's anti-tipping tirade in Reservoir Dogs). In Death Proof, which revels in a buzzed, leisurely camaraderie, he quietly masters a third kind: the language of downtime and hanging out, not exactly naturalistic (his most subdued chatter retains a heightened quality) but less baroque and truer to the rhythms of actual human interaction. Modest as it seems, Death Proof is in fact a clear-cut demonstration of Tarantino's gifts. By so pointedly breaking the film into long, alternating sections—talk, action, talk, action—he distends the normal rhythm of his movies, weighing aural against visual spectacle and pushing each to its limit.
But it's in Inglourious Basterds that the relationship between language and action becomes truly charged. Though the violence (much of it perpetrated by Jews against Nazis, with baseball bats and bowie knives) is graphic and memorable, the film consists largely of one-on-one verbal showdowns. As in Death Proof, but with greater purpose, Tarantino gives the conversations room to soar and stall and double back on themselves (especially in two agonizingly tense and protracted scenes, in a farmhouse and a basement tavern). Language is the chief weapon of the insinuating villain, brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz, a Nazi colonel fluent in German, English, French, and Italian. Power resides in the persuasiveness of speech; the success of undercover missions hinges on the ability to master accents; and as characters strive to maintain false pretenses, words are a means of forestalling death.
Inglourious Basterds addresses head-on many of the standard anti-Tarantino criticisms. You say he makes movies that are just about movies? You think they present violence without a context? Luring the elite of the Third Reich to an Art Deco cinematheque in Nazi-occupied Paris, Basterds gleefully uses film history to turn the tables on world history; its context is nothing less than the worst atrocity of the 20th century. This only seems to have further infuriated Tarantino's detractors, some of whom are appalled that this terminal adolescent would dare to indulge his notorious penchant for vengeful wish fulfillment on such sensitive and sacrosanct material.
Needless to say, Tarantino's movie shares little common ground with—and, indeed, is probably a direct response to—your typical Holocaust drama. It has no interest in somber commemoration, and it refuses to deny the very real satisfactions of revenge. Like all of Tarantino's films, Inglourious Basterds is about its maker's crazy faith in movies, in their ability to create a parallel universe. His films have always implicitly insisted that movies are an alternative to real life, and with Inglourious Basterds, for the first time, he has done something at once preposterous and poignant: He takes that maxim at face value and creates his own counterfactual history. It may not be his masterpiece, but for sheer chutzpah, it will be hard to top.
Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.