The path of a filmmaker’s career can often take twists and turns, at times making critics out of former fans. For Quentin Tarantino, such defectors are largely confounded by his most recent film’s compulsive dips into farcical comedy. How, they inquire, could the genius behind two ‘90s masterpieces create a movie as incoherent and painfully self-indulgent as Inglourious Basterds? Either the auteur is criminally misunderstood or his trademark obsession with violence and pop culture references has enervated audiences’ tolerance for the absurd. Tarantino apologists point to the former; the absurd is what they crave most. And they are right.
Before outlandishly predicting what detractors will say about Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained, however, let’s investigate how Inglourious Basterds managed to ruffle so many feathers in cinema’s upper echelons. The list of grievances includes everything from the kitschy ending to the lengthy and characteristically confusing material. These very same complaints, strangely enough, also identify what makes Tarantino films so enigmatically satisfying.
Roger Ebert is not far off when he labels Tarantino “a director of quixotic delights.” The insertion of outrageous segments into his films (like a lightning bolt on a sunny day, Samuel Jackson narrates a two-minute profile on Nazi slayer Hugo Stiglitz in IB) is a manifestation of the director’s unwavering vision. If the utterly bizarre has appeared in all of Tarantino’s films, it’s difficult to see why critics were so dumbfounded by IB’s ludicrous touches. After all, the only people you hear complaining about Pulp Fiction’s gimp scene are reactionaries.
In any case, what Tarantino strives for is an amalgamation of B-movie nods, gratuitously badass violence, witty discourses on pop culture nonsense, and above all, an endlessly entertaining experience. The tongue-in-cheek tone of his movies should not exempt them from artistic praise; the Oscar recognition that his actors and screenplays have received in spite of these low-brow indulgences is a testament to his films’ cinematic gravitas.
With the understanding that his style has undergone few changes, then, the cause of the recent upsurge in Tarantino-bashing is somewhat of a mystery. Several theories might explain it, however. While the director’s style has been relatively constant, the historical context of Inglourious Basterds tended to excessively amplify his absurd tendencies. Hence David Denby’s accusation that IB was, “too silly to be enjoyed.” Tarantino’s pompous off-screen persona has also directed waves of animosity his way. Considering he is a man who believes in God because writing comes so easily to him, this ad hominem attack has surely seeped into a few critics’ reviews. Finally, Tarantino’s novelty has worn out. Like Aaron Sorkin, Tarantino is uncannily present in his scripts. Unfortunately, the constant outpouring of these less than subtle screenplays can grow tiresome for critics and audiences alike. An inability to evolve with the times could be Tarantino’s self-inflicted coup de grace.
But as of now, Tarantino’s still got it. Django Unchained received glowing reviews after its first screening. New York Post critic Lou Lumenick elatedly characterized it as a “three-hour homage to Blazing Saddles.” Still, this is coming from a reviewer who labeled IB, “Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction.” In fact, Inglourious Basterds has an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So what’s the fuss about?
Well, for one, the more vocal of the film’s critics write for prominent newspapers and magazines—David Denby of The New Yorker, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, and an ambivalent Manohla Dargis of The New York Times. These are the upper echelons of cinematic criticism whose opinions shape Academy voters’ ballots. In Hollywood, this minority matters; the esteemed writers will shape history’s conception of a filmmakers’ oeuvre. The esteemed writers have a unique say in deciding what films stand as works of art, and as of now, Tarantino’s output is divorced from artistic praise because of this inane arrangement.
We’ll see if Django can sway this group’s opinion, but from what I gather, Quentin will always be impervious to such criticism. He knows what he’s good at, and he sticks with it. Managing to make his movies both amusing and, for the most part, cinematically commendable is a feat worthy of the most stringent critics’ esteem. But then again, this is a man who’s seeking approval from only one being: God.