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Michael Judge

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The Problem With Tarantino: He Has Nothing to Say

Posted: 08/31/09 05:41 PM ET

Last Thursday, the Post published Johann Hari's critique of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Inglorious Basterds, in which Hari argued that the director's "terrible moral emptiness" is "wrecking his films." While I share the critical thrust of Hari's accusation--that is, that Tarantino's churning out opulently-made vacuities, the impeccable style-credentials of which appear to be the only reasons for their existence--I could hardly disagree more that what Tarantino's work lacks is a necessary leavening of "moral sensibility" or "responsible ethics"; simply put, Tarantino hasn't got (and, in fact, may never have had) any ideas, an element far less dispensable to a work of art than the vaguely-defined and coercive parameters of morality.

In any given sociocultural gestalt, in any place or at any time, "morality" is at best a byword for the social legislation of acceptable behavior; at worst, it becomes the brutalizing thrust of the authoritarian regime, the terrorist tactics of abortion-clinic bombers and concentration camp directors, the exclusionary measure of xenophobes and economic protectionists. To say that a film, or that any work of art, fails to contain a "moral sensibility" is simply to adjudge the degree to which it falls within the bounds of respectability and politesse established in its epoch and locality; this is the stuff of such reactionaries-in-hiding as Lionel Trilling, whose insistence on "moral education" in his supremely popular and supremely banal 1950 treatise The Liberal Imagination is little more than a middle-class anachronism's attempt to force the concepts of "seriousness" and "respectability" into an uneasy marriage vis-à-vis literature and its critique.

When film is primarily concerned with the edification of its (presumably White, moderate, and at least middle-class) audience and the delivery of some resounding (and resoundingly obvious) moral message, we can expect little more than the hideous banalities and half-baked piety of Paul Haggis' Crash (2004), that turgid bit of empty preaching which briefly made racial tension the Hollywood cause celèbre of its epoch and prompted numerous astonishingly insincere and naïve dialogues about whether or not we, as a nation, had "really dealt with racism"; this is, of course, the sort of question that only the White bourgeoisie can ask with a straight face, and the tendency of that cohort to adopt pet causes for exactly as long as those causes serve to distinguish oneself as a "caring individual," a "charitable capitalist," one who "understands those less fortunate"--in short, to serve as a mode of postmodern identity capital in the terms delineated by Frederic Jameson, to create a public profile for oneself on the architectonic level of a sort of ür-Facebook--is one of its many sickening and venal qualities. Movies centered around the hamfisted repetition of some moralizing truism or vague Unitarian Universalist cliché ("Family is important ... in the end, you get what you give ... we're all just brothers and sisters ... yawn") are doomed to the stifling mediocrity and mouthpiece-for-power-structure status that the visionaries of the French New Wave referred to by that marvelously poisonous epithet, "the tradition of quality."

Here, then, is Hari's principle error, and it's instructive to compare Tarantino's ostensibly "amoral" or "immoral" depiction of violence with an auteur, Stanley Kubrick, mentioned alongside Tarantino in the implication that his stylizations and understandings of the violent gesture are somehow "more moral" and therefore better. Unfortunately for the moralist argument, there is perhaps no modern film more equivocal and ambivalent about the nature of violence and the uses to which it may be put than Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971): this vicious and surreal satire of the changing nature of political power pillories precisely the notion of morality as a behavioral code divorce from regime change and economic exchange and examines the mechanisms by which a given era's moral conception changes to fit the purposes of its sociopolitical power-brokers.

Protagonist Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell's legendarily bravura performance) is, as the contemporary press for the film put it, principally interested in "rape, ultra-violence, and Beethoven"; he and his less "politic, cautious, and meticulous" band of Droogs roam the streets of an apocalyptic London torturing and abusing whatever human objects of fancy stray across their anarchic path. When a power struggle erupts between Alex and the gang, the once-loyal Droogies betray him by leaving him battered and unconscious, and thus easy prey for the police who have as yet failed to pin anything on him, after his murder of an eccentric spinster. (Note here that Alex is not necessarily taken in because this crime exceeds his former deeds, because it constitutes a more serious violation of the moral code--it's quite simply the result of infighting and politicking.) Upon his capture, he submits to experimental psychotherapy that sears into his neurons an indelible association between violence (and, quite by accident, Beethoven's 9th symphony) and feelings of nausea, asphyxiation, and imminent death that makes it quite literally impossible for him to resume his former hellion's regimen; when, in turn, this therapy drives him to attempt suicide, the Minister of the Interior who championed its implementation has the therapy reversed and brings Alex into his inner circle as a poster-child for the lenience and understanding of his administration.

Aside from the fact that Kubrick's film is remarkable qua film in virtually every aspect, one of its most striking features is the absolute lack of ethical outrage with which Alex is treated and the social critique associated with that treatment: his behavior is only "wrong" (that is to say, "illegal") at the outset because it conflicts with the public face of a British parliament that promised to eradicate crime in the streets, and that same behavior, unmodified and reinstituted with a vengeance, is only "right" at the film's conclusion because it serves as proof that the same parliament will refuse to resort to coercive, torturous means to achieve that goal (shades of our own beloved Bush and Cheney here, who instituted torture to combat the inhumanity of torture). Morality as a static and abiding proposition has less than nothing to do with Kubrick's sardonic vision; morality as one more arrow in the quiver of political manipulations, everything.

Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds is certainly no more a violation of moral taboos than was A Clockwork Orange at the time of its release (it was rated X for two years in the United States and thereafter only available in censored form for over a decade; in the UK, the uncut film was nearly impossible to see until the late '90s, and Kubrick had his life threatened and was accused of inspiring copycat crimes): the problem is that Tarantino's violence, and by extension Tarantino, haven't got anything to say. Hari's article is correct to note that Basterds, like most of the director's oeuvre, consists of film-history references and stylistic tropes divorced from any sense of meaning apart from their self-contained connoisseur cachet, but he would be hard-pressed to argue that the better films from which Tarantino draws his stylistic gestures--'60s and '70s American exploitation flicks, vintage film noir, the surreal expressionist horror of Italian gialli, among others--are more "morally concerned" or "ethically responsible."

Very few bodies of cinematic work, for example, can lay claim to a more paranoid, cynical, and resolutely amoral understanding of world-processes than the golden-era films noirs, and the crucial difference between The Third Man, Out of the Past, or Touch of Evil and Tarantino's borrowings from suchlike films thus lies in his omission of there being any idea behind his depictions and techniques. If anything, Basterds in its worst moments swings perilously close to a jingoistic moralist's anti-Nazi revenge fantasy: the final sequence in which Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) carves a Swastika into the forehead of defecting Nazi intelligence agent and "Jew hunter" Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is the moralizing S&M fantasy of a naïve historian who, despite all evidence to the contrary, still believes that Nazism was somehow to be viewed as exceptional among the numerous political power systems founded upon exploitation, ostracism, fear, and murder (these including our own). Much more remarkably absent from Basterds is any notable level of intellectual or conceptual engagement--rarely has a movie about such a cataclysmic event had so incredibly little to say about its subject.

On the technical and stylistic level, it can't be denied that Tarantino still manages the occasional sparkling passage: Landa's virtually monologic opening exchange with a French farmer whom he suspects of harboring Jews is a taut, swift piece of scripting, and the excellent Michael Fassbender is pitch-perfect as the witty, debonair proto-Bond Lt. Archie Hicox. Ultimately, however, these interludes consist mostly of the skillful deployment of cliché, reference, and cultural archetype, and with nothing resembling an idea lurking beneath their impressive surfaces, one wonders why a self-professed student of film history like Tarantino considers them, or any of his work, necessary.