- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

For the past decade, Quentin Tarantino has made a string of films that have been stitched together from the movies he drank in as an aspiring filmmaker. “Inglourious Basterds” is no exception; indeed, its very name is borrowed from a film Mr. Tarantino grew up admiring.

The seventh film from Mr. Tarantino is a sprawling picture, focused on the exploits of Lt. Aldo Raine’s (Brad Pitt) Nazi-hunting Jews, the Basterds, and their intersection with a French Jew (Diane Kruger) who hides in plain sight while operating a movie theater and plans on killing the Nazi high command during the premiere of a new propaganda picture. Along the way, there are extended stops in Great Britain, a seedy bar and the French countryside.

Narrative sprawl is nothing new for Mr. Tarantino: Part of the charm of his opus “Pulp Fiction” is its diffuse plot. The characters banter about Royales with cheese and movie stars from the 1950s in vignettes that always entertain because they are always shockingly original. Yes, there are references to other films and a little intertextual monkey business, but it all comes together in a way that stunned audiences and blew critics away; it is justly remembered as one of the best and most important films of the 1990s.

But the originality that so distinguished “Pulp Fiction” (as well as Mr. Tarantino’s debut feature, “Reservoir Dogs”) disappeared somewhere along the line as the former video clerk traveled further and further inside his own head and cinematic fetishes.

“Jackie Brown” is Mr. Tarantino’s blaxploitation noir, an exquisite piece of work that relieved two itches with one stroke of the back scratcher. Still, one can’t help but feel that the movie is at least a little derivative, a feeling magnified by the fact that Mr. Tarantino chose Pam Grier, Foxy Brown herself, to play the titular role.

Then there’s “Kill Bill.” For all the great things that “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and “Kill Bill Vol. 2” bring to the table, I’ll never forget the dismissive verdict a fellow film fan delivered after listening to my rave as we left the theater: “Eh, I’d rather have seen all the movies he stole from.”

This was, perhaps, a little unfair: “Kill Bill” is both fun and electric, the kind of film that brings the screen to life in a way few directors are interested in doing. Still, my companion had a point. Those pictures — especially the first volume — are almost the definition of pastiche, a patched-together work that borrows shots and actors from a variety of Asian martial-arts movies. They may have been exciting and expertly shot; they weren’t terribly original.

“Death Proof,” Mr. Tarantino’s contribution to the “Grindhouse” double feature he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, was a similar experiment in genre immersion. The pair directed two distinctively “trashy” pictures — Mr. Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” is a gross-out, hyperactive zombie/horror feature, while “Death Proof” is a tough-girl revenge picture — intended as homages to the low-budget genre pictures of their upbringings. “Death Proof” was, in many ways, the culmination of Mr. Tarantino’s obsession with his formative moviegoing experiences, a retreat into a self-reflexive formalism that repelled all but the most hardy of cinephiles.

That trend continues in an odd way in “Inglourious Basterds.” It almost feels like a series of filmmaking exercises: Shoot a scene in which Jews are chased like vermin under the floorboards of a house; portray Adolf Hitler as the Aryan ubermensch he sees himself to be (bonus points for putting him in a silly cape); craft a scene where a secretly Jewish movie-theater operator comes face to face with the Nazi propaganda minister and his newest star.

Who, exactly, are the film’s Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels jokes meant to appeal to but hard-core film nerds? We are a nice enough group, but large enough to support the career of a filmmaker whose tastes have trended to the more expensive in recent years? Doubtful.

Over the past decade, it has felt as if Mr. Tarantino has been engaging with himself in a dialectic over the nature of moviemaking, an internal discussion about which elements from any given genre can be slapped together to form a superficially new product devoid of any real uniqueness.

As a fan of movies in general and a student of his work in particular, I’d give just about anything to spend an afternoon with Mr. Tarantino, picking his brain and picking through his library on the off chance I could absorb just a tiny fraction of his film knowledge. But I’d give even more to have him make a truly original masterpiece on the order of “Pulp Fiction” to savor instead of another stitched-together collage like “Kill Bill” or “Inglourious Basterds.”

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