It is embarrassing when you have to retract confidently derisive comments about a film. When I put together my psuedo-review of Inglourious Basterds (and I reiterate, should we still oblige ourselves to correctly spell their cheekily misspelled title?) a couple of weeks ago, I wrote pretty unflinchingly about the indulgent and long-winded approach of its director, Mr. Quentin Tarantino. Certain characters in the film criticism business had made the argument in defense of the film that Mr. Tarantino had never spared any expense when it came to indulging each and every one of his directorial impulses and that there was no reason for him to start now. In my relatively scathing review, I said “booo” to those critics (like at a basketball game; I wasn’t trying to scare them), imploring the film-going public to hold each filmmaker to the same standard and not give QT a pass simply because he won an Oscar for a movie with a monologue about a watch stashed inside of an anus, even if said monologue was one of the more hilarious bits of dialogue we might have heard in quite some time.
But, then again, this most previous sentence (which borrows a bit from the great New York Times film Critic Manhola Dargis, whose flair in invoking the watch inside the anus bit qualifies as craftsmanship I, obviously, can only imitate) underlines anyone’s most basic problem with the cinematic wiles of Mr. Tarantino–you know his films lack the restraint and moderation that might make them more endearing to typical cinema-goers, but when you ponder how much you enjoy them, who really gives a fuck?
After listening to the roundly positive assessments that friends had about Inglourious Basterds (there’s that fuckin title again; I swear I have to do a double take every time I type it), I was compelled to revisit it. I don’t find myself doing this much as of late. Movies are expensive business and as a largely poverty-stricken cub journalist, I reserve my repeat excursions for the films that really dent my psyche. But I knew that even though I had problems with the film, there was still quite a bit in it that I liked. I also hearkened back to my first viewing of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and recalled that my initial viewing brought with it an extremely negative assessment, only to reverse myself on subsequent viewings and arrive at an extreme affection for the film. Can’t argue with yourself. I made the trip.
It wasn’t like I was seeing another film, but it was like I was seeing what I had already seen with a different set of eyes, if that makes any sense whatsoever (go with it). The patches of the film that seemed long or self-indulgent were redeemed by the fact that I knew what to anticipate. For instance, the opening 20-plus minute dialogue scene between Col. Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz) and the dairy farmer who is hiding Jews under his kitchen floorboards seemed to drag in my initial viewing, but after revisiting it, the scene seemed more tense, more tightly constructed, as if every breathstroke were composed with the most minute attention to detail. There is a rap that Landa does about the similarity of Jews to rats. I initially thought that this was just Tarantino getting off on the sound of his own words, but it serves a much greater function of heightening the farmer’s discomfort and setting up Landa’s arrogance about his own estimable importance. It may not have the bizarre wit and twisted dialogue of some other classic Tarantino scenes, but it does have a vital consideration for character and tension that is extremely important for the film.
But the pleasant surprises and reconsiderations didn’t stop there. Brad Pitt’s performance, which seemed broad and cartoonish in my first viewing, felt oddly authentic in the second look. Pitt is giving a performance, knows it, wants you to know it, and wants to have fun, which he succeeds at merrily. Tarantino’s reveal of Eli Roth as the Bear Jew (or, as I like to refer to him, Donny Donowitz, one of the great Tarantino names) still feels a little long winded, but you can’t beat the masochistic thrill of having Roth shout “Teddy-fuckin-ball game went fuckin yard on that one” after stomping out a German soldier’s head with a baseball bat. The protracted scene in the bar involving Operation Kino’s initial rendezvous of the Allied players (led by Michael Fassbender) with their German double agent (Diane Kruger), which seemed excrutiatingly long in my first viewing, moved along swimmingly upon second viewing. I don’t know what to attribute this to. I think because I knew when to expect the moment of massacre, I spent every moment leading up to it in giddy anticipation.
So what do these myriad reconsiderations say about me as a critic? Well, for one, that my initial instincts about a film aren’t always correct (aren’t I smart for figuring that out?). But before I get to hard on myself, let me quote my idol, Roger Ebert, who, in his review of Inglourious Basterds wrote “Tarantino’s films have a way of growing on you. It’s not enough to see them once.” I had these words in my mind as a walked out of Inglourious Basterds the first time, with the painful realization of “you don’t know a fuckin thing about that movie until you think about it” ringing in my psyche. After I did the afformentioned thinking, I realized I have not had a positive initial impression of many of Tarantino’s films. Reservoir Dogs I still stand by not liking, as I’ve watched it several times, either in bits and pieces or all the way through, and can conclude only that it represents a great talent working with depleted resources. Pulp Fiction leapt out at me, but it took a long time for me to develop my now untethered affection for it. Jackie Brown was the same way. I was cold on Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and, eventhough I enjoyed Kill Bill, Vol. 2, could quite give it the full measure of love it deserved until revisiting several times. Death Proof may be the only exception, as I have enjoyed that film as much on subsequent viewings as I did initially.
Examining my misjudgment of Basterds, I think it reflects more about what makes Tarantino so special as a filmmaker; his movies encompass so much, have so many ideas and strange threads running through them, are so prone to abrupt shifts of focus and momentary flights of fancy, are chalked full of so many instances of homage and work as such fully-formed examples of pastiche, that there is no way you can get an accurate first impression. I am reminded of something I heard Tarantino himself say during an interview with Charlie Rose post-Pulp Fiction: when discussing the almost erotic anticipation he would have for the arrival of a movie by a filmmaking hero like Brian De Palma, he said his first viewing of the film would be a dry run just to let the work wash over him. The second viewing, often done in the company of a companion to garner another perspective, was an effort to calculate what the filmmaker was doing. It is a pleasure to see that Tarantino has woven that same sentiment into his filmmaking ambition: to make a film so grand, complex and multi-faceted that you will only truly discover it on subsequent viewings.
In acknowledging this about Tarantino, it makes it difficult to pinpoint another filmmaker who demands repeat viewings almost as a formality. Most of the films we see today are capable of being watched once and then discarded. Films by surrealist auteurs like David Lynch and Todd Haynes beg repeat viewings but for different reasons–you’re often not quite sure, on a very practical level, what you saw the first time. I think Scorsese inarguably belongs in the same category as Tarantino as a filmmaker so rich and complex that only one viewing of his latest is an insult. But in running down the list of great living filmmakers–Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, Steven Soderbergh–no one else seems to fall into the same category. Not bad company for Tarantino to keep, but it begs the question, and I’m just spitballing here, does that make Tarantino the second greatest living director? Don’t want to jump the gun, but I think its worthy of consideration.