It came as no surprise that every response to Inglourious Basterds came as no surprise. When word goes out that a film will be about the Holocaust but not really, because it’s actually about old movies; when it’s expected to be a slam-bang adrenaline-powered summer thrill ride but not really, because a major American filmmaker has conceived it, then positions about the picture become so many pre-dug holes, waiting for occupants to tumble in. Merely by calling the film Inglourious Basterds–as if its contribution to the vast body of World War II cinema might amount to a couple of misspellings plopped into a title copied from an earlier, cheaper film–Quentin Tarantino promised indelicate pleasures to those who wanted them and pre-emptively shrugged off criticism from those who might want more. It was, in a way, a self-protective move–perhaps even a timid one, coming from a filmmaker who makes his living by a show of boldness; and many more were evident in the trailer, the print ads and the prerelease puff pieces, all calculated to ensure that nothing could be said about Inglourious Basterds that Inglourious Basterds had not first said about itself.
So I choose to have no opinion about this film. Indifference is the only unforced response left to me.
This isn’t to say I’m indifferent to evidence of widespread credulity among those viewers of Inglourious Basterds, fans and detractors alike, who accepted the improbable claim that a film can refer to nothing but other films. Nor am I indifferent to a situation in which the entire reception of a film can be produced along with the movie. We have gone beyond cinema’s long-familiar modes of culture and commerce: DeMille marketing his epics as a redemption for their own sins, Minnelli both exposing and reveling in the dream factory’s artifice, Hitchcock instructing audiences in how to think about a Hitchcock movie, Herschell Gordon Lewis outraging every decent feeling (and so, predictably, attracting a cluck of admirers). With Inglourious Basterds, we reach one of those moments that tell us we’re in new territory, where unforeseen, uncontrolled reactions are being foreclosed as never before.
This complaint, as I said, is not about the film as such; nor is it meant exclusively about Tarantino. Despite the colossal assertions commonly made about him, he’s only one of a great many people who have brought us to this spot. I’m concerned with the aggregate. With some of them coming in from the industry side and others from the side of vulgar Kaelism, they have executed a kind of pincer movement over the past decades, and in so doing have swept us all toward those holes in the ground.
Start with the industry. For the past quarter-century, it has largely devoted itself to expanding the field of in-home entertainment while reducing the role of theatrical exhibition–a development that has required companies to scramble for appropriately scaled economies of production and distribution. The solution has been the institution of a multi-tiered system: big-budget films released onto thousands of screens at once, under the names of major studios; more modestly budgeted pictures given platform release by the studios’ specialty divisions and by a surviving handful of midsize distributors; microreleases sent out by small companies for a round of one- or two-week runs at a few theaters dotting the country; and an unquantifiable mass of dumped-onto-digital material.