Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Once Upon a Time

1999. The last year of a decade, the Second Gilded Age that was the 1990s, in which a new economy's champagne did its frozen-smile best to contain the uncertainty of a post-Cold War world. That decade, the last of the 20th century. Clinton re-elected to provide the "bridge" to the new millennium, then derailed by mores the Pilgrims brought over with them.

Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the greatest skeptical student of that big, dumb century, taking more and more time between films as the world moved faster and faster around him. It took him four years to painstakingly construct Barry Lyndon, five to recover by way of The Shining, seven just to finalize the rights for Full Metal Jacket, and now twelve to deliver his last lecture. Good thing Eyes Wide Shut promised a real live celebrity couple in the nude, or who could still give a damn?

Eyes wasn't the dominant blockbuster of the year (that would be the Future as embodied by The Matrix), but it was the year's biggest Event Film. All sorts of theories and expectations were tossed around by critics and consumers alike, a dramatic opening-day buildup was followed by a colossal box office flop, and groans of disappointment and titters of condescension drowned out a passionate few supporters. A replay of Chaplin's A Countess from Hong Kong: a fastidious failed attempt at eye-catching relevance from an old flame the world had left behind.

Eyes Wide Shut opens with a nude shot of Nicole Kidman from the back, and that's as close to open titillation as it gets. It's hard to believe that anyone who had payed attention to Stanley Kubrick could've expected a straight peep show. What we got, underneath the gilded surface of a sexy psychological thriller (that second one is correct), was the most complex, incisive, visually expressive, and slyly emotional application of Kubrick's pet pattern. That pattern is rigorous destruction, but while the subject at hand was made explicit in Dr. Strangelove (mutually assured destruction) and Barry Lyndon (the rags-to-riches fable), Eyes Wide Shut hides its targets amidst a surreal, ever-shifting visual landscape. Sexual jealousy, masculine pride, arrogant wealth, the human body, the nature of fantasies--they're all laid bare on that morgue slab. Yet, for once, Kubrick grounds his condemnations in the visceral and the subjective. Notes on a piano, an otherworldly mask. No wonder Tom Cruise's Doctor Bill is such a cipher. He's meant to be uncomfortably familiar, a placidly rich New Yorker frightened beyond speech by what he finds in his wife, his social circle, and his own soul.

Naturally, critics panned Cruise's evocative, masterfully restrained performance, spinning around to gush over his grossly muscled man-whore in Paul Thomas Anderson's trauma-shell-game Magnolia, which conveniently spelled out its goals right at the beginning. Eyes Wide Shut was resolutely snubbed come awards season; the Academy gave its top prize to American Beauty, which offered up its Uncomfortable Truths in easy pill form. (What's the solution to suburban ennui? Well, it sure ain't screwing your daughter's virginal friend! Man, that was easy, what's everyone always bitching about?) Stanley Kubrick died four days after privately screening the final cut of his last and greatest film. His final manifesto came from Kidman, fixing the ultimately helpless Cruise with those glassy eyes and telling him what they need to do immediately to stuff the shame the film exposed back into Pandora's Box: "Fuck." Goodbye 20th century.

But, then again...

2009. The last year of a decade, a true clustercuss of an era, shattering bankruptcies of all kinds mercilessly exposed. That decade, the first of the 21st century, the future looking wild and uncertain and dark, America reeling from the legacy of the man who got elected* on the basis of not having sex in the Oval Office and then turned catastrophe into a launching pad for simplistic, jingoistic regression, to the roar of the crowd.

Quentin Tarantino, the brat prince of those madcap postmodern '90s still struggling to find where he fit in a decade not of his making. Kill Bill was a fanboy's rave dream, but faded quickly from memory, and for all its formalist glee and immense critical goodwill, Death Proof was the first real box office flop of his career (turns out Robert Rodriguez isn't always commercial gold, thank goodness). Good thing Inglourious Basterds promised Brad Pitt hunting Nazi scalps, or who could still give a damn?

Basterds wasn't the dominant blockbuster of the year (that would be the Future as embodied by Avatar), but it was the year's biggest Event Film. People were fascinated (Quentin Tarantino made a war film!) and hesitant (Quentin Tarantino made a war film?), but most everybody left the multiplex agog, wild-eyed, and raving to anybody who would listen. Basterds, it was agreed, was a fiery, lunatic masterpiece, filmmaking at its audacious, hallucinogenic best. A replay of the Coens' No Country for Old Men: an undeniable wake-up call from an upstart we'd gotten used to.

Inglourious Basterds opens with a queasy cat-and-mouse game leading to Nazi soldiers massacring a group of Jewish refugees, and that's as close to respectful historicity as it gets. It's hard to believe that anyone who had payed attention to Quentin Tarantino could have expected a straight war film. What we got, under the guise of a winking war flick (that first one is correct) was the most complex, incisive, visually expressive, and slyly emotional application of Tarantino's pet pattern. That pattern is cinema-as-life, but while the lifelines were made explicit in Pulp Fiction (the ultimate distillation of film's myriad definitions of cool) and Kill Bill (seams-showing genre mashup), Inglourious Basterds' deeper examinations unfold naturally within a deliriously pulp alternate history. WWII nostalgia, American guilt over and ownership of the Holocaust, ludicrous heist setups, populist propaganda, bloodthirsty retribution fantasies--they all go up in flames in that gorgeous independent movie house. Yet, for once, Tarantino doesn't always seem to be on the same page as his audience. The ostensibly Jewish heroes are good ol' boy yahoos, and some of the most despised monsters in history are shown cheering for their favorite on-screen soldiers. No wonder Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine is so cartoonish and ultimately tangential. He's meant to be both comfortably familiar and uncomfortably removed, a belligerent killing machine that forces his way into a Jewish woman's furious vengeance in order to (literally) etch his own useless mark on history.

For a film that rather unmistakably associates its own audience with Hitler and his goons, Basterds was an immediate and deafening success, more than accounting for Death Proof's box office failure and winning over critics who hadn't loved QT since Pulp Fiction (and even some who'd never loved him at all). It's very easy to be cynical about this triumph, and many members of Basterds' fan club also love Saving Private Ryan without seeming to see any interesting contradictions there. But, ultimately, Quentin Tarantino is not Stanley Kubrick. He is not arch, he is not misanthropic, and he truly does not hate us even as he basically calls us Nazis--in his world, even Hitler is just another adoring fan in the face of a good flick, the divine common denominator. QT's still enough of a pure cinephile to devote love and attention to Christoph Waltz' feverishly great performance, though (because) the Jew Hunter ends up as tied to genre standards and as secondary to Shosanna's fiery triumph as Pitt and his Basterds. Waltz was duly rewarded on Oscar night, and Inglourious Basterds got in on the ten-Best-Picture-nominees action. The film lost out to The Hurt Locker, a far graver, more direct, and more "real" film that's about .01% as engaging, ambitious, and meaningful as QT's shrine to the dream factory's influence on our sacred collective histories. Tarantino's currently plotting out his eighth and ninth films, his craft and relevancy no longer in any doubt. His knowing vision came from Pitt, staring down at the ragged, glorious mess he'd made of history: "I think this just might be my masterpiece." Hello 21st century.

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