Friends, relatives, and correspondents have recently been pointing out to me the performatist qualities of Quentin Tarantino’s newly released Inglourious Basterds, so I decided after some hesitation to watch it myself (I don’t especially like violent movies). Unfortunately I must admit to remaining unconvinced of the movie’s merits. Basterds is entertaining at times, but it’s ultimately just a silly (and excessively violent) movie that doesn’t go any farther than Tarantino’s truly original and innovative Pulp Fiction.
Let me explain. In Pulp Fiction (1994), elements of postmodernist and performatist aesthetics mix in a congenial way. On the one hand, the movie is self-consciously unreal and constructed. It’s a postmodern pastiche of quotes and allusions that have no real depth and create no lasting identifications (the main case in point being the engaging John Travolta character, who is built up only to be blown away again in mid-film). And it’s fun because Tarantino knows his stuff—the dialogues and characters ring true. On the other hand, though, Pulp Fiction was one of the first movies of the 1990s to do something explicitly performatist—to make the possibility of transcendence the defining moment of its plot. Although we never find out whether Jules Winnfield’s conversion is divinely justified, his transformation from a postmodern killer citing Scripture to a performatist vagrant believing in it is what makes the difference: his newly found faith forces us to identify with him whether we ourselves are religious or not. And that’s something that isn’t possible in the virtual, superficial world of postmodernism. Jules’ conversion also suggests that there is a way out of the contractual violence defining the rest of the film, and his choice to live as a penitent drifter suggests that a now no-longer postmodern subject may find a space to recover and heal spiritually.
We find the same themes in Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino seems to view the human situation as being based on mimetic violence, which is to say an originary, mirror-like state of kill or be killed. It’s no accident here that one of his most beloved devices is the Mexican standoff, where no mediation is possible and almost everyone winds up dead. In Tarantino’s world, the contract killer or the Nazi is the natural representative of this violent, originary state; that’s why his killers don’t come across as being truly evil or aberrant. By the same token, though, there are no real good guys: the Jewish protagonists in Basterds are essentially little more than contract killers repaying the Nazis in kind for their own cruelty.
If we step back and view the two movies from a distance, I think we’ll find that Basterds is little more than Pulp Fiction set in a pseudo-historical, comic-book context. In Pulp Fiction Jules decides to stop the violence by dropping out of the killing profession; in Basterds, the suave, Mephistophelian Nazi Landa not only drops out but also ends the entire war as well. There isn’t even a big theological difference. Pulp Fiction is Old Testamentary in the sense that a real or imagined Act of God convinces Jules; in Basterds the avenging Old Testamentary Jewish hero brands Landa with a mark of Cain. Apart from that, almost everything else in the movie is just Tarantino recycling Tarantino (and other old movies); it’s fun to watch but it’s impossible to take seriously. And the main difference is we’re not moved one iota by Landa’s self-serving “conversion” to the other side or Aldo Raine’s symbolic act of revenge.
So is Basterds performatist? The answer is: sort of, in the same way that Pulp Fiction was. The basic stuff of the movie is postmodern and the hint of transcendence at the end isn’t. The only real constant is that Tarantino seems to be mainly in love with Tarantino. The Onion, the online satirical newspaper, sums it up best in its announcement of Tarantino’s next production: “Next Tarantino Movie An Homage To Beloved Tarantino Movies Of Director's Youth.” Let’s hope they’re wrong.