Goldstein, Tarantino and House of Leaves

A couple of weeks ago Patrick Goldstein, lefty critic of the lefty Los Angeles Times, had a go at me for my attack on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.  I didn’t say at the time that I was right and Goldstein was wrong because, of course, it went without saying.  But he did make a point that rattled around in my brain a bit, so I want to chat a little about it.  I will pass over Goldstein’s accusation that I didn’t specify which movies have given aid and comfort to our enemies when, in fact, I linked to my massive and highly specific City Journal article on the subject – I mean, I don’t want to embarrass the guy – and I’ll get right to the juice.

My complaint was that Tarantino, who knows nothing about anything except movies and boy-on-boy torture, made a post-modern movie about movies and boy-on-boy torture that was also ostensibly a response to World War II and the Holocaust and that the end result was childish and empty to the point of offensiveness.  Here’s part of Goldstein’s response:

“[Klavan] says that either because of celebrity, money or crazed leftist politics, “too many of our artists seem to have been sapped of their understanding of suffering and history.” Hence the stylized savagery of “Inglourious Basterds.” For me, this is simply the latest example of why so few conservatives ever distinguish themselves in creative fields like music or filmmaking the way they have in investment banking or talk radio. They either detest pop culture or have such inflexible rules about how it is supposed to be created that they end up stuck on the outside, looking at the filmmaking process with either scorn or derision.”

The reason this remark stuck with me is because, miraculous to relate, there’s a kernel of truth in it.  Conservatives are sometimes inflexible about what sort of pop culture they’ll accept.  Inflexibility is a danger of being conservative -  just as it’s a danger of being liberal to go panting after every new artistic gizmo, fad, adolescent act of vandalism and nihilistic rant as if it were the second coming of Shakespeare.  Every outlook has its flaws, Patrick.

But in fairness to myself, I feel Goldstein picked on the wrong guy here.  It’s not for me to say whether I’ve distinguished myself in creative  pop culture fields but I have had a long and varied career in them.  This isn’t easy, and if it hadn’t been a labor of love, believe me I would have abandoned the task and followed my dream of becoming a suave international man of mystery with women in every capital.  Or something.  Not only have I always delighted in post-modern innovation, studied the theories well, and even committed acts of innovation myself, I acknowledge that the post-modern dis-integration of our culture that gave rise to these theories and innovations would not have been possible had it not been for the collapse of the secular humanist consensus whose temple was western art and thought.  The post-modernists moved into that temple and took the place apart.

But sacking the Pantheon doesn’t turn barbarians into gods.  Post modern artistic techniques take some legitimacy from the zeitgeist but if in the end they don’t serve the human project, however it’s conceived, they’re empty and they fail.  Art is about subject as well as technique.  As Inglorious Basterds shows, movie-geek Tarantino has no sense at all of the depth of human suffering or the glory of human dignity and that’s what makes him a shallow artist, his finely wrought techniques ultimately meaningless trickery.

Compare, if you will, the current cult novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.  This is a difficult book and I can’t recommend it for everyone, but I thought it was very, very good.  And you couldn’t be more post- just about everything.  It’s over 500 pages of self-referential diversions, literary theory and reflections on reflections on footnotes on footnotes and so on.  But at the heart of it all, continually reasserting itself and, in the end, sucking everything into itself and triumphing over all is the deeply moving story of a man’s courage and a woman’s love.  Indeed, I would say House of Leaves is a post-modern novel that dramatizes why the human spirit will ultimately triumph over post-modern disintegration and why the temple of western culture will be rebuilt on its own ruins.   The book delivers not just critical amusement and intellectual games but inspiration for both the mind and spirit.  It’s a work of art, not a cheap, self-congratulatory trick.

Tarantino is talented but he’s small.  And the left loves him and lots of artists like him because they’re small.  Because nothing they say or show will ever challenge the left to stand for anything or fight for anything outside themselves or grow in their humanity or do anything at all to begin the painful task of rebuilding our great and fallen culture.

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  • hollywoodron

    Andrew you krazy man!

  • Alan F

    I said aloud after the lights went up on Inglorious Bastards “someone watched the Dirty Dozen and Clockwork Orange back to back, then wrote the result” and those I was with were one and all in agreement. Mind you after that “Grindhouse” garbage stole precious minutes of my life and enough of my hard earned coin to secure the purchase of a good paperback, I truly expected much worse. So why go in the first place? Sometimes you just feel the need to watch a little of the old artsy fartsy and I’d already seen Cameron’s vision of the world’s longest video game cut scene.

  • Citizen K

    Inglorious Basterds was one of the most predictable and worst movies that I saw last year. It was just toooooo much torture the entire way through, and not just by the bad guys. Maybe I’m just a matter of fact kind of guy, but I really do enjoy and appreciate some artistic license in the telling of a story. Very few stories are interesting unless there is at least some embellishment. I’ve known a few folks in my time here on earth that if they could write, can really make a story interesting.

    Tarantino made Inglorious Basterds uninteresting.

  • BBC

    Perhaps, being inflexible in certain circumstances indicates knowledge and perspective with which to critique cutlural events. It may also indicate a standard of taste.

  • raphael a

    Could someone please explain to me what on earth this has to do with George Clooney and Elizabeth Canalis?

  • Frank Renzulli

    Patry. Tarantino is a pastry maker. I love pastry. Not a non stop diet of it. But I do love pastry. Tarantino is one of the best pastry chefs out there. I think it unfair to compare him to a master chef. But that one facet of the master chef is pastry. With regard to this one facets of the discipline that make a complete Master, Quentin Tarantino is masterful. Really, a bit of a silly argument.

  • Frank Renzulli

    Forgive my last post as it was not proofed. I think you may be able to make sense of it if you read it slowly.

  • MovieMan0283

    Inglourious Basterds, though undoubtedly facile and immature in large swathes, is valuable as art because it’s such a perfectly realized picture. Furthermore, it’s more subtle and rich that most of Tarantino’s earlier pictures – I often found myself wishing he’d made the entire movie about Shoshana and Landa, and ignored the Basterds altogether (although ultimately I felt I had to take the movie all of a piece, and did so).

    House of Leaves didn’t quite work for me. I enjoyed it, and found it quite imaginative, but ultimately the potential center seemed to get crushed by all the postmodern posturing.

    Incidentally, I’m a self-identified independent who voted for Obama and has no use for tea-party/Sarah Palin conservatism. I found it telling that the ’08 convention sat bored through McCain’s moving speech, filled with values that rang of traditional conservatism like sacrifice, responsibility, and honor. Yet they burst into passionate applause for the vapid “hockey mom” have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too pep talk from Palin – a true signifier of where the conservative movement has ended up, not with hard-won stoicism but selfish materialism.

    I mention this because, ironically, I seem to be to the right of you on culture. While I think the Western canon needed revamping in the modern era, I find that modernism – with its awe for the old as well as its discovery of new forms and feelings of dislocation – achieved this nicely, and that the postmodernism which followed has been a dead end.

    As for conservatives and liberals in the arts, I think that any fixed ideology is dangerous when dragged into aesthetics. In this regard, it’s not so surprising that there are few distinguished right-wingers in the arts and criticism, but it IS a surprise that there are so many distinguished left-wingers. Perhaps, for a variety of reasons, the traditions of the Left allows for a sensitivity and open-mindedness towards art that is not apparent in other facets of the ideology.

  • Abe Froman

    A big part of why the arts are dominated by leftists is sheer practicality. While there’s much to be said for taking risks and following your dreams, the emotional makeup of lefties seems better suited for a lifestyle with such a high failure rate. Everyone knows the success stories. But wingers are more apt to look at the far greater odds of being a 30 year old loser still working in a coffee shop and think there are worse things than being an accountant and going home to your family and friends.

  • K

    “They either detest pop culture or have such inflexible rules about how it is supposed to be created that they end up stuck on the outside, looking at the filmmaking process with either scorn or derision.”
    As I’ve noted before, Steve Allan wrote a book called “How to Be Funny” where he said that conservatives couldn’t be funny. At the time, I had a hard time thinking of an openly conservative comedian or political cartoonist. Perhaps this was because at that point in time, conservatives were the establishment. And it’s hard to be funny when everything is ordered to your liking. But now, the real conservatives are protecting the leftist mainstream culture from change. The right now has lots of funny men because irony and humor is often generated by pain and when you’re the “fascist” or “prude” or “McCarthyite” or “RACIST” you either develop a sense of humor or you retract from the culture entirely. Perhaps this is why most left wing humor and even drama is associated with simplistically getting emotional traction from shock value by bashing some old culture norm. It’s not particularly clever, or even effective. Particularly when you have to keep pushing the envelope, which has now arrived at the threshold of child pornography and a burning hatred for half the country.

    If the old conservatives, meaning the Judeo Christian morals ones, fail at the arts due to their constrains, why does the left, which has evern more constraints, dominate media production? Remember, the left has the Green religion, political correctness taboos and multiculturalism to limit their creativity. And their only non political response is to put out self referential (media commenting on media) pieces like “Inglorious Basterds”.

    The only difference in the creativity limitation department right now is that the left has control of the instruments. Which is why we’re deluged with picture after picture after picture of the same ol anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, anti-Christian and anti-technology. That and a bazillion identical rom coms makes one ask “Where the highly acclaimed leftist creativity?” of which Mr. Goldstein speaks?

  • Michael

    The left also dominate comedy because it’s easier to knock a house down than to build it up. Cheap comedy is easy. Consider these gems of wit, “F*** you, George Bush.” and how often have you heard this gutter insult form someone paid to be funny, “Yeah, I f***ed your mum.” etc.

    Conservatives are constrained by their desire to build and protect, whereas those on the left, being anything from deconstructionists to revolutionaries, can tear at the culture that holds a society together for cheap laughs with nary a thought for the consequences.

    It is hard for a conservative to make a living in the arts because at many times a conservative may baulk at a project because it is ultimately destructive. But for those with wit, it can be done.

    Take Mr Klavan himself as an example. Watch some of his Klavan on Culture on youtube. Notice that he is very funny (perhaps it doesn’t feel so funny if you’re getting the end of the stick). Notice that he engages with ideas, his humour actually engages with what people are saying and doing. Notice also that he is seeking to protect something and to build something. I suggest this is an example of a conservative artist who has chosen the harder path of creating rather than tearing down.

    Some might say there are very few conservative comedians out there, I would argue that there are very few genuinely innovative and constructively funny comedians out there. Of those who do genuinely create humour, there would be as many on the left as on the right, and a whole lot more who are neutral.

  • MovieMan0283

    Tarantino ranges from apolitical to right-wing. You guys really need to stop treating “the left” and Hollywood as monolithic entities (not to mention interchangeable). And, really, American films are anti-technology? Come on now.

    For all your complaints about generalizations about the right, you share are engaging in a lot of generalizations about everyone else.

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  • CT Lostaglia

    I can’t possibly express how much I agree with you on House of Leaves. It is, behind Moby Dick (Which I like for the EXACT reasons you mentioned about House of leaves), my favorite novel of all time. I have, in my possession, a signed first edition of that book and it is one of my signature pieces of bound fantastica. And no, I am not a cultist Danielewski dude, I just appreciate that book for what it is and what it does. I’ve never even done a google search for him, let alone any fan pages or whatnot. That would probably ruin it for me, like visiting a different author’s house many years ago ruined his writing for me.

  • Eric M. Blake

    Andrew, while I agree with a lot of what you say…I have to strongly disagree with your assessment of Quentin Tarantino. Somehow, I doubt, if they really thought about it, that the Left would like his films–especially Inglourious. In that film, remember, we have Brad Pitt’s squad engaging in what can best be characterized as…enhanced interrogation.

    The Left seeks to smear our boys as Gitmo for the stuff Aldo Raine and Co. do as par for the course. If I were to ascribe politics to the film, I would call it staunchly conservative (or, at least, neoconservative). It has a strong “In times of war, you MUST do what is necessary to win, and win as quickly as possible.”

    We would do well, Mr. Klavan, not to help smear one of our own.