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.