May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 9, 2009
“She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.” (Walker Percy, The Moviegoer)
Until this review was posted, googling “Walker Percy” and “Quentin Tarantino” would not have produced much of any substance other than the odd anecdote that Tarantino once turned down an opportunity to direct an adaptation of The Moviegoer. But thanks to Inglourious Basterds, I couldn’t shake loose the possibility that they indeed do have much to say to each other. It may very well be that this odd search string will now direct one towards thoughts about pop culture, nostalgia and cinema.
One of Walker Percy’s lifelong preoccupations involved finding ways to describe the literal derangement or dislocation of modern man. In Lost in The Cosmos and a late lecture in Paris, for example, he spoke of de-rangement as the condition in which a person loses a sense of purpose that they may have expected to find in a particular place or set of behaviors. The symptoms of this malaise are sense of displacement and homelessness. Hometown no longer feels so much like a home. A distant city promising more existential pizzazz turns out to be yet another stage set for L’Étranger level boredom. Business becomes a treadmill. We become wayfarers with no clear destination. Place, nostalgia, time – these kinds of old hat Percyan ideals are lost in the shuffle of modern commerce and architecture developing at a deranged post-war pace.
In The Moviegoer, Percy used Binx Bolling as a test case for a unique species of dislocation that finds a temporary solution in the cinema. Movies neither replace or renew the wards of Binx’s agonizing fin de siècle New Orleans, but they do provide mirrors, possibilities, alternate realities that suggest there truly is more to be had amidst the ruins of “everydayness” than brief affairs and jaunts along the balmy Gulf. Whether or not one would ever be able to transition the realistic sense of relief one finds in the cinema to the life that begins again when the credits roll is a central preoccupation of The Moviegoer’s storyline.
But there is also something prescient about the way Binx Bolling is constructed in the novel as someone whose identity becomes underpinned by movie scenes, bits of dialogue, and reproduced locations. Percy was very conscious of being a Southern writer at a time when the South began to lose much of its characteristic manner and culture such that his Lousiana grandchildren were just “like the kids in Dubuque, Iowa.” He thought he was witnessing a transition from a era in which memory and identity were products of particular places and local cultures to an America in which we would “find ourselves” by negotiating a series of packaged cultural experiences.
What he hints at in The Moviegoer is the emergence of a new kind of identity making, a new sense of place, a new nostalgia that is inextricably linked to the increasing presence of Hollywood in the way we learn to handle the more confusing stretches of life.
And this makes the factoid that Tarantino once turned down a chance to direct an adaptation of The Moviegoer all too eerie, as I think his films have become a real-time application of Percy’s fictional preoccupation with dislocation. Tarantino’s films expose the Binx Bolling in us all, restless until we have a tidy border of cultural reference within which we can claim our stake. Most of his intricately scripted and arranged films are hardwired into the idea that his audience has nostalgic connections to all the bits of media history he is tossing out at us.
We were steeped in the Saturday afternoon grind-core stuff, the crackly Blaxploitation soundtracks, all the spaghetti westerns we watched with Dad, the mismatched kung-fu dialogue. And I often enjoy it when Tarantino is firing so skillfully on these cylinders. There are times that Kill Bill is a generic walk down memory lane. Death Proof spoke to the lifelong road movie addict in me. Spots of Inglourious Basterds are almost up to the standard of those endlessly watchable Aldrich and Hutton WWII movies.
But on the other hand, I wonder what this new pop-culture based nostalgia Percy toyed with is all about, as it also crops up fairly frequent in criticism of contemporary Chinese cinema. In Rey Chow’s oft cited essay on Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, she states:
In the 1980s and the 1990s, the omnipresence of real-estate speculation means not only that “original” historic places are being demolished regularly, but also that the new constructions that replace them often do not stand long enough to acquire the feeling of permanence that in turn gives way to nostalgia before they too are demolished… If the expedience of technology means that human separation itself need no longer be mournful because of diminished travel distances, it also means that our relations to the past are drastically altered because of the unprecedented disintegration of stationary places. Nostalgia now appears differently, working by a manipulation of temporarily rather than by a simple projection of lack/loss onto space. If and when the past is to be (re)collected, it is (re)collected in compressed forms, forms that are fantasies of time.
The same line of thought also explains the potency of films like Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and Jia’s Still Life. The latter film thus revealed as a real-time meditation on this loss of nostalgia, as massive swaths of cultural memory are liquidated by the Three Gorges Dam project. The dam has become the same leveling influence that makes Percy’s Louisiana grandchildren no different than the ones in Dubuque. Jia’s sensitivity to the fragility of a vivid form of Chinese nostalgia also took form in several references to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in Unknown Pleasures, a film that poses bits of Pulp Fiction as formatively nihilist bright spots amidst the economic desperation of Shanxi province youth.
All this is to say is that Tarantino takes his auteur cue from what Percy, and apparently Chinese cinema, often portrays as a movement of decay. For Percy and Chow, this shift in nostalgia and identify formation is something to be addressed critically rather than celebrated in hyper-referential vignettes of retro agility. It simply may be that Tarantino is symptomatic of a similar movement in American culture, and I often leave his films feeling like much of my nostalgic range has been plumbed, much like the man we follow around in Still Life.
This is what made Inglourious Basterds such an interesting exercise, as it is the first case in which Tarantino’s nostalgic approach to reference locked horns with an actual historical memory that has a host of representational issues even in its most minimal Night and Fog-like occurrences. As he has said, it is his Dirty Dozen, his Kelly’s Heroes. But whether he likes it or not, it is also his Holocaust film, his first foray into rubble cinema. It is his new nostalgia thinking about the same issues historians, artists, and memory theorists have talked about for decades. In this way, Inglourious Basterds is a deranged film in Percy’s sense of the term, as it shows Tarantino’s deft hand all too clearly against the backdrop of such serious historical issues. His pool of nostalgic reference turns out to be pretty shallow and inherently dislocating, even though Tarantino returns to them again and again much in the same way that Shosanna turns back in sympathy to Zoller’s corpse. It is a sad film not because it is about the Holocaust and French resistance, but because it is so blithely about them.
It is technically adept, catchy in every sense of the term informed by our shared pop-culture memories, yet it is problematic in an odd way. I think The Moviegoer would dig Inglourious Basterds, in which case: the jig is up.