It is a cynical Hollywood wisdom that one cannot win at the Academy Awards against any well-made film focused on World War II and the crimes Nazi Germany committed against European Jews who were murdered on an industrial scale. Any reference to the Third Reich is ultimately an allusion to those murders.
Given all that, you would think Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a sure bet for winning Best Picture. As they used to say: Not. While it is set during the German occupation of France, Tarantino decided to make a variation on a Hollywood propaganda film, up to and including a revenge-fantasy ending. Having been born in 1945, I saw many World War II espionage melodramas in the early days of television. That was a time in America when weekend afternoons and evenings were filled with such movies, and revenge-fantasy endings were not uncommon.
In his latest film, Tarantino has proven himself with some of the finest scenes ever written. One begins this complex, espionage tall tale in the French countryside, where the infamous “Jew hunter” searches a farmhouse. Then there is the basement bar scene, taut with suspense as Nazis and British spies mix it up—and then shoot it up. Both scenes will, doubtlessly, stand up against whatever you have on your private list of the absolute best.
Much of Tarantino’s brilliance comes from his scholarly—but vital—comprehension of international film history and his expanding mastery of dialogue, something far from rare in modern literature, which has often reframed classical myths and themes.
For Tarantino, film itself creates the modern mythic forms that touch us all. Beyond that, he is something of a cinematic William Faulkner; the filmmaker seems to completely grasp the central significance of Negro Americans to this country’s history and its culture, which always pops up in his films, from Reservoir Dogs forward.
But it is highly probable that James Cameron’s Avatar will win as Best Picture because, first of all, it has already grossed $2 billion in a record-setting few months on the world market. It also provides the obligatory liberal concerns emphatically argued in a cartoon form: Black, brown, red and yellow people are made into blue humanoids, complete with pointed ears, braids and tails. The film is opposed to colonialism, imperialism, military aggression, ethnic paranoia and ruthless threats to the ecology forced by corporate irresponsibility. The humanoids are clearly this year’s noble savages who partner with nature. That is why the blue people and the forest itself are fated to battle the white man as inextricable allies.
Though cinematic technology has become more sophisticated over the years, the familiar stays firmly in place, which is one of the reasons Avatar has been so successful. In an appearance on The View, Cameron said that he wanted to make a film about our endangered ecology but could only get backing if he presented it in a contemporary sci-fi format.
The box-office receipts prove that the studio executives were right. The masses can absorb these ideas, just as they did when Hollywood took a licking stick to Southern racism, the Vietnam War, Wall Street hustlers, sexism and so on. Avatar, as Teresa Wiltz has observed right here on The Root, is many well-meaning clichés rolled into one seemingly endless 3-D marathon.
One of the wonders of popular culture, however, is that profoundly important issues can be kicked around with no more depth than a cartoon page, but all of those soppy pages stacked one atop another, year after year after year, eventually create a lumpy critical mass that can trip up the clichés of bigotry and help send them for a heavy fall. An extremely successful marketing firm recently found out through a worldwide survey that the No. 1 issue on the minds of the many is the ecology. Hmm.
The attempted extermination of European Jews through industrialized murder can never be outdistanced in importance: It underlines one of the ongoing threats to our species, which is what can happen when wrong-minded people have command of nearly irresistible technology.
But I do not think even that is enough for Inglourious Basterds to squeak past Avatar. Tarantino’s film is, finally, far too sophisticated for the Oscars. Denzel Washington "should" have won for Courage Under Fire, but both the film and his performance were too nuanced. (Then there is the fact that Washington’s performance strayed too far from what was thought to make for an “authentic” black performance—or, some variation of hip-hop minstrelsy.)
The same can be said of Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress, which Pauline Kael and I used to agree was one of the most original characterizations since James Cagney in 1931’s The Public Enemy. Some claim that Robert Duvall did not win for The Apostle because Hollywood Jews are too suspicious of redneck Christians. I think the actual problem was sophistication again, just as it was when Meryl Streep did not take home the Oscar for Doubt.
Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds may win for his astonishingly human performance as the charming Nazi who delights in playing cat-and-mouse games with his intended victims. His subtle wit and worldly air make him a superbly ominous villain.
But that will not help Tarantino win an Oscar. This is, after all, the United States. When it comes to culture and the masses—and those who make their livings off of the masses—one would be a fool to think that there is ever anything close to what we might call even money.
Stanley Crouch is a New York Writer and author of numerous books, including The Artificial White Man, Considering Genius and Don't The Moon Look Lonesome. He was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.