Saturday, August 22, 2009

They see you when you're sleeping. They KNOW when you're awake.

Inglourious Basterds is a wild ride of extraordinary invention, filled to the brim with rousing episodes of sheer loquaciousness and astonishing moments of unforeseen mayhem. That is to say, Inglourious Basterds is a film by Quentin Tarantino.

Having heard of the project years ago, I mistakenly pictured a gritty story of life as a foot soldier during World War II. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I have seen my share of war films, many of which deal with that very time period, but I daresay that I have never seen a war film that was as entertaining and as much utter fun as this one.

Inglourious Basterds is about a group of Allied soldiers, most of them Jewish-American, placed in occupied France in 1941 to conduct a campaign of terror against the Nazis. Along the way, the film deviates down a number of different paths, introducing the audience to characters large, small, brash, shy, self-reliant, needy, and above all, very entertaining.

A prominent reason for why the film works so well is the screenplay. It's wonderfully well-written. I'm not certain that it's, as Tarantino might believe, the penultimate story in his already venerable collection of narrative mastery, but it definitely deserves a tier all its own. There's a circular quality to the writing that's very rewarding for the viewer. Certain objects and phrases previously alluded to come back into focus and provide a sense of discovery as one realizes that what's about to happen is as plain as the mustache on Brad Pitt's lip.

Speaking of Brad Pitt, he's wonderful here. In the screening I attended, there came a point when anything he said would be greeted by laughter. With this film and last year's Burn After Reading, he's certainly recast himself as a viable comedic actor. In addition, Christoph Waltz is very strong as Col. Hans Landa. He shows a remarkable amount of range in his portrayal of a brilliant, charming, and often vicious SD officer. There's a moment early in the film when his features literally harden right in front of the viewer's eyes that's remarkable. He's almost certain to receive an Oscar nomination.

Quentin Tarantino has come a long way from the life of a cash-strapped video store clerk. It would be fairly simple to say that his films typically fall into a specific genre, and list Reservoir Dogs as his heist film, Pulp Fiction as his gangster film, Kill Bill as his kung-fu action film, and Inglourious Basterds as his WWII film. But discussing his films as mere exercises in genre isn't entirely accurate and does them a grave disservice. Do those films share certain conventions with other films that wear the same label? Certainly. Where Tarantino goes off into different territory is in how he executes those conventions. One could do a random test and compare a scene from any of those films to a scene from just about any other film within its genre and you'd be able to pick out the Tarantino film every single time. In a "regular" gangster film, we'd see the hitmen find their target and blow him/her to kingdom come. In a Tarantino film, we follow the hitmen around town as they drive to their target, listen to their conversation as it touches on a variety of subjects from the metric system to foot massages, watch them scare the living daylights out of their target by trying his Kahuna burger and Sprite, quote Ezekiel to thrilling effect, and then blow the guy away. In lesser hands, a scene with this level of sophistication would be a disaster.

As such, the pacing of Inglourious Basterds is signature Tarantino. What might be seen as slow in someone else's movie is more often than not justified in his work, because it's so specifically structured to build in a certain way. Other trademarks abound, such as the placement of captions to point out specific characters, unexpected asides that provide information, and his ever-present title cards to point out the start of a new "chapter." I've heard the film described by one critic as an art film that keeps the viewer at arm's length instead of providing a fully enveloping experience. This is a fair judgment of the film. He's fully aware that he's making a film, and he's intent on keeping that fact in your mind as a viewer. From a personal standpoint, I find it particularly exciting to have a chance to see a film from a genuine artist who uses film as a way to express a unique creative outlook, as opposed to a film made by the multitude of people working in Hollywood for whom making movies seems to be "just a job."

Some have expressed a sense of disappointment, even revilement, at the liberty Tarantino takes with history. There have been Jewish critics who have taken exception to the way that many Nazis in the film are abused by the Basterds, the tactics that the Basterds use, and the significant amount of charm exuded by Col. Landa, who, apparently, is too charming to be a real Nazi. Personally, my response to to these criticisms is "What exactly is the problem?" Yes, the Nazis in the film are abused horribly by the Basterds. Yes, the Basterds use tactics akin to modern terrorists. However, there's one particular point that needs to remain clearly visible. It's a movie. Tarantino is not trying to to make a political statement or present an historical document with his highly specialized vision of World War II. I think it probably boils down to something as simple as the thought running through his head of "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if . . ." Additionally, I fervently disagree that Col. Landa is so charming that the viewer forgets the terrible actions he's capable of.

I'm a bit confused, to be honest. Last year, The Reader got flak for being sympathetic to a Nazi character and trying to understand her reason for her crimes, and now Inglourious Basterds is getting flak for its presentation of Nazis receiving what, for many of them, they fully deserve. Is there some way of dealing with this time period that's supposed to be more correct than all others? I'm not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that the events that took place in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's are anything less than a terrifying indictment of what is possible when the worst aspects of men's and women's souls are allowed to guide their actions. What I am suggesting is that, as viable material for a narrative, there are a variety of ways to deal with it.

As I sat there in the movie theater as the film neared the end, I had a thought that I might just know where it was going to end, and this thought ticked me off a little bit. "Oh, come on," I thought, "if he does THAT, then this movie has officially lost it, jumped the shark, committed hara-kiri, etc. That's just too much." Then, you want to guess what happened? It ended exactly that way, but something strange happened. It didn't really bother me that much. What's more, as I thought about it later, I realized something. While it's certainly not the way that any story that really took place would have ended, for this wild ride, it worked, and, in its own way, is kind of brilliant.

Just like the film itself.


Anonymous said...

On my top 10 of this year I have to see. Although, I admit I'm looking forward to QT's Western just a bit more.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to try not to repeat myself on your fb page in just a minute....

I agree with you that it is slow at times compared to his earlier works but the good far outweighs the bad. I also liked Pitt's role as a comedic lead in this film far more than Burn After Reading for some reason, especially the scene where he tries on his horrible accent.

As for why everyone is so upset in regards to how the Nazi's are portrayed, I guess because that is literally the closest time in world history where one nation has attempted to control the planet and every conflict since has been sleight in comparison. So its hard for people today to imagine such pure evil existing, even the real despots of the world today pale in comparison.

Although, personally unless they lived through that era or grew up in it then they really have no right to complain.