Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

It occurred to me right before I walked into the theater to see Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds that perhaps the reason for his bizarrely misspelled title was to ensure that newspapers could print it without fear of censorship. I don't know if that's true, but the film certainly deserves as much press as it can get. Described by its director as "a spaghetti western but with World War II iconography," it combines the maturity of his Jackie Brown with the cartoonish joy of Kill Bill and the audacity of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. If it is not his greatest film, it is certainly his most daring.

The title describes a small unit of Jewish-American soldiers led by Tennessean Lt. Aldo Raine, sent behind enemy lines before the D-day invasion to wreak havoc in Nazi-occupied France. As is Tarantino’s M.O., the actions of these eight are largely alluded to, shown only in the briefest of snippets that make the campy nature of what is -- on a deceptively simple surface layer -- a Jewish revenge fantasy even funnier. That's impressive when you consider that the action scenes in the film are taut, short and thoroughly brutal, a frank depiction of the horror of war. So frank, perhaps, that we have to laugh.

The timeline jumps immediately after the character introductions to a rather camp Hitler panicking over the Basterds’ successes, as the insurgents -- Tarantino casually drops sly equations of the soldiers to terrorists a few times -- have picked up nicknames that only enhance their mystery and intimidation: the scalp-loving Raine becomes “Aldo the Apache,” the bat-wielding Donny (Eli Roth) “the Bear Jew.”

But this, to the undoubted dismay of some, is not simply an exercise in video game Nazi killing. Those disappointed likely wish it contained more of the violence for which Tarantino found fame. But I fear some people have their own fabricated image of what typically constitutes Taratino's violence, as his films largely suggest violence through the dialogue or by placing the result of violence just off-screen. Only Kill Bill Vol. 1 contains any persistent blood and gore, and that movie is so marvelously cartoony that you don't take it seriously. That the Basterds would take a back seat in their own movie actually makes sense in the director's world.

Far more integral to the story is Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew in hiding from the Nazis who runs a cinema in Paris. When a young war hero (Daniel Brühl) falls for her, he arranges for the premiere of Goebbels’ new propaganda film, of which he is the subject, to be held at her theater, thus allowing her chance for revenge on the entire Nazi high command. Where Raine's tear across France plays like a visceral black comedy revenge story, Shosanna's tale has a personal edge that gives the movie a severity we haven't seen in Tarantino's work in a long time.

The two stories never fully converge, at least not beyond a final setting, but they each promote a similar, thoroughly Tarantinoesque look at history: the story of Raine’s men presents us with a revisionist war movie, one that piles on the director’s seemingly limitless depths of film knowledge into a referential melting point that doesn’t become the sum of its quotations like some of his past efforts. Shosanna’s, on the other hand, looks at history through film itself. When that hero, Zöller introduces himself, he notes that her marquee displays the names of filmmakers who wouldn't normally get top billing, as she simply admires them. When a British soldier is sent to join the Basterds and help them formulate their own plan to burn the cinema, the general in charge of "Operation Kino" (played up by Mike Myers, who comes the closest to overplaying his part but only has one scene) chooses the operative based on his encylopedic knowledge of film history and a deep understanding of German filmmaking both before and during the Third Reich.

Shosanna's plan to use film literally as a weapon reflects the spirit of the nouvelle vague and contrasts brilliantly with the propaganda film to be shown in her cinema; what is propaganda if not psychological warfare? Godard used film as a weapon too: first against itself, to free cinema from the oppressive rules and structure forced upon it, then in his workings with the Dziga Vertov group and beyond blending that radical approach to filmmaking with radical politics to match. Tarantino's approach is as much of a wry nod to that director as the name of his production company, Band Apart.

While I love Death Proof in connection to Grindhouse as a whole, I admit that the writing left a bit to be desired (or a great deal, if you see the extended cut). Inglourious Basterds, however, contains some of Tarantino's finest moments. In the opening scene, Shosanna hides with her family under the floorboards of a dairy farmer's home. The SS Colonel Hans Landa comes to search the place, and in the course of his conversation with the farmer reveals his entire character in frightening progression. As he switches effortlessly between languages and engages in polite discussion with his suspect, we eventually realize that he isn't probing the farmer about the possibility of hidden Jews, he knew where they were before he stepped foot in the house. This one scene not only defines the tension present in much of the film's dialogue but in the film's ability to lead you in one direction only to completely throw you at every turn. Basterds is brilliantly self-referential able to draw incredible suspense from the repeated mention of a glass or milk, or a perversion of the Cinderella tale of the missing shoe. There's also an interesting analysis of the equation by Nazi propaganda of Jews to rats, with Landa bringing up the comparison that people tend to hate rats without any solid reason for doing so; they just hate rats.

In Death Proof, Tarantino fully switched from punchy, idiosyncratic dialogue to full-on verbosity, and in a way he cleverly parodies himself with the dialogue in this film. Conversations are drawn-out until the characters themselves are sick of them: the longer these undercover soldiers or Jewish refugees find themselves trapped in chats with Nazis, the greater the chance they'll be find out. The characters are trying to pull away from the dialogue their writer keeps feeding them, which only furthers the tension. It climaxes with a bloodbath in the theater, and, for all the talk of this being nothing of a revenge fantasy, Tarantino brilliantly contrasts the German audiences who moments before were enjoying watching a film of a soldier mowing down Americans with the audience of Inglourious Basterds watching an inversion of the same. For all its comedy and fun, Basterds offers a sobering look at the cost, both physical and psychological, of vengeance, and the way he forces us to confront, even if many might not notice it, our own sense of bloodlust when it comes to Nazis recalls Michael Powell's brilliant exposé of cinematic voyeurism, Peeping Tom.

Though a few characters aren’t tied up very well (or at all), I can’t find much to fault with Inglourious Basterds. Its perfect cast knows exactly what Tarantino is shooting for here, and they play up the dark humor brilliantly. Brad Pitt, always at his most interesting in comedic roles, commits so thoroughly to Raine’s slack-lipped hick that you can’t help but laugh whenever he’s on-screen; the scene where he tries to speak "Eye-talien" to fool his way past some Nazis is one of the highlights of Pitt's career. But veteran Austrian television actor Christoph Waltz steals the show as the amoral, terrifying Landa, “the Jew Hunter.” Waltz captures Landa’s polite charm and vicious madness in equal measure. Landa is the sort of person who will compliment your impeccable fashion as he stabs through your shirt, always calculating and never caught unaware. He alone is worth the price of admission, and a second viewing.

While Raine’s final line might not reflect the film itself, Inglourious Basterds is an audacious movie you can’t afford to miss. After spending the better part of a decade using his skill for film quotation to create madcap worlds of B-movie revelry, Tarantino has finally returned to his New Wave roots and use them to propel an intelligent story. It lacks the “anything goes” quality of Pulp Fiction, but here at last is a film worthy of the potential he displayed in that film. It also reinforces that nobody -- though many have tried -- can truly nail down what makes Tarantino such a bold and irresistible director. Who else would think to name one of the German-born Basterds Hugo Stiglitz, after a prominent mexploitation actor, and then shatter the film's flow just to give him a stylized backstory complete with narration (from Samuel L. Jackson, no less)? Funny but sincere, beautiful in its grotesqueness, Basterds is one of the finest films of recent years, and proof that Tarantino is at his best when he pays tribute not to genres, but cinema as a whole.

[Ed. Note: Additional, in-depth thoughts can be found in a follow-up post here.]

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