Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Second Thoughts: Inglourious Basterds

Warning -- contains spoilers

The first time I tried out one of these companion pieces to an old review, for Adventureland, I re-evaluated my positive but simplistic reading of the film, finding justification for the four stars I originally gave it and delving deep enough into the source material without the specter of my paper’s word limit to hamper me. In the case of Inglourious Basterds, I already gave it five stars, giving it nowhere to go but down, but I’ll be damned if I knock it one bit. I also agree with everything I said about it, which makes this a relatively useless post. Yet watching it for the third time, now able to pause and jot down notes as opposed to scribbling shorthand in the dark, I find even more to celebrate.

As I noted in my reviews of the Kill Bill movies (Basterds’ logical antecedent, aesthetically and morally), Tarantino displayed a surprising maturity coming off of the bloodbath that was Vol. 1, steering his revenge fantasy into not exactly a sobering meditation on the idea of vengeance but certainly a deeper look at the subject under all that fun. It is of course easy to simplify Tarantino’s work into that of a trash-loving, sub-Godardian man-child, a notion that can largely be traced to Tarantino himself and the public image he’s crafted. Yet a careful review of his corpus reveals him to be one of the most notable moralists in modern cinema, albeit one who stresses the visceral enjoyment of his films over strict messaging (God bless you, Quentin). Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown all concern characters who, like those in Scorsese’s crime pictures such as Mean Streets or GoodFellas, are trapped in lives of crime, unable or unwilling to break free into normalcy. Kill Bill, especially in light of its upcoming sequels and their rumored plots, details a cycle of violence and revenge doomed to repeat forever.

Tarantino examines a similar idea with Basterds, only where Kill Bill demonstrated the cyclical nature of revenge Basterds shows its utterly destructive impact. Admittedly, the idea of a Jewish revenge fantasy against the Nazis has a certain appeal to it, and Tarantino’s style is so frenetic and informed by pop culture ensures that Basterds will be a fun ride. But, over the course of 2-1/2 hours of brilliant dialogue and frenzied mimesis, the film presents the darker side of vengeance.

Because, first and foremost, Inglourious Basterds is a Western, one that reshapes the whole of America into the Old West and presents Europe as the civilized East. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is a Tennessean hillbilly, sporting what appears to be a lynching scar. These traits, however, do not stray too terribly far from Western tropes: numerous Western protagonists are ex-Confederates, Southerners like this violent good ol’ boy, and a lynching scar could just as easily be a failed hanging out in the desert. Raine’s assertion that he “has a little Injun in [him]” only further ties him to the idea of the West – he reminds me in some small way of Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, a film that is openly referenced at the beginning as the camera watches Shosanna flee the farm through a door frame. Westerns, of course, revolve chiefly around the idea of personal morality in a world where the “law” is the biggest criminal of all. If Europe represents the more developed East, then those in the West understandably do not trust the powers that be. With Europe under the control of a “Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac,” men like Raine feel the need to enact their own brand of justice to find sense in the world.

Yet Tarantino presents Raine, more than any of the other characters, as a rigid, inane fool, unable to process anything other than the desire to kill. Perhaps his heart is in the right place – he assembles a team of Jewish soldiers to seek vengeance for the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, and for all we know he received his neck scar while attempting to help African-Americans in some capacity – but his approach is brutal. Interestingly, Tarantino cuts from Raine’s speech about the “cruelty” they will inflict upon the Germans not to a vision of that cruelty but first to Hitler himself, every bit as narrow-minded and over-the-top as the lieutenant. By cutting to Hitler before showing the actions of the Basterds, Tarantino stresses the link between the atrocities of the two, Hitler’s own outrage at the horrors inflicted upon him as hypocritical as Aldo’s. To bring back the Searchers connection, Aldo’s punishment of carving swastikas into the foreheads of the Nazis he allows to live recalls Ethan’s tendency to shoot out the eyes of every dead Comanche. Ethan knew enough about the race he hated that he mutilated bodies according to their customs, while Aldo’s “branding” has a horrific real-life corollary to Nazis etching Stars of David into rabbis before executing them. Other connections between the “good” Basterds and the “bad” Nazis exist, such as the nicknaming of supporting characters, Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz and SS Colonel Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa. Both express a fondness for their titles, as both have earned them. And just as Landa treats Jew hunting as a form of sport (to the point that he lets Shosanna go free simply to give him something to do later), so too do the Basterds regard Donny’s vicious method of killing, clubbing Nazis with a wooden baseball bat, as entertainment. Raine even says it's “the closest we ever get to going to the movies.”

Some critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum and Daniel Mendelsohn, charged the movie with turning Jews into Nazis, which is precisely the point. Yes, Inglourious Basterds is a celebratory affair, what with its mass appropriation of Morricone scores, perverted New Wave ideals and a sudden break in the narrative so Samuel L. Jackson can provide a back-story straight out of an exploitation movie for a character named for an exploitation actor. His camera movements also have a wit to them, as when his camera moves back and forth between Aldo, Wicki and the co-operative German soldier as Aldo arrogantly barks demands, which Wicki calmly translates before the soldier immediately obeys every command in terror. But as for the story itself, one should note that most of the characters engaged in various schemes for vengeance die; some, like Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), before even knowing the satisfaction of vengeance.

Orphaned by Landa, Shosanna hides out in Paris for three years until opportunity knocks: Pvt. Zoller, a lovestruck German hero (Daniel Brühl) convinces Goebbels to hold the premiere of his latest propaganda film at Shosanna’s theater. She concocts a plan to lock the doors and burn the place to the ground and for the rest of the film is blinded by her desire for revenge. Her hatred is understandable, but it corrupts her. Just as The Bride had moments of cold realization and regret after killing both O-Ren and Bill, Shosanna sobers later when she looks upon Zoller’s (seemingly) dead body, juxtaposed against a shot on the theater screen of his cherubic face, still lined with baby fat, and she understands in that moment that Zoller’s life, while not as terrible as her own, was also forcibly shaped by the Nazis1. And when she turns him over only to find him alive, he takes his revenge upon her just as she took out her Nazi hatred on him.

In my original review, I compared the climactic slaughter in the theater to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. It is not a perfect analogy: Powell’s film was intentionally disturbing where Tarantino deals in revelry. Yet they're not far off: Peeping Tom was a thriller that detailed the audience’s role as voyeur at the Cineplex, positioning its tortured protagonist as the representative of both the director and audience, deriving a certain psychosexual pleasure from his kills even as the film’s true audience blanched and protested. Similarly, Tarantino uses the German propaganda film and its audience to contrast with the reaction of the Inglourious Basterds audience which, if my two theatrical viewings were any indication, wild enthusiasm. Without forcing the point or lessening the visceral impact of the moment, Tarantino paints us as no different from the Nazis cheering the mounting pile of dead Americans on-screen, something Americans are accustomed to when the dead in question are German or, depending on what costumes are being worn, British. Of the four “good” guys who enter, only one escapes alive, the rest killed either by a momentary lapse of planning or through an off-putting display of terrorism. One could potentially assign a relevancy to Kill Bill, its cycle of violence mirroring America’s retaliatory strikes and the future generation of terrorists they bred, but Basterds’ connection to the present is unmistakable: here it shows the Americans, somewhat justified in their hatred of an identifiable evil, losing themselves in their own atrocity to stop that force.

The readings don’t stop there, however. Moving beyond Tarantino’s exploration of revenge, one can view Inglourious Basterds as a film about language. In a roundtable discussion with Tarantino, Pitt and Elvis Mitchell included on the DVD and Blu-Ray, the director explained that the idea of all the actors speaking English “with an accent” repulsed him. His conversations have always created tension from their loquacity, framing heavy chunks of dialogue around brief, darkly funny but brutal spurts of violence. Removing the language barriers would cast aside the potential for great suspense. In the opening scene, Landa has the farmer switch to English because, as we discover 10 minutes later, it allowed them to converse without alerting the Jews hiding under M. LaPadite’s floorboards.

In an even longer sequence, the masterfully drawn-out half hour in the cellar of a tavern, Tarantino reaches the apotheosis of the lingual explorations of his career. In the same roundtable discussion, Tarantino noted that, while someone could obviously speak multiple languages, the idea that simple fluency would allow unlimited access for a spy is just as basic and false as the rewriting of all parts into English. The tavern scene is an exercise in restraint (you heard me), the likes of which is rarely seen in modern American cinema: it relies entirely on the suspense of a situation meant to be simple and painless that goes wrong from the start. The two German Bastards, Wicki and Stiglitz, accompany the British spy Lt. Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a hilariously stiff-upper-lipped chap channeling his inner Sean Connery, to the tavern to meet German film star/Allied spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Krüger). It was supposed to be a simple meet-and-greet followed by a return to the rest of the Basterds, but a German NCO became a father and thus took the gang out to celebrate. Half of the sequence plays out as a joke, with the group of Germans playing their silly guess-who? game and the spies lingering so as not to draw suspicion by leaving just as they arrived. Then, the Brit begins to give himself away; his German never falters, but his accent is funny, and a Gestapo major steps in and drags out the scene further until, at last, Hicox reveals himself by holding up three fingers to order shots in the English, not the German (or French, if I recall my classes correctly) manner.

Of course, this sequence serves to thin the Basterds of their German-speaking crew, allowing for a deliriously funny bit that plays on the American indifference to other languages. Bridget, wounded but capable of making the premiere, fatalistically asks if any of the surviving Basterds can speak a language, any language, but English, three of them – Raine, Donowitz, and Pvt. Omar Ulmer – volunteer to speak Italian; Ulmer can’t even speak the language, but that still makes him “third best” at it. Brad Pitt only has one note to play in this warped opera, but damned if he doesn’t bring the house down with his delivery of “Bongiorno.” That moment is pure comedy, but it’s even funnier because it proves Tarantino’s point that using American and English actors for foreign roles is absurd. It also establishes that Raine, comparative to the rest of the major cast, is incapable of change: the man we meet two hours ago is the exact same man we see in this vanilla-colored tux (of course he would dress himself in pure, noble white), and he will be the same man at the very end.

That’s what makes Landa such a perfect foil for the American. Compared to the rigid, two-dimensional Aldo, Landa is a chameleon, able to adapt to any situation to exploit it to his benefit. Fluent in German, English, French and Italian (God knows if he’s got any other dialects bouncing around in his head), Landa was not born to exterminate Jews, and he seems to have no real anti-Semitic hatred of them. He takes to the title of “the Jew Hunter” because his own ability to read situations gives him an insight into a group of people doing everything at their disposal to gain what they want, namely survival. He discerns the Basterds’ plot but decides to “help,” simply because he understands that the success of D-Day will eventually break Nazi rule and he wants to get out while the gettin’s good (not to mention the sizable profit he extracts from the U.S. government). Landa is possibly Tarantino’s finest creation, and inarguably one of the best screen villains ever written, played to perfect by Christoph Waltz, who finds just the right note of peevish arrogance under Landa’s collected, erudite exterior. Like so many brilliant villains, Landa can foresee every contingency save the most simple and glaring: he’s such a masterful schemer and reader of men that he meets his match in Raine, a man too stupid and implacable to be read.

If it seems I am reading too much into the film, that I’m projecting what I perceive as depth onto a filmmaker primarily known for an open foot fetish and discussions about Madonna and Quarter Pounders, perhaps that’s true. But I cannot help but feel that just about everyone, detractors and supporters alike, sell him short. His film quotation may lack the intellectual reasoning of Godard’s, even Jarmusch’s, but his enthusiasm is just as bountiful as theirs. Furthermore, where the characters who inhabit Godard and Jarmusch’s worlds typically exist to explore philosophical conceits, the people who roam Tarantino’s odd creations are fully realized and tangible, no matter how absurd. I believe a clear distinction should be made between Quentin Tarantino, the artist who has bridged the gap between art film and populist entertainment better than anyone outside the New Hollywood group, and “QT,” over-simplifying self-promoter extraordinaire, the man who discusses his films in terms of the movies he’s referencing or playing up how sexy his leading ladies are (though he’s actually written some of the finer parts for women in modern American movies)2. Tarantino’s films are all worlds that beckon the audience to come inside even as the characters are desperate to break out of it. For all of its fist-pumping, Nazi-killin’ glee, Inglourious Basterds is a decidedly bleak affair, one that uses its exuberant use of film history and quotation not simply to parade the director’s pop culture knowledge but as an integral part of its structure, then applies that elation into a sobering look at the effects of terrorism on both sides of the ideological line. Inglourious Basterds isn’t simply the best movie of the year; it is a reminder that great films can still be fun as hell.

1In Tarantino's script, the director adds a passage for this moment that reads thus:

Her eyes go from the audience...
.up to the big screen...
.Which holds FREDRICK ZOLLER in a tight handsome CLOSE UP.
The Face on the silver screen, breaks the young girl's
2I think it's revealing that Tarantino, never at a loss for words, never records a DVD commentary for his own work (save a track for True Romance, which he didn't direct).
3In an ancillary note, I must say how much I love the way Tarantino presents Landa's pent-up feelings as warped sexual explosions. The first such example, the strudel scene, shows him viciously attacking his food with testosterone-fueled gusto, to the point that he has to enjoy a cigarette afterward (furthermore, the scene ends with the woman, Shosanna, gasping for air with tears streaming down her face). The second, his confrontation with Bridget Von Hammersmark, starts with a sort of foreplay as he slowly, elegantly removes her shoe and ends with him choking her (choking enhances sexual pleasure, which is why some people die from autoerotic asphyxiation), shot from angles that make the action look like a sexual act.


  1. Oh, I thought you were kidding when you said you revisited "Inglourious Basterds." That'll teach me to doubt you, O Astute One!

    Someone should write a book -- or at least a master's thesis for film school -- on all the elements that make this movie the masterpiece that it is. Tarantino goes full-on in all aspects: the dialogue, the action, the characters, the music. He nails almost everything, and the crazy thing is that the flaws inexplicably make "Inglourious Basterds" BETTER, like they lend it humanity or something.

  2. Roger Ebert recently tweeted that he enjoyed QT's films more and more with repeat viewings, and I think that's completely true. IB really got me going back and appreciating the full brilliance of his work; I'll be getting to rewatching and reviewing Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown one of these days.