Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Second Assessment of Inglourious Basterds With Many, Many Spoilers

As I had written earlier on this site, I had intended to go see Quentin Tarantin's latest, Inglourious Basterds. Since I have, there are a couple more things I wanted to bring up. This entry has a bunch of spoilers, from minor to major, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, and have still managed to stay in the dark about plot points and details then read no further.

Having now seen Inglourious Basterds for a second time, I still assert that it is an excellent showcase for Quentin Tarantino's strengths and gifts (as well as flaws) as a filmmaker: seemingly inconsequential fun popcorn entertainment with undertones of genuine substance and pathos. I think, like with all of his movies thus far (even the seemingly trifling Death Proof), his World War II/Spaghetti Western mashup will continue to be enjoyable several years down the road.

Tarantino works in pastiche - borrowing equally from genre pictures, foreign "high art" films, D-grade sleazeploitation flicks and music videos - yet his movies gel in a coherent fashion and have his unmistakable stamp. I suspect part of this is simply because Tarantino loves movies. Highbrow or lowbrow, it doesn't really matter. It's clear that he wants to take the audience for a ride, and make their trip to the movie house worth it.

If you'll allow me a brief personal tangent, I also think this is why I've enjoyed his films. For the longest time, going to the movies was in and of itself a fun pastime for me. It never really mattered if the movie sucked, just the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen in a large, darkened auditorium surrounded by horrifically unhealthy junk food made the outing worthwhile. That of course changed as I grew older, though it took a while longer than you'd expect (although I was aware that sometimes I'd be sitting through shitty movies, and although my friends and I had walked out of a movie once [Cool World] when I was 15, it wasn't until I was about 21, 22 before I first actively regretted making the decision to go see a movie).

For me, Tarantino's films definitely invigorate that (perhaps naïve) pure enjoyment with "going to the movies" I used to have (Grindhouse in particular seemed almost like it was made specifically for me). I realize not everyone agrees with me or shares with me this partially uncritical enjoyment of going to the movie theatre. That's fine. If you find his work excessive and self-indulgent, this movie won't sway you. It's two and a half hours long. It's excessive. It's violent. It's talky. But this is what I look for in a Tarantino film. (End personal tangent.)

What I'm really surprised with is how Inglourious Basterds is simultaneously gonzo and off the wall as well as muted and restrained. The bulk of the film consists of conversations (most of them not in English, mind you). I think those that just think Tarantino's films are excuses in wall-to-wall gratuitous violence seem to completely - willfully? - ignore his love for dialogue and storytelling: his ability to switch narrative gears so the viewer is in suspense and in the dark as to what will happen next.

Ultimately, upon my first viewing of Basterds, I found its emotional charge from its impact: from its taught set pieces of extended dialogue that build tension to an almost unbearable degree.

I was talking with Mr. Abe Goldfarb about the movie (we went to see it together the night before opening), and we discovered that we had polar opposite emotional reactions to Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction. For Abe, he found that Pulp's emotional charge largely came from its impact, rather than from its characters, whereas he found himself very connected to the characters in Basterds. I felt the reverse.

For example, in Pulp, for me, it's crucial - crucial - that Butch (Bruce Willis) gets out of his story alive and in one piece. In Basterds, as much as I enjoyed Brad Pitt's performance as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, I was never "worried" for Aldo in any sense of the term.

The Basterds themselves aren't particularly well-rounded, well-developed, or individually even interesting characters. They're fun, yes. They're well acted, sure. But, let's be honest: they're really just plot devices/comic foils/sources of the Nazi-torturing.

So, no. It took me the second viewing (yes, I'm slow) to really get that Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) is the real heart and emotional center of the movie. Re-watching the film, I found it crushing knowing that she wouldn't live to see the closing credits (yet comforted in knowing she'd be successful in her plan to kill the Nazis in the theatre).

Some have said that her relationship with her projectionist (Marcel, played by Jacky Ido) is underdeveloped. Not so. Their love for each other is very clear, and isn't overplayed. It's beautifully understated (how can anyone accuse Tarantino of being unsubtle or unrestrained?) yet very clear.

In terms of a serious mediation on Jewish revenge on Nazis, Inglourious Basterds doesn't deliver. But I don't think it's trying to. The Nazis in this movie are more akin to the archetypical villains from Raiders of the Lost Ark: they're the well-dressed sneering and cunning villains we all hiss at and root for their demise. In terms of an exploration of the seductive nature of Revenge (capital R), then yes, it most certainly does deliver.

As Isaac Butler pointed out, it's offering a revenge wish-fulfillment fantasy against the most notorious villains in the world (in both history and pulp filmmaking): showing us a large movie theatre full of Nazis cheering on a movie where someone slaughters Jews, then having us in the movie house cheering on the slaughtering of all the Nazi higher-ups, including Hitler himself.

I still stand by my initial assessment, although I didn't have as much of a problem with the scene in this basement tavern in Nadine (not like I had a huge problem with it to begin with). Do I still think Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's best film since Pulp Fiction? Having just re-watched Jackie Brown again this weekend, it's tough to say whether or not Basterds or Jackie is his second best film.

But you know what? Who cares? Did anyone come here to read my hierarchical list of his six films (I'm counting Kill Bill as one film and not counting Four Rooms)? Of course not. Suffice it to say, it's good, and one of his best, with Pulp Fiction still being his masterwork.

Loving highbrow junk,

James "Cacasseur" Comtois

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Blogger Freeman said...

I still he's yet to make a better movie than Reservoir Dogs.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Really? I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Dogs fan and all (I'll still marry it and raise kids with it), but you still think it's his best? Better than Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown?

12:04 PM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...

"Deathproof" is SO not trifling. It's wonderful and I will defend its honor to my grave. I'm talking about the full version, not the truncated one in "Grindhouse".

I actually think "Kill Bill" is Tarantino's masterpiece.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, definitely. That's why I wrote it was "seemingly" trifling, when in truth it displays a coy slight of hand by pulling the rug out from under you at the halfway point then spends the rest of the film deliberately defying expectations. It's both loving homage to car chase and slasher exploitation films as well as a taught experiment in showing two sides of the same coin.

And I find myself just sucked into that long scene at the bar in Austin where you're meeting all the characters and are introduced to Stuntman Mike.

And oddly enough, I kind of prefer the truncated, "cut past the point of coherence" theatrical version. I mean, I enjoyed seeing the extended version when I got it, but I like that "Scene Missing" title card then abrupt cut to out in the parking lot. And I like that you don't quite know how far after his attack on the second batch of ladies takes place after his first attack. I think I ultimately prefer that feeling of having points where you're kind of disoriented and need to figure out your bearings.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Esteban said...

Thank you for the review! I just saw "Basterds" last night, and, after an initial period of dislike, the movie is growing on me rapidly the more I think about it. First of all, I should say that I have NOT been a big fan of Tarantino. Sure, he has his collage-style, demonstrating a knowledge and ability to mimic many different aesthetics, but I have always felt that he has never really used that to put together something deeper than the surface delights.

"Inglourious Basterds", on the other hand, is historically and politically relevant, and ethically responsible. Tarantino has created a powerful argument that, as much as military power, it was film that won the war. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering all died in the movie theater, laughing and crying at the most redundant, stagnant hero film that might be produced. I mean, c'mon, they were sitting through two hours of a guy shooting oncoming enemies from a tower! The Nazis locked themselves in the theater, reproducing the same tired tropes, never transforming the aesthetic by which they were able to capture the imaginations of the German people in the 20s and 30s.

The dynamism of experimental art, the sabotage of French resistance art, the importance of knowing the German aesthetic aim are all on display in Tarantino's manifesto on the power of the cinema. If that phoenix-like power is ever in doubt, one can reflect on the self-destruction of the physical cinema in the movie, while coming back to the present state of sitting in a movie theater. Tarantino is not "re-writing" history so much as making his case for the war to be re-evaluated with the movie theater as the battlefield.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Very well put, Esteban. I really don't have much else to add other than that. Very well put, sir!

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Stephen Heskett said...

I happened to see this last night after the audition for Blood Brothers. (Hey, I was in Times Square, it was starting in five minutes, I couldn't resist!)

I loved it. I can't articulate what I liked about the story-telling/film-making, but what I can talk about is the acting...

I found it very well-acted for the most-part, even Pitt didn't bother me too much. I think Eli Roth was miscast, and just amateurish in a not-good way. The girls were great, although at times I thought Shoshana was just a little too transparent. Don't the other characters SEE that expression she just made?!

My favorite moment was an absolutely brilliant bit of acting by the SS major in the tavern (who, IMDB tells me, was played by August Diehl, thank you IMDB) at the exact moment he realizes for sure that brit officer is not in fact German. In just a few moments he goes from realization, to shock, to REGRET. That regret was a great choice. Incredible. BTW, that was my favorite scene overall. I found it incredibly tense and just flat-out fascinating.

I definitely agree with you that this is at least his second or third best film. Homeboy knows how to make him some movies!

10:22 AM  

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