Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglorious Basterdry

I can't really tell if I am really a fan of Quentin Tarantino.

Mostly it's a matter of connotation. He is a cult figure and as such, his fandom has certain cult-like qualities, including a level of devotion I cannot attest to. This devotion does not necessarily constitute unquestionable love and approval of his works, but rather an intense level of interest and auxiliary knowledge. Seeing movies are merely the tip of the cult iceberg, or better yet, they are the coke bottles that fall from the sky around which the fandoms form. The bulk of the cult experience lies in learning the lore of the filmmaker and the process which creates his movies. Their inspirations, references; all the little stuff casual audiences miss. I can't claim to that level of familiarity for Tarantino, even though I have seen Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Til Dawn, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof, and now Inglorious Basterds as well.

Consequently, I'm not sure I can say I am fan of Tarantino even when convoluted cult implications aren't an issue. I don't want to tell you that Basterds is a bad movie, because it isn't. It is extremely entertaining and mostly enjoyable while you watch it. But somewhere between the credits and the drive home, the experience knotted and twisted in my stomach, crystallizing into a bezoar that squelched up all the joy from my watching, and reminded me of everything that annoys me about the writer-director-auteur. And yet, the film has changed on me again; there is a sick brilliance to the whiplash the movie induces. It brings crass, violent pulp to a higher level while simultaneously sinking to new lows of tremendous vileness.

To be completely fair, my biggest complaint with Inglorious Basterds is a personal gripe: The actual film did not reflect the film I saw in the commercials and wanted to see in theaters: a faster paced, less poignaint, more character driven affair. After I saw the real thing, what I wanted became much clearer to me: a Magnificent Seven or even anime styled approach to the Basterds roster, with each member of the ensemble having a distinct over-the-top personality and combat speciality that would play off the others. There were hints of that movie in the one I saw, but somewhere along the lines, the Basterds team of about ten got whittled down to three personalities: Donny 'The Bear Jew' Donnowitz (Eli Roth); who kills nazis with a baseball bat, Hugo Stiglitz; a German officer turned Nazi killing psychopath, and Aldo Raine; the loud-mouthed, scalp-collecting, Tennessean leader of the Basterds, who is brilliantly played by Brad Pitt. Simply listening to him talk is a treat, and his lines are easily the best in the movie. The rest of the Basterds are entirely forgettable.

The movie has some other good characters, but only Christopher Waltz's Hans Landa "The Jewhunter" feels like he belongs in the same story, serving as the only adversary who feels adequately evil for the Basterd's brutality. Hitler seems more like a fussy man-child than an evil tyrant, while the rest of the upper Third Reich only get cameos. While Waltz does an excellent job at making Landa look menacing, his character's chilling presence does not stem from a unique personality or style (as is the case with truly memorable villains like Anton Chigur, Sephiroth, Darth Vader and The Joker) but rather from a series of impossibly tense yet ridiculously drawn out conversations. The film's opening scene, a confrontation between Landa and a dairy farmer hiding Jews under his floor boards; is a prime example. Tarantino stretches five minutes worth of dialogue into what feels like fifteen minutes with all sorts of artsy cuts and turns of phrase that aren't so much clever (no 'Royales with Cheese' or 'was that a miracle?'-caliber chats to be had here) as they are obnoxiously passive-aggressive ("Mind if I have a glass of milk?" "Mind if I smoke my pipe?" "Mind if I ask you eighty questions to which I already know the answer?"). It is effective at cultivating suspense, but I also got so impatient waiting for the climax that I started to get bored.

The entire film, which is divided into five chapters, follows a similar dramatic arc. Rather than focusing on the exploits and personalities of the Basterds, the movie builds toward a climatic showdown at the premiere of the German propaganda film 'pride of a nation.' This subplot is centered around the revenge of Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) , a Jewish girl who escaped Landa's massacre of her family in the opening scene. Sometime after the deployment of the Basterds she has become a theater owner in Paris, and while changing the letters on the marquis one evening, she catches the eye of Schutze Fredrick Zoller; a young german war hero who just happens to be the star of the forthcoming propaganda film "A Nation's Pride." Hoping to score points with Shoshanna, Fredrick convinces propaganda minister Goebles to host the premiere at her theatre. From there, the movie details Shoshanna's and the Basterds independent plots to use the premiere as an ambush against the Nazi high command.

Both of these plots run concurrently to each other well enough, but I kept waiting for them to intersect, and for me that moment never happened. I was watching two entertaining, but very different movies. Melanie Laurent does a wonderful job of bringing real emotional force to Shoshanna's vengeful ambitions; so much so that it feels a bit too serious for the Basterd's brutal antics. On the plus side, Shoshanna may be the best female character Tarantino has ever rendered. But the emotional solemness of her revenge-turned tragic romance made it difficult for me to take the film as lightly as I'd like to. Diane Kruger also gives a noteworthy performance as Birdget Von Hammersmark, a turn-coat kraut movie-star who helps the Basterds get into the premiere, and fits right in with the film I expected; A superficial creature who speaks in slightly exaggerated German, seamlessly shifts gears between cunning, cruelty and charm, and shows up at the German premiere in a high healed leg cast.

Interestingly, the only common thread between these two different films represented by these two different women are little details reminiscent of fairy tails. Symbolic items like lost shows and glasses of milk, acts of medieval violence like bludgeoning and scalping, and ill-fated romances where both parties are beauty and beast. Yet these little subplots and details and minutiae driven dialogue produce an experience that feels thoroughly fussed about and fucked with. It is obvious that Tarantino does not want his self-proclaimed masterpiece to be summed up by a single emotion or trite moral message, but he seems so wary of such a fate that he fights against any interpretation at all save for his own. Ultimately, we are watching a mind consume itself with grandiose ambition through the lens of fiction.

In conclusion, I'm still not completely sure about how feel about Inglorious Basterds. It a holy grail for cult fans; a puzzle begging to be picked apart, argued about and reassembled endlessly. Casual audiences with a taste for blood and violence may also enjoy themselves if they can turn off their mental and emotional compasses, for they will not have the energy to navigate the maze of strange implication embedded within the narrative. If you are a casual fan of Tarantino's films, you owe it to yourself to check it out, Just don't hold it against me if you feel dirty afterwords.

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