Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

A lot of reviewers are using the word “audacious” to describe this film (sort of like how the synopsis on the back of a Kurt Vonnegut novel disproportionately contains the word “apocalypse,” or some derivative thereof). In keeping with that spirit, I’m going to begin my comments audaciously:

This film is perfect.

Say what you will about Tarantino and his subject matter, his style, and how unapologetically brash he is - this film, at least as far as the technical aspects are concerned, is a masterpiece. His touch with slow motion isn’t as spot-on as it was in his earlier films, but his revolving pans - including one, the first, which is actually a revolving helix pan - are simply a joy to behold. The film is more linear than his first two (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), but the storyline is considerably more complex and does not lend itself to a non-linear construction. There are digressions, but they are brief - unlike the extended digressions that filled in the back story in Reservoir Dogs; and they are done with hard jump cuts that make the digressions work more like exclamation points than wordy Faulknerian appositives. And then, of course, there is the acting.

Christoph Waltz, a heretofore relatively unknown Austrian who plays Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder where he’s been all your life and how many of his previous movies you’ll be able to find on Netflix. He dominates the film’s first extended scene, during which he conducts a very polite interrogation of a French dairy farmer whom Landa suspects of harboring Jews on his property. Landa is courteous and polite, practically to a fault, and all eyes and smiles until he gets around to asking the farmer directly whether or not he is hiding Jews. At that point, the smile has slipped completely off of Landa’s face, which has become a stone mask; and yet all of the courtesy and respect he has shown up to that point practically guilts the farmer into confessing that he is, in fact, hiding the Jews Landa is looking for. Once the confession is effected, Landa is back to eyes and smiles, even as he orders the Jews killed - and he switches from English back to French, which was how the conversation started. Throughout the film, Waltz switches effortlessly between four different languages - German, French, English, and even a little Italian toward the end. You’d almost want to give him a prize just for being able to do that so well; but it’s the way he delivers his lines that really makes the role. This is a guy whose job it is to round up Jews for execution in the worst ethnic cleansing in human history - and yet Waltz crafts a character who is oddly likable.

Brad Pitt is U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a gruff American roughneck with “a little bit of Injun” in him, who recruits a group of Jewish-American soldiers to be dropped into Germany and France with him, for the express purpose of hunting Nazis. Tarantino’s knack for making even the most gruesome dialogue sound extremely funny is concentrated almost wholly on this particular character - and Pitt delivers the goods with considerable aplomb, clearly relishing the license to go over the top in order to achieve the absurdity that this character has to have in order to shoot well past any possible political statement, drifting toward the magical land of parody.

And yet the film itself is not a parody, despite the fact that so much of its style and characterization is so over the top as to be almost cartoonish; nor is it a straight action picture, or a comedy, or even a drama. It might actually be closer to a fantasy. (And now you definitely think I’m round the bend, if you have not already come to that conclusion earlier in this piece.) See, the conceit here is that cinema - the concept - is such a powerful thing that it could have, in the right hands (say, those of a Jewish woman who lives in exile in Paris after her family is massacred by a milk-drinking Nazi colonel nicknamed “The Hunter”), ended World War II a couple of years before it actually ended.

The idea, of course, is ridiculous; and if taken too seriously, it might make one think that all this film is really doing is making light of a horrible time in human history and exploiting that horror for monetary gain - never mind the coy role reversal when Raine’s Basterds start hunting down Nazis to scalp them (or beat them to death with baseball bats). And there’s the rub - you simply can’t take this movie too seriously, even though it is, in its way (like all of Tarantino’s movies), a serious movie.

More importantly, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. Any melodrama it generates (and I didn’t get a lot of that) is more than tempered by the elements of parody that range from the totality of the Aldo Raine character to the way that Landa eats his dessert in the French restaurant to the way that the character of Hitler bangs his fist on the table while wrapped in the swastika and screaming “No! No! No! No! No! No! No!” Tarantino understands the weight of the material he’s working with - Hitler and the Holocaust - and I think that this is most clearly illustrated in the character of Landa who, as I mentioned before, is drawn as oddly likable. It’s patently absurd that a Jew-hunting Nazi could be likable, of course; but that’s the way he’s drawn, and what Tarantino paints as ridiculous here, he paints with broad strokes. The Holocaust cannot be minimized or laughed off (except by retards like Mel Gibson and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who both share the trait of being addled by religion - which is surely not a coincidence), but its seeds - racism and the delusion of religious superiority - are ridiculous; and it is altogether appropriate to show how dangerous those two things can be. In the real world that we live in, can cinema defeat racism? Of course not. But what if it could?

Not on the level of locking the racists and religious zealots in a room and barbecuing them with ultra-flammable nitrate film. No, you have to move up a level and think of the idea metaphorically - what if the power of movies, as an expression of ideas and of art, could help to end the long-held (by some), manufactured fear that those who are different from you are in some way bad? Is that what Quentin Tarantino meant to say with this film? I don’t know; but I think that the seeds of that idea are in this movie - and that that, combined with all of the ways that Tarantino has matured over the years as a director and a storyteller, make this film an absolutely colossal achievement.

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