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Oscar Grouching #3: Inglourious Basterds

Continuing my discussions of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I move on to an especially fun and interesting entry, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Shortly after I saw it on opening night back in August ’09, I wrote a short and rather bitchy post about Basterds and Tarantino in general. While I don’t exactly take back everything I said, I would like to rephrase and reconsider a lot of it; I think I gave short shrift to the undeniable mastery that underlies a lot of Basterds and deserves to be appreciated. There are some very good reasons it’s received 8 nominations, the third-most of any film this year, and I think it’s more artistically and aesthetically stimulating than much of the competition (like Avatar). But before I launch into all of that, here’s the snippet I wrote about it in my Oscars article for the Carl:

“But Cameron and Bigelow… don’t have a monopoly on war; everyone’s favorite 46-year-old enfant terrible also had plenty to say about it in 2009. Adverts for Inglourious Basterds claimed that ‘you haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino,’ and that tagline reveals more than I think it’d care to admit. Basterds isn’t really about war, but about how Tarantino sees it, and his vision of World War II is a hodgepodge of The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Italian war movies of the ’60s. But Tarantino’s cinephilic, perpetually adolescent interpretation of history is still far more ambitious and, ultimately, interesting than Cameron’s anti-imperialist tract. His dazzlingly amoral revisionism probably won’t get Best Picture, but at least we’ll get to Christoph Waltz receive his bingo as Best Supporting Actor.”

This is a movie that ends with the words “I think this may be my masterpiece.” It’s not the kind of staid, artful film that usually wins lots of Oscars; it’s irreverent, sometimes sadistic, and often inflammatory, in both literal and metaphorical senses. Yet it epitomizes Tarantino’s crafty way of concealing an art film like a Jewish refugee in the basement of an action-packed blockbuster. The ads, typically inane and dishonest, made it out to be two straight hours of Eli Roth clubbing Nazzies to death, and this certainly accounts for a large part of what Tarantino’s up to. However, the meat of the film is the ongoing conflict between Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hiding out in Paris, and Hans Landa (Waltz), the diabolically eloquent “Jew Hunter.”

It’s these confrontations with Landa that make the film what it is. Tarantino could’ve made one big, perfectly acceptable war movie homage, and we’d all have forgotten it by now. Instead he went for a series of magnificent set-pieces where words (in English, French, German, and even Italian) are hurled like daggers. The first of these is the best, a carefully composed tribute to Sergio Leone that sees Landa visiting the owner of a dairy farm in rural France. Waltz smiles as he asks for a glass of milk, smiles as he plays the innocent bureaucrat, and smiles as he forces the farmer to tell him where he’s hiding the Dreyfus family.

Waltz, as Landa, is always fascinating. He’s merciless, but polite. Brutal and willing to kill, but about the most cultured villain to [probably] garner an Academy Award since Hannibal Lecter. He’s an efficient Nazi officer, but he’s also cowardly and more interested in self-preservation than in the longevity of the Reich. And Waltz’s English has a perfectly accented lilt to it, so that he can put his enemies off their guard with a silly malapropism one second, then land the death blow with a few well-selected words the next. We always see him from someone else’s POV, and we never quite identify with him, but he’s a compelling and fully realized nemesis – certainly not one of the caricatured “Nazzies” the Basterds are after.

This is one area where the film deploys its many ethical tricks. Landa is worldly, self-aware, full of contradictions; the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine (a play on the name of actor Aldo Ray), are the film’s sideshow, occasionally popping up to brutalize and scalp some more terrified Nazzies. Raine himself is a one-note joke which Pitt does wonders with, a jingoistic, torture-happy southerner charged with leading his all-Jewish troops in a mission of revenge.

In the Basterds’ portion of the movie, Tarantino gleefully employs (and exaggerates) every formula he’s culled from the likes of 1960s-’70s American and Italian WWII movies, and it’s fun – especially for him – but it gets old fast. By the time he’s thrown together techniques cribbed from his beloved blaxploitation, kung fu, and spaghetti western genres in order to tell the back story of Nazi prisoner Hugo Stiglitz, the ultra-referential aspect of his style has almost grown wearisome, and the viewer is thankfully treated to a storyline that’s no less violent, but far more substantive: Shosanna’s systematic, single-handed, Kill Bill-style vengeance against the entire Nazi elite.

It’s here where Tarantino’s genius with suspense becomes more pronounced, as do his moral difficulties. All his parlor talk about comparing the treatment of African-Americans to King Kong might as well be about whether foot massages count as sex, since outside of these glib, well-written passages of dialogue, he’s totally unwilling to take on hard questions of race and genocide. Despite the film’s premise, the Holocaust turns out to be a non-factor in the characters’ actions, since for example, Landa’s by-the-book elimination of Shosanna’s family motivates her in much the same fashion as Bill’s coma-inducing attack does for the bride. Shosanna has a vendetta against one man, generalized to the Nazi ruling establishment.

And as for the Basterds, well, they’re killing the Nazzies because they’re Nazzies. The film’s overarching thesis is that this is Tarantino’s war, as he perceives it filtered through decades of Robert Aldrich and Riefenstahl and Samuel Fuller, and the Basterds’ attitudes reflect this. They blissfully criss-cross Europe scalping Nazzies due more to the propagandistic cultural significance of their targets than because of any actual wrongs perpetrated by the government of Nazi Germany. Tarantino sets up his elaborate racial revenge fantasy, but elides the instigating event, and this produces the film’s great strength and weakness, its utter amorality.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you read Basterds as a thoughtful self-critique or not in its tendency to unhinge all its actions from their historical and ethical contexts, until each scalping or machine-gunning becomes just the act of an individual tagged as a “Jew” against one who’s a “Nazi,” labels with as much significance as the Union and Confederate soldiers in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Tarantino’s favorite film, and another which strips events of their historical meanings – like the existence of slavery – for the sake of the story.)

Is it a sly commentary on the nature of cinema to desensitize us both to violence and to the complex origins of wars? Or is Tarantino doing just that as a matter of layered pastiche, with no commentary intended? I think the answer – which would take closer viewing than I’m able to perform now – would reveal a lot about Basterds‘ level of profundity, though I remain skeptical. However, I think its merits as an example of high-intensity postmodern filmmaking are as great as any of Tarantino’s other work, up to and including Pulp Fiction; here, the battles are won and lost not by Raine’s clownish marauders, but over strudel on the café tables of Paris.

As for Basterds‘ Oscar chances, I’m fairly optimistic. I think Best Picture is extremely unlikely, but Tarantino’s bravura directing and endlessly quotable screenplay – his specialties, as opposed to political or emotional depth – are certainly laudable, and at the very least remain in the running, even if The Hurt Locker could sweep those categories. Luckily for Christoph Waltz, though, he has no real competition: his first publicly visible screen outing will indeed turned to Oscar gold, thanks to his mesmerizing screen presence – and to Tarantino’s sharp dialogue. While Inglourious Basterds may not authentically engage race or history, its cinephilic reveries are nonetheless a welcome sight at this year’s Oscars, and its engagement of film history is as daring as anything in recent memory.

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The Ingloury of Basterdom

The baseball bat: an apt symbol for the level of subtlety in Inglourious Basterds

Well, my mind is newly filled with cultural jelly, and so I’m ready to talk about a few topics. Where to start? Well, for one, last night I went and saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds. My attitude toward Tarantino is basically this: his films are hip (though actively, aggressively hip; not laid-back hip like Jarmusch), cool, fun, sexy (Uma), etc. They’re also fairly, albeit superficially, intelligent, self-reflexive, and knee-deep in homage (especially to his pet subjects – Godard, kung fu movies, blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns). I think highly of him as a maker of funny, blatantly postmodern films; however, I don’t exactly think he’s breaking new ground. More like reshuffling old soil. As I read in Paul Schrader’s essay “Canon Fodder“:

It’s been said assemblage is the art form of the 20th century and Joseph Cornell its Godfather. If so, Tarantino is its Michael Corleone.

My point is that what I gathered from Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and the Kill Bill duology was further confirmed by Inglourious Basterds: these are cool, neatly stylized movies, but don’t go digging too deep. I think the phrase “all flash, no substance” becomes very appropriate. Just take the example of Basterds. We’ve got two parallel plots: one about a group of gung ho Nazi killers led by Brad Pitt whose main drive, ambition, and desire is to “kill [and scalp] Nazzies”; the other is about a Jewish escapee running a movie theater in Paris. The Nazi killers kill a lot of Nazis, the Jewish woman orchestrates a massive (and strangely undetected) revenge plot, and it all ends with lots & lots of fire, shooting, and Nazi deaths. Including gratuitous shots of Hitler’s face being machine-gunned.

So what do we take away from this? Is there much to discuss (as there is with the book I’m reading, Art Spiegelman’s Maus) about the conflict of good and evil in WWII, or the Nazi attitude toward and treatment of the Jews? Can we learn something about our perceptions of history – how it could have turned out vs. how it really did? Or is the most likely initial impression, “He carved a swastika into that guy’s forehead! Awesome!”? You want a high-class brand of mindless escapism that does some thrilling tricks with the hoary war movie genre? You got it. But I still don’t recommend Inglourious Basterds very highly. It’s just a question of what you want out of your movie. E.g., despite the often jarring presences of race- and gender-based conflict in his films, Tarantino never really seems obliged to say anything about them. He retools stereotypes, but at the end of the day it’s still because “the ass-kicking black chick is cool” or “Uma Thurman’s feet turn me on” (Basterds also has its fair share of QT foot fetishism).

There’s a sequence in Basterds that made me think maybe Tarantino had seen Ms. 45 a few too many times (though I can’t say for sure if it’s an actual influence on him, it wouldn’t surprise me), and I think this could be indicative of part of the problem: yes, exploitation can be cool and informative, as I indulge every time I watch Sex Madness or some other shitty opus. And so yes, it’s fun to make a self-conscious homage to exploitation. But at the end of the day, it’s still self-conscious exploitation, stuck in a netherworld between actual exploitation and an actually thoughtful, meaningful movie. So that’s, for now, what I have to say about Mr. Tarantino.

Out of the other subjects to address: a couple weeks ago I rewatched that great classic-among-classics, Casablanca (see, the title even sounds like the word “classic”). And one aspect of the film to which I paid especially close attention was Claude Rains’ performance as Captain Renault, a character who’s described as “amoral” even in the intro paragraph of Rains’ Wikipedia page. Now first, Rains himself: amazingly versatile, moved between leading and character parts in a huge number of films across decades.

He could be a great villain, or a great hero. He was the original invisible man (a part that showed off his voice, which was capable of rapidly going from dignified to menacing); he was the corrupted senior senator Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (his attempted suicide at the end always brings a tear to my eye); and of course he was Sebastian, the mother-dependent but sympathetic Nazi villain of Hitchcock’s Notorious. He could be a supportive friend, as in Now, Voyager or an overbearing father like in The Wolf Man and Kings Row. Or he could be an ineffectual, sleazy, and easily amused officer of the law as he was in Casablanca.

Captain Renault (Claude Rains) opposite Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)

I’m running out of time, so I’m afraid I can’t do justice to his performance and the beautiful balances and flourishes it adds to the movie. Rains has a very light touch here; his character’s snide quips give the film a levity it might have lacked if Bogart were left to brood alone. The city of Casablanca is, among other things, an absurd place, and Renault is a man who recognizes the absurdity and gives in to it. From his position of meager authority (a Vichy official being perpetually overruled by the Germans), he practically runs an industry of delightedly taking bribes from young ladies (with some undisclosed added benefits). One of my favorite parts is when a young woman tells Rick she’s about to give herself to Renault, and the following exchange ensues:

Woman: My husband is with me, too.

Rick: He is? Well, Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.

That’s right: even Casablanca has a pretty clear (yet still under the radar) reference to Renault’s bisexuality. And, after all, Casablanca is a mixed-up town full of people escaping from the brand of normality imposed by the Nazis. It only makes sense that the gatekeeper should be, well, “broadminded.”

I’m afraid my time’s up; hopefully I can explore this topic at greater length on another date. Here’s looking at you, kid.

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