Inglourious Basterds

September 10, 2009


Back in the mid-90’s, I recall a critic (possibly Ebert, but I can’t positively remember who it really was) saying that watching Pulp Fiction was to watch a kid let loose in a toy store.  The kid was, of course, the film’s co-writer and director Quentin Tarantino, and he wanted to play with everything.  It was pop art nonsense at it’s most explosive, vibrant, and shallow (and I mean that in the best way possible).  It released a slew of imitators and rip-offs, but the original excitement has never really dulled.  A critical darling for a time, Tarantino now finds himself, 15 years later, sometimes still praised, oftentimes derided.  Claims that he’s not what he used to be are based on his 21st Century output, which admittedly contains the lackluster Death Proof, and that he’s given himself over to fanboy self-indulgence.  Granted, nothing since (and including Basterds, we’re only talking about four films here, also assuming you believe Kill Bill to be two separate entities) has reached the emotional and character heights reached by Jackie Brown, his most (only?) mature film. Indulgence is certainly an issue, but Death Proof’s best moments came when he was fully embracing his exploitation B-movie love, providing a thrilling and tense finale, while Kill Bill popped with a visual inventiveness rarely seen in action films whilst also providing some fantastic Tarantino trademarked dialogue scenes.  So how does his latest opus, Inglourious Basterds, fare?  The short answer is ‘quite well, all in all.’

The long answer is more complicated.  First of all, in a formalist sense, this film is dizzyingly exciting and yet also something of a let down.  To deal with the exciting aspect first, we should consider the first (and probably best) scene.  Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arrives at a French farmhouse looking for a family of Jewish dairy farmers that are unaccounted for.  He sits down with the owner of the farm, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), and begins discussing the matter as though it were merely a formal exercise.  A classic two-shot setup is employed here for the most part, until the camera moves down through the floorboards to reveal the terrified missing family hiding beneath.  The Tarantino dialogue is in full force here, with Landa toying with the nervous LaPadite while explaining his title of “Jew Hunter” as well as the difference between rats and squirrels.  Landa’s charm and good humour only adds to the menace, and it doesn’t take long before you realize why Waltz took the acting prize at Cannes.  It’s aping the tension of Leone (this sequence is entitled “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France”) brilliantly, and as the conversation comes to a head, the camera is now an omniscient, brooding overhead spectator, and the eventual release is both horrifying and a relief.  It is a wonderfully constructed scene, full of humour and dread, and it fully justifies its 25 or so minute running time.  It takes its time to ratchet up the tension, as does much of the rest of the film, and as a result, it’s a thrilling ride.

The larger formal problem, however, is the overall structure.  Tarantino likes to cut up his films into individual sequences, and it works here until the end.  Glenn Kenny has already provided an exellent breakdown ( of the film’s peculiar structure, and I won’t add much to that other than to say that much of it works very well.  The first four chapters never really involve crosscutting between the different stories unless those characters are interacting with each other.  The Basterds are over here, and they’re contained in that chapter.  Landa and Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) are being developed and they’ll interact, so they’re in chapter three, and so forth.  This all gives the film a strange momentum – it is both slow enough to allow the characters to breathe in the world Tarantino created, but also tense enough to propel the narrative forward.  The disunity actually works to create a unified whole, moving us towards what a climax in which all the characters will clash and all the strands will intertwine.  As that plot (both the larger film’s and the specific one generated by the characters), our expectations build, and herein the problem lies:  Tarantino fails to respect the story he’s been building.  I’ll try not to spoil too much, but if you want to know nothing, stop reading now.  Two sets of characters are hatching plans to achieve the same goal; meanwhile the antagonist is only working towards stopping one of those plans.  One might not work, but we’re almost positive the other one will no matter what, and if the tension of a covert plan has been carrying the picture, then the defusing of that expectation allows us to relax just when we should be at the edge of our seats.  The finale is clearly meant to be thrilling in a way something like Ocean’s 11 is, although Tarantino clearly wants it to be slightly more farcical.

Beyond that problem, you have the issue of the Basterds themselves.  He might have set out to write a Dirty Dozen-esque WWII action caper, but in the process he discovered the other characters (Landa, Shoshanna, even Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark) were far more interesting, leaving the Basterds severely underwritten, sometimes comically stupid, and worst of all almost irrelevant.  Not only does it not matter whether their plan succeeds, I don’t think I would have cared if it did or didn’t.  They are amusing, of course, and Pitt’s Italian accent probably gets the biggest laugh of the film, but it’s a let down that when they’re on screen, virtually nothing of interest happens.  Arguments can be made that they, as the violent American soldiers, are just as much one-dimensional ciphers as most of the Nazis (a point which itself is something of a reflexive nod to the way they are portrayed as the go-to-baddies in dozens of Hollywood pictures), but the Nazis still get Landa.  It feels more likely that he was simply sidetracked, and just continued down the rabbit hole.

The complaint that Tarantino is a geekboy who would rather pay homage to B-movies and make cool shit happen instead of making a proper movie is generally, I think, an unfair one.  His movies are far too smart for such a simplistic reading, even when they’re mining the schlock genres he loves so much (watch Planet Terror and Death Proof back to back and you can see the difference, however much a failure the latter picture was).  The complaint really should be his lack of discipline.  He wants his goofy, over-the-top ending, and he’s going to get it whether it fits or not.  Nobody in this world is acting out of the ordinary, but there is a disjunct between the build and the finale.  It is fun once you adjust to it, and there are some glorious moments in it, it just doesn’t live up to what came before.

I don’t mean to sound too harsh on Basterds.  It is thoroughly enjoyable, and the disappointment of the final chapter is far overshadowed by the pleasure and excitement of what came before.  Honestly, I really am nitpicking here.  It’s difficult not to get caught up in the geekboy criticism hullaballoo, and I want to stress that by citing formalist problems, I only mean to highlight how extraordinary his skill and natural talents are in evidence in the rest of the picture.  There’s more going on here than just revenge fantasy schlock, but it will take several more viewings to come to grips with that.  He makes no attempt to recreate any semblance of reality, and with that I have absolutely no problem.  The fact that the diegesis exists solely (and often reflexively) in the world of cinema does not necessarily make the film shallow or disposable, but I’ll leave the sludge into the Baudrillardian nightmare for someone else.  For now, despite some reservations, it really is an excellent film, and he’s done his previous efforts no disservice.


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