Monday, June 28, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director Quentin Tarantino may have intentionally mangled the English language with the misspelled title of his latest cinematic effort, Inglourious Basterds (2009), but this prodigious talent speaks the language of film with a perfect accent.

Although Tarantino's production shares a title (sort of...) with 1978's The Inglorious Bastards (from director Enzo G. Castellari) there's not actually much similarity between the two efforts. Both films are set during World War II, and both films concern an important mission behind enemy lines.

After that, leave your expectations at the door. The 1978 film is a low-budget exploitation actioner (with Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson), but Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino's trademark specialty: art-house exploitation.

In other words, Tarantino doesn't craft anything remotely like an action yarn here. Instead, Inglourious Basterds is an almost sedentary, deliberately-paced film about personal warfare, not the international, global variety we've come to expect from the WWII film. This isn't Saving Private Ryan (1998). No beaches are stormed. No wartime platitudes are reinforced.

"Looks like the shoe's on the other foot," The Powerful and the Powerless in Inglourious Basterds

The backdrop for this 2009 drama is indeed the war effort in general, and a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines, but the guts of the narrative involve feelings of personal disquiet: the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness engendered by the Nazi Regime, and the Basterds' dedicated attempts to give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Some scholars and pundits have suggested that the film is morally facile, a simple revenge picture that makes the American Basterds (Jewish-American soldiers...) as reprehensible as the Nazis they fight in Europe; but that doesn't seem legitimately the case.

Tarantino's focus isn't necessarily on brutal, bloody violence, but on power, and how it feels to be the party without it. The Basterds in the film, as well as a Jewish cinema owner named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), exact violent retribution against the Nazis, it is true. But, oddly -- in almost every situation -- it feels not like eye-for-an-eye Draconian violence, but rather an assertion or re-assertion of self, or self-actualization, if that's possible.

This is why, I suspect, the film's fiery final sequence quotes extensively from De Palma's Carrie (1976) and the famous sequence at the Prom. Both movies concern the victimized pushed too far, taking back the power for themselves in an apocalyptic showdown.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, however. Inglourious Basterds is a film consisting of five separate, even episodic chapters. The first chapter "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" goes a long way towards establishing the feelings of personal powerlessness the Nazis so ruthlessly exploit.

A dairy farmer who is hiding Jewish refugees in his house is visited on his remote farm by Colonel Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), who is nicknamed "The Jew Hunter." Landa gains entry to the house, enjoys a glass of milk, switches the conversation from French to English, and then -- without even verbally leveling much of a threat -- makes the weeping farmer, LaPadite, surrender his hidden wards. The refugees are then brutally shot down, and only 18-year old Shoshanna escapes the massacre.

The conversation between Landa and LaPadite is lengthy. It goes on and on, and Tarantino holds the scene for a duration approaching twenty minutes. The aspect of this scene that makes it work so splendidly (and makes it increasingly suspenseful as it continues...), is the very thing that remains determinedly unspoken: Landa's total and complete domination of the poor farmer. LaPadite has no options; no recourse; nowhere even to lodge a complaint. He can't fight, or he will sacrifice his family. He can't bargain, either. There's absolutely nothing to be done. Landa comes into his home, is unfailingly polite and courteous...and is completely in control. The Nazi has no need to flex his muscles (or twirl his metaphorical moustache), to assert his authority. His authority simply...goes without saying.

This powerful and frightening idea recurs in Chapter Three, "German Night in Paris." Shoshanna, now a cinema owner in France hiding under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux (think Yvette Mimieux), unexpectedly meets Nazi sniper and war hero Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). He is starring in Goebbel's latest propaganda film, Nation's Pride, and he quickly devises the notion that Shoshanna's cinema should host the film's premiere.

Again: she is not asked about this. Her counsel is not sought. She is not given an out so she can politely demure. Instead, she is escorted to a nearby restaurant and introduced to Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who also immediately and unquestioningly assumes her total and complete cooperation. Like Landa in Chapter One, the Nazis here are not over-the-top schemers or brutal torturers for us to sneer at. Instead, they are so confident in their total authority that there's no need for showy demonstrations (as we would no doubt see in lesser films...).

In the most dramatic example of Shoshanna's utter powerlessness in the face of the Nazi domination, Hans Landa even gets to dictate to the cinema owner when she should eat her strudel. She is about to take a bite, but he has forgotten to order whip cream. "Wait for the cream," he utters with a wolfish smile.

It isn't a request. It's an order.

Thus, in albeit strange fashion, the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are more frightening than almost any you've ever seen depicted before in a movie. They appear courteous and civil, but that's only because their domination is unchallenged; unquestioned. These men walk the Earth as Gods: every demand met, every order followed, every desire sated.

From the predicaments of the farmer and Shosanna in their respective chapters, the audience quickly detects how the basic human freedom of choice (even the choice when to eat your dessert) has been removed from those living in territory occupied by the Germans. Tarantino's selections (in actors; in tone; in holding on a particular scene) all play this idea out adroitly. The scene set in the Tavern is not much different: an S.S. officer strides onto the scene and expects to have his demands for attention met, without question.

The eminently just punchline comes in the film's valedictory scene (and shot). The leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) has been forced to cede authority to Landa. Landa thinks that -- as usual -- he is totally in charge. He has become used to his unlimited, unspoken power. And with one powerful, if small act, Raines questions that assumption....with a knife. It's not just revenge for the sake of revenge; it's not bloody for the sake of gore. It's a lesson, actually, in what freedom represents; and the fear that people feel when that freedom is stolen from them. When Aldo carves swastikas on the foreheads of his enemies, he is questioning what the Nazis believe is unquestionable; their total authority and superiority. Aldo does not kill, but he makes the Nazis experience fear -- and powerlessness -- for the first time.

"We're going to make a film. Just for the Nazis." Homage and Tribute in Tarantino's Film

Inglourious Basterds also proves intriguing in much the same the fashion as Tarantino's other films. In other words, the movie functions as a dedicated homage to other war films, and as a tribute to the culture of movies itself.

In ways simple (Aldo Raines = Aldo Ray) and ways complex, Tarantino gets in some edgy commentary here about the power of images; about the power of the medium itself.

Even casting is vitally important. For instance, horror director Eli Roth plays the "golem" nicknamed "The Bear Jew," the Basterd who brandishes a baseball bat against recalcitrant Nazis.

We already associate Roth with scenes of extreme violence and gore thanks to his role directing (the masterpiece...) Hostel (2005), and so the actor's participation in what promises to be the film's most violent scene works commendably to the movie's advantage. Here comes Eli Roth doing what Eli Roth does best...or so we think.


But Inglourious Basterds is a movie about movies in deeper, more meaningful ways too. A propaganda film, like Goebbel's "Nation's Pride," could conceivably galvanize a demoralized nation, we are meant to understand. It could literally turn around the war, and that's something that can't be allowed to happen. How Shoshanna subverts Zoller's film is one of the film's highlights; especially since her "phantom edit" plays to what is literally a captive audience.


Likewise, a movie critic like Hicox (Michael Fassbender) could conceivably boast the knowledge to make for an effective undercover agent in France, although a hand signal (not entirely unlike "thumbs up" or "thumbs down") could also doom him.


And finally, as Inglourious Basterds trenchantly reminds us, a film can be an instrument of propaganda or an instrument of justice. Film might even be, literally, a weapon. Film reels double as the bomb that kills Hitler in the film's denouement.

And there's another thing about movies that Tarantino tells us. They have no overriding responsibility to be true to the historical record. I mean...we all know how World War II ended, but Tarantino provides us a more satisfying, fairy tale, movie ending: one in which the powerful are given a lesson in powerlessness, and those without freedom find -- even for an instant -- liberty's power.

Inglorious Basterds
is not the place to seek historical accuracy; it's a place to ponder the ways that movies -- as propaganda or vehicles of justice/vengeance -- can satisfy and offer emotional closure regarding a whole variety of issues. Isn't it better, really, that a Jewish woman victimized by the Third Reich should bring it down? If we could write our own endings, isn't this the dramatic, poetic one we'd want? The underdog has her day, and the scales of justice are righted. Since this isn't real life, why not?

"I think this just might be my masterpiece." Or "That's a Bingo."

Given the importance of movie history and film in Inglorious Basterds, I find it fascinating that the last act in the film quotes so heavily from the work of Brian De Palma.

I mentioned Carrie at the Prom vs. Shoshanna at the Premiere, but it's much more than that too.

Notice, for instance, that the interior of Shoshanna's cinema is colored and designed to resemble the palatial interior of Tony Montana's Miami home in Scarface. There are staircases bracketing both sides of the central hall, with a ledge above -- on the second floor -- and, finally, a room (in the center of the frame...) leading back to a private domain (office or auditorium).

In Scarface, this grand hall is where Tony goes out in a blaze of glory ("Say Hello to My Little Friend..."). In a very real way, that's also Shoshanna's fate.

Both characters also share something else in common: they went from being powerless, to possessing all the power. Only in Tony's case, he misused and abused that power (through a drug haze). By contrast, our sympathies remain with Shoshanna throughout Inglourious Basterds. She is setting things right (and ending the war...), not committing a cocaine-addled suicide.

Why quote De Palma so extensively here? Well, we know that Carrie is in Tarantino's top five favorite film list (at least last time I checked). But the images and compositions that recall De Palma are well picked for reasons of theme and recognition too. Both Carrie at the Prom: the victim taking out the victimizers and Tony's last stand: a staccato suicide by machine gun -- embody an important part of our contemporary pop culture lexicon. Carrie is about the effect that cruelty has on a person, even a good person. And Scarface is about power corrupting, absolutely. Shoshanna may be Carrie; and Hitler may be Tony Montana, in some sense..

One of the things that I admire most about Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's manner of making the intimate seem epic. This movie is about a big topic indeed (World War II) but it features almost no scenes of battle or any traditional war scenes, for that matter. The film consists mostly of a scene in a farm, in a tavern basement, and, finally, in a cinema. We see no tanks, no infantries on the move, and no impending air strikes.

Instead, Tarantino hammers home his theme of the powerful versus the powerless, and does so with just a handful of very interesting, very human characters. The drama is entirely intimate though, in typical Tarantino fashion, it's the human behavior is also a bit exaggerated in some caes. In the case of Aldo Raines, I would argue it's almost cartoonish. But even he reflects something vitally important.

Sometimes you need bravado in the face of a powerful enemy.

Inglourious Basterds
reveals that Raines has that bravado in spades, but even moreso, that the film's director does.

12 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:14 PM

    I don't know if it's metacommentary, but the article's text gets smaller and smaller as it gets closer to the end, until you're squinting at your wee conclusion.

    I like your ideas, though - and the link between Inglorious Basterds and the work of Brian De Palma is inspired.

    -Darren MacLennan

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  2. Hi Darren,

    Is the text getting smaller as you go or just my ideas? :)

    No, seriously...it doesn't look that way on my computer, so I better check it out. Thanks for the heads up.

    best,
    John

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  3. I always thought BLOW OUT was QT's fave De Palma film? Of course, he could've change his mind over the years.

    Intriguing review. I've avoided this film for a long time now, dissuaded by Jonathan Rosenbaum's absolute roasting of it and of course the mountain of hype that surrounded the film. Now that it's all died down I really should give this film a shot, I think.

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  4. J.D.: Sometimes, I can't believe how much alike you and I seem to be!

    I also avoided the film until late last week; for much the same reasons you did.

    I knew I was an ardent admirer of Tarantino; but I also knew I didn't care for the tenor of the IB advertisements and trailers...they made the film appear cartoonish and silly; and that just didn't seem like an appropriate/adequate take on something as important as World War II.

    I am happy to say that my fears about the film were very, very wrong and misplaced. The first scene is so good, in fact...that I personally guarantee it will grab you.

    But definitely give the film a shot. There's some surprising and poetic stuff here. I was flabbergasted/awed by the use of a David Bowie song from Cat People (1982) in the body of the film, for instance. Wow...

    Thank you for commenting,

    best,
    John

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  5. I saw this the weekend it debuted last summer (what can I say... I'm a long-time QT fan), and had to take it in again within a week because I enjoyed it so well. And, to pick out the things I missed initially. Tarantino's scenes in the film (and there not a lot of them) really made fantastic use of dialogue and, as you stated so well in this fine review, the use of power and authority from those in charge. Although, the reaction of the oppressed was artful, to say the least.

    Each of the sequences were an excellent example of the slow burn which built to an exquisite moment in the film (and you don't need it to be a violent one for a pay-off, but there is a bit of catharsis when it is done so well as it is here). Still, it has its moments of humor--some of which is a safety valve for the pressure building in the audience. This is one of my favorite films from last year. So glad you finally saw and reviewed it, John. It was a pleasure to read. Thanks for this.

    p.s., J.D. I think you'll appreciate it. But either way, I'm sure we'd all like to hear your thoughts about it.

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  6. Hi JKM;

    Yeah, that "rapidly diminishing font size" happens to me, too, on all your longer pieces. I assumed it was an artistic choice; as the analysis grows finer, so does the font. Ctrl+ is a lifesaver.

    Going to argue a bit here. First, I loved your analysis; it made me look a little deeper at the film - but it also lays bare a fundamental problem I have with QT's movies in general. Ultimately, his point is banal. The powerless react explosively. Um, yeah. Tea party? But it doesn't go anywhere. It sits is a pretty nest of film-fetish art-direction and "hey-look-at-me" scripting (one scene with Weitz's character talking about milk is such an awkward segue that the fact that the actor is able to sell it justifies his Oscar, regardless of the rest of the film). There's a great movie to be made with the ingredients he has but it never coalesces; instead we have a fun but adolescent movie made by a talented, even brilliant, auteur who can't quite figure out how to mesh his fascinationss with his ambitions.

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  7. Thanks for the comments, my friends.

    LeOpard13:

    We share an admiration for Tarantino, and I'm glad you enjoyed this film as well. You are right to pinpoint the slow-burn, and the lengthy dialogue scenes. That one-two punch is really the trademark of the film. IB and Tarantino had me right from the start, with that scene between the farmer and Landa. It's just an amazing example of that slow burn you note.

    DLR:

    That rapidly diminishing font size thing is worrisome. It doesn't show up on either my laptop or my desktop, so I wonder why it's happening. Crud! But thanks for letting me know...

    You always enunciate your viewpoint well, and in terms of IB, you certainly make a point that is worthy of debate. I am an ardent admirer of Tarantino, but for me, he isn't quite (yet) in the class of De Palma for the reasons you suggest in your comments.

    In other words, Tarantino speaks perfect film grammar, but doesn't always have a message worth saying in that language (which is why I was sort of disappointed with "Death Proof."/Grindhouse)

    I did see an interesting and timely message about the power of the medium of film in IB (it can even rewrite world history!) plus the film had what I saw as an interesting notion -- the powerless turning the tables and in the process, finding themselves -- and I guess that combo was enough for me, especially on top of Tarantino's slow-burn build-up and staccato releases of tension (in terms of bursts of violence...).

    But I totally understand and appreciate that (in this case) you draw the line in a different place than I do. I can't argue that Tarantino isn't occasionally childish (his foot fetish grows tiresome...), but I thought he created Inglorious Basterds with real skill. I have often found his films overly violent for the sake of violence, and this film -- with a frequent focus on just two individuals jockeying for power -- bucks that trend, I felt.

    best,
    JKM

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  8. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I'm using Firefox to view your page; are you using Internet Explorer? That might be why you're not seeing the shrinky-dink font thing...

    -Darren MacLennan

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  9. Hi Darren,

    I am using Internet Explorer, actually. That must be it...

    Any recommendations? :)

    best,
    John

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  10. Man,

    Part of me really wants to watch this but while I can watch a horror film with gore, I just can't get into the ulatra-realistic violence in some movies, especially QTS films. I think the car scene in Pulp Fiction ruined QT for me. . .I just can't get into his movies. But the review was excellent Johnny so I may have to just suck it up.

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  11. Hi Will,

    You and I sound very much alike. I find violence far more disturbing in non-genre films for some reason. And Quentin Tarantino uses a lot of violence. But I can say, safely, I think, that there is less violence, pound for pound, in IB than in many of his films. Only the very last scene of the film is overtly "gory" and bloody.

    So I don't want to tell you to ignore you own good instincts on this matter; only let you know that IB isn't as ultra-violent as some of the director's films (until, literally, the last minute...).

    Thanks for the comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  12. I couldn't read the last part as the text was way to small on my computer also !!

    ReplyDelete