Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One Bastard of a Movie

Quentin Tarantino is back -- and I mean the old Tarantino who showed how excessive dialogue can be so wildly entertaining, characters most impressive when sophisticated, bad-ass, and absurd all at once, and in general how to make cinematic art out of the preposterous. Inglourious Basterds is easily his best film since Pulp Fiction, and I agree a masterpiece, as the director hubristically proclaims through the mouth of his lead character at the end. Whether or not it tops Pulp Fiction I can't yet decide. That will take some distance and another viewing.

Keep your judgment in check as I describe the film's twin plots, which on the face of it are laughable. A group of zealous Jewish Americans (the Basterds) are on a mission in Nazi-occupied France to kill and scalp as many Nazis as possible. A Jewish woman fleeing the Gestapo comes to Paris, and assumes management of a theater which will eventually be visited by all the top echelons of the Third Reich, including the Fuhrer himself. The Jewish woman and the Basterds, unaware of each other's existence, come up with independent plans to take out Hitler and his cronies on premiere night. Not all goes according to plan for either party, though the Nazis do end up getting their just deserts in an apocalyptic conflagration. Trust Tarantino to flesh all this out with good story.

Special mention must be made of Christoph Waltz who plays the ferociously shrewd "Jew Hunter", ferreting out Jews who hide under floorboards, interrogating suspects with disturbing but enjoyable wit. I come close to putting Waltz's performance on the same level with Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger's Joker. He's that memorable: evil, mannered, and ludicrous all at once, the perfect villain for a Tarantino film.

On Tyler Williams' Facebook page there's been some discussion about the film's moral cash value. I join the opinion that it's not a redemptive violence movie. Unlike Pulp Fiction, Basterds doesn't use violence to reach for something higher as much as it holds a mirror to ourselves. Commenter Mike Perschon notes that Nazi horrors are largely absent from the film, focusing instead on atrocities committed by the Jewish "Bastards" (Eli Roth's gleeful bashing of a Nazi officer's head with a baseball bat is a memorable spectacle), and that we're perhaps even meant to identify with Hitler and his cronies as they sit in the theater thrilling to the Nazi premiere in which their "enemies" are being slaughtered on screen.

Tarantino's films are only obliquely moralistic in any case. What he wants above all is to entertain and make us laugh our asses off at things that are normally far from amusing. "You name me any horrific thing," he once told Charlie Rose, "and I can make it funny." The way to do this, as I think he's done so well, is by embracing irony, a certain level of nihilism, and just plain bizarreness, irrespective of how that formula may offend. To this extent I agree with Carson Lund, who writes that
"The film's bizarreness, conceptually, is central to its success or failure. On one end of the stick, this blueprint, which treats the Holocaust with lighthearted, playful vengeance, is sure to offend many, while on the other, you have to appreciate Tarantino's willingness to upend the conventions he's working under, and his ability to provide a consistent air of comedy to a topic that is most typically portrayed with grave solemnity. I believe in the latter, because I prefer not to let morals or proper manners get in the way of a film's integrity as a film."
Allowing any moral compass to interfere with artistic integrity is a plague on filmmaking, and one need only think of the outrage against Mel Gibson to see how certain sensibilities hindered a proper assessment of his passion film. Gibson himself may well be anti-Semitic, but his film is not. No one thinks Tarantino is anti-Semitic, but neither should his film be judged as insensitive for supposedly trivializing the Holocaust tragedy. It's not disrespectful, but oddly the opposite.

The film is a must see, and Tarantino fans will be ecstatic.


Blogger Carson said...

Hey Loren,
Thanks a lot for the shout-out; our thoughts seem to line up perfectly.

If you're interested, here's what I have found to be the best piece on the film yet.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Yes, that's a great review/conversation, Carson; and quite lengthy too. Thanks for pointing it out.

Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Hey Loren,

Inglourious Basterds was a good movie. That is, it is excellent cinematography, great acting (for the most part), a gripping plot, suspense, and well-written dialogue. I say great acting only for the most part because I didn't find Brad Pitt a convincing character and Eli Roth didn't show enough passion for the character he was portraying.

Tarantino, as everyone and their mother has pointed out, lacks morality. The good do bad, the bad can't be redeemed: it's very anti-Christian (meaning contrary in doctrine, but antipathetic). At the end there's both relief that Hitler dies and shock that Tarantino rewrites history killing off Hitler. And for all the atrocity that Landa commits, even hating him throughout the whole movie, sympathy for the Basterds quickly dies and by the end at least I wanted Landa to be at least free without a terrible scar on his head and his friend to remain alive, even knowing that Tarantino had the exact opposite plans. It defies the war movie genre, even the spaghetti western genre that he was trying to fit it in.

But I'm not sure he was entirely redeemed in his undertaking. I already mentioned Roth's and Pitt's poor performance (at least in my estimation). But there's more: the trivialization of such an event as the holocaust is offensive, not because Jews died, but because the excessive suffering is itself trivialized. We don't see the repercussions of Landa's massacre except in "Mimieux's" revenge, and even that, while good, is sapped by the implausibility of her sudden love for such a monster as the one she just shot.

There's certainly laughter, but so too is there in The Pianist (e.g. when he's found by the Allies: "Why the fucking coat?" "I'm cold."), and the laughter in Inglourious Basterds is much more just so sick to the point of absurdity rather than irony.

Overall, you find yourself thinking the plot too implausible to fulfill its duty to such a egregious tragedy on modern conscience. Perhaps if the sheer implausibility of several episodes were more realistic, perhaps if the Basterds weren't just like the enemies they were trying to overcome, then there would be more emotional attachment in a movie that by necessity of its plot requires such sympathy from its audience. But instead what we're left with is an absurd (as you put it "nihilistic") movie that stretches the believability and leaves nothing but a couple of chuckles and some very good images.

Perhaps I'm a bit picky, but I like a little bit more from my movies than just a nice picture.

(PS - as a historian, I'm partially biased in that I am, overall, uncomfortable with such rewriting of history. It becomes a modern story, and the abuse of the backdrop offends all the historical inquisitiveness in me.)

Chris Weimer

PPS - I wrote this in 10 minutes, I could probably write more and with more specificity, I do realize.

Blogger Chris Weimer said...

BTW - although perhaps implied, I do want to make it very clear that Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Til Schweiger (the tiny role that he had), and Michael Fassbender, but *especially* Christoph Waltz, really stood out in acting. It's a shame that the Nazi-esque Nazi-haters did not have more passion in what they were doing, psychopathically so, but then, perhaps that wouldn't be a Tarantino film any longer.


Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for the comments, Chris!

You make some good points but I think you're ultimately judging the film by the wrong yardstick. I'm just as critical as you are about historical inaccuracies and revisionism when they're out of place, but here they're not. Again, Tarantino's films are meant to be implausibly absurd, so even if it's not your thing to enjoy, it makes little sense to fault the film objectively for that particular "shortcoming".

I can't help but wonder if the cartoonish performances of Pitt and Roth were used deliberately as part of the Tarantino experience, that is, to jar the audience and make them wonder "what are these clowns doing facing off such nuanced and impressive characters like Landa"? I like the schizophrenic result, and how the good guys come off so boorish and unsophisticated and lacking depth, while some of the baddies are the opposite.

You're not going to get anywhere with me on the claim that the film trivializes the Holocaust tragedy (for reasons already mentioned), because again, that's clearly letting other concerns interfere with (and oppose) the intent of the film. A Tarantino film makes hilarity out of the horrific, no matter how bad, and I think that's his strength, because he knows how to do it well (other filmmakers wouldn't be able to get away with this). I don't think it's accurate to say that "Tarantino lacks morality", though he obviously loves bad guys. If you listen to his various interviews and DVD commentaries, he's at least obliquely concerned with the moral ramifications of his films (and only a fool could miss that in, say, Pulp Fiction). He's not setting out to make political or moral statements (thank the gods), but neither are his results accidental byproducts of his storytelling. He's too shrewd for that. In this film he sends the obvious corallary that revenge and brutality are cruel no matter what side you're on; that many of us have the capacity to be "Nazis" ourselves. And so on.

(BTW, I love the parallel he makes between "the story of the American Negro" and "King Kong" through the mouth of the Nazi soldier (which in turn calls to mind Landa's earlier insidious argument about Jews being rats). Excellent scripting here.)

I think Inglourious Basterds is more than just a "nice film", as you put it... but evidently Tarantino can only do so much for you. Thanks again!


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