Friday, September 11, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds represents something of a commencement for its maker. Tarantino, now in his mid-forties, has found himself in that nearly mind-boggling predicament every major populist artist endures. Reduced to mere generalities, Tarantino's reign as American film's biggest, brainiest bad boy and correspondent of cinematic delectations has followed a fairly predictable path: amazement and adulation, followed not so slowly by backlash, resentment and cynical incertitude—and, depending on the individuals (each, for argument's sake, belonging to a certain cinematic-consumption stratum: critics, audience members, “cinephiles”), this has been repeated in the past twelve years. For some, Tarantino had definitively lost his way, or was at least adrift—the Kill Bill movies are so obscenely overloaded with richness and deliriousness of the genre-picking sort that they are readily divisive endeavors. Tarantino's partnership with Robert Rodriguez in creating Grindhouse, with Tarantino's Death Proof the picture endlessly argued about, defended and loathed by many who viewed the entire experience, caused a significant portion of film connoisseurs to begin to write him off for good. Here was a man who was, to liberally paraphrase from one noted, dissatisfied film blogger, crawling up his own ass and losing all bearing of reality.

Tarantino, however, knows that reality and film are two radically divergent worlds. Like one of his immediate ancestors, De Palma, he sees cinema as a fundamental lie, but like the noted Hitchcock-devotee, he interprets it as a benign lie, one as necessary as nighttime fairytales. You were either on board with this outlook or not—with Tarantino or not—and this dramatically influenced one's opinion of Tarantino's post-Jackie Brown work. Was he simply playing around or was there more behind the facade? For the critics, however, the mere question necessitated a correction of course; Tarantino, it was said, had to now put or shut up, almost like he was beginning all over again.

Let it be said that with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino puts up. Most immediately resembling his most universally acclaimed film, Pulp Fiction, in its multi-chapter structure with parallel, rotating stories, this cine—superficially World War II men-on-a-mission adventure, naturally it is first and foremost a Tarantino picture and everything that entails—is so headily unaware of its own grandiosity that it manages to be oddly intimate and downright recondite in its shadings of its cornucopia of distinguished gallery of Tarantino characters. That may be viewed as a kind of backhanded compliment, but it is not: Tarantino is so assured and inspired here, whatever quibbles or questions arise are almost instantly discarded. From the first frame to the last, this feels like the film Tarantino wanted to make after Jackie Brown but held off on—and, according to him, it was the screenplay he began working on after Brown, but the work became too massive and sprawling for its own good, and Tarantino redirected his energy behind Kill Bill—an unmistakable new, bold chapter to the Tarantino saga behind Tarantino's filmic journeys.

There is a moment early on in Inglourious Basterds that is in its own way a microcosmic description of the film entire: Colonel Hans Landa, with a honeyed, bright demeanor and grin, is coyly interrogating a Frenchman depicted as a virile, physical worker in the first of many comments on national and ethnic stereotypes Basterds makes. (The French dairy farmer with three daughters hiding a family of refugees may come from Tarantino's much-beloved Tonight We Raid Calais, a noted favorite of the director, from 1943 by John Brahm, about a British intelligence officer plotting to destroy a German munitions plant in France, hiding out with a French farmer and his daughters who—not unreasonably—blame the British for the fall of France.) The Frenchman reaches for his corn pipe and begins to smoke, and Landa quickly reaches for a pipe of his own—naturally, this Colonel known in France as the “Jew-Hunter,” a keen detective who is the distilled personification of a man who loves to play cat-and-mouse, has one that recalls Sherlock Holmes. The absurdly oversized pipe will make many a viewer of the film want to chuckle, but the chuckle is fleeting. As with other Tarantino creations, Landa is stunningly three-dimensional; whatever excesses and peculiarities he may possess are sadly all too human and strangely plausible. That pipe is a signpost: Basterds plays with people the way Tarantino films do, but the writer-director never ceases to insist that his characters are people. What follows is most crucial, for it reveals that Landa, an ostensible non-smoker, already knows that the French farmer smokes, and came prepared. Tarantino cuts away from the sight gag of the pipe to Landa's steely eyes, and the laughter dies down. Landa may be funny but he's no joke. No Tarantino character truly is, even the jokers. And like many a Tarantino character, Landa—like Mr. Pink arguing against automatic tipping in Reservoir Dogs or Bill discussing the subtextual meanings of the character of Superman in Kill Bill 2—patiently, coolly relates why he can think like a Jew by discussing the characteristics of a hawk, a rat, and, circuitously, a squirrel, in an early demonstration that the film has a provocative outlook on the issue of hunters attacking prey, most emphatically embodied by Landa himself.

Tarantino's opening is as rapturously mounted as anything in his oeuvre; he shoots the Frenchman working with his three beautiful daughters, and visions of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and myriad spaghetti westerns unfurl within the cinematically-trained mind. Tarantino follows suit with repeated excursions into filmic convention: like his seedy crime yarns that play with gangster movie conventions or Death Proof that seemed to exist as a kind of instrumental covering of many of Tarantino's favorite kinds of movie—cheap, tawdry horror movies, exploitation flicks of all kinds, road trip movies of sundry incarnations—Tarantino's multiple chapters in Basterds take on vibrant cinematic attributes found in spaghetti westerns, countless men-on-a-mission war films, romantic spy melodramas, of which there were plenty in the 1930s and '40s, and even a possible melding of horror-tinged religious cinema (a French heroine becomes Tarantino's approximation of Joan of Arc, devoured by flame before her tormentors) which feel at one with giallo and Catholic filmmakers' representations of their fear and guilt. This may mislead many who partake in Basterds' multitudinous delights of sight and sound—Basterds is admittedly enormously informed by Tarantino's love of cinema, including German expressionism, the brilliance of G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl's work and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau, the latter of which may signify Tarantino's acknowledgment of a “bad boy” of another era, in which one was not rewarded for the sharp attitudinal edge of one's film but rather punished for it as Clouzot was for Le Corbeau—but a pastiche it is not. Tarantino has reached a higher plane insofar as his recollections—part personal (the titular Inglourious Basterds stalk their German victims with knives like the psychopaths who terrified a young Tarantino in The Last House on the Left), part historical (Tarantino affords much banter about popular culture, once again, but it is confined strictly to figures of the time period such as Max Linder and the film character King Kong) but these gropings at cinema are heartfelt and genuine, as well as seamlessly stitched into the fabric of Basterds' very filmic identity.

What Inglourious Basterds proves is that Tarantino is still obsessed with human beings rather than a more accessible instigator of movement—his films are made up of a few, long, extraordinarily detailed scenes, as though they are visual, character-based novels. Those who harshly critique Tarantino's modus operandi appear foolhardy. Do they wish him to no longer invest such passion and care into his characters? Would they be happier if, for instance, Basterds were more cosmetically satisfying? It surely would have been easier to create a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen and leave it at that, but Tarantino's tapestry demands altogether greater scrutiny. Almost ironically, Tarantino's very artistic behavior—to lovingly dwell on the minutest of details, to bathe in the minds and hearts of the people he, like any significant writer, simply follows—is what has helped to make him so durably popular. If he were to abandon it, he would be sacrificing that which makes him a unique voice.

That voice helps to shape the aforementioned Colonel Hans Landa (a sensational Christoph Waltz), whose thrill of the chase and hunt (predominantly cerebral) is fetishistic and unnerving. He asks for a glass of the farmer's milk from his cows. Like Anton Chigurh's grabbing of a bottle of cold milk in No Country for Old Men, the villain's commandeering of the satisfying cream appears shameless and even saturnalian. Landa is an apt avatar for the Third Reich; his rapacity is on open display as he hurriedly swallows an entire glassful of the milk belonging to the French. Landa is undeniably acute and fully commanding but he lacks the patience to savor that which he ingests. A later scene in which he almost mechanically rips apart a piece of strudel with requested cream, taking turns between munching on a bite and asking a probing question, reinforces this amusingly sad characteristic. Waltz is at one moment quite humorous, and in the next downright chilling. Like Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell in Jackie Brown, Landa is self-protective to a fault, with an air of melancholy. Just before he violently snuffs out a fellow German's life—one of Tarantino's most uncomfortable and ugliest scenes, far more devastating than any scalping or baseball bat-beating by the Basterds—he has a look of sadness that reminds of Ordell's final, quiet warning to Max Cherry, before resuming his role as natural predator. The long, opening act establishes Landa's genius, as well as Tarantino's: a request to swap French for English in conversation between German and Frenchman first appears to be a bow to the commercial, so that Americans need not read anymore subtitles for a while. However, Landa's language-switch has a deep, sinister purpose. Late in the film, Landa kisses a handkerchief with a woman's lipstick and signature, and soon thereafter confronts the woman in a revoltingly warped recalling of Cinderella while indulging in Tarantino's much-discussed foot fetish. Basterds' men are, like other Tarantino guys—Vincent Vega, Max Cherry, even Bill—largely astonished and aroused by women because they recognize that they know so little about them. Such is the case with two Germans, Landa and particularly German war hero Fredrick Zoller.

Zoller's crush on a young French woman who runs her own cinema develops Tarantino's incendiary depiction of cinema itself, as a moral reckoning, distorter and demigod. The French woman is Shosanna Dreyfus, renamed Emanuelle Mimieux (Melanie Laurent)—Shosanna was the last surviving member of the Dreyfus family, sheltered by the French farmer before Landa and his men killed all but one. Tarantino's framing of Shosanna against the silhouetted front door frame of her father's farm, running away into the wilderness from the ruthless Nazis, exhibits a borrowing from John Ford's The Searchers. As the leader of the Basterds, Lieutenant Aldo Raine played by Brad Pitt (an obvious homage to American tough-guy actor Aldo Ray, complete with throat scar substituting for fatal throat cancer) informs his men, he is part “Injun,” and the Basterds will conduct themselves in the fashion of Apache warriors, scalping and mutilating Germans wherever they find them. The American Indian theme blossoms: Tarantino is himself part-“Injun,” drawing comparisons between his and Raine's own ancestry and respective raison d'êtres. Raine tells his men that the Germans will come to know this special secret squad of men and fear them—a kind of yearning for fame, or infamy, based on thuggery and shock, perhaps representing either an auto-critique by Tarantino or augmentation of argument that Tarantino's cinema is only at first glance about such mainly unimportant matters. At the beginning of the final chapter, the vengeful Shosanna applies her makeup as though she is meditatively donning warpaint. Never before has Tarantino's fixation on film been more irrepressible, as Shosanna's scheme to exact revenge on the Nazis responsible for murdering her family involves her sacrificing cinema—her own theatre as well as many reels of nitrate film she has in storage. Shosanna's final act of the film—one of both compassion and distraction—prove Tarantino's point, and establish just how frightening the efficacy of the cinema truly is. As with another woman—Dietrich-like German film star Bridget van Hammersmark (an entirely pleasant and surprisingly strong Diane Kruger)—Tarantino brings about the fates of his feminine forces to an anguished height, finally reaching the crushingly realistic conclusion of his long-fascinating depiction of “girl power” in manifold forms.

Bruhl's Zoller exists at once as Tarantino's twist on the American Audie Murphy story, reversing the mirror shot, so to speak, following other such reversals as the American soldiers being depicted as butchers juxtaposed with a decorated German, Sergeant Werner Rachtman—who honorably, judiciously and with great dignity informs his baseball bat-wielding executioner he earned his medal “for bravery,”—and exploring the inner-workings of the Third Reich's film industry through the perspective of Joseph Goebbels as overarching filmic auteur/movie executive. (Winston Churchill, played by Rod Taylor, asks a British expert on German cinema whether Goebbels considers himself the German Louis B. Mayer.) Zoller, however, is generously expanded upon by Tarantino. As a construct, Zoller could have been just a Tarantino meta-comment—the character says Goebbels wants him to become “the German Van Johnson,” terrifically editorializing on the cinematic image of toughness against that of the tangible world (the strapping, 6'2” Van Johnson versus the 5'5”-½ Audie Murphy). Zoller is a German war hero who, all alone, killed literally hundreds of enemy soldiers in Italy and now his story has been told in a propaganda film starring none other than himself. (Zoller excitedly tells one character that he has been hailed as the German “Sergeant York,” another example of people of one country discovering the story of another nation's hero through cinema.) Zoller is an intriguing character, made all the more abundantly arresting by the picture's remarkable climax. Viewing his own “heroics” on the giant screen, Zoller is in actuality disgusted; he cannot continue to watch, and leaves to “annoy” the owner of the cinema. Zoller represents the mature filmgoer who can at least empathize with if not truly live the violence glorified by Goebbels' picture, merging the previously disparate themes of the violence enacted by the Basterds, often cheered by Tarantino's moviegoer. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, he has seen a terrible, unshakable visage—and it is of himself, in another materialization—and can finally look back on the killing he has committed with a comprehensibly enhanced perspective.

Tarantino indulges himself with British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, last seen starving himself in Hunger), expert in German film, writer of two published books and published film critic. Tarantino's anointing of the cinephile as conduit and guiding force of Tarantino's own, phrenic world is here even more robust than in Death Proof, which saw a group of female film buffs and film crew members fight back against Stuntman Mike. Shosanna, Hicox, Zoller, Goebbels, von Hammersmark, the numerous German enlisted men and officers who are bedazzled by von Hammersmark, Shosanna's black film projectionist and clandestine lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido, an African in a cast heavily populated by Europeans and Americans), and others are all either directly or indirectly endowed with a special, durable connection to and appreciation for the art form of the motion picture. Yet while von Hammersmark's presence connotes the renowned fashion, glamor and elan of movie icons (a stereotype to which Tarantino gives plentiful twists); Zoller is, one could contend, the “exploited” person, the individual whose real-life escapades provide fodder for the insatiable beast; and Shosanna is the practically sanctified Tarantino demigoddess who readily sacrifices cinema for her own personal vengeful victory; it is, with disturbing and cutting clarity Lieutenant Hicox whose knowledge of cinema informs his decisions. Confronted by an overbearing Nazi Major Dieter Hellstrom (a superb August Diehl) in a pivotal tavern, Hicox resorts to his encyclopedic knowledge base to throw the inquisitive major off the scent that the undercover Englishman is indeed not a German. Hicox is briefly saved by his fondness for a Leni Riefenstahl film, The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Moments later, however, he gives himself away in a manner that reveals Tarantino finally confronting himself and perhaps his critics who deride him for being so hopelessly stuck in movies. Hicox's fate points to the admission that film, though especially indispensable to a cinephile, ultimately cannot teach one about everything, about every group of people, no matter how well-informed one may be. The brutal irony that Hicox was especially an expert of German cinema makes the point all the sharper and clearer.

Tarantino's World War II epic is conspicuously skewed, both surprisingly and not surprisingly, in almost being a weird, “proto-black man's view” of the war. Samuel L. Jackson lends his voice to two brief narrations. As though this were not enough, the one character who is viewed with wholly uncomplicated sympathy is Shosanna's lover, Marcel, who is obedient to his woman, kind, tender and evidently fearless. This is not alarming coming from Tarantino, whose occasionally ostentatious affinity for and relationship with black-oriented features has flowed into these filmmaking decisions. Most penetrative, however, are a pair of speeches delivered by Nazis—first by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and later by Hellstrom—respectively commenting on the unique place blacks have had in America, as athletic competitors and previously as slaves. This threading connects World War II to the black experience in America, and suggests Tarantino's contention that “America,” as an abstraction, or reduced to specific characters (“Basterds”), was not the uncomplicated hero of the war. This is never distracting; only a source of moral bemusement.

Tarantino's essaying of the Basterds themselves will doubtless bring about divergent reactions. One may interpret the American “Basterds” as ridiculous, over-the-top cartoon characters—although Tarantino does not afford most of them much time or weight, beyond Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine, Eli Roth's “Bear Jew” Donny Donowitz and Til Schweiger's Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz—so the cartoon quality of the characters is perhaps actually softened. Pitt is fine in his role and repeatedly quite funny. Pitt's presence lends balance to the film's air of the star-studded international cast, even if he is less obvious for Raine than former Tarantino hombres like Bruce Willis or Michael Madsen. Roth is solid as the “Bear Jew.” The Basterds are in truth defined by their comparative absence from the world of cinema in relation to the film's other characters. As Raine tells a doomed German, watching Donny Donowitz split open German heads with his baseball bat “ is the closest we get to goin' to the movies.” Tarantino's sly comment about the possible, cathartic need for filmic violence as a substitute to real-world bloodletting cannot go unnoticed. Beyond this, in a typically Tarantino-esque, twisted manner, the Basterds may represent some form of pitiless conscience, and more than simply existing as a group of Jewish soldiers slaughtering Nazis about France, the point made by Raine on two highly memorable occasions is worth pondering, particularly for Jews victimized by the Nazi terror. Will these Nazis abandon their uniforms once the war concludes and go about their lives without consequence? Though the Basterds are sadistic and fiendishly violent, the question resonates in the final chapter as Landa himself, who, in the prologue, relished the title given to him—“The Jew Hunter” (early in the film, Landa says he believes Heydrich in Prague should be proud of his nickname, “The Hangman,” perhaps a reference by Tarantino to one of Lang's wartime propaganda pictures, Hangmen Also Die about Heydrich)—feigns recoiled horror at the label when he is negotiating a cunning deal. The Basterds, then, could be sincerely deciphered as unforgiving avenging angels before the fact. This does not, however, remotely excuse the barbaric bloodthirst of the Basterds, nor the hideous oversimplification of viewing every Germanic soldier as a demonic Nazi. This is a thorny extension of Tarantino's obsession with revenge, which has seemingly become more explicit with each release. As with the Kill Bill movies and Death Proof, when the revenge is finally meted out, Tarantino does not glorify or romanticize the violence—this is in fact only truer with Inglourious Basterds, which features violence as a swift reckoning—all too fast, ghastly and terrible, the outbursts explode at the end of long set-pieces of dialogue.

What perhaps makes Inglourious Basterds so intoxicating and enthralling is the opaquely ambagious, unpredictable route it so gleefully travails. Tarantino, for all of his homages and love letters to cinema, has never shied away from happily departing from the trusted formula. Inglourious Basterds actually delivers the usual Tarantino multilayered, two-for-one special: on one basic narrative level, his pictures conclude precisely where they must (Mr. White discovering Mr. Orange's secret in Reservoir Dogs or The Bride confronting Bill in the Kill Bill movies being especially straightforward destinations) and so does Inglourious Basterds (which two male characters do you believe will finally meet before the picture concludes?) but the circumstances, emotions and emphases are always stunningly different in their laminations and most importantly their meanings from what most audience members are anticipating.

Tarantino's characters, it must be said here, are always meeting ends unforeseen by all including themselves (even an important character who has elected a kind of grandiose, operatic martyrdom does not meet the exact fate they had envisioned). Basterds displays once more the circuitous manner in which Tarantino characters finally get what is coming to them. Characters receive tragic ends that have little or nothing directly to do with their past sins. Basterds augments this entrenched trait by playing things firmly “down the middle,” so to speak, like an umpire, Tarantino dispassionately surveys all of the characters, with an impartiality and probity that takes the lackadaisical, conventional triteness that even suffocates supposed “satire” (Starship Troopers and the recent District 9 both suffer inordinately from this laziness) out of the way, throwing the audience's wanton desire for mayhem and death back into their collective lap. Whereas Tarantino's first batch of films were based to one degree or another in a criminal underworld, which usually feature more ambiguously-defined roles of “hero” and “villain,” Inglourious Basterds takes on the static mythology of World War II, with its elephantine and nearly preconceived “heroes and villains.” This is chiefly played with by Tarantino with regards to Zoller, who even explicitly tells the French beauty to whom he is attracted that he is more than a uniform, coupled with a humanizing comment that all German soldiers are “somebody's son.”

Beyond Zoller's plea that he is more than a uniform—a direct thematic rebuttal to the Basterds' campaign—Tarantino's film is bustling with not only textual and subtextual reversals (and even textual reversals during which the subtext remains the same, including a late-inning gambit by one particularly unscrupulous but brilliant figure), but also simple reversals of identity. As with other “men-on-a-mission” pictures, some of the Basterds along with the aforementioned Lieutenant Hicox must pose as Germans. Throughout the long, intentionally languorous visitation of the tavern, the parlor game played serves as a shockingly direct substitution for the very serious game being played; that Tarantino's device runs exactly parallel to his suspense-driven plot situation and very few find it excessive proves he has become only more successful at partially veiling his intentions with a layer of apparent frivolity that is in actuality part and parcel of the critical narrative conditions. The scene itself plays like a combination of Tarantino sequences in which people look like they are letting their proverbial hair down while only masquerading or belatedly revealing their true selves. The tavern exists with a thoroughly detailed environment and, like other Tarantino set-pieces, feels like that from a novel or play with its purposeful limitations (one reason Tarantino is never called “stagy” is because people tend to enjoy the long, winding monologues and repartees he produces)—the intersecting of characters feels as though it belongs to the spirit of such locales as Reservoir Dogs' hood hideout, Pulp Fiction's diner, Jackie Brown's dark bars and Ordell's chief homestead, Kill Bill's several sequences of predator finding prey and the Tarantino character's bar in Death Proof. The playing with identities in Basterds is not unheard of for Tarantino; his first film, borrowing liberally from the original The Taking of Pelham 123, followed criminals with unknown identities with one another beyond their color names, and indeed his subsequent films all tend to fall in that line, to be partly about characters discovering others' true, or truer, identities. Tarantino's playfulness has been known to extend to the brutal, and Basterds is no exception: the last German man standing, weeping and frantically distressed, the most ostensibly “cowardly” of his squadron, is rewarded first by the Basterds for giving information Sergeant Rachtman refused to bequeath and then by Adolf Hitler himself, who makes the (physically and spiritually disgraced) German soldier the veritable hero of the cover story that has now become “official” reality. In one of the film's most piquant visual mirrored reversals, one character strangles another; the character being murdered helplessly grabs a hold of anything, such as the carpeting of the floor, and later the strangler is himself mounted, and, like the character he terminated, can only grip and pull at grass in unspeakable pain.

Inglourious Basterds places Tarantino above one of his closer antecedents, Brian De Palma, and probably places him on roughly equal footing with his most nakedly revered idol from the past, Jean-Luc Godard. Tarantino's much-denied moralistic streak is akin to De Palma's; their inversions of normalcy are startling but very much related to one another. Basterds concludes on a note of female anguish and annihilation—a redux of Carrie and possibly The Fury (with Bruhl's Zoller approximating John Cassavetes in his final, distasteful speech)—that feels completely earned and directly corresponding with Tarantino's long-documented half-guileless, half-goofy relating of “girl power,” which he himself utilizes as fragmentary stand-in for his piqued curiosity of the fairer sex (like most Tarantino male avatars). Tarantino has proven he is no cinematic or cultural revolutionary—he is nearly the anti-Godard in the sense that Godard posited his homages as necessary conditional trappings to create something of a new cinema, while Tarantino's love of anterior cinema overwhelms most other impulses. Countering this, however, is that Tarantino's love of cinema almost circularly takes him into a realm not dissimilar from Godard at all—especially as the young Godard sought a degree in Ethnology at the Sorbonne, Tarantino's undying infatuation with cinema has given him a dramatically different but equivalent studying of disparate cultures and their origins. Comparisons to Hitchcock become perilous, but Basterds is teeming with references to the man who jubilantly placed the moral responsibility of his World War II spy films' carnage on the audience, as in a pivotal movie theatre scene in Saboteur, wherein violence takes place against the backdrop of the silver screen's applauded and cheered violence. Tarantino's sense of morality is persuasive insofar as the filmmaker refuses to confess that it exists; by simply “following” his invented tale, he can live by the conceit that he is not judging the proceedings, gavel in hand, as he crafts his screenplays and films. Pungently, Tarantino openly assaults history, and therefore saves millions of lives in his alternate world by concluding World War II much earlier than it did in fact end (possibly averting the Russian overtaking of Central Europe as well). The film asks a pointed question: if the war's final year could have been averted, would the story's destructive massacring, and furious, merciless climactic conflagration, been seen as justified?

Another inspiration of Tarantino's—Leone—is easily discovered in the relation between a known war and a complete, beautifully unfurled fictive fantasia, as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The sequence in the tavern likewise recalls spaghetti westerns in its careful attenuation of competing characters. There is even a new father, a German soldier, whose appearance along with several of his compatriots is a classic, painful example of the wrong people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both like, and more quotidian than, the iconic Confederate soldier being given a “smoke,” Tarantino's Germans are fully flesh-and-blood—something one may not expect in a film so divergent from standard historical fidelity—as well as being endowed with sheer, cunning smarts. Landa, Hellstrom and others are all viewed as intelligent, almost insidiously astute adversaries. (Humorously, Landa is offended late in the picture when a noted enemy does not appear to afford him the kind of respect he believes he demands.) Like other Tarantino film scores, the music recalls Ennio Morricone's larger-than-life melodies in its euphonious depiction of various individuals as archetypes.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Inglourious Basterds is a paean to propaganda. For the first time, Tarantino has scaled the mountain of the propaganda film. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he reads the propaganda films of the United States, Great Britain and Germany with great, unbridled engrossment. Expectedly, Tarantino pays tribute to the very national stereotypes bolstered by the respective countries' own propaganda—the heedless voracity, brashly indomitable spirit and brutish instincts of the Americans, the stiff upper lip propriety, earnest self-challenging derring-do and remote chilliness of the English, and the shrewd, wily and skillfully manipulative Germans, all double-edged swords—while discussing the correlation between German film exec Goebbels with the American film execs who immediately pushed for propaganda pictures after Pearl Harbor and the morale-boosting English pictures of the same time. Riefenstahl may have a most dubious position in history, but her films shed voluminous light on the character of the people she tirelessly observed through her film work. Tarantino certainly admires the role of the propaganda film—it is, perhaps, the ultimate (and government-sanctioned) exploitation picture, after all—and his treatment of the much-hyped Nazi propaganda film at the heart of Basterds is curiously unaffected, with a definite ambivalence that over the course of his picture covers highly contrasting emotions stemming from pride, affection, passion, mockery, ridicule and disgust.

At a recent Marin Shakespeare Company presentation of “Julius Caesar” in San Rafael, California, this writer overheard one patron discussing Inglourious Basterds with his family and friends. “It's a World War II Pulp Fiction,” he roared. At a presentation of a play written by the Bard a millennium and a half after the events took place, in which a kind of historical, Roman propaganda takes shape on each side of the play's expansive argument—Cassius cajoling and soothing Brutus that his name shares the weight of Caesar, followed by the emotional, powerful demagoguery of Mark Antony—this was a most intriguing venue to consider Inglourious Basterds. The dualistic nature of Basterds suggests Tarantino's meta-contextualizing of the propaganda film, matching his previous forays in digesting all of the properties of his variegated subjects. To compare Tarantino with the Bard in any fashion may be correctly considered disturbing—yet their respective analyses of historical propaganda reveals a commonly sober, balanced reading. That level of maturity is not easily quantified, nor is it usually appropriately appreciated. Perhaps Tarantino, speaking through Pitt's Aldo Raine in the picture's final pre-end credits moment, is indeed correct—Inglourious Basterds “just might be [his] masterpiece.”

148 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"Inglourious Basterds places Tarantino above one of his closer antecedents, Brian De Palma, and probably places him on roughly equal footing with his most nakedly revered idol from the past, Jean-Luc Godard."

Oh God no. Not remotely, not by any standard of measurement. Godard is one of cinema's great masters and stylists, Tarantino is a former movie store geek who spealizes in sadism, revisionism and (in this film) tedium. The living American masters are Scorsese, Allen, Lynch, Spielberg, Malick and F. Coppola in no partcular order. Tarantino, who isn't very prolific to start with, would struggle to make second rung. A sizable vocal minority including The New York Times's Manola Dargis, Salon's Stephanie Zacharek and Michael Sgrow panned the film, and reading their reviews they all seem to be lining up behind the same objections.
I see the film as far too ludicrous and shallow to be taken seriously, yet it strives self-indulgently to be treated so seriously that it executes its violence with extended torture and consumate execution. A baseball bat is repeatedly use to pummel Nazis, sickening scalpings make full use of a nauseating sound design, and Brad pitt even gets to push his hand into the lethal wound on a victim. The final scene showcases a rather gruesome body mutilation to boot. Following his own lead (the ear amputation of the policeman and the subsequent buffooning as to whether he could "hear now") But with this film he has failed to allow for any emotional connection to the characters. he's basically and gleefully saying that in time of war all the partcipants are capable of commiting the worst kind of attrocities. To the claim that this is viseral filmmaking, aside from the best scene in the film at the farmhouse, it's all excutiating talk (aside of course from the sensationalistic violent set pieces) He had potentially rich material here to employ Third Reich satire, but he opted to subject his audience to a painful two-and-a-half hours. Many of the point syou make in this review as to its extravagent successes on various levels are brilliantly persuasive, even if I am not persuaded myself.
Personally i have written him off years ago, but i'll always examine his latest works regardless.
My favorite paragraphs in this massive, sprawling review, which I believe is the longest ever posted at CCC (a close call with OUT OF THE PAST) are the second and third, but I am prejudice as that's the scene I like best, even if that Leone reference you make there is shoved down the audience's throat by Tarantino. The oversized pipe gag is on eof my favorite moments in the film, but that's an exception, not the norm.

You ask this question:

"Those who harshly critique Tarantino's modus operandi appear foolhardy. Do they wish him to no longer invest such passion and care into his characters? Would they be happier if, for instance, Basterds were more cosmetically satisfying?"

Care and passion? This is an arsenal of souless denizens, all promulgating a nihilism that I would take more seriously if the film was not so silly and morally represensible (yes both elements work here, somewhat uneasily)

"Tarantino's essaying of the Basterds themselves will doubtless bring about divergent reactions. One may interpret the American “Basterds” as ridiculous, over-the-top cartoon characters—although Tarantino does not afford most of them much time or weight, beyond Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine, Eli Roth's “Bear Jew” Donny Donowitz and Til Schweiger's Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz—so the cartoon quality of the characters is perhaps actually softened."

I'll admit I did find them as cartoons characters.

Like Wagner, you write spectacularly massive pieces and dare your readers to grapple with every word. But also like Wagner, you are a man of daring and positive artistic temerity. I do not like this film, but I'll be damned if I've read a better review of it from ANYWHERE, either in the professional or blogger ranks. Fascinating stuff.

Welcome home, prodigal Son.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam, as always you bring an incomparable zest and singular passion to whichever subject we are currently on, and I know that you do not care for this picture much, so I thank you liberally for the magnificently kind and cherished words. As you have said, you yourself are a gentleman and scholar and I thank you for all of your contributions to the online world of film blogging, both at your own website and elsewhere.

I see my comment concerning Tarantino's placement with Godard struck a nerve! I understand that it's radical, and, honestly, very unusual for me. I tend to shy away from ultra-hyped current releases. I remember shaking my head when many believed the release of Zodiac to usher in the Age of Fincher, and some cinephiles began placing him with true titans of the cinema.

Having said that, I do consider Inglourious Basterds to be a major work, and as weighty and important to one American filmmaker as any released this decade. To me, it's that delicious, that marvelously rendered and complete. However, I understand that this film can be met with such divisiveness, scrutiny and disagreement, and I do respect your dissenting perspective immensely.

I also thank you for openly questioning certain thoughts and questioned posed in the piece. (And yes, it is my longest ever.)

We'll have to agree to disagree about the passion and care perspective of Tarantino's characters versus the "arsenal of soulless denizens," which I must say is one of the best lines I've read about this film! :) I can't disagree that practically every character is, in one manner of speaking or another, untoward, untrustworthy, sadistic, vicious, vile or at the very least wrathfully vengeful. Again, however, I give Tarantino credit for making most of these most ostensibly terrible characters a patina of tenderness and humanity, even if one does not see it (I did, but I'm sure there are many who did not).

Your point, Sam, that, "...he's basically and gleefully saying that in time of war all the partcipants are capable of commiting the worst kind of attrocities," is most interesting. I myself have considered this... Personally, I don't agree that this is what Tarantino is in fact saying. He seems to viewing the latter portion of World War II through curious eyes: he's taking note that Germany became the defender, and the Allies were "on offense," to borrow a sports analogy out of nowhere. This doesn't make the German atrocities in defense of their country morally correct, but I found an uncommon, gentle respect for the Germans as they attempted to defend themselves from losing (this respect can only go so far, true, as the Nazis are depicted as practically wholly loathsome individuals).

Nevertheless, I once again thank you for the most pointed compliments and kind words, Sam. The comparison to Wagner--I am humbled and unworthy... Thank you so very much, and I'm honored to be your friend.

tim watts said...

Wow wow wow wow wow.

Brilliant piece. From the first sentence on I couldn't sotp reading it. Outdone yourself again Coleman.

I found the violene to be too mcuh but I liked a lot of the dialogue. Tarantino was really on point with that screenplay because it is great writing.

Your review is the best I have read on this movie. Truly epic work here. Sam Juliano is right you are the Prodigal Son.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Tim. I'm touched by your certainly over-the-top comment.

I'm happy you enjoyed the review. Again, I understand that the violence has received numerous complaints, but I felt that it was commendably organic and deliberately painful, as it should have been. Even the climax in Shosanna's cinema, in which such infamous figures as Hitler and Goebbels are targeted for destruction, is not without its nuanced trepidation and horror.

Sam Juliano said...

Your response to me is simply stunning. I am forever humbled. You write sensational reviews consistantly, but your 'comments' are almost as tremendous, further proof of your ultra-impressive unrehersed talent.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you so very much, Sam.

mary said...

Gr8 essay. Really cool. Brad Pitt is funny.

Kevin J. Olson said...

What Inglourious Basterds proves is that Tarantino is still obsessed with human beings rather than a more accessible instigator of movement—his films are made up of a few, long, extraordinarily detailed scenes, as though they are visual, character-based novels. Those who harshly critique Tarantino's modus operandi appear foolhardy. Do they wish him to no longer invest such passion and care into his characters? Would they be happier if, for instance, Basterds were more cosmetically satisfying? It surely would have been easier to create a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen and leave it at that, but Tarantino's tapestry demands altogether greater scrutiny. Almost ironically, Tarantino's very artistic behavior—to lovingly dwell on the minutest of details, to bathe in the minds and hearts of the people he, like any significant writer, simply follows—is what has helped to make him so endurably popular. If he were to abandon it, he would be sacrificing that which makes him a unique voice.

You're so right about this, Alexander. The film opens like any other Tarantino movie: with dialogue. He almost always chooses to rope the viewers in through intensity of words, instead of action; and the way he blocks the tavern scene, the way he decides to shoot the opening where we're aware that the tiniest thing could mean danger, so we're on the edge of our seat the whole time (I was tensed up throughout the opening and the tavern scene, and once they were over I leaned back in my theater chair and let out a clearly audible sigh). Everything great that Tarantino does stems from the care and time he spends on his characters. To want him to not do this is, as you say, neutering the filmmakers greatest gift.

I also think with IB that Tarantino's aesthetic, although it always takes a back seat to his words, shines through. It's a beautiful looking and masterfully blocked film. It's a feast for the ears and the eyes...which is why it demands multiple viewings.

I was all agog when I saw that you were writing about this film. I share your sentiments (my writings on the film seem meager compared to this) and have foiund your essay here to beone of the prmeier discussions on the film. I can't even really add much more because you've so brilliantly covered it here. The next time I want to talk about this film with someone all I have to do is point them towards this magnificent, monster of a piece and say "that's why...".

Just amazing work here, Alexander. One of the best essays I've read here at Coleman's Corner in Cinema. I don't think I can say anything else or add anything new to the discussion because your all encompassing essay has done all the work for us.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Mary.

Thank you so very much, Kevin. I'm humbled and honored by your comment. Mostly, I'm thrilled that a fellow lover of cinema loves this film, and, indeed, we're united in our shared passion for the picture.

During the opening, I was already gratified--Tarantino unloads a storm of dialogue and lets it fly, and much of that first chapter is among his greatest writing. You're totally right, this is how Tarantino begins his films; any other way would seem incongruous at this point.

You're absolutely correct--Basterds is, remarkably, probably the most visually accomplished film Tarantino has yet crafted. I agree that the blocking--especially in the many, many scenes in which one character is confronting another--is superb and while a common complaint has been the film's length, to me, at 152 minutes, it breezes by. The editing is crisp but when it should be, it's also leisured. The soundtrack is terrific--I love the Bowie song, surely one more very divisive choice. It's no more "on the nose" than "Stuck in the Middle With You" from Reservoir Dogs or "Natural High" from Jackie Brown and I love those selections as well.

Thank you again, Kevin, I'll always treasure your most warmly received comment.

books,coffee,etc.... said...

Hi! Alexander,
Welcome back!...I must admit that
your review of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds look like a tour de force.

By the way, I have four main writers, who write for my blog and
in your absent only one of the writers focused on this film
two days ago...
...Therefore, I had to feature a review (An animated short entitled In the Fueher Face by the writer who write for me name Andrew Katsis,..) in lieu of QT'S IB that focused on Hitler's regime.

(But,while "perusing" or "lurking" in the blogosphere, I was
quite"surprised"
to find out or discover how many other bloggers, decided to focus on the dasterdly people in Hitler's regime too!

Once again, thanks, for sharing this very detailed review...I guess?!?...because I have not read your review yet, but I plan to return and read your review.

Alexander, I plan to send you, an email about some films.That is if you, don't mind me sending you an email.

Take care!
DeeDee ;-D

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the extremely kind comment, Dee Dee. No, I would never, ever mind you sending me an email! :-)

I hope you come back and read the piece... Perhaps you should see the film first, as this is an instance in which I believe everyone should simply seek the film out and then come back and read everyone else's thoughts. However, you're obviously free to do whatever you please--and if you must choose between seeing the film and reading my piece on it, I secretly suggest the latter for self-aggrandizement, ha (just kidding).

I'll be sure to take a look at your website, Dee Dee. Thank you so much for the warm "welcome back"!

books,coffee,etc.... said...

Alexander,
Please let me elaborate a little on the comment below...It seems like every blogger in the blogosphere,was focusing on this film when it was first released.

But,not "one" of my four writers' wrote a review of this film...Go figure?!?...

"...Therefore, I had to feature a review (An animated short entitled In the Fueher Face by the writer who write for me name Andrew Katsis,..) in lieu of QT'S film IB that focused on Hitler's regime."

DeeDee ;-D

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, I see, DeeDee. I'm sorry for the confusion.

You're free to use my piece at your website if you wish. I'm discovering that many bloggers have had a lot to say about Inglourious Basterds.

I can't believe I keep spelling it that way now, time after time.

That is funny about the animated video review you have--I'll be sure to take a look, DeeDee! :)

Sergei Smirnov said...

There are film reviews and then there are film reviews. THIS IS A FILM REVIEW.

It's actually a damned thesis. Powerful and intense. Coleman, this is your finest hour.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you so very much, Sergei. I'm speechless, but I thank you regardless.

What were your thoughts on the film?

Sergei Smirnov said...

I loved it but I could never begin to articulate why the way you do. I hope you don't mind me calling you a freak of nature because you are.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I could buy that I'm a "freak," in any case. :)

Thank you, truly.

Anonymous said...

Tarantino is The Devil!

Books,Coffee,etc.... said...

Alexander said,"Ah, I see, DeeDee. I'm sorry for the confusion."
Believe me Alexander, you didn't
create no confusion...what so ever!

"...You're free to use my piece at your website if you wish..."
Ahhh!...Thanks!

...I'm discovering that many bloggers have had a lot to say about Inglourious Basterds...

Oh! yes, they did...I'am not sure how many blogs reviewed this film at the time of it initial release.

"I can't believe I keep spelling it that way now, time after time."

I know, I know I jumped on that quickly and start spelling the word incorrectly.

"That is funny about the animated video review you have--I'll be sure to take a look, DeeDee!"

Alexander, I don't think so...because I'am notorious
for placing previous post in draft mode. (I'am giggling) But, for you, I will take it out of draft mode.
Take care!
DeeDee ;-D

Sandra said...

I love the movie. It's doing so well in Portugal where I am. Great review! I just found your website a few days ago. Peace!

Alexander Coleman said...

Anonymous, you don't say?

DeeDee, you're most welcome to use the review! Ha. And thank you so much for taking the video review out of draft mode for me. :-)

Sandra, thank you for finding the blog, reading and commenting. I appreciate the compliment. I hope to see you around here.

QT said...

finally someone gets what im doing

Peter said...

I like this movie more than Sam does, but maybe not quite as much as you. But this is crash course here in how to write a great movie review. I would have to agree that Tarantino is a major figure in contemporary American cinema. I enjoyed that long description of Landa.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ha, thanks, QT.

Thank you for the kind words, Peter. It's good to see you stop by. It would be boring if everyone reacted exactly the same to everything, including films, so I'm happy to hear another voice. Thank you again for the kind words.

steve said...

I think I'd be with you more if not for Tarantino making Zoller just another EVIL NAZI in his last moments. He wants to rape Shosanna and I was happy to see him get his ass capped for it. Seemed to me Tarantino thought he deserved death.

Fantastic piece however. You leave no stone unturned. I think Tarantino buries a lot of significane underneath all the genre manipulations and such.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the comment, Steve.

Zoller is clearly a rather complex character ("a strangely persuasive monster," to quote Goebbels, perhaps), and I think to reduce him to "EVIL NAZI" because he forces himself into the projector booth is going too far. Again, he's wearing a German Army uniform, unlike the admirer at that cafe who in his black appeared to be SS.

Zoller never goes so far as to rape Shosanna, he forces himself in and his speech of entitlement is downright disturbing, but he simply doesn't take it that far, and perhaps only because Shosanna switches gears on him so quickly. German soldiers' conduct in World War II is as vast and unquantifiable as most armies' overall conduct, but while there were doubtless violations and shameful episodes, I honestly don't see a German soldier's abruptness with a standoffish woman and disregard for her immediate wishes as constituting a generalized statement about "evil Nazis." This is dicey, because the film is not truly "historically-based"--but, if the soldier were Russian, based on the mass raping that occurred throughout the Red Army's overwhelming of Europe in the final act of the war--estimates of 50,000 Hungarian women and girls being taken away in Budapest, raped and sometimes murdered in 1944-45, perhaps 100,000, possibly many more, such rapes in Berlin of German women, as well as even in Russia herself, Poland, Yugoslavia and Slovakia--as well as the many wholesale massacres of civilians, men, women and children in Finland as well as documented cases in the Bundesland of Germany, just for starters...

Sorry, that was a long and winding response. And as stated earlier, doubtless atrocities were committed by some regular German soldiers, including in France which is the setting for Tarantino's film, but on the matter of rape itself, I don't see Tarantino suggesting Zoller possibly going so far as exactly an indictment of the German Army on this particular charge.

I actually interpreted the scene as suggesting, quite forcefully, that Zoller's mind has been warped by the histrionics and hero-worshipping conducted by German high commanders and Mr. Propaganda himself, Goebbels. Zoller has become, perhaps, twisted by fame and indeed believes himself "entitled" to get whatever he wants, including Shosanna. The somewhat subtle shading of Zoller--he recoils at the violence he committed yet is not afraid to use his story as a rationale for why he should be able to have Shosanna if he desires her--is an intriguing paradox of sorts (and is complemented by Shosanna's own apparent feeling of remorse, and wonderment--she can't stop watching the hero's story unfold on the big screen, and, it would appear, she goes to check on him, though I'm sure others have read the scene differently.

steve said...

But don't you think it would be unfair to use just one soldier of any army as a standin for any army? I see what you're saying about the Russians but even there.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, again, Steve, truthfully I don't believe Zoller is at all a thematic "stand-in" for the German Army--he's their Audie Murphy, their war hero-turned-newborn movie star, and has been, it seems, chosen by fate/destiny/God, whatever, to be the discovered, proud face of the German Army (Hitler effectively says that it would be wise to attend the premiere of the film because this boy has supplied the German nation with a hero and public-relations coup--at this point most German military commanders and generals recognized that they were losing the war, as well), and his rudeness and arrogance indicate a man who has at least significantly lost the very martial discipline one might reasonably expect from a gentleman soldier.

I think your question's answer is debatable--it may be said that De Palma's Casualties of War, with several American soldiers behaving hideously and unforgivably in Vietnam with a "dink" woman was a perspective concerning the war entire... which is certainly accurate--not necessarily that the representation is honest, much less fair, but that the film is itself positioning the narrative in such a metaphorical light, and I don't believe Tarantino is going that route with Zoller as some kind of distillation of "evil Nazis" because he barges into a room and inflicts momentary pain on a female, however wrong such actions are.

Zoller seems to be, to quote my own review, the "exploited" figure of cinema. Here, he is the "exploited" soldier--a common condition, though the application in Tarantino's picture is intentionally askew, as Zoller's very fame and state of receiving constant sycophancy has gone woefully to his head.

I'd say the dichotomy between Zoller and Shosanna is one derived from Tarantino's passion for cinema, and the commentary he seems to be making is that Zoller, as the subject matter of cinema, is to be specially sacrified by Shosanna as she follows through with her plan to sacrifice the film's most audacious apotheosis and exemplar of cinema, her own theatre and its prints. And, in so doing, she makes one last bow to cinema before taking it up to the mountaintop to slay it for the gods, by making her own movie with Marcel--it's an endlessly fascinating thematic thread that almost coils around itself forever.

steve said...

whoa that's a great point about Shosanna making a movie as her last act before destroying cinema. Awesome. That casts a lot of the movie in a different light. THanks Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Don't mention it, Steve... I found both the irony and aptness of Shosanna becoming a filmmaker herself to be qutie revealing on Tarantino's part.

Anonymous said...

I think Diane Kruger has been really underrated in the film. Also she's so hot. Thoughts, Coleman?

Alexander Coleman said...

It's funny, Anonymous, because I completely agree--for a little while, Diane Kruger sort of steals the film from everyone else (which is a ridiculously silly way of putting it; she simply excels in the scenes she is in). It was remarkably refreshing to see her play a grown-up, almost femme fatale variation of Dietrich, and I loved listening to her in German.

I also, honestly, felt much more simplistic sympathy for her character than I did even for Shosanna's. Shosanna's vengeance is completely understandable, but it makes the character almost cornered and, dare I say, more instantly accessible. Her family was murdered--she wants to kill everybody who were responsible.

von Hammersmark, meanwhile, is a German film star, for goodness sakes, who is on her own accord working to overthrow the Nazi regime. She's doubtless quite comfortable and living many people's fantasy, and yet here she is playing spy games on behalf of the Allies against the Third Reich. It made her fate all the more deeply unsettling and painful for me. She was an enchanting character, however, and displayed healthy doses of Tarantino's "girl power" toughness--especially when she takes out the German soldier who had just cursed her in their native tongue.

Moses Hernandez said...

This is an effervescent and accomplished look at Tarantino who gets labeled as being all surface and not deep. Obviously that's not true. It was rewarding to see him back in true form after some middling movies IMHO.

Anyway truly great work Alexander. You pick up on things that go right by me and I bet most of us.

christian said...

This review just might be your masterpiece.

thecinemaguy.com said...

Mr. Coleman, another wonderful essay -

And let me say that I think that the cinematography, set pieces, and acting by Waltz in particular, but also Fassbender, Laurent, and Kruger were all top notch. Much of the dialogue is alos, of course, clever.

But... I think on the whole Mr. Juliano puts forth a number of excellent points that get to the heart of the problem with this film and with Tarantino as a filmmaker. In order to adequately address your long and detailed essay I would probably have to write something equally as long (and wouldn't hope to match your style, vocabulary, etc.), but I will try to list some reasons why I think this film is essentially schlock (albeit artfully done schlock) dressed up as art.

1. Rains is a stand-in for Tarantino (Indian blood; from Tennesse) - laughable if it weren't a little sad. Since Tarantino believes himself a great actor it's surprising he didn't play himself.
2. Middle-aged QTs world view (women; relationships; violence) is like that of an 8 yr old indoor wild child kept locked in the house on a diet of nothing but sitcoms, kung fu movies, and sweet cereal.
3. QTs flippant, lackadaisical approach to history (especially THIS history) is offensive because he has absolutely no intellectual or emotional stake in these very real events (which, at the least, should be a prerequisite) - he merely thinks the Nazis are cool villains and the thematic center of the film is a little more than an excuse for self-flagellation, allowing him to employ his hyper-violence, thinking himself immune because he's on the right side. Why shouldn't he screw with history? He's only having fun. His Jew/rat speech is the same thing he did in his True Romance script with Moors/Sicilians. The subject matter is secondary. Clever speeches and set pieces are what's important to him.
4. This tonal mess is comprised of a series of mostly well done parts that do not add up to a cohesive, satisfying whole.
5. Pitt's accent is a major miscalculation and renders these already cartoon Basterd scenes completely ridiculous, including the worst scene in the film (and QTs career) when Rains then adopts an Italian accent in the cinema house. As embarrassing as Deniro's fake crying in his Billy Crystal mob comedies.
6. You praise QT for not remaking the Dirty Dozen, but what a far more interesting concept than this self-indulgent meld (I think the same of an actual satire or something about cinema/ propaganda films/spies.)
7. The score is obtrusive, overbearing, anachronistic, and literally derivative. Time to hire a composer.
8. The many references to cinema pushes the absurdity level way over the edge, calling attention to themselves after about the 2nd or 3rd. There is clearly no one telling this man to stop, hold on, pull it back. Ironically, the very thing that might've helped him with this - adapting the work of others (as he did with the excellent Jackie Brown), is something he says he will never do again.
9. The Basterds relationship to the rest of the film is akin to dropping Gilligan and the Skipper into Schindler's List so they can have some wacky adventures.
10. While Lubitsch, Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Mel Brooks with the Producers used satire as a means to skewer Hitler and The Third Reich, THIS is not satire. It's some awful hybrid mix of melodrama and comic book comedy.

(CONTINUED IN NEXT POST)

thecinemaguy.com said...

11. Everything in the film is overdone - the scenes, speeches, and sections.
12. The slow motion shots at the end are completely unearned because never at any point are we allowed to buy these characters as people. The scenes come off as so much pretentious melodrama precisely because of this fact. This goes along with the idea of not demanding everything from an audience. While we're FEELING the emotion QT also expects us to dig the irony, the cool nicknames, and the splashy titles as an ode to the 70s films of the type, hear that spaghetti western score - cool, huh? The Bear Jew - cool name, huh? (ps - why didn't someone tell Eli Roth people didn't bleach their teeth in the 40s?).
13. The closest thing to the overall tone is probably Hogan's Heroes. The difference is that show, as offensive as it might have been to some, didn't aspire for more. QT, at every pass, clearly does.
14. His Grindhouse; Kill Bill films, and now this are examples of QTs love for the B exploitation films he adores. Great technical gamesmanship devoid of human beings and an actual soul. The trouble is, sitting at the judges tables at Cannes, he also has aspirations to create actual cinema. The film represents this internal dichotomy, and he does not balance the two well.
15. Tarantino blathers on about writing through his characters, but actually the opposite is true - no film auteur voice is heard more in his characters - through them, at every turn, he is pleading with us to notice how clever he is. And there is clearly no one behind him saying, "they get it Quentin"
16. Comparing Godard and QT is unfortunate. This amounts to matching up, say, McG and Bergman, or Rodriguez and Fellini. Although I'm being a bit facetious, I honestly feel as if these comparisons are almost as apt.

Larry said...

I totally agree with you Christian this might be Alexander's masterpiece. Even for those who hate the movie there are seriously deep matters to consider when you read this monumental essay.

Cinema Guy makes some valid points but I don't think it's fair to say Tarantino is just Eli Roth or McG. He's not that surface level but I see why some think he is.

Anyway I agree with Alexander that this movie puts Tarantino up there with Godard. I don't think Tarantino has made a movie as personal as some of Godard's but I don't think Godard ever made one movie that was even close to being this textured. His movies are museum pieces and they are fascinating but they don't work on as many levels as Tarantino's best film, this one, does. I.B. is a movie-movie of almost cartoonish proportions and like Alexander says a thesis on propaganda movies by playing out like one.

I think alot of people are missing what Alexander's saying about the movie. Yeah there are "cool evil Nazis" but there are alot of German characters who don't fit that type either. The sergeant Roth smashes to pieces with the bat or Zoller or that German soldier who just had a kid born. Tarantino's movie isn't black and white. Even Landa and that SS guy at the tavern are shown to be very very smart like Alexander says in his essay. Maybe at first they all look like cool evil Nazis but the movie is doing more with them.

Anyway this is just a tremendous piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Coleman come get your Pulitzer.

stu said...

awesome and remarkable write up.

Alexander Coleman said...

Moses, thank you quite sincerely for the kind remarks. I greatly appreciate the thoughts.

Christian, thank you very much. Haha! Always a blast to hear from you.

Larry, thank you for the fecund thoughts here. To reiterate one thought, I do not believe the film to be satire--I mention satire as a condition unto which supposed features such as Starship Troopers fail... Tarantino's film is not strictly satirical at all, except it does portray characters, "types" and nationalities in varied manners that in one way or another make a comment about such other artistic renderings. Most filmgoers probably assume that they will be treated to completely over-the-top interpretations of, say, Joseph Goebbels--and, admittedly, the performance by Sylvester Groth is fairly broad, but not entirely unrealistic, either. In any event, there is certainly an internal dichotomy occurring throughout the entire picture, from the opening passage with the highly expressive and caustic Landa confronting the reserved and quiet French farmer, and for many this does not operate smoothly, but it's nevertheless rather arresting, I imagine, for detractors and admirers alike.

Cinema Guy, I appreciate the tremendous outpouring of thoughts. I'm saddened that you had so many evident issues with the film, so to speak. I considered going through your arguments, point by point, but I consider the review/essay to stand on its own, and your post arguing otherwise certainly does as well. Thank you for the kind words as well.

Anonymous, oh, now... Haha. Thanks.

Thank you, Stu.

The Cinema Guy said...

Mr. Coleman - While I would have loved to hear your thoughts (as I always learn something from your responses), your essay is so exhaustive and so full of well reasoned points that it probably isn't necessary. More often than not I agree with your take on films, but even when I don't your incredible knowledge and fluid prose is always appreciated, and I continue to be blown away with your talent. There are certainly enough Tarantino devotees extolling the film to make me question my own reaction to it, and I hope my own take is not influenced by my dissatisfaction with Tarantino's work post Jackie Brown. To me, my suspicions about the direction I thought he was headed in after his third film seemed to have been confirmed, and I see this as his (failed) attempt to crawl back towards cinema respectability (taking into account the fact Kill Bill got plenty of ardent critical praise)...
I do recognize the tremendous talent behind Inglourious Basterds - my problem is merely with QTs inability to edit himself, and of course, his taste. There are also at least two or three potentially wonderfully films contained therein; I only wish he had chosen not to to try to stuff them into one.

Anonymous said...

QT is a sick puppy but this is a great essay.

Kirsten said...

Beautiful and glorious essay. And what fine comments you make when discussing the film with others. Your blog is so erudite. Thank you for providing us with this review.

the Cinema Guy said...

Larry

As you mentioned my comments - Just to clarify - I didn't compare Tarantino to McG and never mentioned Roth in this regard. My analogy was related to Mr. Coleman's comparison of Tarantino and Godard, which I feel is in the same realm as including a couple of clearly inferior directors in the company of some recognized masters. The statement was not intended to be taken literally as it goes without saying that Tarantino is a much better director than the two men I mentioned and I even said as much so there would be no confusion, and yet... Also, though you chastise people for not "getting" Mr. Coleman's many pro arguments, I think you might be the one who's missing the point a bit. The questions regarding the merits of the film have little to do with whether Tarantino is "deep" or not - clearly he intends the film and his characters to be nuanced and there is no argument that he has many ideas in play that could be interpreted as working on a number of levels, meta or otherwise. The question though is how effectively he delivers the film. The shallowness spoken of relates more to a lack of credible tone, his intentions in regards to plot and story, and myriad other factors unrelated to the shading of Nazis and non-Nazis, which is virtually besides the point, unless one is speaking of his reasons for employing the very subject matter the first place... Lastly, despite his eventual virtual abandonment of traditional narrative cinema, Jean-Luc Godard's career cannot be summarized with ready-made statements like Godard's films are like "museum pieces," which is simply true. One only has to look at his incredible string of films over a six or seven year period that included Breathless (1960); A Woman is A Woman (1961); My Life to LIve (1962); Les Caribiniers (1963); Contempt (1963); A Band of Outsiders (1964); A Married Woman (1964); Pierre Le Fou (1965); and Masculine and Feminine (1965). I don't think there has been a single filmmaker who can compare with that stretch, but if there is he or she is on a very short list and I assure you the name Tarantino is not on it. And once again, taking what I believe was a hyperbolic statement by Mr. Coleman and actually using that to make a literal comparison of the two and denigrating a man who is perhaps the greatest intellectual filmmaker the world has ever seen is just misguided. Godard is regarded by nearly every reputable critical source as being one of the most important filmmakers in the history of cinema, a key figure in a movement that had great influence on this country's best period of films, as well as moviemaking all over the world. At best, Tarantino is a talented referential modern auteur (albeit an important figure in the 80s American indie movement (with Jarmusch; Lee; Soderberg), who has made one great, and two very solid films. Even if you believe this film to be very good, or even great, the jury is still very much out on his place in cinematic history, something that would never be said about Godard, an erudite scholar with a deep understanding of politics, literature, religion, drama, music, and countless other subjects, whose criticism and work virtually changed the way we think about the form.

Godard Sucks said...

Godard changed the way we think of the art form of movies?

He's got a good bureau of movies but please. He is really really overrated.

Anonymous said...

Godard Sucks you must be a retard. Godard is a cinematic genus of the highest order.

Godard Sucks and So Does Anonymous said...

What are you talking about? Saying someone is a genius does nothing to prove it. And who are you to talk down to me if you can't spell genius, genius?

Anonymous said...

Maybe the master of the proceedings can educate you. Alexander Coleman wrote two wonderful essays on Godard in the past. I think you should look at them.

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Kenji said...

A splendid and downright miraculous piece of writing here.

I think the Godard comparison makes sense. And I think Alexander is being fair to both Godard and Tarantino. Godard was very prolific and Tarantino isn't and Tarantino isn't political the way Godard became but there are politics in Tarantino's canon. It's just made easier to eat up because Godard doesn't hit you over the head with it. Alexander's pointing to the two speeches by Nazis about African-Americans I think are as pointed as anything Godard had to say about the colonial French or Vietnam War.

Godard is great don't get me wrong. But he wasn't perfect and some of his films have not aged so well. His non narrative movies are the definition of cinematic homework.

But I do love A Woman is a Woman.

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That's an awsome movie from Tarentino. I’ve found a lot of clips, Trailers, TV Spot, Interviews, Behind the Scenes, Pictures, Wallpapers & Posters for this movie on MattTrailer.com. Here’s the link for Inglorious Basterds: http://www.matttrailer.com/inglourious_basterds_2009

shawn said...

Alexander is a great writer. Loved reading this essay.

Brilliant stuff.

Denise said...

You don't see this kind of powerful masculine writing these days. Terrific marathon review. I couldn't stop reading. I'll get in trouble with my boss!

queti said...

you guys just need to understand my movies man, because war is just like a really cool subject to film man. and if youre not into then you can just like go screw yourself because nazis are just amazing subject matter and brutal killers man, they were just like killing everyone and then they all got murdered and thats like really cool ok

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“Colonel Hans Landa, with a honeyed, bright demeanor and grin, is coyly interrogating a Frenchman”

I noted this scene as well but missed the reference to Sherlock Holmes.

“coolly relates why he can think like a Jew by discussing the characteristics of a hawk, a rat, and, circuitously, a squirrel, in an early demonstration that the film has a provocative outlook on the issue of hunters attacking prey, most emphatically embodied by Landa himself.”

One of my favorite parts of the scene.

“(a French heroine becomes Tarantino's approximation of Joan of Arc, devoured by flame before her tormentors)”

Missed that.

Basterds is admittedly enormously informed by Tarantino's love of cinema

So are your reviews and lexicon of films Alexander or should I call you Megas Alexandros?

“his films are made up of a few, long, extraordinarily detailed scenes, as though they are visual, character-based novels.”

That was what was so great about the opening interrogation scene and the bar scene later in the film. Particularly when the German Officer shows up from behind a hidden alcove and mentions the accents he hears is just a snippet of that scenes brilliance.

Zoller became more and more of a character as the film went. At first he seemed to shun the fame thrust at him then he becomes enraged that Dreyfus was denying him and not respecting what he did.

“Tarantino's characters, it must be said here, are always meeting ends unforeseen by all including themselves (even an important character who has elected a kind of grandiose, operatic martyrdom does not meet the exact fate they had envisioned). Basterds displays once more the circuitous manner in which Tarantino characters finally get what is coming to them. Characters receive tragic ends that have little or nothing directly to do with t”

Tarantino does not fall in love with his characters which allows him to 1.) do anything he wants to them and to 2.) make his films better because the viewer never know what can happen to whom.

“ In one of the film's most piquant visual mirrored reversals, one character strangles another; the character being murdered helplessly grabs a hold of anything, such as the carpeting of the floor, and later the strangler is himself mounted, and, like the character he terminated, can only grip and pull at grass in unspeakable pain.”

You’re got some eye on you. This connection went right pasted me as it probably did for many of people.

As always, a fine deconstruction of the film and the films and filmmakers that influenced its director, Quentin Tarantino, and some of its most noteworthy elements.

Anonymous said...

The guy who writes at this website is a better film critic then any of the paid ones. Damn I must say this guy is brilliant.

mack said...

this essay is awesome but so long. but I'm gonna keep reading it's so damned well written.

mc said...

I read your review after seeing the film. This was a film I enjoyed, but your essay made me recognize more why I enjoyed it. This film lingers in my mind and you gave me more information to digest as I think about it. Thanks again, for your thorough analysis.

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Thiên Địa Hào Kiệt said...

Brilliant piece. From the first sentence on I couldn't sotp reading it. Outdone yourself again Coleman.
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"Inglourious Basterds places Tarantino above one of his closer antecedents, Brian De Palma, and probably places him on roughly equal footing with his most nakedly revered idol from the past, Jean-Luc Godard."

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"Inglourious Basterds places Tarantino above one of his closer antecedents, Brian De Palma, and probably places him on roughly equal footing with his most nakedly revered idol from the past, Jean-Luc Godard."

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Oh God no. Not remotely, not by any standard of measurement. Godard is one of cinema's great masters and stylists, Tarantino is a former movie store geek who spealizes in sadism,

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