Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (a review in five chapters)

Chapter one:
Once upon a time ... in the New York Times

There's a review of 'Inglourious Basterds' in the New York Times - an organ normally dependable for its film criticism - which not only misses the point by a country mile, but in its last line writes off the very concept of the anti-hero as a valid fictive creation. This is what reviewer Manohla Dargis has to say:

"The film's most egregrious failure [is] its giddy, at times gleeful embrace and narrative elevation of the seductive Nazi villain ... Unlike those in 'Schindler's List', Mr Tarantino's Nazis exist in an insistently fictional cinematic space where heroes and villains converge amid a welter of movie allusions ... 'Inglourious Basterds' is simply another testament to his movie love. The problem is that by making the star attraction of his latest film a most delightful Nazi, one whose smooth talk is presented as lovingly as his murderous violence, Mr Tarantino has polluted that love."

Firstly, 'Schindler's List' exists in a cinematic space every bit as "insistently fictional" as that of 'Inglourious Basterds' - it's in black and white; much of its visual style is non-naturalistic; ash from crematorium chimneys falls as gently and lovingly as snow - so the comparison doesn't hold water. Secondly, Dargis argues that Christoph Waltz's SS Colonel Hans Landa is the best thing about the film simply because he gives the best performance. Ralph Fiennes's is similarly the best performance in 'Schindler's List'; Dargis's argument is further weakened. Thirdly, why does a "gleeful embrace and narrative elevation" of a Nazi character perforce constitute a flaw in a film's aesthetic? I've always found Paul Scofield's erudite von Waldheim far more appealing than Burt Lancaster's monosyllabic Labiche in John Frankenheimer's 'The Train' - and this dynamic, if anything, makes the film even more interesting. (See also: 'Cross of Iron': German protagonist, excellent film. And where does Dargis's argument leave the "good German" in, say, Powell and Pressburger's '49th Parallel' or 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'?) Fourthly, criticising Tarantino for creating his vision of cinema within a deliberately fictive space is as facile as slating a Bollywood film for being three hours long and containing a bunch of song and dance numbers. It's little more than an admission that Dargis doesn't like a certain style of film-making, only dressed up in the kind of cheap point-scoring that there should be no place for in the New York Times.

Also, Dargis seems to imply that premeditated empathy with a villainous character - ie. the writer and/or director specifically setting out to make an anti-hero not only palatable but laudable to the audience - is reprehensible. Excuse me? Some of the greatest characters in both classical literature and pop culture and at all points inbetween are anti-heroes. From Hamlet to Hannibal Lecter, from King Lear to Freddy Krueger. Everyone loves an anti-hero. It's the thrill of a character doing and saying the things we could never do or say - things, frankly, that we wouldn't want to do or say. It's the delightful frisson of a character whose moral disconnect imbues them with a fascinating unpredictability; a character who could quite literally do anything.

Chapter two:
Glorious basterds

And while I'm kicking against mainstream film critics, can I just say that I don't understand why so many critics still carp about violence in Tarantino's work. Sure, everything he's done contains scenes of violence, but I'd argue no more so than most tentpole summer blockbusters. While, say, your average Michael Bay film doesn't feature scalpings (how would Transformers scalp each other? "each one of you Autobots owes me one hundred Decepticon pistons ... and I want my pistons!") it buys wholly into an aesthetic of violence - explosions, shoot outs, cars flipping over and smashing into other cars at high speeds - which leaves you in no doubt that sheer, unmitigated destruction is Bay's raison d'etre. Tarantino, however, is more interested in the build up, the tension, the dialogue and character dynamics.

When action or violence happens in a Tarantino movie, it erupts suddenly and is over quickly. There is, per capita, very little onscreen violence in his work. The first chapter of 'Inglourious Basterds' is a clammily tense interrogation by Landa of a French farmer harbouring a Jewish family. It quickly becomes apparent that Landa knows full well the family are there and where they are hidden; he's simply toying with the man. The scene is intense and gripping, punctuated by an inspired mine's-bigger-than-yours visual joke, and what makes it work is not the thirty seconds of gunfire it culminates in but the twenty minutes of dialogue that build up to it. Landa arranging his pen and pot of ink on a table carries far more weight than the machine guns slung over his men's shoulders.

It follows, then, that any director who places more importance on words than action - and how refreshing is that in contemporary American cinema? - must needs be an actor's director. And this is where I still don't think Tarantino gets his dues. Love or loathe the deliberate movieness of his movies, the man gets fucking great performances from his actors. 'Pulp Fiction' made Samuel L Jackson and resurrected John Travolta. Pam Grier and Robert Forster in 'Jackie Brown' - we're talking about finest hours. Uma Thurman's never been as good outside Tarantino's cinema. And now in 'Inglourious Basterds' we have a bravura, multi-faceted performance from Christoph Waltz, vacillating between charm, cruelty and - daringly in the finale - a touch of high camp. It's full-throttle and hugely memorable. But so is Diane Kruger's irresistible diva-like turn as Brigitte von Hammersmarck, the dahling of the German film industry.

Melanie Laurent's character Shoshanna (the only survivor of Landa's first chapter massacre) is almost overwhelmed by Waltz and Kruger, but she's never less than the true main character of the film, and evinces a quiet determination underscored by a melancholic sense of vulnerability. That she understates just emphasises the importance of her character. Michael Fassbender comes within a plummy vowel of stealing the show as Lt Archie Hickox, a British officer despatched to assist the Basterds and make contact with Brigitte (a double agent) in a mission to assassinate the Nazi chiefs of staff. Bouncing off an audaciously cast Mike Myers (as fellow Brit, General Ed Fenech), Fassbender takes up the mantle of George Sanders and gives us a smooth, unpeturbable Brit (his staring-death-in-the-face speech about there being "a special place in hell reserved for people who waste good Scotch whisky" is priceless).

Elsewhere, as the Basterds, Brad Pitt is a scream as hillbilly platoon leader Lt Aldo Raine, drawling his cod-philosophical down-home dialogue with relish; Til Schweiger as the only German member of the outfit, officer-hating Hugo Stiglitz, gives a breakout performance comparable to Waltz's; B.J. Novak makes the most of a bit of comic relief when Landa taunts him that his nickname amongst German soldiers is "the Little Man"; and only Eli Roth seems ill-at-ease as baseball bat wielding Sgt Donowitz.

Chapter three:
European night in Tarantino-land

Because Tarantino's movies are movie movies, references to other films come thick and fast. Since the 'Kill Bill' opuses, his soundtracks have been culled from existing movie music. Character names reference favourite actors (Aldo Raine is a nod to Aldo Ray; Hugo Stiglitz to ... well, Hugo Stiglitz). Movie posters, characters talking about movies, and clips from movies are part of the fabric of a Tarantino film. Prior to 'Inglourious Basterds', he revealed a very '70s aesthetic, culminating in his and Robert Rodriguez's homage to the era of exploitation movie drive-in double bills, 'Grindhouse'.

'Inglourious Basterds' throws open the doors of Tarantino's movie love wider than ever before - and none of it, as Manohla Dargis would have you believe, is polluted. Tarantino - knowledgably and contextually - incorporates the work of Leni Riefenstahl, G.W. Pabst and Paul Martin. The latter's 'Gluckskinder', a loose 1936 remake of 'It Happened One Night', is referenced during the first meeting between Shoshanna, now running a cinema under an assumed identity, and Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi sniper heralded as a hero of the nation. Smitten by Shoshanna, he wants her cinema to host the premiere of a propagandist film based on his exploits in which he plays himself.

Zoller proves one of the most slippery characters in the film, charming to the point of being self-effacing, almost sickened by the cinematic representation of his prowess as a marksman, yet still capable of ruthlessness and a threat to Shoshanna despite his feelings for her. Bruhl, impressive in everything I've seen him in since 'Good Bye Lenin!', does more good work here.

An interview with Tarantino at Sunset Gun goes into fascinating detail on the power Goebbels wielded in German film production during the Third Reich. Tarantino pertinently makes the point that many of the propaganda films produced (a staggering 800 titles during Goebbels' tenure) were comedies or historical epics. Parallels can be made, messages got across, without hammering the audience over the head in a blunt and obvious fashion. America and Britain made their fair share of propaganda films, too, many of them - including Powell and Pressburger's first eight collaborations - emerging as bona fide works of art.

Chapter four:
Operation cinephile

'Inglourious Basterds' confounds expectations from the off. Hell, it confounds them from its very title. A dictionary-defying variant on Enzo G. Castellari's 'The Inglorious Bastards', it sets up an expectation of a death-or-glory men-on-a-mission balls-to-the-wall actioner in the vein of 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'Where Eagles Dare'. But 'Inglourious Basterds' doesn't focus solely on the unit put together to undertake one of these missions, nor does it wind up at vertiginous clifftop stronghold or a chateau deep behind enemy lines.

Its denouement takes place at a cinema. Its heroine runs the cinema. Her would-be suitor Zoller plays himself in a film that makes hagiography of atrocity. Landa is put in charge of security at the cinema by Goebbels, who has overseen production on the Zoller film. Lt Hickox is handpicked for his mission because he was a film critic specialising in UFA during peacetime. Even Lt Raine is moved to inform a captured Nazi soldier who refuses to co-operate that he's glad of the man's refusal because "watching Lt Donowitz here beat Nazis to death is about as close as me and the boys get to going to the movies". The climax takes place during a film screening.

The film-within-a-film, 'Nations Pride', was directed by Eli Roth and constitutes a frenzied gun battle between sniper Zoller and hundreds of enemy troops; a shot of a man targetted by Zoller falling into a decorative pool apes a similar shot in 'Scarface'. It's both a nifty in-joke and a provocative anachronism, emphasising (as the title of chapter one - "once upon a time ... in Nazi-occupied France" - suggests) that 'Inglourious Basterds' is a WWII movie only in that it embraces some conventional war movie themes and imagery. Otherwise, it plays by its own rules and doesn't apologise for doing so!

Aldo Raine is as nominally the hero of the piece as Landa is the villain. The real hero of 'Inglourious Basterds' is cinema itself. When Shoshanna plans her revenge, its not explosives she uses to incinerate her enemies but reels and reels of nitrate film. There's something indescribably creepy about that pile of film reels lurking behind the cinema screen - particularly when you're watching 'Inglourious Basterds' on the big screen - and it's an image Tarantino plays on effectively.

Chapter five:
Revenge of the giant controversy

When 'Inglourious Basterds' screened at Cannes, opinion was divided. This is nothing new for Tarantino; there were boo's as well as cheers when he took the Palme d'Or for 'Pulp Fiction'. Debate will doubtless rage on the internet in the coming months, opinion chasmically divided. I'm confident that 'Inglourious Basterds' will prove the love-it-or-loathe-it audience divider of Tarantino's career.

Personally, as you might have gathered from the couple of thousand words I've waxed lyrical on it so far, I love 'Inglourious Basterds'; I still need to watch it a few more times, but I have an inkling it might end up, if not my favourite Tarantino film, then certainly joint first with 'Pulp Fiction'. It has no regard for history, it is supremely self-indulgent (Tarantino is perhaps the only film-maker I can think of for whom self-indulgence is a positive trait), and it continually defies audience expectation. It's a film only Quentin Tarantino could have made, and I can't foist upon it any higher a recommendation than that.


Imposter Jason said...

Great review! Here are some responses to a few things you wrote...

Chapter one: I was surprised at how many laughs the movie got when Hans pulled his pipe out. I think the fact that everyone laughed made it even funnier. Had I watched it by myself I probably wouldn't have paid much attention to it. And I completely agree with the point you're trying to make about anti-heroes and whatnot.

Chapter two: You're most definitely right about Tarantino being an actor's director. You hit the nail on the head with Uma Thurman. The best example would be Muchael Madsen. I mean seriously... Michael Madsen can be pretty fucking awful in a majority of his films, but for some reason he ALWAYS delivers in a Tarantino movie. And I totally forgot to mention Fassbender in my review and he was up there with Pitt and Waltz as my favorite performances in the film. The pub scene with him and the Nazi ALONE is better than most entire MOVIES.

That's about it so far... I have to get back to work. Great job though, man. I'm gonna link to your review on my site. Right now I really like the movie a LOT and I'll have to watch it again before I can say that I love it. Whatever the case may be I will be watching this movie again very soon.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Aaron.

Yeah - Michael Madsen. Good call. What else is their on his CV that isn't a shuffling by-the-numbers performance compared to his turns in 'Dogs' and 'Kill Bill Vol 2'?

I didn't quite cover everything I wanted to in my review - there's probably a stand-alone article to be written about the movies Shoshanna advertises on the cinema marquee - but once I'd hit the two thousand word mark I figured it probably needed wrapping up before it got as long as the movie itself!

Jake said...

An excellent review for my favorite film of the year (I apologize for bumping all these old posts, by the way, but I just stumbled upon your blog). I think that some of the reactions this film got were hysterical, in more ways than one.

I saw it twice in theaters, and thank God, since there's enough to dissect here for many, many more viewings. The second time I saw it I really understood that Tarantino was not simply glorifying the idea of revenge -- which he meditated upon in Kill Bill, chiefly the second volume -- but questioning our role in feeding into these kinds of stories. For me, the juxtaposition between the German audience cheering the propaganda film and IB's audience getting a visceral thrill (he certainly makes it exciting in its horror) recalls Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. It's perhaps not as incisive a look into the role of audience as voyeur as Tarantino doesn't lessen the revelry of the rest of the film's genre quotation, but this film is hardly celebratory.

Basterds actually turned me around on QT. I was slowly drifting away as I really got into films and discovered all the big art directors, but now I've gone back and I can't deny that, along with Clint Eastwood and David Cronenberg, he's one of the unlikeliest moralists in modern American cinema.