Sunday, August 23, 2009

Love: Inglourious Basterds

Two things I feel I should divulge at the outset: 1. I've never met a Quentin Tarantino film I haven't liked (yes, I even champion Death Proof like I'm working for Cahiers du Cinema). 2. I, sir, am ridiculously hard to please when it comes to Hollywood war epics.  Apart from a few special cases (Apocalypse Now, for example), it takes a lot for me to have any desire to want to watch your standard military drama. Sure, most are perfectly acceptable pieces of film making, I just happen to find them frequently tedious and without anything new to present outside of the realm of improved effects. World War II, for me, is one of the worst offenders. 95% of the time, films dealing with WWII and the Holocaust feel like the studios playing the Oscar bait card, the same old story dressed up and starring a naked Kate Winslet with a German accent.  Piffle. 

Anyhow, with that out of the way, I can tell you that Inglourious Basterds is, hands down, the most satisfying non-musical Nazi movie that I have ever seen.
The reason? Good old revisionist history, of course. In Basterds, Tarantino doesn't bother with incidents as they occurred, but instead presents them the way we wish they'd occurred. The result is a cathartic saga that manages, by the by,  to say as much about the tyrannical injustices of the SS as Spielberg ever has on the matter, while at the same time creating an experience that delivers what the truth never can: pure, unadulterated vengeance.  If all you've ever really wanted from a war film was to see the Third Reich bludgeoned to a pulp and gleefully dismembered...your wish has been granted. Fuck your facts, figures, names and dates, I'll take Tarantino's military strategy, thank you very much.
While I have no doubt that in the days to come I will meet a fair share of those with split views on the eye for an eye brutality of the story, for cinephiles, this is a rare and irresistible film that effectively blends Tarantino's genre-hodgepodge with a thrilling, bloodlusting frenzy and the inspired thematic use of cinema as backbone. While Brad Pitt is the stand-out celebrity presence in the film, his character: Lt. Aldo Raine, the hillbilly Clark Gable-esque leader of a team of Nazi-destroying covert G.I.'s, is hardly the story's protagonist. In traditional Tarantino style, the story is a split narrative that artfully ties together multiple chapters, jumping between stories involving the Basterds, the Germans, and a Jewish theater owner named Shosanna. While Raine and his Basterds act as a power generator for the subtitled slow burn of the other plots, their actions are obstructed from hero status by moral complications. The stand-out hero here is actually Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish woman whose family was killed mercilessly by "The Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) when she was just a teenager.
Waltz is a formidable villain with an unsettling charisma.  Actually, he's better than merely formidable, he's the best screen villain possibly of this decade.  Landa is vile and smarmy, prone to maniacal outbursts while smirking like a James Bond megalomaniac. You can't help but eagerly await the moment he encounters the American troops and hope that Eli Roth's baseball bat wielding "Bear Jew" comes loping along to detach his smug skull from his spinal column. Clear off. With the unmistakably heavy sound of blunt force connecting with flesh running simultaneously with cracking bone...that's how you know the villain is effective, when the audience grows to hate him that much.  But, ahem, enough about that. Back to the subject at hand.
Inglourious Basterds is a complicated film whose issues are comparatively small.  There are, as with Kill Bill, a few points where the editing becomes jumpy or the music cuts off in a way that makes for an unsatisfactory transition.  Every once in awhile, the action feels encroached upon by outside elements of a mysterious source. Certain characters are poorly developed while others are presented to us in excess. We don't get enough of the titular band of brothers, though their efforts are the film's main veined adrenaline shot.
Ultimately, Basterds is still an exploitation style film that shoots for cheap thrills even as it delivers haunting, beautifully effective images. Yet, unlike other war actioners (last year's absurd Valkyrie, anyone?), Tarantino is a mature enough filmmaker to know how to mask tiny issues with cues taken from earlier works of successful cinema. The film may be loosely influenced by an Italian B-movie from 1978, but as far as i can tell, it owes very little to that obscure reference apart from the title. Sergio Leone has a presence here, but the French and German scenes (notably delivered in actual French and German, for once, instead of accented English) speak to an obvious understanding of the canon from Jean Renoir to Leni Riefenstahl to Fassbinder effectively assimilated and incorporated into something consumable and accessible.
 The film's greatest success is that in the midst rampant sadism, it creates something quite moving.  Inglourious Basterds is a beautiful piece of work because it taps directly into our imagination and creates something that feels real, feels righteous, even as it gives us the postmodern non-diegetic elements that seek to perpetually remind the viewer this is a work of, well, pulp fiction. The film triggers a primal catharsis in its audience, at least it did in me, an immediate empathy with its vigilantes and a frenzied desire for swift retribution. It's wholly engrossing and impressive in its scope and relentless bravura, retaining the smart meandering dialogue of Tarantino co-mingled with with a foreign blend of Wagnerian epic poetry. A delight speckled in brain matter and with real crimson blood coursing through its veins. Trust me, i'll be seeing this again. Several times.

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