Sunday, August 23, 2009
(Re)Writing History With Lightning: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino is undoubtedly a polarizing filmmaker, but I can’t say I’ve ever been that consistently strong of an apologist for him or critic against him. Simply put, some of his movies are really good (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), and some are outright terrible (Death Proof, Jackie Brown). I will say that, not unlike a lot of guys my age, I was completely enamored with his work when I was 15, but since then he’s become more of a curiosity than anything. Which is part of why I was so pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds, his wickedly funny, expertly shot, and oddly philosophical new film. Watching this movie was like (to use an aspect of its plot) being bashed over the head by Tarantino’s love for cinema with a baseball bat. And I somehow mean that in a good way. When it was over, I found myself remembering why I used to think this guy was a genius.
One of the big criticisms of Tarantino, which I myself have been wont to employ, is that he’s more concerned with winking at his audience about the cleverness of his dialogue and dropping references to 70s trash cinema than he is with telling a decent story. His movies always reflect a unique and refined taste, but never in a way that adds up to anything truly worthwhile for the purposes of the script. But with this film, I think he’s finally made a movie that reverberates--hell, radiates-- with his love for cinema in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to the larger point of his story. Whereas movies like Death Proof and Kill Bill ventured into the realms of lazy pastiche and outright thievery, with Inglourious Basterds it seems like Tarantino has finally made something truly original out of his influences, a movie not just informed by other movies but about them in the grandest sense possible.
This isn’t to say that he doesn’t still have an inveterate penchant for name-dropping. In addition to meeting Churchill and the whole Nazi high command, we get mentions of Chaplin, Max Linder, G.W. Pabst, Henri Georges Clouzot, King Kong (in one of the film’s best scenes), Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and even a cameo from Emil Jannings. But these pop culture references are imbued with a meaning that wasn’t present in the idle chatter of even something like Pulp Fiction. Take the Clouzot reference, which we get when we see the French auteur’s name on the marquee of a movie theatre showing Le Corbeau. As I mentioned in my discussion of it a few days past, Le Corbeau is a movie with a huge amount of social significance to Vichy France, as Clouzot was later accused of being a traitor simply for making it. The fact that it makes an appearance in Inglourious Basterds just before a scene in which a French woman is drawn into an involuntary collaboration with the Nazis is certainly no coincidence. It’s a rare instance of one of Tarantino’s references being added in the service of his movie rather than at its expense, and throughout the film we get countless delightfully obscure moments like this. They add an invaluable amount to the story as a whole, which, as Glen Kenny recently mentioned on his blog, is told with a remarkable economy in no more than sixteen(!) extended scenes.
I’m convinced that the reason this style works so well is because Inglourious Basterds is a period piece, which forces Tarantino to ground his references in a certain time and place. Getting out of his trademark So-Cal milieu was probably the best thing he could have done for his work, and he seems to embrace the shadowy cellars and wide open fields of the French countryside with real relish. His visual style here is impeccable, making effective and often hilarious use of cut-scenes, fantasy sequences, camera moves, and cross-cutting to make a movie that is made up of small moments that add up to way more than the sum of their parts. Say what you will about the guy, but there’s no denying Tarantino has improved as a visual storyteller with every film he's made. Here we get several scenes of wickedly drawn-out suspense (most notably the scene in the tavern) that display a masterful control of pacing and language. As for the dialogue, it’s as sharp and idiosyncratic as ever, especially when it’s being delivered by Brad Pitt (whose shamelessly terrible Tennessee accent provides all of the movie’s funniest moments) or Christoph Waltz (who deserves the Oscar nod he’ll undoubtedly get for playing the gentlemanly sociopath Col. Hans Landa). I could have done without the somewhat annoying Eli Roth as the baseball bat-wielding “Bear Jew,” or the often intentionally anachronistic music, but these are small complaints, and outside of a few unusual moments (a montage set to David Bowie?!), the score is actually a real pleasure to listen to.
The big debate among critics on this film seems to be whether or not it’s disrespectful toward the struggles and atrocities of WWII, and many reviewers have dismissed it as outright offensive. Whether or not the idea of creating a revisionist revenge fantasy about the Nazis is in bad taste is another argument for another day. I’m not sure it’s an issue that Tarantino is even that concerned with, as there are much more interesting, less polarizing ideas in play. To my mind, the real statement here is self-referential and self-reflexive. This is a film not just built from other films, but literally about the cinema and its role as a social and historical tool. As has already been said by many others, Tarantino seems to be using film as a means of exorcising the demons of history in order to rewrite it with a perversely violent and oddly triumphant vigilante ending. But there’s even more going on than that. All of Tarantino’s movies play like love-letters to the cinema, but Inglourious Basterds takes it to a new level and tells us not just what movies the director is into but why he loves movies in general. Consider a scene near the end of the film where a woman guns down a man in a projectionist’s booth, only to look at the movie screen and see his face still flickering there in some kind of momentary immortality. And then for him to seemingly rise from the dead directly afterward, almost as though the magic of cinema is enough to be able to bring him back to life. It’s perhaps the film’s best moment, and it’s a huge statement about the power of movies not only to re-write history, but to have a hand in creating it (it’s no surprise that a propaganda film is at the center of the story). Whole articles and Masters theses could be (and probably will be) undertaken about the meaning of such a scene, and it takes a true love of cinema to even recognize it, let alone to have written it. For what it’s worth, I have trouble thinking of any other modern American director who could or would create a moment like that.