Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Every picture Quentin Tarantino makes reads on the screen like a love letter to the films he grew up with, even as its structure and visual style appear to fly in the face of what's considered "normal" for the average American moviegoers. I'm reminded of early Jean-Luc Godard (how's that for a bit of film pretension?), who ushered in the French New Wave by rallying against what was considered "mainstream" cinema by, in part, firmly embracing many of the tropes of the past. For Godard it was, among other things, the crime and gangster pictures of the 40s and 50s, including Hollywood greats like TOUCH OF EVIL and THE BIG SLEEP. For Tarantino, it's a global hodge-podge ranging from 70s blacksploitation to Asian wuxia to Godard himself.

The point being: Quentin Tarantino is going to make what he knows, and what he wants to see.

And INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is a whopper of a love letter this time: a Spaghetti Western wrapped in a "men on a mission" war flick, full of tiny anachronisms and homages - some subtle, some glaringly obvious - that pulled together speak to the power film holds over us, and one of the best movie experiences this year.

I've tried a number of times since seeing INGLOUROIS BASTERDS on opening day to write about it. In the meantime a tremendous flurry of arguments have erupted all over the web, some incredibly well thought out on both sides, some decidedly less so. It's been so much to take in and process that I found it once again beginning to influence what I wanted to talk about: the actual movie.

What to do? I decided to compromise a bit: instead of a standard review I opted for a bit of the old "cut-n-paste", taking a few thoughts here and there and each to stand on it's own. Consider it a "random review generator"...some scraps that, with a bit of prudent editing (something I never seem to do) and elbow grease could have been a standard review, but now looks something like this:
  • For a film well over two hours, and predominantly subtitled, none of my friends who saw the films remember it being long or, for that matter, subtitled.
  • Over at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz talks about the dialog as the real source of action in Tarantino's films, the "gunshots, car crashes and torture scenes" acting as visual punctuation to what's being said. The lengthy conversation in between Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and Pierre LaPedite (Denis Menochet) in Chapter 1: "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" brilliantly illustrates this point, with a technique Tarantino uses numerous times, both here and in his previous films.
  • In the scene, the tension is consistently ratcheted up as Landa dances around the issue of whether LaPedite, a dairy farmer, is hiding Jews in his house. Tarantino, knowing he'll get it back, diffuses the situation when Landa, asking if it's alright if he smokes (minutes earlier he had allowed LaPedite to smoke a small, cob pipe) reaches into his jacket and pull out an enormous, Sherlock Holmes style pipe (it's called a calabash). It's a big laugh in the film, and even LaPedite smirks. Without going into spoilers, a few seconds later the shit hits the fan, and that supposedly dissolved tension comes back, landing right in your gut.
  • It's a device Landa knowingly utilizes as part of his arsenal, but it's also a trademark Tarantino move - he does it again during the "drinking game" scene in the middle of the move - as well as in PULP FICTION most notably from his other films.
  • David Bowie's "Cat People" works better here than it ever did in the film CAT PEOPLE. or, for that matter, on any of his records. The few instances where Tarantino breaks with the time period - both in his musical choices and in his visual style, like the 70s exploitation introduction given to Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (complete with narration by Samuel L. Jackson) - is fascinating because on paper it seems like it shouldn't work, yet never fails to do so.
  • If there's a misstep in the film, it's Mike Myers' casting. He's certainly not bad, but it's a small role that serves as an exposition device, and the baggage he brings from his other films take you right out of the movie. It's a mystery why when so much of the cast is made up of excellent German and French actors Tarantino turned to a Canadian comedic actor to play a British colonel.
I may post some more notes in the future, but I wanted to leave with a brief aside concerning the questions that have raging across Internet about BASTERDS, as some critics laud it while other bash, accusing it of, among other things, Holocaust Denial. I think the question of "war" films as entertainment and the responsibility film has to history is a great launch pad for discussion, but it's a question I'm ashamed to say I feel slightly disconnected to. My general philosophy concerning any film I watch boils down to two things:
  1. Did the filmmakers accomplish what they set out to do?
  2. Did I derive any pleasure from the viewing experience?
There's purposefully a lot of wriggle room there: there are dozens of movies I think are bad that I enjoy, dozens more that are good that I didn't like, and hundreds that are either bad and I didn't enjoy or good and I did. And regardless of the debate regarding the ethics of the film, for me INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS sticks its landing on every front.

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