Friday, November 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino)

Well, I don't quite remember World War II happening like this. But who's keeping track? My 10th grade history teacher was barely able to cover World War I, let alone World War II. On the last day of class he showed us three pictures. "This is Hitler. This is Stalin. This is Roosevelt. Got it?"

Anyway, just when you thought nothing new could have possibly been done with the World War II/Holocaust film, I believe Tarantino has actually gone and done it. This is truly a World War II/Holocaust movie I have not seen before. Give the man credit where credit is due.

I suspect Inglourious Basterds is also a film studies major's dream, in that a film studies major will have a field day with its treatment of the subject matter. I no longer associate myself with "film studies," so in one sense I could really give two shits. But this movie is begging to be attacked, defended, psychoanalyzed, deconstructed, and so on. The Holocaust is a subject most academics treat with the utmost gravity. Tarantino, suffice to say, has taken a different approach. I imagine there will be many useless and ineffective essays written by film professors and grad students along the lines of Dana Stevens' review in Slate, declaring this film misguided, irresponsible, and insulting. Let me tell you something, film professors: Tarantino is laughing at you.

This movie and Downfall would make a great double feature. The painstakingly accurate depiction of Hilter's last days vs. the completely ridiculous depiction. But I learned a lot from both. Personally, I think Tarantino's gleefully unfaithful approach to the World War II/Holocaust film actually made me think about that period of history in at least as many ways as Downfall did. Contrary to what some might say (including the enfant terrible himself) I think he actually takes the subject matter quite seriously; he just isn't stuffy or reserved about it. Basterds is like an emotional thought experiment. Just how would it feel to do this to the Nazis? Honestly I don't think it would have felt that great. Basterds was like the ending of The Wild Bunch minus the last scene with Thornton and Sykes. I don't think if the Nazis had really died in this way, we would feel any better about the whole thing. But see - at least now we have our answer!

Nevertheless, as strong as this film is, I feel there is a certain element missing that is present in most of Tarantino's other work: I didn't actually find any of these characters likeable. Aldo Raine and the basterds were on the "good" side, but I can't really say I was rooting for them. The Jewish girl was more like a symbol, not a character. There wasn't really a positive moment of human connection to be found anywhere. Tarantino does excel, however at showing just how much these characters really hate each other. When one character kills another in this movie, they do so from a place of pure, unfiltered, spontaneous rage. There is a scene where a young man is about to be spared from death, until, just for shits and giggles, he superfluously calls someone a "traitor" and he is shot (he would have been better off keeping his opinions to himself). That seems to sum up the whole driving force behind Nazism: "We lost World War I, we're angry, we want to take it out on other people, and we don't even care if we live in the end."

So even though this might not be Tarantino's most violent or disturbing movie, I found it to be his most nihilistic. "Come on, what about Reservoir Dogs?" you say. Was it just me, or was the misguided friendship between Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs amazingly poignant? In Pulp Fiction certain characters learned to grow and change. I even liked Bill in Kill Bill more than any character in Basterds. Yes, Tarantino has made a creative, interesting movie, but so has Lars von Trier. "Well, why should a World War II/Holocaust movie be life-affirming and joyous?" you ask. Honestly, very few of my favorite movies are World War II/Holocaust movies. Casablanca is a World War II movie but it's not about the Holocaust. Schindler's List is impressive simply because I'm sitting there the whole time wondering just how long Spielberg can hold that cold, distant tone without blinking. But have I watched it more than twice?

Final observation: What other director working today, besides Tarantino, possesses such name-brand drawing power, he can make almost no concessions to the audience and still pack the seats? Well, Grindhouse aside. Not a franchise, mind you, but a director. Peter Jackson? Martin Scorsese? Tarantino can pretty much do anything he wants at this point and the audience is willing to follow him there. Subtitles? You'll take it and you'll like it. Long passages of dialogue? Go ahead, get up and leave, I dare you. The poor girl next to me with a Bloomingdale's shopping bag lasted about 20 minutes. So, not everybody I guess.

Film critic rating: ***1/2
Little Earl rating: ***

1 comment:

Jason said...

Yes, after I finished watching this I thought back and realized, "That movie was just 5 or 6 unrelated scenes, and most of those scenes were 90% dialogue." But you almost don't notice this while you're watching, because the scenes are so full of suspense. I think that's the most impressive thing about the movie, that he was able to pull off telling a riveting story that way.

Also (I'm going to go ahead with SPOILERS since I'm assuming we've all seen the movie by now), after reading the book Kavalier & Clay I learned that there were a lot of comic books and movies that came out during World War II (when Hitler was still alive) where the heroes kill Hitler in the end. I think this movie is kind of a throwback to those fictional war movies, but the fact that he's doing this after we know Hitler's real, historical fate is what makes it new and interesting.

Anyway, I loved this movie, especially the pub scene in the basement. The only thing I could've done without is the scalping...