Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds was going to be the topic of my closing remarks for the Review, but after having written and rewritten it half a dozen times, it just wasn't working. Instead I'm going to continue berating Kendall for having the most popular movie of the 2 months “Up” sitting at her house for two fucking weeks....
The final draft of the closing remarks follows. Having invested about 15 hours writing it, I need to put it somewhere to justify all that wasted effort. Sounding all the word noises out was exhausting....
A fair bit of ink has been spilled about Inglourious Basterds in this in this issue of the Review. It's on at least half of the staff's top ten lists and their associated reviews are positively glowing. I'm the odd/old man out, being one of the very few people around here who wasn't completely over the moon about it. Firstly, I understand why it's on so many of these top ten lists. Tarantino is a savvy modern film maker who has managed to plug into the essence of the modern film fan's expectations and has consistently delivered the goods.
While none of us around here are film critics in any professional capacity, most of us have seen more films than is likely healthy. Because of this shared interest/obsession, we often discuss the film industry and cinema in general citing our favourite this and our favourite that. I'm beginning to think that film criticism is often the process about finding the most impressive sounding words to justify your personal likes and dislikes and pretending that the final result is somehow objective. Our tastes change over the years depending on our station in life, what we've experienced and how we've been shaped by those experiences. I think Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds is the kind of film that focuses attention on the generational divide that inevitably comes to separate young adults from middle-aged ones like me.
Tarantino's films contain cultural references that are almost always front and centre. His successful reworking of various cinematic motifs is the result of his keen eye for pop-kitsch, his sense of rhythm and a deep understanding of the various pulp movie genres he's drawing on. Part of the joy of watching a Tarantino film is piecing together which films, music and cultural cul-de-sacs he's riffing from this time. The results have ranged from the slickly humourous Reservoir Dogs to the genre-specific Kill Bills to the fairly traditional Jackie Brown and the nearly perfect distillation of '70s cool, Pulp Fiction. As often happens with one-note directors (even the extremely accomplished ones like Tarantino), the creative well can run dry. The hook loses it's freshness and projects begin to seem repetitive. After all, no director is Death Proof.
Inglourious Basterds therefore seemed a sensible choice of period and subject matter for a Tarantino film because it had the potential to push the film maker into new cinematic territory. His chief preoccupation up to this point has been the movies of the '70s (and maybe more specifically, updating and reworking the iconic individual characters from those movies, spinning some groovy tracks and making them his own). After a particularly well-staged opening sequence where German actor Christoph Waltz delivers a tour-de-force performance as the German colonel and legendary "Jew hunter" Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds seemed, at least momentarily, like a complete departure for Tarantino. I was intrigued to say the least. Unfortunately, the film quickly reverts to predictable Tarantino form and stays there for another 2 ½ interminable hours.
Those that share Tarantino's obsessions with cinema, music and ritualized violence will enjoy Inglourious Basterds, which undoubtedly possesses more than its share of quality moments. Finest by far is Waltz, who appears in that fabulous opening sequence, confronting a French dairy farmer whom he suspects of harboring a fugitive Jewish family. As he drinks a glass of the farmer's milk, Waltz's Landa is the personification of evil - a smiling, menacing almost playful evil that sent shivers down my spine. He is one of the great bad guys in cinematic history. This first scene turns out to be the template for much of what follows - people talking followed by explosions of brutal and graphic violence. What's more, it ends with the movie's most problematic poser, a gesture that is completely out of keeping with Landa's character, but without which the movie would have nowhere to go. He lets the girl get away.
At the risk of pouring over the details of the final 2 hours of plot, Inglourious Basterds is little more than an adult fairy tale. In Tarantino's defense, he announces his intentions right out of the gates in a title that reads, "Once upon a time in . . . Nazi-Occupied France." There are enough moments of sadistic violence peppered throughout the film to satisfy and reward the Kill Bill crowd, who just can't get enough of guts, gore and torture. There are enough film references in Inglourious Basterds that it often feels like a tutorial in prewar German cinema history. Actors channel everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Trevor Howard but in the end Inglourious Basterds feels less like bold revisionism than an exercise in lurid revenge fantasy. Death by Cinema. Film as weapon. Jewish Apache Ninjas. As usual, Tarantino wears his self-serving symbolism on his sleeve but this time he's elevated himself to the role of Director as Avenging God. It grew tiresome quickly. Our cream puff generation would last about 30 seconds in a real WW2 firefight and everyone knows it.
I find it curious that my coworkers are so enamored with this film. Admittedly, part of my problem with Inglourious Basterds is its flashes of brutal violence and I'd hazard a guess that most of our crew is far more desensitized to graphic screen gore than I am. I also have a distinct dislike for films where the violence is gratuitous and sadistic, which I think it is in this film. I'll further admit that I find Tarantino's cartoon treatment of World War II a little distasteful and a lot insensitive. The main theme of this issue of the Review has been how juvenile and youth-centric films have come to dominate mainstream film making. I believe films like Inglourious Basterds are the other side of that same coin. It doesn't really matter that Inglourious Basterds is poorly plotted and unnecessarily fragmented because that's not what's actually wrong with it. Some didn't find that to be the case so that too, is a subjective observation... a matter of taste. Acts of screen sadism need victims - and more importantly - victims nobody gives two shits about. Nazis and robots work best these days. Distasteful? Sure, but again not the essence of the problem at the core of films like this one.
No it's something entirely more esoteric, more a function of our time than anything else because you see, at it's core my real problem with Tarantino's film is... it isn't actually about anything. It's all window dressing, an all-icing cake and as a result, it ends up feeling frivolous and trivial. It isn't about World War II or the people it affected. In fact it isn't about people or their problems at all. What it really is.... is a movie about other movies. Tarantino isn't interested in telling an authentic or believable story in Inglourious Basterds so much as using World War II as a gigantic set piece for his ongoing movie recycling project.
That isn't to say that Inglourious Basterds isn't an achievement because cinematically, it's a grand and accomplished piece of film making. It has several outstanding performances, loads of technical bravado and occasional bursts of inspiration. In the end however, Tarantino comes off a little like the Wizard of Oz because it's all veneer..... all sizzle and no steak (I'm running out of metaphors here, but you get the drift). If you doubt how integral the human experience is to film, watch Flame and Citron (aka Flaming Lemons, as a customer asked Tom for it yesterday), a true story about two Danish Resistance fighters set in Copenhagen during the last year of the war. It's a small Danish production with interesting plot parallels to Ingourious Basterds, worthy of a look - if for no other reason than to see the price paid by people who really did kill Nazis.
Strangely enough, another film that comes to mind is First Blood. First Blood is a revenge fantasy too and while the sequels quickly got a bit off track, I think the first film shares some thematic territory with Inglourious Basterds. Stallone's film was much maligned when it first came out but part of the reason it became (and has stayed) so popular was that the story resonated with the audience. People could relate to it. It was about the alienation felt by ex-soldiers returned from the Vietnam War at the hands of a society that had abandoned them. It was about the problems inherent with reintegrating warriors into a peaceful society. It was an acknowledgment of that rejection, an expression of the dereliction of society's responsibilities to those who went to war on their behalf. All this social dialogue was stuffed into a modestly-budgeted pure action film with precious little to gain by doing so..... except a grain of authenticity and a reason to be. I challenge anyone to find something as real or worthy in a comparable action picture today.
So in the end, I'm not sure whether I've fallen into the trap of simply superimposing my personal prejudices and tastes on Inglourious Basterds or whether I have made a modest case for it being another example of how inconsequential mainstream fare has become these days. Have we lost our collective ability to synthesize and articulate real issues through the cinematic experience or has my perspective changed to the point that I want more out of the investment than 2½ hours of escapism? In the words of the great wit Oscar Levant, “Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel”. I recognize that we all need to occasionally lose ourselves in the banal to duck the drudgery of our daily existence but I wonder what the world would look like if that's all the average film goer consumed. I don't think we'll have to wait long to find out.
or maybe, I just didn't "get" it.