24 August 2009

First Impressions: Inglourious Basterds


Well, the summer movie season is ostensibly over, and Tarantino assured us to go out with a nice hard bang. This flick was a freakin' trip, decently bodacious and worth the decade-long gestation period. It wasn't without flaws, however, but I would say remains one of Tarantino's best outings of recent memory. Without adieu, spoilers to come:

First and foremost, this flick does not align well with its advertising. I was expecting a gung-ho shoot 'em up constant barrage of Nazi Skinnins and Killins, but instead was treated to something much different. I very much liked what I saw, but launching the quintessential Quentin with a twenty-minute discussion of milk and pipes was humbling. The direction, acting, editing, sets, and plot design are all extremely crisp and wonderful. This is great and somehow rare these days, which lets an overanalyst like myself really dig into the story. Needless to say, I did enjoy this film very much, although it is far from perfect. There were some small incongruities that left me puzzled. Let's plow through them here.

Tarantino is well known for his use of flashbacks or backstories to advance his narrative and establish characters (See "Reservoir Dogs" [1992] or "Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2" [2003 & 2004 respectively]) and "Inglourious Basterds" is no exception to this style, although in a more limited fashion. We are only afforded the backstory for one of the Basterds - Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). This backstory is really cool and I wish we could have seen it for some of the other cats as well (about the feeling I got with the Ass-Blood Prince's pensieve, really cool scenes, why not more?). My only guess is that aside from horribly extending the 153-minute run time much further (I wouldn't edit or take out any other scene, and that'd be rough for Ten Basterds), establishing Stiglitz' character that way sets him up for a pivotal later scene, and his was the only character that really needed that done. It still creates this disjointing feeling, maybe a little splooge for Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) or The Bear Jew (Eli Roth) or another one of the 4-5 main, speaking role'd Basterds would have rounded out that part of the film for me.

This wasn't the only gap in the film's consistency, however. The Sammy J narrative over the aforementioned Stiglitz flashback as well as describing film nitrate is neat, but again, limited in its use. The fabulous, primarily Morricone score that should fit the time period and shy away from Tarantino trademark pop culture songs is also briefly interrupted by some nice Bowie. In these two instances I'm not entirely disappointed, but pad it out. If you're going to use Sammy J, use him more than twice, if you're going to use some rad pop songs, use them more than once. Also, what the hell was up with the four font changes during the opening credits? This flick needs its consistency streamlined. If anyone can come up with a likely rationale for these executive decisions, please, let me know down there in the comments section, I'd gladly kowtow my abuse here.

Now for the real meat of this flick, and dammit, there's a shitload of depth to pry from every scene. For the purposes of these First Impressions however, I will mostly stick with the crucial ending sequence. The film is incredibly meta concerning its final theater scene, highlighting among other things, the subjectivity of horrible cinema and the voyeur nature of watching a very film like Tarantino often presents. Let's back up.

It's clear early on that Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joey Gerbils is seeking both to reconstitute favour towards the German War Machine and establish fine art in itself. This contrasts with the love of superb Cinema and classic German Directors felt by Theater Owner / Secret Jew, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) as well as to a lesser extent the intentions and tastes of British Spy / Film Critic Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender). Gerbils totes a film about a young Nazi Soldier, Frederick Zoller (Danny Bruhl) who single-handedly killed 300 American soldiers in Italy. Hitler, upon viewing the movie "A Nation's Pride" finds it an absolute delight and commends Gerbils for his effort.

Thus, Gerbils has attained what he sought, his film recognized as one of the all-time greats of German Cinema. The kicker, of course, is that he only had to impress one deranged man to do so. Thus demonstrates the subjectivity of the artistic medium. The film itself consists of nothing but Zoller, playing himself, mercilessly slaughtering all of his enemies while perched atop a bell tower. All it is is death upon death after death, to which Hitler cheers and laughs endlessly.

Here's where Tarantino brilliantly blurs the lines between subject and audience. Interrupting "A Nation's Pride," the Basterds emerge onto Hitler's Balcony, slaughter all the German High Command, and then proceed to gun down the helpless trapped Nazis while they try to escape. Watching all this, I found myself cheering and laughing at the Nazi's demise until I caught myself enjoying the same kind of scenes as Hitler. A sobering thought. In terms of actual action, there is hardly a difference between the pleasure Hitler receives from watching Zoller massacre hundreds of his enemies, and ourselves watching the Basterds massacre hundreds of our own enemies. Sure there's the minute difference between killing armed soldiers and you know...Hitler, but the voyeurism Tarantino displays is still intact, which could duly apply to any other of his films, or indeed the "Torture Porn" genre that Eli Roth (The Bear Jew) founded with "Hostel" (2005). There are many layers to this scene that reflect on what the artists have created and what we enjoy, to compare our own tastes with Hitler here is something to mull over.

Expanding on this as well as the lack of any other Basterd's character development, the movie serves well to completely dehumanize its Jewish heroes. Aside from three or four occasions, the worst of their atrocities are never shown on film, leaving both the audience's and the Nazi High Command's minds to wander. Their actions are without regret or waver. The mission of the Basterds is absolute, and that is to exterminate an absolute evil. This actually highly contrasts with last summer's "The Dark Knight" (2008) which featured a vigilante full of guilt and shame over what "he would have to become" to stop an indeterminable evil. The Basterds, when treated cruelly, enact greater brutality over their foes. There is no guilt here, The Bear Jew gloats and mocks his fallen Nazi Colonel after slugging him with a baseball bat. There is little to no internal reflection for their deeds. As explicitly stated, they take no prisoners, only letting small numbers go to spread the fear of their deeds. Against an unstoppable evil, the mission of the Basterds is infallible, beyond any treaty, bargaining, pleading or higher authority. This is true even to the end when Aldo Raine brands Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and shoots his aide without thought or question, even though they had made a "deal." To the Basterds there is no deals or agreements to be had with evil. Again, this differs highly from "The Dark Knight" which takes a much more subjective stance with where evil can come from (Thinking Dent, not Joker here). Of course, this is not to say that a team of Jewish-American soldiers in World War II should feel any differently for any reason.

The last impression I want to tackle here deals with the previously mentioned Hans Landa. Christoph Waltz does a fantastic acting job here, and may have one of the longest screen times of any character, which is impressive for a movie that has Brad Pitt with star billing. He's already won the Best Actor Award at Cannes and is sure to pick up a few more. What's most interesting to me, however, is how polite and gracious Landa seems, even when performing the most vile deeds. His true monster comes out when he chokes to death German Actress / British Spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, so sexy). Suddenly Landa transforms from this well-groomed, refined Officer to a monster, strangling a famous beautiful actress with his bare hands. It shows that inside every Nazi, no matter how gentlemanly or eloquent they may seem (speaking four languages, smoking pipes, etc) lurks a truely hideous creature. In essence, this gives justification for the Basterd's ruthlessness. No Nazi can be trusted and when pushed they reveal their true horrible natures, an underlying nature necessarily horrible enough to commit such atrocities without heart or soul. Thus with irony, the most defined character in Tarantino's odois has no soul, marked and defeated by the least thought out characters. Nazi bastard.

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