A mostly pleasant surprise in a year that has produced a lack of stellar animated outings.
"When I'm making a movie, the world goes away and I'm on Mt. Everest. Obama is President? Who cares? I'm making my movie." -- Quentin Tarantino, Village Voice interview (2009)
A wily WWII Looney Tunes propaganda movie that conjures up 1945's "Herr Meets Hare," (in which Bugs Bunny goes a-hunting with Hermann Goering in the Black Forest; full cartoon below) and the towering legends of Sergio Leone's widescreen Westerns -- and about a gazillion other movies and bits of movie history from Leni Riefenstahl to Anthony Mann to Brian de Palma -- Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is a gorgeous and goofy revenge cartoon, a conceptual genre picture about the mythmaking power of cinema. Re-writing history? That's missing the point by several kilometers. This is pure celluloid fantasy -- an invigorating wallow in the vicarious pleasures of movie-watching by someone who would rather watch movies than do anything else in the world. Except maybe talk about them.
I spent the last week preparing for "Inglourious Basterds" by watching the two Tarantinos I'd missed: both volumes of "Kill Bill" and "Death Proof." (I came to think of it as the Foot-Fetish Film Festival.) So, with that in mind, I thought I'd begin by taking a general look at how I think Tarantino's movies work -- what they do, and what they don't do -- because, although I haven't read more than a few brief passages from other "Basterds" reviews yet, people seem to think there's been a lot of misrepresentation and/or misinterpretation going around (starting with Newsweek and The Atlantic). Some clearly wanted or expected the movie to be something else. A morality lesson, perhaps. But those other movies would not be ones Quentin Tarantino has ever shown any interest in making. "Inglourious Basterds," love it or hate it (and I think it puts most contemporary American filmmaking to shame), it is what it is because it's exactly the way Tarantino wants it to be. Let's consider...
Chapter 1: Story
"I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating." -- Bill, Ibid.
"Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France..." -- Chapter 1 sub-heading for "Inglourious Basterds"
On the DVD featurette accompanying "Kill Bill, Volume 2," Tarantino says: "Some people have said, well, there's not so much story. Well, it's a revenge story. What more story do you need, alright? Five people did something bad to this person and now she's gonna make 'em pay. Alright, she's got the list with five names on it and she's going down it, alright? There's not much more story. I mean, I could come up with some other crap -- that would be subterfuge, alright? -- but, no, I hate that in movies. Let's get rid of the crap and let's just, like, have the confidence to, you know, tell a revenge movie, alright?"¹
In "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino once again tells a simple, straightforward revenge movie, structurally shuffled with his familiar mixture of chapter headings, asides, and flashbacks. It begins (Chapter 1) with the inciting incident. After a splendidly intense interrogation scene (almost all the major scenes in this movie are interrogations of one form or another) conducted by the pathologically charming SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, best actor at Cannes), a family is murdered by Nazis. The sole survivor eventually finds herself in a position to extract revenge from the Nazi high command, including UFA/propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and the Füher himself. Chapter 2 introduces us to the legendary "Basterds" of the title, an all-Jewish squad of soldiers, commanded by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt -- with a hilariously chewy Tennessee accent), infamous for scalping Nazis. They are a propaganda unit to counter Goebbels' -- a movie at loose in the world. Forget Dresden, the Basterds are carpet-bombing the Germans with the most powerful weapon of all: fear.
There's not much more to the story, really, except that it takes place in an alternative universe. As I wrote earlier: QT's movies "are abstract art, not strong stories, not emotional experiences. I thought of Hitchcock, who said his films are not slices of life but slices of cake. Tarantino makes candy necklaces, tasty chunks strung together -- little climaxes without much overall dramatic shape." I should clarify: Although Tarantino himself describes the structure of the "Kill Bill" movies as simply checking off items on a list, both "Bill" volumes and "Inglourious Basterds" do build, not strictly chronologically, to climactic showdowns. (So does "Jackie Brown," but that story was based on an Elmore Leonard novel.)
Tarantino is less interested in spinning conventionally engaging stories, with their peaks and valleys, than he is in mapping out mythological territory. The "story" consists of bringing the characters together in different combinations. Tarantino likes to divide his movies into chapters, just one of many self-conscious ways (including titles, flashbacks, split screen, detours) that he thwarts involvement in the story itself and ensures that you never forget you're watching a tasty slice of artifice: a movie. So, in terms of re-arranging combinations of characters, "Basterds" breaks down very roughly like this:
Chapter 1: Landa and Shoshanna. Chapter 2: The Basterds; Hitler and a former Basterds prisoner. Chapter 3: Zoller and Shoshanna; + Goebbels + Landa Chapter 4: Hicox + Von Hammersmark + Wicki; Landa Chapter 5: Everybody who's still alive; Raine and Landa.
Chapter 2: Character
"There weren't really 88 of them. They just called themselves the Crazy 88.... I guess they thought it sounded cool." -- Bill (David Carradine), "Kill Bill, Volume 2" (2004)
If there's one theme that runs through Tarantino's work it's the mythology behind the legend. Early on, the chief villain of "Inglourious Basterds", Landa, whose reputation as "The Jew Hunter" precedes him (much to his delight), expresses a preference for rumors over facts because "Facts can be so misleading." In "Inglourious Basterds," as in most Tarantino movies, facts are almost irrelevant. What happens isn't as important as what people say happened, what others think happened. And what matters most are personal mythologies, reputations that will outlive the characters, who otherwise have little in the way of psychological or emotional dimension. They are types, caricatures, each assigned a quirk or two or the actors to play with. That's not a criticism; it's simply a description of the way Tarantino has sculpted his characters since "Reservoir Dogs." Almost everyone has an alias or a nickname -- and at least one legendary anecdote (involving a foot massage or maybe a bell-tower massacre -- that defines them. That is the stuff from which their legendary identities are built: The Wronged Woman, The Professional, The Kingpin, The War Hero, The Bear Jew (more about that last one in a minute)...
All of this feeds into one of the main thematic concerns of "Inglourious Basterds." We have little or no idea of who these characters are as individuals. We don't see them in private moments, when they're not "on the job." They are actors acting, playing roles in whatever stock situation they may find themselves. Each of them is working on creating a larger myth -- and perhaps a place in history. If not historical history, then at least in movie history. Some are actually professional actors: movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), German war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) who plays himself, Audie Murphy-like, in Goebbels' would-be masterpiece, "National Pride." Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a multi-lingual film critic who impersonates a German officer to sabotage the premiere of "National Pride."
Tarantino actively discourages emotional identification with any particular character beyond the confines of a particular scene, and the "story" consists primarily of chapters that rearrange the characters in different combinations. In Chapter Two here, just when you're getting into a tense scalping scene with the Basterds, he slaps a few titles on the screen and detours into a Samuel L. Jackson-narrated newsreel-parody backstory for a minor character that dissipates the drama of the scene itself. It's still a terrific scene, but I think both the Jackson narration intrusions in the movie are hammer-head overkill, superfluous at best. Nevertheless, Tarantino wants them there.
(The only other thing I really dislike in "Inglourious Basterds" is the miscasting of Eli Roth, Tarantino's pal and protege [QT was a producer on both Roth's "Hostel" movies] who I'd only remembered in a small part in "Death Proof." As an actor he's smaller-than-life; he has no presence, nothing that could make him fearsome, even when he gets a big entrance as the movie's iconic "Bear Jew," wielding a baseball bat and emerging from a dark tunnel. Maybe his disappointing appearance is supposed to be funny -- like the killer rabbit in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." But the more he yells and "goes crazy," the more impotent he appears. The baseball bat alone can't lend him the resonance of myth.)
Chapter 3: Emotion
"My movies are painfully personal, but I'm never trying to let you know how personal they are. It's my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. 'Kill Bill' is a very personal movie.... It's my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre.... Whatever's going on with me at the time of writing is going to find its way into the piece. If that doesn't happen, then what the hell am I doing?" -- Tarantino, op. cit.
While Tarantino's films can be delirious, intoxicating movie-movie experiences, I've never found any of them particularly moving -- except insofar as they evoke 1) the movies they quote from; and 2) what Hitchcock called "pure cinema," meaning (as I'm interpreting the phrase) the flow of the images themselves. Tarantino traffics in suspense, fear, horror, humor, even awe. He does hate, violence, action and death superbly. Love (or non-fetishistic eroticism), not so much. I've never felt empathy (or even much in the way of sympathy) for any of his self-mythologizing figures -- and from the way his worlds are constructed, the evidence is that Tarantino doesn't intend for us to feel those emotions, either.
So, chances are very good you're not gonna get misty-eyed at a Tarantino picture -- unless that shot that so beautifully echoes "Once Upon a Time in the West" or "The Searchers" or "Carrie" (QT's a big De Palma fan) gives you goosebumps from its sheer gorgeousness. But Tarantino is not rapturously operatic like De Palma can be; he's harder, drier. He provides textural and intellectual pleasures, but little in the way of complex emotion. I suppose it is possible for, say, a Warhol silkscreen or a Schwitters collage or a Lichtenstein comic-painting to get an emotional response from you, but that's not really what they're particularly good at. Like them, Tarantino is a conceptual talent, an abstract pastiche pop-artist, and that's primarily how his films function.
Chapter 4: Dialog
"We're gonna be like three little Fonzies here." -- Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), "Pulp Fiction" (1994)
I've never quite understood what Tarantino was trying to accomplish by littering his dialog with precious clichés, cutesy pop-culture references and tired catch-phrases. To me, they've always sounded forced and overwritten, gobbing up the actors' mouths like big sticky wads of stale bubblegum. It's not that there's too much talk in his movies, it's that the talk is studded with so many colorless stock phrases. Why I do not know -- but it's so obvious it has become his "signature."
"Inglourious Basterds" (which features some of the best dialog Tarantino has ever written) makes a virtue of this stylistic trait, because it is so much about self-conscious language, metaphors, figures of speech, and the presentation of dialog as dialog (improvised "in character" and/or presented in the form of memorized monologs) -- in several languages: English, German, French, Italian... (There's a nice pair involving shoes, of course -- this being from a renowned foot fetishist -- "If the shoe fits..." and "The shoe is on the other foot...") In this world of neverending performance, misusing a common expression could blow your cover and cost you your life.
Chapter 5: Inglourious Basterds
"We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us, and the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, at our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us, the Germans will talk about us, and the Germans will fear us." -- Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)
I've been amused by the response to "Inglourious Basterds," mostly from non-critics, of those who feel uncomfortable with the film's morality. Thing is, I don't think this film -- or any of Tarantino's films -- have much to say about morality, except that revenge is righteous and necessary, and miracles are dramatic devices. (When Hanzo tells The Bride in "Kill Bill, Volume 1" that revenge is like a forest in which it's easy to get lost, it's a joke without a punchline. The movie doesn't venture into that forest; The Bride never loses sight of her goals.) Eli Roth (who reportedly directed the movie within the movie) calls his pal's picture (approvingly) "kosher porn": "It's almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling.... My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That's something I could watch all day." Producer Lawrence Bender says he told Tarantino, "as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream." Tarantino himself says he identifies the Jews with the American Indians in Westerns (pointing out that he is a quarter Cherokee). When a writer from The Atlantic told Tarantino that "the over-the-top violence of the Basterds might offend people," he reports that the director replied: "Why would they condemn me? I was too brutal to the Nazis?"
For the record, I think just about all of the above is absolute bullshit -- presented so as to head off expected criticism. "Inglourious Basterds" is as much a revenge fantasy as "Kill Bill." It doesn't make a case for "Jewish empowerment"; it's not about Nazis except as cartoonish propaganda-movie figures of Evil; and it has less to do with the reality of WWII than "Herr Meets Hare" or Spielberg's "1941." All the threads come together in Chapter 5 at the gala premiere of "National Pride," shown at a theater that "just happens" to be (quoting a repeated figure of speech from "Kill Bill, Volume 2") owned by the surviving victim from Chapter 1 -- and revenge happens, spectacularly.
Now, what does all this have to do with anything? You can decide for yourself. I think the image of a face projected in the smoke from a nitrate film fire is some kind of magnificent movie-movie apotheosis that would have caused Fritz Lang's monocled eyeball to pop out of his head in astonishment. (The Fritz Lang from Godard's "Contempt," I mean, of course.) But perhaps this passage from that Atlantic piece best explains the movie's "reality," as Tarantino himself envisions it:
"I hate that hand-wringing shit," [Tarantino] said [about Holocaust movies in general]. He had a revelation in his early 20s, he recalled, when he saw "Red Dawn" , a Cold War revenge fantasy² in which a group of American high-school students, the "Wolverines," battle Soviet and Central American soldiers who invade Colorado. "The Wolverines capture a soldier, and there's a little bit of back-and-forth -- should we kill him or not -- and C. Thomas Howell just blows him away with his shotgun," Tarantino recalled. "Those are the kind of things you say, 'That's exactly what I would do.' It's what I want to see, and when I don't see it, I become frustrated, and then it feels like a movie as opposed to real life."
This echoes what QT said (above) in reference to "Kill Bill." Tarantino's is the cinema of wish-fulfillment. That is their only reason for being. He makes movies about what he would like to see -- in movies, or if he were in a movie, or what he imagines he might do in "real life," which can only be properly defined in terms of other movies. François Truffaut famously asked if movies were more important than life. Tarantino's movies reject the distinction. When movies are the blood of life, the question makes no sense.³
* * * *
¹ Quite a few great movies take the form of revenge stories. John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956) -- conspicuously quoted in "IB" -- may be the greatest of them all, and it's a pure revenge story... right up until the last five minutes when it transforms into something else entirely. The journey we think we've been on, the thing we think we've been searching for, is not what we thought.
² The "reality" of "Red Dawn" is that it's a Reagan-era revenge fantasy about a fictional historical event that happens in the near future. I think as far as "Inglourious Basterds" is concerned, WWII is the same kind of hypothetical event.
³ Meanwhile, is everyone aware of the difference between WWII and the Holocaust? They are not synonymous. "Inglourious Basterds" does not explicitly invoke the
Holocaust death camps until (arguably) its final images. This isn't "Life is Beautiful."
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