Friday, September 18, 2009
As Seen On A Rifle Butt
It's been a couple weeks now since I saw Quentin Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds. I've been a bit slow to put up a review both because all my travelogs have kept me occupied, but also because I'm not of a single mind after my first viewing, and I can't figure out which mind wins the toss.
Tarantino is best known, of course, for his brilliant and groundbreaking 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Film buffs may also be aware of his earlier film Reservoir Dogs (1992), which almost serves as a test-run, a pilot for his main attraction, Pulp Fiction. Despite his fairly sparse output over the years, there seemed a great deal of hype surrounding the release of Inglourious Basterds (something about which I suspect Tarantino himself is not squeamish. He seems like someone who lacks normal social graces--he comes across as a very odd fellow--but who cannot keep himself away from a gathering of film people). Indeed, it was the opening selection in this year's Cannes Film Festival. I think it's a measure of Pulp Fiction's greatness that this kind of hype can still be generated around Tarantino, as nothing since Pulp Fiction has seemed near equal to that magnum opus. (I think the Kill Bill films were a most worthy effort; but I wonder if they could have propelled Tarantino to greatness if Pulp Fiction had not already ensured it.)
Inglourious Basterds tells a fictitious triple-plotted tale about Nazi-occupied France in WWII that weaves its strands together in the end. More or less. The title refers, as the previews make clear, to a band of Jewish American soldiers who parachute into occupied France with the aim to do "one thing and one thing only: kill Nazis." The small squad of volunteers is led by one Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played with a grimly comic turn by Brad Pitt. Raine, practically a cardboard cutout of a macho soldier, has a huge rope burn scar under his neck and speaks with a clipped military style seasoned with a nondescript Southern drawl. He seems a man who has seen a great deal of human ugliness and who has kept his sanity by keeping his attention focused on the task at hand: killing enemy soldiers. So one thread of the story, the one we expect, focuses on the exploits and disposition of the Basterds.
But we must also know their enemies, and so the film's first scene lays the foundations of the other two stories. Waffen SS Colonel Hans Landa (a once-in-a-lifetime role played by Austrian actor Chrisoph Waltz) has earned the not-altogether-unwelcome (to him) nickname "The Jew Hunter" for his ability to sniff out people who have evaded the Nazi dragnet. When we meet him, he is tasked with wandering the French countryside to find those who are harboring Jews and dealing with both parties--Jew and protector--accordingly. It is immediately clear that Landa and the Basterds will need to have a reckoning. That's story two. And finally, as Landa's crew slaughters a hiding family of Jews, a teenage girl escapes, running across a field to safety. Landa allows her to escape (in an interesting parallel to the Basterds; see below) but vows that she will be dealt with in due time. We meet up with her a few years later in Paris, now a young woman who has inherited a movie house from a dead aunt. She has changed her name and tries to live anonymously, buried in her work running the cinema. An unwelcome personal interest in her by a young Nazi officer in Paris conspires to bring her and Landa and the Basterds (and quite a few other luminaries) together on a single night.
Tarantino is notorious for several things, among them being a kind of idiot-savant of film--people who know him have often commented that he is virtually an encyclopedia of all things cinema. And so his method is not one of simple storytelling; one expects his films to be dense with references and an extreme celebration of style. His films are also known for graphic and shocking violence. Well, with the setup of this film, one should never be in doubt about the payoff to come. We have alluded to Hans Landa's brutality, and then there is the matter of the Basterds. Their stated mission and methodology is not simply to kill the enemy--every army seeks to do this in war--but to do so in a manner that systematically strikes terror into a group of people who seem intent on terrorizing everyone else--the hunter becoming the hunted, etc., etc. And so the Basterds make a point of killing as brutally as possible (taking a play from Native American warriors, they collect the scalps of their victims--if, that is, the baseball bat has left enough intact), one at a time, while the other captured Nazis are forced to watch, and then they let the last soldier of the captured group go free to spread the terror. But not before, um, he gets indelibly branded for his allegiance.
But not all the violence is overt; Tarantino is deft with his use of tension and implied menace. The character of Hans Landa (which won Christoph Waltz a Best Actor nod at Cannes) is brilliantly conceived and played. His opening scene is an amazing little etude of sustained tension, a conspicuously friendly chat between to very unequal men, a chat with an unmistakable and lethal underlying purpose. Several Nazis in the film are shown as slippery characters who appear to befriend people while having an ulterior motive, but Hans Landa raises this to an art form. Never has the promise of savage retribution been so silkily delivered. And yet he emerges as a man whose single-mindedness has morphed (like a liquid Terminator) into mental illness. He breezes into a room and up to a friendly chatting group and immediately begins politely asking exactly the questions that bring first discomfort, and then a black pall, over the room. He's as menacing as Hannibal Lecter except that we would never see him coming.
I often say that I need to see a given film a second or third time to consolidate what I think of it, and I really have that sense here. In some bold and obvious ways, this film is a triumph of virtuosity. Each of these story lines is boldly drawn and deftly rendered, and the characters are compelling and interesting (including fun little turns by Hitler and Goebbels). But in the end I don't feel very convinced about the sum of the parts, about how the individual lines weave together. The title implies that the Basterds' story forms the film's spine; but the other two plot lines (with their ancillary baggage) seem to take up at least 2/3 of our time and constitute the real story of the film. The connection between these other two stories (which are very well wedded) to the Basterds is contrived and doesn't quite work. I understand that something more than a marauding band of killers might be required to plot a satisfying film, but the Basterds seem to end up with a few big scenes in someone else's story, as almost a subplot in their own movie. (Such is how I remember it, anyway.)
And there are a few instances here where I think the director simply tries too hard to be stylish. Especially in his use of anachronistic music clips at key moments. We have graphic killing in 1945 being shown in slow-mo to the background of '70s instrumental ballads replete with cheesy strings and chicka-wocka guitars. No doubt there is some tenuous film-buff link to justify this, but I feel it just doesn't work. It's a distraction from a story that already needs a little help staying tied together.
And that's it in a nutshell. Quentin Tarantino is a man who has successfully made a life of immersion in film and film history. He seems especially taken with genre films, and this is another attempt to tackle a particular genre. But he is his own genre; his vision is such that everything he does must have his indelible style, an idealized style of his youth. Reservoir Dogs was an etude on violence and plotting. But all of his films since then have been set in, or influenced by the '70s. And I'm simply not convinced--this film does not convince me--that '70s style can be applied to a WWII picture.