Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

What I liked most about Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), is also what I liked about Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), and to a lesser extent, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004): the slow, patient storytelling; the amount of time he spends on every sequence, milking it for all it's worth--the most obvious legacy on Tarantino's work of his hero, Sergio Leone. Consider the film's long opening sequence, in which a Nazi officer, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), arrives unexpectedly at a French dairy farm. Landa doesn't come immediately to the point of his visit, but first ingratiates himself with his manners, and then over a glass of milk, talks at length about himself--his nickname, "The Hunter," and what he believes makes him such a good one. It's a terrific sequence, brimming with tension, and the film is full of scenes like it. This approach can backfire, as in Boulevard de la mort (2006), where the characters are all idiots, whose conversations are no more exciting than those you might overhear at a junior high school cafeteria; but when Tarantino is on, he can be very good.

However, I don't think Inglourious Basterds is as satisfying as Pulp Fiction. In that film, the pay-off for each vignette is that almost all the important characters get a second chance at life: Mia (Uma Thurman) is literally resurrected after overdosing on cocaine; Butch (Bruce Willis) squares himself with Marsellus (Ving Rhames) by literally saving the latter's ass; and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) succeeds in changing his life. In this film, the ultimate pay-off (spoiler alert!) is getting to see an American soldier, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), carve a swastika in Landa's forehead, after which Raine chuckles to the camera, in a thick Tennessee brogue, "I think this ma-ight be my massturpiece." End of film, roll credits.

The films has been criticized because it shows Jews acting like Nazis, but Tarantino doesn't stop there; he apparently thinks no better of his audience. The film's climatic sequence is set at a film premiere, and the film within the film is a Nazi propaganda piece about a German soldier who single-handedly picked off about one hundred fifty Allied soldiers. Watching the carnage onscreen, the German audience laughs and cheers with delight--exactly how the crowd that I saw Inglourious Basterds with responded to the scene mentioned in the second paragraph of this blog entry.

Of course, I can already hear one of Tarantino's defenders saying, "But Nazis are evil," period. Indeed, at one point late in the film, when a Jewish movie theatre owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), takes pity on a private in the German army (after shooting him several times in the torso), the film equates her empathy with weakness, and it effectively seals her death. The private in question, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who's both the subject and star of the film within the film, is initially made to seem sympathetic (he spends most of the film politely, if insistently, trying to court Shosanna, and at one point leaves the premiere because he doesn't like to be reminded of killing all those men), but in the blink of an eye, he turn into a total psycho when the plot requires it. As Raine puts it near the beginning of the film, "A Nat-zee ain't got no humanity," so presumably it's okay for the audience of this movie to lap it up when, for instance, one of its Jewish-American heroes bashes a Nazi officer's brains out with a baseball bat. I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds, and then I felt like a goon for liking it so much.

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