Friday, August 28, 2009

Alright...let's talk about these Basterds...

Artists and entertainers have always re-worked history. I don't understand some of these objections, either -- especially when the movie is so heavily stylized -- so clearly NOT "real" -- in every particular. Besides, Spielberg's "1941" (based on a real incident!) probably has more to do with the particulars of WWII than "IB" does. The fact that, say, "Mississippi Burning" made two white FBI agents the heroes of the investigation into the actual murders of three real civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner) is pretty damned offensive -- but not nearly as offensive as the cartoon racism in every frame of Alan Parker's film. But that film was just a straight-out Hollywood "prestige picture," a "historical drama," not a movie-movie fable full of devices that emphasize its MOVIEness. It took itself dead seriously, and expected its audience to. I can understand that some people think "Inglourious Basterds" is frivolous or isn't worth doing, but "Holocaust denial"? Now who's trivializing?

Jim Emerson from his Scanners blog

I avoid writing reviews of new movies for many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone writes about the same movies at the same time. Would a blogger rather be one of a hundred reviews for the latest blockbuster or the only guy putting down his thoughts on Floods of Fear? I'll take the latter almost every time.

Greg from Cinema Styles

The above quotes by two of my favorite bloggers Jim Emerson and Greg get at the heart of what will be more an example of stream of consciousness than a traditional “review”. Because like Greg I feel like the film needs to be talked about. Not the subtexts (that Emerson so wonderfully refutes in his quote above), which are fascinating, but the “MOVIEness” as Emerson calls it, about Inglourious Basterds. I know I will see it again – in fact I know I must see it again – but for now I will simply list some of things that I found fascinating about the film (since there are SO many reviews out there discussing plot points, characters’ motivations, subtexts, etc. I just want to hit on a couple crucial things).

Again, I agree with Greg’s sentiments towards writing about new films right when they come out, although I do write about new movies sometimes, I prefer to say something about a movie that people haven’t talked about in a while. I mean what can I possibly say that already hasn’t been said by people more articulate than me? We’ll give it a go…

References and Motifs:

But that's what makes Quentin Tarantino the man he is: there's not a single new idea in any of his films, but something about the way he puts them all together is bracing and original. He is a singular talent: the cinema's reigning lord of pop culture post-modernism. And he's just released the most challenging and intellectually engaging film of his deceptively intelligent career.

Tim from Antagony & Ecstasy

Well you can’t talk about Tarantino without talking about how referential he is. Like the well revered Brian DePalma (who I admittedly have problems with, but see his talent) Tarantino is a director obsessed with making the movies he wants to make. Not only that, he, like DePalma (a man QT often cites as an idol) are always making the viewer aware that you’re watching a movie. Whether it be through split screens, title cards, flashbacks, voice over explanations on the how flammable film is…the list goes on. There’s nothing “real” going on here; which is why I don’t understand the backlash against the films “inaccuracies”. But I don’t want to get into that…

Jim Emerson posted a great website on his blog the other day that ran through almost all the references imaginable in Inglourious Basterds. I would say I was good on spotting about 25 of those references (I was never a fan of war movies). Some of my favorites were:

The obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Sabotage at the end of the film (and Tarantino even uses footage from that movie in one scene) as the theater full of Nazi’s are completely unaware that the highly flammable nitrite film that Shosanna has piled up behind the theater screen is going to kill them. You also have Hitler and German Film guru Joseph Goebbels sit in a balcony completely unaware that there is a bomb underneath their seats…which for some reason I’m attributing to something Hitch once said…but for the life of me I can’t remember.

The beginning has a shot of the escaping Shosanna through a door frame that immediately sprang to mind John Ford’s The Searchers.

The entire film reminded me of John Milius’ Red Dawn, another re-imagining of historical events where a rowdy group of teenagers take on the Russian army. Red Dawn was one of my favorite films growing up…so…I smiled when I saw John Milius being thanked in the credits.

Shosanna’s quest to kill the man who killed her family (the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa, played to perfection by Christoph Waltz, but more on him later) reminded me of Verhoeven’s Black Book, another film about a Jewish woman, who despite her disgust for those she has to cozy up to, aides the Dutch resistance by dying her hair and pretending to be someone she despises. Verhoeven’s film is another extremely entertaining piece of revisionist history through the genre of the action film, and quite honestly I’m a little surprised there aren’t more comparisons between the two films and their style in approaching the subject of WWII.

References to Leni Riefenstahl’s films made me think of a documentary I saw in a film class (The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl) where Riefenstahl talks about the “ice” films she made (The White Hell of Pitz Palu is showing at Shosanna’s cinema) that were directed by Pabst, who is mentioned numerous times throughout the film.

In the film within a film Nation’s Pride starring the character Frederick Zoller, there are numerous references…some self-reflexive (the excessiveness of the violence) and some more obvious like someone getting shot in the eye (Potemkin) or just the storyline of a sniper during WWII (Enemy at the Gates).

The end of the film had references galore, which seems appropriate since it takes place in a movie house. The first reference I thought of was of Raiders of the Lost Ark as the flickering of Shosanna’s maniacal laugh can be seen through the smoke and debris of the burnt theater screen. This creates an eerie illusion of her projected face mixing with the fire and the smoke showing her to be ghostlike. This made me think of Spielberg’s film where the swirling spirits from the Ark moan and make creepy noises before killing the Nazi’s. Which leads me to the next scene that reminded me of Spielberg’s film: Hitler getting his face shot off. It seemed to have melted under the excessive gunfire, and this immediately made me think of the Nazi torturer in Raiders who gets his face melted off.

The other film that I was reminded of at the end was DePalma’s Carrie. DePalma’s film, like Tarantino’s latest, also ends in an orgy of violence where people are trapped and can’t get out. The fire surrounding the Nazi’s and the bloodied face of Eli Roth made me think of that famous scene from Carrie. There are also a couple of moments where Tarantino uses split screen – a device, that when done well, one cannot help but think of DePalma.

Of course there is the reference to this blogs namesake. I remember a year ago or so reading that Tarantino was going to have a character named Hugo Stiglitz. I’m just glad I named my blog before then so that people wouldn’t think I was making a reference to the film instead of the actor. Seeing those big letters on the screen filled me with so much glee…naturally my friend Brandon and I were the only ones laughing.

And of course the very end is such an obvious homage to one of the Coen Brothers most underrated movies Miller’s Crossing, that I couldn’t help but immediately think of that once I saw them standing out in the forest.

Of course recognizing these references doesn’t make the film any better or worse – it just gives geeks like me something more to talk about. So if you’re an astute film buff I’m sure you’ll savor all of the references in the film…some of which, admittedly, went right over my head (like a lot of the soundtrack stuff).

There are countless allusions that I am missing; however, like a DePalma film, Tarantino’s films are able to succeed whether or not you get all of the references or not. The films success does not rely on whether or not the audience “gets” it. This proves to me that Tarantino is a considerable talent (duh, right) and always has been. He makes the movies he wants to make for movie nerds like himself; however, these films are able to transcend any references and succeed at the most basic requirement for a movie: it’s entertaining as hell. Inglourious Basterds is one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in the theater since Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 which I saw twice in the same day. It has so many scenes that know exactly what they’re doing and never step wrong…despite the fact that there are, like all of Tarantino’s films, multiple layers to each scene.

Some of the motifs can be found throughout Tarantino’s films. Almost all of Tarantino’s films begin with a conversation. This is definitely an unorthodox way to “rope” viewers into a major film, but Tarantino succeeds with perhaps his best opening ever in Inglourious Basterds. It reminded me of the way the conversation in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 2 set up a lot of what we’re about to see in those movies. Another motif that Tarantino loves is the use of nicknames in his films. All throughout his career Tarantino has loved to mythologize his characters by giving them catchy nicknames. Another motif that fits within the mythology discussion is the fact that Tarantino loves to slice up his films in chapters, with sometimes-sardonic and sometimes-straight-to-the-point title cards. These title cards let us know what we’re in store for, and often times Tarantino delights in taking little detours that explain the origin of certain characters or situations.

I want to end this section by referring to the quote above. I agree with Tim that Tarantino’s career, for as lauded as it has been, seems to be “deceptively intelligent”. A lot of people give QT credit for being savvy and cool with his films, but not a lot of people talk about the skill that goes into the look of his films, or the way that he can take a subject that is wholly unappealing to the masses (WWII films, Kung-Fu films, Blaxploitation) but deeply personal to him, and make them into successful, enthralling, and viscerally entertaining pieces of art. I, oddly enough, don’t think Tarantino gets praised enough.

Two Great Scenes:

Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.

Alfred Hitchcock

There are really two major scenes that deserve special attention: the tavern scene and the ending in the cinema.

The tavern scene is a perfect example of what Hitchcock is talking about in the quote I’ve placed above. The scene is nearly 30 minutes long, and all I could think about was this it ended too soon. I suffered alright, but it was the greatest suffering of all. There's tension in the tavern scene that I haven't felt watching a movie in ages.

Tarantino sets the scene masterfully by having the one person not originally a part of the Basterds platoon screw the whole thing up. I have to say, when the SS officer makes his appearance from around the corner, I was genuinely surprised, and my nerves were at a fever pitch as to what would happen. The acting in the scene (as well as the whole film) was spot-on, and Tarantino uses that “rubber band” philosophy of ratcheting up suspense with this movie-stealing scene.

The scene stretches and stretches until the viewer can only think that something bad is bound to happen because we’ve been sitting on the scene for so long (much like the masterful opening interrogation scene). The way Tarantino patiently allows the scene to unfold shows restraint that a lot of modern directors are incapable of displaying. When the rubber band finally bends as far as it can go, and the guns are pulled under the table (a nice subdued variation on Tarantino’s famous Mexican standoff scene from Reservoir Dogs) I remember thinking that I literally hadn’t sat back in my seat the entire scene. I mean I wasn’t, as the cliché goes, on the edge of my seat, but I was sitting upright…not relaxed at all. When the rubber band finally breaks (after nearly a half hour of bated-breath-anxiety on whether or not the rubber band can withstand the tension being put on it) and the guns go off in a quick burst of bloody violence the crowd I saw the film with let out a collective sigh (granted there were only about 15 of us in the theater…but still it could be heard).

This scene reminded me a lot of the beneath-the-surface tension that was on display in those brilliant final moments of Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Bill is talking to Beatrix about his theories on the superheroes, specifically the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy. This spill out into a conversation with the two at a table outside of Bill’s house…and the tension is palpable as we know that the two must meet and that Bill must die (after all, like Inglourious Basterds it’s your basic revenge story…plus the film is called Kill Bill), so for Tarantino to be able to get to the conclusion he wanted without it feeling boring or stale shows just how much skill this man has directing scenes of tension where nothing is really “happening” in the conventional Hollywood way.

It’s one of the most masterfully executed scenes I’ve seen in any movie. And when I say that I don’t mean in a hyperbolic “this is 30th best film of all time according to IMDB” kind of way…this isn’t some brash reaction from a Tarantino fanboy (or maybe it is who the hell cares), but I’m genuine when I say that the movie is worth seeing for the tavern scene alone.

The other great scene is of course the ending, which I’ve already talked about a little bit. The scene in the cinema begins with some of the Basterds out of their element, and it’s one of the rare moments in the film where Tarantino goes for real laughs – and fails. It’s not that the actors aren’t up to it; it’s just that the jokes aren’t that good and feel really played out. It’s almost as if I was left saying “really Quentin…jokes about people not being able to speak a language?” However, once a crucial character is taken away from the Basterds the final 30 minutes of the film or so (I really don’t how long the end is because the film felt like a breezy 90 minutes despite its 150 minute run time) well crafted that all of the aforementioned directors that Tarantino alludes to would be proud to call the finale of this film their own.

This is also where the only bit of imagery from the concentration camps comes in as Eli Roth gleefully unloads his machine gun on piles of Nazi’s as the scratch and claw for a way out of the locked theater. Again, though, I don’t want to delve into that here (although the comments section is fair game), but the ending is something to behold. For any lover of film it’s an orgy of allusions and visual nods to film geeks everywhere. It’s also one of the most assured pieces of direction Tarantino has ever shown. I felt like I was watching a Hitchcock espionage movie like Notorious the way the camera beautifully pans through the crowds of characters, momentarily being intercepted by important characters making their arrival and Tarantino’s helpful animated arrows telling who a certain someone is. The movement of Tarantino’s camera in this scene and the blocking of action is something that is normally not attributed to Tarantino.

The acting/characters:

Inglourious Basterds has been hyped as a Dirty Dozen-ish WWII flick; yet with typical perversity, Tarantino has made a war movie wherein its warriors are along the periphery rather than at the center.

Craig from The Man From Porlock

I like Craig’s point about the movie, because Tarantino does something interesting here. Most of his film isn’t in English, and yet the theater I saw the film in was still totally invested in the film. I wouldn’t call my hometown of Salem a Podunk town, but we’re definitely the little brother to the real big city in our state, Portland. I’ve seen subtitled films in theaters here before, and it almost always induces groans from the audience. So, I was pleasantly surprised that the crowd I saw Inglourious Basterds with was so into the film that they didn’t notice the subtitles. Or maybe they just didn’t care and I’m not giving them enough credit…could be a little of both.

That being said, the film really isn’t so much about the Basterds as it is about Shosanna. She’s the heart of this film. Her journey of revenge is more personal than that of the Basterds, so I think it’s wise that Tarantino spends a good portion of the middle of the film on her attempts to kill the man that killed her family.

That man is known as the “Jew Hunter”. He’s Col. Hans Landa and he is played by Christoph Waltz who is getting accolades from everyone, and deservingly so. He plays Landa with a smoothness that is evident in investigators we see in other films. Because after all, Lans justifies his actions by thinking of himself as only an investigator, and not a murder of Jews. He sees himself as being the best at his job because he can think like a Jewish person, something that his peers cannot (or will not) do. He’s a weasel, and one of the best villains I’ve seen in a movie in a long, long tine. Waltz deserves every award he’s bound to win for this role.

Some of the other performances are just as memorable. Mélanie Laurent plays Shosanna as vulnerable heroine. She’s not the Bride, that’s for sure, and there is a great scene where Land pays a surprise visit to a lunch that Shosanna (under the guise of Emmanuel) and her “love interest” (read: way of getting to the Nazi’s) Zoller (a young soldier who is an admirer of film, and is a war hero who has starred in a film about his exploits) are attending. Shosanna plays it cool throughout the interrogation (Land can’t help himself, he’s always asking questions) but once Land leaves Tarantino stays on Shosanna for just a bit longer and she begins to exhale nervously and cry. It’s a telling scene that shows that even though she is willing to go all the way to avenger her family’s death (and in the process kill herself) she is still human. She’s not the icy femme fatale that she pretends to be later in the film when she dons the red dress, black veil, and red lipstick. It’s a nice little moments that really humanizes her character even more.

And then there’s the Basterds. There’s not much to say here. I wasn’t as annoyed with Eli Roth as I thought I would be, and he’s actually a pretty good description of his nickname in the film “the Jew bear”. Brad Pitt plays Aldo “the Apache” Raine (he’s called the Apache because he wants 100 Nazi scalps from each of his men) with a funny Coen-esque southern drawl. He’s also adding in a little Clint Eastwood (the squinting) and what I thought was a hint of Michael Parks (the way he hesitates between words), the grindhouse actor who Tarantino loves and cast in his From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill movies. Of course, I’m sure there are others I’m missing.

And of course everyone who was involved in the tavern scene was just phenomenal.

Final Thoughts:

To say it is “meta” and “about the movies” is akin to saying that the sky is blue, but that it sometimes gets gray when it rains, and oh yes — it’s black at night unless there’s a full moon.

Rick Olson from Coosa Creek Cinema

I like what Rick says here, even though he didn’t like the movie. The movie, as you can tell from some of the other quotes above, is nothing more than a revenge tale set in an alternate universe where Tarantino simply says “what if…” The film even opens with the words “Once upon a time…” evoking the very fairy tale feeling that Tarantino wants. It’s like all of the WWII films he watched or the comics he read growing up that used WWII as a backdrop for revisionist history to tell tales of revenge.

That being said: Rick is right...the "meta" aspects of this film are worn on its sleeve. He's done this before and been able to shape extremely absorbing stories around these more sophisticated, film geeky meta moments. To me this "meta" aspect is nothing new with QT. Inglourious Basterds at its core is nothing more than a movie about a rag tag platoon not unlike the Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes who are good at killing Nazi’s. It’s as simple a story as there can be, and I don’t understand really all of the deeper anti-Holocaust readings that some critics are applying to the film. It’s a simple revenge tale directed by a man who is good at directing revenge tales (I think Kill Bill Vol. 2 is one of the best films of the decade) that, as I've stated already, have these more postmodern, meta moments swirling around the very basic premise of his films.

Inglourious Basterds is also a film made by as sure a director as we may have here in America. The audacity for someone to continually make the movies that only he would want to watch – but to be so brash in knowing that others will love it despite the possibilities of not “getting it” – this is something that is found in only the most audacious of artists. Tarantino is unlike any filmmaker making movies today. There’s a reason why he changed the way we look at movies when he made his masterwork Pulp Fiction in 1994…it’s because he’s that damn good. It’s the same reason why we look at music within the last 40 years differently post-Dylan or read late 20th/ early 21st century literature differently post (fill in the blank…there are numerous authors you could mention here…Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace, et al)…despite their popularity and the fact that people have praised their work to death, it doesn’t make it any less impactful or important. And this is how I feel about Tarantino. Yes, he’s caused there to be many copycats; and yes he’s been praised to the heavens already; however, I don’t think we’ve praised him enough for the one thing he’s really good at and that is on display for the entire 150 minute run time of Inglourious Basterds: the man knows how to make one helluva a good movie.


  1. Thanks for the hat-tip, Rick, as well as the one from the other day. I saw this again last night with an audience of about 80 people in an atmosphere of total absorption. This despite the best efforts of the obligatory Loud Talker, who seemed to have taken a wrong turn from the latest "Halloween" or "Final Destination" and ended up near the back of our theater right when the movie started. Her crowning moment occurred during the unsettling silence immediately following the violent climax of the tavern scene, after all the bodies drop to the floor, and she wondered out loud, "Where did everybody go????"

    I clocked that scene at 24 minutes, by the way. A remarkable scene in a remarkable film.

  2. Oops! Kevin, not Rick. Sorry, wrong Olson.

  3. Thanks for dropping by Craig. And it's alright to mistake me with Rick -- I'll take that as a compliment, hehe.

    I was REALLY surprised we didn't have nay loud talkers in my theater, but I'm anticipating it when I see it again. And yes, that tavern scene is the standout moment from an extraordinary film.

    Thanks again for stopping by. I really look forward to seeing this again.

  4. Fantastic overview Kevin, really. I think for now I'm all talked out about this great movie but I'm curious, have your hits increased due to your blog title? Like Ed Howard said elsewhere, I immediately thought of you and your blog when Hugo's name is revealed. And like you said here, I'm sure you're glad you named it before the movie came out.

  5. Thanks, Greg. Yeah, my brain is starting to hurt from thinking about it, and I haven't even done half the conversing or thinking about it that you or Bill or Dennis have. I'm glad I have a few movies on deck that I'm going to talk about because, like you, I think I need a break. Hehe.

    I haven't noticed if my hits have gone up or not. I don't even know how to check those things. I am really computer illiterate for a 27 year old blogger, hehe.

    Thanks again for stopping by.

  6. I decided to hell with it, I'm going to read this, even though I haven't seen the movie yet. And now you've made me want to go and see it more than ever.


    Well played, my friend, well played.

    (Seriously, one of your best pieces you've written and I'm sure it will be better when I have more context to work with -- I'm saddened it hasn't got more comments!)

  7. It's probably because there has been so much talk on the film already, and honestly I suspected that I wouldn't get a lot of comments on this one. I think people are just all talked out on this movie; especially since Bill and Dennis, Jim Emerson, and now Ed and Jason have all said SO much more than I could possibly say. I wrote it for me...which is how I approach everything on here. If people want to leave comments, it elates me to no end (because that means people care about what I have to say, hehe), but on this one...I just had to write something. The film was constantly on mind.

    Plus I posted it on a Friday night...and the blogosphere has been a little dead lately.

    But thanks for reading. Let me know when you want to go see it, because I know that Brandon and I would love to see it again.

  8. Superlative review, Kevin. I knew I had to read your thoughts on the film, and most especially after you brought your review up at Coleman's Corner in relation to mine.

    I must say I love the sharp and terse quality of your piece, which captures what could easily be argued to be the film's most essential elements while bridging that with the myriad cinematic references (and there are truly too many to count, or so it would seem).

    One thought about the dialogue, and the blocking of actors in the tavern scene: each part is so effective, that they somehow help one another--the dialogue Tarantino wrote for that scene is so rich and vibrant that I always forget I'm reading it in subtitles, and yet despite reading the subtitles I'm able to look at the blocking techniques he employed, which you cover here greatly.

    It is true that the film can be appreciated without all of the knowledge that many cinephiles share, but it's certainly a more seductive and alluring film for those touches for us.

    Great piece!

  9. Alexander:

    Thanks you for the kind words. Obviously this was a cliff notes version of what the film really achieves, but at the time I wanted to leave all the sub-textual discussions that were going about the film to the people who I quoted throughout, who were doing great, great work upon the film's release. Obviously I would now count your astounding essay among those, too.

    I noticed the dialogue thing to when I was talking to a friend about it after we left the theater. I was amazed that I hadn't even thought of the fact the bulk of the film (and both primary dialogue scenes that are just teeming with intensity) is in subtitles. Obviously it's not that I;m shocked a film with subtitles was able to hold my attention, but I could swear that I was so into those scenes that everything just seemed like English...and I too was able to notice all of the brilliant displays if mise-en-scene despite having to quickly glance down every so often to catch the dialogue.

    Just a masterful film. And you're right about understanding the allusions -- I still hold that Tarantino's films have an entertaining quality that transcends the very movie-geek allusions that inhabit them, but for those of us that do get it, it only compounds the films greatness and entertainment value, and further fleshes out all of the rich layers that are contained within each frame of Inglourious Basterds.

    Thanks again, Alexander, for the kind words. I really appreciate it.