Sunday, June 6, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino has always been an odd one. He comes off simultaneously egotistical, incompetent, brilliant, awkward, and visionary in interviews. His films have been highly influential and always talked about. Jackie Brown might be the exception, but mostly his film projects are interesting and high profile. Reservoir Dogs is one of the few true masterpieces of the 90s and is currently and will continue to be regarded as one of the most influential films of all time. Pulp Fiction is often cited as his best film. It is probably his most popular, but I tend to disagree with the idea that it is his best work. I think Dogs is clearly more ground breaking, better written, tighter overall, and much cleaner in terms of content. Both films are highly influential and inexplicably entertaining despite or perhaps because of their highly unconventional nature. But I am not evaluating those films here.
Inglourious Basterds was one of the truly great films released last year. I couldn't wait to see it so I went as soon as I possibly could, which turned out to be the morning after the night it came out. I went to the very first showing that was offered that day all by myself. Watching a movie all by yourself in a large Cineplex seems like a sort of weird thing to do. Going to the theater is supposed to be a cultural and social thing and going when most people are already at work is strange. But I like it. I would rather be in a packed theater than an empty one but every now and then it’s kind of a cool feeling. It feels like the movie and that big screen were made just for you. In fact you can even fantasize that this is part of your huge mansion, until you have to go to the bathroom and you remember I'm actually in downtown Brea. But I'm pretty sure I was completely alone. There may have been another lonely cinephile somewhere in the darkness with me but I can't remember. But the point is my enthusiasm was not in vain.
Basterds is hands down my favorite Tarantino movie. I don't think he has ever been more in control then he is during this film. But when Tarantino is really in control, like a good gridiron football coach, the actors/players are the ones who really shine. He has an incomparable ability to let actors loose in scenes. He sort of points them in the direction he wants and they just run. The two most memorable scenes in Pulp Fiction are essentially monologues, Samuel L.'s quoting of a semi fictional scripture passage and Christopher Walken's Vietnam recounting, focusing primarily on the actors faces Sergio Leone Style. So basically he's just letting Actors be Actors, just better Actors then they usually are anywhere else. His camera is not very intrusive.
One obvious question arises though. On a blog where Faith and Philosophy are supposed to be friends with film why give such high praise to a film that seems to be lacking in both?
This film is essentially styled after Spaghetti westerns using World War II iconography. But unlike any other Film that Tarantino has made it is also intelligently self referential and satirical. The full impact of the self satire which goes on in this film and its importance in and connection with film history didn't hit me till recently though. Which is why I am writing this review now and not a year ago.
I finally sat down and watched Lifeboat the other night with my wife. She is like most people our age in that she doesn't particularly like old movies. She thinks The Breakfast Club is an old movie, as would most people who are about the same age as that film. But she has patiently watched many old films with me and usually she ends up liking them. Lifeboat was one such occasion. For those of you who aren't familiar with Hitchcock outside of his two most famous films, Psycho and The Birds, Lifeboat is one of his earlier movies after coming to the United States. It is set during WWII and came out right at the end of WWII. It is a pretty straight forward survival thriller film originally conceived and written by John Steinbeck though he didn't complete the final screenplay. If anything by modern standards (think Das Boot or Valkyrie) its portrayals of Germans during WWII seem to be crude or propagandaish. But it’s interesting to note that the film was originally controversial because of its positive portrayal of Germans. It’s hinted at that they might be a superior race several times throughout the film and generally they’re portrayed as being real people, not monsters. This turned what were initially good reviews into bad reviews, the opposite of what happened with Bonnie and Clyde upon its initial release. The second look that the critics took led to a negative history associated with Lifeboat. While it is appreciated today it does not carry the weight that many other films he has directed do and there is no distinguishable reason as to why. It is highly entertaining, well acted, and well scripted. It also boasts being filmed entirely "on one set" and has probably the most creative Hitchcock cameo of them all (how is Hitch going to appear in a film that takes place in the middle of the ocean?).
But what I found most striking about the film was its beginning. The film starts in the aftermath of a German u-boat attack. We are treated to none of the typical disaster scenes of people jumping overboard. We're simply in the flotsam. The main character is already sitting alone in a lifeboat. She is a reporter and sees a man swimming towards her. Before doing anything helpful she pulls out an 8m Camera and begins to record his swimming to her. This is very typical of Hitchcock but it’s usually not so blatant. He's trying to tell you that you're doing the same thing she's doing. It seems heartless. She's taking advantage of this man's disadvantage. She's taking photos of a disaster. Well you're watching that disaster too. You're doing something that typically we think is perverse: voyeurism. You're watching other people live their lives and in the case of many of Hitch's films you're watching those people do things that are quite dangerous, tragic, or perverse. The darkest parts of their lives are on display for you, for your entertainment.
Inglourious Basterds is doing something similar. Tarantino is generally an intelligent writer in so far as he usually has unique and original scripts. But Basterds really is his most intellectual film. The climax of the movie is telling us the exact same thing that Hitchcock's little 8m camera in Lifeboat is telling us. It’s really kind of sick. You're being entertained by a film about "killin Natzis." What happens to the Nazi's at the end of the film? Where are they killed? What are they watching while they die? When you answer these questions the satire is obvious. It's like Tarantino is telling us that our destinies are connected to the Theater. What we watch can consume us. Even though he's making a very similar kind of film that the German propaganda machine was making.
But his characters are not one dimensional. They aren't very complicated but they are all still humans. Some of them are very selfish humans. None of them are particularly good people. Even Aldo bucks his orders towards the end. Even the good guys are outsmarted. Its only through coincidence that evil is defeated. But good versus evil is not even the point. The point is: this is drama. This is what we have created in cinema. Tarantino can get away with the same thing that German propaganda films did during WWII even to this very day, as long as he's clever about it. As long as it has a good story. It’s very telling about ourselves and the world of Cinema that he helped to create. And it could ultimately kill us. Not this film but an entire film culture that is uncritical of racial stereotypes, of violence, of sex, etc. could end itself. And yet it’s funny. In many ways it is a very funny film. You will probably laugh out loud at certain points. But we’re sort of laughing with him and at ourselves. It’s just so ridiculous.
I don't think this is Tarantino's Clarion Call for reform in cinema. I think he's just making a point while making a very entertaining, yet violent, movie.
I think this is a great film. Possibly the best film that was made last year. All the performances are top notch. The script feels very different from anything we've seen before as does the entire film. Whole sequences of dialogue are uninterrupted for several minutes; the longest one is about 30 minutes long. 30 minutes of talking in one scene! It feels like thirty seconds have gone by because the scene is so nail biting and entertaining. If you haven't seen it yet you should, but be warned it is very violent and like all Tarantino films theres quite a bit of swearing. The scenes of violence are short but they are disturbing and most of the film is just very entertaining. Maybe in a satirical way but nevertheless it is riveting. Mixing humor with suspense is no easy feat. I agree with Aldo's last line (because I think its really Tarantino talking to us):
"I think this might just be my masterpiece."

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