Feb 5, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

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Amidst the discussion surrounding Inglourious Basterds, the one point that seemed both most vital and most frequently lost on detractors was one of simple designation: this movie is not (primarily) about World War II. Like the titular vessel of the now-dethroned BO king Titanic (if you actually believe it ever really was to begin with), the war is merely a setting, a player in the story, a catalyst. Here, history is filtered through the mythic cultural lens of film (a priceless early scene juxtaposing Hitler against a still-unfinished mural of the Nazi leader sets the tone), rendering Inglourious Basterds with a loopy, ouroboros quality. Always figuratively throughout his career, Basterds is the first Quentin Tarantino film to be literally about itself.

Such qualities and more preclude me from sharing the you-can't-touch-that! attitudes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and others, who take offense to the less-than-solemn vision of war and apparent arrogance implicit in historical revision, who see only deliberately courted controversy and "adolescent snicker". Basterds is not entirely relevant when divorced from actual historical understanding, but in Rosenbaum's defense, he's probably had more exposure to historically ignorant upstarts than I, something I'm sure could over-fuel anyone's bullshit detector. (In the same fashion, I'm sure some still fault The Producers' treatment of Hitler; great comedy - which, in its moments of choosing, Inglourious Basterds is - must always offend some.)

But I've read (and adored) Hannah Arendt and studied the Holocaust at length, and both are as hip as the next thing (intellectually speaking, I groove on them). What makes it worth more than callous teenage sneer? Sure, it's partly true that Basterds is a revenge-fantasy (and a comedy and a guys-on-a-mission movie and a feature-length Looney Tune and...), but it's also incredibly self-critical about the feelings that genre intends to conjure, deliberately conjuring its own imagery in the vein of well-known WWII atrocities. Call it a brilliantly (and morally) played bait-and-switch. Such shock-and-awe poses are struck like falling dominoes for specific reactions in a specific order -- to see only the rage at the surface of the script is to ignore the deeper inner workings.

By engages with historical legend and eschewing cliche via empathetic characterizations, Inglourious Basterds directly counters reductive expectations and becomes a work of moral weight and worth, most directly in the plot thread in which Jewish refugee Shoshanna (Laurent) must deflect the courting of German soldier Frederick Zoller (Brühl). Says Slant's Ed Gonzalez, "A lushly intriguing grappling with morality, ideology, nepotism, and authorship, the entire chapter may be the deepest Tarantino has ever gotten." His words mean more than mine, but I'll go one further and call it the base of Tarantino's latest summit.

Mounting such, the film takes an obvious stance against Nazi evils, even imparts "be intolerant of intolerance" virtues in what seems to me a passive approval of the Basterds' no-mercy war tactics. Nevertheless, it doesn't stop the camera from pulling back at the sight of the bat-wielding Bear Jew in action (a shrill-free equivalent to turning one's head). The only character the film makes a point in gleefully repudiating is Hans Landa (Oscar spotlight Christoph Waltz), who is swayed not by love or revenge of country, but the prospect of personal gain over all else. Basterds condemns evil through banality, but more ruthless is its treatment of the greedy, the root of all evil.

Drunk from frame one on its own movie-ness, Basterds is a slow-ticking bomb that sporadically explodes with streaks of glorious, tangible violence, the punctuation marks in what amounts to a deliberate and precise arrangement of cinematic chess pieces. (On paper, Tarantino's revelations are as obvious as anything in Shyamalan's canon, but where his impress more surprise is in his reveling of storytelling details -- we're too intoxicated to see the strings.) Several jerks of the rug later, and WHAM!, the movie has hauled you down an unprecedentedly complex path, complicating assumed notions of good and evil, scrutinizing itself (and the viewer) via a deceptively brilliant, self-devouring plot device (maybe the best movie-within-a-movie, ever), and yes, affirming the righteous social power of cinema. Only a work so personal and dependent on love for the medium could actually get away with it. Inglourious Basterds is worthy of Dr. Strangelove, which is to say, it's an inflammatory masterpiece. [A]

[Screencap thanks to DVD Beaver.]


  1. Anonymous9:55 PM

    My film of 2009, I was just blown away by it. It's nice to see Tarantino still has it after the excesses of the past few years (though I'm in the minority in not being amazed by Kill Bill).

  2. Whereas I seem to be in the minority in considering his more recent output to be his best overall. Granted, I think he's been on a pretty even keel of greatness since Pulp Fiction. I don't think any of those efforts are in any way less than fully realized, which is another way of saying that Reservoir Dogs is easily my least favorite, the only one not a masterpiece, etc.

    Not amazed by Kill Bill, or not a fan at all? Sounds like you liked it but thought it was too much for its own good. I've never watched them back-to-back; I imagine that might be the best way to judge.

  3. Also, I thought for a while that it would be my movie of the year two. Hell, saw it six times theatrically. That it wasn't, damn good year.

  4. Anonymous8:48 AM

    I was more "not amazed" than "not a fan" with Kill Bill. I quite enjoyed it and I think it will feel better when it's released as a whole (The Whole Bloody Affair), but I found it lacking something. That something which Inglourious Basterds had. I wouldn't call it maturity, but something like that.

  5. Anonymous6:40 PM

    No, there is no way Inglourious Basterds comes even close to the brilliance of Dr. Strangelove. Basterds was a huge disappointment for me but I've come to expect disappointment from Tarantino. Sure, it had a couple of good moments. A lot of it, however, was amateurish comic book crap, which is what you get when Tarantino flop. Maybe I needed to be a teenager to appreciate it. A cinema-defining masterpiece? That would be the biggest over-statement I've read in a long time. What annoys me most is that Tarantino had everything at his disposal to create a classic and he threw away the opportunity. You'll soon find this film on sale in the B-grade discount bins where it belongs.

  6. Anonymous5:52 PM

    Just saw it for the first time, on Blu-ray. Was blown away on first viewing by its incomparably tight dialogue, character development and story structure (simply told, brilliantly complex), its frequent resort to classic models and techniques, camp and cognicenti alike deftly interwoven in such exquisitely sophisticated fashion. Beautifully directed and acted--best I've seen from Brad Pitt--and cinematographically eye-popping, lit as if we ourselves are onstage. Better yet on the second viewing and, the third, well, that's the dawning for a wonderful appreciation of the full comedic genius of the film. My immediate association was Dr. Strangelove. Had never discussed the film before or read of it before. Came here to check out what the critics thought.
    Needless to say, I absolutely agree with your review. Bravo!

  7. Anonymous12:56 AM

    I don't like the people who say you have to be a teenager to like this movie. I'm a teenager and I loved this movie a lot. It was the best movie to come out all year. Obviously you don't have to be a teenager to like it. It was nominated for the Oscars for a reason other than teenage boys liking it.