Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

While watching Quentin Tarantino's nutso and defiantly ahistorical Inglourious Basterds I couldn't help thinking how much worse it would have been if it had been directed by a younger QT, say the one just coming off of Reservoir Dogs. That Tarantino would have made a film about an irreverent squad of Jewish-American soldiers sassafrassin' and crackalackin' (to borrow a phrase) their way across France, stopping only to scalp Nazis and debate the merits of Billie Holiday versus The Andrews Sisters. In short, an unbearable and bloody mess. Thank goodness that instead we have QT c. 2009; the version of Inglourious Basterds that we actually have alternates brilliant set pieces with cartoonish violence and distracting directorial flourishes and features a couple of the best performances ever given in Tarantino's films. QT has gotten better but he hasn't grown up.

Tarantino hasn't gotten much more interested in people during his career, or perhaps it's more accurate to say he is only interested in how characters can be exaggerated to fit into his movie-soaked vision of the world. In Basterds there's an inordinate amount of concern from the very first "chapter" not with military strategy or the relative strengths of the two sides but in how each character fits into the war's mythology. From the opening scene in which Col. Hans Landa (Oscar-worthy Christoph Waltz) interrogates a French farmer as to the whereabouts of a Jewish family through to the end there is a running discussion of nicknames, gossip, and the difference between what is perceived and actually done on the battlefield. When the actual "Basterds" show up Tarantino doesn't waste much time establishing their legends either; Lt. Aldo Raine (a drawling and rollicking Brad Pitt), who carves a swastika into the foreheads of each Nazi he lets live, is quickly "Aldo the Apache" and baseball bat wielding Sgt. Donowitz (Eli Roth) is "The Bear Jew." In the world of the film the bloody work of this small outfit affects the course of the war and strikes fear into the heart of the Fuhrer (Martin Wuttke) himself. The Basterds integration into the main plot comes rather late in the game, after a boozy and bloody rendezvous between a German actress spying for the Allies (Diane Kruger) and a British spy (Michael Fassbender). This barroom scene is the second of the self-contained brilliant strokes Tarantino pulls off (the opening scene is the first); it's a small gem of well-calibrated tension whose only flaw is that there's really only one way it can end.

There is a quieter and more urgent movie waiting to get out of Inglourious Basterds; it's the story of Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), the young woman who escapes from Landa's clutches at the opening and returns a few years later as the owner of the Paris cinema where the movie climaxes. When the opportunity presents itself Shosanna is only to happy to strike a blow at the German High Command with the assistance of her lover Marcel (Jacky Ido). First she must deal with the attentions of Pvt. Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), whose accomplishments are to be celebrated in the premiere of the movie Nation's Pride at Shosanna's theater. Zoller is the biggest single drag in Inglourious Basterds. I kept waiting for the character to develop some of the shadings Tarantino and Waltz give Landa but Zoller is exactly who he appears to be, existing only to drive the movie to its inevitable bloodshed. "I'm a slave to appearances," says Pitt's Raine in a late scene; and the lack of irony in Zoller's character means a chance missed to comment on different kinds of heroism.

Finally Inglourious Basterds is a very entertaining mixed bag, an ample showcase for QT's strengths and weaknesses. There are breathtaking moments of tension and dark humor, but on the other hand the only character whose fate matters at all is crudely dismissed from the film. As for the relationship between the WWII of history and the one made by QT, a little closer relationship between truth and fiction would have added some welcome notes of humanity and introduced a theme Tarantino never stops to consider: the cost of all of this to everyone involved.

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