Sunday, September 27, 2009
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (or however it's spelled)
My Quentin Tarantino jones is fading.
Late to the party as always, but I finally got around to seeing INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS this week (I'm still not sure what the deal is with the wonky spelling). Despite the mostly glowing reviews, I'd shied away at first, worried it would follow the trend of recent QT films, ie. non-stop homages to other movies and directors and lots of "cool" flashy violence, none of which seemed to involve characters recognizable as actual human beings.
I thought RESERVOIR DOGS was brilliant when I first saw it (though I watched it again recently and didn't feel it aged well, perhaps a consequence of it having been imitated so often). I thought PULP FICTION was one of the best films of 1994 - and one of the best dark comedies ever. I loved JACKIE BROWN, in which it looked like QT was moving in a new and exciting direction, marrying his hotwired idiosyncratic direction and dialogue to a story about real people. Samuel Jackson's Ordell Robbie is funny and profane through much of the film, but by the end, he's scary and dangerous - as he should be (that's the film Jackson should have won an Oscar for. It's a beautifully nuanced and textured performance). Sure, there were references to other films (including borrowing the title song from 1972's ACROSS 110TH STREET), but they never got in the way of the story.
I found the two KILL BILL films diverting but empty. My friend, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, perfectly summed them up when he said it was like having Tarantino show you scenes from his DVD collection at random. Look, there's a reference to Brian DePalma! Hey, it's got the old Shaw Bros. logo! Isn't that the theme song from LADY SNOWBLOOD? Wow, he's using Ennio Morricone's NAVAJO JOE score here!
Like the cliche about Chinese food, KILL BILL 1&2 mostly left me wanting to see a real movie an hour later. Or just watch LADY SNOWBLOOD again.
Then came DEATH PROOF, QT's half of GRINDHOUSE, which, despite some great car stunts and authentic '70s ambiance, seemed endlessly dull and talky, filled with dialogue no one would ever speak except in a Tarantino film (when was the last time you heard a sweet 20-something make a ZATOICHI reference in casual conversation?).
So I approached INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS with some trepidation. Well earned, as it turned out. I thought parts of it were brilliant in a meta sort of way, especially the idea of cinema as a metaphor for war ("Film is a battleground," director and WWII vet Sam Fuller used to say). The performances were almost uniformly excellent, especially Christoph Waltz (right) as Col. Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter," who all but steals the film. That opening scene in a French farmhouse is a brilliant model of quiet suspense punctuated with humor. If it feels a little familiar, it's probably because it seems to be patterned after an early scene from Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, in which Lee Van Cleef quietly menaces a Mexican family on their sleepy farm. Tarantino even layers some Morricone on the soundtrack to cement the connection.
A scene in a basement tavern midway through the film is another terrific set piece, building the tension as a clever German officer become suspicious of a soldier at a nearby table whose accent is just a little off. It's a great scene, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense (why would a double agent plan a secret meeting with undercover Allied commandos in a rathskeller that just might be full of German soldiers at the time?)
Not that I expected the film to be much concerned with verisimilitude. It begins with the title card "Once upon a time in Occupied France ...." so we know right away what we're getting into. Certainly, 64 years later, there's no reason not to make a fairy tale about WWII, or, more accurately, about WWII movies (though the nod is to Leone as well). The film never really overtly references the Holocaust though, and wisely so. The whole ridiculous souffle would collapse in the context of that reality. Instead, we have a troop of mostly Jewish-American commandos killing, scalping and mutilating German soldiers as revenge for the generic crime of "killing Jews."
Despite the title, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS doesn't really spend much time with the commandos themselves. And what we see is pretty thin. They're essentially ciphers led by a caricature, Brad Pitt as "Lt. Aldo Raine." The only one we see much of is Sgt. "Donny" Donowitz, played by HOSTEL director Eli Roth (in fact, we see too much of him, while real actors like Til Schweiger are mostly wasted in minor roles). In an early scene, Roth's character graphically beats a helpless German soldier to death with a baseball bat, and then cheers as if it were a home run at Yankee Stadium. All that's missing is a 1940's-era high-five with his fellow GIs. Are we supposed to laugh at this? Cheer him on? Should we be equally amused when Pitt uses a bowie knife to carve a swastika into the forehead of a pleading prisoner who's already given them the information they want? (I'm curious how the film plays in Germany). Is that sort of cruelty on the part of the film's ostensible heroes meant to be entertaining? Invigorating? Instead, it reeked to me of the phony fanboy violence so many of Tarantino's imitators have indulged in for the last 15 years.
It's obvious Tarantino is aware of these ironies. He gives the doomed soldier some moments of silent bravery before the bat connects with his skull, and a later scene has a German audience cheering and laughing at a propaganda film depicting American soldiers being gunned down by a German sniper. But is INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS "morally complicated," as QT maintains in interviews? Or just "morally bankrupt," as my former colleague Stephen Whitty would have it? I'm leaning toward the latter.