Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Why is Inglorious Bastards misspelled as Inglourious Basterds? That may be the first question I'd like to pose to Quentin Tarantino if I ever meet him. Is it because of the slight difference in pronunciation, or is just another idiosyncrasy of the highly prolific writer/director? Not that it matters, but as with all auteurs, I'd like to see how it fits with Tarantino's usual modus operandi. 

Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's fifth solo film project and just like his other movies, Basterds is a deconstruction of a genre. Reservoir Dogs was a heist movie without the heist, Pulp Fiction was a gangster movie where we just followed the gangsters around all day, and Jackie Brown (a blaxploitation movie) and Kill Bill (a two-part kung-fu movie) came across as modern "badass" interpretations of their respective genres. Inglourious Basterds is a war movie... without much war. Instead we are treated to the players and their quirks but we don't really see the German-killing sprees that the misleading ad campaign would lead one to expect. Harvey Weinstein does need his money, but then again, one never knows what to expect from Mr. Tarantino.

The film takes place primarily in Nazi-occupied France and tells of two separate tales that converge towards the end of the story. The first story is about the Basterds, a special-ops team of Nazi hunting Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt). Aldo is a fast-talking, thick-accented, mountain-man from Tennessee with a smooth mustache and rope burns around his neck (they are never explained). Interesting personalities under his command include the loud, obnoxious, baseball-bat swinging Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the psychopathic, yet surprisingly calm, intolerant Nazi traitor Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schwieger). Other allies include the suave British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and the German film star turned spy Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

The second story is about a French Jewish girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent, who is often photographed in a never-ending sexual manner), who witnessed her family killed by Nazi General Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa (Christoph Waltz). She then goes to ground as the patron owner of a French theater in Paris. She catches the eye of Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a war hero who is the star of a new propaganda film called The Nation's Pride (a nod to the German female filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's work such as Triumph of the Will). Zoller proposes to Shosanna that she use her venue to host the premiere of the propaganda film and allow the attendance of the entire Nazi high command. Both Shosanna and the Basterds plan to burn the theater to the ground because if Hitler and his commanders die, the war will end early (or at least earlier in Tarantino's timeline of WWII).

Like most Tarantino films, the cast is perfect. Each character gives these iconographic performances that have only one downside, which is that they sometimes lean toward the stereotypical and therefore cartoonish side. And yet my simple defense for that is... "this is Tarantino." He creates these fantasies (in this case a war fantasy) where everything amounts to the audience's enjoyment of off-kilter entertainment. I always have to view Tarantino's films twice because of how different and odd he makes these little universes that he places his characters in. We have both a film that is serious at times when it deals with the atrocities of history, but then the film will showcase the Basterds playing their war games (all the while laughing hysterically at their own atrocities against the Nazi infantry). There is a level of indulgence here, and I could understand why someone might view certain elements of these kind of films as disrespectful or immature, but once again, "this is Tarantino." 

In my mind, the only other modern prolific director that can match Tarantino's status under Truffuat's "Auteur Theory" would be David Lynch and he tends to stay a lot further out of the spotlight than Quentin. And just as a reminder, audiences and film critics alike have come to know Tarantino as a man who never delivers what'd you expect, realistic conversational (and character building) dialogue, and interlocking stories all set to a retro soundtrack.

Enjoying Basterds is not so much a question of whether one "gets it" or not but whether one is delighted or entertained by Tarantino's bold style of filmmaking. The one thing that I hope audiences do walk away with is the genius of Christoph Waltz's performance as Hans Landa (he took home the Best Actor award at Cannes for the portrayal). The character has such a magnetic entrance that I've already read cinephiles comparing it to Orson Welles in The Third Man. He is also one of the few characters that isn't stereotyped to the point that one questions the character's purpose. I could go on, but it is something to experience for oneself and I should just leave everyone with the thought of how deep and thematic Waltz's take on Landa is in the context of the film at large. Finally, some extra quirks that Tarantino adds to this film (and I'm only scratching the surface of this deconstruction) would be the constant references to a majority of other films such as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, John Ford's The Searchers, and especially Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen.

The first big attraction of Inglourious Basterds would be that Tarantino's WWII was partly won because of the power of film. As something of a film-nut, I do kind of get excited about the prospect of film having that large of an impact on [fictitious] history. The second big attraction-... the 'Natsi' killing, of course. Even if it doesn't happen as often as an action fan such as myself would like.

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