Sunday, September 13, 2009

Movie Notes: Inglourious Basterds

By now, everyone most likely knows the story of this film, whether of not they've seen it: a squadron of Jewish American commandos is dropped into Nazi-occupied France to kill as many Nazis as possible and deliver their scalps to the squadron leader, a role played within an inch of its life by Brad Pitt. In the climax, they also get the chance to snuff Hitler. Since the director is Quentin Tarantino, there are numerous references to movies and film genres and fewer references than one might expect to history or the real world.

The most obvious genre would be war movies, and there are a lot of references to those movies, starting with Pitt's character being named after Also Ray. But, I actually felt that Inglourious Basterds is much more of a Western, with a jailbreak, Mexican standoffs, a bar shootout, a band of lovable outlaws, and music from seemingly every spaghetti western made in the 70s. Basically, the female hero, a Jewish escapee in Paris, is playing in a 1940s Hitchcock thriller, while the Basterds are appearing in a Peckinpaw western. For the most part, it works.

Tarantino has become quite the director. The visual style of the movie directly rebukes every contemporary director who thinks there's "style" or "edge" to handheld shots, an inability to focus, and a disinterest in composition. His message seems to be that the new pikers (i.e. Michael Bey or Michael Mann) need to watch more old movies and learn how it's done. And get back to shooting on celluloid, apparently. There's a sequence here, in which a female protagonist is getting dressed for a gala event while we hear David Bowie's song from Cat People, that is so aestheticized and gorgeous that it becomes a mini work of art. I can see a conversation scene in a cafe being taught in film school. In general, Tarantino directs the hell out of this movie. Every shot is well thought out and fully composed. He seems to have become a much better director than a writer, which is a shift from Reservoir Dogs to this film. The only problem is it's hard at times not to feel like we've seen many of these scenes before.

People complain that Tarantino loves the sound of his own dialogue, and there is a scene here with Mike Myers that should have been cut. I'd say though that he really loves watching actors performing. The performances are all good here. Even Brad Pitt, who is honestly best at playing Brad Pitt, gives an over-the-top scenery chewing good old boy performance that is fun to watch. Christoph Walz, who has done dozens of German films, steals the movie as the Nazi bad guy. Mélanie Laurent, who has done dozens of French films, is the heart of the film as a Jewish cinema owner. The fact that Tarantino chose great foreign actors instead of the American flavors of the week speaks volumes. It's not quite true of the "Basterds", who are younger, and generally weaker, actors. But, in general, everyone here plays well to their strengths.

The movie is also fairly immoral, or amoral; it's understood that Nazis are sufficiently evil that we can torture, maim, and massacre them without any moral qualms. However, I don't think this is a mistake or a blind spot on Tarantino's part: I think he specifically avoids the sort of ethical questioning that goes on in most recent war movies because he believes that, in some cases, there is no moral question. If you had to pick one such situation, being a Jew in Nazi-occupied France is probably the one. His argument seems to be that none of us would be asking ourselves in that situation whether or not we should be killing Nazis.

He's also created a new genre here, hasn't he? Jewsploitation we could call it. In the same way that blacksploitation responded to the American history of racism with black characters who could kick white oppressor ass, here we have Jews rising up to smash in the heads of Nazis. In one of the more intelligent passages of the film, Hitler suggests the "Basterds" are really a Golem, thus tying exploitation filmmaking back to Jewish folk mythology. I think his point is that folk mythology and the no-budget movies playing at the local grindhouse amount to the same thing. I'd agree.

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