Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Scalping, Revenge, Feet, and the Bear Jew: Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

Today you're in for a real treat. Joining us for what will likely be the first of many action related collaborations is our very own Zatoichi, a close friend and fellow action junky of the highest degree. Today, Zatoichi and myself will be delving into the clearly troubled mind of Quentin Tarantino as we discuss his latest film, "Inglorious Basterds". Note, the following will likely contain a number of spoilers which you might wish to avoid until actually seeing all 2 hours and 32 minutes of the film.

Zatoichi: After a string of Tarantino films that have been either awesome, but with too much chop and hack (Kill Bill, Death Proof) or not so awesome (Jackie Brown), I walked into Inglourious Basterds with sweaty trepidation. Would the author of Pulp Fiction, a consciousness transforming film and among the best ever made, be able to live up to my hopes?

As in his other films, Tarantino has built his story on a theme that has been used many times over (Reservoir Dogs: Heist gone wrong; Pulp Fiction: Hood gets involved with Boss's wife; Kill Bill: Revenge Epic). This time, he uses what may be the most overused setting in all of film and literature for the past sixty years: WWII epic. Going into the film, you wonder how Tarantino is going to deal with subjects such as the holocaust or Hitler, both of which are extremely tricky, and must be dealt with carefully, at the risk of audience alienation. The tactic in the past has either been humor: Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), or Dark, Brooding, Drama: Der Untergang (2004). Further, it seemed impossible that he could breathe new life into a subject that had been exhausted from every angle by almost every great director that has ever lived. Amazingly, Tarantino effortlessly navigates this impossible subject with signature violence, dialogue, and, most importantly, humor. It's easily his funniest film.

A good example is The Ridiculous Pipe that Waltz's character smokes in the opening. It's in shocking contrast to the look and feel of the film to this point, and especially to the pipe of his opponent. Tarantino has the reserve to present it without mention. And while the film is hysterical it also manages gut-wrenchingly-beautiful and profound, such as Laurent's character's escape (in absolutely the most effective homage to John Ford ever achieved (despite fifty years since The Searchers came out)). The masterful linking of these two examples in the film illustrates one of the director's greatest strengths - the tight juxtaposition of horrific tragedy with uproarious comedy.

Casey: I'll come right out and say that I liked Inglorious Basterds. It helped that I was in need of a dark cool place to rest my head after a night of kilts and boot daggers followed by an early morning drive through the robust landscape of western Massachusetts.

To a certain extent, I agree with what Zatoichi has to say. Tarantino certainly succeeds in juxtaposing the horrific and the slapstick, although I worry that he takes one or two too many steps in the direction of the latter, particularly in the end scene in the movie theater, when Pitt et al infiltrate a Nazi movie premier as supposed Italian cameramen. It feels over the top to me. But I'll concede that Tarantino did a fantastic job of navigating a well-explored bit of cinematic terrain (i.e. WWII). Specifically, there were two things that blew my mind about this movie:

First, I knew coming into this movie that Tarantino had taken a few liberties with history, but had no idea the extent to which his exaggerations and fantasies had gone. Tarantino essentially takes the story that he wants to tell and then proceeds to tidy it up with historical context. It is really pretty interesting, especially since he (unsurprisingly) makes no apologies for doing so. I had never given much thought to this before I saw this movie. In general, formula-based historical fiction frames a fictional story against a historically accurate backdrop. The story is often times incidental to the actual events of history, or, in the best cases, somehow cleverly tied in with what we accept as true. In IB, what we know to be true about WWII is tossed to the wayside to make room for Tarantino's version of reality.

Second, this movie makes it very clear that Tarantino has mastered the art of drawn out stationary scenes with impeccable dialogue. Think Vincent Vega sitting in a booth with Mia Wallace at Jack Rabbit Slim's, and then imagine that Jack Rabbit Slim's is a basement pub in the middle of occupied rural France. Then go ahead and imagine that Marilyn Monroe and Richard Nixon are actually a famous German actress/spy and a Nazi officer with an ear for phoney accents, respectively. Somewhere in between you arrive in the ballpark of where Tarantino takes you in IB. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making IB feel to me much more like a string of polished short films with recurring characters than a full length film. Has Tarantino ever done any shorts?

All that being said, I appreciate the intricacies of the story and Tarantino's continued effort to build up the Tarantino Universe of characters. Plus, I'm in awe of the way he disposed of all of the important high-ranking Nazi officers, including the Fuhrer himself. Excellent.

Zatoichi: It is tremendously freeing that Tarantino violates history. For me, the conclusion was inevitable, and maybe I should have guessed that he would be so irreverent with history, but I didn't, and the effect was spectacular.

One of the most lasting images is of Hitler, laughing hysterically during the screening of the film within the film. The film he's watching with the rest of the Third Reich isn't funny. It's about a single Nazi killing hundreds from a watchtower, and the only thing that ever happens is that he keeps shooting people, and they keep missing him (well, except that at one point he takes the time for some intricate wittling). Hitler laughs like he about to choke to death throughout. While this is hysterical, it adds a levity to our impression of the evil of Hitler that maybe shouldn't be there.

It hadn't occurred to me that the slapstick was too much, though I can see why you say so. I thought Pitt, in particular, pulled it off, and that the film works within the rules that Tarantino has set up for himself (which arent many). The physical comedy isn't much more ridiculous than the dialogue, violation of history, or improbabilities of the plot.

I think we were both surprised by how strong and original the film was. It breaks all the rules that it has to to allow Tarantino to tell the story that he wants to tell. Pure entertainment, lasting impressions, and the best dialogue he's written in years.

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