Saturday, September 5, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Reflections From a Fallen Jew

I unapologetically, unequivocally love Quentin Tarantino movies. I call them movies as opposed to films because the latter connotes a pursuit of high art, whereas the word "movie" conjures images of plush seats, surround sound, good guys blowing away bad guys, five-dollar boxes of Junior Mints, and irresistible popcorn drenched in chemically engineered butter "topping." In other words, movies are piles and piles of fun.

And yet, most of them suck. Hard.

Collectively, we see the suck coming from miles away; some of us silently (or not), snarkily berate the litany of overexposed superstars who preen for the camera throughout the rapid-fire tumult of their movie trailers.

Ooh, another Natalie Portman RomCom in which she's the quirky, smoking-hot would-be girlfriend who redeems a nebishy, aimless young man who just so happens to be played by no other than...Michael Sera! Of all the people! You don't fucking say?!

And I swear to the Jeebus, if I hear one more He was a runaway from the streets; she just wanted to run away... I will never, ever buy a fourteen dollar medium-sized popcorn again. You hear that, Mr. and Mrs. Loews?

Add that to the endless parade of sequels, re-makes, and re-hashes from the same tired genres and it's a miracle that people even bother to go to the cineplex anymore.

But that doesn't mean the good old-fashioned mega-blockbuster doesn't still have its place in modern film, providing it offers a different take on a familiar genre. Sadly, cineplex movies rarely offer anything we haven't already seen a million times or more. And yet, we go in droves.

We pay money to see high-concept movies like G.I. Joe or The Incredible Hulk, hoping in vain to get a new take on a beloved superhero. But the CGI effects leave me cold and the trite storylines even more so. In the end, it just inspires nerds like me to pine for my beloved stack of Marvel mint-condition Incredible Hulk comic books, which years ago (and by years ago, I mean yesterday) enveloped me in a world alternately grotesque, enchanting, and disturbing.

In the end, most big-budget films prove to be little more than glorified vehicles for mega-stars, offering us far less action, suspense and titillation than one could get from loitering about a 99 Cent Store parking lot, awaiting the next full-blown girl fight to break out over the last pack of expired Luden's.

And it seems that Tarantino is keenly aware of this, employing his considerable talents as a movie savant to corner the market on films that seamlessly fuse together an otherwise incongruous array of genres, images, characters, and film scores.

Who else but an insane genius would conceive of scoring plucky "Stuck In the Middle With You" over a pivotal scene in which a dutiful cop gets his ear sawed-off by a homicidal gangster with a straight-edge and an affinity for one-liners?

Or how about having yet another murderous gangster doing The Twist with the wife of his underworld kingpin boss, in a 1950s diner, as Buddy Holly and Ed Sullivan impersonators look on...

...While, in the exact same film, his jheri-curled partner finds himself, post-redemption mode, in a greasy spoon amidst a Sergio Leone-styled Mexican stand-off against Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two newlyweds poised to pillage every customer in the establishment.

Others may attempt these genre-bending mash-ups, but Quentin is the master. It can be argued that David Lynch does virtually the same thing, though his films ultimately leave many a filmgoer irritable or flummoxed: A typical Lynch film is glacially-paced, manically self-conscious and artistically precious. Which would be fine, save for the fact that they're also boring as snot.

Watching a David Lynch film is sort of like when one of your friends calls to tell you about the craziest/scariest/funniest dream they've ever had. To them it's the craziest or scariest dream ever; to you it's just one disjointed, monotonous strand of boredom. Basically, David Lynch is that friend, except instead of calling us in the middle of dinner to tell us about his lame dream, he gets to make $30 million movies about them.

Conversely, a Tarantino hodgepodge is nothing of the sort. The pacing of his films - save for the phlegmatic Jackie Brown - are relentless, even in scenes where, seemingly, little else occurs beyond some bouncy dialogue and sleepy camera pans. Sure, you might have to listen to a handful of goons prattle on about "tuning out" after Madonna entered her "Papa Don't Preach" phase, or about how a foot massage is the next closest thing to sex. But such moments leave behind miles of tantalizing cues and clues about theme and character and are often tacitly embedded with obscure pop culture nuggets and incisive commentary on the human condition. And if someone gets their head blown off in the process, all the better.

Tarantino will be the first to acknowledge that he's made a career out of gleaning all the most kick-ass qualities from the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, the blaxploitation film movement, Saturday afternoon Kung-Fu Theater, and cheesy B-movies from the 60s, 70s, and early 80s - throwaway movies that were churned out on the cheap and then quickly cast aside by most audiences and critics. But Tarantino studied them, becoming a devoted student of exploitation cinema, and subsequently imbued his films with their best qualities. In some cases, as in Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, the Kill Bill series, and From Dusk 'Till Dawn (which he wrote but was directed by Robert Rodriguez), he even borrowed their actors.

Inglourious Basterds has most of the telltale signatures of your typical Tarantino film: Crackling dialogue; slow burning tension leading into explosive displays of stylized violence; strong, tough female characters who are not to be fucked with; pulsing testosterone; and a genre mash that includes significant elements from traditional Hollywood war films from the 40s and 50s, Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, and "guys on a mission" movies like The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen.

As I've said, genre bending and mashing is how Quentin rolls, whether one thinks he goes overboard or not. Personally, I do and I'd argue that he should've eased up a bit this time around. While I greatly admire him as an artist, Tarantino has shown the stubborn tendency to repeat himself. Since making Pulp Fiction, a cinematic earthquake that supercharged filmgoers and greatly inspired a generation of aspiring indy and action filmmakers, he's become infatuated with his own considerable talents.

(I still maintain that the great Pulp Fiction is the third-best film of the entire decade, nipping at the heels of the breathtaking Species 2 and the Citizen Kane-inspired Harmacy.)

To that end, one of the few flaws of Basterds is Tarantino's insistence on reminding us that we are in fact watching a Quentin Tarantino film and that, regardless of how far he removes us from the worlds of Mia Wallace, Vincent and Jules, and Mr. Blonde, we need not fret: No matter what happens, we'll eventually get served at least several heaping platters of Quentin - just so we know that this thing isn't some sissy-Mary commentary on unchecked bigotry or the iniquities of war.

In one pivotal scene, fictional German actress - and British spy - Bridget Von Hammersmark rendezvous in a hole-in-the-wall brew pub in Berlin, with three of "The Basterds," each posing as an S.S. officer, to plot the mass killing of Third Reich luminaries (yes, Hitler too). Without giving too much away, the scene is a prime example of Tarantino's ability to choreograph suspense while simultaneously lending further insight into the characters. For instance, within the scene, we ascertain that one of the Basterds, Sgt. Stiglitz, a tough, virulent German Jew, with a notorious reputation for murder and mayhem, is, surprisingly, easily rattled under duress and yet somehow able to restrain his violent tendencies. We learn this through the subtlety of Stiglitz's physical cues: his shifting eyes, the burgeoning droplet of sweat on his brow, and his struggle to maintain his signature angry scowl whenever the camera has an occasion to spy on him. It's a chilling moment, of which Hitchcock would approve, as we eagerly await the Sergeant's breaking point.

Gradually, the scene devolves into gorgeously cataclysmic mayhem, punctuated by a Mexican stand-off, an homage to Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, as well as to both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. The device is slightly indulgent and completely unnecessary, as it ultimately saps the scene of any real emotional gravity by over-stylizing what could have been one of the more poignant moments of the film.

And, while I'm typically one to celebrate Tarantino's proclivity for graphic violence, his depiction of a relentless bludgeoning to illustrate the film's extermination of a cartoonish Adolph Hitler, played by actor Martin Wuttke, is both cathartic and deeply troubling. For one, as Seth Rogen rightfully muses in Knocked Up, it's nice to watch movies in which the Jews are kicking a little bit of ass for a change, as opposed to being portrayed as the eternal victims of intense ridicule, discrimination, and genocide. (I mean, I concede that blacks have had a worse go of it than us, but at least they got to root for Shaft. For years, our closest comparables were him and him. Great talents, yes, but not exactly empowering for an 11-year-old bully magnet living in Upstate New York.)

In real life, Hitler proved impossible to murder and, consequently, defile. By killing himself, he robbed the entire world of any modicum of justice and closure. Perhaps this is why killing him in effigy proves to be so perversely delicious. But I think it can be argued that the world doesn't deserve closure on a Satan incarnate like Hitler because of what he was able to accomplish by duping the masses into believing that he was a patriotic visionary as opposed to the apotheosis of evil.

But it's not Quentin Tarantino's obligation to set us all straight, nor is it part of his skill set. He's a professional entertainer, a story-teller, and among the most gifted filmmakers of the modern era.

And, in the end, if we can't learn what not to do from maniacal demagogs, it doesn't matter how many Pol Pot, Stalin, or Milosovic punching bags we set up in the basement; there will be another waiting to take his place, right around the corner.

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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