Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)
The genre juggling phase of Tarantino's career has culminated in a genre film. After blatantly copying as many decades-old genres as possible in Kill Bill and clumsily combining the serial killer flick with the 70s car chase flick in Death Proof, the question being asked even by his fans was if he was capable of an original, non-homage movie. Well, maybe not the fans. His answer to the public's waning interest in 70s exploitation genre tributes is the resurrection of a genre that died in the 70s after a healthy run as a real, legitimate genre: the World War II movie. The very idea of a "war movie" was practically invented by World War II. Vietnam killed the public interest in stories of American war glory until the 80s cold war action boom came along and suddenly one man armies were toppling third world Commie dictatorships. World War II movies since then have been predominantly austere history lessons. Holocaust tearjerkers have also dampened the guilty pleasure aspects of portraying war as any kind of exciting fun in retrospect. When the Oscar bait condescends to include some action, as in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, people respond favorably. Astonishingly, the last movie to make a point of fighting Nazis prior to this was Spielberg's Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. In retrospect of Schindler's List and the infamous 1979 comedy flop 1941, Spielberg has been virtually the sole American filmmaker of the baby boom generation with any filmic statements to make about the war he didn't grow up with, let alone witness. These movies are all in some way a resolution of feelings about World War II's impact on the American psyche, fully ranging across the spectrum from silly to harrowing. All filling the vacuum left by a film making generation whose interest in the American military was basically pejorative.
A post-modern World War II epic is a brilliant idea for a few elusive reasons Tarantino was clever enough to identify and partially incorporate. Firstly, just as movies about WWII made during the war created the cliches and formulas of "the war movie," WWII also changed forever the public perception of combat. As Francois Truffaut pointed out, it's hard to make an anti-war film when film makes war look so exciting. There was newsreel footage of World War I, but World War II was popular and happened to coincide with the golden age of Hollywood. Unlike the years 1914-19, films were being produced concurrently to WWII with big stars like Humphrey Bogart. In recognition of this Brad Pitt was cast in the Humphrey Bogart role. He's the leader of an ass-kicking take-no-prisoners squadron of soldiers and loves to pontificate glibly about the finer points of kicking ass during wartime. There haven't really been American military protagonists whom we're sincerely supposed to root for since Vietnam (outside the escapist 80s b-movie action heroes) and casting a big star as one is a great expression of Tarantino's core belief that everything old, or at least from old movies, is new again. Pitt is the core of the film and had the release came a few years earlier we would've been subject to a squabble about his accent's resemblance to George W. Bush and corresponding swagger. The truth of Brad Pitt's accent isn't that Tarantino understands rural hillbillies as America's unofficial warrior class, he's simply seen a lot of war movies where tough talking commandos are Southern. And so forth. The final act of Basterds involves the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film, and when the reality of actual war intrudes on an audience of Nazis cheering the onscreen carnage, the irony is extremely satisfying. Slightly distracting is the contrivances to which Tarantino must stretch to arrive at this sequence: Hitler and all the head Nazis are in one place at one time with minimal security, and the attending star of the propaganda film is a soldier whose story is the film's basis - hard to believe when real life inspiration Audie Murphy didn't star in films until after the war. The biggest distraction is really Tarantino's inability at this point in his career to tell a straight story about something ultimately other than movies themselves.
The second important difference between making a good war movie about "the good war" yesterday and today which Tarantino exploits is that while we're still light years from the day when general American audiences will regularly watch subtitled movies, Basterds commits wholly to making the cacophony of languages during World War II the most crucial element of the plot. There is quite possibly less English than the other combined languages in the film. Tarantino's best and worst moments have often been amateur linguistics contests, this time there's constant mortal danger attached. The entire opening sequence takes place in French and German and the switch between the two means life and death. Another set piece of slow tension turns entirely on the mastery of German, and then finally at the movie theater climax the espionage of language is played for laughs amidst the danger. German actress Diane Kruger is well cast as an alternately English speaking spy and Spanish actor Daniel Brühl also makes an impression as the aforementioned soldier whose war story has become a propaganda movie. Faring less well are the German high command, up to and including a Hitler who lives somewhere on the side of undistinguished camp. The character who triumphs thanks to Tarantino's apparent love of subtitles is the lead Nazi villain, German TV actor Christoph Waltz. His duplicitous mastery of language makes him the most intimidating force in any of his scenes. I don't remember the last film I saw in which the villain connects the dots between the more disparate plot threads of the protagonists, and it works well in a war story. Certainly language hasn't been used this cleverly in a World War II movie since Germans learned to perfect American accents in Battle Of The Bulge, or maybe since Slim Whitman dropped his shoes in a Japanese sub latrine to simulate taking a dump in 1941.
Where Tarantino fails and brings down nearly half his own film is in addressing the Jewish question. This is his third major point in making a World War II movie and while he understands the need to reinvent the invisible identity of Jews within the genre, his creative choices are just so much shallow solipsism that I've come to dread from him. In almost all pre-release publicity Tarantino claimed he had made cinema's first Jewish revenge porno: the "Basterds" of the title are all Jewish Americans (except Pitt) out to kill as many Nazis as possible with no rules of engagement holding them back. The biggest problem isn't that the Basterds' screen time is undercut by Melanie Laurent's storyline - the argument can be made that the title refers to every character - the problem is that it completely doesn't matter that the Basterds are Jewish. They're simply Brad Pitt's howling commandos and could be anyone. Only a couple members of the squad are even sketched into real characters, wasting the talents of BJ Novak by only using him in one scene and completely disregarding the talents of Freaks & Geeks' Samm Levine. Why bother casting a promising unknown talent like him if you're not going to give him any lines? Apparently that would've taken too much screen time from Tarantino's buddy Eli Roth, who embarrasses himself every time he opens his mouth as "The Bear Jew." Total whore Roth was in almost as many publicity interviews as Tarantino, hawking the "Jewish revenge fantasy" line. This enthusiasm probably came from his big scene, featured in all the trailers, when he gets to walk up to a captured Nazi and bash his head with a baseball bat, thus living out his Hostel fantasies about displaced Holocaust fears. Tarantino's invention is in some sad ways the perfect revenge fantasy for modern Jew-haters: They're just as brutal as the Nazis, as in the mindless homilies about war making equal monsters of both sides and all that bunk. The only Jews enjoying "the Basterds" at face value are ones like Eli Roth. Do modern Jews have violent fantasies about killing Nazis? Yeah, and then they turn 15. Even as an escapist fantasy, the much-hyped Jewish aspect of the film all but fizzles, and not entirely due to the lack of Basterds.
Melanie Laurent's narrow escape from Nazis and subsequent lack of character during her story is where the movie really lost me. If as his legend goes Tarantino really learned everything from working in a video store, he obviously didn't watch any World War II films about the lives of Jews. Laurent's scenes living openly in Nazi-occupied France should be fascinating and Tarantino seems to have forgotten his character is Jewish, only that her family was killed and now she wants revenge. Shouldn't she be worried about her nose size? Europa, Europa is an amazing true story film of a Jewish kid who hid in the Hitler Youth corps and as you can imagine, the scene with his Aryan girlfriend involving an uncut foreskin writes itself. Tarantino needs to steal from a dramatically broader range of films if he wants to make halfway-serious ones again after Death Proof and Kill Bill. Laurent has real presence onscreen yet she's lamely relegated to her author-director's stock killer female badass that he became addicted to during those last efforts. Tarantino even stated in an interview that much of the character's xploitation style vengeance became incorporated into Uma Thurman's doings. More so than the Basterds' lack of screen time, the Jew thing itself is the real bait and switch. Sad that a movie whose best scenes are mostly judenfrei would have been improved even further by not having more cheap hook-noses as merely a cheap hook. Having Laurent be an escaped lesbian would have been more logical. As Diane Kruger's character benefits from vulnerability, Laurent's is too much Tarantino's huffy and methodical killing machine sex object. If there was one character begging to have her character's Judaism elaborated upon, it was her. With no Seders or Stars of David to be found, Laurent's only religious reference to herself is, natch, the face of Jewish vengeance. This from an author who loves to get medieval with Biblical quotations and exhibits total ease in writing Black characters who call each other Nigger. Even the Nazis in this film spend more time dissing Blacks than Jews. The sole Black character's romantic relationship with Laurent only confirms her status as member of a cipher victim-group.
There's a final point which Tarantino seems to have taken the tasteful approach on as a matter of old fashioned style, yet the tasteful approach undercuts any real reinvention of the genre. The point of excluding any mention of the Holocaust is to make inanities like Eli Roth's character bearable and the attractive depiction of Nazi Christoph Waltz excusable. The only moral weight the war is given comes from the murder of Melanie Laurent's family in the opening, and in the speech Brad Pitt gives his men next. There's still a palpable gasp of air in audiences when Americans are the good guys and I could feel it in the audience I was seated. Then Tarantino throws that potential away since personal revenge stories are the only ones that interest him, even in a war epic. He may well have intended the absence of patriotism as a blow for post-modern apathy, yet the adventure and espionage of a war entertainment film remains. For this I can understand the exclusion of the Holocaust as too much of a bring down from the "war movie" as fun escapism, yet this could have been so much more. Puppet Master III had nastier Nazis. Not to mention Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The SS. Which begs the question, what if Tarantino had retained his commitment to camp for a WWII epic? The odd thing about Nazis in genre xploitation is that the nature of xploitation films allows them to be outrageous. Roger Avery, Tarantino's Joseph Mankiewicz to his Orson Welles, will apparently be writing the movie of Castle Wolfenstein, a series of computer based based around Nazi zombies and cyborgs and gun-toting dominatrices and whatnot. At least he'll get to enjoy such raw pulpy materials for their kitsch factor. Even Spielberg incorporated the Nazi interest in the occult for some extra escapist mileage. There's been at least a handful of Nazi zombie movies made and they continue to be made. I'm reminded of Ralph Bakshi's 1977 family feature Wizards which takes place in a pure fantasy world and whose story involves the discovery by an evil sorcerer of Nazi culture, which he then uses as an elemental force of black magic. Bakshi intended the inclusion of Holocaust scenes before his distributors at 20th Century Fox got cold feet, today it's impossible to imagine a movie aimed at children containing the depiction of Nazis whatsoever. Hell, even Valkyrie didn't include swastikas on it's advertising for fear that Tom Cruise's proximity would upset genteel sensibilities and polite society. The Inglorious Basterds posters do contain them, yet the movie kowtows to that same gentility in spirit. Wizards incidentally turns on the equation of Nazi propaganda films with pure evil and makes the point a thousand times better than Tarantino's attempt at the same, since Tarantino's real offense is at the sullying of his beloved medium. The Nazis have been so overused as villains in pop culture over the years that it's disappointing Tarantino was not interested in breaking the banality-of-evil cliche. The best thing to come from the movie is a erudite, sophisticated Nazi. The benefit is that he's worth the price of admission.
Over the years Tarantino has been forced to distance himself from his reputation as a new wave pioneer. With the Kill Bill phase he attempted to make unoriginality his virtue, and now returns to pure entertainment without the filter of irony. The label lost this time is provocateur.