"Yaknow sumpin,' Utivich? Thyis Maht Be Mah Masterpyiece"
I run hot and cold on Quentin Tarantino. What most people consider his classics—"Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," and "Kill Bill," I find one-off regurgitations of other people's films with gear-grating pop-culture references to con the kids. But I did like the Bruce Willis half of "Pulp Fiction" (written with Roger Avary)and think the world of his jazzing-up of "Jackie Brown." I was even surprised at how much I enjoyed Tarantino's half of "Grindhouse," "Death Proof." Tarantino's slavish devotion to matching other directors' techniques, combined with his lack of focus as a screen-writer (we went through four interminable hours of "Kill Bill" to get a lecture on comic-books?) have made his regard as a cinemaster seem like "The Emperor's New Clothes" to me.* Combine that with his reputation as a media-whore, who rarely says anything of much value,** explains why I'm always on the fence of QT. One film at a time, Sweet Jesus.
But I know a great movie when I see one, and "Inglourious Basterds"*** is a great war film, adventure story, spy story and movie-movie. Tarantino's influences are just as obvious, but more than ever, he puts his own sensibility to it, showing a superb command of the camera, composition, and direction in service to an interesting wish-fulfilment of a World War II story, and a paean to the unholy grip of cinema and its power to blow you away.
It's "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" (your first clue that you're not going to see a by-the-book WWII movie), and Tarantino begins a long prologue-like scene between a dairy farmer and the chief reason for seeing the movie, Christoph Waltz as SS Col. Hans Landa. Waltz's Landa is solicitous, polite, self-satisfied and more than a bit theatrical. That he is well-versed in languages and their subtleties is beyond question. He has a nickname (a lot of characters have nick-names and noms de guerre, few of which they like)—"The Jew Hunter"—and he has come to this farm-house to ask the farmer if he knows what became of a Jewish family who was known to be living in the sector (their current whereabouts unknown). It is a long, excruciatingly tense scene of false cordiality, heavily dependent on dialogue and subtleties of expression on which Tarantino, unable to fall back on street-language and bursts of giddy technique, maintains an iron grip.**** It's extraordinarily well-done and follows the negative contrast of Tarantino-movie-rhythms that dominates the film: a whole lot of talkin' punctuated by a brief manic explosion of violence, like a rubber band being constantly tightened until it snaps.
This episode sets up the Big Duel in the film—between Landa and Jewish refugee Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, very good in a multi-faceted role), who escapes to occupied Paris and is now running a movie theater, inherited from her aunt. Between the "chapter" showing us this and the opening, there is an introductory chapter to "The Basterds," a group of Jewish mercenaries dropped into France before D-Day as a "wet-ops" team. Their modus operandi is to scare the Nazis by destroying platoons through any means necessary (including clubbing them to death), then sweating information from the last one standing (and quaking). Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, doing a subtle turn as an unsub-tle comic-relief movie-star hero: "We're not in the prisoner-takin' business," he says at one point, "We're in the Nazi-killin' business. And, cousin', business is a'boomin'"), nicknamed "The Apache" for the way his troop mutilates the Nazi corpses to send a message, scalping the dead ones, and carving a large swastika into the fore-heads of the live ones, branding them for life.
By now, it's apparent that the level of violence in "Inglourious Basterds" is pretty high—brief, but high. The most violent of the Basterds is Sgt. Donny Donowitz—"The Bear Jew"—the one with the baseball bat, and he's appropriately played by Eli Roth, director of the "Hostel" movies, one of the new sub-genre of horror films known as "torture porn." "Watchin' Donny beat Nazis is as close as we get to goin' to the movies," says Raines to Donowitz's next victim, setting up the major theme of the film. The violence is sometimes excruciating, but the major set-pieces are filmed with quick, intricate cuts and with an overall unsentimental sensibility. Tarantino spares no feelings and good guys get killed with the bad guys early and often and surprisingly.
"The Basterds," being in their unique position behind enemy lines, are recruited to help the British with "Operation: Kino," as explained by General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers, doing his own version of "Basil Exposition"*****) to Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender, the epitome of fussy), a former film-critic and intelligence officer in charge of the operation (Winston Churchill, supervises the briefing, as portrayed by Rod Taylor (!!)). But as with most espionage stories, the best laid plans...sometimes require a last-minute re-write.
Ultimately, all the parties converge onto one spot—that cinema in Paris that becomes the center-piece of "Operation: Kino" (or what's left of it), and in a confluence of hidden allies and enemies and dramatic cross-purposes the film reaches a stunning crescendo, a "Götterdämmerung" that would have made Fritz Lang proud. This is all done with a careful precision, a precise plotting, and some superb directions and mis-directions on the part of the director, with the photographic wizardry of Robert Richardson and a soundtrack laden with bravado 60's film-music from the likes of Charles and Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, and pointed contributions from Billy Preston and David Bowie.
But...but...what the movie comes down to is a movie about movies, which seems a bit puerile, and a bit soon in Tarantino's career to have the medium eating its own tail for subject matter. Sure, he loves the movies. That's always been clear. But the movies he loves are about something...not just that they're great movies. Howard Hawks took his arctic explorers, and air-mail pilots, and posse's and rhino-hunters, and they became metaphors for movie-making and of how disparate groups of talented people unite in a cause, but I can't remember a film he made about movie-makers that wasn't about something else. Here, Tarantino's rough-hewn coalitions band together, and it's about...what a great thing movies are. As a celebration of the cine-mah, it's an orgiastically great success, and I think its his best film.
Can we say something more next time? Can we light up the screen to say something more than movies light up the screen? Can we have less fireworks, and more of a reason to have them?
And so I remain on the fence, hoping for the future.
One film at a time, Sweet Jesus.
"The Inglorious Basterds" is a Full-Price Ticket, with some superficial reservations.
* Miramax put out a DVD of "ChunKing Express" as part of its "Quentin Tarantino Presents" series. Frankly, Kar Wai Wong should be presenting HIM.
** I had to turn off his interview Charlie Rose on Friday, as Tarantino spouted out writerly cliches on his prowess as a writer ("First I come up with the characters and they write themselves!" I see, that's why, with a war going on—that we don't see—everybody's as movie-obsessed as QT in "Inglourious Basterds." I'd better stop or I'll talk myself out of loving this film, because in the final analysis, it's the movie that matters, not the slob who made it.
*** I'll bet you any money the title is mis-spelled like that to differentiate it from the original "The Inglorious Bastards" (or "Quel maledetto treno blindato," roughly a 1978 "Spaghetti-War" film by Enzo G. Castellari starring Bo Svenson (who cameo's in Eli Roth's Nazi film-within-a-film in Tarantino's movie), Fred Williamson, and Ian Bannen, but on a metaphorical level, it shows a total disregard for the rules, which sets up it's "How I'd Win the War" scenario, belying History. Isn't that what most movies "based on a true story" do? Isn't that the job of the fiction writer?
**** There's a nod to one of my favorite shots in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" where Charles Bronson takes 30 seconds or so to relax a smile from his face in tight close-up. Tarantino doesn't copy it exactly, but there's a nod to it.
***** A late-night thought (one which might piss off folks who take Tarantino SOO seriously, but it feels like a "natural:" Myers and Tarantino both suffer from "lazy-eye writing" where it's thought that if you just recall something from a past movie and reference it that that is all that's sufficient for it to "play"—which is why the "Austin Powers" series is so weak. Tarantino has had a running feud with EON Productions in "the Press" over whose idea it was to make a film of "Casino Royale" (Answer: original author Ian Fleming)—and a balding Tarantino-like henchman named "Elvis" appeared in the last Bond movie,"Quantum of Solace"—why not put Tarantino at the helm of the next Powers-fest (which has been talked about since...well, since the last one). Tarantino would have a giddy field-day with it, the genre, and the chance to gnaw on the red meat that is the Bond movies. It would easily be the best entry of the series. Only problem: during filming, the set would be like walking into a daily cage-match, where two prima donnas walk in and only one can emerge.