Tuesday, August 25, 2009

REVENGE OF THE GIANT FACE: TALKING INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS


Rather than just settling for a single review of Inglourious Basterds, fellow blogger Bill R. and I (Bill owns and operates the cheeky blog The Kind of Face You Hate) decided to exchange e-mails and talk back and forth about the movie this week. The discussion will go on for as long as it seems necessary and fruitful, and of course if you feel compelled to get involved in the comments section, that oughta just make things juicier. You can keep up with both sides of the conversation on both blogs. I’ll kick things off with some general thoughts, and Bill will follow.

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Bill,

I want to try to avoid a simple recapping of the plot here, obviously, but I figured one way to approach this movie is to touch on some of the objections people have raised and some of the points worth examining before going into more detail about its obvious (at least to me) strengths. I’m sure you’ve been following developments in the weeks leading up to the release of the movie, but there has been a lot of talk about how writer-director Quentin Tarantino disregards history in Inglourious Basterds, and how he flirts with the particulars of (German) film history with a flippancy that belies any serious intent or effect. Yet to his detractors Tarantino’s most heinous crime seems to have been, within the boundaries of an acknowledged cinematic fantasia in which rogue elements of the Jewish oppressed find ways to wreak horrific revenge on their mass murderers, to make a movie that isn’t itself punishing to endure. I don’t know how you felt about these other pictures, but wrapped up in all the heavily aestheticized moralizing of Schindler’s List, a movie I was instructed from the beginning to revere but one I’ve never felt compelled to see again, are strangely evasive episodes in which Jews are herded into showered in order to be bathed, not gassed, and in which a lost little girl toddles down a street filled with destruction, her coat tinted red for maximum pathos and visual effect. Is this not a form of fantasy, or at least a dodge by a filmmaker who would rather not deal with the grim reality he has set up for himself to explore? And as Scott Foundas observes about Life is Beautiful, all forms of wretched and distasteful coincidence and plot machination are forgivable as long as the death of camp prisoner Roberto Benigni, the clown who cried, is the result, thus paying for our collective innocence lost and restoring our righteous indignation amidst a throat full of tears.


Tarantino acknowledges history the way he, and many of us, have experienced it—through the lenses of filmmakers and historians both fine and faulty—and it becomes for him a way to reflect on cinema’s place as a propagandistic force throughout history, to restructure and build upon the standard tropes of WWII motion picture iconography (while virtually ignoring the most obvious one, the battle scene), and make space for the emotional force of revenge, in a far more ambivalent way that either he or his detractors seem to care to acknowledge. In Inglourious Basterds, the war is capsulized in classically mounted, sometimes agonizingly drawn-out bouts of conversation and horrific release—the film is segmented into five chapters, so even the narrative itself feels strange, the other-worldiness underlined by titles like “Once Upon a Time… in Nazi-Occupied France” (which opens on a beautiful vista of a country cottage about to be set upon by a big bad wolf ), or even the misspelled title of the movie itself. Each chapter is built around conversations between antagonists that illustrate the methodology of warfare, the tantalizingly twisted thickets of wordplay, in which language itself is often central to deception or exposure, followed by an explosion of violence during which as many things go ghastly wrong as may go right.

Of course, each section then is a foreshadowing of the movie’s already most famous sequence, in which all the strands of Tarantino’s outrageous plot meet in a beautifully tangled knot within the walls of a Parisian cinema where, for the running time of this movie anyway, the course of world history will take a sharp left turn to orgasmic wish fulfillment. (Has anyone yet noted that, though the wish fulfillment here ends the war differently, the Allies actually still prevailed?) The outrageous climax of Inglourious Basterds has compelled some to equate it morally with Holocaust denial. But I don’t think it’s wrongheaded to suggest that Tarantino might feel that to deny the possibility that Jews might want bloody revenge, or that it’s possible to contrive an emotionally satisfying story (with its feet at least acquainted with reality) in which Jews themselves might take up arms against those who would obliterate them, is to deny those Jews an essential and universal human response, to make them somehow above such motivation, therefore either more, or less human. And despite complaints otherwise, I don’t think Tarantino is playing a game in which the Jews dispensing such explosive equilibrium aren’t cognizant of the horror they’re turning around on their Nazi oppressors. Shit-asses one and all are barbecued in that cinema, and we get a good look at their terror, as well as the looks on the faces of the two Basterds directly involved as the flames engulf the auditorium and they mow down the high command of Third Reich with great satisfaction. But I don’t think I’d be alone in noticing the looks on their faces curdle just slightly as they are confronted with the reality of what it means to have orchestrated a human oven on their own terms, even with history’s most despicable villains inside.


There have been complaints that the movie is ungainly and too slow, the conversational set pieces (of which there are four that play out with Tarantino’s customary slow-burn style and structure) boring, that it plays bait-and-switch with its Dirty Dozen-Inglorious Bastards genre roots and turns more into a European art film (a fair cop!), and that Tarantino’s dialogue isn’t sharp enough to justify the length of the scenes. It seems to me that if you’re on board with Tarantino since the beginning of his career, but particularly with what he was up to in Death Proof, his methods shouldn’t come as a surprise, and the complaints may actually be reassuring. The difference here is that Tarantino, because of the period setting, must be aware of the vernacular popular in conversation during the ‘40s (and more appropriately in movies of the ‘40s), and thereby adapt his typical concerns with the pop culture landscape to fit the period. But he doesn’t stop there-- Inglourious Basterds is, among many other things, an engagement with a period of cinema history that is enriched by the director’s incorporation of it into the veins and musculature of his crazy plot. When was the last time you saw a movie with a gruelingly intense confrontation that hinged on a plot point straight out of Leni Reifenstahl’s The White Hell of Piz Palu? When was the last time you saw a movie with a central character to whom cinema and knowledge of it is both a sustaining force and a means of destruction?

Of course Tarantino has not figured the complete and unabridged history of UFA into his film, and if he did Inglourious Basterds would be quite a different beast. Call him a geek if you must, but Tarantino has not devolved, as some have suggested, into a hermetically sealed self-referentialist in the manner of, say, Dario Argento. Stephanie Zacharek, in her qualified appreciation of the movie, suggests that Tarantino's vision, while remaining true to that movie geek philosophy, is actually expanding rather than contracting, and in Inglourious Basterds he has begun to approach the way Brian De Palma synthesizes cinematic influences as far ranging as Hitchcock, Antonioni and Godard into something unmistakably De Palma, with concerns and effects completely unique to his own sensibility. The bonus is that young film fans flock to his movies, perhaps not for lectures on cinematic influences, but for how he makes those moments and influences his own, and if one of these young fans, who may think an old movie is one made around 1990, is by chance inspired to learn more about UFA, or Emil Jannings, or Lilian Harvey (I had to look her up too, Stephanie!), or G. W. Pabst, or even Joseph Goebbels and why he held himself up to be the Third Reich equivalent of David O. Selznick, well, what’s wrong with that? Tarantino is, frankly, the kind of fanboy I wish we had more of, one who at least understands that film history extends far beyond the usual boundaries of our experience with American films.

Of course, since 1994 there have been many who have tried to prove themselves fanboys of Tarantino’s equal, as storytellers, mythmakers and human databases, and they’ve usually come off looking pretty lame in comparison. Inglourious Basterds is a brilliant development from our best film geek, one which suggests ways that understanding the fabrications and truths of the movies can lead to understanding of horrors beyond the cinema walls, ones that linger like images of the dead projected on billows of gathering clouds of smoke.

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Dennis:

Good Lord, man, you sure know how to kick things off. I don't quite know where to begin, not only because you've covered so much ground already, but also because I feel like I'm at a slight disadvantage in that everyone but me has seen the movie, absorbed all the various discussions of it going on around the internet, and then seen it again. All I've done so far is see the film once, two days ago, and spent the time between then and now getting pissed off at people who thought it was boring or as bad as Nazis.

Let me begin simply, by telling you that my wife and I saw the film at a suburban multiplex in southern Virginia on Friday night, to a reasonably full house, and I don't believe there was anyone in the audience who was anything less than totally absorbed from frame one until the closing credits, at which point a fair number of people applauded. So I think that any conversation about the film, and what it is, and what it does, has to acknowledge that Inglourious Basterds is, at its core, a genuine crowd-pleaser. An art-house foreign language (essentially) crowd-pleaser. Whatever the hell this thing is, it works, in a broad sense, and I find that pretty exciting and encouraging, considering what a mad fucking whirlwind Tarantino has put together.

Anyway, Dennis, you point out the complaints from certain critical circles that Inglourious Basterds "disregards history". I have indeed followed this to some degree, and that particular bit of hypocrisy is something I find especially confusing. For one thing, films based on history often disregard history -- what do these critics think of Amadeus or, for that matter JFK? -- without quite the rending of garments that Tarantino's film is inspiring -- "akin to Holocaust denial"??? Who said that? And did they offer one ounce of logical reasoning to justify a statement that is nonsensical on its face?


Plus, let's look at the history Tarantino distorts. In essence, he says that the Allies still won World War II, but V-E day came maybe a year earlier, and for different reasons. I'm sure I don't need to remind you, Dennis, that there is an entire subgenre of science fiction called "alternate history", which imagines what the future, or the present, would be like if major historical events had not happened, or had happened differently. There is also an entire sub-genre of alternate history that deals with what would have happened had Hitler won World War II. To my knowledge, the publication Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle or Len Deighton's SS-GB or about half the ouvre of Harry Turtledove, or countless others, have been met without a peep from critics about their offensive disdain for historical record. But Tarantino's expected to line up for a paddlin'.

You also bring up reaction to the film's aesthetics. I must say that I didn't think that Death Proof worked, largely because the dialogue spoken by the two groups of women always sounded as though it wanted to loved and regarded as cool. It was overwritten, repetitive, slogging, and robbed the film's best moments of all impact. But in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has done two things: he has created characters whose lives aren't given over to leisure, or who don't even have time for leisure (or, in some cases, whose idea of what constitutes "leisure" is quite different from what might be considered the norm); and he has been able to still make cinema one of his major themes, as it always has been, by constructing a plot that allowed talk of Pabst and Riefenstahl to not only flow organically, but to be essential. As a result of this, and many other things, I believe that Inglourious Basterds is probably the tightest film Tarantino has ever made, and one of the tightest bits of storytelling, genre or otherwise, that I've seen in years.


Clearly, some don't agree (many do, though). While the brilliant opening sequence, the roughly 20-minute conversation between Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and Pierre LaPadite (Denis Menochet) has been nearly unanimously praised, Tarantino tests the mettle of some pretty hardcore film critics with his nearly half-hour-long tavern scene, which goes from minor comedy, to expository dialogue, to a long section of relentless, ever-more-excruciating suspense that pays off with a shocking explosion of violence. To me, this scene is one of the most astonishing bits of filmmaking, film writing, and film acting I've ever seen, and it is all the proof I need that when I'm watching a Tarantino film, I am in the hands of a master. Letting this scene play out as long as it does (eliciting not a peep of impatience from the audience I saw it with, by the way) is far more ballsy, in my estimation, than his re-writing of history. If someone had described to me what the scene was about, and then told me how long it was, I think I'd have a hard time imagining how it could work. But it's exquisite, as close to a perfect example of suspense filmmaking since Hitchcock made Rear Window.

Dennis, this scene is unbelievable! It really is! Did you check your watch once in that entire half hour? Did you have any idea where it was heading, or how long it would ultimately last, and did you care? Can you imagine it being any shorter? The morals, or lack thereof, of Inglourious Basterds is currently the hot topic, but I was knocked stupid by this film as a film, and as a story, of the formal-and-otherwise wonderfulness of it all. The morals, we'll get to -- I have no doubt about that, and I'll address your points about that in the next round. But before that, let us please take a moment to acknowledge that Quentin Tarantino knows how the fuck to put a movie together, and anyone who says otherwise is...well, is someone who I would very much like to explain themselves.

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18 comments:

bill r. said...

Woo hoo! It's official!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yes, sir, let the hard rain begin. I will post a response later this afternoon, after I finish up winning some bread!

Interesting coincidence: I took the girls to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen last night. Can you imagine where my thoughts drifted on occasion during that screening?

bill r. said...

Yes, I can. Particular during Raiders's ending...

Don Mancini said...

I don't feel quite prepared yet to add fruitfully to the incredible conversation that you and Bill have begun. Right now, I'll just say how much I enjoyed reading this, and really look forward to following the back-and-forth.

And even though I know some people (though not you, Dennis!) will object to the reference, let me say that INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the most sheerly thrilling cinematic experience I've had since SPEED RACER.

bill r. said...

Oops...I just realized that I added a line to my post, forgetting that this started as an e-mail exchange, and that you wouldn't be privy to the change. Damn. It was a good one, too. Or not bad, at least.

Don, I hope you can leap into the fray soon. I haven't seen Speed Racer (and Dennis will probably make me feel guilty about that, and rightly so -- if he can start checking out David Mamet movies I recommend, I can give Speed Racer a shot), but I haven't been so jazzed leaving a movie theater as I was leaving Basterds in a good number of years.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Unless you wanna post your addition here, I'll go look it up! I fixed a couple of nasty typos in mine before I posted here which managed to make it onto your post. Errrr...

The energy I felt after seeing the movie was palpable, and I really did feel like just turning around and going back in. By seeing it again the next day, I guess I more or less did. But Don's right-- this movie has the pulse of a true believer, and it really made me glad that, like him or not, Tarantino has managed to be able to avoid becoming a director-for-hire or trading over his initial success for making Jerry Bruckheimer movies. The kind of commitment it takes to get a movie through the system with even a sliver of a personal vision intact is formidable to the point of discouraging, so when a truly personal movie gets out there and, unlike Speed Racer, people actually discuss it (rather than dismiss it) and go out to see it, that in itself is pretty exhilarating.

bill r. said...

Dennis, I'm sorry. My spell check wasn't working last night. I should have -- and still can! -- go back and fix it.

Rather that post it here and commit an eventual redundancy (which is odd, given that we'll both be posting the same articles for the next several days, but whatever), I'll just say that the line is at the end of the paragraph where I talk about science fiction and alternate history. It's not much, but I think it slightly enhances my argument.

Back to the film: Dennis, or Don, do either of you feel the rumblings of anger, or at least annoyance, that I've been getting when I hear people take shots at the film, or (and I have seen this) dismiss it? And I don't mean reasoned arguments, because I'd be a real asshole if those made me angry, but certain comments I've come across about the film, having to do with it being the same old Tarantino (!) and so forth, have really gotten under my skin. I don't know what it takes to impress some people.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"...the same old Tarantino (!)"

In an offhanded way I touched on this when I wrote about how those who have really been paying attention to what Tarantino is up to in his movies of late, aside from the violence and the importance of the movies themselves to his point of view (whether or not you find that P.O.V. a myopic one), really shouldn't be surprised to discover that talk is given far more emphasis here than standard World War II movie set pieces and structure. But I don't think that's the same thing as saying it's "the same old Tarantino." A comment like that is probably coming from someone who hasn't much patience for looking at the screen and is trying to find a way out of a serious discussion.

Tarantino is always going to be, for some people, the pop culture jukebox who likes to slice off people's ears. For years people defined David Cronenberg almost solely in terms of his gross-out highlights. If I really felt Tarantino was stuck, in a way that I thought he was flirting with after Kill Bill, I'd be a whole lot less inclined to discuss or defend him. It is frustrating when a movie as obviously rich as this is dismissed with an air of moral superiority, but what are you gonna do? I'm certainly not going to try to make anyone feel like a dolt if they don't see things my way about this movie or any other one, and all I can hope for is that others won't do the same by writing this movie off.

Don Mancini said...

It strikes me that a lot of the animosity directed at Tarantino's films is really aimed at the man himself. I think he just rubs a lot of people the wrong way, partly due to his intimidating abilities, knowledge, and success, but also due to the fact that the guy isn't exactly modest. He's a big, tempting target, and some people want to take him down a peg, shut him up, or just wipe the (understandably) self-satisfied smile off his face.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I think that's probably right. I mean, each new movie is greeted with a volley of new interviews in which he gets to talk about his own assessment of his achievement before anyone outside of Cannes has even seen the movie. Those interviews are entertaining, and they do often communicate a sense of what the movie is like, what it is really about, the brilliant audacity of it. So maybe you do see a lot of people wanting the guy to fumble just to see if there are any cracks in that self-confidence, or perhaps just waiting to poke holes in Tarantino's version of what he's accomplished.

Craig said...

Great start, guys. Haven't anything enlightening to contribute yet, but looking forward to the rest.

Samuel Wilson said...

bill r. is right on about the tavern scene, and Dennis: that feeling you had looking at Raiders? I had it watching the climax of Bedknobs and Broomsticks after coming back from the movie. Okay, maybe it was just a similar feeling, but it was in the same genre. I'm enjoying the discussion so far and look forward to more.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Samuel: Yikes! I hadn't thought of that. I'm right in the midst of writing up my second e-mail to Bill, so thanks for reminding me that Hollywood's flirtation with the history of Nazism and wish-fulfillment fantasies goes pretty deep. Interesting which movies get our collective knickers in a twist, though, eh?

Robert Fiore said...

I just got back from it and I wouldn't say I was 100% with it because I don't feel a need for vicarious personal revenge against the Nazis. While not all parties to the conflict can say this, it seems to me that the United States as a collective entity got its revenge against the Axis in full measure during the war itself. When I imagine just vengeance being wreaked on the Nazis I'm more apt to leave that to the Russians, who did take it personally. Most of all I'm really happy Tarantino has a big hit, and I look forward to the four-to-six-hour cut that is no doubt in out future. It seems obvious to me that what we'll one day think of as the theatrical version pares it down to Operation Kino, leaving the Inglourious Basterds aspect underdeveloped. I'm pretty sure that there's Hugo Stiglitz-style backstory segment for each and every Basterd sitting in cans somewhere. What has become more apparent over the years is that while Tarantino inhabits all of cinema, high cinema is where he visits and low cinema is where he lives. It's the artistic potential of low cinema that engages him. The really fascinating theme he has going for him in Basterds, and what will stick with us from the movie, is the delusuion the German characters have that they can be part of the Nazi enterprise and still be decent people in some aspect of themselves.

Scott said...

"...it plays bait-and-switch with its Dirty Dozen-Inglorious Bastards genre roots and turns more into a European art film (a fair cop!)"

This was the main reason I left the theater feeling cheated. I would've enjoyed the first five chapters if there had been a sixth where we actually met the Basterds and saw them in action. I've since decided that my disappointment is indefensible for two reasons: first, it's not fair to judge a movie against what I wanted to see or what its advertising led me to expect; it is what it is. And second, the story ends when the revenge is consummated.

As for historical revisionism, I've joked that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a terrible movie because, duh, of course Hitler never got the Ark. Even as I was watching Operation KINO unfold, I was grumbling, "I already know this won't work." And yet it does.

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Stephen said...

Great discussion here. I was shepherded here by MovieMan's blog round-up.

You are right about the war being filtered through its previous representations in Cinema and beyond. I also agree with how intelligently Tarantino manages to show the dehumanising effect of war on both aggressors and victims.

However, as an entertainment, which this film is most certainly aching to be, it fails. I found it boring, contrived and it left a bad taste in my mouth - there was nobody to care for, nobody to get behind. There was just a parade of painstaking and predictable set pieces involving tainted characters.

I don't mind people monkeying with the (tragic) past per se but for some reason I just couldn't go on this roller-coaster without feeling sick.

If you're interested I wrote my thoughts here:

http://checkingonmysausages.blogspot.com
/2009/12/observations-on-inglourious-
basterds.html

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