UPDATED 8/26 2:02 p.m.
This is Part 2 of an open-ended discussion of what appears to be the best movie of 2009 so far, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, as chatted about by Yours Truly and Bill R., notorious and quick-witted propreitor of The Kind of Face You Hate. We encourage your comments, of course! (Part One can be accessed here.)
One of the earmarks, at least for me, in recognizing a great film is the insistent buzz that I leave the theater with, the giddy, head-spinning mugging of all my preconceptions, none of which dissipates but only gets stronger the more I think about the film, the more I talk about it, with those who dislike it as well as folks like you, and Don, and many others who happen to agree that Inglourious Basterds is probably the movie of the year. (Of course, this kind of buzz on a movie right out of the box is quite rare. It's more often that a movie's true dimensions are revealed over time, apart from all the hype and received wisdom about it.) I made a point of seeing it on a Saturday morning, as early as possible, so as to minimize the possibility of being influenced by a theater full of ticket buyers whose response might indicate that they’d already made up their mind about loving it. My rationale was, everybody who just had to see it on the first night stayed up late last night doing so, and therefore most likeminded viewers would still be in bed at 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning when I went to see it. And as far as I can determine, that strategy worked. The theater where I saw Inglourious Basterds was a big multiplex auditorium, only about 1/3 full, so not only was the audience fairly calm throughout, but I also didn’t have much sense of what kind of box office draw it was exerting nationwide either. I guess I was audibly amused by the movie (not obnoxiously so, I hope), and after I’d burst into applause upon the title card “Directed by Quentin Tarantino,” some older gentlemen who had also stayed through the end credits came up to me and said, with some amusement, “So I guess you liked that, huh?” Yeah, I guess I liked it.
And I guess my enthusiasm piqued my wife’s interest too. I suspected that, were she able to endure it she would like the movie, but I didn’t think she would never allow herself to be exposed to it, so averse is she to extreme violence. (No Country for Old Men reduced her to tears.) But as I gushed on over the course of Saturday afternoon, she decided to check it out, and I eagerly volunteered to accompany her the next day. This time we saw it with a packed house at a major Hollywood venue, and the audience was clearly with the movie—being with this crowd gave me a new kind of giddy to add to the buzz that was still resonating with me from the previous day. I also had a job to do— my wife agreed to go on the condition that we work out some sort of silent signal that would warn her to shut her eyes before any shocking violence or gore. With the exception of one smash cut to a scalp being peeled away, my commission was successfully executed and she survived the screening. (I told her afterwards that I likened my duty to that of a human “Fear Flasher” or “Horror Horn,” an audio-visual warning system employed by a 1966 sub-William Castle shocker called Chamber of Horrors, in which a loud klaxon would start blaring and the screen would start flashing bright red tinting before each scary scene. She shook her head and looked at me as if to say I’d spent too much goddamn time at the movies.) Again, much at the end of screening number two and apparent confirmation of the assertion made by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and by extension our None-Too-Humble Auteur, that this one may just be his masterpiece.
So it’s worth considering again the statement you made: “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.” Of all the things we could have been talking about in the wake of this movie’s release, its status as a genuine hit was not one that I really thought would be of much interest. I figured that all the press and interviews and well-orchestrated outside interest was as likely to translate to box-office gold in about the same way that the fevered anticipation for Grindhouse did-- that is, everyone who really wanted to see it would pack houses on Friday night, and the rest of the weekend would be a wet fuse leading to much post-opening hand-wringing by Harvey Weinstein and an ignominious journey straight to DVD and Blu-ray. But here’s the reality, and it’s kind of a stunner: as my friend and fellow critic Kim Morgan observed, in this summer when you couldn’t convince audiences to take a chance on a well-reviewed corker like Drag Me To Hell, but when two soulless contraptions like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ransack the wallets of just about every July and August moviegoer, here’s Quentin Tarantino making an honest-to-God hit out of a two-and-a-half hour war movie with no battle scenes, in which the only major recognizable star is cast in essentially a supporting character part, and a good two-thirds of the picture, in which most of what everyone does is talk, talk, talk, is in subtitled English! Now, if that’s not an achievement worth celebrating just in and of itself, especially in this day and age of risk-averse Hollywood blockbusters, then I don’t know what would ever be.
The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the way audiences have been trained to expect exposition, character development, action, narrative itself in short, clipped bursts, and how Tarantino seems to fly in the face of all that. To go back to Stephanie Zacharek’s review, she expressed a real excitement (and relief, I think) that Tarantino chose to shoot the film, as is his custom, in more classically oriented long takes—no shaky-cam for QT. And she also hinted at how Tarantino has really developed as a visual stylist—if you look at Reservoir Dogs and even sections of Pulp Fiction, you get a sense of a filmmaker much more at ease with his abilities as a writer than as a filmmaker, and being that these were his first two movies that shouldn’t be too surprising. The camera was, to a great extent, a static observer in those two films, more so in Reservoir Dogs than Pulp Fiction, and which each subsequent film, as Tarantino digs around in the nooks and crannies of the vital pockets of the genres he’s examining and subverting, he’s getting more familiar with how to use the camera as part of that storytelling, how to choreograph placement of characters and changes in perspective to accentuate suspense or illuminate elements of the conversation that may be more important than we once suspected—for example, the suspicion that Lt. Archie Hicox may be on thin ice with his SS counterpart in the bar scene is telegraphed almost subliminally through judiciously edited glances and sharply shifted rack focuses away from Greta Von Hammersmark, who may be trying to signal him, and onto a trio of shot glasses being poured in the foreground. This is nimble filmmaking that really vitalizes that fairly complex bar scene—the camera is all over the place in it, but not in a look-at-me fashion. Tarantino is constantly finding ways to emphasize the inherent drama with the camera without taking the viewer out of the movie. (And when he chooses to take you out of it—HUGO STIGLITZ!—the very incongruity of it is funny as hell, an indicator of the filmmaker’s playfulness and confidence that he’s got you where he wants you and he ain’t likely to lose you by dispensing the goose in such a fashion.)
Yet it is this scene that is most often cited by the film’s detractors (and even some who liked it) as being a slog—too long, pointless, bereft of the writer-director’s customary pizzazz, somehow not tight in the way we expect a suspense set piece to be, presumably in comparison to the interrogation of Mssr. LaPadite by the ingratiatingly sinister Col. Landa. I think Tarantino is in the business of redefining “tight” throughout this movie, and maybe you can talk a little more about how he seems to do it in this scene. The complaints usually sound something like, “The scene needed to be tighter, shorter.” But as usual no one seems to have an idea of how this might be accomplished, what could be sacrificed that wouldn’t also lessen our identification with almost everyone in the room, from the soldiers celebrating the Nazi sergeant’s child being born, to the participation in the celebration of the German actress (and double agent), to the Basterds and the SS officer who become part of the interaction, right down to the imposing barkeep and his lovely employee. Once one element drops out or is lessened, the resulting momentum, inexorable as it is deliberate, is lessened and the movie’s overall strategy of patience and observation would be, I think, lessened as well. And everyone in the scene is important to its conclusion.
Okay, Bill, so much left to talk about that I wanted to hit on in this post that will just have to wait until next time, but that’s why we’re doing this all week, right? I have to take off to go see Steely Dan—it’s Internet Request Night here in Los Angeles, and my dear wife bought me a ticket for Father’s Day that is, this very evening, coming home to roost. But I look forward to your end of this one, and next time I’ll elaborate on some of the thoughts that ran through my head last night, the first part of our conversation already on the books, when I took my daughters to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. As you might well imagine, much of that movie resonated with our discussion and the larger one going on right now about the appropriateness of Tarantino’s WWII fantasies about Jewish revenge and how this new movie differs, if it does, from the way Hitler and Nazism have been approached throughout the history of Hollywood. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m having more fun talking about this movie in this way than I ever thought possible. This is what great movies are all about! Thanks for partnering with me on this ride!
UPDATED 8/26 2:02 p.m. (Here's Bill's response, which came to me much earlier in the day. Alas, I have been in bed sick-- which is where I still am-- but the conversation must, and will, continue. Part 3 will be up shortly. But for now, hee-e-e-e-e-re's Bill!)
My theater was reasonably full, too. The only reaction to the film I was able to witness that might be considered either negative or ambivelant was a guy sitting in front of us who, after the end credits were over (he did stay that long, which must mean something) looked at my wife and me and said, "Well, then." Which really isn't an unreasonable thing to say after seeing Inglourious Basterds, whatever you ultimately thought of it.
But it's true that the audience's enthusiasm enhanced my enjoyment, at least a little bit. Ordinarily, I despise talking during movies (of course I do, everybody does, in theory), and I even hate hearing people crunching on popcorn, but the large number of people sitting near us who regularly uttered things like "Oh shit!" seemed to me to merely be getting into the spirit of Tarantino's film. If ever there was an "Oh shit!" movie, this is it. And while I didn't have to warn my wife about upcoming violence (I couldn't have even if I'd been asked to), seeing as she likes to see Nazis get bashed all to shit almost as much as I do, she did recoil from the bullet-wound interrogation, as well as something else, I think...can't remember what.
My point about Inglourious Basterds being a crowd-pleaser was badly stated, but I think you got my point anyway, which is that this film, proclaimed so boring but certain film critics, is nailing casual filmgoers to their seats, even though it's mostly in languages other than English, and even though a lot of people talk, and stuff. Although I don't know why its apparent success should surprise us: this is Tarantino, and at his best his dialogue is a wonderful mix of pure character and sheer entertainment, and I don't think he's ever pulled off that mix as well as he does here. Nobody seems like a stand-in for Tarantino himself, and everyone, however broadly they may be painted, is a full human being. This is great movie dialogue, classic, in its way. It hearkens back to the 40s in its exaggerated take on human speech, used as a means of making every second of the film feel alive and moving. Audiences have always come to Tarantino for that, and after what I consider a serious backslide with Death Proof, I think a lot of people are relieved to see him return to full strength. Full strength, and then some.
As for the tavern scene...I'm almost at a loss. What can you say about it? One thing that occurred to me that may seem obvious is that it functions, or could function, almost as a stand-alone short film. You might need to add a little bit of a set-up (but maybe not), but the scene is an absolutley complete story. Which is how I originally thought of it, as a short story. There are no extras in the scene, as you pointed out, everybody has a function, but you never get the sense that they exist to serve that function, and the scene (I almost said "film") builds as so many stories do, from apparent insignificance to outright terror, and then to splattering blood, but it takes its own sweet time getting there. It unfolds. Tarantino has said in the past that the art of letting stories unfold is something that has been lost in American film, and he's right. He's also the current master of that art. So that's my answer to your question about why the scene works: in middle of the film -- not disconnected from the film, but still its own, separate thing -- Tarantino tells us a different, self-contained story of comedy, suspense and violence. You don't have to shift gears to immerse yourself into it, but you can almost feel yourself, in your story-following frame of mind, reset to the beginning. It's like putting down a novel you're enjoying tremendously to read a similarly themed short story you've heard was also very good. And you heard right.
But let's talk about what so many people seem to want to deny, or cut with subtext (which I won't argue is there), or flat out condemn the film for containing, what it is about Inglourious Basterds that so many of us find so incredibly thrilling, and that is the primal cinematic joy of watching Nazis get the living shit beat and blown out of them. At its core, this is a purely cathartic movie. It's hard to not get pretty deep into spoilers here, but Tarantino shows us things in this film that never happened, that are refuted by history, but which it is a blood-thirsty, heart-leaping joy to behold. And yet, there's a quote floating around the internet, regarding the film's astonishing climax. Somewhere, Tarantino apparently said that he deliberately "fucked with the climax", and that at some point the Nazi uniforms disappear, and you're just seeing human beings suffering horribly. Again, I don't deny that's part of it, and I even asked my wife, after reading that quote, if she had that reaction, and she said she did. But, in a fascinating piece on Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds in The Atlantic, Tarantino says, when asked if maybe he didn't go too far on occasion, and that maybe some people would be upset, he said: “Why would they condemn me? I was too brutal to the Nazis?” Given that this film is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, I have a really hard time finding it within myself to let my heart bleed out for the Nazis we see dying on screen. Any halfway intelligent filmgoer is going to bring into the theater with them a knowledge of the nightmarish, organized serial murder that the Nazis carried out against the Jews, and goddamnit, I'm not going to feel even a little bit bad that I felt a genuine, thrilling bloodlust while I watched the ending. I mean, isn't seeing the bad guys get theirs one of the basic joys of films, and of all storytelling? You can complicate and subvert that all day long if you want to, and if you do it well I'll gladly pay my money and think deep thoughts right along with you, but let's not pretend that we don't like seeing this stuff play out on a basic level, or that that's not one of the primary, ingrained reasons we all have for going to the movies. And when the bad guys are Nazis, you can take your ambivelance elsewhere, Buster Brown.
And I'm out of time. So talk to me, Dennis, about how you reacted to the violence, because this is a big topic, and there are a few more critical reactions to that aspect of the film I want to get into later.
PS - Here's a link to the Atlantic article.