Tuesday, August 25, 2009

War Movies 3: "I think this just might be my masterpiece."

You can add the incredibly enjoyable (enjouyable?) Inglourious Basterds to the short list of movies that Quentin Tarantino has made because they’re the kind of movies he’d like to watch. That list now includes a Dirty Dozen takeoff, a gangster picture, a Hong Kong revenge saga, a Spaghetti Western revenge saga, a blaxploitation flick, an old AIP car crash cheapie, and Pulp Fiction, which, like a crack-whore version of Seinfeld, is about nothing and everything at the same time. The truly odd thing about this list? It’s also the complete list of films that Tarantino has directed, period, not including 25% of Four Rooms and a couple of TV shows. So what we have here is a guy who pretty much does what he wants, when he wants, because he wants not only to do it, but to watch it. In a sense, Tarantino is still the clerk at that Manhattan Beach video store, looking up at the shelf and going, “Yeah, we got a lot of war movies, but none of them really do it for me. So look -- instead of recommending one? Why don’t I just make you one?”

So yeah, quick one-line description: Inglourious Basterds is a Dirty Dozen takeoff that starts out like a cross between a fairy tale and a Sergio Leone western. By the time you hear Ennio Morricone's "After the Verdict" from The Big Gundown, with its haunting use of the first few notes of "Für Elise," the movie pretty much falls on the Leone side of the scales, an impression which is only reinforced when you realize the opening scene is meant to echo the first Angel Eyes scene in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. But don't be deceived. This is still a fairy tale, with fairy tale logic and a once-upon-a-time ending. It's Tarantino pointing to The Dirty Dozen and saying:

TARANTINO: The only reason to make a men-on-a-mission World War II movie is to kill Hitler, not a bunch of nameless generals.
AUDIENCE: But Hitler didn't die at the hands of a dirty-dozen commando mission.
TARANTINO: You mean historically? Sure. But do you see a history book here?

The correct answer? No. We're in a world where a band of Jewish-American commandos can go uncaptured in occupied France for four years, where a crack German sniper is a film geek, and where a hot German actress geso to a 1944 film premiere without wearing silky ribbed stockings on her feet. (Okay, her one good foot.) A world, in other words, where anything can happen -- and because it's Tarantino? -- it will happen. Count on it.

The one thing that doesn't happen? The over-the-top violence that everybody went nuts about in Kill Bill 1&2. This is going to piss off rabid Tarantino fans who want to see somebody or something 'sploding blood every ten minutes for two-and-a-half hours; and while there are (of course) moments like that in IG, they're lobbed in like hand grenades rather than sprayed at you like machine gun bullets. What you get instead are words, words that sizzle like a slow-burning fuse or jump from speaker to speaker like a lit stick of dynamite in a Three Stooges short. In only one chapter does a conversation not end in violence; but in that chapter, the simple ordering of a glass of milk is what makes everything that's spoken afterwards tick like a time bomb waiting to go off. It's totally riveting, and all the more remarkable because it's almost entirely done in French and German with English subtitles. When was the last time you were on the edge of your seat during four subtitled set pieces? If your answer is "Never," then it will be when you see this movie.

Speaking of the writing: you'll read a lot of reviews which credit Tarantino with writing what film critics like to call great “set pieces.” Those of us in theatre call them something different; we call them “scenes.” And when you look at them from a theatrical point of view, you see that (whether he knows it or not) Tarantino as a writer is the spiritual son of Sam Shepard. Like Shepard, his speeches are jewels, but they’re set in plots that are made from borrowed paste. (At least Tarantino has plots; you say “plot” to Sam Shepard and he thinks “graveyard.”) In Tarantino’s case, his plots consist of scenes chapters between which there is no connecting tissue. It’s like the movie Closer. Ever see Closer? In Closer, the storyline is simply the 10 shittiest moments in the lives of four people over the space of a few years, and because we don’t see them acting any other way, we can’t help but think of the four of them as shitty human beings. The same kind of selective distancing effect takes place in Basterds, where we get five chapters from a novel (or five episodes from Tarantino’s HBO miniseries Band of Mensches), all of which tie together in the end -- and yet each episode is such a perfect jewel that you can’t help wanting to see what the missing 7 or 8 connecting chapters look like. Where are the Basterds wreaking havoc in France? How does Shoshanna get to that movie theatre? What did Landa do (or not do) from 1941 to 1944 that changed him into the Landa of the last chapter?

Answer: doesn't matter. Doesn't matter one bit to the movie on the screen. (The movie in your head is another matter.) What else doesn't matter? The fact that Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine is from Tennessee (hey -- just like Tarantino!) and part Cherokee (hey -- just like Tarantino!). What matters is that almost everything that Pitt utters with his cracker accent is totally fucking hilarious. And that's just the English; wait till you hear him speak Italian. Whenever Pitt was on-screen, I kept thinking of the Claude Rains exchange from Casablanca:

MAJOR STRASSER: You give [Rick] credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.
CAPTAIN RENAULT: We musn't underestimate "American blundering". I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918.

Because make no mistake: that's what the Americans in this movie are. A group of blunderers who fall into somebody else's assassination plot and blunder their way to the most surprising victory of World War II.

And because this is a movie, I also thought about the fact that the last time Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger were in the same movie, he was killing Eric Bana and she was screwing around with Orlando Bloom. And boy, if their Achilles and Helen had even one quarter of the charisma that both display in this flick? Troy would have been phenomenal. It's like Tarantino is saying "See what these guys can do with the right material?" And don't think he's not saying it. Tarantino films are always just as much about other films as they are about the one you're watching now. And this one? Even more so. Because based on who shoots the machine gun, and who sets the fire? It’s the filmmakers who kill Hitler.

And oh yeah -- that once-upon-a-time ending? It's a lot more blatant in the final shooting script than it is in the current cut of the movie:

1 comment:

amanda said...

I loved this movie. But when I say that, it sounds like this:
"I loved this movie"
when you say it, it's much more interesting. and makes for an interesting read.