Tuesday, December 14, 2010

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009): Tarantino and his World War II Fantasy

Inglourious Basterds is somewhat atypical of a Tarantino movie in that: (1) it contains less action and more dialogue than one would ordinarily expect; and (2) it concerns Nazis rather than members of a crime syndicate.  It’s the least violent of Tarantino movies since Jackie Brown, though that hardly makes it a recommendation for children less than ten years of age.  It also contains a melodramatic subplot that seems almost more fitting for a B-movie.   We learn that a group of Jewish American soldiers are placed under the leadership of Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to go behind German lines and take the scalps of as many Nazi soldiers as is possible.  This, we are led to know, is to make them feared among the enemy and to do all there is to destroy German morale.  This they are quite successful at doing with such psychopaths as Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth – who also happened to co-direct Grindhouse), who enjoys smashing baseball bats into German soldiers skulls, and Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who likes to speak German to his victims before shooting them in the testicles.  On the German side, we have Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) – also known as the “Jew hunter” – that is so adept at his job that no one seems able to hide their schemes from him.   For example, a farmer by the name of Perrier LaPadite (Dennis Menochet), quickly reveals to Landa that he is hiding Jews beneath the floorboards of his house due to Landa’s discussion of the virtues of the farmer’s milk and by Landa’s description of himself as a “rat,” therefore qualifying him to understand the thinking of other “rats” (which is how Landa describes the Jewish race).  Mysteriously, however, in that one encounter, Landa by seeming deliberation allows a beautiful Jewish girl by the name of Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) to escape.

Shoshanna, Lieutenant Raine and Colonel Landis will all later be assembled together in a movie theatre in Paris owned by Shoshanna (now going by the pseudo name of Emanuelle Mimieux) because of the showing of a Nazi propaganda film put together by the notorious propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and starring a German sniper and war hero named Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) - playing himself – when Zoller shot and killed approximately 300 enemy soldiers.  Zoller is the one that insists that this film, which is entitled Nation’s Pride, be shown at Shoshanna’s theatre because the soldier is smitten with the young theatre owner.  What is known only to a select few is that the debut showing of the film will be attended not only by Goebbels, but also Field Marshall Herman Goering, Martin Borman and Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke).  This leads to any number of ideas on how to kill off the Nazi hierarchy and as many Nazi party members as is possible.  Shoshanna with her black lover Marcel (Jacky Ido) plan on burning the theatre down in such a way as the Nazi leaders learn only too late who was responsible for the fire.  Raine and his men under the command of Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) are to infiltrate the theatre and either blow the whole place up or at least unloose machine gun fire in the theatre in hopes of killing many Nazi officers.  Hicox and Raine learn as to what Nazi leaders are to be in attendance through the information provided by a German film star turned double-agent named Bridget Van Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).  If not for the intervention of Colonel Landa, it would never be known if any of these plots could have been successfully pulled off.  Landa, who certainly knows that Van Hammersmark is providing information to the allies (this is evident when he personally chokes the film star to death), but probably is also aware of Shoshanna’s identity.  But anyway, instead of doing the expected course of action of informing the Nazi authorities of what he knows, he instead makes a deal with Raine that he will allow the plot to go forward in return for his being transported out of Germany and allowed to live in America along the Nantucket coast.  Raine abides by the deal (though he does carve a Swastika on Landa’s forehead), both Shonshanna’s and the ally plan go off almost flawlessly and in an obvious fabrication of history, Goebbels, Goering, Borman and Hitler are all killed in the ensuing mayhem.

These are the chief plotlines of this overly-complicated story (containing many allusions to other movies), and there are a number of other conversations, enactments and storyline devices that would be too lengthy to ever summarize concerning Inglourious Basterds.  (There is even a song played by David Bowie.)  Suffice to say that an extremely long depiction of a card game taking place in a German pub contained some of the most interesting interaction of characters in the entire movie and yet did not involve Waltz as Landa at all – the actor and character that almost single-handedly carried this film.  Landa, with his cat and mouse interrogation techniques, great cunning and eccentricities bring almost all of the subtle humor and tension into this particular movie.  Yet Raine played by Pitt comes very close to being Landa’s equal, though the two seem completely different from each other.  Landa is smooth like a snake oil salesman that never comes to the point until he finds out exactly what he wants.  Raine is blunt and uncouth, but he shares in Landa’s ability to accomplish what he wishes.  Wuttke and Groth respectively are excellent parodies of Hitler and Goebbels.  Most of the acting for other roles in this film is uneven.  One of the side plots just didn’t entertain me.  The love story between Shoshanna and Marcel is melodramatic and unconvincing.  Likewise, the character of Zoller is not extremely interesting (whatever his exploits).  Otherwise, even with the extremely long segments of dialogue the movie remains off kilter and borderline insane – like a typical Tarantino film.

Armond White is a movie critic for the New York Press that has harshly criticized two currently popular movies: District 9 (a film I have not yet seen) and Inglourious Basterds.  This has provoked many angry (not to mention irrational) comments from his readers.  Even Roger Ebert, who should know better, labeled White as a “troll” because of White giving favorable reviews to movies like Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe while not praising movies like There Will be Blood.  Many of the comments from readers directed towards White will thankfully be ignored perhaps due to misspellings and incorrect punctuation of profane words and phrases.  Ebert’s opinion, on the other hand, we’re supposed to take seriously, though he has been guilty of a few lapses of judgment himself.  Ebert glowed over movies like Atonement, The Great Debaters and Revolutionary Road – films I feel that are of dubious quality but for which Ebert has every right to defend.  Ebert also likes to advertise that he hobnobs with such celebrities as Michael Moore, Peter O’Toole and Steven Spielberg, which is supposed to give his opinion of White more weight.  Personally, I don’t care who he knows.  But the implication that some movie critic should be less critical towards most movies (especially when the implication is made by a renowned movie critic) is presumptuous.  What is more disingenuous is the notion that anyone (especially a movie critic) should be chagrined that a film is criticized at all by someone like Armond White.  Shakespeare had his critics and so should all movie directors – including Quentin Tarantino.

For all of the fanfare, it would be good for movie goers and critics to remember that Quentin Tarantino is not a genius.  Tarantino just happens to be our most famous director and that’s appropriate praise.  The term genius needs to be used a lot less than it is – especially in a pop-culture setting.  To be fair, many critics have tried to degrade Tarantino by unfavorably comparing him to that other famous director, Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg is also not a genius.  Spielberg’s movies are often morally heavy-handed and thus leaves the impression that he is more civic minded than the director of Inglourious Basterds.  To me, Spielberg comes across as being morally conceited.  However moving films like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan may seem to be, Spielberg is not saying anything revolutionary by proclaiming the Holocaust as an evil or by suggesting that soldiers that have fought and died for our country are deserving of respect.

Like so many other reviewers of this movie, Armond White engages in hyperbole in his review of Inglourious Basterds.   To criticize Tarantino for depicting violence in his films comes seventeen years late since Reservoir Dogs was first released in 1992.  And to criticize Inglourious Basterds for creating a fantasy killing of Hitler that Holocaust Deniers would seize upon to validate their deluded message is a huge reach.  The film is obviously a fantasy, and Holocaust Deniers would not stop spreading their swill if Tarantino released a film that comes closer to depicting the historical truth of what went on during the Holocaust.  Armond White writes in his review: “Only the most gullible film geek will think QT [Quentin Tarantino] is confirming cinema’s righteous influence.”  So if that is the case, one wonders why White is expressing his own indignant tone in condemning the film on moral grounds to begin with.

If we are going to be honest about Tarantino, most of his critics (which even include Senator Bob Dole, who in 1996 condemned Pulp Fiction and True Romance) are offended by the violence alone.  We need to keep in mind that violence in itself has not always lessened the moral message of any movie (as far back as the 1930s, we had great films that were extremely violent like the original Scarface or Public Enemy)  and, as I mentioned above, Inglourious Basterds is probably the least violent of Tarantino films to date.  Others have accused Tarantino of glorifying immoral behavior such as showing characters involved in drug use and depicting this usage in a not always negative manner.  Tarantino is guilty of this but so is much of our popular culture.  It’s a moot point for this review as there is no use of drugs in Inglourious Basterds

Often critics like Armond White overstate their point and end up insensing their readership, but I would accept White's verdict over that of Roger Ebert and it would be asinine to place Tarantino above criticism.  For there are other forms of self-indulgence in Tarantino’s films including Inglourious Basterds that probably does bother the more thoughtful of Tarantino’ critics.  Tarantino at least pretends to stay neutral on issues of controversy by standing on the sidelines.  What political party does he support?  What’s his view on the war in Iraq?  We never know.  In his films he comes across as an anarchist with characters unconcerned about any government unless it interferes with their right to choose to do what they want.  And outside of the character played by Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, not many characters in his films seem all that concerned about the well-meaning of others.  Even in a movie like Inglourious Basterds, we’re not going to want to hold characters like Raines, Donowitz or Stiglitz up as examples to our youth.  I think Tarantino would argue it takes backbone not to take sides.  He refuses to be a joiner and I see his point.  It’s just that there are limits as to how far we want to take this argument if not joining is merely a ploy to obscure one’s views.  And Quentin Tarantino can be obscure. 

Before Sergio Leone came upon the scene, we almost always knew what kind of moral message the movie makers were trying to send.  Yet in those good old days when we supposedly knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, we had discrimination, abuse, alcoholism and even drug addiction that no one ever looked at.  Tarantino at least is now depicting these problems in the open.  Nevertheless, Tarantino is exploiting such situations for entertainment value to pull in a bigger audience or simply to show-off his talents – not to highlight the problems of unfortunate people.  Yes, I know Inglourious Basterds is a movie and supposed to be entertainment like American Idol or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.   The great problem with Terantino is that, while making statements that he’s really letting the viewers of his movie decide what moral message is being given, he is at the same time pretending that his movies are something more than the usual entertainment that most of us are exposed to.  Thus he can rightly be accused of cynicism.

Inglourious Basterds is 153 minutes, but it’s not too long of a film like so many reviewers (that have nothing better to say) have suggested.  There is an energy and imagination to every one of Tarantino’s films that is completely lacking in the rest of the movie industry.  Like every one of Tarantino’s films, there are scenes in Inglourious Basterds that are outrageously funny in a manner not shown in any other film.  And if Tarantino does direct and produce films for commercial purposes, his films have not had the popularity of Scorcese or Spielberg’ films.  Tarantino is an interesting phenomenon and he is capable of making good films.  Certain of his films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction will be watched again and again, no matter how offensive they may be to some viewers.  Others, like Jackie Brown, with its almost conventional plotline, are just about forgotten.  Probably Inglourious Basterds will be somewhere in between – watched occasionally by the more devoted Tarantino fans and not watched a second time by just about everybody else.

September 2, 2009
©  Robert S. Miller 2009

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