Doodad Kind of Town

Random, Rambling Thoughts on "Inglourious Basterds"
August 24, 2009, 12:37 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Warning: there are spoilers!

I don’t see many summer blockbusters; I’m just not that kind of moviegoer. One the rare occasion that I do haul my weary behind to the multiplex for a big, wildly anticipated film event, it’s likely to be several weeks after the initial box office brouhaha has simmered down.

So it was a unusual – and surprisingly exhilarating- experience for me to be in a nearly-sold-out audience in the largest auditorium at my local multiplex on the opening weekend of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” A frisson of excitement ran through the crowd from the time my fellow audience members took their seats that didn’t subside until the closing credits began to roll, accompanied by their wild, spontaneous applause. They laughed at the ridiculous moments, they cheered for the deaths of particularly specious Nazi characters, they groaned or hollered “Whoa!” in exclamations of “oh-no-they-didn’t!” disbelief at bursts of graphic violence. Whatever my personal opinions of “Inglourious Basterds” may be, the almost pale in comparison with my rediscovered joy in the power and pleasure of communal movie love.

“Inglourious Basterds” is the first and only Quentin Tarantino film I’ve seen in its entirety since “Pulp Fiction.” Having admitted that, you are welcome to take the rest of this post with a very large grain of salt. But trust me, I have my reasons.

First of all, most of Tarantino’s film references are not mine. I have little experience of or interest in martial arts films,’70s blaxploitation flicks, spaghetti westerns, or action films in general. (Which is not meant to suggest I consider my tastes in film superior to or more sophisticated than Tarantino’s – if anything, I think my film tastes are a bit too narrow.) Secondly, I’m hypersensitive to violence and tend to avoid anything that threatens to be graphic or bloody.

Finally, I liked “Pulp Fiction” well enough, but if felt to me like the work of an immature filmmaker. Tarantino could obviously create quirky characters and dialogue and toss together an entertaining pop culture pastiche, but he seemed like a show-offy, smart ass kid cruising on his hipster cred who hadn’t quite grown into his potential directorial chops. (In other words, I viewed Tarantino the way many critics now view Diablo Cody.) Nothing he’s produced since has sounded to me like the grown-up’s film I was waiting for.

And “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t quite it either. It’s big and gorgeous and ambitious, but it also feels very much like an overgrown adolescent’s totally way cool World War II revenge fantasy/adventure film. The distancing, show-offy crap is still there (“Hey look, I have a soldier character named Hugo Stiglitz! And when I introduce him, I’m going to superimpose this totally retro title right over his face and play some cheesy music!”) From the outbursts of graphic violence to the incongruous use of spaghetti western theme music, from the obscure, tossed-off movie references (the more you know about Third Reich cinema, the better off you’ll be) to the long, long stretches of exquisitely turned – but sometimes wearying – dialogue, Tarantino never lets you forget that the film is his personal, souped-up, pimped-out vehicle, baby, and he’s taking you on the ride of your life.

That’s the weird thing about “Inglorious Basterds”: at various points, it disgusted me, sickened me or just plain pissed me off. And yet, it was the best time I’ve had in a movie theatre all year and then some. Even now, two days after seeing it, I’m still jazzed by its audacity and nerve, while at the same time harboring more than a few reservations about just how good it really is.

Here’s the question I haven’t yet been able to answer for myself: how reverential does a film about World War II and the Holocaust have to be? Or, more to the point, how truthful? Because “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t even remotely rooted in reality. It’s not so much to do with the cartoon-villain nature of the Nazis (Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, and the aforementioned “Hogan’s Heroes” have all gone there before). It’s Tarantino’s completely ‘new and improved’ ending to the War that bugs me most, but then that’s of a piece with the “Fuck history, I’m making a movie here!” mentality that permeates the entire film. Where does that kind of attitude lead? Well, Hitler is machine-gunned to death by a Jewish-American soldier, while the entire Nazi high command – including Goebbels, Goering and Borman – perish inside a burning movie theatre. Cause of the fire? A match thrown into a pile of nitrate film prints. Only in Tarantino’s cartoony cinephile fantasy world can movies actually save the world. The New York times reviewer bemoaned the scene’s parallels to the concentration camp crematoriums; I highly doubt that association ever crossed Tarantino’s movie-crazed mind.

Then, of course, there are those titular (and winkingly misspelled) Inglourious Basterds. They’re a squadron of Jewish-American soldiers under the command of a Tennessean named Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, his character name yet another of Taratntino’s “in” references to character actor Aldo Ray.) Ordered to bring back “one hunnert Gnatzi scalps” each, they carry out their mission in horrifically violent scenes that I was frankly unable to watch. It’s not just the scalpings. One Nazi gets his skull bashed in with a Louisville slugger by the infamous “Bear Jew,” a Jewish American soldier stolidly played by torture porn director Eli Roth. Two have Swastikas mercilessly carved into their foreheads. To be honest, I believe all these assaults are depicted graphically in the film, but I couldn’t really tell you for sure. I endured those scenes by burying my face in my hands and waiting in agony for the baseball-bat-whacking or knife-cutting-through-skin sounds to stop before peeking out tentatively between my latticed fingers.

Pitt did little to impress me here, though God knows he’s gotten enough publicity. Putting on a funny Tennessee accent doesn’t constitute creating a character to me, and that’s about as much as Pitt commits to. The actor who should be getting all the attention is Christophe Waltz, an Austrian whose portrayal of “Jew hunter” Colonel Hans Landa is the smoothest, smartest, and most ingeniously unnerving thing in the entire film.

I’d normally come up with a conclusion here that ties up all my thoughts about “Inglourious Basterds” but I can’t. I’m still not entirely sure what they are. Most likely, I’ll need to see it again, and I’m dying to know what I’ll think of out the second time around.


19 Comments so far
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Fine thoughts, Pat, and they mirror some of my own about the film. But I didn't have as good a time at it as you did; I've had better times at the movies, even this summer, than I did at "Basterds." Still and all, i didn't absolutely hate it, but I think it's grossly overrated. It is what it is, and that's a Tarantino movie.

Comment by Rick Olson

I think one thing that bothers me about what I'm hearing is that Tarantino dehumanizes his characters to such an extent that this could have been cowboys and Indians or colonials and aboriginies. Not that his films have to be different from the Terminator movies, but how is it that his films are getting by as art for doing exactly what Schwartzenegger did in his films?The reaction of the audience you describe reminds me of when I went to see the first Star Wars movie in a theatre – the cheering and exhiliration of watching this kind of an adventure movie is a great thing. Tarantino, it seems, has decided that adventure isn't enough; he has to push the borders of taste, and his audiences won't be satisfied with a hand neatly sliced off with a light saber. He's probably right, but didn't he help create this atmosphere of extreme violence? OK, so he can entertain. But does he do anything for film, for humanity by indulging its bloodlust? I happen to think films are very powerful vehicles for messages. He doesn't seem to respect the power he has.

Comment by Marilyn

The only time I heard cheering — there was some laughter at some of the funny bits — was at some extreme form of violence. Like when they very graphically showed carving the Swastika in the villains head, or when Eli Roth — talk about a statement having him be the one — machine guns Goebbels and Hitler with a maniacal look on his face that is both sexual and demonic.Yep, he knows his movies all right, and he sure knows how to build suspense, and loves a good turn of phrase, but does that a good film make? Meh.

Comment by Rick Olson

He doesn't seem to respect the power he has.I think that perfect sums up my biggest problem with Tarantion and this film. He obviously knows how to make a wildly entertaining film, he's got a huge budget and great actos at his disposal – and look what he chooses to do with it. I can't shake the feeling that what he does with WWII history is just irresponsible and childish.And yet, I can't deny that I had a pretty good time at "Inglourious Basterds." I wasn't unduly angry at any one scene. It was a long film, but I wasn't ever bored and I didn't really want it to end. And as the rambling nature of my post probably suggests, I'm having difficulty processing that enjoyment in light of my clearer-eyed objections to Tarantino's usual schtick.

Comment by Pat

And that is, I think, where the problem may lie. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being entertained by a thrill ride. I even like a good revenge film. But a person should not be asked to separate out the historical fact of the Nazis with a cartoon version of them. This is not Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner. A Michigan County Commissioner was recently videotaped carrying a swastika to a town hall meeting at which universal health care would be discussed. This symbolism is still potent and negative. Tarantino does nothing to negate its power by turning his Nazis into stick figures – in fact, he might even create some sympathy for them. Don't be surprised if neo-Nazis start coming out of the woodwork and misinforming people that this film is based on fact. We've already seen how people can be gulled into believing anything – aka, death panels.

Comment by Marilyn

Don't be surprised if neo-Nazis start coming out of the woodwork and misinforming people that this film is based on fact.Marilyn, I think that is unlikely. The major fiction perpertrated by IB is that the entire Nazi high command perishes in a burning movie theatre in 1944, a full year before the well-docuumented end of WWII. I can't think how that bit of misinformation would benefit neo-Nazis. The actions of the Basterds are reprehensible, but no more so than what happened in the concentration camps. Although they are sometimes a bit loony and goofy, it's a real stretch to call Tarantino's Nazi characters sympathetic. Hitler is repeatedly shown laughing uproariously at a film depicting deaths of Allied soldiers from a German sniper's fire,and the film's first extended scene concludes with German soldiers machine-gunning a Jewish family hidden beneath the floorboards of a Frech farmhouse. So they're not portrayed as entirely harmless.

Comment by Pat

The actions of the Basterds are reprehensible, but no more so than what happened in the concentration camps. If you're a Holocaust denier, there were no concentration camps, or only 200,000 people were killed. As my research for my review of Defiance showed, the Jewish heroes of that story (real people) have been depicted as exploiters and thugs in getting what they wanted from their Gentile neighbors. A Nazi would be proud of Germans machine-gunning Jews, of the strength of the Nazis against their enemies. You mark my words. Someone will say that the Basterds are based on real people.

Comment by Marilyn

Marilyn Ferdinand is on fire, but what else is new?After getting her and Rick Olson in trouble today, I come here to hide and recoup in friendly territory, which is that hallowed terrain inhabited by those not blown away by the latest Tarantino opus.Most of the film was tedious and torturous, and when it came to life it was serious and dehumanizing, sadistic and repellent. This is simply not my idea of a fun time at the movies, nor a way to expend two and a half hourse plus. Granted I had issues of the same kind with RESERVOIR DOGS as well, but we're in a different place here, as there's the historical conscription. I agree that art must be more than what we see in th epotboilers. I will see the film again tomorrow, and write my own review, and not rly on you, Rick and Marilyn to bail me out. But for now Pat, you say it here perfectly:"The distancing, show-offy crap is still there ("Hey look, I have a soldier character named Hugo Stiglitz! And when I introduce him, I'm going to superimpose this totally retro title right over his face and play some cheesy music!") From the outbursts of graphic violence to the incongruous use of spaghetti western theme music, from the obscure, tossed-off movie references (the more you know about Third Reich cinema, the better off you'll be) to the long, long stretches of exquisitely turned – but sometimes wearying – dialogue, Tarantino never lets you forget that the film is his personal, souped-up, pimped-out vehicle, baby, and he's taking you on the ride of your life."At this point I couldn't agree with you more.

Comment by Sam Juliano

Marilyn – I really want to believe that wouldn't happen, but time me prove me wrong. As you point out, that kind of lie has certainly been spread before.Sam – Thanks, it's always a pleasure to have you here, whether we're in agreement or not. I liked IB better than you did, but I think a second viewing will solidify my feelings about it.

Comment by Pat

Come on. That movie was amazing. Why does it have to follow history. Can't a man just tell a story. It's a movie after all.

Comment by Anonymous

Anonymous -As Marilyn notes, films are powerful vehicles for messages, so "it's only a movie" isn't necessarily a responsible attitude to have when you're dealing with sensitive and serious historical facts.But that's even beside the point. If you read my review carefully, you'll see that I'm struggling with my thoughts about this, and that I don't dismiss the film outright.

Comment by Pat

WOW. Some brilliant, PASSIONATE observations here, my lady.The violence didn't bother me at all, Patty. I didn't even hide my eyes. But it's actually extraordinarily minimal. There are long shootouts at the bar and in the theatre. But everything else can be avoided by a quick aversion of the eyes. They are MOMENTS…and they do not linger. Well, Quentin didn't make a film about the Holocaust. He made a film about wiping Hitler and his cohorts out. It's an ingenious revenge fantasy. If he was aiming at amping up controversy (and that's something that he has never shied away from) I don't think that the Holocaust even entered into the equation for him. I don't feel that he intended to offend anyone in that sense. Truthfully, though I adore PULP FICTION (saw it four times in the cinema a few years after its initial release and caught it just recently at a special one time only Friday night screening) I find that far more raw and diaturbing than IB.I could have picked up PF for $8.00 the other night. I resisted. I feel far more comfortable watching it on late TV now and again. But I'll buy IB right out of the gate. I am an unrepentant fan of Quentin's. I've seen everything that he's ever directed (with the exception of Death Proof) and I own both KILL BILLS and JACKIE BROWN. I just like his sensibilities, his writing and his female characters – who are always strong, powerful and intelligent. Plus he uses his great love of both movies and music in intriguing cinematic ways. I like the way he expresses himself. Totally agree about the Hugo Stiglitz deal. Yeah, that's quintessential Quentin. But I genuinely found it hysterical. Your remark about the pimped out ride is dead on, Patty. Even though I adore Quentin I can certainly see that. I guess it boils down to whether – as a moviegoer – his journeys are really worthwhile to you. If they are, then great. If not, then that's fine too. Now that Ryan's seen this twice, he's pulled back on a lot of his negativity. I think that it's likely that you might have a similar reaction. I found it absolutely enthralling. I LOVED IT. I found the last scene in the theatre a bit over the top. But that was the only thing that bothered me. At all. Quentin's direction and writing, all of the performances (in particular Brad, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger and Christoph Waltz), the costumes, the music, the cinematography, the editing…I thought everything was superb.Looking forward to seeing it again in the next few days…

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Come on. That movie was amazing. Why does it have to follow history. Can't a man just tell a story. It's a movie after all.

Comment by Andrea

Miranda -Well, I don't know that I had anything brilliant to say, but I suppose I was passionate!Going over to read your review now.BTW – See the latest post. You've been tagged!Andrea – Yes, yes, I got the message the first time when you were still Anonymous. Adding your name to the same comment didn't make it any clearer. And my response remains the same.

Comment by Pat

All,No artist has any obligation to history. Or morality. Ever.You all need to get off this idea that film has some sort of social power or (god forbid) social obligation. It has no responsibility except to itself."An artist creates his own moral universe." – Woody AllenAnd I'm a little sick of these hollow accusations of bloodlust and dehumanization. I've got news for you: all movies are fake. Real people are not actually killed. Real people are not actually insulted or even criticized. If all you want from a movie is a reflection of your own ego, stay home and stare into a mirror. I really don't know what movie you all saw.

Comment by Anonymous

Anonymous -To give you a good dose of your own medicien: if all you want from a review is a reflection of your own ego (not to mention your smug, self-satisfied belief in your own intellectual superiority), then stay the hell away from my blog.

Comment by Pat

I'll be happy to stay away from your inferior blog. No problem at all.

Comment by Anonymous

To Anonymous:I don't know that you'll see this, since you're now avoiding my "inferior" blog now, but here goes:I regret lashing out at you yesterday. I found your comment at the end of a long, frustrating and exhausting day and I snapped. So for dismissing you so completely, I do apologize.While your tone is undeniably smug and condesceding, I do recognize the inteligence and sophistication behind it. A few thoughts, however…First, if you truly read my review in detail, you'll note that I'm not making a lot of definitive statements for or against "Inglourious Basterds" – what I'm doing is struggling with my own complicated response to it. I freely admit I don't have all the answers, and that I need to see the film again. (To date, I haven't had that opportunity.)Yes, I recognize that characters in the film aren't real and so the violence committed on them is not real, either. But I have a strong inability to stomach it either way. Sorry that's just how I'm built. Not saying it's rational – it just is.Finally, although I love Woody Allen as much as the next person (maybe more) just because he says something doesn't make it so. I think there's still room to debate whether artists have a responsibility towards morality or history. Its' great that you know where you stand on that – I haven't settled the matter for myself yet. Finally, as you may have guessed, this blog has no pretensions towards being academic or intellectual. It contains my highly personal reactions to films and I'm pretty upfront abou that. It may not be your cup of tea,and that's fine.

Comment by Pat

Pat, isn't it a coincidence how the anonymous commenters always have the most balls?Pussy.

Comment by Ryan Kelly

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