Inglourious Basterds
Reviewed, in serial installments, in September 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Eli Roth, Omar Doom, B.J. Novak, August Diehl, Jacky Ido, Julie Dreyfus, Mike Myers, Rod Taylor, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke, Gedeon Burkhard, Richard Sammel, Alexander Fehling, Soenke Möhring, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Petra Hartung, Samm Levine, Paul Rust, Michael Bacall, Volker Michalowski, Ken Duken, Christian Berkel, Anne-Sophie Franck, Léa Seydoux, Tina Rodriguez, Lena Friedrich, Hilmar Eichhorn, voice of Samuel L. Jackson. Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino.

Yep, it's a rant. And long. But hello, have you seen the movie?

Photo © 2009 The Weinstein Company
Chapter 1: Whipped Cream
I am all for it. Who isn't? I once worked at a non-profit theater where a board member suggested that we sell it, by itself, at the concession stand, and as much as this seemed like a batty, Miyazaki-style idea, it's hard to argue with the essential, motivating sweet tooth. Even Nazis like whipped cream, and when the merrily sadistic "Jew Hunter" Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) admonishes his dining partner, Emmanuelle Mimieux, née Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), to abstain from her temptingly flaky strüdel until the waiter doles out some whipped cream, straight from a bowl that gets its own extreme close-up, a force of pure gustatory pleasure gets folded into the tremendous deep-structural shiver of the scene. For Landa, as viewers will know, might be brutishly signaling with this politely coded reprimand that he remembers "Emmanuelle" from the dairy farm where, three years ago, he murdered her entire family. Or else, Landa remains ironically ignorant, and it may just be that Shosanna's life is somehow yielding its own arbitrary but contextually horrifying leitmotifs.

Karl Marx famously maintained that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, and as Slavoj Žižek, that jocular madman of cultural theory, is
about to instruct us, "The repetition as farce can be even more terrifying than the original tragedy." It is an impressive tribute to Tarantino's fitfully exercised skills of rigorous filmmaking and of complex harmonics in his screenwriting that, as aesthetically and temporally constructed in Inglourious Basterds (though not, of course, if these events were "true"), the muted, veiled joust over the strüdel is comparably horrifying to the massacre of the Jewish family, the film's very own "Dreyfus Affair," which opens the film. These sequences overtly mirror each other: in the prologue, as in the restaurant, Landa is one of the jousters, and the back-and-forth also takes place around an eating table. Indeed, Landa's possible consciousness of these synonymous reverberations, possibly even his orchestration of them, provides one of the key strains of horror in the second, less explicitly gruesome of the two scenes.

Perhaps the very idea, and the artistic orientation it implies, that a submerged duel about whether or when to eat a pastry can align in the same film's narrative and emotional scope with a scene of a Jewish family being massacred by Nazis already puts your moral sensibilities on edge. I am more than sympathetic to this position, though in the abstract, it's a stance that can quickly become anti-art and anti-metaphor in a dangerously omnivorous way. And Tarantino isn't using Shosanna/Emmanuelle or the strüdel as the kind of sentimental, metonymic embodiment that the red-coated girl was for Thomas Keneally and Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List, a figure that still riles lots of people as a gross miscalculation of scale and register: the tiny substituted for the vast, the mawkish for the unspeakable. Tarantino's scene, one of three crucial interludes of outwardly calm but inwardly panicked conversations in Basterds (though the strüdel scene is the most disciplined and effective) draws its power from the filmmaking, the writing, the timing and force of the edits, the structural positioning of the scene, the angles, the soundtrack, and the performances contributions from the unerringly captivating Waltz and the otherwise bland Laurent. You have to credit the auteur and the film for their formal precision and their abilities, when pushed, to accommodate nuance, complexity, and a powerful sense of high personal and cultural stakes. There is nothing easy about assembling a sequence like this, or about so incrementally adding to its tremors and substrata as it plays out, right through the final, slightly clipped edit on a gasping face. Nathaniel Rogers has suggested "Wait for the cream" as a guiding principle of Tarantino's style, ladling fillips of pure sensual pleasure on top of his complex constructions, and buying unabashedly, especially in his recent movies, into the value of ratcheting up information as well as suspense and of deferring but also exaggerating the final catharsis. Tarantino indeed loves desserts, just or otherwise, but he's happy to make you wait for them and then to mete them out morsel by gluttonous morsel, until you can't tell whether you're attending an epicurean banquet or a grisly force-feeding.

But if we thus extend Tarantino the credit for what he does well, how can we hold back from indicting him about what is uneven, lazy, or meretricious in his approach—occasionally even reprehensible, as much of Inglourious Basterds is, possibly to the extent of neutralizing everything that is good about it? There are copious four-letter words for what Tarantino, while wearing his retro-hipster, cineaste-savant chef's hat, is so often happy to serve us, provided he dollops enough cream on the top. In a completely different context, a woman I'll call a Poet of the Street told me just this week, "There are some forms of s**t you shouldn't have to eat, ever," and even if that wisdom had been more than three days old by the time I went to see Basterds, I suspect it would have been on my mind immediately when the film concluded, and not least because the film's most noxious emissions are concentrated in the final reel. Inglourious Basterds is not lacking for ambition, which in itself is usually a good thing. Aside, though, from some compressed and invigorating tests of Tarantino's own formal mettle—though there are just as many emblems in this movie of his formal complacency and bad writerly habits—its other ambitions feel queasy and ill-advised at best (is it possible to duplicate the ripeness and stupidity of a Nazi propaganda film, but use them for a story that champions the "right" side?) when they don't feel overwhelmingly crass and odiously flippant. That latter category, for me, encompasses his conceiving and working exuberantly from a Draconian principle of an eye for an eye, an immolation for an immolation, even if the unrepresented but motivating half of that alleged equation is The Immolation. So, too, the assumption that the phantasm of firing automatic machine-guns into a locked pen of burning Germans, or even just pulverizing Hitler at point-blank range, is a manifestation of universal libido. And don't forget the absurdly "liberal" deck-stacking (one interracial couple against the entire Nazi regime!), or the voluptuous bask in pure gratuitousness (a simultaneous revenge plot, propelled by the eponymous Basterds, is entirely extricable from the narrative logic of the film), or the puerile and literal paean to the world-shaking "power" of cinema, which, as presented here, uses its own transparent ridiculousness—alongside, I concede, a few transfixing images—as the self-protective decoy of a filmmaker who wants insurance against seeming to take his own offensively lame "ideas" too seriously. In Tarantino's hands, this notion proves as dippy as anything in Ang Lee's wispy Taking Woodstock, but where Lee leans on some wishful and blinkered historical thinking in order to generate an insubstantially roseate vision, Tarantino characteristically enlists his comparably jejune idea in the service of shocking relativism, corrosive amnesias, and simultaneously punished and applauded bloodlusts.

Chapter 2: Perspective
My feelings about Basterds have become unexpectedly permeated, in some senses recuperated, by my reactions to Woodstock, because I saw Lee's film the day after Tarantino's, and because both films were already linked in my mind as not especially appetizing projects from auteurs who have delighted me about as often as they have irritated me over the years, and who, at this year's
Cannes festival, embodied the oft-repeated gripe, why was so much subpar work by established star-directors crowding the Official Competition, at the expense of all the fascinating work from less tested voices? It's hard to stay 100% riled at a reckless talent, amping up his proficiencies in direct proportion to his sadisms and irresponsibilities, when you're tricked the next day into worrying that the only alternative is watching more scrupulously inoffensive watercolors by a bright but slightly lesser talent who's terrified of his own voice. Taking Woodstock is Motorcycle Diaries cinema, shot by the same cinematographer, and though Inglourious Basterds galled, saddened, and angered me in a way that Lee's prototypical pleasantries certainly didn't, Woodstock is only a "better" film insofar as it insures itself against ruffling any feathers or taking any risks. Not a great trend for film culture, and in a nightmare world where these were the only contenders for a Palme, there's no question I would give it to Basterds, despite the fact that I will inevitably grade it lower. It starts more discussions, it exploits cinematic precepts and devices more creatively (with no slight intended to Eric Gautier's typically virtuosic managing of natural light in Woodstock), and for better or worse it, it injects danger and debate back into the cinema.

I don't just mean this insofar as Inglourious Basterds has got people aruging with each other, and, at least in Karina Longworth's case, with their own critical consciences. Basterds is willing, within important parameters, to argue with itself, and to embody a form that presupposes "argument" as a maxim of valuable art. It flaunts its worst qualities, it tests and goads, and I'll sign up for any act of cinematic self-testing even faster than I'll spoon a bowlful of rose-water whipped cream. Tisha, the rather wan hippie/companion played by Mamie Gummer in Taking Woodstock, gets a suggestive if annoyingly expository speech in James Schamus's script where she laments "perspective" as exactly what's ruining the world, "everybody and their little perspectives." (I'm paraphrasing.) The clear implication is that Tisha, and Taking Woodstock, want people to venture more universalisms and chase the spirit of a Bigger Picture, though this is exactly the sort of thinking I wish Ang Lee would get away from. His attempts to be the diplomatic, broadly pleasing host have often made him bashful about digging to the heart of his films (Brokeback Mountain), even when the whole project, as in the Schamus-scripted Ride with the Devil, depends for its very life on the hope that the director will supply some obstinately slanted, counter-intuitive vantage on history, and on movie-making for the anesthetized masses. In other words, the kind of moviemaking that only reliably comes to life when a film drops any pretense toward bland, self-effacing addresses to Everyone and acknowledges that the camera, the cuts, the soundtrack, and the spectators are all construing the world from their own qualified, motivated, appetitive, unstable, conflicting, maybe even distorting angles. Sadly, as Ride with the Devil evolved, and increasingly, too, in the final third of Taking Woodstock (despite, ironically, the gathering number of scenes that project the protagonist's interior state onto the external screen of "the world"), Lee backs away from taking any stands or delving into any idiosyncrasies, in the event or in his own artistry.

Quentin Tarantino could not, in a thousand years, have this problem: he can't help embodying his own partialities, peculiarities, and perversities, and Inglourious Basterds is nothing if not the avowed product of an out-and-proud sensibility, picking and staging its own battles, sometimes even cheating in order to win them. (Look how he pushes Daniel Brühl into being sweet and then briefly but pivotally terrible, so that he can have his whipped cream and eat it, too.) But in an oddly intransitive way, Tarantino has an impressively strong perspective without having a perspective on anything, or at least not on nearly enough. Inglourious Basterds does not unfold as Tarantino's "perspective" on war, and we all better hope that it neither reveals nor inculcates anyone's "perspective" on World War II specifically, or on Occupied France, the Third Reich, Jewish history, or the ethics of revenge. If Basterds were meant to embody or furnish a perspective on these things, then to paraphrase Max von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters, "God would never stop throwing up." Though I am entirely sympathetic to defensive rebuttals that a filmmaker, even a popular one, cannot possibly be held hostage to the increasingly huge potentials for ignorance amid his audience, and probably nobody thinks the end of World War II went down this way, I'm not quite ready to congratulate Tarantino for the cannonball splash he's made into the cultural representations of World War II, however patently pastiched. The sheer, repetitive, middlebrow-realist tedium of so many WW2-set movies does not qualify absolutely every contrasting experiment in puerile irreverence as a relief or an achievement.

"But what about cinema?" you ask. "Obviously, Tarantino has perspective on that." Well, I think he does and he doesn't. Though it's obviously true that Inglourious Basterds is "about movies," in the same way a sledgehammer to the head is "about violence," Tarantino's pile-up of quotations, influences, references, and scare-quote tactics makes clear that he has an infatuation with the cinema but not necessarily a perspective on it, to the extent that "perspective" implies at least some knack for distinguishing what is cinema from what isn't. He doesn't cut anything out; increasingly, he can't seem to dream up any allusion that isn't worth making, or any ingredient that is out-of-bounds for the enormous food processor that is his directorial imagination. This was not the case a decade ago, in the delicious combustions that Tarantino devised between the postmodern winks and full-souled characterizations of Jackie Brown—which I can't help noticing is suddenly very fashionable to like. But, after the erratic but arresting Kill Bills, the distressingly dilated and merciless Death Proof, and now this, I have to balk. It is no slight on the value or pleasure of pop to maintain, all the same, that cinema is not just something to extract from a cellophane wrapper, swallow, and then regurgitate as your own. It is also not just an endless stream of hobbyist collectibles (Ford's and Eastwood's framing! Godard's colors! Leone's scoring and heightened reality! Fuller's vulgar convictions! Hitchcock's montage!) to admire inside their Seal-Tite plastic cases and endlessly re-arrange on your own Geek Mantel. It's not that there's no pleasure or talent in savvy or inspired bricolage, or that Tarantino hasn't shown us in several of his films and in the best parts of Basterds that he's capable of extracting new resonances or impressive jolts out of recombining loaned-out materials. But it's a limited bag of tricks, and if he's now going to put them in service of stories that beg for at least some modicum of weight, maturity, and tonal discipline, which the Bills and Death Proof certainly weren't, then Tarantino's favored posture of the ass-kicking collage artist-slash-consignment store connoisseur seems more and more ...deficient. And sad. When it isn't plum infuriating. (I here considered a direct jab at a critic whom I do not know, and whose particular, positively libidinal embrace of Basterds encapsulates what sets me off about this movie and about this critic, but I'm trying to have some manners.)

So, speaking of infuriating, it's bad enough when critics hustle to excuse the noisome barbarity of the Basterds or the candy-necklace of interpolated elements from past masters or the risible/offensive logic and gore-mongering of the blazing dénouement with admonitions like Manohla Dargis's that "complaining about tastelessness in a Quentin Tarantino movie is about as pointless as carping about its hyperbolic violence: these are as much a constituent part of his work as the reams of dialogue." And this despite Dargis's peerless track record among current print critics for holding movies and moviemakers to some kind of a moral expectation—despite, even, her own strenuous rejection of several aspects of Basterds, seemingly on grounds very close to these. Pardon me, but there is a point to complaining, if Tarantino cannot make supportable choices about to whom and to what he applies his scorched-earth penchants: "Quote, bloat, and brutalize first, then rationalize later!" The full-scale trammeling of political and affective history, of the meanings of industrialized slaughter, is disgusting, and it far exceeds what's really necessary for Tarantino to enjoy his artistic license and invite us into some of that enjoyment. He might be working a Starship Troopers groove here—taking the piss out of the purported heroes, to include Shosanna, and certainly Brad's Basterds, in the guise of applauding their vicious exploits—but his filmmaking betrays such voluptuous bloodlust that these potential ironies, if the piece is even asking for them, simply never kick in, until you're grasping at straws on your way out of the theater. Plus, give this new and even cruder Tarantino enough time, and he treats everyone in the movie, and certainly all of his audience members, like they're one of Starship's bugs. (For my money, Verhoeven's own Black Book, positioned in a remarkably similar idiom, had much the same problem.) There's no humanity here, much less a perspective on humanity. And the implied belief that coating this pertly dehumanizing wallow in enough "cinephilia" makes it palatable is just as distressing, because while there's no gainsaying the sincerity of Tarantino's movie-love, there's all the room in the world to gainsay the uses, abuses, and desperate recuperations he expects his movie-love to dignify.

Which translates to: please don't tell me again that Inglourious Basterds is a valentine to "true cinephiles," or that if you love movies, you'll love this one, or whatever. I cannot tell you how much I resent this. It's precisely as a cinephile—and also as an unapologetic stick-in-the-mud, when confronted with this much brazen bloodlust and middle-fingering of history, anyone's history—that I felt repelled by Inglourious Basterds. The message I take from the movie is that if Tarantino could engineer the perfect weapon, even better than a heaping pyre of flammable nitrate film, he'd construct a machine-gun that fired not bullets, but movies, and he'd press this gun right into Hitler's noggin and blast a canyon-sized right hole right in the middle of that crazy mustache. There's a lot I'd like to see happen to Hitler and the Nazis, but this is nowhere close. There's any number of things I'd love to see movies do, but doubling as firepower, as hatchet blades, as live grenades hurled into crowds of asphyxiating people, even if they're comic-book people... I wouldn't even wish this on Blair Witch 2. And I really, really, really don't think that some perspective is too much to ask.

To be continued... Grade: ???

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Quentin Tarantino
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Best Film Editing: Sally Menke
Best Sound: Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti, and Mark Ulano
Best Sound Effects: Wylie Stateman

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Quentin Tarantino
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor (Waltz)
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Waltz); Best Ensemble Cast
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actor (Waltz)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actor (Waltz)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Waltz)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Waltz)

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