Skip to main content

If a rat were to walk in here right now as I'm talking, would you treat it to a saucer of your delicious milk?

Inglourious Basterds
(2009)

(SPOILERS) His staunchest fans would doubtless claim Tarantino has never taken a wrong step, but for me, his post-Pulp Fiction output had been either not quite as satisfying (Jackie Brown), empty spectacle (the Kill Bills) or wretched (Death Proof). It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that he recovered his mojo, revelling in an alternate World War II where Adolf didn’t just lose but also got machine gunned to death in a movie theatre showing a warmly received Goebbels-produced propaganda film. It may not be his masterpiece – as Aldo Raines refers to the swastika engraved on “Jew hunter” Hans Landa’s forehead, and as Tarantino actually saw the potential of his script – but it’s brimming with ideas and energy.

That’s particularly significant, as I never really got that sense of genuine enthusiasm from the Kill Bills, which always came across first and foremost as formal exercises. Tarantino spent a decade honing the Basterds material, which probably explains how his initial guys-on-a-mission movie ends up repurposed as sporadic appearances by Brad Pitt (Aldo) and a largely forgettable gang of Jewish-American soldiers. And Til Schwieger. Out of them, only Eli Roth as “The Bear Jew” really makes an impression, but he’s about as versatile an actor as he is a director.

The Basterds are largely a subversive conceit on the part of Tarantino by, as Daniel Mendelsohn suggested in Newsweek, “turning Jews into Nazis” through their “taste for vengeful violence”. Mendelsohn’s concern over this is the oft-levelled one of fiction that appropriates and distorts facts (“But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications”), and it’s a conversation that has resurged around Tarantino with the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Basterds announces its “fairy tale” vision at the outset, with a “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France” title preceding an ominous arrival out of Once Upon a Time in the West, and a stand-off that takes the form of words rather than gunplay. I’m not sure Claude Lanzmann, maker of Shoah and outspoken critic of dramatised treatments of the Holocaust from the likes of Spielberg, would have seen the Basterds the same way as Mendelsohn, however (“… he told me that he had enjoyed the movie very much”).

Notably too, the Basterds are basically idiots. Maybe not as much as Michael Fassbender’s cut-glass Englishman for going to a meet in the face of warnings that it’s a bad idea, but certainly enough to think they can masquerade as Italians. Pitt, in particular, is playing up such blithe bravado to maximum cartoonish effect, all Clark Gable tache, jutting jaw and superficial swagger. As such, I don’t think you can take the thematic arguments in a movie this self-consciously goofy entirely seriously; they are there, but I doubt it’s Tarantino’s aim to make an internally consistent movie, or that he’d cope well responding to such a self-imposed restriction.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hated the film (and contrastingly thought it represented a lossof the director’s mojo), while the description “kosher revenge porn” was bandied about a lot, which feels like the most simplistic reading available. One might more forgivingly suggest Inglourious Basterds finds the director making a self-conscious counter-propaganda piece, and again, draped under such a banner, one would be unwise to take all the tics and affectations with a straight face or, indeed, at face value (David Cox, in a blog piece for The Guardian, was unsure about the picture’s daffier qualities – “a mighty star… plays a cardboard cut-out” – and suggested “It lacks the cold seriousness that’s given Tarantino’s brutality so much of its impact in the past. If anything, it seems to be a comedy, but not one that provokes many laughs”).

Cox highlights just how film-centric this exercise is, with its film scholar (of German cinema) turned British agent and starlet turned spy, and a climax in which film (stock) and cinema (an actual cinema) themselves are destroyed; essentially, however, I suspect many who don’t like the film arrived at such a position because they find something essentially tasteless about it, that it it’s “going too far” in changing the facts of how WWII played out. Aside from the personal taste element, there are two observations arising; the narrative choice was decisive in making transparent Tarantino’s whole schtick, as the creator of hermetic universes where he gets to play God. And also that, if you rely on such a device, you eventually run the risk of it becoming a tired prop. I’m a little surprised by the flagrant manner in which he went back to the well with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but then, it’s a picture that is even less apologetic, if that’s possible, about immersing itself in the paraphernalia of cinema itself.

Even disregarding that aspect, though, it’s strange to read Bradshaw, who is otherwise a Tarantino acolyte of the highest order, including of long-winded dud Kill Bill, label the film a long-winded dud and describe the standout scene in the beer cellar as “unendurably, unbelievably tedious” (Bradshaw’s takes often don’t wash, but calling that expertly structured sequence tedious beggars belief). Rather, it exemplifies the manner in which Inglourious Basterds is carefully built on reveals or withheld knowledge in a very Hitchockian manner, whereby one character knows what another does not and turns the tables, from the supremely confident opening in which we realise Landa (Christophe Waltz winning his first Tarantino Oscar) has requested of Denis Menochet’s dairy farmer that they speak in English so as not to tip off the Jewish family hiding out in the cellar, to Landa joining a surprised Melanie Laurent at the restaurant (culminating in the To Catch a Thief-inspired stubbing a cigarette out in a strudel), to the cinema climax taking place with the knowledge that Landa knows Diane Kruger’s movie star is a spy.

The killing of Laurent’s Jewish resistance fighter Shosanna shouldn’t be a shock from the director who offed Travolta, but it comes at a point in the picture that doesn’t allow for playful reframing (albeit, we do see her rendered immortal in the form of celluloid following her death, hence the absurdly titled fifth chapter Revenge of the Giant Face), and so carries with it a sense of almost De Palma-esque nihilism. For all that Tarantino says “In this story, cinema changes the world, and I fucking love that idea!” (of course he does), in contrast to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he resists allowing his characters happy endings (unless we’re talking Aldo, and as others have noted, he hardly constitutes a rounded character).

Tarantino’s typically eclectic cast includes some aberrations – Roth just gurns, and Mike Myers is indulgent – but also some great picks. Fassbender is mesmerising, and also notable are Daniel Bruhl’s war-hero private, turning from shrewishly shunned to would-be-rapist, and Richard Sammel’s unrepentant soldier, refusing to squeal and so having his head bashed in by Roth as payment. Both Laurent and Kruger make the most of roles that are all about putting on a performance and withholding.

I should emphasise, though, that while I think Inglourious Basterds is a return to form, it’s by no means without fault. There are longueurs (although nothing on the level Bradshaw suggests), part and parcel of Tarantino’s cineaste inter-referential indulgence, his foot fetish is alive and well (Diane Kruger is his latest #MeTootsiesToo victim), and while his overpowering need to drop Morricone in on scenes feels more germane here than in Kill Bill, it’s still a lazy crutch. In general, though, as one who tends to the side of regarding the director as overrated, I admire the way in which Inglourious Basterds is simultaneously about something and as shallow as it gets. There are times when that kind of approach can simply be indulgent or tiresome, but here the director’s enthusiasm is infectious.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.