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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

Well, I guess I can only make you remember the things you want to be true.

Memento (2000) (SPOILERS) Nolan joins forces with cinematographer Wally Pfister for the first time, and together they set the scene for the increasingly vast-in-scale – but cerebrally so – populist fare that would follow over the next two decades. Memento was one of those instantly cool cult indie darlings, like Donnie Darko or Pi , and you were invited to do little else but wow and flutter at a formidable new talent. Which is to say that Memento is impressive, both formally and thematically, but it also evidences the weakness that would increasingly manifest for the director going forward.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You’re the bravest rat I’ve ever known.

Cruella (2021) Well, this is a surprise. The last thing I expected at this point in the course of Disney’s dogged determination to piss on its legacy was a decent live-action take on an animated classic and a decent origins story to boot at that. Perhaps it needs to be put down to the old exception that proves the rule, but Cruella hits a bullseye in several key respects: performance, direction and (derivative) premise. If the movie wanders during its final act, is grossly overlong and also inherently morally questionable, well that’s simply symptomatic of these times. And Disney all over.