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Review: “Inglourious Basterds” (Tarantino, USA)

Above: Mélanie Laurent veils herself in Inglourious Basterds

Fairy tale from the start, complete with a little big bad wolf (or hawk, as it is) sent to blow a house down, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is, as should be expected, of the Grimm lineage: crass and bloody and tragic and funny, at most events twisted. It opens with a smack-you-scatty pointer title card, "Once Upon a Time In Nazi-Occupied France," to tell us Tarantino sees World War II as just another Leone epic, maybe, with better dialog; another vaguely cartoon setting to pile on film references and cruelty, with little regard for real world historical accuracy. Our auteurist auteur favors the faith that the cinema is its own history. Thus, the film is not quite a romp, but certainly not a guilt-fest either. After all, this Nazi we open with, though fanged, doesn't huff and puff to get in the door; the farmer he's visiting, somewhat sleepy and porcine, invites this polite and intelligent and queasily charismatic inquisitor inside. Consequently, the little piggies aren’t piggies but Jews (the hawk says “rats” to ape Goebbels’ propaganda machine/studio) cowering underfoot—and, to overlap my metaphor, one little piggie transforms past rat into Red Riding Hood, only to exact her revenge at a cost. Indeed, the film consumes itself, burns its body, explodes to pieces before our eyes only to be gobbled up, vacuum-like, by a last stand branding that reduces the war (the film) to a symbol in the form of a scar. Where Death Proof kept halving itself—effectively remaking and one-upping the Kill Bill mommy saga with different drapery—Basterds keeps excoriating everything, loud and proud and begging to be heard. It screams for cinema, for revenge, for winners taking all. It demands satisfaction. It leaves no wake and few survivors and does not ask for mourning but for movie-red blood.

This is not to say the film is the action extravaganza the savvy marketing would have you believe. But only a fool would promote the film as it really is: a gab-fest largely talked out in subtitles. While there are plenty of gunfights, each punctuates some spare stretch of interrogation exposition. If you’re on board with these little battles of wit, each will ratchet tension with every indulgent line and you’re guaranteed a good time; if not, if you’re just bored, you’ll just be bored, and too bad. A good way to get on board is to appreciate Tarantino’s love of actors: his cinema is predicated on performances and his generosity no doubt inspires the fine work he captures. The star of this show, already trumpeted (already palmed), is Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Hans Landa, our little big bad wolf also known as “The Jew Hunter.” He is without peer, for the most part, though Michael Fassbender’s Lieutenant Archie Hicox might come close as the centerpiece of the centerpiece of the film—a wickedly interminable, bite-your-nails basement bit of espionage and role-play. To call Mélanie Laurent—as Shosanna Dreyfuss (as Emmanuelle Mimieux)—an equal to Waltz would be almost apt, and her scene opposite him is a marvel of reticence and at-bay confusion. Mostly, she's masked or masking something until, blown up silver screen big, she reveals her great, big, true face. But, to be blunt, she’s given less to work with, mostly hurt and pride, although this in turn makes her characterization more human than Landa's goofy, breezy malice. Then again, she’s all concept, too, wrapped in layers of herself, a self-willed projection, like everything in the picture.

Overriding Tarantino’s gratuitous gore instincts is his allegiance to the power of the cinema, which he makes material (literal) here in the form of a combustible nitrate collection—an active ingredient in history’s molding and mauling, in the world’s record of who brutalized better. Tarantino doubly asserts cinema’s power as weapon when we see the title of the film etched into the butt of Lt Aldo Raine’s rifle. Raine is Brad Pitt, he of top billing and Basterd-command, but he’s on screen about a third of the time and he never fires that rifle; he prefers his buck knife. If he speaks for Tarantino, this might signal the importance of editing over on-set shooting—and indeed the picture clips along well, the action scenes pop in perfect flurries of death—but no matter the elegant and minimal mounting, this picture is exhausting as much as exhilarating. The cartoon impulse mostly works, though Eli Roth’s inevitably bad accent (“The Bear Jew” is from Boston?) is an expected ill. The Basterds costume parade would wear thin, but—were it not for how far Tarantino pushes his parodic, insane contortions of ethical conversation about judgment and identity and cinema’s power over both (the image is autocratic!)—this back-lot buffoonery cackles a big “fuck you” to representation and to any who stand in its way on the road back home, to the movies.

I figured that “The Bear Jew” is from Boston when he compares himself to Ted Williams hitting a ball out of Fenway. Or do you mean the Boston accent was bad?
cinema capitulates to cinema! a film critic who has watched to many films almost spoiles the whole “operation kino” and tragedy IS trash!
Roth’s Boston accent is no more cartoonish than any other element of the film (see: accent on Pitt, or Pitt’s performance in general). Not that it should matter much in assessing its quality, but Roth is from a suburb of Boston (albeit not one that shares the accent he’s imitating). You’re right to point to cinema as a weapon in this film (other examples: “Watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies”; film projection as insurgency; the gangster-film poses of the machine gunning Basterds). I think it hints that maybe Tarantino does believe in something beyond the cinema – the way cinema can be a tool for the incitement of righteous violence. more on that soon.
I guess it’s not exactly the accent that bothers me so much as the put-on of Roth’s whole posture. Maybe it’s a personal hang up, but, really: he’s no good. He’s got no voice, accent or no. All he’s got is big biceps and mascara’d to kingdom come eyelashes.
Is Roth maybe taking a hit because of the films he makes or because he is Tarantino’s buddy in real life? Friends who saw this movie and are not aware of who he is loved the character. There was one exception among my friends and it was someone who was aware that Roth is the maker of the Hostel movies. She said how much she hated him beforehand and called me after seeing the film to say how awful he was after she saw the film. I find that interesting.
I don’t doubt my knowledge of Roth motivates some of my distaste. But, again, I think he’s a bad actor, plain and simple. Mugging all the way, and without a sense of humor.
I think it’s safe to say this film is immature and irresponsible. It is a full expression of Tarantino-ness, in all his stuntedness. But is it a good enough film to overlook that, or give it more weight than it deserves? RWK, you said in your own response to this post: “I think its gravity is earned due to the strength of its mise-en-scene and its conversations.” I respectfully disagree. The editing is good. The visuals are weak and don’t gel. [The whipped cream, the flying cigarette, the guy at the piano at the British HQ.] A random grab bag of remembered images done without attention or originality. The conversations? The dialogue is weak, too. Bad jokes with himself and his style and with the league of movie dorks. But, as you mention, the conversation with himself is interesting (though also embarrassing.) “this might signal the importance of editing over on-set shooting” I agree! The editing is sometimes masterful, weird and interesting. It would have been a good movie if the entire film was just that scene in the cellar bar. Instead, I think Hoberman is right on in his comparison of this film to Schindler’s List.
As with the Roth thing, I don’t doubt my generosity to the picture stems from my pleasure, as I noted in the other comment on VINYL. I also said in that ramble that I could have easily given this review a 2-star rating and turned in the same copy. But I stick with the 4-star thing because I think its ideas about identity and masks are quite cool, and sometimes funny. That said, I will admit it’s a damned puerile sense of humor; the Avery toon Phelps points to is a milli smarter. However, I keep coming back to the cellar bar scene and, yes, the editing — and, believe me!, I also think his work with Richardson is great: the light pours through this fairy tale. Isn’t editing a part of mise-en-scene? How things relate? I think it’s a damned synthetic movie with a fine sense of structure. I also think it’s a goof. Though there isn’t much else of note in wide release, as far as I can tell, I don’t think it’s worth all the time we’re giving it. —As with the other ramble (found here), I’m not re-reading this.
I haven’t read Hoberman’s review yet, but I think QT is certainly responding to all Holocaust ‘entertainment’ like SCHINDLER’S LIST, a typical Oscar-grubbing movie that makes sentimental amusement out of the worst epoch in human history. These weepy epics are all self-congratulatory in a way that sickens me. As an alternative, QT is pursuing the comic vision he displayed so brilliantly in PULP FICTION, namely, that comedy is a fantasy of triumph. Whereas movies like SCHINDLER’S LIST are an orgy of self pity.
I think D Head is onto something about Eli Roth. I was not aware of who he was, and I had no particular complaint. He was just one of many undeveloped characters.

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