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Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

The Stop Smiling Review

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
(Weinstein Co.)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Quentin Tarantino must have known this was the one. The last line of his new film, “This might be my masterpiece,” is the kind of brazen immodesty we’ve come to expect from this most self-promoting of American filmmakers, but the joke hits not because it’s delivered by a violent, Apache-Tennessean (the part-Native American Tarantino originally hails from Knoxville) carving a swastika on the forehead of a Nazi, but because the statement is almost entirely deserved. Legends of the director’s gargantuan script for Inglourious Basterds have been around for years, and the final product threatened to duplicate the overwrought, two-“volume” indulgences of Kill Bill — after a 2008 that had many critics lamenting a surfeit of bloated, self-important World War II and Holocaust films, Basterds would be, perhaps, the badly-timed capper. (Not coincidentally, the depoliticization of National Socialism into capital “E” Evil and the overuse of “Nazi” as a hyperbolic insult have practically peaked with the schoolyard-level taunting that’s recently passed for healthcare debate. If any bogeyman villain needs to be retired as a lazy go-to for political hacks and screenwriters, it’s the Nazi.) How welcome, then, that Basterds, while no masterpiece, manages to get at something more than its creator’s too often frivolously exercised visual intelligence and esoteric preoccupations.

To start with, Basterds’ two-and-a-half hour length doesn’t quite advertise how economically constructed its epic canvas is. That legendary script is not an unwieldy monster, after all, but a study in classic Tarantino verbosity, sharp visceral action, and digressive, jigsaw structure. Language is the key to its immediate pleasures and thematic depths. No writer-director has so influenced the American vernacular in the past two decades as Tarantino. His early scripts, peaking with the co-written Pulp Fiction, set a gold standard for hip and macho bon mots, but he, along with so much of movie culture, has been living in their shadow ever since. All of Tarantino’s writing after Pulp Fiction in some way betrays an anxiety to top that watershed moment when irreverent pop references merged with tough guy patois: Jackie Brown solved the problem through adaptation, allowing Tarantino to work from an Elmore Leonard novel that could provide a foundation for his own voice; Kill Bill substituted kinetic style for punchy dialogue until a second half undone by embarrassing bloviation; Death Proof marked the point when the pith of Pulp’s ruminations on salvation and cheeseburgers had devolved into conversation almost entirely for the sake of conversation, the extreme limit of Tarantino’s Seinfeldian tendency toward “nothing.”

Inglourious Basterds, though, contains Tarantino’s best writing, period, mostly by leaving the smarmy shit-shooting behind. Though the exchanges and monologues are characteristically theatrical and serpentine, almost every line is purposeful and loaded with significance precisely because so much is left unsaid. Two of the film’s strongest scenes involve unbearably tense verbal contests of simulation, deception, and detection: the first in the Ford- and Leone-influenced opening, in which Christoph Waltz, as Col. Hans Landa, a notorious high-ranking SS “Jew Hunter,” disarms a French farmer into revealing the hiding place of the Jewish family he’s protecting from the Nazis with no more than a cheery politeness and a glass of milk. The spaghetti Western-ish establishing shots of an isolated cabin in the middle of an idyllic countryside — as well as the nail-it-home first chapter title, “Once Upon a Time . . . in Nazi-Occupied France,” and the incorporation on the soundtrack of “Für Elise” into an instrumental version of Dimitri Tiomkin’s “The Green Leaves of Summer” — promise kitsch. But the suspenseful pacing and brutal crescendo of the eerily quiet scene — through classical composition, editing, and dramatic revelation — instead evoke unironic dread and horror.

Not that Tarantino goes soft on ironic flourishes: Characters are introduced via on-screen block-letters over freeze-frames, Samuel L. Jackson’s anonymous narrator intermittently interrupts to divulge plot points (aided, in one case, by a clip from Hitchcock’s Sabotage), Bowie’s “Cat People” scores a pre-party dress-up montage. These stylistically anachronistic “samplings” are neither gratuitous nuisances nor irreverent fuck-you’s to the contemporary WWII movie’s prestige-ready stuffiness — I found them much less daring or subversive than Tarantino’s displays of restraint, but I also found them “fun” enough to roll with. Only certain performances suffer from Tarantino’s penchant for genre-bending camp. Mike Myers’ Colonel Blimp-like turn as a British military general, while briefly distracting, surprisingly works. But Col. Landa, who at first oozes killer instinct and oily charm, is over time depicted as a hammy buffoon — a disappointing development. Though Tarantino seems to have created this character in tribute to the goofy Nazis of movie history (predictably, Hitler is depicted as a screeching, cape-toting hysteric and Goebbels a sniveling, sycophantic creep), Landa’s mannered tics feel just as unmotivated as his turn-on-a-dime surrender, the latter of which makes no narrative sense.

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