Friday, July 10, 2015

Inglourious Basterds / **** (2009)

For most filmmakers, the first 20 minutes of “Inglourious Basterds” would have been a revelatory accomplishment; for Quentin Tarantino, they are just another demonstration of a transcending artistic philosophy. It all begins with the ominous arrival of a caravan of Nazis at the farm of a noble Frenchman and his daughters, each of whom look upon their sudden fate with the sorts of morose gazes that seem to hint at an ongoing custom of exchange. One of the Germans, a Colonel who has been branded the “Jew Hunter,” has come to investigate the unanswered disappearance of a Jewish family living nearby; they have not yet been accounted for, and in the thick of world war, an unclaimed enemy of the state – especially for the Germans – suggests an imperfect military operation. The setup is framed in a context that recalls the most pointed of western stand-offs: the key characters banter uncomfortably, exchange digressed platitudes, and then engage in a polite showdown of wits that concludes in a stretch of tragic implications, all of them executed under the weight of precise stylistic tension. But because the screenplay refuses to treat the scenario from a conventional war perspective, that also takes the material into a realm far removed from our initial expectations. It only serves to provide a modest point of interest, too; as a prologue to something more sweeping, these minutes are a precise marriage of skill and delivery, a display of flawless filmmaking to effectively arrange all the fearless impulses that will follow.

What is it about this potent, almost mythical ideology that Tarantino uses to strike these chords? The reality is that he understands more about the orchestration of a film experience than any of his contemporaries, and never wavers from placing himself in the role of the devious conductor of a macabre symphony. As we watch on with perplexed glee at all he throws towards us during the course of his movies, we find ourselves at a loss of reasoning, and in ecstasy of visceral accomplishments. Sometimes that comes through in violent dreaminess, at other times with choreographed precision. But in a career that now spans three decades and half a dozen notable achievements, not once has he succumbed to the conventional wisdom of the modern Hollywood machine. His pictures are, even now, the sorts of entertainments that are enriched by an awareness of their values, and remain timeless wonders that do not date or compromise themselves in the grain of the zeitgeist.

“Kill Bill” and “Pulp Fiction” ought to have been more than enough to exemplify Tarantino’s distinctive panache, but “Inglourious Basterds” is by far his most entertaining film: a smart, sophisticated and perplexing blend of wisdom and attitude that takes bold risks, sneers at convention and then still has enough audacity to rewrite the history books for one last daring climax. The implication that this all must happen with sincerity to historical circumstances, furthermore, is a conceit that is obliterated by his progressive world views. His motives are anchored in a compelling thought process: what business does literal interpretation have in any movie where the functions are rooted in the retribution of characters who are wronged so drastically? Here is a man who freely asks all of that in a premise that insists the preservation of facts, and decides unequivocally that his perspective must trump all forms of continuity. This is not a war film at all; it is a morality play about the most extreme act of vengeance, set against the backdrop of a time when fate ought to have insisted more justice than what was really delivered. In that regard, it’s a liberating celebration of our desire to answer tragedy with more adequate resolutions.

The center of the picture is Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor a Jewish family slaughtered after attempting to hide, unsuccessfully, from invasive Nazis. Following her narrow escape, she integrates herself into French society by taking up ownership of a local movie theater, cautiously attempting to remain passive in the face of Nazi occupation even when a show-off officer (Daniel Bruhl) attempts to impress her with his knowledge of cinema. He is like an eager insect that refuses to flutter away, but perhaps with good reason: it comes to Shosanna’s notice that he is a high-ranking official of the German military, and the Reich has just finished filming a propaganda picture called “Nation’s Pride” in which he is the star of his own story. The kicker: the Nazi’s want to move the site of the film’s premiere to her venue as a way of getting its message out to more local sorts, which only goes to fuel a quiet desire in her to exact revenge. That implication is, of course, a warranted gesture for a survivor of Jewish persecution, and the aforementioned prologue instills those possibilities in a shrewd moment when the vengeful “Jew Hunter” catches sight of her running across an open field, points his pistol in her direction and… never pulls the trigger.

Meanwhile, a quirky ensemble of renegade Jewish American soldiers known as the “Basterds” have risen to notoriety in the European countryside as merciless Nazi assassins, who murder soldiers left and right, scalp them like game trophies and then occasionally return survivors in order to spread a single bleak message: that the opposition is coming for all of their fascist heads. The team is spearheaded by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a no-nonsense sort who speaks like one of John Wayne’s more obscene ancestors, and mixes his straightforward wisdom with a confidence that powers the external engine of his crew of violent wisecrackers. Among them: a former prisoner of war named Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweigher) who was acquired by the Basterds after developing a notoriety as a very violent – and prolific – Nazi killer; and Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), who carries the moniker of “The Bear Jew” and kills with a baseball bat after exchanging piercing gazes with his victims. To these men, the act of murdering Nazi soldiers isn’t so much a necessity of war as it is a very extreme sport, and they take an almost orgasmic glee in being at the controls of such deeds. Their revenge, of course, is peripheral, and Tarantino uses it to facilitate a sentiment in his audience that will inevitably be amplified by a convergence of their agendas with that of Shosanna’s, all of whom are destined to intersect when each of them gets word that the premiere of “Nation’s Pride” may or may not involve the attendance of four of the most important figureheads of the Third Reich.

As is the case with any of the director’s great movies, however, the destination is just an obligatory checkpoint in a journey where moments must be seized for building an audience’s overall enthusiasm. Every piece of the picture – an exchange of thought, an observation, a perceptive monologue, a study of interactions, a minor subplot or a mandatory violent shoot-out – serves the dual purpose of being momentary as well as additive, used to capture the interest of eager observers in those precise instances all while developing their interest into something beyond measure that must rise to the surface during the story’s final curtain call. More often than not, Tarantino does not just rely on his skill as a thorough storyteller, either; he places his material in the hands of actors who are intoxicated by the details, and they pitch it towards us in a devious conviction of snarling mannerisms and colorful euphemisms. Consider, as a prime example, the wonderful Christoph Waltz; a revelation as the menacing “Hunter” of Jews, he is a flat-out force of nature here, a madman who is smart beyond most indications and uses deep perception to move himself amongst contrasting players like a chess piece that must remain two steps ahead of the opponent. Pitt, on the flip side, is sincere and stalwart, even by the standards of his fairly generic characterization; there is a moment in the final scene that on paper must have been maddeningly straightforward, but he delivers it so effortlessly – and with such overbearing charisma – that we smile with an almost sadistic glee at his delivery.

Other prospects are delivered with equal levels of ambition. There is a brilliant sequence later on that takes place in the basement of a tavern that, too, plays as straightforward narrative; on screen, the intensity of the interactions is so unwavering that we get soaked up in their tension, and the unspoken motives of three factions – the Basterds, the Nazis and a double-agent with uncertain motives – offer added insights into many of the dialogue exchanges. Notice, also, how certain characters call emphasis to their faces in moments where the intentions are not exactly clear. How are we to know if one person has caught onto the identity of the other if there was no choreography in their gestures? Watching this arrangement of interactions, one must be in awe of the added depth that Tarantino piles into his scenes, all of which are usually written in simplistic passages and then brought to crescendo by the chutzpah of actors and cinematographers that fill in the details with an oomph of attitude and cheekiness.

None of this would be plausible, either, if not for the wry humor that saturates the material. Everything that the Basterds do is driven by the male ego; they don’t bother to stop or pause to consider their actions, because the Nazis are just numbers, and the act of slaughter is less a justification and more a prize in a game of egos. That does not imply what they do undermines the intentions of Tarantino’s screenplay, either; nor does it imply that those involved are just objects of testosterone to drive the violence. Because they are critical in the implementation of tone, they are perhaps purposely flamboyant. A more subdued display, I fear, might have been too tame a conduit for audience enthusiasm. Similarly, that also plays right into the film’s absurd portrayal of villains. Lander is effectively shrewd and dangerous, but also a little silly. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, comes off as an over-achiever in dogged pursuit of the approval of his Fuhrer. And Hitler himself, ordinarily a menacing orator in more deadpan portrayals, is conveyed here as little more than a loud and obnoxious caricature, a Napoleon type clearly compensating for his almost ridiculous presence.

This all would be more than enough to create a very good movie in its own right, but the movie refuses to stop there. A champion of the continued use of film stock in an era overrun by digital filmmaking, Tarantino also ensures that his endeavor plays as an ode to the spirit of vintage cinema; aside from the fundamental homages to spaghetti westerns and post-war buddy pictures, there are even discussions between characters about the industry of the 1940s, some of which is surprisingly insightful. What other director, as an example, would bother including a scene in which characters debate the relevance of Leni Riefenstahl, or an image in which we spy the name Henri-Georges Clouzot – then the most popular filmmaker of France – on a nearby marquee? Who would take the time to explain the dangers of nitrate film stock to an audience that probably has never even heard of it? And what other filmmaker would bother creating a scenario in which a British film critic must impersonate a Nazi officer, and then debrief him on his mission only after he is asked to contrast Goebbels with the more notable studio heads of Hollywood, like Louie B. Mayer and David O. Selznick? It is one thing to be in awe of a film’s craftsmanship, but another thing entirely to find ourselves captivated a director’s cheeky bravado. “Inglorious Basterds” is the most blatant announcement of that possibility, a masterwork of the medium that permeates the spirit and sweat of its very gifted filmmaker, and then throws it all back in a way that fascinates, entertains, shocks and delights well beyond the very last frame.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/War (US); 2009; Rated R; Running Time: 153 Minutes

Brad Pitt: Lt. Aldo Raine
Melanie Laurent: Shosanna
Christoph Waltz: Col. Hans Landa
Eli Roth: Sgt. Donny Donowitz
Michael Fassbender: Lt. Archie Hicox
Diane Kruger: Bridget von Hammersmark
Daniel Bruhl: Fredrick Zoller
Til Schweigher: Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz

Produced by Lawrence Bender, William Paul Clark, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Bruce Moriarty, Lloyd Phillips, Pilar Savone, Erica Steinberg, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein and Carl L. Woebcken; Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino

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