Yikes. Inglorious Basterds might be my favorite movie of the year (for the record, I’m still deciding between Up, Drag Me To Hell, District 9, and Tetro in some fashion). It is also probably my favorite Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction.
The revenge picture seems to be making some sort of cinematic comeback. It’s an odd little genre and unlike say Kill Bill, where the revenge is kind of a literal plot level thing, the revenge picture is kind of like a revenge surrogate for the audience in a larger social text. There’s some of the old blaxploitation movies that skewed that direction (eg. Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaass Song) and the rape-revenge movies (like I Spit On Your Grave). The goal of these movies is simple: catharsis. Show the revenge and the audience feels a sense of elation that often don’t get to feel in the reality of those situations. This is not an insidious practice. These movies aren’t advocating revenge in real life or anything (those who say they do, psssh… nonsense), but what does seem to matter is what exactly you’re justifying in revenge. Racial injustice and sexual assault sure make a whole lot of sense , which is why the aforementioned movies relatively embraced by some critical communities. Meanwhile movies with bad revenge desires, like sayyy Death Wish (paraphrasing: “I’m going to go shoot up random minorities cause I’m sick of their shit!”) are much more problematic. Even something like Crash or Glory which are merely made to appease White Guilt I find kind of distressing. So either way it’s kinda murky territory but the point is there are revenge pictures and they serve a function.
So imagine if you will, a World-War 2 revenge picture.
We forget that we kinda used to make them all the time (Dirty Dozen, etc.), but the last decade or more has featured a lot of sobering, serious World War 2 movies. Don’t get me wrong, these films have varying degrees of importance and immersion that I greatly admire, but they also made us forget that we can make audacious non-historical WW2 movies too. It’s OK. Not everything has to be Saving Private Ryan. This bears mentioning because I think I saw about 10 films that felt as if they simply had to be SPR, even with having no reason to be.
Enter Quentin Tarantino, who seems to have come at just a perfect time.
Inglourious Basterds is brash, audacious, tense, vibrant, list of great adjectives with wholly cinematic allure. 95% of it’s running time is rich with the highest quality Tarantino dialogue (not what I felt was sometimes a lame imitation in Death Proof) and those moments are punctuated by brief but intensely violent moments; the kind of moments that are well-served and often built up to brilliantly. The film starts simply “Once upon a time in Nazi Occupied France”, which couldn’t be more perfect because although the settings are often startlingly intimate, the ultimate version of the Third Reich we get here is not all that different from the version we get in Indiana Jones movies; which is to say, the complete encapsulation of movie-time villainy. It’s like we’ve forgotten that you can portray the Nazis that way without turning into an Us vs. Them fascistic dick. You can. It’s okay. It’s part of an accepted movie and cultural language and in our desire to be thoughtful rounded people we have somehow come into the belief that our villians have to be just as thoughtful or rounded. Nonsense. It’s knee jerk liberalism (and this from a hardcore liberal). God, they’re the NAZIS. They were the most hateful and evil group of dicks in the recent history of western civilization. It’s okay to make them the embodiment of evil. BECAUSE THEY WERE.
Now, that is not to say Quentin Tarantino would EVER make the mistake of hollowing out his characters to the point of simplistic archetypes and cutouts. Quite the contrary. For starters Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine knows EXACTLY how to march right up to the line of ridiculousness and keep it… well not grounded, but just grounded enough not to lose the audience. Sure Pitt’s chewing scenery, but he’s doing that infamous tight rope walk where it’s all balanced in perfect movie reality. Ebert talked in his review about Tarantino’s uncanny ability for doing this. He can make a line or moment utterly ridiculous and yet finds this unmistakable way to ground it and give it emotion. Pitt gets to give a tongue thrashing assault and does so with such utter committment I usually find missing in most of his “serious” roles. As a result, it’s probably my favorite Pitt performance. He’s having a ball and so are we; taking absolute delight in every little verbal tick and inversion of his oh-so-balls-out Tennessee diction. It wholly showcase’s Tarantino’s world famous ear for dialogue as it reverberates through and through. He’s a perfect vehicle for the basterd’s grim and unflinching philosophy/behavior as most of them don’t say a word; they’re just an outright presence, scalping their way across the countryside.
As counterpoints, there are the two central females of the film: Melanie Laurant’s Shoshana and Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark. I kind of think it’s better to keep their involvement in the plot a secret, not because it’s twisty or anything, but because it’s just no necessary. Suffice to say they are two completely realized characters with vibrant personality, layers, and depth. This bears mentioning because Tarantino is unfairly thought of as a kind of guy’s guys director and instead, looking over his filmography, he’s litered his films with about a dozen+ fascinating female figures. They get to espouse rich dialogue. They get to perform their butts off. They get to be heroes. He never asks them to get naked. They are more or less treated on an acting level with complete respect. They’re simple characters in other films (ie “the girl”) and here they are something so much more. Let’s stop and think about not only how rare this is, but how incredibly refreshing it is.
This leaves “the bad guy” as a matter of discussion. It has been said many times already but Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., is without a doubt one of the best performances of the year. Probably the best. Landa is such a all encomapassing figure: an authority, a mannered gentlemen, a seething detective, a fucked-up sociopath, a delighted nave, a touch fay, all-together menacing, and yet completely and totally coherent. How can you even do that? It’s a mystery for sure, but it is such a great combination of writing, direction, and performance to be sure. I can’t speak highly enough of it. But it’s one of those performances that EVERYONE gets, like Ledger’s Joker or Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview; no one misses what’s going on from the visceral forefront to the many subtlties at play. It’s a remarkable achievement.
So as for what this whole freaking movie is actually about (and it is about something given my opening bit about Revenge films). Let’s get into what actually happens in this sucker.
WARNING HUGE FUCKING SPOILERS AHEAD BUT ITS WHAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT SO TURN AWAY NOW IF YOU HAVEN”T SEEN IT. REALLY… AND IF YOU REALLY DON’T CARE THEN FINE I SUPPOSE… OKAY… Getting back to the Revenge film bit… Basterds is wholly cathartic because you get to see the war you want to happen and not the war that did. We get to see Nazis utterly shot, scalped, beaten to death, scarred, and blown up. And it’s not like some parade of violent delights either. I mentioned the matter of buildup and punctuated violence which gives all of this said violence some hefty weight. The idea is catharsis in every possible form. And if you’re doing Jewish revenge, if you’re going to go ALL THE WAY with that logic. Then your ending is simple (again spoiler, here’s the ending), why not have your jewish ww2 revenge picture end with Hitler, Goebbles, and all the high ranking nazi officials getting gunned down and burned alive in movie theater? Why not have your more humane Nazis get forever branded with the nazi symbol on the forehead so they “can never take off the uniform.” What the heck is more cathartic than that?
Nothing. It’s the ending we never got. Sure WW2 was born out of revenge for WW1 (more debatable than is commonly accepted by the way), but that’s not a concern. In reality, Hitler was the true to form and cowardly shot himself in a bunker (we’re pretty sure about this). So, in the interest of catharsis, why not shoot him over and over again in the head?
Some critics seem to have a problem with this. Particularly David Denby of the New Yorker (not even going to bother to link to his knee-jerk nonsense). But to label this kind of revenge film as stupid or insensitive is just as stupid or insensitive. That’s because doing so means you’re mistaking Tarantino for an amateurish idiot who indulges in violence or revenge for revenge’s sake. Sure he’s a brash persona, but he’s no dummy. That kind of indulgent simplicity is what many of his imitators do, but not he. Tarantino is a master of both wholly exploiting a genre for all it’s worth and then subverting or transcending it in the most interesting ways. DFW once wrote a great piece on how his lynchian tendencies are played for “coolness” rather than discomfort and therefore lose effect, but I think his work from Pulp Fiction on works beautifully in terms of transcending that surface coolness. He simply cuts above garrishness. It’s not because he has lengthy dialogue scenes or simple tricks like that, which people often mistake for being smart, it’s because of a much more nebulous tone of intellect and emotional gravity. It’s beyond simple irony or dissaffect. It’s genuine care and love for these, the depraved archetypes and conventions at play.
It’s a wholesale acceptance of the human condition, IE understanding that the desire for revenge (in cinematic form) is cathartic even for the most liberal, a-fascist personalities in the world, which once again I am. I’m practically a freakin pacifist, but I can wholly understand and engross myself in the Tarantino ww2 reality. Yet for some reason it seem to urk other critics, colleagues, and friends who find this kind of treatment of a “serious subject” to be offensive. The same people who find Dirty Harry to be some kind of fascistic guide to life. I don’t understand that. It’s like they’ve never seen a movie before. Movies don’t have to espouse your sense of politics or life philosophy (hell, we kind of perfer if they don’t). And I don’t say that in a “it’s just a movie don’t take it seriously” kind of way. I say that in the sense that there’s this cinematic social contract that what you’re seeing is a representation of a kind of dream or inner will. The best directors know what’s happening, acknowledge it, and go past it. But so many people get trapped in Tarantino’s acknoledgement of base tropes, they can’t get past it. Come on! You’re not falling victim to a movie, it’s falling victim to you, ultimately. It’s a such a freaking shame too because they’re missing out on the best kinds of movies. The kind where you get to subvert your own freaking pretentions of what is proper and ride your own id. And unlike most trash, Tarantino guides your id with such utter care and poignancy. God… You’re missing out on those movies.
And missing out on the genius of Inglourious Basterds, probably the best movie of the year.