Saturday, April 20, 2013

Inglourius Basterd

I wrote this piece almost two full months ago. At first I intended to write about Tarantino's treatment of women in Inglourious Basterds, but I got caught up in so many other things I wanted to talk about that I never got there. Two months later, the steam for finishing this piece as wound down, but I'll give you this work in progress all the same.

For a time in college I absolutely loved Quentin Tarantino. As far as I was concerned, the man could do no wrong. I watched and rewatched Pulp Fiction any chance I could. I'm not sure exactly what triggered it, whether it was Kill Bill Part Two or the car movie that I never actually saw getting bad reviews, but I got sick of Tarantino movies. Actually, maybe the watching and rewatching might have something to do with that.

Tarantino-ness is a hard thing to accurately define, especially since I just made that word up. It's easy to pick out pieces of it though: gratuitous barefoot women, excessive violence, weird oldies music, nonsensical film techniques and so on. I don't want to say "avaunt-garde", because it's not quite weird enough to be called that, but I think it's fair to say that for mainstream culture, he's just about as far left-field as one can be and still make money. And here's the thing, I don't think being weird for the sake of being weird is great art. Furthermore, it annoys me. So, one day while listening to Pulp Fiction's wacky yet lovable soundtrack for the 100th time, I just got sick of it. I didn't want anything to do with Tarantino-ness for a while.

Django Unchained just came out in theaters a short while ago, so you'd think I'd be reviewing that one, talking about Tarantino so much. I never saw Death Proof, and I heard it was bad, so I probably never will. Until a short while ago, I never Inglouious Basterds, but I heard it was great. With the new movie getting great reviews as well (including from my favorite film critics) I thought I should give Tarantino-ness another chance. I still hate weird for being weird, but that's where I'm coming from when I watch this.

First off, there's a few great things in this movie. For one, Tarantino didn't cast himself in any capacity, which is awesome. He unfortunately cast Eli Roth though, who sucks at acting just as much as he does at life. At one point, Eli Roth gets all excited over killing a guy and is running around yelling and congratulating himself like he just did the most bestest macaroni painting in the whole wide world. I imagine it was supposed to be written as his character being easily excitable or insane or bloodthirsty or something, but I get the feeling that everyone watching him during the shoot is thinking, "Jesus, shut the fuck up, Eli." Also, Tarantino loves being post-modern, doesn't he? Yes, you cast a torture-porn director as the most violent character in the movie. Congrats on being clever, but the guy can't act worth a shit and nobody realized who he was until they IMDBed it later.

Another thing that I like in this movie is most of the dialogue, and a few scenes are fantastic. Due to the episodic nature of Tarantino movies (and why do that exactly? I can't think of a reason except to be weird again. Maybe to show the title of the chapters, I guess?) I can actually remember most scenes. The very first scene, I think, is a preview to how the rest of the movie will go.

If you know anything about this movie, you'll know that it's a subversion of expectations, and this is established pretty early on. There is a diary farmer hiding a Jewish family in his floorboards, and is visited by a commanding officer in the SS. The convenient thing about having Nazis in your movie is they are a handy narrative shortcut for "evil at any cost". We know that if the dairy farmer tips his hand even slightly, the SS will liquidate him, his home, his family and the Jewish family he's sheltering. This particular officer gives off a very menacing atmosphere, but the dairy farmer seems collected, stoic and unintimidated. It comes as a large shock when he gives up the Jewish family rather easily and then watches as the SS shoot and kill the family through the floor. This turn of events pulls the rug out from under the audience and not for the last time. There are a few small examples throughout the film (the scene in the projecter's booth, the bar scene has no less than 3 subversions of expectations) and they all build up to the big twist that the plan to kill Hitler actually succeeds. (You would think with so many smaller twists throughout the movie, we would have figured it out long ago.)

For the entire second half of the movie, the audience is under the assumption that the plan will fail and all the characters will die, because of course Hitler didn't die in a theater. This theme is established early on and it teaches the audience that anything can happen in this movie. In most movies, if you see Brad Pitt, you'll safely assume he'll live to see the end. (He does, but that's besides the point.) This movie makes you remember that everybody is killable or corruptable.

However, there's two things in the first scene that don't make any sense. If I'm missing something, please tell me.

First, the character of Landa comes off as being rather ruthless, fancies himself a kind of detective, and seems to relish in his duties. He remarks that he enjoys the nickname he's given by his enemies ("The Jew Hunter") and compliments himself on his ability to out think the people he's "hunting". As I said, he's coldblooded, choosing to execute the Jewish family living under the floorboards, when they could have just as easily been arrested. (I don't want to bring too much historical accuracy in a movie about shooting Hitler in the face a million billion times, but I don't think this early in the war was "kill Jewish people on sight" time.) However, when Shosanna makes her escape, he pulls out his gun and watches her go. Had this been a different character, it would show an interesting moment of humanity, but with Landa, it seems contradictory to everything we know about him and everything we just saw him do. You think you're Sherlock Holmes, dude? The person whom you were very clearly interested in killing just a minute ago is right in front of you. Open and shut case.

Another point is why Shosanna is even here in the first place. Did you think about it at the end of the movie? Because she isn't characterized in this scene whatsoever. We have no idea about her relationship to her family or her personality or anything, and it would have been so easy to do, too. A 15-second shot with her under the floorboards. Her father holds her close to comfort her and she seems calm. Or maybe she shows a playful smile to her younger sister, showing her that everything will be ok. Perhaps we notice her clutching her most prized possession, a film camera. But nope, none of that. Instead we get the back of her head. Why was she included in this scene? Well, the answer is that we need to connect Landa with Shosanna and give her motive for revenge.

The problem is that that motive is completely unnecessary. Yes, she had motive for revenge, but by the end of the motive, she doesn't personally do anything to Landa. She doesn't even confront him. Also, I would be pretty pissed at the dairy farmer if I were her, but he's never seen again. There was really no purpose to connect these two characters except for the strudel scene. And revenge? Sure, I guess she'd want to kill any Nazi to avenge her family, but she doesn't bring up her family again for the rest of the movie. If she doesn't seem to remember, why should we? A character I would have loved to have seen would be one willing to sacrifice the theater she'd been working towards her entire life, her entire film collection, her beloved and her own life for the sake of the greater good. Instead we got this lame half-written, cliched revenge plot. Of course, the jokes on me for falling victim to Tarantino-ness. The femme-fatale, revenge-seeking character is the only thing he knows how to write.

Dammit, now I hate Tarantino again. And just when I was about to give him a chance.
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