Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tarantino Is Fighting for the People

My jury seems to be permanently out on this guy. His penchant for giddy mash-ups of obscure genres and insistence on subverting convention makes his movies suit cinephiles quite nicely. Then again, it is hard to argue that they do much else beyond such academic exercises. Then again, Quentin Tarantino's uncanny understanding of what makes movies tick comes with some serious talent to back it up. Then again, the man is downright devoid of taste. I could go on for quite a while, but the bottom line is: Tarantino is what he is, so go with it or go home.

If any premise is going to make Americans choose the former, it is that of "Inglourious Basterds." The titular men are a group of Jewish-American soldiers (led by Brad Pitt) who have decided to go into World War II France before any of their fellow troops do. Their plan is to cut their way through France, engaging any Nazis they find in polite discourse designed to expose the error of their ways... and then scalp them. Perhaps the most surprising thing for most audience members, however, will be just how little screen time the Basterds get.

The film has another protagonist, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish refugee, who operates a Paris cinema. She, ironically, finds herself closer to the film's symbolic front lines, as she confronts Joseph Goebbels and is forced to host the premiere of the propagandist's final flourish, a film about a famous Nazi sniper. The Basterds are charged, by the English military, to take advantage of this unprecedented gathering of Nazi officials and blow the theater to hell. Yet, Dreyfus has her own vengeful plans. As the night approaches and the characters converge on the theater, there is a revelation that raises the stakes of the mission far beyond what the Basterds could have imagined and, well, the rest is historical fiction.

The liberties that "Inglourious Basterds" takes with history are what make it as interesting as it is. It portrays a Nazi party in a state of paranoia. Hitler is a caricature and the men around him seem to know it. The Basterds have him flustered and he is looking to make grand gestures in an attempt to quell the fear among his men. The film's primary antagonist is Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the man charged with rounding up the Jews in France. He is shrewd, cool and, often, bizarre – everything history has attributed to Hitler. So, while the film's Hitler is absorbed with increasingly minute efforts at maintaining his empire, Landa is doing the dirty work. It is a good writing choice, as it allows Tarantino to, at once, lampoon history and rewrite it to great dramatic effect.

While the film's primary characters may be a bit surprising, this script is a strikingly conventional one for Tarantino. "Basterds" is largely devoid of the narrative digressions and convolutions for which he is known. (There are two brief, narrated asides. They are quite fun and actually made me want to see more.) He, instead, chooses to tell a straightforward story that is fueled by suspense. That suspense, however, is incredibly effective. The film's first major scene methodically builds extreme tension. There are a number of other, equally effective confrontations that, while they may not be fueled by vibrant characters, utilize the inherent tension of the setting to its utmost.

Tarantino's direction in these scenes is textbook. He never plays his hand too soon, allowing conversation to slowly unfold, revealing the characters' anger and fear with each line. Medium shots only give way to close-ups at the very last moments before the breaking point is reached. When the point does come, the violence is shocking and stylized, obviously, but it has also gained a significant amount of dramatic weight. Unfortunately, there are so many great scenes like this in the film's first four chapters that the climax in incapable of topping them. By the time the inevitable showdown is looming, the desire to see it happen far outweighs any interest in further delay. This final delay also seems to hurt the wonderfully constructed aura that Col. Landa has established, by revealing his motivations as something far pettier than expected. It takes some of the wind out of a climax that otherwise proves to be a potent mix of shocking irony, giddy catharsis and eerie symbolism – you know, grade-A Tarantino stuff.

Col. Landa, by the way, is played wonderfully. Christoph Waltz manages to make ordering cream sound like a death threat. He makes his character's monstrous powers tangible in the film's first standoff, as he calmly lets his victims languish in fear, manipulating the action with such dexterity that he seems to be directing the scene from within the film. Most of the other performances are firmly in the shadow of Waltz's, but there are plenty of solid ones here. Brad Pitt has plenty of fun with Lt. Aldo Raine. His backwater elocution is quite amusing and downright hilarious when Italian is added to the mix. Mélanie Laurent strikes a great balance with her character, displaying understandable fear and unadulterated drive in equal parts. Her application of rouge in the buildup to the climax is one of the film's most memorable visuals; it solidifies her as the film's true warrior. The ranks of the Basterds remain largely anonymous, apart from Eli Roth, who lays it on thick as the team's muscle and Til Schweiger, who is amusing as a psychopathic Nazi defector.

That "Inglourious Basterds" is the first Quentin Tarantino movie to be distributed by a major movie studio in the States is no surprise. This movie is the biggest crowd pleaser he will probably ever make. It is interesting to see the filmmaker take this turn; it suggests that he is finally tiring of his academic obsession with genre and expectation. Nevertheless, "Basterds" is unequivocally his work, painting a picture of a World War II that is fought in the cinemas as much as it is in the streets. Even if the story gets away from him a bit in the end, the film defies expectations in subtler ways than his past films have. It may not rock the boat nearly as much as "Pulp Fiction" did, but this movie's appealing premise allows it to indulge Tarantino's imagination as much as it does that of the audience – something that his other films never really did.

1 comment:

Josh said...

not one reference to Hitchcock. needless to say i am disappointed.