Thursday, December 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (Weinstein Co., Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie the Bears San Diego showed two nights ago was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — the deliberate misspelling was much discussed when the film was released theatrically (Tarantino gave a very rude I’m-not-going-to-tell-you response when he was asked about it in an interview) but appears to be a reflection of the virtually illiterate status of the central character, Tennessee moonshiner turned U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), so named by Tarantino as a weird tribute to the mediocre 1950’s actor Aldo Ray. (Aldo Ray was the guy Harry Cohn wanted to play Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, even though Ray himself knew he wasn’t a good enough actor for the part — and so did the film’s director, Fred Zinnemann, who finally faced down Cohn and said, “Either Montgomery Clift plays Prewitt, or you can find yourself another director.”)

This isn’t a movie I would ordinarily have gone to see (or bought on DVD) — Charles and I had never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie before because we were put off by his reputation for insane amounts of violence, but Inglourious Basterds turned out to be a bad movie in a way neither of us were expecting: it was boring. The nasty stuff Tarantino is known for was certainly there — from a special effect that allows his World War II Allied commandos literally to scalp the Nazis they kill to some quite explosive, staccato scenes shot with an almost cartoon-like lack of affect (when a director like Sam Fuller with a real understanding of war, which he got from having been a combat soldier himself, does violence the effect is shocking in its revelation of the pointlessness of all this killing; when a guy like Tarantino, whose sole reference point seems to be other people’s movies, does it it’s just gratuitous and disgusting) — but it’s stuck in as arbitrarily like the sex scenes in a porn film, and compared to a porn film far more of Inglourious Basterds’ running time is taken up by boring reams of exposition to set up the action highlights.

Tarantino’s aesthetic as a director is never spend three seconds on a scene that can be stretched to last three minutes, with the result that a basic plot that a hack “B” director from the 1940’s could have got on and off screen in a little over an hour here lasts 153 minutes. (In fact, some “B” filmmakers in the 1940’s did get this type of story on and off screen in a little over an hour in a similarly plotted film called Hitler: Dead or Alive, in which a rich American offers $1 million to the first hit man who can off Hitler — and in the final scene Hitler does indeed die, but is replaced by a double without either the German people or anyone else being the wiser. Tarantino actually mentioned this film as an influence in an interview.) Oddly, the first “chapter” of Inglourious Basterds is by far the best part of the film: a Jewish family named Dreyfus is being sheltered on the farm of another (non-Jewish) family in the French countryside, and the establishing images at the start of the movie look like Millet’s paintings of French rural life (kudos to Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson for not shooting these scenes in past-is-brown orthodoxy) and give a haunting quality to the opening scenes.

The farm is visited by SS Col. Hans Linda (Christoph Waltz, whose quiet, understated villainy steals the film straight out from under Brad Pitt and the other better-known actors), who in a series of extraordinarily subtle (at least by Tarantino standards) scenes worms out of the farmer that he’s hiding Jews under the floorboards of the farmhouse. Linda calls in his squad and four of the five Dreyfus family members are killed immediately. The fifth, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), escapes and turns up two “chapters” later running a movie theatre in Paris she inherited from an aunt and uncle. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army forms a unit called the “Basterds,” a group of commandos whose assignment is to kill “Nazis” (by which they mean anyone in the German military, whether they’re card-carrying Party members or not) and rack up as high a body count as possible. The unit is headed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and includes a motley group of people — including a renegade German sergeant, Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who killed 13 German servicemembers (whether by accident or out of disgust with Nazism is a plot point Tarantino, ordinarily so forthcoming in his exposition, never lets us in on) — who tear up the German countryside and are as deceitful as the people they’re up against, making deals for surrender and then double-crossing the Germans who try to surrender to them and blowing them away again.

The two plot threads converge on Shosanna’s movie theatre, which has won the right to premiere a German war movie, Nation’s Pride, about the adventures of a sniper, Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), and the real Zoller and his co-star, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) — who’s really an agent for British intelligence (don’t ask) are scheduled to be there. So, after a lot more boring exposition, are the crème de la crème of high-level Nazidom: Hitler (Martin Wuttke) Göring , Bormann and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Both Shosanna and the “Basterds” plan to assassinate the whole Nazi leadership at the theatre (I doubt if Tarantino was consciously thinking of a parallel to the alleged Southern plot in 1865 to assassinate the whole top leadership of the Union government right after Lee’s surrender — Lincoln was killed, of course, and secretary of state Henry Seward was wounded by an attacker, but the guy who was supposed to take out vice-president Andrew Johnson got drunk instead — but the similarities are interesting): Shosanna by setting her own theatre ablaze by using her stores of nitrate film as an incendiary device (by way of explanation as to how flammable nitrate film was Tarantino inserts a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage — I think it’s ill-advised for a director at Tarantino’s level to insert a clip from a director on Hitchcock’s; it only makes Tarantino seem even worse than he is) — and the “Basterds” by going in there with bombs and blowing the place up even if that means they take themselves out as well (so this is a film in which suicide bombers are the heroes).

Raine and another “Basterd” are captured by Col. Landa before the attack is scheduled, but Landa, figuring by then that his side has already lost the war, offers a deal by which he will allow the attack to go forward if he gets a real sweetheart deal, including a free house in Nantucket, after the war … and the theatre duly blows up (after embarrassing the Nazis by showing a special sequence Shosanna and her Black assistant made up and inserted into the fourth reel of Nation’s Pride to condemn them — apparently Tarantino had read or seen The Magic Christian) while Landa gets a swastika carved on his face (a trick the “Basterds” have pulled on most of the Nazis they haven’t outright killed) just to make sure he can’t blend unobtrusively into American society after the war.

Quentin Tarantino’s chutzpah in rewriting a major slice of world history so the principal Nazis meet an end quite different from the ones they actually did isn’t the biggest problem with Inglourious Basterds; nor is Tarantino’s knack for highly stylized violence. The biggest problems are its slowness, its reams of exposition (far more than needed to explain the plot — I’d faulted Public Enemies for its overall slowness but it’s a work of irresistible kinetic energy compared to Inglourious Basterds!) and its sense of being drawn from movies instead of life. As one example, Quentin Tarantino wanted Ennio Morricone to write an original score for his film, but Morricone’s heavy schedule prevented this. No problem; Tarantino simply raided Morricone’s (and others’) previous soundtracks for the music — gaining a quite impressive patchwork score but also leaving us in the audience wondering, “Where have we heard that before?,” just as many of his visuals give us the feeling, “Where have we seen that before?”