Once upon a time, in Quentin Tarantino’s universe
Gather round, boys and girls, and listen to your Auntie Gena tell you a story about my origins as a film snob. Being that I was a lonely, introverted only child, I spent a lot of time alone, either reading or watching TV. Luckily, my parents got cable when it was still considered a luxury, which made my TV watching experience that much better. We rarely paid the phone bill on time, but dammit, we had HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Prism, the works. Mostly I watched horror movies, but occasionally, because my parents rarely monitored what I watched to make sure it was age appropriate, I saw stuff like A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver and Looking for Mr. Goodbar as well, all of which could be considered horror movies of a different kind. I didn’t claim to understand any of them very well, but I found them deeply fascinating, mainly because they were just so different than much of the other stuff that was on TV and in the theaters, where everything was bright and happy, and everybody always got what they wanted at the end.
I particularly embraced the “different” aspect of it once I entered high school, when I convinced myself that my problem wasn’t that I was a socially maladjusted geek, but that I was simply living in a place that didn’t appreciate my “eccentricities.” It certainly didn’t appreciate film snobs–I lived in an area where there were exactly two movie theaters within a forty mile radius, and their idea of an “art film” was Fatal Attraction. Instead I haunted the local video store near my grandparents’ house, one of those dying breed tiny mom and pop run places that rented porn in an area curtained off in the back, slowly but methodically working my way through the horror section, but also trying to educate myself in other areas as well. I was on a big Martin Scorsese trip for a while, followed by Francis Ford Coppola, followed by Stanley Kubrick, followed by Brian DePalma. I read magazines like Premiere and Movieline, before they both gave in and went the fluff route, plus the harder to find stuff like Film Threat and Cinemafantastique. I worshiped Joe Queenan’s ability to dissect such sacred cows as Woody Allen with a sense of humor as sharp and cutting as an X-acto blade fresh out of the package. I actually aspired to be a film critic myself, that’s how pretentious I became, until it occurred to me that, being I also liked movies like the Naked Gun series and stood in line with the other plebes to watch Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night, I should probably get over myself a tad.
I do have a point here, somewhere. I’ve watched a lot of movies, particularly during my teens and into my early twenties. Many of those movies I’ve seen numerous times, but only twice did I ever watch a movie on video, get to the end, then immediately rewind it and watch it again. One of those movies was Heathers. The other was Reservoir Dogs.
It’s a cliche to describe a movie as “like nothing I’d ever seen before,” but Reservoir Dogs was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The dialogue buzzed and crackled, the plot was deceptively simple yet dizzyingly sharp. To this day I can watch it and still find something I missed before. The most amazing thing was that the writer/director, Quentin Tarantino, was a high school dropout who worked in a video store while working on the script. He wasn’t a Hollywood insider, he wasn’t related to anyone in the business, he got his first big break through sheer perserverance and talent. He was an inspiration for all of us underdogs who thought we could do a better job of making movies, or at least, talking about them, than those who were signing the contracts and rolling in profits.
Cut to seventeen years later, and Quentin Tarantino is a millionaire filmmaker, while I’m a blogger who has started several screenplays, even finished one, yet has done nothing with any of them, either because I discover that my idea isn’t as original as I initially thought, or because, well, it probably sucks. I have no hard feelings towards Quentin Tarantino, though, as success stories like his are such a rarity in the film industry that the chances of it happening a second time, at the same level are almost negligible. It also helps that he hasn’t gotten lazy and boring. He hasn’t taken a $20 million contract to direct a film adaptation of The Six Million Dollar Man. He hasn’t resorted to cliched plots involving split personalities or evil twins no one knows about until the script calls for it to be discovered. Thankfully, blessedly, he hasn’t discussed a great desire to write and direct a conventional romantic comedy. Even his weaker movies in his near-twenty year career are still pretty darn good, and they get better upon repeated viewings. Yes, I even liked Death Proof, his segment in Grindhouse, a whole lot, and I’m not at all averse to saying that if you didn’t like it, you pretty much missed the entire point of Grindhouse and the genre of film it was emulating. But I digress. In fact, this entire article up to this point has been one long digression, so let’s get to the real meat and potatoes: my thoughts on Tarantino’s latest Inglourious Basterds, his first period piece, a WWII saga that is one of his funniest, exciting, most gripping films yet.
Inglourious Basterds stars Brad Pitt, though he’s not in it as much as the trailers would have you believe, nor is the movie about him specifically. He plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the Tennessee-born leader of a group of renegade Jewish soldiers, the “Basterds” of the title, who kidnap, torture and murder Nazi soldiers, often scalping them for souvenirs. They’re a fearsome group, with such particularly notorious members as Sgt. Stieglitz (Til Schweiger) and the baseball bat wielding Sgt. Donowitz (Eli Roth), known as “the Bear Jew.” While Raine and his Basterds are weaving a path of destruction through the French countryside, on their way to meeting a German spy, we also make the acquaintance of Sgt. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a high-ranking Nazi officer whose speciality is finding Jews in hiding, mostly with just his master detective skills and smooth, oddly charming interrogation tactics. The film opens with Landa questioning a French farmer, wearing him down until he admits to hiding a Jewish family in his basement, all without a single threat, or even raising his voice. He prefers using charm, gentle but persistent persuasion and mind games to get the answers he wants; in fact it seems that the answers themselves are mostly arbitrary.
Landa’s soldiers murder the family, save for one member who escapes: oldest daughter Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), who flees to Paris, changes her name and becomes the proprietor of a movie theater, with her romantic partner Marcel (Jacky Ido) as the sole employee. Shoshana meets a German war hero (Daniel Brühl), who is immediately so smitten with her that he requests that a film made about his exploits, directed by Joseph Goebbels himself, be premiered at her theater. Shoshana and Marcel then come up with a plan to set fire to the theater during the premiere, using highly flammable silver nitrate film, killing everyone from Goebbels to Heinrich Müller all the way up to Hitler himself. Though they never cross paths with Shoshana, the Basterds have their own plan to destroy the theater and kill Hitler, et. al. themselves, infiltrating it with the help of Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful actress working as a spy.
Now, obviously Inglourious Basterds isn’t going for historical accuracy, nor has Tarantino ever claimed that it was. I don’t even know that you could classify it as “alternative history,” since we’re given no indicator of what kind of far-reaching change would have occurred if the events in the film had actually taken place. It’s more like history as Quentin Tarantino, and probably a lot of people, would have liked it. I’ll be frank, it’s kind of amusing to imagine a bunch of tough Jews causing Nazis to quake in their jackboots over stories of fellow soldiers being beaten to death, the survivors set free but not before swastikas are carved into their foreheads with a very big knife (the one pictured in the photo above, to be exact). It’s not minimizing or making light of the true horror of World War II, specifically the Holocaust, as some of Tarantino’s critics have suggested. People still like watching John Wayne’s The Green Berets, even though only the most jingoistic, gullible fools would still insist we won in Vietnam. It’s all just escapism, enjoying what could have been rather than what actually was.
This has become the longest film review of all time, so let me try to at least begin wrapping it up. It’s impossible, really, to say in just a few sentences what I most enjoyed about Inglourious Basterds, and yet I’ll try: few films have you both laughing and literally wringing your hands in nervousness, and this is one of them. A scene that takes place in a tavern unexpectedly overrun with Nazis, where some of the Basterds and their spy contact try to keep their cover from blowing, is like watching a lit fuse move slowly but steadily towards a pile of dynamite. They know they’re going to get caught, you know they’re going to get caught, it’s only a matter of when and how, and it’s deliciously torturous. It’s a smart film made by a smart writer who respects his audience and knows that they’ll understand what’s happening without his having to spell everything out for them. It’s one of the things I like best about Quentin Tarantino, besides the fact that he writes excellent roles for women and he rarely resorts to gratuitious sex and nudity to pad an empty script.
The acting is uniformly strong, though, and I realize I’m probably the sixtieth or so self-professed “critic” to say this, the real star of the show is Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa. In his American film debut (though he’s been an actor for nearly thirty years), he’s nothing short of marvelous, quietly intimidating, droll yet a little silly at times, particularly his delight in discovering American slang. You buy from the minute he appears on screen that despite his smile and impeccable manners, he is not someone to be crossed, not one little bit. May he enjoy a career in competing with Jeremy Irons for roles, since they share that similar reptilian, chilly charm, one where even the most seemingly benign interactions are tinged with quiet menace. You can easily see how someone would be drawn into conversation with him, despite there being something just not right about it, the sense that he is a cat carefully working a mouse into a corner, doing God only knows what when it gets there. I don’t know any other actor, particularly one who was already well known, who would have been able to do the role without lapsing into Oscar pandering showboating.
So yeah, Tarantino, to use a bit of Hollywood hyperbole, has done it again. He may come off as a bit douchey in real life, but if I had the brains and creativity to make the kinds of movies he does, I would too. Hell, I come off as a bit douchey here, and I don’t have a single film credit to my name.