Sunday, September 06, 2009


My feelings about Quentin Tarantino go like this:

I love Pulp Fiction. I hated Jackie Brown. Reservoir Dogs is completely overrated, although well-crafted and very watchable. The Kill Bills were both very good. I didn't bother seeing his self-indulgent "Grindhouse" films.

The world of cinema simultaneously owes an enormous debt to Tarantino (the non-linear narratives, the importance of dialogue, the combination of violence and humor) and idolizes him far too much (the reliance on non-linear narrative, his reliance on his dialogue, his reliance on violence and humor). He is one of the great cinematic talents of this generation, but he's also one of the most derivative and sometimes becomes way too enthralled with his own sensibility.

Having said that, I saw Inglourious Bastards today, and this is the kind of movie that I have a feeling will stick with me for a while.


There are so many things to love about it, and yet so many things I would change. Basically the plot is that two separate factions are on unknowingly on a collision course to try and topple the Third Reich in Nazi-occupied France. One is a young woman whose family was killed by the Nazis, another is a gang of "Basterds" who have taken it upon themselves to kill -- and scalp -- every Nazi they can find.

The film begins with "Once Upon a Time..." which gives the hint that this is not necessarily going to be historically accurate. In fact, part of the film's effectiveness is that it's not bound to any kind of historical fact. Every other Nazi film ever made by anyone other than Mel Brooks or Charlie Chaplin is hamstrung because you know how it all ends. (See: Valkyrie.) But Quentin casts aside all such shackles, and creates an alternate universe European Theater (no pun intended), where the unpredictability lies in the unknown. This isn't just a small story set in the backdrop of WWII, this is a WWII fantasia at whose heart is the entire outcome of the war itself.

There were a couple things I didn't love. (Here come them pesky SPOILERS I told you about.) First, does Quentin have to make heavy-handed references to other movies in every single film he makes? Usually it takes place in the dialogue, but in Basterds, the heroine owns a movie theater, which is also where the climax occurs. A main character is a (fictional) superstar German actress. There are references to then-popular culture throughout the film. I'm not saying it doesn't all work, because some of it does. But the fact that cinema has to play such a role in such a real-life time period says something about Quentin's possible lack of perspective here.

Secondly, Quentin needs an editor. I don't mean necessarily that the movie is too long, because if a movie is good (or near-great, as this one is) it can be as long as you want it to be. What I mean is that within his scenes of dialogue, Quentin doesn't have anyone who can stand up to him and tell him how to chop up the scenes. As dynamic and kinetic as his action scenes are, his scenes of dialogue are equally stodgy and overly verbose. (This is the plague that killed Jackie Brown.)

Quentin is so enamored with his own words that he doesn't know when to cut out a few words here or there, or let the subtext shine through. He could use a good David Mamet rewrite to get rid of a lot of the extraneous words. Some of the dialogue could be just as easily conveyed with a glance or a cut away to an object, or something non-verbal. When Quentin figures this out, he will make the greatest film of all time.

Those two qualms out of the way, this is a brilliant film. Absolutely brilliant. It's brutally violent, and it is tense throughout, notably in two scenes.

The first is a scene in an underground bar, where a game of Hitchcockian intrigue plays out, that ends in what has to be the loudest gun-battle I've ever seen. This scene is played to perfection throughout by all the characters, and it is so tense that when it's over it's like being jarred out of a trance. It's a brilliant scene and worthy of the greatest suspense films.

But then there is the coup de grace: the climax in the movie theater. And not for the reason you might think.

Yes, the heist-like scenes of hidden identities and moving explosives from one place to another are all very tense and effective. But they are nothing compared to the final reel ... and if you see the film, you'll know I mean that literally.

The climax can only be described as a holocaust revenge fantasy. It is one of the most powerful climaxes I've ever seen in any film. I don't mean to oversell it, but it affected me on a pretty deep emotional level. It is a catharsis, of every ounce of hatred that the Nazis elicit. It gives the Nazis the brutal, heartless, merciless ending they deserve.

The one image that I can't get out of my head is the look on Eli Roth's face as he haphazardly shoots his automatic rifle into a crowd of people. A theater burning around him, his eyes show the most intense evil you could ever see on a so-called protagonist. The Nazis are relegated to their own burning place, their own holocaust. Where they showed no mercy to others, none was shown to them. And the image of Hitler's body lying motionless, while his face is rent apart by machine gun fire, is haunting, and satisfying. It's a bloodlust that has been festering for six decades, and Quentin somehow finds a way to fuse his own violent sensibilities with the subconscious hatred we all feel. It might be the most satisfying climax I've ever witnessed on film.

The flipside to that is that Tarantino, to some degree, is also fucking with your head. The film that the Nazis are enjoying in the theater before the climax is one in which a Nazi "hero" snipes countless American/Allied soldiers from a clock-tower. The Nazis nod their heads and sometimes weep with glowing approval, and we are sickened by them. Yet when the tables are turned, and we watch those that WE hate get mowed down, it brings up feelings in me that I can only describe as euphoric. By turning the tables, it forces us to acknowledge our own base, vengeful desires.

It's not perfect, but it's great. I can see why it got an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes, and people clapped at the theater in which I saw it too. It works on a much more subliminal level than any movie in recent memory, and it sets out to offer some sort of emotional closure. (Nothing ever could, of course, but it gives an idea of what that might feel like for a moment.)

It's a long movie, but a good one. And I think an important one.

I will leave you with Tarantino's all-too-true dissection of Top Gun.

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