Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

When Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds premiered in theatres, genre critics were confounded. What could have been an otherwise straightforward World War II film by the auteur behind Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill threw in a last-minute curve that titillated commenters. Did such a turn make this some kind of alternate history movie? A speculative fiction of a sort? Where does this film fit in the carefully orchestrated web of genre labels that we need to know if we should like something or not?

I believe this is a case of overthinking the matter. Anyone familiar with Tarantino's work knows that it only fits in the loosest definitions anyways. Ignoring Inglourious Basterds for the moment, what sort of film is Pulp Fiction? One supposes, only by ticking off the checklist of necessary and sufficient characteristics, that it is a crime drama comedy. But is that in itself a necessary and sufficient description of what is going on in Pulp Fiction? Tarantino's films do rest on the framework of an intricately-derived plot, but it would not be accurate to describe them in terms of the plot.

Lately, goaded on by Red Letter Media's reviews of the Star Wars prequels and Confused Matthew's reviews of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel, I've become more analytical about what exactly makes for a good movie. On the one hand, Confused Matthew argues that 2001 fails for lack of story content. At least a full hour could be cut from 2001 and not cause the loss of one minute of necessary development of the plot or of the film's only character, HAL. 2001 is almost entirely style without substance.

On the other hand, Red Letter Media devotes large amounts of review time to demonstrating the director's laze that ruins the Star Wars prequels. The action sequences are certainly very full of action, but the dialogue is tedium delivered tediously. The most basic of shots are staged in the most basic of ways, with characters either sitting on a couch or walking along or sitting on a couch and then getting up to walk. At this other end of the spectrum, there is almost no style at all.

Tarantino very nearly runs right up the middle. If he diverges anywhere, it is towards style if only because his stories tend not to really be about anything. I cannot easily recall any kind of deeper derivations from Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Things happen in them. These things are very intricately scripted, mind you, but the most typical scenes of the latter are the infamous ear-cutting and the introductory conversation over breakfast. One tends not to remember Tarantino's stories so much as the iconic, interesting and entertaining vignettes.

This quality differentiates them from the boredom found at either end of the spectrum. Tarantino specializes in rich characters whose perfectly staged, Seinfeldesque conversations about nothing can be engrossing, tense, nervewracking, hilarious, romantic, delightful or horrifying. Just for these scenes of cinematic art alone is a Tarantino film a sheer pleasure to watch. Much the same could be said for Seinfeld or filmmakers like Kevin Smith, who admittedly does "the least cinematic movies in history" in exchange for beautiful dialogue and characterization.

Unlike them, Tarantino has an eye for action. And unlike a George Lucas, he has an eye for appropriate degrees of action. A single accidental gunshot to the head in the back of a car can be more memorable than a stadium full of lazer-sword wielding Jedi. Tarantino can absolutely, and probably proudly, be accused of an excess of blood and gore. Yet he cannot be accused of a masturbatory excess of things all flashing on the screen at once, nor can he be accused of making inaction films in the vein of Kubrick. If anything, he squeezes more intensity from an unflinching minimalism that will either concentrate on or surprise us with a sudden, single disgusting act of brutality.

This quality of unflinching brutality holds the key to understanding what exactly Inglourious Basterds is. As I said, trying to ascribe it to alternate history or something similar is a nonsense attempt to fit it into some comfortable genre category. The film opens with a key part of the puzzle: the words "Once upon a time... in Nazi occupied France." It is one part a fairy tale retelling of World War II. The conclusion renders the other key. It is not merely a fairy tale retelling, but a brutal revenge fantasy. Brad Pitt and his legion of angry Jews are not employed by Tarantino to fight Nazis. They are employed to torture them, scalp them, beat them to death with baseball bats, carve up their flesh with knives, gun them down en masse and blow apart their faces with a rain of hot lead.

If I could narrow down any definition of Inglourious Basterds, it would be Quentin Tarantino utilizing his considerable talents to articulate a cathartic collective desire to personally beat the unholy living Hell out of Adolf Hitler.

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