Monday, January 17, 2011

Inglorious Basterds Review

What is your favorite Quentin Tarantino movie?

This could be a Rorchach test for a specific subset of our pop-culture population. His movies cover a wide swath of subjects and locations but are anchored by the twin weights of beautifully written dialogue and a fetish for violence. There is also, somewhere, vengeance simmering, perhaps to justify the blood and our revelry in it. And finally, across the board, a tint of camp through which Tarantino's passion shines and makes him a celebrity of a stripe not normally seen in directors.

So what is yours? Pulp Fiction with its loon-juicingly sexy dialogue? Reservoir Dogs with its most disagreeable violence? Is it the sleek Kill Bill which nails the naval-gazing of Samuri-Cowboy mutual respect better than any anime? Or perhaps the fractured camp of Death Proof which, in killing its original leading ladies, grainy film, and sex appeal halfway through, might be the clearest of Tarantino's indictments of modern film?

Or is it Inglorious Basterds? A movie in which Tarantino's firm grip on great dialogue never wavers but the cool camp of his violence is lost. Nazis, long considered the truest form of whipping boy for our bloodlust, should be fertile ground for Tarantino's uniquely stylized violence. Never has there been better faceless cannon fodder for our strong jawed heroes, video game avatars, and sci-fi alter egos. Never has there been an enemy more worthy of our darkest, violent dreams.

Part of Tarantino's charm is that he forces us to confront the violence that other movies normally turn away from. No matter how faceless the sponge of his hero's bullets, Tarantino's victims are humanized through their suffering. Where most of Hollywood's faceless victims fret and while away their brief moment on screen in a spray of bullets before being heard from nevermore, Tarantino's victims stick around. They cry, they moan, they beg. Their blood and bits of brain stick to the backseats of cars and their severed heads roll across tables. Tarantino forces the audience to confront the mess their violent catharsis creates by humanizing the violence. Far from relishing the gore, Tarantino makes his characters seem far more fragile by surrounding them with visceral, human death.
The cool kids.

When I first heard of Inglorious Basterds, I was excited to see Tarantino deal with the most faceless of Hollywood's victims. Regardless of the horrible crimes committed under the swastika-emblazoned flag, our penchant for and nonchalance in 50 years of murdering faceless Nazis deserves to be thrown under the examiner's light. Could Tarantino be the director to do this? Could he make us squirm watching a Nazi be bludgeoned? Could he sensitize us to the enemy against which we have built the thickest callouses?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. More so even than Death Proof (which was intentionally fractured for the purposes of theme), Inglorious Basterds is a broken movie. Over the course of it, we watch Tarantino try and then fail to overcome the expectations set by 50 years of Hollywood action. And when the credits finally roll over the blood bath at the end, we feel hollow. (It must be noted that part of this hollow feeling comes at the cost of a 2.5 hour running time which is far too long for the subject matter.)

That is not to say that the movie is without its moments. There are several pieces of dialogue which could win academy awards by themselves. The opening scene in particular is a squirming joy to behold and the showdown in the basement bar ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. Indeed, most of the violence does come close to fulfilling Tarantino's unspoken promise to humanize Hollywood's faceless bullet sponges. The first scene depicting the Inglorious Basterds hard at their dirty work is classic Quentin. The German officer bludgeoned by Eli Roth's baseball bat is noble and brave and his demise is brutal to watch. Or consider the bar scene's violence which is preceded by a lengthy introduction to the soon-to-be corpses. We know why they celebrate, we feel their comraderie, and we are even impressed by the wit of the officer.

Endearing Nazis.
But, as the movie grinds on and the plot becomes looser and looser, that special charm is lost. Somewhere along the way, the tone changes and the final scene is ham-fisted and decidedly un-Tarantino. It feels pornographic instead of human, a complaint often levied against Tarantino movies but one which has never rung true for yours truly until I met the Basterds. By the end, it feels like we're watching the inferior work of one of Tarantino's many imitators. And that is damning criticism if it is true. It potentially means that Tarantino has lost his unique brilliance and is now sliding down the hill of self-parody that signals the end of any great artist.

But he deserves the second guess. The final act of a movie should not be blown so far out of proportion as to doomsay the remainder of an artist's career. He deserves our questioning. So why this failure? Was Tarantino simply not up to the task of overcoming our natural desensitization to dead Nazis? Is the fault with us for so easily falling back into our old ways? Or did Quentin himself fall prey to the same cultural expectations as the rest of us? Was the call for vengeance too strong? The appeal of catharsis? Could a vision as singular and iconoclastic as his still be weak enough to succumb to generations of righteous but decidedly ignorant hate?

These are unanswerable questions, at least until his next movie hits theaters. From such a wonderful director though, the folly of his latest movie is unfortunate. Particularly given the promise of both the subject matter and the smattering of truly inspired moments. Christoph Waltz is brilliant in his role as the Jew Hunter. The movie's obvious enjoyment of both the French and German languages is refreshing. And every actor turns in a strong performance. But Quentin loses his grip in the final stretch, and what was once so arresting ends with such emptiness.

No comments:

Post a Comment