The Videogum Movie Club: Inglourious Basterds
Let me just say, first and foremost, that I was wrong. I often am! I did not love Inglourious Basterds. I didn’t even really like it very much. But it was not the disastrous, self-indulgent, World War Grindhouse shitshow that I had anticipated. It was decent, actually! There were parts of it that were very good! Personally I found it way too long, and kind of boring, and I have other problems that I will get to in a second, but being too long and boring are not the kind of problems I thought I would have going into it. And I’m sure many people didn’t even think those were problems. I’m sure many people didn’t find it long and boring, but captivating and fun, and to those people I say: that’s a very respectable and understandable opinion! I don’t share it, but sure! I stand by my contention that based on the marketing, Inglourious Basterds looked like one of the worst movies of all time. I still think that’s true. But as it turns out, the movie they marketed was not the movie that Quentin Tarantino made.
Let’s talk about that movie.
If you never watch Inglourious Basterds all the way through, you should at least watch the opening scene. It really is fantastically done. It’s incredibly tense, visually beautiful (although the Searchers reference was a bit much, but whatever), and very well acted. Christoph Waltz as S.S. Colonel Hans Landa is really great in this scene and then throughout the whole movie. I will not be surprised if he is nominated for some acting awards, and I will not be surprised if he goes on to win them. The depiction of Nazis as gloating and smarmy is unsettling, and the film definitely gives you the sense of life at the hands of occupying, capricious, murderous creeps (creeps to say the least).
After the great opening scene, of course, the movie goes on for another two hours and 15 minutes.
Brad Pitt was about as ridiculous and hammy as it seemed like he was going to be in the trailers, but somehow he gets away with it? His accent is stupid, his character is a clown, and he’s basically just recapturing his role from Ocean’s 11. But what else can he even do at this point? Brad Pitt has been too famous for too long to be anything other than Brad Pitt: a self-satisfied, casually aloof dude who makes it all look so easy. He spends the last third of a movie about a renegade group of homicidal American soldiers during World War II dressed in a white tuxedo for heaven’s sake! He’s basically a WASPy Larry David: you either like Larry David or you don’t like Larry David, and your opinion of his latest project will inevitably depend on that first, more fundamental opinion. I liked him. Even though he was so dumb.
In fact, most of the acting was very good (Eli Roth excepted, of course). Brava, Melanie Laurent.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Inglourious Basterds was how un-Quentin Tarantino-y it was. There were no 15-minute-long self-congratulatory monologues about the semiotics of Prince’s oeuvre, or whatever the fuck. And it wasn’t nearly as gory as it had been made out to be. There was very little blood not only for a Quentin Tarantino movie, not only for the exploitation-cinema that Tarantino so often likes to cite and pay tribute to, but there was very little blood even just for a World War II movie. And you have to give Tarantino credit for getting so many Americans to see a movie that is mostly in French and German.
He did jump around stylistically in a way that I always find distracting and overly-flashy. Like, it’s interesting to blend genres and abandon expectations, but at least be consistent. If you’re going to throw in ’70s graphics for the first half of the movie, throw them in for the second half*. If you’re going to bring in a narrator (Samuel L. Jackson), bring him in more than once. Eventually it stops being an interesting pastiche of styles and influences and starts being a sloppy jumble of masturbatory high-fives Quentin Tarantino is giving himself. More than with any other filmmaker, Tarantino’s work drips with his self-satisfaction in a way that I find really unbearable (this one ends with the word “masterpiece” for heaven’s sake). He can’t let something be good (when it is good, let us Never Forget Death Proof), he has to let us know how good he thinks it is.
But my biggest issue with the movie was the fact that, in the end, killing people is terrible, mutilating people is horrifying, and raining bullets down on a crowd of people in a burning movie theater is monstrous. I love action movies. I am completely content to watch violence (sometimes). But by locking your movie into a historical framework, even if it is revisionist history (SPOILER ALERT) and even if you put in a title card at the beginning that says “Once upon a time” so that you buy your way out of any morality with the Fairy Tale defense, you’re still calling upon the emotional weight of what actually happened. And while the Nazis were monsters, they were human monsters. And the breadth and darkness of the nightmare of the Holocaust is something not easily digested. The idea that this movie finally gives us all the catharsis of watching Nazis get their ass kicked is stupid, it is inaccurate, and it is weird. Because we don’t. Because it’s not possible.
Also, film is not a weapon.
At the screening I went to, in the final scene, as Brad Pitt is using his comical hunting knife to carve a swastika into Christoph Waltz’s forehead, a dude near the front yelled out “Haha, YEAH!” and as the credits began to roll he said “THAT WAS AWESOME!” Was it awesome? I thought it was kind of gross. I think it should seem kind of gross. I wasn’t sad for him. He got what he deserved, I suppose. But there are no high fives at the end of World War II. And there shouldn’t be.
Like in Death Proof when the first half of the film was scratched up and looked like old film, and then all of a sudden he just abandoned that aesthetic entirely and the rest of the movie was pristine and new? What was THAT all about? Wrong again! I still think that Quentin Tarantino’s aesthetic flourishes and cineaste references are needlessly distracting, self-satisfied/congratulatory, and counter-productive to a cohesive and meaningful artistic vision, but perhaps not in this case, as Bhay wisely points out (see below).