Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

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Quentin Tarantino doesn’t know a damn thing about the horrors of the Third Reich. In (the pointlessly misspelled) Inglourious Basterds, a lengthy and kooky World War II caper about a Nazi-hating Jewish girl running a movie house in occupied France paralleled with the exploits of a group of violently rogue soldiers, his caricatures of Goebbels and Hitler are well beneath the caliber of something that might’ve been in a Donald Duck cartoon. What he does know something about is movies, and luckily this is more a film about cinema than it is about war or history. That’s a good thing because all of the director’s stabs at trying to make this some sort of Come and See-style catharsis seem empty and indulgent — a disrespectful guy taking ownership of stuff to which he has no right.

The same charge would be leveled at Django Unchained a few years hence, and it’s interesting to finally be able to compare the two films. As he’s grown as a director — and if you know how much I generally dislike his work, you know I don’t especially enjoy saying that he has — his storytelling has remained just as sloppy as ever. There are stretches in his last three movies that are remarkably well paced and engrossing; they feel like real films, not just pretend, and that’s a leap forward. But Django would also mark a regression because Basterds is easily his best-paced, most narratively absorbing film. (Even Jackie Brown, his best, meanders a lot.) This is so much tighter; there are few of the typical sidelines into the odd, random sadism of his adopted exploitation-movie language. There’s a real story here, an evocative and suspenseful one, and it keeps threatening to go somewhere. Most of what follows will be a lot of complaining (complaining that assumes you’ve seen the film) but I swear I really enjoyed this, which was a pretty big surprise for me. There was one succession of shots following Christoph Waltz down the stairs at the movie theater then proceeding into a 360-degree interrogation that was really breathtaking, worthy of Notorious almost.

That said, there are as many long-winded dialogue scenes as ever and even if none of them feel completely superfluous, it’s disappointing to consider how much unresolved expository content is confined to the first 45 minutes, before the narrative kicks into gear, when under different circumstances this has all the makings of a riveting, lean thriller. The parallel stories of twin attempts to blow up or set ablaze a movie theater where a big Nazi film premiere is being hosted could be River Kwai-level taut, and at times they are. It’s hard not to long for all the fat to drop away, and it doesn’t hurt that Tarantino is an infinitely better writer of dialogue than he was twenty years ago — even the inevitable conversations about pop culture (Chaplin and Pabst, in this case) don’t seem too contrived.

But the great movie lurking somewhere in all this would also require a different ending. I’m confused by the intentions here. For most of two hours, a cracking tale of sabotage (replete with delightful clip from Sabotage itself during a quick explanation of nitrate film) is set up, then the film becomes an admirably convicted but cartoonish bit of semi-nonsense revenge fantasy. But it cannot even fulfill this promise. The two female characters who set the two complementary stories into motion are unceremoniously killed off. This is particularly irksome in the case of Melanie Laurent’s character, because if indeed this is meant to be a feel-good slaughter of evil and violent men, Tarantino meaninglessly disposes of the one person we see actually undergo direct, unprovoked violence at the hands of the Nazis. (And I realize he fancies himself sort of a feminist, but it’s vaguely gross that she’s murdered just after righteously telling her pathetic suitor that no means no — and then shooting him, the one bit of bloodshed in this I admit I really enjoyed.)

It doesn’t surprise me that the violence is callous. It doesn’t disturb me to see high-ranking Nazis ripped to shreds; that’s not how I like to roll, but it’s all pretty silly anyway. But I don’t think the logistics of trapping people in a burning, exploding movie theater are particularly pleasant regardless of how “evil” the victims are. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a bit of a cackle out of the emotionally charged film shot by Laurent and her boyfriend flaring up into real flames (weirdly, it immediately made me think of Joe Dante’s Matinee rather than the more obvious Cinema Paradiso) but I kind of wish the subsequent shots had been more explicit — had shown people, maybe misguided or even awful people but still people, suffering as they tried to run for their lives but encountered a locked door instead. It just felt too anonymous, too close to real things that’ve happened and too broadly directed in the wrong way, and again seemed counter to what felt like either ostensible purpose of the narrative. There’s a sense of glee on Tarantino’s part that’s palpable and welcome here, but as nice as that initial rush of recognition is, there’s something deeply troubling about it after the fact.

Biggest mistake, however, has to do with the characters Tarantino chooses to kill; he gets rid of every three-dimensional person he establishes, and so again counter to the apparent purpose of his revenge-movie idea, all of the people still with us by the end are flat non-entities we barely know. (Brad Pitt’s character should solely be thought of as comic relief; his prominence in the marketing for the film is only conceivably explained by sexism.) As magnificent as Christoph Waltz’s genuinely menacing performance as an eerily calm SS officer is, it seems unjust that his most egregious interpretation of Nazi mayhem is the one that goes unpunished. The point is that in perfectly symmetrical directions, the movie cops out: if it’s a thrilling story about this convergence of assassination plots, it didn’t need the extra exposition and gratuitous florescent-crazy climax. If it’s a wild goofy fantasy for people to get off on killing bad guys, it should not have set up a specific conflict between a pure good (Laurent) and a pure evil (Waltz) only to awkwardly dispense with both.

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