Movies Used to Be Flammable: A Review of the New Film, Inglourious Basterds

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Quentin Tarantino on the set of Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino on the set of Inglourious Basterds

Great films, like big fish with teeth, have a disturbing tendency to obliterate lesser films. You don’t see too many newspaper mogul movies made after 1941. After seeing Inglourious Basterds, I’m not sure I can ever watch another World War II movie. The  early films of Quentin Tarantino, which often depicted obliteration, sucked much of mid-1990s cinema into their orbit. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were so influential, and so good, that it seemed for a period that there could be no other way to make a gangster  movie, and one result was the series of lesser imitations which followed. Those days now make for poignant recollection; Pulp Fiction was arguably the last time a movie caused such widespread excitement simply for being good and the fact that its influence has now faded, while its goodness has not, demonstrates that it is better to be good than influential. I think Quentin Tarantino knows this.

So the big news is that Inglourious Basterds, amidst all its creative carnage, may have also obliterated the World War II genre. We trust this was inadvertent, and the good news is that the genre may only be gravely injured. I am prejudiced in favour of filmmakers with gusto, and Tarantino jumps—guns blazing, baseball bat swinging—right into the angst over authenticity which torments much discussion of “historically inspired” cinema, and World War II movies in particular. Most of these films have been made with good intentions, but there is perhaps no other historical event which so glaringly reveals that while narrative films can inspire an effort to learn more history (from books, I hope), they are perhaps not the best way to learn your names and dates. Just as you wouldn’t take a beach holiday in Ottawa, it is unfair to expect Steven Spielberg to teach you about the Normandy invasion. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan may be meticulously researched and technically masterful, but in feature films, cinematic mastery and historical research tend to trip each other up. There is an unavoidable layer of detachment when it comes to history on film. Tom Hanks is always Tom Hanks, John Wayne is always John Wayne. It seems difficult, or maybe dishonest, to attempt to process historical event and emotion at the same time, because movies depict the latter so much more readily than the former. This is why I’ll take the superstar cast of The Thin Red Line, which is almost pure mood, over Saving Private Ryan, which attempts to be a documentary and a human drama simultaneously. To try to understand both the event and the feeling of an event at the same time is dangerous territory, the land of “what it was like.” Believe me, I don’t want to know what it was like at Normandy or Gettysburg. As I remember it was about six days after 9/11 that I first saw the event set to music and that was the moment I turned off my TV.

As David Thompson points out in his entry on Douglas Sirk in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, melodrama comes naturally to the movies. Simply pointing a camera at a face seems to conjure up a subjective emotional world, the world as someone – often a director – would like it to be. Part of Sirk’s greatness was his ability to point out the absurdity of this wishful thinking in a tone which was simultaneously sympathetic and ironic. Inglourious Basterds is, as many have pointed out, a fable, and I’m sure I am not the only one who left the theatre wishing that there had been a group of fearsome Jewish-American Nazi hunters in occupied France. Unlike some works of alternative history, such as Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, which portrays the consequences of an imagined Charles Lindbergh administration, Inglourious Basterds is not concerned with convincing an audience that all this could have happened. Tarantino does not carefully weave these events into the broken threads of actual history, rather, Inglourious Basterds, like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, is a delirious alternative history within an alternative world war. In Tarantino’s case this is a movie world where bottles of whiskey are hidden in globes and cigarette butts get snuffed out in strudel. Had the movie’s ambitions stopped at alternative history, it still would have been a ripping good yarn. What makes me agree with Brad Pitt’s character that it is a masterpiece is the way Tarantino takes on the authenticity brigade at their own game. His boldest move is incredibly simple, and one I have awaited for a very long time; everyone in the film speaks their own language. Germans speak German, French speak French, Brad Pitt speaks English, and tries to speak Italian. Sirk himself took a seemingly antithetical, and characteristically stylised, approach in his late World War II film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, in which the film’s many Germans all speak English in a wild mixture of accents ranging from cultivated Hollywood to simpering Nazi. The effect in both films, and with greater precision in the case of Tarantino, is to make language part of the film’s technique, as fundamental to the story as lighting, sound or editing. The fact that the Tibetans in Kundun or the Romans in Spartacus speak English has until now required a minor suspension of disbelief, a convenient little lie we are not meant to examine too closely. By turning large stretches of Inglourious Basterds into a subtitled foreign language film, Tarantino shows us what we have been missing all these years. It seems obvious that if a German and a Frenchman were to have a conversation, language would play a pretty important role in its result. Talking is central to Tarantino’s cinema, and there are several scenes in which linguistic discrepancies play out masterfully. The subtitles become a character in the film, sometimes truncating what is said, sometimes mischievously disappearing for a few sentences here and there. Or maybe it’s just a ploy to win two Oscars instead of one.

Paradoxically, what disturbs me about Tarantino’s new film is its unexpected wholesomeness. Inglourious Basterds is extraordinarily violent, and seems to have offended as many people as it has delighted (following standard operating procedure, I have tried to avoid reading anything about the film before seeing it). Whatever your opinion of the film, it seems indisputable that Inglourious Basterds, like all of Tarantino’s films, is the work of a man who earnestly loves making movies. There is a touching honesty in the way he takes nothing for granted. Tarantino rejects the lazy shorthand, such as handheld camera = immediacy, that we take for granted at the movies. While the multilingual dialogue is the most obvious example, every moment of Inglourious Basterds feels custom made, wrought from the raw ingredients of cinema. Though the film is crammed with movie references, many no doubt to films only a Tarantino could love, that unsettling wholesomeness is the result of a filmmaker fighting to make every moment feel as though it is happening for the first time.

The honest technique of the film extends to a strong and explicit plea for celluloid. Tarantino is an unapologetic opponent of digital cinema, and there is one shot which lingers on the dark void of a concrete tunnel in which you can practically hear Tarantino taunting the digital juggernaut, “go ahead, try shooting these blacks on video.” The film’s central location is a Parisian cinema which, at the corner of two cobblestone streets, with three opera boxes and red and black cut out letters on a curved illuminated sign, is too perfect to ever exist in reality. The radical notion that films are shot on film came as a shock after seeing Public Enemies, another film with a deliberately provocative relationship to historical authenticity, which had left me feeling pretty bullish on the future of digital cinema. In the end the only way to settle this issue will be a corporate sponsored Wrestlemania bout in which the Kodak backed duo of Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino take on Sony’s Michael Mann and Jonathan Demme. I know whose cameras are heavier.

Inglourious Basterds would be a fabulous achievement in any year, but I think it is its appearance in 2009 which particularly reveals the film’s strangely wholesome quality. Aside from the almost classical technique, the film’s good guys display a devoted professionalism right out of Howard Hawks, it’s just that they happen to scalp Nazis for a living. As mentioned, no one does talk like Tarantino and while many others attempted to emulate his banter fifteen years ago, these days Tarantino pretty much owns the ten minute dialogue scene. How many unpredictable movies have you seen lately? How many so giddy on talk? I think a big part of what makes many movies so unsatisfying is that they have abandoned dialogue as a creative technique. When dialogue becomes an obligatory link between action sequences, or a speeding arrow predictably leading to a declaration of love or a fistfight, movies lose the unpredictability of conversation which makes real life such a minefield. There are several conversations in Inglourious Basterds which are so tense, funny and unpredictable as to be almost films in themselves. The violent action in between the talk is usually chaotic and swift, becoming an almost stylised release of the tension built up in the dialogue. While “showing, not telling” is a commandment in most mainstream cinema, Tarantino, like Hawks or Welles, knows that we need both so that at the very least we settle into our opera boxes knowing the difference between the two.

Inglourious Basterds, aside from its own considerable intrinsic value, is another artefact from today’s very strange Hollywood. As I am not willing to spend time or money seeing Transformers or GI Joe, I don’t feel qualified to join the recent debate between A. O. Scott of the New York Times, Roger Ebert and others on the dangerous state of contemporary mainstream cinema. I take it as read that those films are pretty bad, but at least a handful of the good films which manage to pass through the sausage factory without becoming sausages seem to me to be great in strange and wonderful ways. Inglourious Basterds, Public Enemies and There Will Be Blood (on second viewing an unqualified masterpiece…), are defiantly not part of any movement. Unlike some good movies in the recent years, such as, say, The Aviator or much of Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s non-Tarantino based output, they are not simply the result of Hollywood being on its best behaviour around Oscar time. Whether successful or not, it is hard to imagine any sane executive greenlighting any of those three films. Each of the three is genuinely provocative, provocative to the point where each flirts with disaster in a completely original and complex way. It is hard to know which way is up. Seeing the digital splendour of Dillinger’s tommy guns in Public Enemies made me welcome the new High-Def world order, while Blood and Basterds stick up for celluloid like a gleefully belligerent older brother. It all makes you realise that your camera is what it eats, and that maybe there’s room for dinner and dessert. It’s all good, except it isn’t; in spite of a few quixotic masterpieces it is hard to be gleeful about going to the movies. The waste of talent, celluloid and hard drive space is shameful. Bring back the 1990s.

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