Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Eloquent Talk at Tables – Inglourious Basterds
Chapter One: Quentin Tarantino and the Zulus
It tickles my fancy that Quentin Tarantino must have seen the critically unacclaimed and largely forgotten historical epic that depicts the Battle of Isandhlwana, Zulu Dawn (1979), a film I personally love for the accuracy of its historical detail and its use of literally thousands of real (non-CGI) Zulus in its massive battle sequence – and simply because it’s about Zulus fighting the British army. At one point, the thin red lines of British infantry face off against dense ranks of chanting Zulu warriors as Elmer Bernstein’s musical score escalates dramatically. This same musical excerpt heightens a magnificent moment in Tarantino’s masterful new film, Inglourious Basterds, as Shosanna’s lovingly filmed reel changeover signals the ignition of an apocalyptic holocaust to be set off by Marcel the projectionist who approaches a pile of highly flammable nitrate film. I loved this genuinely chilling moment that alludes to a specific film while at the same time paying tribute to the whole art of film.
But I have never been an enthusiastic fan of the films of Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs is clever. I like Tim Roth’s monologues and the breakfast scene. But it’s not a film I revisit passionately. All the convoluted, calculated, self-conscious cleverness of Pulp Fiction leaves me cold. Jackie Brown achieves dramatic moments amidst many forgettable moments. I like specific pieces of the Kill Bill two-volume entity, but neither its style nor its story rivets me. I like Death Proof for its gripping climactic car battle, but the film is slow to start and its barroom dialogues seem pointless and overlong. Inglourious Basterds, however, is a controlled, well-composed mosaic of World War II film genre tropes and a powerfully performed examination of revenge, cruelty, and shame. It is a film whose well-written dialogue and meticulously staged scenes constitute a joyful cinematic experience.
Chapter Two: Saving Private Zoller
Tarantino clearly loves the whole history of World War II war films from the propaganda action films released during the war to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a movie that has forever changed the look, sound, and explicitness of that genre. Admittedly, from my point of view, this film’s genre is a factor in its favor. (I’ve never been that enthusiastic about what Tarantino’s other films are about.) I grew up on World War II action movies, so I found myself enjoying this smooth blend of elements from that genre. But from the beginning, Tarantino takes on those elements and gives them his own original twists. We see a German squad car cutting through brilliantly green countryside: an image of verdant bucolic tranquility juxtaposed with the graphic violence to follow. Aldo Raine (echoing Aldo Ray of Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, and The Green Berets) is the tough army officer, haranguing his recruits – the titular Basterds – and talking about the enemy dying for their country like George C. Scott in Patton. A parody of the tough-as-nails American officer, Pitt’s Aldo Raine is cut a couple of notches tougher: he’s a scalp-taking Apache and a descendant of Jim Bridger; he’s like something out of Davy Crockett Goes to Nazi-occupied France.
But so many of those old World War II movies include the dashing, sophisticated, spit-and-polish British commando officer daring to jump into enemy territory and blow up the bridge or whatever needs blowing up, so Tarantino gives us the wonderfully etched Major Archie Hicox, engagingly played by Michael Fassbinder, and the stereotypically rumpled and lisping C.O., General Ed Fenech, played by Mike Myers. What better allies to include in a World War II war movie than sexy resistance fighters who wear attractive 40s dresses and pert little shoes: the French-Jewish avenging angel Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and the traitorous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
We expect inevitable Nazi villains, and we get the psychotic stereotypes in Sylvester Goth’s portrayal of Goebbels and Martin Wuttke’s version of Liebling Adolf. But Tarantino also includes a stalwart German officer who bravely faces death by baseball bat; an articulate and perceptive German major (August Diehl) who is clever at guessing games and is a discerning judge of accents; and the film’s best villain: Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the Jew Hunter, a detective whose rhetorical and linguistic skills are insidiously employed to force a French farmer to reveal hidden Jews while at the same time taunting those in hiding under the floorboards; to intimidate the Jewish owner of a Parisian cinema; and to talk his way out of his murderous career and into a conditional surrender and Nantucket real estate. And, contrary to most films of this genre, Tarantino includes the modest and remorseful Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German Audie Murphy, star of the film Stolz der Nation that depicts his amazing act of sharpshooting prowess: shooting down hundreds of American soldiers from a sniper’s nest. This film-within-the-film is Tarantino’s clever twist on the American World War II shoot-‘em-ups we have all seen, for here the skillful hero is a Kraut. Shot in black-and-white, cutting rapidly from hit to hit, the sniper scene in Stolz der Nation nicely mirrors the sniper action at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Zoller cuts down American soldiers just as easily as Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper) cuts down Germans.
Chapter Three: Eloquent Talk at Tables
Right away I’m into this movie because of its genre, but from the very beginning I’m also taken in by the film’s thoughtful organization into five dramatic chapters and its cleverly written scenes in which characters simply talk at table. The first set-piece dialogue, the best one, starts after the mournful theme “Green Leaves of Summer,” written for John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960) by Francis Webster and Dimitri Tiomkin, takes us through the credits and introduces a French farmer chopping a tree stump, and a variation on Beethoven’s “Für Elise” follows that German squad car over the green countryside to the French farmer’s house. Here, farmer Perrier, sensitively and subtly played by Denis Menochet, sits across a wooden table from Jew Hunter Colonel Hans Landa, whose robust downing of a glass of milk and his calculated shift to English are elements employed to unnerve the farmer and the hidden refugees Landa knows are hiding in the cellar. We see Perrier’s fear in his glassy eyes. The tension is prolonged by the lighting and smoking of pipes, the pouring and drinking of yet another glass of milk. Landa’s huge pipe might be ridiculous, but we know there’s nothing ridiculous about his sinister intentions, so nothing distracts us as the camera remains on the two talkers. When the camera moves slowly down Perrier’s pant leg to the floor where the Jewish refugees are hidden under the floorboards, we know how this dialogue will end. The milk, the pipes, Landa’s argument about one’s inherent distaste for rats, Landa’s switch back to French so that he can raise the refugees’ hopes by letting them believe he is leaving – all of this leads to the climactic, choral-accompanied burst of violence.
The eloquent talk at tables continues in a restaurant in Paris where Landa intimidates a female cinema owner who turns out to be Shosanna Dreyfus, sole survivor of the farmhouse cellar massacre. Here Landa unnerves his victim by taking huge smacking bites of Apfelstrudel, and Tarantino tweaks the tension with close ups of pastry and dollops of whipped cream. Later, General Fenech briefs Archie Hicox on a daring mission as they sip whisky and water (not at a table, but it’s the same sort of thing); in the end, Landa explains an outrageous proposition intended to save his Nazi ass once the war is over – this over glasses of Chianti in keeping with Aldo Raine’s Italian disguise.
But equal in brilliant structure and writing to the farmhouse talk is the scene in which Major Hellstrom interrupts a meeting between Hicox along with two of Raine’s Basterds who are posing as Germans and the German traitor Bridget von Hammersmark, who is just about to divulge crucial information in a beer cellar. This tavern scene has started with a boisterous birthday party going on at another table, but it soon transforms into another tense predicament. At Hicox’s table, Hellstrom becomes suspicious of Hicox’s German accent and prolongs the Brit’s discomfort by insisting they play a round of “Who Am I?” Assigned the identity of King Kong, Hellstrom guesses he’s the giant ape only after teasing the strangers with a flip reference to America’s enslavement of “the Negro.” A very delicate Mexican standoff ensues and the result is a thrillingly swift shootout.
Chapter Four: Tarantino and the Movies
I would assume all filmmakers love movies, so it’s kind of dumb to go on about how Quentin Tarantino loves movies. It’s just that Quentin Tarantino loves movies, and he takes any opportunity to broadcast his appreciation for and knowledge of all sorts of movies from the classic to the very obscure by seeding his films with allusions. But this time around, the world of cinema is extolled by more than just allusions. The world of cinema is central to the plot. With more screen time than Pitt’s Aldo Raine, Laurent’s Shosanna escapes death at the hands of Colonel Landa by fleeing to France where she takes the name Emmanuelle Mimieux (French porn flick Emmanuelle? French-Mexican actress Yvette Mimieux?) and takes over the running of a cinema – so that when we first see her in her new identity, she is carefully removing letters from the marquee and soon to get into a conversation with soldier/film actor Zoller, who rhapsodizes over Charlie Chaplin and The Kid. But the movie theater is not merely an allusive backdrop. The theater is the setting for an Allied plot to snuff out the big cheeses of the Third Reich, along with Hitler himself: death by cinema – a mass execution set in motion by that reel changeover so lovingly filmed by Tarantino. But the film’s most brilliant tribute-to-cinema-that’s-an-integral-plot-device-too is the German propaganda film Stolz der Nation, starring war hero Private Zoller, that will be playing when the fiery deed is carried out. In this propaganda film’s black-and-white textures, its camera angles, its striking images of piled bodies and heaped rifle shells, we see careful filmmaking; meanwhile, the Germans cackle when Americans are shot down or cheer uproariously when Zoller carves a swastika in the boards in order to pass the time – just like American audiences cheer when our bad guys get cut down. When the flames consume the screen in the story, they seem to consume the screen we are watching. Here we see the film’s most stunning images: Shosanna’s angry face above the flames and the cloud of smoke that takes on the appearance of that scornful visage. Now Shosanna’s big cinematic face has become the merciless face of a vengeful Big Sister promising a literal holocaust for an audience of blood-thirsty Nazis, while the two Basterds fire their machine guns from the viewing box into the mass of writhing bodies like the outlaws mowing down Mexicans in the climactic battle in The Wild Bunch.
Chapter Five: Inglourious Basterds
And what of the Basterds? They hang in the film’s background – and I’d wager more German and French are spoken in this film than English. They are the rarely seen catalyst that spurs Hitler to appear at the premiere of Stolz der Nation in order to boost German morale, and when it comes to the big mission, only three Basterds attend the movie and the rest are forgotten.
Pitt’s portrayal of Aldo Raine suffers moments of awkwardness when he is dressed in a white tux, and he exaggerates his dreadful Italian impersonation, but when he’s in uniform or dressed in partisan’s garb, he’s a spot-on depiction of the American World War II movie hero who sounds like Davy Crockett spouting fearless defiance that is the stuff of folklore because Pitt masters the cadences superbly. But other than Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who gets a violent origin backstory, Sergeant Donny Donnowitz (Eli Roth), the Bear Jew, who gets to bash a German’s head with a baseball bat, and Private First Class Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom), who gets to act Italian, dress in a black tux, and make a hit like something out of The Godfather, the Basterds don’t get to do much. We see more of the fear and anger in reaction to what they have done than we see what they have done. They instill Hitler with apoplectic rage and help change the course of Tarantino’s alternate version of World War II, but they are not what Inglourious Basterds is about.
Inglourious Basterds is about skillfully inventive filmmaking. It is about taking much-used elements of a genre and giving them the Tarantino twist: the German officer about to get his head bashed in triumphs over cruelty by remaining bravely loyal; the Mexican standoff kills the confident Archie Hicox and just about everyone else – unlike that ridiculous standoff in the supposedly realistic Saving Private Ryan when the Germans have just as many guns trained on the Americans but all the Germans get killed and none of the Americans; the movie that seems to be about a group like Lee Marvin’s recruits in The Dirty Dozen and turns out to be about a Jewish refugee, a cinema, and how she uses that cinema as a fiery weapon that puts an end to the War.
Inglourious Basterds is more about the story, less about Tarantino. Tarantino refrains from “acting” in a cameo role, and his adulation of cinema is central to the plot. His set piece dialogues are much more engaging than those in his previous films because Inglourious Basterds is about interesting characters talking at table, but in this case the words belong to the characters. We hear what we would expect from a dashing James Bond-like British commando, a French farmer who shows fear and helplessness in his eyes, a Jewish refugee forcing down pastry with the German officer who slaughtered her family, a modest German hero who shrinks from the cinematic depiction of what he has done, a glib and perceptive German major who is a master at guessing games, and a refined, milk-loving expert on Apfelstrudel who uses language as an insidious weapon.