Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Au Revoir, Shosanna

I saw Inglourious Basterds on Sunday night with my wife. It was my fourth viewing, her first. I had no idea what she would think of it. I was happy to be seeing it again, but it was kind of sad walking down the long hallway past all the larger-screened theaters and turning the corner to Cinema 5, the small theater that can’t have more than twelve rows in it, where movies are banished when they are nearing the end of their run and will soon disappear from circulation.

So, it was au revoir to the touchingly elegiac opening rendition of “Green Leaves of Summer” followed by – “Chapter One – Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France” – and the cut to that stunningly simple shot of the farm house, the farmer chopping wood, the girl hanging wash, the cows. Au revoir to that long scene inside the farm house, beautifully acted by Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa and Denis Menochet as Perrier. Au revoir to the meticulously orchestrated mounting tension of this scene and the farmer’s final surrender to emotion (watch the space under his eye quiver). The tragic climax comes inexorably. Shosanna runs. Landa lowers his pistol, Au revoir, Shosanna.

But this great scene is not the only masterful set piece. I almost prefer the scene in the tavern basement where a drunken celebration and an identity game turn into threatening suspicions and an abrupt bloodbath. And the lengthy Cinema Gamaar conflagration sequence, a sequence that includes the riveting confrontation between Landa and Frau Hammersmark, followed by parallel cuts to Landa’s deal to get all four and end the war, is amazingly conceived and edited.

I’ll miss a great cast of memorable characters so wonderfully portrayed by their performers: Shosanna Dreyfus and Bridget von Hammersmark, Major Archie Hicox and Herr Stürmbahnführer Hellstrom, Aldo Raine and Hugo Stiglitz, Private Fredrick Zoller and Corporal Wilhelm Wicki.

Au Revoir to stunning cinematography: the opening shot of the farm; the overhead shot following Shosanna, all in red, rising from her makeup table and going down the hallway; the shot of Shosanna and the Nazi flag reflected in the window; the shot of the pile of nitrate film behind the screen filled with a shot of a pile of empty rifle shells.

And I dig some of those memorable foreign language lines: Au revoir, Shosanna; Attendre le crème; Dann muss ich King Kong sein!.

So long for now to bold filmmaking that knits together sharp writing, superb acting, intelligent editing, and striking cinematography that fills the screen.

Au revoir, that is, to Inglourious Basterd’s time on the big screen. That’s the only place where a film has full life. We can look forward to it on DVD, but a DVD is the ghost of a movie, albeit a friendly ghost, a ghost that keeps you company and haunts you with the thrill of first viewing, but an insubstantial ghost nonetheless.

To me, it’s a big loss when a movie I love leaves the theater and disappears into the digital world. I am so thrilled by the big-screen experience that I try to see favorite movies as often as possible in the theater before they are sent off to DVD. I saw Inglourious Basterds four times at the movies. I saw There Will Be Blood only twice completely, but I slipped into the theater a couple of times to watch major chunks a third time. I saw War of the Worlds four times; The Thin Red Line three times.

The record-breaking run of Titanic took me back to the days when a movie like The Graduate or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could be found playing in a theater for years. I saw Titanic twice in Cape Cod theaters in December, 1997, and then once a month for four more months, for a total of six times, and it was still playing on the Cape in June. Yes, I know, Titanic has its shortcomings, but I wanted to experience the big-screen depiction of the sinking ship as often as possible before its full visual impact would be lost forever on video.

Of all the movies you’ve seen in theaters in the past twenty years, which ones have you seen the most frequently?

Oh, I forgot to tell you what my wife thought of Inglourious Basterds. “What did you think?” I asked tritely as we left the theater. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.

(And a confession – I can’t wait to get my hands on the DVD!)


David said...

"Basterds" is still playing out here in Montana...

I saw each of the Lord of the Rings movies about 5 times in the theater...and I still think that they are best seen that way.

Richard Bellamy said...

David! Thanks! Montana was great this summer. I thought of you. But wait for the winter!

Yeah, Basterds is still at the Regal Cinemas Hyannis, but it's not going to be there much longer. Still playing where you are? That's bold for Bozeman.

Did you see it?

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm trying to think of if I've ever seen a movie four times at the theater. Maybe. I've done three a bunch, and I've contemplated fourth viewings many times, but I'm not sure it's happened.

Recently, sometimes it has to do with the knowledge that the DVD will be following along soon enough. But sometimes it's this:

The more I get to know a movie, the more I find myself frustrated if the audience experience isn't perfect. To see a movie several times usually means that I saw it first on opening weekend, probably with a packed crowd that was very engaged. Those later crowds don't have the same level of interest, quite often, and so when they talk I feel like they're ruining my experience. On top of that, I get frustrated because I know that they're ruining their own experience. I want to scream: "Shut up! You're about to miss a huge moment!" And I think, "If you miss this moment, then you'll miss the joy of the film, and then you won't realize how good it is, and then you'll keep going back to that Transformers crap that allows you to take several scenes off and not miss a thing but there's nothing that can't be missed."

It's silly I should think these things, but I do. So three viewings tends to be right. After that it's almost like I want to make sure that some of that awestruck power remains for the first viewing on DVD.

All of that said, I've seen Inglourious Basterds three times, and if someone invited me along to see it a fourth time I wouldn't hesitate. If I go ahead and see it on my own, well, we'll see.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts. I was very lucky, audience-wise, with all four viewings. Also, I must say, the fourth viewing was the most pleasurable because it was a very quiet audience - there were no distractions - my mind wasn't distracted by racing thoughts - and I just had fun settling in and really paying attention to the wonderful acting.

Wow, this is going to sound really obsessive compulsive, but with multiple viewings, I assign myself different tasks each time. With the second viewing of Inglourious Basterds, it was to catch lines of dialogue I had missed and to check on my memory of certain on-screen details.

(Actually, I also assign myself this task for all first viewings of any movie: to remember the details of the film's very first shot.)

For my third viewing of this one, I focused on the score and note when certain themes (from the CD) occur in the film; what's going on at that time? Fourth viewing, the focus was on the acting - facial reactions, and I make a point of looking into the character's eyes. In this movie, watch the farmer's eyes! Also, by 4th viewing, you don't need to read the subtitles and you can better focus your attention on the characters.

For one of my 6 viewings of Titanic I set my center of attention OFF Jack and Rose during the sinking. It was like watching a whole different movie and it opened up a whole world of meticulous detail you miss otherwise.

The Film Doctor said...

Thought-provoking post. I can fully understand why you think it's a shame when the film leaves the theater, but I rarely rewatch contemporary films, partially because I'm always interested in new ones (as a blogger), and because I tend to associate repeat viewings with teenage guys watching The Dark Knight twelve times obsessively. Also, I like a fresh release--later viewings may be marred by accumulated damage to the film. In any case, I admire your ability to have the time to rewatch films. I do have favorite DVDs like Out of the Past or Breathless that I can see over and over indefinitely.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr., thanks for your response. I don't know if I have a lot of time on my hands. Probably it just came at a good time - late August - summer blockbusters tapering off -a lull that was not revived by September. So I found myself with a choice - see Inglourious Basterds or something new that doesn't look that great. And, like I say, if it's a favorite, I just want to see it a number of times in its widescreen glory before it gets all scrunched up on the TV screen.

Craig said...

I'm with you, Hokahey. I really miss having a movie around for a few months. Growing up, I remember Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Temple of Doom and The Karate Kid lingering hanging around my local cinema for the entire summer. It was especially fun watching a sleeper hit like The Karate Kid, which was never #1 at the box office but did steady business from word of mouth for weeks on end. That kind of movie almost never gets a chance nowadays, and that's a shame.

Inglourious Basterds was a hit, yet there's something depressing about watching it disappear -- one month, one hundred mil, in and out. I've seen it twice and may go check it out again when it comes to campus in November. University audiences are usually raucous and fun. One good thing about DVD, though, is the anticipation of a possibly longer version at some point down the road. That's a rare film where I would welcome a longer version.

Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - Thanks for the thoughts. As I confessed, I'm looking forward to the DVD too; will be interested in seeing what extras are offered. If there's a longer version, I hope the original is released separately. I like it as is.

It's sad that independent theaters can't survive to show old movies or movies that were released months ago but still have a life to them. Movies come and go so quickly around here!

Daniel said...

Interesting thoughts, and makes me feel like I should see IB again before it's gone, even if I didn't love it as much as most people. Because you're right, it's a completely different experience on DVD.

I think the last movie I saw thrice in a theater was actually Napoleon Dynamite, mostly because three different groups of friends hadn't seen it, but also because I liked it enough to see three times. Beyond that I'm not even sure what the last movie I saw TWICE in a theater is other than No Country for Old Men, which was definitely worth it.

Of course I do find many movies endlessly rewatchable as I find them on TV every now and then. Die Hard has been on quite a lot lately, then there's a bunch of 90's movies that I grew up with and can watch over and over (A Few Good Men, Tommy Boy, Fight Club), really spanning the whole decade.

Richard Bellamy said...

Daniel - thanks for the thoughts. Like I said, if it's a great cinematic experience, I want to see it on the big screen multiple times. But I'm not anti-DVD. I have a huge collection, and I find that I watch some of them once a year - or I'll get on genre kicks and watch a string of Westerns. After seeing Knowing - I watched a string of disaster movies. I only buy the ones I feel I will watch multiple times. As for Napoleon Dynamite, once was enough for me, but I basically liked it.

Jake said...

I only saw IB twice in theaters, compared to the six I saw Dark Knight (beyond an anomaly for me, and even weirder as I spotted the flaws of it every time). But I think every QT film should be seen at least twice in quick succession: the first time for the wave of homage, wit and tension to wash over you, and a second to set aside your notions of "QT" and look for genuinely engaging subtext. I loved IB the first time because I thought it addressed the growing weakness of Tarantino's dialogue, no longer taut and tense but lackadaisical and extraneous, and used that self-awareness to lure us into some dialogue-heavy scenes -- chief among them the tavern scene -- that start out boring and gradually mount in tension, simply through the topics and tone of the conversations. I also thought it was a cheeky, literal visualization of some of the radical goals of the French New Wave (the idea of film being the catalyst for revolution).

The second time, I saw this bewildering romp as cautioning against revenge, not reveling in it. The way he juxtaposes the German crowd yelling enthusiastically as they watch Nation's Pride with a presumably (they certainly were in my showings) pumped audience watching the subsequent shootout reminded me strongly of Michael Powell's investigation of the voyeurism of cinema with Peeping Tom. With the first viewing I'd known I'd seen the most fun movie of the year, and with the second I saw also one of the most intelligent.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jake -

"With the first viewing I'd known I'd seen the most fun movie of the year, and with the second I saw also one of the most intelligent." Well said. I feel the same. I had a lot of fun the first time as well - and I really enjoyed those masterful dialogues you speak of here. By the time I got to my 4th viewing, I was delighted that the film still gripped me, it still satisfied me, and I could still find new details I hadn't noticed before.

Thanks for all the comments!