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.


The Film Doctor said...

Excellent review. I guess that you are admitting that Tarantino's work is getting better in your estimation, or do you think you prefer this film because it suits your taste in genres? I'm surprised that you don't like Pulp Fiction more than you do. I often teach that film to enthusiastic students, and I wonder how much of the success of both Pulp Fiction and Basterds may be due to the way they wittily synthesize so many influences from one genre. Tarantino often seems to me to make his best work when the film relies heavily on dialogue. When he focuses more on action, as in the Kill Bill series, the movies suffer.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr, thanks. Partly it's the genre that attracts me with this film, but mostly its the more controlled, more effective construction of the scenes. I found the lengthy but tense scenes to be thrilling experiences - and I never felt that in Tarantino's previous films.

I think he's become a better filmmaker - for this film, hopefully for his future films as well. Even though Basterds has its outrageous moments, I think Tarantino restrained himself - and the result is a better film. With scenes like the opening one in the farmhouse, you can almost imagine him saying to himself, "I'm going to be as lovingly careful with this scene as possible and make it as effective as it can be."

You can see similar effort in some of his previous films - like the final confrontation between Bill and the Bride at the end of Kill Bill, II. But even though that film and his other films may have effective scenes, I've never been struck by them as being effective wholes. I feel the same way about Pulp Fiction. I like elements of it - not the whole thing. And when I say effective wholes - I mean scene for scene, acting, writing, cinematography, art direction, music. All those elements click in Inglourious Basterds.

Yes, enthusiastic film students love Pulp Fiction and I've had some of my students make films that pay tribute to that film. They think it's really cool. I find much of it to be blah - or as I watch the film, I can almost feel Tarantino trying to be cool. With Basterds I can feel him trying to tell a great story in an artful and inventive but effective manner.

Yes, here the dialogue is very effective and, I feel, more effective than in his previous films because I feel the dialogue is coming more from the characters than from Tarantino.

Jason Bellamy said...

So much to say about this film. I wanted to read your review twice before I commented.

* I think Tarantino is at his best when he makes allusions through action instead of dialogue. For example, by using music from Zulu Dawn or The Alamo, or borrowing a doorway shot from The Searchers, one takes away that Tarantino loves those films, but sharing that love isn't the sole purpose for his sampling. He uses those pieces because they work. They are techniques that he is applying, and if he does so correctly there's an effect even if we can't trace or spot the allusion. In contrast, when Tarantino has his characters ramble on about things that Tarantino admires, it can get pretty boring pretty quickly.

* Great reference to the standoff in Saving Private Ryan.

* As for his other films: If you haven't in a while, watch the Kill Bill movies again. I much prefer Vol 2 to Vol 1, but Vol 2's power is enhanced by Vol 1. Though I'm pretty much over watching Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, his other films are in the stage where I find a little more in them with each viewing. My gripes don't go away, but my enjoyment of those things I appreciate grows. With Tarantino, one viewing isn't really enough, most of the time. You need to see a film once just to understand the ground rules.

Inglourious Basterds was great on first viewing, but it was better on second viewing. And over the long weekend I'm hoping to get out there for viewing No. 3.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, Jason. I saw Basterds again last night, corrected an on screen mistake I had made in my post, and posted a comment listing favorite little elements that I love in this film on your and Ed's Conversations post. I really enjoyed it again - the second time, it seemed to go so fast; the dialogues almost felt short.

I totally agree with your comment about how the allusions work here. Across the board, I haven't felt that about his previous films.

Regarding Ryan, I also noticed last night that some of the sniper hits spurt out puffs of smoke - which Spielberg exaggerates ridiculously.

Yes, I probably need to revisit some of Tarantino's other films. Right now, I'm enjoying so much how everything, including T's particular style and tricks, works so well in Inglourious Basterds.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr - Another thought in response to your comment about using Pulp Fiction as a filmmaking teaching tool. I would have to rewatch that film to see how I would do that. As for Inglourious Basterds, I would say, here, watch this scene. Now, get two actors and a table, write some dialogue, make a movie. I love that simplicity about Tarantino's recent film.

Craig said...

Ah, I'd been waiting for this one. Terrific piece, with the best title of all the essays I've read on this movie. "Eloquent talk at tables" indeed: in a weird way, QT has made a Coen brothers movie with the difference being most of the characters are smart. (Only Aldo would fit in the Coens' universe.) They're smart, but they screw up anyway. Even Landa isn't infallible.

The dialogue isn't peppered with zingers, but to my ears it's a completely persuasive depiction of how people talked back then. QT spreads the wealth around and gives great lines to everyone while making all the voices sound distinctive (e.g. von Hammersmark's "I'm not going to fall into your honeypot"). I think it's the best screenwriting, the best dialogue of his career so far.

Finally, you're more up on the music than I am. I catch some of the Sergio Leone stuff (or rather, I know it's from a Leone movie without knowing necessarily which one), but a lot of it goes right past me. You might enjoy the soundtrack. After several listenings, I realized a lyric from the Bowie song that refers to "a thousand years" echoes Major Dieter's toast to "A Thousand Year Reich" right before the shooting starts in the tavern.

Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - thanks for the comments and the appreciation. Yes, I think this is Tarantino's best writing. And you're right - most of the main characters get great lines. First time around I wasn't that impressed with Kruger as Hammersmark, but on second viewing, I think she's brilliant - when she cynically responds in accented English to Raine's plan about the cast and the climbing excuse - when Landa slips the shoe on and she knows she's been had. She does a great job with a nicely written role.

Interesting thing about your Coen brothers comment: I was on vacation in California last weekend and I took my 17-year-old son and his friend to see the move at the Arclight. My son and his friend were disappointed. They had expected a straight World War II action movie. (My son loves Saving Private Ryan.) As we drove back to Santa Monica, I tried to explain to him my feeling about the brilliance of the dialogue and how it builds up suspense. Then he said, "Oh, I get it. It's kind of like Burn After Reading. It's like that clever Coen dialogue." Of course, it's more than that - but the dialogues are crucial to the effect of this film.

I guess there are no great zingers in the dialogue, but there are some subtle zingers. "Wait for the cream." And I simply love every word that Brad Pitt says. "...till he come over here to give you what fer."

You're right. I've got to get the soundtrack. At the Arclight, they had a display of costumes and props from the movie - the gun with "inglourious basterds" carved into it; Pitt's U.S. and partisan costumes; the shoe; Stolz der Nation posters. They also had a wonderful old-fashioned LP version of the soundtrack - I guess, a nostalgic allusion to the kinds of LPs they had for films like The Great Escape.

Ben Haven said...

Great review. I loved the subtle simplicity Tarantino used in both cinematography, accompanying the dialogue (as you mentioned with in the title). I adored the acting. The action had me flickering between amazed and disgusted (in a positive way).

However, when I thought about the movie as a whole though, it confused me, and still does. Perhaps I thought too much about it. But I see the reflections of the holocaust in burning of the cinema clearly. The depiction of Nazis we could understand and sympathize with did not directly add power to this scene, but provided a bit of c

I have tremendous respect for Inglorious Basterds (despite the slight embaressment it causes me) and it really did quite a job at making me think about film again. This review also showed me just how much I have to learn before I can fully appreciate all of the allusions Tarantino gave us. Thanks for the great review, it was quite helpful. I too need to see this film again. It's great to have the feeling of wanting to go see a movie again.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, Ben. Yes, it's great having that glowing feeling of having seen a great film and being able to see it again before it leaves the big screen, which happens too quickly and is very sad to me. Then we can look forward to the DVD - but it's not the same thing.

Part of your second paragraph got cut off - but I think I understand your discomfort factor. Some of the negative responses to this film seem to express that WWII was such a shocking event that we need to approach it with reverence - as Spielberg and Eastwood have done in their WWII movies. I grew up through two periods of WWII films. In the 60s, WWII films were entertainments or straightforward historical epics. In the 70s, WWII films were nihilistic and graphically violent. I have no problem with the latter.

Frankly, I prefer an irreverent take on any war, because war sucks. As for the portrayal of smart and noble Germans in Basterds, well, I know there were definitely smart and noble Germans in WWII - and it's smarter storytelling to present them as such - but I don't think that excuses or ignores the Holocaust. I'm not sure I've answered your question, but I don't feel the slightest bit of discomfort watching this movie.

Ben Haven said...

Sorry about that paragraph I didn't notice that.

I certainly don't feel discomfort in watching this film either. As you quite simply put it, war does suck. Inglourious got away with some extremes without loosing respectability. When I think of the hype for this movie, I think of somthing similar to Tropic Thunder only taking place in the real world World War 2. Inglourious Basterds was somthing entirley different, in a completley different league than the ads and trailers suggest.

I saw this film with my girlfriend (it was the third time she had seen it). She said somthing very clever about the end that I think you may appreciate. The dialogue, as you have said, sounds like it really does come from the characters, not Tarantino. But the last line may well have been from Tarantino. "...this might just be my masterpiece." says Aldo as he examines his handywork on Landa's forehead. Though I'm sure Tarantino will continue film making for years to come, this line suggested to her and myself that he was indeed proud of Inglourious Basterds . Who wouldn't be?

Richard Bellamy said...

Ben - Thanks for coming back. I'm glad your girlfriend liked it. Over the years, Tarantino has improved his female characters - and here he has some great ones - though I'm not suggesting that's the only factor that appealed to your girlfriend.

A big factor that appealed to me is ALL the characters. They are Tarantino's best, and their dialogue is their own, as your girlfriend observed. And the second time I saw the movie, I really heard Tarantino speaking through the final line - and he deserved that one.

Craig said...

I've got to get the soundtrack. At the Arclight, they had a display of costumes and props from the movie - the gun with "inglourious basterds" carved into it; Pitt's U.S. and partisan costumes; the shoe; Stolz der Nation posters. They also had a wonderful old-fashioned LP version of the soundtrack - I guess, a nostalgic allusion to the kinds of LPs they had for films like The Great Escape.

That sounds like some wonderful ambiance. Regarding the soundtrack, I think my favorite piece of music is the Morricone bit after a key character is shot in the projection booth. It's so floridly emotional it comes close to being ridiculous, but it choked me up. It's a very De Palma-esque moment. In fact, Inglourious Basterds often strikes me as the kind of movie I've always wished De Palma would make.

Ben Haven said...

No thank you, I love these discussions/reviews and should try to keep up with them more often than I do.

She didn't mention it specifically to me, but I'm sure she did notice and love that quality or this movie. Our discussion about it was interesting, because when I came out of the theatre I wasn't sure of my feelings about what I had just seen. This frusterated her a little as she had seen it 3 times and thought that I was over analyzing some things. After a few days of thinking about I've realized just how good Inglourious was. You're very right, he did deserve that last line, and I think he knew it...

Richard Bellamy said...

Ben - I'm impressed your girlfriend had seen it three times. I would love to know what she specifically enjoyed about it.

Yes, I love the discussion too. I have always loved movies. If movie blogs had existed when I was little, I would have been a very busy boy.

Craig - That display was really exciting. I saw it before the movie started. I saw the shoe, and I thought, "Oh, a shoe. Big deal." Then, during the movie, I thought, "That shoe!"

I just bought the soundtrack. The piece you're referring to is called "Un Amico" by Ennio Morricone. Yes, it is an almost ridiculously emotional piece, but it's haunting under the context: the tragedy that these two people might have genuinely fallen in love under other circumstances.

A Brian De Palma fan! Body Double is pretty outrageous!