Inglorious Basterds

August 21, 2009

Quentin Tarantino is a man who enjoys the sound of his own scripts, and if 2007’s Death Proof wasn’t…proof enough of this then watching Inglorious Basterds will once again pay testament to that fact. It also appears that he’s gone and made another grind house picture that is as exploitative as it is enjoyable, and for all its flaws there’s no denying the broken genius that Tarantino possesses both behind the camera as well as at the keyboard.

You all know the plot of the film, and if you don’t, watch this trailer

Rather than talking about the film as a whole, I want to look at a couple of scenes and stylistic traits which set Tarantino apart and cement his place as a twisted virtuoso of Hollywood cinema. In case you haven’t worked out by now, I liked the film and think it’s worth seeing provided you’re willing to turn off your higher brain and enjoy the silly, violent fun. Spoiler alert: some of the stuff below gives a couple of things away, so go see the movie first.

The best scene of the film is arguably the first, coming after the traditional Tarantino style credits and an intertitle letting us know that we’re about to watch ‘Chapter 1’, set in Nazi-occupied France in 1941. Not only is it beautifully photographed, the cameras gaze allowing us to soak in the atmospheric rural setting, then changing pace and picking up motion in order to heighten the tension of the proceeding events, but also masterfully written with the humour and intelligence you’d expect. Tarantino is blessed by having virtually total authorial control over his works, and so he’s allowed to indulge himself with verbose dialogue and drawn out conversations which eventually wind themselves into the main narrative. An SS officer visits the home of a French dairy farmer and questions him about the Jewish families in the area, all but one of which have been rounded up. Formalities and social niceties are joyfully squeezed from the peasant by the officer, and the languages spoken switch between French and English with hilarious effect. The officer’s polite toying with the farmer, who is guiltily harbouring the Jews beneath his floorboards, is like watching a cat toying with a mouse and this is even alluded to in the dialogue. All very intelligent, witty stuff. However, it doesn’t take long to remember how in love with cinema Tarantino is, unable to resist peppering his script with visual and verbal references or gags based on his prodigious knowledge of the medium. Though it pretends to be a war film Inglorious Basterds constantly parodies Westerns, the opening scene’s score blending classical piano with Spanish guitar. Though Tarantino often picks a genre and chooses to subvert it in his own way, the question is whether he is actually creating something original and worthwhile or just cobbling together a Frankenstein’s monster of increasingly disparate cinematic parts which in the long term will destroy him.

The problem deepens when he doesn’t stop with the cinematic in-jokes and referencing, highlighted in a scene later in the film when the same style of verbal pun is used in two consecutive lines of dialogue. SS officer Col. Hans Landa’s terrifying detective skills, used to build tension during the opening scene, are also repeated at least twice more with the same results. Each time it’s still enjoyable, but it’s also no longer new and less effective.

On, inevitably, to the violence. It’s not hugely bloody or gross by the standards of, say, Hostel, but there are a couple of nasty, gory close ups, as well as a few pretty poor looking latex-aided effects (the scalpings, for one). What Tarantino does differently and extremely well is the action, when it is allowed to surface from beneath the extended chats. Whilst directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn made graphic violence their own in the late 60s and 70s by using slow-motion to heighten the intensity, a trick expanded on by the Wachowski Brothers and Zack Snyder in recent years, Tarantino does completely the opposite. The best example is the brief, instantaneous brutality of a gunfight in the basement bar of a French village. Every gun is drawn and fired almost simultaneously in what feels like a ‘realistic’ representation of a battle occurring in such an enclosed space. And virtually everyone in the room dies rather than being alowed a drawn out death. Like Sam Raimi’s shock tactics in Drag Me To Hell, the violence in Inglorious Basterds is most effective when it comes from out of nowhere, and with the uber-stylised violence of 300 duplicated in most Hollywood action movies, it’s incredibly refreshing to see Tarantino doing something different.

Performance wise there are only one or two strong showings.Christopher Waltz sparkles as Col. Hans Landa throughout the film, and his character is rare in being able to illicit both laughter and terror from the viewer. Brad Pitt on the other hand is pretty poor, and though I’ve not got a lot of respect for him anyway his part could have been filled better by a number of other performers. Everyone else seems a little out of place, either far too sincere for such a silly movie or far too over the top (Mike Meyers as a British General, Samuel L Jackson in a superfluous role as occasional narrator) and recognisable to have a positive impact.

Inglorious Basterds is then, I think, Tarantino’s best movie since Jackie Brown, though I’m not sure whether it will stand further scrutiny or get better with a second viewing. There’s a chance that if this movie is allowed to be examined too closely it will become the nasty, boring failure that Peter Bradshaw thought it was here.


2 Responses to “Inglorious Basterds”

  1. Jack Hurst Says:

    I read an interview with Tarantino today, where he talked about wanting to create suspense in this movie. He says the closest thing he has done so far, is the Bride in the coffin in Kill Bill, but he readily admitted that this is not proper suspense. I think he did a very effective job of creating suspense, but often through the use of old cinematic techniques. The scene at the start, with the people hiding and being found out under the floor, uses the same technique as in the Godfather Pt.1. There is an undefined roaring noise that increases in pitch and volume which really invades your senses and builds suspense, which closely mirrors the scene at the restaurant in the godfather, where Michael Corleone can’t find the gun behind the toilet and then has a panic attack. Coppola uses the sound of an underground train screaching and speeding to mirror Michael’s feeling and mood. Tarantino again uses the building of noise effect to build suspense in the cinema scene. I think this technique is really effective, I notice it almost everytime it is used in films, and I suppose if you took out everything that was an homage or inspired by another film from a Tarantino movie, there would probably only be a couple of minutes of footage to work with.
    I enjoyed it. I think Peter Bradshaw made some sense in the Guardian paper review today, but he was being a bit stubborn, ‘I never really cared for Jakie Brown, unlike most critics’. I do think the scene in the bar was a bit longwinded, when Tarantino’s dialogue isn’t working for me, I find it quite dull, but overall I enjoyed it. Tarantino raised another interesting point in the interview, where he mentioned that the critics are having a go at each other and less of a go at him.

  2. Jack Hurst Says:

    Also, Fassbender is originally German or something isn’t he? it is certainly a German name. So the only 2 brits with real speaking parts were played by Yanks?! Also I really don’t like Eli Roth, but I was glad to see that he barely spoke

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