Film

Inglourious Basterds: The Trouble with Tarantino

In the case of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, the film doesn’t just have greatness in it, there’s mighty rivers of greatness simply leaking out of the thing.


Inglourious Basterds

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom, August Diehl, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke, Mike Myers
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2009
UK Release Date: 2009-08-19
US Release Date: 2009-08-21.
Website
Trailer

It’s often said about ambitiously failed works of art that they have greatness in them. That but for the grace of the muses – a better edit here, a dialogue tweak there – the work in question would have been able to vault that shadowy and indistinct line that separate those things which ultimately worked and those that didn’t. This isn’t much help to the filmmakers, of course, because such statements are often left vague and fuzzy, the speaker trailing off into an indecipherable musing on what exactly it was that left them so nonplussed.

In the case of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, the film doesn’t just have greatness in it, there’s mighty rivers of greatness simply leaking out of the thing. Its multi-lingual dialogue sings and trills with dangerously poetic abandon. The spine-shivering soundtrack is heaped high with deeply wonderful slabs of tweaked Morricone and Schifrin, not to mention an excitingly repurposed David Bowie track from his “Let’s Dance” period. There’s at least two Oscar-worthy performances in here, and that reckoning doesn’t even take into account watching Brad Pitt – as a flinty Appalachian officer leading his titular band of Jewish-American soldiers around the Western Front scalping Nazis – having more fun than he’s been witnessed experiencing on-screen since the early 1990s.

One could rattle on about any number of other things about the film, from Robert Richardson’s classically gorgeous widescreen cinematography to the numerous sequences of Hitchcockian heart-stuttering tension, but the point is clear. This is passionate and unique filmmaking in the greatest auteurist sense. Certainly Inglourious Basterds nods at numerous other films -- from The Dirty Dozen and Sergeant York to The Battle of Algiers and the 1978 Italian shlocker that gave this film its name (this is Tarantino, after all, and cinematic quotation is just the lingua franca) -- but this is much more than just a geeky, wink-wink mash-up. For all the references on display here, the film somehow isn’t always reminding you of ten other films, a rarity in these footnoted and hyperlinked times.

So then why doesn’t Inglourious Basterds take that leap into greatness? As is too often the case, Tarantino had the components of a masterpiece in his hands but let them slip through his fingers. He works on the script for something like ten years, during which time the thing morphs from a straight World War II “guys on a mission” flick to a mammoth miniseries. Eventually the monster gets whacked into shape as an audacious, five-chapter exploration of fantasy and wish fulfillment, as seen through the prism of pre-Spielberg WWII cinema.

Four of the chapters work fantastically, the last collapses under the weight of the filmmaker’s conceit. As with following the tart, smart Kill Bill with the dreadfully otiose Kill Bill 2, or simply thinking that a great soundtrack could save Jackie Brown, Tarantino seems to have gotten high on the fumes of his own (admittedly addictive) creation here and just not known when to quit. It happens.

If it seems odd to accuse a filmmaker like Tarantino of excess, consider that his old reputation as cinema’s wild-eyed, blood-and-guts enfant terrible is far from earned. What impresses most about the man’s films is not their punches of raw violence but their addictive focus on the spoken word. Yes, Reservoir Dogs spilt its share of claret, but it would barely have raised an eyebrow without the goony poetry of the characters’ motormouth interactions.

These verbal skills of Tarantino’s have solidified in Inglourious Basterds into something quite formidable. This is particularly true with the character of German officer Hans Landa, played with lip-smacking zeal by journeyman German actor Christoph Waltz, who deserves every one of the many accolades that will be hurled at him this year. From the first chapter (“Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France”) -- where Landa interrogates a farmer hiding several Jews under his floor, to later, when Landa questions a woman whom he doesn’t realize is one of those same Jews the farmer was hiding from him – Waltz brings an air of gleefully calculated malice that’s like little else ever seen on film. Flitting effortlessly from one language to the next (Tarantino’s obsession with words achieves a new height here, with many plot points revolving around minutiae of linguistics and translation), Waltz is an impish demon who expresses more malevolence through the devouring of a piece of strudel than most actors can by waving a gun.

But by the time Tarantino is done with Waltz, it’s too much of a good thing, just like the film as a whole. In its fevered journey through a quasi-fantastic warscape – where British officers talk in full, whiskey-soaked private-club cliché (“Let’s give Jerry the what-for” and so on) and a band of American commandos can tear around Europe for years without having to learn any German – Inglourious Basterds builds to several beautifully calibrated mini-climaxes, but exhausts its energy (and invention) well before the fiery, bullet-pocked, and strangely anticlimactic finale.

There is greatness in this film, and but for about 15 minutes’ worth of grandiosity and overkill, it would be a great film, indeed.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image