Inglourious Basterds

PopMatters stole my thunder on this one when they anointed Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds the movie of the year in its year-end Best Of feature. It’s a hard point to argue against, as Tarantino has released at least five movies of the year by my count, and his one minor work, Death Proof, contributed mightily to the event of that year, though not many moviegoers seemed to think so.

For those of us who follow Tarantino’s career before-the-fact (Kill Bill, Vol. 3 slated for 2014!), Inglourious Basterds achieved a near mythical status that approached something like the hype surrounding Chinese Democracy. Tarantinowas working on it as far back as 2001. There was a script, but it was the length of a Bible. The Nazis were the good guys. It was going to be entirely in languages other than English. There might be subtitles; there might not. Bruce Willis was attached at one point. Then Ah-nold. Then Stallone. Then the next thing I knew it was at Cannes, and the Weinsteins were making noise about cutting 40-minutes before bringing it stateside.

Chuck Klosterman famously suggested that reviewing Chinese Democracy was like reviewing a unicorn. I won’t go that far, but I will say that simply seeing the words “Inglourious Basterds” on the theater’s marquee struck me as being an accomplishment. Such expectations can’t help but taint that original theatrical experience—I unfairly resent it when it’s not perfect—and only now, as I revisit the movie on DVD, can I approach it with any kind of objectivity.

The bad news is that—as much as it pains me to admit it—the Weinsteins may have been right about trimming some of the fat, even if 40-minutes is too much by at least half. The good news is that even a flawed Tarantino is better than a perfect most anyone else.

Two scenes here are as good as anything Tarantino has ever done: the first scene of the movie, in which a German Colonel Hans Landa, known as “the Jew Hunter” (Christoph Waltz, in a Golden Globe winning performance for Best Supporting Actor) smokes out a Jewish family that is hiding on a French dairy farm in 1941; the second is a scene three years later in a Parisian tavern. This scene includes a literary parlor game, a soldier who has been a father for all of half a day, a German movie star who is a spy for the Allies, a British war hero/film scholar posing as a member of the SS, stein after stein after stein of sloshing beer, and three—count them, three—glasses of Scotch. Given this potent mixture, surely it is no surprise that things do not end well.

These scenes run 19 and 30 minutes, respectively, which indicates just how slowly Tarantino unfolds his story. They are master classes in control, as he confidently lingers on such seemingly mundane activities as drinking milk or drawing ink into a pen or playing silly games (or, elsewhere in the movie, spooning cream onto the strudel). The burst of gunfire that follows is almost laughably short in contrast to the time that a Tarantino character takes to smoke a pipe.

Both of these quintessential (or should I say “Quint-essential”?) scenes illustrate the importance of language in Tarantino’s world. Those who master it have the power; those who don’t are S.O.L. Col. Landa moves fluidly among French, English, and German. The Jewish family beneath the floorboard is doomed because they do not. True, the undercover British soldier in the tavern is undone by his ignorance of German customs but his unorthodox accent is what originally invites suspicion. When the ruse is up, he switches to his native language.

“Well, if this is it old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s”, he says. Earlier, the proprietor of the dairy farm responds to one of the Jew Hunter’s questions, “Oui, I mean ‘yes.’” The difference is slight, but so too is it all.

We’re 18 years removed from Reservoir Dogs (!) and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the initial push to align Tarantino with the likes of Leone, Peckinpah, and Scorsese just because he spilled a little blood was misguided. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of Pulp Fiction, someone like David Mamet may be a more apt comparison. They both burst onto the scene with characters who spoke in ways that we had never really heard characters speak before. This is not exactly breaking news, I realize. Which other directors regularly release soundtracks that feature snippets of their own dialogue as a quarter of the tracks?

But Inglourious Basterds pushes this familiar aspect of Tarantino’s work forward by using language in a way that he has never used it before. It’s more than just clever. This isn’t a “royale with cheese” situation. It’s not Sam Jackson giving Robert DeNiro the keys to his car and indicating the sound of the alarm with an “ooo-OOO-ooo”. It’s not even Bill asking the Bride, “And what are you doing for a j-o-b these days”. This is not language as hook; this is language as subject.

When stumping for the movie, Tarantino consistently worked in some variation of the following statement into his interviews: “World War II is the last time a whole bunch of white guys fought another whole bunch of white guys”. He goes on to say, “You could infiltrate the other side, if you could speak the language”. At first blush, the only thing separating a Nazi from a non-Nazi is that the Nazi is wearing a Nazi uniform (which is why the Basterds make sure that the Nazi uniform can never be removed). Even the dumb Americans can pass for “Eye-talians”, as long as they don’t open their mouths. I would love to know if Tarantino used this idea as a jumping off point or if he came around to it during the writing process. Either way, this is the rare summer blockbuster that could be accused of having an actual theme.

However, for all of this talk about Tarantino taking great strides forward in Inglourious Basterds there are familiar aspects of his filmmaking on display here that work to the movie’s detriment. Chief among these is his penchant for stunt casting. There’s no denying that when it works it works. How soon we forget that John Travolta’s three roles before Pulp Fiction were Eyes of an Angel, Shout, and Look Who’s Talking Now. Though their careers weren’t similarly rejuvenated, Robert Forster, David Carradine, and Kurt Russell all turned in career-capping roles with Tarantino behind the camera, to say nothing of the stellar work he’s gotten out of Pam Greer and Zoe Bell (talk about stunt casting).

He wisely stopped featuring himself in his movies when it started looking more like vanity and less like a treat for his devotees (which is to say immediately after “The Bonnie Situation”), but casting Eli Roth as Sergeant Donny Donowitz (aka, “The Bear Jew”) is hardly an improvement. Plenty of dots connect Tarantino and Roth—Tarantino Executive Produced Roth’s Hostel movies, Roth directed the Nation’s Pride segment of Basterds and the fantastic trailer for Thanksgiving for the Grindhouse double feature—but knowing their history only enhances the perception that Tarantino was just casting a friend. The camera likes Roth well enough—he looks bad ass when he’s unloading a machine gun in slow-motion, but, then again, don’t we all?

No, the problem isn’t that Roth doesn’t look the part. The problem is that I don’t believe a word he says. After he takes a bat to the head of an SS member like his body was a tee, Donowitz preens about and yells, “Teddy Fucking Williams knocks it out of the pahk. Fenway Pahk is on its feet for Teddy Fucking Ballgame. He went yahd on that one, on to fucking Lansdowne Street”. My first thought: “Was ‘going yard’ slang for a homerun in 1944?” My second: “What a terrible Boston accent”. (You can imagine how shocked I was to learn that Roth was actually born in Boston.) I have a hunch that neither of these thoughts were what Tarantino wanted me to be thinking at that time.

But Roth—and Mike Myers and B.J. Novak, for that matter—isn’t a big enough player for his appearance to do the movie any real harm. Unfortunately, the more damning allegation is that if I am completely honest with myself, there are a couple of moments where Inglourious Basterds simply drags, and on this most recent re-viewing I think I’ve figured out why.

The movie is divided into five chapters, each running anywhere from 19- to 45-minutes. Each chapter essentially functions as a short movie of its own, with its own plot and its own character arcs. The chapters are complete, but they are narratively unsatisfying on their own, as they depend on what came before and/or after to be fully appreciated. So, for example, Shoshanna fleeing at the end of Chapter 1 clearly concludes Chapter 1, but we need Chapters 2–5 to make sense of the rest of her story.

The important point here though is that there are two structures at play: one, the structure of the individual chapter; two, the structure of the movie overall. The movie drags when the structure of the one is not in concert with the structure of the other.

That the early chapters include their own structure is fine, as audience members are open to receiving information early in a picture. But by Chapter 5, which begins at the 2:09 mark, we are ready to move. Everything has prepared us for the impending climax. The stage is set. The plan put into action. And then… we cut from the showdown to a negotiation? I understand that this digression is necessary for the rest of Chapter 5 to work, and I understand that it probably belongs around this point in the chapter; the problem is that it doesn’t belong at this point in the movie, and taking us here now only slows things down when we should be speeding forward. Once Tarantino opens the door on the premiere of Nation’s Pride, he shouldn’t leave the theater until the mother burns.

I have long been suspicious of the double-disc special editions for new releases as everything strikes me as being glorified promotional materials, but this one surprised me pleasantly. The full version of the Roth-directed Nation’s Pride (all of six minutes) entertains and amazes when you consider how much was filmed and how little was used. Disc 2 includes a roundtable with Tarantino, Brad Pitt (oh, did I fail to mention…?), and film critic Elvis Mitchell. It’s mostly a love-fest but it also includes some worthwhile insights, particularly in regard to Pitt’s approach to the character. (It also gives Tarantino an opportunity to repeat his “World War II white guys” line.) A couple of documentaries fill in the blanks on just some of the WWII movies that Tarantino admired, including a segment on the original The Inglorious Bastards. In addition, a bit called “Hi, Sallys” is far more fun to watch than it has any right being.

However, the most revealing feature is an interview with actor Rod Taylor, who plays Winston Churchill in the film. Taylor’s career is precisely the kind of long and varied and underappreciated sort that would appeal to Tarantino, so it is no surprise that Tarantino handpicked Taylor for the role and that Taylor seems to be honored to be part of the movie, even if his screen time is shorter than one of those aforementioned bursts of gunfire. There’s a lot of a good stuff here, so you should check it out for yourself if you are interested, but the best revelation is a story that Taylor tells about how Tarantino responds to a good take when he is on the set. “Nice job, everyone”, he’ll say (to paraphrase). “Now let’s do it again. And why?” Then everyone together: “Because we love making movies”.

There is actually a clip of Tarantino initiating this banter, and, in fairness, that is his voice out there ahead of the pack. The crew’s response seems to be conditioned. The word “lackluster” comes to mind. But that’s OK. The director has enough enthusiasm for us all.

RATING 8 / 10