Film Notes: Inglourious Basterds

Facebook Note 28 Aug 2009

I wanted to see a movie at Horton Plaza Wednesday evening, and the choice came down to District 9 and Inglourious Basterds.  I stood looking at the posters hanging side by side outside the UA Cinema. Brad Pitt, who has been annoying me lately (e.g. the disappointing Burn After Reading), and looked by all accounts, based on the film’s marketing, to really get under my skin in this one, or the big, hovering, menacing spacecraft movie.  Each one had been getting good reviews.  Basterds’ poster featured Pitt standing smugly and triumphantly on a pile of Nazis’ bodies, and the menacing spacecraft hovering over a quarantined District 9.  I glanced back and forth, then rested on the small figure in the center of the District 9 poster – a man with a squid for a nose.  I settled on Basterds.

I am glad I did.  I had no desire to see this film; indeed, I was loathe to see it and determined not to, except by accident in bits and pieces on TNT beginning about three years from now — all based on what I had seen of it from the marketing, but boy was I surprised.  In the end, I figured, hey, this is the next Tarantino flick, maybe it’ll be good.  And I didn’t really want to see squid-for-a-nose dude.  My take — this movie may fall short of “masterpiece,” but it is a definite triumph.

It starts with an ingenious scene in the countryside – at a farm house – of occupied France.  I do not intend to give anything away, but that which follows is an engrossing story told on a couple parallel paths which eventually meet up.  The more I think of it, the more I appreciate how well this movie is constructed.  It works very well. I will say that it is not historically accurate, but there is no pretense at historical accuracy.  It is an obvious given that this is a Tarantino romp — the double-misspelled title gives that away right at the top — and that any meshing with actual events or historical characters is gravy.

Again, hopefully without spoiling anything, this film I view as a fictionalized alternate, or perhaps complement, to Valkyrie.  The comparison seems obvious because of a few similar plot elements and because of the proximity in time of the release of each film. Valkyrie’s biggest failure was that it lacked suspense.  Not because of any misgivings in its execution, but exactly because it was as historically accurate as possible.  This usually is a good thing, but everyone knew the outcome in Valkyrie before taking their seats.  Truth almost always is more fascinating than fiction, but not when talking about these two movies.

The film is about 2 ½ hours long.  At no time did I dig out my cell phone to find out how much more I had to endure.  It kept me interested and locked in from beginning to end.  And I was also surprised to not be annoyed by Brad Pitt. He’s a bit bombastic, in his southern quintessentially-American way.  Something of an ass.  But right from the beginning you are rooting from him — he’s our ass.  Tarantino’s and Pitt’s portrayal and development of this character really work as one of the several major elements that make the film a success.  All the roles in the movie are executed perfectly, often with a playful spirit (even the dreaded, tenacious Nazi Colonel Hans Landa) and work in beautiful synergy.

Speaking of the Nazi Colonel.  His scenes are perhaps the best, and show Tarantino’s mastery.  The first scene of the film establishes that this is a sharp, shrewd character — not to be trifled with.  This precedent is so strong that there is always an edge in each subsequent scene — you are never sure whether he will discover the particular charade in front of him.  He has a certain dolt-like aspect which makes one believe he could be fooled.  This performance, too, Pitt’s counterpart and equally center to the story, goes a great distance in rendering the film’s overall triumph.

A note on the credits – certain filmmakers use a characteristic opening credit style.  Woody Allen is most known for this, using exactly the same method for every movie, establishing the Allen trademark at the outset.  Tarantino has established his style as well too, using at least 3 different fonts in the sequences of credits, at least one of which shared with Pulp Fiction, in which he employed the same technique. Now who cares about fonts?  Well, I do.  And in this case it is a way of connecting one film to another by the same maker.  I like this way of establishing trademark.  And in Tarantino’s case, you know that this is not going to be a sober look at WWII.  Whimsy comes in viewing his series of credits in various typesets.

Another note on the credits.  I was a bit annoyed when I watched Kill Bill Volume I to be informed at the beginning of the credits that this was “THE FOURTH FILM BY QUENTIN TARANTINO.”  I don’t remember John Ford, Marty Scorcese, or Stephen Spielberg putting themselves on top of a pedestal in this way.  But Basterds left the self-aggrandizement out, thankfully.  I suppose I may be too harsh with this in Kill Bill, as maybe it can be seen as just another playful element.  Nonetheless, I was happy to see it omitted in Basterds.

This film was not like other Tarantino films I’ve seen, at least not in story structure.  In a way, it worked like a “regular” movie, in the sense of a fairly straightforward plot development.  But it definitely has a flamboyant, fun sense that has become Tarantino’s trademark.  In some scenes, especially those featuring the Nazi Colonel Landa, I would say there is absolute mastery. There has never been a question that Tarantino is an exceptionally gifted filmmaker.  He solidly established that with Pulp Fiction.  But he’s going in some good, refreshing directions, akin to the Coen brothers No Country for Old Men, which I was really surprised, the film having ended, to find was a Coen production.

So now, when at the beginning of a movie I see flashed on the screen “A Band Apart”, I hope to count on it to deliver that anticipation that something really good is about to happen — like that rush when I used to see the “eyes” at the beginning of James Bond film.

I’m not sure that any one scene in Basterds will live on in cinematic history the way practically every scene in Pulp Fiction does.  But I really like that Tarantino is on his own path.  He has never tried to recreate Pulp Fiction.  Instead, he has a unique vision for each new film.  Some have worked better than others.  He has not been especially prolific, this being only his seventh movie. Hopefully he will continue to put out good, interesting, compelling and unique films at a somewhat regular pace.  I hope he does not go down the path of someone like David Lynch, making some very great films early on, only to have a film trickle out here and there every 5 to 10 years, or not at all.  Of course every time Lynch trickles something out, it is something of a master work at the very least, but I’m doubting anything more will come from him as a director (refer to his page to see what I’m talking about).

I think of another film to compare Inglourious Basterds to — perhaps instead of Valkyrie, this is more a complement of PattonPatton was a romp, in a way, though a historically accurate one, and of course one of the great masterpieces of cinema.  I’m not sure why I make this comparison, as there are really no overlapping story elements, but somehow in retrospect Basterds has a feel to it akin to that in Patton.  Maybe this is not so far-fetched. After all, Patton was something of a basterd.  But our basterd.


6 thoughts on “Film Notes: Inglourious Basterds

  1. Pingback: D-J-A-N-G-O. The D is silent. | movies remark

  2. I love Inglourious Basterds. The first time I watched it I was blown away. There are so many brilliant techniques inherent in the film – I swear there was dramatic irony in practically every scene in the entire movie. Basterds is just another reason why Tarantino’s my favourite director. I can’t wait until his next project. Apparently there’s going to be Kill Bill Vol. 3!

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