Two days ago, my good friend and esteemed blogger Dennis Cozzalio sent me an e-mail asking if I wanted to join him in a public, on-line conversation about Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds. Having just seen the movie when I got his e-mail, my answer was that yes, I very, very much wanted to do that thing he'd just asked. The film took off the top of my head, and I loved very nearly every one of its 153 minutes (which felt to me more like 80). You take my enthusiasm for the film, my affection and respect for Dennis, the honor I felt for being asked at all, and then add the fact that Inglourious Basterds seems to be the film of the moment, and you might start to understand why I've been anxious to get started. So let's get started.
DC: Bill, I’m sure you’ve been following it in the weeks leading up to the release of the movie, but there has been a lot of talk about how writer-director Quentin Tarantino disregards history in Inglourious Basterds, and how he flirts with the particulars of (German) film history with a flippancy that belies any serious intent or effect. Yet to his detractors Tarantino’s most heinous crime seems to have been, within the boundaries of an acknowledged cinematic fantasia in which rogue elements of the Jewish oppressed find ways to wreak horrific revenge on their mass murderers, to make a movie that isn’t itself punishing to endure. I don’t know how you felt about these other pictures, but wrapped up in all the heavily aestheticized moralizing of Schindler’s List, a movie I was instructed from the beginning to revere but one I’ve never felt compelled to see again, are strangely evasive episodes in which Jews are herded into showered in order to be bathed, not gassed, and in which a lost little girl toddles down a street filled with destruction, her coat tinted red for maximum pathos and visual effect. Is this not a form of fantasy, or at least a dodge by a filmmaker who would rather not deal with the grim reality he has set up for himself to explore? And as Scott Foundas observes about Life is Beautiful, all forms of wretched and distasteful coincidence and plot machination are forgivable as long as long as the death of camp prisoner Roberto Benigni, the clown who cried, is the result, thus paying for our collective innocence lost and restoring our righteous indignation amidst a throat full of tears. Tarantino acknowledges history the way he, and many of us, have experienced it—through the lenses of filmmakers and historians both fine and faulty—and it becomes for him a way to reflect on cinema’s place as a propagandistic force throughout history, to restructure and build upon the standard tropes of WWII motion picture iconography (while virtually ignoring the most obvious one, the battle scene), and make space for the emotional force of revenge, in a far more ambivalent way that either he or his detractors seem to care to acknowledge. In Inglourious Basterds, the war is capsulized in classically mounted, sometimes agonizingly drawn-out bouts of conversation and horrific release—the film is segmented into five chapters, so even the narrative itself feels strange, the otherworldiness underlined by titles like “Once Upon a Time… in Nazi-Occupied France” (which opens on a beautiful vista of a country cottage about to be set upon by a big bad wolf ), or even the misspelled title of the movie itself. Each chapter is built around conversations between antagonists that illustrate the methodology of warfare, the tantalizingly twisted thickets of wordplay, in which language itself is often central to deception or exposure, followed by an explosion of violence during which as many things go ghastly wrong as may go right.
Of course, each section then is a foreshadowing of the movie’s already most famous sequence, in which all the strands of Tarantino’s outrageous plot meet in a tangled know within the walls of a Parisian cinema where, for the running time of this movie anyway, the course of world history will take a sharp left turn to orgasmic wish fulfillment. The outrageous climax of Inglourious Basterds has compelled some to equate it with Holocaust denial, but I don’t think it’s wrongheaded to suggest that Tarantino might feel that to deny the possibility that Jews might want bloody revenge, or that it’s possible to contrive an emotionally satisfying story (with its feet at least acquainted with reality) in which Jews themselves might take up arms against those who would obliterate them, is to deny those Jews an essential and universal human response, to make them somehow above such motivation, therefore either more, or less human. And despite complaints otherwise, I don’t think Tarantino is playing a game in which the Jews dispensing such explosive equilibrium aren’t cognizant of the horror they’re turning around on their Nazi oppressors. Shit-asses one and all are barbecued in that cinema, and we get a good look at their terror, as well as the looks on the faces of the two Basterds directly involved as the flames engulf the auditorium and they mow down the high command of Third Reich with great satisfaction. But I don’t think I’d be alone in noticing the looks on their faces curdle just slightly as they are confronted with the reality of what it means to have orchestrated a human oven on their own terms, even with history’s moist despicable villains inside.
There have been complaints that the movie is ungainly and too slow, the conversational set pieces (of which there are four which play out with Tarantino’s slow-burn style and structure) boring, that it plays bait-and-switch with its Dirty Dozen-Inglorious Bastards genre roots and turns more into a European art film (a fair cop!), and that Tarantino’s dialogue isn’t sharp enough to justify the length of the scenes. It seems to me that you’re on board with Tarantino since the beginning of his career, but particularly with what he was up to in Death Proof, his methods shouldn’t come as a surprise, and the complaints may actually be reassuring. The difference here is that Tarantino, because of the period setting, must be aware of the vernacular popular in conversation during the ‘40s (and more appropriately in movies of the ‘40s), and thereby adapt his typical concerns with the pop culture landscape to fit the period. But he doesn’t stop there-- Inglourious Basterds is, among many other things, an engagement with a period of cinema history that is enriched by the director’s incorporation of it into the veins and musculature of his crazy plot. When was the last time you saw a movie with a gruelingly intense confrontation that hinged on a plot point straight out of Leni Reifenstahl’s The White Hell of Piz Palu? When was the last time you saw a movie with a central character to whom cinema and knowledge of it is both a sustaining force and a means of destruction? Of course Tarantino has not figured the complete and unabridged history of UFA into his film, and if he did it would be quite a different beast. Call him a geek if you must, but Tarantino has not devolved, as some have suggested, into a hermetically sealed self-referentialist in the manner of, say, Dario Argento. Stephanie Zacharek, in her qualified appreciation of the movie, suggests that Tarantino vision, while remaining true to that movie geek philosophy, is actually expanding rather than contracting, and in Inglourious Basterds he has begun to approach the way Brian De Palma synthesizes cinematic influences as far ranging as Hitchcock, Antonioni and Godard into something unmistakably De Palma, with concerns and effects completely unique to his own sensibility. The bonus is that young film fans flock to his movies, perhaps not for lectures on cinematic influences, but for how he makes those moments and influences his own, and if one of these young fans, who may think an old movie is one made around 1990, is by chance inspired to learn more about UFA, or Emil Jannings, or Lilian Harvey (I had to look her up too, Stephanie!), or G. W. Pabst, or even Josef Goebbels and why he held himself up to be the Third Reich equivalent of David O. Selznick, well, what’s wrong with that? Tarantino is, frankly, the kind of fanboy I wish we had more of, one who at least understands that film history extends far beyond te usual boundaries of our experience with American films. Of course, since 1994 there have been many who have tried to prove themselves fanboys of Tarantino’s equal, as storytellers, mythmakers and human databases, and they’ve usually come off looking pretty lame in comparison. Inglourious Basterds is a brilliant development from our best film geek, one which suggests ways that understanding the fabrications and truths of the movies can lead to understanding of horrors beyond the cinema walls, ones that linger like images of the dead projected on billows of gathering clouds of smoke.
BR: Good Lord, man, you sure know how to kick things off. I don't quite know where to begin, not only because you've covered so much ground already, but also because I feel like I'm at a slight disadvantage in that everyone but me has seen the movie, absorbed all the various discussions of it going on around the internet, and then seen it again. All I've done so far is see the film once, two days ago, and spent the time between then and now getting pissed off at people who thought it was boring or as bad as Nazis.
Let me begin simply, by telling you that my wife and I saw the film at a suburban multiplex in southern Virginia on Friday night, to a reasonably full house, and I don't believe there was anyone in the audience who was anything less than totally absorbed from frame one until the closing credits, at which point a fair number of people applauded. So I think that any conversation about the film, and what it is, and what it does, has to acknowledge that Inglourious Basterds is, at its core, a genuine crowd-pleaser. An art-house foreign language (essentially) crowd-pleaser. Whatever the hell this thing is, it works, in a broad sense, and I find that pretty exciting and encouraging, considering what a mad fucking whirlwind Tarantino has put together.
Anyway, Dennis, you point out the complaints from certain critical circles that Inglourious Basterds "disregards history". I have indeed followed this to some degree, and that particular bit of hypocrisy is something I find especially confusing. For one thing, films based on history often disregard history -- what do these critics think of Amadeus or, for that matter, JFK? -- without quite the rending of garments that Tarantino's film is inspiring -- "akin to Holocaust denial"??? Who said that? And did they offer one ounce of logical reasoning to justify a statement that is nonsensical on its face?
Plus, let's look at the history Tarantino distorts. In essence, he says that the Allies still won World War II, but V-E day came maybe a year earlier, and for different reasons. I'm sure I don't need to remind you, Dennis, that there is an entire subgenre of science fiction called "alternate history", which imagines what the future, or the present, would be like if major historical events had not happened, or had happened differently. There is also an entire sub-genre of alternate history that deals with what would have happened had Hitler won World War II. To my knowledge, the publication Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle or Len Deighton's SS-GB or about half the ouvre of Harry Turtledove, or countless others, have been met without a peep from critics about their offensive disdain for historical record. But Tarantino's expected to line up for a paddlin'. Put it this way: I would have a hard time claiming that Inglourious Basterds is science fiction itself, but its sequel would fit that genre very comfortably.
You also bring up reaction to the film's aesthetics. I must say that I didn't think that Death Proof worked, largely because the dialogue spoken by the two groups of women always sounded as though it wanted to loved and regarded as cool. It was overwritten, repetitive, slogging, and robbed the film's best moments of all impact. But in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has done two things: he has created characters whose lives aren't given over to leisure, or who don't even have time for leisure (or, in some cases, whose idea of what constitutes "leisure" is quite different from what might be considered the norm); and he has been able to still make cinema one of his major themes, as it always has been, by constructing a plot that allowed talk of Pabst and Riefenstahl to not only flow organically, but to be essential. As a result of this, and many other things, I believe that Inglourious Basterds is probably the tightest film Tarantino has ever made, and one of the tightest bits of storytelling, genre or otherwise, that I've seen in years. .
Clearly, some don't agree (many do, though). While the brilliant opening sequence, the roughly 20-minute conversation between Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and Pierre LaPadite (Denis Menochet) has been nearly unanimously praised, Tarantino tests the mettle of some pretty hardcore film critics with his nearly half-hour-long tavern scene, which goes from minor comedy, to expository dialogue, to a long section of relentless, ever-more-excruciating suspense that pays off with a shocking explosion of violence. To me, this scene is one of the most astonishing bits of filmmaking, film writing, and film acting I've ever seen, and it is all the proof I need that when I'm watching a Tarantino film, I am in the hands of a master. Letting this scene play out as long as it does (eliciting not a peep of impatience from the audience I saw it with, by the way) is far more ballsy, in my estimation, than his re-writing of history. If someone had described to me what the scene was about, and then told me how long it was, I think I'd have a hard time imagining how it could work. But it's exquisite, as close to a perfect example of suspense filmmaking since Hitchcock made Rear Window.
Dennis, this scene is uneblievable! It really is! Did you check your watch once in that entire half hour? Did you have any idea where it was heading, or how long it would ultimately last, and did you care? Can you imagine it being any shorter? The morals, or lack thereof, of Inglourious Basterds is currently the hot topic, but I was knocked stupid by this film as a film, and as a story, of the formal-and-otherwise wonderfulness of it all. The morals, we'll get to -- I have no doubt about that, and I'll address your points about that in the next round. But before that, let us please take a moment to acknowledge that Quentin Tarantino knows how the fuck to put a movie together, and anyone who says otherwise is...well, is someone who I would very much like to explain themselves.
End Part One, and I'm sorry about the disjointed nature of my response, but I'm very tired and sunburned right now. Sleep, then tomorrow my focus shall return.