Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day Review About Some Inglourious Basterds

Some people write their loves romantic letters on Valentine’s Day.  Being a novel fellow who kind of forgot about Valentine’s (but most definitely not his valentine) until the night before, I hastily wrote my love a romantic review of one of the most definitively unromantic movies ever made.  This is for you, my dear.  I am truly the luckiest basterd in the world because of you.

A German colonel waltzes up to a secluded countryside farmhouse in France and politely asks its owner to show him in for a friendly talk.  The father of three daughters, the Frenchman sees little choice but to comply, sending his family outside to the other officers when requested and unconvincingly trying to ease into the progressively more illusory comfort of his own home.  The German maintains an outer calm and gentility throughout the unexpected meeting, baring mild frustration but once when he insists that the two assume the King’s English for the remainder of their conversation.  If the situation wasn’t already unsettling enough, the atmosphere now becomes oppressively sinister; the room is silent but for the periodic ticking of a clock, providing Colonel Hans Landa the perfect setting to pursue his relentless questioning and torture his cornered victim’s mind.  He’s already searched this house once to no avail, and yet he knows that someone has eluded him.  Called the “Jew Hunter” by his nemeses, he muses at length about the difference between a rat and a squirrel in human perception, how the former is reviled and driven off as a rodent while the latter, its cousin, is regarded without any malice of the sort.  How would the Frenchman react if a rat were to scurry along the floor at this very moment?  “You don’t like them.  You don't really know why you don’t like them.  All you know is you find them repulsive.   Consequently, a German soldier conducts a search of a house suspected of hiding Jews.  Where does the hawk look?  He looks in the barn, he looks in the attic, he looks in the cellar, he looks everywhere he would hide, but there’s so many places it would never occur to a hawk to hide.”  As it so happens, a pack of that human vermin the German hawk despises currently hides beneath the very planks supporting them, listening intently as the two men debate in an alien tongue what sentence most befits a rodent that intrudes on one’s property.  Without uttering a single threat directly, the colonel eventually obtains the information he seeks and promptly reverts to French, thanking the farmer for his time and inviting the “ladies” back into the house.  The music of Ennio Morricone swells to a roar, chips fly from the floorboards, a single, blood-soaked woman darts from the scene, and the colonel smirks maniacally at her flight through the fields, letting her run to fight another day.

If not for its protracted, gripping, and ultimately horrifying opening scene, Inglourious Basterds could quite easily have been a failure of a movie, both morally irredeemable and pointlessly brutal, but the Nazis’ systematic and unhesitating extermination of the Jewish family makes a pretty compelling defense of the heroes’ righteous brutality.  Though I was totally oblivious of its authorship until the very end, Basterds may just be remembered as Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, perfecting essentially every move in the director’s playbook – from his penchant for disrupting long periods of extreme suspense with extreme acts of violence to his deft hand for witty dialogue and vivid characters – while framing all these signatures in a sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, and always tantalizing tale of revenge and the savageries of guerilla warfare.  At times the movie is jarringly comical and weightless in its depiction of bloodshed, at others very heavy-handed and purposely dark; whether this divide in tone was an intentional and artistically reasoned design of the writer or a result of severe mental deformity a la The Lone Ranger will probably be debated by do-nothing college film majors for eons to come, but I for my part think Tarantino is dealing in an ingenious blend of satire and subjective storytelling while at the same time gleefully celebrating the punishment of cruel deeds by cruel means.  Anything but another cautionary message story exhorting us to treat our enemies mercifully lest we stoop to their level, Basterds keenly glorifies the inglorious pursuit of vengeance in all its bloody, animalistic fury, and it does so impeccably.

The plot generally concerns two intersecting conspiracies to assassinate Hitler and his closest Nazi goons at a showing of a propaganda war film, one orchestrated by the theater’s headstrong owner Shosanna, the same girl whom Landa suffered to escape the farm as a teenager, the other by a ragtag group of Jewish Allied special forces united under the banner of Inglourious Basterds and command of a Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine, portrayed with a humorously strained southern drawl by Brad Pitt, though it would be faulty to call him the protagonist or to approach Inglourious Basterds as one would a conventional action picture, as Tarantino doesn’t really focus on any one character over the rest and the individual parts of his script were apparently written to be much greater than the whole.  Unlike the vast majority of his competitors in the industry, Tarantino doesn’t strain himself to jump hectically between separate parties so as to keep his audience hanging, nor does he organize the story such that every scene has to propel the narrative towards its inevitable climax.  In contrast to something like Lord of the Rings or 24 (no disrespect meant to either on this basis – OK, 24 kind of sucks) which break up chronologically overlapping scenes into innumerable bite-size pieces, leaving each character dangling on a precipice before switching back to another, Basterds is more akin to a minimally edited stage production divided into five acts, each being further divided into two or three lengthy and uninterrupted scenes.  Instead of undermining the audience’s connection with the characters, some of whom will fade into absence for well above a half-hour, this technique only augments the intensity of the on-screen exchanges, compelling viewers to share the Allies’ anxiety whenever their alibis crumble, to feel their impulsive rise to action whenever they are exposed.  In Basterds, one cannot just escape to another scene when tension reaches a peak; like the characters, spectators are usually glued to a chair, forced to endure for 10-20 minutes at a time the unrelenting interrogation of dangerous men far more quick-witted and observant than themselves.

So written that the looming threat of violence is always more prominent and terrifying than violence itself, the script occasionally underlines the viciousness of both “Nat-sees” and Basterds with moments of shockingly ruthless bloodshed, but it’s a very talky picture overall, brimming with witty dialogue, punchy one-liners, and dramatic monologues that potently reveal the speakers’ character.

Aldo: “You said [the rendevouz] was in a tavern.”
Hicox: “It is in a tavern.”
Aldo: “Yeah, in a basement.  You know, fighting in a basement offers a lot of difficulties, number one being: you’re fighting in a basement!”

Hicox: “There's a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch.  Seeing as how I may be rapping on the door momentarily… [taking a chug] I must say, damn good stuff, sir.  Now, about this pickle we find ourselves in...”

Sometimes the dialogue has blatantly modern touches, from casual remarks about “kicking ass” (in the presence of women, no less) to ridiculous mexican standoff threats like “Say ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ to your Nazi balls”, and the unusually idiomatic captioning of French and German lines clearly suggests an English film translated into foreign languages, rather than the other way around, but those complaints bear little weight in the presence of such a competent cast.  In the role of the dreaded Jew-Hunter, Cristoph Waltz rightly ran away with an Oscar and numerous other prizes for freakishly embodying a kind of sadistic mentalist who delights in toying with his prey and constantly exudes menace even in the course of feigning civility.  The impossibility of reading how much he knows at a given point or anticipating how he’ll act upon that knowledge is one of the most impressive achievements on display in the film.  As a British soldier, Michael Fassbender of Prometheus and X-Men: First Class turns in another fine performace that’s not as enigmatic as David or as conflicted as his Magneto but just as compelling regardless.  Brad Pitt is accorded a vastly different part as the Basterds’ over-the-top leader, but fulfills the comic relief position admirably all the same.  One of the more surprising turns comes from relative unknown Melanie Laurent as the emotionally hardened and unrevealing Shosanna, a warrior in the guise of a madam, bent on the ruin of her family’s murderers, resolute and composed in the face of her most loathsome enemies.  One of her later scenes particularly stands out, wherein she lathers her face with makeup prior to starting the central movie-within-a-movie.  For certain it would be a disturbing sight under any other circumstance, but Tarantino so directs the scene that the image implies much more than simple vanity; Laurent is a soldier readying herself for battle, donning war paint to strike awe in the hearts of her foes.

The whole movie is filled with cinematic tricks like this, basking in another universe where mortal titans proudly embrace their Homeric epithets, where the good guys don’t waver to give the bad guys what they deserve, and where the hero may rattle off such forward and fiery rhetoric as: “We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are.  And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us… And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.  And when the German closes their eyes at night and they’re tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with.”

Neither fully dramatic nor fully comedic nor partially historically accurate, this is an intelligent kind of film that defies all stock classifications and avoids the quandaries of overtly moralizing about war, revenge, or anything else, except perhaps to show that justice is painful and that – try as he might to bend history to his favor – no man can wipe away the scars his own sin has seared upon his brow.  He may change his uniform and disappear in a crowd, but every one of us has “a little something we can’t take off” of our own accord.  Like the film’s final point-of-view shot and Aldo’s final act of Injun violence, Inglourious Basterds is a “masterpiece” of filmmaking, a superbly executed, immensely enjoyable, and occasionally reflective work of R-rated artistry.  If it isn’t the best date movie of all time, it’s easily one of the best spaghetti western, WW2, black comedy, extensively subtitled, alternate history revenge movies of all time.  Maybe one of the best movies, period.

Grade rating: A.  That’s a bingo!

Clarification: And, no, in case you’re inured against sarcasm, I did not write this stupid movie review as a Valentine’s Day gift, unless you didn’t get candy hearts or a letter or anything else and you really want to take this as a gift instead, in which case you’re welcome.  Having never attended public school, I fear I’m a little untrained in this whole lewd and lurid business.  However my card writing skills measure up, the only valentine I’ve got to my name resides in my head, and she deserves way, way better than this.

Addendum: If you seek proof that Harvey Weinstein is a hypocritical ass, look no further than this production.  “I don’t think we need guns in this country.  And I hate it.  I think the NRA is a disaster area.  But I have no problems whatsoever financially supporting the profiteering of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino who deliberately sell moviegoers outrageously gory “gun violence” and graphic depictions of women getting shot at point blank, strangled or otherwise brutalized.

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