Today I happened to be reading a New York Times theatre review by Charles Isherwood. It began, "When it comes to acts of murderous vengeance, bread baking cannot compete with scalp collecting in terms of lurid allure. On the other hand, the toxic loaves that figure in Daniel Goldfarb's play The Retributionists can lay claim to some factual history, in contrast to the bloody deeds visited upon nasty Nazi bigwigs in Quentin Tarantino's pop action movie Inglourious Basterds."
While Isherwood didn't like The Retributionists at all, which takes place months after WWII, I was left thinking about Inglourious Basterds, which changes history in a big way. Is Tarantino's movie "pop action" with no real point? That's too easy a category (or catagery). The film says something about Americans. We're crass and ugly. Whether Tarantino is purposeful in that or just accidental is another question.
We can start with the title, whose misspellings say, "So what? Ya wanna make somethin' of it?"
The dirty dozen basterds within the film are Jewish commandos led by Brad Pitt's Tennessee-born Lt. Aldo Raine. How appropriate that this group is led by a fun-loving Christian white boy. He's the stereotypical American traveler in Europe and knows everything. When he says he knows Italian best in order to trick Nazis at a screening, he's so assured, we believe him until he opens his mouth.
Compare this to an earlier scene at a bar without Raine. The story twists on a subtle but important difference in German accents. There's no subtlety with Raine. He's the reining arrogant American.
The Nazis are trusting and honorable compared to Raine, too. One Nazi officer won't betray his fellow soldiers as Raine tries to get information. Raine isn't about to torture the guy. No, he brings in a Jew with a Louisville slugger who whacks the man's head like a baseball. If that's not gruesome enough, Raine demands the scalps of dead Nazis. This is no Native-American connection to the soul. It's about being a crude and fun-loving man.
At the bar scene, a new German father lays down his gun after Raine assures him they have to trust each other. Of course, the German gets shot. That's what you get for trusting us. (But hey, he's a Nazi. Should I feel sad?)
Last are the last scenes themselves. If you haven't seen the movie, this will spoil it. (Can it be spoiled?) How are we to take a whole new end to the European theatre with Hitler and his whole high command killed in a Paris movie theatre in an orgy of imagery? Raine and his crew consider themselves as the masterminds when in fact we see the brave French theater owner and her black lover actually do them in. If Raine never showed up, the Nazis would have been just as dead. The haughty Americans think they did the job.
Add one more twist where a clever Nazi colonel seals the end to the war. He, too, trusts Raine, but Raine doesn't stay with the deal. Raine cold-bloodedly murders the man's driver. (But, hey, he's a Nazi. Should I feel sad?)
The last shot is Raine crudely carving a swastika in the man's forehead. I guess we're to laugh that the American gets in the last dig. We're nothing if we don't get our way.
Non-Americans who see the film will recognize our ugly breed instantly. We're the ones who decided to overrun Iraq without bringing an army of translators. We had the translators, but the Bush administration decided they weren't needed. Everyone would love us for toppling Saddam. Fuck ‘em if they needed to know how long we'd hang around or what we might do to repair the place. And we didn't need to question anyone? Fuck ‘em. Mission accomplished.
This isn't to say I was bored in Inglourious Basterds. I'm never bored in a Tarantino film. That's because one purposeful thing he's a master of is tension. Look at Pulp Fiction. There he created incredibly long scenes--as long as Stanley Kubrick used to create. Tarantino plays with our attention spans and wins. Think of the second scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent, played by John Travolta, talks about what a Quarter Pounder is called in Paris--a Royale.
There's all sorts of quirky dialogue, minutiae that would drag in other films, but in Pulp Fiction we're listening because we're tense. After all, in the previous scene, a young man and woman, "Pumpkin" and "Honey Bunny," stand up with guns in a restaurant and one shouts, "Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every one of you motherfuckers."
Then we meet Vincent and Jules (Samuel Jackson) and want to know who they are. The dialogue tells us they're a bit funny, and after a couple of minutes of that, they open a trunk full of guns and select a few, for what we don't know. We learn "there could be five guys up there."
Now we're on edge. And what happens? Vincent and Jules continue their quirky conversation, arguing about their boss Marsellus, his wife Mia, and foot massages. It goes for nearly eight minutes--yet we're apprehensive as hell. When they burst into an apartment full of college kids, hold them hostage, and start shooting away, we're appalled and yet fascinated by Jules' twisted sense of justice, quoting the Bible.
In Inglourious Basterds, many of the scenes work similarly. The opening sequence with a Nazi who slowly drives up a long driveway in the French countryside as a man chops wood has us tense. Nazis always have us tense. This one, colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is especially fabulous.
The polite Landa arrives merely to ask about Jewish neighbors. We're uptight in part because the Frenchman has three beautiful, vulnerable daughters. We're more anxious when we see glimpses of the neighbors under the floorboards. The pressure mounts as we watch Landa drink a glass of milk. The scene ends in an orgasm of gunfire similar to the one above with the college boys.
The scene in the bar is equally as long and tense. Same with a scene with Landa and the French theatre owner who's a survivor of the opening scene. In fact, Landa orders the woman a glass of milk as if he knows who she really is. Tarantino revels in holding our attention.
The fact that the film makes Americans seem stupid and unpleasant, so what? You wanna make somethin' of it?
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