Letter From The Editor - Issue 40 - July 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2009

Glorious

Tarantino delivers a deliriously unique, bloody, revisionist valentine to World War II iconography

Inglourious Basterds
The Weinstein Company
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, August Diehl and Denis Menochet
Rated R / 2 hours, 33 minutes
Opened August 21, 2009
(out of four)

More than any other filmmaker alive, Quentin Tarantino creates his own universe in which to play whenever he makes a movie. When takes on World War II, as he has with Inglourious Basterds, it is not about World War II. It is about his World War II, divorced from the restraints of actual history - a magnificent, revenge-fueled indulgence in the iconography of war movies, propaganda, history books, folklore and cinema itself.

Of course this is the movie he would make. Because it is the movie no one else would. It also seems like a grand culmination of his entire career - a movie he's been building toward for the last 17 years. This is like a master class on pure filmmaking and a brilliantly conceived valentine to the glory of cinema.

It's true that all of his films have been, to one degree or another, about movies - which is perhaps what frees him to make films that exist entirely within their own rules. He has used his encyclopedic knowledge of movie history as a sort of grab-bag, using all the goodies he finds as jumping-off points for his delirious cinematic concoctions. In Basterds, his story, his characters and their very Movie-ness are integrated in a glorious way that, in this world, makes absolute sense.

By sheer nature of the storytelling style at play, Tarantino is able to gracefully shift tone between scenes and subplots and images. A film that is overwhelmingly suspenseful one scene can be gleefully cartoonish the next.

Inglourious Basterds is Planet Tarantino transplanted to Nazi-occupied France in the middle of the war. In this version of history, circa 1944, Hitler, Goebbels and Co. have grown increasingly concerned about the exploits of the titular Basterds, a splinter group of mostly Jewish-American soldiers who have taken vengeance on the Nazis in the form of scalping. Clubbings and shootings are, of course, permitted as well. All in the course of duty.

But a film like this couldn't have just one broad villain like the Nazis, right? No, we get a specific one - and he even has a sinister nickname. In a landmark performance that already won Best Actor honors at Cannes this spring, Christoph Waltz plays SS Col. Hans Landa, or "The Jew Hunter," who is in charge of rounding up all escaped and hiding Jews throughout France and surrounding areas.

Waltz is a true arch villain and one of the best characters from any Tarantino film - or, for that matter, any recent film at all. He's smooth and methodical and cruel in the matter-of-fact way he goes about his business. He oozes a kind of perverse charm. All of his scenes are interrogations of one form or another, but he doesn't treat them as such - that'd be no fun, would it? Instead, he calmly eases his way through each conversation, taking an immense pleasure in what he does for a living - and just how well he does it.

Of course, the star of the movie is Cinema - specifically, a theatre in France that will serve as the intended site for both a German film premiere and a massive revenge plot. The theatre is owned by a young Jewish woman, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who is living under an assumed identity. It does not spoil anything to say that the theatre is where the film's astounding climax takes place - with all the key characters and pieces in place to play their parts.

Needless to say, the theatre setting is no coincidence - it speaks to the redemptive power of cinema, something Tarantino cherishes deeply. Conversely, cinema is also used as a sort of villain in the film in the form of Goebbels' propaganda ministry.

The effectiveness that German propaganda films had during World War II speaks to the impact of movies - but in the film it's almost as if, in a way, Tarantino is getting his own revenge on film being used for evil. This is wish fulfillment at its finest.

In much the same way he fetishizes Shosanna as she gets herself ready on the night of the big premiere, Tarantino does the same with the physical elements of film. He lovingly shoots the film canisters, the cutting of the reel, the projector, the projection itself - that romantic, smoky light from source to screen.

Movies, of course, are made up of legends, of mythologies, of stories told. As many have mentioned (Jim Emerson has spoken about it at length on his great "Scanners" blog), Tarantino's movies are often shrouded in mythologies - mainly, I suppose, because they so consciously exist in the world of movies.

Consider the nicknames his characters so often have, the larger-than-life stories that are told about them, the way their names have gone down in history. Even his regular touchstone of revenge is something that, in and of itself, is thick with personal history.

Well, Inglorious Basterds is no different. This is all about Tarantino creating his own folklore. Consider the way he uses the Basterds themselves. While there are some delicious scenes of bloodletting (and interrogating), their function in the plot has more to do with the stories that are told about them; their legend grows and grows, and it's their reputation and exploits that have - in this dizzy, absurd incarnation of World War II - really gotten to the psyche of the German High Command. Instead of scene after scene of Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt) and his men scalping Nazis, Tarantino finds ways to fully assimilate them into the world he has created.

Inglourious Basterds is a spectacular piece of entertainment and another boldly idiosyncratic effort from Tarantino, who with this film under his belt must officially be cemented among the all-time greats of American filmmaking.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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