Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Revenge of the Giant Face": 14 notes on Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

1) Out in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France, a farmer (Denis Menochet) notices some Nazis driving his way, so he orders the women indoors and takes a moment to wash his face. Colonel Hans Landa (Christof Waltz) walks up, shakes hands with the farmer, and asks if he can join him inside. The farmer says yes even though he is hiding Jewish refugees under the floorboards. Once inside, the Colonel admires the man's daughters, pronouncing "each more lovely than the last." Then he asks for some milk, and they sit and talk at length, with the farmer pausing at one moment to light his pipe.

2) What's amazing about this leisurely beginning is how thoroughly this differs from just about anything in the original 1975 version of Inglorious Bastards. Instead of following a band of escaped military prisoners as they rampage around occupied France, Tarantino chose to spend much of this version indoors. At times, watching these scenes feels like eating at a restaurant. Tarantino knows how to elicit feelings of both hunger and bloodlust in the viewing audience.
You know that the entire scene may well explode in a spasm of gunfire, so why not drag it out some, light a cigarette, order some strudel, and then wait on the heavy cream?

3) Oddly, the Inglourious Basterds themselves, including the highly entertaining Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), are not all that important to the movie, perhaps because their methods lack subtlety. As we get to know the lithe French blonde Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), we realize that, in proper Kill Bill fashion, she's the main focus of the film, in part because she owns a French cinema, and because she is the only one of the farmer's hidden refugees to escape with her life.
In effect, Basterds begins much like the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, by showing just how evil the bad guy is (and yet Waltz consistently steals the movie with his gracious conniving investigations).

4) Tarantino includes a brief clip from Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) where the young boy Stevie obliviously holds a time bomb in a film canister. QT uses this allusion to illustrate the flammability of nitrate film stock. The scene has the dubious distinction of blowing up an innocent boy (small wonder that rebel filmmaker Tarantino would refer to it, although Hitchcock later regretted it).
Also, the scene masterfully shows how to build suspense with cuts to various clocks and the psychologically manipulative touches of the boy playing with a small puppy before the bomb goes off.

5) Almost as a sop thrown to the critics, Tarantino even includes a suave British spy Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) who writes movie reviews and has authored not one but two books of film criticism. Hicox attempts to help the Basterds kill off a bunch of high level Nazis in Shosanna's theater, but he embodies Noel Coward or George Saunders cool amidst the slightly cartoonish British high command (which includes a supremely unneeded Mike Myers as General Ed Fenech).

6) The Myers cameo exemplifies my biggest problem with the movie--the uneasy shifting between the cartoonish and the more cultivated characters. While Landa is delightful, Hitler (Martin Wittke) sputters like a grotesque red-faced goon, a caricature so broad, I thought Tarantino owed the actual Hitler an apology.
The film kept shifting between pulp and class in its treatment of the actors--from the beautiful cinematography and nuanced acting of the opening scene to the torture porn aesthetics of Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) getting whipped in garish lighting, Aldo Raine sticking his finger in Bridget's bullet wound to get information, or Eli Roth beating a Nazi's head in with a baseball bat at length (a scene that reminded me of the last moment of Death Proof). At his best, Tarantino synthesizes B movie violence into something stirring and spaghetti western-operatic. At other times, he too obviously caters to the aggressive stupidity of his male audience.

7) Like Public Enemies, Basterds ends with a metacinematic scene where you watch a movie within a movie that communicates in multiple directions simultaneously. I loved the intertitle "Revenge of the Giant Face," since once I saw that face looming on screen, I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz in all of his smoky greenish hyped glory, only this time the face is that of a woman laughing in flames. Whereas Public Enemies ends on a sweet note in which Dillinger projects his love for Billie onto images of Myrna Loy, Inglourious Basterds ends with a sense of old testament judgment.

8) And the judgment of Basterds is a peculiarly cinematic one, showing how movies can create more satisfactory conclusions than the more arbitrary results one gets in real life.
The giant face shows the power of an actor prominantly featured on the big screen and his or her ability to dominate the viewer's consciousness. As David Cox points out in The Guardian:

"the centrality of cinema to the [Basterds] film goes far beyond the usual allusions to movie styles and tropes. Not many war films feature a plot-essential film critic or a spy whose cover happens to be big-screen stardom. A bricks-and-mortar cinema becomes the crucible not just for the film's climax but for the making of history itself. A film-within-a-film counterpoints the main drama, the plot turns on the importance of film in war propaganda, and silver-nitrate film-stock fuels the epochal conflagration that crowns the proceedings."

9) Basterds includes one Cinderella-esque scene in which Hans Landa lovingly places a shoe on Bridget von Hammersmark's (Diane Kruger's) foot.
I was about to read all kinds of theories into that gesture until I realized that it was another chance for QT to indulge in his foot fetish.

10) Judgment is really Tarantino's forte. Before shooting several men in Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel L. Jackson (as Jules Winnfield) pronounced these words from Ezekial 25:17,

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."

11) What are most of Tarantino's scenes except variations on this? And what are Nazis but perfect fodder for this tendency to depict justifiable homicide, thereby catering to the audience's fascist tendencies even as the film condemns fascism? Whether it be in a basement, a farmhouse, or a theater, Tarantino casts judgment on his characters, working out the peculiar (and often funny) perversities of a willful fate. As Shosanna proclaims at one point (oddly echoing Donnie Darko), "Burn it down to the ground."

12) As for those who get to enact these punishments, often that pleasure goes to QT's female characters when not to African Americans like Jules. As Will Leitch of New York magazine points out, "Despite his video-geek frat-guy bravado, Tarantino’s films are as much about female empowerment as the macho shenanigans of tough guys."

13) Given this vengeful emphasis, how does Tarantino stop Inglourious Basterds from being a cheap wish fulfillment fantasy? By giving the Nazis some of the best characterizations of the movie. Hans Landa is less of a cartoon than Brad Pitt's macho hillbilly Aldo Raine. Another Nazi officer proves extremely smart about both German accents and popular culture (in a game, he reasons out a reference to King Kong with the most meager of clues). The Nazis are often like cats playing with mice, revelling in their power to read duplicity. That and their ability to represent absolute evil gives Tarantino some of his best material in years.

14) Echoing the self-mutilation of Charles Manson's followers, Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine) cuts a swastika into the forehead of captured Nazis in part because he "cannot abide" the thought of them taking off their uniforms one day and getting away with it. In proper Scarlet Letter/mark of Cain fashion, he marks the men for life for their sin, thus dispelling any leftover moral ambiguity, and at the end of the film (slight spoiler alert), he feels so proud of himself for cutting a swastika so well, he proclaims it his "masterpiece." Thus does Tarantino gratify the viewer's desire for cinematic vengeance. As he said recently in an interview, “Watch the movie closely, and you’ll see how personal it is. Here’s a film in which cinema brings down the Nazi regime, metaphorically and literally. What could possibly be better than that? In this story, cinema changes the world, and I f***ing love that idea!”

14 comments:

Craig said...

Nice analysis; I agree with most of your points. I think if Tarantino's film were as vengeance-minded and fan-indulgent as some (not you) claim (Spoiler), it would have ended with Shosanna killing Landa. That seems to be where it's headed, after all. What happens, of course, is more complicated: Shosanna kills likely hundreds of Nazis, though perishes herself; Landa, meanwhile, gets away, but not without being literally scarred for life. There is much to think about regarding this movie, but on this particular note I greatly enjoyed the subversion of expectations. (I also liked Mike Myers, but there you go....)

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Craig. (Spoiler) I agree about the pleasantly unexpected Romeo and Juliet/conflagration climax, although I thought Landa was too intelligent to blithely hand over his gun to Lt. Aldo Raine. Would he really think a Basterd could reform that fast? What did you like about Mike Myers? A friend said that he pulled an Austin Powers moment. Is that what that perfunctory expository scene needed? I was wondering if perhaps QT was throwing Myers a bone after the career conflagration of The Love Guru.

Craig said...

Mike Myers: Hard to explain. I guess casting Austin Powers in a scene straight out of a Lean epic had for me its own twisted logic consistent with the rest of the movie. Plus I'm a sucker for against-type casting, especially for comic actors who aren't aiming for a Robin Williams-type Oscar bid. John Candy in "JFK" comes to mind.

FilmDr said...

I guess much depends on the kind of mental baggage one brings to the sight of Myers popping up randomly in the movie. I prefer movies when I don't know the stars too well, so for that reason I liked QT's decision to deemphasize Brad Pitt and allow others like Laurent and Waltz to shine. The sight of Myers, however, threw me out of the movie, and basically left me wondering why he's there. That may have been QT's metacinematic intention, but I don't see how it helps. The Evening Class came up with a reason for Myers in the midst of a recent interview with QT: "I think of Mike Myers as our generation's Peter Sellers." Myers had let Tarantino know that he was a fan of his films, respected his work and—if something became available—would be interested in working with him. Tarantino told him, "Well, I have this part that's almost like a Trevor Howard character from a 1966 movie…" and Myers reacted immediately, "I'm in!"

All I can to that is--Peter Sellers !?!?!?!?!

Mykal said...

Doctor: I put myself in the "follow" column for the "Tarantino owes the actual Hitler an aplogy" concept. Saw this film with my son. He loved it. I . . well, not so much. Everything Tarantino makes feels like one long trailer to me. Cool scenes, but where is the movie? I suggested this to my 19-year-old, snot-nosed son. He said, "Yeah, Dad, that's Tarantino." "Oh," I said. -- Mykal

FilmDr said...

Thanks for the comment, Mykal.

I can see what you mean about many movies nowadays resembling extended trailers, but Inglourious Basterds didn't bother me in that way because so many of the set-piece scenes involved enough leisurely dialogue to make me feel like I was watching a real scene in a film--one that was almost old-fashioned in the interplay of its characters and its build-up of suspense. In retrospect, the main thing that appealed to me about the film was its many cinematic references. I get the impression that Tarantino somehow manages to compress years of movie-viewing influences into one smooth delightful sequence, and, given the little time he actually took to shoot the movie, that level of synthesis impresses me very much (even given the uneven treatment of the characters). Tarantino still strikes me as a raw talent--one wonders how much he can distinguish between his brilliant moments and his love of trash.

Mykal said...

FilmDr: It's interesting that Tarantino can still be thought of as a "Raw Talent." He's been making films for twenty years. The raw part of his career should be over now. I agree that he put together some whopper scenes, like the opening one with the daughters and the glass of milk, but they are just well done scenes that stand out like flowers in a field of disorganized landscaping lacking theme.

Yes. Indeed. He is the greatest movie fan that ever lived! His films certainly display an encyclopedic knowledge and devout love of screen history. I wish he would make a film that wasn't a snippet homage festival. Well, he actually did, with the great Jackie Brown (yes, he really is a great filmmaker!). I just wait for him to make another one. -- Mykal

FilmDr said...

We can agree to disagree about Jackie Brown. Still, I find it intriguing how QT can take that blend of good movies, trash B-movies, historical WW2 German propaganda films, and somehow craft something that ends up being all the more rich for its combined roots. The technique can lead to hit-or-miss movies like Death Proof that combined some excellent scenes with a flimsy overall design. I also like spotting the Godardian influence in his work (who also liked to piece together snippets of his favorite scenes into his films). The scene in Basterds when Melanie Laurent drinks by herself in a cafe could have been in Masculine Feminine.

Mykal said...

FilmDr.: As you say - agree to disagree. Great post and wonderful replies! Thanks. -- Mykal

Hokahey said...

"At times, watching these scenes feels like eating at a restaurant. Tarantino knows how to elicit feelings of both hunger and bloodlust in the viewing audience. You know that the entire scene may well explode in a spasm of gunfire, so why not drag it out some, light a cigarette, order some strudel, and then wait on the heavy cream?"

I'm not a big fan of Tarantino dialogues - they go on TOO long in Death Proof - but I loved them here - and I loved the accompanying props: the milk, the pipes, the strudel and coffee, the cream, the beer mugs, the roleplay cards, the glasses of Chianti.

I enjoyed your notes here - especially the parallel of the Big Face with Oz. You make a lot of perceptive observations about some very fascinating elements in this very fascinating film.

FilmDr said...

Much thanks, Hokahey,

I think what I enjoyed about Basterds the most was its uncompromising vision. So many movie are made by committees, and by studios living in fear. I heard that Melanie Laurent had some suggestions to adjust the awkward French in the script in places, and Tarantino refused. One could say that he should have listened to her (no doubt), but his unbending desire to make his movie may be one reason why it is so striking. We are used to such dithering politically correct porridge, a hodgepodge of calculated half-measures in most movies.

Anonymous said...

be careful not to mix up "raw talent" with curiosity and experimentation with genre. Tarantino is a living god of cinema. And plus, would you rather watch another love comedy turned to sadness that afterwards you call "a great movie" or a movie you loved so much where afterwards you find out you pissed in your pants? i'd have to go with the second one. Not many people can recognize could cinema anymore because hollywood has transformed into trash. Thank you Tarantino, for making movies magical.

Wow Gold said...

Very Nice Blog.

FilmDr said...

Anonymous, I wouldn't call Tarantino a living God because his work is uneven, but I agree that Inglourious Basterds is among his best.

Thanks, Wow Gold.