I’ve always considered Quentin Tarantino to be the precocious child of the film world. Clever, sure, even surprisingly advanced, but the key fact to remember about precocious children, is that they’re all children. Unquestionably a true student of film, and developed enough in his theory and creativity to have a definite and unique vision of filmcraft, Tarantino nevertheless creates films in a way that speaks of nothing so much as the fact that a childlike sensibility is running things from the background.
Like a kid who suddenly finds he owns the movie studio (and this is perhaps curiously referenced in Inglourious Basterds), Tarantino’s films generally do what they do merely because he likes films that do that. Characters are such and so, plots move in this way, not because it aids in the realization of some point or goal, but because Tarantino finds movies which work in similar ways to be really cool.
Where this goes wrong is in the fact that no matter how much a child may know… we can still spot them. We may talk of children as mature, but we always mean “for their age.” A pre-teen may be gifted enough to go to college, and may manage perfect grades in his classes, but even given the most respectful and open-minded crowd at the student union, he just doesn’t know what to say to them.
At the end of the day, Tarantino makes homage amalgams that are entertaining, and perhaps have great scenes and/or characters, but simply aren’t about anything. They are a great Friday night, and above-average efforts, but not more. His films, clearly, are born of ideas for scenes, conversations, and characters, and then he sort of throws up his hands and mashes it together into a film. In the final analysis, though he may be of a different milieu (and one which feels more comfortable with that word), there are a lot more similarities between Tarantino and Michael Bay than there are differences.
That has all changed with Inglourious Basterds, and the most wonderful key behind that claim is that he has nevertheless kept his unique style. Here we have a film that was spawned by Tarantino saying, “I want to say this,” and then, by God, he said it.
The film begins with Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) visiting a small farm in occupied France. He’s searching for hiding Jews, and it is a job for which he has quite a talent. A teenage Jew named Shosanna (eventually Melanie Laurent) manages to escape. It’s one of the best opening scenes in recent memory, not least because it marvelously establishes the character. Landa knows what he knows before he even gets to the house of course, but stepping up with a quick and simple, “Right. Let’s go,” is not Landa’s game.
Landa will speak of how people are repulsed by rats, but have little dislike for squirrels, despite the fact that the two are ultimately hard to distinguish. He’s got a point really. People who kill flies (or rats I suppose) are above reproach, but those who pull the wings off the same flies (or similar) tend to turn our stomachs. And yet…
Across the pond, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) assembles a small group of Jewish-American soldiers to join him on a very special mission. They will be dropped into France and run a kind of terrorist campaign against the Nazis. Raine, fancying himself part Apache, aims to crank up the terror in terrorist with the general idea that if his group, the titular Basterds, can unnerve the Germans, that’s probably worth more than any amount they’ll be able to actually kill.
We move forward a few years, and Shosanna owns a movie theater. By happenstance she meets the star of the next great film from the Nazi propaganda department, and when he becomes rather taken with her, he coordinates moving the premiere to her theater. A lot of big names in the Nazi party will be there, and Shosanna begins having thoughts of revenge.
At the same time, the British have plans to play out an attack on this same event, and they send in a man to join up with the Basterds and rendezvous with a spy they have working the inside of the movie world.
Where Tarantino movies generally have nothing to say, and are almost proud of the fact, Inglourious Basterds cannot hope to fit all it has to say in its runtime. More importantly, as with the best of films, it doesn’t actually say any of it. Its sub-text may be swimming around right in front of you (as with say Dune), but whereas it may say things in a fairly straightforward manner, it at least avoids telling you what it’s saying… so to speak.
The movie is carried by Christoph Waltz who gives what is easily the best performance of the year (I don’t even care what else comes out, because unless this is the most surprising year in history, he’s my pick), and his Col. Landa is in one way or another the spur for all the questions and statements Tarantino hopes to deliver. On the simplest of fronts are the notions of these men grown from boys who dabble in the wing-pulling trade, and what smashing highs they can achieve should they be clever enough to be born a decent bit before a war. By comparison, he raises the questions about war itself, and how we manage our moral outlook when it comes to those who pull the wings off the wing-pullers.
As catalyst, we get to walk with the victims of war, feel their creation as such, and perhaps learn a lesson about how the Nazis most destroyed themselves. In the words of Solzhenitsyn, “You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power — he’s free again.” There has perhaps never been anyone so free as Shosanna at the end of this film.
Unfortunately, much that is most worth discussing will spoil things to a certain extent if it is mentioned. I can however give you this as a spark for your own viewing – near the end of the film we will see Col. Landa kill someone, and it is one of the most masterful culminations of character description you will ever see. Ask why he kills this person, in this way, given that he knows exactly what he is about to do next? Consider how many people he has killed up to that point. He will have his wings, by God… that’s why.
Tarantino has long been a good bet (so is Bay), but with Basterds he may move on to being a great director. His visual style is meaningful and beautiful. His conversations work a story, and have the power to deliver real tension (and other things) in line with Altman’s best showings. Most of all, he has clearly grown up, accepted that those he studied knew something he didn’t, and made a film that was about something.
You probably won’t be able to find a film that is less about war than Inglourious Basterds, except… I think it may be the only film about war there is.
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