Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Dangerous Ground: Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino simultaneously sends-up and celebrates cinema's corrupt nationalist history in his latest film, the revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds. This contradictory dichotomy in many ways sums up this most confounding film, one that I found exhilarating and exasperating in nearly equal measure; it's simultaneously the director's most sophisticated movie and his most adolescent, at once nothing like what you would expect from Tarantino and exactly what you would expect from him. He satisfies the blood lust of both himself and his audience, all the while turning an extremely critical eye towards the power of illusion in creating these visceral reactions towards violence, and the feelings of jingoism that screen iconography can exploit.

Yet there are many moments where it feels like he is simply making the movie for the adolescent inside of him, attempting to vicariously live in the cinematic wonderland of war movies that he did as a child, and these mostly isolated moments of shallow wish-fulfillment serve as a bizarre counterpoint to the far more numerous moments that indicate a mature artist. The weakest moments of the film are the ones that detail the exploits of the titular band of American soldiers, led by a charismatic (and psychotic) Aldo Raine, played in broad comic strokes by Brad Pitt; and it's in these sequences that Tarantino's "violence is the most fun you can have at the movies!" philosophy wore me down. Revenge has been a vital part of his movies since the Bruce Willis episode of Pulp Fiction, but here it feels like he's using the tailor made emotions that the Nazi uniform brings with it to justify his penchant for violence on the screen. Though this isn't the cartoony violence of the first Kill Bill, the tone of the violence strikes me as decidedly more 'realistic' in this one; there are many instances where the violence is chilling, as it should be (the most chilling one involving no blood at all), but there are also moments where I feel that the violence is supposed to be 'fun' (such as during the aforementioned second chapter, or when Pitt's Aldo Raine sticks his finger in a woman's bullet-wound to get information). I've honestly never been bothered by the violence in Tarantino's films before, but something about the brutality of the head-scalpings (which leave nothing to the imagination), and the glee with which the Nazi's are brutally murdered rubbed me the wrong way.

Far more interesting to me is the personal revenge tale of Shosanna Dreyfus (an enchanting Mélanie Laurent); who, after witnessing the murder of her family in the opening scene, gets a unique opportunity to bring down the Nazi regime when the movie theater she runs is going to be used for a Gala Nazi Premiere. Her story is interwoven with that of the titular basterds, and the two come together in the end for the big finale (set in, appropriately, a movie theater), but the contrast of the two narratives struck me as particularly sharp; whereas the sequence that details the band-of-outsiders is exactly the kind of uber-violent revenge fantasy that the movie was marketed as (it is admittedly a small portion of the overall movie), the tale of Shosanna is poignant and, in the end, the most singularly moving thing Tarantino has ever done. This is the first time I've ever felt he painted an honest and accurate portrait of a female; instead of being in stately awe of them, treating them as Goddesses, this is a multi-faceted, nuanced portrayal of a woman, and Mélanie Laurent's wonderful performance tows the line expertly between vulnerability and empowerment. Those who decry Tarantino's films for lack of 'character development' would do well to take a look at Shosanna's character arc in this film. Part of me wishes she had been the core focus of the movie, because to me she was the film's heart and soul, but Tarantino's vision is much too ambitious to be confined to a single character as it was in the Kill Bill movies.

It's worth noting that the crude nationalism of the film's second chapter bothered me in the same way the misogyny of Death Proof's first act bothered me, but I think he does unique things in both those films that shifts the context of what I had falsely perceived as misogyny in his previous film, and nationalism in this one. We were all hearing for years and years about Tarantino's revisionist-history war epic, and the early plot synopsis I read (this is going back a few years) detailed that it would be Jewish soldiers taking revenge on Nazi's; while there is something amusing about this concept on the surface, there's also something dubious about turning Jews into perpetrators and Nazi's into victims, something that goes far deeper than issues of moral relativism. On paper, this could have been an exploitation of people's personal biases to justify extreme acts of violence, but Tarantino does something unexpected and, later in the film puts the brutal, borderline sadistic second chapter titled "Inglourious Basterds" into a unique context with war movie history. The audience I saw the film with the second time laughed and cheered during a sequence when "The Bear Jew" (Eli Roth, who is not nearly as bad in this as he's made out to be) beats a Nazi soldier to death for not revealing the locations of his fellow soldiers. I truthfully found this incredibly off-putting, as I didn't honestly find anything funny about a sequence that details a clubbing at the hands of a sociopath (Tarantino's Producer Lawrence Bender called the movie a "fucking Jewish wet dream"), but the somewhat troubling response of my audience was mirrored during the climactic premiere of the movie-within-a-movie Nation's Pride, about a German soldier who kills some 300 enemy infantry while stationed in a bell tower in Italy. Of course, this propaganda film is nothing but an exploitation film with political import, and as the in-film audience applauded the killing of soldier's actions in the fictitious Nation's Pride, I couldn't help think that Tarantino was, in some way, critiquing the way some audiences take a giddy, perverse joy in violence, especially when that violence appeals to our innate sense of xenophobia. Of course, many people (his fans included), refuse to accept that Tarantino is capable of such insight, especially because these insights come from within a genre film.

And it strikes me that many detractors were just waiting to rip Tarantino a new one for his revisionist history, deciding their stance based on the marketing ("Jews fight back!") as opposed to what is actually presented on the screen. Many of the negative reviews of Tarantino's latest simply cite what's being referred to as the 'Jewish Revenge Porn' element (leading one to think that they are reviewing the teaser trailer from last year, as opposed to the actual 2 and a half hour movie), ignoring the essence of the film in favor of axe-grinding polemics. Tarantino's movies are never explicitly about what they present on the surface --- be it gangsters or samurais or soldiers --- but rather they are about cinema itself, and this is his most sophisticated rumination on the power of images; rather than stuffing this film to the brim with references to other movies, cinema is an ingrained part of the film's story --- both as an art form and as a physical object (the combustibility of celluloid is a vital element of Shosanna's revenge). This is the first time Tarantino has displayed a deft knowledge of film history instead of trivia, and the way he puts films into a social context --- acknowledging that they can be as powerful weapons in a war as bullets and bombs --- is the first time he's used his encyclopedic knowledge of film to an ends outside of creating an inclusive film universe (one important character is an ex-film critic turned soldier, which gives Tarantino a venue with which to comment on how the German film industry changed under Goebbels). I know a lot of Tarantino's detractors simply won't accept such depth from him, but the centrality of cinema to Inglourous Basterds is an inspired and extremely perceptive storytelling device; it's a wonderful metaphor that celebrates all movies, not just the genres that Tarantino has displayed a special affinity for.

If this is the first time he's put his considerable knowledge to good use, it's also the first time he's ever really encapsulated his idols, while still developing one of the most idiosyncratic directorial voices in modern movies. He spent the entirety of Volume 2 trying to approximate Segio Leone's distinct visual style (which isn't to say I don't think he was directing from his own sensibility as well), and I don't think he quite succeeded --- though he almost did. The opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds, fittingly called "Once Upon a Time... In Nazi Occupied France" (which would have been a much better title for the film, I think), is pure Leone; Tarantino films the gorgeous French countryside the way Leone filmed his barren landscapes, and the recontextualizing of locales is perfect for Tarantino's aesthetic, as the use of color has always been a central element of his compositions (since he tends to be thought of as more of as a writer and good director of actors than anything, his considerable visual panache is rarely discussed). This opening sequence kicks the story into gear by introducing us to Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, who is justifiably getting praised to the heavens for his turn here), nicknamed "The Jew Hunter", as he is going into the French countryside looking for any potentially hiding Jews. This opening sequence is some of Tarantino's very best work --- wrought with tension, it aligns our sympathies with the French farmer as Landa plays him like a fiddle, knowing exactly which buttons to press and how to manipulate until he gives him the information he wants: where the Jews are hiding. In a very powerful moment, you can see the heartbreak and devastation in the man's eyes as he announces the location where his friends are hiding. Landa, as portrayed by Waltz, is not your typical raging socio-path Nazi (it's just so easy, not to mention convenient, to blame the Holocaust on a couple of bad apples); rather, he is a cunning and artful manipulator, one who takes pride in his job not because he believes in the final solution, but because he's an opportunist.

This opening sequence illustrates how the film will function; each 'chapter' is a self-contained set piece, working both as an individual unit and as part of a much richer whole. The most daring of these is a nearly half-hour long sequence set in a bar, with German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) meeting the German-speaking members of the titular band of soldiers in a pub filled with Nazi's to plot the bombing of the Nation's Pride premiere. This is the mirror of the suspense-filled opening, which similarly drew out the tension with long stretches of dialogue. Some have complained that this sequence stops the movie dead in its tracks, but I think it displays sheer movie-making gusto; Tarantino is audacious enough a film maker to pull in the reigns and allow time for the situation to develop, to the point where we're intimately familiar with not only every detail of the room, but with all of the people who occupy it as well (Tarantino goes to great pains, for instance, to establish that one Nazi soldier is out with his comrades celebrating after the birth of his son), so that when things finally do explode in a shoot-out there is a significant emotional involvement on the part of the audience as well. This sequence is sheer masterful storytelling, proving that Tarantino the goofy, nutty post-modernist is something of a classicist at heart. Though my favorite chapter is aptly titled "Revenge of the Giant Face", where all the loose, seemingly unrelated narrative threads come together in a glorious, exciting, audaciously conceived finale.

But there is something in the film's final sequence that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Hans Landa has surrendered to the United States, but as one final gesture Aldo the Apache carves the Nazi swastika into his forehead, because he can't abide the thought of Landa one day taking off his uniform and living a normal life. In the film's final shot, Pitt's Aldo Raine proclaims directly that this particular carving "just may be my masterpiece". In interviews, Tarantino has always struck me as somewhat arrogant, but in his movies that confidence translates into remarkably assured, supremely confident and idiosyncratic direction; but this narcissistic final shot reminds me of the Tarantino I see on television, as opposed to at the movies. I left the theater with a bad taste in my mouth, so much so that afterward I wasn't sure if I even saw the movie I thought I saw, and seeing it a second time the whole thing went down much smoother; I admired what I admired all the more, while also having a more firm grasp with the few things that bother me about the movie.

But the more the movie fades into hindsight, the more my misgivings with it disappear into the background, to the point that the point where they feel almost trivial. At the end of the day, this represents ultimate Tarantino; virtuoso, expertly crafted entertainment that is rooted in, but not defined by, genre tropes, and a great soundtrack (particular favorites would be the opening theme "The Green Leaves of Summer" from The Alamo, the Morricone, and a gloriously anachronistic David Bowie). That I'm not quite enamored with it (but damn close) simply reflects things that bother me personally about the handling of this particular subject, and don't necessarily speak to the director's intent. All of Tarantino's movies have been about celebrating the guilty pleasures that the movies have to offer, while at the same time supplying the lowbrow with his own unique stamp. But Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof represent the first of Tarantino's more critical takes on genre, where he transcends the more disreputable aspects of his favored genres by expanding them in a cheeky, delightfully postmodern way. It is perhaps best to think of Inglourious Basterds as a unique summation of the history of Nazi's on film --- from Reinfenstal to Spielberg to everything in between.


Patricia Perry said...

But the more the movie fades into hindsight, the more my misgivings with it disappear into the background, to the point that the point where they feel almost trivial.

Same here, Ryan. My inital feelings about IB were quite mixed, but as I think about it and reflect on it, I realize that it merits deeper consideration. I definitely plan to see it again.

Like you, I didn't find Eli Roth's performance so terrible - I mean, no one's going to hand him an Oscar, but it's not like he's egregriously awful or anything. I've also done some reflecting on the irony of the "Basterds" audience whooping it up as Roth lets that German have it in contrast with the scene where Hitler is similarly whooping it up at that screening of "Nation's Pride." I've not been a big fan of Tarantino's to date, but the more I reflect on IB, the more I wonder if I've given him enough credit.

Ryan Kelly said...

There's definitely something underneath the more flashy, highly stylized surfaces of his movies, and like you I felt mixed about it at first. I knew I admired a lot about it but, at the same time, there were some aspects of it that turned me off, and that ending scene did rub me the wrong way both times, ending the movie on a sour note for me. But yes, I think the irony of the way people react towards the savage beating of Nazi's, and the way the movie almost reflects that back with the propaganda film at the end, is certainly not incidental. That most of Tarantino's audience doesn't pick up on it doesn't mean it isn't there. And I saw one complaint that the movie "doesn't answer the questions it brings up", as though the 'questions' of the movie even have answers --- that they are presented is enough for me.

I've always been a fan of Tarantino, since the sheer invention and energy of Pulp Fiction, followed shortly by the opening of the first Kill Bill, blew my mind back in the beginning of High School. But I also think there's more to him than a lot of people give him credit for; I think Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Death Proof are all extremely mature pieces of work, not even taking this latest into account. Love him or hate him, the guy makes idiosyncratic pictures that he displays startling control of.

Greg said...

I've honestly never been bothered by the violence in Tarantino's films before, but something about the brutality of the head-scalpings (which leave nothing to the imagination), and the glee with which the Nazi's are brutally murdered rubbed me the wrong way.

I must be honest: it didn't bother me at all. Here's the thing - my wife's first husband came from Riga, Latvia. Eleven members of his family were killed by Nazis. I often hear about the portrayal of "cartoonish Nazis" and yet when you speak to him or his family, the Nazis are described like Landa, like Goeth, and every other Nazi shitheel you've ever seen in a movie. I'm sure someone somewhere is already judging me as morally inferior. So be it. I'm not going to wring my hands over the brutalization of Nazis.

However - AND THIS IS IMPORTANT - I can see the point if - IF - the whole movie is an orgasmic salute to torture. But it is not. It's detractors make it sound as if it is. As if this revenge fantasy movie is all about torture and the dreaded moral equivalency of doing to them what they did to others. But it is not. It's a slowly developed tale of suspense in which history is rewritten and Hitler doesn't get off with a suicide in a bunker. And Allied forces and a Jewish woman in disguise take an opportunity to end the war - dramatically.

Greg said...

By the way, I'm not accusing you of doing that. Re-reading my comment it kind of sounded like I was and I wasn't. I'm talking about others who have made that criticism.

Adam Zanzie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric R. said...

When I had just finished watching Inglourious Basterds, I wasn't quite sure about what I had seen. Like most people I left with very mixed feelings. I knew that I enjoyed it but was unsure about how to react to the overall feeling that the film gave me.

I didn't know whether those ultraviolent scenes were asking for laughter, pity, or something else. The audience seemed divided. Some laughed while others sat silently. I found myself laughing sometimes not because of what was happening but how, because it was presented in such a clear manner of cartoonish fantasy that to question Tarantino's sense of morality would be missing the point.

I found your review of the film to be enlightening. And after a lot of thought I can see that there is more indeed beneath the surface, beneath the film's abundant violence. To quote Jim Emerson, "Tarantino is an abstract artist" and Basterds is filled with abstract statements about not only films that Tarantino loves but cinema in general. And yes this is finally a movie that I think shows Tarantino as a director who not only possesses skill at writing dialogue but also as a director who fills his film with breathtaking images that pay wonderful tribute to Sergio Leone.

Strangely I disagree about your statement regarding the final shot. Narcissistic it may be, but Tarantino is the type of director who makes the films he wishes to make. Basterds is his wish fulfillment and that last shot fits right in. I also agree with you that the Shosanna story is more interesting than the story about the Basterds themselves, yet I feel the film would not have been as complete if Shosanna's story was the main and only focus.

My opinion on the film has greatly changed over some time. My first reaction was that Tarantino had made a film that greatly understands how well-paced conversations can build strong and effective tension and make each line of dialogue incredibly powerful. But now I've realized that it's so much more. My initial dilemma of how to react to those scenes is not a dilemma at all because this is clearly not a film about morality and there is no moral or correct way to respond.

Ryan Kelly said...

Greg, my main point was a lot of movies have blamed the Holocaust on a few bad apples, and that distorts the truth, the regular people who willingly took part in evil and facilitated it. Not every last member of the Nazi party, let alone every German soldier, was an Amon Goeth, who killed something like 10,000 people himself. But they still allowed the evil to exist by being complacent with it.

But yes, I know you aren't talking about me, because this is far from a negative review. Yes, some of the violence bothered me, and I'm not going to pretend it didn't. But he puts the violence into a unique, boldly cinematic context that made me rethink the whole thing. I'm surprised that some detractors are focusing on that element, as though that's what defines the whole thing (I love Jonathan Rosenbaum, but the Sarah Palin comparisons are waaaaaaaaaaay off base, but he's had it in for Tarantino for almost 20 years now).

Ryan Kelly said...

Zanzie, I love what Emerson said to you, about how this movie is more about the mythmaking powers of cinema than it is expressly about the revenge element. I don't think you should discount the movie based on your audience's somewhat barbaric reaction. It's the first time he's made a statement on form worthy of his idol De Palma.

Ryan Kelly said...

Eric, like you, I wasn't quite sure what the hell I'd seen. I saw this first thing Friday morning, when most of the reviews were in, but how it was going to be received by audiences was still up in the air. As the audience generally is when I go in the A.M. (I like to go first thing Friday morning for new releases because the tickets are discounted and the audience is, generally, more respectful).

So the audience was mostly quiet during the scene of the savage beating and scalping. But the second time I saw it, with a weekend crowd, the response was a little more chilling for me. I was incredibly off put by the laughter and cheers by the people around me. It just struck me as barbaric. But in a strange way, that bit of audience participation helped me appreciate the film's wonderfully subversive and masterfully conceived finale even more. But, yes, I think any discussion of morality is to miss the heart of what Tarantino's getting at, which is something of an outward, reflective statement on iconography and violence on the screen, and the way something like, say, The Dirty Dozen panders to people's sense of nationalism in the same way Triumph of the Will does.

I've always thought Tarnatino's skill with a camera is under-rated, from the more straightforward filming (yet still intense) Reservoir Dogs to the more flamboyant Kill Bill Vol. 1, the guy's directorial muscle is considerable. I once said to a friend (who is something of a detractor) that "You can't deny the man is constantly in control of every last detail of his movies", to which he responded "Yeah. That makes it worse." Fine, he's not for everyone, but I really resent that he just makes 'best-of' compilations of his favorite movies, as though there is no unique vision on his part. I find it interesting that Wes Anderson (who I also love) is never really taken to task for littering his film's with references the way Tarantino is. But both film maker's, different as they are, live and breathe movies.

I can't help that the last sequence bothers me. And it is the one thing that continued to irk me the second time I saw the movie, which was on the whole a much more enjoyable experience for me (which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it the first time, I certainly did). Tarantino is always taken to task for his violence, but I've always been far more disturbed by what he's implied than what he's actually shown. I thought the first sequence with the head-carving, that didn't reveal it, was infinitely more disturbing than the final close-up shot of it. Ignoring what I feel is the improbability of it all (Landa, shown to be a brilliant manipulator, didn't strike me as the sort of person who would fall right into that trap), the violence and narcissism just rubbed me the wrong way, especially after the spectacular finale in the theater. It's a brief sequence, and as I said it feels like a trivial concern at this point, but for me it's still there. And, I agree, though Shoshanna was the real heart of the movie, the movie needed to focus on other things as well.

Like you, this is a movie that has only grown in my estimation in hindsight. While you may not be sure what to make of it at first, it's a movie that lingers. It can be appreciated for the incredible craft and care Tarantino displays in every single scene in it --- subtext aside, it's a supremely entertaining movie --- but there is a lot going on under the surface. More than most people would be able to accept Tarantino is capable of.

Craig said...

Ryan, this is one of the most insightful reviews I've read, and not just because I agree with it. Partly, but not entirely. I was bothered too by a few of the same elements, though I will say that at least QT takes the trouble to present the Nazis as, well, human beings. Not the finest representatives of our species, but people nonetheless. Zoller was a very well-crafted character, by turns embarrassed by "Nation's Pride" (was that your take as well?) and then having his entitlement riled when his romantic overtures are dashed. (If I may be the grammar police for a moment: Melanie Laurent's character is named "Shosanna," with only one "h," not "Shoshanna." I got it wrong the first time too. Ok, done being a dick....) I also felt a little sympathy for the drunk German soldier celebrating the birth of his new-born son. These are characters far above the usual cannon-fodder cartoons.

I have nothing to add to your take on the theme of cinema, only I agree that it's remarkably original, sophisticated, thought-provoking stuff. "Movie history, not movie trivia"....that's a very perceptive statement.

Looking forward to seeing this again.

Eric R. said...

"I thought the first sequence with the head-carving, that didn't reveal it, was infinitely more disturbing than the final close-up shot of it."

True, things usually come more effectively when implied and not shown. However, during the first sequence everyone (and I'm pretty certain you too) was curious about what the actual act of carving something into a man's head looks like. And the movie only follows exactly in its style in previous scenes by showing you everything and not holding anything back. You certainly didn't complain about seeing the Bear Jew kill a Nazi with a baseball bat or seeing Hitler being shot to pieces by a gun.

Yes, the ending is narcissistic but it definitely isn't surprising considering what we see throughout the rest of the film.

Ryan Kelly said...

Craig, thanks for the praise. I worked hard on this one, and actually writing helped me realize that many issues I had with it were immaterial to the movie as an experience.

Yes, Tarantino is definitely not just giving us nameless, faceless evil with which to riddle with bullets. He paints dynamic portraits of them as human beings, and I particularly loved the touch of the one soldier being in the bar celebrating because his son was just born. You feel a twinge of sadness when he's shot. And even the guy who gets beaten to death in the second chapter is given a sense of nobility. It doesn't just build a case for brutality for the manner in which it portrays Nazi's, something few people are really giving Tarantino credit for. And yes, I love the way Zoller leaves the screening because he can't take the exploitative nationalism of what's going up on screen, but then uses his status as a war hero to try to woo Melanie Laurent. Obviously, being nice and friendly wasn't going to work with her. I also loved the way Laurent's character couldn't see him as anything but a uniform, and you understand exactly where she's coming from in that. So yes, QT's portrait of Nazi's isn't quite as black-and-white as it's being accused of.

And thanks for the correction, and you were in no way being a dick. I appreciate it a lot, and I'll be fixing it right now.

Thanks for reading.

Ryan Kelly said...

Eric, I'm not so sure I was curious... believe me, I'm imaginative enough that I can vividly picture what it would look like. And I did complain about The Bear Jew beating the soldier to death, but I think the way the crowd cheered that particular moment is mirrored in the film with the Germans cheering Nation's Pride at the end. So yes, it bothers me, but I feel it's there for a purpose, whereas (strictly IMHO) I think the movie would have worked better without that final scene, which took me out of the movie both times I saw it.

And, as for Hitler getting shot at the end, surely that's no more violent than the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a Nazi's face melts and another has his head explode! I just appreciate Tarantino's audacity in that moment, more than anything.

Kevin J. Olson said...

So the audience was mostly quiet during the scene of the savage beating and scalping. But the second time I saw it, with a weekend crowd, the response was a little more chilling for me. I was incredibly off put by the laughter and cheers by the people around me.

I am seeing this for the first time in about an hour. However I've been skimming some reviews. This comment you make has my interest piqued as to what kind of movie I am seeing. Whenever I see a trailer for a new Tarantino film I almost always say "huh". When I saw Kill Bill I saw it solely because it was Tarantino. I am not a martial arts fan and missed a lot of the specific references. However, I laughed my ass off during that movie. Granted the violence was probably intended to be more cartoonish than in Inglorious Basterds, BUT that was the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the trailer. I wonder what people will think about those that laugh at the sure-to-be over the top violence of this new Tarantino movie. So I'm curious. Is Tarantino really going for something serious here? I remember my friends and I being the only people laughing at the violence in Kill Bill...and I wonder too if those who weren't laughing were taking the movie seriously. OBVIOUSLY the revenge plot of Basterds is going to be more serious than the revenge story of Kill Bill simply because of its context...but I wonder if I will laugh at some of the over the top violence...

I'll know in a bout an hour. I also find that I laugh at stuff that is just way "out there", and Tarantino supplies a lot of that stuff in his movies. I laugh because I haven't seen it before, or the scene makes me uncomfortable and I don't know what else to do, or I laugh because I am so giddy that there is still a director out there who can make me feel the way Tarantino does while I watch his movies.

However, if these patrons were laughing because the violence was "cool!" well then...that is a bit off putting.

I'll be back with something real to say about the movie later. One Hour! Hehe.

(Sorry for the rant, Ryan)

Ryan Kelly said...

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Kevin. I will say the movie is not nearly as violent as I was lead to believe. And I will agree that the over the top cartoonish violence of the first Kill Bill is amusing... it's so divorced from reality it's impossible to take seriously.

Eric R. said...

Speaking of the film's references to other movies, have you seen the post on Emerson's blog titled Basterd Ancestry?

It makes a long list of references that Basterds has in regards to music, images, and ideas. I didn't pick up on all those references from my first and so far only viewing of the film. But I must say in regards to a similar framing of a shot through a doorway near the beginning immediately reminded me of the Searchers.

I'm curious, only if you read his post, how many of those references you recognized on your own. My guess is probably more than me.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, Emerson's a personal favorite, so I saw that post. Some of them I understand and even caught myself; Battleship Potemkin, Carrie, The Dirty Dozen, The Green Berets, The Wizard of Oz and, of course, Inglorious Basterds. And I also recognized (and was tickled by) the brief clip from Sabotage.

Some of them, I think, are stretches (Au Revoir, Les Enfants?, Taxi Driver?, okay then...), but it's still a fascinating list that shows the extent of Tarantino's influences and that he does more than just make 'best-of' compilations of his favorite movies. He takes his influences to heart, and makes something unique.

Craig said...

Interesting. I saw IB again last night, and in the opening scene Laurent's character is indeed called "Shoshanna." It's even spelled that way in Landa's book. Yet throughout the rest of the movie, it's pronounced "Shosanna," and spelled that way in the subtitles and credits. So, go figure.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, that's what I thought, but when you pointed out that it was spelled differently I checked it on IMDb, saw it was spelled the way you had said, and just assumed I was out of my mind. Maybe he's spelling it the American way in the opening credits, and the French way in the closing? Who knows.

Miranda Wilding said...

Ryan, I think that kind of crap is happening all over.

I've seen WHATEVER WORKS six times now (yeah, yeah, SUE ME...I LOVED IT) and I eventually noticed in the closing credits that Evan Rachel Wood's character's name is MELODY.

But at IMDB it's MELODIE.

I am nothing if not detail oriented. I had a sinking suspicion that there was a discrepancy for some time.

But WTH...???

These god damn people are ruining my life. Throughout my review and in the comments section of my WW thread, I had written MELODIE.

What's technically correct? I personally prefer it with a y. But I just decided to leave it.

It shouldn't matter anyway. People will know who the hell I'm talking about.

Anyway, young squire...

I've gone around and skimmed various peoples' INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS comments. Haven't read their reviews since I have yet to write mine.

Once it's up I should be back.

And believe me, I'll likely have lots to say...

Miranda Wilding said...

Very thought provoking, detailed and fascinating review here, youung squire.

Tons of food for thought.

Well, I've been a big fan of Quentin's for a long time. I've seen everything he's ever directed aside from Death Proof.

The violence didn't bother me at all. Except for the lengthy shootouts in the bar and the theatre, you could have turned your head and bypassed all of it.

It was VERY minimal for a 2 1/2 hour film.

I find the violence in IB a hell of a lot easier to handle than in PULP FICTION (which I also adored). The only difference is that I would find PF a tad raw and disturbing if I were to watch it over and over consistently.

I viewed it four times in the cinema several years after its imitial release and I just saw it again a few months ago at a special one time only Friday night screening.

But now that it's settled, I'm far more content watching it every few months on late night TV.

I'll actually be BUYING IB.

" once nothing like you would expect from Tarantino and exactly what you would expect from him."

I totally agree, Ryan. But I think that that's one of the film's greatest strengths. He takes on the things that he can all ready do fabulously (that we're certainly aware of)...and then he builds on that.

Brad's performance is definitely broad. I've heard some talk elsewhere that it is a caricature. I don't think so. Just because a performance is big doesn't mean that there's no shading or control to it. He was hilarious and I thought he knew exactly what he was going for.

Well, I personally dig the fact that Quentin elevates some of his female stars to goddess level.

Hah. Are you kidding???

But I'm with you on the premise that Shosanna was a "real woman" with all of the realistic thoughts, feelings and emotional baggage of anyone who went though the hell that she did.

And I did think Melanie Laurent was extraodinary.

I was completely enthralled throughout. Truthfully. I thought the last scene in the theatre was a bit over the top. But it seemed such a minor quibble that I didn't even put it in my review.

COULD be not only the best most accomplished film of the year, but MAYBE the best thing that Quentin's done to date.

Have to marinate on this a while. But I am going to see it again within the next few days.

Then I will know more. Certainly as the year progresses this will all become clearer.

Your critiques are genius, Ryan. Someone has to tell you that.

Might as well be me...

Ryan Kelly said...

Miranda, what a thrill it is to have you comment on my review. And I'm equally thrilled that you have awarded IB highest honors, even if I'm not quite there myself (though, again, that matters to me less and less because there's so much to admire).

I, too, am a fan of Tarantino's. Have been since I first saw Pulp Fiction my freshman year (incidentally, I strongly recommend Death Proof!) This, occasionally, causes some of my cineaste friends to pull a "Hmm, really", if you know what I mean. I'm used to it, though. Tarantino and Spielberg are the only film makers I can think of who elicit that kind of superiority from people; as Glenn Kenny so aptly put it in his initial piece on the movie, no director brings out the 'scolding third-grade teacher' in critics in quite the same way. A lot of people don't see any depth in his work, and they just use that as a means to refuse to engage with the work.

I'll be honest, I wasn't sure about this at first. I like what Ebert said of Pulp Fiction at Cannes back in the day, about how it was either "the best movie or the year or the worst movie of the year"; the feeling wasn't quite as extreme with this one, in that there is no way in hell I thought even for a second that this could be the worst movie of the year, but that was the general idea. The first paragraph or so is what I wrote between my initial two viewings of it, and I realized I wasn't taking the right approach. I knew before I could write it up properly, I had to see it again.

So, I didn't mean the "nothing like you would expect and exactly what you would expect" line as an insult in any way. I mean, that means he's still making Tarantino movies, but he's also shaking up his formula, maturing it, and shifting the context of it. It makes the work much richer, I think.

But I felt like, for the sake of honesty, it would be worth keeping in the lines that indicated my frustration. I think that frustration I felt is part of what makes it dynamic. I'd be lying if I said some of the violence on the screen didn't rub me the wrong way, especially with the way my audience reacted to it. But I don't think the violence is there for its own sake, either.

And as for him treating women like Goddesses, I see where he's coming from, especially with the women he chooses, but putting women on a pedestal like that is just another kind of misogyny. Admittedly, I kind of regret that line... what I should have said is the most honest and accurate portrayal of a woman. Watching Vol. 2 again, I'm struck by how maternal it all is, and how dynamic a character The Bride becomes in that second movie. And as for the Death Proof gals, I think he's very cheekily commenting on screen sexism and exploitation. But yes, Laurent's character may be his richest characterization ever, male or female.

I think you'll find this is one that grows in estimation, Miranda. I wasn't sure what to make of it the first time, settled into it the second time, and I think fonder of it with each passing day. Love it or hate it, you can't deny it's something. The fact that it has people talking the way it does speaks powerfully to that. I don't know if I'd agree that it's his best, but I'm honestly getting to that point where I can't really decide what my favorite is (though my guy screams Jackie Brown).

And thank you for the praise, Miranda. You are the most encouraging of all my readers!

Ryan Kelly said...

Ack, that should read "my gut screams Jackie Brown".

Sam Juliano said...

I am no fan of this film. I found it long-winded, tedious, extremely self-indulgent, sadistic (did we need for example, to see a head bashed with a baseball bat repeatedly and nauseating scalpings, which recall the infamous ear amputation in RESERVOIR DOGS) a miss opportunity of accentuating the satiric possibilities of the material. I've said my piece elesewhere more comprehensively and have engaged in lively debate, so I'll just add that your thread here is nonetheless magnificent and the penetrating and scholarly review you penned deserves special praise.

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks for the praise, Sam, even if we ultimately disagree! Is Tarantino not your cup of tea, or did you just not like this one?

Sam Juliano said...

Aye Ryan, you basically raised the vital question there, and I can honestly say he isn't my cup of tea, though I was initially a fan of PULP FICTION, which seems now "less" than it once was. RESERVOIR DOGS was stylistically dazzling, but it's mean-spiritedness disturbed me. To be truthful, because they were in a sense more mythical, I found the KILL BILL films fair enough entertainment, but JACKIE BROWN, which has apparently risen in critical esteem is rather conventional.
Although this is an extreme and uncompromising view of the auteur here, I still can say I don't really evince disagreement with it at all:

"Craft, Tarantino has – but the far harder things to attain are invisible to the eye and can only be felt. Though it’s not politically correct to say it, such elements as Taste and Maturity do not come easily and are not equal. There’s only so much maturity that can be gained from being a videostore geek, watching low-grade movies. Junk in, junk out. He makes movies with the sensibility of a grinning psychopath, chronically immoral and at home with the corporations that finance him. Sadism as a hue on his palette."

--by "Bobby J." at WitD.

Still, I am a minority voice, and I know the yaysayers like yourself can and have made persuasive defenses of the film, so I can only say the issue lies in my own sensibilities, which at this point I have difficulty getting around. I watched the film a second time within a few days of the initial viewing and little changed, though the opening farm house scene was well-written, tense and acted superbly by Mr. Waltz. But Tarantino forced his homages down our throat with that "Once Upon A Time" lead-in, as if we didn't already know the reference. You see how angry I get here, the film just rubbed me the wrong way.

Yet despite the praise a sizable minority including both Manhola Dargis and Stephanie Zacharek have issued negative appraisals, and others like Michael Sgrow and David Denby have derided the film as an exercise in sadism, a view I embrace myself.

But again, my disagreement is just issued to spur further enriching discussion. The bottom line is that you have extended the lierature so to speak with a brilliant piece of film criticism that you should be proud of. That's what counts most of all.

Craig said...

I would interpret Zacharek's review as a qualified positive take. She has some serious reservations, but is highly complimentary as well. Dargis, Sragow and the others are in the negative bracket.

Sam Juliano said...

Craig, thanks for providing that link. I had already read and linked the review at my own site. Well, I must diasagree with you. Both Meta Critic and Rotten Tomatoes have categorized the review as a negative one, and essentially I can't reason how this can be interpreted as a positive response:

"Unwieldy, long-winded, self-indulgently nutso and, in places, very, very boring. It also caps off its two-and-a-half-hour run time with an extended finale – partially orchestrated to David Bowie's "Cat People" theme song, no less – that I could watch again and again with pleasure..."

Numerous scribes around the net, who are fans of the film, have gone at Stephanie, acting as if she wrote the most negative review ever posted. Now, mind you she does point out some things she liked, but like Ms. Dargis, it's clear this was an extremely problematic film as it was for a sizable minority. It appears that the best women critics were the most repulsed by the film as Joanne Kaufman of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL was highly critical as well.

Craig said...

Well, that's one sentence, taken out of context, at the beginning of a long piece. Several more near the end would be:

"But I also think that at this point in his career, Tarantino's vision is opening wider instead of closing in on itself. "Inglourious Basterds" was shot the old-fashioned way: The camera is stationary throughout rather than held by hand – huzzah! (The cinematographer is frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert Richardson, who has also worked with Tarantino in the past.) Tarantino pays careful attention not just to framing shots in a cool way, but also to orchestrating movement within the frame: During his big finale, he shows us Emmanuelle Mimieux (again, a name that's a double whammy of movie references) alone in the projection booth of her theater, draped in a red satin dress – as she moves among the film cans and projectors, she's like a solitary figure from an Edward Hopper painting come to life. Tarantino is only growing stronger at processing and synthesizing the visuals he's spent a lifetime absorbing: The finale of "Inglourious Basterds" contains hints of the meticulous, grand-scale splendor of De Palma, and of the tightly wound, clock-ticking tenseness of Coppola at his best.

"It also contains elements borrowed from Looney Tunes, but that's Tarantino for you. In the past few weeks, I've heard colleagues refer to Tarantino as both a genius and a guy who's finally gone off his rocker, and everything in between. Maybe it's the "everything in between" that really matters. One of the movie's final images is a face projected on a wall of smoke, an image so illusory and so beautiful that it makes you want to reach toward the screen to touch it. With the highly imperfect "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino seems to be hanging on to a lost world of moviemaking. He may be nuts. But he's a nut who cares."

I really don't want to make a big deal out of this (least of all on Ryan's site) but your repeated emphasis that it's an incontrovertibly negative review doesn't jibe with what's on the page. (And "best women critics" proves what exactly, other than it's possible to sound flattering and condescending at the same time?) Her words are overall more favorable than Dargis or ("male-critic") Denby's.

It's a mixed-to-positive review, which is actually how Metacritic ranks it with a slightly above-average score of 60. I don't consider Metacritic infallible and Tomatoes is even further from gospel, but in this case that seems about right.

Sam Juliano said...

"It's a mixed-to-positive review, which is actually how Metacritic ranks it with a slightly above-average score of 60."

I completely disagree. it's a mixed-to-negative review, and has been classified as such by site coordinators. If you choose to consider it mixed-to-positive that's your right of course. I have been all over the internet, and readers and bloggers have taken for granted that it is a NEGATIVE review. When you say I took it out of context to accentuate the opening, i say YOU took it out of context to accentaute the latter passages.

As far as making a big deal at Ryan's site, I quite agree. I made an assertion based on conclusive evidence about observations regarding film criticism, and you politely answered me, and now I again politely answer you. A '60' at MC by the way is NOT remotely "mixed to positive."

What's the problem?


Sam Juliano said...

That "one" sentence that you say I took out of context is actually the 'summary judgement" and it ain't flattering.

Craig said...

A '60' at MC by the way is NOT remotely "mixed to positive."

Sam, do yourself a favor and paste in your next comment the definition of Metascore", specifically the part about scores between 40-60 being "mixed to average," 61 being where "generally favorable reviews" begin, and 39 being where "generally unfavorable reviews" begin. Is 60 closer to 61 or 39, Sam? It's even color-coded.

Sam Juliano said...

Fair enough Craig, I just checked it and you have a valid point. However, there's still th eissue of Rotten Tomatoes (not a site I am proud of) but still a comprehensive one, that considers her review as a "negative" one.

The bottom line, is where we choose to place the emphasis. You read the positive passages as the thrust of the essay, while I looked at those damning criticisms as the main emphasis of her piece. i do not fault you for reading it that way, but I hope we can agree that it's basically interpretive. When I linked the review at my site on a previous thread, readers were responding as if it were a negative review.

But I will extend to you a peace branch here as I definitely do not want any hard feelings with you. I respect you, especially since you are clearly a man who takes his movies and his criticism seriously. I may have gotten a bit huffy there, but my general demeanor is quite the opposite. i can't help it if I'm Italian-American. Ha!

Ryan Kelly said...

Whoah, looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

As for my personal take on Zachaerck's piece, I'd say it's a mixed review, with equal parts admiration and frustration. I don't know if it falls neatly into either positive or negative, mostly because I don't get the impression Zachareck knows exactly what she wants to say.

And, for what it's worth, Rotten Tomatoes is known to misinterpret reviews and certify them inappropriately. There are situations where they ask the author for the certification, but that's not necessarily the norm. Anyway, I personally think those sites are kind of bullshit and can be reductive. Metacritic is the better of the two because there are at least degrees.

Anyway, Sam, I prefer your criticisms of Tarantino to other criticisms you tend to hear; that he's a plagiarist, that he's juvenile, that he's 'style-over-substance' (a criticism I've heard leveled at many of my favorites, and still frankly have no clue what the fuck it means). I just feel like with respect to Tarantino, there's a handy set of buzz phrases used to shoot him down, so as to avoid actually engaging with the work. There are elements of his career that clash with my personal sensibilities as well (some of which I discuss here), so I see where you're coming from there. But I feel that the craft that your reader speaks of is almost never acknowledged by his detractors, something that causes me some frustration. I see why what he does doesn't sit well with everyone, but I also don't think he quite deserves the righteous indignation that he seems so adept at stirring up.

Sam Juliano said...

Lloyd Briges in Airplane, right Ryan? Ha!

Ryan Kelly said...

Yes! And thank you for pointing it out, Sam, because inevitably someone would have come here, not caught the reference, and then become concerned that I had a drug habit.

Sam Juliano said...

That's fair enough Ryan, and everything you say there makes a lot of sense. I'm an old fart now (just turned 55) but through my life I have never stopped using critics for "leverage." I develop my own opinion based on my sensibilities and taste, but I then always look for others that agree with me. It's rather silly, but it comes into play when there's an impasse. As far as Tarantino, i was sorry I came out feeling like I did. I saw the film twice on the same opening day weekend in Edgewater, and the second viewing didn't erase any of the conclusions I had come to the first time. I realize there are "catch phrases" that some may use to avoid deeper discusssion, or perhaps it's laziness, but I never felt this to be a cohesive film with any serious emotional resonance. Right now I look back at it and can only fondly remember that opening farm house scene. the rest was an excessive, over-the-top mess of a film.

But I know how it is to have the show on the other foot, and I do respect and am to a degree happy that many has a roaring good time here.

The other reason why MC is superior to RT in addition to the point you rightly broach is the fact that MC uses the best critics, and not all those third string add-ons that water down the quality at RT.

Adam Zanzie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen said...

Brilliantly written!

I too had problems with Inglourious Basterds - and problems I didn't think I would have despite having read the script beforehand.

I think you are right about the tension between the mature and thoughtful parts and the childish parts.

I had further problems with the film - I didn't enjoy it as pure entertainment and felt uneasy because of its mixing of relish and abhorrence and real life tragedy with fantasy vengeance.

I posted my thoughts here if you'd like to read them:

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