Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds (2009) 8/10
In World War II, the "Basterds," led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), fight a guerrilla war against the Nazis in occupied France. Meanwhile, in Paris, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is the only surviving member of a family slaughtered by the "Jew Hunter" (Christoph Waltz). Fast forward and Shosanna, now living in Paris as a gentile, owns a movie theater that will host a major Nazi propoganda film. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Inglorious Basterds is a movie so strange, so bold, so gross and yet so engrossing, that I hardly know how to rate it. It is disjointed and disorganized, and yet the running length of two and a half hours seems to fly by. It's fun, it's crazy, someone should fix it, and yet exactly as it is, it is indeed glorious, and it's a perfect expression of Quentin Tarantino. In fact, after thinking about it for a couple of days, I began to feel that Inglorious Basterds is something like the symbolic blueprint to Tarantino's psyche.

The movie takes place during World War II. The part you've seen in previews involves the "Basterds;" a guerrilla team of Americans in occupied France whose mission is to strike terror among the Nazis by killing, torturing, and scalping them. Brad Pitt plays a hillbilly who claims some Apache blood (hence the scalping), but the rest of his team is Jewish. In fact, they are almost all stereotypically Jewish-looking; dark haired with thick eyebrows, it looks like a set of caricatures drawn by anti-Semites, or like the casting call for a Woody Allen memoir. This is not insignificant. The only Basterds who aren't Jewish looking are the Austrian who escaped the Nazis and went to America, then volunteered to fight his former captors, and a former Nazi who turned violently on his own.

The other, and by far dominant, part of the movie involves Shosanna and her theater. A Nazi soldier (Daniel Brühl) notices Shosanna, and both her beauty and love of film interest him. Zoller (Brühl) is a war hero, and the subject and star of a forthcoming Nazi propoganda film, directed by Joseph Goebbels. Zoller wants the film to premiere at Shosanna's theater.

With a major film premiere in the offing that all the leaders of the Third Reich will attend, the British army, the Basterds, and Shosanna herself all begin to plot to destroy the theater and the party leaders inside it.

Most critics are quick to note that this is a movie about movies. (It's clearly not a movie about World War II!) Movies have redemptive power in Inglorious Basterds, and the ability to change history. Movie people are uniformly the most important people in this film, and the most important people love movies. Every pivotal character who is not a Basterd is involved with the movies in some way: A critic, an actress, an actor, a theater owner, and a projectionist are all vital to the goings on, and almost no one is simply an ordinary soldier or officer. Even Goebbels is primarily seen as a film director. A theater, and film itself, serve as the most important weapons.

Some critics argue that this "movie about movies" is Tarantino writing about himself. I'd say it's the conscious and public side of him. This is Tarantino, for whom life is movies, and here we see that an encyclopedic knowledge of movies (such as Tarantino has) is quite literally a matter of life and death.

The Basterds themselves, though, are something like a map of Tarantino's subconscious.

Picture it: A kid, maybe eleven years old, wants to make a movie about World War II. He'd talk to himself kind of like this: "What would be cool is if Jews killed the Nazis. But they should kill and torture them. I know! They should scalp Nazis. Yeah. Okay, so their leader is an Indian, who tells them to take Nazi scalps. And there'll be lots of blood." This is totally Tarantino as a kid, wanting to make cool, exciting movies that fulfill childish fantasies of right and wrong.

And make no mistake; Tarantino cares deeply about right and wrong. He is not abusing or assaulting the good guys, he treats women with a humanity that can only be described as feminist (while it shouldn't be feminist to have female characters who aren't raped, prostituted, or stripped, you and I know that by comparison with the rest of the movie industry, it is), and he cares about who is and who is not good.

Now obviously, if you're a kid and you've decided that a hillbilly/Apache is going to lead a band of Jews to fight Nazis, you're going to imagine yourself as the Apache. And give him a cool scar. If you wonder what a bonafide movie star is doing hamming it up and having a grand ol' time within a cast of relative unknowns, I think that's the answer. The "star" is Tarantino himself. Not the Tarantino the world knows, who can easily be seen as a movie theater owner, or a soldier/film critic (Michael Fassbender), but the subconscious/fantasy Tarantino.

I don't think the movie makes any sense at all if you can't see that fantasy component. As it is, I think it kind of goes off the rails at the end, although by closing with the line, "This may very well be my masterpiece," Tarantino assures the audience that he really doesn't care what you think, he's never had so much fun.


One of the wish-fulfillment fantasies of Inglorious Basterds is to kill Hitler every possible way there is to kill him. An adult might wish to rewrite history. It's the geeky eleven year old who wants to shoot Hitler AND blow him up AND burn him down AND betray him from within his inner circle. And by the way--Jewish suicide bombers? Jewish suicide bombers who kill Hitler?

There's more, of course. There's the almost inexplicable presence of a black man as Shosanna's lover and projectionist. That's an odd flourish in the sense that everyone is sort of saying, hey, what's he doing there? What he's doing is lighting the fire that brings the theater down, and I think that was a race-conscious choice; the black guy burns down the "church" full of bigots just as the Jews strap bombs to themselves.

This is fantasy; not Beings of Middle Earth fantasy, but the secret dreams of a private mind. And the boldness of plastering those secret dreams on-screen for public view, the gift of facing those secrets dead-on and not trying to make them more palatable, is what makes Inglorious Basterds possible, and laudable in its deranged way.

(This cross-post may well be my masterpiece.)