Inglourious Basterds ☕ d. Quentin Tarantino, 2009

Kevin Pearson and I literally met each other in the process of advocating diametrically opposed perspectives on Quentin Tarantino.  Over the years, we’ve continued to keep tabs on each other’s cinematic interests and opinions, and my interactions (or pitched skirmishes, if you prefer) with him have been incredibly rewarding.  Though neither of us had specifically discussed the merits of Inglourious Basterds with each other previously, it seemed fitting that if we would publish proper reviews on the film, we should do a little cross-promotion in the process.  So, once you’ve finished reading what I have to say about the film, head over to Film Splatter to check out Kevin’s review.  Though I’m pretty sure I’ll do more blog entries on the film and Tarantino in the future, I hope this little cross-over event, the day of our contest, puts a small balance weight on each other’s side (to paraphrase Pete Seeger).  My thanks to Kevin for taking the time to participate in this.  As always, a pleasure to cross swords with you, sir.

☕  ☕  ☕

As much as high school history books, mainstream entertainment has done the lion’s share of shaping the legacy of Adolph Hitler in the pop consciousness.  Even the notion that Nazis are subhuman scum — rather than very sick, psychologically damaged individuals — is partially a product of how ubiquitously Nazis are denied individuality and humanity.  The idea that anyone who perpetrates such a monstrous world domination campaign as the Third Reich’s, with its ethnic cleansing, can be understood and forgiven for such crimes is inimical to human instinct.  “Love the sinner; hate the sin” is an aphorism that withers in the face of the remains found at Auschwitz and Dachau; how could anyone who would do such a thing to other humans be human himself?  “The Nazi ain’t got no humanity,” declares Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds.  He’s right.  At least as far as the movies go.

Quentin Tarantino finally discovered a way to channel his obsessive postmodern cinema collage tendencies into something artistically significant with BasterdsKill Bill and Death Proof were entertaining to a degree, but puerile; ultimately far less rewarding on their own terms than his earlier features.  They demonstrated Tarantino’s flair for out-Godarding Godard, serving as experimental grindhouse annotations to Histoire(s) du Cinema.  In Basterds, however, Tarantino developed a thesis, and followed through on it in his own style — which can now safely be called “mature.”  Apart from riffing on the war film genre and paying further homage to Sergio Leone, Inglourious Basterds explicitly considers one of Tarantino’s favorite themes: the power of cinema itself.  “The power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich–I get a kick out of that!”  It shows in the final product.  Throughout the film, Tarantino draws on cinematic influences in explicit and implicit (or synthesized) ways, just as he always has.  The opening sequence, for instance, is set in the French countryside, but the framing is vintage John Ford, with his villainous SS operative, Col. Hans Landa, a distant echo of Ethan Edwards.  The rest of the film makes even more overt use of the cinema as both a plot motivator and thematic concern.  The Girl Who Got Away from Landa, Shosanna Dreyfus, owns and operates a movie theater in Nazi-occupied Paris.  The entire plot turns on her cinema as the setting for its climax, in which the entire administration of the Third Reich gathers there for the premiere of Josef Goebbels’ latest propaganda film, and winds up being utterly destroyed.  Art, performance, pop culture knowledge, and myth-making are all intertwined in virtually every scene.  The film does indeed celebrate the awesome power of cinema.  But it also, just as powerfully, illustrates its limitations.

Scott Foundas wrote a thorough and insightful piece on Basterds in the July/August 2009 issue of Film Comment, and it has been central to my way of thinking on the film.  (The above Tarantino quote is cited from this same article, though you can find videos of Tarantino’s press conference on YouTube.)  Foundas focused on the triumphal power of cinema, though, and articulated how Tarantino’s faith in this medium is both evangelical and nuanced — much more than Quentin’s naysayers like to admit.  I agree with this assessment, but it’s only part of the story.  Inglourious Basterds may have a happy ending in the sense that the villains are punished in the end, but the entire dramatic thrust of the film is born in tragedy, and that pall hangs over the entire film, right up until the prickly final frame, as Raine declares, “This may just be my masterpiece.”  A masterpiece, perhaps, but not flawless; not without poignant, even startling flashes of dire sorrow.

Take, for starters, the way in which we’re re-introduced to Shosanna, years after the murder of her family.  She is approached by a young German soldier as she’s taking down the letters of The White Hell of Pitz Pilu from the marquee.  Though she avers that the French respect great directors (even if they are the invaders and subjugators), the rest of the story illustrates just how little true autonomy even a broad-minded cinema operator has.  Shosanna is in the position of having to cater to the Nazis in order to keep her business afloat.  It may be one of Tarantino’s in-jokes that Shosanna has to climb down from a height of dealing with the title of a mountain film in order to deal with Fredrick Zoller, the young soldier.  In another sense, though, she is cornered between two Nazi forces — a film full of ideological propaganda, and a literal German soldier… who, it turns out, is the subject and star of an upcoming propaganda film.  The cinema itself provides no escapist entertainment; it provides no respite from the realities of the war.  The only films that appear on the marquee of Shosanna’s theater are those of an Aryan film starring the famed propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Raven (which has wartime paranoia as its subtext), and Zoller’s film, Nation’s Pride.  The cinema itself has been co-opted by nefarious forces, or reflects the encroachment of those forces.  The marquee, therefore, provides a useful index for Basterds: even if Tarantino’s vision of World War II ends with the destruction of the war’s greatest evildoers, the film itself is still primarily concerned with the evil perpetrated by them, and with the extreme measures taken by “the good guys” in response.  In short, even Quentin Tarantino is forced to grapple with the compromises forced on him by history, just as Shosanna is forced to grapple with the compromises forced on her by circumstance.  Cinema is not a cathedral of transcendence; it is right down there in the blood and the muck.

The spirit of compromise runs throughout the film, most explicitly in the sense that characters are compromised by events or actions beyond their control, but even in an aesthetic sense.  There are a few obvious breaks from his more conventional aesthetic approach.  Two of them are related to the character of Hugo Stiglitz (named after an actor in exploitation films, of course).  The first is the most egregious flourish.  When he’s first introduced, his name appears on screen in big, bold, yellow and black letters, accompanied by a heavy metal guitar twang; Samuel L. Jackson then narrates Stiglitz’s backstory in brief terms.  We see him turn against his Nazi superiors in spectacularly bloody fashion, and we see him broken out of prison by Raine’s team, the titular Basterds.  The sequence is especially jarring coming forty minutes into a film that has hitherto restrained itself to fluid, lushly austere camerawork and traditional cross-cutting.  It’s anachronistic, very much in keeping with the grindhouse style Tarantino experimented with in Kill Bill and Death Proof, but not in keeping with the Leonesque grace up to this point in Inglourious Basterds.  The effect is obvious — Stiglitz is set apart from his comrades, built up into a legend that is virtually from an entirely different kind of film. The kind of character who is so awesome, the usual rules do not apply to him.  He’s a lean, mean, Nazi-killin’ machine, and the rupture in aesthetic continuity signals that this is an exceptional person, and audience expectations are therefore entreated to regard him differently, as special.  During a later scene, as he listens passively to a dangerous verbal tango between a Nazi officer and his comrades, Tarantino inserts another tangential flashback (accompanied by the same metal chord) that indicates Stiglitz’s impatience with talk (he’s a man of action!), and reminds us of the horrible torture he’s already suffered and survived to get where he is.  It’s also a nod to Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch, one of that film’s few survivors.  It’s another aesthetic break that primes the audience for some hardcore HUGO STIGLITZ ACTION.

He gets killed moments later.

Stiglitz is the most “movie character” character of the entire cast.  If he’d been in The Dirty Dozen, he would have been Charles Bronson.  Being a badass grindhouse artifact didn’t get Stiglitz very far in Basterds.

Julie Dreyfus suffers a similar postmodern fate.  Tarantino fans recognize her from her work in Kill Bill, in which she plays a French attaché to the film’s titular villain.  She’s a tertiary character, and while she isn’t killed, she is mutilated and made to function as a living “message” from one assassin to another.  Drefus plays a translator in Basterds as well; this time as the personal attaché to Josef Goebbels.  Tarantino intends her to symbolize French collaborators with the Vichy regime.  That’s why, in his third abrupt aesthetic break, he inserts during a luncheon scene a shot of Goebbels fucking her in the ass.  Just as the previous flashback moves in on Stiglitz’s perspective, this one seems to be from the perspective of Shosanna.  Though Tarantino organizes some segments of his film in his habitual nonlinear structure, Shosanna’s parts are mostly in sequence, making this stylistic intrusion furious and comic — the exclamation point of a punch line begun by her horrible leopard hat.

In both Kill Bill and Basterds, Dreyfus’s character serves little purpose; she needn’t have been written in.  The plot could have been advanced just as easily without her.  She serves, instead, as one of Tarantino’s personal cinematic reference points.  When we see Julie Dreyfus sitting with Goebbels, a la Bill, he’s drawing a comparison between The Bride and Shosanna, with whom Goebbel’s converses via Dreyfus.  On one level, he’s signaling well in advance that he intends Goebbels to die, and that Shosanna will be the executioner.  He’s also signaling that Shosanna is analogous to The Bride, who emerges at the end of Kill Bill the survivor and victor.  Shosanna, however, does not.

Our first hint might be that, during this very same scene, Landa comes back into Shosanna’s life to the tune of the Master of the Flying Guillotine (if I’m not mistaken; correct me if I’m wrong, O Ye Tarantino-heads).  He’s another character that, to a lesser extent than Stiglitz, might be a character from another film.  He certainly doesn’t play by the rules of established historical record.  He’s one of Tarantino’s greatest creations, a mercenary villain who is so slippery that he not only segues smoothly between multiple languages, he is the lynchpin that holds Tarantino’s plot together.  More to the point, he facilitates Tarantino’s rewriting of history, thanks to his flexible sense of loyalty.  He survives Shosanna’s plot to kill Hitler, but his cinematic exceptionalism does not save him from being pinned specifically to Tarantino’s film.  He’s the canvas on which Tarantino paints his masterpiece.

Vengeance is framed in artistic terms elsewhere.  The other major aesthetic break occurs in an expository sequence where we see Shosanna and her lover making preparations to host — and flambe — Hitler and a hundred of his closest friends.  Once again, Samuel L. Jackson explains that film used to be made of silver nitrate, which was highly flammable.  This particular instance of aesthetic intrusion may actually be the most forward thinking.  Tarantino is, after all, making a movie in the 21st century, at the dawn of digital filmmaking’s ascendance.  (I don’t want to admit the possibility that younger viewers may not even be familiar with the origin of the word “film” in discussing a movie.  But I know it’s inevitable.)  However, the more pressing thematic concern is the use to which Shosanna’s storehouse of film is being put.  While Shosanna makes a brand new film, the intent of which is to instill fear in her victims, informing them of why they’re being killed, she is destroying her enemies… by destroying her entire catalogue of motion pictures.  The irony is almost too sharp.  Tarantino makes a movie about how cinema kicks the Third Reich’s ass by having his protagonist burn every scrap of film she has in her possession.  The Nazis don’t survive, but neither does the cinema.  Apparently, if cinema is used to eradicate evil, it may not survive as an art form.  That’s why the expository narration is so ominous: it represents the literal death of film as the primary medium for motion pictures.  Film is dead; long live the motion picture!

Other instances of cinema’s power as a theme are dealt with more conventionally.  Michael Fassbender plays a British spy, named Lt. Archie Hicox, who specialized in German cinema before the war as a film critic.  His enthusiasm for German cinema makes him, in the eyes of the British government, ideally suited to infiltrate Nazi-occupied France as a German officer.  He’s fluent in the language; he’s familiar with their customs through academic research and his exposure to their national cinema.  As Foundas observes, his cover is shaken by his imprecise accent, but it’s completely blown by a single, seemingly innocuous gesture.  The entire scene leading up to the bloodbath is one of Tarantino’s finest scripting achievements.  For the first time, he used his penchant for pop culture references with subtlety and grace, mixed with thematic import.  The breakfast scene in the second half of Death Proof, by contrast, included important expositional info, but it wasn’t at all subtle.  The basement barroom scene in Basterds is more elliptical, allusive.  Characters discuss real-life films with a fictitious actress. (She’s played by Diane Kruger in a performance that is by far my favorite in the film, Christoph Waltz’s included; she’s radiant, charismatic, gorgeously lit, and full of the kind of unforced vitality we’re more accustomed to seeing from the bygone studio era stars, like Katherine Hepburn.  Tarantino usually has unimpeachable taste in his casting choices, but while Waltz’s performance as Landa was a joyous introduction, Kruger’s was the revelation.)  When it all goes to hell and everyone but Bridget von Hammersmark bites the dust, the crucial link in the causal chain that leads to her eventual downfall isn’t the bullet wound in her leg; it’s the autograph she signs for an adoring fan.  The largesse of stardom doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

With Hicox dead, von Hammersmark crippled, and all the German-speaking members of their team dead, the Basterds decide to make an end run on the high command anyway.  Their cover story?  Italian filmmakers.  They’ll attend the premiere of Nation’s Pride and blow the place to smithereens.  Because a working knowledge of cinema worked out so well for Hicox and Bridget the last time.  Tarantino and his American cast get some comedic mileage out of their butchering of the pidgin Italian they manage to scrape together, but the real coup de grace is the fact that Shosanna has actually made a film.  She and Marcel put together a little “up yours” message for the Reich that she intends to play as she turns her cinema into a jumbo-sized oven.  Landa thwarts the Basterds and von Hammersmark, but Shosanna’s plan acts as the incognito failsafe.  On the night of the party, she dons a red dress and smears her face with deep red blush; the similarity to Native American war paint has been noted elsewhere, but it’s equally important to note that the first time we met Shosanna, she was covered head to foot in the blood of her family. It is their blood that she wears to battle, and the cinema will be her weapon.  The plan, such as it is, works.  The movie house is burned to the ground in a matter of minutes, killing everyone inside.  Even a couple of the Basterds manage to practice their machine gun skills, blasting Hilter’s face into shredded pork and gunning down as many of the panic-stricken Nazi moviegoers as possible before their dynamite accoutrements obliterate them all.

As for Shosanna?  She doesn’t live to see it.

Young Zoller, you see, has been under the impression that his good looks, his fluency in French, and his newly acquired status as Goebbels’s pet poster boy entitle him to special privileges.  Privileges including attractive blond Parisian women.  Once again, Tarantino builds a plot thread around the allure and persuasive influence of cinema, only to snip it in two at its climax with a pair of bloodstained garden shears.  Zoller corners Shosanna in the projection booth at the cinema as his film plays on the screen.  He attempts to force himself on her, and in exchange, Shosanna shoots him dead.  Then he shoots her dead.  With heavy irony, the two star-crossed antagonists “live on” in the images and sounds being projected from the room where they both lie on the floor in crimson puddles.  Zoller, the effigy of Aryan superiority at its most lethal and jingoistic, carves a swastika on the floor of the bell tower where he, in the film’s re-creation of his exploits, has made his crow’s nest, much to the delight of the Fuehrer and the rest of the audience.  Then, inexplicably (from their perspective), the “Nation’s pride” is replaced by Shosanna, who explains in gloating English that she is taking revenge upon them for the evils they have perpetrated against her family and the world.  The delight turns to terror.  As flames engulf the theater (courtesy of Marcel, timing his ignition in accordance to plan), the screams of the Reich’s upper crust blend into the smoke onto which Shosanna’s face flickers, laughing madly in mockery of the hoots that had, only moments earlier, bellowed from the audience.  It’s one of the most haunting images in recent memory, and certainly one of Tarantino’s most powerful.  Yet this power derives not only from the triumph of the “giant face,” as filtered through the miracle of modern cinema.  It derives as well from the sad knowledge that the living visage in the smoke and ashes is of a woman who did not live to see it.  In the case of both Shosanna and young Zoller, their cinematic victories are so much smoke and flame — illusions projected on the shades of the dead.

And what of Hitler and his right-hand ghoul, Goebbels?  Their moment of euphoria is obviously upended by Shosanna and the Basterds.  Tarantino lays the irony on quite thick that however successful a piece of propaganda filmmaking may be, it is no match for dynamite and a few hundred rounds of automatic gunfire.  (Another meta-irony is that Eli Roth, who plays the “Bear Jew” who unloads an extra clip into Hitler’s corpse, also directed Nation’s Pride.  Both Roth and his film are consumed in the fire and explosion at the cinema.)  My friend and Playtime colleague, Alex, was the first in my social circle to articulate how Inglourious Basterds plays with and repudiates the propagandistic sentiments of war films, and no scene does this better than the film’s climax, in which the echo chamber of a receptive, native audience cheers when its national hero slaughters the enemy… only to be burned and shot to death in the middle of this risible, self-aggrandizing lovefest.  If Zoller is Germany’s Sergeant York, then what does that say about America’s Sergeant York?  More importantly, what does it say about the kinds of movies that valorize the real-life exploits of soldiers to the point where “soldiering” is conflated with national identity?  Feel-good military dramas aren’t worth a whole lot when a projectionist and a ragtag group of marauders can tear down your leadership and the institution of propaganda in a single night.

The truth is a bit more clear-cut than that, oddly enough.  Tarantino is savvy enough to admit the simple fact that, as powerful as movies are, they are not all-powerful.  They are not instruments of miracle-working.  They are not a bulwark against internal or external aggression.  They are what they are: beautiful, potent, emotionally engrossing, intelligent, and capable of fomenting transformation on a scale measured only in the geologic table.  But they have limits; very practical limits.  And filmmakers are subject to the same, vulnerable limits.  Witness the strange case of Col. Hans Landa.  In the film’s most outrageous scene, Landa bargains his way out of Germany in exchange for allowing the assassination attempt on the high command to take place.  Hitler and his cronies die because one man allows it.  Christoph Waltz plays Landa’s satisfaction as squirrelly excitement; the man is so drunk with power, he literally can’t keep himself from shivering in pleasure.  In return for his services, the vaunted, feared, and sadistic Jew Hunter is granted political asylum and pardon for all his crimes; the surviving Basterds — including Raine — will escort him to safety in Allied-controlled territory.  Landa has not only scored a victory for the Allied Forces, he has completely rewritten history as we know it.  Surely, he’s entitled to gloat a bit.

A bit, yeah.  But Tarantino has other plans.  The film’s infamous final scene depicts Raine taking Landa into the woods, holding him down, and carving a swastika into his forehead with a bowie knife.  This bit of brutality isn’t the controversial bit.  I mean, we are talking about the fellow who spruced up an ear-cutting scene with Steeler’s Wheel and a bit of improv dancing on the part of Michael Madsen.  What rankled critics more than anything was Raine’s declaration into the camera, “This just might be my masterpiece.”  The remark was received as Tarantino’s autocritique of his own film, a taunt — a dare — to his detractors.  The hubris of the man!

I do think that Inglouris Basterds is Tarantino’s finest film to date; it doesn’t have the passionate, inchoate energy of Pulp Fiction or the studied intimacy of Jackie Brown, but as a holistic effort, it is by far his most ambitious film, and the one in which his thematic ambition is matched by his skills as writer and director.  If that last line were a taunt, I can’t in good conscience call it pretentious, because I think the film backs up the braggadocio with plenty of substance. However, I don’t see that last line as a double-dare-you-motherfucker taunt.  It’s the capstone on the foundation laid by the entire film’s thematic structure up to that point.

We all know that Tarantino loves intertextual references.  It’s almost a given that a film that stands WWII history on its head in such a bravura manner will comment on its own front.  The final shot is also in the style of an angle associated specifically with Tarantino; other directors may make use of the “trunk shot,” but it’s a stylistic tic that occurs in each of his films.  If he is going to comment on himself, it would make sense that he would do so in a way that most clearly evinces his own work.  (The only thing missing in the scene is B.J. Novak lighting up a Red Apple cigarette.)  What most critics seem to have neglected, in zeroing in on this line, is the context of the entire film.  At this point, it should be pretty clear that cinema itself is one of the major themes of the film: its power and its limitations.  Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who eats, sleeps, lives, and breathes cinema.  He probably sneezes cinema, too.  It is inconceivable to me that a shot in his own film that makes a reference to himself would not take into account the major thematic thrust of the entire film.  If the film is about movies, their strengths and weaknesses, then Tarantino must be commenting on his own strengths and weaknesses as well.

For years, it has been axiomatic that Tarantino knows movies, and doesn’t know anything else.  It’s one of the reasons that, even if his movies are “achingly personal,” as he claims, Kill Bill and Death Proof were artistic dead ends for him.  They exemplify his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and the kinds of obscure genre idioms that he clearly adores.  The problem has always been whether or not his cinematic collages add up to anything relevant to the emotional and intellectual experience of the audience — or even if there is some internal relevance between the artifacts that find their way into his films.  For instance, I’m not sure how Vanessa Ferlito imitating Al Pacino in Heat (“She’s got a great BIG ASS!”) ties into the thematic workings of Death Proof, apart from the fact that Tarantino likes writing characters who can quote from the kinds of movies he loves to watch.  Similarly, I’ve yet to read a convincing argument that Tarantino’s tangents in Kill Bill — like an extended anime backstory for one of the minor villains — hold together as anything more than a series of virtuoso digressions.  They may be entertaining, and if that’s all the audience wants, then that’s fine.  But it always seems like his fans want it to mean more than it does, as if there’s some intellectual peg on which to hang one’s hat, just in case the riffs themselves aren’t intrinsically entertaining.  As a celebration of how versatile and rich cinema is, I’m in total agreement that Tarantino can imitate the formal characteristics of his favorite flicks to greater or lesser degrees of entertainment value.  But if it happens not to “click” with me, I don’t think that’s an intellectual failing on my part.  It’s sort of like appreciating the complexity of Busby Berkeley’s choreography for the “Forgotten Man” sequence at the end of Gold Diggers of 1933: it’s a stupendous, thoroughly cinematic musical number; as social commentary, it’s insulting rubbish.  Something does not need to be “high art” in order to be “great art.”  Let’s not confuse highly ambitious intent with masterful application of technique.  Sometimes imitation is just imitation.  I don’t think Tarantino has pretended that his last couple feature films have amounted to anything more than the sum of their parts, so there’s no need to take them as such.  Death Proof is actually a little more thematically ambitious than Kill Bill, but it’s also a bigger failure in that regard.

By the same token, Basterds is very clearly about something, and it’s analogous to Jackie Brown in that Tarantino is consciously trying to establish that he can make a “serious” movie.  Sure, declaring it via Aldo Raine a “masterpiece” is a bit overt, but it’s also an acknowledgement of Tarantino’s persona as auteur.  (I don’t think Raine is Tarantino’s avatar.  Raine is one of the least pop culture savvy characters in the film.  QT would have been killed in the same scene as Stiglitz and Wicki.)  The Man Who Knew Too Much About Movies is directly addressing and coming to terms with the way that making movies based upon movie-gained knowledge may limit the reach of those films.  In the same way that Archie Hicox and Bridget von Hammersmark are woefully ill-equipped for undercover work; in the same way that making movies doesn’t save Shosanna or Zoller; in the same way that being the top dog in a genre-film brood doesn’t elevate Stiglitz’s prowess; in the same way that running the world’s most effective propaganda machine doesn’t save Goebbels and Hitler, Tarantino is gracefully bowing to the criticism that maybe being a movie geek doesn’t automatically make one best-suited to being a filmmaker.  And what of Landa?  In the same way that Landa directs the action in the scenes around him, in the way that he is a total master of dialogue, in the same way that he has the hubris to rewrite World War II history, the effortlessly manipulative Landa is ultimately unable to escape the reality from which he’s trying to escape.

So… is Tarantino Landa?  No.  He’s not an evil Nazi, for one thing.  Consider this, though.  Tarantino made a film that is quintessentially of a genre that has suffered from a glut of films.  World War II dramas may be fairly said to date back to the lead-up to the war in the 30s.  For nearly 70s years, films dealing with the war, its aftermath, and the events that gave rise to it have been made.  Nazi films in particular and the Oscar-bait “holocaust drama” have become kitschy subgenres.  Think of the final scene.  Tarantino has tried to make an indelible, unforgettable mark in an arena of filmmaking that has oversaturated the market in accordance with the mantra, “Never forget.”  Of all the genres from which he could possibly steal tropes and memes, none is more pre-eminent among prestige pictures than the war drama, and WWII dramas in particular.  Even studying the history of WWII cinema alone would give any scholar a good sense of WWII history.  And the lesson that Tarantino took from all his research and the decade spent writing this film wasn’t that he needed to make the most serious, comprehensive, true-to-life epic on the topic.  Instead, he made a film that exposes the hollowness of the subgenre, and the inability of cinema to grapple with the enormity of war.  (The fact that he did it by writing some of his best, most empathetic characters is simply brilliant.)  What Tarantino shows us is several decades of films that have tried to rewrite history by grafting triumphalist messages or trite genre hackwork onto the most devastating conflict in world history.  Some of the films may emphasize the tragedy of the war, and that is covered in his film as well.  But he sees that this corpus of cinema is as close as most of us will ever get to what so many real people suffered through — and what many people did not survive.  If the panorama of human experience in wartime can be reduced to war film tropes and cliches, why not just burn down the cinema?

Nobody is more aware of Tarantino’s limitations as a filmmaker than Quentin Tarantino, and instead of ignoring them, he embraced them and put them to use.  If his faith is in cinema, like Kurosawa before him, he has put his talent to use articulating the pitfalls of that faith as well as its blessings. Inglourious Basterds is a self-reflexive essay on the efficacy of cinema; it is a celebration of war film tropes; it is, above all, a realistic assessment — pursued with religious zeal — of how much Tarantino is capable of conveying with his brand of filmmaking.  The emphasis in “This just might be my masterpiece” isn’t on “masterpiece” but “my.”  My masterpiece.  The trunk shot from Landa’s POV shows us just where Tarantino is coming from; he rewrote history, and he did it well.  He’s made his mark; maybe the mark was made upon him.  For better or worse, this is all he can do.  After all, he’s just a filmmaker, and he has just spent the last few hours ruminating on how much cinema is truly capable of.  If the majority of his power as a filmmaker is drawn from the same source as the poor, ill-fated characters that litter the saloon and projection room floors of Inglourious Basterds, he has undoubtedly made some kind of mark, but whether historically accurate or rambunctiously retcon, it is but the consolidation of a legacy that can grasp only so much.  The frames of Inglourious Basterds flicker on the mists of history, and roar in a convulsive explosion, eradicated by the power of film, and perhaps to be reborn in another time and place, in the vision of another filmmaker, soaked in the imagination of cinema itself and reincarnated as something vaguely reflective of the world as we know it, if not the world as it was. ☕


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

4 responses to “Inglourious Basterds ☕ d. Quentin Tarantino, 2009

  • Inglourious and Unmemorable « Film Splatter

    […] Inglourious Basterds ☕ d. Quentin Tarantino, 2009 « Catecinem – March 20, 2011 […] in the process.  So, once you’ve finished reading what I have to say about the film, head over to Film Splatter to check out Kevin’s review.  Though I’m pretty sure I’ll do more blog entries on the film and Tarantino in the future, I […] […]

  • Kevin M. Pearson

    Wow, engulfing review, Matt. You really take on in the film in every way and give me that rare feeling like I wasn’t wrong, but I could have done more to be right in what I could have said. For what you are trying to say, it feels like you say it in full. I definitely see where you are coming from with the “movie” implications in the story. As shown in my review, I don’t buy into the notions of the story. I think the film is more self serving for pure entertainment issues.

    Whether Tarantino is art, I’m glad you tackle the notion, and whether I am not particularly fond of associating him with other “great” filmmakers, I do believe subjective ideas of art come into discussion. I’m glad people like us believe in objective analysis first, but the the specifics end and elements of belief and emotion make up the leftover questions. For critics who believe in mis-en-scene analysis more than me, they get very giddy over Tarantino. I just don’t. Call it my own sense of moralism and what traditional elites identify with high brow, but Tarantino does not rub me that way.

  • red wing team

    Good info. Lucky me I ran across your site by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve bookmarked it for later!

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