Friday, August 21, 2009

Basterds of a New Color

Attention all cinephiles: have no fear. The 2009 movie year has officially begun. If you're like me and you've been trying to "make do" or pretend to be satisfied with the summer's current offerings, Quentin Tarantino's audacious Inglourious Bastards will rescue you from your movie blues. The premise is essentially a fantasist's vision of the second world war.

A group of Jewish Yankee soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), land in German-occupied France and proceed to take the lives and scalps of as many Nazi soldiers as they can. Before long, word spreads throughout the Reich, earning the men mythic names such as "the Bear Jew" and "Aldo the Apache." This is only the beginning of Tarantino's labyrinthine story which also involves a German actress spying for the allies, a Jewish film projectionist who was orphaned by the SS, her ebony lover and a particular effete Joseph Goebbels. Rounding out the cast are an almost unrecognizable Mike Meyers and Rod Taylor as British General Ed Fenech and Winston Churchill respectively -- just two of Tarantino's many in-jokes. Special mention is also owed to Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-worthy turn as they oily, machiavellian Col. Hans Landa.

"Basterds" will no doubt have many detractors. It is easily the most reckless and irreverent war film I have ever seen. Some will find it crude, disrespectful and without redeeming virtue, but these are the very same traits that make it provocative, relevant and very fresh. Tarantino fans will not be surprised by the violence in the film, but they may be taken with how unglamorous it is. Although previous Tarantino films have aimed to titilate us with their criminality, I believe the writer/director is after a different game here. Inglourious Bastards is an anti-war film. Thankfully good old QT is just too sly to admit it.

The biggest challenge audiences will face is defining the moral objective behind the film. Unlike the countless scores of tributes we have seen to soldiers of the great wars and their sacrifice and struggle, the filmmakers dare to examine the issue from all sides. Both the allies and the Nazis are portrayed as complicated creatures, sometimes gallant, sometimes cruel. Tarantino understands that war is merely a collision of egos, ids and super-egos. It's often morbidly funny and without redemption for any side. That's what the ending is intended to signify (for those who leave the theatre scratching their chins in puzzlement). The picture is a mockery of war and the films that celebrate our battle-frought heritage and yet it also pays homage to our favorite war films. This is no small task and if it sounds contradictory it is.

Tarantino has created a war film for people who have become desensitized to the structure and meaning of conventional war films. He goes for broke and gleefully sidesteps the pratfalls of the genre. He doesn't try to inspire us with sweeping vistas and noble ideals. He doesn't try to make pacifists out of us with harrowing battles and cruel violence. Instead, he boldly lampoons everyone and everything onscreen, while simultaneously holding us in his grip.

There are so many flourishes and textures in a Tarantino picture that it may be easy to overlook his brilliance in creating (yet again) two strong, memorable, female roles in a genre that rarely honors our mothers and daughters. The female leads, Shoshana Drefyus (Melanie Lawrence) and Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) are nothing short of extraordinary. Bastards also features several trademark QT scenes, including a standoff at a tavern that ratchets up the tension as only he can. Some scenes run so long that they begin to overstay their welcome, until just as our eyes begin to glaze over the story takes a turns and surprises us.

In certain circles, I'm sure these heavily padded scenes will be dismissed as indulgent and unfocussed, but this is missing the point. Regardless of whether the film jives with your personal taste, Inglourious Bastards assures Tarantino's status as a master filmmaker in complete control of his story at all times. He plays with structure, style and rhythm to keep us gloriously off guard (no pun intended) and he packs his film with layers of meaning, ambiguity and bravura filmmaking -- not to mention in-jokes. This is Tarantino's most triumphant entertainment since Pulp Fiction. It's a movie for anyone who loves the movies. It is also a delirious, imaginative, masterpiece--provided that you're willing to accept that war is one big, fat, joke.

**Note: The B&W film clip denoting the flammable properties of nitrate film is from Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), from a screenplay by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay & Helen Simpson, and E.V.H. Emmett, based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.**