13 September, 2009

Putting out fier with gasoleen

So here's the thing.

Going into the new Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds, I had a very clear understanding about the general and critical reaction to the film. I knew a lot of people really loved the film, a lot of people thought it was painfully awful, and there seemed to be no middle-ground. (Looking at it now, I discover it's not quite as even as I thought - Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 88% rating, while the more accurate Metacritic gives it a lower but still positive score of 69.) But at the time, I understood that opinion was pretty evenly divided. So I went to the film, partly because I was glad to finally see Tarantino has finally made the WWII-film-by-way-of-spaghetti-western he's talked about for the last ten years, but partly because I was curious about how I would feel about the film. Given the perceived even division on the film, which side would I fall on - would I love it or hate it?

I should establish what my position on Tarantino was prior to seeing the film. I feel that he's an interesting director, and someone whose work I always try to keep an eye on, but I'm not a big fan. I certainly don't quite get all the praise of his skills in writing dialogue, which I always found somewhat overwritten and intrusively reliant on pop-culture references. I haaated Reservoir Dogs, although that may have been because I was completely put off by the ear scene (I was much more squeamish back then, and I wonder how I would respond to the film these days). I've enjoyed Pulp Fiction the couple of times I've seen it, but it's not a film I really think about. I remember enjoying Jackie Brown in cinemas, but haven't felt a need to revisit it since then. I thought Vol 1 of Kill Bill was good but had some issues - however, watching both Vol 1 and Vol 2 in a double-screening resolved my issues, and I really like the film as a whole. In fact, Kill Bill as a whole is the first Tarantino film I actually like. And I thought Death Proof was pretty awful right until the climax of the film. Most of the film is dull and tedious, and feels like Tarantino is relying far too much on his dialogue (which as I said I've never been impressed by), but once Zoe gets on the car bonnet, the film became an intense and brilliant experience.

As for Inglourious Basterds? I thought it was genuinely great. I walked out of the film thinking it was a really fast 2-hour film, and it was a shock to look at my watch to discover the film was a full 30 minutes longer than I had realised. And, having sat through a 2½ hour film, my only real criticism was that I wanted the film to be longer. I've watched it twice now, absolutely enthralled each time, and the more I think about it, the more I read about it, the more amazed I am by the film. It's rich, beautiful, intelligent, powerful, incredible and truly is the most perfect example of what I hope for every time I go to the movies. And every day, as I look through the paper and see it appearing in the cinema listings, I start planning to skip work for a few hours and catch the next screening.*

* (To CP: Not really. To everyone else: Yes, really.)

The film adopts a unusual pace, much slower than most modern films (it apparently features only 16 significant scenes in the entire film - your average film these days will have between 40 and 60 different scenes), but Tarantino manages the film's pace expertly, building the tensions in each scene, raising the pressure, until the inevitable occurs. Just look at the opening scene, which revolves around a Nazi officer (nicknamed "the Jewhunter") talking to a French dairy farmer about a Jewish family that has gone missing. The scene runs close to 20 minutes long, and while as a viewer it's noticeably a long scene by today's standards, it's so suspenseful and intense that it simply does not feel like 20 minutes. And for pretty much the entire scene it's just two people talking, the Nazi friendly, charming, joking, the farmer on edge, nervous, tense. And it's brilliant. For the first time in his career, I was really impressed by Tarantino's dialogue - it felt natural, as though these were real people having real conversations, rather than just being mouthpieces for the director. And even in a simple dialogue scene, Tarantino manages to surprise, throwing in twist developments that startle the audience while still remaining true to the scene and the characters. The scene also plays with the viewer's expectations - it starts off in subtitled French, but after a few minutes the characters decide to start speaking in English. At that point, it seemed like a device in any other film where characters start speaking their own language and then transition to English to avoid forcing the viewer to read subtitles for the entire film. Fortunately not only does it prove not to be such a device (indeed, most of the film is in subtitled French, German, or Italian), but the change in language actually proves to be an essential element in allowing the scene to develop as it does. It's an exceptional scene, and in any other film would be a high point. But the great thing is, in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has better to come.

Tarantino plays out similar scenes throughout the film, intense scenes of dialogue where he seems almost to be experimenting with how long he can stretch out the suspense, and he never falters in his sense of how far he can push the scene. The scenes work because they don't just revolve around the uncertainty of what will happen, but the tension of when it will happen. (Another incredible scene, a meeting in a tavern with a table of drunken German soldiers playing the card-on-forehead identity-guessing game, lasts nearly half-an-hour. By the time the scene reaches its climax, it's all the better for taking that length of time to build the tension.) One of the things that makes these scenes work so well is the fact that because Tarantino knows he has the time to let things build up to a boil, he doesn't need to force the tension by artificially going big. When interrogating the farmer, Landa doesn't yell or rant Travolta-style, he barely speaks above a whisper, just talking and unnerving the person opposite, subtly pushing the discussion towards the result he wants. Characters get no relief from the need to be guarded and careful in everything they say and do because anything, even the smallest most common gestures, can give you away. It's a nice change in pace from the way most films are made, and when the scenes come to their (often explosive) conclusion, there's almost a sense that this is the inevitable unavoidable conclusion to the scene's set-up and development, rather than just being "how the writer wrote it".

If I have a problem with the film, it's in the way it uses the characters of the Basterds. There's pretty much no better way to describe the Basterds than to quote Brad Pitt's introductory speech.

"My name is Lt. Aldo Raine and I need me eight soldiers. Eight Jewish-American soldiers. Now, y'all might of heard rumours about the armada happening soon. Well, we'll be leaving a little earlier. We're gonna be dropped into France, dressed as civilians. And once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwackin' guerrilla army, we're gonna be doing one thing and one thing only... killing Nazis. Members of the Nationalist Socialist Party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimation, and terror. And that's exactly what we're gonna do to them. Now, I don't know about y'all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily, and then jump out of an air-o-plane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity. Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. That's why every sonuvabitch we find wearin' a Nazi uniform, they're gonna die. We will be cruel to the Germans and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us, and the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, at our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us, the Germans will talk about us and the Germans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they've done, it will be with thoughts of us that it tortures them with. Sound good?"

So they make their way through France, killing almost every Nazi they find, but sparing the odd person (after carving a swastika in their forehead) to go back and spread the word about the Basterds. Now, I don't have an issue with the Basterds themselves - it's a rather fascinating idea, and honestly it would probably have been a good thing if they had actually existed - but the way the film uses them as characters is problematic. I remember a few years ago Tarantino said his script for the film was at that point long enough for three films, and frustratingly I suspect that, in his efforts to cut it down to a more manageable length, Tarantino had to cut a lot of material about the Basterds. After all, the Basterds' actions and motivations aren't too complex, whereas those of the Jewish survivor Shosanna require much more time to establish. What this means is that the characters of the Basterds aren't as fleshed out as we really needed. We get a lot of Brad Pitt's character, completely overplayed in a performance that definitely divides the viewers, but which I personally loved. We also get a lot of Eli Roth's character, nicknamed "the Bear Jew" and famous for taking a baseball bat to the heads of captured Nazis, and a former German soldier named Hugo Stiglitz who is recruited by the Basterds after killing 13 high-ranking Nazis. But sadly, we get very little of most of the remaining Basterds. I was excited when it was announced that Samm Levine (from Freaks And Geeks) and BJ Novak (from the US version of The Office) had been cast as two of the Basterds, but really they're just there to make up numbers, never getting any distinctive or memorable individual moments. (In fact there are several Basterds that just vanish from the story without explanation. In some ways it adds believability - there was some time that passed between Chapters 2 and 4, and they probably just died in that time with no reason for anyone to discuss their deaths when the film meets up with the Basterds months later, but it still felt a bit sloppy.) Coming out of the film, my main issue with the film was that I felt it needed an extra half-an-hour, just to give it a bit more time to flesh out the titular characters.

One thing that's interesting to realise is the way that war films have changed recently. War films these days are probably best represented by a film like Saving Private Ryan, a very earnest attempt to present the "war is hell" viewpoint, the terror and horror of wartime experiences. Tarantino's film is a clear callback to a much earlier type of film, the war-as-action film, films like The Dirty Dozen or The Guns Of Navarone where the Allies are good guys and the Nazis are evil. And yet despite that underpinning element, Tarantino is surprisingly (for Tarantino) aware of the moral complexities of his story. It's not just the Jewish-revenge-p0rn film that many people perceive it to be. Yes, there are people in the film who die in particularly graphic ways (one particularly deserving character takes a volley of machine-gun fire to the face, in what proves to be a cathartic Hell Yeah! moment), but there are a number of situations where the Nazis being killed come across more sympathetically than the "good guy" Basterds. (In one memorable scene, a German soldier chooses to be beaten to death rather than reveal information that would result in the deaths of other Germans. Had that character been an Allied soldier captured by Nazis, he would be regarded as a hero, and despite his delivering a last-minute defiant insult about Jews it's still disconcerting when the "good guys" are whooping and cheering his death as being the closest they come to going to the movies.)

This leads me to the most surprising thing about the film. It's a film that to me seems acutely aware of the toll that revenge actually has on the person taking it. If we look at Kill Bill, a film that's even more explicitly about revenge, the only acknowledgement that film gives to the impact of The Bride's actions on herself comes right at the end of the film, when she collapses in the bathroom crying. Contrast this with Inglourious Basterds, which is basically a revenge film covered with the trappings of a war film. The Basterds are deeply unpleasant people, hardened by a need to seek revenge for all the evil unleashed by the Nazis against the Jewish people and the world. They barely seem human in their braying enjoyment of killing Nazis. In the end, these may have been good people once upon a time, but by the time we see them on the battlefield they're pretty bad people working to achieve a good outcome, and they come up against some brave and honourable people working for an evil end. Similarly, as we look at the laughing face of Shosanna, it's impossible to not think about the toll her need for revenge has taken on her personally. But this film is not some liberal treatise on how we're all human and why can't we all get along. The Nazis were evil, utterly evil and hateful, end of story. And Tarantino is well aware that it is basically enjoyable to watch Nazis die, because there is so little ambiguity in how evil they were. It's still a film where revenge is fun and violence is cool, especially when it's against the Nazis, it's just that Tarantino seems to acknowledge a greater degree of complexity to the issue than I think he really has before.

It's also interesting to see that Tarantino for the first time seems to recognise the disconcerting nature of film violence. The climax of the film takes place in a premiere screening of a Nazi propaganda film about a German sniper that killed 300 Allied soldiers in three days. And as you watch the Nazi audience braying and cheering every Allied death on the screen, people openly laughing with joy at the sight of American soldiers dying, it reminds the viewer both of the Basterds enjoying the death by bat of the German soldier, and of how some audience members will have responded to that scene. (It's no accident that the Basterds adopt Nazi-style levels of cruelty to those they capture.) Similarly, we get the character of Zoller, whose exploits are dramatised (and who plays himself) in that film. Tarantino never actually goes into Zoller's thought-processes watching the film (beyond a joking "that actor was terrible"), but as we see his discomfort watching his wartime experiences on the big screen, it seemed almost as though the weight of the deaths he had caused weighed heavily on Zoller, as if he was a bit repulsed by the thought of that experience being repackaged as entertainment (although, to be honest, there are a multitude of ways Zoller's reaction could be interpretted). Now, it's not uncommon for directors to seek to use their films to criticise the culture of film violence and damn the audience for enjoying it (I'm looking at you, Michael Haneke), and much of the time I feel they actually end up hypocritically endorsing the very thing they claim to be speaking against. Tarantino at least knows that he enjoys movie violence too much to be able to criticise it, so he doesn't adopt a hypocritical "you are bad for enjoying this" position. He acknowledges this is an issue, he just then says "But who cares? I'm having fun."

I've already referred to Brad Pitt's over-the-top performance in the film (which leads to the film's funniest scene, where Pitt poses as an Italian film director, speaking minimal Eye-talian in a thick Southern-hillbilly accent), but it's interesting how stylistically varying all the performances are. On the one hand, there are a lot of over-the-top exaggerated performances. Christoph Waltz's incredible performance as Hans Landa won him Best Actor in Cannes, and he is brilliant, but it's never a subtle performance. At times the character himself is openly performing for the people around him to achieve a particular effect (look at the pipe he smokes in the opening scene, for example), but most of the time that's just who he is - giddy, threatening, intelligent, scheming, eloquent, persuasive, even absurd, often at the same time. Waltz manages to present Landa almost as a comical figure while still remaining a sinister and threatening presence. Then we have similarly larger-than-life appearances from people like Eli Roth or August Diehl. (We also get an OTT Mike Myers playing an English general, in one of the film's more minor missteps. It's an okay performance from the actor, in an otherwise excellent scene, but it's so obviously Myers under lots of makeup that it's distracting. In a film largely cast with unknown actors, it would have been better had Tarantino cast someone else - especially since I just want Mike Myers' career to end, and I hate that he's received the validation that comes with being in a Tarantino film.)

What's surprising about these performances is that, despite their undeniable excesses, they nevertheless feel like real, three-dimensional humans, and they continue to convince even while appearing with actors giving much more subtle realistic performances. For me, the acting highlight of the film is Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, the sole survivor of her family's massacre. It's a performance that everyone would have been talking about had it not been overshadowed by the acclaim over Christoph Waltz. Laurent, a French actress I've never seen before, gives a subtle nuanced performance that is completely captivating. So much of her performance is carried in small gestures, in her eyes, in tiny twitches, in her breathing (just look at the way she barely suppresses her anger, her fear, and her blind panic when she first meets Landa face-to-face), that by the point where she justifiably goes over-the-top, it's made that much more terrifying for the fact that she has been so controlled up to that point. And it's impossible to mention Melanie Laurent without also pointing to Daniel Bruhl's similarly excellent performance as Zoller, playing a Nazi war hero seemingly convinced that he's in the middle of a romantic comedy with Shosanna. And there are other exceptional performances - Michael Fassbender as the British film critic turned soldier, say, or Diane Kruger as German film star Bridget von Hammersmark - that create a nice complementary contrast to the more excessive performances of Pitt or Waltz.

As I mentioned before, what's also surprising about the film is how movie-star-light the film is. Tarantino is famous for packing his films with an impressive cast of current and past stars, but in this film Brad Pitt was the only main actor recognisable to the general public. (Mike Myers is only a brief cameo, while both Harvey Keitel and Samuel L Jackson make voice-only cameos, one as a US General on the phone, the other as a narrator for a couple of sequences.) Now, this is not a reflection on the quality of the actors or the performances, almost all of whom are stellar, but it's a nice thing to see from Tarantino. Too often he seems to cast his films on the basis of "wouldn't it be cool to work with so-and-so", and writing his scripts on that basis, so it's nice to see him stretching and finding widely unseen talent to fill his film.

I'm surprised to look through my review and realise I've made it this far without making any significant comment on the climactic scene. The various plotlines converge on the premiere screening of a Nazi propaganda film in a small cinema, with both Shosanna (who runs the cinema) and the Basterds independently executing their own plans against the Nazis gathered for the movie. Crucially, we know exactly what Shosanna's plans are, but really only learn about what the Basterds were planning as they execute the plans. And really, it's clearly due to the contrivance of Tarantino the writer that the plans come together as well as they do. After all, Shosanna doesn't even know the Basterds exist let alone what they are planning, and vice versa. And yet each plan is really only effective because of how it works in conjunction with the other plan. Similarly the timing of the two plots works out too perfectly for unknowing and independent plans (what are the odds they both decide to execute their plans at the exact same time?). And yet, I can't fault Tarantino for this, because for all of the evident presence of his hand as a writer manoeuvring the various players together, it culminates in what was for me easily the most extraordinary moment in film that I have seen for a long time. It's exciting, brilliant, disturbing, violent, beautiful, haunting. Like much of Tarantino's work, it reminds me of many other films, but where Tarantino usually feels like he is just referencing / appropriating / plagiarising other work, here he may be echoing something I've seen before, but at the same time he's created something entirely new. (A lot of people trying to articulate why this feels so familiar have had to point to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Carrie for anything similar, but those films are so different from this that it really demonstrates how far the scene is from anything that Tarantino might be referencing. Tarantino has gone beyond mere visual quoting - as he does at the start of the film by mimicking The Searchers - and has started refining his inspirations down to their essence and using them to create something entirely new.) That scene at the cinema is easily the best thing Tarantino has ever done, and here it caps a truly extraordinary masterful film. Having seen it twice now, having been thinking about it a lot over the past two weeks, I feel that Tarantino has finally justified his position as one of the most essential directors working today. It really is that great.

No comments: