I have been a huge Quentin Tarantino fan ever since seeing Reservoir Dogs in college. I have loved all of his movies, with Jackie Brown being the only item in the corpus that gets a rating below brilliant. So you can imagine my excitement over the premiere of Inglourious Basterds. I almost never go to movies on Friday or Saturday nights since I hate crowds, but for this I made an exception.
There are only the most minor of spoilers below the fold. Really, the movie advertisements give away more than I am about to.
Short review: Tarantino is a genius. If he doesn’t win Best Everything at the Oscars next year it will be a travesty.
I was once accused by the wife of a friend of holding neo-conservative political views. The basis for the accusation was my defense of Harry Potter’s use of the Cruciatus Curse in the final volume in the series. Clearly this indicated that I was a supporter of torturing people, and was therefore a neo-con.
I was rather taken aback by this. First, because I am most definitely not a neo-con, and find the idea that I am rather insulting. But second because I had thought that your average adult understood that sometimes behavior that is acceptable, even admirable, in a work of fiction may not be acceptable in real life. Real life, you see, is a place of moral ambiguity and gray area, and a place where we understand the importance of extending due process even to the most vile and loathsome people. It is one of the great virtues of fiction that we can, at least briefly, ignore those messy realities and instead just take pleasure in the sight of a thoroughly rotten person getting what is coming to him. What do you suppose it is we are escaping when we speak of escapist fiction?
The main story line in Inglourious Basterds involves Brad Pitt leading a team of Jewish mercenaries in Nazi-occupied France. Their mission is to kill as many Nazis as possible, and this they do in frequently gruesome and sadistic fashion. I loved every minute of it, as did just about everyone else among the very large crowd joining me in watching the film. In certain places the laughter was so loud that I will surely have to see the film again to pick up the little bits I missed during the ruckus. Let me suggest that if the sight of a group of brassed off Jews putting the hurt on some Nazi scum doesn’t cause you to crack a smile, then you are the one with the problem.
As you might have guessed, I have no patience for the sort of pretentious twittery exemplified by Daniel Mendelsohn in his Newsweek review (Warning: There are spoilers in the review). Mendelsohn writes:
Tarantino, the master of the obsessively paced revenge flick, invites his audiences to applaud this odd inversion–to take, as his films often invite them to take, a deep, emotional satisfaction in turning the tables on the bad guys. (“The Germans will be sickened by us,” Raine tells his corps of Jewish savages early on.) But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications. Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carboncopies of Nazis, that makes Jews into “sickening” perpetrators? I’m not so sure. An alternative, and morally superior, form of “revenge” for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future. Never again, the refrain goes. The emotions that Tarantino’s new film evokes are precisely what lurk beneath the possibility that “again” will happen.
Pure crap, and it is downright obscene to suggest that Tarantino has turned Jews in to carbon copies of the Nazis. Doing violence to them that wronged you is a far cry from trying to exterminate a race of people. Revenge fantasies may be ignoble (emphasis on “may”) but they are a deeply human reaction, and it is satisfying to fulfill them in fiction precisely because we know we can not fulfill them in real life.
(Which is not to say that I object to complex, morally nuanced cinema. It’s just that different sorts of movies can be enjoyable in different ways and for different reasons.)
You may as well object to an Agatha Christie novel on the grounds that murder is a terrible thing, and it plays into unseemly emotions in the human psyche to trivialize it by turning it into an intellectual puzzle.
Anyway, back to the film. I have generally been a fan of Brad Pitt for two reasons. One is that I think he is a genuinely talented actor, and not just another A list pretty boy. The other is that he has consistently been willing to do offbeat roles that do not always present him in the best light. Think of Seven, Fight Club and Burn After Reading (not to mention Thelma and Louise, though that one was so early in his career that he was not yet in a position to be choosy about his material.) I think he is terrific here, as is the entire supporting cast.
In addition to the typically excellent and engaging Tarantino dialogue, the direction strikes me as quite accomplished. The scenes are framed and shot beautifully. I was reminded a bit of the Coen Brothers in that regard. And let me add what a pleasure it is to see a film in which there are long scenes in which the characters actually talk to one another, instead of the unpleasantly frenetic pace of so many modern movies.
I do have a few criticisms. One of Tarantino’s favorite devices is to have a long patch of seemingly aimless dialogue that nonetheless has a gradually building air of menace around it. The opening scene of the film, set on a small dairy farm in the French countryside, is a near perfect rendering of this device. Alas, Tarantino returns to that well later in the film in a far less successful and seemingly endless scene set in the basement of a tavern. It was the only scene in the film that missed its mark, though it still had some memorable moments nonetheless.
The story hangs together pretty well, but near the end there are a couple of serious implausibilities that mar things somewhat.
Also lacking was the usually excellent Tarantino music. There is little music in the film, and some of it is even recycled from past films. I own the soundtracks to Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, but I don’t think I will be buying this one.
But these are minor quibbles with a fabulous movie. The funny scenes were funny, the dramatic scenes were dramatic. Highly recommended.
Let me close with with one more reference that occurred to me during the film. There was a forgettable, even laughable, episode of the original Star Trek series called “The Savage Curtain,” which did manage to have one powerful line right near the end. In the episode, some powerful aliens develop an interest in the subject of good and evil. Thy bring to their planet four representatives of evil, and four representatives of good, Captian Kirk and Mr. Spock among them. The two sides fight, and eventually the forces of good are victorious. Somewhat confused, the alien says to Kirk that he does not understand the difference between good and evil, since in the end the forces of good used many of the same tactics as the forces of evil. Kirk asks the alien what he offered the evil folks to make them participate in the fight. The alien says something like, “What they wanted most. Power, fame, riches.” Kirk replies, “You offered me the lives of my crew, and the safety of my ship. There’s your difference.”
Can’t imagine what made me think of that.