Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a clever melange of violence, suspense, slapstick, wit, movie references both arthouse and grindhouse, talk, talk, more talk, even more talk; seems to me he is more in love than ever with the sound of his own words coming out of the mouths of about a dozen different men and women, in several accents and twice as many acting styles,
His initial setpiece, a variation on an early scene in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) (Leone's outsized opera style seems to inspire Tarantino more and more, from Kill Bill Part 2 (2004) onwards) has Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) earning his nickname of “The Jew Hunter”--he sits with farmer Pierrer LaPadite (Denis Menochet) enjoying a glass of fresh-drawn milk, gently maneuvering the hapless peasant into admitting to harboring Jews.
It's a moderately suspenseful sequence (moderately--judging from Tarantino's past work he's not one to shy away from sacrificing an entire family for the sake of a dramatic opening). Landa first demonstrates here the technique of cheerful bonhomie overlaying steely cruelty that he wields to great effect, charming and disarming the object of his interrogation.
The technique is applied over and over again; Landa's death-dance around his victims while said victims sits helpless within an ever-tightening spiral, too frightened or fascinated to do anything, forms both heart and spine of the picture. Landa is the true protagonist of Basterds, and as Waltz plays him he has the bad-boy charisma of an old-fashioned Hollywood star (Brad Pitt as Basterds commander Lt. Aldo Raine, in comparison, comes off as a one-note buffoon). I'm thinking in particular of James Mason in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959)--Waltz has something of Mason's suave smoothness--and I think it significant that Hitchcock comes to mind: Waltz's Colonel Landa is firmly in the tradition of fiendishly clever Hitchcock villains like Mason's Philip Vandamm, Joseph Cotton's Uncle Charlie (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943), Walter Slezak's Willi (Lifeboat, 1944); like those scoundrels, Landa forms the core of the movie's appeal.
If I have any problem with Landa, or with Waltz's and Tarantino's conception of the man, it's in that they don't borrow from what what I would consider the very best Hitchcock villains--I enjoy Willi, Vandamm, Uncle Charlie, but their evil, while charming, isn't fully expressive; they function exclusively as figures of malevolence. Give me instead Claude Rains' Alexander Sebastian in Notorious (1946), or Raymond Burr's Lars Thorwald in Rear Window (1954), or Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Psycho (1960); their characters displayed alternating streaks of villainy and vulnerability, ferocity and fear, capturing our sympathy and disgust in near-equal measure.
That said, give me Vertigo (1958), where the putative murderer literally steps offstage about halfway through the picture, leaving behind Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart, in what I consider the performance of his career) to function best he can as victim and villain both, dedicated to raising his inamorata from the dead. Mere atrociousness can be effective, but ambiguity rules.
Then there's the talk. Landa purring at Farmer LaPadite over a freshly drawn glass of milk is fine; Landa flirting menacingly with massacre survivor Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) over a dish of warm apple strudel (with a dollop of freshly whipped cream) is fine too; Landa playing cat-and-mouse games with actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is okay, if a tad wearying--yes, yes, we know he's smarter than anyone else in the picture, get on with the story already. Besides, they don't partake of anything in that scene, not even the champagne on tap in the lobby--though Tarantino does get to indulge in his trademark foot fetish, with Landa playing predatory Prince Charming to Bridget's doomed Cinderella.
(I'm thinking Tarantino may have missed his true calling, that his greatest films may be ahead and not behind him if he would ever consider mounting a production exclusively about food. That strudel, the flaky-soft, buttery crust sitting high on a pile of thick-sliced apples, fresh cream dribbling down the sides, is easily the single most erotic, most sensuous image he's ever done).
I'm serious. I can't say there's a large library of great films on food, much less major filmmakers interested in the preparation and consumption of food on film--Yasujiro Ozu, Tsui Hark, Juzo Itami, Claude Chabrol, Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese come to mind, but even in their films the food or cooking is usually a minor preoccupation. It's a genre ripe for exploration (or exploitation), where Tarantino can easily excel.)
Tarantino having Landa talk to this beautiful woman or that peasant farmer is fine (as long as said farmer is able to serve fresh milk), but Tarantino forcing us to spend ten minutes in a basement bar with an inept British spy without Landa is unforgivable. Morgan Meis in an article claims Tarantino “stretches the tension to a breaking point as masterfully as Hitchcock ever did”--Hitchcock stretched tension as far as it would go, but never did it with so much talk (unless it was with some comic figure making inane chatter). Just when the tension (or monotony, if you like) becomes unbearable, Tarantino tops it with an incoherently edited gun battle--all my patience, rewarded thus! For a filmmaker known for his violence, I find Tarantino's action sequences strictly second-rate--the camerawork's often clunky, the shots rarely if ever flow, the cutting, as in this case, done with a Cuisinart.
If he has any skill at all it's in scriptwriting (he's quite good at dialogue, if rather shallow and limited with his range of character voices), film scoring (his eclectic soundtrack includes everything from Ennio Morricone to Elmer Bernstein to Lalo Schifrin to David Bowie's theme song for Cat People), and casting (his only genius ability, utilizing has-beens like John Travolta, Pam Grier, Lawrence Tierney, Robert Forster in brilliant new roles). Not to mention the occasional striking image, of which two come to mind: Shosanna's boyfriend Marcel (Jacky Ido) presiding over a gigantic pile of celluloid, summarizing in a single shot the volatile nature of cinema, and Shosanna herself appearing on the silver screen, announcing her revenge in a burst of orange flame.
Otherwise--zilch, nada. Tarantino's great surprise of an ending (a slowed-down, rather watery version of the brutal climax Robert Aldrich achieved (all shot in real time, unlike Tarantino) in The Dirty Dozen (1967)) may have critics all over the United States praising the immense power of cinema to create its own reality, but Steve Railsback summarized what Tarantino did almost thirty years ago in a single line, in Richard Rush's far funnier, far more imaginative The Stunt Man (1980): “Whaddaya know? A fucking rewrite!"
There are critics who call Inglourious Basterds science fiction, and with fairly good cause--the genre (on text, not on celluloid) has been revising World War 2 history for practically ever, from Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream to Philip K. Dick's great The Man in the High Castle.
It's instructive, I think, to look at Dick's masterpiece: Japan and Germany have won the war and split the United States in two, with everything from the East Coast to the Midwest going to Germany and the entire West Coast (on the balance generally recognized to be the more desirable piece of real estate (I disagree, but what do I know?)) going to Japan. Germany promptly establishes a totalitarian state where the genocidal extermination of Jews is well underway (as for black people, you don't want to know what they are up to in the continent of Africa); Japan creates a relatively pollution-free semi-utopia where electric cars and dirigibles ply road and sky, Americans are treated with subtle condescension (but otherwise enjoy most of their civil rights), and American pop curios are sold in specialty boutique stores. In this topsy-turvy world, supporters of Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich struggle to control the Reich; a Japanese bureaucrat named Mr. Tagomi attempts to foil an assassination plot, with the future of the Japanese Empire hanging in the balance; and shopkeeper Robert Childan pleads for the value of indigenous American art.
Doesn't sound like much but in the process of reading you may find yourself, as with all great science fiction, holding all sorts of unfamiliar positions--a profound pity for Childan and the kind of American pop culture (Micky Mouse watches and so on) one usually holds in contempt, here fragile and endangered; a sneaking sympathy for Japan's Greater East Asian Eastern Co-Prosperity Sphere, which rules over the United States with a kind of environmentally enlightened despotism (electric cars!). At the heart of it all is novelist Hawthorne Abendsen, the eponymous man, who wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a huge underground hit of an alternate-history novel where Germany lost the war.
Dick, in effect, plays with reality in ways Tarantino can't even begin to grasp--where Tarantino thinks in terms of victory or defeat, death or revenge, Dick thinks of broad political and economic forces, shaping a complexly realized society that in turn shapes us in complex ways; where Tarantino indulges in Three Stooges slapstick with a dash of sadism, Dick has a Japanese insulting an American with the suggestion that he mass-produce his wares (it takes the American some minutes to even begin to realize he's been handed a putdown, not an opportunity)--the exquisite cruelty of the moment goes beyond anything in Basterds. Dick's High Castle is the game of make-believe played at grandmaster level; Basterds feels more like a game of tug-o-war with the other end of the rope tied to a fireplug--stupid and pointless, if occasionally amusing.
First published in Businessworld, 11.06.09