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Saturday, June 17, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt
Country: USA/Germany

I see a lot of movies. As a consequence, films that are just middling tend to get forgotten. Good films and bad films I remember, but the experience of having watched them for the first time doesn’t often stick. Inglorious Basterds came out (almost) 8 years ago, but I can still remember what it was like watching it on opening day. It was invigorating, a blast of fresh air from a filmmaker who had already done much the same to the cinema landscape back in 1994. The impact of Basterds can be measured in a number of ways, but perhaps the best way to take its measure is to watch it today and discover that it still somehow feels fresh, it still somehow feels different from everything else out there. Quentin Tarantino is sometimes criticized for being an artist of style rather than substance, but done right style can be as important, as revolutionary, and as meaningful as substance and that’s part of what makes Inglorious Basterds one for the ages.

The story begins once upon a time in Nazi occupied France, where the notorious Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known far and wide as the “Jew hunter,” descends upon a dairy farm and intimidates the farmer into giving up the location of the Jewish family that he’s been hiding. Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), the only member of the family to survive the slaughter, escapes (or, more accurately, is allowed by Landa to escape because he enjoys the chase and a challenge) and spends the next few years hiding in plain sight in Paris.

Elsewhere a group of Jewish soldiers are recruited under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) for the sole purpose of killing Nazis in horrific ways and then mutilating the bodies so that their reputation for brutality becomes the ghost that haunts German soldiers. In 1944, the group’s path and Shosanna’s path will cross, though none of them will know precisely how, as both develop plans to take out the Nazi high command at the Paris premiere of a propaganda film. What happens next is not a matter of history, but a result of Tarantino’s unwillingness to do anything but play by his own rules.

As I said at the top, the impact of Basterds can be measured in a number of ways. The most obvious, perhaps, is with respect to the career of Waltz, whose star turn earned him an Oscar and who would go on to win another Oscar for his next performance in a Tarantino film. There’s also the impact of the film on the career of Tarantino himself. It may be hard to remember now, but at the time Tarantino’s career was on a bit of a downward trend, at least outside of his most passionate fans. Aside from Pulp , he’d never had a major money-making hit – the Kill Bills did fine financially, especially in light of their modest budgets, but weren’t blockbusters, and Grindhouse, his project previous to this one, was a financial failure – and while his films as a writer/director have never been critical failures, those that came after Pulp weren’t enthusiastically lauded, either. Even Jackie Brown, sometimes cited as his most “mature” movie, only earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But Basterds changed things, earning 8 Oscar nominations (besting the 7 nominations earned by Pulp) and turning Tarantino into the kind of filmmaker who ends up on Oscar prognosticators’ predictions lists simply for having a film set to release in a given year and before any actual information about, or footage from, the project has been released.

But the film changed Tarantino’s career in other ways, too. Although Tarantino’s films have always hearkened to the past, drawing on the films and genres that inspired and entertained him, prior to Basterds his films were thoroughly modern in both their sensibilities and their settings. Basterds is set in the past, as are his subsequent films Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, and his approach to the past makes for an intriguing, sometimes volatile, blend of the old and the new. This is because Tarantino refuses to bend to any kind of convention, working here with historical events but ultimately placing his film outside of history, and boldly engaging with anachronism in order to get what he wants out of a scene. I remember in 2009 finding Tarantino’s use of David Bowie’s “Cat People” quite jarring, simply because it’s unusual for a film with a historical setting to use music from a later period in history, but on subsequent viewings I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the way that Tarantino is using that music cue to both reflect the mindset of the character in the particular scene, to foreshadow things to come, and to prepare the viewer for the fact that this isn’t a story that’s going to resolve in a typical fashion. Instead it’s going to end with Hitler being shot in the face multiple times while the rest of the Nazi high command perish in a blazing inferno.

And, about that blazing inferno: while Tarantino has been accused of being about style over substance, of making films that are cool but aren't necessarily "about" anything, Basterds has an inescapable socio-political meaning. Although it may not be a commentary on the darkness of the human soul, as many films set against the backdrop of war are, it is most definitely a film about the power of the medium itself. Film was an invaluable medium of communication for Hitler and the Nazis in terms of propaganda films that elevated Hitler's status (such as those of Leni Riefenstahl, who is both directly referred to in this film as well as indirectly referenced), creating a cult of personality centered around him, and in terms of the propaganda films that advanced the Nazi agenda and normalized the violent hatred that drove his movement. The climatic sequence involves Hitler and his high command screening one of those films, celebrating the military triumph of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), unaware that their egotism has created the opportunity for their destruction as Shosanna, owner of the theater, comes up with a plan to lock the viewers in and then set fire to the theater's stock of of nitrate film prints. But before those prints can even go up in flames, Shosanna has already robbed the Nazis of their control over the medium, using her access to their film print to splice in a message of her own. So not only is film a means of Shosanna achieving psychological power over the people who have taken so much from her, it's the agent of the Nazi movement's destruction, reducing it to ashes. For a man who loves film as much as Tarantino, it's hard not to see Inglorious Basterds as a means of reclaiming cinema from some of its worst abusers.

The triumph of Inglorious Basterds exists both within the film, with the literal resolution of the plot, and without, with Tarantino successfully bringing his anything goes attitude to a story set in an era that is typically treated with more restraint. It remains exhilarating to watch Tarantino chart his own course, borrowing liberally and enthusiastically from films that influenced him while challenging the notion that there are any kind of rules about what a movie "should" be. Whatever else you can say about Tarantino, it can't be denied that he's an artist of incredible confidence who manages to make films that are distinct and could not possibly come from any filmmaker other than himself. Inglorious Basterds ends with Aldo Raine looking into the camera and declaring, "I think this just might be my masterpiece." That's a character speaking, but I think it's safe to say that it's also the filmmaker speaking. While that singular use of "masterpiece" may not technically be true given the existence of Pulp Fiction, Basterds may very well be the second best in the career of one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.

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