Words as weaponry
26 August 2009
Note: this comment was edited to meet IMDb length guidelines.

I first saw "Inglourious Basterds" in late July and concluded that it would flop and Tarantino would never again be relevant. Needless to say, I didn't like it and didn't even expect to see it again. Late August and Tarantino certainly seems relevant again. His biggest opening at the box office, rapturous media reviews, and a surprising amount of hype. Word of mouth is excellent. It remains to be seen how steady the movie's box office performance will be, but after the tepid reception at Cannes, the movie proved an unlikely hit. Two viewings later and "Inglourious Basterds" is probably my favorite movie of the year.

Why I initially reacted the way I did is increasingly mysterious to me, was it expectations of a men-on-a-mission film unfulfilled, the then seemingly tedious and over-written verbal jousts? Consciously or subconsciously, I didn't want to like the movie. I tutted at the glee with which the movie portrayed the violence the basterds inflicted. I resisted the charm of the film's construct, acknowledging that it was more than I expected it to be while at the same time lamenting Tarantino's juvenile and silly handling of such serious subject matter.

The truth, which has been revealed to me by two further viewings of the film, is that "Inglourious Basterds" might very well be Tarantino's greatest film, eclipsing even his most mature work to date "Jackie Brown". This is a glorious subversion of the dreary holocaust drama, a Spaghetti Western with WWII iconography, a love letter to the movies, and it is, every step of the way, aware of exactly what it's doing. In the end it basically comes down to personal opinion on whether this was a success or not, but what seems plainly obvious to me is that there is absolutely nothing about this film that is clumsy. The time and care taken with the screenplay is obvious, as is the time taken to edit the film. The Cannes cut wasn't longer, but it was apparently different in construct and differently-woven. When we're talking about a movie which depends entirely on: a) tension built through dialogue and character interaction, and b) the pacing of those scenes and how the scenes fit together, this could explain the significant difference between the reception at Cannes and the critical reception upon actual release.

The performance of the cast collectively is probably the most obviously praise-worthy aspect of the film. The Basterds are lovable and humorous, but also portray just the right amount of savagery to make it clear that what they're doing isn't child's play, and Brad Pitt is a standout as Aldo Raine, giving a fun comic performance but also creating perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film outside Melanie Laurent, whose Shosanna Dreyfus is the emotional core of the film. She also feels more like a film character than a real person, something Tarantino is aware of, as she is written as a classical tragic hero, complete with a deliberately clichéd romance and a climax to her story which really sums up everything this movie is about in its self-aware artifice and theatrical grandeur. Diane Kruger impresses as Bridget von Hammersmark, despite being given the tricky job of playing an actress. Undoubtedly the performance of the film, of the year, is Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa. It's perfect. It's exactly what it needed to be, and the wrong actor in that role would have destroyed the film.

In Tarantino's own words, "Inglourious Basterds" is about the power of cinema bringing down the Third Reich. An even better description would be the power of words challenging the power of violence. Intentionally or not, that is one of the most interesting parallels drawn in "Inglourious Basterds". In more than one scene verbal battles turn into violence, but in as many scenes the threat of violence is kept at bay by the power of words and acting, a major component of cinema. Tarantino's wordplay here isn't just characters saying cool stuff to one another, it's the entire language of the movie, the weapon of choice for his characters. Many say Tarantino should write plays if he's just going to have characters talk to each other for ages, but that wouldn't make sense because he delights as much in the conversation and his actors' performance as he does in their context in his film, and his films always feature the cinematic, except for "Reservoir Dogs".

"Inglourious Basterds" is all about the cinema, and where the movie references in "Kill Bill" were part of a pastiche of B-movie cinema, "Inglourious Basterds" works the references seamlessly into a genuinely involving story, albeit one with a healthy dose of silliness and dark humor. Where I initially thought Tarantino failed most significantly was where he succeeded most greatly: in his attempt to create a grand love letter to the power of cinema. Tarantino proves literate in more than just junk film here- for all the allusions to macaroni combat films and spaghetti westerns, it's ultimately a gonzo celebration of high art. The entire film is burlesque in nature, best seen as a deliberately artificial cinematic recreation of WWII rather than straightforwardly as a WWII war film of any nature.

More than any of his other movies, "Inglourious Basterds" is about cinema. It's not just subtext, it's the reality of the film which is so tied to the world of cinema. The film may be total fantasy, and it has no qualms about depicting the cathartic power of violence, but it's ultimately taut, tense, entertaining, funny, and most importantly sort of beautiful in its own grandiose, bizarre manner. As Aldo declares his final act of brutality in the film his masterpiece, Tarantino seems to be declaring this film his own. Call it kosher porn, call it whatever you like, what I ultimately see this as is a tribute to cinephilia made with far more heart than I expected.
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