A lot of famous people have died in my lifetime and I haven’t cared. Call me cold-hearted, an asshole, sick. Call me selfish. You might even be right. But you can’t say I’m fake. You’ll never see me carrying roses down the street, crying for someone I never knew.
If Quentin Tarantino up and died on me, I think I’d care. I don’t know the guy. He seems obsessive, maybe psychotic, sadistic. I’ve seen him interviewed and he twists and turns like a live fish on a hot sidewalk. And I’d be the fakest bastard on the internet if I told you that Reservoir Dogs spoke to me in a deep, emotional way. I wouldn’t care because he was a revolutionary or a genius or an especially good person. He’s probably not any of those. I’d care because I think his movies have done more to define the thoughtless desires of my generation than anyone else’s. Say what you want, agree or disagree, fight over when the generation starts and ends or what “define” means. All I’m saying is if the man died, I think I’d care.
Few directors have killed more people on screen than Tarantino, and Inglourious Basterds does not mark the beginning of his pacifist period. The camera follows two stories. First, a young French girl escapes an SS Jew-hunting raid to later become the operator of a beautiful little movie theater in Paris. Second, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads a group of Jewish American renegades on a Nazi killing spree through Germany. When word gets out that top German officers will be in the audience at the screening of a new Nazi propaganda film (remember our beautiful little movie theater in Paris?), everyone wants a piece of the pie.
The movie is told in 5 chapters, set apart by title shots like “Chapter 2: Inglourious Basterds”. It’s set up as a kind of fairy tale – “Once upon a time” and all – but I’d call it mock-revisionist history. Or put in a more savory way, it’s a revisionist historian’s twisted fantasy. This set-up grants the movie some moral leeway, which any film glorifying a group of bloodthirsty scalpers would desperately need. The only loose relationship to actual history it bears is to cinematic history.
Tarantino spoons out respect for G.W. Pabst, Ernst Lubitsch, plenty of canonical German film personalities, and even Leni Riefenstahl. It’s ironic to honor filmmakers of the past – ones who are said to have had significant historical impact – with a movie that’s downright giddy to see history engulfed by spectacle. A distinctly glorious fire is even started by burning old movie reels. The argument is, with Tarantino’s tongue jutting out his cheek, that you can’t burn history and expect to get away with it.
For every characteristic flourish, there’s an equal and opposite oversight. For Brad Pitt’s amalgam-of-badass persona, there’s a scene where he tries to speak the most grotesquely accented Italian known to man. For Diane Kruger’s vivacious performance as an actress/spy in the basement of a bar, there’s a decidedly stiff ending to a packed-with-potential standoff. For hours of anticipation, there’s a very plainly shot finale. For Eli Roth’s American pastime torture sequence, he raises his arms to the sky and yells “Outta Fenway Park.”
It’s hard not to talk about hits and misses with Inglourious Basterds. For an epic tale told in chapters, it’s not going to be looked at for its full story or its lengthy episodes, but dissected for its shots, scenes and performances. Pieces are gorgeously obscene, wickedly self-aware, and some, unnecessarily bloated. With so many ambitious arguments lurking in the background, there was no way the conclusions could be balanced on the tip of a bloody knife. So the movie’s best moments are just that: moments.
The highlight of the film is the first 20 minutes and the introduction of Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa. Tarantino has a knack, or perhaps a full blown gift, for turning actors into personas, and Waltz is his latest subject. He plays the switch-flipper with a detective fetish to perfection. You can’t help but drink in his patience and madness. It’s a shame every scene doesn’t have a character whose mere presence can carry the action for those extra few minutes.
When it’s on, it’s on. When it’s not, you feel it. Plenty of people won’t be plain smitten with with the badass moments. They’ll be confused by the action, bewildered by the accents and bored by the stretched-out dialogue. They just won’t care. Not like I do.