Despite being one of the most famous directors on the planet, Quentin Tarantino and his recent few films, notably Kill Bill, Death Proof and his most recent WWII pastiche, Inglourious Basterds (sic) are in an awkward place in popular culture. Serious (one might even say hoity-toity) cinephiles who play in the arthouse sandbox take him to task for not delivering on the promise of Pulp Fiction and in particular, the rapid maturity displayed Jackie Brown which succeeded more as an adult romance than a Elmore Leonard low-life heist. I often read in in print and on the web that it is Tarantino’s wilful lack of maturity that is somehow a problem and that his films should have more human characters instead of cinematic types. Then there is the comic-book crowd that find Death Proof ‘too talky’ and lacking in the cheap thrills and adrenaline par for the fanboy set. That Tarantino elevates the genres he plays with seems like a negative to the Comic-Con types that comprise much of the popular internet forums. Can scalping and cinema history belong in the same movie? You better believe it.
With Inglourious Basterds he is none too shy about how he structures his narrative. One Chapter for fans of Georges Clouzot and Alfred Hitchcock, one chapter for fans of John Carpenter and Mario Bava. Brad Pitt may be the selling point of the film, and he is great, all twitches and ticks, in his scenery chewing (munching on Tarantino’s dialogue, er, monologuing like a pro), it is Christoph Waltz who undeniably steals the show as the Third Reich detective Hans Landa. The first chapter in the film (likely the films best ‘self-contained’ movie) is a thing of beauty, structurally, audience expectation, and the simple pleasure of watching a performer as a delightfully wicked force of nature. Driving onto a French farm, observed in long-shot through blowing laundry on the line, he is all oily smiles and perfectly intoned Français. His interrogation of the farmer suspected of hiding Jews is a master class in how to play with audience expectation whilst ratcheting up the tension. Even something simple as the Red October ‘lets switch to English’ trick to avoid subtitles is (amazingly) factored in a plot point. To write Inglourious Basterds as too knowing for its own good is the highest of compliments embodied in Waltz’s uber-Nazi. This shows up again later in perhaps the films other hyper-tense scene involving a theatre-owner and a glass of milk. Watch closely and marvel how this sort of double-level foreshadowing is balanced with pure showmanship. Some folks are bound to taking issue with Mike Myer’s almost-winky cameo, but it is still a fine piece of abating tension before we build to the next turn-of-the-screw setpiece.
The only weak-link in the cast is Eli Roth, who gets the ‘The Third Man’ level build up, and never really delivers the promise of an interesting character. Sure he is great insofar as the foley on his Louisville slugger, but when called to deliver lines, he fared far better in as a misogynistic sex-seeker in Death Proof than as a murderous Jew thug in WWII. But Til Schweiger, as the silent Sgt. Stiglitz is the real treasure in the Basterds rank-and-file. A tense sequence in a basement bar with drinks and parlour games involving nazi officers, foot soldiers and spies has Schweiger silently glowering and stealing the scene in a subtle and fun way. And considering just how much tension is milked from that talky set-piece, it is an impressive feat.
Contrary to reaction to the Cannes print, the eponymous Basterds are not a side note to the film, they get just about the right amount of screen time. The film after all, is not a man-on-a-mission story, but rather a testament to the power of name, fame and cinema. With the central plot revolving around a high-profile film premiere, Joseph Goebbels’ latest propaganda piece (fittingly replacing a Leni Reifenstahl ‘mountain film’ on the Marquee), and the impressively clever use of film as fuel for an attempted mass assassination (fuel for revolution, fuel for impressionable minds, fuel for the fire), the art-form is celebrated as much or more than in any other Tarantino joint. G.W. Pabst, David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer, Marlene Dietrich, and Emil Jannings are all name-checked, as is King Kong (perhaps one of the ultimate examples of the extremes taken for pure showmanship) and Queen Christina. Winston Churchill himself is even shown to be a knowledgeable film buff. And a key military officer is an ‘ex-film critic’ with several books published. The mission is Operation Kino which eventually offers up the opportunity to kill Hitler and all of his high command in one room.
The hint-hint-hint on where Tarantino is coming from (thematically) is that everyone in a position of power in the film from the Basterds themselves to Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa to Joseph Goebbels and his pet-hero/actor Fredrick Zoller (nice to see Daniel Brühl getting mainstream attention here) is obsessed as much with their own reputation (and intimidation) as they are with getting their job done. This is in contrast to the ladies in the film who are more on the defensive; even stalwart in their dignity and grace in to simply hold on to their hats (or in an amusing Cinderella moment, their shoes). The directors foot fetish, and his idiom of female empowerment is very much on display here as well. These women may not have loads of authority, but they have confidence and competence in spades, making the two principle ladies (Diane “Helen of Troy” Kruger and Mélanie Laurent, both excellent) more the real heroes in the piece than The Basterds who function more as traditional Shakespearean ‘tension-relief’ and also serve as hammy-genre icons.
With the focus on celebrity and infamy over battlefields and gallantry, the film becomes a comment on the power of art with the grandiloquence of P.T. Barnum. Structurally it plays more as a series of propositions than actual action; considering the writer-director’s talent for wordplay, this is absolutely a good thing (not unlike Reservoir Dogs’ heist flick without a heist). The final line in the film is as much Quentin Tarantino throwing down the gauntlet on a reflection of his own work, reputation and auteur grandeur, as it is on Lieutenant Aldo Raine’s precision with a carving knife.