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Inglorious Basterds (2009) – Inglorious Narrative

August 23, 2009

I feel, in the words of Malcolm X as though I have been bamboozled, led astray and run amok.  I refer, of course, to the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009).  When it first filtered out at the beginning of the summer, the Guardian devoted a blog post to it referring to it as one of the worst trailers ever made and it was difficult to disagree with that assessment at the time.  Having just got rid of a government who resorted to arguing semantics when addressing allegations of torture, it seemed tasteless in the extreme to produce a film that seemed to be all about torture.  Torture not as a necessity to save lives but torture as an expression of basic natural justice.  Torture as funny and entertaining.  The trailer even included Eli Roth, one of the founding fathers of the so-called ‘torture porn’ sub-genre.  However, the film I saw is not about torture and it certainly isn’t about cartoonish violence and stylised action.  It is a film about talking.  Just talking.  And therein lies its greatest successes as well as its greatest shortcomings.

Italian Poster

Italian Poster

The film’s character is established in its opening scene.  Somewhere in Nazi-occupied France there is a farm house in which there lives a man and three beautiful daughters.  One day, there comes to this house a man in a uniform and a long leather coat.  He needs to make certain enquiries in order for his office to be able close the file on the family.  The man in uniform is Hans Landa (Christoph Walz), a man whose campness, charm and apparent multi-lingual sophistication poorly disguise a mind like a wolf trap.  A trap that will slam shut should whomever he is talking to say the wrong thing.  Landa and the farmer then engage in a lengthy bout of verbal cat-and-mouse.  Landa will ask an awkward question and then distract his prey by asking for a glass of milk or whether he can smoke his Holmesian pipe.  All the while, the tension is starting to tell on the farmer, trapped as he is in the prisoner’s dilemma between protestations of innocence and admissions of guilt in the matter of hiding Jews from the Nazis.  Landa shifts emphasis and language, changes tack and tone, always pleasant and always terrifying as he slowly breaks the farmer down, reducing a tough and intelligent man to tears as he systematically closes off all avenues of escape and forces him to put his own life ahead of those of the friends he is hiding.

The scene displays not only Tarantino’s complete trust in his actors and in his own capacity to coax a performance out of them, but also a real capacity to keep his directorial style under control.  This opening scene, as well as the film’s other verbal confrontations, are shot in a very naturalistic fashion that focuses the attention upon what is said.  Meanwhile, the dialogue, stripped of the postmodernism and pop-culture references that made Tarantino’s name, has the same sense of theatricality and artifice that characterised the central verbal confrontation of Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008).  It is a tactical engagement.  A battle of attrition.  A fencing match.  An interrogation scene reminiscent of other great examples of the genre such as the Poughkeepsie scene from French Connection (1971) and the inspired use of speakers in L.A. Confidential (1997).

However, more than anything else, this sequence is obviously inspired by the ending of The Great Escape (1963) and the famous moment in which the British soldier gives himself away by answering a question in English when pretending to be a foreign national.  It is these types of moments that Tarantino has tried to recapture and expand into the basis for an entire film.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Indeed, despite their prominence in the trailer, the Basterds themselves are mostly peripheral figures played for laughs.  Brad Pitt wanders through the film with a thick Tennessee accent and a protruding jaw similar to that of Popeye after eating a bucket-full of bees.  In one of the film’s many ‘will the Nazis rumble them’ scenes, Pitt is posing as an Italian stuntman.  “Bu-on-jor-noh” he gurns in what is possibly the worst Italian accent of all time.  Landa responds in fluent Italian.  In another sequence, Eli Roth is presented as the most brutal of the Basterds, stomping along a corridor with baseball bat while Pitt refers to him as “The Beeeeeeeeear Jeeeeew”.  These are not action heroes, they’re grotesques!  Roth’s performance in particular is so bizarre that surely even Tarantino could not have meant him to be a sympathetic character to be taken seriously.

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna

The Beeeeeear Jeeeew

The Beeeeeear Jeeeew

The film’s actual protagonist is Shosanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish girl who escapes the massacre of her family in the opening scene before fleeing to Paris and taking over a cinema with her Black lover.  The cinema itself is a wonderful building showing films such as Clouzot’s 1943 Le Corbeau, a film whose ambiguity perfectly encapsulates much of the French wartime experience.  Due to her blonde hair and blue eyes, Shosanna is able to hide from the Germans in plain sight until she attracts the interest of a German soldier who reveals himself in Goebbel’s political film machine.  This forces Shosanna into a number of tense scenes where she has to walk a fine line between the demands of self-respect and the demands of survival; She must present herself as hostile enough to the German occupation to be a regular Frenchwoman but accepting enough of a gift to avoid people looking too closely at her past.  The balancing act is spectacular and it demonstrates what is ultimately the film’s central dramatic feature : A confrontation between two people both pretending to be something they are not.  In the case of Shosanna, the farmer and the soldiers, that hidden nature is that of being an enemy to the Nazis.  In the case of the Nazis, their true character is that of a brutal murderer lurking beneath the surface of a military officer who likes to think of himself as polite, courtly and sophisticated.

While the film’s series of verbal confrontations are fascinating, well directed and very well directed, they do struggle to fit into a wider narrative.  These kinds of duels generally work well as climactic set-pieces or intense vignettes but when forming the backbone to an entire film they do struggle to maintain narrative.  Tarantino attempts to get around this by using the Basterds and a few origin stories as framing devices; They impart what the film is about, what the world is like and what the stakes are but their the capacity to involve emotionally is extremely limited as they deal mostly with stuff taking place off-screen (the Basterds’ campaign of Terror) or at points temporally adrift from the main narrative (the introduction of Michael Fassbinder’s film critic commando).  Also problematic is that fact that while these sequences clearly speak to secondary plot-lines, they do so in so detailed a fashion that the implication is that we are missing most of the action, which is a distinct possibility as I imagine that Inglorious Basterds’ running time has been vigorously curtailed in the editing suite.

On a scene-by-scene basis, Inglorious Basterds works very well.  It is funny, tense, interesting and engaging.  However, as a piece of cinematic story-telling it is easily as problematic as your average summer blockbuster (all you need do is replace verbal confrontations with robots hitting each other and the similarities are uncanny).  Indeed, this is where the accusations of self-indulgence on Tarantino’s part hit home.  He is not self-indulgent because he fills his films with film geek references, nor is he self-indulgent in terms of visual style.  However, he is ferociously self-indulgent when it comes to allowing individual trees to completely obscure the view of the wood.  Inglorious Basterds would have been a better film had all the stuff mentioned in the trailer simply been cut out.

8 Comments
  1. August 23, 2009 11:20 pm

    It sounds deeply flawed, did you see Peter Bradshaw’s review over at The Guardian? He hated it to the point he reconsidered his respect for Tarantino as a director, which is as negative as it gets really.

    It sounds like there was stuff there to engage with, stuff worth thinking about and writing about, but that the film as a whole was a faillure. Is that fair?

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  2. August 24, 2009 8:44 am

    I have since read the Bradshaw review. In part, my desire to write about the film was influenced by the kicking the Guardian have been giving the film since its first trailers appeared. It’s been reviewed at multiple stages by multiple critics and every time the verdict is terrible, terrible terrible.

    I thought Deathproof (Tarantino’s previous film) was one of the worst films I have ever seen. It was all about utterly uninteresting people talking in a bar for what felt like about 4 hours until someone gets murdered. I loathed it.

    However, while Inglorious Basterds has some of the same flaws (a serious lack of over-arching narrative structure due to a tendency to focus on the individual scenes rather than the film as a whole), it isn’t anywhere near as bad or as hateful a film.

    Melanie Laurent is genuinely great to watch, as is Christoph Walz and the scene in the farm house or when Shosanna is quizzed over an apple strudel or a bunch of people have to play drinking games with a nazi are hugely entertaining to watch and incredibly well put together. Tarantino not only does great dialogue but he also does great communication.

    However, while these great scenes work well, they never cohere into a larger film with anything in particular to say.

    It’s not a bad film and there is stuff in it to like. I didn’t hate anything in it and I think it’s a better film than both Death Proof and the Kill Bills, so I think the reaction of the Guardian is quite a way off base.

    IG is just deeply flawed as a piece of story-telling. It’s still an enjoyable enough film though.

    I suspect that there’s a 5 hour director’s cut lurking somewhere in the mists of possibility. Tarantino needs to relearn how to balance writing great scenes and writing films that come in at less than 2 hours and which make sense.

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  3. August 24, 2009 12:50 pm

    My concern with Tarantino is the trees and wood element you refer to. I thought Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction both brilliant, so did many people. Trouble is, that seems to have gone rather to his head, much as the success of Sixth Sense and Unbreakable did with Shamalayan.

    The result with both is similar, a loss of control. With Shamalayan, it turns out he was a bit of a hack anyway, and a loss of control just means increasingly turgid and unlikely films. With Tarantino, it means he no longer seems to cull his ideas.

    And he has a lot of ideas, many very good, a fountain of them, and they all seem to make it on screen. We end up with films longer than Tarkovsky or Lean epics, but those films used their space for a purpose, here it’s just a lack of creative control. I think he needs to learn how to make a two hour movie again, hell, a 90 minute movie. If he can do that, I might watch his marathons. Until he can though…

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  4. August 24, 2009 1:53 pm

    I think that Reservoir Dogs worked because Tarantino stuck quite closely to a genre template. It was shot with some style and a number of great ideas but it was first and foremost a genre film structurally.

    Pulp Fiction is the beginning of the rot as it’s a film which, much like Inglorious Basterds, works best on a scene-by-scene and strand-by-strand basis. The interweaving of the strands gave the film a proper shape (something lacking in the later films) but it wasn’t really a work of cinematic narrative.

    Kill Bill was an attempt at a proper narrative. Again, based upon genre templates. The same goes for Jackie Brown (even more so than Kill Bill as it was based upon a novel).

    Inglorious Basterds, much like Deathproof, lacks a shape. He seems incapable of wrestling his individual scenes into anything approaching a proper narrative shape.

    The length of Inglorious Basterds is due to his failure to force any kind of narrative onto a load of different and ill-fitting ideas.

    As you say, he needs to learn to make a proper 90 minute film again.

    However, given that he gave a ‘response’ interview to Sight and Sound following their poor review of IG, I can’t see that happening. I don’t think he realises that there’s a problem with his films.

    Someone give the man the Chabrol box sets for fuck’s sake.

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  5. August 24, 2009 2:44 pm

    I think you’re right on Reservoir Dogs, the need to relate to the genre provided useful constraints. Unconstrained creativity is often only a short jump from a pointless mess. Reservoir Dogs is a sort of anti-Rififi, a heist movie without the heist, that subversion of genre gives it an interesting twist but the focus on the genre keeps things in check and provides structure.

    I agree on Pulp Fiction, but I think it works as you say because the strands come together and give it shape, that and a certain joy that runs through the whole thing.

    After that, well, I’ve not yet seen Jackie Brown but generally my thought is he’s far from the first Hollywood director to see his talent disappear up his ego. The Sight and Sound thing is definitely a worrying sign, but then to go back to my Shamalayan comparison his response to criticisms has been to regard his critics as missing the point, not understanding his films, he doesn’t seem to consider that they may understand perfectly well and that the problem may not be the critics.

    Of course, we all know examples of artists who were universally condemned, to be later hailed as geniuses. That doesn’t mean every artist who is universally condemned can count on that outcome…

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  6. August 26, 2009 9:38 am

    Inglorious Basterds would have been a better film had all the stuff mentioned in the trailer simply been cut out.

    It would have been a better film but it would have been less of a Tarantino film, less audacious and flat out mad. The flaws of the film are part of the point or, at least, I don’t think they are quite so easily seperated from the successes as you imply. I would hate for Tarantino to only make this kind of film but I am glad that someone is making them.

    Hopefully Kill Bill did not mark an eventually fatal inward turn but, as you say, this is certainly no Deathproof which is what I was fearing from the reviews.

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  7. September 1, 2009 9:11 am

    Completely agree with your review and it comes as some relief because the audience feedback I am getting is that IG represents vintage Tarantino and is a return to form – this conclusoon comes despite the same people admitting there’s no coherent plot, scenes are too long or plain unnecessary and it’s all utterly self-indulgent and facile. Make of that what you will!

    Personally, I felt it was a hybrid and a mess with the occassional flourish. Bradshaw made plenty of his salient points about the negatives but his rabid dislike for the film (and one presumes Tarantino) overwhelemed his final judgement. The Time Out review was spot on, and worth a look.

    That said, I don’t buy this Tarantino ‘needs a comeback’ myth. To my mind he’s made 6 films, 5 of which were good or great. True – Death Proof was a self-indulgent mess, but maybe in a 80 minute cut would have been passable? The Kill Bills were mighty and expertly crafted, and from talking to people who slagged them off I have discerned a general dislike for martial arts movies, anime and all things Oriental, less than any coherent dissection of quite why these films in particular fail to work. As such I think Kill Bill 1 and 2 ultimately suffer partly due to their length, but largely due to the culture clash they provoked.

    > Tarantino needs to relearn how to balance writing great scenes and writing films that come in at less than 2 hours and which make sense.

    Better give Roger Aavary a call then.

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  8. September 1, 2009 3:57 pm

    Martin – I’m not sure that it’s a zero-sum game. Tarantino’s best films are ones that work both on a scene-by-scene basis and as a single narrative unit.

    Richard – I think Bradshaw and the Guardian as a whole have been largely irrational. IG is not great QT but it’s very far from being a bad film let alone a terrible one.

    I agree with you that his career is fine in terms of output. The only reason why people speak of come-backs is because a) he was hyped to the heavens during the Pulp Fiction era and no human can live up to that and b) he’s not the most prolific director out there.

    Avary, on the other hand, is a writer in desperate need of a come-back. He appears to be circling the Uwe Boll memorial plug hole for people who work on films adapted from video games.

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