The 2010 Academy Awards are a fading memory. By now most of the Internet has moved on to more interesting things, like porn stars playing D&D. However, if I might indulge your attention for a few minutes, I’d like to discuss one of the films that was in contention for best of the year. Now, I don’t wish to give the impression that I like The Hurt Locker any less. I still stand by everything I said in my review of that movie. However, comparing it to the film I’m about to discuss will require me to point out some things that fall on the negative side of things when it comes to Ms. Bigelow’s magnum opus to date. The Hurt Locker‘s a fantastic film, and I’m so glad a woman won Best Director for it because she deserves the hell out of that award. But I’m not here to talk about that film again. I’m here to talk about Inglorious Basterds.
What a bunch of basterds. The Americans can be a bit mean, too.
The film begins “once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France.” This sort of phrasing is par for the course when it comes to the film’s mastermind, Quentin Tarantino. I know there are a few people out there who just hear that name and immediately want to move on to something else, but bear with me, gentle readers. The trailers and adverts, for the most part, focused on the Basterds themselves, an octet of Jewish-American soldiers brought together by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to form a covert resistance unit working behind enemy lines in France the way the Apaches worked along the frontier during America’s expansion westward. This includes brutal beatings, scalpings and other means of revenge that verge on the gruesome but are somewhat palatable due to the fact that, let’s face it, the Nazis are perhaps the greatest punching bags of all time.
However, these boys are only part of the film’s overall story, which encompasses the lives of disparate characters from all walks of life, from a Jewish refugee living incognito in Paris all the way up to der Fürher. The refugee, played excellently by Mélanie Laurent, owns a cinema that will be hosting a gala premiere of the latest Nazi war film created by infamous propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and when the guest list featuring most of the German high command is leaked to the Allies, the Basterds are tapped to provide on-the-ground support for an operation that could, if successful, alter the course of history by ending the war in a single evening. The biggest potential wrench in the works is a nefarious SS colonel played with flourish and poise by Christoph Waltz who is best known by his nickname, “The Jew Hunter.”
This was another Oscar well-deserved.
Back to Tarantino. Along with his apparent propensity for violence, he is known for taking parts of a film’s plot and mixing them up at the expense of linear progression for the sake of scene construction and character-building. When we see the first chapter heading, I think some could be excused for expecting the next ‘chapter’ to jump ahead only to have the one following jump back. However, the plot unfolds linearly, and the pacing of the story never feels schizophrenic or even rushed. As in all of his films, Tarantino leaves his scenes long, focusing us on the characters and the situations rather than the action or spectacle. Scenes of violence, in Inglorious Basterds, are handled with brutal speed and visceral cutting, and it never feels as if Tarantino is lingering on the violence for the sake of the violence. Instead, the violence happens, as it does in war, and we move on. The violence is a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. While Tarantino is no stranger to violence being its own end, with Grindhouse under his belt, here as in some of his other films the violence is treated with brevity so that we can focus on perhaps the strongest aspect of his filmmaking: the characters.
This could be Brad Pitt’s funniest accent performance since Snatch.
With characters come dialog. Sometimes you can get away with establishing and building characters without it; Wall-E and Up being the best examples in recent memory. However, Tarantino is known for his dialog as much as he is for violence, if not moreso. Here, he definitely focuses on the words spoken by these characters, rather than simply their actions. Eli Roth’s Sgt. Donowitz is a bit of an exception, as he conveys a great deal without speaking, but he’s still part of an intricate network of characters who all have something to say. Even minor characters, like the farmer we meet in the beginning of the film and the refugee’s assistant in the cinema, are given tightly-written, well-acted dialog that helps draw us into the experience. Despite the overarching theme of the film, and the ways in which the Basterds exemplify it, the characters never feel artificial or cardboard. They feel real.
MovieBob has already discussed what I’m about to bring up at length, so let me just touch on it and then tie it into how I began this review. Quentin Tarantino, a man who’s never been ashamed of his deep love for film of all forms but especially for “lower” forms of the medium, has created a movie that is, among other things, a treatise on the power of movies. The Basterds especially show us what sort of people are inspired by the macho heroes often shown battling evil with their bare fists on the silver screen. The naive young Nazi war hero played by Daniel Brühl comes from the other end of the spectrum, a man haunted by what he’s done on the battlefield but willing to serve as that sort of macho inspiration to his country in Goebbels’ film. In the midst of the audience cheering his exaggerated exploits, he is visually disturbed by both what he’s seeing in the final cut and how people are reacting to it. With these characters, along with the German double-agent movie star, the British special ops soldier who’s also a published film critic, and all of the references to the films of the late 30’s and early 40’s, Tarantino makes the mission statement of Inglorious Basterds perfectly clear.
As much as I love the Basterds, this is your heroine. Right here.
Films are powerful things. They are often dismissed as mere escapist fodder, a waste of time and money indulged in by those with insufficient imagination to pick up a book or go for a walk instead. However, when a good filmmaker decides to tell a story in the mixed media of sound, sight, dialog and theme, a film can do more than simply wow the masses with shallow spectacle and beautiful stars. Inglorious Basterds sets out to not only tell us this is possible, but also shows us. Films can inspire, enrage and spur discussion and debate. Films can touch people from all walks of life in very different ways, and they can even change people. I’m not sure if a film has ever truly changed history the way Basterds‘s film-within-a-film does, but seeing this movie demonstrates how possible it really is, and speaks directly to the power of film.
This brings me to why I felt it necessary to bring up the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. The Hurt Locker is a great film, as I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, but when you get right down to it, the narrative & theme are pretty straightforward. As involved as we are in the story as it happens, caught up in the visceral and intimate feel of the scenes, we’re not left thinking about much beyond what we just experienced. When you stop and think about it, it wasn’t overly complicated. This simplicity works for it, certainly, but beyond the lives of the characters and what it tells us about modern warfare there isn’t a lot more The Hurt Locker has to say. Inglorious Basterds, on the other hand, isn’t just a sprawling and involving cloak and dagger story set in World War 2, it’s a thought-provoking and well-crafted exploration of the true power of film. Considering that the Academy Awards strive to celebrate and promote the power of film, when they’re not playing politics or padding their ceremonies with musical numbers and extra advertisements, I’m afraid there’s only one conclusion I can draw given the outcome of this year’s Oscars.
When it comes to the award for Best Film of 2009, Inglorious Basterds was completely and totally robbed.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
March 19, 2010 at 12:41 pm
What is this, the 30s? Who “often dismisses” movies “as mere escapist fodder”?
Other than that, I agree with your judgements about what the movie’s message is. It’s not really about giving a big “fuck you” to history in the name of killing Nazis in a ridiculous fashion. That happens, but there’s a reason for it. We cheer for the Basterds who do ridiculously terrible things to Nazis, who we hate for doing ridiculously terrible things… It says something about us.
(Also, anyone who thought Basterds or Avatar or whatever was going to win Best Picture is even worse at history than Mr Tarantino.)
March 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm
@Danielle – I didn’t really expect Basterds to win, any more than I expected District 9 or Up to win. That doesn’t change that fact that in my (now well-documented) opinion, Basterds is a better film.
March 19, 2010 at 1:06 pm
Up In The Air had early momentum for that win.
Avatar, though, was probably pretty close to nailing that win, believe it or not. It isn’t absurd to think so — Best Picture very often goes to the biggest spectacle, and the biggest earner. Low-earners are hard-pressed to win that award, and despite it being an awesome film, Hurt Locker’s earnings were tepid.
March 19, 2010 at 1:32 pm
“We cheer for the Basterds who do ridiculously terrible things to Nazis, who we hate for doing ridiculously terrible things… It says something about us.”
Maybe that’s the reason I didn’t like it. Well, that and the treatment of the female characters.