Peter M Howard ::

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Inglourious Basterds

30August2009 [movies]
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In which a film rewrites history, and Tarantino gets his masterpiece

Spoiler Alert: I’m going to talk about the ending in this piece; it isn’t particularly significant in the scheme of things, but if all you care about is plot, you might not want to read this till you’ve seen the movie.

Watching a Tarantino film is always discomforting. It’s partly the writing, the characters, the self-awareness bubbling away just underneath the surgace, the constant film/geek references, the ongoing nagging feeling that it’s all a big joke that you haven’t been let in on. And it’s the violence — not just gore, but deep psychological violence — constantly pushing to see what he can get away with. When it’s just gore, or when it ventures into the ridiculous, it’s much more bearable1, but Inglourious Basterds spends too much time in that uncanny valley. Sure, it’ll ocassionally allow us a laugh (most of the funny scenes already revealed in the trailer, we see them coming a mile off), but even those are uncomfortable, nervous laughs.

The film’s biggest problem is that it’s too long, and while Tarantino’s a great director2, he’s not that good a writer, and he can’t quite sustain the tone. He’s never been very good at characterisation — the characters are all obviously Tarantino himself, with no voice of their own. He falls back on cheap stereotypes to distinguish between ‘voices’, most of which are terribly offensive. And though his writing is normally self-aware enough to poke fun at its limitations, one gets the impression he’s completely unaware of his reliance on stereotype. Sure, he’ll drag a scene out just to make us sit through a particularly uncomfortable character, but there’s never any hint that there’s anything more there. It’s curious — I can (just) withstand the violence because it’s very deliberately pushing my buttons, but the stereotyping just comes across as ignorant.

The film’s biggest strength is that it’s all about film. There are lots of opportunities to talk about film critics, about directors and about actors, about cinema. The subject matter suits Tarantino’s film/geek reference-packed style perfectly. Watching a movie screen burn, filling our own movie screen with flames and smoke, is remarkably evocative. It’s about the ability to retell stories on screen, no matter how divorced from reality they may be — the war comes to a screeching halt in 1944 when the German high command are conveniently burnt to the ground. This alt-history ending bothered me at first, but putting that up against Goebbels and the whole idea of wartime propaganda constantly retelling how wars are going is a perfect fit.

And it feels like a swan song of sorts — Brad Pitt’s Lt Aldo carves swastikas into the foreheads of the Nazis he releases. When asked how he gets it looking so good, he explains that “practice makes perfect”. Right at the end, he carves out a swastika, looks down at it, staring into the camera and out at us, and says “I think that’s my masterpiece”. And there it ends. It may not be the greatest film in the scheme of things, but it’s certainly Tarantino’s masterpiece. One wonders where he could go from here.

(Aside: Jog has a great review of same: Don’t you have a column for this?)


  1. From Dusk Till Dawn, where Tarantino’s writing is tempered by Rodriguez’ camp horror, is far easier to watch, as is Kill Bill Vol 1, restricted, as it is, by the framework of eastern martial arts flicks — when he breaks out of that in Vol 2, it becomes a much more typical Tarantino film and again, is harder to watch.  

  2. And he knows it; there’s a delightful scene in which our French cinema owner says something along the lines of, This is France, We love directors here … (“Even German ones” — the implication being that even Hollywood directors are worthy of love).  

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