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Thoughts on Inglourious Basterds

31 August 2009 by

Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore a new Quentin Tarantino film

Inglourious Basterds poster

By Jack Kentala

To disclaim: This isn’t a bog-standard review. There won’t be a plot summary. There won’t be any spoiler warnings; said spoilers will be applied liberally, probably within the first paragraph. And I won’t even attempt to provide a fair-and-balanced, point-counterpoint view.

Inglourious Basterds, according to the trailers: a guns-blazing action flick about a cutthroat band of U.S. soldiers who specialize in Nazi scalping. Later trailers added mention to a German movie premiere in which Hitler and all his higher-ups will attend, which, naturally, becomes a high priority for the eponymous Basterds.

Inglourious Basterds, in actuality: an overlong, disconnected, hole-filled collection of dialog scenes that involve very little action and very little interest.

Take the opening scene, for instance. At first it seemed a masterstroke, and I thought, “My god, Quentin Tarantino has finally grown up.” In it, the randomly-nicknamed “Jew Hunter” visits a French dairy farmer and politely asks if he, the farmer, knows the whereabouts of the last remaining Jewish family in the area. The farmer cites rumors that they fled to Spain. The Jew Hunter, for reasons unknown except for his name, surmises that the family is hidden under the floorboards. They are, and the Hunter’s SS quickly enter and shoot up the floor. One woman escapes. The Hunter, with the woman in the sights of his pistol, lets her flee.

That all happens in the formally-labeled “Chapter 1,” which doesn’t so much serve as a plot device but as a pretentious annoyance to, more or less, mark which characters we’ll be following in the upcoming chapter.

“Chapter 2” begins with the main focus of the trailers: the introduction of the Basterds, who are given no names, no backgrounds, no identity apart from the others except, hey, isn’t that B.J. Novak from The Office? Also, for those who haven’t seen the trailer, this is their first introduction to Brad Pitt’s egregious accent, which exists only for a limp joke about twenty minutes from the end of the film.

What then follows are about two more hours of disconnected vignettes. There are only two scenes in which the bulk of the Basterds are at work scalping Nazis. One takes place, bafflingly, at the aftermath of their battle, and another is a sort of flashback of a prison raid. Again, there’s no mention of how these Basterds managed to hone skills sharp enough to outwit and outshoot the SS, nor exactly why they are on their mission. It’s just assumed that it’s a bit of Allied propaganda that there’s a loose-cannon unit who likes to brutally murder the enemy, which I’m sure is some version of irony in the Tarantinoverse (that is, Jews becoming as brutal as Nazis).

The only other action scene happens for about five minutes at the film’s end. So, already, the Target Demographic has been suckered into buying a ticket to a film that shares about 2% of a similarity to the trailer.

The rest of the film consists of a variety of dialog sequences that, hell, even a little over thirteen hours after seeing the movie, I can’t, for the life of me, recall what they were about or, most important, why they went on for ungodly lengths of time.

Yesterday I watched Pulp Fiction in attempts to ready myself for Inglourious Basterds. I’ve only seen it twice: once in 1997 or so, and another when I bought the DVD in the early 2000s. It hasn’t changed. In fact, it hasn’t aged well at all. Once you get over the novelty of characters discussing that a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is called a Royale with Cheese in Europe (because of the metric system), there’s no humor. The same goes with all other exchanges that riff on pop culture and, fifteen years later, are hopelessly dated. And if you take off your rose-tinted glasses, note that the Butch-in-the-cab-with-Esmerelda scene is hopelessly bad in both writing and execution. And Tarantino’s cameo in “The Bonnie Situation” storyline is damn near unforgivable. It’s just an excuse to throw himself into his own movie, poorly recite lines, and say “nigger” an uncomfortable number of times.

So I had Pulp Fiction in my mind when going into Inglourious Basterds. Basterds doesn’t have any pop culture references other than a few mentions of German propaganda films, and I’m not sure if that was Tarantino’s attempt to insulate the film from aging poorly. I’m not sure if he had any conscious intent; it’s like inquiring what a toddler is drawing with crayon, or asking Lil Wayne if he actually has any idea where he is in the physical universe at any point in time. Basterds has been Tarantino’s dream project for so long that it suffers from Dream Project Syndrome. See also: Gangs of New York, Heaven’s Gate, A.I., etc. They’ve all been on a director’s platter so long that said director lost all perspective on why it became a dream project in the first place. As for Basterds, I think Tarantino simply forgot that the titular Basterds should’ve been the focus and could’ve propelled the film. Instead, it gets mired in a bog of lengthy dialog sequences that, well, don’t do anything except build a little tension for… nothing, usually.

As a whole, the film leaves the viewer with far too many questions: How did Lt. Raine assemble the Basterds? Why doesn’t the Jew Hunter recognize the theater owner a mere few years after he killed her family? Why would the entire hierarchy of the Reich assemble in a public place that is so obviously a security risk? What are the motivations for each individual Basterd? What are their personal stories? How are they so good at outfighting hardened SS troops? These sort of things ran on a loop in my mind about halfway through the film until its end.

Here’s the part where reviewers talk about the positives during an overwhelming-negative review. I’ll give tremendous credit to certifiably-insane cinematographer Robert Richardson for his work. Again, coming off Pulp Fiction, which was shot for $8 million, looks like it was shot cheap, and has a kind of thesis-filmy feel, Basterds is gorgeous. Though there have been zillions of World War II films before it, Richardson shows much restraint with his compositions and camera movement, and the overall palette sets scenes far better than Tarantino’s warbly dialog.

Richardson also lensed Kill Bill Vol. I and II, and there’s definitely more discipline at work here. Those films were arguably just a mishmash of Tarantino’s wet-dream fantasy genres, though, and the cinematography was all over the place. Case in point: Remember when The Bride gets buried alive in Vol. II and the aspect ratio suddenly switched to 4:3? What justified that, Robert Richardson, ASC?

All said, I’m sure the minority of readers who have both a) seen Basterds, and b) really liked it, will just think this is the knee-jerk backlash. Same as how I player-hated Slumdog Millionaire and, to a lesser extent, No Country For Old Men (if only because it was vastly inferior to There Will Be Blood). And it might be that. I could be a petty critic who pans films by an obnoxious director who starts foaming at the mouth and blathering about obscure cinema to anyone who makes partial eye contact with him. Or I could be telling the truth, having only seen the misleading trailers and having not read a single review of the film before sitting down in the theater, and, two and a half hours later, leaving with an extremely-confused irritation at what I just saw.

More on Inglourious Basterds
Official site
Basterds on IMDb
The development of Basterds on Wikipedia

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