Archive for August, 2009

Ecstacy and Frustration: Struggling with the Inglourious Basterds

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 25, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

inglourious_basterds_bear_jew_execution

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an immediately bold and entertaining work, so much so that it is very tempting to declare it a masterpiece based on the merits of its pristine craftsmanship, evident within every word spoken, every inflection acted, every shot exposed, and every cut chosen.  That said, as much as Quentin Tarantino’s latest offers up an unusually satisfying experience of film form, it also troubles me with its insistence to avoid engaging with the thematic issues that pop up along the way of making a gleefully violent revisionist WWII flick.  Tarantino is definitely maturing as an entertainer – consider how carefully he pitches the buildup to moments of explosive violence, which, save for a scene or two, don’t feel too gratuitous – but it’s clear that his main interests remain in the realm of the present moment, enjoying the pleasures of finite film craft and largely ignoring the edification of a deeper, transcendent sort.  That this is so, is both disappointing and expected of him; it is frustrating more than anything for continuing to hint at his films’ potentials for deeper meaning, tastes so well-remembered from the finale of PULP FICTION or much of KILL BILL VOL. 2.

This is not to say that INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS does not offer moments that point to a deeper purpose; what saddens me is that such moments seem to happen by accident.  There is a late scene where the Nazi glitterati are watching and cheering Joseph Goebbel’s latest propaganda picture, which degenerates into one shot after another of Allied soldiers dying violent deaths.  The Nazi audience’s fervor for the onscreen bloodshed – fuelled by ideology and simple excitement at visceral action – plays as a mirror to the real-life audience watching similar scenes of brutal violence perpetrated by the Basterds.  I was struck in that brief moment at how elegantly Tarantino turned the tables of violent entertainment on us, the audience, and effectively compared my own cheering congregation to Hitler’s.

While I am pleased to have had such a potent moment of introspection, in hindsight it seems less and less like a deliberate stroke on Tarantino’s part.  If it was an accident (and Tarantino’s stumping seems to indicate this), then it was a happy one, but that leaves me in the difficult position of giving a truly honest evaluation.  I want to jump on the bandwagon and cheer without reservation, but I cannot ignore the film’s deeper shortcomings.  When does a film’s overall reading stop being influenced by the one who made it?  After the filmmaker is dead?  Does that even happen?  Will INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS be seen as more of a self-reflexive commentary in 100 years, when Tarantino isn’t around to talk about it?  I don’t know.  I want to call the film great for the way it made me examine myself and fellow audience, but I can’t, based on how Tarantino is presenting his work.

What a frustrating work this is!  So full of sublime moments, themselves ultimately in thrall to Tarantino’s baser instincts.  Its gifts are of a mortal nature, but so thrilling in and of themselves: Christoph Waltz gives us one of the great characters of recent years, villain or otherwise; Diane Kruger delivers the liveliest performance of her career thus far; the Two Michaels – Fassbender and Myers – invoke cinephile chills with their historically attuned banter, laying a finger on those memories of old war films that began in ornately furnished rooms without directly referencing such texts to overshadow the moment; photography and editing so precise that nary a shot seems out of place; the simple pleasure of watching a group of intelligent, witty combatants spend more time parrying with words than weapons.  I had little patience for Tarantino’s seemingly directionless dialogue in PULP FICTION, but here it is the real star of the picture, and it is quietly spectacular.

Spectacular also, is the final massacre of the Nazi Party’s leadership, in all of its troubling gloury.  I find myself in agreement with Daniel Mendelhson: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS acts out its Jewish revenge fantasy by having Jews act like Nazis.  What is gained by this, I do not know.  In the end, we still have the real historical record to contend with, scars and all.  A considerable number of critics are giving Tarantino a pass on his revisioning, because he’s a genius, because they love his film, because he’s one of the untouchable auteurs who gets to play with his toys, make a mess of them, and not have to worry about cleaning up.  Let him have his fun, ho ho ho.  It’s all well and good in a genuinely fantastical world, but WWII really did happen.  I can support a fantastical vision if it has some sort of purpose in helping us understand reality, but Inglourious Basterds is all subversion of that reality, and the more I reflect on it, the more pointless it seems.

The spectre of justice hangs over the Basterds, and in the final scene, makes its ultimate expression.  Tarantino brings out his hidden moralist to make his enemies wear their sins in their skin, and we’re supposed to find this satisfying.  The image of Eli Roth mowing down hundreds of Germans is both a sick joke playing off his own career as a director of death-spewing “art,” and the attempted release for all of us Nazi-hating good guys watching.  I was relieved to find myself sickened by it, even if it was Nazis being slaughtered.  As a Christian who desires to live everyday in the footsteps of Christ, who forgave his enemies even as they murdered him, I cannot look upon the wanton killing of such sinners, even if it is “just.”  Maybe it is just.  But there is no life in it, and I think, no true satisfaction.  It comes down to nothing but wishful thinking.  Such is the power of cinema: take the alternative story that could only exist this powerfully within the mind, and give it this almost equally empowering form of life on celluloid.  Tarantino thinks he’s using his powers for good, but I agree with Jeffrey Overstreet’s assessment:

“I’m troubled by how many people are applauding and defending the film because it is so ‘cinematic.’ Cinematic in service of what exactly? What I saw this weekend was a work of superior craftsmanship that invites us to revel in a revenge-fantasy orgy.”

And it all seemed like it might be worthwhile in a moral sense, up until that climax.  The most tragic films are the ones that seem destined for greatness, only to stumble at the finish line.  INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, so thrilling in its construction, might have been great, but the cake it baked was too tempting to leave alone.  There is much – indeed, almost too much – to admire, and while such moments retain some glow within their inherent delightfulness, they could have shone so much brighter had the entirety taken a different course.

It seems that every new Tarantino film brings out fresh hope for more mature art, followed by fresh disappointment.  I do not begrudge Tarantino his development stage, however long it may be, but speaking as one who was recently convinced (within the last year) of his genius as a filmmaker, I pine for that day when his gifts enable a truly great work, one that nourishes the soul as much as the inner film buff.  Many of us do.  And until that day comes, we’ll keep the flame lit, and watch the horizon.

– N.W. Douglas

I’d like a dozen, please!

Posted in Uncategorized on August 19, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

My generation’s misplaced idealism gets its most elegantly honest t-shirt.

che_che_shirtHT: Kevin DeYoung

Review Bag II: Forman, Franklin, double shot of Svankmajer

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

THE FIREMEN’S BALL (1968) Forman

firemens ball

Before THE FIREMEN’S BALL, I was only somewhat familiar with Forman via his big Oscar-winning work — AMADEUS (brilliant!) and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (good, but overrated).  So, please forgive me if my knowledge of the Czech filmmaker is lacking.  I didn’t know what to expect from FIREMEN, but now that I’ve seen it, colour me enthused.  It is a treasure.  Visually witty like few films I’ve seen, the camera bemusedly records folly after folly with a feather-light grace, winding its way through a large cast of characters gathered for one night at a gala ball put on by the local firemen.  Right from the opening scene, you know you’re in for something special: Forman out-Godards Godard with the sight of a poor artist hunched on a ladder, attempting to finish his work for the ball – an intricate banner creation with real burns, added by himself — only to find himself left hanging in the air by the fumbling fireman who was supposed to hold the ladder down, now off arguing some silly matter.  The hapless artist ends up burning down his own work while scrambling for a handhold; it’s a simple and bitter summary of the state’s brain-dead treatment of artists and the mutual destruction that results, and that’s only the first five minutes.

Over the rest of the picture we partake in the ball, seeing behind the scenes as the foolish old firefighters have a closed committee session to pick a beauty pageant winner – for a pageant no one wants to win – as well as the sad quest of one official as he searches for the increasingly missing items up for auction.  I’m not acquainted with Czech politics in the late 60s, save for the Prague Spring, but it’s not difficult to see why Communist censors banned the film.  Any figure of authority comes off as a bumbling (but not entirely unsympathetic) idiot, while the overseeing men get their comeuppance as fat, lazy misogynists.  That’s all entertaining enough, but what really impresses is how Forman retains a sense of humanity, and a sliver of compassion for these buffoons, deftly seasoning the critique (if there is any; Forman has claimed there isn’t, which I find very hard to believe, given how loaded every shot appears to be) with a knowing tolerance of silly human behaviours.  That his camera feels weightless in its documentation of the events is owed to the sharp and compact script (it’s only 72 minutes), which, even in the midst of an enjoyable thread, always has an equally interesting plot to cut to.  All together, it’s the feather touch that packs a punch, a truly deft handling that Forman apparently misplaced for the overdone CUCKOO.

CLOAK & DAGGER (1984) Franklincloak_dagger_2

An IMDB reviewer calls it “Hitchcock for kids.”  That would be the single best description of Richard Franklin’s spy thriller, and seeing it for the first time in about twelve years, and in full this time, I am left lamenting the current state of live-action movies aimed at children.  This film could never be made today, what with its surprisingly realistic violence (perpetrated by a child, no less) and generally menacing tone (the only memory I have of my eight-year old viewing is the state of heavy tension it kept me in, like a nightmare that doesn’t end).  Seeing it in full, years later, (I missed the first forty minutes or so in my initial viewing), I am pleased to discover a clever little thriller that plays like NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s pulp-addicted grandson.

Henry Thomas is perfectly cast as an imaginative youngster obsessed with spy missions, coached by his imaginary mentor Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman, who also plays the boy’s widower father).  The lad becomes entangled with a dastardly espionage case centered on a video game that falls into his possession (this was one of the earliest movie-video game tie-ins), evading assassins and double crossers, and through it all learning who the real hero in his life is.  It’s not hard to see where it’s going, moral-wise, and the film works its way to its lesson at a consistent pace, never ceasing to charm with its earnest lead’s performance, who carries the film without breaking a sweat; and it’s simple set-ups for suspense-laden exploits.  Franklin keeps his visual grammar clean and clear, and the film works the better for it; his balance of menace and relief in each of the movie’s scenes of peril is well attuned, and never exploitive.  It’s the sort of flick you don’t see anymore, at least not in live-action: a thriller for kids that isn’t afraid to dabble in danger, but knows where the limit is.  All that, and a touching story about fathers and sons, which, Pixar’s work excluded, is all but extinct nowadays.  When I have sons myself, I’ll be sure to throw this on at least once a year.

ALICE (1988) Svankmajeralice-white-rabbit

Tim Burton has his work cut out for him – he might make a more visually astounding ALICE, as far as colours and CG are concerned — but nothing quite beats Lewis Carroll’s story as told with stop-motion monsters and the most repeated set of lips to appear in a film, ever.  Alice definitely goes to Wonderland in Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation — at least she visits its dour communist incarnation.  Using his famed stop-motion abilities, Svankmajer brings The White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, and various sundry creatures to stilted life, and the results, unsettling under the best of circumstances, would be terrifying if seen by a five year old at night in a dark room.  It would all be more bearable if Svankmajer didn’t insist on using exclusively man-made noises to sonically illustrate his creatures’ movements — I will never look at a rabbit’s teeth the same way — but the effect is undeniably potent, and a much-welcomed interpretation of a story that’s a lot darker than the folks at Disney want to admit.  This is more of a nightmare than anything, its dreamscape enhanced by the beautiful and bizarre truth of stop-motion working at full steam, but what really impresses is the emphasis on the drab: Wonderland is basically an abandoned factory whose second calling is to develop new shades of rust and rot.  It’s not pretty, per se, and it weighs on the soul after eighty some minutes, but I confess that I thrilled to its monochromatic glory if only to brace myself for the digitally timed onslaught of Burton’s vision.  Svankmajer’s ALICE ought to be the definitive version of Carroll’s story, if only for capturing the stark terror of little Alice’s adventures; it may be the closest we get to having a film with echoes of the Grimm brothers: made for the kids, nasty bits and all.

faust-demon-svankmajer FAUST (1994) Svankmajer

Svankmajer’s FAUST is the proof that ALICE really was for kids: the Czech filmmaker’s adaptation of Goethe’s play as a whole is both better and worse than its predecessor, but at least ALICE didn’t feature little demon puppets beating and raping little angel puppets in some sort of spiritual gang warfare.  FAUST relies more on live marionettes than stop-motion puppets, and while they are brilliantly creepy creations, their execution as agents of plot and comic interlude leaves something to be desired.  Maybe it’s the bobbing movement, too smooth to really disturb as stop-motion does, or maybe it’s the insufferable rhyming of that one jester, but the conceit wears thin before it ought to.  There are still plenty of sights that simultaneously scar and entrance — the image of Faust having conversation with his stop-motion animated self (a demon in disguise) is particularly memorable — but they don’t add to the whole in the cohesive manner that ALICE did.  It’s more a collection of increasingly bizarre and disturbing sketches, culminating in a scene I did not expect, that I did not expect to be chastened by: in danger of repenting, the Devil sends a demon disguised as a beautiful woman to seduce Faust.  What makes it extra special is the fact that Svankmajer, using marionettes and comically overbearing costumes for his angels and demons, does not spare the viewer the sights and sounds of Faust the human making love to a large wooden puppet.  It’s may be the most starkly depicted portrayal of the power and horrific deceit of lust that I have seen in a motion picture.  It’s this late addition to the freak show that offers Faust some real weight — that bit with the jester torturing a demon (and the viewer) with an endless game of summoning and dismissing really didn’t do it for me — and when it finishes with Faust’s death by automobile and the realization that this awful experience (giving one’s soul to the devil, etc.) is being repeated over and over, a different man each time, it gains some weight as a work of morally impacting art.  I still don’t get the cannibalistic homeless man, though.