Ecstacy and Frustration: Struggling with the Inglourious Basterds

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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

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4 Responses to “Ecstacy and Frustration: Struggling with the Inglourious Basterds”

  1. You preferred the dialogue here to Pulp Fiction? Strange. I had the opposite complaint; I thought that the dialogue here never reached the beautifully meandering levels of Pulp Fiction, in which characters could talk for fifteen minutes about Milkshakes or foot massages and it would still be captivating.

  2. I think you–and a great many reviews–neglect that there is another element present within INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and that’s that the story is not just a vengeance story on behalf of the Jews, but on behalf of cinema itself.

    All throughout the film, we get discussion of the evisceration of the realm of German cinema by the Third Reich, which turned film into a propaganda machine (these discussions are surprisingly prominent, when one considers the film; equally as prominent as any discussion of Jewish hatred). The finale of BASTERDS offers a reprisal on behalf of cinematic art, and thus the film can be taken as an ode to the ability of art to triumph over those that would seek to control it, as it does most literally in this instance.

    Of course, that changes nothing about BASTERDS being a kind of revenge fantasy narrative, however questionable that may or may not be (I do wonder whether all the folks getting up in arms about the end of BASTERDS do so with the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). BASTERDS is, ultimately, a kind of reverse propaganda. I suspect that is what I think Tarantino winks at with the scene of the Nazi’s reaction to “Nation’s Pride,” not the question of violence in cinema, which Tarantino has no issue with whatsoever; it’s Tarantino’s acknowledgment that he’s produced something similar to “Nation’s Pride” in intent.

  3. Devan, what you call “beautifully meandering,” I found to be frustratingly self-indulgent. I’m overdue for a reconsideration of Pulp Fiction myself, but I still think Basterds is a better film in the way its talky scenes build to something without being obvious about it. I never got that sense with Pulp Fiction (except the final scene). Also, I think I prefer Basterds’ dialogue because of the delivery of the words; the performances of IB are (except for Roth and Pitt, and even Pitt has his charms), uniformly entrancing in comparison to the lackadaisical nature of Pulp Fiction. After Basterds, I would pay to watch Cristoph Waltz eat porridge.

    Ryan, you make an excellent point. The revenge of the cinema runs throughout the picture perhaps more strongly than its other themes, and I missed this in my own thinking on the film. It doesn’t erase my overall concerns, though. If QT had wanted to make the “cinema vengeance” fully effective, he wouldn’t have had his buddy Eli pick up the submachine gun in that theatre.

    I think the comparison to RAIDERS is appropriate, but at least RAIDERS is only about completely fictional characters – even if Hitler is mentioned, he never shows up and everyone else is an invention. RAIDERS doesn’t try to rewrite any historical record. Morally speaking, I’ve never really had a problem with RAIDERS’ finale (though I always did feel a twinge of sympathy for those doomed soldiers just standing around, stuck there because their CO ordered them there). Perhaps that’s because it is God, or Spielberg’s vision of him, that is dispensing justice, not humans; perhaps it is because it is one of the great films I grew up with and I’m not ready to put the critical axe to it yet. It’s due for re-evaluation one of these days.

  4. I think it’s unfair to imply that Tarantino is rewriting history, or even trying to do so with “Basterds” – if the end-the-war-early finale had been more subtly contrary to the historical record, there would be much more credence to this.

    I also don’t think Tarantino intended the audience to feel satisfied at the end of the Nazi massacre, which is precisely why he had Roth pick up the submachine gun. Roth is shot as an unsympathetic terror in this moment, even the once beautiful Shoshanna’s projection is morphed into a hideous cackling skull by the smoke and fire.

    That Landa is really reprehensible for nothing other than his merciless commitment to ambition cannot be accident, since by the end of the film he is the character the audience has, perhaps by accident, generally grown to like best.

    The examples you’ve listed for why Basterds is a frustrating work are precisely why I think it’s a very mature one, though for different reasons: Where you take Tarantino’s playing into seemingly-typical revenge-fantasy plot as a refusal to address his moral themes, I think a direct confrontation of the audience was his real intention. The climax is so horrifying, and it is so impossible to truly identify with or condone anyone’s actions, that again I contend that Tarantino choreographed the story precisely so that this would be the case. Otherwise Landa would have fired at the fleeing Shoshanna before screaming his “Au revoir!” instead of demonstrating the fleeting mercy he does.

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