Saturday, September 05, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

I'm done with rating movies. After a year-and-a-half teaching college literature, I can no longer assess a movie as five stars, or 10/10, or an A+ without giving people the impression I liked or recommend the movie. Likewise, I love some movies that are simply garbage from the perspective of whether or not they're quality. I can assess critical aspects of a film without enjoying it at all, or opine reflectively from a highly objective standpoint, so perhaps I'll just do all these things, and leave ratings for the professional movie critics. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a perfect example of what I'm talking about, and so it serves as a great way to announce I'll no longer be rating films, as well as kick-start my posting at Gotthammer again.

I think Tarantino is very clever, but I have mixed feelings about his style. I like elements, but never the whole product. I love the dialogue, the rejection of standard narrative devices, his quirky casting, and the dense visual pop-culture intertextuality. And yet, despite these parts, the sum has never been a film I would add to my DVD collection. Inglourious Basterds might prove the exception. I say might, because I still haven't decided if I liked it or not, in that subjective way we say we like films when someone asks us what our top ten all time films are.

The fact that I felt compelled to blog about it is surely indicative of Tarantino's ability to, if nothing else, prompt a response. You can't see a Tarantino film and utter a lackluster "feh." You either love it or hate it, in whole or in part.

I loved the performances. I loved the scene in the basement. I loved Shoshanna's story in its entirety. I was impressed by this film on every technical level. And yet, I would be hesitant to say I loved the film. And yet, I don't want to say I disliked Basterds, because I'm nearly 99% sure the reasons I do are part of the subtext of the film. I was disturbed by the violence--I'm inclined to agree with critic Daniel Mendelsohn's assessment that "In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis." I would also agree with Tim Brayton, in that "whether Tarantino is a genius or a fool, he does nothing by accident," so I'm not convinced that this reversal is as meaningless as others might. I interpret the violence and reversal as Tony Macklin does: "Inglourious Basterds is a movie that revises history -- it's the Jews who do the marking, it's the Jews who are ruthless, and it's the German high command that is immolated." Nevertheless, with Hostel director Eli Roth on board I can't help but wonder, given Tarantino's filmography, if the gratuitous violence, motivated as it is by revenge, isn't simply gratuitous. I'm undecided. Like Macklin, I agree that one should "try to understand a film as it's meant to be understood. Once you get it, you can apply personal standards and also judge it on its own terms." I'm just not sure what the terms are.

I like the historical revision. After all, I'm writing my PhD on a narrow stripe of counterfactual narrative. I like Basterds from the perspective of alternate history. I like it as a spy movie, or an homage to spaghetti western revenge films. Sadly, I doubt very many viewers will grasp the film as its meant to be understood, or at the very least, as how I'm understanding it. Few are going to ponder how the ending might be a darkly ironic reversal of Auschwitz's gas chambers. Most are just going to talk about Eli Roth as Donny Donowitz, caving in the Nazi prisoner's head with a baseball bat in an over-the-top performance that left a bad taste in my mouth. Stephen Witty mirrors my thoughts on this aspect of the film:
It's these fine sequences that can make you truly regret Tarantino's snarky, in-joke impulses, not to mention his arrogant -- perhaps even dangerous -- lack of concern with the story's moral dimensions. Yes, it's only an action film, and these villains are "only" German soldiers, but the glee with which they're tortured dehumanizes Tarantino's heroes, and possibly us. It's no mistake that horror director Eli Roth is here, in a small role; his scenes play like outtakes from "Hostel."
In a year where movie audiences were forced to think very seriously about the complexity of Nazi allegiances in The Reader, I'm worried Basterds is a regression. I wish I could be certain Tarantino meant for us to see ourselves mirrored in the Nazi audience cheering at the graphic deaths onscreen, or for me to be horrified by Donowitz. I was pretty sure that was the point given the last view we have of him manically firing a submachine gun, but the final moments of the film left me wondering. And that's where I still am. Impressed as hell, but still wondering. I think ultimately, I'd agree with Josh Larsen, who said that "Quentin Tarantino has finally made a movie that means something, though I think that’s happened entirely by accident."

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to see this movie, but the problem over on this side of the ocean is that the vast quantity of French and German dialogue in the film will only have Dutch subtitles.

    Looks like I'm waiting for DVD. :(