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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Inglourious Masterpiece

To be quite honest, I walked into Quentin Tarantino’s latest film wanting desperately to hate it.

Like a lot of cinephiles of my generation, I actually have Tarantino to thank for deepening my love of movies; his films were a catalyst for me to go and seek out everything I could find.  It was Clockwork Orange that made me love movies, but it wasReservoir Dogs and then Pulp Fiction that made me into a certified film geek.  It was after I saw those movies that I started hanging out at the video store, talking to the clerks for hours, trading recommendations.  I was 12 at the time and my goal was to be Quentin Tarantino.

The great thing about Tarantino’s early work is that it has that child-like exuberance to it while also being mature enough to appeal to adults.  So you’ve got the Mexican standoff in Reservoir Dogsand the Ezekiel 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction, which is just downright cool and bad-ass.  But, those films are also aware of the verisimilitude of the universe; so while the character might be realistic, per se, they seem “real” in that world, which makes everything they do and say seem appropriate.  A big part of that is that Tarantino really understood the tone and the pace of those films and how to keep it consistent throughout.  For Pulp Fiction, that’s a tall order as the tone – and even the genre – can sometimes vacillate from scene to scene or even second to second, but Tarantino pulled it off.

After Jackie Brown, which was met with shrugs by the critical community and adoration by me, there seemed to be a resentment of Tarantino.  There was a backlash and it became fashionable to talk about how silly Pulp Fiction was.  I never jumped on that bandwagon, mostly because I loved Jackie Brown and thought it was his most mature and beautiful film to date, but also because I couldn’t forget that he was the guy who made two films that impacted me so much and that talent doesn’t just go away.

But I turned on him big time after Kill Bill and then Death Proof.  I didn’t like that Tarantino made these “grindhouse” flicks, which gave him a built-in excuse if they failed; if people thought they were bad, he could say, “well that’s the point because grindhouse films by their very nature are not very good.”  It’s not that either film is bad, it’s just that I felt he was capable of more and he seemed pretty comfortable making big-budget versions of the B-movies he loved as a kid, whereas he started out making Fulleresque versions of Breathless.  I know some people really love the Kill Bill films, but I felt they were plodding and muddled and I thought Tarantino had lost his way.

When I heard he was making Inglourious Basterds and I saw the title misspelled and what the movie entailed, I figured I was in for another masturbatory Tarantino flick that aped The Dirty Dozen.  And while that isn’t an inaccurate description of what he has done, I couldn’t be more surprised by my reaction to it.

Inglourious Basterds is an out-and-out masterpiece.  Nobody is more surprised to see me write that sentence than me.

Much has been written about the stellar opening sequence, which immediately had me back on the Tarantino bandwagon.  Col. Hans Landa visits the dairy farm of a family that Landa suspects of hiding a Jewish family and politely interrogates the farm owner.  The scene goes on for a long time, like most scenes in the film, and it tightens like a vice.  We all know what is most likely going to happen because Landa is clearly a man who does his job well, but Tarantino makes us wait for the inevitable.  It’s almost painfully suspenseful, even though Tarantino is kind of enough to throw in a moment or two of levity like when Landa takes out his gigantic pipe.  But watch the way the camera heightens the level of suspense, starting out more still and then slowly moving more and more, disorienting us.

There’s quite a few sequences like this throughout the movie, including my favorite sequence which involves three of the Basterds meeting German movie star Bridget Von Hammersmark in a basement saloon.  The scene, like the opening sequence, works on two levels: listening to what the characters are saying to one another and knowing what will probably happen.  I wanted to just enjoy the dialogue, but I couldn’t help but feel a knot in my stomach because I knew something bad was going to happen.  And again, Tarantino is smart enough to keep that suspense going, dragging things out, milking it for all its worth, knowing he has the audience in the palm of his hand.  By the time Hugo Stiglitz utters, “Say auf wiedershen to your Nazi balls,” I was a wreck, my palms sweaty and nervously fidgeting in my seat.

Speaking of Hugo Stiglitz (played by Til Schweiger), he might be my favorite Basterd.  As I watching his backstory unfold, the flashback sequence with Samuel L. Jackson doing the voiceover, I was both loving every second of it but also keenly aware that there were going to be a lot of people that would be put off by this stylistic stroke.  But for me, when the Basterds break Stiglitz out of prison and Tarantino uses the main theme from Battle of Algiers, I was just in film geek heaven; I wasn’t just enjoying what Tarantino was creating, but also what he was referencing, using a piece of familiar piece of music and all that it evokes to help heighten a new creation.

It’s a very self-reflexive film, one that has its finale in a movie theater and has a film critic as one of its heroes.  There are references to Clouzot, Lillian Harvey, and obviously Riefenstahl and again, it’s one of those stylistic flourishes that I enjoyed immensely, knowing full well that many people were going to hate that particular moment or line.  But as with Pulp Fiction, he has created a universe where this is acceptable; and as history buffs are aware, Goebbels was indeed a film nut, so the references to film are not completely out of place.

I thought the biggest issue I would have when watching this movie would be the re-imagining of actual historical events, but it didn’t bother me so much.  The film doesn’t claim to be an accurate document of history, there’s no “Based on a True Story” at the beginning of the movie and I accepted this as an alternate history, the way it should have happened.  I think that’s one of Tarantino’s big points in this film: that art can be an escape and a way for you to address emotions and wounds that cannot be healed in the real world.  The character of Shoshanna literally uses the movies (as in, actual film stock) to kill the people responsible for her family’s deaths.

In a way, the Basterds represent what we wish we could have seen in World War II movies.  There’s a long history of watching movies about that particular war and seeing how awful the Nazis were, all the atrocities they committed and Tarantino is assuming you’ve seen a movie or two where there have been Nazis, because he doesn’t show the Nazis doing anything too cruel in this movie.  That’s because his film is a response to that and the Basterds are his answer for all the terrible Nazis in film; finally, there’s a courageous foe for those damn Nazis, even if they are fictional. I think the biggest reason the film works so well is a combination of Tarantino’s best writing in years and the best acting he’s had since Jackie Brown.  One of my big problems with Kill Bill was that the dialogue wasn’t fresh; it was either merely expositional or too cutesy, it didn’t really sing for me.  But Inglourious Basterds is filled with long speeches, mostly by Hans Landa, and Christoph Waltz definitely deserves a nomination for his portrayal.

It is a wonderful character, to be sure, something that probably leapt off the page, but Waltz brings him to life with such aplomb.  For anyone who questions Tarantino’s intelligence, just listen to the words he gives Hans Landa and the way Landa turns the screws so slowly, it’s absolutely genius.  And the way that Waltz makes every word sound buttery yet evil is both seductive and repellent.  I love the scene where he and Shoshanna get strudel and the way that Waltz says, “wait for the cream” with the slight grin on his face.  Never before has a face of evil seemed so kind.

Brad Pitt is excellent as well and is never overshadowed by Waltz, which is a strong testament to how well Pitt plays the role of Aldo “The Apache” Raine.  They are worthy adversaries and every scene they share together is absolute joy to watch.  The greatest thing about Pitt’s performance: he is absolutely hilarious.  It’s truly a role only Pitt could have played because Aldo Raine needs to be both a badass and kind of a simpleton.  Pitt is kind of the embodiment of what is cool today, so when he plays a slower kind of guy, he’s naturally charismatic enough to pull it off and still make him seem like a guy you want to hang with.  Raine isn’t stupid, per se, he’s just not the most well-educated man, but he knows how to get stuff done.  Hans Landa might be the smartest man in the movie, but that doesn’t mean Aldo Raine won’t get the best of him in the end.

One actor who doesn’t seem to get enough credit for his performance in this film is Daniel Bruhl as Fredrick Zoller, the Nazi marksman turned movie star for killing 300 allied soldiers all by himself.  Zoller is supposed to be a Nazi hero, but we mostly see him pining after Shoshanna.  Bruhl is all smiles and has a babyface, but we also know what he’s capable of, that he’s killed 300 people and that must have had some kind of effect on him.  So while it might seem on the surface like Zoller’s crush on Shoshanna is innocent, we are constantly worried about what he might do if he is rebuffed one more time.  Bruhl is wonderful because he’s an enigma and makes us consistently unsure of what he might do.

The two women of Inglourious Basterds are pretty darn good too.  Melanie Laurent plays Shoshanna with a strength and confidence reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve in The Last Metro.  Laurent has very expressive eyes, which makes it easy to see what she’s feeling and thinking without there having to be a lot of dialogue about it.  When she has her encounter with Hans Landa over strudel and she bursts into tears when he walks away from the table, it is an actual emotional moment in a film that doesn’t seem to take itself seriously.  And Diane Kruger plays movie star Bridget von Hammersmark is reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve as well, but more of a Belle de Jour Deneuve, living a double life in fabulous clothes.  Kruger is no shrieking violent either, aiding the Basterds even when one of them digs his finger into her bullet wound and escorting them to the movie premiere as her Italian escorts even though they can’t speak Italian.  Both of the women in the film are strong, independent and gorgeous, capable of taking care of themselves and looking great while doing so.

If I had any problem with the film, it’s that it wasn’t long enough.  There are so many fascinating characters in this film that Tarantino couldn’t possible do justice to all of them.  I want to know why Bridget von Hammersmark became double agent, I want to know how the Basterds trained and became the Basterds, I want to know how Shoshanna got the movie theater, I want to know how Hans Landa became the Jew Hunter, etc.  Tarantino talked about how he was considering turning this story into a miniseries at one point and I almost wish he had because there’s so much story left to tell and Inglourious Basterds almost feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of a much longer story.

As I’ve said earlier, I can see how people might not like the film, how they might be turned off by having Samuel L. Jackson narrating a mini-documentary about how flammable certain film stocks are or having Harvey Keitel’s voice on the other end of a phone towards the end of the film.  I can see a lot of flaws in the film as well, just as any film has its share of flaws.  But, as I’ve written in this column several times, enjoying a film is all about how much you can ignore a film’s flaws.  When you love a film, you accept the flaws and when you hate a film, all you can see are flaws.  So while I’m aware that other people are going to look at Inglourious Basterds and see nothing but flaws and think that Tarantino is a hack or that he’s all style over substance, I would have to humbly disagree for all the reasons I’ve stated above.

I think when Tarantino made Kill Bill and Death Proof, he was just trying to make “fun” films.  But the fun wasn’t really there for me precisely because it seemed like he was trying to hard to make me have fun.  With the rest of his work, he actually seemed to inject a little bit of substance into his work, which in turn makes me have more fun with the film.

The bottom line is that an auteur should not listen to anybody but themselves.  Tarantino is definitely an auteur and maybe he needed to make Kill Bill and Death Proof to get toInglourious Basterds.  That’s the thing about any great filmmaker, even their missteps can be useful and aid them in becoming better at what they do.  And make no mistake about it: Tarantino is a great filmmaker.  Inglourious Basterds, the best movie I’ve seen this year, reminded me of that.

– Noah Forrest
August 31, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon