Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A to B Back and Forth Review: Inglorious Basterds, Part I

I'm teaming up with longtime friend, Kozy of April 31st to review films. We're calling the segment "A to B" because I'm Andrew and he's Brad. And he lives in Amsterdam, and I live in Buenos Aires. We generally won't get the new releases when the States do, but hopefully we can either help you reminisce or offer advice before you head out to the video store. So let's get to our sixth review - Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.


Hey Andrew!
I am glad to see that the H1N1 virus hasn’t completely shut down the foreign movie business down in Argentina and that you were able to catch Inglourious Basterds in the cinema.

As you know, I had been reluctant to see the movie here because many of my friends told me that unless you speak German and French, or read Dutch you wouldn’t be able to follow the movie. So, in a last ditch effort I asked my Dutch friend Gideon if he would join me and translate. Luckily he agreed and did a great job, quietly reciting lines to me in a packed movie house.

On its face, Inglourious Basterds is a WWII movie about a group of US-Jewish guerrilla soldiers inserted behind enemy territory to strike fear into the hearts of Nazi’s. Told in chapters, Inglourious Basterds is 153 minutes of pure Quentin Tarantino, integrating fast talking dialogue scenes, with gross-out action.

Above the fray of gruesome Nazi killing lays three transcendent characters: the Hero, the Bad Guy and the Girl. In the way that only Tarantino’s mind could imagine, he takes these three archetypal personas and creates larger than life characters (played by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent.) I think QT’s secret is creating character back stories. He creates such rich and elaborate lives for his characters and that really translate onto the screen.
Some other Brad

Not wanting any spoilers revealed I avoided reading any articles about the Basterds; until today. In August, Salon.com asked the question “Is Tarantino good for the Jews?” Roger Ebert opened his review proclaiming, “he provides World War II with a much-needed alternative ending. For once the basterds get what’s coming to them.” Horror flick director Eli Roth, who plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz referred to IB as "kosher porn." Some have similarly used the term “torture porn” to describe the new Willem Dafoe flick Antichrist. I have heard it applied to Inglorious Basterds.

After reading the screenplay, the film's producer, Lawrence Bender, told Tarantino: "As your producing partner, I thank you, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream." But is it really? I guess that question can really only be answered by the viewer.

Inglourious Basterds is far removed from the reality of World War II. Very very very far removed. In fact, I am thinking that the Jews, Nazis and the Girl are more of a backdrop for another Tarantino revenge flick, not unlike Kill Bill. My best guess is that if you ask Tarantino on his thoughts regarding WW II and the Holocaust he won’t have many. His history lessons were likely learned in the back of a video store, where he developed his fetish-ized obsessions for 70’s B-movie sex and violence. And that sex and violence are the two themes that make this Jewish ass-kicking story appealing to him.
Just another money shot

One of the benefits of living abroad is that I can catch a flick without being pre-conditioned on what to expect and how to react. This is without a doubt one of the times I am happiest for this. I knew absolutely nothing about this movie walking in and have walked out wanting to turn every stone, in search of uncovering some meaning from everything I had just seen.

Sorry about going on for so long. I just kept writing and writing and writing. But I know we're just getting started. I am dying to know what your thoughts are on all of this. Tell me tell me tell me!



My Man!

It's high time we got another one of these reviews on the intertubes, and this was a film screaming for our attention.

Let me start by saying that the questions you raised were front of mind for me as I watched the wholly unique take on the Holocaust and WWII unfold on the screen in front of me. I can remember when I first saw the trailer for Kill Bill and thought to myself, "What the hell is Tarantino doing?" A kung fu movie was in no way what we expected or even wanted from the man who was the creative force behind Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. Yet that bold, risk-taking move resulted in two fantastic films that significantly elevated his reputation. Inglorious Basterds represents Tarantino taking things up a notch or three. I honestly can't fathom where he goes from here. That said, I feel like he went too far. But we'll get to that a bit later.

You make a great point about the backstories provided for each character. In many ways, these were caricatures, but Tarantino has a clear handle on each one anyway. My initial reaction was completely centered around Waltz as the "Jew Hunter." In response to his performance, one of my Argentine co-workers simply exclaimed, "OSCAR!" He's really the centerpiece of the film, alternating between serious drama, irony, cheeky comedy, all the while bringing a certain flair to the role. In sum, he was amazing, in no less than four languages.
Hitting the pipe like it's packed with honey

Regarding living abroad, I think our differing expat experiences give us a certain perspective here. Gideon must have been awfully busy as indeed little of the film is in English. It was a real test of my Spanish speed-reading abilities to keep up. The interesting thing is, when the dialogue was in French, a language somewhat similar to Spanish, I was AOK. But as soon as it switched to German I struggled. The using of the actual languages and dialect added a sense of realism to an otherwise ridiculous story. Even the detail of how Germans indicate "3" got to the idea of cultural differences. To me, that was the most fascinating aspect of this film. Living in Buenos Aires for over a year now, I am definitely more in touch with the cultural differences between this corner of the world and the one where we're from. I couldn't help but think about what the others in the theater were thinking about all the stereotypes and characters we got to know in this movie.

There was one angle on this theme that I found especially intriguing. The American characters willfully embraced American stereotypes. They were vengeful, boorish, obnoxious, loud, and believed they could speak foreign languages when they really had no ability at all. Put more simply, they were arrogant as can be. One could read this as a critique of America or as a show of our boldness. Tarantino is a bold, brash American, but he's been around the world enough to see how other people see us. Perhaps putting a comic face on it was his best attempt to offer a weak apology. Or perhaps he knew that foreigners would think the joke's on us, while American moviegoers would embrace the revenge theme that we seem so enthralled with over the last ten years (and really, our entire history if you think about it). Compare that to Waltz's incredibly sophisticated Nazi, who at his core was a terrible, selfish, disgusting person. He had more elegance in his fingernail than all the Basterds combined. And maybe that's OK.

But let me finally come to the elephant in the room. The questions you raised about what this film should mean for Jews. Quentin Tarantino is not Jewish. I don't think a Jewish filmmaker would ever make a movie like this. Despite the tears in the film's opening scene, the real plight of the Jews here is only used for effect and plot convenience. I realize that this is not a movie to be taken seriously. But Tarantino is the one who chose to utilize the most serious of subjects.

As you know, Brad, my dad was a German Jewish refugee who later joined the US Army. I couldn't help thinking what on earth he would think about this film. I haven't asked him, but I have to imagine he'd be appalled for all kinds of reasons. As you so aptly said, QT probably has little idea of real history. The idea that the Jews were out for vengeance at that time seems beyond far-fetched. Their goal was simply survival. For the ones that embraced ideas of revenge, that came later. I saw an interview here with Tarantino, and he claims that Army interrogators scared Nazi prisoners by saying that they would bring in a Jew who was going to exact physical vengeance upon them, and that they used this to get them talking. Well, my dad was a Jewish-American interrogator for the Army. In his knowledge and experience, this kind of thing simply didn't happen. Maybe someone glorified their own memory and that was enough to send QT off into this fantasy. But I guess I feel that this does a disservice to the real history of the Holocaust. I realize that's not QT's intent, but the average uneducated movie fan may end up thinking this is a lot more real than it is. Or at least end up thinking that it actually means something.

Well, you thought you rambled on for a long time. In truth, I have a lot more to add. But first, let's keep this discussion rolling. What do you think of these outlandish thoughts of mine? I feel like we have a long way to go with this one.


Tune in tomorrow for the Part II
where Brad and Andrew will answer the tougher questions.

Previous A to Bs:
Public Enemies
Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler
Star Trek
Terminator 4: Salvation

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