Friday, October 23, 2009
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Director: Lars von Trier
Runtime: 104 min.
Verdict: An alright film that has gained notoriety for something we shall find again this Halloween. In Saw VI. And no, Trier is not the biggest filmmaker on the planet. He is far from it.
Genre: Horror, Drama
I never do this. It is against my principles. It is beneath me. But I shall. For I’m greatly disappointed. And disgusted. Not because of the goriness of Mr. Trier’s infamous graphic images, which frankly are ludicrously funny. In a dismissive sort of way. They seem to be appended with obvious calculations to perpetuate pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo, to what could have been a deeply spiritual film. The final forty minutes betray what I dislike most about the filmmaker. His rather perverse sense of showmanship. And although the entire film itself is tending towards an imagery that leaves little room for life to breathe, they still evoke a sense of emotion that is absolutely non-existent in the film’s second half, and which is quite frankly Saw material. No more, and no less. Okay, maybe less on a gory level. But not more on any artistic level.
So I shall. Describe to you everything that happens in the final forty minutes, so that, my dear reader, you’re in full knowledge what loony sadism you’re signing up for. Sadism that is pandered as symbol embellished imagery. So here it is –
He (Mr. Dafoe) retreats into a cabin, slowly realizing the extent of the depth of She’s (Ms. Gainsbourg) beliefs, beliefs I would leave to discover. She fears he would leave her, and attacks him from behind. She slams what seems like a heavy slab (or a block of wood) into his groin, and renders him momentarily unconscious. Yet, surprisingly, he manages an erection. She masturbates him until he squirts blood, after which she drills a hole through his left leg. She pulls out a grindstone, and by using a spanner bolts it through his leg. So that he is anchored to base. She then throws the spanner somewhere below the house. Sometime later, he wakes up, throws out screams of pain (which, by the way, don’t feel even remotely convincing) and drags his way onto the nearby woods, and into a foxhole. He hides. By the grace of almighty he has a match in handy in his pocket. He lights. She is screaming for him outside, searching. He digs. Finds a crow. Buried. It caws. Loudly. She hears. He beats it a thousand times with a stone. It still caws. She finds him, and tries to pull him out, and fails, and ends up covering the foxhole with a boulder. She then starts digging. Night falls. She digs him out. They drag to their little house. There she waits for the Three Beggars (The Fox, The Deer and The Crow) and then lies beside him, reminisces the tragedy in a melancholic flashback, and cuts off her clitoris. This severance supposedly designed to be the crescendo. While she lay in pain, he manages to unbolt the grindstone, and then he strangles her.
Now, this is the unnecessary and flaunty part of Antichrist, which in no way benefits the film. At least not from where I see it, and how I perceive it. For the first hour or so, Antichrist witnesses a near brilliant display of formalism, at least tending to if not reaching, Tarkovskian heights of metaphysical portrayal. There are manifestations all around, yet Mr. Trier, as he has done in all his films, plays safe. He doesn’t put himself on the line, something which Tarkovsky and the early Martin Scorsese would always do. When one puts himself on the line, art is born. When filmmakers like Mr. Trier indulge in pseudo-academic hollow-talk, pretension is born. Mr. Trier dedicates his film to Andrei Tarkovsky, and when that piece of knowledge appeared on screen at the beginning of the end credits, I would be lying if I do not say I was furious. I still am. Apparently Mr. Trier also had The Mirror as essential viewing for the two actors. In hindsight, it is mildly insulting. Mr. Trier might have gained command over the technical usage of capturing the life in nature, but he sure as hell doesn’t have the least bit of idea to what ends he use it to. He deals in symbols, his images built around a specific ideology, which he intends to hammer into us not via emotion or experience, but through a design which overexplains itself. That is why they do not have much room to evoke any response from us, and they end up being informative. Tarkovsky, on the other hand, always dismissed the usage of symbols, and more importantly believed in the purity of an image, and the emotion it evokes. Not it’s meaning. An image is nothing if it has only a meaning, for we all have our own experiences and our own cultures, and we bring to image different personalities. Mr. Trier does capture the menace of nature, quite brilliantly, but only for shallow ends professing mock ideas.
I say brilliantly. And I speak of the very first shot, captured in slow motion, and black and white. I believe, aesthetically, it is the perfect choice, to capture that moment of carnal temptation, which He and She are indulging in fulfilling, whilst their little child, Nick, manages to walk out of the crib with his soft toy, fascinated by the snow outside. He climbs a table, and in his attempt to grab a snow flake, falls off the window. Him first, and several moments later, the soft toy. Yet, I do not feel anything. I do not feel any emotion. Let us, for sake of references, invoke Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman from Notorious and their most charmingly erotic kissing scene. Now, Hitchcock’s film worked, because – (a) He gave his actors room for breathing space, wherein their act was not the focus, but the people were, and (b) shot in black and white, and lit flatteringly, it was just about the most romantic cinema can ever hope to get. But Mr. Trier focuses on the acts, rather than on the people, for his people are no more than puppets for him. And we as audiences start churning out ridiculous jokes or hollow ironies, all of them ham-fisted. I’m not sure that is how Tarkovsky’s vision of cinema was supposed to be. As little Nick is falling off the window, the carnal pleasures reaches its crescendo. He falls to the ground, and She reaches her climax. That is horrible hammering of ideas for you, none subtle, and none too insightful. And what was I thinking the whole time. That the sequence might be wrong on physics, because you know, as Galileo proved from Pisa, things fall together to the ground. And yeah, the toy isn’t soft enough to enjoy a free float in the air. The problem is – why was the film letting me have these thoughts while such an obviously tragic scene was unfolding. And make no mistake – there is no truth in those images, all edited with great calculation, and a smug degree of cynicism. It is, as if, Mr. Trier is so drunk in his illusions of greatness, that he believes he is nailing all the various poetic facets of life – irony, fate – and he is making sure you don’t miss that. As an audience, it is uninteresting, because these facets always seem to be quite obvious.
Now, the movie is structured into three chapters – Pain, Grief and Despair – and an epilogue, though it is not so much as structured as segregated into these three slots, the segregation between two slots inserted during the course of a scene, and often during the same shot. It is during Grief that Antichrist comes into its own, where the preceding film has had some kind of a psychological and emotional impact on us, and as the couple experience therapy during long nights, or they walk through the woods, we feel a menace creeping around them. And here I seem to disagree with everybody’s reading of the He character, for the way I see it, he represents everything that is good around us. Or everything in us that God deems agreeable. In many ways He represents a Nietzschian notion, where he is able to overcome his intense pain. Cue: He is distraught as they walk behind the coffin, and She faints. It is an interesting moment, because this is where He assumes the responsibility and rises over the confines of his own emotions, for the sake of himself and his wife. Roger Ebert, in his blog entry here, seems to have interpreted the tone of his character quite differently when he states –
I suspect many of the reviews will focus on the physical violence She inflicts upon He in the next act of the film. It is important to note that the earlier psychological violence He inflicts is equally brutal. He talks and talks, boring away at her defenses, tearing at her psyche, exposing her. Listen to Dafoe's voice in the trailer linked below. It could be used for Satan's temptation of Christ in the desert.
I disagree, but I wouldn’t want to argue, for this is tonal interpretations we’re talking about. He, from my vantage point, isn’t cold, and his therapy for sure isn’t anti-septic. There is genuine warmth in those scenes, and one feels some kind of true love in there, where he is trying to clear the muddle of her thoughts, is trying to truly help her, and is not falling to petty or adolescent or liberal temptations and trying to band-aid her trauma. He is going about the true way, and the hard way, and that requires a pain and a sacrifice of much greater proportions. I think most people might be mistaking sincerity for arrogance. That is why I believe, He is a representation of God, or in biblical terms, The Christ. I think the drill through his leg, indicating some kind of crucifixion, might be a symbol Mr. Trier is hammering on us. But then, I have never been good with symbols, you see.
And they don’t matter much either, in my view of cinema. It is the themes that do, and in many ways, Antichrist is a reflection on the same themes that film noir so gloriously drill down and package in so fascinatingly layered films. Chinatown, for one. Memento, for another. It is important to note that Mr. Trier’s film is a product of a severe depression, and he wants to draw our gaze upon the idea that humanity, by its very nature, is evil. If not in reality, at least cinematically. I kinda like that, for this where I believe the film at least earns the catholic prefix of its title. It is anti to every film of hope and goodness that has been made – from Schindler’s List to you name them. I might be making Antichrist sound as some kind of great film, and it is not. It is a minor film, very minor, and I re-iterate – just about on the same level as those Saw movies, for it goes about proving its themes in just about the same artificial way, and its inferences sound just as hollow, as those celebration-of-human-spirit movies. What it does portray – that we all have evil amongst us, and we’re capable of actions way beyond what we intend to acknowledge – is although a true thought, falls terribly flat because of Mr. Trier’s ambitions of grandeur – not to make a true work of art, as much as make a work of art. His courage is all so calculated. Antichrist, in many ways, is Mulholland Dr. stripped off its more contradictory and personal human emotions, and twisted into revealing some false monotonic spiritual ones. And when I say contradictory, I mean that in the best possible way, for we humans are no more than a bunch of contradictions. Look no further than Martin Scorsese, and Taxi Driver, to discover an honest film, from a filmmaker who is ready to put himself on the line and is not scared to expose himself and confess. That is a true film, a real film, about the Christ and the Antichrist, in all of us, and how one affects the other. It is simple you see. You have a depression or not, I don’t care. As long as you are making some kind of commentary on humanity, don’t try to make a great film. Make a true film. Greatness will then take care of itself.
Ah yes, one last thing. Even during these scenes during the woods, where He is walking around, and we feel the menace around, Mr. Trier isn’t seem to be convinced that his film is working on its own, and commits the cardinal sin of hammering the supposedly haunting score, and we’re pulled right out of the illusion. That is a filmmaking failure right there.
Note: Jim Emerson, at Scanners, seems to have captured the precise problems I’ve with Mr. Trier as a filmmaker. His piece on Antichrist is the best criticism I’ve read on the film thus far. It is here –
Posted by Satish Naidu at 9:56 AM
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Director: Joe Wright
Runtime: 117 min.
Verdict: A film conflicted between the middle-browed pretentious aesthetics of its filmmaker and the quite compassionate story at the center. And no, a conflict that is not in the least fascinating.
This is the problem when a Joe Wright tries to be a Gus Van Sant. It just doesn’t stick. As was the case with that atrociously out-of-place Dunkirk single-shot, Mr. Wright, who harbors great ambitions of being heralded as a modern artiste, doesn’t seem to have found yet a seamless enough blending of his artistic cinema-flourishes and his rather predictable structuring of narratives. So much so that sequences, which otherwise seem to be having great meaning and great life in them (courtesy two great actors), are reduced to evoking emotions from a rather shallow spectrum. It is jarring as Mr. Wright’s middle-browed aesthetics conflict with the much deeper story that is unfolding.
When I describe a particular film as drama, what I seek from it is essentially a two-fold question – How much more does it know about life than me, and, How good is it portraying that richness? The Soloist, adapted from Steve Lopez’s book, does contain positive answers to the first part, in that, there’s a wholly truthful portrayal of a medical condition, not pandering to manipulate audiences into false emotions (A Beautiful Mind). I applaud Mr. Foxx for a magnificently courageous performance. Yet, the film doesn’t seem to be inspired by it, instead indulging in images of false poetry, false humanity and above all else, false artistry. Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Mr. Foxx), a musical prodigy and a Julliard dropout owing to schizophrenia, is mesmerized in the illusions of an empire where Ludwig Van reins supreme, yet Mr. Wright deems it worthwhile to cut away from the magnificence of that face, and instead gaze, with an eye dripping with faux compassion I might add, at the kitschy image of countless homeless of the streets of Los Angeles. When Ayers is so completely immersed in playing the new cello gifted by an old woman who has been deeply moved by Mr. Lopez’s articles in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Wright deems it worthwhile to indulge in another one of his faux artistry as we literally see parakeets flutter their feathers (clap), and fly out through the tunnel into the world above Ayers. Reader, imagine, how beautiful it would have been had the filmmaker resisted his shallow temptations, and instead relied on the talent of his actor, and only showed us the emotions on him, and his lone audience. Mr. Wright seems to be under the impression that virtuoso shots alone evoke emotions within us audience. As an audience, for the record, I state again –
1. In a drama, the composition of an image ought to come from the heart, otherwise it isn’t a drama no more.
2. Manipulation of audience can be deemed worthy of respect and applause only when it is a thriller. Manipulation based on emotions is cheap.
3. There is no shorthand to emotions in a film. That is the job of a film, and a filmmaker – to carve out the journey for the audience to reach the emotional state of the characters within the narrative. Otherwise, I daresay, there isn’t any point to the whole exercise. No Country For Old Men might be a mighty fine exercise in audience manipulation but it is a pathetic failure when it comes to charting the emotional journey of Ed Tom Bell. The audiences just never got there.
With regards to point # 3, The Soloist does cover a whole lot of distance in understanding the true emotions that might be faced while dealing with paranoia. Steve Lopez, played quite brilliantly by Mr. Downey Jr., is no Alicia Nash whose character was given frustrations only to register melodramatic effect, and to cause plot propulsion. He is helping out a mad homeless man, but in quite a lot of ways, he is helping himself out. There are occasions he is frustrated, but neither the actors nor the film make any deal of fuss out of it. The treat it as part of the daily routine, as moments and not as events, and I find that quite commendable. Yet Mr. Wright, behind these scenes of natural beauty, seems to be harboring a hidden agenda, wherein he is cutting the film from one such scene to the next for no apparent reason other than to feel something specific when the sequence is ready to offer a lot more. Just like his fellow filmmaker from the U.K. Sam Mendes, Mr. Wright seems to have a penchant for beautiful/striking images, which have absolutely no emotional resonance. During one sequence, in a concert, we also witness the filmmaker’s ambition to emulate Stanley Kubrick’s stargaze in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and actually visualize to us the music that is playing within Ayers’ mind and heart. Unfortunately, it looks and feels as inert and as out of place as one of those visualizations in the Windows Media Player. It is simple, Mr. Wright’ camera isn’t truthful enough. A Gus Van Sant, and we would be talking of Academy Awards for both Mr. Foxx and Mr. Downey Jr. And a film, where there would be no need of the clichéd final few moments of closure, for this is a tale where every moment together for these two soloists was about closure. I got to say this – Van Sant and Mann are blessings to us from the almighty.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 4:08 AM
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Cast: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingstone
Director: Robert Schwentke
Runtime: 107 min.
Verdict: A most beautiful love story. An instant classic. A masterful narration. The year’s sleeper genius.
Genre: Romance, Drama, Sci-fi
Mr. Bana has the sort of eyes that ask to be cared. A woman might never feel even the least bit of apprehension around him. Doesn’t matter if it his wife revealing a pregnancy, or a stranger on a train, or a little girl having a little picnic by herself in the meadows. He is not a Clint Eastwood, or a Christian Bale, or an Al Pacino, someone in whose arms a woman might feel safe. Rather, he is the sort of man a woman would want to care for, and embrace him as a mother would a child. There’s that sincerity in his eyes, an almost winning earnestness. I believe he is a triumph of casting here, more so for the fact that this is one of our best actors. And in The Time Traveler’s Wife he delivers an undeniably great performance, and one I believe that will surely be forgotten within no time. So would the incredible turn by Ms. McAdams. And yes, so would the film, which I daresay hail as an instant classic, and a masterpiece of architecture.
Roger Ebert observes in his review of Memento rather precisely the idea behind the general structure as a narrative device, or a contrivance, rather than the eventuality of an emotional state. Although Mr. Ebert, a huge admirer of Alfred Hitchcock (Notorious and Vertigo exist among his favorite films), doesn’t recognize the genius of Mr. Nolan, he sure as hell nails the problem. He mentions Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and as I watch the subtlety and clarity of The Time Traveler’s Wife’s narration for a second time, and feel the emotional truth behind it, I realize now what he intends to convey. Yes, it is true, Mr. Nolan does harbor intentions of reigning in some kind of emotional sense in the spiral structure, yet, in many ways, it is quite obvious, and maybe even gimmicky. Okay, I take that back, it isn’t gimmicky. But one has to agree, it does betray the blatant trickery of a master craftsman trying to provide his audiences for a thrilling experience, rather than using the time-manipulation as an emotional reaction. In that way, The Time Traveler’s Wife might quite possibly be the most brilliant and commanding usage of time-manipulation ever committed to the screen. Yes, more so than Chris Marker’s sci-fi masterpiece La Jetée.
There’s nothing obvious, nothing confusing about the narration. It is sure, it is clear, and it achieves the purpose of a superior narration – making the audience reach the desired emotional state. It feels linear, and disjointed, and non-linear, all at the same time. We walk out of the screen having the satisfaction of watching a uniquely moving love story between good folks, yet we are not entirely sure of the timeline. It is all subtle, not sticking its hand out and claiming its brilliance like the Nolan brothers’ Oscar nominated script, but quietly seeping itself into our hearts and our minds at the same time. That is something I deem worthy of a standing ovation. I applaud, for The Time Traveler’s Wife is what I seek from a clever film – not flashing its intelligence, but quietly and assuredly using its intelligence to understand the emotional truth at the narrative’s center, and then try and structure the film so as to make us feel that truth, and that emotion. This is that rarest of the rarities, a film where every shot is so brilliantly taken that we aren’t figuring it out, we’re rather feeling every bit of it. Every shot is an eventuality, or a metaphor, or a synecdoche to the whole. With films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento, the “clever” structure, I believe, is more of a conceit, a rather shallow (adolescent? amateurish?) jab at the workings of the mind and heart. One might even go so far as to say that the trickery in the above films probably betrays a lack of emotional understanding, and hence they are reveling in their ‘cleverness’. The Time Traveler’s Wife, on the other hand, is where and how cinema and narrative ought to be with this ‘cleverness’ – not flashing it but using it. It feels as if this film knows how it must feel like to be disjointed in time, and it is absolutely and nonchalantly crisp and clear and considerate about it. I find that most admirable, and masterful.
How does the film do it? By shunning the typical clever film’s hierarchical teacher-student relationship, one that it seems to so naturally assume from the screen above, and by taking us audiences into confidence. Time-travel has always been a paradox, it always will be, and the best movies with the best narratives have been the ones which do not make a big deal of the logic behind it. The Time Traveler’s Wife does not sit and try to figure out an explanation, it instead takes it as a given, as an absolute, as a law of nature just about as there as gravity. A film like Memento seems to feel an obligation for time and its structure from the protagonist’s perspective, always a noble thought, but the results are a trifle amateurish. Not this one, it instead structures itself more organically, with emotion driving the narrative. It is curiously exploring the emotional consequences of such a life. In that, it can be deemed a world of alternate reality. A reality wherein Henry DeTamble (Mr. Bana) has a rare gene which causes him to travel through time. I stress on causes, for Henry doesn’t know when he might disappear from a particular time frame, and where he might appear, and when he might return. We go through life linear, he goes through life non-linear, often even encountering an alternate instance of himself. Clothes do not travel, he turns up naked in a new place, and he got to steal. He is a biological first, and like our ancestors many thousands of years ago were nomads through space, Henry might be a nomad through time. He has been one, all his life. Up until he meets a beautiful young girl in a library, Clare Abshire (Ms. McAdams), and their journey begins. I leave you to discover their love, the most beautiful and moving one I’ve seen in quite a while.
But I shall not miss the opportunity to describe to you the beauty of the imagery, not composed through inert picture postcards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) but with love. Every frame drips with poetry, yet it never is sugary, it never is melodrama. The irony, which in any other lesser film might be heightened for the sake of faux-art, is here underplayed, and almost taken as the work of fate. And the film is a strong proponent of fate and the unique ways of destiny. After all, what is destiny but a philosophical synonym for time. It is fascinating how so much is conveyed so subtly, and the kind of questions that are raised in such calm a manner. What are we but instances of ourselves separated through time. Does that make our instances separate persons? When we love a person, do we really love the person, or love our perception of her, a perception guided by an instance we fell in love in the first place? Not many films do that to me, but here I am inspired to buy a novel and read it in a hurry after having fallen in love with its adaptation. Such is the beauty.
None more than the exhilarating final sequence, a masterful shot capturing the beauty at the heart of this paradox. You will know it when you watch it. And while you do, ask yourself who has been waiting for whom, and who has been coming to meet whom. Yet such questions wouldn’t distract you, in any way, from the purity of the imagery. It is, quite undeniably, the year’s best cinematic moment yet.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 11:07 PM
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Runtime: 104 min.
Verdict: Is just about as puzzled as me about that little extra thingy on Harsha Bhogle’s scalp. I like that.
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller, Action
Now don’t tell me you didn’t cringe when you saw Mr. Bhogle’s new avatar? I know, vanity does work in mysterious ways. And reader, I never did get the point of it. You see, when it comes to you and me we’re a couple of unknown faces, and if we have a little paunch hanging by our waistline, or a little patch of barren land we wish we could do away with, that is fine. I can understand that. You work out, day and night, and if you’re desperate you go to a clinic and pay for a little extra hair. And you turn up in a new place, with new folks, and it is like no one even knew you from before.
Now I don’t get it when folks, about whom the whole world knows, turn up in a new avatar. Not that I wouldn’t desire a new avatar. I do, very much do, and I wish I looked like Lee Marvin or Jacques Kallis. But at the same time I would want to wipe off everybody’s memory of how I looked like before, and replace it with the new image. Getting me? With folks like Mr. Bhogle though, everyone knows it is artificial. Then why take the pains? I don’t seem to get that at all.
Neither does Surrogates, a simplistic jab at the temptations of vanity. Based on a graphic novel I hope to read now, it is the kind of mediocre fare you should visit once in a while. You know, just to be in touch and all. Inside of it is a world where every human in the world, which is a roundabout way of saying every American, has grown so vain that a technology called surrogacy is the lifeline of everyday life. Folks stay down at home, reclined on chairs and beds and couches, with some kind of thingy attached to their eyes, while their surrogates, or avatars, or servant machines, which are nothing but the manifestations of the controller roam around. So it is not the actual person that goes to work but the surrogate. I don’t quite understand the logic. Surrogates might claim this as an invention to make its case against society, but I don’t quite buy it. You see, no invention goes against the human nature, and I don’t buy any line of thought that tells you humans will go so lazy so as to spend the rest of their lives within the confines of a room. Not Wall-E. Especially not with its reasoning. One can claim Surrogates has a stronger human emotion to back up its futuristic vision, and I’m still not convinced. You see, the way we work, we might not possess a quality but we sure as hell demand it from the folks we meet. Like say honesty versus pretension. I might be a smug pseudo-intellectual but god forbid any person speaks to me even with the slightest bit of air of pretension. Now if Surrogates really portrayed a plausible scenario, there is no chance of dating, no chance of love, and no chance of any degree of human interaction.
So safe to say the film is a satire. Or at least the source is. Which I’m absolutely fine with. Only if it had the good sense not to pour in so much of melodrama. And family loss bullshit. There’s a murder mystery in there and the mystery part is stupid. The performances are uniformly embarrassing. The premise has a great movie within it, but one shouldn’t blame Touchstone for not finding it. When every major studio is busy minting money with hollow blockbusters, I guess it is only fair for the movie executives to try their bit too. Still a budget of $80 million is just too much. Touchstone, somebody out there is not worth their pay.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 12:16 AM
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Mélanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 153 min.
Verdict: The world’s greatest cinema scholar shows us yet again how it is done, with a masterfully conceptualized and crafted opening scene. And he fails grandly with the rest.
You see, I’ve always tried to sell the pleasures offered by the likes of a Tarantino. Empty pleasures, of which often even I’m unconvinced. Yet tempting they are, for there are few joys in movie-watching that rival the realization of a masterfully crafted sequence. Car chases, and blasts are easy, I say. And the pleasure derived is less, say, from a conversation that makes you feel what the characters are feeling. Puts you in their frame of mind. See, a real conversation is infinitely more thrilling than any boom-boom. Remember the implied intercourse between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs)? Remember the implied death threat between Anton Chigurh and the owner of the run-down gas station (No Country for Old Men)? Remember the soft eroticism on the bed between Michel and Patricia (A Bout De Soufflé)? The true masters of cinema construct such sequences, so that we seek the pleasure again and again.
Mr. Tarantino has never provided me with such pleasures. His are ones that are more about the very form of the medium, and in many ways they sound empty. But pleasures nevertheless. These are the times when you aren’t seeking anything emotional or spiritual from the film, and chances are you aren’t engrossed. You’re instead appreciating the vaudeville’s glorious yet obvious trickery. You aren’t being taken in by the illusion, yet you’re appreciating the masterful hand behind it. You applaud, for you paid your money to watch a movie, and you got a damn entertaining one at that. It is a triumph for a filmmaker, any filmmaker, and his film when the audience discusses it on his terms. Lovers of Pulp Fiction do not discuss the spiritual nature of it, they discuss the fine architecture of it, they discuss the marvelous conversation of it, and how it was all so amusingly manipulated into fate for all these individuals. When we discuss Mr. Tarantino’s films, we discuss his characters not from our objective vantage point, but from a one where we realize the universe they arrive from. The universe that exists wholly inside of Mr. Tarantino’s brain. As I write this, it strikes me, filmmakers like Tarantino invariably want to have the power of God. Consciously or otherwise. Their cinema could be called wish fulfillment, or their cinema could be called a demonstration of how it ought to be done. You see, the best way to analyze and criticize cinema has always been to make a movie. Godard demonstrated it all those years back, showing us what could be done, and Mr. Tarantino has been showing us all what could be done.
But all that until now. Things have changed.
Consider the opening sequence of Inglorius Basterds. The greatest single sequence to have come out in more than a decade, I believe. It is a masterpiece, right up there with the very best and very greatest. At least far greater than anything that he has attempted. Mr. Tarantino has always been brilliant with his words, but often, one feels all his characters speak like him. And they speak unnecessarily. They seem to be so much in love with their speaking that it seems Mr. Tarantino is deriving pleasure at our expense. I often wish some of his characters just shut up. Howsoever good his dialogs be, they still remain dialogs. His films seem to exist as collections of Quotable Quotes. Marvelous conversations, yet adding little to the sequence by the way of form, and always making us aware that the filmmaker behind is trying. To be clever I suppose. Neither his characters nor their quotes bring anything to the table save an indulgence into cinephilia. An fanboy’s masturbation of his favorite stuff. His flights into fantasy, which carry no meaning save that they represent his tastes. We’re always watching it from a distance, enjoying, not viewing it in terms of the characters, but merely as puppets of Mr. Tarantino envying the fun he must be having while writing them. We perceive these clever tricks as concepts, a theory on how the conventions can be overcome. Yet, these concepts had always existed elsewhere. Just for the sake of citing an example, two assassins not talking about the plot but about something else had already been done by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas.
But here, Mr. Tarantino has constructed something grandly extraordinary. He has always been clever, but he has never before achieved the master craftsmanship of a Hitchcock. In the opening chapter of Inglorius Basterds he does. While it exists, we’re never aware, and we’re never wondering of the pedigree of the hand behind it all. Rather we’re caught smack dab within the walls of the screen, caught up with the characters, and wondering no other thing than to what shall happen next. Mr. Tarantino has always been good at laying theories, now he puts them to practice. That brings to mind again Hitchcock’s legendary theory on shock and suspense in film, which he laid out to Truffaut in one of them interviews. This is his words –
There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it'. As he explained, if you have three men in a room with a ticking bomb that neither they nor the audience know is there until it goes off, then the unsuspecting audience gets a surprise 'One surprise! That's all.' Contrast this with a scene in which the audience knows about the bomb but the men do not. The men still talk inanely but now even the most banal things they say are charged with an underlying tension. Such is the power of suspense.
Now reader, imagine what the theoretical concept of tension would be? For that, let us put another twist to the situation above. It is a bit ridiculous yet has a certain mathematical ring to it. Say, even the men above know there is bomb underneath, but each of the three isn’t aware if the other two are aware. They keep playing the cards, sweat dropping. As Mr. Tarantino has a hard-on for Mexican stand-offs I seem to have one for Russian roulettes. And I guess this table-predicament is some kind of a Russian roulette. Consider the ticking time-bomb, and consider the psychological implications. Both within the frame, and amongst the audience. Such a scene drawn out into a sequence of significant length could be so tense it might well destroy your nerves.
Such is the brilliance of the opening act, a practically realized example of the concept above which Hitchcock might have been envious of. You see, Hitchcock, as a filmmaker wasn’t very good with conversations; he was rather brilliant with the architecture of his films. And while I say that, I feel this would be a nice time to lay out the premise of Inglorius Basterds. Let us just say that there is a group of Allied soldiers, nicknamed the Basterds, and they are out there slaughtering the Nazis. Giving it back to ze Germans, Tarantino style. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Mr. Pitt). The Nazis led by, well, Adolf Hitler. And Joseph Goebbels. And a certain Col. Hans Landa (Mr. Waltz).
But of course, I describe the film only through the broadest strokes. Calling it a war movie, or a revenge movie, or a mission movie, would be akin to categorizing Pulp Fiction as a crime movie, or a gangster movie. Which it bloody well is. But you know, since you’ve reached till here, that a Quentin Tarantino is always a lot more than that. Discover all of it for yourself. I sure as hell wouldn’t mind if you run right away, and read the rest later. Run Forrest run. Run like the wind blows.
But I digress. The opening scene. Ah! What genius, what perfection, what precision. The sequence works on one emotion – fear – and how brilliantly Mr. Tarantino captures it, and plays around with it. There’s an underlying creepiness to it. Col. Landa is out in the French countryside, at Monsiuer LaPadite’s farm, who lives with his three beautiful and young daughters. Mr. Landa smiles, and it seems, is over-pleased to meet them. The daughters I mean. LaPadite looks like a nice gentle fellow. With a beard and big expressive eyes, this must be a God-fearing man. But he has three daughters. And everybody knows how bad the Nazis were. Kitschy Hollywood and popular history has taught us that they were really evil people, probably the progeny of a group-orgy that involved every evil one from every mythology of every religion. Mr. Tarantino uses that knowledge, and carves upon it one of modern cinema’s greatest conceits in Col. Landa. His masquerade his funny, with his overblown smoking pipe, but there was an anxious in my laughter. I greatly fear my brother’s anger, and as he admits, the more he laughs and the more jokes he makes, the greater the terror. Col. Landa is that terror, personified.
The fear in the scene is palpable. It might have been constructed with supreme craftsmanship, but is suspect even the gross manipulation of it wouldn’t have deterred Tarkovsky from applauding as a near perfect example of sculpting in time. It might be fiction, but the fear we feel is true. Look at the economy of the sequence. Look at how precise Mr. Tarantino’s usage of the close-ups is, not as cue-shots, but more as evocative ones, that build upon the preceding events. There’re two, timed most precisely, and they are so effective and so organic they ought to be taught as examples in schools to budding editors and filmmakers. Shot for shot. It is an accomplishment – for Tarantino, for he has never made anything quite as effective before, and for modern cinema, for rarely do we come across skillfully written conversations. It is a triumph.
The accomplishment is all the more priceless when contrasted against the second sequence, or in the film’s terms, the second chapter. Once again based on fear. Absolutely ineffective as a piece of craftsmanship, bet harmlessly enjoyable as the standard pleasures we’ve come to expect of Mr. Tarantino. It is amusing, but for all its gore and violence and swagger, it evokes zilch. That is a failure in my book. Why, one might ask? Because it is built upon caricatures, and the indulgences of Mr. Tarantino get the better of him. He tries desperately to once again rein in tension, once again trying to establish a legend – The Bear Jew – and delaying his appearance so that our minds play tricks on us. It is commendable, this effort, but he fails. I might not be able to precisely pinpoint why, for I am right now only in knowledge of my reactions, yet I shall one day make my observations shot for shot and make my case.
The sequence/chapter dealing with the rendezvous at an isolated tavern might offer greater insight why the rest of Inglorius Basterds fails so miserably when viewed against the opening scene. Hitchcock always advised that the audience should be in possession of information whenever possible for a said manipulation to work. I think the tavern-sequence is a blunder. I say blunder because Mr. Tarantino, the supreme film scholar he is, overlooks his own belief. The scene contains a major surprise in the shape of a Gestapo officer, yet he is a shock, not a suspense. The scene, for a good part of its length, meanders with nothing interesting happening, and we audiences are clueless. Only if Mr. Tarantino had made known to us this variable sitting behind in the darkness, we would have felt the underlying tension. I wonder how Mr. Tarantino missed this trick. It baffles me.
Yet, it doesn’t deter me from saying that Inglorius Basterds is the man’s finest film. Look at the masterful way in which he plays with us when Col. Landa asks Bridget Von Hammersmark (Ms. Kruger) to lay her leg on his lap, without specifying which one. Ask yourself what you were thinking, and see how Landa outmaneuvers you. This is a grand chess game, well most cinema is. At least the portion influenced by Hitchcock. And Mr. Tarantino for the first time is indulging you in a game. That is why I say this is a thriller and no more. He uses graphic violence not as vomit but as a payoff. Lt. Raine indulges in a little memento distribution with every Nazi he meets, and the director doesn’t show how he does it right until the end when he distributes it to the big fish. He has two great actors at his disposal – Mr. Pitt and Mr. Waltz. You might have heard a lot of the latter, and for once the hype is true. This is a great performance, right up there with the very best of all time. One for the books. One for the awards. Anymore and I still might not even tread remotely close to hyperbole. Yet I do not intend to state what has already been stated. Just that Mr. Waltz deserves a bow. And that Mr. Pitt is one of our greatest actors. Any other, and Mr. Waltz might have chewed him. That Mr. Pitt stands his own, and comes out just on equal terms is a measure of his absolute brilliance. He might not be spoken to of in the same terms as a Johnny Depp but Mr. Pitt is a genius in the same ballpark.
Mr. Tarantino, in an interview, claimed that Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood inspired him to make something as good. He might not have achieved that ambition, but he sure as hell created his finest. Up until now he was just restating what could be done. That is easy. With Inglorius Basterds he shows to us how it ought to be done. You know, that is something.
Note: For the complete Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews, this is link that ought to be visited –