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 –