In Quentin Tarantino’s new film “Inglourious Basterds” it’s true that the Basterds are on display, all the billboards, all the movie trailers, every blurb makes it appear that they are the main characters, led by mega star Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, a good old boy with a deep respect for his Native American heritage, as he leads his merry men on a carnage ladden path through occupied France to scalp some “Naazis”. What a great hook for a film, and it’s pretty close to the truth, but only a part of the truth.
Tarantino gets to that, but he’s smart enough to know that it’s merely a hook. For some filmmakers it would be enough to show this intense group of Nazi killers as they roam the country side, but he’s up to more here. Giant robots fight on Earth. It’s a hook, a great logline to get people to come watch the movie, but that’s all Transformers is. Basterds is full of the richness of a filmmaker that has finally tamed his own desire for pulp retreads, and has found his own voice.
As great fun as a lot of Tarantino’s movies are, you hear his voice in every character, the way he talks, his rhythms, each character seems to be a part of Tarantino, however in Basterds each and every character has has their own voice. There are certainly back-and-forths that could very well be construed as something out of the mouth of the filmmaker himself; sentences that go on and on with words hit for emphasis to create a sort of hip-cat rhythm. His sentences come at you and pull away like waves on a beach. It’s exhilarating in it’s vibrancy at times (Reservoir Dogs) and annoying because of the self-involvement at other times (Death Proof), but is only rarely heard in Basterds. My guess is, he knows to steer the actors into their characters and away from his ego (honestly most directors are full of themselves to a certain extent). Take the very first scene. An interrogation of sorts led by who I consider to be the main character of the film, and will be remembered as one of the most vibrant and fully realized villains in the history of film, Colonel Hans Landa, a would be Sherlock Holmes (watch for the pipe), a Nazi who loves his job so much he could care less whether he’s hunting Jews or not. It just so happens that he’s in Germany, and a Nazi, so why not. This joyous attitude is honed to perfection by the actor Christoph Waltz, making Hans the type of villain you love to watch, and hate to pieces. And it’s this attitude that disarms his opponents.
Tarantino’s dialogue in the first scene is filled with long charismatic diatribes from the lips of Landa followed by calm, even one word responses from the character he’s interrogating. How long will this scene go on; as long as Landa wants it to. As long as he needs it to to get the information he wants, and Tarantino never gives his characters the easy out, they have to work for it. Landa controls the scene, and that’s how this film unfurls; the characters have complete control. They’re alive.
What does Tarantino do? He approaches it with the calm intensity of the filmmaker he started to become in Jackie Brown, started to pull away from, touched upon in Kill Bill 2, then completely left behind for Death Proof. With Basterds, if he were a gunslinger, he’d have the steadiest hand around. He doesn’t rush to get to the point. He builds. Easing us towards a goal. Within each scene, and from scene to scene. The tortoise winning the race. And the finish line is a climax so filled with a singular rage; you can’t help but cheer along the carnage, while clutching the arms of your seats because that rage is so volatile and intense.
Where does that rage come from? How does he build it in the audience? He doesn’t just settle with the now cinematic cliché images of piled up bodies of Holocaust victims, or in their “striped pajamas” (such images and approaches have now taken away the power in many respects); while they still hold some power, they don’t bring the kind of focus or clarity to a movie like this. No, what he does he allows us to feel helpless, by allowing the characters to be equally as helpless against the Nazi forces, or in this case Colonel Landa. Tarantino has taken an event and found a microcosm for us to grow with; a specific angle to refresh why we should have strong feelings for an event like The Holocaust. In Tanrantino’s world you want the hero to step up, to break down the door just in time, and it never happens…at least not when you want it to. The mastery in this film is Tarantino holding back until the last second and still having a story to tell afterward.
Tarantino continues to break film school rules by structuring the film in 5 Acts. For those of you who don’t know, screenplays are written in a three act structure. The crazier screenwriting teacher will say four acts, as the middle point of the film should be a second changing point for the main character, or another shift in events, leading us to the inevitable 3rd Act swing. But Tarantino has never really cared about those rules. Unlike M. Knight Shyamalan, who has attempted to break the rules, but has let his movies go loosey-goosey. Tarantino still realizes that structure is key in telling a story, or at least a movie. In fact, his film is still so structured that it plays out like an old 5 Act William Congreve play; introducing characters that may not be in the second Act, only to reappear in the third Act. I’m not going to give away all of these characters, because I didn’t know about any of them walking into the movie, and that’s part of the fun, watching and not knowing where the film is going to go next.
Another great pleasure in this film is Tarantino’s use of extreme close ups. He uses few, but there’s a joy to be had in watching a scene in which Landa and another character eat a pastry, and how Landa uses that pastry in the final moments of the scene. He will destroy anything beautiful. Moments like this litter the film, and speak to the filmmaker who Tarantino has become, and what he’s capable of when he steps away from letting his love for 70’s grindhouse pictures control his every whim. Inglourious Basterds is still steeped in film lore (a huge part of the film itself plays out with the German film industry in mind! Only one of the many tools Hitler was planning on controlling the wills of the people with.); it plays like a Spaghetti Western on steroids in the midst of World War II, but in this world it’s merely icing on an already rich and layered cake.