Monday, September 07, 2009

RAGGED GLOURY. [spoilers.] For the first hour or so of Inglourious Basterds I thought: well, it's finally happened. Either Tarantino has become totally brilliant, or I've watched enough Tarantino that I can't tell the difference anymore. The two first scenes -- the drawn-out agony of Colonel Landa's visit to a farmhouse where Jews have been hidden, and Aldo Raine's ludicrously inspiring speech to his recruits -- are among the best things he's ever done, from Landa's cheerful gabble to the close-ups of Brad Pitt's crinkled eyes, and it looked as if Tarantino was going to finally resist his impulse to undercut himself, and just turn his considerable gifts toward the end of making a damn genre picture without willfully jacking the whole thing up with random crazy ideas until the whole thing flips over. Maybe, I thought, he was catching on to what Sam Fuller knew -- if you're already nuts, you don't have to force it: your war movie, no matter how tightly plotted, will bear your gloriously (or glouriously) insane hallmark. (The Steel Helmet would not have been improved by song numbers.)

The first sign of trouble was the payoff on the "Bear Jew" idea (introduced by a suitably Vaudevillian Hitler). You mean that's it, I thought, -- he beats Nah-zis to death with a baseball bat? And ominously thumps the bat in the dark woods before he does it? Whoops, that was it, and the character recedes, to be supplanted by a lot of other show-stealing but debilitating schtick. The Theme from Cat People; non-Italian-speaking Basterds as Italians at a Third Reich shindig (maybe a hommage to All Through The Night); most disappointingly, a really interesting tension between the Jewish massacre survivor and Goebbels' new "It" boy, which climaxes in a projection-room scene that shows Tarantino still relying on childish, film-geeky blood-love as a resolution for difficult relationships.

I shouldn't complain. There's enough jam here to get you through the long running time, and it's fun. But Tarantino's technique has gotten so good that I wish he'd goof around a little less, and I grow tired of wishing for it. One of the great scenes introduces our British Forces hero -- a film critic (!) chosen for Operation Kino based on his knowledge of UFA and German language-fighting skills. The scene is as mad as you could wish, with Churchill incomprehensibly present and Mike Myers in highly successful make-up briefing the critic, with stiff upper lips all 'round. The absurdity is baked into the concept, and played and filmed beautifully. The tension between the barely-possible reality of the scene and Tarantino's rendition of it makes you giddy but keeps you in the story.

But it all leads to a Nazi Gotterdammerung so muddled and overblown that it blew my connection to the movie. I could accept an alternate WWII ending -- sure, why not; it was fine when Chaplin iron-masked Adenoid Hynkel in favor of a Jewish barber -- but by then the little tweaked realities had turned into a pile-up of absurdities, and my faith in the film was broken. It should be much more satisfying than this to see Hitler machine-gunned to pieces -- and for that matter, to see Landa get what's coming to him. But the movie has gotten so out of control by the end, all that's left are violent bits. Good bits, mind you, but without the benefit of the gathered force that a more disciplined film might have afforded.

Tarantino's too good to leave it at that, but no one's going to make him take the next step. At times like this I miss Louis B. Mayer. Or David O. Selznick.

Every craft aspect of the film is wonderful; the music is lovely, especially the theme from The Alamo, and Christoph Waltz deserves some kind of prize for bringing some badly needed joie de vivre to the Nazi villain role.

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