Periscope Depth

and I've been putting out the fire with gasoline

Inglourious Basterds: I’m posting this on Labor Day in the hopes that no one sees it.

Quentin Tarantino has always approached films with the geeky enthusiasm of a comic book collector, rather than the affected aloofness of a film student. The movies he makes reflect that: a smorgasbord of styles, an epic assault on the senses that’s as likely to confuse as delight. Most of his movies suffer for it. But when he makes a movie about the affect movies have on audiences – as he did with Inglourious Basterds, a cheeky little piece of overthinking masquerading as a war film – the encyclopedia in his brain serves him well.

Not that every choice he makes is a good one. Midway through the film, two characters eat strudel with whipped cream in a Paris cafe. A fiber-detailed closeup on the bowl of cream: backlit, the spoon descending from above to harvest a dollop, and the spongy texture remaining. Artfully done, but what purpose does it serve in the scene in which it takes place? It’s likely a reference to some obscure film that Tarantino’s patting himself on the back for knowing. Likewise an early interrogation in a rural French farmhouse: the camera circles around Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and a hapless French farmer during one point in the questioning. Why does it circle? What does it reveal, or heighten, or say that the two-shots we’d had to that point wasn’t revealing?

(This scene also brings up another recurring peeve I have with Tarantino: characters who talk about how delicious something is, rather than reacting as if they tasted something delicious. Samuel L. Jackson does it in Pulp Fiction – “you mind if I have some of your tasty beverage to wash this down?” – and Waltz does it in this scene as well. I know complaining about implausible dialogue in a Quentin Tarantino film’s like complaining about how quiet you have to be at a golf match, but it’s just stupid. Enough with the kvetching; on to how great the film is)

But tricks of camera, editing and pacing are the way films tell stories, and, oddly enough, Tarantino has a story to tell. He didn’t in Pulp Fiction (other than, “hey, wouldn’t it be neat if a lot of unbelievable coincidences linked the lives of a lot of ridiculous characters, and Uma Thurman’s hot?”, to which of course, yes) or Kill Bill (other than “aren’t kung fu films cool, and isn’t Uma Thurman hot?”, to which et cetera). He coasted on style. But Inglourious Basterds is all about style: the unspoken language that we use to hint without vocalizing. It’s a commentary on style. And given that Tarantino doesn’t just deliver a verdict on style, but uses style so effectively to do it, makes this – as Brad Pitt observes – his masterpiece.

Brad Pitt, as we all know from the trailer, is Lt. Aldo Raine, a snarling Tennesseean who claims enough Apache blood to lead a platoon of eight Jewish soldiers deep into German territory. He plans for them a campaign of terror and brutality in order to inspire fear in the minds of Nazi soldiers. We watch him deliver an inspiring speech to his men about just what he intends to do to every Nazi they capture. And that’s it. We get one scene of the Basterds scalping, executing and bludgeoning a Nazi squadron, but otherwise see very little of them in action. This might disappoint the casual action audience, but this is exactly the point. The movie’s not about the Basterds. We merely need to establish that the Basterds exist, and they’re doing stuff in France.

If the movie’s about anyone, it’s Shoshanna Dreyfus (who, since Tarantino couldn’t plausibly cast Uma Thurman as a 19-year-old Jew, is played by Thurman-lookalike Melanie Laurent), sole survivor of the scene with Col. Landa that begins the movie. Fleeing to Paris, she poses as a native Parisian and the owner of a small local cinema. There, she catches the eye of a young German soldier (the haplessly likable Daniel Bruhl), who’s been thrust into fame as suddenly as she avoids it. This soldier has the ear of Joseph Goebbels, and arranges for the premiere of a populist war film at Shoshanna’s cinema. She puts in motion a plan that’ll end in the deaths of every German officer in attendance, not knowing that the Allies already have a similar plan in motion. And that sets the tension which carries the rest of the film.

“What have you heard?”, everyone in the film keeps asking. Reputation and word of mouth are the most important currency in the film, whether Landa’s uncomfortable nickname “The Jew Hunter,” the campaign of terror spread by the Basterds, or even a stuffy British lieutenant proving his bona fides to Winston Churchill by comparing Goebbels and Selznick. Language itself also plays a critical role: Landa speaks English in the opening scene not just as a sly concession to WW2 films targeting American audiences, but also because the Jewish prisoners beneath the floorboards can’t speak it. The ability or inability to speak a language proves critical at various climaxes; note that the polyglot Landa survives to the end of the film.

Tarantino uses the language of film to make his point: that the language of film tells us whom to root for and whom against. The action climaxes at the Paris premiere of Goebbels’ crowning achievement, Nation’s Pride, a film that (apparently) consists of nothing but a lone heroic German sniping Allies from a clock tower. The audience (including Hitler himself) cackles and cheers. Later, when two of the Basterds massacre fleeing German civilians from a similarly elevated perch, the correspondence is obvious. And if it’s not, Landa makes it obvious when he captures Raine: “Were I sitting where you are now, should I expect mercy?” We are told by the film to imagine the characters in reversed positions.

The point isn’t mere moral relativism: that you can’t tell the Nazis from the Allies. Tarantino’s not leveling judgment on WW2. The entire movie takes place in a WW2 that never happened, as the film’s final outcome should make abundantly clear. The point Tarantino’s making is that you can only tell the heroes from the villains based on who gets the better close-ups.

It helps that Tarantino has assembled the finest cast he’s ever worked with for this movie. It’d be a waste of time to call out individual performances: they’re all fantastic. Especially the Germans, whom he invests with a great deal of humanity – although never without one perfunctory flourish of villainy on the end that justifies their execution. It seems odd, if you think about it, that someone would be a decent, patriotic German their entire life only to descend into savagery right before getting shot. But you’re not supposed to think about it. You’re supposed to recoil from the character’s villainy and then relax as the movie shares our judgment and ends their life. That’s how movies tell us who the villains are. And that is Tarantino’s point.

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