Friday, August 28, 2009

Film Gauge - "Inglourious Basterds" (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

What: "Inglourious Basterds" (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
When: Friday, August 21st, 2009 1:30 PM
Where: AMC 34th St. (34th St. & 8th Ave.)

Since his left-field debut with 1992's Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino has been a divisive figure, simultaneously heralded as a bold and singular voice in contemporary American film and derided as a human jukebox of regurgitated junk cinema signifiers shot through with Gen X irony. What the latter criticisms miss about Tarantino, and what the post-Pulp Fiction tidal wave of shallow "Tarantino-esque" shoot-em-ups have only served to reinforce, is the supreme confidence and control present in his work, the assuredness of his own voice. Much ink is spilled about the referential nature of Tarantino's films, as well as the meandering, often pop culture-infused soliloquies he places in the mouths of his characters. However, he rarely gets the credit due to him for his ability both as a visual stylist and as a director of actors to create an atmosphere of tension, crackling with the power of what is left unsaid amidst the arias. Nowhere is this more evident than in his latest effort, the sprawling, intimate WWII fantasia Inglourious Basterds.

Basterds, by virtue of its epic development history, perhaps couldn't help but confound expectations when it premiered at Cannes in May. Certainly, the trailers focusing on Brad Pitt and his titular platoon (who, in truth, are but a single piece of a larger tapestry) didn't help matters. Some viewers seemed flummoxed by the predominantly dialogue-heavy nature of the completed film, but the main criticism appears to center on Tarantino's interpretation of history. The question of artistic responsibility arises when dealing with the dramatization of real-life events, especially events as atrocious as those surrounding the Holocaust, and Tarantino's seeming reduction of this moment in time to a Jews vs. Nazis spaghetti-western has ruffled some feathers. There is perhaps a case to be made against Tarantino's championing of a battalion of Jewish-American soldiers who engage in the same grisly inhumanity shown by the Nazis toward the Jewish people with no discussion of the moral cost of vengeance. However, that seems to be missing the point.

Ultimately, it is unwise to approach the film on such literal terms, and the genuinely thrilling climax that Tarantino so skillfully builds toward [spoiler redacted] should dispel any notion one may hold of the filmmaker's designs on historical or sociological accuracy. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino is painting in broad strokes, making a movie not so much about the particulars of WWII history but of WWII iconography, and moreover the ancient storytelling trope of the underdog turning the tables on its oppressor. He is propagandizing the moviegoing experience itself, the pleasure and satisfying simplicity of righting humanity's wrongs through fiction. Basterds, in fact, may be Tarantino's most reverent celebration of the power of cinema in a long career steeped in the cinematic. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), another fantastic Tarantino heroine in the grand tradition of Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo, and arguably the true hero of the film, literally uses the movie theater she operates as a weapon to bring down the forces responsible for the extermination of her family. This subplot, the culmination of which dovetails in the finale with the exploits of The Basterds and Col. Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa (a sure-to-be Oscar-nominated Christoph Waltz), holds the key to Inglourious Basterds.

In his reimagining of the events of the second World War, Quentin Tarantino has achieved something akin to the period piece version of Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth." Herzog coined this term to describe his documentary work, wherein he attempts to find a truth that is beyond facts, deeper than facts, and it can be said that Tarantino has done something similar here. Putting the real-life fates of Hitler, Göring, Goebbels and Bormann aside, and disregarding the fact that Shosanna Dreyfus, Lt. Aldo Raine and Col. Hans Landa never actually existed, Basterds hits upon a truth about humanity and our relationship to art that transcends the details of history. Tarantino shows us that, although mankind has a tendency toward cruelty that we can never truly disavow (just as the Nazi soldiers that The Basterds encounter are left with a permanent reminder of their actions), we are just as equally capable of great artistic expression.

For that, Inglourious Basterds may just be, as Pitt reflects in the film's final line, his masterpiece.

Click here to see the "Inglourious Basterds" trailer

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