That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

Inglourious Basterds

Sunday, September 20th, 2009 5:54 pm—Film

Inglourious Basterds (USA/Germany 2009, Drama/War/Satire), Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino

If you’d told me a month ago that I would be writing about Inglourious Basterds (on an absolutely glorious September day, as it happens, and by the water, basking in what is probably the farthest I could get from the movie’s frequently tense, frenzied mood), I wouldn’t have believed you. Although Tarantino fascinates me and usually puts out movies that catch my interest, I just couldn’t stomach the gruesome scalpings and beatings I knew were in his latest flick.

But then AO, a good friend who’d already seen the movie, agreed to watch it with me and sweetly warned me before most of the gore could send me into post-traumatic stress. (By the way, contrary to what everyone else assured me, you can’t see all the violence coming; some of it appears as quick cut-aways, and some of it just takes you by surprise. And also by the way, I realize how lame it is that I needed an escort to see this film. But it got me into the theatre, and I’m really glad it did. You’re about to find out why.)

So let’s dive in, because I want to get out on the water. Inglourious Basterds is set during the Second World War. It begins in 1941 Nazi occupied France, when a group of SS officers storm a farmhouse to eliminate the Jewish family that is rumoured to be hiding there. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) murders all but one member of the Jewish family—the young Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) whom he inexplicably allows to run free.

From that all-too-real horror, we jump ahead to 1944 where Tarantino has decided to take some outlandish liberties with history and have a little fun at the expense of the Nazis. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has gathered a group of Jewish-American soldiers—the Basterds, as they call themselves—to do a little housekeeping in Germany. He charges each man with the duty of bringing him 100 Nazi scalps, or die trying. As the Basterds set about their work with great fervour, we meet up with Shosanna in Paris where she now runs a cinema. As the Basterds and Shosanna seek their own brands of revenge, events conspire to bring them all together at her theatre on the night of a major Nazi film premiere.

The thing I find most enticing about Quentin Tarantino’s films is that his excitement and exuberance for filmmaking practically spills off the reels. He’s so obviously in love with what he does, both with moviemaking and with the movies that he makes. When he takes a break from the narrative to give the viewer backstory, or to jump into a character’s fantasy sequence, you can almost see him giddily at work in the editing room dreaming up the titles and effects. He ends Inglourious Basterds with one of the characters saying, “This might just be my masterpiece.” The character is referring to his work on one of the Nazis, but you get the feeling that Tarantino—the writer, the director—might just be talking about his own movie.

Tarantino is a self-taught film student. He reportedly schooled himself by watching countless movies from the annals of cinematic history, and it’s clear he did his homework. Inglourious Basterds is peppered with allusions to film history, including references to Hitler’s favourite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and Hollywood golden age producers like David O. Selznick. I’m sure there are many more references that are increasingly likely to elude me the farther I get from my film school days. But you get the point.

Even in a film about the Holocaust, Tarantino’s trademark energy and penchant for the absurd come across. The movie is divided into chapters, and some of them are funny and playful even in their extreme violence. One of the most obvious examples of the film’s levity comes in the form of Lt. Raine. As Pitt plays him, he’s a Tennessee hillbilly who brings an unshakeable confidence but also apparent disinterest to his task. He’s fully committed to following through on murdering Nazis, yet the entire mission always comes across as something of a game or an amusement to him.

I read an interesting article in The Atlantic, in which Tarantino says that all his Jewish friends have nothing but rave reviews for the film. Still, the reporter quotes Neal Gabler (author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood) as saying that “no Jew would ever make a film like Inglourious Basterds. It’s too brazen.” That’s the impression I got from the film as well. Only an outsider could have that detachment; a Jew would be too affected by history’s power to take Tarantino’s angle on the Holocaust. Lt. Raine isn’t Jewish. He hasn’t been personally attacked; he just happens to have a bone to pick. In many ways, Lt. Raine feels a bit like the film’s narrator, approaching his mission in much the same way the director approaches the film as a whole: with detachment, humour, violence and great authority.

Still, there are other chapters and dimensions to the film, which isn’t surprising given that Tarantino himself admits to going off on genre-bending tangents when he sits down to write. In addition to the fun, frolic and carnage, the director creates some incredible drama and tension. The opening scene in the farmhouse is so exquisitely made that it’s almost painful to watch. It’s timed perfectly, and the performances are astoundingly good—from the French farmer’s daughter who never says a word (Lena Friedrich), to Col. Landa whose depiction by Waltz is nothing short of sensational. He has his character fine-tuned to the smallest details in how he holds his utensils. It’s obvious from the attention Tarantino’s camera pays Waltz that the director adores and appreciates actors.

The other truly phenomenal performance comes from Mélanie Laurent. As Shosanna, she is powerful, nuanced, understated, and so mesmerizing that I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She shares a restaurant scene with Waltz later in the film, and it’s hard to decide which one to focus on. Just watch this scene and see how they each attack their food: Landa with almost violent gusto, taking exactly what he wants from the meal and thoroughly enjoying the process; Shosanna with the fierce determination and rage that has kept her alive, and the knowledge that her only defence is a strong offensive attack in front of the Nazi who massacred her family. At the end of the meal, when Landa finally takes his leave, Shosanna’s split-second breakdown is shattering. Either of these actors would make Inglourious Basterds worth seeing. Together, they pack a one-two punch that is unmissable.

So there you have it. In a lot of ways, Tarantino still shows his silly, boyish, gleeful side in Inglourious Basterds. He’s a film geek out for some self-indulgent fun at the helm. But he’s also clearly put a lot of thought into what he does—a lot; I’d guess it’s probably all-consuming for him—and he delivers some refined, sophisticated scenes that showcase a growing wisdom and maturity as a filmmaker. From what I saw (basically everything minus most of the gore), Inglourious Basterds is one fine film. It’s outrageous, but excellently crafted and definitely worth seeing. All you need is a stronger stomach than mine, or a friend as good as AO.

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