Sunday, February 21, 2010

"I think this might be my masterpiece"

possible spoilers

These are the last words in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and they're so gloriously cocky spilling from the lips of Brad Pitt as Tarantino's doppelganger, Lt. Aldo Raine: brash, foul-mouthed, scarred and uglied up and from an unsexy part of the USA and constantly smirking, unruffled by anything that happens to or around him, that I think he might be right. Tarantino, that is, speaking through Aldo Raine.

Despite the early trailers that made much of cartoonish violence and Pitt's cartoonish accent, it's certainly Tarantino's most mature movie--despite those easy gags, it's a mile away from the diatribes that revelled in tossing around taboos and dropping n-bombs in his earlier movies.

Pitt, though he gets the last word, isn't even the star of the movie--that would be Melanie Laurent as Shoshana, a Jewish cinema owner who saw her family killed at the orders of Oscar-nominated Christoph Waltz's Col. Hans Landa, after betrayal by the man who hid them. The garish revenge of Raine and the Basterds is nothing compared to her steely resolve, and she gives the movie emotional heft that sneaks up on you and only hits you when you realize how far she's willing to go.

Really at its heart this isn't a movie about revenge--Tarantino already did that, glorifying and personifying revenge in The Bride in Kill Bill--but about movies, about the power and the joy of movies, but mostly the power. The way cinema can destroy, can inspire, can write and rewrite history. It's not enough to kill Nazis--Shoshana must make a movie and splice it into one of Goebbels' propaganda pieces, asserting her self, her freedom through cinema.

Tarantino's greatest strength as a filmmaker has always been that he's a film junkie: he can reference layer upon layer of high and low art. But the strongest references here are to his own movies--a closeup on Shoshana's lips nearly identical to one from Pulp Fiction but with stakes much higher, and a drop-in grindhouse title on top of a German Basterd (who despite his cartoonish intro also lends weight--Til Schweiger is dangerously, broodingly dominant onscreen, emanating as palpable hatred as Shoshana's every time he's onscreen with the Nazis).

Even the Basterds, who start off as Jewish revenge porn (a crew of Jewish soldiers from the USA dropped in behind enemy lines to destroy as many Nazis as possible?), remind you where the film is really going. Eli Roth, nicknamed "The Bear Jew" and lovingly shot (never thought I'd find the man responsible for Hostel sexy) evokes a remark from Raine that watching him beat Nazis to death "is the closest we get to going to the movies."

They strike back through spectacle, if not explicitly through cinema. They don't just kill Nazis; they scalp them (how American-cinematic!) and leave mutilated bodies to be found, and carve swastikas onto the foreheads of those they let live--in a way, a nod toward what he owes to real victims of the Holocaust--a reminder that all this happened and no one should forget, and a picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words gesture both of mercy (and the word "merci" is never translated in the subtitles, a move that I can't help but think was intentional, particularly in the intro scene between Landa and LaPadite) and of continuing revenge. The story of the Basterds is their real strength, making them outsize cinema-villains. Storytelling is power.

The film cartoonizes Hitler, defanging him not just through violence but by making you laugh at him. It humanizes other Nazis, though, while not forgiving them--Daniel Bruhl as the young soldier who crosses over into cinema and stars in his own life story is almost likable in his flirtation with Shoshana and his need to flee the larger-than-life sight of himself on the movie screen, the dramatized version of his real-life exploits.

Bruhl's character isn't the only one that crosses the borders there--Diane Kruger also does as an actress turned double agent: film into politics into film again. The lines of reality and cinema, for Tarantino, are suddenly more porous, while the rest of his work has always been hyperconscious that it is film. Basterds rockets from the improbable--Mike Myers in heavy makeup recruiting a plummy-accented film critic to go behind enemy lines to meet the Basterds--to the poignantly real, but here it's not just celebrating the fun that movies are, it's making a stronger point about them.

Tarantino's political statement here is that cinema is political. Indeed, the movie wouldn't have to be about Nazis at all but for the fact that no other regime in history so successfully embraced and used film to create and tell its own story.

I had sworn off Nazi movies before this one hit, but I am also a sworn Tarantino fan. So I may say instead that I hope this is the Nazi movie to end all Nazi movies. After all, it's so conclusively rewritten history--something perhaps only safe to do with history both as well-known and as disputed as that of Hitler's Germany. Just the fact that he can make this movie leaves you wondering what kind of movies we'd have had the Nazis won. You get the feeling that for Tarantino, one of the most poignant scenes in the film is Shoshana's statement that she has no choice but to play German films.

There are a million tiny perfect moments here--a montage set to David Bowie's "Cat People/Putting Out Fire" with Shoshana putting on her makeup-as-war-paint, a cigarette flying in slow motion through the air to set a pile of film on fire, a request by Landa for a house on Nantucket that I can't help but interpret as a dig at the Bush family's own connections to the Reich, Roth's exuberant outburst after bashing in a Nazi skull complete with Ted Williams references.

I did long for a comeback moment, a la Kill Bill or True Romance, a gesture of personal physical violence from one of the film's female characters. But perhaps the lack of it is an odd gesture for some sort of peace, at least for Shoshana.

Peace. It's not really a theme here, but neither is war. Violence certainly is, but for all the vicarious thrills (and heck, I'm Jewish, I enjoy them as much as anyone) the feeling given is less that violence is good and more that those thrills SHOULD be vicarious. Bashing people's heads in with a baseball bat isn't actually a solution to a problem, and if you want to burn down the theater to take your enemies out, you may well go out with it.

Still, I haven't left a movie theater with a wicked grin like I did tonight in a while, and that's the pleasure Tarantino has always given--lines to quote, laughs to remember later, visuals that stick with you, and stories, always stories.

It's just that here, his story actually says something.