I initially had mixed feelings about both RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION because of the violence in them. It seemed at least partially gratuitous. But they both won my admiration eventually because of their filmic artistry—including flashes of brilliantly original dialogue (even if most of the rest of the dialogue and action were variations on film noir precedents) and the consistently great acting. All of which led me to conclude, like everyone else, here’s a new great director to be the next generation’s Scorcese or Coppola etc.
But after those first two films, what seemed original in a new adult way, became more juvenile, to my mind, focused almost entirely on imitating old movie genres or more recent ones, or mashing them together in some sort of serial homage as backdrop to Quentin Tarantino’s obviously growing commitment to pushing the limits of cinematic violence.
His latest movie, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, with the deliberate misspelling, is basically an extremely long montage of war movie clichés that began with the earliest silent era masterpieces and continued through the early talkies the patriotic inspirational glory days of WWII to post-WWII’s more realistic and serious examinations of the wages of war, and on into the 1960s when “the war” was used as background for fantasy action films like THE DIRTY DOZEN (a mixed race group of Hollywood action stars (mostly) pretending to be the kind of criminal turned elite group the war never saw nor would the customs or the military laws of that time allow) or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (where the kind of elite fighting force that may have existed is pitted against an almost comically large set of “guns” that the then invincible international force of fighters overcomes with the kind of physical heroics only seen in movies) etc.
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS uses some of the same elements of those kinds of WWII fantasy action flicks to piece together—and I do mean piece, as this is a film made up of definite separate pieces that never come together satisfactorily for me—a bloody revenge fantasy that is even farther, much farther, removed from any reality of that war than any past war flick.
It is also, given Tarantino’s obvious knowledge of film history, full of more arcane references to all kinds of movie history. Those references, and other pop cultural references (like the widespread popularity in popular German culture of the German author Karl May, who wrote a series of children’s books about the American West created wholly from books and his imagination since he never visited America), I have to admit, pleased the reader in me whose mind is full of equally arcane facts that most people could care less about.
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS could also be seen as a film that satisfies any lingering, hatred-fueled revenge fantasies someone might have toward Hitler and his minions. There was some heartfelt applause at the film’s end in my little town’s movie theater where I saw it. And it’s making more money than most current releases.
But it’s a failed flick in my opinion. Where the acting was consistently real even when comic in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, it’s as if some of the actors are acting in different movies than the other actors, and some are acting in several different movies all by themselves.
Brad Pitt is always consistently good for my taste and a delight to watch. He’s an incredibly talented movie actor. But in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS he pushes his character as if he’s in a comic satire, unlike the great comic character he played completely seriously in BURN AFTER READING (a film that, to my taste, uses violence and revenge to much greater effect and is a much more unique take on genre movies than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS).
But Christoph Walz, who steals the movie as the main Nazi bad guy, seems to be acting in an entirely different film from Pitt, in a more realistically sinister take on WWII. And the other actors go from almost broad comedy to total realism either from scene to scene or from actor to actor in each scene.
For instance the film’s opening scene is tense, realistic—except for perhaps the loveliness of the three daughters in it, all screen star worthy—and beautifully done, until the climax of the scene. The interaction between Denis Manochet (as a French dairy farmer) and Christoph Walz (as “the Jew hunter” Nazi) is so well done I thought wow, where did he get these actors and what an incredible directing job he’s doing. I had that thrill you get when a movie starts out so strong you surrender to it with the certainty you’re in good hands and are going to have a great ride for the next two hours or so.
But then, to cover for the sudden unreality of the scene’s culmination, the music turns totally schlocky and becomes louder and louder telling us, no commanding us, to feel the supposed power of the moment. It’s so obviously off, you have to conclude it’s deliberate (though having helped doctor many movies in post production it seemed to me to be more of a device to turn a mistake into appearing to be a deliberate choice) and then ask why? The scene was going so well, building so beautifully to a peak of dramatic tension so full of anxious expectation I felt like I was there (what incredible film making it is to give a viewer that feeling) and then poof, here’s the music and the sudden over the top acting and action making it seem like some Brechtian device meant to deliberately break the sense of reality and remind the viewers it’s only a movie, and a schlock genre movie at that.
Okay, that could be amusing and even engaging, and I’m an old fan of Brecht’s and the theatrical devices attributed to him, but…a part of me also was deeply disappointed as I thought, oh no, there’s goes the flick. And there it went, in all kinds of directions, slipping in little homages in certain shots and dialogue and bits of action to a half dozen movies every few minutes, it seemed, while jumping from one incongruous situation to another and constantly doing that Brechtian thing only to such an extent that one shot in one scene would seem so over the top ludicrously unreal followed by the next shot that would seem to be so undeniably real and moving followed by the next shot that would be such an unbelievably unreal macho fantasy I couldn’t tell if Tarantino was criticizing the flicks he was referencing or paying homage to them or just confusedly amusing himself from shot to shot with no concern for an audience, the actors, storytelling or any concept of film art, or if the movie just got away from him as he obviously immersed himself so lovingly and obsessively in the big action scenes and the minutiae of gruesome violence.
That was the worst thing about the flick for me, despite some great action sequences and dramatic scenes here and there (and as usual unexpected cameos, like Rod Taylor as Churchill, not much of a likeness in looks or manner but still an interesting casting choice). The movie seemed to be justifying Nazi atrocities when used by Nazi victims against Nazis.
Yes war is hell and terrible things happen, but in WWII for the most part the American and British troops followed the Geneva accords and what were then considered the “rules of war” and did no raping and pillaging or body mutilation or used Nazi or Japanese torture tactics. In the few cases where that occurred, our troops were actually tried and convicted. And after the war we tried and judged and punished those among the Nazis and the Japanese who committed war crimes.
From what I’ve read, Tarantino claims he’s just riffing on movie violence and means to entertain not take any kind of political stance or acclimate his audiences to more and more brutal violence so that that kind of violence becomes more and more acceptable—but that’s what he’s doing.
When I was a kid, we fought with our fists, a lot as I remember it, and not just kids. Grown men would take arguments outside of bars or parties or wherever and fight with their fists until someone gave up or got knocked out. It could be brutal, but never fatal in my experience, and no innocent bystanders died from it.
There was the occasional use of knives, or even studded belts or car antenna whips or the occasional zip gun made in shop class. But again, no automatic weapon that sprays bullets everywhere hitting mostly innocent people, often children, or handguns so powerful they can blow someone’s chest half open (or dum dum bullets etc.).
Young men didn’t start using guns as violently as the professional mobsters did, mostly on each other, until after THE GODFATHER movies, the way I saw it at the time. The first GODFATHER film seeming so realistically violent a lot of people were actually nauseous after seeing it. Now that seems like kids play compared to the slasher flicks etc.
But Tarantino seems dedicated to glorifying a particularly realistic—yet justified, and the way he films it “heroic”—form of brutal violence that under any other circumstances would be considered psychopathic. One of the last shots in the climax of the movie is a close up of one of the Jewish revenge killers looking like a mad man, not an angry man, but an insane man as he gets his revenge on the Nazi elite. A fantasy that probably many during that war and since have harbored in their minds and hearts, but the flick makes it look like that’s the natural outcome of those revenge fantasies, and maybe when we read of some of the atrocities committed against innocent Palestinians during the most recent invasion of Gaza by the Israeli army that is what we’re supposed to conclude, that the cycle of violence never ends.
But if we all got to act out our violent fantasies against those we think have harmed us or our loved ones, or those who might threaten our security or those we think are up to no good and should be punished for it, there’d be a lot more bloodshed, including that of innocents, than already exists. That’s like young men in gangs in Chicago or Newark or L.A. etc. thinking they’re the “inglorious basterds” of their turf, emulating the movie heroes of their young manhood who act out faux macho fantasies instead of learning about the true price of violence on everyone, including those who commit it.