Monday, April 19, 2010

The Ignominious and the "Inglorious"

A gentleman of advancing years, upon seeing the trailer for "Inglorious Basterds" one evening, leaned over in his theater seat and told me in no uncertain terms that the film looked like a piece of garbage. At the time I did not disagree with him, as this gentleman is a dear friend of mine, and has a particularly colorful history, including the intimate knowledge of modern warfare in all its various forms throughout the years. I understood his objections. The trailer didn't do much for me either, leaving a vague feeling of embarrassment and unease at the thought of Quentin Tarantino mining WWII for splatterfest material. Those fears were mostly allayed with the positive reviews that accompanied the film's release and the smattering of kudos during awards season.

However, I couldn't help thinking of my friend's reaction to the trailer as I was watching "Inglorious Basterds." Thankfully the gory excesses of the title characters alluded to in the trailer were brief, but they were still intrusive. "Basterds" was sold as a pulpy, over-the-top action picture akin to Tarantino's last features, "Death Proof" and "Kill Bill." The anticipation of orgiastic violence hung over every frame, a distraction from what turned out to be a fairly restrained outing for the director, even with a fiery finale where much of the Third Reich is blown to smithereens. Intimate, dialogue-heavy scenes far outnumbered the broader action sequences, and anachronistic flourishes were relatively few.

Still, there's no getting around the major liberties Tarantino took with historical fact, and by the end of the movie, "Inglorious Basterds" resembles nothing so much as WWII alternate-universe fanfiction. The characters exist in a recreation of the cinematic depictions of WWII in 40s period films, rife with Tarantino's trademark homages, rather than the actual reality of the time. I had a hard time with the tone, which often shifted from farcical to dead serious and back again, sometimes in a single scene. The film opens with a suspenseful, utterly serious encounter with the villain Hans Landa, quickly followed by the Basterds' introduction from the trailer, in all its cheerfully pulpy excess.

And what to make of scenes where relatively realistic characters like Diane Kruger's Bridget von Hammersmark share the screen with wild caricatures like Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine and Eli Roth's bat-wielding Sgt. Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz? Tarantino wants to have it both ways, the exaggerated stylization and the genuine sentiment, and ends up with a picture that quick-steps around heavier themes and feels devoid of depth and consequence. This works for lighter fare like "Zombieland" and "Tropic Thunder," but "Inglorious Basterds," which evokes the weight of so much history, often comes off as dreadfully flippant with its material – just as my dear gentleman friend had feared.

In spite of this, I have to say the movie was well-made and parts of it were very entertaining. The predominantly European cast was excellent, especially Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa and both of the female leads. It took me a while to figure out what Brad Pitt was doing, but once it clicked that he and the other Basterds were Tarantino's amped-up answer to the Dirty Dozen, and meant to act as a counterweight to the film's hysterical Hitler, I got the joke. I just wish it didn't make me wince so badly.

A few days ago I watched another WWII film from last year, the Danish "Flame and Citron," which was about two Danish resistance assassins operating during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Like "Inglorious Basterds," it had plenty of intrigue, violence, and visceral thrills, but I found "Flame and Citron" much more satisfying. It couldn't match Tarantino for style or wit or dazzle, but it did present its material directly and candidly. And in the end I thought it had much more to say.

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