INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS: Misspelled Masterpiece

30 08 2009

The botched spelling of the title of Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS says much about the film it announces. This is a movie that takes joy in getting it wrong; a bastardization of the Second World War, and – title aside – a fully glorious one at that.

Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine ... Eli Roth as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. "The Bear Jew."

Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine ... Eli Roth as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. "The Bear Jew."

For those who have yet to see the film, here’s what you need to know: it’s a fairy tale about killer Jews, divided into five acts, each filled with more blood than the last. If that description in any way disgusts you, feel free to never see INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and, really, the same goes for all the rest of Tarantino’s movies.

For the rest of you: see this fucking movie, then come on back to the Spielblog. Your three hours, including travel time, start now.

And hello again. Ahem. Amazing, right? Well, I’m glad we agree. I like you. Yet, there are some who have blasted BASTERDS, suggesting that crafting a revenge fantasy from the Jewish experience in WWII is distasteful at best, and irresponsible at worst. But to criticize this film for historical heresy is about as pointless as calling foul on the the ‘u’ in its title. BASTERDS isn’t about history, it’s about how films treat history. It’s a war film about war films: the catharsis they’re capable of achieving, and the hypocrisy of many “anti-war” films, which deliver the same body counts as BASTERDS, under the facade of exposing the horrific brutality of war. No such moral acrobatics here, folks. This is a buffet of the finest fascist demolition this side of the Ark of the fucking Covenant, and it’s clearly not Tarantino’s game to punish the viewer for the pleasure they extract from it.

Aldo Raine wants his scalps... Don't we all.

Aldo Raine wants his scalps... Don't we all.

But BASTERDS isn’t pure exploitation. There is a twist, a fantastic, though somewhat understated self-reflection at play in Tarantino’s saga. (Take note, that’s likely the only time you’ll read the word ‘understated’ applied to Quentin Tarantino.)

Nazis, he notes, took the same pleasure from their own theatre of exploitation. BASTERDS’ fifth and final act takes place in a French movie house, where a new propaganda spectacular, ‘Nation’s Pride,’ is being premiered. Hitler, Goebbels, and other proud fascists watch with glee as row after row of Allied soldier are mowed down on-screen. With this film-within-a-film playing in the background of his compulsively-watchable climax, Tarantino is drawing a clear parallel to his own ultra-violence, but, ever the showman, he’s not slowing down proceedings to do so.

BASTERDS’ final image has Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine staring down into camera, as he carves a swastika into the forehead of Colonel Hans Landa: we the viewer are in the perspective of the Nazi, as if to suggest our voyeuristic schadenfreude is, primally, substantively, no different from the fascists’. And we bear the mark of our savagery – like Landa – as the screen cuts to black, and credits roll.

Yet I – and likely you – left the theater not disgruntled by a moralizing filmmaker, but satisfied by a bloody, shaggy tale, and all its provocative implications. Only because Tarantino has presented us an entertainment over all, does his final provocation satisfy instead of irritate. Simply put, if this weren’t such a damned fun movie throughout, the viewer would never equate himself with the Nazis who are getting identical enjoyment from their own violent vehicle, ‘Nation’s Pride.’

In the sense that this is a war film aware of its entertainment value, there is a comparison worth mentioning here, to this year’s excellent THE HURT LOCKER.

It's a good HURT.

It's a good HURT.

Very different war, very different war film, but both Tarantino and LOCKER’s director Kathryn Bigelow operate with the same m.o., the same basic understanding, that any situation in which this moment could be your last, that’s suspense defined, and suspense, that’s entertainment defined. It’s obviously not  that wars are themselves entertainment, but fictions about war, even those that depict it as the hell it is, rely, in full or in part, on the inherent suspense of combat. Unlike every other film about the Iraq war, (or rather, this Iraq war,) THE HURT LOCKER eschews political commentary in favor of pure tension and action, from its first minute on in. And BASTERDS similarly holds back any whiff of social commentary until practically its last shot. Though both films sit on opposing ends of the reality spectrum, they’re each constructed similarly, episodically, around small set pieces of tension, leading to explosive finishes. And, even more similarly, they’re both among the best of 2009.

Film is fake – no matter the pretensions of the “truth-seeker” producing it. Ceci n’est pas une pipe – or une Nazi scumbag, as the case may be. Adolf fucking Hitler blew his brains out in a bunker, a coward to the end, depriving the world of the catharsis of his trial, conviction, and execution on the public stage. That Quentin Tarantino has given Hitler’s death back to the public by re-staging it as a work of wish-fulfillment, is more than just comic effigy. It’s an act that speaks to the core nature of all cinema.

Other words, this one ain’t just pulp fiction.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Castro Theatre, San Francisco

Saturday August 22, 7:45pm showing