When it comes to killing the sacred cows of cinema, Quentin Tarantino has no compunction; in fact, Quentin Tarantino mutilates and maims the consecrated cattle with gleeful abandon. Time and time again, the Reservoir Dogs director has driven down the holy herd, yanked udders and beat them bovine to bloody mincemeat before proceeding to offer them up as cinematic spaghetti bolognese.
Inglourious Basterds is, unsurprisingly, no exception and is firmly Tarantino sticking two fingers up to ‘the Man’, tossing aside the rulebook and running roughshod over ‘what is done’. It’s there right from the atrocious spelling of the title (I don’t care if it’s phonetics, an allusion to exported Italian war flicks or an ‘artistic flourish’: it offends my inner pedant). Conforming to convention is just not QT’s style, but would you have him any other way?
For over ten years we’ve been anticipating Tarantino’s war ensemble flick, expecting a kick-arse action caper in the vein of Kelly’s Heroes. Whatever it is though, it is not a straight-forward war film and despite his frequent comments that he is a huge fan of genre movies, as a filmmaker it is impossible for the man to do something so clear cut and easy to categorise.
Inglourious Basterds is nothing like The Dirty Dozen: it’s more like Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown with Nazis. Nothing happens in those movies, but with Inglourious Basterds nothing happens more than has previously not happened in the auteur’s other works (yes, I’m just as bemused as you are).
I swear that, through the whole film, more time is devoted to a few rounds of the famous-person-on-my-forehead guessing game than to the total Basterd brutality and men-on-a-mission carnage. It’s strange that Tarantino carries a reputation as being a purveyor of sadistic violence, when in truth he’s more about dialogue.
If anything he loves talking and the episodes of Inglourious Basterds unfurl as lengthy sequences of conversation. The characters just talk and talk and talk with only the occasional stop to consume a glass of milk or a plate of strudel. After that they talk and talk and talk some more. It’s slow going but on reflection it’s skilful screenwriting and narrative creation. All the waffle is worth it when it comes to the realisation of the climax as the director fleshes out the compelling characters and crafts highly suspenseful cat-and-mouse scenarios.
I can’t help but feel a little frustrated that there isn’t more gung-ho “let’s go scalp some Nazis!” stuff and Where Eagles Dare-style undercover ops, but such is the nature of the ensemble pic, made up as it is of diverse sub-plots.
Just as it would’ve been brilliant to have more of the Basterds, I’d love to know more of Shoshanna the vengeful Jew’s story and get additional intense interrogation scenes featuring the sublime charms of multilingual übervillain Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (played with magnificent malevolence by Christoph Waltz).
Because Tarantino ended up scrapping the plan to put it out as a TV series, we only get tantalising hints of the rich Inglourious Basterds universe in his head. In my opinion, it would’ve been perfect had the Kill Bill director packaged his brainchild for the small-screen instead of producing a motion picture that, whilst fantastic and thought-provoking, is testing and fragmentary.
But Tarantino doesn’t care what I, the critics or anyone else thinks; when he makes a film he makes it first and foremost for himself. Is this egotistical megalomania? Yeah, probably, but I reckon we need some of that in the film industry. If there were no rogue personalities or mavericks around, the number of faceless flicks, generic templates and empty blockbusters would be greater, and ultimately the audience and the world of cinema would be poorer for it.
Just as the Basterd world is too big to squeeze into a single movie, Tarantino is too much of a film buff and too much of an eccentric individualist to be able to make a simple war flick, which is why people will be turned off by his new release.
If they’re looking for an edgy two-and-a-half-hour trip of excitement and Nazi slaughter, they’ll be disappointed when they find they’ve got a slow-burning multifaceted thing more concerned with making nods to obscure 30s German cinema than torturing SS troopers. When Tarantino flies off on his ‘flourishes’ and tangents – suddenly sparking into an explosive black comedy climax or juxtaposing serious and dramatic tone with a Sammy L. Jackson voiceover explaining the technical properties of film reel – the audience is going to be thrown even further.
If you want to see a modern movie about secret plans to pulverise Hitler and his inner circle, see Valkyrie. If, however, you can totally immerse yourself in Tarantino’s vision, go through its motions and acquiesce to his complete creative control, there’s a unique film viewing experience to be had in Inglourious Basterds.
It can’t help that ten years of hype and speculation has the world anticipating bombastic spectacle and combat splatter, nor does it really help that not even a battalion of Panzers could successfully withstand the onslaught of self-indulgence and pretentious film referencing that the movie packs in. Nevertheless, I personally appreciate Inglourious Basterds for being an oddball piece of work that’s like nothing else around, and for that, I am truly thankful.
In an industry that is all too often dictated by considerations of box office income and appealing to particular targeted marketplaces, it’s comforting to know that there are creative figures out there aiming to be original, determined to defy convention. The world is a better place for idiosyncratic outsiders and startling swerveballs and in filmmaking I’d say that – in terms of infamy and success – Tarantino is identifiable as the biggest director with total creative control.
Inglourious Basterds is pretty much a declaration of ‘damn it! I’m going to make just whatever the heck kind of movie I want and I don’t care what people think about it!’ And why should he? After rising to renown with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the early ‘90s, Tarantino was hailed as the ‘King of Indie Filmmaking’. If we take “indie” to mean ‘independent’, then proves that the man is more indie than ever.
James’ previous column can be found here.