Tuesday, August 25, 2009

This Week in Arrested Development, Part 1: Inglourious Basterds

Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I've ever met... see I have this thing: everything on a plane is single-serving...
Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it's very clever.
Narrator: Thank you.
Tyler Durden: How's that working out for you?
Narrator: What?
Tyler Durden: Being clever.
Narrator: Great.
Tyler Durden: Keep it up then... Right up.

After watching "Inglourious Basterds", I was reminded of the above exchange from "Fight Club". My thoughts about "Basterds" were a bit complicated before I entered the theater. I downloaded and read the widely-leaked screenplay for "Basterds" well over a year ago and admit my reaction to it was quite underwhelming. When the mixed reviews came out of Cannes, it gave me more motivation to skip the film and wait for DVD. This feeling may have also been combined with my lessening appreciation of the work of Quentin Tarantino, save for two of his movies.

Then, "Inglourious Basterds" was finally released this past Friday to near-unanimous rave reviews with many critics calling it an exhilarating and audacious work with several naming it one of Tarantino's best or the best movie of this year by far. The first thing that came to my mind was that I could not reconcile the enthusiasm of the reviews with my reaction to the script I read. However, the more feedback I heard concerning the film made me curious and consider that I may have been wrong.

I am reminded of the time I read Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums" months before its release. Minus Anderson's visuals, the script seemed somewhat terse and cold. However, I was only getting half the film experience with the details in the filmmaking and the strength of the performances bringing out more than I saw on the page. Perhaps, like "Tenenbaums", "Basterds" played better seen than read and that, no matter what, it was worth seeing and discussing. So, sometime yesterday, I popped into the famous Ziegfeld Theater to catch an afternoon show of the movie.

And, after all that, I was still underwhelmed.

I almost tempted to call the film a tedious build-up to nothingness, although I will admit that the film is not completely pointless, but its ultimate theme is completely superficial to me and somewhat self-serving on Tarantino's part. "Basterds" is not even worthy of the controversy surrounding its portrayal of Jews, as well as its rewriting of history. It is an exploitation movie operating on the belief that it is art, while never fully committing to being either. It is a movie that believes that it is clever, when it is shockingly dull. So, how's that working out for you?

There is no question that Quentin Tarantino is a talented writer and director. He certainly has a distinctive voice. I would say that his films are often great experiences on first viewings. I am impressed by the hilarious dialogue, the often terrific performances and the willingness to turn some genre cliches on their head. Tarantino films gave me this feeling up until I saw his half of "Grindhouse", "Death Proof", where the dialogue felt tired and shapeless, with the characters spouting his words often annoying and self-conscious. It was when it first began to bother me that all of his characters sounded the same because they all talked like Tarantino when he is being interviewed, proud of their loquaciousness and their ability to make references to older movies.

Admittedly, before the release of "Death Proof", my opinions on both "Pulp Fiction" and the "Kill Bill" saga waned because I believe both films worked better in parts than as wholes. The dialogue that, at first, seemed funny and original now seemed dated and more than a little self-satisfied. These are certainly not bad movies, as both have enough great moments for them to satisfy on the level of entertainment, though not depth. "Pulp" comes across as a collection of clever concepts that does not really amount to much, outside of the self-appreciation of its own daring. The "Kill Bill" films feel completely unnecessary. 4 1/2 hours of a film about vengeance that does not really have much to say about its subject matter. Compare Tarantino's "Kill Bill" saga to any of the Park Chan-Wook films in his Vengeance trilogy and it is like comparing a crayon drawing to a Picasso.

I would also admit that what is important to me now in films is not what was important to me back during the time that Tarantino was becoming Quentin Tarantino, Star Director. There's that part of me that automatically assumes that I have grown up while Tarantino's films have regressed into a more immature state, which may be too much of an assumption to make on my part, but I cannot entirely dismiss.

Tarantino has two movies I consider to have stood the test of time: "Reservoir Dogs" and, especially "Jackie Brown". When you watch "Dogs", you are reminded that it was possible for Tarantino to make a film that was not bloated and enamored with its own cleverness. The film is certainly not deep, but is tightly constructed and directed with dialogue that plays real enough to still be funny and memorable to this day. When these crooks attempt to barter the colors they are going to take as aliases, you can believe that real criminals would argue over something that petty.

"Jackie Brown", though, is Quentin Tarantino's strongest work, by far. It was the one time I truly felt Tarantino put the needs of the characters before his need to show off his own writing. Although the movie is a genre crime movie on the surface, I also consider it one of the best movies about aging and being past one's prime. Although you can certainly credit Elmore Leonard for providing the source material, Tarantino's work as a director never stops to admire his work as a writer. He always serves the emotions of the characters. Has there ever been a more effective unrequited love story between two middle-aged people than the one between Jackie Brown and Max Cherry? You can sense that this movie was the one time Tarantino did not shy away from human emotion.

Since "Jackie Brown" is my favorite Tarantino film, you will hopefully understand that I do not have anything against long running times for a film dominated by a great deal of dialogue. In the case of "Inglourious Basterds", I simply thought the screenplay was rather self-indulgent which resulted in a film that was both unwieldy and uninvolving. When I had read the script last year, it had failed on the most basic level any poor script failed: I simply could not see the movie. Having now watched "Basterds", I still do not see the movie.

This film contains an overly complicated plot that is often explained in never-ending dialogue set-up because there are probably less than about 20 scenes in the entire film. That's right. This WWII exploitation movie has a similar scene structure to, say, a John Cassavetes film. But, in a Cassavetes film, scenes build and build to get at the raw and awkward emotions brewing between the characters, while Tarantino's film consists of scene after scene where either a plan is discussed or someone is hiding a secret, then the secret or plan is revealed or close to being revealed which leads to either violence or a skin-of-the-teeth evasion.

While I certainly do not have a problem with lengthy scenes, there was a pattern to my reaction to watching this kind of scene again and again. Most of it involved Tarantino's inability as a writer to get to the point, within scenes and sometimes within sentences, and his lack of ability as a director or sense of editing to realize when he is overselling the suspense of an individual scene. I would find the set-up to these scenes intriguing and felt they mostly did build up some genuine suspense, but then dragged the suspense on so long that the ending to each scene was telegraphed long before it happened. Once again, Tarantino is done in by being enamored with his own cleverness. When a director is patting himself on the back so often for the potential instead of the follow-through, it certainly gets more than a little wearying.

These scenes would also be better served if we actually were a little more involved with the characters onscreen. However, due to the clunky structure of the script where each of the central characters take turns disappearing for an hour, we never spend enough time with any of them to invest ourselves in their storylines. The main villain, Col. Hans Landa, aka "The Jew Hunter", is surprisingly the most three-dimensional character of the story. It also helps that the actor Christoph Waltz (who I do not believe I have ever seen before) gives such a great performance, knowing when to be subtle and when to go over-the-top just enough. I particularly loved his scene at the end where he takes more pride in his exceptional detective skills than the nickname bestowed on him.

I will say that the performance of Melanie Laurent helps the somewhat underwritten Shoshanna become more than just another vengeance seeker though the role is still a slight variation of the Bride from "Kill Bill". There is also some good work by Michael Fassbender in his three scenes, particularly his last moments, though it is unfortunate that more people will remember him from this movie than his fantastic work in "Hunger", where he performs in a scene as long as the tavern sequence in "Basterds", but in a movie that is interested in something more than genre celebration.

On the other end of the acting scale, we have Brad Pitt, who speaks in a ridiculous accent (yes, I know it's not supposed to be real, but it didn't work on a cartoon level) and wears a bizarrely constipated expression on his face for the entirety of his performance. Between his one facial expression here and his blank expression through "Benjamin Button", it is quite odd to say that his silly performance in "Burn After Reading" was his most nuanced in the last year. Also, Tarantino chose to cast "Hostel" director Eli Roth in a fairly significant role, perhaps to fill the void Tarantino used to fill of having a director give a lousy performance in his films. Roth wears a smirk on his face through all of his scenes, almost reflecting the expression I believe Tarantino wears when he is behind the camera. It also does not help that the Basterds are largely inconsequential to the storyline (when you think about it for awhile), despite being the title characters of the film.

The structure of the screenplay works very hard against the film, particularly since each character lacks even a moment to suggest a life outside of the frame. Yes, I believe that is necessary even when they are supposed to be genre archetypes. Look at how the Coen Brothers develop their characters through action, behavior and spare, but carefully chosen words. This movie struggles to jam in so many characters, most of whom contribute little to the story and certainly do not add anything thematically. There is a entire section early on dedicated to the German-born Basterd Hugo Stiglitz, as if the character will play a significant role later on, but it never pays off. That segment is only included for Tarantino to have an outrageous digression. In fact, the movie gives every character a big entrance and then forgets to give them anything interesting as follow-up.

I can appreciate that Tarantino loves film. I can also understand many people praising this film almost as a way of showing solidarity with him, considering that "Basterds" is being released at the end of what was another dispiriting and lousy slate of summer films. That said, movies that are ultimately about other movies or the power of making movies do not appeal to me in the slightest bit these days. According to Tarantino, movies can be used to avenge mass atrocities, kill evil men, and win a war. I love movies as well, but I do not find Tarantino's idealism endearing, but rather reductive and more than a little immature. Many of us who love movies will often use them for a certain kind of wish fulfillment that we cannot actually achieve in real life. We wish we can say such sharp dialogue at the right time. We wish we can exact vengeance on those who wronged us. We wish we can place ourselves in the middle of historic events and be responsible for their ultimate outcome. We want to be remembered. We want to be noticed.

It is also hard not to find Tarantino's message more than a little self-congratulatory. One wonders if he believes his own hype so much that he thinks his films can Change The World. I am more likely to think that a film can make an impact if it has something of insight to offer about our world that we have not ever considered before. I certainly do not consider most of Tarantino's work to even come close to approaching that level of depth.

When I was in my twenties, Tarantino's films worked on me for their base pleasures, as I am sure they worked for him on a similar level. I do not want to begrudge Tarantino's screen fantasia, but I also believe it has come out of the expense of his growth as a filmmaker and also exposes his personal fear that if he tries anything different, his fans, expecting a "Tarantino Movie Experience" every time he directs, will reject him. You may think that I may be crazy to accuse a 2 1/2 hour, dialogue-driven film that is mostly subtitled of playing it safe, artistically. But, during this movie, I was consistently aware of Tarantino keeping his cards close to the vest. The one question I continue to ask myself, after having read the script and then after watching the movie, is what was I supposed to get out of the experience outside of a director trying way too hard to convince us of his love for cinema, but revealing little of himself beyond that?

If Tarantino so much wanted to promote the love of cinema itself, perhaps he could move beyond homage and truly present a directorial vision that did not rely on past knowledge of other, better directors' films. I have seen Sergio Leone be Sergio Leone, but I do not need to see Tarantino ape Leone's style with not nearly as strong a sense of composition while raiding the music catalogue of Ennio Morricone for some of the most wince-inducing obvious music cues in the history of motion pictures. Though I grant that Tarantino's major showcase is his dialogue, one wonders how much his filmmaking would improve if he thought in images a little more, as opposed to the constant shot/reverse shot editing pattern of this film that serves the preservation of his precious words more than anything else.

Watching this film on the big screen, more so than when I read it, the passing of expositional information from one character to another was painful. The attempts at funny one-liners became more strained. A movie such as "Jackie Brown" was just as dialogue-driven, but, for the most part, that dialogue (what they said, as well as what they did not say) was revealing of character. The dialogue of "Basterds" amounts to little more than serving plot and scene set-up, as well as the self-promotion of Tarantino's wit. For the most part, these characters have the depth of action figures of a demented kid concocting his own World War II scenario.

I am beginning to think that Quentin Tarantino is turning into Todd Haynes. Both make films that feel like thesis projects commenting on other films. Like most student film projects, they are overwritten and believe the success of any given movie is measured by the number of homages. They also believe re-staging moments from older films without a fresh point of view counts as genre deconstruction.

"Inglourious Basterds" has its moments. Like other Tarantino movies, it works better in parts than as a whole. But I do not see what others are seeing in it. To me, it feels like Tarantino indulging his somewhat tired schtick. There are times, due to the subject matter, where he threatens to make a movie that does not need to be about other movies, but about life. But Tarantino cannot help himself. For every time he comes close to understanding the emotion of an event such as a young woman witnessing her whole family being slaughtered while barely escaping herself, he will later score a scene with that same character using a middling David Bowie song from the movie "Cat People" to reduce those emotions to rock music cheese. For every moment of possible reflection on something thoughtful, there is a moment of self-satisfied snickering to remind the audience that, yes, we are just watching a movie. Would it kill Tarantino to show a little sincerity beyond his fetishization of film?

Yes, the title of this article may be harsh, but I also do think there is some credibility to the notion. I am aware that I may have, in some ways, moved on from what Quentin Tarantino has to offer as a filmmaker while many of you may feel he contributes something important and relevant to our movie culture. However, with all the raves I have seen proclaiming Tarantino as a true modern cinematic artist, I have to wonder if perhaps some may be a little too invested in the idea of Quentin Tarantino while not being exposed enough to other filmmakers who. although they have obvious movie influences, operate through more than directorial pastiche, such as the previously mentioned Park Chan-Wook. Paul Thomas Anderson, whose early movies wore their influences on their sleeves, eventually evolved into a more original filmmaker with "Punch Drunk Love" and especially "There Will Be Blood". I do not think Tarantino is necessarily an irrelevant filmmaker, but I wonder if we can all ask a little more from him than this draggy and curiously empty film. I certainly think he would be a filmmaker I would appreciate more if he stopped trying so damned hard to be clever.

Inglourious Basterds was viewed at the Clearview Ziegfeld Theater.


Craig said...

My parents actually saw this a day before I did, and when we talked after their showing my dad predicted, correctly, "The debate on this one ought to be good." He disliked the movie almost as much as you did. My mom, also a senior citizen, loved it almost as much as I.

Yours is a strong takedown, one I respect. I don't think the critical reaction has quite reached a consensus. IB's Metacritic score is 69 -- respectable but with dissent from Denby, Turan and Dargis, among others.

I have a complicated reaction toward Tarantino. My initial reaction to one of his movies is often uncertainty, followed by growing admiration after further viewings. There's a layer of shallowness on the surface, but with greater depths beneath -- depths of character, theme and feeling. A more perfect filmmaker might successfully keep out the cruder elements of his movies, but I also think they'd be a lot less interesting. It's the unresolved tension between these elements that I find fascinating and enduring.

The argument against "cleverness" is also a tricky subject, and I'd take greater issue were I more hypocritical. Certain people in the movie business or certain topics simply rub each of us the wrong way. For instance, I despise "Juno" and Diablo Cody more than words can say. I think her worldview, and the worldview of that movie, are absolutely toxic. Tarantino's movies don't bother me in the same way (bearing in mind that they are very different movies), because unlike Cody, I'm not left with the sense that he's endorsing everything he puts onscreen. (Regardless of what he says offscreen, which I've learned to tune out.) Tarantino's not the kind of filmmaker who stacks the deck, as "Juno" does with the scene featuring the insensitive radiologist who is there so the main characters can take pot-shots at her. He creates the sense of letting the cards fall where they may, of following whims and digressions, and I admire his films for that.

I think if QT were truly a clever boy, he would have made the 100-minute action flick that Boss Harvey tried pressuring him into doing. The longer, talkier movie he made could be seen as self-indulgent, but there's the kind of indulgence that's inaccessible and the kind that's open and playful, and I see "Inglourious Basterds" as firmly in the latter camp. I'm exhilarated by cleverness when it's filled with the generosity of spirit his films generate.

Steven Santos said...

Craig: I almost feel the debate recently has more revolved around its depiction of Jews and WWII more than the filmmaking itself, which I suggested in my article, is not a debate this movie really earns. It is pretty clear that the movie is not realistic, so its rewriting of history did not bother me.

My reaction to the film and Tarantino is complicated as well. I reiterate that he is incredibly talented (the likes of the phony Diablo Cody do not come close to approaching him), but it is how he employs his gifts that bother me.

Before I had even read the script, I was looking forward him doing this movie and thought doing an old-fashioned WWII mission movie (which this is) would be somewhat out of his comfort zone, but still suited for his voice and interests. Instead, this movie goes so deep into the land of movie references and literally becomes about movies themselves that I found it dull. I thought the most three dimensional character was Landa, but a villainous Nazi probably should not be the entry point of humanity in this story.

My review admittedly reads harsh (and I read your review, which I did not agree with, but completely understood what you got out of the film). I would say though that there is a great movie that can be made from some of the ideas. I do believe the structure and the lengths of Tarantino's scenes in the finished film help to kill what could have been more effective. That's where I'm trying to get at when I say I think his cleverness gets in the way of his writing and directing.

Marcos said...

Great article Steven! One thing I want to bring up which was discussed by a friend and I. As I agree with the statement that Reservoir Dogs is one of his best, there's something very significant to that film. It is the only time I feel Tarantino exhibited concise restraint. I'd go so far as to say it was the last time Sally Menke had real control over the edit. After Dogs Tarantino started sipping the Kool Aid he himself whipped up. If memory serves, on the 15th anniversary DVD, she mentioned reining Quentin's expansive story telling in during the edit process. After Dogs became the juggernaut of Indy Cinema in the early 90's and propelled Tarantino to wunderkind status, what humility/restraint he might've had was gone. Shot multiple times in an extended action scene of violence perhaps.

I think I fall somewhere between you Steven, and Craig in my opinion of the film. I found it to be very funny and very long and filled with too much fluff and fat. Fluff as opposed to something to sink my teeth into. I'm getting pretty bored and downright tired of Tarantino's forced and strained appreciation and empowerment of his female characters. It reminds me of myself in my twenties when I would overdo it showering women with my sensitive insights into their plight. The ladies didn't fall for it then. Do they now when they watch these moments in his films? I agree with Craig in that Tarantino films get better with repeat viewings. I haven't watched Kill Bill since I first saw the two films in the theatre. Admittedly, the desire hasn't struck me. The points Steven raises are more fuel for me not going back to his old films. Although, I'm feeling a review of Dogs and Jackie Brown.

Craig said...

I'm getting pretty bored and downright tired of Tarantino's forced and strained appreciation and empowerment of his female characters. It reminds me of myself in my twenties when I would overdo it showering women with my sensitive insights into their plight.

This is a good (and amusing) point. Yet Tarantino also has a misogynistic streak that is repellent yet admittedly fascinating when butting heads with the above sentiments. It's definitely, for him, as real a preoccupation as De Palma's own recurring themes.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I just saw this film on DVD and agree whole heartedly wih you.