Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Friday, August 21, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

This is a FILM with blood in its veins, a heart in its body and a red hot engine in its chassis. It is alive with ideas and a geniune belief in the power of FILM to express them. As with all great films, Words will fail from the beginning to explain why this is such an amazing piece of cinematic art but we will try to use them.

Alfred Hitchcock used to love to give journalists a characteristically deadpan lesson in suspense filmmaking through an anecdote about "THE TICKING BOMB". The gist of it was that three men sitting around a table talking about baseball or the weather was by the very nature of MOTION pictures-boring. But any scene involving mundane dialogue or exposition becomes instantly suspenseful to the audience once they've been tipped off that a ticking bomb has been placed under the table. The audience would watch AND LISTEN helplessly while the unsuspecting characters went on talking about batting averages or whatever. The audience would think, "Don't talk about baseball you fools, there's a bomb under that table!"

Now, if you're Quentin Tarantino and you love to write dialogue that goes on for pages and pages then this device becomes your secret weapon. How can a filmmaker get an easily distracted audience to sit still while characters ramble on-well, you get the point. Put a bomb under the table and get the audience worked up into a lather. The skill is in coming up with these ticking bombs so that they aren't always LITERAL ticking bombs. In his latest movie, the spelling challenged INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino becomes so skilled at it that he can even make a glass of milk function as a ticking bomb.

Now this isn't to say some kind of reductionary nonsense that Tarantino is the new Hitchcock. God knows there have been plenty of fools who have come forth over the years and tried to take that mantle. The thing is: No One Can. Hitchcock is almost above criticism since his ideas about film form and content have been so influential it is impossible to separate almost ANY filmmaker from his influence. Even if it came second hand.

Tarantino is a filmmaker who deals with art in the second or third hand. He is a post modernist in the tradition of Brian DePalma who plays with film the way Marcel Duchamp may have once played with found objects in a junkyard. The pieces may have come from this old war picture or that old drive-in flick but once they are appropriated they are owned and operated in a whole new way; transformed into something New charged by the power of something Old.

In the brash confidence of his playful surfaces and the complexity of his pop art games, Tarantino along with DePalma have gone farther than Hitchcock could ever go in playing with form and content. Shackled by the commercial cinema he worked within, Hitchcock could only dream of doing the things that Tarantino does without pause. For a brief moment in the late '60s, Hitchcock shot tests for a film called Kaleidoscope which he wanted to photograph on real locations, with more open sexuality and nudity and using handheld cameras and even perhaps 16mm. Basically it was Hitchcock's idea to take what the French New Wave were doing and to bring those techniques under his more seasoned control the way he took TV production techniques and polished them for Psycho.


Of course MCA-Universal to whom Hitchcock had become a prisoner in a gilded cage wanted nothing of the sort from the master of glossy suspense and the project was shelved cutting off what could've been an exciting final phase of creativity from the director. But these techniques are easily used by Tarantino in a much more complex and almost disposable modern manner-thanks to Godard who showed that a filmmaker could basically do ANYTHING-he can shoot intense closeups in widescreen and invoke the cinema of Sergio Leone in one breath-

Robert Aldrich and THE DIRTY DOZEN in the next-

while framing actors in groups with an eye-level camera the way Howard Hawks would-

Every scene is shot for maximum effect from a cinematic standpoint. With Tarantino you get to watch the whole damn history of cinema explode in front of your eyes at 24fps. And in the fiery inferno that engulfs the cinema at the film's climax, the FILM itself literally does explode.

So, what the hell are these INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS? Well, first of all it's not a remake of the correctly spelled Enzo G. Castellari film INGLORIOUS BASTARDS from 1978 though it makes use of the same "men on a mission" plot device as that film did.

This subgenre spins off of classic 60s movies like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and really from Roger Corman's relatively unknown film The Secret Invasion. But sometime between his initial drafts and what finally hit the screen, Tarantino sorta-kinda-abandoned this plot device as the driving force in his film. Certainly there are MEN in the film and they ARE on a MISSION. But they no longer hold the focus of the film which is quite evenly distributed among several characters some of whom never meet throughout the entire 149 minute running time.

These basterds are a mixed crew of Jewish American soldiers led by Col. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) whose mission is to kill and scalp as many Nazis as possible and put fear into their hearts. This is what they do in most of their scenes in the film which account for perhaps 40 percent of the running time. The rest is focused on the story of Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) whose family is wiped out by the infamous "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa (the incredible Christoph Waltz) in the film's powerful opening sequence. Shoshanna ends up in Paris running a cinema during the Nazi occupation. When a dashing young German soldier (Daniel Bruhl) who is a hero to the Reich for killing hundreds of Allied soldiers falls for her he uses his influence to have her theatre hold the premiere of the propaganda film starring himself and about himself called Nation's Pride. The premiere becomes the center of all the action at the end as Shoshanna sees her chance to avenge her family while the Basterds arrive with their own plan to end the war in one fell swoop: it turns out that not only is the producer of the film, Joseph Goebbels, going to be in attendance but Adolf Hitler himself.

Tarantino doesn't shackle himself to anything with this film. It expresses itself in whatever cinematic vernacular neccessary even indulging in omnscient narration at times through the familiar pipes of Samuel L. Jackson. The score ranges from classic Ennio Morricone pieces and Elmer Bernstein's ZULU theme to David Bowie's title song for Paul Schrader's Cat People "Putting Out Fire". Saving Private Ryan this isn't and thank God. Brad Pitt is in full tonque-in-cheek mode here and he breezes through the movie with his winking wit and hillbilly accent. The real acting kudos go to Mélanie Laurent who looks like a young Denueve but has the fiery intensity of a young Jeanne Moreau and Christoph Waltz whose performance as Hans Landa deservedly earned him the Best Acor prize at the Cannes Film Festival. There are a few minor flaws in the film-Eli Roth's less than convincing performance, Mike Myers overly familiar schtick and the cartoon Adolf Hitler who seems less real than Darth Vader. But not having met the man personally, maybe this was how he carried himself...

There are those who are claiming that this film is some kind of "alternate history" linking it with that peculiar subgenre of generally stiff books in which the South often wins the Civil War or the United States never enters WW2 allowing Hitler to rule Europe to this day. While it's true that Tarantino rewrites history, it's not to wonder about the results of such changes in any fictitious future so much as to revel in the glory of how things could've been if they played out in the wildest fantasy of a pulp writer caught up in his most feverish melodrama. Any resemblance to the real Second World War is purely cosmetic and coincidental. This is a fable played out in broad colours and splashed onscreen from every corner of that storehouse of old movies, Tarantino's mind. Now this doesn't mean that the ideas and consequences of the real world do not affect the film. There is genuine human drama and pain in the film that comes from knowing that the Nazis were real and that many paid the price of their madness. So when Tarantino decides to create his own end to World War 2, he wields this power to create a hallucinatory fantasy of bloodthirsty vengeance. How many would've liked to have seen hundreds of Nazis mowed down in showers of blood or to see the ultimate revenge fantasy, the face of Adolf Hitler shot through again and again by bullets, hot metal tearing at the human flesh and bone and killing the monster over and over ad infinitum.

This climax is a doozy, channeling the works of DePalma (Carrie's fiery prom destruction), Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark's melting Nazis) as well as the slow motion gun ballets of Woo and Peckinpah's entire filmography. But there is a giddyness about the scene that is pure Tarantino, a child-like cruelty expressed in cinematic wish fulfilment fantasies of Nazis trapped like rats, taunted by the face of Shoshanna Dreyfus projected onto the giant screen taunting and laughing at their helplessness; Running for their lives like cowards while the heroic Jews with their weapons blazing settle scores never settled in our own history. And to cap all this off is a single unforgettable and almost throwaway image, one of such power I almost thought I was imagining it: The beams from the projector hitting a wall of rising smoke and creating a ghostly vision of the dead Shoshanna as an Avenging Angel, the very idea of cinematic immortality allowing her to have a posthumous retribution. For Tarantino this is a literal truth, FILM itself brings down the Third Reich.


roxtar said...

With regard to the "unforgettable and almost throwaway image" of Shoshanna's face projected on the billowing smoke:

I realized it had to be there, I knew it had to be coming, I was looking for it........and it was played with such subtlety and deftness that it left me breathless. I thought it was the cinematic highlight of the film. Thanks for picking up on it.

Anonymous said...

Wow. best review i've read so far. Your allusions to how Hitchcock's take on suspense relates to Tarantino's ability to hold the audience in suspense with his signature dialogue is spot on. As a Tarantino fan i appreciate that kind of enthusiastic critique, and perspective, on what is truly one of the most entertaining pieces of film i have ever witnessed.

Nicholas said...

best review of this movie i've seen as of yet. great job highlighting a plot device that was sort of hiding in plain sight for me. this was a good antidote to those mind numbing 'MOVIE WAS AHISTORICAL' reviews.

Anonymous said...

Y get it, and you express PERFECTLY what I thought of this movie, and I agree on every point (except I thought Hitler was portrayed OK, and Pitt's character was about 10% too schticky). The joy of filmmaking and the genius of Tarantino, which I felt was lost in the overly ambitious Kill Bill movies, were what made this an absolutely formidable cinematic experience.

david said...

Thank you this review--putting into words some of the thoughts and emotions that I experienced watching IB.

And that image near the end - it was absolutely amazing.

Great review - thanks.

Anonymous said...

I do think Waltz as Landa was fantastic (who wouldn't) but I'm glad someone else has credited Laurent-she's getting seriously overlooked in the other reviews I've read. Her character was the heart of the story and that scene with her and Landa was just electrifying!

Great review. Totally feel your and QTs enthusiasm leaping off the page here.

Anonymous said...

Great review. Also near the end, the hanging swastika collapses in the theatre. That reminded me of the globe that collapsed at the end of Scarface.

Anonymous said...

BEST review on IB. And I've read most of them, and most of them are obviously not "it getters" when it comes to Tarantino, or film for that matter. Too many hyper-literalists out there passing themselves off as reviewers. You, on the other hand, obviously share my LOVE for film and understand the transformative, transcendent aspect of movies.. oh and yeah, primarily to ENTERTAIN. I love how anything Tarantino does has to be understood through the knowledge of a film lover, that's it all a remix, homage, reference, etc. to his love for film. He's a film lover not a historian. And that's something the literalists don't understand. Thanks for writing this up.

Brian said...

I really appreciate the feedback everyone. It's nice to know I'm not just talking to myself in here.

James said...

I was so glad to stumble over this review as i was happily running through all the reviews of this film . Spot on....Bravo

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