Inglourious Basterds

Posters
2009
Quentin Tarantino

5/10 (Mind-numbing boredom after the first scene)

I was excited to see this movie, I really was. Tarantino isn’t a perfect director, but he’s inarguably entertaining. The only film of his that I haven’t seen was his half of the “Grindhouse” collaboration, and from what I heard I didn’t miss anything. Of his other films, I have ranked none below an 8.

I sat down to view “Basterds” with a friend and it started out at the level of my expectations. The first scene is mesmerizing, with a slow tension build-up, Tarantino’s silly banter translated into French before moving into English, and Christopher Waltz’s masterful Landa, perpetually keeping you off-balance as he straddles the line between cartoonish and sinister. In that first scene, the way that he slowly directs the action from a jolly and perhaps naive conversation into a deadly interrogation, gradually revealing that he knows much more than the trapped farmer ever suspected. . . well, there aren’t words to do it justice. I would even label those first 20 minutes or so as must-see, and I give credit equally to Tarantino for the script and Waltz for the performance (even if I did find it a little distracting to witness a typical Tarantino gabfest by way of subtitles).

My fires were stoked at this point, and I was ready for a glorious movie. The next two scenes came and went and I met Brad Pitt in an unconvincing camp role, barking in a weird southern accent that didn’t sound like anything from reality, and I was still waiting. The movie still had enough credit left over from the first scene to coast along for a bit, and I was sure that something really good was going to come soon.

Then the second hour came and went, and I stopped waiting, instead allowing the irritation to set in. It seemed like nearly every scene was a lesser rehash of the first — a meandering 15-minute conversation that leads eventually to something more interesting, but only after being drawn out to ridiculous lengths. The only other scene that approached the first one for brilliance was the meeting/shootout in the basement tavern. But even that felt formulaic, just following the pattern laid out by the unforgettable first scene.

Everything began to irritate me, from Tarantino’s snappy dialogue to the hammy performances to the violence. . . everything just seemed like a little (or sometimes a lot) too much. For example, we know Tarantino does interesting dialogue. But it doesn’t read nearly as well as it sounds. And instead of just having all of his characters speak English so that we can hear the dialogue, he has to be “realistic” by having his characters, halfway through the conversation, request that they begin speaking English. It was just weird.

Then the film went from irritating to obnoxious. I think it was the close-up of one of the Basterds scalping a Nazi that did it for me. There was simply no reason on earth that I needed or wanted to see it, and the entire thing could have been adequately conveyed by showing him performing the action off-screen, and then holding up the bloody scalp as a trophy. Showing the actual scalping was just too much, and it seemed like Tarantino put it there specifically to bother people. Which is to say, specifically to be obnoxious. At that point I realized the problem of the film: Tarantino had let far too much of his own obnoxious and over-the-top personality invade the movie, thereby making the movie itself obnoxious and over-the-top.

How did this obnoxiousness manifest itself? Primarily with a plot that was completely secondary to the point of the movie. Besides the fact that the titular Basterds had little-to-nothing to do with the outcome of the film (nor did they have as much screentime as one might have expected from the promotional materials), the entire plot was simply a vehicle to showcase the sparring conversations and tense situations that Tarantino loves. I believe he loves them, and he clearly thought that we would love them as much as he did, but it didn’t work out that way. It made the pacing terrible and the action too sparse. And the conversations themselves just got annoying after awhile.

Obviously though, not everybody felt this way. In fact I seem to be in the vast minority. So let me explain what I think happened. I think that people got really excited by the prospect of Tarantino working with Pitt on a WWII movie, and when the general thrust of the plot leaked out — a fictionalized band of murderous Nazi-hunting Jews assassinate Hitler — this fueled the fire. The fact that they knew that Tarantino had been working on the film for 10+ years undoubtedly heightened this. The movie officially became “a labor of love.” So they went in prepared to be wowed, and were appropriately impressed with that first unbeatable scene, which set a magnificent tone to the film. It probably threw them off a bit, being somewhat unexpected, but it worked well, and in hindsight they had to recognize it as the work of a master. They justifiably crowned Christopher Waltz the Best Supporting Actor for his enthralling performance.

From that point, however, their critical faculties took a vacation, and they saw what they wanted to see to reinforce their high expectations, ignoring the various shortcomings of the film (and there are many). They were so surprised by Pitt’s departure as Aldo Raine that they mistook a confusing performance for a great one. Perhaps they were relieved to see a relative decrease in violence after the “Kill Bill”s and “Grindhouse,” so they praised the “deliberate pacing” and the “simmering tension.” They ignored the fact that the entire movie followed the same formula laid out in the first scene, and that Tarantino’s own dialogue style has been overdone, chiefly by Tarantino himself. They overlooked the fact that the only sympathetic character in the film gets unceremoniously killed 20 minutes before the ending, leaving a gaping emotional hole that is never filled.

Most confusingly, they began to read into the movie all sorts of satire and commentary on war, violence, and Nazis, when Tarantino has made it abundantly clear that he has no such aims in his films. He makes his movies violent because he grew up as a teenager on bloody films, and he is still in many ways a teenager. He made a WWII revenge fantasy where the Nazis are defeated because he’s little more than a movie fanboy, and that’s what fanboys do — they write alternate-universe histories.

Actually I lied in the above paragraph. The most confusing thing for me is that I’ve seen many critics that actually called the movie “entertaining,” when I found this to be the opposite of the case. The majority of the movie was so slow and wandering, and only punctuated by the most occasional payoff, that I lost interest a little over halfway through. In a way I felt guilty because I recognized amid my boredom that Tarantino was doing some interesting things — cinematography and acting being the chief ones. But I couldn’t escape the fact that the movie simply wasn’t enjoyable in the least (again, apart from the first scene).

That was the basis of my original criticism, that even if it possesses higher qualities, a film needs to at least be enjoyable and engaging in order to be considered great. It can’t just be technically proficient. By that criterion, “Basterds” is far from great. And I don’t even consider it technically proficient, as I’ve tried to show with its various editing and script problems.

So in the end, I would never recommend this film unless I wanted to put somebody to sleep. If you see it after reading this review, I would urge you to empty your mind of all the hype to the greatest extent possible, and then use your own eyes and critical thinking faculties to judge it.

A better alternative would be to just watch the first scene and then turn it off. Consider it a short. Then you can imagine how the rest of the movie would have been a repeat of that scene, occasionally with a barking Pitt, but not nearly as good, and with all the Nazis dying in a burning theater at the end.

By doing this, you will save yourself two hours, during which you can watch “Reservoir Dogs” and still have thirty minutes left over.

27 March 2010

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