Whether you find Quentin Tarantino an arrogant, over-rated prick raised to stratospheric levels by the worship of his zombie fanboys or whether you consider him Hollywood’s most stylish and original visionary, the main reason for either assessment is essentially the same.
And that is that Quentin Tarantino’s movies are about one and only one thing.
In cinemascope and full technicolor.
Inglourious Basterds is no exception. It is pure Tarantino. A tongue-in-cheek tribute both to the conventions of the war movie and also to B-grade revenge exploitation flicks (Tarantino’s favorite genre) “Inglourious Basterds”‘ is unalloyed Quentin in its shameless self-absorption.
Much of Tarantino’s work is characterized by his uber-geeky reverence of non-mainstream cinema and Inglourious Basterds is possibly the most egregiously centered on the art of making movies than any of his previous ventures. Much of the dramatic action centers around a theater, imbued by the plot with the power of life and death over the protagonists. Rolls of film become a weapon in both the figurative and literal sense. Operation Kino, the plot to assassinate key members of the Nazi top brass, is (I believe) taken from the name of one of the world’s foremost distributors of classics and arthouse foreign flicks. A climactic scene takes place in the projector room. One of the heroic macho men is a film critic. One of the heroines is an actress. The basterds disguise themselves as film crew. And in an exquisitely choreographed pre-climactic sequence, the theater screen comes alive in a deliriously surreal vision of retribution, sure to take one’s breath away.
Most importantly however Inglourious Basterds is a testament to the power of the director to be all-powerful, as Tarantino uses the privilege of holding the megaphone to lovingly develop a character for an hour and them finish him off abruptly, to re-imagine and re-cast history the way He wants, to create fairy tales (“Once upon a time in Nazi Germany is how the movie begins) and to stamp himself on every scene, in essence becoming God in his own little reality.
But then you ask what’s so special about this movie? Kill Bill and much of Tarantino’s post Pulp Fiction work has been as self-referential and self-reverential as Ingluorious Basterds. However what distinguishes Inglourious Basterds from the rest is the masterful way Tarantino does three things.
First he sets up memorable characters. And none more special than “Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa played with Oscar-buzz-worthy aplomb by Christopher Waltz. Bringing menace, joy, slyness and a touch of almost cartoonish evil, Landa is as divorced from the ” Ze Fuhrer” rather stupid (he always gets outwitted by the clever Allies) evil blonde stereotype of the World War 2 villain as one can imagine. He is not as dark as the Joker or as obviously mad as Hannibal Lecter. Col. Landa is different. It is his sunny disposition, of someone who takes so much child-like joy in his work that he just cannot wait to get up in the morning to smoke out a few Jews, which is what is disconcerting as well as fascinating about him. Doubtlessly well-acted but what really sets up the character’s menace is the way Quentin Tarantino gives him the small things to do: like filling up the pen with ink or enjoying the cream with desert and in the way Tarantino holds the camera on him for a few seconds longer on him so as to give us a look at the superior smirk that lights up his face as he pigeonholes his prey.
The secondary players (some may cringe at calling Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine as secondary) are also etched with the right amount of definition—through accent, inflection of voice and most importantly through humor. This is as good as it gets since the days of Jules and Vincent Vega.
Second Tarantino provides the conversations. What made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction legendary were the character interactions—-profound and absurd but always compelling. In the midst of the visual pizzazz of the Kill Bill series and Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino neglected this conversational aspect to his craft (with the exception of the fascinating Superman vs the rest conversation in Kill Bill 2). In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin sets that right. Visually as adroit as his other work (the vivid blacks, whites and reds in the conclusion of the movie look like panels from a gorgeously executed graphic novel), what sets this movie apart is the care given to the writing. As a result of this attention, the conversations between the characters, be it ruminations on the difference between a hawk and a rat or on the relationship between King Kong and American slaves, not only contribute to character development but also to ratchet up the tension at crucial plot points.
Which brings me to the third. Where I believe the director gets it spot perfect. The pacing. Any man skilled in the nocturnal arts knows that the path to true pleasure lies not in hammering at a squirrel’s tempo but in the variation of pace—periods of slow and languid to build up the expectation and then throwing in bursts of frenetic action before a relapse into steadiness.
In other words, a single-paced approach is a road to disaster. Both in bed as well as on screen. Kill Bill suffered largely because it had just one pace. Namely super-fast.
In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin does things differently; giving the sequences time to slow-cook and simmer before allowing them to explode into orgasms of trademark ultra-violence.
Nowhere is the masterful pacing more apparent than in the opening sequence. A farmer is cutting wood when he sees a posse of Nazis arriving down the path. In an unhurried way, he tells his daughter to fetch water so that he may wash his sweat. He then asks her to go inside. Col Landa approaches him and they go together into the dwelling. After asking for a glass of milk and making small chit-chat he asks the girls to leave, with exaggerated politeness, and then starts talking with the farmer. About this and that. Minutes tick by and slowly you realize that this is all leading to something. The tension rises. A cow mooes in the background. The camera moves to tight closeups in a style that is so obvious Sergio Leone. The Colonel brings out his comical pipe. It brings a bit of humor but its gone in a flash. And then when finally the denouement comes in a blaze of violence, you realize how everything in the languidly shot past fifteen minutes, every small detail, has been building up to this. Simply genius.
The comparisons with “Pulp Fiction” will be obvious. In a way, nothing can be compared to Pulp Fiction because it created its own genre and was so radically different in its narrative style, characterization and script than anything seen before in mainstream Hollywood that its impact will possibly never be matched by Quentin Tarantino. To put it simply, it is close to impossible to top a movie that has lines like this ” Character 1: Which one is your wallet? Character 2: The one that says bad motherfucker.” in terms of cool badassness.
But Inglourious Basterds comes close. Pretty darn close. So while one may not necessarily agree with Quentin Tarantino when in a gesture of characteristic modesty, he says through a character: “This might just be my masterpiece” there is nothing that keeps you from standing up in your seat.
And accepting that of all the people sitting in a director’s chair today, there is no more glorious basterd than Quentin Tarantino.
[Photo courtesy XinhuaNet]