Inglourious Basterds: The Review

28 August 2009 at 12:54 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***WARNING: REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. IT MAY BE BEST TO SEE THE MOVIE PRIOR TO READING THE REVIEW***

Long before Inglourious Basterds arrived in theaters last week, my husband dubbed it “Jewsploitation.” The much talked about trailer (linked through the picture below) prompted his assessment that the film would take the revenge concept of seventies grindhouse movies and apply it to World War II with typical Quentin Tarantino panache. Seeing the film over the weekend, my husband’s predictions were confirmed, and while both of us enjoyed the film overall, we couldn’t help but note the film’s various ideological and stylistic flaws upon exiting the theater.

The Inglourious Basterds promotional poster.  Image taken from thecia.com.au.

The Inglourious Basterds promotional poster. Image taken from thecia.com.au.

But before launching into my critique, a brief plot summary: the film consists of five interrelated parts that basically revolve around two stories. The first story focuses on Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish woman who narrowly escaped death by German Colonel Hans Landa (the stunning Christoph Waltz), called “The Jew Hunter” for his assignment to round up the remaining Jews in France. Fleeing to Paris and disguised as the owner of a movie house years later, Shoshanna meets a German war hero/movie star that leads to Joseph Goebbels deciding to use her theater for the premiere of his latest film. These circumstances lead to a chance encounter with Colonel Landa, who does not recognize Shoshanna. Meanwhile, American Leiutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads a group of Jewish American soldiers and German descenters called the Basterds in a Nazi scalping mission. His crew learns of the Paris premiere at Shoshanna’s theater and decides to take advantage of the event while Shoshanna plans her own kind of revenge.

In many ways, Inglourious Basterds represents the most conceptually sophisticated film directed by Tarantino, combining multiple genres (spaghetti western, revenge narrative, “man on a mission”) with the war film. As a result, it dispenses with any pretense that the film accurately portrays historical events by conforming to generic conventions rather than actual occurences. It’s a brilliant take on a genre so often caught up in the historical specificity and importance of the project.

Inglourious Basterds’ intertextuality also raises questions about whether older films in the war genre really do conform to reality. Language, for example, plays a key role in the film, with characters speaking German, French, English, and Italian, as opposed to signifying these languages through accented English. Tarantino discussed Inglourious Basterds’ use of language on a recent episode of NPR’s Morning Edition. His point–that the convention of English standing in for all other languages in American war films neglects the important roll that dialect played in the war zone–is aptly demonstrated in several scenes in which language enables or undermines a character’s efforts to pass for the enemy. Hence, Tarantino challenges the conventions of previous war films by deploying realism and fantasy in interesting ways throughout the film.

A promotional poster for Inglourious Basterds drives home the importance of language and cinema to the story.

A promotional poster for Inglourious Basterds drives home the importance of language and cinema to the story.

And speaking of fantasy, I drooled over the metafictive qualities of the film. Film itself plays an important role in the story of Inglourious Basterds with the climactic scenes taking place at the Paris premiere of the German film. As a result, film becomes a weapon of war both literally and figuratively. Though I posted a spoiler warning for this review, I will resist going into further detail about the film’s climax out of the possibility that someone read on in spite of my suggestion. The final scenes are just too pleasurable to watch for the first time for me to ruin them. (For more on the subject, check out Terry Gross’ interview of Quentin Tarantino from yesterday’s Fresh Air).

But while the film certainly contains its pleasures, certain excesses in the writing weigh down what could be a far more entertaining film. Tarantino’s verbose dialog may flesh out the characters and offer up humorous and suspenseful moments, but it also draws out certain scenes to the point of making them drag. The third and fourth sections in particular feel cumbersome in spite of some great acting and plotting. Such mundane banter served Tarantino well in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino never quite adequately balances action and dialog in Inglourious Basterds (I would make the same assessment about his previous effort, Death Proof). I expect that years down the road, Inglourious Basterds will be admired more than loved.

One of the more dialog-heavy scenes from Inglorious Basterds.  Still taken from iconocast.com.

One of the more dialog-heavy scenes from Inglorious Basterds

But the most problematic element for me proved to be ideological more than stylistic. While I understand Tarantino’s film to be a self-aware, cartoonish fantasy, I could not help but find its philosophy of war troubling. In Aldo Raine’s first monologue, he bluntly states “Nazi ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed.” While such a statement makes for an unambiguous action adventure, it fails to acknowledge that many Germans tacitly participated in the Holocaust, lacking little if any political investment in Nazism. This complicity does not justify the actions of those who perpetuated Hitler’s agenda actively or passively, but it does raise uncomfortable questions about the potential in any person to allow such injustices to occur. Aldo Raine’s ethic of justifiable cruelty denies such a possibility, buying into a comforting narrative of American exceptionalism and German specificity. In the current political mileau where debates on torturing of detainees still rage, this kind of rhetoric proves especially vexing.

Many will respond to my concerns by saying “it’s all in good fun,” and while it my be true that Inglourious Basterds dispenses with realism, its fantasy of unfettered revenge reveal much about the United States’ collective psyche.

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5 Comments

  1. Alyx Vesey said,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Caitlin. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m interested in watching it now (especially also after having listened to Tarantino’s interview with Terry Gross where he talks about using theme music from other movies).

    • c8ic8 said,

      So glad to hear you enjoyed it! You should definitely do something on Inglorious Basterds and music once you see it. After your successful post on Jackie Brown, I know you’ll nail it!

  2. Kit Hughes said,

    I don’t think you could have phrased the film’s genre project any more eloquently. I’m also interested in your interpretation of the film’s ideological flaws. I think I read the film’s politics a little differently–a key scene for me comes in the 5th segment of the film. I know talking about the conclusion of a narrative is a tricky prospect, especially when trying to nail down the ideologies potentially housed withing a given text (e.g. does the end of the 30 Rock episode that sees Lemon faint into the arms of her male supervisor after claiming her female authority (“No one crosses a Sugarbaker woman!”) negate or deminish the progressive potential in the rest of the episode?). However, given the way that this last segment handles film spectatorship, I think this scene warrents further observation.

    (Super Spoiler Alert Don’t Read On If You Havent Seen The Film)

    For me, the Nazi war film screening sequences in the fifth segment function as a means to incriminate the Basterds (and war genre) spectators for deriving joy from the cinematic murder of national enemies. In a sequence that is obviously meant to draw hatred or disgust from the Basterd’s audience, we watch as Nazi officials scream and cheer while watching a propeghanda film that follows a Nazi sharpshooter as he picks off ally troops. Seconds later, in the same segment, we watch as Allies mercilessly gun down their Nazi vicitms (and find entertainment in the destruction of our enemies). For me, the juxtoposition of the filmed war violences actually links the Basterds spectator with the Nazi spectator, challenging any strict oposition between Nazi/Ally good/evil, human/inhuman. While I would agree that Aldo Raign characterizes the germans as monsters, I think the film plays with the authority of his character. While he is at sometimes superhuman, he is also finally captured, in part, due to his absurdly clueless spy attempt. What’s more, he does little to affect any real change in the war–a feat accoplished by a Jewish woman, a black frenchman, and a Nazi officer.

    As a side note, while I think the rough and touble band of Jewish soldiers led by a Native American is exploitive, I think it also empowers those who have little power (though the power of pure violence is, to put it mildly, questionable) while it gestures to the Native American genocide commited by the ally countries during colonization.

    Thanks for the post!

    • c8ic8 said,

      Really good points about the commentary on spectatorship going on in the final scenes. I’d yet to make that leap (it seems obvious in hindsight), and I think it’s definitely something that should be factored into a reading of the film’s ideologies. Still, as you alluded to in your post, I don’t think it completely undermines the film’s previous investment in presenting the Nazis as evil and the violent dispatch of them as justifiable.

      I’ll have to chew on this for a while to really feel solid with my earlier reading, so thanks for the food for thought! All really interesting stuff!

  3. CMrok93 said,

    I agree, great flick. One of the best of 09. I was freaking laughing my ass off the entire time! Plus, there was some serious intense scenes: i.e. opening and the tavern basement. Seeing Hitler’s face get chewed up by a Tommy gun was pretty sick too. Good review, check out mine when you can!

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