Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The Closest We Ever Get
First of all, I’d like to set the record straight on a matter. In spite of what a friend posted on Facebook, I would like to state that after seeing INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS at the Arclight on opening night I did not fall to my knees in the upstairs lobby to shake Quentin Tarantino’s hand and call him a god for making the movie. Seriously, calling anyone a god for any reason is just not part of my M.O. The falling on the knees part, yeah, that’s true. As I recall it I stated, “I bow to you, sir,” got down on my knees, shook his hand and thanked him for making this movie. He happily shook my hand and was led off into the crowd. The exhilaration I felt after seeing this film was only something I have felt a handful of times in my filmgoing life and that would include the time I drove around the city for hours in a light drizzle, almost in a daze, after seeing PULP FICTION for the very first time on opening night at the Chinese, a night where it felt like a new world was being born. That world may not be so new anymore, but that lightning bolt feeling that Tarantino brings to his films hasn’t left. That night at the Arclight, I seemed to feel it like never before. And now several weeks later, after several further viewings, I not only have greater admiration for the movie but a greater love for not only how much it displays a love of movies but for its very insistence on the very power of what movies are to us in the world and what they can represent. What does my love for this film say about me, as well as my own love of films and how they are continually playing in a projection booth somewhere in my brain? I still don’t feel like I can write a full appreciation at this point but nevertheless the film still won’t leave me (there will be liberal discussion of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, I don’t know what to tell you). Whether or not it’s the best film of the year doesn’t really matter for me right now. But as a lover of the power of film, for me it’s the one that matters the most.
When the title of Chapter One of the film, “Once Upon A Time…In Nazi-Occupied France,” comes onscreen it is very clear what we are about to see—not the war as it occurred but as it exists in a cinema infused brain. Of course, no World War II film ever made has shown us what it was really like. Not SCHINDLER’S LIST, not THE GREAT ESCAPE, not FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO. The very opening of last year’s Jews-fight-back entry DEFIANCE tells us that the following film is “A True Story,” not even bothering to put a “Based On” at the front of that. This is a lie of course, as much of a lie as certain key plot points in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS are. The absolute truth is not what interests Tarantino and it’s his mission to get something different across, just as it’s put to German Private Butz (“Who or what is a Private Butz?”) by different parties with different agendas to not reveal exactly what was done to him. None of this interests Tarantino, quite rightly. Real history isn’t what interests Tarantino for his purposes--as far as I can tell, the greatest amount of pure fact that comes through in the final version is the extensive probing it does into the German cinema produced by Joseph Goebbels (David O.Selznick would be his opposite number, not Louis B. Mayer, as we’re told)
After hearing for years how Tarantino had his never finished “Guys on a mission” script somewhere in the pipeline it is somewhat surprising to discover how much of a supporting role they play in the film allegedly named after them. The way things are structured the Basterds wind up being spoken as legends almost as soon as we have met them. What the finished film turns out to be is not a rejiggering of the basic concept of THE DIRTY DOZEN (not to mention the 1977 THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, directed by Enzo Castellari, where this film’s title but next to nothing else came from) like we would imagine. And for all the Sergio Leone iconography, along with how ONCE UPON A TIME…IN NAZI-OCCUPIED FRANCE may have been a more apt title for the film (would even Tarantino have the gumption to have done that?), it can’t be looked at as the World War II that Leone himself might have made. What we get in 152 minutes in a nonstop barrage of film and world history colliding in Tarantino’s brain, spilled out onto celluloid (definitely not digital) and presented to the audience in the theater, forcing everyone watching it to sort out how fiction and (in this case, pulp) fact are supposed to go together. The film tosses out mentions of Riefenstahl and UFA as if everyone will understand the references (and why shouldn’t they?) as well as bringing references to the likes of Edwige Fenech and Antonio Margheriti into character names for seemingly no reason other than the pure fun of it.
Within all this is constant discussion of roles people are playing, disguises they must assume and simple flat-out thwarting of expectations, with characters prevented from going into the normal war movie we expect them to be involved in, holed up in a scene for nearly a half-hour where all of the expectations are irrevocably altered. Even the director’s treatment of movie star Brad Pitt is at times perverse—not only does he keep his character offscreen for long stretches, he even has the actor play nearly an entire scene from off camera with only his voice heard, not to mention keeping him away from much of the key climactic action. Not that Tarantino seems to bear any resentment from having Brad Pitt in his movie, quite the contrary. Aldo Raine becomes so enjoyable to watch that the film does wind up leaving us wanting more and, well, the simple utterance of “Gorlami” may in fact be my favorite Brad Pitt screen moment ever. As his opposite number, the acclaimed Christoph Waltz really is quite astounding as Hans Landa, possibly giving the performance of the year, and it occurred to me that much of his placement in the film’s iconography (turning up when unexpected, use of a certain pipe) bears a certain resemblance to Lee Van Cleef’s character in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and when these two leads finally meet late in the film it’s worth all the anticipation. But the entire cast adds immensely to the film from the likes of Diane Kruger as film star Bridget von Hammersmark and Daniel Brühl as Frederick Zoller all the way to the more unsung likes of Denis Menochet as the farmer Perrier LaPadite, the legendary Rod Taylor with a few lines as Churchill and even B.J. Novak as Utivich who seems to be using his own befuddlement at getting such a role in this film to play his response to unexpectedly getting a close look at history unfurling right in front of him. I could go on and on with a long list of all the performances I’m still looking forward to seeing again in subsequent viewings.
The theater where much of the key action winds up taking place feels meant to be a combination of the New Beverly and the Vista, two L.A. theaters Tarantino has continually expressed a fondness for in the past (at the least, he certainly goes to both of them), both modest single-screen houses that have “real respect, almost church like” as none other than Joseph Goebbels himself describes this theater. With plot points focusing on this theater and the flammability of nitrate film, instead of backing away from his interests (“Why doesn’t he make something other than a Quentin Tarantino movie?” seems to be the refrain) the director embraces them maybe more than ever before, giving us a World War II where a certain knowledge of German Cinema history makes one ideal for a covert operation (though, as it turns out, it’s still a flawed choice). We know very little about the four years Shoshanna (the extremely fetching Mélanie Laurent, excellent throughout both with dialogue and without) has spent since witnessing her family brutally massacred so we don’t know if her sentiment, “I'm French. We respect directorsin our country,” was something she learned or a feeling she would have had anyway. It doesn’t matter, of course. She says it and that automatically earns her all the respect in the world, as well it should. Not that real life has no interest for him--we can tell that the act of knowing people, of conversation, of “smoking and drinking and ordering in restaurants”, where that living can take place, is something he loves as much as Bridget von Hammersmark. Mountain climbing, of course, is just a waste of time.
The Basterds are interestingly some of the only characters in the movie named after them who have no real knowledge or opinion about films—when Aldo Raine boasts of Donnie Donowitz’s baseball bat prowess saying “It’s the closest we ever get to going to the movies,” the character’s use of the phrase is pretty casual but of course the line isn’t at all coincidental. Cinema is what matters to Tarantino so therefore it’s what matters in the universe this film is set in, possibly more than anything. To view it as a criticism, almost invalidating the movie as a result, is downplaying how crucial the very concept of it is to him. It makes me think of his extended use of Ennio Morricone music throughout. Some, but not all, are from Spaghetti Westerns but what these pieces by that composer do share is a passion for life, a type of forcefulness that has all but left film scoring in this day and age. When Shoshanna has her final encounter with Pvt. Zoller in the projection booth the haunting piece that underscores her decision and her fate, coming from a not-bad crime thriller entitled REVOLVER, it makes it clear how much the moment possibly only makes sense in a spaghetti western kind of logic but it still works beautifully. Contrasting what is going on in that booth versus her glances at the screen all to that music really says it all. Cinema is humanity. Cinema is life.
And on my third viewing of the film (at the Vista, actually) everything seemed to hit home for me, this Jewish girl telling this theater full of Nazis what is about to happen to them…tying it right into what Lt. Archie Hickox (a sharply funny performance by Michael Fassbender) had earlier said was part of Goebbels’ plan to fight that element of Hollywood. I don’t think that Tarantino is trying to turn the tables on the audience here and makes us contrast our own response to how the Nazis were cheering during the repellent NATION’S PRIDE with its faux-Eisenstein montage. With the hard cut in that film from one close-up to another that was not meant to be there he transforms not only the film, he transforms history making it not an ironic reflection but a vision of what, to him, is supposed to be. The ghostly visage of Shoshanna coming off like the Wizard of Oz, already dead but triumphant, laughing at those Nazis who “ain’t got no humanity” as they burn to death, as well they deserve to…it’s just about the most nakedly emotional insistence on what the power of cinema could be, should be, as I’ve ever seen. And the pure beauty of the image, provided by FX maestro John Dykstra, makes me want to stand on a rooftop and, using my best Aldo Raine voice, shout “Fuck CGI all to hell!” up to the stars. Because what INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS ultimately is deep down is a film about the majesty of cinema, how it can be allowed to change the world, how nothing in this world is ultimately as beautiful, as horrifying and as powerful. And whether it results in his masterpiece or not, if Tarantino wants it to change the course of world history then damn it, it will. And that’s the way it should be….Once Upon A Time…in Nazi-Occupied France.