Why didn't I love Inglourious Basterds?
I saw Quentin Tarantino's newest movie last week. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Really. But it was kind of like junk food, wasn't it?
I got in a bit of an argument with the guy at my comic book store about this. I told him that after we saw Inglourious Basterds, I couldn't figure out what the point was. He told me it didn't need a point. But I disagree! Yes, this is America! Disagreement is the spice of life!
Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed it. I just wrote it above, didn't I? Tarantino certainly knows how to put a movie together, and he's dynamite with actors. He often gets career-best performances out of actors. Brad Pitt is fantastic and funny, Mélanie Laurent is hard-ass and steely, Diane Kruger is wonderfully glamorous, and the Basterds themselves are excellent. Christoph Waltz is getting all the Oscar talk, and he's astonishing as Colonel Hans Landa, the "Jew Hunter." He's amazingly evil and refreshingly civil, except when, stunningly, he's not. The opening scene, when he shows up at a Frenchman's farm looking for a Jewish family, is one of the tensest scenes Tarantino has come up with in years. Waltz does a wonderful job with this utter opportunist, who does his job well but isn't above getting something for himself. Tarantino, naturally, comes up with some excellent action (a Mexican stand-off? in a Tarantino film? you don't say!) and sudden and shocking violence, and he reaches into his usual bag of tricks to twist the narrative around a bit - not as well as he's done in the past, but he's still a very good filmmaker. The grand finale is a wonderful orgy of violence and sly humor, and the final scene is a nice touch. Plus, Mike Myers is hilarious in his brief scene.
So what's my problem? Why can't I love this movie? Well, as I wrote, it's junk food. I couldn't quite figure out why Tarantino made this movie and what he's trying to say. My friend said it doesn't matter, that I should just enjoy it for the entertainment. However, I said that Tarantino has been making movies for almost 20 years, and he hasn't made one with something interesting to say since Jackie Brown, which came out in 1997 (granted, he's only directed two movies in between that one and this one, but still). We know he can make dazzling technical movies and that he can get excellent work out of his actors. Can he do anything else?
Getting back to Inglourious Basterds (and yes, I'm going to SPOIL it, so read no further if you really want to see it clean): What's Tarantino really trying to say? Ultimately, this is Death Wish with better financing and better acting. It's a revenge fantasy, and while I don't have an issue with revenge fantasies per se, Tarantino's last big movie, Kill Bill, was also a revenge fantasy. Revenge obviously plays a big role in all of his movies, to the degree that he's almost pathological about it, but does it need to be the driving force of this movie? We've heard the objections to the movie, about how it distorts history and is therefore disrespectful to Jews, because Tarantino's belief that killing Hitler somehow makes up for the millions slaughtered by the Nazis. I didn't get that - this is like a lot of old-time World War II movies, in which the Holocaust is virtually ignored because it gets in the way of a good action movie. Sure, Tarantino can make an action movie set in World War II in which he gleefully kills the Nazi High Command - I don't have a problem with that. I guess my objection is more with the tone of the movie. Tarantino seems to be far too gleeful about this movie, and it jars with the somewhat serious tone the movie has for a good deal of it. I wasn't particularly uncomfortable with Brad Pitt being a cheery psychopath, for instance - his attitude seems to be the one you need in a horrible war. It just seems like Tarantino, for all his gifts as a filmmaker, simply wants to revel in what he can do instead of trying for something more. If we look at someone like Scorsese, for instance, as an example of someone who has always resisted stereotyping. We might think of him as a director who makes bleak movies often starring Italian-American New York gangsters, but he's made a lot of different kinds of movies - he made The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ, After Hours, The Last Waltz, and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, for crying out loud. Scorsese is a great director because he doesn't let himself get pigeonholed. Tarantino, it seems, pigeonholes himself.
I suppose I'm not explaining myself very well. Tarantino is a gifted filmmaker, but he's content to mine the movies he saw in his childhood for inspiration and simply update things with tongue in cheek. Inglourious Basterds is a "remake" of an old Italian movie, for instance. I assume that Tarantino has seen the great World War II movies of the 1960s and 1970s, because that's when he was growing up. But even those movies took the war seriously, even if they had some humor. Tarantino takes nothing seriously, apparently, and because he doesn't make straight comedies, he usually falls short of greatness because of this. At least that's what I think. Maybe I'm not getting it across very well. Sorry!
Anyway, Inglourious Basterds is a marvelous movie to watch. I just didn't get enough out of it. Oh well.