Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Many of the reviews I've been reading of this film claim it to be Tarantino's best since Pulp Fiction. They speak the truth. A critic in my local paper also noted that it has a "spaghetti-western feel," which is an interesting thought.

I usually have tepid feelings for Tarantino. His films are saturated with a self-conscious awareness of their own coolness. They are high-brown escapism. They are also films that rejoice in their filmness. References and homages to Tarantino's influences are ubiquitous. All of this would be fine, except that I always sort of feel like Tarantino is teasing me and any other academic-type foolish enough to look beneath the surface of his films.

What I like about his latest is that it has meaning despite itself. Throughout the film, cinema becomes a powerful weapon, one powerful enough to eventually eliminate the Nazi regime completely. In a literal sense, stores of celluloid film provide Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) with enough explosive power to burn her cinema to the ground, while the most powerful Nazis (including Goebbels and Hitler) wait inside. Interestingly, Shosanna works in a theatre that is forced to show German propaganda films, such as those of Leni Riefenstahl, reflecting on the ways the regime used film to construct the Nazi identity. Tarantino notes the power of film to create the real. This metaphor is doubled by the experience of viewing the film, as it inevitably leaves us with a revised version of history, and an awesomely outrageous one at that.

Enmeshed in the plot, there is also a theme of legend-making and the construction of identity--how history is created. Whenever the characters meet face to face, there is often discussion of the nicknames each has earned, and rumors they have heard of each other. Consequently, viewers are treated to the likes of "The Bear Jew" and "The Little Man."

Beyond its self-reflexivity, Basterds is a superbly engaging film. Tarantino uses his characteristic dialogue to build the tension to heart-bursting levels. In the opening scene, Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) engages in a lengthy exchange with a dairy farmer, while the Jewish family he is hiding lurks underneath the floorboards. It is obvious that the scene will not end well, and still Tarantino draws it out painfully.

Naturally, the soundtrack is well chosen and placed, and the casting superb. One thing I do love about Tarantino is his awareness of the importance of sound and imagery together. He has a knack for manipulating his audience that way. It's part of the coolness factor. There are some beautiful visuals in here, as well. When Shosanna prepares for her revenge, the screen is overwhelmed with red, creating some not-so-subtle, but still, gorgeous (and... have I said cool enough yet?) foreshadowing.

Okay, go see it now. And again. I think I probably will.

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