As I watched a long talky scene that seemed to go on forever in Quentin Tarantino’s ill-fated “Death Proof (2007), my mind began to stray, and I wondered how long the “Pulp Fiction director can pull his snarky, ostentatious, self-conscious dialogue. Judging by his latest rutted opus “Inglorious Basterds, he clearly couldn’t.
“Basterds – his highest grossing film to date – is not an entirely drab affair; there are sporadic flashes of the old Tarantino genius that surface every here and there. Yet it also does disclose his limitations, proving that Tarantino, at age 46, is far from maturation.
“Basterds is essentially a big, fat piece of pastiche; an incoherent, anomalous amalgam of different genres and styles. Every sequence of the film reeks with copious references from Tarantino’s favorite classics. It may have worked in the past, but it doesn’t here. Self-indulgence aside, the films feels like a work made by a little annoying kid trapped in his fantasy world for so long that he lost sense of reality.
Divided into five chapters, the first 20-minute long sequence, titled “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France, is the best part of the film. The year is 1941. In an idyllic French farmhouse, a peasant steadily chops a piece of wood. A car looms from the horizon. A look of anguish suddenly appears in the peasant’s eyes. He sits still in defeat, waiting for the unkind fate as the car ominously moves closer to his house. A man, with multiple swastika badges pinned across his coat, gets out of the car. His name’s Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, winner of this year’s best actor at the Cannes Film Festival), better known as the “Jew Hunter and one of Tarantino’s greatest creations.
Landa has come looking for a missing Jewish family who he believes the peasant is hiding. Landa is a smooth-talker, charming yet inordinately unctuous. He effortlessly juggles between French and English as the interrogation intensifies, reaching a boiling point that pushes the helpless peasant to reveal their whereabouts. Not for one moment does Landa lose his unnerving cool, nor does he subject the peasant, or his family, to any form of physical torture. Landa, in his Blakean form, is the devil incarnate.
He invites his aides in and executes the Jewish family. Only Shosanna, the younger daughter, manages to escape. Nearly nothing in the next two couple of hours succeeds to top the first chapter. Instead, Tarantino starts dabbling with slap-stick comedy, action and revenge drama to largely timid results. This is not an action film à la “Kill Bill; the film is made up mostly of interminable, sometimes repetitive, conversations that kill the suspense introduced in every sequence.
The Basterds of the misspelled title are a band of American Jewish mercenaries assembled by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, strutting with a hammy Southern accent in one of the worst performances of his career). The brigade – which also includes an American nicknamed the Bear Jew (a ghastly Eli Roth, director of “Cabin Fever and “Hostel) who takes pleasure out of crushing Nazis’ skulls with his bat – has one mission: each member is obliged to collect 100 Nazi scalps.
As the Basterds proceed to wreak havoc upon the Nazis (the action is never shown on screen), multiple characters and storylines are introduced into the sprawling narrative. Shosanna, now grown and running a cinema in Paris, catches the attention of a German war hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl from “Goodbye Lenin! ). In an attempt to woo her, Fredrick convinces Hitler’s propaganda engineer Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to screen a film, based on Fredrick’s exploits, in Shosanna’s theater that shall be attended by the party’s key officials. Soon, Shosanna finds herself face to face with the murderer of her family.
Meanwhile, the British intelligence send their spy, and former film critic, Lt. Archie Hicox (the brilliant Michael Fassbinder from last year’s “Hunger ) to meet with Marlene Dietrich-like German movie star turned British informant, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who posses valuable information that could end the war.
The misspelled title of “Basterds is taken from Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 B-film “The Inglorious Bastards, a knockoff of Robert Aldrich’s classic “The Dirty Dozen (1967). Apart from the title, the resemblance ends there.
“Basterds, in many ways, is about film. Names of characters, soundtrack, plotlines and images are borrowed from both well-known films as well as obscure ones. For starters, Aldo Raine nods to Hollywood actor Aldo Ray,
The title of the first chapter is a tribute to great Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone. The whistling on the soundtrack is courtesy of the Leone composer Ennio Morricone. The silhouetted figure of Landa, standing in front of an open door, is blatantly lifted from the “The Searchers iconic scene.
In one scene, two German soldiers argue about silent French star Max Linder versus Charlie Chaplin. In another, Shosanna mentions German propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl while removing the poster of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Le corbeau, one of the best films about fascism that was banned by the Nazis. But the film connotations, which require an entire page to list, don’t stop there.
The leading characters are all performers, pretending to be someone they’re not in order to survive. The climax of the film takes place at a movie theater, and ends with a phantasmagorical Hollywood ending that can only exist in movies.
In recreating World War II, Tarantino attempted not only to bend reality, but erase history altogether by constructing a specific universe governed by his own set of rules. In his previous films, the trick worked for one imperative reason: reality was never part of the equation.
Like all his previous films “Basterds’ cast of characters is comprised of cartoons, functioning as mere cogs in a large rusty machine. What happens in here is that those cartoons are taken out of their natural habitat and planted into a famous realistic milieu difficult to manipulate the way Tarantino does.
Ultimately, reality and history prove to be a hostile environment for him. The violence appears to be strange, abhorrent; too implausible to buy.
Accordingly, the concealed shortcomings of his characterization are exposed, revealing underwritten relationships that lack complexity. Case in point is the relationship between Shosanna and Fredrick. The storyline is straightforward, conventional and thin: Fredrick attempts to have Shosanna, Shosanna takes advantage of him to get her revenge. That’s basically it. At the end of the film though, a peculiar, confusing look appears on Shosanna’s face that hints at something profound, dangerous and complex that Tarantino intentionally fails to expound.
The film’s biggest fault is the bungled morality Tarantino coyly attempts to explore. By rendering Landa such an attractive character, Tarantino tests the audiences’ alliances, proposing that humans are always taken with evil. Had we been in the peasant’s shoes, we would’ve probably acted the same way.
The idea is intriguing indeed, yet Tarantino offers nothing to support it, building a wrong set-up for characters too one-dimensional to illicit empathy. Our fascination with Landa has more to do with the fact that there are no other interesting characters who can go head-to-head with him, including Pitt’s character that’s too broad to pose any significance.
The Basterds in particular are thoroughly unlikable. The band is no less barbaric than their foes, no less merciless. Tarantino – operating in a world of moral ambiguity – presumes that the Holocaust, by default, should impel the audience to automatically root for the Jewish characters; to justify the final carnage that hardly produces the intended catharsis. The major missing force of empathy is demanded from the audience to find elsewhere; from history books, film and collective memory. Perhaps that’s why I felt so ambivalent at the end, so removed from the experience.
Tarantino is a great director of vintages;
separate pieces of myriad influences distilled. When he’s on form, the influences are crystallized into something unique and exhilarating, but never serious. The man has an ear for great dialogue that, despite everything, still entertains. Yet, apart from the discovery of the great Waltz, “Basterds feels rather trivial; an ideal vehicle for the fanboys. The impression you eventually get is of a rampant ambition struck down by forces higher than its narrow capabilities. By now, it should be established that Tarantino will never grow up; a return to his cartoon world is inevitable. He may get his groove back, but, for now at least, the prospects of a future great Tarantino movie seem dim.