Thursday, 27 August 2009

inglorious basterds (w&d tarantino)

Tarantino's latest has received mixed reviews. A lot of critics have suggested that the film is some kind of nadir. I haven't seen Death Proof, nor the second part of Kill Bill, so I can't claim to have been following his career that closely. However I recently watched Reservoir Dogs again, and it's immediately evident from the film's opening scene what all the fuss was about; a fuss which was provoked primarily by one thing, which was dialogue, and another, which was the juxtaposition of dialogue with context.

Which might be another way of saying theatricality. Inglorious Basterds reminds us that Tarantino is the director who put theatre back into film. Even more than committing acts of seemingly gratuituous violence, a Tarantino character loves to talk. None more so than Pitt's Aldo Raine, who, in spite of talking about his love of Nazi killing, only finally does something violent in the very final scene of the film. The rest of the time he pouts and talks about the violence he intends or has intended to perpetrate. He's not much of a character, and Pitt seems a little lost in his skin, perhaps realising that a funny accent doesn't give him much to work with.

Instead, a couple of characters from the plot's secondary strand, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent, steal the acting honours. Waltz, in particular, is given three stagey scenes in which he demonstrates his mastery of the Tarantino argot. Not many Hollywood directors can get away with a fifteen minute dialogue scene wherein nothing happens, but seeing as this is how the maestro's career was kick started, in the Reservoir diner, he's given leeway. What this produces is a very old fashioned kind of drama, of nuance, expression, and theatrical menace. It has its weaknesses, but probably because this sort of thing is so rare in Hollywood, its the strengths that shine through, and for people who've never seen a play, it's like he's inventing the wheel.

If the dialogue is as sharp as ever, the violence in Basterds feels even more laborious than usual. Like a signature the director is cursed to append to his work, ever since the ear went missing. The contrast between the verbosity of his scripts and viscerality of their violence has served him well, but in this instance it doesn't really feel like his heart's in it. The baseball bat scene, and Pitt's closing knife-wielding moment lack bravura or wit. Tarantino has always understood that violence is part of the language of drama, just as much as words, but the moments where it's employed in Basterds have little dramatic impact, and perhaps that's why they feel so hollow, bringing the film down rather than heightening it's effectiveness.

Most of these moments are reserved for the Pitt strands of the narrative. The other Shosanna strand has more weight, and it would appear that in the doomed relationship with Marcel, the director is hoping for some kind of pathos. It doesn't quite come off. Just as the two storylines never integrate effectively. Nevertheless, Tarantino's dialogue, and flair for a dramatic scenario, ensure that, even if it's only stuttering from set piece to set piece, the film is never dull, and is always ready to engage with its audience's intelligence. It also feels like, in the film within a film, there's an inherent critique of a crasser, action based cinema, the one the Nazi high command lap up as they watch the priggish Zoller pick off enemy after enemy in the film of his own deeds.

So, for my money, the film didn't deserve the brickbats of the critics. Nevertheless, in spite of its moments, it still left me with a slightly empty feeling. In particular the neurotically tacked on violence, which lends the overall project, with its hubristic reworking of history, the feel of being created by a child that just can't help showing off. One whose talent can seduce you for a while, but later leaves you wanting to send it to bed. Thinking that when it grows it up it might achieve remarkable things, but first it needs to get over the need to constantly remind its audience of its cleverness.

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