Inglourious Basterds: Two Hours of Great Cinema, 32 Minutes of Not-So-Great Cinema

August 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Roundtable Pictures Solves the Mystery Behind the Spelling of the Movie

By Lars Trodson

I was thinking back on all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies and wondering if he had ever filmed a big crowd scene like the one that ends his “Inglourious Basterds.” It seems to me, looking back on everything from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Death Proof” that Tarantino pretty much keeps the number of people he puts in a scene down to a manageable few.

That could account for what happens at the conclusion of “Basterds.” The ending takes place in a crowded theater lobby — which in certain shots doesn’t look so crowded at all — and in the auditorium of the theater. But with so many people to suddenly account for in his film — the Nazi high command, including Hitler, as well as the remaining “basterds” of the title — Tarantino literally looks lost. He moves from person to person, scene to scene, set to set, but nothing fits together particularly well. And while a couple of moments may be a bit shocking, in the end it all seems so delirious you wonder what his point was.

It turns out that for all the violence and sinisterism in his movies, Tarantino is — surprise! — not an action director.

The other problem here is how Tarantino fashioned the end of his script. In terms of suspense, Tarantino makes a choice that is not so much quirky or unexpected, but simply odd.

The movie is called “Inglourious Basterds” and you are given to think that they are the heroes of the film. Their big job is to kill the members of the Nazi high command — this is not only their purpose and their pleasure, but also the climax of the film. But this goes awry and the Basterds are pretty much taken out of the hunt at the very end. They’re not only not the heroes, they’re pretty much held captive during the explosive ending.

It’s left to the beautiful Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, who has great range and is tough and touching) and her lover Marcel to actually pull off the plan. The funny thing is, we’re probably more emotionally connected with Shosanna than any specific member of the Basterds crew that we probably care more about her success in killing Hitler (and Landa, who killed her family) than we do theirs, but Tarantino throws in this switch so late in the game it’s tough to shift your emotional focus to her.

If I can make a comparison, it would be this: Let’s say we spent two hours watching the members of “The Dirty Dozen” get trained and prepped for their big mission (the entire premise of “Basterds” is taken straight out of the “Dirty Dozen” playbook, right down to collecting members of the Nazi command at a swanky function), and just minutes before the big plan was to begin John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas and Jim Brown and Charlie Bronson all got captured and suddenly actors you had never really seen before had to carry out the plan. That’s about (not quite, but about) what happens here.

The other thing is that the sets for the interior of the cinema where the ending takes place look really bad. If this was a conscious aesthetic choice I’m not sure what it means. But the balconies and the stairwell and the curving hallways of this place look cheap and badly painted. It looks like plaster of paris and balsa wood, and it feels like their set designer might have had to shove off to another project while these scenes were being filmed.

It seems like we had left off a Hollywood film with a high sheen and sense of design and landed in one of Tarantino’s beloved grindhouse flicks. That may have been the point, but it felt jarring to me.

I think the first two hours of this film are wonderfully written and beautifully acted by the principals (except for Brad Pitt and “Hostel” director Eli Roth), and the scenes bring back the leisurely yet pleasurable pace often found in “Jackie Brown.” And Tarantino brings off some great set pieces – the opening scene especially. In this scene the notorious Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) finds a Jewish family hiding out in a farmhouse. It’s amazingly tense and moody, and beautifully shot and edited. This is really old school Hollywood filmmaking here — you can just see that Tarantino really felt this one. Landa’s scene with Shosanna eating strudel is also terrific, and so is the long scene in the basement bar where we meet the beautiful double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, smart and old school movie star gorgeous) and some of the Basterds who are trying to pass themselves off as German soldiers (how they get caught is a neat touch).

There’s some real tension in all of those scenes, yet again they are all chamber pieces.

After the first scene introducing us to Landa, we meet the Basterds in what surely must be the most aborted “let’s introduce the major characters of the movie” scene ever produced.

It’s reminiscent of the yard scenes in “The Dirty Dozen”, which I am sure is deliberate, but aside from Roth — who is known as The Bear Jew, and some guy named Hugo Stiglitz (in another set taken right out of “The Dirty Dozen”) — you have absolutely no idea who the other Basterds are, or even what their names are. To shy away from characterizations, even of the smallest parts, is not the Tarantino we know.

This film has gotten mixed reviews, but the film itself is mixed. The first two hours are great cinema, just pure examples of a talented writer and director finding a new color, but the end gets pretty well jumbled up.

A few critics have wondered what has happened to Tarantino, but that just seems silly. The guy has only made six feature films, and I think each one before this is great. It may be heresy for me to say I like “Jackie Brown” better than “Pulp Fiction“, but that’s really only because I don’t care for the Bruce Willis section of that movie. It’s still masterful stuff, but I didn’t quite get that boxing part, and the revenge on the hillbillies part. “Jackie Brown” is joyous, though, and “Kill Bill” — all of it — is executed without a hitch. There’s nothing wrong with that two-part picture. “Reservoir Dogs” is a heist classic. I liked “Death Proof” — it wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was, which was a Saturday afternoon popcorn flick.

Part of the problem with “Basterds” may be this is another classic example of a director not able to pull off his lifelong dream project. Martin Scorsese spent years trying to make “Gangs of New York” and that was mixed. Richard Attenborough said he was born to direct the life of Charlie Chaplin and he turned it into a mess. Richard Pryor poured his life into “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.” Maybe these dream projects are better left on the shelf.

I think what will come out of this experience for Tarantino is he will simply have more assurance as a director and writer. My guess — my prediction — is that his next film will be the best one he has ever done.

(P.S.: My take on the much-debated deliberately misspelled title is this. The words “inglourious basterds” are etched into the butt end of Lt. Aldo Raine’s service rifle, which we see only partially and fleetingly in one scene. In fact, the typeface we see in the opening titles is the same script we see on the rifle. So it’s Aldo Raine’s name for his group, and his spelling of it. Lt Aldo Raine (an homage to the late actor Aldo Ray) – played by Pitt – is a part Apache hillbilly from Tennessee who, in the 1940s, might not have had the best education. His attempt to write those two words could reasonably come out like that.So that, we feel, is why the movie is spelled like it is.)

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The Tyranny of Continuity

December 11, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

I was watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” the other day, and he certainly nailed the look and feel and dynamic of those old movies that I have now come to know as “grindhouse” pictures – those earnest, if not completely competent, cinematic endeavors made by people who may have loved the movies but didn’t necessarily have the craft to make them with the spit and polish we have come to expect out of Hollywood.

There are certain examples of these movies, such as “Death Race 2000” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and even an old Nick Adams movie about drag racing in the south that I had seen as a kid but can’t remember the name of, that completely captivated me because they were insanely entertaining. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now that they were, as one would say, poorly made. That isn’t the right definition. I liked them, and I didn’t care if they had mistakes in what we now so imperiously call “continuity.”

Somewhere, some time ago, someone had the bright idea that they would begin to catalogue the “mistakes” that we can see in films. You know, “continuity” is whether one of the extras in ‘Spartacus’ is wearing a watch. Why does George Bailey have a wreath over his arm when, in the scene before, he had placed all the wreathes on the counter of the old Building and Loan. Why does the level of liquid in the glasses fluctuate in the glasses on the table during a conversation in…well…any number of movies? That’s why I guess you see so many actors drinking out of empty paper coffee cups now. You don’t have to worry about those liquid levels from shot to shot.

But the truth of the matter is, some of our most beloved movies are a nightmare of continuity. On a purely technical level, “The Wizard of Oz” is a mess. So is “The Departed.” In one scene Jack Nicholson is walking toward the actor playing the young Matt Damon and in the shot from behind he’s smoking a cigarette and when it reverses to the front of Nicholson the cigarette is gone. There’s a bunch of that kind of thing in the movie and nobody cares. I don’t care. That movie is hands down one great achievement.

I couldn’t tell you one mistake in continuity in “American Gangster”, especially in the fact that it didn’t fail to bore me from beginning to end. What can I say?

There is a certain craft, of course, to getting details right. You don’t want some nightmare of continuity to so throw off the audience that they disregard the story. But do I care that the dove that Roy Batty releases at the end of “Blade Runner” flaps up into a clear blue sky when the scene when he releases it in takes place at night in the rain? I do not. I guess this has been fixed in the latest reincarnation of that picture, but even so it was a masterpiece before the amendment.

When we have made our own little pictures here in New Hampshire, the filmmakers I worked with were obsessed with continuity, and I could not have cared less about it. My feeling was if that these little details are noticed, then we lost the audience any way. I thought sometimes it was easier for us to fixate on those problems, the technical ones, that were approachable, rather than concentrating on the hardest part, which is the performances and nuance.

But to say that we will have lost the audience is not so true today. The film geeks out there will kill you if you screw up your continuity — look at those dumb idiots, they’ll say — while at the same time, I would imagine, some of them revere the same European and American classics that all filmmakers do, despite the multitude of technical glitches seen so obviously within the frame.

Even “Citizen Kane”, if you look closely enough, has a few glaring sound synchronization problems that would drive you crazy if you actually cared about them. So the armies of bloggers and writers and film pundits decided some time ago to focus on what they could understand — the “continuity” of a picture. As a result, we have a cascade of sleekly made Hollywood product made by hordes of script supervisors who have made sure the scarves are on exactly right from frame to frame, without caring that the actors wearing those scarves are delivering the most mundane dialogue in wooden positions.

If we didn’t care so much about this, we would be able to concentrate on what we most remember from movies, which is the story and the words and the acting, and if we love a movie, then we will forgive its little idiocyncracies.

Tarantino was right to blow through these petty expectations in his recent “Grindhouse” movie. I only saw the “Death Proof” half, and he caught the continuity problems that were a hallmark of those old cheap pictures perfectly.

But it isn’t Tarantino’s particular form of craftsmanship that we should take away from that movie. It’s rather that he understood such glitches should never, ever get in the way of enjoying a movie. More often than not, we remember and embrace the wildness and rawness of these films, because they were made by enthusiastic people hellbent on doing their own thing, hoping that in the end we would enjoy it.

One thing I think is true, despite what you may think of his own movies, is that Tarantino loves movies, loves people who make them, and loves the idea that you can bring to an audience a kind of entertainment even if you do not have all your gaffing and continuity ducks in a row.

The lesson from “Grindhouse” is to embrace the exuberance of moviemaking, the pure adrenalin joy of it, and forget about worrying whether the cigarette ash is the same length from one shot to the next.

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