The Continuously Inglorious Tarantino

When I saw “Kill Bill” back in 2003, I swore I’d never patronize another Quentin Tarantino film. Then I saw “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” …and I made a similar pledge.

I managed to successfully avoid “Sin City” and “Grindhouse.” But in a momentary lapse of judgment, or perhaps it was a Post-New Years Eve Veuve Cliquot-induced haze, I rented “Inglorious Basterds” and put it into my DVD player. 2 hours and 32 minutes later, I again declared: “This is the last Quentin Tarantino movie I’m ever going to see.”

Why do I so adamantly dislike “Inglorious Basterds?” It has a lot to do with its director’s editing… or rather, the lack thereof. Self-indulgence, thy name is Tarantino. Let’s start with the opening scenes. A French dairy farmer is outside his farmhouse, hacking away at a tree stump, ominously, with a sharpened axe. His daughter hangs laundry from a clothes lines. The rolling hills, the yellow grass, the highly saturated hues, the beating sunlight, the sweaty bearded man, the Nazi soldiers driving up the dirt road — highly reminiscent of that scene in “Gladiator” when the Roman army saunters up to Maximus’ villa and slaughters his family. We all more or less know what’s going to happen, yet it takes nearly half an hour of drawn out dialog and swirling camera angles before the first anticlimactic shot is fired. And believe me, the firing squad execution is anticlimactic.

Anticlimactic — that’s the best way to describe “Inglorious Basterds.” Despite the fire and flames and gunshots that end the movie, there is really no final burst of building tension, no final resolution that the plot moves towards. Maybe it’s there in theory, just not in actuality. I find this ironic, because Tarantino is brilliant at building tension (I’ll give him that). But herein enters the two problems present in all his films. The first is that he allows the moments of developing conflict to drag on longer than necessary. Eventually, the length of these scenes causes the tension he establishes to lose air; the viewer loses interest. Secondly, he is completely incapable of resolving that tension in an interesting manner. Guns are fired, people are blown to bits. There’s no daring escacpe, not even an attempt at a daring escape. Everyone is just dead. Lame.

Perhaps the most insulting failing of “Inglorious Basterds” is that it neither a serious WWII flick a la “Schindler’s List” or “Band of Brothers” nor a spoof/satire a la “The Dictator.” It is in a no-mans-land category, though it’s marketed as a black comedy, and that makes it difficult to digest. Christopher Waltz as Col. Landa is a legitimate, charming and believable villain — other than an over-sized pipe, he isn’t particularly comical. The scalping isn’t funny. Other than a little “Nein, Nein, Nein, Nein” temper tantrum, Tarantino’s Hitler is not a very compelling characture of the most hated man in history. The ending is problematic in its historical inaccuracy given the movie’s predominantly serious tone. There are moments that make us cringe, others that make us chuckle. But when the credits roll, I’m left with no particular overwhelming emotion. The film is utterly neutral.

I will give Tarantino’s otherwise dull film some credit — Inglorious Basterds is an excellent demonstration of film privileged ability to play with history. When Hitler committed suicide, he denied his victims the right to revenge — it was, in fact, the greatest declaration of his power. Through Inglorious Basterds, those that suffered under the 3rd Reich are re-empowered, they get to have their justice, their revenge on Hitler and his henchmen. Film has the power to shape history — driving the plot of Inglorious Basterds is the Nazi propaganda film industry — it also has the power to eradicate it in a blaze. The final regime-ending fire, started by combustible nitrate film but contained within the movie house is symbolic of both the movie’s power to re-empower and it’s real-world limitations. Hitler only gets to be assassinated by a band of Jews  in a movie.

I’m sorry I didn’t like “Inglorious Basterds.” Christopher Waltz was amazing. Some of the camera work is masterfully choreographed. That velvety red is so gloriously tangible. A script in German and French performed by German and French actors  is a refreshing change. The little movie-buff-only citations are nerdy-cool. Yet, its few merits fail to compensate for “Basterds” overwhelming shortcomings… the least of which is a failure to use spellcheck.

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