Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Inglorious Basterds

Of the Tarantino movies I have watched so far, Inglorious Basterds is easily my favorite. I wouldn't say I loved it, but I enjoyed it.

In some ways, it is the most "conventional" of the three, at least in terms of storytelling: more than the others it's a single story that builds to a conclusion, with mounting tension and plot complications. The classics are classics for a reason: they work. And yet this makes it sound like that's the only kind of story I like, and I don't think that's true. I can think of plenty of things I like that don't follow that structure. But there are a lot of ways to put a film together other than the classic formula, and I can not like a particular few (like the ones Tarantino seems fond of) without disliking others.

What I like best about the movie ultimately is Aldo Raines. I don't know how much of the credit to give to Tarantino (as writer and director) and how much to give to Brad Pitt. I just know that his totally brash, artless, straight-as-an-arrow spirit stole every scene he was in. His explanation for what was wrong with fighting in basements was a delight.

The depiction of Hans Landa also stands out as impressively nuanced and unusual. Nazis are the very definition of one-dimensional villains, but Hans is smart, polite, socially awkward, brash, and stops just short of being sympathizable. It's not even the occasionally-used trick of him being charming just to make his ruthless brutality seem more stark or disturbing. No, Hans is an interesting person who happens to be both a Nazi, heir to all the cultural conditioning and viewpoints that brings, and a brilliant detective.

Spoilers Below

Throughout the whole movie there's a suspense that mostly comes from the fact that you know how it has to end, and yet, you don't know how it can possibly end. After all, you know how World War II ended. How can the story we're seeing end up fitting within that? As the minutes tick away and the end of the movie approaches, you're wondering, how can he possibly get to a resolution that will fit what we know, or at least explain the difference between what "really" happened and what all the history books tell? The movie keeps refusing to start showing how it's going to get there, and that builds up a potent suspense.

And then in the final chapter, the answer that comes out is a surprise. Tarantino managed something unexpected: a historical film, set in a period whose history we all know, that has a surprise ending. The surprise is this: this isn't our history, our world. World War II doesn't end here like it did for us. Which means, we suddenly realize as we watch Hitler's body riddled with bullets, that all bets are off. Everything is up for grabs. Even as we watch the theater burn and then explode we're wondering all the usual cop-outs -- it was all covered up, it's just a dream, there are clones of Hitler and Bormann on ice, and so on -- but by the time the last pieces of glass fall to the pavement it's clear that that's not going to happen. This is not that story. And suddenly you realize you have no idea how this movie is going to end.

This is a remarkably gutsy decision. I don't think I would ever have come up with the idea to do it. Sure, the idea of an alternate history version of WW2 is easy enough, I've seen that a zillion times. But it's always clear from early on that it's going to go that way. I've never seen a movie string us along until the very end before making that clear, and yet, at the same time, when you think back on it, nothing in the movie ever precluded the possibility. The movie never put the possibility on the table, but it never protested too much against it, either. Taken as the story that leads to the ending it has, it was simply telling us what happened, completely honestly and in a very straightforward way. It's just that we brought our preconception about what could happen -- quite honestly earned, since it's what did happen -- and the movie never had to say anything one way or the other, to let us do all the work of fooling ourselves. If it had indulged itself in something that we could look back on later and say, ah hah, there the movie was winking at us about what it was going to do, egging us on, that would have cheapened it a little. Full credit to Tarantino for not only taking the gutsy choice, but also doing it honestly, without trickery, and standing behind it.

1 comment:

Siobhan said...

I adored Aldo. I hate the Nazis SO MUCH.