Monday, August 31, 2009


#15 with a goddamn bullet! Or a butcher knife!

Entertainment Weekly, having long since ceased being an essential, or even a fun read for anyone seriously interested in keeping up on movies and attitudes about them, is still occasionally a good source for stirring up water cooler (or blog ) conversation. And so it is with the magazine’s current listing (EW excels at lists) of The 20 Best/Worst Horror Villains”. Lest ye be confused, as I was, by that title, they aren’t saying these are the 20 best villains at being worst, as in most vile and horrifying. It’s a straight list—the first 15 are the “best” horror villains, followed by five villains who have failed miserably, in EW’s eyes, at the game of making fright. The list goes something like this, villains name followed by the franchise, and on rare occasion the single movie, from which he/she/it sprung:

1) Freddy Kreuger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
2) Pinhead (Hellraiser)
3) Michael Meyers (Halloween)
4) Jason Voorhees Friday the 13th)
5) Count Orlok (Nosferatu)
6) Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
7) Jigsaw (Saw)
8) Candyman (Candyman)
9) Annie Wilkes (Misery)
10) The Tall Man (Phantasm)
11) Hannbal Lecter (Manhunter, The Silence of The Lambs,
Hannibal, Red Dragon
12) Norman Bates Psycho)
13) Sylvia Ganush (Drag Me to Hell)
14) Minnie Castvet (Rosemary’s Baby)
15) Chucky (Child’s Play et al)

1) Pumpkinhead
2) Dr. Giggles
3) Gingerbread Man
4) Leprechaun
5) Audrey II (The Little Shop of Horrors)

Let the pointless nitpicking begin. First of all, if posterity and overall influence is to be counted for anything, then I think you have to alter the top three positions to show Count Orlok, the first truly memorable vampire in film history, at number one, followed by the equally seminal Norman Bates at two, and one of Bates’ direct grandchildren, if you will, Leatherface at number three. After that start then sure, bring on your '80s icons, if you must. Go ahead and juggle Freddy and Jason and Michael in there however you want, though I would have to insist, again imposing my own standards on EW’s game here, if audacity and mutability is to count for anything, then Chucky must surely rank higher than #15.

After all, it took Freddy till the seventh film in that franchise to even begin to see the possibilities in using itself as an examination of anything beyond surrealistic depictions of garish nightmare-tinged murder scenarios. Jason got into that game after 11 movies, at Freddy’s insistence, and their little romp, ranks among the best of the Celebrity Death match pairings of movie villains of the 2000’s, far outstripping Alien vs. Predator or Sarah Palin vs. David Letterman. But Chucky, as guided by writer Don Mancini (full disclosure: Don is a good friend of mine) and director Ronny Yu, took the popular killer doll down that road after only three outings, resulting in (no, I get it, arguably) the franchises two best movies Yu’s Bride of Chucky (1998) and Mancini’s Seed of Chucky (2004), which recast the adventures of the murderous redheaded toy in the shadow of standard movie romance tropes and then, most memorably, family psychological drama a la Ordinary People. So really, Chucky needs to be in the top seven somewhere, with the Tall Man, Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm (“Boy-y-y-y-y-y-y!”) hot on his tail.

Though I don’t have much use for Annie Wilkes, I love the inclusion of Minnie Castavet and Sylvia Ganush. But my biggest picked nits have to be the inclusion of Pinhead, not only at number two (number two?), but at all. Really, each of the candidates, even Jason (Friday the 13th Part 3-D) has one movie in their oeuvre that’s somehow distinctive, if not exactly good. But where is that movie in Pinhead’s column? Even the original Hellraiser was dank, messy and mistook the terrorizing of flesh as being the same as being terrifying. And each sequel was sillier than the last. Throw Pinhead out on his perforated skull cap!

And the worst category is what it is, but for the inclusion of Audrey II from The Little Shop of Horrors (1985), Frank Oz’s filmed adaptation of the Broadway play, which seems as out of place here in this category as Audrey does being considered a “horror villain” alongside Jason and Leatherface. Outside of an argument over the merits of the movie, which is far better than many of the movies that were mentioned or alluded to on this list, Audrey II’s appearance here seems random and silly. Have Audrey II and Pinhead switch places, and then I think you’re on to something.


Friday, August 28, 2009


UPDATED 8/29 12:20 p.m.

Unused poster art for Inglourious Basterds courtesy of The Screening Log.)


These are it, the concluding chapters of my back-and-forth discussion with Bill R. (and lots of illustrious guest stars) about the movie of the year so far, Inglourious Basterds. You can access the previous chapters-- part three, part two and part one by clicking the links. And for further discussion, please check out the comemnts columns at Bill's site, The Kind of Face You Hate both here and here.


Well, Bill, yesterday certainly was an eventful day on the Inglourious Basterds front lines, was it not? It is near 1:00 a.m. PST as I start on this e-mail, and I hope I’m up to delivering something worthy to end on through the gathering crust threatening to seal shut my peepers. The level and intensity of the discussion about the movie have taken on a scale and dimensions that I would never imagined when I first proposed our little experiment in bicoastal criticism. Just getting a handle on the vastness of damned good or otherwise provocative writing and commentary about the movie, whether it be pro or con, has been exhilarating, and I most certainly include the estimable Jonathan Rosenbaum’s comments in that grouping. I just wish he’d gone a little further in his initial comments, which were abrupt and reasonably gathered a bit of a storm of confusion about exactly what he meant by Tarantino’s film being morally akin to Holocaust denial” and “existing at the expense of Holocaust survivors.” It isn’t good form, or good criticism, to drop bombshells like that and leave them lay, so I was glad that Rosenbaum, initially through Tony Dayoub’s site Cinema Viewfinder, chose to come a little more out in the open and challenge what struck him as the deficiencies of some of the commentary. (One of my observations was held up as a specific example of reasoning beyond his understanding, a politic way of saying that it didn’t make no sense to him.) But then Mr. Rosenbaum decided to rehash his elaboration of his comments on your site, and that’s where things got really interesting.

I won’t extensively quote Rosenbaum’s two or three posts, nor my two responses, or Greg’s two responses. I’ll leave it to those who choose to follow the link to your post to decide whether Rosenbaum’s model for what constitutes the acceptable representation of historical reality holds water, or whether Greg and I are deluded, misguided, full of shit or all of the above for suggesting that it is not Tarantino’s job to provide detailed historical verification of the Holocaust as background for his film, but that he is right to assume his audience is intelligent enough to take that element seriously off the top, and that what QT is doing is spinning his dramatic license from an acknowledgment of Holocaust reality in order to deal with the people who perpetrated those horrors. This is where our discussions with Mr. Rosenbaum have landed us at this late hour. And I must say, I give Rosenbaum credit for stepping even further into the fray and engaging with us about this subject. I fully understand that a critic with a profile as relatively high as his has probably had enough of the kind of avalanche of negative response in dealing with some of his decidedly non-mainstream opinions and would be hesitant to open his writing back up to the random nonsense that constitutes “commentary” on a lot of these well-read sites. (I can imagine a flurry of observations along the lines of, “Hey, you are stupid if you don’t like QT or his movie. What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you see it was number one at the box office?” would tend to make one want to lock up the comments column and throw away the virtual key.) So it is indicative, at least to some degree, that he recognized that the level of discourse here went a bit beyond the usual nonsense, even if our reasoning wasn’t rigorous enough to convince him of our impeccable intellectual standing. At any rate, it ended up an unexpected, thoroughly enjoyable, if exhausting development that has me buzzing still, and has made me happier than ever that we decided to handle examination of the movie in the way that we have.

To address a couple of points that you bring up— No, I don’t think we are meant to feel sympathy for Landa. He has made a show of his intelligence, his cagey, teasing instincts as a detective—someone commented somewhere that he was like Columbo in SS drag (“Und by ze way, one more thing, Mssr. LaPadite…”)—and his utter ruthlessness when the time comes. The fleeting sympathy I may have felt for a group of people getting barbecued in a burning theater did not extend to the individuals of actual history there represented—I’m only 1/5 serious when I say that I’m slightly disappointed that Hitler’s head, upon being shredded by machine gun fire, didn’t belch forth a mass of heretofore hidden tumors oozing out of every new orifice, like Barry Convex after being shot by Max Renn in Videodrome. I don’t think it’s requisite that you have an actor of the caliber of Bruno Ganz, Alec Guinness or even Anthony Hopkins to breathe life into Hitler, or any of the Nazi Top Ten as it were, in order to deal with them in this context, and it’s more effective if the level of their conception is done up in such broad strokes as they are here if you don’t have such capable, recognizable faces in the roles. Better that so they don’t get in the way of seeing Hitler and company reduced to their most atavistic and decadent, the easier to be reminded that these beasts have already given up their humanity. And certainly no sympathy was extended by me to this cretin Landa, however slick and continental and entertaining he may have been. It was very satisfying to this viewer, in the way that neatly conceived and clever twists in entertainment can be (and so often aren’t) to imagine Landa getting every little perk he requested out of his deal with Raine, and yet having to life this life of privilege and luxury with that symbol carved on his noggin. Perhaps a plastic surgeon might help him out one day, but there would be all that time in between.

And if I might, I’d like to quote you whole hog on Zoller. This assessment of the character, and his character, insofar as he reflects the German experience as a correlative to the American war hero-turned-movie star Audie Murphy is, I think, my favorite passage in all of your writing on the film so far, Bill. I love how you capture the perfect agony of Shoshanna getting the upper hand after Zoller’s first breaks in, and then is lured further into that projection booth, only to have everything go to hell in a moment of sympathy for one of the devils:

“After she shoots him, she gazes out at the movie screen, onto which his life story, Nation's Pride, is being projected. Her face softens, because he's just told her he didn't like watching the film, and also probably because she gets a sense of what he went through in combat. So she softens, sees that Zoller is still alive, and approaches him. What does her pity get her? A death right out of Argento, at Zoller's hands. Furthermore, let's not forget how he violently bulldozed his way into the projection booth, looking for sex. His insistence on this made his claims about finding Nation's Pride uncomfortable to sit through seem a little disingenuous. And look, very few soldiers have ever come home from war, relishing the memories of the men they've had to kill. American GIs returning from WWII were just as tortured by what they'd done as Zoller claimed to be, but does that mean that the Americans thought that what they'd done hadn't been necessary? So why should Zoller have been any different? Let's not forget that however much he may have failed to enjoy watching his exploits on screen, he'd still happily hitched his star to Joseph Fucking Goebbels, and no one can tell me that anyone who had Goebbels’s ear didn't know what the Nazis were all about. So fuck Zoller, is what I'm trying to say.”

I get a strong sense of what the moment was for me in reading your words (though her demise reminded me more of the way De Palma might have shot it—I would imagine less representative bloodshed, with all that red glitter flying through the air, and more chunks of flesh being torn away had Argento been behind the camera, or at least a pond of blood instead of a mere pool). But your anger over Zoller’s movie star arrogance in the context of his Nazi privilege is palpable and tactile enough to practically handle here. Nice examination of this crucial aspect of the movie, Bill.

Which leads me to Jeffrey Wells. I won’t spend much time on this guy, because I frankly find him embarrassing-- I cannot take seriously anything written by a man who trolls film directors for naked pictures of the actresses in their films, and then pretends it was all a joke when the sleazy business comes to light. And yet here I am, offering my amazement over his conclusion regarding Sgt. Rachtman's rectitude before Aldo and his men under that bridge, when faced with a certain skull-crushing experience. I’m not sure how Wells’ logic is supposed to effectively condemn Tarantino conception of the reductiveness of Jewish revenge simply by recognition of the expression in Rachtman’s eyes, “clearly that of a man of intelligence and perception… his eyes in particular… have a settled quality that indicates a certain regular-Joe decency.” Well, I certainly read more arrogance and condescension into those limpid blue pools than did our Mr. Wells, whose ideas of manly physical beauty as expressed in his blog of late wouldn’t seem out of place in an Aryan Renaissance Festival, so I’m not exactly sure what to make of that. I can only conclude that the idea of this Nazi’s calm demeanor taken as evidence not of his sinister nature and assurance, but instead as a mirror with which to reflect the irredeemable barbarism of these Jewish avengers, a nature most often prescribed to Nazi devils, is simple nonsense. “Regular-joe decency”? Jesus H. Palomino! I defer to reader Robert Fiore, who made an observation in the comments here about one of Tarantino’s themes here that puts Wells’ assertion to shame. Robert says: “The really fascinating theme (the director) has going for him in Basterds, and what will stick with us from the movie, is the delusion the German characters have that they can be part of the Nazi enterprise and still be decent people in some aspect of themselves.” Toosh! If Rachtman assumes this to be true, and I suspect that his notions of military honor, separated as they are from the cruel facts of his army’s mission and methodology, tip his hand here, then he is truly damned. Genocidal rationalization and murderous impulses usually don’t mix well with moral certainty and delusions of “regular joe decency.” I also adore Robert’s comment which came directly before his incisive observation about those Nazi delusions of decency: “What has become more apparent over the years is that while Tarantino inhabits all of cinema, high cinema is where he visits and low cinema is where he lives. It's the artistic potential of low cinema that engages him.” To leave Wells in the ditch with his beloved Rachtman from here on out, I wonder if Fiore’s notion of what Tarantino is up to in a general sense would make any sense to Jonathan Rosenbaum.

As for the performances, I realize, upon reflecting on this movie in such detail, how typically wonderful is the acting in any given Tarantino picture, and we’ve talked to some degree about why that is—that there must be an unusual level of comfort and confidence that he transmits to his cast, a knowledge that he absolutely loves them as artists and craftsmen, and he loves reveling in what they do and how it emerges on screen. But for all the history of fine casts and individual performances in his oeuvre (if I may be allowed to use such a squidgy-sounding word at this point), would it be crazy to think that he’s reached some sort of apex in the showcasing of his actors in this new movie? I don’t think so. So much has already been written about Christoph Waltz’s effortless brilliance as Landa, and I’m not sure I have a lot to add that wouldn’t seem obvious or redundant. His is one of the great movie Nazis insofar as he is so articulate and boastful, and affable, about his abilities as a detective (not anything really so crass and distasteful as a Jew hunter), and how revealing he is about the knowledge of human behavior that coexists with his willingness to snuff it out that informs his suitability, his excellence at his duty. Yet as I said before, it is this assurance and how it is inverted and turned upon him that provides the ultimate chill when one finally contemplates the postwar life he has, if you’ll excuse me, carved out for himself.

Melanie Laurent is so physically beautiful and right for the part that it took a second viewing for me to fully understand just how good she was. That cafĂ© scene alone, with Goebbels, his “interpreter” (how do you translate, “Take me from behind, Joey! Now!”), Zoller, the unctuous SS officer who later turns up in the bar, and then finally Landa, with his goddamned strudel and cream, is a long, brilliant exercise in charting the landscape of a woman holding her breath. Every twitch Laurent delivers arrives like an earthquake, and they all have significance. She is marvelous here. My other favorite Laurent moment is the disdain with which she sizes up Zoller after she invites him, to his surprise, to come in to the booth and he asks, “What for?” For the look on her face in that brief two or three seconds alone, she will always have a place in my heart and my esteem.

(I’d also like to take a moment to point out that I was fooled by Tarantino favorite Julie Dreyfus, who played Goebbels’s stunning associate, Francesca Mondino. For the entire time she was on screen I was convinced she was Italian giallo star Edwige Fenech, even though I knew in my head that Fenech is around 60 years old at this point--and still lovely, by the way. It wasn’t until later that I realized Mondino was played by the actress who portrayed the one-armed Sofie Fatale in Kill Bill. True to form, though, Tarantino’s tribute to Fenech was yet to be revealed…)

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Rod Taylor on screen as Churchill, though I have to believe we’ll see more of him in the inevitable nine-hour cut Tarantino has waiting for Blu-ray and DVD. Michael Fassbender was perfectly cast in the Graham Greene-ish role of Archie Hicox. Talk about wish fulfillment—a dashing, articulate hero type who wouldn’t look out of place in “a production of the Archers,” and he’s a film critic to boot! (Come on, Jonathan, at least admit you smiled when this man came on screen and started talking about his book on G.W. Pabst.) And then there’s Mike Meyers, fulfilling a lifelong wish of his own to be in movie where he could be the Richard Attenborough-ish general pointing to the map and telling the main characters how Jerry plans to move across the continent. The guy is terrific, although I kept waiting for that Austin Powers grin to come popping out at some point. (It did, didn’t it, and I just missed it somehow.) And what is Myers’ name in the movie? General Ed Fenech! See, Tarantino tantalizes us with a fantasy version of this beautiful woman, tweaks our (my) memory of her, reveals the fool, and then gives us Edwige Fenech is the guise of this little military troll! Brilliant! Superb! A tour-de-force!

As for the Basterds themselves, I gotta believe there’s more footage of Samm Levine to be revealed in that nine-hour cut. B.J. Novak was terrific in his scene across the table with Landa near the end. And of course Til Schweiger and Gedeon Burkhard as Hugo Stiglitz and Wilhelm Wicki, were marvelous and had much more opportunity to show it in the infamous bar scene. I will say that I was open to disliking Eli Roth based solely on his unctuous, opportunistic persona defending the Hostel movies during appearances on Larry King Live. But I thought he did a good job swinging that bat, and the totally believable psychotic gleam in his eyes made up for any physical discrepancies that might have come to mind between his imposing physicality (or lack thereof) and that nickname, “the Bear Jew.” Finally, I don’t think I can emphasize enough how much I have come to enjoy seeing Brad Pitt in these kinds of character roles. One of the first times I ever noted how good the guy could be was in the relatively tiny role he took as the stoner chorus in True Romance. And as you aptly pointed out, Bill, his work in Burn After Reading was, in that movie, peerless—he should have snagged the Oscar nomination for that performance rather than the one he did get nominated for, the recessive blank slate at the center of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Even his brilliant turn as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a character role writ large and off-center—the central role of that movie belonged to Casey Affleck as Pitt’s titular counterpart. The point is, Pitt, like Alec Baldwin, is a far more interesting presence as a character actor than as a leading man, and the more roles he takes like Aldo Raine—if he’s ever lucky enough to get another role this juicy—will be the signal that the man knows where his talents really lie. He’s spot on terrific here, exaggerated accent and all. Gorlomi!

As for what didn’t work, not much, truthfully. Being Italian, I even liked the exaggerated accents, and especially Roth and Doom’s robotic gestures of sophistication as they try to wriggle past Landa in the lobby of the theater. Not high comedy, but still funny! I thrilled to the pastiche of music cues (I bought the soundtrack a couple of nights ago, and it shall travel with my on my little weekend getaway which begins as soon as I post this e-mail), and as suspicious as I was about the Bowie song, as soon as I saw how well it integrated with the movie’s visual scheme (undulating, insistent rhythms, Bowie’s somewhat sinister vocals, lyrically relevant imagery) I became completely unconcerned with notions of it being an anachronism—you could make the same claim about a lot of movie music in general, particularly the stuff from Morricone that QT has stitched together here.

And like Zorro swooping in at the last minute, Jim Emerson just posted a comment about an element of the film that I agree I would have changed, an anachronism the movie could have done without—and that’s Samuel L. Jackson’s narration about the film nitrate. Not the text, but Jackson’s participation. It doesn’t add anything to the richness of the concept of cinema as a weapon, or how QT has created this grand tapestry of violence as a tribute to the power of this great art form. It just feels like Sam dropped by the studio one day and QT got this idea in his head that he had to figure out a way to fit him in. (It is funny, as a side note, to mention that Glenn Kenny rightfully took Armond White somewhat to task for not recognizing Jackson’s voice and casually assuming that it was Jacky Ido, who plays Shoshanna’s projectionist lover, who provided the basso profundo voiceover. Make of that blunder what you will, Dear Reader.) But really, I think Tarantino could have found someone else, someone whose presence doesn’t so easily throw you out of the movie at that point and down the director’s navel, who could have done the job just as proficiently and, depending on whom he chose, may have even added subtext rather than subtracted it. Thanks, Jim, for saving me from my own difficult question!


Okay, the hour draws near and I gotta go. But before I do, I would be completely remiss if I did not thank you, Bill, for indulging this e-mail exchange idea and fulfilling the possibilities of it as you have. Your thinking about the movie kept me humming, even if we don’t exactly see eye to eye on some of the specifics. The appreciation and the enthusiasm you brought here, and to your own table at The Kind of Face You Hate, is precisely what I always hope will come from respectful and intelligent interaction in the blogosphere. That it doesn’t happen as often as it should is something with which I will not concern myself now. I am just happy to have had this experience alongside you, and Don, and Jim, and Greg, and Tony, and the Caustic Ignostic, and anyone else I may be forgetting who joined in our little round table here—and especially Jonathan Rosenbaum, who gave us all a jolt and made us step up our game in the late hours. This has been extremely rewarding and challenging, and as Jim said in the comments column, may we always have a movie to experience that gives us so much joy in the hours and days and weeks after we’ve seen it, so much to chew on, digest, and even reject. It is this opportunity that reveals the true dimensions of a movie and what it can offer, and it is in this process of discovery that we become better at seeing and understanding as opposed to just reacting. Thanks again sincerely, Bill, and thanks to Quentin Tarantino for making a movie with which none of us resent spending so much time.

You can keep up with interesting developments along the front lines of response to Inglourious Basterds by following the David Hudson-esque alerts to the new and interesting posted by Inglourious Fan.

And I just couldn’t resist giving the last word to David Letterman, who has, predictably, had a lot of fun with this movie which has so improbably risen to the height to the general public’s consciousness this past week. Enjoy! And arr-eee-va-derchy!


UPDATED 8/29 12:29 p.m.
So here it is, Bill's final installment, which marks an end to our week-long converstion here and at The Kind of Face You Hate. Which is most defiitely not to say that the conversation will end here. It will continue in our comments columns, to be sure, as well as anywhere that the exchange of ideas is welcomed and not subject to pissing and moaning over the simple fact that no everybody sees things exactly the same way. I will be ready to resume the gab in my comments section and at Bill's as soon as I post this. So here we go. This is Bingo!


Yeah, yesterday took me pretty well by surprise, and highlights the great danger of this infernal piece of wizardry we call the "internet". Perhaps you remember the old days when a group of people could get together and talk about another person, one who was not presently with the group -- one who was, in fact, elsewhere -- and that group could say things like "Say, that thing that person said: what was the deal with that?" or "That thing the other person said sure was confusing. I was he or she had been clearer!" Such things would be said specifically because that other person was nowhere around, and retribution would not be forthcoming. But sister, you try pulling that noise on the internet and see where it gets you. That other person will pop in out of the blue and attempt to explain what they meant, and we found that out the hard way.

The truth about Rosenbaum's entrance into the conversation is that I was so tired by that point, not to mention taken aback, that I was damn happy that you and Greg -- and later Kevin Olson, Ryan Kelly, and the bewitching Tom Carson -- were there to hold up what amounted to my end of the argument. And you did a great job, I must say. While I genuinely appreciate the fact that Rosenbaum dropped in to clarify his point, and to make himself available to further discussion, I truly don't believe any of his clarifications took hold. He continued to hammer on Inglourious Basterds as a disrespectful, to put it mildly, Holocaust film, but Kevin pointed out that the proper genre designation for Basterds is "War Film". As a matter of fact, it's closest to a World War II espionage film than it is to anything else, so how, exactly, did it get lumped into the same category as Schindler's List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful, and other such films? I don't know, and my inclination is let that line of conversation just lie fallow. Still, as you say, it does underline the fact that the conversation that has been taking place in the comments section of our blogs, and Greg's blog, and Fox's blog, and Glenn Kenny's blog, and many others, because, at those sites, even the people who dislike Tarantino's film are unwilling to dismiss it outright. It's that reaction that really frustrates the hell out of me. I'm left speechless in the face of it. At his blog, Greg said: "I just wish, deep in my heart and sincerely, that they could have seen the movie I saw." That's more or less how I feel, because to me, anyone who disliked this film is really missing out on something extraordinary. At the very least, they're missing out at an incredibly good time at the movie theater, but I believe they're plain and simply missing out on a genuine work of cinematic art, a remarkable achievement. This probably sounds incredibly snobby: You don't get it, and I feel sad for you. :-( But I don't think that's what I'm saying. I respect the differences of opinion, and I've been on the other side of this phenomenon often enough. I hear what they're saying. I just don't understand a word of it.

And I never meant to suggest that you, or anyone (although some do, it would seem) would feel pity for Landa, and I love your description of his future. It's not as though I wouldn't have like to see the Bear Jew (God, I love that name!) go uptop his skull with a nice piece of lumber, but the beauty of the ending we got, apart from the wonderful Ennio Morricone music cue, is that it put me in mind of the original J. Lee Thompson Cape Fear, when Gregory Peck tells Robert Mitchum he's not going to kill him, because Mitchum doesn't fear death. He fears prison, so that's going to be his punishment. Which is not to say that Landa doesn't fear death -- I got the impression that he sort of did -- but rather that he has no idea the hell that he's set himself up for himself by wrangling a free trip to America. I must say, I do like that. And another thing I loved about that scene was when Raine shoots Wilhelm, and Landa says, "You killed Wilhelm! I made a deal to save that man's life! They'll shoot you!" Raine replies, "Nah, I won't get shot. I'll get chewed out -- I been chewed out before." It's a strangely hilarious way of showing the difference between punishments faced by those who disobey the Reich, and those who disobey the American military. Tarantino is subtly pointing out that the Nazi mindset was so depraved that it couldn't even fathom the concept of reasonable response.

Regarding Jeffrey Wells, let me make myself perfectly clear: I find his response to the bridge scene to be nothing less than morally repellent. Presumably, he's not actually so bone stupid as to not actually know the extent of the Nazis' demonic cruelty and barbarism. But how easy it seems to be for him to shrug that knowledge right off his shoulders, and imagine that this Nazi officer might harbor some genuine decency in his heart. Regular Joe decency, at that (the best kind)! I get genuinely angry when I think of Wells's post, but I really shouldn't use the last post of this wonderful discussion as an excuse to empty my spleen all over the guy. Let me just say two more things on this subject. One is that, charmingly, Wells titled the post in question "Jew Dogs." Second is that I must admit that I do harbor a fantasy that Wells will get wind of this conversation and find out what we've said here about him and his post. Then he'll get so angry that he'll write a whole post about us, in which he labels us go-alongers and leave-us-aloners, points out that our writing doesn't even reach the level of mezzo-mezzo, and assures his readers that we are most definitely not outlaw biker poets who favor wearing emotionally vivid cowboy hats. As of this writing, that hasn't happened yet, but my fingers remain ever crossed.

But back to the film. Reading your detailed analysis of the film's performances makes me regret my rather slapdash take on the subject, especially since I join you in your love of Michael Fassbender as Hicox. As I mentioned in the comments section of your blog, a post or two back, I recently learned that Simon Pegg was originally supposed to play the role, but had to bow out because of scheduling conflicts. I think Pegg would have been terrific, but Fassbender is outstanding, and one of the reasons I loved him so much is because he had the air of an actor in a 1940s war-time espionage film. And you're right, Dennis, he could have come right out of Powell/Pressburger. Maybe if Roger Livesey had gotten sick, Fassbender could have stepped in. Now, I don't want to go nuts, but I could honestly see it. "Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's." I mean, come on! Explain to me what's not to love about that. I'm listening.

In the comment sections of various other blogs, I've also expressed my happiness that B. J. Novak was given something to do at the end of the film, and I agree, he was very good, in the same way that Eli Roth was good: he wasn't asked to do much, but he completely sold what he had to sell. And yeah, it's a shame that Samm Levine apparently got scissored out of the film, which I have to say reminds me of something about the film that I can't actually call a problem, but, well, I would have loved to have gotten to know the rest of the Basterds, maybe have Tarantino give them each a moment. One of the great pleasures of this kind of ensemble film is seeing the different characters get paired off over the course of the film, and seeing how the two dynamics play off each other. We got a bit of this, with the most interesting, for me, coming from the duos of Eli Roth and Omar Doom (!), and Brad Pitt and B. J. Novak. I'm sure the absence of some of the others was a function of editing, but it still struck me as slightly curious -- and in some hard to define way, realistic -- that the Doom and Novak characters should suddenly, in the last half hour, have something to do, while three of the Basterds are pretty much out of it completely.

Robert Fiore's point about Tarantino being interested in the artistic potential of "low cinema" is exactly right. I couldn't have said it better myself, and it sort of reminds me of something I read a Glenn Kenny's site. After his review, Glenn went back to see the film a second time, and later he broke the film down, scene by scene, and came to the alarming realization that Inglourious Basterds consists of a mere sixteen scenes. Is it just me, or that fairly amazing? A commenter -- maybe on Glenn's site, maybe elsewhere, I'm afraid I can't remember -- pointed out that Blow Up, at 110 minutes, has over twenty scenes, but Inglourious Basterds, an out-sized World War II revenge film has just sixteen. And, as you know, it still moves like a freight train. This is evidence of real formal and creative ambition on Tarantino's part.

Lately, I've heard some people claim that his approach to genre material is arrogantly ironic, but that's not the case at all. That's not to say that he doesn't include irony in his films, but that he absolutely loves the genres he works in, and he knows how good they can be. For him, it's not a matter of any film "transcending its genre", a bit of critical snobbery that I'm sure he can't stand any more than I can. It's just about making the best goddamn World War II revenge film he knows how to make, and God bless him for it. He's given me the best time I expect to have all year at the movies, and the best week of blogging I've had in a very long time.

Let me double the thanks to all the people Dennis thanked, as well as all the people I've already thanked, which would appear to make things uneven, but you guys will work it out, and especially, Dennis, I want to thank you for honoring me by asking that I take part in this project with you. You set an incredibly high standard every day, not just in film writing, but in pure class. So thank you all again. And, man, I can't wait for the DVD.

Say good night, Winston.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


UPDATED 8/27 1:09 p.m.

Behold, day three of the ongoing e-mail conversation between The Kind of Face You Hate’s Bill R. and I regarding Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. I don’t know if it reads this way to the merely interested, but my own feeling about the way this discussion is playing out, with all the extra commentary from readers at both my blog and Bill’s (with Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles poised to join the fray), has allowed access to a greater exchange and examination of ideas and impulses and reactions to this movie that a single review (at least one that I would be capable of writing) ever could. I’m really enjoying the back and forth, and I hope you are too (whoever you are). I encourage you to pipe in, agree or not, and liven up the discussion even more, either here or at Bill’s place, where there are some very interesting examinations of the film’s violence and its tone going on-- which just happens to be the part of the pool into which I feel like jumping into (no diving!) tonight.

(Access part two and part one of our ongoing discussion by clicking the links.)


Bill, I’m gonna start off by reiterating a couple of things from your comments page and from that Atlantic article (the link to which has been fixed, by the way) that I think are germane to where I’m sensing the conversation is headed.
Here’s part of what I had to say on your site regarding a point made by one of your readers:

“I don't want to forget The Caustic Ignostic's point: `It's not that IB is a cerebral film masquerading as a visceral film, or a visceral film that critics are inappropriately reading as a cerebral film. It's a cerebral *and* visceral film. I suspect QT would scoff at the notion that he had to choose, or that the audience wants to choose.’

I think this is crucial, certainly to the way QT lays the groundwork for what he's up to in Death Proof, as it applies to IB. The first group of girls die in that spectacular sequence, which gives us the visceral thrills of suspense and kinetic car action-- the basis of QT's genre exploration-- but goes further by emphasizing, in a honorable way, the true price being paid by these girls with whom we've spent the last half hour (however fascinating or pointless you may have felt that visit was). We see the gruesome reality of the crash for each victim, which leads to some uncomfortable contemplation to go along with the excitement we've felt, but QT does it not to pooh-pooh us for getting off on the action, but instead to suggest the real humanity lost here.”

From the Atlantic article, here’s IB producer Lawrence Bender:

`At the end of the day, the people in that auditorium’—during the film’s climax—‘are Nazis. You kind of feel bad for them because they’re burning to death, but you’re not feeling too much sympathy, even for the Nazi who gets a swastika carved in his head.’”

And here’s Jeffrey Goldberg, writer of the Atlantic article, who does a good job, I think, wrestling with his own ambivalent reaction to the film’s violence, speaking from the perspective of one who fought in the Israeli Army:

“But why risk creating sympathy for Nazis at all? Why have any scene that, in Neal Gabler’s words, `conventionalizes Jews, puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else’? Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity. But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.”

To my mind, the open-mindedness with which Goldberg infuses his own questioning and the interview with Tarantino is refreshing. Inquisitive and serious, but not baiting (he knows Tarantino will supply the juicy quotes without a whole lot of prompting), Goldberg makes clear that Jews are not immune to fantasies of revenge even as he questions the appropriateness of some of the specific imagery in IB. That, to me, is playing fair.

The questions that he asks above, though, in response to Bender’s less qualified response (Bender is Jewish also), is the nail on which some have become snagged in regard to Inglourious Basterds. Why risk creating sympathy for the Nazis at all? Well, I think a very simple response to this question, an answer also, perhaps, to why some of these other more sober dramatic inquiries into the Jewish experience don’t seem to work very well (Jakob the Liar, Life is Beautiful, Defiance), is that while Tarantino is unapologetically keyed in to the pleasures that movies can offer us, not even close to the least of which is the unambiguous and vicarious rush of seeing justice meted out to those who may escape it in “real life,” he is also an artist interested in exploring the possibilities within what might on the surface seem like simplistic reactions to purgative violence.

I go back to my example from Tarantino’s previous movie, Death Proof. If that movie was simply an opportunity for a genre apologist to riff on familiar themes and situations from some of his favorite trash classics (which, on one level, is exactly what Death Proof is), then I don’t think Tarantino spends as much time letting us get to know, and get annoyed by, the first group of girls who will be sacrificed to Stuntman Mike’s psychosexually twisted aggression. He would set things up in a much quicker, choppier fashion (all the better to approximate the expository quality of a movie like, say, Trip with the Teacher) so we could more rapidly get to the good stuff. Therefore, in addition to the white-knuckle staging of that head-on collision, and the violence done to the vehicles themselves (which anyone who loves car chase cinema will enjoy without apology or hand-wringing, despite the damage done to those muscle car beauties), we get a particularly terrifying, and moving, tribute to Tarantino’s commitment to the humanity of those women, a few of which we may have concluded previously to be shallow bitches based on their conversation. As Stuntman Mike’s car shreds the top of their vehicle, Tarantino used his newfound visual mastery as a director to offer to us privileged information—we see the horrible violence visited upon each of the victims in ghastly detail. This may be the most cathartic, disturbing car wreck ever committed to film, and it is so because Tarantino chooses to consider the violence of the moment from an angle in addition to the one that his homage would seem most likely to accommodate.

In the same way, the Caustic Ignostic suggests that compartmentalizing IB as either a cerebral film or a visceral one is to deny the way the movie actually works on our sensibilities. (This insistence of the either/or, which I think Tarantino would scoff at, and justifiably so, is at the heart of the divide between what people have come to expect from Tarantino —violence, verbosity-- and how those elements are most often actually incorporated into Tarantino’s movies.) It’s clear that he is interested in providing the rush of satisfaction that history and the movies have routinely denied viewers—a specifically Jewish vengeance fulfilled on screen. But I do also believe that, no matter how much he may marginalize his intentions about creating a fleeting sympathy for Nazis as victims in interviews, a sense of ambivalence for herding humans into a building and burning them alive is part of what’s going on here. Tarantino is too smart, too aware, too (yes) sensitive, for it not to be. The mark of this movie’s status as a masterpiece is that such impulses can co-exist in the precise moment with the Revenge of the Giant face, as Shosanna’s triumphant declarations, projected on a burning silver screen, and then on the smoke rising from the ruins of her beloved cinema, echo forth amidst the screams, a moment she has been denied witness to herself by an awful twist of fate. I would never suggest that it wasn’t a tremendous rush to see Adolf Hitler’s skull perforated by machine gun fire, and I think that in the context of what Tarantino has done here such a catharsis is justified and satisfying. But I would suggest that, for me at least, the extra dimension of contemplation, which has been put in play by the director (whatever his motivation), over the pain and horror inflicted on the Nazis in the theater—the recognition, however fleeting, of them as human beings—makes IB an even richer experience for me. Maybe in interviews Tarantino downplays this because it’s not quite in tune with his own self-portrait as an artist-provocateur. But then, film history is rife with film directors who talk a certain game in interviews, while the films themselves, for richer or for poorer, reveal talent (or lack of it) and intentions that the director may have glossed over during his act of self-promotion. The bottom line is, Inglourious Basterds works on different levels, even when one of those levels, the satisfaction derived from the choreographed destruction of the Nazis in that beautiful burning cinema, is clearly the dominant level.

Goldberg’s final point, that the carving of a swastika into the foreheads of the Basterds’ Nazi victims “doesn’t sound like a Jewish thing to do,” is similarly double-edged. My suspicion is that Goldberg is not downplaying the element of revenge behind the carving so much as the image being carved. Perhaps it would make more sense to him (and I’m merely speculating and putting conclusions into Goldberg’s mouth here) that Aldo’s squad would carve the Star of David into these killers’ foreheads instead, thus forever marking their Nazi victims with a reminder of those whom they sought to exterminate. If this were Tarantino’s choice dramatically, I would think it would be equally justifiable, but it’s also not much of a leap for me to imagine that in doing so he might find the movie and its tone moving a little too close to the self-righteous indignation of the typical Hollywood response to the Holocaust. That they choose to brand the Nazis with symbols of their own ghastly behavior, giving them an inescapable legacy, works perfectly well within the film, however, as I see it. And it may or may not be important that the man ordering the scalping, and who administers the movie’s ultimate swastika-carving, is not a Jew himself, but a Tennessee hillbilly, one not far, genetically speaking, from Tarantino’s own family tree, who claims Native-American ancestry (as does Tarantino), linking him and the Basterds to an entirely different but not dissimilar tributary of historical genocide.

I’m far more troubled by Goldberg’s second poser: “Why have any scene that, in Gabler’s words, ‘conventionalizes Jews and puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else?’” When we start talking about the immorality of suggesting that one group of oppressed people would never entertain thoughts of revenge, and the immorality of charting their adventures should they do so, then we’ve either elevated, or reduced (depending on your sociopolitical leanings), an entire people to a status above or below that of just about everyone else on the planet who is even momentarily honest about their capacity for such feelings. Maybe Gabler believes that the Jews are above such reactionary violence, or that if they did go about it, then that violence would need to be balanced by the kind of moral debates indulged in by the characters in Defiance in order for it to be palatable screen material. Tarantino bypasses all that because he knows that such a dialogue is likely to be dead in the water, on top of unrealistic for the particular situation, and he has confidence that his talent as a filmmaker will be enough to convey that ambivalence without making a big, Oscar-baiting point out of it. (The look on Eli Roth’s face as he strafes the auditorium with machine gun fire is plenty enough of a nudge in this direction, and I was glad for it even as I was reveling in the story’s violent climax.) This suggestion that Jews should be excluded from tales of revenge, or even the suggestion that they ever entertain them, are the subtext, I think, of objections like Daniel Mendelsohn’s, or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assertion that the movie is morally akin to Holocaust denial. (That Rosenbaum has yet to elaborate on his claim, at least to my awareness, is telling.)

Absent from any of these objections seems to be an awareness that Nazi baiting and use of the presence of Nazis in the history of World War II as fodder for Hollywood extravaganzas is not exactly fresh news. As I sat with my kids watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen Monday night (an activity I recommend to all parents of age-appropriate children, especially if it comes packaged with a beautiful new 35mm print of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a second feature), my mind was whirling. Incredible how any objections that may have been raised in 1981 to Spielberg and Lucas’s appropriation of Nazi characters and imagery for their wacky WWII fantasy, which ends with Nazi evil being melted into hellish oblivion, not by Jews but by the very Hand of God, seem to have evaporated. Could this distinction between the two films in terms of how revenge is meted out be the source of the difference? Or are we just not prompted to take the Indiana Jones world as seriously because of its serial connections?

Well, guess what-- Inglourious Basterds is derived from a Hollywood line of WWII fantasies as well, from The Sands of Iwo Jima to The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, none of which has much more claim to historical plausibility than does Tarantino’s movie. The movies produced during World War II were recognized then, as they are now, as specific forms of propaganda meant to bolster the morale of the troops and American audiences, and as such rarely engaged much in the way of wartime atrocities or the reality of significant loss of American life. (Wayne's Iwo Jima dealt with tragedy, but was keyed more toward American uplift.) That Inglourious Basterds does deal in the historical reality of the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in the context of a thrilling Hollywood-style spectacle (it is, in reality, quite opposite from what one might reasonably expect from Hollywood these days) is apparently reason enough to object to IB which, for Rosenbaum, exists “at the expense of real-life Holocaust victims.” It seems then that Rosenbaum ought to be having a lot more difficulty with the history of war on film than he seems to have in general. Maybe a target as big and juicy as Tarantino, the director and his duped, sycophantic audience just waiting to be deflated and held up as an example of disgusting amorality, is just too irresistible.

I’m looking forward to hearing what your feelings are about all of this, Bill. I doubt I'm far wrong in supposing that you would be pretty annoyed at anyone who tried to downplay the effect of the revenge angle in the movie, especially as a means of making the whole brew go down with less trouble. Finally, before I go to bed, I wanted to key you to old friend Jim Emerson, who is catching up on Tarantino and who weighs in on Inglourious Basterds here. I am very happy to include him in this very satisfying conversation and hope he can find time to check in with us.

Okay, let’s change it up. What did you think of the performances? I’ve heard lots of talk, even from some who loved the movie, about Brad Pitt’s insufficiencies. I’d love to turn back and talk about Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, even Mike Myers and their invaluable contributions to Tarantino’s achievement here. And amongst all this praise, are there any elements of the movie, big-scale or small-scale, that don’t work for you? Let’s hear it!


UPDATED 8/27 1:09 p.m.

Bill has made it out of the gate with his end of this portion of our e-mail exchange. I envision him coming out to the ominous tapping sound of a baseball bat knocking its way through the tunnel arch of a bridge support, emerging into the sunlight and brandishing his words like weapon with which to lay waste to all comers. Nah, he's more subtle than that, but just as much fun to watch as, say, Donnie Donowitz himself. Take it away, Bill!


First off, your points, and those made by Caustic, are well taken. I absolutely agree with you about the crash scene in Death Proof, despite my reservations about that film as a whole. This was slasher film violence you weren't meant to laugh off. It was mean to hurt, an idea that I loved, and which made the downhill slide that followed all the more disappointing. And I would agree with you that much of the violence in Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's follow-up to that philosophy, although I remember him saying as far back as Pulp Fiction, that when it came to his films and their use of violence, he wanted the audience to laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and then suddenly stop laughing.

My reason for being less affected in that way when it comes to his new film is a simple one, and I've pretty much said this very thing a few different ways already, but here it is again: never before was Tarantino applying his facility with on-screen violence to Nazis. I'm sure we've all read more than we cared to about the sheer demonic creativity of what the Nazis -- and not a few of the German ground soldiers -- did, the different ways to murder people, and make them suffer, that sparked their brains in the course of doing business. Having swastikas carved into their foreheads and seeing them burned alive would seem like child's play to Hitler and Himmler and Mengele (why couldn't he have been in that theater, too?).

Goldberg does indeed play very fair in that Atlantic piece -- it's a really great little article -- but as far as risking creating sympathy for the Nazis, I must say I don't quite follow him. For one thing, for a film that is so over-the-top, the characters all nevertheless feel real, which is the mark of Tarantino's talent. Were he to have gone in the direction Goldberg may have preferred, he would have had to turn Landa and the others into a cartoon, and I think it's sort of hard to truly hate a cartoon. There's no flesh or blood or mind to latch onto, nothing to recognize as human, and therefore nothing to perceive as a true aberration to humanity. And plus, obviously, I felt no sympathy for Landa. Meanwhile, does anybody, including those who view the violence as double-edged, feel any twinge of anything other than disgust for the fictional versions of Hitler and Goebbels in this film? I would imagine not. They sort of are cartoons, or, more accurately, outlines of the historical knowledge we all carry into the theater with us. No one of sound mind was in danger of feeling any pity, however tempered, when they saw Hitler's face coming apart.

Which brings me to Zoller, a character I found to be a fascinating and wholly original creation. A German war hero, much has been made of his final scene, with Shosanna, in the projection booth. After she shoots him, she gazes out at the movie screen, onto which his life story, Nation's Pride, is being projected. Her face softens, because he's just told her he didn't like watching the film, and also probably because she gets a sense of what he went through in combat. So she softens, sees that Zoller is still alive, and approaches him. What does her pity get her? A death right out of Argento, at Zoller's hands. Furthermore, let's not forget how he violently bulldozed his way into the projection booth, looking for sex. His insistence on this made his claims about finding Nation's Pride uncomfortable to sit through seem a little disingenuous. And look, very few soldiers have ever come home from war, relishing the memories of the men they've had to kill. American GIs returning from WWII were just as tortured by what they'd done as Zoller claimed to be, but does that mean that the Americans thought that what they'd done hadn't been necessary? So why should Zoller have been any different? Let's not forget that however much he may have failed to enjoy watching his exploits on screen, he'd still happily hitched his star to Joseph Fucking Goebbels, and no one can tell me that anyone who had Goebbels’s ear didn't know what the Nazis were all about. So fuck Zoller, is what I'm trying to say.

EVEN SO...yes, of course, it's not beyond Tarantino, or even me, to feel a bit of a chill as that theater goes up, and as the Bear Jew pumps round after round of ammo into the backs of terrified people in evening wear. That whole ending has a definite Italian horror film vibe to it, enhanced by the anachronistic electric sound of the Bowie song (which was written for a horror film, remember) and punctuated by that astonishing image of Shosanna's laughing face projected onto the black smoke. Right or wrong, satisfying or not, cathartic or repellent, that ending is horrifying, by definition. That doesn't mean that I don't wish some form of it had happened in reality. And as for film directors being known for talking about their films a certain way, despite their actual intentions, well, Tarantino has talked both games. So when you're watching the film, you're seeing what you see, not what he says.

It's beyond me what Goldberg's point is when he suggests that Jews should, at least in fictional representations, be free of the impulse for revenge, and I think you've said everything sayable about that point. But I would like to point your attention to a sort of review of Inglourious Basterds by Jeff Wells (and perhaps as a result open up a can of worms that I'd rather leave alone). As I say, it's not actually a review -- it's more of an attempt to destroy a film that he hates, but which is becoming successful against his wishes -- and in it he focuses on one of the film's other controversial scenes, which is that baseball bat-killing of the German officer by the Bear Jew (Eli Roth). Allow me to quote:

“The bottom line is that Pitt and Roth, who plays Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (a.k.a., 'the Bear Jew’), behave like butt-ugly sadists in this scene while Sammel behaves like a man of honor, character and dignity.

Tarantino has Sammel defy Pitt by saying ‘fuck you and your Jew dogs’ so it'll seem right and fair that an anti-Semite gets his head beaten into mashed potatoes with a baseball bat. But what speaks louder is (a) Sammel's expression, which is clearly that of a man of intelligence and perception, (b) his eyes in particular, which have a settled quality that indicates a certain regular-Joe decency, and (c) his refusal to give Pitt information about nearby German troops that would lead to their deaths if he spilled.

Isn't this is what men of honor and bravery do in wartime -- i.e., refuse to help the enemy kill their fellow soldiers, even if it means their own death?”

Dennis, as you're well aware, you and I occupy different areas of the Political Spectrum, American Division. But we've always gotten along well, and I thoroughly respect you and your views. And what I'm about to say doesn't even have much to do with "Liberals" per se, because Jeffrey Wells is obviously a special case, in that he is both a lunatic and an asshole. But nevertheless, my first point is that my take on Tarantino has always been that he is very much an apolitical filmmaker. That takes nothing away from what you say about his sensitivity or humanity, which points I agree with; I just don't believe that he makes films that he intends to fall in a Left or Right-wing category. Second, despite my robust embracing of this film, I would never for a second attempt to claim Inglourious Basterds for "my side". Nevertheless, some critics have attempted to offer the film to my side, after giving it a slap upside the head, based on its approach to revenge and American violence during wartime. While I must politely decline the offer that I think is inherent in some of the things Wells has said about the film, and which Rosenbaum has flat-out stated, I must make mention of the fact that, in the course of my travels, I've found that some people do not like it when you accuse them of steeping their world-views in the concept of moral equivalency. And all I can suggest to them is that if they so dislike being associated with moral equivalency, then perhaps they shouldn't embody the concept quite so thoroughly.

I suppose that's what is known as a "digression". My apologies, and moving on...

As for performances...well, I honestly don't think there's a bad one in the bunch. That opinion doesn't only include Mike Meyers, who I think is perfectly amusing in his small role, but Eli Roth, who has gotten mostly slammed, even by the film's admirers. Roth doesn't have a great deal to do in the film, as far as range is concerned, but what he does need to project -- bloodlust, glee, rage, a Boston accent -- I think he gets across just fine. I will say that in that last shot of the Bear Jew you referred to earlier, I didn't see any hint of any emotion other than cold satisfaction. But you've seen the film twice, and I haven't, so for now I'll defer to you on that.

And Pitt is a blast. I think he's made his three best films, and given his three best performances, and the last few years, with The Assassination of Jesse James by Etc. and So On, Burn After Reading, and this. I don't know what kind of performance people would rather Pitt have given. He's playing an over-the-top, as written, Tennessee hillbilly who demands that his men scalp their Nazi victims, and the lines he's given to deliver -- which you and I have been shamelessly pilfering for our post titles -- would hardly work with a more muted reading. Again, I think he's sensational, and I don't know what else could be desired from the role.

Of course, there are two performances that are objectively unassailable: Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, and Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus. There's not much I can say about either that won't come off as gushing, but among my favorite moments from Laurent is her release of breath, fear, panic and rage when Landa finally steps out of her sight in the restaurant. Her eyes and breathing tell the whole story of that scene. Waltz is a revelation, or maybe that word only applies if you've seen the performer before, but didn't realize they were quite so good. I'm sure I'm not alone in never having even heard of Waltz before, and yet you can't look away from him from the second he first appears. He's just so damn smooth, so assured, and so purely that character. Where the hell has this guy been? I read recently that he's primarily a TV actor, so I can only count Tarantino lucky that Waltz decided to audition.

As for what didn't work for me in the film, there's honestly not much. I can only remember one moment that caused me to actually worry, and that was when three of the Basterds are called to employ their facility with the Italian language. It's not that I didn't chuckle, but generally it was way too broad for me, even in this film. Ultimately, it didn't matter a bit, because as a plot point it was completely irrelevant, because the only character to whom they tried to pass themselves off knew the score going in, and wasn't fooled for a second. So it's just a bit of comedy that didn't quite land. I was also briefly unsure about the Bowie song, but as I said before that ended up tying in beautifully with the giallo tone of the last half hour or so.

So what about you? And what's next!?



UPDATED 8/26 2:02 p.m.

This is Part 2 of an open-ended discussion of what appears to be the best movie of 2009 so far, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, as chatted about by Yours Truly and Bill R., notorious and quick-witted propreitor of The Kind of Face You Hate. We encourage your comments, of course! (Part One can be accessed here.)



One of the earmarks, at least for me, in recognizing a great film is the insistent buzz that I leave the theater with, the giddy, head-spinning mugging of all my preconceptions, none of which dissipates but only gets stronger the more I think about the film, the more I talk about it, with those who dislike it as well as folks like you, and Don, and many others who happen to agree that Inglourious Basterds is probably the movie of the year. (Of course, this kind of buzz on a movie right out of the box is quite rare. It's more often that a movie's true dimensions are revealed over time, apart from all the hype and received wisdom about it.) I made a point of seeing it on a Saturday morning, as early as possible, so as to minimize the possibility of being influenced by a theater full of ticket buyers whose response might indicate that they’d already made up their mind about loving it. My rationale was, everybody who just had to see it on the first night stayed up late last night doing so, and therefore most likeminded viewers would still be in bed at 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning when I went to see it. And as far as I can determine, that strategy worked. The theater where I saw Inglourious Basterds was a big multiplex auditorium, only about 1/3 full, so not only was the audience fairly calm throughout, but I also didn’t have much sense of what kind of box office draw it was exerting nationwide either. I guess I was audibly amused by the movie (not obnoxiously so, I hope), and after I’d burst into applause upon the title card “Directed by Quentin Tarantino,” some older gentlemen who had also stayed through the end credits came up to me and said, with some amusement, “So I guess you liked that, huh?” Yeah, I guess I liked it.

And I guess my enthusiasm piqued my wife’s interest too. I suspected that, were she able to endure it she would like the movie, but I didn’t think she would never allow herself to be exposed to it, so averse is she to extreme violence. (No Country for Old Men reduced her to tears.) But as I gushed on over the course of Saturday afternoon, she decided to check it out, and I eagerly volunteered to accompany her the next day. This time we saw it with a packed house at a major Hollywood venue, and the audience was clearly with the movie—being with this crowd gave me a new kind of giddy to add to the buzz that was still resonating with me from the previous day. I also had a job to do— my wife agreed to go on the condition that we work out some sort of silent signal that would warn her to shut her eyes before any shocking violence or gore. With the exception of one smash cut to a scalp being peeled away, my commission was successfully executed and she survived the screening. (I told her afterwards that I likened my duty to that of a human “Fear Flasher” or “Horror Horn,” an audio-visual warning system employed by a 1966 sub-William Castle shocker called Chamber of Horrors, in which a loud klaxon would start blaring and the screen would start flashing bright red tinting before each scary scene. She shook her head and looked at me as if to say I’d spent too much goddamn time at the movies.) Again, much at the end of screening number two and apparent confirmation of the assertion made by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and by extension our None-Too-Humble Auteur, that this one may just be his masterpiece.

So it’s worth considering again the statement you made: “Any conversation about the film, and what it is, and what it does, has to acknowledge that Inglourious Basterds is, at its core, a genuine crowd-pleaser.” Of all the things we could have been talking about in the wake of this movie’s release, its status as a genuine hit was not one that I really thought would be of much interest. I figured that all the press and interviews and well-orchestrated outside interest was as likely to translate to box-office gold in about the same way that the fevered anticipation for Grindhouse did-- that is, everyone who really wanted to see it would pack houses on Friday night, and the rest of the weekend would be a wet fuse leading to much post-opening hand-wringing by Harvey Weinstein and an ignominious journey straight to DVD and Blu-ray. But here’s the reality, and it’s kind of a stunner: as my friend and fellow critic Kim Morgan observed, in this summer when you couldn’t convince audiences to take a chance on a well-reviewed corker like Drag Me To Hell, but when two soulless contraptions like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ransack the wallets of just about every July and August moviegoer, here’s Quentin Tarantino making an honest-to-God hit out of a two-and-a-half hour war movie with no battle scenes, in which the only major recognizable star is cast in essentially a supporting character part, and a good two-thirds of the picture, in which most of what everyone does is talk, talk, talk, is in subtitled English! Now, if that’s not an achievement worth celebrating just in and of itself, especially in this day and age of risk-averse Hollywood blockbusters, then I don’t know what would ever be.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the way audiences have been trained to expect exposition, character development, action, narrative itself in short, clipped bursts, and how Tarantino seems to fly in the face of all that. To go back to Stephanie Zacharek’s review, she expressed a real excitement (and relief, I think) that Tarantino chose to shoot the film, as is his custom, in more classically oriented long takes—no shaky-cam for QT. And she also hinted at how Tarantino has really developed as a visual stylist—if you look at Reservoir Dogs and even sections of Pulp Fiction, you get a sense of a filmmaker much more at ease with his abilities as a writer than as a filmmaker, and being that these were his first two movies that shouldn’t be too surprising. The camera was, to a great extent, a static observer in those two films, more so in Reservoir Dogs than Pulp Fiction, and which each subsequent film, as Tarantino digs around in the nooks and crannies of the vital pockets of the genres he’s examining and subverting, he’s getting more familiar with how to use the camera as part of that storytelling, how to choreograph placement of characters and changes in perspective to accentuate suspense or illuminate elements of the conversation that may be more important than we once suspected—for example, the suspicion that Lt. Archie Hicox may be on thin ice with his SS counterpart in the bar scene is telegraphed almost subliminally through judiciously edited glances and sharply shifted rack focuses away from Greta Von Hammersmark, who may be trying to signal him, and onto a trio of shot glasses being poured in the foreground. This is nimble filmmaking that really vitalizes that fairly complex bar scene—the camera is all over the place in it, but not in a look-at-me fashion. Tarantino is constantly finding ways to emphasize the inherent drama with the camera without taking the viewer out of the movie. (And when he chooses to take you out of it—HUGO STIGLITZ!—the very incongruity of it is funny as hell, an indicator of the filmmaker’s playfulness and confidence that he’s got you where he wants you and he ain’t likely to lose you by dispensing the goose in such a fashion.)

Yet it is this scene that is most often cited by the film’s detractors (and even some who liked it) as being a slog—too long, pointless, bereft of the writer-director’s customary pizzazz, somehow not tight in the way we expect a suspense set piece to be, presumably in comparison to the interrogation of Mssr. LaPadite by the ingratiatingly sinister Col. Landa. I think Tarantino is in the business of redefining “tight” throughout this movie, and maybe you can talk a little more about how he seems to do it in this scene. The complaints usually sound something like, “The scene needed to be tighter, shorter.” But as usual no one seems to have an idea of how this might be accomplished, what could be sacrificed that wouldn’t also lessen our identification with almost everyone in the room, from the soldiers celebrating the Nazi sergeant’s child being born, to the participation in the celebration of the German actress (and double agent), to the Basterds and the SS officer who become part of the interaction, right down to the imposing barkeep and his lovely employee. Once one element drops out or is lessened, the resulting momentum, inexorable as it is deliberate, is lessened and the movie’s overall strategy of patience and observation would be, I think, lessened as well. And everyone in the scene is important to its conclusion.

Okay, Bill, so much left to talk about that I wanted to hit on in this post that will just have to wait until next time, but that’s why we’re doing this all week, right? I have to take off to go see Steely Dan—it’s Internet Request Night here in Los Angeles, and my dear wife bought me a ticket for Father’s Day that is, this very evening, coming home to roost. But I look forward to your end of this one, and next time I’ll elaborate on some of the thoughts that ran through my head last night, the first part of our conversation already on the books, when I took my daughters to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. As you might well imagine, much of that movie resonated with our discussion and the larger one going on right now about the appropriateness of Tarantino’s WWII fantasies about Jewish revenge and how this new movie differs, if it does, from the way Hitler and Nazism have been approached throughout the history of Hollywood. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m having more fun talking about this movie in this way than I ever thought possible. This is what great movies are all about! Thanks for partnering with me on this ride!


UPDATED 8/26 2:02 p.m. (Here's Bill's response, which came to me much earlier in the day. Alas, I have been in bed sick-- which is where I still am-- but the conversation must, and will, continue. Part 3 will be up shortly. But for now, hee-e-e-e-e-re's Bill!)


My theater was reasonably full, too. The only reaction to the film I was able to witness that might be considered either negative or ambivelant was a guy sitting in front of us who, after the end credits were over (he did stay that long, which must mean something) looked at my wife and me and said, "Well, then." Which really isn't an unreasonable thing to say after seeing Inglourious Basterds, whatever you ultimately thought of it.

But it's true that the audience's enthusiasm enhanced my enjoyment, at least a little bit. Ordinarily, I despise talking during movies (of course I do, everybody does, in theory), and I even hate hearing people crunching on popcorn, but the large number of people sitting near us who regularly uttered things like "Oh shit!" seemed to me to merely be getting into the spirit of Tarantino's film. If ever there was an "Oh shit!" movie, this is it. And while I didn't have to warn my wife about upcoming violence (I couldn't have even if I'd been asked to), seeing as she likes to see Nazis get bashed all to shit almost as much as I do, she did recoil from the bullet-wound interrogation, as well as something else, I think...can't remember what.

My point about Inglourious Basterds being a crowd-pleaser was badly stated, but I think you got my point anyway, which is that this film, proclaimed so boring but certain film critics, is nailing casual filmgoers to their seats, even though it's mostly in languages other than English, and even though a lot of people talk, and stuff. Although I don't know why its apparent success should surprise us: this is Tarantino, and at his best his dialogue is a wonderful mix of pure character and sheer entertainment, and I don't think he's ever pulled off that mix as well as he does here. Nobody seems like a stand-in for Tarantino himself, and everyone, however broadly they may be painted, is a full human being. This is great movie dialogue, classic, in its way. It hearkens back to the 40s in its exaggerated take on human speech, used as a means of making every second of the film feel alive and moving. Audiences have always come to Tarantino for that, and after what I consider a serious backslide with Death Proof, I think a lot of people are relieved to see him return to full strength. Full strength, and then some.

As for the tavern scene...I'm almost at a loss. What can you say about it? One thing that occurred to me that may seem obvious is that it functions, or could function, almost as a stand-alone short film. You might need to add a little bit of a set-up (but maybe not), but the scene is an absolutley complete story. Which is how I originally thought of it, as a short story. There are no extras in the scene, as you pointed out, everybody has a function, but you never get the sense that they exist to serve that function, and the scene (I almost said "film") builds as so many stories do, from apparent insignificance to outright terror, and then to splattering blood, but it takes its own sweet time getting there. It unfolds. Tarantino has said in the past that the art of letting stories unfold is something that has been lost in American film, and he's right. He's also the current master of that art. So that's my answer to your question about why the scene works: in middle of the film -- not disconnected from the film, but still its own, separate thing -- Tarantino tells us a different, self-contained story of comedy, suspense and violence. You don't have to shift gears to immerse yourself into it, but you can almost feel yourself, in your story-following frame of mind, reset to the beginning. It's like putting down a novel you're enjoying tremendously to read a similarly themed short story you've heard was also very good. And you heard right.

But let's talk about what so many people seem to want to deny, or cut with subtext (which I won't argue is there), or flat out condemn the film for containing, what it is about Inglourious Basterds that so many of us find so incredibly thrilling, and that is the primal cinematic joy of watching Nazis get the living shit beat and blown out of them. At its core, this is a purely cathartic movie. It's hard to not get pretty deep into spoilers here, but Tarantino shows us things in this film that never happened, that are refuted by history, but which it is a blood-thirsty, heart-leaping joy to behold. And yet, there's a quote floating around the internet, regarding the film's astonishing climax. Somewhere, Tarantino apparently said that he deliberately "fucked with the climax", and that at some point the Nazi uniforms disappear, and you're just seeing human beings suffering horribly. Again, I don't deny that's part of it, and I even asked my wife, after reading that quote, if she had that reaction, and she said she did. But, in a fascinating piece on Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds in The Atlantic, Tarantino says, when asked if maybe he didn't go too far on occasion, and that maybe some people would be upset, he said: “Why would they condemn me? I was too brutal to the Nazis?” Given that this film is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, I have a really hard time finding it within myself to let my heart bleed out for the Nazis we see dying on screen. Any halfway intelligent filmgoer is going to bring into the theater with them a knowledge of the nightmarish, organized serial murder that the Nazis carried out against the Jews, and goddamnit, I'm not going to feel even a little bit bad that I felt a genuine, thrilling bloodlust while I watched the ending. I mean, isn't seeing the bad guys get theirs one of the basic joys of films, and of all storytelling? You can complicate and subvert that all day long if you want to, and if you do it well I'll gladly pay my money and think deep thoughts right along with you, but let's not pretend that we don't like seeing this stuff play out on a basic level, or that that's not one of the primary, ingrained reasons we all have for going to the movies. And when the bad guys are Nazis, you can take your ambivelance elsewhere, Buster Brown.

And I'm out of time. So talk to me, Dennis, about how you reacted to the violence, because this is a big topic, and there are a few more critical reactions to that aspect of the film I want to get into later.

PS - Here's a link to the Atlantic article.