Monday, December 28, 2009

Inglourious Basterds and the Year in Film

It probably goes without saying that Inglourious Basterds was one of my favorite movies this year. I'm not sure that it beats out Kill Bill for my fave Tarantino of the '00s (I was just bowled over by what he accomplished with that film, esp. after revisiting it this summer), but it was unquestionably a highlight in the rather dull year that '09 was, for me, for movies.

It should also go without saying that this isn't QT's WWII movie--it's his WWII-movie movie. Huge difference. For all the intertextual trainspotting that the most obnoxious filmies were falling all over themselves to point out (Aldo Raine is a wink to Aldo Ray! etc.), I don't think this point was given enough attention. Dono very rightly and thoughtfully pointed out over on his blog that, among other things, reimagining Hitler's demise doesn't actually change the historical record, doesn't actually change the fact that all those people died in concentration camps, doesn't actually erase any of the atrocities that occurred and linger in our memories. Of course it doesn't. But after decades' worth of WWII movies that have more subtly attempted to redraw the shape of history in ways that are often way more odious in their piousness and self-righteousness (as Eddie Argos put it, Everybody Was in the French Resistance...Now), QT's genius here is to be as fucking in-your-face about his historical revisionism as possible. If we're going to necessarily fictionalize WWII by making a movie about it, why not, at this point, just use every ounce of juice available in the medium and get our rocks off? As Mike Barthel put it, "No one, at this point, needs to be educated about the Nazis or the Holocaust; anyone who wouldn’t have sympathy for the Jews or antipathy for National Socialism is pretty much a lost cause, and it’s hard to imagine any piece of torture-porn or rigorous factual evidence convincing someone who’s not already in that camp. So why not, you know, have some fun with it?" To reiterate: this isn't a movie about WWII--it's a movie about WWII movies. Nobody is desecrating anything here, at least nothing that doesn't deserve to be desecrated a little bit. Don't all the Saving Private Ryans and Life Is Beautifuls need to have the piss taken out of them a little bit with pure punk rock cinema?

Because, as Sean T. Collins so brilliantly pointed out, that's exactly what this is: punk rock cinema. It's snotty and sneering and unapologetically going to leave anyone in the dust who doesn't get the joke. How the fuck else did you think QT would deal with the subject matter? As Archie Hicox, the English film critic-turned-solider-turned-spy, says right before the massacre in the basement tavern, "I hope you don't mind if I go down speaking the King's." In other words: when shit looks grim, you use the language available to you, and then you enjoy your Scotch.

And the language available to QT is movies, the intoxicatingly beautiful and ridiculous grammar of which underpins stuff like the Hugo Stiglitz intertitle and its accompanying power metal guitar riff before Aldo Raine busts into prison to tell him "we're big fans of your work"; Shosanna's face, enjoying the literal last laugh, projected onto the smoke rising from the movie theater-turned-gas-chamber that has been set ablaze using actual film stock; Frederick Zoller turning from a soldier into an actor; Goering fancying himself the Third Reich's David O. Selznick; Bridget von Hammersmark conflating spying with acting; Donny Donowitz and Private Ulmer's breathless action-movie-cliche exchange before busting into Hitler's opera box ("After I kill that guy, you have 30 feet to get to that guy. Can you do it?" "I have to!"); and, of course, the final, cheekily self-referential shot of Aldo Raine drawling "I think this just may be my masterpiece." Even the WWII-movie convention of everyone going around speaking accented English gets a nod during the impeccable opening sequence when Hans Landa shifts from French to English and back again.

Which reminds me--holy shit, this movie was subtitled in at least three different languages and one of the major plot points turns on being able to discern inconsistencies in another character's accent and use of idiomatic gestures. This, rather than the male-dominated cast of soldiers and its attendant tough-guy posturing, is the true hearkening back to the era of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction: language, my people, language. All the sitting around and talking to kill time, all the ways that secrets are traded as precious commodities. Language divides just as sure as it brings pleasure; it's a weapon every bit as dangerous, in its own way, as Aldo Raine's knife. Nicknames and rumor (the trash genres of verbal communication, as it were) serve, elegantly, a kind of double function here, as destabilizing tactics among the governments and their martial emissaries (eg, Hitler's futile insistence that no one ever refer to Donowitz as "the Bear Jew" again) and as sly commentary on the world of film fandom (eg, the repeated question "have you heard of me?", Landa's pointed insult to Utivich about his height).

All of which, of course, would be bullshit if the movie wasn't so much fun and also so lovely. Much has been made of the final showdown at the premier of Nation's Pride, and for good reason. It has to be one of the most taut, thrilling sequences since...well, maybe since the House of Blue Leaves vignette in Kill Bill. The use of Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" was a brilliant, achronological touch that just catapults you into the excitement and anticipation of the moment. Sublime.

There's much, much more to be said about the film, and I'll probably get around to saying more eventually. I just felt like I needed to get some of my most salient impressions up here (four months after the fact, ahem; thanks for your patience, friends) before the end of the year. Viva QT!


The few things I've seen since our last movie update right after Thanksgiving have been mostly lackluster. I fell asleep during the final climactic battle sequence of Avatar, and A Single Man is as dumb, shallow, and pretty a film as you'd expect a douchebag like Tom Ford to make. Up in the Air didn't do much for me other than prove, more than ten years after the release of Out of Sight, that America clings tightly to its favorite enduring fantasy of having nearly anonymous sex with George Clooney after getting picked up by him in a hotel bar. (JR Jones made me cackle when he referred to Clooney in his review in the Reader as "the most adored man in America after Barack Obama.") Also, Vera Farmiga is super pretty (though I still always momentarily think she's Claire Forlani). Sherlock Holmes is fluffy and fun, almost distractingly so--Robert Downey Jr., talented as he demonstrably is, pretty much doesn't even act anymore as much as he personifies a series of exclamation points bouncing around at 24 frames a second. In the plus column, I liked Broken Embraces quite a bit more than any Almodovar film in the past few years, especially when you realize it's not actually about the Penelope Cruz-centered love story, but actually about the improvised family structure created by and around Judit and her son. And though I missed it during the approximately five minutes it was out in theaters this summer, I finally just caught Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience on DVD and really loved it. I love that he's one of the few filmmakers willing to engage in any sort of conversation (reductionist as it necessarily must be) about the ways that people make and use money. The personal trainer character made me want to gag on my own tongue a couple times for the ways that he reminded me exactly of the trainer I was working with for six weeks this fall.

Otherwise...yeah. It's been a pretty boring year for movies. Whither the explosion of creativity and innovation we saw ten years ago in '99? Was it just a fin de siecle thing? Not much has really stuck with me this year. It's all the single word movies: Up, Moon, Taken, Humpday, Adventureland. More importantly, there was also Bright Star, Bad Lieutenant, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and, as elaborated upon above, Inglourious Basterds. And, in their own weird ways, also The Soloist and Two Lovers. That's not even a movie per month! Hopefully you've had a luckier year than me, my darlings. Let's keep our fingers crossed for the new year and the new decade, shall we?

Bonus track: in chronological order, here are my top 20 favorite films of the '00s.

Almost Famous--2000 (I'm pretty sure I saw this movie the same day I had Ethiopean food for the first time--CTLA, be a good Boswell and correct my memory if I'm wrong about this)
The Anniversary Party--2001 (this is really of a piece with Rachel Getting Married, as far as their being real-time depictions of talented friends gifting each other with the extravagance of their talent; I have a real soft spot for that sort of thing)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch--2001
Moulin Rouge!--2001
The Royal Tenenbaums--2001 (although I seriously did debate citing The Life Aquatic; I've really come around on that film since I originally saw it in the theater, now that I think I better understand what it's doing)
Insomnia--2002 (Christopher Nolan's most underrated film)
The Pianist--2002 (Polanski, you fucker, I wish I knew how to quit you)
Signs--2002 (shut up, I don't even care--this is my favorite film about the experience of the day of 9/11)
All the Real Girls--2003
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead--2003 (it's Clive Owen in a neo-noir; why didn't more people see this?)
Lost in Translation--2003
Kill Bill, Vol. 1--2003--and Vol. 2--2004 (it's really unfair to think of them as separate movies)
Before Sunset--2004
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--2004
Cache--2005 (along with seeing Eyes Wide Shut for the first time, this is one of my favorite filmgoing experiences ever)
A History of Violence--2005
There Will Be Blood--2007
Man on Wire--2008
Rachel Getting Married--2008
Bright Star--2009


Donovan said...

lovely, Al. I think we had very similar years--I also loved The Girlfriend Experience and adored Broken Embraces, which critics seem to be greeting as more of the same, rather than a staggering apotheosis of PA's obsessions. I caught Inglorious Basterds on DVD and, the second time around, it became even more punk, more intertextual, more of a fun, giddy labyrinth of meaning-construction and pure formal brilliance. An empathy and understanding of pulp as deep as QT's creates a weird, attractive vibe to every scene...anyway. And as someone else fascinated by masculinity in crisis (see The Wrestler, etc) I thought Avatar was fascinating and beautiful and all sort of wrong--but more anon. Thanks as always!

Anonymous said...

Great write-up on QT's latest--I've been waiting eagerly for it!

In my service as Boswell: we did indeed see *Almost Famous* upon your arrival into NWI. The next day, we saw *The Invention of Love* (Guy Adkins' tears; the incomparable Paxton Whitehead) at the Court followed by a crazy night in Chicago that included our first taste of Ethiopian Diamond, Grandpa's Turtle at Margie's, and near death in traffic ("um, Lew...").


allison said...

@Donovan: Yeah, where to begin with the crisis of masculinity in Avatar? Jake Sully's flaccid legs which become transformed into a Viagra-blue warrior's physique when he climbs into the big penis machine? The Colonel's ridiculous biceps and military industrial complex robot suit? Sheesh, Cameron.

@CTLA: So that's the chronology! I couldn't quite recall which day we did/saw what. It was Invention of Love as a matinee that threw my recollection off. Many thanks. Also, LOL at "the incomparable Paxton Whitehead."

Michael O'D said...

It's a new fucking decade, alright. I've lived to see Felus out-chronologied in her own parlor. The queen is dead!