Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

If you ask almost anyone to say why they like going to the movies, one of their reasons is bound to be that they like visiting another world. Even in ambiguous character studies like The Hurt Locker, the audience is tacitly acknowledged as an intellectual observer, meant to examine a strange (and possibly dangerous) branch of humanity. They can do so knowing that they are well removed from the personality on screen. There's nothing wrong with approaching a film this way, since escapism can be a way to understand ourselves by looking at things from an outsider's perspective.

People often compliment films by saying they forgot they were watching a movie. The implication is that the film was so immersive that it shifted the viewer's consciousness from his own world to the movie world. But if that's true, what can we do when we're constantly jolted out of that movie world and into the recognition that we are watching moving pictures on a rectangle? We're stuck in our own world, and suddenly we are aware of the director's sleight of hand and of ourselves.

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No director is in a better position to take advantage of this than Quentin Tarantino. Since his giddy crime debut, Reservoir Dogs, his films have flaunted more and more self-aware B-movie references, title cards and ironic clichés, but more and more they can't seem to decide whether they take themselves seriously or not. In 2007, Tarantino's Death Proof half of Grindhouse took on these problems to the point of critical mass. Death Proof would have been far better if it had taken the joke beyond the B-movie schlock concept and made a suspense-spoof, as Robert Rodriguez did with Grindhouse's Planet Terror.

Inglourious Basterds reverses Tarantino's previous decade of bad habits and creates a film that is goofy, scary and tense. Yes, it's filled with self-aware B-movie references, title cards and ironic clichés, but there isn't a moment when the movie isn't in touch with how absurd it really is.

The film is divided into five conspicuously titled chapters. Though all of them are memorable and entertaining in their own right, the first and final chapters are the highlights of the film. The first introduces the film's lead role, Nazi SS colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz in what might be the best performance of 2009. Nicknamed "The Jew Hunter," Landa embodies everything about the film: Absurd, clever, and cruel.

Well, Inglourious Basterds itself isn't cruel, but it is about cruelty. Like innumerable comedies throughout history, Inglourious Basterds gets its laughs from people getting hurt; the difference is that Tarantino isn't afraid to show blood. Landa is cruel in his ruthlessness: He has no desire to hurt anyone, but if it expedites his ambitions he has no qualms in doing so. Shosanna, a Jewish girl whose family is massacred by Landa, lets her desire for vengeance fuel her cruelty. And Aldo Raine, the southern-born leader of a squad of American Jewish commandos called The Basterds, is cruel because he enjoys it. Of these three, who is the most reprehensible? It's easy to say Landa, for his alliance to the Nazi party, but an interesting revelation in the final chapter (no, he does not ever gravitate towards "goodness") makes that no more than an excuse. Shosanna seems to have justice on her side, but when she executes her plan of vengeance it is a hellish vision of sadism. And if Raine had been born in Germany, would he hesitate to parachute into enemy territory to torture, slaughter and mutilate Allied soldiers?

That's not to say the film is a dark, ruminating analysis of cruelty. More than anything else, Inglourious Basterds is a black comedy, and it's a damned funny one. As Spielberg, Raimi, Hitchcock, or many other masters of thrills could attest to, laughter easily gives way to screaming, and vice versa. In one scene, Tarantino spends so much time building tension that when he releases it, in a fifteen second flurry of zooms and quick cuts, it's as hilariously brief as it is shocking (the Sergio Leone method of violence at an extreme). Almost as fierce and funny is the dialogue. Tarantino, as usual, lets his characters do far more talking than fighting, and he's assembled an impressive multi-lingual cast to do it with. Hans Landa in particular comes across as the master of each of his scenes; in a film where language plays such an important part to each character's life, Landa proves to be fluent in at least four languages. Tarantino was days away from scrapping the entire film for lack of an appropriate casting for Landa when he discovered Waltz, and indeed the role is of such specific need and temperament that the performance is all the more miraculous for it. How many people could be so absurd, clever and cruel in four languages?

I mentioned that we are constantly aware of the fact we are watching a film (albeit a very engrossing and thrilling one), and that it makes us all the more of our own reactions. So why is that relevant? For one, consider the endless references to cinema in the film - a British commando who used to be a film critic, Aldo Raine revealing that "Watching Donny beat Nazis to death is as close as we get to the movies," and the cinema that serves as the plot's focal point. In one scene, Nazi elite fill a theater to watch a the premiere of "Nation's Pride", a film in which hundreds of Americans are gunned down by a single German sniper. The Nazis cheer and laugh at each brutal death, and it's impossible to avoid the fact that we have been doing the same for over two hours. Is it wrong to laugh at such violence and sadism? Is the inferno of a climax an accusation and punishment of its own audience? All these questions are asked, but the film is unconcerned with the ethics of taking a side. At its core, Basterds isn't about war, it's about people who go to the movies, and there's no escaping the fact that we go to the movies. It may be an amoral guilty pleasure, but it asks too many questions to be immoral, and it's the most fun I've had at any movie released in 2009.

Been a damn good summer for movies.


Anonymous said...

I expected more than what i got, but still respectable, my opinion would be 4/5

¬Will Ross said...

Opinions on movies shouldn't be limited to what we expected, how good what we got was, and a numerical score, if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

Ones opinion has no limits, it holds more than expectations

Anonymous said...

Been almost a month, no new posts.....

¬Will Ross said...

Lack of posts has been for a couple reasons, the first and foremost being that this is a hobby that we make time for out of our schedule.

Second is that we've been busy with school which contributes to the first reason and gives us plenty of other things to write.

I'm gonna start posting some of my favourite music albums of the 2000s pretty soon, though, so don't stop watching us!

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