Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 108: Inglourious Basterds

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #74
Year: 2009
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz

If Inglorious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's most pronounced love letter to genre cinema, then consider this blog post my love letter to Inglourious Basterds. I assure you that I have no intentions of using hyperbole in this post, although I'm certain some of it will come off that way. I hold this film in a kind of reverence usually reserved for the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca. No other movie, even ones that I ultimately prefer over it, had the immediate effect on me upon watching it that Inglourious Basterds did. There was no "growing on me" process; I went to the theater, loved it, and then went to the theater two more times to watch it again before it left screens. I bought the DVD the day it came out, and have watched it three more times since then. The sixth time lacked a little bit of the punch of the first five, but it was still evident what a great movie this is, and how much I'll probably always love it. It's dangerous to declare movies that have only been out for a year "classics," but I don't feel uncomfortable giving Basterds that title at all. It's a goddamn classic.

The first time I saw Inglourious Basterds was at the midnight premiere on the day of its release. The theater was packed, and Tarantino had everyone on a string. In the great opening sequence, "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" – the film's erstwhile title – every word from Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-winning role) amplified the tension one more notch, until Tarantino masterfully and mercifully allows a break for some comic relief, when Landa pulls out his giant, Sherlock Holmes-esque pipe. Everyone in the theater went from hushed terror to relieved laughter in a split-second. Moments later, Landa's men storm into the house where the scene takes place and shoot at the Jews hiding underneath the floorboards with machine guns. The audience reaction? Shock. A swirl of emotions was already running through our heads, and we knew something bad was bound to happen, but when it finally did, thanks to expertly crafted suspense, it was still jarring. And unlike some of the scenes in and Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction that were primarily meant for shock and awe and weren't rooted in any kind of familiar or terrifying reality, the first scene of violence in Inglourious Basterds is directly tied to a universally known chapter of history that digs at most everyone's heartstrings in the same way. Tarantino doesn't let his film become preachy, though. He treats the Jewish element of World War II more playfully than any other director has to date. Instead of making Basterds a pity-fest, he puts the power in the hands of the Jews, who go through the film doing one thing and one thing only – killin' Nazis.

Of course, Basterds is a Tarantino film, and it wouldn't be a Tarantino film if there weren't numerous nods to classic genre cinema. Essentially, this is a Spaghetti Western set in World War II France instead of late 19th century America. Music from Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone-referencing scenes – the entirety of "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" can be traced back to Angel Eyes' first scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – drive this point home. But note that I said "essentially," because Tarantino never works inside one genre. This also pays tribute to the old Italian war film it borrowed its title from, 1978's The Inglorious Bastards, without coming anywhere close to remaking it. There's anachronism, too, and while that usually bothers me in movies, it's hard to imagine anything besides David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" being played while Shoshanna arms herself for battle with haute couture and handguns. The film's climax is a bloody blaze of glory that proves itself well worth the wait and ticket price.

But some people left Inglourious Basterds disappointed. They saw trailers that consisted of Brad Pitt talking about killin' Nazis, expected two-and-a-half hours of killin' Nazis, and were disappointed when they got about ten minutes of killin' Nazis and two-plus hours of talking. Pardon my French, but fuck those people. If there was a snowball's chance in hell that a movie heavy on action would be better than the movie he made, Tarantino would have made it. He didn't. He made the right film, and one of the best film's of all time. Don't forget that for all its badass scenes that exist in the collective unconscious, Tarantino's muse, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is a three-hour movie with incredibly lengthy stretches of sparse dialogue and no action. It's the visual vocabulary and the ability to read between the lines of the script that make it great, and to a less subtle but nearly equally excellent degree, Inglourious Basterds is the same way, and that's a bingo.

The Good: The ensemble cast led by Waltz and Pitt was mostly flawless across the board...

The Bad: ...except for B.J. Novak's role as Private Utivich. Either he doesn't fit in this movie, or I jut can't condition myself not to yell "RYAN THE TEMP!" every time he's onscreen.

The Skinny: When I finished my theater-hopping marathon and saw this film three times, I declared it my second favorite movie of all time. It's still undoubtedly in my top ten. So yes, I'm okay with it at #74, though I would like to see it higher.


  1. This is also my second favorite. Pa-pa-pa - second favorite of last year (behind A Serious Man). *Offtopic* Actually, as weird as it may seem, last year and this year has been quite generous with good movies.
    Nevertheless, I am shocked that you put this above The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, if you make the comparison. Even Tarantino would be offended by that. :D
    Oh, and talking about second favorites, this one is my second favorite Tarantino movie (although I haven't seen a great deal of them).
    Original, fun, very well acted.I think nobody doubted for a second since the release, that General Hans Landa has an Oscar in his pocket.
    Overall #74 sounds fine with me, well maybe I would like to see it around 50ish.

    P.S. I just watched The Bridge on The River Kwai and it was incredible. Great introduction to David Lean. I'll finally have the courage to watch Lawrence of Arabia.

  2. I USED to like this better than TGTBATU; some of that was just early post-premiere euphoria. It's definitely not better, but it's in that league.

  3. This is my second favorite Tarantino, first being Kill Bill.
    I adore this film.