I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I think some of the hype about him as a director overlooks the fact that he, just like Martin Scorcese, lifts almost everything he does from other films. Of course this can turn into a long discussion about the nature of plagiarism and its place in art (see Danger Mouse and Girl Talk) and I really don’t want to go there. Despite my hesitation to celebrate him as one of our nation’s finest auteurs, I always enjoy his films and I think that with the right supplemental reading/watching material they can be a pretty fun trip through the history of film. This is no less true for Inglourious Basterds.
Inglourious Basterds is a comic-book/B-movie style rewriting of World War II. It threads two storylines leading up to its gratitutiously violent, Carrie-esque conclusion (Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie is one of Tarantino’s favorite films). One storyline follows Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) , a young woman on the run. Shoshanna is longing for vengance for her family, who were slayed before her eyes by Col. Hans Landa – the “Jew Killer.” A lot has been said already about Christopher Waltz’s performance as Landa. It is all true. Waltz’s “Jew Killer” is one of the creepiest villains I have seen in a while.
Despite its boldness, vast scope and numerous characters, Inglourious Basterds contains only a handful of very long, detailed scenes. In this film, Tarantino expects a little bit more from his viewers than he did in, say, Kill Bill. He still gives us his signature dialogue, equal parts witty and thought provoking, but for a good part of the movie we are reading it rather than hearing it. Some of the most memorable dialogue from Tarantino’s body of work- from Steve Buschemi’s diatribe against tipping, to Samuel Jackson’s “Royale with Cheese,” to David Carradine’s anecdote about the nature of Superman’s identity- are rendered so memorable by their delivery. In Inglourious Basterds, those of us who do not speak French and German lose some of this.
I think its fair to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s most personal film to date. It is hard to describe why I think this in detail without dropping some spoilers, but let’s just say that Tarantino’s use of film and filmmaking as a theme in the third act and as a means in which to exact revenge seems to say something about the relationship between he and his audience. Perhaps I’ve gotten it wrong, and the director merely meant to comment on the explosive nature of his work, but I can’t help but wonder if he means to put all of us in the seats of a theatre on fire.
It’s hard not to agree a little bit with Daniel Mendelsohn who, in his Newsweek review, argues that “Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis.” The “Basterds” glorify violence and personify revenge. However, Tarantino certainly has a way of connecting with us. We feel so close to Shoshanna that, when the climax of the film occurs- though excessively violent- we cannot help but rejoice. Revenge is a universal theme, and the historical and cultural context of the film serves only to create controversy. Inglourious Basterds does not really address the experience of being a Jew in Europe in the 1940s, nor does it depict war with any degree of emotional or factual accuracy. I fail to see why this is a bad thing. Inglourious Basterds is not a war movie, it is not a history movie, it’s not even a B-movie, it’s a Tarantino movie.