Seriously, don’t read this if you don’t want to be spoiled.
It took me way too long to get out and see Inglorious Basterds, but I finally did last night. I think, like a lot of people, I hesitated, because as awesome as Tarantino is, his movies are so violent, and if you’re squeamish, that can be a little intimidating. But even more than usual, the violence is surprisingly easy to swallow in this movie. Yeah, there’s scalpings and things like that, but they’re minimal. Most of the movie is about tension, but that makes it so adrenaline-pumping we decided to walk the mile and a half home from the theater just to burn off the energy, rather than take the bus.
Of course, I say this with the full knowledge that we’re in a bit of a backlash period against Tarantino. A lot of people don’t like his loud-mouthed, egotistical self, and import that to his movies. And maybe some people really just don’t get or care to get the thick post-modern sensibility of his films. If you’re not interested in movies that are as much about being movies as about their own subject matter, you’ll probably find his films baffling. But I don’t let the nay-sayers and the haters change my mind, though. Tarantino is a genius, full stop. You don’t have to like him, but it’s undoubtable that the man is a masterful movie maker. And I like every movie he makes, especially from a story-telling/film-making viewpoint, better than the last. I heard Inglorious Basterds was too long. Don’t believe it. I can’t think of a thing I’d cut. For such a long movie, it has surprisingly few scenes, and that’s because Tarantino is using time to ratchet up the tension and give his characters room to breathe—after all, there are a lot of them. And this is coming from someone who usually hates long movies.
A word on the inevitable feminist hand-wringing that accompanies every Tarantino release: I don’t get it. Yeah, his movies are all homages to exploitation flicks, and that’s going to mean pretty inevitably that violence against women—including the fear of sexual assault—will be a feature. But every character in most of his movies is in imminent danger of being shot, beaten to death, or otherwise violently assaulted. Don’t let that distract you from the fact that Tarantino has been engaging in an act of feminist subversion ever since Pulp Fiction gave him leeway to do whatever the hell he wants. Tarantino himself has copped to this, coyly admitting that he doesn’t really want to write for men, that he thinks women are more interesting. But I’ve always thought it was more than that. Tarantino, I think, gets a lot of pleasure out of demonstrating over and over again that you can get the 18-45 male audience that Hollywood desires into seats, and you can give them a story about a hyper-competent female hero who kicks ass in every way, and they won’t run screaming out of the theater clutching their balls in fear. He’s using his superpowers for good, people.
I was actually a little sad going into this movie that it seemed that Tarantino was giving up his long project of making movies based around female heroes who get the last word. But no! He’s topped himself again. The advertisements for the movie make it seem like it’s a typical war movie that ignores women, except as victims and sex objects that barely get an screen time. The Inglorious Basterds end up being the support staff for a one woman’s plot, and really, they all take a back seat to the tough, clever machinations of a female character named Shoshanna that you don’t even see in the trailer, as far as I remember. And even more amazingly, Tarantino uses the vehicle of a war movie to dismantle the rom com trope of the persistent Nice Guy® suitor who wears down a woman’s resistance by not going away. In most movies, we’re supposed to see the annoying guy who hangs around and does you favors as adorable, and cheer when the heroine warms to him. In this movie, the guy who won’t take no for an answer is a Nazi, a violent prick, and a rape threat. I fail to see how it’s not awesome that Tarantino advertises a violent boys’ club movie, and offers up a movie about a woman who resists being objectified and underestimated.
And as usual, the women get to keep their clothes on. They are beautiful, sexy, and active, but somehow they don’t fall prey to the Hollywood gravity that pulls your clothes off as you are all these things.
Tarantino’s movies are about movies, above all other considerations. That’s why seeing them at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin makes them infinitely better, because they run a reel beforehand referencing influences. So we were treated to the trailers for The Dirty Dozen and reminded that there’s a big to-do over one of the characters being part Native American. Thus, when Brad Pitt’s character claims he likes to scalp Nazies because he’s part Apache, that’s not only an indication that he’s an ignorant, crazy redneck, but it’s also one of what appears to be one million allusions to other movies. (My favorite? Pitt’s character’s alias as he pretends to be Italian in one scene is Enzo Castellari—if I remember correctly—and that’s the director of the original Italian movie titled The Inglorious Bastards.) What’s so refreshing about this movie is that it’s a big raspberry blown to self-important WWII flicks, particularly Saving Private Ryan, which trotted out every cliche from WWII movies that I can think of without even a hint of self-awareness. Tarantino is rightfully bored with that. The Basterds, for instance, aren’t a scrappy group of men, each representing a different subculture or ethnic enclave in America. They’re all Jewish, except Pitt’s character. They’re all insanely tough and angry and more interested in kicking ass than learning lessons about themselves and what it means to be a man. In general, none of the characters take the opportunity of the war to learn and grow as people. And because of this, it makes you think about how fucked up it really kind of is that most war movies do wallow in the bizarre idea that we should applaud these people learning about themselves in the context of war. We get nothing about how Americans really came into their own as a benefit of this war.
And because of this mentality, you can’t expect this movie to have any relationship whatsoever to reality. In fact, it’s a pure fantasy and wears that proudly. The urge to scoff at Tarantino’s nerve of presenting an alternate history of the war where it’s wrapped up neatly by the actions of a few hearty soldiers (and one French Jewish woman out for revenge) is immediately replaced with the realization that more serious and “realistic” films about WWII also tie the whole thing up in a bow and ask you to believe that everyone lived happily ever after. Most WWII movies erase the inconvenient fact that the Soviet Union toppled the Nazis just as surely as the U.S. did, because it interferes with the self-serving myth that “we” saved Europe. Look, most war movies are basically action flicks with a veneer of Oscar-bait self-righteousness that sell a fantasy about the U.S. ending the war with a sheer act of will. Tarantino apparently figured that if you’re going to be full of shit, embrace that, and make a WWII movie that dispenses with the boring Oscar-bait stuff and half-assed nods to reality, and instead make a pure action film where a few action heroes save the world. And Disco Ball bless him for it.
The movie itself plays with the idea of space in really great ways. Pitt’s character even outright says that it’s stupid to fight in basements, but of course, the entire movie is conducted in claustrophobic spaces. Basements, movie theaters, and even the outdoors scenes with the Basterds have them pushing their prisoners into pits. Many doors are locked in this movie. I only note this because it’s a real testament to Tarantino’s craft that he can conceive of and execute an exploration of space in action films on top of everything else that he’s got going on here. In other words, just see it if you haven’t. And if you had, I’d be interested in your thoughts.