August 22nd, 2009


Glorious Monsters

With the possible exception of Kill Bill, I've noticed something that defines a Quentin Tarantino movie is a lack of focus and a rather arbitrary point of view. We don't seem to see his movies from the perspective of anyone but him, the cinema lover. None of his movies--not even Kill Bill--have a real nucleus character, the way Peter Jackson felt it essential the Lord of the Rings movies should have (Frodo). The Bride is almost a MacGuffin at times, but our appreciation of, say, O-Ren Ishii's story requires us to divorce our sympathies from The Bride for at least a moment. And this can be a great strength as we realise in his films that there aren't any real "good guys" and "bad guys", just people with conflicting motives and needs. "That woman deserves her revenge . . . and we deserve to die. But then again, so does she. So I guess we'll just see, won’t we?" as Michael Madsen's character puts it in Kill Bill.

There's a moment in Inglourious Basterds where Brad Pitt's character, Aldo Raine, holds forth on how the Nazis are inhuman, but the previous scene had already contradicted this idea, not by showing a "good side" to a Nazi character, but by laboriously conveying his thought process, reasoning, and tactics. It's a scene that recalls the openings of both Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in a movie filled with Sergio Leone references, but the aim of this scene is slightly different from the aim of the two Leone scenes. It is about a man breaking a hard peasant until he gives up the innocents he's protecting, but it does so in a way that establishes character and theme for the rest of the movie--as usual in a Tarantino film, through lots and lots of dialogue. Since the camera's POV is almost always Tarantino's, we know the characters entirely through dialogue, performances, and how Tarantino feels about the characters. It's the first two items that set Tarantino's films above a Baz Luhrmann or a Zack Snyder film--two directors who, even though they might cast good actors, tend to maintain a distance from the characters with neglect of POV that is not offset by anything like what Tarantino's dialogue provides.

Inglourious Bastards begins with inevitably beautiful shots of French countryside and this scene ends with Nazi brutality and composition borrowed from John Ford's famous shots of proscenium-like black silhouettes of doorways through which we see bright landscape inhabited by a character while another character--in this case Landa, the Nazi "Jew Hunter"--is seen to move through the doorway. Tarantino created a similar shot in Kill Bill vol. 2, and it's little wonder he should like it so much--in The Searchers, it conveys our point of view on the "cowboy", John Wayne, as an entity whose essence inevitably makes him an alien to mainstream society, or the viewer, even in spite of the popularity the archetype enjoyed in the 1950s. It's not about how Ethan--Wayne's character--feels, it's about what he is from an exterior viewpoint. And so, too, is the shot in Inglourious Basterds about the Nazi in the doorway and the Jewish girl running away from him across that beautiful countryside. We know the relationship between these two characters before we enter the theatre--movies and literature even more than actual history has made these two forces larger than life entities in the public consciousness.

It's interesting, then, that the Nazis should be as three dimensional as they are in the movie, because I think it suggests that, really, the horror that maintains the existence of the Word War 2 Nazi in the public consciousness isn't in response to their lack of humanity, but in response to what they showed us human beings are capable of. That the movie is a fantasy rather than an examination of reality means we are really seeing the Nazis and Jewish refugees inside Tarantino and therefore us.

The Basterds themselves, the title characters who actually seem to have the least amount of screen time, represent the film's righteous Id. In real life contexts, we would see their brutality as being scarcely better than the Nazis', but in movie context, theirs is the visceral reaction we have to the situation--they're big as mythological creatures, which is why the film is theirs despite having very little screen time. Barely any time is spent with their back stories, and here the casting of Brad Pitt and Eli Roth is essential. Everyone knows and, in a way, loves Brad Pitt, and Eli Roth carries the baggage of having directed the Hostel movies, movies that most people are disgusted by without ever having seen (they're actually good movies, by the way). Therefore, a legend--he's a sadistic maniac of mysterious proportions, but he's our sadistic maniac of mysterious proportions. Which makes him perfect as the so-called "Bear Jew", who comes out of a completely darkened tunnel preceded by the hollow sounds of his baseball bat against the walls before emerging to brutally murder the Nazi prisoner whose POV we've briefly alighted upon.

One of the things I absolutely adore about the movie is its attention to language--the Germans speak German, the French speak French, the Americans and English speak English. Supposedly 75 percent of the movie is not English, and it is established early on, in that same Leone-esque scene at the beginning, why this is important--the movie's about this sort of POV-less POV. People may superficially complain that subtitles are silly and hard to read, but the movie assumes people are, underneath, intelligent enough to know language makes a difference. Inglourious Basterds takes popular impressions seriously, even the ones we don't realise, or won't admit, we have.

Anyway, great movie. Some other things I really liked--a British spy who's half young Sean Connery and half Charlton Heston, a brutal Nazi sniper who turns out to be a boy with a crush, and the French Jewish girl, Shosanna, who gets a truly badass montage with the unexpectedly great use of David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)".

Saw a couple nice trailers. Avatar doesn't look quite as silly in very short, non-3D form, but I still don't think it's going to be very good. Scorsese's Shutter Island looks amazing, and Benicio del Toro's Wolfman looks like it borrows a lot from Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. It might be okay.

Last night's tweets;

Somewhere in my headache a brain yet lives.
No amount of cola beats a coffee.
Good cinema's carved with very big knives.
Crocodiles are big, slow and daffy.
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