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Inglourious Basterds

A funny thing happened in the theater right before X-Men Origins: Wolverine - a bunch of high school kids went crazy over the trailer to a World War II picture. And this was right at the top of the summer season, sick with upcoming franchise films and fighting robots and lasers and shit. I felt pretty bad for the District 9 preview; there it sat, trying to look all allegorical and relevant (but with aliens and guns!), and all the kids could do was mutter "one hunnred NATZI scalps!" Over and over.

But hey: part and parcel of the power of movies, exhaling archetypes that summarize and invigorate some understanding of the past. That's both the danger and the appeal, as well as the core of this new project by America's most visible motion picture obsessive, Quentin Tarantino. Sure, it's another film about films - do we expect anything else anymore? Yet it's far less a formalistic work than the segmented genre walking tour of Kill Bill (one style per chapter, please) or the gender roles of the grindhouse essay of Death Proof, with a diverse cast of memorable (and sometimes complex) characters, a straight-ahead suspense plot, a dab of genuine melodrama and a polished period setting.

And a million citations to prior movies, of course, starting with the title, a modification of the US release title of a 1978 war picture by spaghetti western noteworthy Enzo G. Castellari. Indeed, Tarantino's Basterds is a war picture, a spaghetti western, a modification, and many other things.

What popped into my mind first, however, was a more recent film, with a prior star turn by Brad Pitt: director Andrew Dominik's 2007 revisionist western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a demanding, sometimes tedious work that nonetheless comes together as a critique of how pop culture filters history, wringing dime novel narrative conflicts from the messy, nuanced stuff of even 'great' men's activities. The whole movie is in that unwieldy title, promising not a shooting or a murder but an Assassination, by a man who can't be anything but a yellah-bellied Coward; it's a film that knows its a portrayal, and acknowledges the potential application of its criticism to itself, right up front.

So, Inglourous Basterds. It's all wrong, isn't it? Not only is it wrong, but it's swiped, in fact from a movie that's by many accounts itself a patent rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, a successful fiction from a real conflict. It's also the name given to the picture's roving gang of American Jew commandos, led by Pitt's war comic Sarge-like Lt. Aldo Raine, who's like every macho, handsome WWII movie leading man rolled into one. But he's also part Apache (as Tarantino is part Cherokee), and so his band of brothers neatly fit into a crucial western role: the marauding injuns, an oft-demonized bunch viewed here with a sort of affected European sensibility, a detachment. It's a spaghetti western, remember - as if those purloined Ennio Morricone samples could ever let you forget.

Even then, Tarantino goes deeper than transposing America's racial conflicts to Jews striking back against famed aggressors. In a cover feature interview from the current issue of Filmmaker magazine, the writer/director notes that while the title does refer to a specific company of Nazi-killers, it really covers all the film's major characters. Frankly, that's true pertaining to both the title's description and misspelling; everyone in this movie-mad construct is a self-evident 'type' going right down national lines, with every man or woman of France either a steely, doomed rebel or a cackling collaborator and each German a charismatic sneak or a cartoon monster. The British boast stuff upper lips all around, and all those Americans might be short on book-larnin' and a mite hot in the head, but brimming with heart, guts and muscle.

Yet it's all wrong, the movie is messed up because nobody gets to ease into the role of hero. Everybody either does something totally awful or acts as a willing accomplice to such. Moreover, everyone is constantly hiding something, pretending to be someone else or benefiting from some legend others have built for them. Everybody is acting, in the midst of a movie chock-full of references to other movies in a well-worn genre; in this way, for once, Tarantino has invited his characters up to his level, to allow them to playact and chat about pop culture -- and yeah, simple as it is, one of the best gags in here is how the writer is now doling out period-appropriate rapid-fire references: mountain movies; Pabst; Max Linder -- in a manner analogous to his own creation-via-curation patchwork designs.

This is the engine of the movie's plot, wherein the dastardly Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, as good as hyped) works his carefully manicured Jew-hunting persona to undo a farmer who's hiding a family, only to have one girl, Shosanna, escape and assume a fake name as a Paris cinema owner, where she catches the eye of a troubled German war hero who's acting in a fictionalized, propaganda movie version of his combat efforts, all while the Basterds -- all of them notorious, one of them believed to be supernatural -- meet up with an enlisted British film critic who's masquerading as a Nazi officer so as to contact a famed German actress turned Allied spy as part of a plot to assassinate the enemy high command at the aforementioned war film's gala premiere, the location of which has been moved, dear reader, by way of blind infatuation, to Shosanna's theater, which she plans to burn down with all these motherfuckers locked in it, unbeknownst to almost everyone else.

The dialogue spans four languages -- sometimes subtitled, sometimes not -- with only Col. Landa in command of all of them. At one point the Col. asks someone if they could possibly switch from French to English, just as your average US audience might be getting sick of reading the movie. Tarantino frequently reminds us of the unreality of what we're seeing, from tossing in ill-fitting electric guitar strumming (and the theme from Cat People, David Bowie vocals included) to having Samuel L. Jackson occasionally offer helpful background tidbits by voiceover.

Often these quasi-Godardian tactics double as quick 'n dirty laffs, like when one Basterd (and only one) is introduced with a ludicrous '70s kitsch title font, leading into an origin vignette (the only one) depicting yet another man pretending to be something he's not, albeit out of urge rather than calculation. It's only when he joins the Basterds that he goes "pro" with it, like everyone else.

Still, good and fitting as all this is, it doesn't necessarily guarantee the execution. And there's two major problems with Inglourious Basterds, which leave it a flawed picture: scope and tone.

Most of you probably know that Tarantino has been working on some version of this project for 10 years, and that the script eventually ballooned to a television miniseries' length. Supposedly only 40 or so minutes of that older material actually made it on screen, with the rest of it being more recent work intended to finish the project as a single feature film, but the 153-minute final product still feels like an abridged version of something far grander, a comprehensive faux-history of deceit in wartime.

As it is, various key players -- Diane Kruger's traitorous actress, half the basterds -- are barely filled in save for when the plot needs them, at which point tension is expected in whether they'll maintain their fake personae. Even poor Shosanna doesn't have all that much to actually do before the big climax besides glower and doomily plot, leaving actress Mélanie Laurent in the lurch along with Jacky Ido as her black French boyfriend, who seems to exist entirely to afford the film an added whiff of racial subtext.

Granted, shit happens when you're making a movie. Big 'name' performers come and go in pre-production, as happened here. But sometimes that does hurt the project, as indeed happens here with Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the baseball bat-wielding "Bear Jew," the nastiest, most spasmodic of the Basterds, and a character that couldn't possibly be more custom-fitted to the performance stylings of Adam Sandler, who couldn't accept the role due to conflicts with Judd Apatow's Funny People. Seriously, can't you just picture a Zohan-ripped Sandler charging out of that tunnel like Bobby Boucher and delivering that big post-beating speech at the top of his lungs? It's like Punch-Drunk Love, a funny-scary variant on the core Sandler character for non-slapstick purposes! In theory.

In practice, we get the film's universally acknowledged weakest link, Eli Roth. And even then there's a little bit of conceptual kick to presenting the auteur of Hostel as a blood-crazed murder machine -- not to mention the actual, out-of-film director of the Nazi propaganda opus at the heart of the climax -- quickly mitigated by the man's (and thus his character's) near-total lack of screen presence. And he just can't act, even in the face of Quentin Tarantino's near-legendary blood-from-stones mutant superpower-like ability to drag performances out of virtually anyone if a crucial character's on the line.

However, these efforts are closely tied to Tarantino's scripts; he's possibly the most literary, even novelistic director in America, a real writer's filmmaker. He and his DP (Robert Richardson) can put some nice-looking shots together, sure, but he has trouble maintaining control when the message sent by his visuals needs to be steady to compliment his words. This is what I mean by tone, which wasn't so much of a problem with Kill Bill or Death Proof, since the very concept of those movies allowed for them to seem like different kinds of movies at different times. Shoot, they had to.

This picture doesn't have that luxury, and as a result seems disjointed even beyond character or story concerns. Tarantino's depictions of violence are especially confused, playing graphic Nazi scalpin' for gross-out comedy then drawing back just minutes later to nag at the horror of a man being beaten to death. The screenwriter assures us that yes, all the characters are somehow awful, yet there's a glee applied inconsistently to their actions that suggests a filmmaker not entirely ready to dismiss the notion of just having a lot of silly fun, but also somehow aware that there's a point to be made by means other than leering at squibs and make-up effects.

Consequently, I'm not surprised that some critics have taken the film to task for wallowing in agony or serving up 'torture porn' or what-the-fuck-ever, even though the writing assures as plain a 'war is terrible, people do terrible things in war' scenario as any Garth Ennis comic. The script alone can't save it. By the time the big climactic propaganda flick starts up, with Nazis roaring at an endless parade of shootings and explosions (not unlike earlier bits of Inglourious Basterds proper), followed by several glossy slow-motion gun fire exchanges and a roaring inferno with crazed-looking Basterds picking off screaming unarmed men and women and then a big suicide bombing -- for that special contemporary touch! -- the film all but drops to the floor in a fit of mixed signals.

A crucial image endures, though, even through that din: the Nazi movie vanishing in a frame to meet with an edited in close-up response by Shosanna, the silver screen burning away but her face remaining, projected onto billows of smoke, stretching and spreading into the air like a ghost.

That's the film's success, the big idea that survives. The power of movies, mythmaking, performance. Not the magic, or the joy, or the wonder - the power, which carries a threat. The notion that Hitler's men could try to broadcast a victory on the screen to turn the tide of low morale. That fictions could spin suffering into triumph, that the Nazis might 'win' more by casting their actions as heroism, for posterity. By burning down the lies, the allies are free to author their own history, as winner.

Yeah, you shouldn't trust movies - especially when they can't even get the title right. Disjointed as it may be, Tarantino does do splendid work of delivering the big picture while warning you against staring at it too hard, by means of everything from the strapping army hero interrogating a woman by dipping a finger sexually into a bullet wound to some very (and by now very well-spoiled) alternative resolutions to history's troubles. Almost everyone dies, in ways that assure that nobody will really know what happened, save for that they died. No medals are awarded, nobody is kissed at the train station. No flags wave. As tends to happen, some will accuse the director of nihilism.

I don't agree. He's a skeptic, his skepticism born from bottomless love. And he does choose a side, finally, in that Waltz's hunter-schemer-detective is revealed as playing the greatest game of all, one that'll assure him a specially edited role in world history. Pitt, of course, must oppose this, by making it so a tiny bit of history can be carved out for a while, no matter what the narrative insists, at least so that its fantasies are harder to swallow. And again, by his action, he assures us that while moral equivalency isn't on the table, there's nonetheless no easy hero here, clean-cut heroism in wartime being a more pertinent target than the Nazis maybe not being seen as obviously horrible possibly someday.

So he makes his masterpiece. Like he said earlier, it's as close to a movie as it gets out there. But it's not, as fortune would have it - it's something that might not last as long as a good myth, but it's personal, succinct; something that he and his director, for once, can't possibly misspell. Lucky bastards.