Thursday, 3 September 2009

Inglourious Basterds

No matter what Tarantino may say, I'm convinced that the bloody awkward (or even blahdy orkwerd) title of his movie is driven by two things; making damn sure that no-one buys Inglorious Bastards by mistake next year, depriving him of sweet, sweet royalties; and making sure that nerds in firewalled drone jobs can send emails about the movie without getting blocked by the profanity filter.

I've always taken the view that Tarantino was born out of his time; he'd make a great writer for radio. His determination to write for the movies is one of those weird overstretches, like thinking that hideously bad portrayals of weird men-children in films like Dusk til Dawn qualified him to take on Alan Arkin's role in Wait Until Dark. While no single performance on stage by any human being is ever likely to overtake Pia Zadora's turn in the Diary of Ann Frank, Quentin's in Wait Until Dark has always annoyed me far far more.

Much like the man himself, I like to open with the digressions, and then, if possible, continue with them. Self-referentially, if at all possible.

The movie; well let's get the headline items out of the way. It's not as bad as Death Proof. It's not as good as Pulp Fiction. It's not remotely as good as it thinks it is, and it isn't half as good as it could be. In fact, it isn't even as good as its best performance, because Tarantino couldn't resist completely buggering even that up.

It's hard to believe, watching the film, that the script was ten years in the making. Until you think about anything you've ever seen in a friend's house which took ten years to make. A big percentage of that ten years would have been spent on blind alleys, and on slowly internalising the fact that his talents weren't equal to his vision, and painfully coming first to accept, and then not even to notice, that the finished work looked more and more as though an assortment of hyperactive five year olds had thrown it together while their minds were on something else. Quentin doesn't seem to have heard that perfection comes in discarding the things which are less than perfect until only the perfect is left. He's more the guy who makes a really neat part for the project, realises that it doesn't fit and yet can't bear to throw it away. If Quentin modded cars, they'd have fins. And dams. And spoilers. And each would have notches cut into them to let the other parts fit around them, and - well, you'd have Inglourious Basterds is what you'd have.

The first thing which has to be said is that a lot less movie would have been a very good idea. I thought the same thing about Kill Bill; in fact I waited for a while hoping that Quentin would get the idea and release the film it ought to have been - Kill Bill, part the whole damn thing in one 100 minute movie with all the damn self indulgent flab taken off. But he didn't. So I wasn't very surprised when IB came in at 153 minutes. If anything, my only surprise was that it didn't come in as three 140 minute movies about nothing in particular, which I discovered on the internets last night was the original plan.

Usually, the criticism of QT is simply that he rambles on too long and that the movie should be edited down (I saw the long version of Death Proof, and thought at the time - as I fast forwarded through the interminable first half - that it must been less annoying when it was 40 minutes shorter and crammed into Grindhouse. I now think it would have been ever better at trailer length).

With IB, shortening the movie would have been simpler. Just leave out the eponymous basterds completely. Take out Brad Pitt, Donnie wotsit, Hugo Stiglitz, Mike Myers and whatever dick it was that Michael Fassbender was trying to make us like. All those guys. Bang, just like that, you'd get rid of an hour, and it would be the worst hour. And you could also give the movie a title that didn't annoy everyone. It would be like a more useful version of those editions of Phantom Menace that have Jar Jar Binks edited out (to which I say, it's a start, but it doesn't go anything LIKE far enough). Do that and you'd still keep Bridget Von Hammersmark, Colonel Landa, Shoshana Dreyfus and Frederick Zoller. Which is all you need, because it would help a LOT to get rid of the Nazi High Command as long as you've got the scissors handy. At the end of getting rid of all the crap bits, you'd be left with a tight little French/German resistance movie with some genuinely compelling performances and a real sense of hazard to characters you're invested in.

At the moment, the structure of the movie is this:

Chapter 1, which is more of a prologue, introduces Colonel Landa, hunting Jews in France. It's pure Tarantino, a long talky section in which Colonel Landa, without ever resorting to overt menace, slowly pressures an apparently decent French farmer to admit he's sheltering fugitive Jews beneath his floorboards. Christoph Waltz's performance as Landa has been rightly hailed as a star turn, not least because he's the first person in history ever to have delivered so many Tarantino monologues in so many different languages. He shifts seamlessly from French to German to English and back and at all times the florid digressions and Tarantino tics seem completely unforced. It's probably the best inhabitation of the weird backalleys of Tarantino's mind since Samuel L Jackson brought us Jules.

Chapter 2 introduces the basterds and their working practices, and you could drop the whole thing without doing any damage to anything which matters. You've got Brad Pitt's bombastic recruiting talk, which is funny, but not funny enough, and then you've got the basterds in France scalping people and beating them to death with baseball bats, and it's jarring and ugly and for a movie which is supposed to be about glorifying Jews taking the war to their tormentors, it's weirdly counterproductive because the German they beat to death acquits himself with more dignity and poise than his nemeses do.

Chapter 3 introduces us to Shoshana Dreyfus and Frederick Zoller, and sets the main plot into motion. It's pretty terrific. While Zoller, German war hero turned actor (he's set up as the German Audie Murphy, but no-one has heard of Audie Murphy yet in 1944, so they don't say that) is a bit of a pill, it's a good character; a shallow person trying to be deep. And Shoshana is very good indeed; the sole survivor of the Jew Hunt we saw at the beginning, she's holed up in Paris hiding in plain sight as the manager of a cinema. Mélanie Laurent brings just the right mix of toughness and vulnerability to the role. And when Zoller takes a shine to her and wants his new film to premiere in her cinema, it leads her right into last place she wants to be; collaborating with the Nazis and being scrutinised by none other than Col Landa. The scene where Landa amiably asks her about her background while eating strudel is masterful. When he takes his leave and Shoshana almost collapses from stress, I could feel the whole audience joining in. This whole bit is pretty well paced and acted, and you could keep all of that.

Chapter 4 takes us back to the basterds. The British have got wind through a double agent that Zoller's premiere is going to be packed with German brass and they've conceived a plan to blow up the cinema with the brass inside. Michael Fassbender's character, conveniently but largely irrelevantly, a film critic is sent off to liaise with the basterds and the double agent to make it happen. There's a completely unnecessary scene with Mike Myers setting that up which could just GO, and there's an incredibly long scene in a basement bar where the double agent tries to meet up with Fassbender which has divided the critics. Although I enjoyed the scene immensely, I can see why lots of critics hated it. It's incredibly long, and it doesn't really advance the plot. It's very well acted, and at times it's very very tense, but when it's all over, practically everyone is dead except the double agent, and really for nothing. So although I enjoyed it a lot, I think it could just as easily be dropped (taking with it my favourite Brad Pitt line of the whole movie, in which he explains that it's hard to fight in a basement, because, you're fighting in a basement.)

Chapter 5 is just the biggest mess imaginable. On the one hand, you've got basterds trying to blow up the cinema and on the other hand you've got Shoshana and her projectionist trying to burn it down. Either would have been enough. Both is stupid. Conveniently, losing the basterds completely would have made for a thematically satisfying and much less annoying final act. You would lose Landa negotiating with Brad Pitt, but it would be a small price to pay, particularly as it would let you lose the one false note in Waltz's performance, when he goes nuts and strangles someone. Right up to that moment, and rather annoyingly, from right after that moment, he's been the soul of urbane menace, a clever talker who loves to achieve his effects by thought and word and leaves the hard work to real thugs. And then he chokes someone to death for no very good reason. It comes out of nowhere and it GOES nowhere. So we drop that too.

And there you have it; Inglourious Basterds, the non-directors cut. Now with 100% less basterds but all the good stuff you'd want to keep.

A few small quibbles; our peasant French farmer - remember him? - is introduced to us chopping wood. Except all he's chopping is the chopping block. It's stupid. Eli Roth'e entrance with the baseball bat; even if we weren't cutting him out completely, that needs to take a lot less time than it does. I don't know why Tarantino thinks credits look better when there are five different type faces involved, but honestly, they don't. Having a narrator, but only sometimes, is leotarded, even if QT DOES think it's metatextual. Zoller's movie, Pride of the Nation looks good. It looks far too good to be a war movie made in 1944 in Germany. They didn't have the techniques we see being used. I bet the DVD extras have the whole thing on them.

As the credits rolled, I already had most of these thoughts fully formed in my head. And one last one. I bet that as I type this, QT is thinking about doing the sequel, where the IBs, or something like them but even worse, go off to end the war in the Pacific. I can't help thinking that for Tarantino, the thought of having John Wayne behind the Japanese lines beheading people with Samurai swords is probably giving him dangerous palpitations in his castle made out of money right now.

No comments: