‘Basterds’ brims with ideas, style, wit

by Willie Krischke

"Inglourious Basterds” is more than Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, it’s his manifesto. It’s a wild, rollicking story, an over-the-top take on the war movie genre, but do not doubt that there’s a point to it all. Contrary to what you might’ve heard, “Basterds” isn’t about a bunch of Nazi-killing Jews. Not really. It’s not even, really, about World War II. It’s about movies, and movie-watching, and movie-making. Tarantino just uses some badass Jews in World War II to talk about his favorite subject – film.

Those badass Jews, led by Brad Pitt, are the Basterds, an army unit charged with striking fear into the heart of the Nazis. They are more caricature than character, led by Pitt’s terrible, comical John-Wayne-in-East-Tennessee accent. I guarantee that you will not remember the names of more than three of the Basterds when you leave the theater. What you will remember is that they are terribly, gleefully violent; even sadistic – one ought to wonder if the heroes of a movie ought to be this monstrous. Isn’t the difference between the good guys and the bad guys essentially that the bad guys do things the good guys don’t, won’t, and shouldn’t do? Normally, yes – but not in a Tarantino movie.

“Inglourious Basterds” gets off to a pretty slow start – the first 40 minutes of character exposition could really be fit into 15. The best and worst scenes in the movie involve people sitting at a table and talking – Tarantino’s gift for language is on full display here, but so is his weakness for overlong, overly wordy scenes. It takes him awfully long to introduce the main characters, who include a Nazi officer named “the Jew hunter,” and the Woman in Red.

The Woman in Red is the proprietor of a French theater. She’s Jewish, but of course the fresh-faced young Nazi officer who falls in love with her doesn’t know that. This young officer is a war hero, and, even better, a movie star – turns out Herr Goebbels was so enthralled by his tale of singlehandedly killing more than a hundred soldiers that he decided to make a movie about it. And who better to star in the movie than the fresh-faced soldier himself? Now it’s time to premiere the movie, and the young lad wants to fill the Woman in Red’s theater with the German High Command for this major event.

Enter the Basterds, and a plot to blow up the theater and end the war. But first they have to get past the Jew Hunter. Of course their plot goes terribly awry in a scene involving bad German accents, King Kong and the number three. Pitt and Co. go to plan B, which is as ridiculous and implausible as it is comical, but it gets them into the theater, where once again things go terribly awry. You get the picture.

Enough about the film; let’s talk about the filmmaking. Tarantino doesn’t just love movies, he worships them, and, as with any object of worship, there are rules involved. And here’s the Cardinal Rule: Movies Are Fake. Movies are about fantasy and wish fulfillment, and this is, contrary to many opinions, a good thing. We can want things to happen onscreen – and cheer when they do – that we would never allow to happen in real life. And that’s why it’s OK for the Basterds to be so gleefully violent and sadistic. Because it’s fake. It’s a movie.

And as Tarantino reminded us 15 years ago with “Pulp Fiction,” everything onscreen is in quotes. Those aren’t soldiers dying in a theater, those are “soldiers,” “dying” in a “theater.” It’s all fake, and dress-up, and playacting.

That’s what’s so great about movies. They’re fake.

In Tarantino’s book (should I say bible?) of all the crimes committed by the Nazis, the worst is making bad movies. Joseph Goebbels is Tarantino’s Judas, writhing at the center of Movie Hell. Writhing at the center of “Inglourious Basterds” is a terrible movie – the one starring the heroic Nazi officer and 100-plus dead Italians. Let’s count the ways this movie-within-the-movie is terrible: 1. It is based on a true story. 2. It stars the actual hero of that story. 3. It is used by the Nazis to stir up political fervor and advance a truly evil cause. It breaks Tarantino’s Cardinal Rule of Movies in three different ways. And, just as the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” (which was, incidentally, made by a Jew about an object of worship) are destroyed by the Ark because they abuse the Ark, the Nazis in Basterds are destroyed by the movies – literally – because they abuse movies. Break the Cardinal Rule and you will pay.

As you’ve probably heard by now, at the end of “Basterds,” Tarantino kills Hitler and ends World War II a few years early. Of course, this violates all sorts of taboos about moviemaking. Movies are supposed to be able to slip into history, allowing us to believe that the events actually happened, and just weren’t recorded. But why? After all, Movies Are Fake. They’re about fantasy and wish fulfillment. They’re not supposed to be about things that actually happened. Is “Saving Private Ryan” better than “Basterds” because it pretends to be plausible, or worse because it doesn’t admit that it’s fake?

“Inglourious Basterds” is a great movie. It is Tarantino’s best yet and marks the maturation of a singular young talent who’s spent a lot of time in recent years diddling around in style without substance. “Basterds” has substance; it brims with energy, ideas and life. If you love movies, don’t miss this one.

Recommended

• If you love movies and moviemaking

• If you’ve always wanted to see Jews kick Nazi ass.

Not Recommended

• If you couldn’t care less about Tarantino’s theories of filmmaking

• If you’re queasy about violence (though “Basterds” wasn’t half as violent as I expected it to be.)

For more of Willie Krischke’s reviews, visit www.gonnawatchit.com.

 

 

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