Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds Re-writes WWII

Property of The Daily Gamecock

It's not surprising to learn that World War II has been the subject of more films than any other historical event. From "Sands of Iwo Jima" to "Saving Private Ryan," trying to understand the horrific reality of the war has been a seemingly unending preoccupation of filmmakers the world over.

Perhaps that's why writer/director Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," a dramatic reshaping of World War II that converts one of the 20th century's defining moments into a playground of fantasy, where cultural references, grotesque cartoons and brutal violence run rampant, has already generated so much discussion.

In many respects, the film converts the war into a childish enactment of cowboys versus Indians, replete with visual nods to director John Ford, musical cues from Ennio Morricone and more than one scalped Nazi. The film is obviously out to turn World War II on its head, making Jewish soldiers the brutal slaughterers, and the Nazis their weak and quivering prey.

The Basterds are a group of take-no-prisoners Jewish soldiers under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, in a scenery-devouring performance), himself an ugly perversion of a stereotypical squad commander, touched off with a twangy Southern drawl and a large scar across his neck.

The mythos of the Basterds is only one part of Tarantino's two and a half hour opus. There's also Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, whose ruthless tactics have earned him the nickname "Jew Hunter." German actor Christoph Waltz makes Landa a cunning, polite and pervasively threatening menace, whose multilingual eloquence stands in sharp contrast to Pitt's constant bludgeoning of any language.

Melanie Laurent rounds out the triangular narrative as Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jew hiding in plain sight as a French cinema owner, and who also watched Landa massacre her family at the start of the French occupation.

These storylines radically converge at a Nazi movie premiere, where Tarantino explicitly challenges and pays tribute to the ways the visual image has shaped our understanding of history.

"Inglourious Basterds" is a cinephile's delight, a powerful ode to the transcendent fantasies films afford us that's bursting with dozens of creative references to individual films, directors and stars. Tarantino's characters all act like they're part of a film, for they are such overblown caricatures.

Pitt even remarks that watching Nazis get their heads bashed in is "as close as we get to the movies," just one of many times Tarantino sticks in a knowing wink, reminding his audience that this is a film existing almost solely in a world of cinematic extrapolation.

"Inglourious Basterds" is more than a mere pastiche of Tarantino's influences. He has perverted and distorted cinematic conventions so much that his film becomes both darkly comic and horrifically grotesque.

Though it sizzles with this creative energy through, it still feels imperfect; Tarantino's penchant for taut-if-meandering dialogue gets the better of him in a few of the film's many conversation pieces. But even if it drags on occasion, it's hard not to feel dazzled at the writer's solid command of language, which feels both gently playful and full of suspense.

Freely audacious and unrepentantly self-indulgent, "Inglourious Basterds" is both a bloody nightmare of a war film blown up to the scale of a Looney Tunes cartoon and a brazen treatise on the power of the cinema.

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