Monday, March 1, 2010

Why "Inglourious Basterds" deserves to win

A continuing series of brief reflections on the Best Picture nominees.

No argument involved. Inglourious Basterds should win the Academy Award. Not only would it be awarding the best of the nominated films, it would be a remarkable step forward in terms of what the Academy is willing to put their label on (think No Country for Old Men). And, if you believe the guys over at The Envelope, the preferential ballot and the polarizing forces of The Hurt Locker and Avatar have created almost uniquely perfect conditions that could let Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender stage a coup of the Kodak Theater (without burning it down).

Inglourious Basterds, simply put, blows the lid off World War II films. The war will NEVER be presented or thought about the same way on film ever again thanks to Tarantino. As Brad Pitt so reflexively remarks at the end of the film, "this may just be my masterpiece." While I'm hesitant to say Basterds topples Tarantino's post-New Wave pop-artifact madcap masterwork "Pulp Fiction," it is like all his movies, a movie about movies and how we perceive ourselves and our world through them.

It's been called a juvenile gore-fest, a blatantly campy bit of entertainment. This shows no regard for the sheer maturity Tarantino is now able to think about his form. Yes, he's a show-off. He always will be. That's part of what makes him one of the best directors in Hollywood. Think of the opening scene - how that harsh light comes down from the roof and frames the scene like an interrogation room. Think of that 20+ minute bravura piece of writing that is the tavern scene; simplicity at its finest, it goes from a bit of distraction to a deadly stand-off in a matter of a few beats. This says nothing of the entire last 40 minutes, which are some of the most stunning any filmmaker has pulled off in the last decade.

I saw Inglourious Basterds on opening night to a sold-out theater. I sat in the front row. From where I was sitting, the screen was distorted, blown out of proportion, the entire holocaust of revisionism blowing up around me. And it rocked, quite simply. But beneath the surface of its superficial enjoyment, there is a real artist asking some very serious questions, if we're only willing to engage him. Tarantino packs the weight of how Hollywood has miscast the Jews, the Nazis, the American soldiers, the cowboys, and the Indians. If his film is revising anything, it's also calling attention to how flat and homogenous we expect the war to feel on film, how we crave for realistic violence even when we're repulsed by it.

And when Tarantino has everything converge on a lone theater in Paris - where a vendetta-driven Jew, a gang of brutal American soldiers, a vicious SS Colonel, a decorated German soldier, the Nazi high command, and a propaganda film are all competing for attention from Tarantino's swooning camera, there are a few questions in the background: what if it DID end like this? And, maybe more importantly, who cares how history is written?

Movies aren't history. Movies are spectacle. They always have been and always will be. Even if they're slice of life dramas, they are blown up to a screen for us to think about and sift through. They're documents, yes, but they're not reality. Tarantino, beyond his ploys with structure, beyond his penchant for rambling, eloquent dialogue, has keyed into an anxiety of the medium. All film is an adaptation because all films and all stories stem from somewhere. Tarantino has adapted World War II into a bloody revenge fantasy that gives us the space to finally feel catharsis about getting a chance to kill Hitler.

But he still complicates it. He inverts everything. He turns fantasy into a nightmare, he makes the US soldiers look like concentration camp guards, he turns a movie theater into a furnace, he ignites a literal Holocaust where blood-red smoke fills the air. He turns the Jews into "savage Apaches," winking and poking at how both minorities have been victims of genocide and how both have been so simplistically represented in films. And for TODAY'S audience, who is watching a war with a seemingly invisible enemy, he makes an argument for torture, for branding those who would otherwise disappear. Inglourious Basterds is about the anxieties and complexities of violence. It embraces it to such an extreme that we as spectators can't help but question it, even when it seems to do nothing but good.

Inglourious Basterds is one of the true masterpieces of 2009 almost because everyone still believes it's just a war fantasy. A pleasing action film. Sure, Tarantino will publicly agree with them, but he's much smarter than that. After melding Hong Kong and Italian filmmaking in the Kill Bill movies to provide a four hour revenge opus, he's turned with a far more serious eye to his medium. Like Pulp Fiction, Basterds makes us think about how we watch movies, why we watch movies, what we gain from watching movies. For cinephiles, it's heaven. History will never be the same again.

That's a bingo.

For Your Consideration - Inglourious Basterds

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