“You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.” —Brad Pitt, ruling the universe, Inglourious BasterdsAnd so we come to the end of this series of essays on Quentin Tarantino, and to the picture that, in a lot of ways, just might be his masterpiece. The fact that there's some dispute about what his masterpiece is goes a long way to testifying to the strength of Quentin's body of work, as he defined an entire decade with Pulp Fiction, and a surprisingly high number of people (it's not just me) would argue long and hard for Jackie Brown as his best movie. An equally strong argument could be made for either, based on each picture's own merits. But in terms of Quentin's own style, preoccupations, and in terms of the historical and philosophical significance of the subject matter, Inglourious Basterds is a strong candidate.
It's a picture that's clearly very important to Quentin; he started working on it after finishing Jackie Brown, and spent nearly a decade and a half getting it exactly right, through Kill Bill and Grindhouse and all manner of other side projects (appearing on Alias, directing episodes of CSI and other television shows). A few months before its release I had the opportunity to read the script, and holy shit was it good. It reaffirmed everything I'd always loved about Quentin—the encyclopedic knowledge of movies, the peerless ability to take elements from other movies and make his own from them (again, for the nine millionth time, I respect skilled pasticheurs as artists), and his innate sense of what makes a fun fucking movie—and gave me new respect for his sense of history and what's right.
Obviously, Inglourious Basterds does not follow the established historical record. Hitler and his high command were not machine-gunned by the director of Hostel in a burning movie theater in 1944 in real life. Quentin, though, poses a great rhetorical question: “Wouldn't it be cool if they were?” And I submit that this is an important statement on the study of history. Things happen the way they do, and we are rarely afforded truly cathartic closure; this is why esprit de l'escalier is such a wistful and occasionally sad state of being. Quentin, being an autodidact, is free of a lot of the burdens of academia; in the case of Inglorious Basterds, the burden of “but things didn't happen that way” is refreshingly absent. Quentin's like, “I don't give a fuck if things didn't happen that way. I'm making a movie.”
This is what Quentin does. He makes movies. Because he loves them with an intense ferocity. He loves everything about them, from the stories, to the actors who play out those stories, to the writers and directors who construct them, to the craftsmen who make them look and sound the way they do, to the experience of seeing the completed movie in the theater, to the physical medium—film—that they're recorded on. Because his life experience is given over to such a large degree to watching movies, Quentin's movies are about movies. They radiate his personality, they pulse with his passionate love for what he does. His great saving grace is the one thing overly sensitive politically correct eggheads constantly rag on him for: he is not an educated sophisticate. If Quentin was an intellectual, his movies would not be what they are, which is beautiful, vibrantly alive cinema. A movie about movies made by an intellectual overthinking everything would be like going to school. And, lest we forget, above all else cinema is a medium of entertainment.
And so one of the greatest things about Inglourious Basterds is that Quentin doesn't feel beholden to anyone or anything but his own sense of what's awesome, certainly not historical accuracy. The opening sequence of shots following the title card “Chapter One: Once upon a time . . . in Nazi-occupied France,” like the title card implies, are reminiscent of a spaghetti Western, as is the Ennio Morricone music. Although other genres and forms get a tip of the hat from Quentin (he wouldn't be Quentin if he wasn't enthusiastically showing love to four or five different things at once), the spaghetti Western is the baseline for the rest of the picture, at the very least because spaghetti Westerns never gave a fuck about history, they gave a fuck about being cool. Which is, for lack of any other appropriate term, cool.
That opening scene also has one of the greatest excuses for switching from foreign language/subtitles to good old-fashioned Anglais yet devised in American movies, rivaling the switch at the beginning of The Hunt For Red October. What makes the one in Inglourious Basterds so great is that it's an essential part of SS Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa's plan to get the poor dairy farmer to reveal the location of the Jews underneath his floor without tipping said Jews off that they'd been discovered. It's a brilliant trick, and Quentin sure gives him some great text, but Christoph Waltz swaggered into this fucking movie and was like, “Guten tag, bitches, I'm a superstar now.” He is so good in this it's staggering. Quentin had worried that the part wasn't castable, but fortunately for him and all of us he found Christoph Waltz because wow.
After his thugs machine-gun the floor, only one of the family survives, daughter Shoshana. Christoph Waltz lets her go for reasons that seem vague at first, but remembering this bit at the end makes one wonder about the motivations of the incredibly complex Col. Landa. Once this opening scene concludes, establishing this recognizable but still alternative history, we introduce our title characters, the Basterds.
The idea that some military guy would sign off on the idea of assembling a crack all-Jewish unit and saying “Go fuck shit up” is simply YES. This is why no elitist assholes or limpdick sensitive people should ever, ever criticize Quentin. I mean, look. Both my grandfathers were part of the war effort in WWII: one flew in bomber crews, and the other (a German-speaking scientist) translated German scientific documents for military intelligence. The former was scarred forever and the latter said if he'd been assigned to a combat unit he'd have turned his rifle on himself rather than shoot another human being. That's reality, and it's kind of depressing. War is a depressing, ambiguous business. Some would say that by making the objective as clear and simple as Quentin does is a distorted, sophomoric view of the true nature of war. I think that view is itself distorted and overly simplistic: I say Quentin knows how fucked up real war actually is, but that he's making a movie, not a documentary. In a movie, getting a bunch of Jews together and having them go epically fuck shit up is a much more satisfying premise than doing one of those depressing twelve-part documentaries that makes you hate people. The fact that, after seeing Inglourious Basterds, my Jewish friends were all walking around hollering “THE BEAR JEW!!!!” is proof that Quentin was on to something.
Eli Roth, as the Bear Jew, doesn't really have to do much. He's the Bear Jew. He will fuck you the fuck up. He takes his proud place in the All-Star team of motherfuckers who will simply end you:
The Bear JewThe Basterds' commanding officer, Aldo Raine (nice reference by Mr. QT), is a talkative dude from Tennessee without a ton of formal education who is nonetheless really fucking smart, has a way with words, and is a swaggering god. Wait, you in the back, did you just say “author surrogate”? You may be onto something. Casting Brad Pitt supports that case nicely (also note how far out Brad sticks his chin. Just saying). Bear in mind, calling Brad Pitt an author surrogate isn't a criticism. It's a sign that Quentin has a sense of humor about himself while also having perspective on how cool he is; false modesty would be hideously disingenuous considering Quentin's body of work. And goddamn Brad Pitt is fun in this movie. For his whole career, I've always respected the unpretentious quality control he's maintained. He knows movies are supposed to be fun, has no illusions about himself as a serious artist, but nonetheless refuses to do anything too stupid. Here, Quentin wisely doesn't try to convince us that this guy who scalps people and carves swastikas into people's foreheads isn't crazy. Because he is crazy. Fortunately “crazy” and “awesome” aren't mutually exclusive terms, and anyway, you want your military guys to kick ass, that's their job.
Helen Mirren in Red.
(Ed. Note: this list is not subject to debate.)
The third chapter reintroduces us to Shoshana three years later. She's now running a movie theater in Paris, and catches the eye of “the German Audie Murphy,” who seems fairly nice and humble considering that he's an enormous movie star in Germany due to his having killed a couple hundred people all by himself. He is, however, annoyingly persistent; one of those guys who thinks “eat shit and die” is flirting.
You can't blame him for flipping out over Shoshana, though. Not only is she gorgeous, smart, and resourceful—she got all the way from cow country to Paris and not only survived but kind of thrived—she loves movies. Melanie Laurent is absolutely terrific in this role. It'd be easy, in the wrong hands, for Shoshana to be annoying, since all she does for most of the movie is tell a guy to fuck off (however justified it might be, in non-talented hands that can get monotonous). But one moment sums up perfectly how good Melanie Laurent is: when German Audie Murphy gets the premiere of his new picture moved to her movie theater by Goebbels fiat, Christoph Waltz pops in for a chat, since he's running security. Melanie Laurent looks like she's just blankly maintaining for the whole scene where he's subtly implying that he knows who she is just to kind of recreationally scare the shit out of her, but if you look really close you see she's practically vibrating with fear and rage. The second he leaves, when she releases, she just fucking loses it; that's one of the best played scenes I've seen in a longlong time.
In Chapter Four, another character cool enough to be the lead is introduced: Michael Fassbender as Archie Hickox. Look, any film critic turned soldier with a plummy British accent is going to make me a little weak in the knees, but Michael Fassbender imbues the role with just the right kind of Brit swagger, a very different thing indeed from American swagger. The fact that he gets his orders—meet up with a German double agent movie star and the Basterds and go kill the German high command at Shoshana's movie theater—from Mike Myers and Rod Taylor playing Winston Churchill is a particular treat (Ed. Note: the fact that Mike Myers didn't make me want to kill everything in sight is a testament to Quentin's ability to direct actors).
The meeting with the movie star and Basterds is doomed from the outset. It's in the basement of a tavern in the middle of nowhere. Brad wisely points out “Fightin' in a basement offers a lot of difficulties. Number one being, you're fightin' in a basement.” Not only that, but when Michael Fassbender rolls in with the two German-speaking Basterds in their fake Nazi uniforms, they find a tavern full of German soldiers celebrating one of their wives having a son back home. The movie star (Diane Kruger) tells them it'll look weird if they leave before having a drink, so they have a drink. The new father wanders drunkenly over and asks for an autograph. Fassbender tells him, in very Brit-accented German, to hit the bricks, but the guy's so drunk that instead of doing so, he tells Fassbender his accent is weird. There's a kerfuffle that's immediately shut down by August Diehl, officer of the Gestapo.
In a movie with so many awesome actors, the way August Diehl just decides, on a dime, “I'm going to own the room” and does is particularly impressive. He sits down and starts talking to Fassbender and retinue, waiting patiently for them to fuck up, in one of the best dialogue scenes Quentin (and, considering how good Quentin is at dialogue, anyone else) has ever written. Eventually, Fassbender fucks up and reveals himself as a non-German (by signaling for three drinks the wrong way) and le jeux son motherfuckin fait.
“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the Kings.” —Michael Fassbender, man of style.The guns go off and everyone except Diane Kruger auf wiedersehens off this mortal coil. Short two Basterds (and the only ones who speak German) and their inside man, Brad has to come up with a new plan, which is that he, the Bear Jew, and Omar are going to pose as Italians—since Diane Kruger assures them Germans have no ear for Italian—and hope for the best.
For the big night of the premiere, where the Basterds' plot is competing with Melanie Laurent's plot to use the hundreds of nitrate films in the theater as a makeshift bomb—the idea to literally use the power of movies to defeat evil gives me an erection, I'm sorry, I know I'm weird, that idea is just sexy—Quentin is faced with a dilemma. How to properly convey the gravity of the situation? A music cue? Okay, good idea, Quentin. You've displayed excellent use of Ennio Morricone music so far, which reinforces the whole spaghetti Western influences, and besides, it's Ennio fuckin Morricone, who rules on general principle. But still, this is where all the disparate plot threads of the movie are converging for the thrilling, action-packed climax. We need something more. And oh boy does Quentin come up with the perfect way to set the tone:
Oh, Quentin, if you weren't just that slightest bit homophobic I'd kiss you for that choice. Not only does he use a Bowie song, not only does he use a Bowie song from his thousand-dollar-suit “yes that's right you'll never be this cool, now pardon me, my Somali wife wants to have the best sex that ever existed” phase, Quentin uses “Cat People,” which has the line “putting out the fire with gasoline,” which is exactly what the fuck's about to happen.
So tension builds. Diane Kruger and her fugazy Italian Basterd cohorts run across Christoph Waltz, who of course speaks perfect Italian (and by the way, the way he loses his shit laughing when she gives her bullshit story about why her leg is in a cast—since she can't fess up to having been shot—is both hilarious and terrifying), but he lets them go. Hmm. Tension mounts, and Christoph Waltz abruptly and brutally kills the shit out of Diane Kruger. German Audie Murphy stops being so nice, and Melanie Laurent shoots him (the gunshots in the movie mask hers) but he doesn't die immediately, and shoots her.
Still, Melanie Laurent's boyfriend/projectionist sets fire to all the film, and the Bear Jew and Omar take advantage of the chaos to blaze into Hitler's box and the Bear Jew shoots Hitler about 25 million fucking times (and boy is that is a satisfying shot). They all burn with the theater and everyone else in it, but hey. No more German high command. The war's over.
It turns out that this was all part of Christoph Waltz's plan. Sensing that the Allies were eventually going to win the war, he seized on the first opportunity to defect and get a full pardon and retconned OSS file saying all his work as The Jew Hunter was to establish his cover as an American agent. Brad and BJ Novak (the only surviving Basterds) just nod like, sure, we'll go along with it, sure, no prob dude. They put Christoph Waltz in touch with a guy who sounds suspiciously like Harvey Keitel (because he is), who says, sure, herr Colonel, your terms are acceptable, head out to the border and surrender yourself into Brad's custody as a formality. Christoph Waltz is bouncing up and down giddy, and it never occurs to him that Brad's going to shoot his dude and carve a swastika into his—Waltz's—forehead. But that's exactly what Brad does, and then the last shot is Brad looking into the camera going “this just might be my masterpiece.” Remembering all that earlier about author surrogates and so forth, the proper response is, yes, Quentin, this just might be.
Quentin's ability to decide “I'm going to create iconic movie moments and characters” and then do it, without fail, in every single one of his pictures boggles my mind. Every single other person ever, trying too hard is a recipe for failure. But Quentin doesn't even have to try. He comes up with a character that he thinks is awesome, demonstrates that they in fact are, et voila. And holy shit, his ability to dig up some obscure actor and turn them into a demigod . . . Quentin, forget any of the snarky shit I ever said about you, sir. Much respect.
If it hadn't been for Inglourious Basterds, I probably never would have written about Quentin. The fact that after all the highs and lows and pictures I didn't like, he managed to drop a picture as staggeringly fucking brilliant as Inglourious Basterds is what made me able to write as much about Quentin as he has meant to me over the years. I also could not have done this if the story didn't end on a high note, because I just couldn't let a discussion of all these wonderful amazing pictures end with me being like, “Yeah, and now he sucks.” That would be wrong.
And now we return to non-Quentin-related movie ranting. To end the series on the same note of form-meets-content that I began it with, it is fitting that our long national nightmare comes to a close on October 31st. Happy Halloween!