by Brandon Colvin
Critics, audiences, and QT himself have been locked in a nice, hot argument about Inglourious Basterds for weeks now. Punchy quotes, accusations, and defenses are flying like hurled Nazi scalps. Some of the least eloquent of these come from some of my favorite writers, and even Tarantino seems to dig himself a few holes in professing his love of this 70s revenge film or that unseen Jacques Tourneur WWII flick. Everyone, for better or worse, is chiming in. Few, however, are speaking for me. So, here I go.
Quentin Tarantino is not a fascist. Inglourious Basterds does not amount to Holocaust denial. Though influenced by the likes of Sergio Leone (among MANY others), it is not a self-serious epic in the vein of Once Upon a Time in the West. It is not a theoretical meditation on cinema’s ability to defeat Nazis. It is also not the best or worst film of the year; however, it might be the most controversial (sorry, Lars). One major reason – aside from the violence – for the film’s intense debatability is that it is not quite what was expected. Indeed, the most shocking and apparently befuddling aspect of Basterds is that the film’s closest relatives – cinematically and politically – are Ernst Lubitsch and Shaun of the Dead.
That’s right, it’s a comedy.
When the end credits were rolling for Basterds, my sides were hurting from laughter and my first thought was, “Tarantino must really love Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.” Both Basterds and the 1940s classic comedy are WWII satires centering on a group of individuals practicing in an artistic medium (film in the former, theatre in the latter), and are full of intrigue, espionage, and wit. Both narratives make Nazis – especially Hitler – into laughable buffoons and feature charismatic heroes who endure some seriously genre-bending tense moments en route to memorably chaotic climaxes that take place in elaborate theaters full of Hitler’s finest fascists. Nobody accuses Lubitsch of complicity in political horrors as a result of his irreverent and playful Nazi farce, and if Tarantino’s film were construed by more to be what it is – a light, humorous, post-modern extravaganza – it might be receiving a bit more positive attention from cranky critics determined to paint Basterds into an ideological corner. Undermining Nazis with gags and cartoonish exaggeration doesn’t mean QT is not taking them seriously. It means he is attacking them with one of the most fatal cultural weapons – laughter, a la the likes of Stephen Colbert, whose routine mocking has had more impact on the American political climate than the actions of most senators.
“But the gore! It’s too gross and bloody to be funny! It’s just offensive.” To point out the fallibility of this opinion and to highlight Basterds’ similarly-toned contemporary, I cite a film that QT has repeatedly declared to be one of his favorites, even heralding it as the “greatest British film of the past 20 years”: Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Amidst the shootouts, forehead carvings, face smashings, and numerous scalpings, Inglourious Basterds remains stocked with pastiche, physical comedy, zinging one-liners, and all forms of irony, achieving a blend of visceral violence and humor only rivaled by the original “zombedy” and Wright’s other film, Hot Fuzz. Tarantino and Wright are like-minded in their allusion-heavy, cinema-centric approach to intertextual post-modern storytelling and their fusion-based comedies could be grouped into a recent wave of deliberately transgeneric works that refuse to be reined in by conventional approaches to tone and structure – namely homogeneity – replacing them with a difficult-to-taxonomize multitudinous mish mash that hybrids the artful and the exploitative, revealing them both to contain elements of the other (certainly Grindhouse would be included in this group). In creating a film so tonally unusual about a subject typically treated with immense gravity, Tarantino has done something bold and fresh, something in the spirit of two great comedies from Lubitsch and Wright
This is not to say Inglourious Basterds is without flaws. A handful of the scenes seem as if they could benefit from truncation – particularly the protracted finale – and from time to time Tarantino takes risks that fall a little flat (the voiceover narration from Sam Jackson during the Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) interlude). However, in addition to its comic effectiveness, Basterds milks its dramatic possibilities through dialogue that is as intense as it is hysterical and set-ups that allow actors Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, and Michael Fassbender to shine in their respective roles as Nazi Col. Hans Landa a.k.a. “The Jew Hunter,” southern-born Basterds-leader Lt. Aldo Raine, undercover Jew/cinematic terrorist Shosanna Dreyfus, and British spy/former film critic Lt. Archie Cox. Tarantino’s usual cinematic bravado is certainly there and his quirkiness is in full-force. All of these aspects of Basterds have been explored more effectively by others in recent weeks, and, appropriately, gaining an understanding of the movie might require reading all of the diverging opinions and analyses. (I would direct interested readers to Jim Emerson’s Scanners for a more comprehensive overview of the film’s impact, reception, and significance). In lieu of an all-encompassing examination of Inglourious Basterds – something I would love to begin if I had a book to write – I’ll leave this review to mainly serve as another voice, one that sees the funny side.