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Posted on Sunday May 31, 2009, 19:23 by Damon Wise
Now that the dust has settled, I feel I must write what they used to call a spirited defence of Inglourious Basterds, a film that generated a lot of column inches out of Cannes but didn't actually appear to have been 'reviewed' in any great depth by anybody*. The verdicts varied greatly; some liked it, some did not, but in every case the yardstick seemed to be the same: was it the new Pulp Fiction? (Answer: No.) It seems to me that we are somewhat losing the plot in terms of film criticism; the internet has shrunk our minds and memories so much that we can no longer take anything in at all sensibly. Of all the reviews I read of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, not one mentioned the fact that it contained visual echoes of Element Of Crime, his over-stylised debut, and its follow-up Europa. Not so surprising, you might say, but significant since Von Trier rejected that style of filmmaking with Dogme, and has only gone back to it with his most tortured and personal film yet. And with Taking Woodstock, the consensus was “Ang Lee's worst film”, a glib despatch that neglects to take on any of Lee's personal investments into account, or at least address his interest in a period of history that the US has not only taken for granted but romanticised out of all proportion.
I feel this way about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and the reception it received at a festival which is surely meant to be celebration, or an indulgence, of the auteur, rather than a third-rate shooting range in which deeply average journalists jockey to get the most Google-able opinion online first. Amongst all the comments about Tarantino rewriting history, I have yet to read a single mention of the scene in which Zoller meets Shosanna: she is putting up the marquee lettering for L'Enfer by Henri-Georges Clouzot: a film that was, actually quite famously, never made. This is not the real world, then, and if any audience would notice it, you'd think it would be the Croisette set. As for the end (which I won't spoil), you'd have to be pretty thick to mistake it for history proper, and even if you are, well, you're beyond hope, and I'd rather you saw Basterds and felt the raw thrill of righteous bloody revenge than see U-571 and feel like you'd taken a Disney O-level in WW2.
When the lights came up after Inglourious Basterds I honestly felt two things, the first being enormous relief. You probably think we like to buddy up to directors at Empire, and it's a fair point to ask whether the access we get comes at a price (I'll declare my interest now: I spent two days on the set of Inglourious Basterds back in December). But it cuts both ways: if the movie is bad, there is no amount of faking it; the readers sense it and, worst of all, we have to face the filmmakers. And after Basterds, I had to face ALL of them, ten interviews in all, plus feedback to two producers and several studio people. Happily, I really, genuinely loved it, and that was the other thing I felt: satisfaction. The best reaction I saw was from a French woman I'd never met before in my life: after the repeat screening on Sunday, usually filled with non-journalists and therefore much, much more like a normal screening, she just looked at me with a big smile and shrugged, “Crazy fun!”
Basterds, for me, really delivered a story with twists, turns and fascinating characters – even though I'd already read the script, and none of it should have surprised me. But what has irked me most over the the last two weeks or so is that Tarantino is only ever given credit/the blame for his scripts, and what Basterds proves beyond doubt is his ability to bring his characters to life. The opening scene didn't quite sing to me on the page, but it simply dazzles on the screen: Christoph Waltz brings a subtlety to the movie that was there all along, but blows it up to astonishing degrees. Denis Menochet is equally brilliant in this sequence as the French farmer being investigated for hiding a Jewish family on his premises. Though it's really just a kind of prologue, it sets the tone for this arch, tense and knowing film, before snapping shut with a Scorsesean flourish of violence.
From here, the less said the better, other than the scene shifts to Paris, where the Jewish survivor Shosanna is working in a cinema that is going to be used by Goebbels for the premiere of his new movie. And though certain details might fly over the heads of the vast majority of people who'll see Inglourius Basterds, this is where I feel the film departs from Tarantino's usual pulp-fun path and heads down some interesting avenues. For one, I like the fact that Shosanna is withdrawn, mean and kind of unlikeable (as Bowie says for her on the soundtrack “You wouldn't believe what I've been through”). I also like Tarantino's decision to use Goebbels as the ideological centrepiece of the movie, since it makes the movie much deeper than it appears to be. Paradoxically, this is more about pulp fiction than Pulp Fiction, as where the latter dealt with the archetypes – the pulp – of pulp fiction, Inglourious Basterds deals with the context – the fiction itself. Although Death Proof played similarly intelligent games with genre (I know that film is flawed, but I stand by my positive review of it and I'll be happy to engage with any counter-argument that doesn't simply amount to “it was shit”), Basterds really connects with the idea of cinema, how it works and what it delivers, but this time it really hit me on a gut level as well as an intellectual level. I really can't wait to see it again, but more than that I can't wait for people to see it for the film it really is.
For the record, I was happy with the running time, and the music is gorgeous too, and while I was re-watching Pulp Fiction yesterday I wondered how many of the so-called critics who thought Basterds wasn't a patch on it had seen it lately, with its digressions and talk, digressions and talk, and promise of (but actually very little) violence. I know that Tarantino brought some of this backlash on himself by deliberately putting himself in the pressure cooker, but I think we owe it to ourselves to take our egos out of the equation when we see a movie for the first time and just concentrate on what is actually there.
Journalists and moviegoers alike, we are not studio executives (heaven forbid we should be so damned), and we should not trust or respect any filmmaker that listens to us as if we are. Because, sometimes, one, two or even all of us are wrong, and isn't tolerance of the artist a sign of healthy society anyway? I heard quite a lot of comments from intelligent people that troubled me in Cannes, comments that aligned them with commerce rather than culture. Wasn't it Hermann Goring who said, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my gun”? Inglourious Basterds, for me, is an intoxicating and liberating what-if scenario. And in this scenario, culture draws its gun first...
* Roger Ebert is saving his review for release, as he explains here...
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Posted on Tuesday June 2, 2009, 16:30
Superb article! I genuinely cannot wait. As a massive fan of Death Proof, I no longer listen to negative reviews of Tarantinos work anyway.
Posted on Tuesday June 2, 2009, 17:43
Really amazing article. Need I say more. Maybe, but i won't.
Posted on Tuesday June 2, 2009, 19:41
Post-Cannes-Traumatic stress disorder right Damo? :p
I think you, Chris and Sam should set up a support group to recover, justdon't invite that guy from IMDB from the Videoblodisode who complained about "Inglorious Basterds" or their may be blood spilt!
Of course your right on many of the issues raised here (including 'Deathproof' great cinema experience) , I try to be greatful to the errors and weakness of my peers as it allows me to see my positive traits and commitment by comparrison, that's within the field of Art, however the same could be applied for reviewing or any endeavour.
Film criticism is not Dead... it's just often done badly.
Posted on Tuesday June 2, 2009, 22:38
Actually I thought the IGN guy's comments on the film were quite well reasoned, especially next to Bradshaw's drivel in The Guardian!
But yes, a brilliant article Damo, to be sure.
Posted on Wednesday June 3, 2009, 00:31
Posted on Sunday September 6, 2009, 00:15
Here Here! Well said.
Posted on Sunday September 6, 2009, 20:06
I loved Inglourious Basterds- from start to finish it was pure Tarantino, and I'd actually forgotten just how well he can make dialogue a form of action in its own right. How does anyone criticise a film including that scene in La Louisiane? Great article :)
Posted on Monday September 7, 2009, 17:39
A Glourious return to form for cinema's prime Basterd!
His absolute best since Pulp Fiction.
I even reckon the banana chinned could be up for best director during Oscartime. It's been a while since I've seen a film this well directed.
Who would have thought that after the wankjob that death proof proved to be.
Posted on Monday October 4, 2010, 00:41
I know this is old as hell now, but I wanted to mention on here how great this is. I've read this article a lot of times, and it really is the most ridiculously correct and laudable bunch of words I've ever seen. Congrats.