August, the customary summer dumping ground, has suddenly yielded the best wide-release mainstream films of the season. And a long, long season it has been: the kickoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, feels like another year. Reparation can be only partial.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious [sic] Basterds [sic] turns out to be no sort of remake of Enzo G. Castellari’s Dirty Dozen knockoff of 1978, taking from it no more than its risible title and respelling, misspelling, that. (Did he ponder Basturds as possibly funnier?) This, in the pushy mode of Pet Sematary, did not bode well. Nor did the seemingly overbroad and overboard coming-attractions trailer. In full view, it’s incontestable that much of the movie, a revisionist revisitation of the French theater of operations in the Second World War, is unapologetically, unsanctimoniously silly. For starters — and it starts right off behind the opening credits with an instrumental rendition of “The Green Leaves of Summer” from John Wayne’s The Alamo — the minefield of cinematic allusions is more distracting than rewarding. The hillbilly-accented head of the American commando team, whose Zorro-like signature consists of scalping slain Nazis and carving inerasable swastikas on the foreheads of survivors, sounds in the mouth of Brad Pitt as if his name were Aldo Ray (actually Aldo Raine), after the tough-guy actor whose career peak probably came in Anthony Mann’s combat film, Men in War. A local Jewish recruit of the team is called Hugo Stiglitz, after the stalwart of grade-Z Mexican cinema. Another, posing as an Italian, assumes the name of Antonio Margheriti, Euro-trash filmmaker under the pseudonym of Anthony Dawson. And if it’s not silly enough already to cast Mike Myers (alias Austin Powers) as the British espionage mastermind, his character has been christened Ed Fenech after the Italian sex bomb of the Seventies, Edwige Fenech. Frankly I was so distracted at that point that I failed to recognize old Rod Taylor — where has he been keeping himself? — behind the cigar of Winston Churchill. You could spend all day tracking down these allusions, and then where would you be? What does it avail you to apprehend the random surname of Ulmer or Wicki? Knowledge of Pabst and Riefenstahl, names posted on the marquee of a wartime Parisian movie palace, will be more beneficial, germane as they are to the general context, but even that knowledge won’t take you far. The thing to do, before moving on, is simply to admit that the allusions come from so many directions, so many sources, as to keep you off balance, in a state of high alert, and at a distinct disadvantage.
The revising of history gives you much more to chew on. Dramatic license, or poetic license if you prefer, has long sanctioned the rewriting of known facts for purposes of entertainment. John Ford could feel free in re-enacting the shootout at the O.K. Corral to kill off not just Ike Clanton but Doc Holliday in the bargain. Not, though, with total impunity. Even when the facts are known only to the few, an occasional stickler for accuracy can be counted on to raise an outcry, and you need no extraordinary expertise to realize that Tarantino has played fast and loose with the facts of how and when the Third Reich fell, has indeed set sail into a parallel universe. The size of the falsification (a Big Lie about the foremost perpetrator of the Big Lie) is the difference between just another sneaky Hollywood falsification and a brazen joke on all such falsifications. It perhaps goes without saying, but to be on the safe side let’s say it anyway, that Tarantino’s treatment of Nazis is not motivated by any sense of horror and outrage (never mind sanctimony) over the philosophy of Aryan supremacy, the death camps, and so on, much less by any desire to “understand,” but solely by the need of a universally acceptable villain. And in the spotlit performance of Christoph Waltz, the filmmaker has added to the cinematic gallery a memorable yet perfectly stereotypical Nazi, the gentlemanly, smiling, menacing, intimidating, unrelenting S.S. sadist, nicknamed the Jew Hunter. (Tarantino’s Hitler, Martin Wuttke, may be presumed to be a deliberately bad look-alike.) There are so few groups and types anymore who, without giving rise to anti-defamation protests from some quarter, can serve as acceptable villains — the new District 9 demonstrates that even alien invaders are no longer reliable in that respect, are now equatable with downtrodden victims of discrimination — and surely the scalping proclivity of the good guys here constitutes a backhanded salute to one such passé group. Tarantino wants to do nothing more to Nazis, nothing worse, than to conventionalize them, fictionalize them. Knowingly nudging his depiction beyond the silly and into the campy, he lures you onto the battlefield of aesthetics, safely away from politics. Once there, he’s got you where he wants you. Where his movie can better repel attack.
In the end Inglourious Basterds stands as arguably his best-made movie to date. The argument is well on its way to settled in the very first scene, a twenty-minute crescendo of tension when our S.S. officer drops in unannounced on a French dairy farmer harboring a family of Jews, a straight-faced suspense sequence with but a couple of cracks in the demeanor (the mid-conversation switch from subtitled French to English, and the Nazi’s rabbit-out-of-a-hat materialization of a Sherlock Holmesian meerschaum pipe). Only a tiny amount of the tension arises from our wondering how long the entrance of Brad Pitt can be put off. Scene after scene thereafter is meticulously shaped and timed (not to mention gleamingly photographed by Robert Richardson), adding up to the least taxing two-and-a-half-hour movie of the several this summer. Clearly Tarantino’s feeling for the medium goes far beyond his grasp of movie trivia. No small part of that feeling for movies is his feeling that they ought to be fun, a lark, a hoot. (He has always had leanings, in different degrees of acuteness, toward the Camp sensibility, more precisely Low Camp, the squealing delight in someone else’s idea of tripe.) His feeling has perhaps never before been so easy to share. While he is serious where it counts — the architectonic solidity, the painstaking precision, the creative flair, of the camera angles and compositions — he is also funny wherever he chooses, picking his spots and racking up an impressive ratio of successes to attempts. Pitt, who fully showed off his comic capabilities in the Coen brothers’ Burn after Reading, does more than his part to keep the batting average high, even though he’s absent from the screen for lengthy stretches. His undercover utterances in Italian, after his boasts of fluency in the language, are much more than clean hits. They’re home runs.