Tuesday, 6 January 2015
We're Goin' to be Doin' One Thing and One Thing Only: Criticizing a Movie
I remember when Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds first came out in theaters. It was a huge hit, everybody seemed to be talking about it. I myself did not know of it until I started seeing commercials on TV, ones that made it look like some sort of weird comedy. It wasn't even until I did some further research months later that I even realized it was supposed to be set in World War II. At the same time this was my first real exposure to Quentin Tarantino as a director, and at the time I was not entirely sure about his reputation for violence. Over time he has come to win me over with several great movies like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Django Unchained.
Still, I felt unsure if I would ever be able to get into Tarantino's work after the first movie of his I actually watched in full. That was Inglorious Basterds. I was in High School at the time, in grade 11 when my teacher was running a film class for the first time. I was trying to work on my independent study unit and needed some footage from one of the movies we watched, so my teacher let me get it off his hard drive. He also told me he had a bunch of other movies on there and I could take any of them if I wanted. I got a whole bunch off of that thing (this was back before I started to develop ethics regarding ownership of pirated movies), and one of the first ones I saw was Inglorious Basterds.
This was a movie everybody was talking about when it came out. My classmates were quoting it, referencing it, and it seems in general to have a surprisingly huge fanbase for a standalone movie. Naturally, when I obtained it as a file from my teacher's hard drive I decided to give it a watch to see what all the hype was about. Sadly, I'm not so sure it lived up to that hype. I've voiced my opinions on this movie before to quite a number of people, most of whom react with complete astonishment and act like there's something wrong with me when I tell them I didn't like it. I remember even in film class afterwards talking about seeing Pulp Fiction and hoping that it would "redeem" Tarantino.
With hindsight, Inglorious Basterds did have a lot of Tarantino's trademarks, and from a purely technical standpoint it is actually a very well-done movie. The camera work is all very good, as is the cinematography and the acting. It does take talent to make a movie in three different languages, especially when your own native language is the one that is used the least. That is not an easy stunt to pull off. Very few American directors even have the nerve to attempt to make a movie in a language other than their own, so there is something to be admired in that area. The problems mostly come from the story and the general themes of the movie, many of which seem to conflict with each other.
There seem to be two different ways of looking at Inglorious Basterds, and I've heard people use both interpretations when describing how much they liked it. The first is that it is some sort of dark comedy about Americans going in to take revenge on the Nazis. To be fair, the Nazis were horrible genocidal maniacs so I can see why many people would enjoy a movie centered around a group of Allied Soldiers going into Germany to induce payback. Unfortunately, that explanation comes into question when one considers the second interpretation: that it is really a drama about how war is not black and white and even the supposed "good guys" are capable of committing war crimes.
This is precisely where the trouble begins to set in. Inglorious Basterds is literally trying to be two completely different movies at the same time, neither of which go together. If it's a comedy in which we're supposed to be entertained by watching the deaths of Nazis, that's fine. Unfortunately it defeats the purpose when you then turn around and try to make it clear that nearly every German soldier encountered is a civilian who doesn't have any particular ties to Nazism. It's hard to enjoy that one man being clubbed with a baseball bat when you've just gone out of your way to make us sympathize with him. Same goes for that scene in the bar where the soldiers are just a group of civilians playing a game to celebrate the birth of one man's son.
On the other hand, perhaps it's the reverse. Maybe the whole point is to show that the Americans weren't always the "good guys" and that they could do horrible things as well, as indeed they historically did (the propaganda films of the time usually left out what the American and Canadian governments were doing to Japanese immigrants during the war). That would explain the efforts to authenticate everything, right down to having the majority of the film be spoken in French or German (as opposed to simply having the Nazis speak in thin German accents, like on Hogan's Heroes). That version of the film also seems to make sense until you consider the campier moments, like the fact that this movie includes a scene where Hitler is shot dead in an over-the-top fashion by the titular basterds, again defeating the purpose.
If your intention was to create a realistic war film that emphasized a message about how World War II was not as black and white as people often assume (which is true, we did after all have an even worse genocidal maniac on our side: Joseph Stalin), why do you end it like that? Trying to authenticate everything and then changing what historically happened makes all the effort seem redundant. It's like making a movie about the Titanic, going out of your way to make sure every single actor is speaking in an authentic accent for their respective background, and then having it end with the ship swerving around the ice berg and arriving safely in New York. Why did you even bother to go that extra step if you were just going to mess it all up?
So which one is it? Is it a comedy about killing Nazis or a serious war film about how the Allied forces weren't always the "good guys". These two ideas don't go together. Had Inglorious Basterds stuck to one or the other, it might have worked. As a comedy it could have been a fun little action movie that perhaps culminates in Hitler being killed in an over-the-top fashion, sort of an American fantasy of how World War II should have ended. As a drama, it could have been an emotional experience that seriously forces the viewer to question their perspective on World War II. When put together, both approaches defeat the purpose of each other.
Also, to add to all that, Michael Fassbender's role in the movie was completely pointless. Why would you go through all the trouble of introducing this character of Lt. Hickox just so you can kill him off in the very next scene? His only contribution to the story is accidentally being responsible for a shootout because he accidentally exposed himself as an Englishman. Any of the other characters that had already been established could have done the same. This guy had no purpose for being in the film at all. Why is he even there?
In the end, Inglorious Basterds is not a very good movie. On a purely technical level, yes, it is impressive. Once you actually look at the content of the film itself, it becomes a mess. It tries to be combine two mutually exclusive ideas that really should not be blended together. Tarantino has made some great movies, some of which do address darker periods in history. Django Unchained was a western that addressed a period of history when slavery was perfectly legal, and that one also ended with the main character taking out a plantation. It didn't try to make you sympathize with the slave owner, so you could root for Django the whole way through. Inglorious Basterds on the other hand, doesn't really work in the same way. I know people think I'm crazy for saying this, but it's really not that good a movie.