Sunday, September 20, 2009

Going Medeival

The following column is reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Quentin Tarantino’s often told personal tale, that of a brash, young know-it-all video clerk who writes his way into the heady upper regions movie industry, writing and making his directorial debut with the in-yer-face Reservoir Dogs in 1992, dashing off the screenplay for boldly rococo True Romance in 1993, contributing the story to attention-grabbing Natural Born Killers in 1994, and ultimately co-writing and directing up-the-ante Pulp Fiction that same year, spurred on a subsequent generation of movie scribblers and film nibblers, all bent on skipping over film school or industry apprenticing and vaulting directly into movie-making power, glory, and box-office ching-a-ling, equipped with nothing more than an audacious concept or two, some twisted dialogue, and the tippity-tap of the lap top keyboard.

In the decade plus that’s followed there has certainly been dozens of Tarantino (or QT, as he is known to his more ardent followers) approximators, imitators, followers, and cinematic brothers-in-arms, none of whom have held a candle to his single-minded filmmaking wonder world—a particularly peculiar filmic view that welds together genres, movie history, and pop culture fervor in vastly entertaining packages that are always part spectacle, part low concept, and part (yup) pulp fiction. His latest, long rumored to be in the works, is Inglourious Basterds, an ostensible take on the old school World War II movie that could have almost been made by tipping a few shelves over in the hip video store around the corner, and spicing together a heady batch of both disparate and kindred found footage culled equally from the mainstream and the exploitative.

Inglourious Basterds is bound to be intensely polarizing (as the initial nitcriticism indicates), as it rolls out as if derived from an aesthete’s blueprint, yet seems crafted with pulp cartoonishness, continually nudging the artful into the low-down, craftily airing out the florid excesses of melodrama and outright tawdriness. It is, without question, QT’s ultimate video clerk film fantasia, a movie boiled in the oil of melted down film nitrate stock (ironically enough, also one of the movie’s plot points), a film that unequivocally operates in a readymade cinematic vacuum. Tarantino’s movies have never been intended to peel back the shell and reveal anything of moral or psychological import, and this—a Holocaust revenge fantasy—doesn’t even hint at any significance outside of tickling the pleasure sensors. It’s a wacked-out paean to the delirious beguilements of the cinema, happily self-indulgent and brazenly self-assured.

As per usual, Tarantino’s arc is dominated more by character than plot, and the movie flies by the ring-a-ding-ding of its skillfully wrought hyper-dialogue. It’s all about the talkers, and the clich├ęd movie-movie toy soldiers are coolly filled out by a disparate cast of eye-archers. Brad Pitt plays the “Aldo the Apache”, a southern-fried Lieutenant leading a group scruffy Jewish soldiers (known as the Inglourious Basterds) intent on getting behind enemy lines and (literally) taking the scalps of 100 Nazis apiece. The squad winds up mixing and matching with the likes of undercover Brit soldier (and practicing film critic!)Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbinder), sexy German film queen Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), movie palace operator-with-a-past Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), and silky smooth Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), better known as “the Jew hunter.” Waltz walked away with a well deserved acting prize at this year’s Cannes, and in all actuality he gets much more screen time than the top-billed Pitt, who is fairly acute at rendering a caricature that would be equally at home in a Coen Brothers’ film.

Inglourious Basterds is 153 minutes of pop-art felicity, a rollicking collision of the absurd and the visceral, and there will be those (like myself) who can’t help but be swept along in its chortling, blazing, transparently outrageous pop-cult blender. In the blink of an eye, the film conjures up or draws upon huge dollops of film iconography, ranging from and to The Great Dictator, The Alamo, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Devil’s Brigade, The Dirty Dozen, Ennio Morricone, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, Aldo Ray, Peter Sellers, Emil Jannings, G.W. Pabst, Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg, war movies, westerns, splatter flics, and film noir. To top it off, the movies very finale is set within the plush confines of Tarantino’s very own “Cinema Paradiso.”

To others, all of this is sugary frosting and not much more, and QT will be (perhaps justifiably) accused of substituting intellectualism for inanity, of passing off virtuosity as substance, of allowing shallowness to be painted as pointed (and artistically fermented) nihilism. He’d probably laugh that sort of complaint off, and tell ya that a movie is just a movie, man, and the pleasure always lies within the framework. As far as that goes Inglourious Basterds is written with sharp malevolence, shot with blissful theatricality, rendered with an adrenaline-pumping tension, and delivered with an overall directorial panache that you simply don’t find in the vast majority of mainstream movie offerings. No way around it, Tarantino, the film maven-turned-filmmaker, truly goes medieval this time out.

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