Brief thoughts on Inglorious Basterds

First of all, I don’t think this is a mind-blowing, stone-cold classic. But it grandly simmers throughout its long, tension-filled conversations. Spoilers below.

  • Quentin Tarantino seems at war with himself. There’s New-Wavey Quentin, the one who likes jump cuts, pop culture conversations, close-ups, and flourishes. Then there’s B-Movie Quentin, who favors action, fetishes, genre lampshades, and excess. For a time the two Quentins prospered together, but in the past decade there’s been an imbalance of power, which has caused trouble in Death Proof and Kill Bill. The trouble’s still present here, but I think Q knows he’s in a crisis and must choose. But like Vicky in The Red Shoes, Quentin knows that to choose between two loves is to cease to live. He’d rather burn the cinema down than commit. So he does.
  • There’s been some grumbling that this film sensationalizes WWII and distorts history. Where were these critics during the town hall debates on health care reform, or when Sept. 11 was compared to the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Granted, movie critics usually don’t get the chance to discuss politics except in the context of films, but the WWII film record is pretty damning on the distortions front. Most WWII films look a lot like, A Nation’s Pride, the Nazi film playing during the climax of this movie. In contrast, it seems pretty clear to me that Inglorious Basterds is a juvenile fantasy and should be understood as such. I don’t really think it claims, at any moment, veracity–the film is too full of characters who are actors, imposters, and illusionists to sustain that.
  • Let’s pretend for a second that Inglorious Basterds is not about WWII, that instead its proper subject is the ways we turn history into nourishing myths. QT gives Goebbels credit as Hitler’s no. 2–stressing the importance of propaganda and mythmaking over policy and achievements. The Basterds themselves are on a mission to instill fear into the SS by means of mythmaking. Landa, during his negotiations with the OSS, cockily insists that he is writing history, one that never actually happened. Lastly, the plot hinges on the idea that without four men, the Nazi party would fold–that their weaponry and organizational structure would crumble without the ineffable leadership those men bring. In this country we use WWII as a nourishing myth, the good war that Americans fought to free the world from authoritarian power. It’s also the war that launched the U.S. into the world’s catbird seat, and helped the U.S. establish an economic beachhead in Europe. I don’t think QT is proposing some kind of replacement for our war films, but there is an implicit critique of them here.
  • Two neat things about that alternate history. By blowing up the Nazi high command, the allies stop unnecessary bloodshed and speed the war’s end–both reasons we used to justify the way we ended the war in the Pacific. I have no idea what that might mean. Second: imagine if Werner von Braun had a swastika carved on his forehead.
  • I wouldn’t ever say QT is trying to make a statement against violence–he seems far too in love with its aesthetics–but there’s definitely something funny going on with its depiction in this film. Frankly, I expected more of it. The scalpings take place quickly; when the Bear Jew takes a baseball bat to one officer, he’s clearly hitting a dummy. While the Nazis are screening their war film, the audience cheers and applauds the violence there. But that audience is shot with a derisive eye, focusing on their mouths and teeth (later on, they’re shot with a derisive gun). This should probably give us pause. In my theater, the audience also laughed and cheered in response to the scalpings and beatings.
  • It’s probably not for nothing that the film ends with a Landa POV shot. I wouldn’t say we’re asked to sympathize with him, exactly, but it’s (as far as I remember) the only one in the movie.
  • There is something sublimely weird about watching a movie theater burn down while you are yourself in a movie theater.

2 Responses to “Brief thoughts on Inglorious Basterds”

  1. 1 Matt Thomas August 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Nice Red Shoes reference, though I’m not sure I agree with you about QT being as torn as you suggest. Regarding WWII films distorting history, Curtis White lays into Saving Private Ryan in his book The Middle Mind, a movie that’s just as much a flight of fancy as Inglourious Basterds is, but is ideologically problematic for all sorts of reasons according to White, especially since people tend not to think of it as a flight of fancy. Loved the line “imagine if Werner von Braun had a swastika carved on his forehead.” Now there’s a thought! Lastly, for now at leat, I seem to remember there being at least one more POV shot. It comes earlier in the film when “the Basterds” want one of the soldiers they’ve rounded up to point out the position of their German/Nazi compatriots on a map.

    • 2 againstacedia August 24, 2009 at 2:55 am

      thanks Matt. Who was the owner of that POV? Pitt, the soldier, or one of the other Basterds?

      Yeah, QT himself is probably not torn. Maybe his work is?

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