Quentin Tarantino is starting to remind me of late-stage Kubrick. At a certain point, both directors became pretty much divorced from what most of us think of as everyday reality by producing stylized baubles with fetishistic care, inviting audiences to marvel at the lurid and the vivid, losing interest in the process of identification that any audience, however sophisticated, craves.
(Let me pause right here and say that this is not a negative review of “Inglourious Basterds.” It’s not even a mixed one. I liked the movie — a lot — for what it was. But I want to talk about what it wasn’t for a moment.)
Kubrick avoided portraying human characters by backing away from them, turning them into ants, specimens, little things to be prodded, taunted and observed with bemusement. Tarantino avoids portraying human characters by blowing them up into cartoons.
The biggest, weirdest, ugliest cartoon in “Inglourious Basterds” is Aldo Raine, the Nazi-killing American Lieutenant played by Brad Pitt. Pitt leads the Basterds, a group of vengefully sadistic Jewish soldiers, on a rampage through the forests of Nazi-occupied France, scalping and bludgeoning any Nazi grunt they encounter. We barely meet the other Basterds. Some don’t have any lines. Unlike in Tarantino’s original script (in which a few Basterds were honored with flashbacks), none have backstory. Pitt’s neck is scarred from an attempted lynching (again, according to the script) but it’s never mentioned. There’s no character here, just a caricature, and that seems to be the goal. Aldo Raine has a scar, a mustache, a jutting chin, and little else. I can imagine Tarantino on the set: “Okay, Brad, do the chin thing. Good. Action!”
In a parallel storyline, we meet Soshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a Jew whose family was massacred by the slimy Colonel Landa (Christopher Waltz, another cartoon) and is living under an assumed identity as a Frenchwoman who owns a cinema. How did she get to own a cinema? Again, valuable backstory was cut, and in the existing film, the character is a cipher. She hates the Nazis — that’s her character. Fair enough, but who doesn’t?
In “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino showed he could write masterful characters who faced ingeniously contrived moral dilemmas and squirmed out of them in ways we never would have expected. Why has he abandoned characters for cartoons?
Anyway, enough. “Inglourious Basterds” has its own considerable merits. The movie consists of five chapters, the first and third of which are essentially one-act plays. The first, in which Landa visits a French dairy farmer who is hiding Shoshanna and her family, is absolutely terrific — nerve-wracking, tautly constructed, riveting. Denis Menochet, who plays the dairy farmer, is the best actor in the whole movie — he does more with his sad, cloaked eyes than Pitt does in an hour of jaw-flexing.
The third chapter, featuring a surprisingly good cameo by Mike Myers, involves a trio of the Basterds getting into a bizarre card game in a bar full of drunken Nazis. This too is a uniquely memorable scene, culminating with a guns-to-testicles Mexican standoff exploding in a manner that will please viewers who have fond memories of “Reservoir Dogs” and “True Romance.”
Tarantino’s trademark stylistic audacity is on display throughout the film. Title cards pulse bright yellow, beautiful women die gorgeously in slo-mo, figures of speech fly faster than bullets, Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel make voice cameos, conversations go on for unbearably long minutes as we await cathartic violence….
And then there is the film’s anarchic climax, which is one of the finest examples of wishful thinking ever committed to celluloid. Celluloid — literal celluloid — in fact plays a very significant role in the plot of “Inglourious Basterds,” a fact which will probably come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever heard the name Quentin Tarantino. As much as I wish Tarantino were still making movies about human beings, I can’t deny that he makes movies about movies better than any other director around.