By Aaron Mesh
What is Quentin Tarantino if not cool? To imagine him without his smirking insouciance is like watching Pulp Fiction hit man Jules Winnfield relieved of his "Bad Mother Fucker" wallet. But the advance word on Tarantino's World War II pet project, Inglourious Basterds, was that it was slow, talky and—horror of horrors—earnest.
In a way, these warnings were true: Basterds may feature a Brad Pitt-marshaled squadron of merciless Jewish commandos, but the punishment they visit upon the Third Reich is only a small part of the movie's five chapters—it serves as a punctuation to intricate dances of dialogue, some stretching as long as 40 minutes. The movie ranks among Tarantino's greatest achievements, but it is not a shiny summer bauble. It is more like a house cat hunting for 152 minutes, depositing a bloody, broken bird at your feet and expecting you to love it.
The rhythms of Inglourious Basterds owe a good deal to French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, with the spurts of carnage partitioned by long passages of conversation. But while the discussions in Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Death Proof meander in self-references, with unexpected violence as punch lines, the dialogues in Basterds escalate until death is inescapable and stoically faced. Until the final hell storm, there is the consolation of the best of Continental acting, provided by Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent and Michael Fassbender. The experience is like savoring a box of imported French chocolates, only the last one is filled with the wrath of God.
So why is Tarantino's opus being greeted with indifference, even disdain? I suspect it has much to do with the way we have all been bought off by Hollywood marketing—our loyalty purchased not with payola, but with proximity to the hot new thing. This is why we stand in line each week, more excited by participation in opening weekend than by the sensation of the movies themselves. If a project has buzz (manufactured, disposable and above all safe, like the stuff wafting off Star Trek or District 9) you'd better associate yourself with it, so the buzz can be transferred to you, along with the accompanying Twitter followers and prime seats at Comic-Con. Now you're cool, the movie's cool and everyone becomes a cog in the cool machine. What's lost in this surrender?
Only judgment: the ability to recognize when a film is more than a fleeting diversion, to feel the luxurious cadence of a scene that begins with the taking of Allied prisoners and ends with the Jew hunter proposing a phone call so fantastically satisfying that all Tarantino's big talkers can say is, "Bingo!" Lose the ability to feel the thrill of that exclamation—and the potential of cinema to fulfill impossible wishes—and all that's left are the previews.
Against this paltry fate we have the real filmmaking of Inglourious Basterds: polarizing, courageous, dangerous. If it is guilty of bloodlust, at least it has something left in its veins besides novelty and hype. As Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) finishes etching another swastika into another Gestapo brow, he stops to admire his handiwork. "You know somethin'?" he asks in his Tennessee drawl. "I think this just might be my masterpiece." Look away, you children of cool, but a masterpiece it is.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
With Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth and Michael Fassbender
Regal Stadium 14