INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – A Reflecting Pool

Written by William C. Benker

The survival of the auteur in today’s synthetic assembly line of blockbusters keeps Hollywood’s integrity afloat. It is in these few select films that come around every few years from some of cinema’s greatest American visionaries that we see their luminescent glow shimmer above the rest. So quickly can one fall victim to conventional archetypes, predictable sub-plots and meandering character development, that it makes the survival of these writers/directors so much more integral to the continuing art of storytelling. It is Quentin Tarantino, in his most self-reflexive film to date, who fanatically bombards his audience with Inglourious Basterds. Using the backdrop of Nazi-occupied France, the film-fanatic/director graciously tears away the expectations of a tale so many times told with such clearly defined lines. Because Tarantino knows what to expect, (no doubt from his years as a movie-store clerk) and reaffirms the fact that all great films are held together entirely by one type of glue: character. Inglourious Basterds not only does away with the conventional robotic façade of the Third Reich’s top men, but also reveals its director’s most beloved passion of all: the cinema itself. Tarantino’s sixth film not only reveals his maturity as an artist, but also clearly reflects his ever-evolving passion for the significance of the cinema itself.

Let’s begin with the “Jew Hunter,” also known as Colonel Hans Landa (played by German actor Christoph Waltz, who until recently lay hidden in the international film circuit). His remarkable delivery channels the complexity of his director’s script. The opening scene carefully extinguishes all possible expectations at first glance, casually revealing the all too likable personality of Hitler’s most capable detective (complete with Sherlock Holmes pipe.) Perhaps his most effective quality is his charismatic clarity and table manners. In a declarative reiteration of German propaganda, Landa uses pure logic to illustrate his effective method of detecting his “prey,” so that it becomes nearly impossible to believe the man is really that evil. Instead, through the most becoming character dialogue, does the audience find itself trapped in the auteur’s grasp. Our fascination with the character takes over and the plot is able to reveal itself organically. Our love for the story evolves from sheer interest in the people involved in the situation. By the time the opening scene is finished, all the audience is on edge, anxiously awaiting the return of their now favorite Nazi detective.

The home team, that which garners the title of the film itself, serves primarily as a catalyst for the action (already set in motion by the Colonel). For all intents and purposes, the Basterds are Tarantino’s usual band of outsiders (Orange and White, Jules and Vincent) sent on the righteous crusade of “Nazi killin’.” While the entire brigade embodies an even flow of humor, characteristically, Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) and Hugo Stiglitz capture the spotlight. A couple more Basterds serve a good hand in the film’s climax, with some truly comic translations as they pose as Italian filmmakers. Again, just to be clear: actors, directors, poor translations and premieres – Tarantino hasn’t just written a near Shakespearian turn around of comedic-drama, but skillfully weaves his own personal frame of reference into the mix. The humor that comes with the business of cinema, as integral to the plot as it is, is supposed to be fun; Tarantino doesn’t ever appear to forget this.

As in any Tarantino film, the story is broken up into periodic segments, with the first two chapters serving as an prologue to the final three. The film’s focus is revenge, but instead of the would-be-warriors under Aldo’s wing taking the center stage, the true protagonist is the orphaned Jewish girl Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), who escaped her family’s massacre all the way back in chapter one. And what does Shosanna now own through untold means? That’s right, her very own movie theater. What comes of this is a concentration of film-related roles. For example, there is Archie Hicox, former film-critic now turned British Operative sent to help the Basterds. Notice the intricacies within his introductory scene (and the humorous cameo by Mike Myers) as they discuss Goebbels’s cinematic exploits within the context of American Cinema. Tarantino’s almost superfluous film-theory is carefully imbedded in the text, making Hicox (Michael Fassbender) the perfect man for the job. We also have German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who works undercover for the British Secret Service; Operation Kino is considered her “brain-child.” The film takes an unexpected turn during the long (but insatiably tense) basement barroom sequence, building towards the film’s climax. Stumbling through the attempted rendezvous with von Hammersmark, we see the sheer capability Tarantino has for taking his favorite across-the-table banter and polishing it into a stream of expositional genius. The deceit that comes to fruition at Shosanna’s theater is a story of novel eloquence. With his complexity of disguise – whether it’s from the German actress, the sharp detective, or the Nazi war hero turned actor – Tarantino has conjured up one intricate set of characters.

Inglourious Basterds is as intense, quick and comical as the rest of Tarantino’s repertoire. This time, however, with a steady maturity to his craft, he has easily constructed a film much more self-reflexive than his earlier pictures. A common allowance of any director who has come as far as he, Tarantino’s World War II backdrop has given him an already defined atmosphere from which to extrapolate the fine art of character development. What resonates so well is his ability to individualize each archetype, when historical context has defined each one already. Beneath his torn conventions lay the sheer power and all-inspiring nature of movies in general. Aldo couldn’t be more clear in the final shot of the film, staring proud into the camera, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”

Of Grapefruit and Gangsters: THE PUBLIC ENEMY

By: Victoria Large

The Public Enemy – 1931 – dir. William A. Wellman

It’s one of my favorite Old Hollywood vignettes, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not. I stumbled across it in the Turner Classic Movies glossy Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, and it revolves around the famous scene in director William Wellman’s 1931 gangster classic The Public Enemy where James Cagney spontaneously shoves a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clarke’s face. According to the book: “The scene made Clarke’s ex-husband, Lew Brice, very happy. He saw the film repeatedly just to see that scene and often was shushed by angry patrons when his delighted laughter got too loud.” I love the story because it’s silly and ridiculous and not-outside-the-realm-of-possibility: spiteful exes have been known to do worse. But the story also gets at some of the key elements of an uncommonly enduring movie scene, one so memorable that, as critic Carlos Clarens notes in his book Crime Movies: “Not one reviewer failed to mention it, and it undoubtedly contributed to the film’s success.”  (Even Pauline Kael’s pithy two-sentence capsule review of The Public Enemy namechecks Clarke as “the girl who gets the grapefruit shoved in her kisser.”) The grapefruit bit remains a shocker, and was even more jarring in its day, but, as Brice certainly understood, it’s also kind of humorous in its utter nastiness. It catches many a viewer – if not Brice on his hundredth viewing – off-guard, leaving them helpless to do anything but gasp or laugh.

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Sand and Blood: THE MUMMY

By Jared M. Gordon

The Mummy – 1999 – dir. Stephen Sommers

Whether it’s action, romance, or angry, angry beetles, Stephen Sommers’s 1999 hit The Mummy has what you’re looking for.  Marketed as a next-generation’s Indiana Jones, The Mummy succeeds as a film by delivering exactly what it promises – and a little bit more.

With an ensemble cast including Brendan Fraser, pre-Oscar Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, and Arnold Vosloo, there are enough contrasting, zany characters for any “Which character are you” Internet quiz.  But what keeps The Mummy from being just another visual-effects-laden Hollywood song and dance?
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