Grand Illusions, Bad Trips: Inglourious Basterds, Taking Woodstock
By Fernando F. Croce

[Warning: Spoilers-a-plenty.]

For Quentin Tarantino, cinema and life are perpetually mingled. Real-world people pose like movie characters (Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof), performers bring their filmography with them onto the screen (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), celluloid yearns to become flesh (Kill Bill). The first of the five chapters in the filmmakerís new opus, the magnificent Inglourious Basterds, stages a dialogue between two men who are in the same room yet inhabit different planes. Nazi-occupied France, 1941: Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a S.S. Colonel whose cunning has earned him the moniker "The Jew Hunter," revels in his movie-movie flash (heís all of Conrad Veidtís wartime villains rolled into one, basically), while the French farmer (Denis Menochet) sitting across from him remains resolutely earthbound, taciturnly human-sized even if possibly praying for the strength of a Jean Gabin hero to help get him through the ordeal. Already, Tarantino is investigating the complex synergy between filmic creations and human beings, though itís the visceral heart of the sequence that affects him (and us) first and foremost: Will the farmer give into his interrogatorís verbose dexterity and reveal that a Jewish family is hiding underneath the floorboards? Itís screw-tightening drama, horror (like a vampire, Landa asks to be invited before entering his preyís home), dark farce, fable ("Once upon a time..."). With its barbed quandaries and devastating climax, this stunning slow-burner could have easily been released as a self-sufficient short, if it didnít end with the introduction of the heroine, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mťlanie Laurent), who survives the Nazi massacre to play a key role in the filmís architecture of retribution. Revenge is also the driving force behind the titular "Basterds," a guerilla squadron of Jewish-American soldiers who, under the redneck tutelage of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and the Louisville slugger-wielding "Bear Jew" (Eli Roth), roam the French countryside collecting bloody Nazi scalps.

Cut to 1944. Shoshanna runs a Parisian movie theater under a gentile guise, the Basterds have become infamous among Teutonic forces, excoriated by Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke). The girl is approached by Fredrick Zoller (Daniel BrŁhl), a smitten, soft-faced German war hero whose triple-digit body count on the battlefield has made him the poster-boy for Goebbels (Sylvester Groth); meanwhile, the Basterds have become part of Operation Kino, a plot to annihilate the Nazi top dogs that also involves British film-critic-turned-undercover-officer Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and German starlet-turned-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). The strands converge in the movie house, where Goebbelsí patriotic epic Nationís Pride (starring Zoller as himself) is to premiere. It takes special subversion to pierce through the cocoon of shellacked piety that has for decades embalmed the "Good War," just as it takes singular impudence to summarize French collaborators in a four-second gag about Goebbels doing his Gallic mistress doggy-style. All of Tarantinoís obsessions -- his cinephilia, his dialogue, his violence -- are here larger, fuller, deeper. His movie-love is palpable, but it isnít simply reverential. The briefing-the-officers scene, an obligatory staple of WWII actioners, receives the dapper surrealism of David Lean-sized rooms and maps, Mike Myers hilariously loaded with decaying British army beef, and the touchingly shrunken Rod Taylor as Churchill. Goebbels sees himself as a studio chief, a forest ditch where torture takes place suggests an open-air amphitheatre, an actressí autograph leads to her death. The "heroes" themselves are a parody of Dirty Dozen-style masculinity, scrawny loose cannons anchored by Pittís sublime caricature of bellicose bluster, far richer clowning than his role in Burn After Reading. And yet, in a world of performativity (of aliases, games, faÁades, bluffs, tell-tale accents and gestures), Raine survives by being unable to be anybody but himself. Tarantinoís films arenít hipster karaoke sessions, but volatile avalanches of old-into-new images and sounds where memory, identity, and awakening jostle.

Inglourious Basterds is brilliantly misleading. Audiences coming to cheer at a patriotic gorefest about Americans slaughtering Nazis will only find that movie buried deep within: Nationís Pride, a patriotic gorefest about Germans slaughtering Americans that plays to cheering audiences. One sideís "mission" is anotherís "terrorist plot," we are reminded, yet Tarantino isnít after moral relativism: If violence is an inescapable part of war (and of cinema), then thereís a difference between the forthright brutality of the Basterds (honest in its ugliness) and cloaked-in-respectability Nazi sadism (founded on "purity" ideals). The people caught in between (massacred families, captured soldiers, young fathers) ensure that no bloodshed is too easily laughed off. The escalating tension of the underground tavern rendezvous finds the filmmaker working at the height of his talents, but the masterstroke is still the climactic Hades unleashed by Shoshanna, a vision of hellish comeuppance all the bolder for ultimately being a pyrrhic victory. Waltz has been deservedly singled out -- his Landa is a dandy, a virtuoso talker and deal-maker whose villainy stems not from fanaticism but from ruthless intelligence -- though the entire ensemble scintillates. Pittís Yankee truculence, Krugerís cigarette-holder hauteur, Fassbenderís suavity in the face of imminent death, BrŁhlís angelic/beastly fusion, Til Schweigerís lethal deadpan, August Diehlís gotcha! sneer. Above all, the way Laurentís Shoshanna readies herself for battle in an incandescent, David Bowie-scored montage (the avenging-angel mask is prepared) only to later succumb to human feeling (the mask cracks). A work of structural rhymes, thematic motifs, and absolutely direct emotion. Tears must flow. Mine did. Tarantino insists heís not religious, yet his recurring tropes are resurrection and transformation (of characters, images, art forms). The climax is his most spectacular version yet, a slain heroine revived via flickering celluloid (and then smoke and light) amid the tumult of a filmic cathedral-cum-inferno -- Carrie, sure, but also The Passion of Joan of Arc. It reminded me of why I love movies.

*

Something as crazy as rewriting history would never occur to a milquetoast like Ang Lee, who, in the far, far milder time-machine Taking Woodstock, is content to just nibble on the edges of it. A shame, because, after four decades of mythical nostalgia for Aquarian utopianism, that 1969 touchstone could use, if not a full dismantling, then at least a fresh coat of paint. Working with writer James Schamusís adaptation of Elliot Tiberís memoir, Lee uses the Peace & Love event as white-noise for another flaccid coming-of-age story about an unformed youthís Summer I Grew Up. Said youth is Tiberís stand-in (Demetri Martin), whoís scrambling to save the dilapidated Catskills motel run by his immigrant parents (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman) from a pile of unpaid bills. Desperate, he has a moment of inspiration: After learning that a huge concert is going to be cancelled because hippie-fearing locals have denied the organizers a permit, he contacts cow impresario Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) and convinces him to rent the pastures for the event. In no time, long-haired masses and painted VW vans are clogging the highways and storming the fields; free love is in the air ("No shtupping in the bushes," Mom kvetches), and so is the gradual commoditization of the festival spirit as embodied by placid, helicopter-riding hippie-capitalist Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff). Lee doesnít even try to recreate Woodstock, which is a good idea since heís not exactly a Dyonisian director; the concert is more of a spectral presence, guitar strains wafting gently over green fields and the edges of skinny-dipping lakes, never seen by the protagonist yet enough of a loosening force to get him to kiss a hunky worker, befriend a beefy drag-queen (Liev Schreiber), and drop acid with Paul Dano and Kelli Garner. Itís a painless enough experience, though, after the corruscating fury of Inglourious Basterds, itís about as fulfilling as sunflower seeds.


Reviewed September 4, 2009.

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