Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

When history looks back on the history of film in the 2000s, the defining narrative is going to be the ascension of TV as the primary visual artistic medium, and mainstream film’s increasing polarization between micro-budget indies and creative dead end rehashed blockbusters. But, even as TV has become a better medium for conveying narrative, cinema maintains its unparalleled ability to create singular moments and cast a spell on the viewer that lasts as long as the movie rolls. Quentin Tarantino, for all his annoyingness in interviews, knows that cinema is about moments, and packs his film full of the sublime collisions of visual, audio and narrative content that make movies so special. Basterds is full of transcendent, singular moments that so perfectly use the medium, he makes everyone else look like they’re not even trying to make movies that resonate and matter.

One of the interesting things about Tarantino movies is that in many ways, they’re written as a collision of theater and cinema. The film features a couple of lengthy setpiece conversations that are literally just people sitting at a table talking, but through the editing and performance, they build incredible tension. The opening scene of the film is a perfect example of that. You start off with the inherent tension in Landa, a Nazi officer, coming to visit this family. His total confidence contrasted LaPadite nerves. Throughout the film, until the very end, Landa is always in a position of total control, there’s a surface calm, but also the potential to explode into violence at any minute.

By revealing to us the family beneath the floor boards, the whole scene takes on a new tension. We know that LaPedite is trying to trick Landa, and the question becomes, can he do so? So, the tension mounts until the fantastic section in which Landa decides to keep up the charade until the last minute, and the quiet conversation of the film’s opening is broken up by an onslaught of weapon fire, and a bursting haze of dust bits floating in the air.

One of the interesting things about Tarantino’s approach is that he focuses almost exclusively on character in constructing his films. The overall narrative, the ostensible quest by the Basterds and Shosanna to kill the Nazis, develops in a very leisurely way, and the vast majority of the film is these things that would be considered digressions in other movies. The typical screenwriting approach is to just give the audience enough to get the information they need then move on, anything not essential to the story should be cut. What is the ostensible ‘point’ of the first scene? It’s to establish Landa as a menacing force. That can be done much quicker, and still get you the same narrative information. But, the extra time spent is both enjoyable on its own terms, and gives you an even better sense of the character.

And, by keeping the scene so slow and conversational, the mounting tension at the end is even more powerful. As the film’s first music cue rises up on the soundtrack, Landa’s true intent becomes apparent, and leads to the act that sets up the film’s primarily emotional motivation, Shosanna’s revenge.

The film’s chapter structure, as well as its fonts and credits, recall the format of Kill Bill. I like the chapter structure because I think it gives you an implicit explanation of why certain characters are absent from the narrative for so long. You’re not wondering where Aldo is, or where Shosanna is during the sections they’re off screen, you know they’ll likely be back in the next chapter.

So, chapter two picks up the ostensible primary story of the film, that of the Nazi-hunting basterds. This is easily the film’s weakest chapter, Pitt as Aldo Raine is a lot of fun, but lacks the more nuanced character of the other, European characters, and the other Basterds, apart from Stiglitz don’t make too much of an impression. As the film wound down to its climax, I didn’t want to see any of these guys succeed in taking out the German high command, I wanted that to be Shosanna’s victory. There’s a level of sadism in what they do that’s a bit unpleasant, even if it is being done to Nazis. The clever punishment given to survivors is more satisfying to watch than simply seeing someone’s head beaten with a bat.

And, if the film has one misstep, it’s in the casting of the Basterds, particularly giving Eli Roth such a prominent role. Where a great actor could make even a small role like that really come alive, Roth doesn’t do much more than say the words. He doesn’t do anything glaringly wrong, but I feel like the role could have been much more. Similarly, I’m not sure if BJ Novak and Samm Levine were cast deliberately for their non-menacing qualities, but they generally came off as doofier, comic relief, particularly during the funny “Little Man” conversation at the end of the film.

But, looking at the film as a whole, all the American characters do seem designed primarily as comic relief. I was thinking that the film might be stronger if it just focused on Shosanna and Landa, with no stuff about the Basterds, but without the humorous counterpoint of the Basterds, the stuff with Shosanna could wind up feeling a bit self serious and the film as a whole would be less unique. Pitt isn’t the lead of the film, he’s the comic relief, conspicuously off camera for most of the film’s real emotional moments, like the sequence in the basement tavern, or the climactic shootout.

Shosanna was easily my favorite character in the film, and her emotional arc was the most fully realized. Considering the episodic nature of the script, I’d hesitate to call it “her film,” but it’s her story that I kept wanting to see more of. The sequence set in occupied France once again brings in that element of casual menace. Shosanna is continually forced to play nice with the people who killed her family, for fear that any sign of resistance would prompt an investigation and the discovery of her true identity.

Much of the chapter’s significance lies in what Shosanna tells Zoller in the projection booth, that he’s gotten so used to being hailed as a hero, he doesn’t know when someone means no anymore. The Nazis, thanks to their military power, are so used to getting everything they want that they see people simply as objects in their path to be conquered. Zoller has mixed feelings about this, he claims to not like being hailed as a war hero, and has issue watching his own “exploits” dramatized on screen. He ostensibly wants Shosanna to like him not for what he did in the war, but for the person underneath.

The problem is, he isn’t going to take no for an answer, she’s going to like him no matter what. And, the more prickly she is to him, the more he wants her. He’s being hailed by people in this café, but he only wants her to like him. So, he arranges the premiere at her cinema as a way getting even closer to her, which puts her closer and closer to both her worst nightmare and her ultimate goal, the chance to get revenge against the people who killed her family, to show them who they really are on screen.

The sequence in the café is another masterpiece of subtle tension, as Landa draws out the eating of the Strudel, leaving us uncertain whether he knows who she is, or is just messing with her because she can. It’s also interesting to see the juxtaposition of Shosanna’s concealed hatred for these people with her struggle to put up a public face that won’t offend them. She’s bound to them now and has to play along until she gets the chance to get back at them.

So, she hatches the idea of using her aunt’s old films as a bomb, to burn down the theater and destroy them all in the process. More on that shortly, but I’ll note how effective the transition from her request for filmmaking equipment is in jumping us over to Operation Kino. We know that she’s doing her own Operation Kino while the Basterds and their new British ally are working on the official Op Kino in France.

The Mike Myers sequence is another one that would be much shorter in most films. The goal is just to establish this guy is an expert on cinema, and will be going undercover to blow up the premiere. You can do that in a voiceover, a letter, whatever, but the scene as it plays works because Myers is fun to watch, and it starts laying in the key themes about the way that the German national cinema, and by extension, the German national mind, was co-opted by Nazi themes at the expense of the more ambitious 1920s impressionist cinema.

Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s shaped the American national image, and during World War II, its propadanda films were key to creating the narrative of the war. Goebbels was trying to do the same thing with his films, and in the process, he tried to rewrite history, eliminating the moral ambiguity of post Weimar work and replacing it with the overt heroes and villains of the Nazi propaganda cinema, specifically “Nation’s Pride.” On the one hand, this scene, like the exploration of nitrous film earlier, is an insidery film reference that could be seen as self indulgent. But, it also works without any outside knowledge of history, setting up the thematic significance of Shosanna using the old films as a means of destroying the German elite.

That leads into the basement tavern scene, another great work of mounting tension. Tarantino establishes multiple areas of drama, including Hickox’s questionable German skills, Stiglitz’s mounting rage and the uncertain motivations of the German officer, who may or may not know about Hammersmark’s deception. Again, the way the scene is played out lets this tension build to a huge crescendo before exploding suddenly in the seemingly inevitable result of a Mexican standoff, a room filled with gunfire, leaving nearly everyone dead.

It’s difficult to comment on morality in a film like this, where we’re seemingly led to support the cartoonish scalping of Nazis, but at the same time confronted with a much more real vision of the war on the European side. It could be a comment on perceptions of the war in America vs. Europe. In America, it’s a fun excursion, where the inherent evil of the Nazis makes it easy to indulge in an over the top us vs. them exercise killing German soldiers who’ve sold their souls. But, for Shosanna, the violence is real, and simply killing individual soldiers isn’t enough, it’s the ideology that has to be destroyed.

That’s what the end of the film, the most audacious chapter, is all about. The German high command has created an ideology of hate, one that is symbolized by the films that Goebbels creates. As they all gather around the screen to watch a film that seems to consist solely of Zoller mowing down American soldiers, she has the chance to explode that ideology in their face and confront them with the real cost of that violence.

In Kill Bill, the cinematic high point of the film was the preparing for the battle sequence in Volume I. Scored to the now iconic “Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” the tension is built to a huge level as we watch all the pieces moves into place in the most visual, cinematic way conceivable.

The instantly iconic “Cat People” sequence in the film does the same thing, as we watch Shosanna arm herself for the battle to come. I love films that don’t adhere to the expectations we have for period drama. In that sense, Basterds has much in common with Marie Antoinette or Public Enemies, both films that deliberately played with our expectations for a costume drama or a gangster movie. “Cat People” works perfectly in the moment, no matter what time period it comes from. And, I love the way that we get the badass hero suits up montage for a woman putting on makeup and a dress, not the soldiers getting their guns. The sequence is full of memorable images, like the way that the rouge on her cheeks is spread to evoke Indian war paint, or the slow dissolves, rather than a push in, that go from wide shot to closeup as she stands at the window and looks out.

She emerges from her personal space to the theater and we witness the premiere already in full swing. She stares down at them, her face behind a veil that evokes Fassbinder’s Maria Braun. The whole sequence builds such incredible momentum, I wasn’t sure that the film would be able to sustain it for the climax, and Tarantino’s choices frequently seem anathema to keeping that tension going. After we build this crescendo of Shosanna’s rage, we jump over to a lengthy comic scene with Aldo and crew trying to present convincing Italian accents for Landa.

It’s a testament to Tarantino’s skill that he consistently stops the film when it should be rushing forward to do that sort of comedy stuff, but is able to recapture the momentum whenever needed. The lobby scene, or the later scene with Landa and Raine negotiating about ending the war both are entertaining on their own merits, but feel decidedly besides the point next to the action in the theater.

But, he can easily jump from the goofiness of the Italian name stuff to the incredibly tense scene with Bridget Von Hammersmark in Shosanna’s office. That scene is great on its own merits, riffing again on Tarantino’s love of feet, but also ties in to the overall narrative, through staging it into Shosanna’s office. Landa has taken her family, he’s taken her theater and he’s even taken over his office and is using it to kill people. But, she has a plan to get back at him.

At this point in the film, I was annoyed that Landa hadn’t captured Omar and Donny, since I didn’t want to see these two not particularly developed characters succeed in their plan and not give Shosanna the satisfaction of her vengeance. So, there was great tension during the Landa and Raine scene, as we’re left in uncertainty about what was going to happen in the theater.

But, we eventually get back there, where every action is juxtaposed against the much celebrated action on the screen, Zoller’s wholesale massacre of other soldiers. This is the German mythos, the German ideology played large on the big screen, and it brings great delight to everyone in the audience. Hitler and Goebbels see this film as something that can inspire the people and keep the war alive, even as the Americans crash onto French shores. They understand that war is ultimately about ideas, it’s whose mythos is stronger, who wants it more. Zoller becomes an aspirational figure, someone who could inspire the people to fight harder, even as things become more of a lost cause. If he can singlehandedly defeat three hundred soldiers, then no obstacle is insurmountable.

The film lulls the German audience into an easy connection with the death on screen, it casts a spell on them that subtly influences their morality. Shosanna intercuts her own message in to the film, one that subverts the moral intention of everything that the Germans are doing. Instead of one hero and a hundred faceless victims, it’s the victim speaking to them, the murdered extra becomes the star and destroys the illusion that Goebbels worked so hard to create. Zoller isn’t a hero, he’s only perpetuated the conflict.

The projection booth is Shosanna’s inner sanctuary, the beating heart of the theater that is her weapon. She sets it in motion, and when the reels shift, the deed is done, she has sealed her own fate, and will go down with the blaze. But, before that, there’s Zoller threatening to upend the plan. As I said before, Zoller’s approach to her in the projection booth is a moment that sums up the entire German ethos, this belief that they can take whatever they want because they are entitled to it. He will have her by any means because he’s the hero on that screen, he’s the person they’re all there to see, and she will love him for that.

But, Shosanna gets to do what those three hundred faceless soldiers couldn’t, she guns Zoller down. It ties in to both a meta cinema comment and a very real idea. Three hundred deaths is a statistic, it loses meaning or perspective. As we see more and more people gunned down on the screen, the audience laughs, but it becomes increasingly meaningless, a spectacle. They are the extras, but Shosanna is the star. A random soldier can’t kill Zoller, but Shosanna’s story has led her here and given her the spotlight to take him down. One death is a tragedy, three hundred deaths is a statistic.

That’s also why Shosanna’s quest means more than the Basterds’. She has real motivation, and her desire for vengeance exists on an emotional, real world level, not a spectacle level. It’s a tricky thing to weld the two narratives together, because the joy we get from watching Nazis get scalped earlier in the film would seem to be the same joy that Hitler gets from watching Zoller on screen. Is Tarantino equating us to Hitler? I think he’s more pointing out the inherent joy of watching violence portrayed on screen. I just read an interview where he mentioned that a woman getting bashed into a table out of nowhere in a romantic drama would be horrifying, but Steven Seagal killing seven people is fun. Movie violence exists in a different reality than real world violence, the Basterds’ quest takes place in movie reality while Shosanna’s takes place in a more reality based context.

So, the death of Shosanna is a shocking, tragic moment. As she’s shot up, the screen explodes with a flurry of colors and dust in the air, in death, she transcends reality and becomes pure cinema. It’s a moment that would be shocking simply for its content, but the music choice and slo-motion cinematography turns it into so much more. Shosanna is dead, but like a ghost, we see her rise up on screen and taunt the German people with what they’ve been complicit in.

The goal of “Pride of a Nation” is to refine the perception of the German nation by ignoring the past and focusing only on the heroism of one soldier. They want to erase all other narratives and preserve only that one. That’s why it’s so significant that Shosanna and Marcel should use the old films that her aunt held on to as the fuel for the fire that will consume the Nazis. This is literally her family history, the prized possession of her aunt and uncle, but it’s also the symbolic stand in for everything the Nazis want to destroy. In the scene with General Fenech, we hear that Goebbels seeks to supercede the Jewish cinema of 1920s Germany, and the Jewish controlled cinema of Hollywood. The history of film is a Jewish history, and that history is what interrupts the new history Goebbels seeks to write, then literally burns it down.

The most powerful image in the film, and its most effective summation, is unquestionably the screen catching fire as Shosanna laughs, turning her into an angel of vengeance, descending into hell to cast her wrath down on the German high command. That moment is chilling, and it builds as Donny and Omar break into the opera boxes and gun down Hitler, and the other Nazi personnel. Those scenes, shot like Scarface, see the Germans becoming victims of the very cinematic violence they were just enjoying.

The theater burns and with it, the symbols of Nazi iconography. Over the flames we hear Shosanna laugh, and in the smoke, we can see glimpses of her face, hanging in the air like a ghost. And then the whole thing blows up, the dynamite a satisfying cap to the climax.

The film ends with Landa negotiating the terms of his deal. It strains credibility a bit to think that Landa would abandon the Nazis, but in the context of the film, they’re already on a downward slope, and he’s just looking out for himself. Why does he kill von Hammersmark when he himself will soon be a traitor? Perhaps he’s taking out his rage at his own betrayal on a surrogate version of himself, or maybe he’s just sadistic, it’s hard to say.

Raine ends the film with a satisfying callback to the earlier chapter, as we see that Landa may be able to make a deal, but he can never escape the legacy of what he’s done. Raine claims it just might be his masterpiece, which is of course, a meta comment by Tarantino on the film we’ve just watched.

Is it Tarantino’s masterpiece? I’d have to see it again to say for sure, but I don’t know that anything can match the raw energy and excitement, the experience that is Kill Bill Volume I. But, I think this is definitely a stronger film than Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, and it’s in many ways Tarantino’s most ambitious film. Shosanna is one of his most compelling characters, and there’s a confidence to the film’s construction that few can match.

Most of all, it’s a cinematic experience, full of memorable visuals and enduring moments, all designed to build tension and create a deep immersion in the world of the film. Calling a film “cinematic” is usually just a short hand for having good visuals, but there’s a huge difference between simply shooting pretty pictures and making a compelling film experience. This is an experience at every level, a masterclass in how to use music in films, and how to build tension through subtle means. It’s about suspense, about the buildup to the action, not just the action itself, and it’s just incredibly fun. You get caught up in the world and the characters, and the stylistic flourishes just immerse that. So, it may not be his best film, but it’s certainly a masterpiece, and likely to find a spot on my best of the decade list at the end of the year.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

And Now What?: Funny People

The “And What Now?” series continues with the film that inspired it, a look at Judd Apatow’s Funny People. I think there’s a wide gap in the media discourse about the film and the film itself. The big story about the film was the idea that this was Apatow’s most serious project yet, a film that brought him to a crossroads between the goofy comedies of the past, and a serious meditation on life and death, with the implicit implication that the film would prove too difficult or dramatic for audiences to deal with. Has that happened? Perhaps, the film certainly hasn’t performed as well as some other Apatow films, but I think that’s largely a function of the media presentation of the movie rather than the movie itself.

I don’t think that Funny People is that much more dramatic than Knocked Up. Both films featured a blend of lowbrow raunchy comedy with some moments of real emotional soul searching by the protagonist when he’s given some unexpected news that breaks up his comfortable, but empty life. Sure, the hook of Funny People is darker, but the film is still pretty funny. And, it’s troubling to me that the studio will likely blame the film’s ‘failure’ on its ambitious blend of comedy and drama, and ambling narrative approach, meaning they’re less likely to greenlight another comedy that doesn’t have an obvious high concept hook. I’ve been trying to support mostly original films this summer, and it’s not good to see this and Public Enemies presented as ‘failures’ when in reality they’ll make more money back down the line than a film like Wolverine or G.I. Joe that opens huge, but quickly plummets. But, the opening weekend gives those films the allure of success, an allure that alludes Enemies and People.

But, business stuff aside, I think the film does represent a more mature Apatow in the sense that the dual protagonist structure allows him to explore both the person he was, in the form of Seth Rogen’s Ira, and the person he might become, Sandler’s George. It’s clearly a personal film, but I think it represents one of the central problems that successful directors face, the growing distance from normal life that comes with success. Apatow makes movies all day, that’s the world he’s in, and if he’s going to write authentically, it’s going to be about that world.

But, I think that ‘normal’ people always find it difficult to sympathize with the troubles of someone like George who, on the surface, seems to have everything he could ever want. The scene where he gets the news he has cancer, then has to pose for a photo with a fan makes clear that there’s a huge downside to being a celebrity. You always have to be on, no matter what, and it’s even tougher for someone who’s supposed to be funny. But, it still feels a bit like whining when nearly everyone in the audience would gladly trade places with George, or by proxy, Sandler or Apatow.

So, the question arises, what are the stories you can tell once you’ve got everything? You can wind up with a film like this, or Fosse’s All that Jazz, an exploration/critique of what fame has done to you. But, where do you go from there? When you’ve told your showbiz story, what do you do next?

I think the thing that makes Funny People or All That Jazz work so well where other films set in the world of film fail is that it’s not assuming that this world is inherently interesting, it’s just using it as a way to explore character.

But, the question still arises, where does Apatow go from here? He’s created such a defined aesthetic, a brand, that at this point even films he’s not involved with, like I Love You Man, make it seem like he’s ubiquitous. I like a lot of Apatow produced stuff, but at the same time, I’m more interested in seeing him develop his own voice than in getting more watchable but unexceptional films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Can Apatow keep walking the line between comedy and drama as well as he has in his past two films, or will he retreat into the easier world of straight up comedy? And, where will he draw on for his material?

I hope that Apatow isn’t scared off by the mixed reaction to Funny People and keeps going deeper and more character centric with his films. I know the film was criticized for its two and a half hour running time, but it’s precisely that lengthy running time that allows the film to build a world, and give you a sense of these characters’ lives. You could tell this story in 90 minutes, but in doing so, you’d cut out the moments that make it great. The more built up the world is, the less you notice the gears of a three act screenplay grinding under the surface. I get no satisfaction from just “watching a story unfold,” I want to get immersed in a world and characters’ lives, and that’s what this film did.

I don’t think Funny People was a flawless film by any means, but I love the way it built on the rambling narrative style and mix of comedy and drama in his previous films, and I hope he can continue to find the way forward and doesn’t become like the George Simmons character in the film.