Road to Oscar: 'Inglourious Basterds'
This week I will examine the Oscar outlook for Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s viscera-splattered WWIIsploitation epic. Basterds marked a return to form for Quentin after the execrable Death Proof left a great big poo-smear on his résumé. Truth told I only watched Basterds to mock it; Death Proof put such a foul taste in my mouth that I was convinced the motor-mouthed pastiche artist had finally lost it, oblivious to how far from grace he’d fallen. Thankfully, Basterds was a pleasant surprise. And though it was not a flawless film by any stretch (here again QT’s characters babble with a smug machine-gun bravado normally reserved for Hollywood Hills coke parties) it was at the very least -– unreservedly, unapologetically — a Quentin Tarantino film.
The most noteworthy aspect of Inglourious Basterds however did not lie in the direction (though brilliant) or story (a beautiful mess) but in the virtuoso performance of Christoph Waltz. Quentin seemingly plucked the Austrian actor from the ether to play “The Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa, a character destined to go down in history as one of cinema’s greatest villains. But herein lies the curious problem: Quentin’s Nazis are far more interesting – and dare I say “human” -- than his heroes. There’s the brave resolve of the German officer who’d rather face the bat of Donny Donowitz than give up the location of this compatriots; the naïve innocence of smitten German war hero Frederik Zoller; the passion of Hitler (coincidentally, the title of Mel Gibson’s next directorial effort), the charm of the aforementioned Colonel Landa. The Basterds meanwhile are a pack of violent thugs. If you were a cat-eating alien from Planet Melmac and Inglourious Basterds was your only exposure to Earth’s Second World War, you might assume that the Nazis were the good guys. FYI, Quentin: They weren’t.
I can almost forgive Quentin’s folly. Bad guys are often the most interesting characters to write. But these are NAZIS. And while I would not want to put shackles on any artist, their place in history dictates that Nazis cannot be painted with too much sympathy. Granted, Quentin’s World War II is not the one of our history books. However I’m not sure if Tarantino actually intended to create an alternate reality or if he mistakenly believed Hitler was killed in a theater. He might, in a haze of stimulants, have confused Hitler with Abraham Lincoln.
But for all its faults, Inglourious Basterds does hark back to an era when directors sought to develop a “voice” that made their work instantly recognizable. These days a breakout filmmaker quickly cashes in his whatever auteur cred he has to make generic superhero blockbusters on assignment. Tarantino will never do that because he CAN’T do that. Every frame of every Tarantino film is slathered with the director’s Clorox-scented make. Love him or hate him, Quentin ONLY makes Tarantino films. Ironically, the king of pastiche may well be the most original American filmmaker working today. But will this translate into Oscar wins? Let us once again consult our benchmarks.
RETARD STRENGTH (2/5): While Inglourious Basterds lacks full-blown Down Syndrome, it is chock full of Nazis, who were history’s retards. If I could award points for inane rambling on director’s commentaries I would, but unfortunately I must judge Inglourious Basterds as a stand-alone film, not by the strengths of its DVD extras.
SOCIAL RELEVANCE (2/5): Nazis = Bad is kind of old news. Spielberg used up the last of that theme’s Oscar cache in 1993 with Schindler’s List, and America has since replaced Nazi Germany as the politically correct global boogeyman after we flew those airplanes into those buildings. Okay, that was Al-Qaeda, but there was that dubious invasion of Iraq, which lead to the death of Saddam Hussein who was kind of like Iraq’s Gandhi (except that he’d killed thousands of innocent people). If it were the early 1990s, or if Quentin had merely used World War II as a metaphor for America’s imperialistic oil wars, I would’ve scored him higher; but circa now Nazis are about as hip as a shooting heroin into your soul patch at a Pearl Jam concert.
EPICOSITY (5/5): Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and I couldn’t mean that more literally. Sporting Leone-style cinematography, a Morricone-heavy score and clocking in at 149 minutes (just north of Leone’s spaghetti western which had a run time of 145 minutes), Tarantino as usual walks a preciously thin line between homage and rip-off. Still, as far as epicosity is concerned, Inglourious Basterds hits a home run.
UPLIFT (3/5): Okay, pretty much every one dies. But it would be hard to top the visceral thrill of seeing Hitler mercilessly gunned down. I know it’s not exactly an uplifting triumph of the human spirit, but it sure gave me a murder boner and put a big smile on my face.
TOTAL POWER RANKING (3/5): Respectable, but probably not enough to garner a Best Picture shiny guy. That still makes Tarantino a contender for Best Director, though his success greatly depends on how much of a knob-job the Academy plans to give James Cameron this year. At the very least Inglourious Basterds gives hope that Death Proof was an anomaly and not the beginning of a trend. And it justifies us looking forward to Quentin’s next film, which will undoubtedly be a homage to some forgotten B-movie classic, underappreciated foreign director, and/or little known exploitation sub-genre, and should come out sometime in the next five or six years, or whenever the coke money dries up. Whichever comes first.