Saturday, August 29, 2009

Oh, You Sexy Basterds (few minor spoilers)

Inglourious Basterds was so seductive and overwhelming that after the first viewing, I felt like taking off my clothes and rolling around in it. The slow burn of Tarantino’s more mature dialogue combined with the charismatic performances and gutsy violence to make my body electric. My head was swimming, trying to comprehend what I’d just seen. Basterds is an experience, not a clean coherent story. I didn’t want to analyze the movie too much, that first night. I was too busy loving it. Last night, I saw Basterds for a second time and finally feel ready to discuss it. At my second viewing, I was less overwhelmed by shocking twists and acts, and was able to ponder the Basterds truly for the first time.

Enough has been said about Inglourious Basterds, so that I don’t need to rehash the plot or its gaps (yeah yeah, I wondered how BJ Novak turned up in the truck too). I’d like to just discuss two points about performances and music.

First subject of debate everywhere: Eli Roth as the Bear Jew. No one expected much from the so-called “torture porn” horror director. I’ve always been a fan of his films, so I didn’t bring negative baggage to the table when it came to his acting. I think very few people have been able to separate his directing work from his role in Basterds. Most negative comments from internet posters basically state that they didn’t like Roth and his movies suck. But Roth’s directing work has nothing to do with this role. He may have directed “Nation’s Pride” but that film-within-the-film doesn’t involve his character in any way. I was unimpressed with Eli Roth’s short role in Death Proof, but I had faith that friendship or no, QT wouldn’t cast him without knowing that he could play Sgt. Donowitz. I can’t think of a single living, working director who has a better track record with casting than Tarantino has.

Now, what do I think of Roth’s performance? Roth’s Bear Jew reminds me of half the kids I grew up with in Massachusetts: bat-swinging, mouthy, crass and emotionally honest. The Bear Jew really IS a Golem, summoned by the fantasies of everyone who’s ever been wronged terribly. It’s not a Jewish revenge fantasy, it’s a victim’s empowerment fantasy. Hitler and the Third Reich victimized more than just Jews, and it isn’t just Jews that love the alternate history presented in Basterds. It seems from some reviews that critics and fans expected a larger and more complex character in Donowitz, but I think he is exactly what Tarantino wanted- your typical Boston boy made into a violent legend but still the same guy at heart. The post-beating shouting about Teddy Williams is exactly what a Sox fan would say after a hitting a homer during a pick-up game of ball in the neighborhood. It’s a good performance, overall. Maybe not as nuanced as say, Adam Sandler might’ve produced, but I doubt Sandler could match the kill-crazy gleam in Roth’s eyes or the muscles that make him seem overpowering.

I think most of the critics are straight men, frankly, because none of them seem to realize that Eli Roth’s additional muscles and that smear of eyeliner make him SEX ON A STICK in the wife-beater shirt. Honestly I didn’t spend much time analyzing his acting during my first viewing because I was too busy checking him out and purring. It seems like a silly thing to note, but whether or not someone is sexually attractive can change the role. Imagine Adam Sandler in the wife-beater. Serious ewww. It would be like, if instead of Denise Richards and Neve Campbell in Wild Things, we’d had Nia Vardalos and Kathy Bates. Violence is linked with sexuality a great deal, and the appearance and style of an actor can change the perception of the scene.

Second popularly bitched about item: use of “Cat People” during Shosanna’s preparation montage. I listened to the soundtrack a few days before I saw the movie, and wondered where the hell Tarantino was going to fit that in. The fact that “Cat People” is more modern didn’t bother me too much, because that works all the time in movies. Example: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” used in Dirty Dancing. Most of the complete soundtrack of that movie is period-appropriate music, oldies that take you back to the sixties before the sexual revolution changed popular entertainment. “The Time of My Life” obviously was a huge hit and no one cared that the song was so eighties. So quibbling over the modern nature of “Cat People?” Meh, fuck that.
I think the song works brilliantly well, and gets you all revved up for Shosanna’s revenge. David Bowie’s song is sexy and dangerous, like Shosanna in her red dress. I love too that Tarantino understands that makeup really is women’s war paint, what we apply when we’re prepping to face the world. He just took it to another level, like he does with everything.

I have very few criticisms of the movie, obviously. I think the lengthy tavern scene could be tightened up because it starts to lose tension and momentum after a while. It’s good to humanize the German soldiers celebrating the birth of their friend’s child, but some of their discussion and game could have been cut. We just don’t care that much about them.

There is much debate over the morality of Jewish soldiers taking revenge and mutilating the Germans. I think that people miss the point, and maybe the title of the movie. These are bastards, they don’t pretend to be good people. They own what they are without apology. This is a fantasy where morality is moot. Our heroes (not just the Americans, but Hammersmark, Shosanna, etc) are all killers. They deceive, break deals, and shoot in the back and some of them are downright crazy.

Inglourious Basterds may not be Tarantino’s best film but it may in time become his most remembered. It’s certainly his bravest work yet.

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