Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Glorious Basterds

Well, I watched this. I know Tarantino has certain roguish skills as a filmmaker, and excesses as well. Excesses plus John Travolta explain why I have yet to see Pulp Fiction. Brad Pitt, I don’t mind.

I had little sense of the movie when I began. It opens SS officer visits a dairy farm. With a courtesy that eventually becomes malevolent he interviews the farmer. Slowly and obsequiously the officer gets the farmer to admit he is hiding Jews. The actor playing the officer is outstanding.

The SS shoot up the hiding place but a woman escapes. The officer has her in his pistol’s sight but he doesn’t shoot for some reason. I don’t know if such urbane nastiness existed in the SS or anywhere, it feels more like a Hollywood  convention, but the scene sure was riveting.

That was Chapter One. The movie seems structured like a novel the way it presents the various threads. The threads come together in the end. So far so good.

The next chapter presents Brad Pitt as a lieutenant in command of a crack Nazi-killing outfit. It is not explained why this little band exists or how. Any number of Hollywood movies feature similar righteous bands of good guys on an extracurricular mission. The soldiers are all Jewish. Pitt is a Southerner with a healthy Army drawl. He and the SS officer carry the film.

After the creepy SS officer, Pitt’s character is downright comedic. Pitt seems comfortable with the accent and the accent doesn’t feel overdone. At this point I realized that Tarantino was doing a Coen Brothers movie: edgy, skewed, oddly funny. The band’s reputation precedes it. Except for Pitt, the outfit is largely faceless. Most of the cast is unknown to me.

In one scene Pitt interrogates a captured German officer. The officer won’t spill so Pitt calls for one of his men, the legendary Bear. His m.o.: beating his victims with a baseball bat. He enthusiastically does so to the officer, like a baseball slugger, then whoops, citing Ted Williams and Fenway Park. That performance convinced that last German soldier to give information. Pitt etches a swastika in the guy’s forehead so that when he no longer wears a uniform, people will still know he was a Nazi. The dead get scalped. I don’t doubt that somebody tried scalping during WW2 but the detail here seems outre.

The various threads/chapters got a little confusing for me. The woman who escaped in the first chapter reappears, tho I didn’t immediately recognize her, as a cinema owner, having inherited the place. What seems like meet cute occurs when a German soldier chats her up.  She remains cool to him but later they meet again. It turns out that he’s an Audie Murphy style war hero. He convinces Goebbels to use her theatre for the premiere of the movie made about and with this hero. She uses this opportunity to plot the murder of the German high command that will attend the premiere.

The next chapter introduces a British operative who would work with a German actress to somehow, I’m not sure how, assassinate the German High Command at the premiere. This leads to a scene at a bistro in which the plotters intermingle with German soldiers. An SS officers sniffs out the plotters, I don’t know what they’re doing there anyway. Everyone has a gun trained on somebody. In what seems like a patented Tarantino moment, everyone gets shot. Except for the actress, none of these characters seemed vital to the story. The whole chapter felt superfluous, tho gripping.

This scene sunk me. The burst of violence felt so hopeless. Plus Tarantino makes it so snazzy with the explosive flash of the gunplay.  A young German soldier who just became a father survived. Pitt appears. They both discover that the actress also survived. Pitt tried to negotiate with the German to get the woman. It seems like a moment of release as the German seems to allow the woman to leave. As Pitt negotiates, she shoots the German.

Action culminates in the theatre. Pitt and what’s left of his company and the actress attend. The SS officer from the first chapter is at the theatre and discovers the infiltrators in his methodical yet courteous way. The actress is interviewed by the officer. After she admits of her role in the plot he surprisingly leaps at her and chokes her to death. That came from nowhere. Two of Pitt’s rather happy-go-lucky operatives in the theatre audience are not detained. They have explosives strapped to them and other weapons.

The SS officer takes Pitt and the one remaining operative away to negotiate a way the officer could surrender. The cinema owner has slipped a death-to-Nazis message into the premiere, at the same time starting a conflagration. Meanwhile in what at first appears to be a possibly romantic moment between her and the hero German turns ruthless and they kill each other. With even Hitler attending the premiere, I didn’t expect the complete destruction of everyone in the theatre. Tarantino chose an alternate reality. The last two American operatives madly and blithely shoot people in the chaos of the fire. O nihilism! None of the doomed have much notion or concern of imminent death.

So... the SS officer asks for all sorts of benefits, which are agreed to. He takes the two surviving Americans to Allied territory and surrenders to them. Pitt immediately kills the German driver, and carves a swastika on the forehead of the officer.

Tarantino manages to play with the audience’s sense of wish fulfillment. Yay, Hitler dies, but so do almost everyone else. Pitt’s character bobs along calmly in the chaos. Many other characters are on suicide missions. Tarantino presents the flowering beauty of murder and destruction.

Tho Tarantino manages some subtle moments the bombast of violence provides the tonic note for him. Compared to the Coens he’s ruthless and lacks their quirky surprise. I will say that he takes a different tack towards the Nazi horror than other films. He revels some in that horror, but at the same time sounds Vonnegut’s so it goes. He has made an imperfect but powerful movie.