Thursday, December 24, 2015

Theory Thursday: "Inglourious Basterds" is Tarantino's Best Film

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight opens in theaters.
Theory: Inglourious Basterds is the director's best movie.

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds
Everyone has an opinion on Quentin Tarantino. Is he the auteur who revolutionized film culture in the 1990's; or is he a hack who became successful? The answer is murky and to properly answer fairly is to rely a little on both. No matter what the general argument is, there's one defining thing that most people agree on: Pulp Fiction was his good movie. It's the one that spawned a certain style in cinema. There were those suits and the casual swearing entering film to the point that even Tarantino could sue others for stealing his vibe. There's no denying the impact that the film made as it launched one of the more controversial auteurs of the era. From the style to the music choices, they were all influential to defining cinema for the next decade (maybe even longer). Pulp Fiction is a good film, there's no refuting that.

However, it has been difficult to get past one truth. If it is his best, then one could argue that he peaked 20 years ago. To naysayers, it's a fine point. To those willing to accept him as this visionary, it's problematic. He is a genre filmmaker after all, and Kill Bill and Death Proof only further suggest this. Still, for a man that was revered for his talent, what exactly is there to say about his talent? Pulp Fiction has a singular voice for sure, but it feels more like a fluke when you look at everything else he's done. It seems doubtful that he could make a film with the same feel as Pulp Fiction in his current state. The 1994 film feels like a movie about people who like movies. His further work is something more. It isn't just surface level character motivations. It has seeped into the culture and the characters. Kill Bill may have flaws, but it encapsulates a whirlwind of interests that are astounding. If anything, each subsequent film shows him experimenting with that love and slowly figuring out how to use it without being overbearing about it.

Which brings me to Inglourious Basterds. To say the least, you could write Tarantino off post-Pulp Fiction if you came for his dialogue. He didn't do anything (sans Jackie Brown) that was more focused on dialogue than crazy action. In fact, one could argue that he was never going to come back to The Oscars based on his trajectory. Then something magical happened. Following the failure of Grindhouse, when he was at an arguable low, he decided to do a fictional film about Nazi-killing Jews called Inglourious Basterds. In 2009, the magic landed. His dialogue was sharper than it had been in over a decade. His characters were rich with eccentricities and the World War II setting gave him plenty to work with. Suddenly he wasn't just making contemporary movies, he was rewriting history: a move that is itself ambitious, though likely to annoy those too reverent to accuracy. The film landed Tarantino Oscar nominations. He was suddenly front and center again. Still, Pulp Fiction was considered his best. Here's my issue with that: Inglourious Basterds is probably a better representation of him.

This may seem hard to accept because Pulp Fiction has 20 years of influence to its credit. However, I want you to put aside impact for a second and consider what "best" means. Best can mean accessible, or it can mean that it reflects the director doing something noteworthy in technique. My controversial statement is that Pulp Fiction doesn't have Tarantino's best work simply because he was a novice with only Reservoir Dogs to his name. Yes, it was an achievement that wound together a complex narrative, but it still feels like it was grounded in a more surface level approach to characters. There were shots meant more to look cool than actually serve a narrative function. It adds to his mystique, but the direction and writing cannot compare to what he would do later on in Inglourious Basterds.

It doesn't take long for Tarantino to show his master class in direction. In Chapter One: Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) meets a French farmer and begins discussing his motives: to find people harboring Jews. The scene begins with a friendly interrogation and reveal of identity to this poor man. Not only was it the career resurrection of Waltz (a newbie to America), but it was evidence that Tarantino could write tension. The conversation isn't brief, and instead carries on for a lengthy time period. The direction itself is becoming more suspenseful with each passing sentence. The camera informs us of exterior details as this is going on, creating a more insular world. However, the moment that should best click is something hard to pick up on first viewing. Despite starting the conversation in French, Landa transitions into English. It's a comical beat, but also one that shows a transition in plot. The friendly interrogation is over, and now the act of killing the Jews in the floorboards is upon us. Not only is this subtle moment key to the scene, it introduces a technique that Tarantino will continue to use throughout: playing with language as a plot device.

Tarantino's direction is far more confident now than it has been before. He is not quick to pick up the gun and shoot the bad guy. Now he wants to personalize these characters, creating an understanding of the foe. There's no real depth to be taken from Nazis beyond Landa's pseudo-comic persona. However, the choice to pit Jews against Nazis is an ingenious way to make a revenge story, which has practically become his singular motive (see: Kill Bill, Django Unchained). Even if the lines don't pop as well (partially because of the multiple languages used), they feel like more than great throwaway lines. It also helps that this is one of the first times that Tarantino's work feels like a universe and that everyone has a motive. Even in the film's greatest moment, the underground pub, things are revealed with a brisk pace that humanizes everyone. These are people who love celebrities, have families, and just want to drink. For a moment that ends with the familiar gunfire, the build-up is far more intense than any moment in Pulp Fiction. Even the aftermath where Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) inspects the scenes is drawn out, but given a perfect mix of humor and plot significance.

It may seem picky to focus so much on dragging out a moment like this. However, it's something that only an experienced filmmaker will likely notice. The film may as a result be a little harder for general audiences to appreciate, but it plays into all of Tarantino's best tendencies. With a great cast of characters, everything about this film feels important to the story. Yes, it may occasionally meander - but it all comes together in a moment that is a perfect blend of naturalism and Tarantino's interest in more eccentric visuals. The film feels strangely balanced where even Samuel L. Jackson's narration over Hugo Stiglitz's segement feels in keeping with the tone. It may not be a faithful reference-by-reference look at WWII (see: David Bowie's "Cat People"), but it creates one of the most unique WWII films ever to be imagined. Tarantino would try to expand his love of the past with Django Unchained, but without the subtlety.

Beyond all of this, there is one core reason why Inglourious Basterds deserves more respect. Pulp Fiction is a movie about people who loves movies. So is Inglourious Basterds. The only thing is that the 2009 film has it bled into its DNA as well as the surface level. The entire film hinges on blowing up a theater in order to save the day. In a scene that is vaguely referencing The Dirty Dozen, everything culminates in an awe-inspiring piece of fan fiction. The Jews achieve their goal, even if they don't get to enjoy the results. For some, the choice to kill off Adolf Hitler is a little too silly and only adds to why it's a more problematic film. However, it's true to the vision and the constant revolution around cinema feels like something that Tarantino has been wanting to do, but hasn't found a way to keep it from seeming on the nose. Here, it perfectly encapsulates a mixture of his love for dialogue, violence, and cinema in ways that Pulp Fiction only talked about.

I know that there's no way to argue against Pulp Fiction's cultural impact. However, I don't know that it has the focus to be considered the director's best. Yes, there's plenty of moments that show someone with a vision, but Pulp Fiction was about energy. Inglourious Basterds even feels restrained in that it forces the director not to just rely on profanity for his characters (though it's still there). At most, the 2009 film is more violent and features characters bashing each other's heads in. However, it's almost served as intermission to the more taught and memorable conversation set pieces with a cast that clearly knows how to use his dialogue. If anything, it's the film that proves that Tarantino was no fluke and actually could make a film that was more than antsy violence. I know that it's hard to ignore his early career's impact, but Inglourious Basterds just shows him doing everything he loves to do, but with more of a purpose. That alone is why it is better.

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