Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in the Waste Land of WW2

Saw Inglourious Basterds the other night with Firecracker. We both enjoyed it. There, done.

Actually it is quite entertaining for a 2 1/2 hour movie filled with long stretches of dialogue, and that in itself is an accomplishment these days. It’s not an action movie; it’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. Like his idols Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone, he’s learned that we glean more suspense from the measured anticipation of violence than from the explosive act itself. The movie opens on the French countryside, as SS Colonel Hans Landa speaks with a farmer he suspects of hiding Jews. For fifteen minutes, we are rapt listening to the two men quietly converse over smoked pipes, and a glass of milk. No music. Much like the beginning to Once Upon a Time in the West, he forgoes the assistance of the soundtrack. You can hear the creaking of the floorboards, the soft wind outside. It’s a brilliant introduction and showcase for actor Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of the film’s psychopathic villain, the cold-eyed, relentless Jew Hunter, drained of all colorful excess. The final solution, was after all, enacted by bean counters. Landa is more of an Inspector Javert, all the more terrifying because he lacks the insane zeal of the Nazis, but has all the compassion of a laser-guided missile.
One girl does escape his clutches in this scene, Shoshanna. As she flees, he calls to her, “au revoir.” See you again. From this scene onward, I felt that the characters knew they were in a movie; it’s a Tarantino trait, and it isn’t meant as a slight or dismissal. One of my favorite films, Casablanca, has its characters practically winking at the camera in every scene. In the next chapter, we meet the Bastards, the infamous Nazi hunting squad of Jews recruited by Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, a Tennessee moonshiner’s son with a hanging scar, that the Germans have nicknamed The Apache. In a shot recalling George C. Scott’s opening speech in Patton, he tells his men they owe him a debt of 100 Nazi scalps. Sure, it’s fantastical, and recalls classics as The Dirty Dozen. But there were real groups like The Filthy Thirteen, and psy-ops meant to break enemy resolve. The story has only the flimsiest grip on reality, and lives in the mythology built upon the foundation of hundreds of movies and television shows about the Second World War. And it rewrites history, like many of those films do- but in the biggest way imaginable.
Much has been said about whether Eli Roth’s cameo role as Donny Donnowitz, “the Bear Jew,” who likes to club Nazis to death with a Louisville Slugger, and how horrible his acting was. Personally, I thought he was fine as the ubiquitous “Brooklyn” character every WW2 movie has. And for a director, he acted quite well. No, he’s no Cronenberg or even Scorsese directing himself in Taxi Driver, but I’ll take him over another Tarantino cameo (though admittedly, his line ‘because he’s a stuntman’ was one of the funnier bits of Death Proof). The other standout Bastard is Hugo Stiglitz, a German deserter who killed a bunch of Nazi officers. Named after a Mexican grindhouse star and played by Til Schweiger- who was hilarious in SLC Punk!– he gets a lot of mileage out of playing the strong, silent type and gets as nearly as many laughs as Pitt’s ridiculous hillbilly accent. “I want mah Gnatzi scalps!”
And so does Shoshanna. Now running a cinema in occupied Paris, she’s met by Franz Zoller, a war hero starring in a propaganda film that Goebbels wants to premiere at the Ritz. She doesn’t know this when she meets him, just as he has no idea she’s anything but an alluring, smart cinephile. Played by Mélanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl (Goodbye Lenin!) this odd romance is captivating, as Tarantino gives us the romance of Paris with the backdrop of the terror of occupation. Shoshanna just wants to survive, but through Zoller’s romantic inclinations, she has her revenge plunked into her lap- the film will premiere at her theater, with the Nazi high command attending. She intends to burn down the house, not knowing that Allied saboteurs have the same idea. The saboteurs are led by a British infiltrator named Hickox played perfectly by Michael Fassbender of “Band of Brothers.” He’s stepped right out of a Pressburger & Powell picture, with the energy of a young Kevin Kline and the wit of a young David Niven. He and a few Bastards are meeting with the German actress Bridget von Hammersmark in a rathskeller to synchronize plans, when they unexpectedly find themselves in a Quentin Tarantino film.
This is the longest dialogue-driven scene in the story and the only one that feels a bit overlong, and too familiar. Hammersmark (played by Diane Kruger of National Treasure) isn’t a caricature of Marlene Dietrich, who recorded propaganda records for the OSS and entertained troops in France, Algeria and marched with Patton into Germany. The Germans hated Marlene for it, but as she said, it was “aus Anstand”- the decent thing to do. Bridget is one better, by contriving to have the Nazi high command blown to bits in a daring suicide mission. She and the Bastards decide to keep their rendezvous in the basement pub even though a soldier is celebrating fatherhood there, and it ends up in one of Quentin’s Mexican standoffs. Instead of feeling like a trademark, it felt overused; much like the standoff over the pregnancy tests in Kill Bill Vol.2.

However, this leads to its one reference to the movie it gets its title from, The Inglorious Bastards (full review) where a group of bad boys have to take over a suicide mission, and that’s what happens here. The Bear Jew will get to massacre Nazis and their wives with burp guns while Shoshanna’s face is projected on the firestorm of the burning theater like the visage of a vengeful Old Testament God, as we’re delivered a brutal, fiery finale unlike any ending Tarantino’s written before. Their uppance has cometh, and it’s wonderful to watch, as gruesome as it may be.
Most of the criticisms seem unfair. Sure, it knows it’s a movie. So did Casablanca. Like most of QT’s films it is a palimpsest of his influences that came before it, and the characters are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discussing philosophy behind the curtains. That’s my description of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, and those seem to be the kind of characters Tarantino is most interested in. Like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses, it certainly references and pastiches the works that he considers influences; he may not have the sense of humor with it that Joyce does, nor is it meant as an encapsulation of all that came before, as Eliot, but being a construct of references doesn’t dilute its artistry. He does play with the very concept of cinema changing history, as the accelerant that ignites Shoshanna’s vengeance is the nitrate film stock collected in the theater. The very films Hitler would burn as affronts to Aryan supremacy are the instrument of the Reich’s undoing. Now that’s all very clever, but coupled with his talent, it makes for quite an enjoyable film for cinephiles and moviegoers alike.

Armond White, that gadfly of film criticism, made the valid point that the Nazis are dehumanized de facto in this story, and Tarantino isn’t interested in telling us of the horrors of war. But I’ll take a wild fantasy like this one, which wears its heart on its sleeve, than one that buys into the mythology that America strutted in, made the biggest sacrifices, and blew Hitler away once our Allies failed. That’s essentially what happens here, a parody of so many American WW2 stories that ignore or belittle the great sacrifices of the British (namby pamby as in Patton) , the French (cheese-eating surrender monkeys, in practically everything) and Russians, who we were ordered to forget as allies, because they were dirty commie pinkos. I love that this movie pokes fun at that without moralizing to us about it. Because really, what war film truly shows us the horrors of war? Even Saving Private Ryan, after its bloody opening, falls into the same cliches. Night and Fog, and perhaps Army of Shadows show the pure dread of actually living through such a nightmare. Grave of the Fireflies, Gallipoli, Paths of Glory, A Midnight Clear. Does that mean every film has to deconstruct the war film, like Les Carabiniers? I should hope not.

I’ve enjoyed Tarantino’s films since I first saw Reservoir Dogs at the Angelika Film Center with my friend Jack Chan. I didn’t know what the hell we saw, but I loved it. The ironic soundtrack recalling my beloved Harold and Maude; how it was set in the present, but felt distilled from the ’70s crime films I loved. The long stretches of dialogue out of a Pinter play or the French new wave. But most of all, the bloody sense of humor that pervaded throughout. Then Pulp Fiction came and changed everything. Sure, we had to tolerate a lot of copycats, but it was like À bout de souffle (Breathless) all over again. Nothing was the same. I don’t think Tarantino can ever top that, and I’m not sure he should try too hard. To go back to Leone, if Dogs is Fistful of Dollars and Fiction is The Good, the Bad & the Ugly– has he made Once Upon a Time in the West yet? I’m not sure, but I’ll be eager to watch his movies until he does.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Now that’s a mouthful; Brad Pitt stars as the famous outlaw, and IMDb says his contract stipulated that the title not be changed. It was a good move, because the unwieldy moniker does not befit a traditional gunslinging picture, and this is most definitely not one. It’s a period piece, a character study, a biopic, and a meditation on fame and infamy. If you go in expecting 3:10 to Yuma, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is The Thin Red Line, not Saving Private Ryan.
A bit overlong epic about the origins of infamous celebrity in America. It begins as a revisionist Western in the style of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with Brad Pitt as Jesse in his later years, when putting together heists is often more trouble than its worth, and he seems to go through the motions of the planning, without every consummating the deed. Robert Ford’s obsession with him is explained, and Casey Affleck is fantastic in the role, as he was in Gone Baby Gone; he’s more talented, if less charismatic, than his brother. If you went in wanting 3:10 to Yuma you’ll be sorely disappointed; this wants to be The Thin Red Line to 3:10‘s Saving Private Ryan, and it succeeds somewhat. It has a documentary feel with the voiceovers that appear in the third act, and I found my mind drifting as it introduced us to everyone in the middle. Maybe the voice overs should have been used throughout, and less time given to Jesse. I’m not sure. It’s an enjoyable movie, but at nearly 3 hours (with the original cut topping 4) I’m not sure it’s somber mood is compelling enough. It says a lot about the nature of infamy and the desire for fame, and looks beautiful doing it. A fine epic from the director of Chopper.

Rating: Worthy

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Like Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, a beloved director has come back with a story of a man who begins aging backwards, and it’s a disappointment. I love David Fincher- after eating the shit sandwich he was handed with Alien3, he made some excellent, stylized films- Seven and Fight Club, the serviceable Panic Room and The Game, and the excellent police procedural and period piece that is Zodiac. Now he’s back with another period piece fantasy based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man born old, who eventually un-ages into infancy. With a screenplay by the guy who gave us Forrest Gump, we have another film about a joke stumbling through history.
But the similarities begin to snowball. The film is endlessly narrated by its main character, who puts on a rather bad Southern accent. They are both men whose age belies their naivete, who are innocents of a sort. Instead of giving us conversations, we get Benjamin telling us what they talked about. He showers us with platitudes like, “that was the first time I’d been kissed by a woman. It’s something you never forget.” He’s a child no one would want, but is raised and loved by someone who sees beyond his infirmity, and he lives an unlikely life, traveling the world and meeting all sorts of extraordinary people. He leads a charmed life amid historic events. He even walks with braces at one point.

The make-up is fantastic but a tad uneven- at some point it seems that Fincher expected the audience to be crying out to see Brad Pitt’s mug without wrinkles, and he looks a lot younger, just with white hair. This happens when he meets the always excellent Tilda Swinton, who plays the wife of a British minister in Murmansk. She and Ben have an affair after many nights of tea, where he listens to her and seems knowing and sympathetic, when he’s just innocent. This part reminded me of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner in Being There. And I missed when Tilda left the movie.
The film has many enjoyable scenes- it’s hard not to be engaged by the brief scene during the Second World War, but then it ends with something so smarmy I wished I didn’t know that the Forrest Gump guy wrote this. A man with a tattoo of a hummingbird on his chest dies, and shortly after, a hummingbird shows up like a feather on the wind in a very improbable place. It’s the kind of thing I can’t believe Fincher didn’t cut out of the script. A man named Button who made buttons is buried with a jar full of buttons. It’s framed by a woman on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina brews off the coast. What does it mean? Is it supposed to be deep? I’ll see Troubled Waters if I want detail on that disaster, not this insulting Hollywood hat-tip.

The movie is not that bad; it’s a decent, if overlong fantastic drama about … I’m not quite sure. Is there some sort of wisdom to be gained by seeing a man age in reverse, when he still hasn’t the wisdom of age? He’s got the worst of both worlds. One amusing point is that Tilda Swinton looks like an older Cate Blanchett, both “all knees and elbows” redheads; and Cate once again turns into Katherine Hepburn as she ages. Two actresses I adore, taking a back seat to Forrest Button, playing his “Jenny” and following the whims of the plot instead of being characters and following their own. I must say the second half of the movie is less exciting, but more enjoyable and less smarmy than the beginning. We know how it will end, and there’s no real meaning to its premise; I made the mistake of reading Ebert’s review before watching it, and I think he sums it up well when he says that Fitzgerald’s story was a joke, and this is a drama based on it. We begin life in diapers and we wind up back in them if we live long enough. But this is the first 3 hour movie explaining that platitude.
At least we’ll be treated to The Curious Case of Benjamin’s Butt-Cheeks if the porn industry has any gumption.

3 butt cheeks out of 5