Quentin Tarantino has his own distinctive style that mirrors his quirky vision of the universe. From the early Reservoir Dogs to the stylish Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has challenged both viewers and the movie industry to look at the medium in a new way. His 2009 effort, the ultra-violent war film Inglorious Basterds, is a solid hit and every bit a Tarantino film. This paper discusses the film in general as well as its cinematography and editing.
Tarantino is a director known for his love of film in general.
He is knowledgeable about the medium and enjoys paying homage to it by sometimes filming scenes in a way that resembles works by other directors; or by putting a great many “pop” references in his film. This makes his films very “hip,” but it can also date them. However, because this film is set in a specific time and place-occupied France in 1944-these are quibbles.
Tarantino is also known for telling several stories simultaneously and bringing the threads together at the last moment to make a coherent whole.
This is the structure of Pulp Fiction, in which three separate stories are told out of order: characters that are killed in one story show up later in the film, because that part of their story hasn’t been told yet. At times it’s best to just sit back and let Tarantino do his thing and sort it out later.
Inglourious Basterds is just such a film: there are possibly three stories running simultaneously: the story of the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa and his hunt for Jews (Christoph Waltz); the Basterds themselves, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt); and the Jewish girl Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent), who works in the cinema that will be the setting for the film’s explosive (literally) climax. Critics are singling out Waltz’s diabolical, cruel, witty, charming and perverse Colonel Landa as the best thing in the film; he won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his work, along with almost every other award it’s possible for an actor to receive. That raises some unpleasant questions: Waltz’s character is the representative of possibly the most despicable regime ever to disgrace humanity, so what does that say about audiences who find him attractive and funny? Landa becomes a sort of guilty pleasure, as well as an object lesson in the fact that evil can sometimes wear a very attractive face: “There is nothing more disturbing than finding something commendable in a character you want so badly to condemn” (Meadows).
The film is simple: Raine’s group of commandos has been dropped into occupied France with only one object: to kill Nazis. They do so, often with a baseball bat or other suitably unpleasant means, and scalp them (Tarantino). They also have a penchant for carving swastikas into their victims’ foreheads and their gruesome tactics have unsettled Nazi officers all the way up to Hitler.
The film has surprised some audiences by its length and others because for a war film, it is surprisingly non-violent; the violence is extreme and gruesome but sparse and contained within a few set pieces. The rest of the film contains a lot of dialogue, which is a hallmark of Tarantino’s work. He is in love with dialogue; he likes to explore human relationships and does so by letting his character literally speaks for themselves. People who complain that there’s no enough action in the film seem to be missing the point. Berardinelli notes that the long dialogue scenes are merely priming the pump for the action that follows: “With every sentence, the tension mounts. Tarantino uses these sequences to prime the audience, teasing them until the suspense is nearly unbearable, then releasing it in one explosive burst.”
The film’s editing includes title cards that identify each scene, an old fashioned technique that some critics like while others denigrate. It’s the same technique that silent films pioneered, and it has the effect of making the film feel very literary, almost as if the audience has to read it like a book rather than watching it.
The cinematographer on the film is Robert Richardson, who was director of photography for Tarantino on both Kill Bill films; he has also worked on films like The Aviator and A Few Good Men as well as The Horse Whisperer, Casino and Snow Falling on Cedars (MacGregor). If these films have anything in common, it’s that they have nothing in common, but in each case “Richardson has brought to life their [the directors] most grandiose aspirations in a way that is unrivaled and incomparable” (Ebenezer).
In this film, numerous critics have pointed to the scene which introduces Colonel Landa as a perfect example of Richardson’s gifted cinematography; he works “magic with the lighting and framing” here as he does throughout the film (MacGregor). In this scene, Landa is questioning dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, who is suspected of harboring Jews; as he continues to question the farmer, the camera circles the table moving closer and closer, as if it is tying up the farmer in invisible cords (MacGregor). When Landa orders his men to shoot through the floor, killing the Jews he knows are hidden there, it’s almost a relief because the tension is so high it’s unbearable. This is Richardson’s skill; and it is on display throughout the film.
The structure of the scene of course is Tarantino’s; it is his direction. But Richardson has the skill to shoot it the way Tarantino wants it shot, so that it brings his vision to life. Richardson’s use of color is extraordinary; for instance, in the scene where Landa comes to the farmhouse, the day is beautiful, clear and sunny; the sky is blue and birds are singing. And into the midst of this idyllic scene comes a monster. The juxtaposition of Landa with the beauty of his surroundings, especially as he then orders the murder of the hidden Jews, is brilliant. It reminds viewers that things are not what they seem, and that the potential for violence is ever-present. It can be argued that the United States today is one of the most violent societies on earth, but the threat of drive-bys, gang wars and shootings cannot compare to the terror of living under the Nazi occupation, where punishment for the slightest infraction was swift and brutal. When Landa pops up in the middle of the idyllic scene, the day is ruined.
Much of the rest of the cinematography is muted, sometimes suggesting old newsreels with washed out colors. This could indicate the age of Europe, or the draining effect of war; it makes Europe, which is beautiful, cold and harsh, in keeping with the mission the Basterds have undertaken. The New York Times also mentions the cinematography, though it is less complimentary than most to the movie overall. Dargis writes that whether or not a viewer likes the film has a lot to do with whether he or she can “just groove” on Tarantino’s cinematic style, which includes his exuberant “framing and staging, his swooping crane shots, postmodern flourishes (Samuel L. Jackson in voice-over explaining the combustibility of nitrate prints) and gorgeously saturated colors, one velvety red in particular” (Dargis). With regard to the film’s much-discussed opening scene in the farmhouse, Dargis calls it a “marvel of choreographed camera movement and tightly coordinated performances.” When the scene moves inside the building, Tarantino provides another homage: “â€¦the German soldiers outside are positioned within one of the windows, a shot that recalls the framing of an image in Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult classic, ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’” (Dargis). Tarantino also gives a nod to a great Hollywood character actor of the 1950s, Aldo Ray, by naming his main character Also Raine; Also Ray’s widow served as a casting director on this film (Dargis). (For a delightful look at Aldo Ray, look at We’re No Angels – the original – starring Ray, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov as three Devil’s Island escapees who are neither as tough nor as evil as they pretend to be.)
As for the rest of the film, however, Dargis is less enthusiastic. She notes that the film is actually five set pieces, each organized around “specific bits of business and conversations that increasingly converge” (Dargis). The first chapter introduced Colonel Landa; the second brings in the Basterds while the third brings Shoshanna together with Joseph Gobbels (Dargis). The fourth chapter deals with the plot to kill Hitler and the final chapter is the destruction of the fire and the death of many of the characters (Dargis). While all this works, Dargis has trouble with Tarantino’s use of slow dialogue scenes and she is particularly disquieted by Colonel Landa, whom she describes as “charming” and “seductive” (Dargis). A man who is the tool of a regime as repellant as National Socialism should have none of these qualities. And yet Landa has no equal in the film; he owns it, and that makes for some uneasy viewing (Dargis).
Inglourious Basterds would be uncharacteristic for any other director but for Tarantino it’s merely the latest in a string of films that glorify brutality and make heroes out of the most unlikely people: hit men and Nazi colonels. It’s also full of Tarantino trademarks: long dialogue scenes that lead up to shot, explosive action sequences; homage to other films; and a never-ending river of blood. He has also, as usual, played with film itself, using title cards that hark back to the days of silent films, and (mercifully!) having his German characters speak German, his Italians speak Italian, his Frenchmen speak French and so on. This means he has also subtitled some of the scenes, but again, this is a director who truly seems to love playing with the medium and all its capabilities. Whether a viewer will enjoy the film or not – particular when it contains scenes of soldiers being beaten to death with a baseball bat and other horrific violence – probably depends on whether or not he or she is a Tarantino fan. If so, they’ll know what to expect; if not, it can be a bit much. But all in all, the film has proven to be a solid success and another hit for a quirky filmmaker who breaks all the rules.