So where do you start with Quentin Tarantino? The geek-genius, with no co self-control, discipline or artistic self-control. Feted by actors & the Weinstiens. His first 3 films were all varying shades of brilliant – whatever your moral take on the violence, the profanity and the plot-lines these were clearly the work of a man capable of genius in his chosen field. But then, whichever way you slice it, things started to go wrong. Kill Bill was just too much; Grindhouse an insulting fiasco. As many have said, he’s a frustrating director precisely because it’s so evident just what he could be capable of if he really put his mind to it. He doesn’t seem to notice that very few of even the more keen and observant film fans really care about all the sly cross-referencing: films that are really about films (as he’s been known to claim this one is) are often a sign of creative death akin to the band who writes an album about being on tour – most of us just don’t care that much.
He may argue that this is a film about war films, which it may be. There are actors playing actors; an undercover agent whose a film theorist when his country’s not at war; the plot turns on a film screening of a film starring one of the characters. Some of that works, some of that we just don’t care about. What’s more striking, and potentially either troubling or inspiring, is the attitude this World War 2 story takes to the subject of Jews in wartime Europe. Like the earlier Defiance, this film wants to challenge idea of Jews as helpless victims and tells a story of Jews fighting back against the Nazi oppressor. All well and good. The problem for Tarantino is that Defiance was at least based on fact, about a real group of people. His film, on the other hand, is self-consciously re-imagining history. It literally changes the story of war – it’s deliberately and consciously fictional. In and of itself, that stands in a Shakespearean tradition. But what’s he saying? Is he implying that this is what the Jews should have done and were too cowardly to do? If it is, tell that to my grandmother, lucky to escape wartime Europe with her life. Is he just having a bit of fun with a revenge story? If so, it’s dangerous ground to have fun on? Or is he examining the ethics of revenge? Well, I was actually feeling particularly vengeful against someone who’d hurt me when I saw the film, and it certainly warned me off. But given his track record, it’s hard to believe that was his intention.
So Inglorious Basterds leaves us a lot of questions. It’s too long, too flabby. On the plus, there are many truly excellent performances, and a handful of sequences (the opening especially) that are as good as anything you will see in the cinema all year. Which just, as usual, makes it frustrating. It’s ten times better than the woeful Grindhouse; it’s morally troubling, it’s not for the squeamish. It contains brilliance. It’s just not entirely brilliant.
Shame, if not completely so.