Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

I sometimes wonder if Quintin Tarantino has any idea what he's doing. This is his, what, seventh film? And yet, somehow, it still feels like his senior project. It's bumpy, it's uneven, and there's no story for the first hour. It seems by now he should be making incredibly smooth, incredibly sculpted, incredibly satisfying films.

I wish Quintin Tarantino had an instructor or a sensai that he had to submit his scripts to. Someone who could have read Inglorious Basterds and said, "Quintin. The Basterds are the most interesting part of the script. Yet you spend more time setting up the Nazi antagonist than you do with the Basterds for the whole rest of the film!"

Just because he has a way with words doesn't mean he's a good script-writer. He spends the first twenty minutes of the film basically telling us what we already know: Nazis are evil, people want to do good, and in 1941, you did not want to be a Jew in Europe. At this point, is that really necessary? These bullet points of history could have been covered in a riveting five-minute sequence. Of course, that doesn't allow for Tarantino's trademark dialog.

Tarantino's strength is his weakness. He has a wonderful phonetic ear. He hears dialog before he writes it. I can only assume he writes and re-writes scenes so that they have the cadence he wants them to have. His dialog has rhythm, often more like a song than speech. And it's wonderful. It's very nearly beautiful. But the things he takes twenty minutes to talk about, could be shown in a single shot, more often than not.

So, in a movie that is two and a half hours long, why spend twenty minutes in a cabin with none of your main characters, showing us something we already know? Wouldn't those twenty minutes be better spent with the Basterds as they go on their rampage?

The scene where the British soldier is called in before Mike Meyers and Winston Churchill is actually when the story begins. Up until that scene, it's been one hour of introductions. Imagine a Basterds movie that began with that scene. Cut the first hour. Start with the set-up: All the high-ranking Nazi officials are going to be in one room three days from now. Then we cut to Brad Pitt, hand-picking his Basterds. Then we follow them as they make their way to Paris. All while introducing all the key components to the final act. Many of the scenes that take place could have been kept, but would have been used more economically. And who knows? Perhaps by the time people started dying, you might actually care about them.

With the exception of Reservoir Dogs (and perhaps Pulp Fiction), what has always been my problem with Quintin Tarantino is that he is the exception to the rule. No-one else would be allowed to write scripts like his. No-one else would be allowed to indulge themselves as much as he is. Yet film students (myself included) look at him and try to emulate him. Or they refuse to bend to convention because "Quintin Tarantino does this way, I'm going to do it this way!" But it doesn't work for anyone else. It only works for him -- and even then, it only works for him about half the time. But for the rest of us, it doesn't even work that often, which only fills the world with uneven and often boring films -- unless we learn. Unless we change.

Something Quintin Tarantino doesn't seem to be interested in.

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