Hornswaggler | The culture, the humor, a bit of the sports, not so much the politics, and the workplace distraction

Hornswaggle is an alternate spelling of hornswoggle, an archaic word that means to bamboozle or hoodwink. I take my pronunciation from the late Harvey Korman in "Blazing Saddles" --

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists!"

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Friday, September 25, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds"

I had intended to write a full-blown review of Quentin Tarantino's latest, but it left me feeling uninspired, so instead here are some general, belated thoughts on the matter.

It's a pretty good and entertaining movie, don't get me wrong. The writing is superb. The acting is, on the whole, terrific. But the dialogue and characters are in the service of a film that ultimately feels somewhat meaningless and sadistic.

The story is thus: Brad Pitt, as Lt. Aldo Raine, is a Tennessee ass-kicker who forms a band of Jewish soldiers with the mission of becoming guerilla fighters in Nazi-occupied France, ambushing and terrorizing Hitler's army. They eventually become involved in a plot to assassinate a bunch of Nazi leaders who arrive in Paris to watch the premiere of Joseph Goebbels' latest and greatest propaganda film.

David Denby calls the film "a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war, or the Resistance seriously."

I think he's being too sensitive on that score. It's an alternative history -- there's nothing wrong with that. I agree with him, however, that Tarantino's revenge fantasy at times feels about as crude as a teenager's daydreams during European History class.

There's a scene where we see Hitler laughing riotously as he watches a film that depicts a German sniper cutting down American soldiers. We're meant to find this revolting. But Tarantino also asks the audience to derive enjoyment from a similar massacre, this one perpetrated against Nazis. Is the joke on us? Is he making some sort of metacommentary on cinematic violence? No. I think he simply doesn't recognize or care about the contradiction.

Tarantino was asked about this scene in an interview with the Web site Cinematical, and here's part of what he said:

Basically, the violence that I really like usually makes me laugh; in a particularly savage fight in a movie and a guy takes another guy you don't like and he bashes his head five times into a table, that totally cracks me up (laughs).

Well, there you have it. Smash, smash. Ha ha.

Tarantino's juvenile attitude toward cinematic violence notwithstanding, he displays his usual high degree of sophistication when it comes to acting and dialogue.

Christoph Waltz, as Nazi Col. Hans Landa, Diane Kruger, as a German movie actress and Allied spy, and Melanie Laurent, as a Paris cinema owner who's a member of the resistance, are all phenomenal. Brad Pitt is overmatched, but his performance is still a pleasure to watch, and hearing him say "Nazis," with the "a" pronounced as in "nasty" or "back," never gets old.

As for the writing, Tarantino has a talent for stretching scenes out and milking them for all their possibilities. And his willingness to do this is refreshing, when so many of his contemporaries make movies that seem to consist entirely of quick cuts. In scenes depicting simple conversations, Tarantino takes the time to explore them from every angle, breaking the escalating tension every so often with a burst of humor.

Given that he still has to deliver a movie in the two-hour range, though, the downside of including several extended vignettes is there's not much room left for the transitions and connective tissue of the film, as Keith Phipps of the A.V. Club notes:

But its moments of greatness—and there are more than a couple—feel weirdly disconnected, stuck in a movie that doesn’t know how to put them together, or find a good way to move from one to the next.

I don't know if I agree with that take 100 percent, but I think he makes a compelling point.

There are wonderful, even sublime, moments in this film, particularly surrounding Laurent, upon whom Tarantino's camera lingers with great affection, but they are undermined by moments of cartoonish violence, especially the climax, which is unsatisfying for a couple reasons that I won't get into out of an abundance of spoiler-related caution. This is what Tarantino does: He mixes high and low cinema. That's what he wants to do. In "Pulp Fiction," all the elements blended together seamlessly. In "Inglourious Basterds," the emulsion falls apart.

In an interview with online entertainment magazine Screen Crave, Tarantino graciously allows that Paul Thomas Anderson's dialogue "is as good as mine." The difference, of course, is that Anderson's dialogue, in his two most recent films, "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood," serves as the foundation for cinematic high art. Tarantino's dialogue, however good, is the basis for, well, pulp fiction.

.: posted by hornswaggler 10:16 AM

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