Inglourious Basterds

Quinten Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds is about as accurate to the Second World War as Kill Bill was to the present day, and while watching the movie I bought the conceit because this is Tarantino territory, and I was entertained. But, in retrospect, his revisionist history is offensive not so much because it’s dreadfully arrogant of Tarantino to see himself as so high above fidelity to the past, but because his distortions serve a viewpoint—a fetish, even—that would at best make Hammurabi proud. Sure, the same could be said of the cantankerous Kill Bill or restorative Death Proof, which both hid behind the politically correct armor of feminism. But Inglourious Basterds cloaks itself in the broad notion that all Nazis were douchebags and all Jews were mistreated, so it’s fair game to see the Jews hit the Nazis where it hurts. Tarantino is not Jewish; he has no angst to work off. Rather, he’s scorning Germans (and, implicitly, Jews) because he doesn’t just want to make another revenge fantasy, he wants to make the Revenge Fantasy—even if it’s his third (fourth if you count Kill Bill’s two volumes) in a row.

Tarantino’s Nazis surely get their due—either from the “Inglourious Basterds,” a brutal brigade of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt—giving a funny, good-trouper performance), or Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew orphaned by the S.S. I’m sure Tarantino’s admirers, and young Jews like the Seth Rogen character who liked Munich because it showed the Chosen People finally kicking some ass, will approve of Inglourious Basterds’s dehumanization of Nazis. But wouldn’t they be offended that, for the eponymous squad of vengeful Semites, Tarantino has assembled a pitiful bunch that, save for the “Bear Jew” (Eli Roth), looks shlubby and undifferentiated? To top that off, the director has faithfully followed old-Hollywood convention by casting a glamourous star as their commanding officer: a Gentile good ol’ boy with better looks, better lines, and much more chutzpah than his men—men who fade into the background whenever he’s onscreen.

The Nazis are dehumanized, but so is everyone else: Tarantino converts his characters into little toy stereotypes, who, when wound up, amble down the quickest path toward bloodshed. The writer-director has an undeniable ear for dialogue, and he can make his characters sound like people—witty, ingratiating people, at that. But he betrays their human characteristics if it provides him an excuse to stage a clever set piece. Why else would Dreyfus (who looks like Uma Thurman) begin as a battered, sympathetic, movie-loving peasant girl, and end up glorified as a cold-hearted mass murderer with a shallow fixation on femme fatale glamour? Oh, that’s right. So Tarantino can squeeze in more movie references and squeeze out more blood. And the stiff-upper-lip Britisher (Michael Fassbender) who joins the Basterds, and reeks of suavity and finesse and noblesse oblige, is made a former film critic. Is the director trying to flatter me into giving him a good review? Nah. He’s probably just fanning the flames of his movie-trivia-drenched ego—massaging his fantasy self. Only a few minor characters—like the German father of a newborn—seem to have anything going on beneath a veneer of cool.

The true extent of Nazi horror is only touched on once, in the first scene of the movie. Colonel Hans Landa (the electrically chilling Austrian actor Christoph Waltz), the S.S.’s infamous “Jew Hunter,” manipulates a French farmer into admitting that he’s harboring “enemies of the state” beneath his floorboards. In the minutes that slowly tick away before the hidden Dreyfus family succumbs to German bullets, the scene is brilliantly written, directed, and acted. Waltz is so ingratiating, and yet you see glints of genuine evil in Landa’s cold eyes and back-slapping smooth talk. His is the evil of opportunism—you buy his rotten humanity, and shudder at the incongruity between his placid Aryan smile and the antisemitic propaganda he invokes, which you know he’s too smart for. Landa thinks his vision is clear because he sees through prejudices, which is why he, a “German hawk,” can think like a “Jewish rat.” But the analogy Tarantino feeds him is too clever; the writer outsmarts himself with his own fancy-pants epigrams. He does not follow through on what could be revealing screenwriting. Instead, he runs for cover as soon as the bullets fly, and shits on his own scene with a misplaced parody of spaghetti-Western music, capped off with a misplaced parody of The Searchers (1956) as Shosanna bolts out the door. The Searchers is famous for its maybe-he’s-racist-maybe-he’s-not portrayal of a Civil War veteran (John Wayne) who hunts down the Comanches that kidnapped his niece. Thematically, it’s relevant—but is an American director, who’s shallowly reducing World War II to Tom and the Jerries, really trying to draw a parallel between the Master Race and Manifest Destiny? He teases us with Pitt’s part-Indian Yankee called “Apache,” whose trademark is to scalp his Nazi son-bitch victims, but this is a clear case of mixing metaphors. A multifaceted artist could foreseeably make the comparison and have it be enlightening; Tarantino uses “deep” thoughts as mere decorations—flimsy trinkets that “prove” his own cleverness. They’re as hollow as Landa’s cold-hearted pleasantries.

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Escaping the balmy summer heat in an air-conditioned theater playing Ponyo is like taking an epistemic holiday. Arguably, I suppose, one could say that about many movies―particularly foreign ones―and that’s certainly one of the medium’s charms; but rarely are movies as breezily surreal as this animated import by Hayao Miyazaki. The setting is not far removed from modern life, so the film’s nonchalance about the supernatural is itself supernatural. Ponyo has its own idiom, but if you retain an ear for the dialect of childhood reverie, and don’t mind sporting rose-tinted spectacles for 110 minutes, you’ll assent to its gentle absurdity as you would an imaginative kid’s make-believe. Sure, you’ll giggle at its insanity―or may, in vain, cling on to your own “sanity” by reducing the film’s innocence to dirty little jokes. But even my lewdest responses were derision-free: Miyazaki’s magic realism has a bonkers integrity. It passively defies one’s cynicism―with a beaming smile.

The title refers to this fairy tale’s spunky princess: a froglike Little Mermaid who washes ashore on the beach-front property of five-year-old Sosuke—voiced by Frankie Jonas. (Yes, Jonas. Disney co-produced and distributed the film, but voice-over casting is the only spot the white glove seems to have touched.) Sosuke looks after and loves his pet whatever-she-is; Ponyo loves him, too, and to his surprise, tells him so. The catch is that her father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), does not condone of human boyfriends. In fact, it’s Fujimoto’s job to usher in a new geochronological epoch that’ll put an end to our rotten race. He eventually gets his daughter back, but Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus—another dash of Disney) uses magic inherited from her effulgent-nymph mother (Cate Blanchett) to sprout legs, metamorphose into a little girl, and return to her beloved.

After their reunion, though, the plot balances on a wobbly fulcrum―a seesaw that has to be balanced out by the purity and verity of Sosuke’s love. In narrative terms, Ponyo devolves into a picaresque. Miyazaki’s vision is so gentle that the dramatic tension goes kerplunk; even the forces of nature are on the lovers’ side. But though it’s flabby, fat floats. The movie has a chill driftwood rhythm, and its equability prevents the fairy tale from getting schmaltzy. Even offbeat Hollywood fairy tales (like Up) are wont to meander down familiar, if agreeable, streams; the plot mechanics are so minimal in Ponyo that it appears to have been made by hospitable stoners for whom a whirling a zoetrope is as exciting as impending armageddon.

Not that Miyazaki and his associates are lazy, or have any illegal habits that I could attest to, but their movie plays like Jim Jarmusch in Wonderland―filigreed deadpan innocent of its own inertia. It’s Western mythology infused with Eastern serenity. Adults with Western tastes may become impatient; not all magic realism is tolerable to me, either. I found the book Pinocchio tedious because the author seemed to distribute voice boxes to animals only if his doing so was convenient to the plot. Its statically naughty marionette palled on me, too. Ponyo and Sosuke may be statically nice, but seem independent of any preordained, didactic plot; following their exploits is as relaxing as a float down a lazy river.

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Forking Over "Spoon-Fed Cinema"

It’s not my custom to engage in this bloggiest of blog things to do, but I have to give kudos to my old mentor, A.O. Scott, for “Open Wide: Spoon-Fed Cinema,” a sagacious diatribe he published in the New York Times last week. Here’s a taste…

What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course. From toddlerhood we are fluent in the pop-cultural consumerist idiom: Again! More! Another one! . . . Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.

The mostly pedestrian, occasionally enchanting, highly lucrative movies of this summer offer testimony to the success of that program. And the seasonal roster of winners and losers, as defined by box office tea-leaf readers, suggests some additional dividends. Toys, comic books, and familiar fictional characters are a bigger, more reliable draw than movie stars or well-known directors, and are also easier to control.

You can read the full thing here, if you’re hungry enough…