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The Lens: Glorious 'Basterds'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 28, 2009 - After the self-indulgent mess that was "Death Proof," his half of the 2007 double-feature "Grindhouse," the announcement that Quentin Tarantino's next film would be a long-delayed project originally announced as a remake of an obscure 1970s Italian war movie, "Inglorious Bastards" (as an Adam Sandler vehicle, no less!) merely sounded like another venture into QT's bag of video-store memories.

Would Tarantino ever drop his movie-geek shtick, the storehouse of hipper-than-thou pastiche and parody that served him well in "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill" but now seemed to be running on fumes?

With "Inglourious Basterds," as it's now called (QT has declined an explanation of the misspelling), Tarantino takes a great step away from the cheap thrills of his drive-in fueled earlier films. Yes, he's still peppering his work with an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and a jokey, continuity-bending playfulness, still showing his cocky, genre-loving roots; but with "Basterds," Tarantino realizes that he's brushing against subjects that can't be dismissed with a self-conscious editing trick or pushed aside by pop-culture riffs.

It's a genre movie that recognizes the serious context of the genre, an exercise in recreating World War II movies that is thoughtful as well as playful, more analytical than adolescent.

"Basterds" is about a team of U.S. soldiers, all Jewish, with the exception of their commander, good old boy Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), stationed behind enemy lines during World War II. Their assignment is a simple one: to kill - and scalp - as many Nazis as possible. But to say that the film is "about" the Basterds is misleading, since they actually appear in about one-third of the film, their first appearance only after almost 30 minutes have passed. Though absent from the screen for most of its running time, they remain central to it, the movie-friendly spine to a story that meanders in typical Tarantino fashion through five "chapters" and a number of entertaining digressions.

While the adventures of the Basterds are deliberately staged with a casual, almost callous tone, they are balanced by a substantial sub-plot - a co-plot, really - featuring two characters.

The first, Nazi Col. Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz, who walked off with well-deserved honors at the Cannes Film Festival), a soft-spoken German Columbo, turning up at all the wrong times and pulling off a shrewd surprise in the film's final section.

The second, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) is a young Jewish woman running a movie theater in Paris. Shosanna catches the eye of a young Nazi war hero, recently honored for racking up a prodigious tally of victims while cornered in Italy, her establishment is selected to premiere the latest cinematic effort of Joseph Goebbels, in which the young soldier re-enacts his feats. (He's described as the German Sgt. York, but a comparison to Audie Murphy is more to the point). Holding back her disgust as she meets with the occupation officers preparing the premiere, Shosanna begins to plot an elaborate and uniquely cinematic revenge.

Revenge is, of course, a significant theme in one of Tarantino's favorite genres, the spaghetti Western, and the director has described his new film as a spaghetti Western in World War II garb, complete with Morricone melodies and an opening sequence that nods deeply toward Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West." But the vengeance that fuels "Basterds" is very different from that of Charles Bronson or Lee Van Cleef in a Leone film. The revenge of the Basterds and Shosanna is not just payback for some personal assault in the past, it's a debt filtered through our perception of the last 60 years. Revenge against fascism, against anti-Semitism, even against history itself.

Things reach a surreal head in the final chapter, where all of the main narrative threads and characters - the Basterds, Shosanna, Landa and the highest ranks of Nazi power - come together for the film premiere. As simultaneous plots to destroy the theater unfold, Landa swoops in to capture the Basterds with an ambitious scheme of his own, Goebbels' mindlessly violent film rolls and Hitler himself makes an appearance, "IG" turns into a fiery fugue of rewritten history and burning celluloid.

It's tempting to interpret the entire final chapter of the film as a dream in which the lines between reality and movie genres have been crossed and the film's earlier taste for revenge transforms into a full blown apocalyptic fantasy. (It certainly helps that the film is beautifully photographed by Robert Richardson, who manages to capture a faux-Technicolor lushness in this section).

And all the while, "Inglourious Basterds" remains unmistakably a Tarantino film, a whirlwind of movie techniques and pop culture riffs, mostly - but not exclusively - placed within the context of Occupied France circa 1944. There are flashy low-key visual effects (it seems that QT will never tire of identifying characters with a quick on-screen title a la "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly"), unreliable flashbacks, an anachronistic credit sequence, and snippets of film history (characters debate the works of Max Linder and Leni Riefenstahl, while Samuel L. Jackson provides a brief lesson in the combustibility of nitrate film).

A digression involving a British film critic turned undercover agent (think Graham Greene) begins with a name-dropping game involving King Kong and Karl May and ends in a bloody John Woo-styled Mexican standoff. (Typically, it's followed by a scene in which two characters disagree about exactly what constitutes a Mexican standoff.) Like it or not, Tarantino can't help but filter his story through an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. But for the first time in his career, "Inglourious Basterds" suggests that he's willing to do more than simply appropriate whatever aspect of pop culture iconography strikes his fancy.

If "Kill Bill" was a feast of exploitation genres, ravenously biting into any drive-in trope it could fit in, "Basterds' is a more considered exercise in cinephilia, still rich in movie-buff effects but applying them gracefully and more thoughtfully to a tighter and more ambitious plot. Tarantino's movies are always about his love for other movies, but this time he's turned that love into a higher calling, a kind of heroism in the medium's heart.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.