Inglourious Basterds

31st August 2009 – 3.49 pm

There is a scene in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's Second World War survival flick, where a Nazi soldier is threatened with being beaten to death by a notorious Nazi killer wielding a baseball bat, unless he reveals the position of other soldiers. The tension of the soldier's fate is heightened by his would-be brutal executioner shrouded by ominous darkness of a nearby tunnel, the same tunnel also offering excellent acoustics for the baseball bat being struck against brick, echoes ringing out menacingly. Being a soldier of rank he doesn't give away any information. The camera moves to face the dark tunnel, the bat continuing to strike the tunnel sides, as we, along with the Nazi and the Basterds, wait with baited expectation for the killer to emerge.

And we wait, edging closer to the dark tunnel, baseball bat hits ringing out, background music swelling to heighten the tension. And we wait further, executioner still not revealing himself. And we wait, and we wait, to the point where we wonder why the man hasn't exited the tunnel yet. Surely this cannot be a simple man with a bat, because there is no reason why he wouldn't have come out much sooner. No, perhaps this really is a huge brute of a man, much as the German army believe from his reputation and earned nickname. We are waiting in proportion to the sheer scale of the monster to appear.

And we wait more. Perhaps he isn't a brute and his nickname is exaggerated out of fear more than being deserved, and he is really a diminutive fellow, offering some moment of dark humour when he appears only to be swallowed by the sheer scale of brutality that will counterbalance his comedic size. There must be something extraordinary about what is going to emerge from this tunnel, the wait can't be in vain. This will be momentous. But, eventually, the man that steps in to the light of day is just what we first expect: a man with a bat, who then beats the Nazi soldier to death.

The scene is a good analogy for Inglourious Basterds as a whole. There are some great scenes that make you sit up and pay attention, which have thrilling and visceral conclusions, but take so long to develop in to the climax that you'll often get bored waiting and make up your own ending, only to be disappointed that it was just what you expected it to be ten minutes earlier. The problem isn't that the scene is predictable, in the sense that you have a good idea of what's going to happen, it's precisely because it isn't until after the audience has double-guessed itself in to apathy that they get what they wanted to see realised on the screen in the first place. With tighter editing it would be possible to bring each scene to its foregone conclusion sooner, and it wouldn't mean sacrificing story or character. Rather, it would be distilling the story and character in to concentrated brilliance, offering a thrilling blast through a Nazi-killing hurricane packed with glorious dialogue. Instead, our espresso of a cinema trip is diluted with a pint of skimmed milk, cooling our senses and dampening the buzz.

It's not just the pacing where the film suffers. Tarantino provides helpful chapter headings and titles for the film, letting us know when and where the scene takes place. Occasional important characters with no more than cameos are highlighted with film-scratched nameplates. All of this breaks suspension of disbelief and reminds you that you are watching a film. It is difficult to become immersed in the characters and the drama unfolding when an unavoidably obvious device is used to draw attention to a person or event, suggesting the filmmaker was too lazy to find a better way to achieve the same effect. The subtitles used throughout the film suffer in the same way, where every word is translated. The comprehensive subtitles wouldn't be quite so awkward if it weren't for the occasional instance where foreign words are not translated but still presented as subtitles, such as when a spoken instance of 'wunderbar' gets inserted in to the subtitles as 'wunderbar', which has the effect of breaking immersion again as it changes the act of watching a film in to a read-along with the characters.

It could be argued that Tarantino is merely paying homage to the genre of film he is copying, that the styles he employs were used by the filmmakers of the time and he is only being loyal to his sources and inspiration. However, I don't think that is a good argument. It may be true that films once used such devices, but cinema has moved on considerably since those times, both technically and as an art. And just as cinema has progressed to become more sophisticated, perhaps just as importantly so too has the audience. Not only are people more world-aware but we have a greater understanding of the art of cinema, such that we no longer need to be told where and when a certain scene is filmed, as we can deduce it by the actions, clothes and dialogue of the characters. Nor do we need to be told about the scene's position immediately, quite content instead for the relevant information to be revealed over the course of the scene, often to greater effect. Show, don't tell. If the filmmakers of yesteryear were to make films today they would probably eschew the primitive and condescending techniques once used, seeing them as amateur, where more artistic methods of guiding audiences are known and employed to much greater effect. There is no reason why an homage cannot remain faithful yet also be contemporary.

There is plenty to enjoy in Inglourious Basterds. The characters are well-developed and played, with some marvellous acting and dialogue that carries some of them through sweeping arcs of time and space. The suspense and tension of the dreadful period and killings is allowed to build and we are given time to experience dread and fear with those on screen. And the conclusions, when they come, are gratifying and exhilarating. It is just a shame that they take too long to arrive, allowing tension to dissipate needlessly and messages to be lost. Inglourious Basterds is a good film, and worth watching, but there is a fantastic film almost crying to be freed from the pretentious shackles Tarantino sadly burdened it with.

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