2009 has been one gold mine of a year for world cinema with so many great directors across the globe attempting, one last time, to register their name in the decades’ best list. Even if most of these films turn out to be minor works of major filmmakers, the sheer richness and variety it has brought within a small time span is remarkable. Here is the list of my favorite films of 2009 (in order of preference, with a tie at No. 10). Please note that the movies considered for this list were only the ones which had a world premiere in 2009. That means noteworthy films (some of which could have well made their way into this list) such as Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo (2008) were not counted. Unfortunately, I have not seen films from some big names including Rivette’s Around A Small Mountain, Resnais’ Wild Grass, Campion’s Bright Star, Herzog’s My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Farocki’s In Comparison, Noé’s Enter the Void, Denis’ White Material, Costa’s Ne Change Rien, Mendoza’s Lola and Kinatay, Reitman’s Up in the Air, Eastwood’s Invictus, Kashyap’s Gulaal, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coens’ A Serious Man. So, sadly, they would have to vie for this list later. And needless to say, the following list will most definitely shuffle and change with time.

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)

I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but in any case it’s a masterpiece”, says one of the characters, self-referentially, in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961). I’m tempted to say the same thing about Tarantino’s deceptively irreverent, endlessly enthralling and relentlessly inventive piece of bravura filmmaking. At once paying tribute to exploitative war movies and incriminating them, Tarantino’s swashbuckling “WW2-film film” is a war movie that ends all war movies. Absorbing as much from Truffaut as it does from Godard, Tarantino’s film is as potent and as personal as the “genre explosions” of the French directors. Essentially a mere medium of conversation between cinephiles on either sides of the film, Inglourious Basterds is the movie that seals the American auteur’s status as a contemporary giant of cinema and one that has the power to make its mark, deservedly, in our collective cultural vocabulary. With Inglourious Basterds, to steal from Michael Powell, Tarantino becomes the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song, the painter and his palette, the pupil and the master.

2. The Maid (Sebastián Silva, Chile/Mexico)

A sister film, in some ways, to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married (2008), Sebastián Silva’s The Maid is nothing short of a spiritual revelation at the movies. What could have been an one-note leftist tirade about Chile’s class system is instead elevated into the realm of human where one facial twitch, one stretch of silence and one impulsive word can speak much more than any expository monologue or contrived subplot. There is no simplification of human behaviour here, no easily classifiable moral categories and no overarching statement to which truth is sacrificed. Nor does Silva suspend his study of the classes to observe his characters. He merely lets the obvious stay in the background. And just when you think that Silva’s vision of the world is getting all too romantic, he delivers a fatal blow to shatter your smugness – a single, deceptively simple shot during the final birthday party that masterfully sums up everything from the irreconcilable, repressed tension that exists between classes in capitalistic societies to our adaptability as humans to live peacefully with each other despite socio-economic disparities.

3. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain)

Rigorous but oh-so-tender, centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s one-hour wonder Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is a film in one and a half acts. Oliveira translates the work of Eça de Queiroz to the screen, running the 19th century tale of romance through the current economic landscape and harnessing the resultant anachronism to paint an achingly beautiful picture about the inability to transcend class, escape reality and lose oneself in art. Despite its decidedly Brechtian and ceaselessly self reflexive nature, Oliveira’s film is rife with moments of poignancy and touches of humour. Using double, triple and quadruple framing and achieving a mise-en-abyme of art and reality, Oliveira writes a ruminative essay on the impossibility of art and reality to merge, the confusion that exists between them and the classism that exists within and with respect to art. Flooded with references to art and art forms, Eccentricities is such a dense and intricate fabric of the arts that even the past is treated in a detached manner like a piece of art, where each image looks like a painting, each sound feels like a melody and each movement cries out: “cinema!”.

4. The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru/Spain)

Of all the recent movies that have attempted to acknowledge dark chapters in national histories and advocated looking forward to the future instead of crying over what is lost, perhaps, none is as sober, ethical and uncompromising as Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear winner. Llosa inherits her tale from the terrorist atrocities that plagued Peru two decades ago (Inheritance being the prime motif of the film) but, subsequently, discards every possible opportunity for sensationalism or propaganda. Tightly framing the lead character, Fausta (Magaly Solier), within and against claustrophobic structures, doorways, photographs, windows, paintings, mirrors and walls, gradually varying the depth of focus along the movie to detach the protagonist and integrate her with her surroundings and using extremely long shots to dwarf her in vast opens spaces of the tranquil town, Llosa concocts a film of utmost narrative austerity and aesthetic rigor. Punctuating and contrasting these downbeat images of Fausta’s life are slice-of-life sequences from the town depicting various wedding rituals and parties which tenderly highlight Peruvian people’s open-hearted embracing of capitalism and their resolve to come out of the trauma of the past and move on with life.

5. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan/Spain)

If Inglourious Basterds was a coup from within the system, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is an out-and-out war against the machine. The essential piece of cinema of resistance, The Limits of Control eschews simple genre classification and flips every ingredient of Hollywood’s conveyor belt products to surprise, appall, irritate and provoke us with each one of its moves. The complete absence of Jarmuschian brand of deadpan humour announces the film’s seriousness of intent. It is as if Jarmusch wants to establish once and for all that Hollywood does not equal American cinema and that the cinema that the former school marginalizes is truly alive and kicking. The Limits of Control is a film that can easily get on your nerves but, eventually, it succeeds in getting under your skin and evolving gradually to reveal how meticulously crafted it is. Using Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Jay Rabinowitz masterfully, Jarmusch creates a movie so meditative and relaxing that one feels exactly how William Blake (Johnny Depp) would have at the end of Dead Man (1995).

6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)

Porumboiu’s follow-up to one of the most hilarious comedies of the decade, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), is a companion of sorts to Jarmusch’s film not only in the sense that both of them negate the function of the genre they are supposed to belong to, by completely de-dramatizing their narratives, but also because Porumboiu’s film, too, is a conflict between two types of cinema – the cinema of analytical contemplation represented by the detective-protagonist of the film (Dragos Bucur) and the cinema of thoughtless action represented by his ready-for-ambush boss (Vlad Ivanov). However, more concretely, Police, Adjective is an examination of how our own political and social systems, partly due to the rigidity of our written languages, end up dominating us and how individual conscience and social anomalies are effaced clinically in order to have the bureaucratic clockwork running smoothly. Like Bucharest, Porumboiu, often self-reflexively, sketches the portrait of a bland and pacific city that tries to ape the far west and project itself as more dynamic than it actually is. The film’s disparate themes crystallize deliciously in the final, side-splitting, Tarantino-esque set piece where we witness the police chief urging his subordinates to act by the book, literally.

7. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, Italy/Argentina/USA/Spain)

Tetro is a beautiful film. Not just in the way it looks, but in the sheer romance it has for a lost world. The only worthy B&W film of this year out of the four I saw (the other three being Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Villeneuve’s Polytechnique and Lu’s City of Life and Death, the last one being my candidate for the worst film of the year), Tetro is a wonderful expressionistic melodrama in the vein of Powell and Pressburger – figures whose films form the thematic and narrative focal point of this movie. Like many of the films mentioned in this list, but with more optimism, Coppola investigates the possibility of revival of the past and revelation of the obscured using art – movies, theatre and literature, in this case – employing a number of experiments with the film’s aspect ratio, colour and sound. Coppola also comments upon, nostalgically, the filmic medium’s ability to influence people to see cinema as a reflection of personal histories. But most importantly, Tetro is Coppola’s ritual of killing his patron-turned-authoritarian father (like his mentor Bertolucci did in The Conformist (1970)) – Hollywood – as his decisive farewell to industrial cinema and an autobiographical allegory about the obliteration of artistic vision by the alluring yet dangerous, powerful yet ephemeral flash of light called fame.

8. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France)

Writer-director Marco Bellocchio’s ballad, based on a nebulous part of fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s life, can teach those so-called historical dramas a thing or two about locating personal ideologies within collective history without being exploitative or pandering to pop demands. Bellocchio’s film is far from a detailed recreation of Mussolini’s political life. It is, in fact, a commentary upon such “detailed recreations” of history based on documents written by winners. Bellocchio’s formidable script and mise en scène keep probing and remarking upon the tendency of fascist systems to suppress histories – personal and national – and exploit popular media, especially the relatively young and emotionally powerful cinema, to blind people of truth and forge a faux reality – a theme underscored in Tarantino’s film too. What more? Bellocchio constructs the film exactly like one of those Soviet agitprop films – not by easy spoofing, but by retaining their spirit and rhythm – using rapid montage, expressionistic performances and operatic sounds. Be it common folk fighting in a cinema hall over a news reel or a bereaved mother breaking down during the screening of The Kid (1921), cinema registers its omnipresence and omnipotence in Bellocchio’s film.

9. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)

The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah is an extremely assured and undeniably moving piece of cinema that arrives, appositely, as the golden jubilee reboot to Herzog’s thematically kindred movie, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Cleverly relegating specific issues such as the Australian government’s intervention and relocation policies for the Aborigines to the background, Thornton frees his films of broad, propagandist political agendas, without ever making the film lack social exploration. With an extraordinary sound design, Thornton keeps the word count in the film to an absolute minimum, letting the stretches of silence shared by his lead characters speak for themselves. The film’s observations about banality of racism in contemporary Australia, exploitation of tribal art and its consequences, the effect of colonialism, especially due to Christian missionaries, on the Aboriginal culture and the ever growing chasm between the tribal and white life styles themselves are fittingly subordinated to the beautiful, unspoken love story that, essentially, forms the heart of the film.

10. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy)

Let me dare to say this: Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is either the most profound or the most pretentious movie of the year. For now, I choose the former. Audiard’s decidedly unflinching feature breaks free from the limitations of a generic prison drama and takes on multiple dimensions as the apolitical and irreligious protagonist of the film, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself irreversibly entangled in ethnic gang wars within and outside the prison. A trenchant examination of religion as both a tool of oppression and a vehicle for political escalation, A Prophet is an audacious exploration of Muslim identity in the western world post-9/11. Although the plot developments may leave the viewer dizzy, it is easy to acknowledge how Audiard confronts the issues instead of working his way around it or making cheeky and superficial political statements. Strikingly juxtaposing and counterpointing Sufism and Darwinism in Malik’s search for identity, Audiard creates an immensely confident and nonjudgmental film that trusts its audience to work with the rich ambiguity it offers.

(Images Courtesy: IMDb, The Auteurs, Screen Daily)

[EDIT: 7 Jan: Since it seems like The Beaches of Agnes had its premiere in 2008, I’m removing it from this list. That leaves exactly 10 movies on the list]

After watching Inglourious Basterds last week, I skimmed through a few films I was referring to in my review and felt that Tarantino’s movie, its last chapter in particular, refers to them in a manner slightly deeper than mentioned. What I present here may be plainly speculative, but the very fact that Tarantino’s film retains enough ambiguity to generate such arguments makes the film one to be celebrated. Inglourious Basterds, more than any other movie, seems to be closest to Jean Luc Godard’s History of Cinema (1988-98). If one considers Godard’s film as a classroom lesson in cinema (Why not? The movie even resembles an office presentation!), then Tarantino’s movie is a student project (that would easily get an A+) based on that lesson. It seems that everything that the French discusses in his video anthology is absorbed and blended cleverly into a mainstream flick by Tarantino. For the sake of simplicity, I lift and reproduce the same lines from my post on Godard’s film to compare it with Inglourious Basterds.

“If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date.”

Tarantino’s film, on a basic level, as the director himself confesses, is a form of wish fulfillment. As with his other films, Inglourious Basterds unfolds as a revenge saga. But by situating his plot amidst real life events, unlike its predecessors, Tarantino is able to involve his audience more and provide better justification to the characters’ actions, rather than dealing with simple morality.

“[Godard] argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.”

Here, Tarantino seems to deviate. He seems to be of the opinion that cinema, perhaps all art, can’t ever change the world (unless, of course, you consider the way he uses it in the movie!). Proof? Take a look around. What it can do is to change the image of the world when it is passed onto a new generation.

“And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.”

This is exactly what Marcel does when he burns the films – destroying those exploitative propagandist films of the Nazis and perhaps also those WW2 films that insist upon being loyal to reality and hence impotent. With the fire at the cinema hall that flips conventional reality, Tarantino places us at the beginning of a new history – of cinema (courtesy Tarantino) and of the world (courtesy Marcel).

“Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them.”

This theory seems to form the core of Inglourious Basterds. Why should art ever trail history? As Bazin would say, Realism in cinema should just be the means, not the end itself. Tarantino, like Godard, sure can’t change history, but, at least, he can examine the history – again, of cinema and of the world – that could have been.

“Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.”

Tarantino, also, fills the film with fascists who seem to be exploiting the medium for questionable purposes. Goebbels’ film, like many a mainstream film that are made by another kind of fascists, has manipulated reality and wants its audience to buy that as truth. And Shoshanna’s film (like Tarantino’s) is what Godard seems to be wanting in place of Goebbels’.

“There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility.”

Marcel, who had ‘created’ the small film with Shoshanna, is the one who would be setting fire to the pile of nitrate films. Tarantino, too, highlights his hand as he flicks the cigarette on to the heap – the hand that went from mere documentation of reality to direction of reality.

Brandon Colvin is of the opinion that Inglourious Basterds is primarily a comedy. I’m going to take a diametrically opposite path and say that this movie, when reduced to its human elements, stripped of all its film references and modernist facets, is a tragedy with a martyr called Shoshanna at its heart. The word ‘tragedy’ is often used loosely and seems to denote every tale that has a pathetic, miserable and depressing outcome. But, surely, Tragedy does not base itself upon emotions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A tale is said to be tragic when two morally unquestionable and righteous forces are made to clash and a situation evolves when one of them has to let go of its stance, despite all convictions and emotions for the greater good. Tragedy is always the result of a choice that calls for a great sacrifice to go with it. As they say, it is our choices that define us. And a tragic choice defines us for life – either as a hero or as a coward (“merely human” would be the euphemism). Sansho the Bailiff (1954), even with its heavy pathos, is a melodrama whereas The Dark Knight (2008), despite its uplifting upshot, remains a tragedy. Shoshanna could well have married Zoller and led a very content life. Instead, she repudiates that path and takes up the task of liberating the Jews at the cost of her own life. Tarantino, apart from using Ennio Morricone’s moving piece Un Amico, employs mythological and historical iconographies to underline the magnitude of this tragedy.

The final chapter of Inglourious Basterds has got to be the densest that Tarantino has ever filmed. The chapter is ambiguously titled “Revenge of the Giant Face” as if recalling some B-movie from the 50s. But more than that, it seems to me now, it tries to allude to two of the most iconic “giant faces” of women that we know. The first would be that of Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – a film that is constructed out of hundreds of such giant faces. The tale of Joan of Arc by itself is a tragedy in which Joan sacrifices a normal life for the good of her people, much like Shoshanna, who, too, goes down in flames at the end of her journey. Only that Shoshanna doesn’t just suffer and prefers to take all of them down along with her. And then there is the most dreaded giant head in Greek mythology – that of Medusa the Gorgon – a mere gaze into whose eyes is supposed to petrify you. Daniel Ogden (source: Wikipedia) describes this stare of Medusa’s as “seemingly looking out from its own iconographical context and directly challenging the viewer”. Now, the Nazi officers in the final chapter are watching a fictional film, seated safely away from real life action, without any apparent threat from the images on the screen. When Shoshanna slips in her own film, with her gaze directed towards the Nazis, she essentially “looks out of context of the movie”, challenging, literally, the viewers, in a manner in which the modernist director used their actors, and petrifying them by dragging them out of their passive state.

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Dreyer

Medusa - Franz von Stuck

Inglourious Basterds - Tarantino

But then, our ideas about these two iconic characters are derived only through images and shadows – through paintings, through Dreyer’s film and through textual accounts. As George Steiner put it, “It is not the literal past that rules us. It is images of the past.” With the passage of time, history and mythology mingle to such an extent that it becomes virtually impossible to separate them. In Chris Marker’s magnum opus The Owl’s Legacy (1989), Jean-Pierre Vernant illustrates the mythos behind this practice of image (which is a word that referred to doubles, miniatures, copies and ghosts in general in Ancient Greece, the land of tragedies) creation. He tells us that images, for Ancient Greeks, were a means of facing man’s worst fears by reducing them down to caricatures. In Medusa’s case, this meant that they could see her directly in the eyes (a la Perseus who used a mirror – an image creating device – to slay her) and subsequently use these images to intimidate enemies. In Vernant’s own words: “So there is a way, though images and through stories of disarming the horror of death that the monstrous face expresses and which the image carries out so that what can’t be seen can be depicted in many ways” (recalling Godard’s quote about movies in History of Cinema: “How marvelous to be able to look at what we cannot see.”)

In the final chapter of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino absorbs these images of dead characters from tragedies in mythology and history, blends it with the “image” of the tragic Shoshanna, who too is now dead, and, in essence, creates a mythology (Shoshanna the martyr) and history (Shoshanna the WW2 hero) of his own. Now, this is not far from what he does with his other characters in his movies, wherein he imbibes mythos and facts from within cinematic history to create new ones for his own characters. Only that, in Inglourious Basterds, his canvas seems to have expanded, with his universe transgressing boundaries defined by the history of cinema.  Furthermore, Tarantino uses the images of the movie – his Medusa mask – to “look at what he cannot see” in reality. Throughout the movie, he keeps attacking Hitler’s “image”. He depicts Hitler as a weak and paranoid individual with vermin like attributes. When he kills him in the final shootout, it is the “image” of Hitler that he wants to kill (much like the mentality behind voodoo and effigy-burning practices), for he can’t kill him in reality – exactly the same thing that Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) does in Come and See (1985) when he fires at a photograph of Hitler in an attempt to undo the images of history, if not history itself.

In The Conformist (1970), Bertolucci equates the fascists with Plato’s prisoners of the cave, suggesting that they are blinded by fake ideologies fuelled by personal insecurities. In The Owl’s Legacy, Marker equates the audience in the cinema hall (citing Simone Weil) to those prisoners, proposing that they are blinded by images they see on screen and take them for reality. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino combines both these notions and presents us Nazis watching movies in a cinema hall. These “blind” Nazis enjoy the massacre that Zoller is doing on the screen, assuming that this is how it was. Zoller, on the other hand, is the only person there who knows it wasn’t so and leaves the cinema hall, breaking free from one of the captive caves he is occupying. Additionally, Tarantino does not forget to free his audience from the chains of their cave. Like it was done in Bertolucci’s film, he keeps reminding us that we are watching a movie and whatever we are seeing is a mere paining on a plastic canvas (contrary to what other films on historical subjects want us to believe). In chapter two, Raine, seated at the centre of an arrangement that resembles a Greek theater, tells the captured Nazi officer that “watching Danny beat the Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies”. Raine seems to know that he is just the shadow of a man placed on a simple image. And because he regularly attempts to remind us of the fakery of it all, Tarantino’s violence also helps to serve the same purpose – to try to disengage us from whatever is depicted on cinema screen even when it is unmitigated and concrete. As the movie’s title confesses, its all a fraud and a very beautiful one at that.

[The Conformist (1970)]

[The Owl’s Legacy (1989)]

(Images Courtesy: Imaginary Year, Hellenica)

Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds

Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds
(Image Courtesy: Scanners)

If there is any filmmaker whose single film could evoke comparisons ranging from Happy Gilmore (1996) to La Dolce Vita (1960), it would have to be Quentin Tarantino. But why not? Here is a director who has made a name with his unique style that more or less marries the crassest and the classiest of film elements. It almost seems like no matter what film you name, you can always find a connection to Tarantino’s. Here he is, with his ultra-violent WW2 epic Inglourious Basterds, releasing in India on the birthday of a person who has become an icon of non-violence. An unimaginably large number of essays, analyses, critiques, blog posts and reviews have cropped up within weeks of its release, with opinions running the gamut, and that just goes to show how provocative this one is. It has even raised questions about creative licenses and the unlimited freedom it has given artists through the years. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino strays out of what many people would have till now called his comfort zone and has proven once and for all his status as an pop auteur. Inglourious Basterds may not be the film of the year, it may not even be the director’s best film, but it sure is the most important film of the decade.

For the uninitiated, here is the central premise of the film. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has just produced a film titled Nation’s Pride involving the real-life exploits of a Nazi Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who plays himself in the movie and which is going to be screened a cozy little theatre in Paris owned by a Jewish woman Emmanuelle aka Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent). A group of American Jewish soldiers now called The Basterds, led by Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), along with inputs from the allied forces plans to blow up the theatre in order to get the leading Nazi men including Hitler (Martin Wuttke). However, to complete their mission they have to get through the cunning and powerful Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) who is in charge of the security at the grand event and who never leaves any stones unturned to trace out the Jews that the Nazis are in search of. Meanwhile, Shoshanna, whose family was murdered four years ago by Landa plans for her own revenge by blowing up the cinema hall using inflammable nitrate films that she has stocked through the years. Of course, as always with Tarantino, this summary is completely unimportant in comparison to what he achieves in the film.

With Inglourious Basterds, gone are the romantic days of Renoir when a couple of gentlemanly officers could end the war over a cup of tea. Now, deals are meant to be broken, enemies are meant to be stabbed from behind their backs and friends are supposed to be ratted on. Enemy corpses aren’t supposed to be given a proper burial, but should have their scalps removed. Instead of receiving a gentle kiss on their hands, ladies have their necks wrung. “I respectfully disagree” makes way for a “*bleep* you”. “Nat-zi ain’t got no humanity” replaces universal brotherhood. And scheduled duels are substituted by under-the-table gunfights. Everything in Inglourious Basterds is guerilla-esque, everyone in the film remains true to the title of the movie.  Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is to be questioned. Tarantino’s army is one that lives and moves in the shadows. What you see most definitely isn’t what it is. Like the film hints in the card game that the officers play in the tavern in the fourth chapter, the inhabitants of Tarantino’s new universe wear so many masks one over the other that it almost reduces to a Scooby Doo adventure. One isn’t supposed to believe what one sees, even if it’s all written out there.

The idea is simple. Inglourious Basterds is a 5-set tennis match. The Jews win it 3-2. For every Nazi set, there is a Jew set that follows. Throughout the film we see characters trying to get the upper hand and stay on top in whatever way possible. Even within individual chapters small scale power games are at work and one isn’t always sure how it is all going to turn out. The final images of these chapters alternate between images of the Nazis and those of the Jewish characters – Landa kissing Shoshanna goodbye, Raine carving out a swastika on a Nazi soldier, Shoshanna planning the film, Landa digging out Hammersmark’s shoe and Raine, again, with his masterpiece – much like a close tennis match. Each sequence, each shot and each dialog seems and feels like a tennis rally. The director regularly places his actors on either side of the widescreen and the audience’s eyeballs are made to go left and right throughout each conversation. Tarantino’s editing pattern could well apply to a Wimbledon telecast, for it mixes over-the-shoulder shots and two shots effectively as if providing both the audience’s and the camera’s viewpoints of the “match”. And of course, Tarantino’s writing ensures that we get the reward for the tense stretch of time he puts us through during each conversation.

The mere skeleton of the plot would reveal that Tarantino is reversing conventions here. For once, he is allowing the Jews to kill Hitler. But Tarantino keeps underlining, hinting, presaging and highlighting this reversal of roles between the Jews and the Nazis throughout the film. There is some sort of reversal going on within each structure and substructure of the film. Take the magnificent first chapter of the film wherein Tarantino throws at us everything that the film will offer us in the rest of the chapters. As Landa sits at the table, surrounded by the farmer’s family, it looks as if it is Landa who is being questioned. We are soon proven wrong and Tarantino’s majestic train of role-reversals kicks off once Landa starts digging. In a Bertoluccian touch, Tarantino keeps breaking the 180 rule without any hesitation, allowing his camera (helmed by ace cinematographer Robert Richardson) to wander into both sides of the two-shot setup to suggest the inversion of the hunter-prey relationship that adorns the whole conversation. Even his dialogues are decorated with such rhetorical clauses like “If I were in your position…” and “If you were in my shoes…”. Or consider the way he writes the first and final chapters such that they mirror each other entirely. If the Nazis kill a few Jews hiding below them during the first chapter, the Basterds will similarly gun down hundred times that number of Nazis in the last one. If Landa lights up his pipe to create a small smoke cloud in the farm house, a whole cinema hall will be burnt by the Jews. If LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is the betrayer of Jews in the opening chapter, Landa will become the traitor among the Nazis in the final chapter. Both Tarantino’s camera angles and his actor placements locate and relocate the relative positions of the Jews and Nazis throughout the film in a manner that recalls the way young Bertolucci handled his mise en scène in The Conformist (1970), which too revolved around faked identities and interchangeable personas and which Tarantino seems to be alluding to in the final few minutes of the movie.

Inglourious Basterds - Landa

Inglourious Basterds - Raine

Tarantino really puts his audience in a dicey situation here. Inglourious Basterds has been called a revenge fantasy. But never does a character in the film mention that it is a mission of revenge. The Holocaust hasn’t yet happened in the movie time and there are only hints of the Nazi’s plans for the Jews. It is only in hindsight, with the knowledge of what happened in reality, that we are able to call the film a revenge saga. If there is someone in the audience who is oblivious to Holocaust, the film might just appear otherwise. Tarantino teases us with the notion that revenge is the same kind of crime as the one that instigates it, but aided and justified by the passage of time – an idea that was ineffectively explored in Gaspar Noé’s positively disturbing Irreversible (2002). Tarantino lets the two worlds – the “real” reality and the film’s reality – collide and one’s response just depends on how much of a balance one wants to maintain between “what happened” and “what happens”. We can choose to either draw the line between “what-might-have-happened” fiction and “what-couldn’t-have-happened” fiction early on in the film or wait till Tarantino draws it for us in the last chapter.

Some commentators have suggested that Inglourious Basterds tries to humanize the Nazis and gain sympathy for them. But, surely, it isn’t the fault of the movie that we pity the SS officer when the Bear Jew prepares for the homerun or when the Nazis turn to ashes in the theatre. It is simply the ways movies work. Given a pattern of narrative, we seem to generally tend to support the weak, the suffering and the oppressed, thanks to our morality. Be it aliens of sci-fi flicks, tribes of exotic countries or mute animals of the jungles, we tend to patronize them, putting them on our moral scales. When, in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex de Large (Malcom McDowell) is trained to respond in a predictable fashion to certain impulses at the reformatory, Kubrick, in some ways, is speaking in a self-reflexive fashion. Alex is pure evil and there can be no other justification for his acts other than the fact that he is an evil-doer. Even so, Kubrick makes us accomplices to his acts and eventually makes us root for him. It is Kubrick who is manipulating his audience as a cosmic joke. And it has taken around four decades for some filmmaker to stimulate us in such equally provocative fashion and, in the process, make us evaluate our own moral standing and the way we tend to judge characters – on and off-screen. Speaking of A Clockwork Orange, Hans Landa drinking his glass of milk is reminiscent of and as chilling as Alex holding it in Korova Milkbar

Tarantino adorns the movie with a slew of sight gags, much like the ones we see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, almost none of which actually fails. During Landa’s interrogation of LaPadite, at one point, he unveils his gigantic, almost unreal, smoking pipe dwarfing that of LaPadite. In the fourth chapter, when the Gestapo officer comes from within the tavern to question the officers about their accent, we see a huge whisky glass in front of him that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the scene. Even in the last scene, when Landa hands over his knife to Raine, we are shown that Raine’s knife is the bigger one!  Furthermore, during the second chapter, as we are introduced to Hitler, he is posing for a gigantic portrait, indicating that his image is much more formidable than the man himself, whom Tarantino is happy to caricature. In fact, all these in-jokes would have fell flat if Inglourious Basterds had indeed played out as a straightforward drama. Thankfully, Tarantino’s characters are themselves cartoon-ish in nature, hence justifying whatever deformation Tarantino does to them and his attempts to reduce intense and delicate power games to petty mine-is-bigger arguments.

Tarantino doesn’t just bend and blend genres here, he takes them along the movie. His characters don’t simply absorb from genres, they are the genres. Inglourious Basterds is the kind of movie that will happen if a filmmaker casts non-actor cinephiles to act in a WW2 movie. Tarantino’s history is not a history given to him by text books (which by itself is a corrupt version), but one given to him by cinema. His characters aren’t those defined by the WW2 setting of the film, but ones from our age that have strayed into a WW2 movie. These aren’t characters have evolved from the film, but ones that have been pushed into it. What Tarantino does here is that he picks stereotypes from every genre of popular cinema and cooks them up in his WW2 broth.  In Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965), the titular character tries to chew more than he can bite by jumping from one genre of cinema to another and trying to pirate the film away from the director to places only he wants to be (Early in the film, director Samuel Fuller tells us that movies are all about emotions). Continuing the tradition of Godard’s influence on Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds too absorbs quite a bit from the French, especially Pierrot. In Tarantino’s film, too, each character tries to hijack the movie from the genre it is supposed to be, as if protesting the director’s decision of forcefully situating them out of place.

[Inglourious Basterds Trailer]

Almost every character in the film tries to own a sub-genre. With his ultra neat conversational ethics and table manners, not to mention the tinge of narcissism, Landa is the quintessential smooth-talking secret agent (Landa himself insists that he is a detective later on). Aldo Raine is the leader of the men who are on a mission type, with his I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Shoshanna thinks she is the next Beatrix Kiddo, with her all-red femme fatale act. Poor little Zoller tries to be the romantic hero despite his designation in the film. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), already an actress, wants to be the deadly female spy (someone mentions Mata Hari as she talks during the tavern scene). Lt. Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is altogether from a different country’s cinema, with all his ethnic and lingual idiosyncrasies intact (“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind I go out speaking the king’s?” ha!).  Even Herr Goebbels seems to think that he is in a B-grade sci-fi flick (“I have created a monster” he says). Much has been said about the corny celebratory ritual that Donny Donowicz (Eli Roth) performs at the end of his “innings”, but that only conforms to the genre that he is – the B-Comedy subgenre (Apparently, Adam Sandler was to play this part – who else?). You’ll either love his lines (and his bizarre nasal accent) or hate them, depending on how much you appreciate such type of comedy.

Apart from playing out their genres in the movie, the characters in Inglourious Basterds keep assuming different nationalities and ethnicities. Faking accents, speaking multiple languages, feigning papers and changing appearances seems to be order of the day. Characters are recognized using ethic slurs and covers are blown with the minutest of faux pas (which sort of brings back the scintillating experience of watching last year’s treasure In Bruges, which got everything right when it tried to marry the most serious of genre elements with the most absurd of situations). “I am a slave to appearances” confesses Aldo Raine as he handcuffs Landa in the final scene. Everyone in the film is. The multilingual Landa wants the Italian names to have a ring to them. The “little man” is unhappy about the unfair nickname that the Germans have given him. Hitler is convinced that the Bear Jew is a golem. Shoshanna goes to the extent of performing a full fledged ritual for this purpose. Right from the misspelt title you are told that what it looks or sounds like isn’t what it is. Tarantino pulls our legs as he switches the subtitles on and off throughout the movie, giving us only the most basic of information and leaving the rest to our ‘expertise’.

Tarantino’s complete disregard for the content of his film and his prankster attitude towards it are characteristic of Jean-Luc Godard too. But even with all the influence Tarantino has managed to kill his “father” with a distinct style that borrows from Godard’s yet deviates starkly. The greatest asset that Tarantino seems to possess is the ability to maintain a consistent tone in the movie. Even when he marries genres as wide and fatal as melodrama and thriller, he maintains a certain kind of detachment from it that lends these sequences a tongue-in-cheek flavour which unites them under a single stylistic umbrella despite their vast disparity. One deadly flaw that Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009) had was that, in an attempt to marry genres, he ended up marrying styles too, which made the film be nothing more than a surface imitation. On the other hand, even when he cuts to cheesy in-movie documentaries (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson), again reminding us of Godard’s My Life To Live (1962) where the director seamlessly includes a mini documentary that lists down statistics and factoids about prostitution in Paris, Tarantino maintains a strong grip on the filmmaker’s gaze towards his subject, never allowing us to mistake him for inconsistency of style.

Tarantino’s idea of filmmaking is akin to blowing a balloon. He blows and blows, till the onlookers cringe and then he allows it to pop. The mantra, for him, seems to be not “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s not funny”, but “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s funnier”. This way, I guess one could call him anti-Hitchcockian. Hitchcock’s sums up his legendary theory of suspense thus:

There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Take the case of Tarantino. The audience always knows the outcome of his set pieces – that the balloon is going to pop one way or the other. Additionally, he doesn’t inform his audience of the popping time. Instead of making us ask questions like what will happen, he makes us ask when will it happen (and here, Tarantino likes to stretch the audience’s patience). Furthermore, Hitchcock preferred not to make that bomb of suspense explode, for he believed that it will make the audience uncomfortable, whereas one can bet that Tarantino will relish in showing what you expect (Not only will the Hitchcockian bomb explode, but limbs will fly, heads will roll and blood will flow). In fact, in Inglourious Basterds, not only do the Basterds’ bombs explode, but the theatre burns as per Shoshanna’s plans, Landa’s “private” bomb goes off and Donowitz and Ulmer (Omar Doom) manage to machine gun down the Nazis. Talk about beating a dead horse. But, on the other hand, Tarantino also uses a lot of the master’s techniques in Inglourious Basterds as he builds the film with the aid of a series of Red Herrings and Macguffins (One could have sworn that Landa had Shoshanna when he orders the milk). I am, however, undecided about the violence that the director depicts since it doesn’t work just on a purely cartoon level as in the Kill Bill movies. Here, the violence is closer to reality and one only wonders if Tarantino would have lost anything at all if he had cut away before the moment of gore.

But Tarantino’s film, like all his other works, is at heart about cinema. His streak of film references and tributes continue as he recalls a number of films from the past that he has grown up with. He pays homage to German cinema throughout Inglourious Basterds with a large number of Dutch angles that never once feel forced or out of context. In the final chapter, which begins with images recalling Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, complete with the 360 degree Ballhaus shot), Tarantino takes this fetish to a whole new level. The film within the film, Nation’s Pride (actually directed by the Bear Jew), presents to us a German propaganda movie made in the style of a Soviet propaganda movie, Battleship Potemkin (1925) in particular, forming an unusual alliance between two countries that could have only been possible in cinema. This whole set-piece works on multiple levels of realities. If Goebbels is making a fiction within the fiction based on a distorted form of reality within the fiction, Tarantino too is making a fantastical fiction that relies on betraying reality. Only that Tarantino’s ethics are far from Goebbels’ (which is actually the way Hollywood tells it). It’s certainly less exploitative to heavily exaggerate a reality that never was than to mildly dress up a reality that was.

Early this year, Tarantino called Woody Allen’s widely and undeservedly trashed Anything Else (2003) one of the 20 best films made after he entered the industry. And not surprisingly, much is common between these two films despite their stylistic differences. In Anything Else, David Dobel (Woody Allen) tries to break out of the schlemiel image that the director had created for himself through the 70s and the 80s. “The issue is always fascism” he says in the film and he smashes the car windows of two thugs who bully him out of a parking space. What Woody was trying here is to undo history – both personal and collective – as he guides his younger self, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), who prefers “writing a biting satire in the quiet and safety of some delicatessen”, away from what he has become. Tarantino realizes that the only way to undo history, if not in reality, is through art and that art, in many ways, does not owe anything to political and historical “reality”. When Shoshanna switches from one projector to another during the screening, she is actually shifting the movie from one reality onto another – from a history we all know to a history that could have been.

[Tarantino interview]

Tarantino’s mission of trying to carve out a fantastical alternate reality isn’t really a unique one. In Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98), he keeps talking about two kinds of histories – the history that was and history that could have been – of cinema and that of the world. He argues that cinema could have indeed prevented large scale mishaps and put an end to Nazism once and for all. Tarantino realizes that this is nothing more than an elegiac fantasy and makes a joke out of it all telling us that the only way cinema could have brought about a political change was physically – by blowing itself up. And that the only way it could have ended Nazism was by putting them all into a large room and burning it down. In a scene that echoes the final few minutes of The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), which was a film that reflected our tendency to believe that if it is cinema it must be true, Marcel (Jacky Ido) burns the pile of nitrate films to blow up the theatre as a huge heap of bullets piles up on the screen resembling it. With that, Tarantino is happy to plainly flesh out his idea of history that could (should) have been.

His attempt, like Allen’s in Anything Else, is to shatter the image that, especially popular cinema, has bestowed upon minorities of America through its incessant ethnic stereotyping – the suffering Jew, the benign black and the noble Native American. Let’s face it; it would only be a miracle if we ever see a black/Native villain in a summer blockbuster. So in a way, the revenge, led by Aldo-Shoshanna-Marcel, isn’t merely a fantastical Jewish revenge for the Holocaust, but a revenge for all the minorities and nonconformists of a cinema (industry) whose fascist producers insist upon maintaining status quo and sticking to a “final solution” (No wonder Marcel burns the movie reels). For Tarantino, who has been a popular nonconformist throughout his career in Hollywood, this is surely the sweetest revenge fantasy possible. It is his fairy tale and he is telling it the way he wants it to be. When Landa finds a single shoe in the tavern following the shoot out he must have realized he is in someone’s Cinderella story. The truth is that it’s Tarantino’s.



P.S: Christopher Landa delivers the performance of the year. His scene with Hammersmark is one to worship.


Essential Reading:

Jim Emerson’s series of articles on the movie at Scanners

David Bordwell’s take on the film at Observations on film art and Film Art

The Auteur’s Round-up of articles in their Notebook

Mark Baker, Adrian Martin, Jan Epstein and Nathan Wolski discuss the film’s wider aspects at The Monthly

Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy in conversation at The House Next Door