Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Raine Brings Pain That Could Be Called Insane

There's a scene in Kill Bill in which Uma Thurman's character, the Bride, is buried alive. Things go dark and her situation seems hopeless. We then flash back to the time where her boss, Bill, brought her to see a cruel martial arts teacher called Pai Mei. This sequence goes on for around 15-20 minutes. We see how the Bride is viciously mistreated and basically tortured by Pai Mei, including constantly forcing her to try to punch through a thick piece of wood to the point where her hands are bloody and disfigured. The scene shows us how the Bride became the superior fighter that she is, how she gained the ability to respect and even care for a cruel man like Pai Mei (which would shine light on her later relationship with Bill) and, most importantly, how, years later, she would have the ability to literally punch her way out of the coffin she was buried in and dig her way to freedom.

That's how Quentin Tarantino tells stories. Most filmmakers are very straightforward but he often goes at it from the side, often having people speak for several minutes in order to show us why their characters do the things they do and make the decisions they make. I've been reading reviews of Inglorious Basterds that say Tarantino has become an artist who has grown to a point of power that he can say no to people who try to change and edit his work when changing and editing is what he desperately needs. They say that much of the film is pointless and could be cut away for purposes of length and pacing. Had that been done, though, we would not have had the wonderful, nearly perfect opening scene.

We see a farm in Nazi occupied France belonging to Perrier LaPadite and his three daughters. They suddenly get nervous when a car drives up the road toward their farm. This is where we meet German Col. Hans Landa. He's looking for renegade Jews and wants to know if LaPadite knows where they might be. Landa is polite, witty, charming and even deferential to LaPadite. Landa goes on for a while with seemingly pointless questions and even asks if they can stop speaking in French and start speaking in English. What you come to realize is that Landa is a cruel, sadistic and probably a sociopath and that he's doing what he's doing to maximize LaPadite's suffering. Even holding the conversation in English had a malevolent purpose. The scene could have been two minutes long and Landa's merciless evil could have been established by having him simply march in with guns blazing. There are books on screenwriting that say it should have been done that way but, if it had been, we would have been denied scenes that provided a suspenseful and tragic conclusion to what was basically a separate short story and elevated Landa from standard movie protagonist to a screen villain on par with Hannibal Lecter.

We also probably wouldn't have had the scene where American Lt. Aldo Raine interrogates a German soldier. From 1942-44, Raine (Brad Pitt) led a group that the Germans called the Basterds, a squadron of American Jews who went behind enemy lines to commit acts of terrorism against the Nazis. Raine has little in common with Landa. Landa is charming and sophisticated. Raine is coarse and crude. They do share one trait, though. Raine is just as sadistic and merciless as Landa. Like Landa, Raine has found a way to channel his cruelty in service of his country. This is made obvious by the smile that forms on his face when a German sergeant he has captured refuses to answer his questions and he then gets to order one of his men to literally crush the German's skull with a baseball bat. When the surviving German answers the questions, Raine allows him to live but carves a swastika into the man's head.

Then you have another character who opens the story's third front, a girl named Shosanna Dreyfus. She's the only one who survived after Landa massacred her Jewish family. She created a fake identity and took over a cinema in Paris. A war hero who has had a movie made about his life becomes attracted to her and insists that the movie's premiere, an event to be attended by the German high command and maybe Hitler himself, take place at her movie house. This gives both Shosanna and the Basterds ideas on how to take all the highly ranked Nazis out at once and Tarantino a way to fight World War II using the thing he loves the most, movies.

I think it was Tarantino himself who compared his movies to a steak dinner. Sure, steak by itself can be tasty but it's even better if you include sauteed mushrooms, fresh asparagus, twice baked potato and a good red wine. That's how you have to view Inglorious Basterds. The meat of the story is the plot by the Basterds to take out the German High Command. The sides are the dialogue and extended exposition sequences and characters like the new father Wilhelm and the glamorous double agent Bridget von Hammersmarck that enhance the meat and make it more tasty. Then again, you could just chicken fry the whole thing and wind up with G.I. Joe.


Michael Clear said...

I can't believe I forgot to talk about how Quentin Tarantino rewrites the ending of World War II and how that was one of the least weird elements of the movie. Oh well, I guess I just did.

Dan Coyle said...

I'm not even sure it's a good film after seeing it, but there's going to be no film experience quite like it this year, and on that basis alone, it should be seen. It's a hell of a lot more interesting than Avatar, that's for damn sure.