Quentin Tarantino has a cold.
I get the call a couple hours before a scheduled interview. It’s past Newcity’s print deadline and only a couple days before “Inglourious Basterds” opens on thousands of screens. Tarantino will walk the “rope line” on the red carpet of the Chicago International Film Festival premiere, but a fistful of interviews are called off. His flight is late; he’s not feeling up to it.
Modestly refigured since its Cannes premiere, Tarantino’s World War II revenge fantasy has a large cast and an intricate, implausible plot that would take long paragraphs to recount. Here are two words: “Kill Schicklgruber.” A covert team of American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, who tag themselves with the film’s title, are an integral part of a plot to kill Hitler and propaganda master and film producer Joseph Goebbels at a premiere at a Parisian cinema, joined by British soldiers and French Resistance fighters inspired by a Jewish woman, Shoshanna (the dreamily wet-eyed Mélanie Laurent) who owns the cinema and has a history with the film’s lead character, Hans Landa, known as “The Jew Hunter,” a multilingual interrogator who is not only everyone’s antagonist but a brutal yet suave killer who’s earned his name. Played by Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz, it’s an intricate, fluent performance in a role rooted in cruelty and terror.
At the advance screening, my stomach churned. I postponed an opening-weekend review after the interview offer so I could ask about things I both liked and disliked about “Inglourious Basterds” (a title that seems designed simply to guarantee it’s shelved at video stores directly after the Enzo G. Castellari potboiler that gave Tarantino the title). What else could we talk about to get away from the alternate history that “Inglourious Basterds” proposes, in which Jews are revengers and the world changes on a pyre of cinema itself? Matters of filmmaking instead of the superficial concerns of his five-chapter, 158-minute blunderbuss?
After the interview’s dashed, I’m just an observer. Of course it takes more energy not to repeat the same answers to the same, predictable questions twelve times in a row. Tarantino’s traveled the world to premieres almost daily for who knows how long; Australia over the weekend, San Francisco the next night. I wanted be specific as I plotted my questions. We could, for instance, have talked about one of the most startling and beautiful images, of the moviehouse’s black projectionist, seen from behind the cinema screen as black-and-white images are projected onto it while a cone of white light pours down on his figure and between he and the screen, a pyramid of reels of highly flammable nitrate film stock as powerful as dynamite. Did you learn from Hans-Jürgen Syberburg’s similar, innovative use of multiple projections in his 400-minute “Hitler: A Film From Germany”? I’d like to have heard his chuckle of agreement or denial.
What I got instead was a rare occasion to watch the “rope line” along the red carpet at a premiere. Further back, dozens of onlookers watch and take photos with small cameras and cellphones. Down to business. It’s shocking that everyone with a larger-than-hip-pocket-sized video camera and three minutes of audience seems to ask the same two questions: Would you ever make a film in Chicago? What do you like best about Chicago? Yes, if the story required it. Be hard to top “The Blues Brothers.” And I’ve got a Chicago deep-dish pizza waiting for me. I’ve always heard it’s great. Where’s it from, Quentin, where’s the pizza from? (I’m not telling.)
One questioner wields a clipboard and hand mike. At the top: the name of his interview subject, the assigning producer, and the correspondent whose thumb clutched the document. “Mr. Tarantino, What inspired you to make this film?” My eyes glaze over. “I think it’s good!” Tarantino tells another. “I wrote it! I directed it! I think it’s damn good writing.” Taking photos during the next set of questions and answers, only four words rise up: “Chicago deep-dish pizza.” Tarantino says he creates “subgenres”; the sound bite is but one of them. Pizza’s getting cheesy.
“The movie is the movie,” he says more than once, working the line, one bite at a time. “I like reading good film criticism. But until this film is officially in the past, I need at least three years distance to know what I made. It’s the one I’ve seen the least!” I’ve gone through all the interviews I could online, I’d read these bits and bobs. In the end, “Inglourious Basterds” has been more interesting to think about and talk about and read about than it actually was to watch. Read Roger Ebert and Karina Longworth, for example, two writers who saw the film at Cannes and since, praise it, with Longworth even posting a worthy piece at Spout.com explaining why she was wrong in her first notice.
Seeing it only once, Tarantino’s cluttered cinephilia, and the insistence on its movie-movieness combined with Landa’s central, sympathetically cosmopolitan character pitted against the killer Jews, was stifling. The depredations of Pitt’s part-Indian Colonel Rayne and his band of Jewish assassins, scalping, bat-bashing and swastika-branding Germans who cross their path, add marquee value to the mix, even with the Missourian Pitt’s atrocious Tennessee accent and jutted jaw. Pitt, stiff, is effortlessly outdone by the suave, glib, multilingual Waltz. You have to turn away from Eli Roth’s “Jew Bear” as well, a role that leaves an impression of the director of “Hostel” as pin-eyed, weirdly effeminate and without acting talent, and there’s also a bald-capped Mike Meyers as a Terry Thomas-like British officer setting up the expedition. Diane Krueger plays a German actress who’s part of the plot, largely to prompt talk about Leni Riefenstahl and to sport an open-toe leg cast.
The first fifteen minutes are taken up by the negotiations of Landa, a churning monologue to a farmer who may be sheltering Jews, which consists of talk about milk and Jews. Daring or indulgent? Provocative or profound bad taste? Languorous or sprawling? It’s a demonstration of interrogators’ techniques, providing confusing layers of information to listeners under threat: it’s the tell-tell-tell pattern of all five chapters of “Inglourious Basterds”: a film in love with cinema that will not, cannot shut up.
There are piercing moments of moviemaking, such as a setpiece of Shoshanna in the upstairs of her movie theater, a sustained coup de theatre as she dresses for the attempt to incinerate the Nazi regime, draped in red against a huge portrait window with a red Nazi flag outside, putting red on her lips as a languorous David Bowie’s “Putting Out Fire” plays in the background: “For… a… thousand… years…” It’s the sort of bricolage I crave from Tarantino’s magpie sensibility, splendid anachronism: repurposing a song from Paul Schrader’s “Cat People” to reflect, with chiming coincidence, on the dreams of a Thousand-Year Reich that glamour girl, enrobed in Kieslowski rouge, wants to detonate. “In this story, cinema changes the world, and I fucking love that idea!” is a quotation from Tarantino that he’s wrung multiple variations of. For Resistance fighters, terrorists under the law of the land, to dispense with the Third Reich with a few hundred reels of explosive film…
My pronounced squeamishness about its revenge fantasy, turning American Jewish soldiers into sadists who torture and kill sadistic Nazis, could come only to unproductive confrontation. Nor would it likely be fruitful in twenty minutes to talk about the road not taken by the film, that its plot twists not found in history, epic turns that are counterfactual without consequence, aren’t examined: if these events had truly taken place, what would our world be like now? That of course, is another movie, like Kevin Brownlow’s “It Happened Here” or Ray Bradbury’s elegant science-fiction short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a small death during a time-travel event changes the future irrevocably. Small events or large might make an unrecognizable world. Then again, other hands have read “Inglourious Basterds” as a parable of twenty-first-century history, from Abu Ghraib to the revelation that Blackwater was paid millions off the books to attempt assassinations, to the shouts that the President is equivalent to Hitler for hoping to provide healthcare to the nation.
But that seems the point of Tarantino’s dense assemblies, of the sublime and the grotesque: no single person can pick up all the references; you’re likely even to invent ones he didn’t plan, intend or recognize; everyone creates their own sense of the undisciplined sprawl, the antagonistic conceits, the iconic, almost-but-not-quite-showboating of his actors at their most lively moments.
And what about feet, Quentin? Women’s feet. Diane Krueger’s foot in a fresh white, high-heeled plaster cast, open-toed, enameled piggies peeking? A composition of a folie-a-deux death of a man and a woman, the curve of a red dress undulating toward her bare, flexed calves, and inevitably, the rippled, rippling, convulsive arch of bare foot? C’mon. Man to man. Feet. The agony. Could I shout such a query at the red carpet before his screening and Q&A? Nope. That would require the silken whisper of a Christoph Waltz in a quiet room against one raised voice.
Of course, I considered, “How’s your cold, Quentin?” but it seemed closer to polite to observe professionals in the wild. “Inglourious Basterds”: farrago or haggis? I think either applies, but a better metaphor was right out there: get it while it’s hot, don’t burn your mouth and don’t eat too much cheese: Chicago deep-dish pizza, indeed.
“Inglourious Basterds” ignites Friday at 3,350 screens.
[All photographs by Ray Pride]
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.