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Inglourious Basterds and Some Thoughts on Story…

September 5, 2009

Two weeks after what seems like the rest of the world, I finally got around to seeing Inglourious Basterds today. Such is life with a toddler…

On whole, I dug the hell out of the movie, and wanted to touch on a few of the layers that really drew me in. Beware, if you haven’t seen it yet, there’ll probably be some spoilers below.

The Score

I love, love, love that Tarantino got Ennio Morricone to compose the score. The parallels to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly jumped out at me at once – not just in the score, but in the three leads (the Basterds, Shosanna, and Col. Landa) each pursuing their own agenda. The opening scene at the French dairy farm even reminded me of the opening of that greatest of spaghetti westerns, and the presence of Morricone’s distinct style just seemed…right.

Cinema vs. the Nazis

This has been brought up in a few places, but the idea of the cinema itself taking out the Nazis was inspired. And when you think about it, absolutely correct. Hollywood has contributed greatly to the establishment of the Nazis as the ultimate, all-time go-to bad guys, and not just in war flicks. Hell, just look at Indiana Jones.

Alternate History

So, in the film’s climax, the Basterds and Shosanna kill Hitler, Goebbels, and the other leaders of the Third Reich, in a completely wanton disregard for established history. I’ve read several perspectives on this. I’ve seen it called alternate history (true) and a Jewish revenge fantasy (also true), but I took something else away from it as well.

The way I see it, it’s a jab at all those other movies that present themselves as historical, but proceed to willfully ignore what actually happened (i.e. pretty much every historical epic you’ve ever seen). Crassus didn’t take over the Roman Republic after putting down Spartacus’ rebellion (as happened in Spartacus). Commodus’ death didn’t lead to a restoration of the Republic (as seen in Gladiator). The Battle of Sterling didn’t take place on a field – as seen in Braveheart – but on a bridge, and the Battle of Bannockburn where the Scots won their freedom came NINE YEARS after William Wallace’s death.

Since I write historical fiction, I tend to be a bit more a stickler for these kinds of deviations, but I also recognize they’re a necessary evil. History is messy, and doesn’t often fit well into a two to three hour film. And who would have wanted to see Maximus kill Commodus, only to have the Praetorian Guard auction off the emperorship to the highest bidder?

But maybe the memory of Basterds will give some people pause before accepting the events of some other film as absolute fact just because it’s set in the past.

The Slow Burn

This was my absolute favorite characteristic of the movie…it took its time. It didn’t rush things. It reveled in the intricacies of conversation, the small moments. It flies completely in the face of all conventional wisdom about how to tell (and more importantly, sell) a story in this day and age.

In writing a novel and subsequently searching for an agent, you’re constantly bombarded with the notion that you have to grab the reader AT ONCE. No dawdling, no slow buildup, just GO GO GO. I’ve never really believed that. Some of my favorite novels have taken me 25, 30, even 50 pages to really get into, and they work all the better for that slow draw.

Basterds is like that. In fact, it seems to revel in it, in running absolutely counter to the audience’s expectations. It’s the kind of thing you just DON’T SEE anymore. I mean, everything with the British agent, from his briefing to the long, drawn-out conversation in the tavern, it’s brilliant, but so unfamiliar.

It’s almost like this movie’s narrative style is the anti-24.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. John Gibson permalink
    September 5, 2009 8:37 pm

    Great post, Matt. Loved the movie, but this provides a much more intelligent rationale as to why.

  2. Tim permalink
    September 6, 2009 9:48 am

    Have to disagree a little bit … Tarantino did do the slow build/slow burn on Basterds (agree), but he also DID a good job establishing tension right off the bat.

    Rural farm family … Nazis approaching … family looks on with apprehension.

    I do agree that books or movies don’t have to open with 24 style explosions or action scenes. That’s particular to pulp fiction, the genre to which 24 belongs.

    But ANY good work of fiction establishes some sort of tension early. And maintains it.

    The Jack Whyte books are examples of books that have a fascinating subject matter (end of the Roman Empire! Beginnings of the Arthur myths!) that I have a hard time getting motivated to read because I know at some point he’s going to totally lose the tension of the story and go on for 150 pages about the glories of being a farmer or some harvest festival, complete with awful poetry. And then I know I’m just going to slog through until he gets it all out of his system if I want to find out what happens in the story.

  3. Matt permalink*
    September 6, 2009 10:36 am

    I would agree – and I think there’s a distinction to be made between the slow burn and what I would call pointless detail. Tarantino uses the slow burn very well…even during the conversation in the farmhouse…seemingly innocuous back-and-forth about switching from French to English, you’re learning something about Col. Landa’s character. And when you discover WHY he’s been speaking English the whole time, the payoff is fantastic.

    I do tire of the way Whyte can ramble (especially in his Templar series…I couldn’t finish the second book for all the random interludes). S.M. Stirling can get bad with it, too, with his “let’s have a Wiccan ceremony” or “let’s sing Celtic songs” interludes. Hell, even Tolkien is guilty of it.

    There’s a fine line between building a rich fabric and smothering your reader with it.

  4. Matt permalink*
    September 6, 2009 6:00 pm

    Also wanted to add that The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those books that took me awhile to get into, but it’s to this day one of my favorite reads of all time. It’s a masterpiece of the slow burn.

  5. September 6, 2009 8:50 pm

    Finally got to see it this week as well. Brilliant. Totally concur with your points above. This flick is a total exercise in suspense. I loved that you’re forced to sit through 25 mins of brilliant dialog while fully expecting the crap to hit the fan at any given moment along that entire time-span. And when it finally does hit—the violence is so efficient and effective. Love it. Not to mention—though Tarantino is the master of many filmic tools: score, script, pacing—he is the ultimate master of casting. Amazing performances, a-freaking-mazing.


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