Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

"Completed a short story last night: How To Fix A Color TV --- needs a better title, but the essential story is down, and I am pleased with some of the effects. Needs to be shared to get feedback on a couple spots, but overall I like what I've done. Am beginning to learn what 'show, don't tell' means. Am learning more about creating effects without cliches. (I hope!) Am also learning, hopefully, how to tell a story, how to establish pace, etc. I imagine I will again be criticized for not developing my characters. Need to make people see them visually. Have enjoyed getting it out on paper... 'vamos a ver.'"
Journal note, July 2, 1990

This is a journal note from a period in my life when I was attempting to find my voice as a fiction writer, striving to produce "serious fiction." I learned a lot about writing during this phase of my development, especially as it relates to story telling. Writing fiction improves one's non-fiction as well. The relating of anecdotes, the attention to detail, taking abstract observations and capturing them with a vivid concreteness... all these and more help improve one's work.

Following many years of short story writing I got bit by the Hollywood screenwriter dream after having appeared in the film Iron Will as an extra, 1993. (Probably the one film Kevin Spacey prefers left off his resume.) By the time I'd finished the third screenplay my Hollywood ambitions were played out, but those years of studying the process of story telling in film were quite instructive.

It's one thing to watch a movie, to get lost in its dream, and another to analyze how the director created the effects, built the characters, managed the tension, paced the plot development.

A co-worker who is a student of film (not scholastically, but through longstanding observation and a passion for excellence in the theater) told me last week that Inglorious Basterds is a film of such quality that it will be studied in film schools in the future. Hearing such high praise made it a "must see" film for me. Such praise is also a challenge because your expectations have been raised.

Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs is a cult classic, the first film where I covered my eyes in a scene since Kaltiki the Immortal Monster when I was eight. It's vulgar and violent, but told in a truly original style that brings it into sharp contrast with typical linear story telling. (OK, Kubrick did it in his first film The Killing, but 99.8% of the audiences who saw Dogs never heard of that.) When Pulp Fiction became a mega hit Tarantino, who once just worked in a video store, could do whatever he wanted. He was living the dream.

Obviously the guy loves violence, a seemingly constant theme throughout his work as exemplified in films like Death Proof, Grindhouse, the Kill Bill flicks and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, which was based on a story of his. (Woody Harrelson took a break from being Cheers' sweet Woody to take a walk on the wild side.) In short, Tarantino really enjoys finding new ways to splash blood onto the silver screen.

The thing is, this guy really knows how to tell a story. In point of fact there are scene so incredible in this film that I agree with my friend who says this film will be studied. The opening takes place at the home of a rural dairy farmer in Nazi occupied France, 1941. We see a small detachment of Germans driving up the winding road to his house. In real time the vehicles approach, the farmer telling his teenage daughters to get in the house. The Colonel, who it turns out is nicknamed "The Jew Hunter", acting magnanimously toward the farmer, sits at his table, shares a smoke and easy conversation. But there is no ease in the farmer. We feel the mounting tension, and initially suppose it relates to concern about his three daughters. As the scene slowly, ever so slowly plays out, we ourselves discover what the Colonel already suspected. There were Jews being harbored in the house.

Like Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino takes his time, allows this opening scene to play out, shows no urgency in moving the story forward. The cinematography in this case is as gorgeous as a panaramic Barry Lyndon/Kubrick landscape. The tension as pronounced as a shower scene in the Bates Motel. The acting spot on. And a bigger than life fairy tale has been set in motion.

Brad Pitt is superb as leader of the Basterds, a group of American soldiers who have been dropped behind enemy lines to unnerve the Nazis through especially brutal forms of viciousness. Taking scalps is the name of the game.

One variance from Dogs worth noting. I don't think there was any bad language used throughout. Violence is there in creative abundance, but I personally think the film was not hurt by this omission.

Much more could be said, but you can glean plenty from reading the many other reviews out there. I have to mention that the scene in the bar where Pitt's Basterds rendezvous with actress Bridget von Hammersmark is one of the most incredible scenes in film history, so simple, so smart, so unpredictable, so nerve-stretching and delivered with such patience. People will make a lot of whoop about the big finale no doubt, but it is the subtle development in scenes like this one that give a movie viewer real satisfaction.

For what it's worth, the story referenced in my journal note above ultimately won first prize in the five state Arrowhead Regional Arts Fiction Competition in 1991. The plot twists may not be as numerous as Tarantino's Basterds, but you might find it an entertaining read. One difference is that Tarantino's story is a fairy tale and mine, The Breaking Point, is true.... sort of, in a fictional kind of way.

No comments: