I can't think of a singly contemporary filmmaker who brings out the scolding third-grade teacher in so many cinephiles more than Quentin Tarantino does. Get thee to just about any film-enthusiast message board, or any comments thread to a post about Tarantino on any film blog, and you'll see any number of what we might call "Work Habits And Character" complaints, which all boil down to something like "While Quentin is a bright, clever, and sometimes resourceful student, he needs to focus more on the 'real world' and less on his own personal obsessions if he ever hopes to amount to something." Put another way: Quentin Tarantino could be a genuinely great filmmaker if only he could get over his puerile, annoying insistence on making Quentin Tarantino movies.
And so. Inglourious Basterds, which is a loud, proud, unabashed Quentin Tarantino movie that will not satisfy the scolders in any way, shape, or form. And which I found one of the most balls-out insane, and insanely exhilarating, films that I've seen in many a year, and cannot wait to see again, maybe three or four more times before it hits DVD.
More than multi-leveled pop-culture references and cross-hierarchical cinephilic fervor, the Tarantino project has always been, at heart, about wish-fulfillment, largely of a fairly adolescent variety. Note one of the central hooks of Tarantino's screenplay True Romance, filmed by Tony Scott in 1993: that a guy who works in a comic-book store can win the unconditional love and fierce devotion of a smoking-hot hooker in just one night. (Tarantino's former associate Roger Avary took that highly improbably notion and ran even further with it for his 1994 picture Killing Zoe.) The other pictures Tarantino's directed have almost all been about, among other things, different construction of cool, and all the completely cool shit that his cool people can do because he's pulling their strings. Even his most putatively mature film, 1997's Jackie Brown, is largely about Quentin Tarantino getting to do some really cool fantasy shit—he's adapting a novel by Elmore Leonard, and casting not only Pam Grier and Robert Forster but also Robert Fucking DeNiro in it, and how many movie geeks have ever conjured up the mojo to do something like that, punk?
With Basterds we have Tarantino doing wish-fulfillment on a world-historical stage—rewriting the end of World War II. This takes the kind of chutzpah, both conceptual and logistical, that only a past master of grindhouse cinema could muster. In almost anybody else's hands the outrageousness of the various scenarios enacted in this epic would be an insult to history, but here they're not, because although the stage of this film might be world historical, Inglourious Basterds is finally not about history, or reality, or any such thing but about movies, which is all that any of Tarantino's movies have ever been about.
And it is, for all that, or maybe because of all that, a picture that is sometimes genuinely and breathtakingly moving. The care with which Tarantino sets up his imagined world, a world fraught with pain and excruciating tension but dotted with edenic moments—I was particularly taken with a single shot of Melanie Laurent sitting in a bistro, wearing a very chic beret, elegantly smoking a cigarette and reading a French translation of Leslie Charteris' The Saint In New York—gives off a burnished glow in every frame. And throughout,Tarantino revels in his major inheritance from Godard, which is, simply, an audacious freedom. The freedom to do twenty-minute set pieces in which characters sit at a barroom table and appear to do pretty much nothing to advance the plot, but in reality up the ante of tension and empathy with every line and exchanged glance. The freedom to toggle, within seconds, between searing, indignant pulp earnestness, and barn-door-broad burlesque schtick that might even have given Airplane!-era Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker pause, and keep doing it over and over, as he does in the film's final "chapter." The freedom to concoct a story wherein cinema's existence ...and destruction...save civilization. And more.
The film is not perfect. While I'm not an Eli Roth hater in principle, I do remain perplexed at Tarantino's conviction that the young filmmaker is somehow a compelling screen presence. However, any complaints anybody has aired about Brad Pitt's performance ought not be taken at all seriously—he's a scream. Christoph Waltz, as Pitt's opposite number, IS all that and a bag of chips, but really, the whole damn cast is pretty awe-inspiring—yeah, even Mike Fucking Myers. And even Diane Kruger. But Mélanie Laurent made the biggest impression on me, for reasons we can discuss after a few more of you see the film. Which I obviously recommend you do.