20 December 2009

'Basterds' the best film of 2009? Not bloody likely

So radio Three Triple R's 'Film Buff's Forecast' program has just brought down its listeners' votes for the films of 2009, and I'm not happy.

Every year since I was about 16 I've been listening to the show's annual votes for best, worst, most overrated and most underrated films of that year. I go back to when John Flaus and Paul Harris were the only voices heard. These days it's a whole gallery of voices, which is fine when they engage in constructive disagreement but not so much fun when some nameless voice, whose authority I have no way of assessing, goes on at length with opinions I disagree with! So I particularly enjoy the discrepancies between the critics' films and those voted by listeners.

Some think lists are childish but I'm a sucker for lists of all kinds. In my worst moments, I've resembled John Cusack's character in 'High Fidelity': "Ten best album tracks, side one, track one..." They're a kind of intellectual chewing gum, designed to get the juices flowing.

But jeez, 'Inglourious Basterds' as the best film of 2009? God help us. The critics and listeners were united on 3RRR and I'm appalled.

Okay, so it was stylish in that swashbuckling Tarantino style that he does so well. Bravura, I think it's called, and ten points for sheer balls. Very few film makers of any generation have the strength of their convictions to such an extent as to back themselves and their intuitions against what was, I imagine, widespread scepticism that such a bizarre idea would ever get made.

But its juvenile brutality and fascism is harder to forgive. It's certainly not the only film of the last couple of years to show an almost autistic lack of appreciation or understanding of the experiential weight of violence in cinema; 'Pan's Labyrinth' comes readily to mind. But while that film also had a historical setting (or in the case of 'I.B.' an alternative-historical setting), it took place in a fictional space that relied on the Spanish Civil War only as a contextual frame for the hard-edged fantasy that was really the interest of the movie.

'I.B.' on the other hand, doesn't make sense without the emotion and moral heft that the Holocaust subject matter brings with it. Tarantino relies on that historical and cultural burden to charge the events he asks us to experience with significance. What at first annoyed me and then by the end of the film made me angry, was that he uses the faith that we the audience place in him that he won't exploit a historical truth (whose significance doesn't need to be expanded upon) cheaply or to no good end. But that's exactly what he does do.

There is no necessary connection between the events of history and their cultural reflection in this universe. The Holocaust, the Second World War as a whole, is nothing but a set of cultural tropes he can move around and play with with a grin on his face. This war movie is not a film about war, but a film about films about war. The difference is crucial. There is therefore no debt to experience, to life.

But the film has it both ways. To a large degree, it misleads badly with the first scene, which introduces the main character, the anti-hero Col. Hans Landa, as he interrogates a french farmer on suspicion of harboring Jews, who we are allowed to see cowering under the floorboards. The scene unfolds slowly, with discipline, resulting in great suspense. Nail biting, as they say. It ends badly, but its emotional kick is not just a mechanical function of the classic techniques of suspense, but also an extratextual response to the affect of the subject matter. We know what is at stake for the innocents under the floorboards because we know that their fate will be to disappear into ashes.

This scene leads an attentive viewer (I believe) to frame an expectation that what we are about to watch will keep faith with that stock of memories, images, stories we have all inherited as children of the twentieth century. This faith, having been set up, is gleefully torn up in the subsequent spectacle.

This early discipline is also jettisoned for the rest of the film. I have not heard a single critic notice how interminable is the central key scene in a cellar bar, where allied soldiers impersonating Nazi officers attempt to make contact with a resistance figure in the French underground. An English officer with a proficiency in German attempts to maintain the mask, but his unusual accent gives him away to his audience. This would have been dealt with by a classical director like William Wellman or John Ford in a few minutes of tension, but instead it drags on and on, pointlessly. What is worse, during the whole scene, one of the other impersonators remains mute - yet he is the only authentic German in the bunch! Why?

Finally, Tarantino has his English officer give himself away by making a typically English - not German - hand gesture. The only problem is that when it happens we don't know what it means until it is explained to us by one of the characters later! A moment which should be tense beyond endurance for the audience is thrown away in sluggish editing and sloppy writing.

Lovers of the film will no doubt object that I am guilty of a lack of appreciation for Tarantino's use of ironic self-reference and intertextuality. Maybe I am. Maybe the subject matter just doesn't lend itself to merrymaking in the playpen of ironic detachment. It is plain that the final third of the film, which is an extended revenge fantasy where Hitler and all the members of the Nazi High Command perish in a burning cinema (oh the jolly irony!) while the fleeing audience is strafed with machine guns held by the 'good' guys. You can tell they're good guys because they're Jewish. If this sounds dumb, it's because it is dumb, beyond words.

After this, it hardly matters any more when the brutal but charismatic Landa has his forehead slowly carved up with a very large knife. By that stage I was numb, which I suppose means that this movie was not for me. I figure I was supposed to enjoy this, feeling that the villain got his comeuppance, just as I was supposed to cheer as the cinema audience (shot from above) screamed as they were being machine-gunned to death. Instead I felt as if I was being made complicit in a bloodthirsty spectacle without moral reference point. A film that had started out doing everything it could to evoke an emotional response for the oppressed and against the oppressor, reversed the poles, asking me to cheer indiscriminate murder on the basis that it was being perpetrated against the 'right' enemy. There's a name for this. Goebbels would have recognised the technique, since he virtually invented it.

This is not the first time a blindingly stupid and immoral film has been lauded by critics almost universally, but I'm mainly disappointed because people whose judgements I generally respect have either been so easily fooled, or don't care.

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