Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Agony and the Ecstasy: THE HATEFUL EIGHT's 70MM Dreams

It all starts with the wind, the ever-present white noise humming behind all that takes place. Or maybe it starts with the ambient rattle of the stagecoach, which, paired with the steady vibrations of the vehicle itself, seem to promise a gradual descent into sleep for at least one of the wayward travelers housed within. Or maybe it really all starts with the pulsating orchestral thrum of Ennio Morricone’s main titles, all horror film menace and military march precision, the perfect doomsday sturm und drang for that lone stagecoach on its way to a rendezvous with bloodshed and slaughter. All of them forming the persistent, haunting aural landscape that allows for no escape from the brutality of the land, of the people, of the country.

That wind raged through the air on the day that my cohorts and I ventured forth across the barren winter landscape of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois on our pilgrimage to see The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Situated, as we were, in Columbus over the long Christmas week, we had the option of visiting a multiplex in suburban Cleveland to see Quentin Tarantino’s newest cinematic brainchild in its original format, our only viable in-state option at the time. But it made sense to venture forth across the frozen tundra for this filmic experience, to brave the elements and the passage of time in order to pay tribute to the communal art of the filmgoing experience, to see a 70mm presentation in a theater which we knew had a track record of flexing its large format screening chops.

Throughout the essays that have gradually, sometime meanderingly weaved their way toward this final literary destination, I’ve focused so much on the vitality that Tarantino’s films bring to a jaded, spectacle-deprived modern audience. How their profane, bombastic, panache can only be fully appreciated on the big screen, preferably with a crowded house of like-minded enthusiasts (or people who just enjoy a good night out at the movies.) The Hateful Eight is the ne plus ultra of this stylistic verve, filmed in a format that hasn’t been used since the ‘60s, ensuring that any theater wishing to screen it in said format would have to shell out the time and scratch to retrofit their 35mm projector for the cause. A dead format being used to revive a dying format. Let the exorcism begin.

Or maybe, as Jim Morrison once invoked, the ceremony is about to begin. In being tailor made for the theatrical setting, Tarantino’s films have served as a stern rebuke to the much-promised democratization of media that modern technology’s siren song has offered forth. The widescreen tv, the tablet, the phone: all information portals that have allowed us to permanently embed cinematic memories and experiences into the immediate fiber of our beings, yet also the vessels that have transported so many of those memories and experiences into the dreaded, debased realm of “content.” Lawrence of Arabia becomes just another distraction from work, or part of a multi-screen experience. Blue Velvet is an oddball story flashing across your palm in broad daylight, not a terrifying experience that you’re forced to give yourself over to in the dark, like Jeffrey Beaumont on Frank Booth’s nocturnal thrill ride. None of the ceremonial imperative that was once an integral part of the moviegoing experience remains.

But all the accoutrements associated with the 70mm Hateful Eight screenings, the programs, the overture and intermission, the limited seating (only one screen per venue), the pure thrill of being told that this was a rarity…these all work to summon once again what lies at the heart of the classic cinematic experience: the shared sense of partaking in something that is literally bigger than ourselves. Godard might have famously noted that cinema is truth 24 frames per second, but it’s also dreaming at that frame rate, a mass hallucination into which we willingly enter. If cinema is a church to some, and religious ecstasy has often been proven to be a temporary fantasy…well, connect the dots. Our voyage on that frigid winter’s day served as the perfect backdrop for The Hateful Eight because it transformed a mere film screening into a two day commitment to eventually sitting with 500 other movie maniacs, communing with the unexpected (I studiously avoided plot details beforehand), encased in a room together in defiance to the elements, much like the titular bandits and lawmen.

If we sought to tap into that dream state that cinema at its best invokes, then the 70mm format held the promise of providing the deepest representation of that state. Digital cinema can serve as a mighty evangelist for those living where film is no longer readily available, but it also remains a simulacrum, a series of 1’s and 0’s being thrown onto a screen playacting the part of the image. In a world where veracity is in question like no time before, 70mm (or even 35mm) is a tactile summoning of the purity of the image, light literally being forced through a physical strip of celluloid, film grain a constant, ever-changing, luminescent dance. I’ve heard stories of stories of Hateful Eight audience members swearing off film screenings afterward due to the inherent mild bob and weave that can crop up in the image. But that’s part and parcel of the aforementioned purity: the knowledge that what we are watching is a living element, re-animated from a dormant state by mechanical gears and electric illumination.

Having seen it twice in 70mm (a local venue eventually screened it in that format) and once in its slightly reduced DCP presentation, I can attest that while the digital version is engaging, the original film version is absorbing, enthralling. In digital, DP Robert Richardson’s lush use of color and his signature hot spotlight effects feel slightly pale, but on film they’re warm, vibrant, hypnotic. Morricone’s score can be cranked up as much as you want in digital, but it doesn’t approximate the full power and majesty it possesses when being read directly off an analog film source. Even the second time, with an audience that was maybe a tenth the size of my maiden voyage, the tactile nature of film being projected was a thrilling sensory experience.

All of this discussion of truth in presentation for a film that is premised on the fine art of lying and performance. For once again, we’re in Tarantinoland, in which the storyteller is king, and in which the tale being spun holds more power than any firearm or axe. What’s new here is how QT portrays this liar’s paradise, or, more accurately, where he chooses to portray it. This is the third straight period piece he’s directed, and it’s not hard to believe that it’s been a conscious choice predicated on allowing his legion of talkers to match wits without the modern equalizers of cell phones and the internet. But even though they’re obsessed with language, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained carry with them the allure of mobility, the movement from one physical space to another. Those two films might feel slightly alien to our contemporary sensibilities, but The Hateful Eight’s daring gambit is to craft an environment that might be even more alien: a single room in which people are essentially trapped and forced to deal with each other. Remove the classic locked room mystery nature of the plot and you have a societal microcosm which can feel completely befuddling to a modern audience trained to annihilate even the hint of boredom by retreating to their devices when things get slow. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a societal microcosm wherein the only escape is interior in nature. It can be a discomfiting viewing proposition: a few friends have felt like the film takes forever to get to its point. I would argue that that is the point, the experience of this motley crew of refugees navigating their way through the minefield of deception an often circuitous, frustrating, comedic, human endeavor.

And just as Scherazade prolonged her life with a tale well told, lying proves to be a survival mechanism for these characters. What might be less obvious is the larger world in which Tarantino situates them. Much of The Hateful Eight feels like a spiritual cousin to Django Unchained, which served as a hopeful alternate historical stab at the destruction of slavery. This film surveys a post-Civil War society in which unity and brotherhood compose the grand communal mythos, but in which the hard reality is composed of back-stabbing and naked self-interest. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) might not have physical enslavement to worry about, but he’s a slave nonetheless to society’s rampant racism and the legacy of supposed cowardice that earned him exile from the military. Fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is about as close to traditional moral authority as the film gets, but he’s so hardened by the nature of his work as to be more hollowed out mercenary than heroic figure. Daisy Domergue (a show-stealing Jennifer Jason Leigh) seems for quite a bit to be the victim of a deeply ingrained misogyny before revealing herself to be the most devious character in the whole film. Among the lead eight characters, only Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) ultimately proves to be exactly who he presents himself as. The fact that he’s a dumbass good ol’ boy still in thrall to the philosophy of the renegade Confederate army that his father led tells you a lot about the moral landscape of the film. To be a liar is to be suave, intelligent, urbane, cunning. The chessboard at the center of the Haberdashery (a lie in and of itself) is the most apt metaphor: to paraphrase that old axiom about gender relations, all of these characters are playing chess while Chris is stuck in a checkers world.

But it’s his checkers mentality that ultimately serves as what comes closest to passing for redemption in this story. Goggins really commits to the relative unlikeability of the role, playing Mannix in such broad fashion as to seem almost cartoonish at times. It proves to be a canny choice, throwing the audience’s admiration toward the more restrained, scheming charisma of the other characters, only for their self-interest to backfire as they’re systematically murdered in a daisy chain of violence. Ultimately, it’s Mannix’s basic morality that ends the cycle of bloodshed. The chess player would take Daisy’s offer of easy bounty money for her escape and Marquis’s murder, but Chris decides to live up to his new role as Red Rock sheriff at least once by doing the right thing.

Maybe, even above the omnipresent wind, and Morricone score, and rampant lying, it all comes back to that infamous Lincoln letter that Marquis Warren uses to disarm so many white folk. In a desolate moral landscape defined by the hyper-libertarian code, the ghost of Lincoln still hangs over the proceedings as the one possible unifying force, so much so that when Warren reveals the letter’s false nature, John Ruth is (for probably the only time in the film) genuinely hurt (just as he was genuinely touched to read it.) In one sense, that letter is representative of the big lie that society has bought into, the one that says we can actually live together and transcend matters of race and class. In another, it’s a symbol of the myths that we need to believe to continue on. Take the final shot of the film, in which a dying Chris reads it aloud for the first time. Even though he knows of its falsity, those inspiring, forged words serve as a temporary balm for his pain, mirrored in the visual of his passing away in tandem with the black man that he was raised to hate. After finishing it, he tosses it to the side, and the audience is left to wonder how much power he takes from it and how much he’s dismissing it as a temporary salve.

It’s such a powerful tableau that it can be easy to ignore the other figure in the shot: the now-hanged Daisy, dangling from the rafters on the left side of the frame. Her presence recalls the film’s extended opening credits shot, in which a wooden statue of a crucified Christ is also prominently featured on the left side of the frame. From the beginning, the audience is being told of the agony and suffering that are to come, while also being given a visual hint of the secret martyr at the center of the story, the slavery-battling president shot down before his time. It can be tempting to read that final scene as confirmation that, yeah, maybe we can all just get along. But nobody gets out of this tale alive, and the enduring bracketing images of the narrative are of two of the most agonizing forms of death. Hope might be society’s necessary illusion, but it’s a much more nihilistic philosophy that dominates this tale. Which, perhaps, makes it even more of a contemporary story than it would appear to be, a fitting parable for an era in which, at times, we seem to have made negligible progress toward the unity that Lincoln strove for. Just like that wind that persistently howls outside the Haberdashery, there’s ultimately no escape from the inhumanity that has dominated mankind’s existence from the beginning.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

When the Whip Comes Down: The Painful Truths of DJANGO UNCHAINED

What does it say about the role of Quentin Tarantino in the modern American psychosphere that his highest grossing film (not counting inflation) to date is an often hyper-violent action saga featuring a loquacious bounty hunter and his ex-slave partner in crime mowing down vigilantes, a man being ripped to shreds by attack dogs, one of the most beloved stars of the era portraying one of the most vile characters of the era, and some of the wettest gore set pieces since the Evil Dead films? And that it also happens to be a brutal indictment of the institutionalization of slavery in this country, rubbing the audience’s faces in just how normalized this dehumanization once was? Indeed, even though Django Unchained was a major box office hit (with a Christmas Day opening, no less!), its lasting legacy centers on the cultural conversations that sprung up around it. And what those conversations say about so many levels of the modern social stratum.

Discussions about Tarantino’s handling of race were going to spring up no matter the actual content of Django. It can be argued that those QT-centric race conversations have assumed the level of a constant low industrial hum, especially in an Internet-driven culture that gives voice to so many different factions. His battles with Spike Lee are legendary, especially in the wake of Jackie Brown, when Lee called him out for his supposed appropriation of black culture and free use of racial epithets in his screenplays. Tarantino didn’t always necessarily help his case in the public sphere. That long-standing love of playing up to a larger than life public persona has sometimes given him the air of starring in a performance art remake of Revenge of the Nerds (see his reputed assault of Natural Born Killers producer Don Murphy, payback for some smack talk that Murphy delivered in the press). Confronting Lee in a New York theater and bragging about how he grew up in a predominantly black culture (the complete extent of that claim is still a matter of debate) did him no favors either.

But the cultural critique of QT as poacher of the minority experience is a gross oversimplification as well. The roles that he’s written for Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier, and Django’s Jamie Foxx are some of the strongest, most nuanced minority characters in modern mainstream cinema, even if the exploitation trappings of the filmic universes in which these characters live can make it easy to overlook such complexity. From all indications, Tarantino’s love of black culture is just one part of a much larger cultural voracity that he enjoys, and if anything, he’s always been more than deferential to the great minority stars, directors, and technicians of the past. Even moreso than a being a director, his main drive in life still seems to be as evangelist for cinematic history, and you could argue that a public figure with this level of power using his fame for such means has done more those reputations than Hollywood as a whole. That doesn’t excuse his occasional missteps or forays into tone deafness; it just makes him a fairly complex person, a trait that can often be drowned out in a meme-obsessed, social justice warrior environment in which Manichean simplicity too often rules the day.

Even setting aside Tarantino’s controversial racial past, Django Unchained was destined to be the subject of some level of heated debate based on its concurrent release with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which went on to win that year’s Best Picture Academy Award. And it’s here that how we as a society view race and, by proxy, the greater cultural conversation today come into sharp focus. The standard line of thought that I read and heard in the winter of 2013-2014  was that McQueen’s film was the noble, wrenching history lesson that this country needed, whereas Django was deeply problematic in attempting to handle such a sensitive topic in the form of an action/road/revenge film. Which, in and of itself, is a deeply problematic concept endemic of that dreaded mindset that I saw used as a cudgel during my years in the education field, and which was always summed up in one word: appropriateness.

I’ve referenced him several times in the past, but Bret Easton Ellis has recently had his moment in the media spotlight with Tarantino, summoning a minor social media firestorm in the wake of his New York Times interview with QT, in which the director expressed his tepid enthusiasm for Selma and asserted that Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker) win was primarily motivated by the utter lack of attention that the Academy (and Hollywood) has historically given to women directors. As Ellis expounds upon in an essay he wrote shortly after the incident, the whole matter comes down to the difference between aesthetics and ideology. After all, a film can be praised for its base philosophy, yet still critiqued for its aesthetic values (and vice versa; see Triumph of the Will.) Yet the controversy around he and Tarantino’s aesthetic opinions on these and other films was met with a wave of derision, as blanket dismissals of both the art and the artist.

It’s this same philosophy of aesthetics and ideology that seemed (and, perhaps, still seem) to lie at the heart the perceived 12 Years/Django dichotomy. Steve McQueen’s films have always been intriguing formalist exercises, rigorous in their style and approach. In Hunger and Shame, he leads Michael Fassbender through mirror versions of the gauntlet of physical and spiritual self-abasement. Amidst these tortured wrangling, a profound sense of visual and sonic poetry still exists. The snowbound opening moments of Hunger offer a portrait of quotidian peace and beauty that stand in high contrast to the squalor and cold brutality of the Maze Prison. And the perverse sexual indulgences of Shame are framed by passages of neon noir beauty, such as Fassbender’s long night run through the streets of New York. Moreover, the harshest moments of each film can still hold the pained, profane allure of a Bosch painting.

When I saw 12 Years a Slave, I recognized some of these similar traits in it. And yet, the formal audacity that I so enjoyed about those previous films seemed to have been tamed for this slavery tale. Sure, parts of it are beautiful, as any decently shot film set in such a landscape will be. But much of McQueen’s stylistic approach just felt that much flatter than what came before. And for a director whose art world background lent so much transcendent power to his film work, this was a mildly disappointing development. Not that 12 Years is a bad film. Its depictions of just how vile institutionalized slavery could be serve as a stern rebuke to a long Hollywood history that has too often been a bastion of whitewashing the subject. And the intensity of the performances by Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor is often bracing. But purely as a cinematic project, it just felt a bit lacking in the context of what came before.

Those art world trappings around McQueen are what have led to much of his acclaim, and in many ways they made him the perfect candidate for directing a film like 12 Years (that and his racial makeup.) Released at the height of awards season mania, 12 Years bore the all-important patina of what is considered to be honorable and, yes, appropriate about films like this: it was an “important” movie by an “important” director, one which would deal with a controversial subject in an almost solemn and ultimately uplifting manner. It’s a cycle that is repeated every year around this time, and it’s produced many films that make an audience (especially an upscale, white audience) feel good about their tastes and social mores in a most non-confrontational manner. And it almost guarantees an impenetrable armor of respectability around such projects.
Tarantino, of course, is a populist and a sensationalist through and through which, in the current cultural climate, made him improperly suited to tackle such a serious cultural stain as slavery. But in many ways, his distinct sensibilities made him the perfect director to do so. The episodes of brutal violence and degradation in 12 Years are, indeed, gut-wrenching and deeply uncomfortable. They’re also completely expected in a film that was essentially presold as a deeply uncomfortable history lesson, almost a safe zone for reinforcement of a noble and admirable ideal. And even in those more extreme moments, there’s a certain distancing that the tone and setting provide. The slave sales and plantation scenes carry a certain power, but they’re also presented as being of such a past moment as to seem almost alien in their ugliness. Django takes place in much similar venues, but its dark humor and hyperbolic violence hook the audience in deep before throwing them into the darker and more disturbing elements of the story.

Take the twin characters that Michael Fassbender and Leonardo DiCaprio portray in these films. Edwin Epps is a galvanizing presence, but he’s also a monster through and through from the outset. His psychotic abuse is terrifying, but after establishing such a demeanor, the film has almost nowhere to go with him. And for the most part, he’s easy to hate from the moment he first appears on screen. Calvin Candie, on the other hand, is a paragon of suave amiability, which provides much of the shock of his introduction against the background of two men beating each other to death in a cruel Mandingo fight. Knowing that Candie is the film’s heavy and big bad doesn’t immediately weaken the pleasure of enjoying the slimy charm that DiCaprio brings to playing him. It’s not until his hideous use of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to interrogate Django and King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) that the full extent of his monstrous nature comes to the forefront.

And it’s this dichotomy that reveals Django’s true value as commentary on the racism inherent in modern culture. Despite being a portrait of a bygone time, Tarantino’s film feels so immediate because the world it portrays is one in which polite culture effectively hides the moral repugnance of this institutionalized discrimination. The world that Solomon Northup travels through in McQueen’s film is akin to a walking nightmare, one which must be endure if it is to ever be escaped. There’s deep aesthetic pleasure in the buddy cop riffs of King Schultz and Django, an enjoyment that (much like life in that era) almost makes it easy to forget the vile backbone of the American culture. Schultz lives by an extension of such a mindset, freeing Django only because he needs him to identify one of his bounties (although his freeing of Django’s fellow slaves shows a much more progressive streak as well), and generally viewing the murders he commits and the deals he strikes through a purely pragmatic and transactional lens. One of the most telling scenes is then vein shows him encouraging Django in making his first kill of a man who, though a murderer, also has a young son who, it’s implied, doesn’t know about his father’s criminality. Django’s hesitance to pull the trigger (and the son’s distant grief at his father’s death) tells the audience that there’s more than empty action and revenge at stake here (much as Kill Bill also posited.)

The payoff for this scene is one of most powerful in all of Tarantino’s filmography, and one that offers a biting commentary on modern racism and a meta-commentary on racism in cinema. After reluctantly striking the deal to free Broomhilda, Schultz sits in the background of Candie’s parlor reflecting on the slave who he saw torn apart by dogs earlier in the day. Playing the hero this time, Christoph Waltz is as captivating a presence as he was in Inglourious Basterds. He’s also, once again, a master storyteller and soothsayer, escaping from several tight situations by taking solace in the cool logic of the bounty hunter’s legal rights, and blocking some of the moral quandaries inherent in touring through slave country with Django by agreeing that they must only play the roles of master and slave. It’s an echo of the performative impulse than runs through Basterds, but this time, Waltz’s character must finally come face to face with the horrors that he’s witnessed. The deep pain and sadness on Waltz’s face as he realizes that Calvin Candie can’t just be dismissed as another loathsome business associate is moving stuff, and when he blows the whole deal by murdering Candie rather than debasing himself with a handshake, it’s almost understandable. Here is a man who, much like the audience for this film, has passed through so much of others’ pain and suffering only to finally know the full cost of such a distancing. True, the aftermath of this explosion of violence eventually leads to Django slaughtering the plantation survivors and reclaiming Broomhilda’s freedom, which can be read as both historical revisionism (a claim also levied against the Basterds’ climactic Nazi massacre) and as uplifting an ending as 12 Years provides. But there’s no forgetting the extreme ugliness that took place deep in the heart of the gilded palace of sin that is Candieland. And that evoked a conflicted, ruminative feeling upon exiting the theater, the combination of elation and horror one that is tough to shake, and anything but reaffirming.

That world that Django offers can seem very distant in a modern society that has become more enlightened in racial, ethnic, and sexual tolerance and acceptance than previous eras. And yet, there are the major city police shootings of black men that have taken place in the years following the film’s release. And the coded, immigrant-baiting racism at the heart of several major presidential campaigns. And the increasingly corporate culture that has helped to expand the income gap to levels not seen since the Jazz Age, a disparity that overwhelmingly affects minorities. American culture is in the full flush of a love affair with the frictionless experience (as Silicon Valley magnates put it), one in which we pass from pleasure to pleasure without much thought or hard matters of choice. Too often, we confront racism with a social media campaign, or by signing a petition. Or by watching a film that tells us exactly what we expect it will about the subject. It might not ever be acclaimed as a profound treatise on race relations, but in packing such horrific lessons into a deeply alluring exterior, Django Unchained captures so much of what racial discrimination means in the world in which we live.   

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Star is Born!: Christoph Waltz and the Theatrical Pleasures of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

The cinema of Quentin Tarantino has always been about the cinema, or at least our collective memories of the cinema. As I’ve mentioned before in this series of essays, Vincent Vega’s observation in Pulp Fiction that Jack Rabbit Slim’s feels like a wax museum with a pulse has (for better or for worse) become the defining epigram for QT’s filmography, populated as it is by riffs on old filmic archetypes, characters who (much like Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye) seem to have awoken from a deep slumber into the present day. It’s all very much in keeping with the dominance of post-modernism in this increasingly post-empire culture; even with their anachronistic dress, attitudes, and verbal patter, these characters still seem to fit comfortably into a modern milieu that has fully embraced nostalgic recycling. So the diamond thieves of Reservoir Dogs, the down-on-his-luck pugilist of Pulp Fiction, the drug-smuggling stewardess of a marginal airline of Jackie Brown…all of them are believable as denizens of the modern world, even as they also seem to be simultaneously living decades before. When you stop and really think about it, the effect is as discombobulating as it is thrilling, much like the bemused reaction Vincent has to the waiters and waitresses he sees on that fateful date with Mia Wallace.

That contemporary setting provides the common thread between Tarantino’s first five films, so his decision to abandon it in favor of a period piece for his sixth directorial outing raised the notion that he was indulging in his nostalgia fetish to a deleterious effect. He’d long spoken of his desire to craft a men on a mission film in the vein of The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven, and in the wake of Grindhouse’s failure the concept of a WWII pic felt like a retreat into much safer territory. But even though Inglourious Basterds chronicles the fictitious closing days of that epic conflict, its chief concerns transcend nostalgia, while also establishing this film as perhaps the most cinema-obsessed in his oeuvre.

The notion of the performative drive has coursed through all of Tarantino’s works. His choice of the spartan black suits worn by the criminals in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was derived from a desire to give them their own suits of armor. Before entering Brett’s apartment, Jules tells Vincent that it’s time to get into character, and he later must come to terms with the character that he’s been playing for Marsellus Wallace for so long (that of The Tyranny of Evil Men.) Jackie Brown can only deliver herself from harm’s way by simultaneously playing multiple characters in her dealings with the feds, the police, and Ordell Robbie. And who is The Bride but a woman trained to play the part of the killer, who longs to change roles as a housewife (Bill’s Superman/Clark Kent commentary ends up serving as a sly meta-commentary on the actor getting lost in the role.)

Inglourious Basterds takes this focus on performance even further, presenting a cast of characters whose lives are either dictated by or preoccupied with playing roles. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) survives the Nazi occupation of France only by playing the part of the non-Jewish cinema proprietor Emmanuelle Mimieux.  Daniel Bruhl’s Frederick Zoller’s war heroism gains him celebrity status in the Nazi party, but he only finds true validation in the larger than life depiction of these heroics in the Goebbels propaganda film Nation’s Pride. The frustration he displays when Shoshanna continually rebukes his romantic advances is about more than just a wounded male ego: after all, he’s now a movie star! As Archie Hicox, Michael Fassbender’s main role in the film involves an undercover operation in a bar gone wrong, one that requires the assistance of Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark (herself a private woman playing a public celebrity who’s hiding her role as an Allied Forces asset.) Even Adolph Hitler gets in on the action: he’s first depicted wearing a regal cape, posing for a self-aggrandizingly regal oil portrait. And Shoshanna’s plot to burn down her cinema is centered around the gathered Nazi throng witnessing her as a giant cinematic face prophesying their doom, a role that (in a neat analogy for the cinema’s power to bestow immortality on its denizens through their imagistic imprint) transcends her own life, the flickering image of her laughter living on in the fire’s smoke as her physical self lies dead in the projection booth.

Beyond the active performances, there’s the matter of the myth and legend that is built up around characters, and the effect it has on their existence. The hirsute Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) is bestowed with the moniker of “The Bear Jew” after he begins murdering Nazis with a baseball bat, and Hitler is so threatened by the potent optics of this nickname that he forbids his troops from using it. Similarly, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is known as “The Apache” based on his preference for scalping the German soldiers he hunts. On a larger level, the entire concept of the Basterds, a troupe of Jewish soldiers (and the Nazi turncoat Hugo Stiglitz) bent on revenge against their anti-Semitic oppressors, smacks of a professional wrestling gimmick. But these men also know the power of myth-building. And after all, isn’t war itself the ultimate act of performance, as soldiers are trained to ignore one of the primary human taboos (killing) to play a part that they are then expected to abandon after their tour of duty (which, as we now know, can be daunting to pull off.)

At the center of the mythology machine is the one character who most fully embraces his assigned persona: “The Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa, ace detective for the Third Reich and perhaps the most fully-realized of the master storytellers that populate Tarantino’s filmic world. Before winning the part of Landa, Christoph Waltz was a semi-obscure Austrian television actor, but he owns the screen from his first moments like no Tarantino actor since Samuel L. Jackson. Like William H. Macy with David Mamet before him, Jackson has always been the perfect vessel for Tarantino’s hyper-stylized dialogue, imbuing it with the braggadocious swagger and emotional power that give his roles equal parts weight and bombast. What Waltz brings to QT’s dialogue is an aesthete’s pleasure, a refined sense of enjoyment at the playful manipulation of words and language. As he interrogates Perrier LaPadite in the film’s famous opening scene, the audience knows that he’s fully aware of Shoshanna’s family hiding on the premises. But Landa so enjoys playing the role of the villain, and is so in love with the overwhelming power that language can have over another person that he extends the tension far beyond LaPadite’s breaking point. It’s a tactic that he repeats throughout the film, first with Shoshanna in a French restaurant, and ultimately with Bridget on the night of the Nation’s Pride premiere. His serpentine charms evoke both pleasure and terror in the audience, so when he finally snaps and strangles Bridget to death it’s a somewhat shocking moment of aggression for a man seemingly defined by his commitment to being the suave good cop. When he eventually makes the deal with Aldo which allows the Basterds’ plot to reach its culmination, we finally understand that the performative drive is what defines him entirely. His view of his role in the war is that of an actor for hire, and he only views his absolution by the Allies and anointment as an undercover war hero as yet another part to play.

Landa hyper-literate theatricality makes him such a fascinating, indelible character, so much so that the overall tone and structure of the film seems to spring forth from his subconscious. By this point, a Tarantino film was defined by long passages of dialogue (or monologue), punctuated by scenes of bloody action; Kill Bill and Death Proof almost reward the audience members not enthralled by conversation with their bang ‘em up tableaus. Basterds has its share of visceral thrills, but this is very much a film centered around several long sequences that play out as verbal confrontations between characters, tests of will and authenticity of character. Working with DP Robert Richardson again, Tarantino eschews some of the flashier dynamics of Kill Bill in favor of long takes and a deliberate shot-countershot structure that is as powerful as it is basic. Take that opening scene again. Most of it boils down to Landa and LaPadite exchanging information in a shot sequence that adheres to an almost invisible editing tempo, one that lulls the audience into Landa’s cool cadence. Which makes the grace notes of the scene (Landa one upping LaPadite’s modest pipe with his own oversized Calabash, his uncomfortably long slug of milk, the impeccable neatness he displays when laying out his ink bottle and notebook) all the more remarkable and effective. When Landa lowers the boom on his captive, it’s expressed in a single close-up of Waltz’s face, his ingratiating smile melting into a stone-cold glare. This is Tarantino returning to the dynamic he established in Pulp Fiction, but played in an even straighter fashion.

Viewing Inglourious Basterds today, I’m still impressed by how fluidly it plays. In its initial release, its old-fashioned structure seemed both refreshing and radical. Here was a major release film that actually expected its audience to follow along, to be smart enough to make the many connections it posited, and to be patient enough to allow the action to develop to its satisfactory conclusion. Six years on, in a culture beset by fragmented attention spans and rapid-fire plotting, it’s a singular delight to watch such an exercise. Contrary to the previous critical opprobrium, this isn’t Tarantino trying to deal in hipness. Rather, it’s a recommittal to the foundation of what has always made his films rewarding: the sense of an expertly told, multi-faceted story.

The critical adulation and mass acceptance that this film received would relaunch QT’s career on several levels, re-establishing him in full as a Hollywood player. But it would also mark the end of one of his key collaborations.  A year after Basterds’ release, his longtime editor/feminine sounding board/surrogate mother figure Sally Menke was found dead of apparent heat stroke in the Hollywood Hills. The editor has always been one of the most important, yet unheralded positions on a film crew (ask any actor worth their salt about how much they value an editor’s role in shaping their performance), so in her time Menke never received the widespread acclaim that her pupil did. But her work on Tarantino’s films was as much a part of their fabric as his dense, stylized scripts. I could go on lauding her here, but I’ll leave those duties to the great Jim Emerson, whose 2010 video essay tribute to her tells the tale in a much more learned and concise fashion.

Tarantino’s revulsion to political correctness has earned him the wrath of many commentators over the course of his career. His battles with Spike Lee over his seeming appropriation of black culture and casual usage of racial epithets in his scripts are legendary (and probably worthy of an essay unto themselves.) Inglourious Basterds’ rewrite of the Nazi-Jew dynamic, essentially ignoring the Holocaust and allowing two very Jewish soldiers to murder Hitler and his cabinet while a very Jewish woman incinerates a theater full of Nazi bigwigs, drew some cries of protest from critics who accused him of whitewashing history in the name of a jaunty tale. It’s an interesting and complex topic to dig into, but it also assumes a certain set of pre-ordained narrative beats that must be addressed in any depiction of the horrors of the Nazis. But if this dynamic seemed controversial, it was nothing compared to the period epic that Tarantino would unleash on audiences some three years later, one that ripped open the scabs of a shame and horror of a distinctly domestic nature.