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.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Lonesome Death of Stuntman Mike: DEATH PROOF and the Grand GRINDHOUSE Experiment

Almost ten years on from its release, Grindhouse, the epic three-hour exploitation homage double feature from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, seems both more prescient and more bizarre than ever. On paper, the project seemed like a dream pairing for film fanatics of a certain mien, the twin exemplars of DIY ‘90s indie film success (at least on a pop consciousness level) joined together for their ultimate tribute to the horror and exploitation films that shaped their formative years. Both had steadily risen through the ranks of mainstream Hollywood success, but they still swore fealty to the childlike enthusiasms of the fan imperative.

Or, as some would say, the childish enthusiasms. It’s always been a thin line that these two directors have walked between those sensibilities. At the heart of each of their oeuvres lies a deeply ingrained sense of fetishization. Rodriguez made his mark rehashing ‘70s and ‘80s vigilante action tropes through the split diopter lens of the Latino experience and the Spaghetti Western. After establishing his DIY credentials with the $7000 shooting budget of El Mariachi, he elevated that film’s story to the level of quasi-mythology via Antonio Banderas’s smoldering charisma, Salma Hayek’s vibrant sexuality, and the studio luxuries afforded to him in making Desperado (he would fully embrace that mythos with the finale of the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico.) But as time passed, his fetish seemed to shift toward the emerging digital technology that allowed him to control more and more aspects of his productions. Taking full advantage of green screen imaging, he was able to unleash some of the more fantastical elements of his imagination in the Spy Kids films and, most notably, in the two Sin City omnibuses. The latter films are intriguing deconstructions of the noir genre, eschewing any sense of connection to standard notions of the real world in playing out as fugue states borne from a lifetime of cinema madness. Unfortunately, that lack of connection to reality began to bleed into all of his projects as he embraced the freedom of green screen. Rodriguez isn’t quite to George Lucas levels of digital onanism, but there’s a certain weight that’s gone missing in many of his films.

Of course, Tarantino’s fetishes embrace nearly all forms of the classic cinema of the cool, from Spaghetti Westerns to Italian gialli and gore films to Blaxploitation to ‘70s crime sagas to the entire AIP universe (there’s also his passion for feet…but that’s a different essay altogether.) Kill Bill seemed to be his final say on those preoccupations, a heady brew of stylistic influences filtered through revenge archetypes. Critics and fans alike wondered if he could strike out in a new direction after such a seemingly exhaustive endeavor. So when Grindhouse was announced, it almost felt like maybe this was the natural end point for his fetishization of the ‘70s cinematic world, one final blowout that not only paid tribute to those films but actually aped their style and presentation. After all, in a culture soaked in retro instincts, a loving recreation of a ‘70s grindhouse double bill by the two chief proponents for that era seemed a wholly fitting expression of the zeitgeist and a distillation of the cut-up imperative that the internet era had so greatly accelerated.

Ah, but the best laid plans…

Released over Easter weekend in 2007, Grindhouse was a resounding financial flop, even though its critical reception was strong. Even though I had a total blast seeing it on opening day, in retrospect a lot about this project seems a bit daft. Sure, it’s a tag team effort from two of the biggest directors in the then-burgeoning geek universe, but it’s also a three-hour double feature that was sold partially as one big film and partially as a double feature. I’m still not sure who thought that Easter weekend would be a good time to release this profane enterprise, and I can’t believe that timing didn’t have an effect on its success. Watching it on video all these years later, I was struck by just how much of a niche enterprise it’s become (and probably was at the time.) The fake ‘70s-era trailers, the drive-in snipes, the faux scratches and pops, the missing footage….even in 2007 these markers were relics of the past, pitched directly at the hardcore or aging audience who spoke that language. A general audience of those unschooled in that cinematic milieu (or those too young to have experienced it) were likely dumbfounded by some of the tricks on display. Ironically, the digital innovations that Rodriguez so embraced have helped turn Grindhouse into even more of a curiosity in this near post-film world.

The genius of Tarantino’s previous films lies in the canny way that he melds references to the past with characters who feel totally modern and complex, thus making them much more than a wax museum with a pulse, as Vincent Vega famously says in Pulp Fiction. I still find Grindhouse to be thrilling on a nostalgic level, but there’s now a wax museum feel to many of its charms. Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s extended paean to Cannon Films via George Romero, is a fun little potboiler with some fantastic gore effects, but much of it also feels like a bunch of actors playing archetypes (as opposed to breathing life into those archetypes.) Of course, my qualms might be completely missing the point; cheap thrills are the lingua franca of such an endeavor.

Death Proof, on the other hand, has really grown on me since that maiden screening. In recreating the grindhouse experience, Rodriguez and QT consciously set out to make the A-picture more readily accessible and dynamic, while allowing the B-feature to stretch out in sometimes confounding, yet still interesting, ways. The most common contemporary criticism of Grindhouse (one which still pops up here and there) was that with Death Proof, Tarantino had given in to his own worst tendencies, falling so in love with his dialogue that he created a film that foregrounded boredom at the expense of the car chase thrills at the end of the picture. That critique remains an odd take on the film, because viewed in immediate succession to his other works, Death Proof reveals itself as no less talky or digressive than QT’s more lauded works. Well, maybe a bit more digressive, as many of the extended conversations on display here are very much in the minutiae-obsessed vein of the stoner mindset. But there’s also a bit of a curdled, misogynist undertone to some of the knocks against a story that places so many of those conversations in the mouths of women. Plot is not the central focus of much of the film, but the evocation of these characters’ worlds, of the often minor concerns that make up their lives, captures a sense of neo-realism that is often absent from QT’s work.

And it’s only through the extended focus on those shaggy dog passages that Tarantino can spring the film’s narrative trap. In discussing Death Proof, he compared it to a mixture of the car chase and slasher film, except the slasher’s weapon was a car. The wielder of that murderous instrument is Stuntman Mike, marvelously embodied by Kurt Russell. In a cast of relative unknowns and character actors (Rosario Dawson was the only major name at the time,) Russell brings a palpable old Hollywood presence and grandeur to his portrayal of a man who was once a major film player, but whose career has been reduced by age and the industry’s reliance on CGI. When they meet him, the film’s first group of women poke fun at Mike for his anachronistic wardrobe, ducktail hairdo, and mildly geeky demeanor. But there’s a seductive charm that age, experience, and his own psychotic self-confidence have endowed him with, enough to lull all of these women into believing that he’s just another good-looking barfly. When he drives his custom stunt car straight through their ride, graphically severing legs and heads in a shocking act of brutality, it’s still a shock, even when you know that it’s coming. The killer on the road, brain squirming like a toad….

Death Proof’s second half serves as a refutation to the semi-misogynist thrills that the slasher film often provided, summoning forth a cadre of badass ladies headed up by real-life stunt woman Zoe Bell (who served as Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill double.) It’s telling that Mike never gets to work his sly charms on this group, eschewing that foreplay for a direct road confrontation that ranks as one of the most thrilling action sequences in modern cinema, Bell barely strapped to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger and flailing about as the death proof car pursues she and her friends. Seeing this chase on a giant screen in 2007 had me literally on the edge of my seat, the danger made so vivid by the obvious and complete lack of computer chicanery on display. If Stuntman Mike is a living elegy to analog cinema, Bell is a reminder that the pleasures of that world haven’t all disappeared. Sans any flirtatious affectations, Mike is satisfied with merely threatening their lives (a variation on skipping dinner to make out in the back seat?) But his male bravado is completely deflated when they first shoot him in the arm, and then turn the tables by engaging him in a high speed pursuit of their own. The visceral delight that Bell, Dawson, and the hyper-aggressive Tracie Thoms take in mowing him down is still quite the subversive thrill, especially in a society that too often relegates feminist power to a polite and conciliatory realm. And it’s matched by how much of a sniveling coward Russell and QT reveal Mike to be. In a career marked by accusations that he only lives vicariously through the cool of his cinematic heroes, it’s here that Tarantino offers a meta-commentary on that very mindset in this slug of a human being who’s convinced himself that he’s the cock of the walk.

It was impossible to know at the time, but Stuntman Mike’s existence as a man out of time would be very prescient. Death Proof would be Tarantino’s swan song to the contemporary era (at least as of this writing.) It’s hard to know how much of his departure to the ’40s and the Civil War era in his subsequent films has been driven by the accelerated encroachment of technology on a world that he still views through a distinctly analog lens. Nonetheless, his retreat even further into the past wouldn’t prove to be a matter of retrograde infantilism. Indeed, the films that followed Death Proof would contain some of his finest work, and serve as a fascinating document of his evolution as an artist. And it all began once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France…