Inglorious Basterds: My Odd Relationship With Tarantino’s ‘Masterpiece’

“You know something,” Brad Pitt muses as he peers down at the swastika he’s just carved onto a screaming Christoph Waltz’s forehead, “this might just be my masterpiece”. In the case of Pitt’s artistic skills with a massive knife on human skin, it might just be his masterpiece. But the commentary from the film’s director is too obvious to miss: with the last line of the film, Tarantino is telling us this movie is his masterpiece.

And for a while, at least, I wasn’t sure he was wrong.

If you had known me during my teenage years, you would have been aware of my unconditional predilection for Quentin Tarantino. It all started when I saw Pulp Fiction and dropped my jaw at this movie expressing such unbridled style and confidence and just sheer loquacious joy at telling a story. I hadn’t been used to seeing that kind of film in the past (and in all honesty, it was the film that made me want to write films). Then sure enough, I swiftly ploughed through the rest of the catalogue; Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill vol 1 & 2, Death Proof; each of them impressing me in their own way, despite the growing criticism surrounding Tarantino’s increasing indulgence as a filmmaker.

The intensity of this fandom has diminished somewhat in recent years, so I’m no longer at the point where I blindly fall in love with everything he does (case in point: I really enjoyed The Hateful Eight, but it was the first time I began to agree with some of that indulgent talk – the first 40 minutes was just a little long-winded). And while Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown remain among my favourite films, I suspect there was also an element of illicitness that made watching Tarantino flicks so exciting when I was younger. He was a cool, “rockstar” kind of director who shot stylized violence and wrote dialogue at 100mph.

Anyway, this all brings me back, in some way, to Inglourious Basterds. As the first Tarantino movie I was able to see in the cinema, my excitement was piqued. Finally I could experience my favourite director working his magic in the setting it was designed for, and I was SO excited. I was excited in the months leading up to it, re-watching trailers over and over again before finally booking tickets for myself and two friends on opening weekend. When the movie started and I watched that insanely unnerving opening sequence, where the iniquitous and despicably brilliant Christoph Waltz slurps milk and draws comparisons between rats and Jews and Nazis, I got the same feeling I had when I saw Casino Royale for the first time. I slid back in my chair, smiled softly and let all the apprehension of it disappointing fade away. Everything was going to be okay.

However.

In the proceeding eight years, there’s been something about the film which just doesn’t quite sit right. Something I still can’t quite pinpoint. And because I can’t pinpoint it, I’ve been happy to tuck it away under the ‘Love Unconditionally’ tab like a lazy kid brushing dirt under the fridge (not that I’m suggesting Inglourious Basterds is dirt).

Indeed, I do really like it, and there are certainly elements I love (Christoph Waltz deserved every molecule of that Oscar), but there’s a wall there. I’ve never quite been able to fall in love with it like I had with his previous films, or went on to do with Django Unchained. Thinking about it more and more, I think I’ve stumbled upon at least part of an explanation.

It’s a film made up of individually brilliant parts which fail to fully unite, and the result is that I admire Inglourious Basterds more than I enjoy it. There’s a slight but significant difference.

When I last watched the film, I found my brain running through the same thoughts: artistically and visually it was impressing me, the performances were terrific, some of the dialogue and storytelling was genius, but I wasn’t really having fun with it. Not in the way I should have been. I couldn’t find the outlandish spark so synonymous with Tarantino. The time before that, I even switched it off half way through – admittedly it was after midnight and I was exhausted, but I can’t recall ever having switched off a Tarantino flick before. This sort of cemented the idea that I had to admit, to myself more than anyone, that I didn’t really love the film after all.

It would be easy enough to dismiss one instance – I don’t know about the rest of you, but there are even times when I’m not quite in a Back To The Future or Jurassic Park mood – only it’s been a growing unease over the years. I think, at times, Basterds gets too bogged down in its own voice. What I mean by that is, while so much Tarantino dialogue is exquisite, Inglourious Basterds’ endless multi-language soliloquizing and back-and-forths get a touch waning towards the hour and a half mark. A particular moment which has stood out the last couple of times is Shoshana listening to Goebbels rant about how perfect his films are over an awkward dinner – here it somehow reaches a summit and I keep struggling to focus (but of course Waltz saves the day a few moments later).

I don’t think it’s a case of indulgence, either. Ask me to cut a line from Inglourious Basterds and I’m not sure I could tell you which. It’s more a case of there being so much plot to get through in order to haul it from one set piece to the next, that the film ends up in sporadic troughs of blathering; sometimes we just need a break. Remember, Basterds was originally conceived as a miniseries: there’s a lot of plot.

And halt. The funny thing is, reading back through this I’m already second-guessing myself. My accusatory, Tarantino-obsessed younger self thinks I shouldn’t be writing about the pitfalls of Inglourious Basterds when in so many other ways it’s a great film. I suppose that’s the wonderful ambiguity of cinema at work.

Perhaps, too, there’s something more fundamental and subjective at work. It just doesn’t fully tick my boxes and I don’t always know why. In the same way one person loves Die Hard while the other is indifferent, or can’t quite explain why The Lord Of The Rings means so much to them – it just does – we have a funny old habit of forming opinions about movies without always understanding why. After all, the best films are the ones that move us deep down and leave us powerless to do anything about it.

If I’ve written this whole thing more for myself than anyone else, I apologize. I think in some way it’s a desperate attempt convince myself that it’s okay to be honest. But you know what? It’s probably worked.

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