For better or worse, Quentin Tarantino consistently manipulates cinematic time, deconstructing conventional story outlines in order to change temporal and aesthetic meaning. Tarantino’s been branded a thief, a genius, a mad man, and an arrogant bastard. He might be all these things and more, making him one of the few stand alone necessities of American Cinema. Like many have said, a Tarantino movie is an event, but probably for different reasons than it should be. We get hypnotized by his brilliant flair for dialogue and his constant onslaught of film history references. But Tarantino has evolved into a different monster altogether. He’s not trying to be Scorsese, or Wong, or Leone, or Di Leo, or Aldrich, but simply a filmmaker consumed, obsessed, and haunted by these directors and more, able to communicate a personal combustible nightmare on the screen with an unmatched sense of tonal frequencies.
Tarantino’s latest but not quite greatest (I’d still give that honor to Jackie Brown), a film he’s been writing/and or making for over a decade, is a WWII mosaic aptly entitled Inglorious Basterds. It’s a grandiose lesson in historiography, revising the fall of the Third Reich to produce a moral certainty about savagery, brutalization, and role reversals, a collection of bravura set-pieces adding up to what might be Tarantino’s most angry and perplexing work. Inglorious Basterds takes the reign from Kill Bill and other Tarantino films by dividing it’s narrative into Five Chapters, automatically assuming gaps and fissures will litter the work like a minefield of trauma. The period-piece setting makes these narrative breaks feel all the more harrowing, since so much water passes under the bridge yet the core memories remain keenly imprinted.
Inglorious Basterds begins with SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in an opening crescendo of menacing prose and inevitable violence, diabolically stretching out movie time to introduce a descending apocalypse of unmatched cunning, a hawk eyeing a field mouse from afar. Then we get the titular Basterds, a group of American Jews led by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, promising atrocities then making good on that promise in a series of bloody, wrenching flashbacks. The other key to this puzzle is Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of Tarantino’s opening mass murder, now four years in hiding as a Parisian Cinema owner. Many other fantastic characters emerge, including Michael Fassbender as a British movie critic turned Special Operations Officer and Til Schweiger as an ex-Nazi officer keen on dispatching Nazi officers. Every character gets a shining moment of verbiage and action, but what’s less expected is how each converges like a racing locomotive, quickly becoming both avenger and victim, full of rage and hope and precision one moment, deader than a doornail the next.
Tarantino paints the walls red, but also uses other vibrant hues – blacks, whites, greys, and greens – to hint at the many stories left hidden beneath the surface of a brilliant WWII era reconstruction. This is where Tarantino’s fracturing of time transcends his other films. The sly use of quick flashbacks, voice-over narration, and sound bridges first seems gimmicky, an inconsistent stylistic thrown in to reveal backstory. But as the film progresses, these sudden bursts of style become more complex and intrinsic to Tarantino’s vision of an alternate reality, a fantasy world where the movies can dissect history and alleviate guilt, lesson fear, and proclaim victory over the Nazi’s. The great critic Glenn Kenny has already referenced the best of these, an audio/visual flashback during Chapter 4/Operation Kino that acts as a centerpiece for what turns out to be the most dynamic set-piece of Tarantino’s career, a thirty minute vice of tension played out in a basement tavern. In this scene, time devilishly subverts our expectations.
Furthermore, Tarantino’s vision of time turns into a bendable, evolving beast directly related to the power of the Cinema, accelerating meaning by juxtaposing contrasting images of history together, forcing an outcome that is uncomfortable and revealing. Yet his endgame destroys all remnants of feeling, replacing humility and compassion with a collective vengeance. The many characters of Inglorious Basterds share a desire to rectify traumatic memories, driving them to kill, maim, butcher, and slaughter to justify their ideologies. In the end, time and memory merge together to form a destructive recognition – the numbing of morality to destroy massive evil. Like Aldo’s neck scar stretching from ear to ear, Inglorious Basterds constantly reminds why the past inevitably overlaps onto the present, marking both the guilty and innocent with haunting artistic prowess.