"If I reach high points with Inglourious Basterds, it is partly because Paul [Thomas Anderson] came out with There Will Be Blood a couple years ago, and I realized I had to bring my game up." (full clip)
Quentin Tarantino, like the films he makes, is nothing if not self-aware. He must have known something was off in 2007. Paul Thomas Anderson, his dear friend and competitor, unleashed There Will Be Blood as he drooled out Death Proof, a masturbatory and insular B-movie homage. One was an instant classic; the other a Tarantino-dialogue vehicle, this time with chicks. To some, the movie marked his "creative death." By 2009, Tarantino didn't just need to bring his game up. He needed a veritable game-changer.
Inglourious Basterds, his almost unclassifiable WWII picture, was that and so much more. A European art-house film. A revenge crowd-pleaser. A slap in the face to self-serious cinema. An uncompromising thriller. A joyous slice of entertainment. A Leone-style western. A men-on-a-mission throwback. A substantive tale on the powers of myth-making. Not to sound cute, but it might just be his masterpiece.
Inglourious Basterds is a postmodern movie about the importance of images in society. In almost every scene, characters broadcast images and conceal true aspects of their real selves. They lie, exaggerate, and hide in the name of escaping death (if on the defensive) or spreading fear (if on the offensive). Some, like Goebbels, use visual media to propagate myths about themselves and their enemies. Others, like Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine, take a viral approach. They roam the woods, terrorizing Nazis, and leaving survivors to speak of the horrors. Both share the same goals: rallying supporters and scaring the shit out of foes. At its core, Inglourious Basterds unfolds like a murderous PR battle. No surprise, Tarantino uses the film-within-the-film to quote another piece of cinematic propaganda, Battleship Potemkin.
In two of the film's show-stopping scenes, characters appear under direct interrogation. They sit in countryside cabins and basement barrooms, crafting false images to survive. Characters must lie, and convincingly. Here, the movie's preoccupation with image-building plays on a person-to-person level.
Tarantino hints at his themes everywhere. Just look at these two stills, which echo his obsession with the difference between truth and image-level deception:
The first shows truth. That man is a real Nazi, and you can see it in his skin. The second shows a simulacrum. That man isn't Edgar Wallace. He's a fake, a copy. But, as postmodern theorists argue, in a society inundated with images, The Truth and The Image become indiscernible. It's all "real" if you can convince people it's real.
I've taken a pretty academic approach here because, well, most of this movie's pleasures don't take much analysis. This movie is fist-pumping fun. Tarantino's dialogue remains as vibrant as ever. His characters speak in artful, memorable rhythms ("Au revoir, Shosanna!"). Scenes come equipped with satisfying payoffs. Villains possess disarming charisma. Bizarre titles and freeze frames intentionally shatter the film's tone for laughs. Brad Pitt talks in a funny accent. Nazis get killed. These delights -- of which there are many, many more -- don't take much to appreciate.
Lastly, Tarantino's love of Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave registers here in powerful ways. Just as Godard and others rejected the stuffy "quality films" of their elders -- the so-called "Cinema de Papa" -- for a youthful, of-the-moment approach to filmmaking, Tarantino mocks self-serious period films through a barrage of devices to distance viewers. Where a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does everything it can to immerse viewers in A Serious Movie, Inglourious Basterds prefers a self-aware approach. Tarantino sprinkles his story with randomly-timed Samuel L. Jackson narration, David Bowie interludes, and other self-conscious devices to distance us. Like Godard, he wants us to know we're watching a movie. Unlike Godard, he actually cares to entertain. Tarantino brings postmodern filmmaking (and, with Inglourious Basterds, theory) to a wide audience.