Amongst people who do not know the director of Caged Heat (1974), the music from Across 110th Street (1972), or the length of the final car chase in the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)—which is to say, almost everyone— watching a Quentin Tarantino movie is like listening to classical music: pleasant in a vague, try-anything-once sort of way, but mostly a reminder of how ignorant and uncultured you are.
This feeling is perfectly agreeable to film critics, who accumulate this kind of arcane trivia (Jonathan Demme; soul tracks by Bobby Womack; 34 minutes) and so think of themselves as pretty smart. But the average moviegoer (yes, we think of you as average) just wants to be entertained.
In his first three films, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997), everyone wins—theatrical, memorable (and excessively talkative) characters try to stay alive through increasingly hopeless scenarios while every available shot, location, throwaway line and hand prop provides inside references for aficionados of world cinema.
His next two endeavours—the double-volume pan-Asian homage Kill Bill (2003 and 2004) and the double-feature ode to 1970s American B-movies, Grindhouse (2007)—overindulged in intertextual density and underwhelmed the public.
Inglourious Basterds heralds Tarantino’s return to form. Structured as a series of ‘chapters’ telling interconnected stories (like Pulp Fiction), the film defies easy summary. However, here goes: during World War II in Nazi-occupied Paris, a German film premiere becomes the target of three offensives, by the French, the British and a group of American combatives known as The Basterds.
Every Tarantino picture is a post-modern pastiche, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception. Civil-rights era American war movies like The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Great Escape (1963) and especially The Dirty Dozen (1967) featured eclectic bands of soldiers who overcome internal differences to battle a common—invariably German—enemy.
Inglourious Basterds, which takes its title from a 1978 Italian copycat of The Dirty Dozen, reproduces the dynamic with a group of mostly Jewish-American infantrymen cobbled together by a Southern lieutenant with alleged Amerindian heritage, Aldo Raine (deliciously overplayed by Brad Pitt). Pitt’s character is brashly, brazenly all-American, in a loose inheritance of similar roles played by older hunks Gregory Peck and Steve McQueen.
As in his other work, Tarantino eschews an original score in favor of repurposed tracks from other, older films, including several musical selections by famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West).
Though epic in scale, budget and execution, Inglourious Basterds retains Tarantino’s trademark rhythm—long stretches of dialogue that explode into moments of extreme violence. Like any good filmmaker, he keeps making the same movie over and over without repeating himself. Signature elements clock in regularly—the inclusion of a Mexican standoff (where three or more characters point guns at each other) and the dangerous thrill of a woman’s bare feet—without threatening the integrity of the story.
Tarantino’s relationship with cinema is that of someone towards their spouse of forty years, which is about how long he’s been watching movies. He can’t help but adore it—wholeheartedly, unrepentingly, and forever—but also knows its shortcomings and shortcuts, its successes and failures. He knows it, as a friend and as an enemy, exploring its boundaries and possibilities. Inglourious Basterds is another labour of love (ten years in the making) from a man who wants all of us—even the average ones—to have that feeling.