For those who enjoyed my Inglourious Basterds analysis, you may also enjoy seeing Tarantino interviewed by Rachel Maddow.
At the top of Act V of Inglourious Basterds, Shoshanna broods in her red dress and puts on her war paint — her makeup — in order to do battle with the Nazis and (as far as she knows) single-handedly win WWII. As she broods, we are treated to a quick flashback to her and Marcel, her boyfriend/projectionist, making a short movie in the projection-booth stairwell and taking it to the chemist to get it developed. Unfortunately, the movie is set in Nazi-occupied France, which means that Shoshanna and Marcel have to pin the chemist to a table and threaten him and his family with an axe just to get a roll of film developed — CVS’s one-hour photo services are, apparently, far in the distant future.
Okay. So, we’ve got this movie, Inglourious Basterds. Twenty minutes into it, it starts over. Twenty minutes after that, it starts over again. Now, incredibly, at one hour and four minutes, it starts over for the fourth time, with a whole new protagonist, who won’t live through the act, and introduces yet another major character. I can’t think of another movie that’s ever done this. Even 2001 eventually settles on a main character and follows his story to conclusion. High and Low switches protagonists for an hour before coming back to its original protagonist, but Basterds has, so far, boasted three completely separate protagonists and is now introducing a fourth. And it fully expects us to be invested in this brand new character.
Thirty-eight minutes into Inglourious Basterds, something very strange happens — the movie starts over, for the third time.
Something kind of unusual happens about 20 minutes into Inglourious Basterds: the movie starts. You can feel it as you’re watching it, after the slow-burn suspense of "Chapter 1," here’s a scene you recognize and understand: a tough, take-charge army officer barks out the details of a secret mission to a cadre of elite soldiers. Hooray, the viewer thinks, now I’m oriented, now I know where I am, this is going to be a "men on a mission" movie, like The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare. The first scene was just a long setup for the Col Landa character, now we’re going to meet the dog-faced American soldiers who are going to kick Landa’s ass.
For a minute or so, it looks like the protagonist of Inglourious Basterds is going to be Perrier LaPadite, a humble French dairy farmer just trying to eke his way through World War II in the French countryside with his daughters. Into LaPadite’s island of relative calm comes Col Hans Landa. The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds is over 15 minutes long, which is extraordinary in and of itself. 15 minutes is a huge amount of screen time to spend on a scene, especially an opening scene, especially a two-handed opening scene where one of the characters will never be seen again. That’s just the beginning of the daring and audacity of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay.
I intend to write a scene-by-scene analysis of Quentin Tarantino’s densely layered, altogether captivating new movie, but that will have to wait until the DVD release. For now, I’d like to offer this round table discussion I had over the past couple of days with
Part 2 of Death Proof begins with the "Psycho scene," where an "authority figure" declaims, for the audience’s benefit, the subtext of Part 1 — Ranger EarlMcGraw tells us what we’ve already grasped, that Stuntman Mike is a dangerous psychopath who crashes his "death proof" car into women’s cars for his sexual gratification. The scene is a gentle dig at Psycho‘s famously inept coda, but Tarantino adds a couple of icky layers to it: first, he includes Dr. Block, a character from Death Proof‘s co-feature Planet Terror, and gives her a weird, violent reaction to kindly, wizened Ranger McGraw, a reaction that can only be appreciated by watching the other movie (Dr. Block having her own problems with men). Then, after McGraw has finished his spiel on Stuntman Mike and his sick pathology, he announces that he’d rather follow the Nascar circuit than investigate Mike’s crimes, placing Mike’s MO in the broader context of a national malaise: there are millions of people who find some level of gratification watching stock cars smash into each other.
It sounds like a strange comparison, but Tarantino, in one way, reminds me of Spielberg, in that his movies are always thematically quite dense. Death Proof, like, say, Jurassic Park, features a strong theme that resonates down to the smallest of details, from broad story outlines to the tiniest of gestures.
Quentin Tarantino’s movies are explosions of meaning. They spew significance of many different kinds in every direction on a shot-by-shot basis. Every element of every shot is fraught with references, usually to other movies. As such, they invite multiple readings from a number of different points of view and philosophical schools. For instance, I just read a book-length monograph on Pulp Fiction that examined every aspect of the movie but one — what the characters in the movie do and say.
I am not smart enough or cool enough to catch every one of the thousands of references that give Tarantino’s movies their postmodern punch — I’ve never seen a Shaw Bros kung-fu movie, for instance. So I will limit myself in this analysis to what I do understand: characters and their motivations. And I will leave the examination of angles, design choices, costumes, hairstyles, cultural freight and songs to others.