Thursday, February 18, 2010

Basterds of Young


I'll tread lightly here.

I'm one of those people who believes that a film's cultural impact can occasionally be taken into account when deciding whether to give it an Oscar. I'm not necessarily saying that the Academy Awards should be a popularity contest -- just that if it's obvious ahead of time that a certain movie's going to have a lasting legacy, that's worth at least considering during the Oscar voting process. The most glaring recent case in point: In 1998, Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan, the latter movie being not only a far better film but one that had a much more hefty impact on American culture. More than a decade later, which movie still sticks in your head?

Granted, I get that if you were to go strictly by contribution to the national zeitgeist, Avatar would be the one and only choice to get the top honor this year -- but let's face it, it's not a very good movie. Groundbreaking and an awesome visual experience, yes, but not a great film by any means. The Hurt Locker is without question the best movie I've seen over the last year, and it would be good to see Kathryn Bigelow get an award -- if for no other reason than how it cool it would be to be able to say, "From the Oscar-winning director of Point Break" -- and it's the current very slim favorite. But lately there's been a quiet tide turning in favor of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Gold Derby's Tom O'Neil -- who's not only a really good guy but who happens to be the only person who predicted that Crash would shock everyone, most of all fans of quality moviemaking, by winning Best Picture -- has gone on record as saying that Basterds will pull off the upset this year. But does it deserve it?

If you ask Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, the answer seems to be "yes."

In a move that feels more than a little predictable, Foxman has posted a piece over at HuffPo which tries to make the case that Basterds should get the film world's top honor simply because, from the way it sounds anyway, it's a really good movie about the Holocaust. Now I'm not sure whether Foxman is specifically saying that the film should win Best Picture or simply an Oscar in general, but what he's pretty clear about is that, like Life is Beautiful and Schindler's List before it -- both far superior films, by the way -- Basterds is inherently "good" because it serves to remind audiences of the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Obviously I would never belittle the Holocaust -- one of the single darkest periods in human history -- but as an argument this is kind of nonsense. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor himself, indirectly makes that point that Basterds serves a greater purpose because it brings the reality of Hitler's horrors to "a new audience," the younger generation.

But once again, does the movie deserve an Oscar simply for that reason?

There have been a lot of films made about murderous injustices that have been completely overlooked by the Academy, that is they weren't honored strictly because they told a story that needed to be told or made a point that needed to be made; just think of the number of movies dealing with slavery in America -- Amistad, Beloved, etc. -- that didn't win top Oscars. The reason they didn't, of course, is that they weren't terrific movies, and at its core -- all powerful messages and attempts at righting the wrongs of society through film aside -- that's what the Academy Awards are all about. Not every film that breaks new ground on land that's admittedly fertile deserves to be honored for it -- not even when that land calls to mind a tragedy that shouldn't be easily shrugged off. Hell, if we judge strictly on the moral of a story, who's to say that The Hurt Locker -- with its nightmarish look at war in the modern era -- isn't as powerful a film as Tarantino's World War II epic?

Inglourious Basterds is certainly a good movie, and with a surreal final act that includes -- spoiler alert -- the murder of Adolf Hitler, it's easy to see why the head of the Anti-Defamation League would get a visceral thrill out of the alternate history it concocts. But I'm just not sure it deserves an Oscar for Best Picture solely for its contribution to the pantheon of Holocaust films. (Best Original Screenplay for its sheer audacity might be a different story.)

Bottom line: A movie has to be much more than simply its message, no matter how passionately we might feel about that message.

Of course the real irony in all of this is that the guy who chews up the scenery as the deliciously menacing Nazi colonel -- Christoph Waltz -- is the one person from Inglourious Basterds guaranteed to walk away with an Oscar.

31 comments:

Jody said...

Although I usually fall to 'the right' on social issues, I once again find myself in total agreement with you. The Hurt Locker was far and away the best movie I've seen in several years, (Gran Torino being the other). As a big Tarantino fan, I must admit this was a bit of a disappointment for me. While Christopher Waltz indeed deserves the award, I cannot get Brad's 'over the top' southern drawl out of my head.

Keep up the good work. Your site is one of the few that I literally have to check out numerous times per day!!!!

Sophia said...

i disagree. schindler's list wasn't at all "far superior" to inglorious basterds. i think that they are not even in the same league. while schindler's list used the atrocities of the holocaust to tell an adapted and thus much more traditional individual-hero-against-all-odds-and-self-interest-story, inglorious basterds went into uncharted territory by combining comedy with deliberately falsified accounts of historical events (two in and of themselves already extremely explosive methods in connection with the holocaust), thus granting the audience the experience of a revenge that they had never been allowed in reality.

what schindler's list lacked in daring and delivered in traditional and safe story-telling by appealing to the viewers empathy and by creating a world where there was still, thank god, good in the midst of evil, inglorious basterds makes a bolder, and much more dangerous, choice.

and christoph waltz is one of the few really great german actors. having said that, i have to say that he played many roles the way he played the nazi colonel. he is at his best when he is able to play menacingly "evil" understated (for lack of a better term in this instance) characters. although i think he did a great job in that movie, i don't think it's oscar material.

JeremyRyanCarr said...

I think that you & Foxman are working from a false premise. To my thinking 'Inglourious Basterds' is not a "holocaust movie". Certainly not in the way that 'Life Is Beautiful' or 'Schindler's List' are. In those films the holocaust & it's horrors are very real. They are almost characters in those films. In Basterds, the holocaust is alluded to but never spoken of. We only witness it in the murder of the Dreyfus family. It is a motivation for the characters on both sides. The Basterds & Shosanna (who are Jews) are driven by revenge & hatred for the Nazis & what they've done to them & their people. Walz's character "The Jew Hunter" is charged with finding Jews to exterminate. Most of the picture is devoted to beating the Nazis which makes it more like 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'The Big Red One' than like either of the pictures mentioned. In short, 'Inglourious Basterds' is a war movie NOT a "holocaust movie". And really it's an alternate reality war movie which almost borders on parody of the two pictures I mentioned. In the same way that 'Jackie Brown' was both an homage to & a parody of the Blaxploitation pictures of the 70's. Either way I thought it was great but it was not The Best Picture. Walz's will, deservingly, win an Oscar & Quentin deserves one for screenplay but Basterds should not take home the top honor.

Chez said...

I don't consider Basterds to be a Holocaust movie -- Foxman does. I think it's a revenge fantasy, and certainly a creative one. Maybe I made my point badly, but what I was getting at is that Foxman seems to think that because it deals with Nazi Germany at all, and the horrors it inflicted on the Jewish people and the world, that its somehow deserving of an Oscar -- that the message alone, delivered well, makes it good enough to earn an Oscar.

Jeremy said...

The Hurt Locker is the only film that deserves to win.

Jeremy Renner was amazing. The entire film was just stunning. Visually. Emotionally. All around.

Basterds was just another way for Tarantino to see how many explosions and vulgar blood and guts moments he could fit into a thin story. Just like the rest of his outings. (And that is no judgment call. While he's not usually to my taste, I can appreciate explosions and mayhem for explosion and mayhem's sake. But let's not try to pretend its something any more altruistic or artistic than what it is.)

Chez said...

By the way, Sophia, once again -- Basterds and Schindler's List are apples and oranges when it comes to the subject they deal with, true. Once again, it was Foxman who seemed to want to lump them together. That said, as a work of film, sorry, Schindler's was vastly superior, if not quite as clever and audacious.

C Riedel-de Haen said...

I agree with Jeremy in that this movie is NOT about the holocaust. It's not even about the war.

And as far as I am concerned, any movie that features Eli Roth swinging a bat in a wifebeater deserves an Oscar!

Jus' sayin'

Dan said...

Schindler's List is in a class of its own, so I'll leave it out of this discussion. It was based on facts.

I have a bit of an issue with Holocaust fantasy movies like Life is Beautiful and Basterds. E.g., it took a while for me to absorb Life is Beautiful. I couldn't reconcile the fantastic left-field fiction of a small child: a) surviving a death camp (small children and the elderly were pretty much executed immediately upon arrival), and; b) being oblivious to what was happening around him.

I don't agree that Holocaust fantasy movies help create awareness of the Holocaust in an appropriate manner and they should't be given Oscars solely on that merit alone.

Eric said...

I apologize in advance for pimping myself, but Life Is Beautiful is one of the worst movies I've seen in my whole life. I don't just mean "worst" in the sense of "bad"--I mean, it's more technically accomplished than Black Samurai or Biker Zombies From Detroit, but I found those two films to have more redeeming virtues than La Vita è bella, notwithstanding tourist signs in the bad guy's secret HQ or ravaging undead remembering to use their turn signals exiting a parking lot.

That's not to say I disagree with any of the rest of what you say. I'll also add, in response to at least one commenter, that Schindler's List is superior just in terms of technique: Basterds is a good-looking film, but List is absolutely fucking gorgeous.

Haven't seen Hurt Locker yet, but haven't heard anything bad about it and it's somewhere in my DVD rental queue.

Alanna said...

Damn Jews. There, you offended yet?

While I enjoyed this movie, I definitely agree with it's representation as a revenge fantasy. It does not deserve an Oscar. And speaking of messages...what message does "Basterds" speak of? I don't see a fresh vision there - but I do see an almost "CANNIBAL: The Musical!" -style parody of Holocaust war movies.

The cast was strong. Pitt was eh, Diana Kruger was good, Melanie Laurent was great - Waltz, however, takes it to whole other level. I sound cliche, but that...that is the acting. Call it repulsive, I was WILDLY attracted to him that film. Must be some sort of masochist fantasy hailing from my Jewish side.

Michael J. West said...

I remember about 15 years ago, when Spike Lee was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for his extraordinary 4 Little Girls but lost to a Holocaust doc called The Long Way Home (which I haven't seen). I read an interview where Lee was asked if he was disappointed, and he replied, "No. I knew what was coming. Put me on the basketball court in a one-on-one against Michael Jordan, and spot Jordan a 100-point lead, and I'd still have a better chance against him than against a Holocaust film."

Anonymous said...

Think that's a totally reasonable and fair post, Chez.

The message shouldn't always override the promise of a great film. Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's finest work, and a truly groundbreaking film, but I'm not sure it's better than The Hurt Locker. That film is truly astonishing.

JeremyRyanCarr said...

Chez,
I see your point & I agree with you. A picture doesn't deserve awards or acclaim just because it's about the holocaust any more than a picture that proves popular with a large audience ('Transformers 2'). The danger in what Foxman describes is that the practice of automatically lauding awards on holocaust or WWII pictures will itself become parody. To a large extent it already has. Robin Williams' 'Jakob the Liar' was widely considered an Oscar grab. The frequencies with which WWII & holocaust movies are released right before awards season shows the cynicism with which the studios view this practice.

Ethnic Redneck said...

The difference between a good movie and a great movie is the amount of stuff you pick up on the second watching. There was just so much happening inside the characters heads in Hurt Locker and the actors were able to transmit that. Looking at it again, those little character moments that let you breathe between the major dramatic moments said a lot about what it means to be a man as well as a soldier.

With Basterds, looking back all I think is "heh, that scene where Hitler gets shot to hell is pretty cool, I guess." Aside from that, Tarantino just sits you down and tells you why you should care. Watching it a second time just feels like a lecture.

Chez said...

Lord -- Jakob the Liar.

And you thought the Holocaust was painful to endure.

Michael J. West said...

So much for treading lightly, Chez.

Chez said...

Hey, a good line's a good line. Didn't want you to think I was going soft.

JeremyRyanCarr said...

The only things 'Jakob The Liar' killed were $15,000,000, a couple of careers & a lot of integrity.

Mart said...

IB = Jew Porn. Think I read that in the "Atlantic". Walking out of the theater with my wife and the wildly grinning Jewish couple we went with; I thought that phrase was perfect.

Don't quite understand the back and forth between IB and HL - don't they just give it to the 300 pound gorilla - Avatar?

Deacon Blue said...

Chez, it's clear from your post that you're an anti-Semite.

...Well, someone has to stir up some shit "just because"...

Randy said...

I'm still waiting for the video game.

Sheriff Bart said...

Basterds was good, but Hurt Locker was better. I may be the only person on this planet who hasn't seen Avatar.

Krissy said...

@Sheriff Bart -

I haven't seen Avatar and I don't plan to. I actually had a coworker yell "Fail!" at me because I haven't seen it.

Matt Osborne said...

I agree on Waltz; he was tremendous. But how could anyone think it was a movie about the Holocaust? I watched it the other night, and came away with the impression that I'd viewed a campy farce about European cinema pretending to be a war pic.

Anonymous said...

This pretty much sums up why Avatar should be ignored for anything unrelated to special effects:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/04/avatar-pocahontas-in-spac_n_410538.html

CNNfan said...

Ingenious Bastards may win The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Hurt Locker was definitely worth the dollar to rent it from RedBox.

Avatar has to win best picture because the people spoke with their wallet.

Jeremy said...

@Sheriff Bart

Still haven't seen Avatar. And probably won't. I hear the only reason to see it is the special effects, and I wear real glasses, so those crazy goggles hurt my ears and give me a monstrous headache.
I just can't bring myself to pay for James Cameron to give me a headache.

Jeremy said...

Man. Someone please tell me that CNNFan is satirical... like the less redneck version of Bill White.

Otherwise my head might explode.

Sheriff Bart said...

Bill White is satirical? I going to have to reevaluate his status as my hero then.

Tania said...

God knows what will happen at the Oscars, but Hurt Locker did pretty well at the Baftas!
Best Director, Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound. It would have been great to see Renner get something, but hey, it's a British award, and he was competing with Colin Firth.
Avatar got Production Design and Visual Effects (of course), but nothing else. Watching Cameron lose was such fun...
And as for IB, Waltz took the (well-deserved) Best Supporting Actor award. Damn right!

Rocky said...

I have to disagree with you, for a start, about IB being a good film. Brad chewed that scenery so thoroughly I doubt there was even pulp left. Worst overacting in years. And man, does that film need 30 minutes cut out of it.

Expect Peter Jackson and Weta to clean up the special effects awards for Avatar and District Nine, but no other awards for either of those. District Nine doesn't have a hope in hell of winning Best Picture, despite the nomination and despite being a very well made film - too many of my Hollywood friends saw it as an allegory for Palestine (kind of boggled me at the time, but then I've been to Joburg and they haven't).

I'm split between predicting "The Hurt Locker" and "Up in the Air". I think THL is a bit hard core for the Academy voters (who are, after all, mostly superannuated types), and it's for that reason I think IB will have trouble, too - IB doesn't play well with people old enough to have lived through the kinds of films it pays "homage" to when they were new, and THL, despite having the best opening set piece in ten years, is a bit hard core for a lot of older folks. There's a reason Scorsese never won best picture for his best pictures - they were too hard for old Academy voters to stomach. He had to wait for the flabby "The Departed" which is about his second worst film.

"Up In The Air", on the other hand, is a good picture, by the son of Hollywood Royalty who has made two other pretty good pictures, and it plays to a pretty wide demographic. Nobody dislikes it, but a lot of people dislike Avatar, IB, and feel uncomfortable with THL, so on the basis of "has no enemies" I think I'll predict "Up In The Air" for best picture.