Wednesday, September 2, 2009

That Inglourious Basterds Reinvents the Grammar of Film

Not so very long ago on this precious, precious blog, I administered a verbal spanking to film critic Mark Kermode over his claim that There Will Be Blood "reinvents the grammar of film." Much as I continue to adore There Will Be Blood, I stand by that verbal spanking, and instead expect the world will follow me in assigning Quentin Tarantino the status of reinventor of film grammar on the basis of his work in Inglourious Basterds (IB), if not his entire oevre.

My point of departure for this claim comes from The Film Talk's fine podcast about the film, during which Jett Loe pointed out the many instances in which IB implies rather than shows scenes: the one in which one of the principle characters receives a visible scar, for example, the absence of which is perhaps more suggestive than any conventional flashback to it might have been. This is hardly the only example of an interpolated scene; watch it to see more.

So what does this have to do with film grammar, let alone alterations of it? Maybe nothing. I do believe it flouts a very deeply-ingrained convention, known to even an amateur film cricket such as myself, wherein elements adumbrated become events dramatized -- the classic example being a rifle hanging wracked over a mantle. Rest assured that rifle will show up again, and in all probability, there will be blood.

Quick -- how many films include a character with a huge scar without at least explaining the origin of the scar? I can think of exactly one.*

Novels do this, but films?

To be clear, I don't think anything important hangs on whether a given film or filmmaker has reinvented the grammar of film; certainly quality is independent of grammatical reinvention. As in language, reinventing the rules of grammar can either be a useful innovation that spreads widely, or a silly mistake that garners derision. The same can be said of Tarantino's reinvention of the spelling of inglourious and basterd -- reinvention is a tricky business, by no means a guarantor of success.

I remain unsure of my overall assessment of Inglourious Basterds -- frankly, I am not sure what to make of it, though I certainly enjoyed it on the base level of a 'revenge flick' -- but as it was with Pulp Fiction back in the mists of the 1990s, that instability intrigues me and may portend good things about my future opinion of it.

For now, I plan to watch it again, and I can recommend without hesitation -- but viewer beware: there will be blood, and in quantity.**

For any of you six readers who have just regained web access after a long stay in a quiet cave lacking wi-fi, here is a trailer for Inglourious Basterds:

*For all my vanity, I am not vain enough to think 'films I can think of' is the same as 'every film ever made.' I could be completely wrong in this and everything else here.

**The film's stance toward cinematic violence is interesting and complex. I intend to re-watch it with that in mind.


larryniven said...

My thing about Tarantino's recent work is that it reminds me a lot of classical music - there are times when you really don't know what the hell's going on, but you've always got a theme in mind, and then eventually everything comes together. The key difference, of course, is that there's less graphic violence in classical music.

For some reason, I find it a lot easier to analyze other movies with (what I take to be) more conventional tension-resolution-denouement structures, so I can't say too much about the grammar of film thing. I wouldn't put it past him, though.

Dale said...

Maybe it's trite, and maybe it says more about me than about Tarantino, but I'll never forget the experience of watching Pulp Fiction in the theater. It stunned me in a way that almost no other film -- or work of art generally -- had ever managed: I wanted to throw up, laugh, and cry all at the same time.

I haven't been as moved by his other films as much, though Reservoir Dogs comes close. IB is in the same category, as opposed to the Jackie Brown or Kill Bill category.

I think. I'm still processing it.

Anonymous said...

You make me sad. In addition to PF, I would recommend Clockwork Orange. That movie was PF for its time.

Personally, when I'm at the movies I want to be manipulated and I don't want to burn the energy analyzing how. Sad. Very, very, sad.

Dale said...

Good call, anonymous -- I'm familiar with A Clockwork Orange in book, film, and kid's animation formats. Excellent stuff, and provocative of a similar reaction.

But sad? Really? Sad about what?

When people tell me they don't make any effort analyzing movies, I have a hard time believing it. Do you see nothing worth noticing in terms of philosophical depth, artistic merit, visual presentation, etc., from one film to another? It's all just a bunch of noise and pictures? Congo equals Winter Light equals Howard the Duck equals Schindler's List equals Groundhog Day equals Dr. Strangelove equals Terminator III as far as you're concerned? Do you take TV the same way? Music? Painting? Architecture? Poetry?

Really? Really really?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of grammar.

"amateur film cricket such as myself"

Should be: "amateur film cricket such as me."

Tarantino makes this error in all his scripts too.

Myself is to be used in the same sentence as "I" it is not a classy substitute for "me"

Look it up.

Dale said...

Anon. II, I have replied to your grammar-usage comment in another post.