I used to think I rather liked it
September, whose breath even now dampens our necks, will see the UAE release of Inglourious Basterds. Anticipation runs hot for this, the sixth feature from the banana-jawed American auteur Quentin Tarantino, if one agrees for charity's sake to overlook Four Rooms. I'm not a huge Tarantino fan but even so, I confess I am curious to see this film when it finally plays in Abu Dhabi. For one thing, having followed the voluminous and excitable coverage heaped upon it since its debut at Cannes in May, it has proven remarkably difficult to get any clear sense of what manner of beast the film really is.
We know that it's an homage to pulpy Second World War thrillers, that it references the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and that there's a splendid villain in it - an SS "Jew-hunter" played by the German television actor Christoph Waltz, hoisted from obscurity by Tarantino for this film. But is it, in the words of the great critic Roger Ebert, "a big, bold, audacious war movie", an additional proof of the director's ability to deliver "quixotic delights"? Or is it rather, as the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw claims, "a gigantic two-and-a-half-hour anticlimax" boasting only "great heavy lumps of nothing"?
As a potential viewer, one is placed in a position of unusual ignorance, a state of doubt rarely achieved in this age of online spoilers and rottentomatoes.com. It is, I'm surprised to find, all quite exciting. What, when you get down to it, is Inglourious Basterds? My own thrilling sense of uncertainty seems not to have been diminished by the fact that I've already seen it. I was, as it happens, one of the film's first reviewers, crammed into that Cannes screening. An hour or so later I had composed The National's slightly giddy write-up. I gave it four stars, noting that it was "sadistic, jingoistic, inauthentic" but, all the same, "a blast".
At the time I wasn't entirely sure what I'd seen, except that it was in doubtful taste and that I'd enjoyed it. My review was, I thought, the kind of delicate hedge that shouldn't blow up on me. And then I started to hear what other people were saying. Incoherent. Botched. Tarantino still has nothing to say, except now he's saying it about the Holocaust. That was the gist of it. My colleague Kaleem Aftab appeared sunk in gloom at the whole thing. In the press office there was a rumbling consensus that Tarantino had finally lost the plot. Most perplexingly, several critics appeared to have found it very boring. (It does, in fairness, run to a talky 153 minutes, many of them subtitled.)
The more I listened, the more convinced I became by the case for the prosecution. Why was it called Inglourious Basterds when the guerrilla group of the same name played so small a part in it? Why did it feel like Brad Pitt, the top-billed actor on the marquee, was just pulling a whimsical cameo between smug caper films? Why exactly was Eli Roth, that gleaming-eyed Squirrel Nutkin of torture porn, allowed on screen at all? It all mounted up. Ah well, I thought, perhaps I can spin my review as a piece of Armond White-style contrarianism. It is still possible to carve out a career as an idiot about films, after all.
Imagine my puzzlement when the first wave of pre-release commentary seemed to vindicate my first impression. American reviewers seemed as entertained by its pop-art vacuity and hokey sensationalism as I had been ("for anyone professing true movie love," said Rolling Stone in a representative take, "there's no resisting it"). The Brits pretty uniformly hated it, but mainly for irritable, hand-wavy reasons. Sukdev Sandhu complained in the Telegraph that Pitt "carries himself like a cross between Popeye the Sailorman and Clark Gable," but who could see that as a bad thing?
Indeed, the spread of opinions has been so wide, the factions so evenly matched, that any firm view looks like a hostage to posterity. Misshapes like Inglorious Basterds make fools of us all, especially reviewers. Best to steer clear. Still, I wouldn't mind another look. Just to check, you understand.