Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds -- new film by Quentin Tarantino

What if World War II had come to an explosive end not in Hitler's bunker in shattered Berlin, but in a movie theater in Nazi occupied France? This is the premise for Quentin Tarantino's new film Inglourious Basterds, the story of how a band of avenging American Jews demolish the Third Reich with the help of the explosive glories of silver nitrate. Tarantino's new film is both exasperating as well as enjoyable; it is also episodic, juvenile, and way too long. But if you latch on to its postmodern riff, mixing everything from 70's films to 1940's pulp, it is a helluva good ride into the kind of Hollywood fantasy land that only exists in the mind of the director.

Tarantino's film is based on a little known Italian war movie called The Inglorious Bastards, an almost forgotten 1970's B movie rip-off of Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen. This complicates things for any viewer who wants to know where Tarantino is coming from. It all becomes crystal-clear, however, if you bring to mind one particular genre that nowadays we usually don't think about: the Western.

Once Upon a Time in the Western part of Europe there were advancing hordes of Jewish-hating Nazis who came into conflict with good-hearted Frenchmen who tried to save Jewish families from extermination. The pastoral first scene of this film captures this confrontation while at the same time surprising us by conjuring the spirit of the American Western. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of the opening of The Magnificent Seven, a film based on Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. This is the smoke and mirrors celluloid world in which Tarantino inhabits. This new war film surprisingly conjures up the spirit of the American Western as seen by Italian director Sergio Leone, and it features music written for those "spaghetti Westerns" by the great Ennio Morricone. Even Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who leads the band of Nazi hunters, demands, like a pre-politically correct redskin on the warpath, that all Nazis killed be scalped. Inglourious Basterds might just be the first WWII Western, whatever that is!

For a postmodernist, Tarantino's WWII is curiously devoid of too many references to the classic war films made in the 1940's. There's very little John Ford or Raoul Walsh in Tarantino's vocabulary, hence don't look for the spirit of They Were Expendable or Objective Burma! to creep through. Instead, Tarantino's war comes complete with Samuel L. Jackson's narration in which he tells us that film shot on silver nitrate is highly combustible. I'm not surprised. Tarantino is a child of the 1970s, and for anyone who came of age in that decade the jingoism of WWII American films just did not jive. It was the era of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And in Hollywood, it was the era of M*A*S*H, Apocalypse Now, as well as 1970's Kelly's Heroes, a film with which Inglorious Basterds shares many a comparison.

For my money, Inglorious Basterds belongs to Austrian actor Christoph Waltz who shines as Colonel Hans Landa, better known as "The Jew Hunter." His performance is carefully and memorably crafted: over the top one minute, minimalist the next. In reality, it is nothing more than an update of a wonderful caricature of the Hollywood Nazi: the kind of role that the great Conrad Veidt excelled at. Waltz's Landa, however, is more tongue-in-cheek, smoother, funnier, and as a result more dangerous. His Best Actor Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this performance was well deserved.

I don't think that Quentin Tarantino fans will be disappointed with Inglorious Basterds. It is a worthy addition to the small number of films that he's directed. If we boil the film down to its essence, it is a series of disjointed dialogue scenes, broken into various chapters, brilliantly choreographed and acted, which eventually come together in a fiery Wagnerian climax that channels the spirit of Brian De Palma's Carrie. The rhythms of Inglourious Basterds are reminiscent of Pulp Fiction though it lacks the earlier film's incredible crackling dialogue or its brilliant handling of the story's timeline.

On a personal note, I wish they would have held off the summer opening of this film and saved it for a prestige premiere at this year's New York Film Festival. This year the festival promises to be mostly a ho-hum affair, and I think that Inglorious Basterds would have given that New York institution a good kick in the pants as well as brought Tarantino back to the place that launched his unusual career.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Bacchae in Central Park

The Bacchae is perhaps Euripides' s greatest tragedy, and it is currently running as the second offering in this summer's Free Shakespeare in the Park. Under the direction of the Public Theater's former artistic director Joanne Akalaitis, this production is a compact, fast-moving one-acter played in modern dress, but maintaining the drive and savagery of the 2,500 year-old text. It is 90 minutes of Aristotelian unities, translated by Nicholas Rudall, and reenacted to the driving, undulating minimalist rhythms and melodies of composer Philip Glass.

This story of the hubris of a king, the foolishness of old men, and the wrathful vengeance brought about by the alien minion of a disrespected god makes for incredibly exciting theater. The Bacchae is part of the trilogy (along with the author's Iphigenia in Aulis and the now lost Alcmaeon in Corinth) that won the great prize at the Dionysia Festival posthumously for Euripides. They truly don't write them like they used to.

This production, performed outdoors as was the original, trades the blinding Aegean sun for the evening skies of late August New York. This transfers the essence of the work from sun-beaten rocks and blinding natural light to chic "late-night cool," and in keeping with this adaptation, the lead is a rock-and-roll Dionysus singing into a microphone like Elvis, and a chorus of Maenads (the possessed Bacchant women enchanted by Dionysus) in bright orange costumes. The men and women's costumes offer an interesting contrast. Staying true to the play's theme of opposing forces, the male characters are uniformly in modern dress, while the women aren't.

Likewise, the set itself seems to be of two minds. Performed in a barren, metallic circular arena (complete with a narrow moat of water) to an audience sitting in a semi-circle -- a space reminiscent of the configuration of Greek amphitheaters, the playing area has an industrial feel to it, and that is also seen in the upstage lopsided bleacher-like construction that the actors often inhabit like spectators at their own play. The setting gives no specific clue as to the time the play takes place, and as a result a timeless feeling is achieved quite effortlessly.

A drawing card for this production is an original score by Philip Glass. The composer's work and style is a well-known commodity, and for this production he stays the course and provides a rich, sultry score in keeping with the kind of Glass that we are accustomed to. As we enter the theater a recorded minimalist pattern is repeated over and over again, setting the scene and perhaps adjusting our ear for the musical sounds that we will hear for the rest of the evening. But as we enter the course of the play, that barren overture seems to pale by comparison to the rest of the lush score. Glass's musical settings for a chorus of sopranos and altos are just lovely, with beautiful harmonies and attractive melodies throughout. He is less successful, however, when it comes to the music of Dionysus which seems contrived, often uninspired and seemingly searching in vain for a distinctive style. Not the kind of music I would have written for this haughty, self-assured character.

The last time I went to see The Bacchae was back in 1980 in the Michael Cacoyannis's production at the Circle in the Square, starring the great Irene Papas. It was a play that left me cold back in my salad days because Ms. Papas's star turn as Agave, though memorable as it was, happens during the last half hour of the work, and I remember not paying enough attention to the play waiting for Ms. Papas to show up on stage. When she did, it was worth it, but the long wait, I remember, left me cold.

The present cast features no superstars, but solid theater actors well-known to the New York stage community. In my opinion, this is the best way to experience this kind of play. As Dionysus and Pentheus Jonathan Groff (of Spring Awakening and Hair fame) and Anthony Mackie are strong foils. Groff in his long locks, and tight jeans seems to still be playing the teen rebel, while Mackie, handsome in his dark suit, adds an air of elegance to the production. When Mackie has to don a woman's dress, in the latter part of the play, the result is far from camp, but rather a prelude for the wild carnage that will occur. In addition, giving strong performances are the great André de Shields as a thyrsus-carrying Teiresias (I am glad that he is not encumbered with woman's breasts in this production) and Joan MacIntosh who shines in her Agave monologue.

But true to the democratic spirit of Euripides (and of the Public Theater) the greatest moments of the evening, in my opinion, belong to the two great monologues of the two lowliest characters in the drama: the Herdsman, played by Steven Rishard, who recounts with great relish the bacchanalia of the Maenads, and the Messenger, played by Rocco Sisto, who electrifies the audience with his powerful and monstrous details of the death of Pentheus.

Basically, this is a "not-to-be missed" production of a play that ought to be mandatory reading and viewing for everyone. It is one of the great works of the Western canon, and this production does more than justice to its greatness. The production will play at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park until August 30. For information about tickets visit The Public Theater's website.