Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Coen brothers' latest film

Welcome to the first of two posts timed for the release of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

Few would argue that Quentin Tarantino is one of the most influential filmmakers of the last 20 years. Even though his own work is highly influenced by others -- a fact this one-time video store clerk and devout hero worshipper would immediately acknowledge -- there's little doubt that Tarantino's approach to filmmaking engendered a whole generation of imitators, some good, some terrible.

So it's a bit of a surprise, when I watch the trailers for Inglourious Basterds, that I see two of his contemporaries in this footage: the Coen brothers, and Steven Soderbergh.

It's probably Brad Pitt's fault. In fact, for a moment I considered titling this post "The chicken or the Pitt?" Darn it, maybe that would have been more clever.

See, Pitt has appeared prominently in films by each director and/or creative partnership: Burn After Reading for the Coens, Ocean's 11, 12 and 13 for Soderbergh. And it just so happens that all of these films, including Basterds, involve boatloads of quippy dialogue, slapstick criminal activity, winking humor, and a generally buoyant comic sensibility.

When Pitt talks about "killin' Nat-zees" or answers Hitler's "Nein nein nein nein!" with "Yes yes yes yes!," it screams Coens. When he's drinking a flute of champagne in a white tuxedo, and is tackled by a half-dozen guards, it's something straight out of Ocean's 11.

The part where one basterd uses a baseball bat to bash in the head of a defiant Nazi? Well, that one's all Tarantino.

But it does make me think about how actors, and specifically the way they're directed, call to mind the works of other directors. Because this is Pitt being cheeky, and we've seen Pitt being cheeky for the Coens and for Soderbergh, I think of their oeuvres when I see this trailer. However, what if it weren't Brad Pitt, but, say, Clive Owen? Owen hasn't worked for either the Coens or Soderbergh. Would I still see the similarity?

Then there's another question. Is the fact that the movie reminds me of the Coens and Soderbergh a good thing, or a bad thing? I've had my issues with both over the years, though I certainly say that on the whole, I love their work. The same is true for Tarantino. There's something to be said for having a distinct look that is recognizeable as one's own, and there are some directors that clearly have that, for better or worse: Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan and Woody Allen, to name a couple that come to mind. And when I first saw the trailers for the Kill Bill movies, Tarantino oozed out of every frame.

But maybe it's a good thing when you can't immediately identify a movie as belonging to a particular director. That's kind of why I want Tim Burton to surprise us eventually, instead of doing the most obvious thing in the world by making his own version of Alice in Wonderland (even as long-overdue for a cinematic update as that story is). And kind of why I am constantly impressed by a guy like Ang Lee, whose Taking Woodstock (out next week) will be as dissimilar to all this other films as every other film he's directed.

And so maybe this is growth for Tarantino, even though calling something derivative, as I basically have, generally tends to constitute negative commentary. After all, it's his first real period piece. It's also his first movie not set primarily in the United States. Thirdly, it's his first movie in which a person who really existed (Hitler) appears. Maybe these firsts will force him to switch up the musical stylings that have also been his trademark. We'll see how he mines kitsch from period-appropriate 40s music, rather than Kool and the Gang and Stealers Wheel.

And if in the end, it does remind us of the Coens and Soderbergh, well ... there are worse people to be compared to.

Tune in tomorrow for Inglourious Basterds, Post II.

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