Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Triple Feature At The Monkey House: Inglourious Basterds, There Will Be Blood and The Grand Budapest Hotel

When I find myself in times of trouble — and Lord knows, these are troubled times — I turn not to the Bible or the op-ed page, but to the movies.

With Katie-Bar-The-Door out of town on Tuesday, I took the day off and by happenstance, wound up watching a triple feature of films contemplating man's ugliest impulses. I came away with a renewed sense of optimism that if we can't fix the world, we can at least spruce up our little corner of it.

These movies have been around a long while so spoilers abound. No complaining.

First up on the program was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a film I saw in the theater back in 2009. I hailed it as a masterpiece at the time then haven't watched it since, afraid to find out I was wrong.

I needn't have worried. As with all of Tarantino's movies, there's lots of talk punctuated by cartoonish levels of violence; as with most of his movies, it's absolutely brilliant.

Freed of the need to follow the plot and digest the movie's many surprises, this time around I allowed myself the luxury of thinking and perhaps even more dangerous, feeling. As it turns out, Inglourious Basterds has something to say about our current predicament, although I'd hesitate to suggest it offers a workable solution.

If you don't know the movie, it's set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II and follows three broad narratives — that of "the Jew Hunter" Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning turn), and his favorite prey, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent); a British officer (Michael Fassbender) and his double-agent contact (Diane Kruger); and finally the Basterds of the title, a group of commandos (led by Brad Pitt) wreaking havoc behind the German lines.

"We in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'." Those Germans the Basterds don't kill, wind up with a swastika carved into their foreheads as a sign for the rest of time that they once fought in service of the worst cause in human history.

These three narrative threads converge on a small cinema in Paris where the Reich's leaders, including Hitler himself, are attending a movie premiere.

But that's the plot. It was the message I was interested in this time around. And that is this: Whether you are a true-believer or a shameless opportunist, an enthusiastic volunteer or a pants-wetting draftee, you are responsible for the cause you fight for and you will answer for the damage you do.

As Kurt Vonnegut once said, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Something for trolls of every stripe to keep in mind.

The second movie, There Will Be Blood, I had actively avoided for a decade — perhaps because the famous line "I drink your milkshake!" led me to believe it was a comedy about dairy products.

It is, in point of fact, a tragedy featuring petroleum byproducts. Based on Sinclair Lewis's novel Oil!, Paul Thomas Anderson gives us the story of Daniel Plainview (the great Daniel Day-Lewis winning his second of three Oscars), a would-be oilman who gets everything he ever wanted and loses himself in the process.

But this isn't a morality play about greed, it's a cautionary tale about that most American of virtues and vices, rugged individualism. Plainview's dream isn't to pile up money — he turns down an easy million, for example, opting instead for the hard, risky work of building a pipeline to the sea. No, what Plainview longs for is to cut the middleman out of his business affairs. And not just the railroads and the big oil producers who take a large cut of the profits, but all middlemen everywhere: friends, family, God, and finally dignity and sanity — anyone or anything upon which he might have to rely.

By the end he's living like a feral cat in a giant mansion, free at last.

Many reviews concluded that Plainview is a monster and maybe he is, but there's a certain majesty in his labors. At least he's making something of tangible value as opposed to the worthless paper products Wall Street's fraudsters and slicky-boys fobbed off on a gullible public.

But crazy Plainview most definitely is, the end for all of us who think we can live without regard for our fellow human beings.

Is There Will Be Blood a great film? Yes, absolutely. Unless it's terrible. The movie is two and a half hours long, is virtually silent for long stretches as it contemplates the West like no one since John Ford, and when people do finally speak, they say nothing of value, which is fine because no one is listening anyway. Like Dunkirk which I reviewed recently here, the characters in There Will Be Blood reveal themselves strictly by their actions.

Do they reveal enough? That is the question. I'd have to see the movie again to decide for sure whether there's as much moving under its surface as I think there is.

Check back here in 2027 for my final verdict.

The third movie on the list, The Grand Budapest Hotel, I have seen again — first on Tuesday then again on Wednesday when Katie-Bar-The-Door returned to town — and in this case, at least, I'm sure it is a great movie, Wes Anderson's masterpiece.

On its surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a shaggy dog story about how a hotel lobby boy (Tony Revolori) became the richest man in Europe. But ultimately, it's a contemplation of grace under pressure, kindness in the face of cruelty, beauty in an ugly world.

Set in the years between the two world wars, Ralph Fiennes plays the lobby boy's mentor, Monsieur Gustave H, the concierge of the Grand Budapest, eastern Europe's finest hotel. Gustave meets his guests' every need, especially the needs of rich, lonely women, not from any motivation as mundane as reflexive servitude or the Puritan work ethic but because he is a civilized man who finds pleasure and meaning in creating a bubble of civilization for those fleeing an uncivilized world.

"You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant ... oh, fuck it."

Like the inchworm measuring the marigolds, Gustave labors unceasingly despite knowing that in the long run it won't make the slightest bit of difference. But what's the alternative? Surrender to chaos and cruelty and death? Hell, no.

If sooner or later we're all going to die, I have written before, can't we at least do it with a bit of dignity and honor and laughter and good company? And in Gustave's case, poetry and perfume and pastry, as well?

As it turns out, Ralph Fiennes is the perfect actor to lead a Wes Anderson film. He can deliver helium-filled balloons of dialogue without puncturing the illusion that he actually believes what he's saying. And in a film like this, that's absolutely vital. One prick of cynicism, and the balloon bursts.

This is Fiennes best work since Schindler's List.

I confess, I haven't much enjoyed Wes Anderson in the past. I have detected underneath the celebrated whimsy of such films as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou a sourness that for me at least curdled his confections and made them hard to swallow.

That, and when everybody is a nut, nobody is a nut, and the whole thing gets a bit tedious.

But here, there's something generous and moving and maybe even heroic in Gustave's devotion to the better angels of our nature.

"Rudeness is merely an expression of fear. People fear they won't get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower."

Well, some of them anyway.

Cameos by everyone — Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, F. Murray Abraham, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Léa Seydoux, and many others. Excellent supporting work from Adrien Brody, Willem Defoe, Jeff Goldblum and Saoirse Ronan. Tony Revolori as the lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, was terrific. Ralph Fiennes deserved an Oscar nomination at the very least.

The Grand Budapest Hotel was 2014's best movie, Wes Anderson its best director.


mister muleboy said...

You know, this is some damned fine writing.

Better yet, it's damned good thinking.

In the words of the Greatest Man Who Ever Lived™ (well, a character he portrayed with his usual . . . with his usual):

Very Good, Fischer.

You win a cookie.

This really is some damned fine stuff.


And now the question can be answered:
What would I have done if I'd lived in Nazi Germany in the 20s and 30s, or in Virginia in February 1861?

I hate the question, because I am old and I am scared. And I better understand how evil turns its foothold into a stronghold. Two reliable sources - two - reported yesterday that the first representatives of the administration to make their way to my world have threateningly acknowledged (or announced) that they intend to have employees' social media accounts monitored. To "ensure no damage to institutional reputation," they said while making their meaning clear. And while I can't believe it, I believe it. How they'll do so, I know not.

Being a decent Globe-Trotting Emissary of All That Is Good In The World may have its price and I don't wanna pay the price. But I also know that I'd be carving a swastika into my own head if I didn't publicly -- more and more publicly, and not pseudonymously, make it known that Nazis are bad, white-supremacists are bad, and this corrosion will be fatal if not cleaned and reversed.

Bring on the naval jelly. . . .

mister muleboy said...

yes, I threw in the "Nazis are bad, white-supremacists are bad" as part of dark hyumer -- I think that I've firmly been on record on those things for a while. Opposition to moral and Constitutional decay are my game, bay-bee.

Mythical Monkey said...

I am trying to figure out how to become a dissident without ever leaving the house (except for trips to the grocery store, ball park or very occasionally, the movie house). Twice in ten days I saw movies that made me think of our current situation and wrote about it.

Will certainly have no impact whatsoever but if they chop off my hands on the fifty yard line of FedEx Field, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, how would you like to be the schmuck with the Hitler haircut in the picture at the top of the post? If he lives to be a 105, that's the picture that'll run with his obituary.