Monday, August 31, 2009

Seeing Inglourious Basterds With My Mother: A Tale of Daring Filmgoing, Surprise Reactions, and Swedish Neutrality

Two Saturdays ago, over breakfast at a charming little Long Beach diner, I asked my mother if she wanted to see Inglourious Basterds, the latest Quentin Tarantino film. Knowing that she used to scoff at my opinion that Pulp Fiction was the greatest film of all time (it was, until October 1998) and not knowing of any Tarantino film she had seen, let alone liked, I assumed the answer would be no. And an abrupt no at that. Instead, she said yes. This was curious. I wanted to see it too of course, the colossal disappointment of Kill Bill 1 still in my mind (barely attenuated by the slightly better Kill Bill 2 and Death Proof). So we made plans to see it this past Saturday.

But first I had to figure out why she said yes. Mom and I had seen a number of films over the past few years. Going to the movie theater was a good social activity to do with her because of her general boredom with regular conversation. We had seen Michael Clayton and Dreamgirls and Public Enemies and Slumdog Millionaire, safe picks all of them - nothing that would make either one of us too uncomfortable. A Tarantino film would be a challenge. Not having seen a great movie since 2007 (There Will Be Blood), I was ready.

We bought the tickets for the 5:40 show at the Glendora 12. Nothing like spending the hottest day of the year in the hottest part of the region, with the smoke from two not-too-distant fires blowing our way. We had just enough time for early dinner at the Corner Bakery. I will just say one thing about this dinner: Did the Corner Bakery absolutely nail it with the Poblano Fresco sandwich (add the roasted chicken) or what?

No, I'll add a second thing about dinner. My mother, anticipating the next couple of hours of life, said with disdain: "Is this movie supposed to be a comedy?" The word "comedy" was spit out dismissively, like Dick Cheney mentioning the Geneva Convention.

"Yes," I said, "At least partly."

"A comedy about hunting Natt-zees?" she asked, visibly perplexed. (Hadn't she heard of Hogan's Heroes? The Downfall Hitler Parodies?)

"Yes." End of conversation.

We got to the blessedly air-conditioned theater and sit through some unremembered trailers. Somewhere in there I went to the concession stand to buy...Gummi Bears! The movie began.

(No need for a spoiler alert: I will not given any important facts or plot developments away. Assuming you know the basic premise and if you don't want to know, stop here and do not look at the next paragraph.)

(One more aside: Do I ever consider the fact that my mother could be reading this blog, that she knows about things like blogs and Google? No, I do not.)

The discomfort starts early on when there is a very graphic scalping of a character. I knew ahead of time that there would be graphic scalping in the movie. I didn't think my mother knew. Later, I would discover that she had fair warning of the scalping and subsequent disgusting scenes (from People magazine, no doubt). Every time there was a knife to a scalp or forehead, my mother uttered "Oh God." Still, I have to hand it to her. She never looked away from the screen. I always looked away.

My mother has good theater-going manners and didn't say anything else or communicate with me in any way until the film ended, except for the several times she scoffed (something right in between "Ha" and "Hmmph") at the unlikely or "silly" (I know what she thinks) plot twists.

As we left the auditorium and someone uttered the inevitable "I hope the xxxxx aren't xxxxxx" joke (won't spoil that one for you), I asked Mom what she thought of the film, expecting her to say "It was awful" or "It was silly" or - worst case - "It was stupid" in her bothered Swedish-infused English. Instead, she said "It was very good."

"It was very good." Quite simply the strongest words of praise my mother has ever vocalized. Quentin - consider this platitude bigger than any Oscar you've won or will eventually win.

My quick review: She was right. It was very good. Excellent, actually. The stink of KB1 and the still-disappointing above-averageness of KB2 and DP has been washed away in the Rhine, leaving behind only Carradine's corpse. Basterds is one of the best films of the decade.

Back to Mom's reaction. Immediately after "It was very good" there was a pause, two seconds at most. Then: "Too bad none of it is true." I'm not sure if she thought that the public school systems in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were so bad that I didn't get the true story about WWII and that I would completely fall for the alternate tale told here. Or if she just wanted to make sure that the Jewish avengers of Nazi horror don't get too uppity. You see, my mother married an Egyptian, so she naturally sided with the Palestinians in the various wars and Intifadas vs. the Israelis. In 2000, my mother actually rode a bus from New Jersey to Washington D.C. to show solidarity with her many central New Jersey Egyptian friends on their very own "Freedom Bus." As she told me before her journey, "If Jews shoot our bus, we throw rocks back at them."

Then, she got to specifics, praising the acting performances in the film, "Even Brad Pitt." She heaped extra praise on the lead Nazi, played by Christoph Waltz (above). I have to agree; he was impressive. But not everyone got equal praise. "The guy who played Hitler wasn't very good. I've seen better." The word "better" received the Dick Cheney treatment cited above. She based her claim on how "crazy" he portrayed Hitler and the fact he was "too tall." I'm not sure if she just thought he was a bad actor or if someone of the Fuhrer's magnitude deserved better. I know better than to ask certain follow-up questions.

Finally, she had one more complaint and this one was personal. As we turned from Foothill onto Wheeler and approached the so-far-un-burned La Verne foothills, she said "At the beginning of the movie, Hitler was standing in front of a map of Europe and there were swastikas in all the places that Germany controlled. There was a swastika on Sweden. That's wrong."

The subject of Sweden's (in)actions during World War II might be a sensitive subject to an actual Swede. Still, being only half a Swede and being born decades after the war, I felt justified in saying "They weren't exactly opposing the Nazis" in response.

My Mom then passionately said (and she never passionately says anything) "Sweden was neutral!"

I could have said "My point exactly." To my mother, Sweden being neutral meant that they were against the Nazis. To the rest of the world, Sweden's neutrality during the war (and isolated incidents of helping out, or at least profiting from, the Germans) was a problem. I should also point out that Sweden did some nice things for the other side too. But I didn't say "My point exactly." Instead, I just stayed silent and planned this blog entry for the rest of the drive until I made the U-turn on the cul-de-sac and parked in front of the house that six of my closest relatives live in, a home that is roughly one thousand times the size of my own.

So that's the tale of Inglourious Basterds with my mother. Just a bunch of fascinating quotes and interesting reactions. As far as my own level of discomfort, I'll just say that there was one moment that I would have preferred to see without the person who gave birth to me sitting in the next seat but that moment was over in a flash.

Finally, as a screenwriter with no script sales to my name, I will see this movie again and pay close attention to two scenes: The opening farmhouse scene; and the French village bar scene. These are two flawless examples of character and plot development, tension building and releasing, and enthusiastic use of dialogue. As with the the CB and the Poblano Fresco, QT nails it.

1 comment:

Jason B. said...

What's the "I hope the xxxxx aren't xxxxxx" joke? I finally saw the movie and so I can ask now.