So, while I was
procrastinating conducting in-depth research for this post, covering a promotional screening for the rather glorious “Inglourious Basterds,” I found myself going over numerous reviews and think pieces. One piece for a very respectable and staid looking website started out normally enough but, while praising “Pulp Fiction” and other older films in the Quentin Tarantino catalogue, it quickly became unusually vicious. Tarantino is a filmmaker who has a special gift for generating a certain degree of critical anger, the cinephile hubbub kicked up by critic and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum over the film’s non-portrayal of the Holocaust being one prominent example, but this was different.
As I noted the attention this particular review seemed to be paying to the ancestry of the cast, crew, and characters, I realized that the hate was not over anything so conventional as concerns that “Basterds” might be trivializing the Holocaust or World War II. I was reading a “white nationalist” web site. Yes, even more than some overly sensitive liberals, Nazis hate “Inglourious Basterds.” Considering it’s a movie in which a bunch of Jews, a part Cherokee good ol’ boy lieutenant, an African-French projectionist, a traitorous movie star, and a few odd others defeat the Third Reich in a painful and fiery manner, displeasing Nazis is kind of the whole idea.
Certainly, no one was feeling conciliatory towards facists or racists of any stripe as a good portion of the “Basterds” cast and crew turned up at the last of L.A.’s revival houses, the legendary New Beverly Cinema, to celebrate the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the the award-winning, genre-blending war flick. Indeed, as neighbors from the heavily Hasidic West Hollywood-adjacent neighborhood ignored the commotion, a few of us less observant entertainment scribes got the chance to talk to a select group of not-quite superstar basterds, including players in two of the more acclaimed sitcoms of all time, a personable musician and Tarantino-buddy turned actor, and a passionate producer who is not about to let any conservative climate deniers take away his Oscar…but that’s all ahead.
The first actor the rather nicer than usual crew of publicists introduced us to was Omar Doom, a musician and close Tarantino friend who was first persuaded by Tarantino to appear in “Death Proof” and was informed shortly before filming that he was to be one of the Nazi-killing Jewish basterds. A youngish South-Asian American who looks considerably different in person than the pasty and slightly pudgy PFC Omar Ulmer — presumably named for film noir C-movie legend Edgar G. Ulmer (“Detour“) — Doom was anything but intimidating as he described how he pretty much knew what he was in for in terms of the difference between having the famously voluble director for a friend and having him for a boss. As others would mention, Tarantino is known for giving speeches which make it pretty clear that everyone is to bring their A-game or find some other gig.
Aside from being a conscientious sort — his part is small but, especially towards the end of the film Doom generates some pretty huge laughs — the musician also appears to be a good son. When his mother stopped in to say how proud she was of her progeny, there was only one thing to do.
Next up was Samm Levine, an engaging young character actor who has already racked up a truly impressive number of film and TV appearances, though he is almost certainly still best known for his turn as geeky gagmeister Neal Schweiber in Judd Apatow’s short-lived but huge-on-DVD 1999 TV series, “Freaks and Geeks.” All grown up but no taller than this vertically challenged interviewer, the actor revealed to a couple of geek scribes that Tarantino was an early fan of the series as well as being a longtime acquaintance of Judd Apatow.
“He was a fan of the show when it was still on T.V…if you believe that one,” he said, referring to the fact that, like certain other canceled-but-brilliant shows, most fans discovered “Freaks and Geeks” through its DVD incarnation. As to how it might relate to his role in “Inglourious Basterds” Levine joked that, “he saw something in Neal Schweiber that said, ‘I get the feeling that little Jewish guy wants to kick some Nazi ass.’ I’m glad he had that foresight.”
When I asked if there was any noticeable difference between the directorial styles of “Freaks and Geeks” creator turned comedy kingpin Judd Apatow and Quentin Tarantino, my silly question (I meant “aside from the obvious”) was met with its properly straightforward response. “I’d would say, between Judd and Quentin, one of them uses a lot more blood and weapons. But that’ s Judd and that’s off camera..No. There’s such a different style. Judd mostly does comedy and even when he’s doing drama there’s always an element of something funny underneath the surface. They’re both great directors and I’m thrilled I got to work with both of them.”
Was this the first time Levine ever got to participate in movie violence? “I think it is. This is the first film where I’ve ever had to hold a gun and be violent. I’ve done some TV work with some guns and blades and stuff but, on this scale, I’d never done anything like this.”
How about a fight scene? “Yeah, I’ve done a couple of fight scenes, some choreographed, stuff…some tusslin,” said the 27 year-old weisenheimer, who it appears will be tussling against white supremacist evil one more time in the upcoming “Ollie Klublershturf vs the Nazis,” a science fiction comedy written by “Lost” co-creator/executive producer Damon Lindelof.
After that, there was a brief encounter with the star of “Death Proof,” Australian super-stuntwoman Zoe Bell, otherwise best known for her work as Uma Thurman‘s stunt double in “Kill Bill” and for her efforts down-under shooting “Xena: Warrior Princess” and, more recently, “Inglourious Basterds.” There was just time for a photo before another basterd was brought before us.
B.J.Novak is, of course, famous to millions as Ryan Howard, the once and future temp of the U.S. version of “The Office.” Like fellow cast members Mindy Kaling (who plays Ryan’s sometime flame, Kelly) and Paul Lieberstein (the hapless Toby), Novak is also a part of the hit show’s writing staff. Was this the first time he had acted in something he had no input as far as the writing was concerned?
“I’ve done a couple of things, but very little where I haven’t at least gotten to improvise or something. It was very fun and freeing for me. I used to do swim team when I was a kid. And you’d hold the backboard and only practice your legs. So, when I couldn’t flex my ‘writer’ muscle at all, I could try and be a better actor.”
And then there was the fact that Novak comes from a family that seems to be very much in touch with its Jewishness. His father is William Novak, well-known ghostwriter and editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor, and both of his parents once ran a Jewish dating service. Did he think that “Inglourious Basterds” is, in any sense, a particularly Jewish film?
“I don’t know. Certainly, in one sense it is. But to me it’s always been a good guy/bad guy movie-movie that happens to have Jews in it. I don’t know that it’s anything much more complicated than that. It certainly has much more resonance. Given the history of the Jewish people, and rightly so, people take issues like the Holocaust [extremely seriously]. But, to me, I think the essential thing is just good guys/bad guys. And who’s a bigger bad guy than Hitler and the Nazis?”
Questioned by another journo on the trajectory of his “Office” character, he said that he enjoyed the rather circuitous journey Ryan Howard has made on the show and when the questioner described Ryan as, for lack of a better term, a “douche,” Novak responded, “And in this film I got to play a basterd…It was nice to play a character that I kind of liked going into it, rather than to have to find a way to like him. But the key to everything, I think, when you’re performing is to really enjoy it. You need to show that you love something about this, even if you love being bad or love being lost. I try to do that, but it’s easier when you’re not a total douchebag.”
Next up was director Eli Roth, a Tarantino cohort for some time and the man behind such horror/gore/violence fests as the critically praised “Cabin Fever” and the, er, less critically praised but far more lucrative “Hostel” series — all movies I’m too big a cinema chicken to actually see. Roth also directed, however, “Nation’s Pride,” the propaganda film-within-a-film that plays a fairly central role in the plot of “Inglourious Basterds.” All of Roth’s footage is included on the DVD, but what we see in the film is extremely effective and Roth clearly knows his way around wartime action.
Roth also clearly enjoys talking to the geek press and it was interesting to listen to him describing the surreal nature of shooting the climactic “Operation Kino” with a theater full of fictitious Nazis staging the premiere of “Nation’s Pride” and taking a break to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama last January. He additionally volunteered some information on his upcoming films that sound like they might be more me-friendly. Upcoming Roth projects include a science fiction movie, “Endangered Species,” and a low-gore (!) horror film, “Cotton.” Not a celebration of textiles, it involves an exorcism. Roth describes it as being in more of a “paranormal” vein, and promises that it will be extremely scary.
After that, it was time for big-time producer Lawrence Bender, who has been Quentin Tarantino’s partner in cinema mayhem since 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs.” Bender has branched out considerably since, and easily his best known non-Tarantino project of the last decade was “‘An Inconvenient Truth,” like it or not one of the most mind-changing movies of recent years.
In the wake of the unauthorized release of certain e-mails by climate scientists — dubbed “Climategate” by the rightwing press — conservative writer/director Lionel Chetwynd has called for a kind of truth commission to expose what he sees as the scandal of the film’s best documentary Oscar, while neoconservative mystery writer Roger L. Simon wants the Oscar to be rescinded, something he admits has never happened before in Academy Award history. (You can see them both say just that here. You can read a sensible — and far from leftwing — analysis here.)
After my question got interrupted by a noisy fender bender on Beverly Blvd., Bender was only to happy to answer my question in appropriate terms. Even aside from the fact that the Oscar isn’t an award for accuracy, Bender addressed the charges that the film is based on a falsehood directly. “It’s utter and complete bullshit. The unfortunate truth is that the IPCC [Iintergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]…2,500 scientists, peer reviewed from around the world, gave us a low/medium/high of where we are on the climate, and where we’re going to be with CO2 emissions and where we’re going to be with temperature, and right now we’re worse than their worst case scenario. And anyone who is saying that is really making it worse for all of us, and especially our kids.”
And, with that serious note behind us I didn’t have time to ask him about how great a director Quentin Tarantino is or what have you, as we were all alerted it was time to see the movie. Sadly, I didn’t snag even an overheard interview with Diane Kruger, who plays the Marlene Diestrich-esque movie star/allied agent Bridget von Hammersmark, though I did get the photo below. When introducing her to the audience inside the theater, Tarantino said she was looking a bit Marilyn Monroe-like that evening, and I guess I can kinda sorta see what he meant.
The screening itself was a little bit of extra fun in that Tarantino brought along several trailers from his personal collection. They included “coming attractions” for various “guys on a mission” films ranging from sixties perennials like “The Dirty Dozen” and “Kelly’s Heroes,” to well regarded but lesser known films like Andre de Toth’s “Play Dirty” with Michael Caine, as well as Samuel Fuller’s autobiographical “The Big Red One” from 1980.
And then there were some less well known movies I wouldn’t necessarily expect to be great, but which I’d still very much like to see. “The Five Man Army” is an ultra-macho sphaghetti western with an unlikely lead in the usually stolid Peter Graves (TV’s “Mission: Impossible” and “Airplane”); “Hornet’s Nest” features a middle-aged Rock Hudson leading a group of tween-age guerilla freedom fighters (“When they get hurt they cry! When they get mad they kill!”) and one of the more descriptive film titles I’ve seen in a while, the Chuck Conners-led Italian oater, “Kill Them All and Come Back Alone.” Words to live by. Also, of course, there was the original, correctly spelled, Italian war film, “Inglorious Bastards” (“Whatever the Dirty Dozen does, they do it dirtier!”)
Entertaining stuff. In fact, introducing the trailers, Tarantino described how he would sometimes show similar collections of genre-themed trailers before home showings of films by fellow-directors, but that some of the helmers felt the trailers might have upstaged their movie. Actually “upstage” wasn’t the word. “They’ll say, ‘hey Quentin, you cockblocked my movie.’ But my movie’s so good, I don’t mind cockblocking it!”
He meant it and, after seeing “Basterds” a too-long delayed second time that night, I have to agree: Tarantino’s ego may need little bolstering, but his self-esteem as a filmmaker is not unearned: “Inglourious Basterds” cannot be cockblocked.