Monday, October 19, 2009

Comedy is very serious business

This was a dictum I heard from one of my heroes, Richard Gilman, who headed the playwriting and dramaturgy program at the Drama School for many years. He is the author of The Making of Modern Drama, a fantastic study of the the way thea great playwrights of the modern era became who they are.

It came to mind because I finally saw Inglorious Basterds yesterday. I had heard a great deal of good buzz about it, but the reviewers have been less kind. Here is what Kenneth Turan of the LA Times had to say:

The chapters of "Inglourious Basterds" at first focus on these plot strands one by one, but by the time they all come together in a finale that rewrites history with a particularly Tarantino flourish, it is hard to care what happens to anyone in them.

And for my money, Turan nailed it (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times came to a similar conclusion by a different route). Tarantine had all of the stylishness and outrageousness that we have come to expect from him, but he does not understand that if we are to care much, even in a stylish romp, the actors need to care deeply about what they are after. The proof positive that they don't is that as the various characters meet their final destinies in the end, it just doesn't matter to us (SPOILER ALERT). When the Ufa starlet turned spy for the British is strangled in a penultimate sequence, we view it with apathy. When the cinema owner is killed by her noisome suitor moments before destroying the entire Nazi junta, we can only shrug. The immilation of the Nazis in the cinema itself feels like an afterthought. And the carving of the Swastika into the forehead of the oily Landa seems to be without consequence.

I admired the performance of Sacha Waltz, who played Landa. His poisonous charm and graciousness were quite pleasurable to watch. Who doesn't like to be seduced? But because his performance was all about the blood lust of the hunter, and there was nothing of the desperation that he would have felt as an officer of a collapsing Reich and perpetrator of abominations, his switching sides at the end simply doesn't rate. It msy have been a writing problem as well; if Mr. Tarantino had asked for this value from this skilled actor, and built in an opportunity for him to display it, he no doubt would have. But for us to feel real vindication at him being branded a Nazi at the end, we needed to feel his wish to escape his destiny much more keenly.

And the same is true of the other characters. The Jewish cinema owner seems to regard the Nazis with annoyance and disdain, but there is none of the visceral hatred of someone who has witnessed the slaughter of her whole family. So the payoffs aren't there.

It is these kinds of failings that makes the movie a fun but forgettable romp. We can only hope that Mr. Tarantino stumbles into some gravitas on the way to his next movie.

In the class, we strive to get in touch with the visceral need that drives any character that we play to fight their fights. Fighting well is certainly important, but knowing what you are fighting for moreso.

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