“Well, that might just be my masterpiece.”
I first watched Pulp Fiction in 2007 — proudly presented by the Warwick Student Cinema, in Lecture Theatre 3 — and thought it was one of the best things I had ever seen. Hilarious dialogue! Non-linear narrative! A kid getting shot in the face! (Plus, I finally got all those references in 22 Short Films About Springfield.)
So when Inglourious Basterds came out in 2009, I couldn’t wait to see it — and I was delighted to discover it was even better.1 As I walked out of the cinema on that warm, August evening, my fate was sealed: I was a Quentin Tarantino fan.
But in the years since, as I’ve watched each of his new films and caught up with his older ones (Reservoir Dogs, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and now, most recently, Kill Bill: Volume 1), I’ve found them slightly… disappointing. They’re still great, entertaining films — but for me, they didn’t quite reach the dazzling, magical heights of those first two.
So as an aspiring filmmaker, I thought it would be useful learning exercise to do a comparison. Why do I love Inglourious Basterds so much — and would happily watch it again and again, no matter how much it strains my spellcheck — while Kill Bill: Volume 1 couldn’t even convince me to watch Volume 2?
This obviously has spoilers.
1 I’m aware that describing Inglourious Basterds as better than Pulp Fiction isn’t an entirely controversy-free statement, but I’ll concede that PF is a very close second.
The first problem is that, despite lending his name to the film, we barely see any of Bill in KB: V1 — and so it’s hard to see why he’s a villain worth defeating.
Tarantino compensates for this by loading us with facts about the nature of the attack on the Bride: she was shot in the face, she was left for dead, it was on her wedding day, she lost her baby (or at least as she and we are led to believe). But — and I’m aware how psychopathic this sounds, but bear with me — those kinds of facts weren’t enough to get me emotionally invested. We’re captivated by villains when we know them. That’s why no-one wants to watch a film where Batman chases the robber who murdered his parents, even though he murdered his parents. We want to see him chase the Joker.
We only really get one glimpse of Bill in the entire film. Elle Driver is about to murder the Bride, as she lies comatose on a hospital bed, when he decides to call:
“But one thing we won't do is sneak into her room in the night like a filthy rat and kill her in her sleep. And the reason we won't do that thing… is because that thing would lower us. Don't you agree, Miss Driver?” 2
At first, this was a little confusing — if he believed that, then why send her in the first place? And then wait until literally the last possible second to stop her? But then my next thought was: okay, this guy has some principles — and if anything, that actually increased my empathy for him, which meant I was even less invested in seeing him vanquished. (Maybe I am a psychopath?) What if, instead, the moment was allowed to play out, and the Bride was forced to defend herself somehow? That’s not necessarily a better choice, but it would make Bill a more terrifying prospect, because it stretches the lengths that he’s willing to go to.
IB, on the other hand, takes almost the exact opposite approach. It’s already got an advantage because it’s set in World War II, and we know that the Nazis were evil, terrible people (or at least most of us do…). But it’s also got Hans Landa, one of the best antagonists of recent times. And unlike the mystery of Bill, we’re introduced to Landa for a whole twenty minutes — before we meet anyone who could be described as a protagonist — in a captivating opening scene which even Tarantino describes as his favourite thing he’s ever written.
In this scene, we first learn about his oddly charming approach (“I was hoping you could invite me inside your home and we could have a discussion”) and how he sees himself as a bureaucrat (“Like any enterprise, when under new management, there is always a slight duplication of efforts.”) But then the tension ramps up as we discover exactly who he is and what his role is, and by the end, we see the full extent of his villainy: “You are sheltering enemies of the state are you not?”
Interestingly, at the end of this scene, we see him choose to let Shosanna go, much like Bill chose to spare the Bride. But this time, it doesn’t make any difference to our perception of him. The damage is done. We want to see him defeated.
2 Fun fact: when I was looking up this dialogue, I found out that even this wasn’t in the original script — you only heard Elle’s side of the conversation.
Glourious... Other Characters
Bill wasn’t the only issue in KB: V1 — I didn’t think the rest of the characters were that interesting either. They all share the quality that they’re great at killing people (although apparently not as good as the Bride). But if I tried to describe anything else about them, all I could really do is list cold facts: one of them has a young child; one of them climbed their way to the top of the Yakuza after their parents were brutally murdered; one of them wears an eyepatch.
I’m not as good at constructing characters as I’d like to be, which is why I’m focusing on that at the moment. But this reminds me of my more naïve approach, where I’d spend ages writing an elaborate backstory, or listing things like their career history or their family tree — which felt productive — only to struggle when it was time to actually write scenes with them. Because facts don’t make interesting characters — it’s what they do, plus how and why they do it.
That’s why, of everyone we meet, Hattori Hanzō (the swordsmith) is the most memorable: he swore never to make a sword again, and now he runs his own sushi restaurant. That’s an interesting set of life choices. Why did he quit? And then, of all the possible options, why a sushi place? I was even intrigued by the kid that the Bride spares near the end of the film. Before she lets him go, she says:
“That’s what you get for fucking around with the Yakuzas. Go home to your mother!”
That’s the only line of dialogue about him — not even spoken by that character — but I want to know more. Why did he leave his family to join the Yakuzas!?
In contrast, most of the characters in IB stick in the mind. I mean, let’s just start with the ‘minor’ characters. The stoic dairy farmer who’s been hiding a family for a year. ‘The Bear Jew’. The British soldier who’s an expert in German cinema and speaks fluent German (but has an unfortunately unusual accent). The German actress who’s working as a double agent for the British government. The German soldier who killed thirteen Gestapo officers. The German soldier who just had a baby boy (and has an unfortunately acute ear for accents). The German soldier who killed 250 Russians and starred in a film about it. Even Hitler himself, the petulant crybaby. We feel like we're seeing only a moment from their rich, multi-dimensional lives – rather than a character sketch invented to fill a story need.3
And that’s before you get to the ‘main’ characters: an American lieutenant who expects his soldiers to give him 100 Nazi scalps and speaks Italian4, the survivor who escaped to Paris and found herself running her own cinema — and, of course, the aforementioned SS officer who likes English idioms (“That’s a bingo!”).
3 I also love the ways all these characters are introduced, and how we learn about who they are — but that’s a large enough topic for its own blog post.
4 The bit where Aldo says “buongiorno”5 in a not-even-slightly-adjusted Tennessee accent gets me every time. I love watching great jokes delivered well.
5 While I was looking up the spelling of “buongiorno”, I discovered that it means good morning / good afternoon, so you wouldn’t use it at a film premiere in the evening. The joke gets even better.
The Bomb Under the Table
If I was to oversimplify, my main metric for a film I like is that every moment makes me want to watch the next moment. I’m so totally engrossed in what’s going on that I’m not checking how long is left or thinking about my to-do list. And for a film I love, that’s true no matter how many times I watch it — I’m no longer curious about what happens next, but I’m still along for the ride because of how it happens.6 Great characters contribute to this (which is one of the reasons why great sitcoms are so rewatchable), but IB uses another tool: suspense.
If you’ve got thirteen minutes, I recommend checking out this video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay, which talks about this in more depth.
One of the key ideas is Alfred Hitchcock’s “bomb theory”. Imagine you have two versions of a scene. In the first, two people are having a conversation, when a bomb suddenly explodes. The audience is surprised for a few moments. In the second version, you see the bomb under the table first, and learn that it’s going to explode in five minutes. Then you see the conversation. Instead of short-lived surprise, you now have five minutes of suspense. Even if they were talking about the dumbest, most mundane thing, you’d still want to keep watching.
IB deploys this so masterfully. In the first scene, halfway through, you see the family hiding underneath the floorboards. Later in the restaurant scene, when Shosanna is eating the apple strudel with Landa, you know about their shared history — but you’re wondering whether Landa knows, especially when he orders her drink for her (“For the Mademoiselle, a glass of milk.”) In the tavern rendezvous scene, we start with the knowledge that one of them is a non-German spy, but then Tarantino adds further ‘bombs’: the location (“You know fightin' in a basement offers a lot of difficulties, number one being you’re fightin’ in a basement.”); Hicox’s nervousness about Stiglitz (“I need to know we can all remain calm”); and, of course, the unexpected German soldier celebrating the birth of his baby boy with his equally-soldiery friends. And finally, when Landa meets Bridget von Hammersmark and the Basterds in the cinema, we know that he knows she was at the tavern, because he found her shoe and her autograph.
Again, KB: V1 isn’t really tense at all, even though it’s the kind of film that probably should be. And I think that’s because the Bride doesn’t really have any weaknesses. Even if you know that she’s going to survive and/or kill Bill, there has to be at least one moment where you think that she won’t. (Everyone jokes about how the Mission: Impossible films should be called Mission: Possible, but they work because they realise exactly this. Even the legendary John Wick was caught and nearly killed at the end of John Wick.) There was the one moment where the Bride was nearly killed by Elle Driver, but as we know, that was diffused with a phone call ex machina. And even during the epic fight sequence at the end, there was zero doubt that she was going to defeat every single henchman. What if, instead, their numbers were actually enough to overwhelm her? Or she had a weakness that they somehow discovered, so she had to improvise a way around it?
6 Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that you need a big, bold story. There was a phase when ITV2 showed About a Boy all the time, and if I ever saw that it was on, I’d watch for thirty seconds and then had to watch until the end of the film. I’ve probably seen that film more than any other.
Revenge of the Giant Running Time
Finally: I have a really, really low tolerance for two-part movies. For them to be worth it, I think they have to satisfy at least these three criteria:
- The first part works on its own — it isn’t just one story cut in the middle.
- The cliffhanger is a question that I want to know the answer to (e.g. how are the Avengers going to save half of the people in the universe?)
- The story is told as efficiently as possible — so that this is the shortest possible running time and it still needed two movies.
As you can probably guess, I didn’t think KB: V1 passed this test. Firstly, it was definitely half of a story — or technically two-fifths, as she only kills two of the people on her list. Secondly, there isn’t really a cliffhanger. The reveal that her child is still alive is framed as one, but it doesn’t really ask a question. At best, we might wonder how the Bride is going to react when she finds out — but we can probably guess that it involves killing lots of people. And finally, I’m not sure that the story is told as efficiently as it could be.7 The anime sequence where we learn about O-Ren Ishii was fun, but does it tell us anything about her character that’s relevant later on? Do we need to see the Bride getting her sword, when she doesn’t need to grow or change in any way in order to earn it? In comparison, it feels like almost every moment of IB is building towards its ending, and it needs all of its 153-minute running time in order to fit everything in.
Just to be clear, I thought KB: V1 was enjoyable enough; this was a critical exercise, so naturally I’m going to sound more critical than I actually was when I watched it. And I’m sure some of you will disagree with some of what I’ve written,8 in which case let me know what you think (e.g. by replying to this tweet), because I love to talk about this kind of stuff. But by picking apart exactly what I like and what I don’t like about the films I see, I’m hopefully a little bit closer to understanding how to make the films I want to make. ●
7 I realise the irony of writing this in a blog post that’s way too long. Thanks for getting this far.