Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Piece of the Action: Inglourious Basterds

Hello to all you web-browsing individuals out there in internetland. This past weekend, my very close friend Patrick came to visit Shenan and me, traveling all the way from the mythic land of Chicago. During our long weekend of hangouts, drunken revelry, and all-around debauchery, Patrick and I discussed our mutual affection for Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which we agreed was one of the best films of 2009. Our conversation inevitably turned towards what I consider the film's high point: the lengthy sequence set in a French bar that begins a little over an hour into the film. Patrick told me that he once went through the scene's climactic shootout frame-by-frame and was seriously impressed but just how well-constructed it was. I decided to put his claim to the test, and we popped on my copy of the film and slowly went through the sequence.

Sure enough, Patrick was right. The shootout is a mini-masterpiece of action filmmaking, a carefully constructed piece of work that is rapidly edited to create energy, while adhering to some basic visual storytelling principles in order to maintain the scene's coherency.

It got me thinking: going through this sequence shot-by-shot might make for a great blog post. I believe that action films are underrated as art. I have long maintained that action movies, beyond their function as entertainment, can be considered "art" if they display brilliant visual storytelling. An action movie may lack a deeper meaning, in the emotional or socio-political sense (although it can have these layers), but a great action scene can provide a powerful study of motion, as well as create a palpable sense of energy and inspire a strong emotional reaction in the audience (namely, excitement). I feel these attributes warrant serious analysis, so here we are: the first (and possibly only, if I'm not satisfied with the final result) installment of "A Piece of the Action," where I will break down an action scene shot-by-shot to try to briefly explain why I think it works.

Now, rather than tediously recount the plot of Inglourious Basterds here, I'm going to assume that everyone reading this has seen the movie. If not, I will pause right now so that you can go out, pick up a copy, and give it a spin. I bet you'll love it.

Okay, all set? Pretty great, huh? I knew you'd love it. Unless you're Jonathan Rosenbaum, in which case I'm sorry this movie offended you so deeply and I respect your opinion although I do not share it, and I also I really loved your piece on Joe Dante's Matinee, a movie that's begging to be rediscovered by a generation of movie-lovers.

Right, now, time to discuss the sequence at hand. The 23 shots I have decided to discuss here today, by my count, last about 22 seconds. Granted, I'm not a big fan of math, but I think we can agree that that means it has an average shot length of slightly less than 1 second, which I would consider fast cutting. One of the most prevalent criticisms of modern action scenes is that they are edited so fast that they become incoherent, but Tarantino avoids confusion in this sequence, as I will argue, by respecting things like shot composition, continuity, and geography/spacial relations (also, it doesn't hurt that he isn't shaking the camera around too much).

Before I start, I want to freely admit that I am not an expert at visual analysis, and haven't really done anything like it since college. I tend to forget a lot of technical terms. So if this post comes off as embarrassingly unprofessional, it's because I'm not a professional. Also, I probably should have included a few screen grabs from before the action begins, in order to give you, the reader, a sense of the characters and geography of the scene. But I only have so much patience for clicking through a movie frame-by-frame, so I only took shots from the shoot-out. Sorry. Let's begin:

(Note: you can click on the frames to get a slightly better look at them.)

Shot 1: Unbelievable badass Hugo Stiglitz busts a cap into that smug Nazi asshole Major Hellstrom's groinal region. Please note the other Nazis behind Stiglitz and Hellstrom, still playing Indian Poker, as they will soon be participating in the action. Also note Hellstrom's awesome beer glass to the right (you can't tell from this shot, but it's shaped like a boot, and I own a very similar one myself). And please appreciate the fact that I very carefully included a nice splash of blood in this still, for your viewing pleasure.

Shot 2: It had been established earlier in the scene that the characters were all holding guns on each other under the table, and we are now getting the payoff. The camera cuts to underneath the table, where we see Hellstrom getting filled with lead. Pretty simple cause-and-effect here. He opens fire under the table, towards Archie Hicox and Bridget von Hammersmark.

Shot 3: From left to right, we see: von Hammersmarks's leg, Hicox firing under the table at Hellstrom, Hellstrom firing at Hicox, and Stiglitz firing into Hellstrom's lap. The audience quickly grasps, if the preceding dialogue didn't already underscore it enough for them, that everyone at this table is fucked. I like the misty sprays of blood, which effectively mix with the gun smoke to create a smoky/hazy effect throughout much of the shootout.

Shot 4: (Split into two frames to give a slightly better sense of the action). We cut now to a closer shot of just Hicox and von Hammersmark's legs. Hicox takes multiple hits, and von Hammersmark is hit in the leg by a stray shot, and both topple to the floor. The male heroes are all dressed as Nazis during this scene, so there is serous potential for confusion as to who is who during all the ruckus. Tarantino, however, does a good job of making it clear that these are Hicox's legs in this shot by also including von Hammersmark's on the left side of the frame, using the previously established geography to orient the audience.

Shot 5: The underneath-the-table action now completed, we return to eye-level. One of the surviving Basterds gets up, draws his gun, and opens fire. We don't see what he's shooting at yet. (According to IMDB he's named Wicki, but I'm not sure they say his name in the film; he does little more than sit in the background throughout the preceding events, but kicks a lot of ass during these brief 22 seconds)

Shot 6: Cut to a shot farther back, so we can see that Wicki is opening fire on the other table full of Nazis, taking one of them down. Keeping Wicki in the shot instead of just cutting to a cause-and-effect close-up of the Nazi getting filled up with holes helps maintain the integrity of the geography. On the left side of the frame we can see part of the waitress' arm and her cards (she was also visible in shot 1 between Stiglitz and Hellstrom), essentially in the same position as before. Towards the end of the shot, she begins to rise. A shot hits the table in front of Wicki.

Shot 7: Tarantino now brings us back to Stiglitz who, much to our delight, is viciously stabbing Hellstrom (who is probably already dead from all the gunshots) in the back of his head. Behind Stiglitz, visible under his arm, the waitress rises and opens fire on him. She is completing the action that she began in the previous shot, so there is a nice logical, visual connection between the two shots. Her motion in the background here is also the set-up for the next shot. On the lower left, one of the other Nazis appears to be fumbling, trying to find his gun. To the right, that boot-shaped beer glass I love so much makes another appearance, now appearing to be speckled with blood.

Shot 8: (split into 2 screen grabs). We go to a tighter shot to the waitress, from a slight right angle this time, as she blasts the shit out of Stiglitz. Very briefly, we can see the Nazi from the previous shot is still fumbling for his weapon, totally getting one-upped by a girl. The camera intensely zooms into a closeup, a visual motif that will turn up again in the shootout.

Shot 9: We cut about 180 degrees back to Stiglitz, from the waitress' POV, getting hit in the back by the her gunfire. The last 3 shots form a clear, concise bit of action: the waitress rising behind Stliglitz, a closeup of her shooting, and a reverse shot of Stiglitz getting hit.

Off camera, he has apparently picked up Hellstrom's boot-shaped beer glass (I have to hope that he was planning on beating Hellstrom's corpse with it, or perhaps sticking it up the Nazi's ass). As he is hit, he flails and drops the glass on the table. I like that the glass, a memorable prop during the extended suspense sequence leading up to the shootout, is briefly involved in the action. On the right side of the frame is the other waitress, who looks mighty young to me, fulfilling the role of innocent bystander. This shot helps establish where she is standing, important for a shot later in the sequence.

Shot 10: This cut here is a little more abrupt. One of the other Nazis rises up and begins shooting. The editing and framing doesn't make it exactly clear where he just came from, but we'll get our bearings in the next shot. There's a goofy touch here in the way the Nazi is still wearing the card on his forehead. I believe it says "Mata Hari," a nice little wink to Inglourious Basterds' recurring themes of deception/subterfuge/etc.

Shot 11: Wicki is struck by the Nazi's bullets, and in turn begins to swing his gun towards the Nazi. We are beginning to establish a line of action between the two characters.

Shot 12: ...but first, we cross cut back to Stiglitz and the waitress, exchanging fire. We can clearly see the waitress take four hits. Arguably, there is a mistake here in that we haven't seen where Stiglitz got the gun from (see shot 9: the only thing he's holding is the glass, which he drops). It's not clear if he had another gun in his possession already, or if he took it from a corpse, but he arguably had enough time to grab another in the melee, though it would have had to have been quick. In the middle of the frame, that wussy Nazi is still struggling to find his gun. What a loser!

Shot 13: Cross back to Wicki, essentially the same shot as shot 11, who regains his footing and shoots. This time, it should be clear who he's firing at, even before the next shot confirms it.

Shot 14: Mati Hari is struck twice, in a particularly spectacular explosion of blood. The shot is essentially the same as shot 10. This next fact isn't important at all, as far as I can tell, but I just looked it up and Picon (an ad for which you can see in the upper left) is apparently a type of bitters.

Shot 15: (split into 4 screen grabs). We cross back again to Stiglitz duking it out with the waitress and loser-Nazi. The waitress is down for the count, but the Nazi appears to have finally found his gun. Which is really too bad, because his clumsiness has given Stiglitz enough time to kill him, too. The shot is framed the same as (or perhaps is a continuation of) shot 12... but there is a surprise. The camera whip pans over to the bar. During the pan, likely undetectable when played at normal speed, you can see the Nazi with whom Wicki has been exchanging fire crouching on the floor. The pan stops at the bartender, who is raising his shotgun (shown under the bar during the buildup). The camera then begins to abruptly zoom towards a closeup, similar to the one of the waitress in shot 8.

Shot 16: Although designed to look like part of shot 15, this appears to be a separate closeup of the bartender. The cut is somewhat hidden by the speed of the zoom. The bartender fires.

Shot 17: Based on the shot/reverse shot pattern of the last few exchanges, you might expect this shot to be of Stiglitz getting hit. Instead, Tarantino throws another curve ball and cuts to a closeup of Wicki firing, with the barrel of the bartender's shotgun in the extreme foreground. The camera does an accelerated zoom out to reveal the bartender as he gets hit, which plays almost as the reverse of the zoom in shot 15. We are never actually shown Stiglitz getting hit by the shotgun blast, but the last two shots have given us enough information to assume that he's kaput.

Shot 18: Cut to a reverse-angle closeup of the bartender as he falls backwards. I didn't pick a good screencap for it, but you can see that he's been smoking a cigarette the whole time, which is pretty badass.

Shot 19: Wait, there's still one more zoom! We get a rather dramatic zoom in on the other waitress' face as she screams. In all honesty, I'm not sure how this shot really furthers the action or visual storytelling, except that she is likely screaming because she can see what's about to happen in the next shot. Otherwise, it has a sort of, I don't know, Fritz Lang-ian expressionistic quality to it.

Shot 20: Sgt. Wilhelm, whose son was just born today, has been absent since the first shot of this sequence. He now unexpectedly returns at the far side of the bar, wielding a machine gun, firing wildly due to his intoxication, . This is the final surprise, the beginning of the end of the shootout.

Shot 21: Looking out from Wilhelm's POV now, the three other survivors form a The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly-esque triangle . Wilhelm's gunfire travels across the frame from right to left, piercing the waitress, Wicki, and the final Nazi on the left, with the walls and light fixtures catching stray bullets. The profound indiscrimination of Wilhelm's fire reminds me a bit of the ending of The Wild Bunch.

Shot 22: Back to Wilhelm as he finishes shooting, and begins to survey the damage that he's done. Whoops, probably didn't mean to shoot his fellow soldier.

Shot 23: And now, the punchline. We cut back to the wide shot of the tavern from shot 21, now eerily still except for the settling dust and smoke. There even appears to be some blood still floating in the haze. The action has ended, for now.

These 23 shots come in such rapid succession that it's almost a little difficult to process. The speed of the edits is likely to create a certain sense of chaos, but Tarantino respects the spacial relations of the scene (which sounds obvious, but so many action directors these days don't bother) and creates a logical sequence of events. After seeing it once, I doubt a viewer could draw a complex diagram of what happened to whom and when, but I also think that all the major moments come across clearly.

Going over the scene, I'm further impressed by its construction, and how much information is crammed into a short span of time. The shootout is a short story in its own right, with subplots that branch off from it, all with beginnings, middles, and endings. Hopefully, this post underlines what I think works about this scene.