Sociologist Peter Berger once said, "The past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened."
In other words, everyone has their own take on history, shaped to meet their personal needs.
It’s not a shocking concept, but one that has been brought to light in three recent, very different films.
LONG AND LACKLUSTER
When you’re dealing with Quentin Tarantino, you must accept that his movies need to be seen through the lens of exploitation, his preferred method of delivering his message.
And so, a World War II film by the director must not be expected to follow any sort of historical verisimilitude, but instead be a pulp revision featuring all of QT’s tricks and tics: introductory character title cards, fractured narratives, Samuel L. Jackson, brief bursts of shocking violence.
Oh, and a lot of talking.
Inglourious Basterds (R, * * *) was sold as a hyperviolent tale of war and retribution.
Instead, it plays a lot more like “Death Proof,” an extremely talky piece that could have fared much better with some judicious editing.
After a (long) prologue, we are introduced to Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who is in the process of creating a special unit of Jewish soldiers tasked with one thing: killing Nazi soldiers.
Before long, Raine’s “Inglourious Basterds” have stricken fear throughout the Nazi party, all the way up to the Fuhrer himself.
At the same time, the young girl from the prologue, Shoshonna (Melanie Laurent), having escaped the clutches of the nefarious Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), has moved to Paris, where she runs a movie theater.
She and the Basterds are given a golden opportunity for revenge when the premiere of the latest Nazi propaganda piece is scheduled for her theater.
The plot is delivered with typical Tarantino panache, but I felt myself looking at my watch on more than one occasion.
Scenes simply went on and on – at times it worked, as in the bar scene, and others it served no purpose other than to unfurl more purple prose.
This leads to a rather audacious conclusion, one that will make WWII historians shake their heads, but a fun one nonetheless – the release to all the buildup of the two-plus prior hours.
Frankly, I’m shocked that this has become the biggest hit of Tarantino’s career.
From the bait-and-switch advertising, to the relative lack of Pitt, to the fact that half the film is spoken in some language other than English, it’s a total surprise that audiences embraced this.
A COMEDY TO REMEMBER
Coming out of nowhere to become a huge comedy hit, THE HANGOVER (R, H H H 1/2 I) takes a simple premise – what happened last night? – and turns it into gold on the strength of a winning cast and strong writing.
Four friends, led by scurrilous teacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), head to Las Vegas for one final night of debauchery with groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha).
But when they all awake the next morning, Doug is nowhere to be found, their room is trashed, they are in possession of a baby, and a tiger is in the bathroom.
From this moment, the remaining three partiers – Phil, nebbishy dentist Stu (Ed Helms) and unhinged brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifinakis) – must piece together what happened the night before using a few strange clues and help of a weird cast of characters, including a jovial stripper (Heather Graham) and Mike Tyson.
Director Todd Phillips has had success before with raunchy comedies like “Old School” and “Road Trip,” and here he ups the ante by throwing out any sort of half-hearted redemption for his characters and focusing on putting them in increasingly out-there situations. (And just wait until the end, when you find out what really happened.)
While this film made a star out of Cooper, mostly known for playing handsome jerks, the real breakout performance comes from Galifinakis, who has all of the film’s best lines as the not-all-there Alan.
With his disheveled appearance, laconic delivery and unique skills, Alan likely will become an iconic character quoted by college kids for years to come.
I’m generally hard on comedies – they’ve got to bring a lot to the table to truly become memorable – but I enjoyed this one so much, I saw it twice during its theatrical run. It’s not a shock that a sequel is already in the works.
TRIP BACK IN TIME
I’m not sure that anyone knows what really happened at Woodstock, given the insane amounts of illegal substances ingested by nearly everyone involved with the seminal concerts, but many people have tried to piece it together.
The latest is Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director of “Brokeback Mountain,” who heads back to the 1960s for TAKING WOODSTOCK (R, H ** 1/2 **), a pleasant, if slight, look at how a young man and his family motel came to play a role in this major music event.
Demitri Martin stars as Elliot Teichberg, a young interior designer who gives up a promising career to move back to upstate New York and help his parents fix up their fleabag motel.
The enterprising Elliot also is president of the town’s chamber of commerce, and when he reads of how a neighboring town refused a permit for an upcoming “hippie” concert, he offers his own permit, starting a chain of events that would change history.
Lee isn’t interested in the logistics of the concert, instead focusing on the effect the events have on the town and on Elliot, who experiences several awakenings of his own during the wild weekend.
As befitting a film such as this, there is a sprawling, eccentric group of characters that our hero interacts with, from his domineering mother (Imelda Staunton) to a Vietnam veteran (Emile Hirsch) to a transvestite security guard (Liev Schrieber) and the kindly farmer (Eugene Levy) whose land becomes the centerpiece for the concert.
In trying to be an intimate look at such a well-known event, Lee sometimes loses his focus, jumping from one wacky story to the next.
Martin does an OK job as Elliot, but he is mostly upstaged by the veteran actors around him.
The film is an interesting look at history, but one that doesn’t feel fully formed, like a memory that’s a little hazy.
Elliott Smith is a former Olympian reporter who lives in Seattle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.