Thursday, September 03, 2009

For Bravery: Das Unheimliche and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

ACHTUNG!: You are not stepping into a movie review. Readers proceeding beyond this point should have already seen Inglourious Basterds, expect no plot summary, and require no protective gear for the RAMPANT, CONSTANT SPOILERS AHEAD

* * * * *

"A tinker, a tailor
A soldier's things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks
And this one is for bravery
And this one is for me
And everything's a dollar in this box"

-Tom Waits, "Soldier's Things"


In 1941, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon decided that the cover of Captain America #1 would be Cap coldcocking Adolf Hitler. Like so many Golden Age comics luminaries, Kirby was Jewish. Joe Simon is Jewish. They wanted to see Hitler's face smashed in. And if not, they correctly guessed that their audience wanted to see the Nazi leader cracked in the mouth.

A plot strand in the tapestry of Inglourious Basterds directly concerns the exploits of a mini-platoon of Jewish-American soldiers on a secret mission through the European Theater of Operations: to cause as much havoc as possible behind enemy lines by brutally murdering and desecrating the corpses of as many German soldiers as possible. All its stories eventually converge in a blazing, startling, shrieking climax of Nazi-immolating carnage.

This material -- the adventures of Captain America and the Inglourious Basterds alike -- in its simplest reading taps a nearly universal vein of desire to see modern history's designated greatest villains met with violent pretend retribution. Arguments to the contrary are probably futile. We never see the Basterds or Shosanna Dreyfus behave or react to the world in any particular way reflective of the Jewish experience, but their ethnicity is fuel for the plot engines and bolsters the righteousness of the murders and mutilations that serve as the only twisted justice of the Inglourious Basterds universe. Whether the world Jewish community does or should savor this with any relish is likewise up for grabs.

Whether there is ever such a thing as an uncomplicated, cathartic and healthy revenge fantasy is an eternal mystery.

Inglourious Basterds crams into a punishingly short 153 minutes nearly every family, genus and species of narrative possible in the order of World War II films. All that is noticeably missing are hand-wringing Holocaust melodrama and the large-scale battle epic -- in other words, the predominant subgenres still being made in our era. But they are there too. Both are hover over Basterds in subverted, negated spirit, conspicuous in their absence (the home front drama is accounted for in a particularly wonderful and, sadly, deleted scene, three minutes of backstory on the trademark baseball bat of one Donny Donowitz). The battalion of misfits adventure tale ("men-on-a-mission" says Tarantino: The Dirty Dozen, The Dam Busters, and yes, Inglorious Bastards), to stories of artists engaged in ideological resistance fighting (The Last Metro, To Be or Not to Be, Cabaret), every kind of WWII movie is there in turn or at once. Some stake a claim to major plot points and concrete screen time like the espionage thrillers (Foreign Correspondent, Notorious) that inform the spygames of the La Louisiane sequence...

Some WWII-themed subgenres merely flash by in an off-hand visual or verbal reference, but some infect/inform/form the very heart of the film without speaking their name. A comic horror insert shot reveals Josef Goebbels banging his translator, and the majority of "Chapter Five" drips with decadent Third Reich taste in arts and decoration, as Goebbels commandeers Dreyfus' theater for a film premiere. From the wincingly confused purpose of cheapjack sexploitation films like Love Camp 7 to their arthouse grandfather in Visconti's The Damned to (maybe most of all?) Tinto Brass' line-straddling, conundrum Salon Kitty, the least reputable strain of WWII drama holds its own peculiar power, and Tarantino wields it handily in his own war epic. The unique gift of Nazisploitation is the efficacy of a perverse moral bewilderment. The chromosomal anomaly of Nazisploitation films slowly mutates the genetic makeup of Inglorious Basterds, warping its form into a great mad, startling beast. As Inglourious Bastards' final chapter escalates, its plot convergences become inevitable as surely as they become unpredictable, as it makes definitive, unashamed break with historical record -- the movie will not hide in an imaginary unspoken pocket of history -- and it erupts with a black, irrational tone of hysteria and hallucination.

With Jonathan Rosenbaum accusing the film of being tantamount to Holocaust revisionism and other critics rendered helpless with inarticulate rage, difficult questions are posed: why do these strong reactions from detractors proceed from a viewing experience entirely alien to those who admire the film? The semi-approving assert that a kind of shallowness and movie-headed retardation of vision are the core and limit of Tarantino's purpose.

The gripe springs eternal:

"Those who like this film do so because it doesn't seem to have anything to say and renders the cinematic experience as pure play. Those who dislike it dislike it for the very same reasons, seeing the deliberate cool superficiality of Pulp Fiction as a symptom of the empty post-modernity of our age."

"Like the allusions in the film, Pulp Fiction itself is either a film you get or you don't. Some people luxuriate in its meaninglessness, some people find its meaninglessness to be the symptom if not the origin of major social ills, others find a meaningfulness in a message of redemption"

-Dana Polan, BFI Modern Classics: Pulp Fiction

With nearly sixty years of fiction devoted to how very much Nazis have it coming, why single out Tarantino's film? If it is because his stories crackle with aestheticized kick and poppy frisson, what do the same critics make of Basterds-inspiring tough guy fantasia The Dirty Dozen itself? Certainly it is just as difficult to argue the moral rectitude of The Great Escape, to say nothing of a sitting duck like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Jim Emerson makes the agreeable but problematic comparison to Warner Bros. cartoons about Bugs Bunny tormenting Axis powers with Brooklynite pluck -- implication being, if it is all a cartoon, not to take it seriously... even while he takes the movie pretty seriously. It's the reading method of the Dana Polan BFI volume above: "Those who like this film do so because it doesn't seem to have anything to say and renders the cinematic experience as pure play." This hardly accounts for any viewers deeply moved in the heart or powerfully stimulated in the head by Basterds (or Pulp-- I guess, given Polan's two options, we don't exist or are mentally unsound?), but also ignores that the men of Termite Terrace were living through the historical moment. They worked out their own concerns through their art form and were tasked too with boosting homefront and battlefield morale. Little entertainments can shoulder big responsibilities.

Why pick on Tarantino? is a good question indeed, when after six features the complaints hardly waver. On one hand, Tarantino invites it, on the other hand, clasped with the first, the critical establishment has a stubborn unwillingness to budge. The paradigm is set as to What to Do with Quentin Tarantino and has hardly been revised.

Top dirty names to call Quentin Tarantino: Nostalgia Hound, Magpie, Trainspotter, Sadist... Cinephile.
This, although his view of cultural history is neither as blinkered and sentimental as Spielberg at his most nostalgic or cynical as Spielberg at his grumpiest. Tarantino's bricolage is nowhere near as pervasive, disruptive and dizzying as Joe Dante's -- indeed Dante's major theme is the hollow, brain-numbing echo chamber of disposable culture bouncing off itself, while Tarantino's is, simply, not. We all speak daily, openly and actively about popular culture and our experience with it. Many of us do so more than Tarantino characters. Why should Movie People be deprived of a cultural frame of reference? In Basterds it is particularly fun to watch the scope of direct dialogue references narrow with a 1941/45 cut-off point, even if a joke about Lilian Harvey is greeted in packed theaters with exactly one laugh. In-jokery is, of course, free to associate across time at whim, and name-dropping Emmanuelle, and the real world Hugo Stiglitz and Antonio Margheriti tints the picture gently, it indicates the company Inglourious Basterds wants to keep, names its secret gods.

And there it is again, again, that perpetual bugbear, The Violence. So why single out this filmmaker, who's made nothing so bloodthirsty as Rambo III or City of the Dead? He courts it. Asks for it. Engages when provoked, and seems to argue back on film. An apologist would, after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, make the realistic case that the violence of those films is substantially less graphic than its liminally felt impact -- a strong case in point of the filmmaker's prowess (and the Psycho Shower Scene Argument) -- only to be greeted by the 1-2 punch replies of the relatively bloodless Jackie Brown and unmatched mayhem of Kill Bill - Vol. 1. The critic's hand is forced. Either deal with Tarantino seriously or be doomed to rehash the same complaints endlessly.

That the living tissue of his cinema is a successful graft of 10,000 movie donors should be particularly appealing to film critics, who more than any of us live with perpetual projector bulb tan and a Geneva Drive tattoo over the heart. What Tarantino does by crafting the fabric of cinema history into fully wearable new garments is not dissimilar to the life's work of Brian De Palma and Jean-Luc Godard. Tarantino is less black-hearted than De Palma, less politicized than Godard, less schematic than either. To single him out for ridicule as a filmmaker with film itself as a ruling thematic concern is bizarre. Most of Generation X's directors don't even have ruling thematic concerns.

Tarantino is not without his authorial tics. He punctuates suspense with hyperfocused extreme close-ups of food, feet, arcane detail, peers out of car trunks incessantly, frames characters in doorways and crams metatextual declaration into dialogue. But his technique possesses no faddishness. In an age where most directors flatten their visual field magazine cover thin and alternate between big head TV close-ups and impotent camera flailing, Tarantino composes for the entire frame, constructs screen geography by holding shots as long as possible and, in Basterds in particular, uses deep focus to impart as much information as possible in a shot. Take some time with the scene in which Zoller pesters Shosanna in a cafe. She just wants to smoke, sip coffee and read, but the soldier tries his damnedest to chat her up, fending off her rebukes and disruptions from ardent fans, then recognizes the opportunity to impress the girl with his celebrity. Tarantino places Shosanna by the storefront window and keeps everything mostly in focus from the woman in the foreground to the buildings across the street. Sidewalk pedestrians recognizing Zoller are fully visible as they move from exterior to interior space, and several interlocking stories are being told at once.

Inglourious Basterds luxurates in the pleasures and pains of the movies and meditates on film as a force shaping our lives, interior identities and human history. That second clause is the writer-director's great step forward in his sixth feature, though his concerns have not changed, they are articulated with emphatic force in Basterds. The breadth and depth of reference is impressive by its own right, but less canny filmmakes pull similar, less encyclopedic stunts all the time: naïve accumulation of a hundred years of film cliché may also cause the sensation of a thousand films overlapping on one screen.

A headspace is established for the film: that we are in Movieland, in Movie History where Movie People operate on Movie Rules. This is not the same as saying the film operates with weightless unreality, that situations are not serious in any way. Inglorious Basterds then does a service to all war films -- indeed, all films -- from the earnest propaganda documentary modes of Why We Fight to the studio-slick entertainments of Casablanca. All movies are movies. That Tarantino is not embarrassed to say so does not make his films shallow exceptions to any rule or inherently frivolous, but exceptionally honest, generous, grateful for the cinema, grateful to be of the cinema. The notion does not strip art of importance but return it in kind, separates art from the stifling, impossible, dishonest illusion that its function is/should be/can be to duplicate reality. And of all words in the above that should be bracketed by a good post-modernist's set of quotation marks, it is "reality." When we're at the movies, regardless of how naturalistic the performers or fantastical the scenario, every movie is equally unreal. And every movie is real in and of itself.

Rosenbaum's complaint, once he deigned to (sort of) elaborate, seems (?) to be that Basterds makes the Holocaust "less real". Putting aside that it is not a Holocaust film (nary a concentration or extermination camp is seen or mentioned), and that the purpose of the film may not be to deepen an audience's understand of historical fact -- and do note, those are large, potentially crucial blocks to "set aside" -- the opposite may be true, even if Bastards is read as puerile revenge fantasy. The film does not establish Hitler's Final Solution in any exposition, and depicts persecution of occupied Europe's Jews mainly to set up Shosanna's plight. Basterds requires foreknowledge of history, presumes an audience understands facts of the Holocaust. The rage of its characters, the machinations of the plot, the purpose that fuels the film's passions all operate on the assumption of an audience for whom the the Holocaust and a war against fascist, antisemitic enemies are very real, and that a basic set of feelings are shared on the subject.

There are stories of violent revenge, retribution and score-settling, professional and private, in all Tarantino's features as a director, and most of his screenwriting. One of the basic reasons we go to the movies is their bottomless capacity for wish fulfillment fantasy. It is a shade of escapism, or perhaps vice versa. These wishes and their cinematic granting may be base, cathartic, pathetic, unarticulated, mysterious or unhealthy. The movies provide a potentially powerful and relatively safe arena for working it out.

One of the fascinating things about The Parent Trap, for example, is its bizarrely naked fulfillment of a fantasy harbored by children of divorce, that Mom and Dad will reconcile -- that they can be forced to reconcile. When given some thought, surely no one would want their own children clinging to the desperate, futile hope, wallowing in the stunted, immature understanding of relationships, or the practicing the conniving and cruel schemes of Sharon and Susan to reunite their parents. And yet adults made the film. It is irresistibly sunny and extremely incorrect at the same time, with no hope for the faithless to say it is charmless or unfunny or the faithful to untangle it.

Genre cinema's most basic scenarios all run on this principle, a chance to experience the romantic comedy courtship ideal, to explore and adventure beyond one's backyard, to be a cowboy, a fireman, an astronaut. But it's always more complicated than that, and where there's tension, things get interesting. Horror films are particularly good at this: genre theorists are constantly telling us that we attend to identify with a murderer or monster, to sate some primal bloodlust, to vent some dark steam pushing against our interior walls. Even more basic, though, deeper, stranger and unsayable, we are afraid and exhilarated because we identify with the victims. We get to watch ourselves killed, over and over, to die a thousand make-believe deaths that we may understand our own.

A principle pleasure of Tarantino's films is the shape of their stories ( and say, then, if we speak of "content" or its "form"? The form of a movie is its content). His wooly-souled tales are electrifyng because truly anything can happen and we're aware that the storyteller holds no fear of Going There. Anywhere -- to the pawnshop basement, into Mia Wallace's heart, or to loop back into its own first scene. Pulp Fiction's scheme is that each sequence will end up 1000 miles fom where it began. Reservoir Dogs and (the original screenplay for) True Romance rupture the tail end of each sequence with sudden violence and/or surprise revelation, carefully parcelling out information by jumbling chronology. Jackie Brown is a series of games in which characters outsmart one another, cards held against chest so the audience cannot know who will win each match or if it will end in a flagrant foul. Kill Bill, Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds are structured as strings of conflict with nearly self-evident resolution, giving off an unbearable heat of suspense because we know they will end but cannot tell when.

Basterds is specifically a series of interrogation scenes. It is practically a field guide to variations on human conversation as interrogation: police questioning (Landa and LePedite), meet-cute flirting (Zoller and Dreyfus), job interview (Goebbels and Dreyfus --> Dreyfus and Landa), briefing (Churchill, Fenech and Hicox), debriefing (Hitler and Butz).

In the structural tour-de-force second Chapter, "Inglourious Basterds", Tarantino loads all his storytelling guns. In nested scenes of characters telling stories to one another, the chronology gradually burrows at least four layers deep, then claws back through to the other side. Hitler meets with Pvt. Butz --> who recounts his platoon's encounter with the Basterds --> which pauses for the backstory of Hugo Stiglitz --> which begins with a newspaper photo of the thirteen Gestapo he killed --> which leads to mini-vignettes highlighting the killings and Stiglitz's Basterd recruitment - at which point we are four levels down. The film is artfully, breathlessly driven to distraction by the infinite possibilities of story itself. The chronology then collapses back into position, all efforts focusing for impact as Butz raises his cap to reveal his swastika scarification. Then, a signature flourish: how'd Tarantino get so good at this? Same way as Aldo Raine. "Practice!"

All of Tarantino's films have been about the way identity is little but accumulation of stories about ourselves: the stories we tell about (and to) ourselves, the stories we tell about each other, the stories the world tells about us, the stories that are us. Reservoir Dogs is about scumbags and weasels playing at being men of honor and lions. Natural Born Killers and True Romance play out as mirrored halves (and were, in long ago drafts, likely retrograde counterpoints). In True Romance Clarence and Alabama bluff their way into legend, pretend to be Bonnie and Clyde until it comes true, while in Natural Born Killers Mickey and Mallory abandon all civilization for primal violent impulse, and marvel as the media inflates their atrocities into the American myth of individual freedom and integrity; the same thing happens to both couples, but inside-out. You can't help but end up a story. Jackie Brown is endless circles of everyone duping one other, which, naturally, involves nigh constant subterfuge and reading of other players' strategies. In Kill Bill everyone truly is the badass world-shaking giant they appear to be, but also rifle through indices of identity until they find the person they need to be. Vol. 1 establishes their legends, Vol. 2 deconstructs them, the vital layer being that the story The Bride tells herself of a mission of revenge melts away to reveal the story of Beatrix Kiddo's rebirth and redemption. Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds alike reconfigure and take hard looks at the purpose and meaning of exploitation film iconography. And in Pulp Fiction everyone is telling stories all the time, projecting and revealing themselves, bulding the world with talk, rumor, joke and anecdote, their constant chatter a meticulous network of meaning.

Espionage and fugitive drama being Inglourious Basterds' orders of the day, everyone is lying, acting, or hiding something, every character both themselves and a story about themselves. It is a film very much about mythmaking and performance. In the schematic marvel of the La Louisiane sequence, multiple layers of playacting converge and quarrel as a frivolous bar game variant on What's My Line? endangers the deadly serious acting of undercover agents impersonating German officers attempting to rendezvous with a double agent -- herself an actress and the scene's fulcrum of teetering make-believe.

Even Aldo Raine and his Basterds, who cannot abide that Nazis may escape anonymous into history and make it their mission to brand the living enemy and desecrate the dead, in their primary function as a guerilla terror unit are spreading a story. The Basterds constitute a bogeyman legend to ripple through the psyche of the German ranks. Until conscripted into Operation Kino, their usefulness as a story is understood to be larger than the mayhem they could cause by hand. Meanwhile, "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa's tactics include two powerful weapons which do most of the work for him: the reputation which precedes him, and the air of confidence that implies he already knows your secrets. These are sharpened and on display even when in non-detective mode, as when discussing theatre security issues with a petrified Shosanna.

Landa and Raine both open their major introductory dialogues by asking the interviewee what they know about the dangerous reputations of the interrogators. This paralleling gives a good indication of what Tarantino is up to at the heart of his vengeance stories.

There are only two setpieces in Inglourious Basterds focused on the violent destruction of Nazis, and both are complicated, designed to be more felt on a phenomenal level than understood intellectually. Because here it is: What Inglourious Basterds does spectacularly well is imbue its adrenalized violence with a feeling that is utterly weird. It is uncanny. Something feels panicked and wrong and it is difficult to pinpoint what or why. Tarantino's last two films periodically shifted into similar discordant tones, and such sustained irrational dread is only matched onscreen by Dario Argento's heyday run of films from 1975-1985 and David Lynch whenever he feels like working.

In the first of these setpieces, the Basterds question then beat to death one Sgt. Rachtman. It is giddy and sweat-beaded as a suspense sequence, for the same reasons as the needle-to-the-heart climax of "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife": a dire situation played as slapstick sick joke, a surrogate audience laughing themselves queasy with anticipation, a poised weapon completely apropos as metaphor for the physical sensation of the scene itself. The scene is inherently conflicting, but in the key exchange, Sgt. Donowitz demands of Rachtman: "How'd you get that medal on your chest? Killing Jews?" And the answer: "Bravery." And when Rachtman's head caves in, we know he had this one virtue at least, and that he died wearing a Nazi uniform. Brett: "I'm sorry things got so fucked between us and Mr. Wallace." Mr. Pink: "I'm acting like a professional!" Sgt. Werner Rachtman: "Bravery." Bang. Bang. Bang.

Chapter Five - "Revenge of the Giant Face" grows increasingly unsettling as it shifts into the Salon Kitty-styled décor of Shosanna's violated movie palace, but the sensation that something is off begins earlier, as David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" throbs and laments over a Suiting Up montage in which the weapons are film reels and the warpaint and uniform are the gowns and makeup required for a movie premier. The bold musical selection is proving to be a sore spot with some viewers, but even those who admire the audacity of the loud intrusion of a 1982 goth-glam track into the audio space of a period film might consider that a) by this point either Basterds has one in its grip or does not, and b) the Bowie track is not any more or less anachronistic than the repurposed Morricone cues that score the rest of the film. Or more "fair" or "correct" than the Billy Preston music, or any of the music, for that matter -- little to none of the score is authentic in period, instrumentation or style.

An omniscient, or at least very informed narrator provides expositional assistance once in awhile. In a neat trick straight out of Suspiria, that narrator is never identified, and eventually disappears altogether (Argento's version is even scarier: his narrator only speaks once and provides no particularly useful information). Innocuous (and cool, because it's Samuel L. Jackson's voice) while on the soundtrack, but ultimately ominous, because at any point in the film we may remember that extra-dimensional layer, that voice from inside-outside the Story, and realize we have been completely abandoned.

Shosanna and the Basterds blow it up, the pretend reflections of Reich leaders and Nation's Pride, the pretend film within this film, some stories just too evil to be allowed to walk the earth, and this is not an anti-revenge story. Most of the baddies aren't in uniform, but evening wear. They aren't currently ranting and spouting arguments for eugenics and totalitarian politics but screaming in fear and scrambling for their lives. If we desired a horrible, spectacular demise for these villains, this is certainly a horrible, spectacular demise. The climax graphically echos an extermination camp gas chamber but the crucial referent is the finale of Carrie.

The moment Carrie goes PK-A-bomb is a dozen climaxes at once, and De Palma's film multiple orgasms all the way to the credits. In disorienting, crashing waves the outsider's revenge story culminates, a tidal force of cleansing female power washes through, and everything goes completely berserk. Carrie White is transformed, an inhuman avenging angel, out of (self) control and channeling a righteous flame. She is a supernatural wrath straight out of Revelation. And we want to see this, want the dipshits who tormented Carrie to burn, but it is also the film's apex of horror. Carrie's prom sequence is satisfying, scary, brutal, several other adjectives and exhilarating all at once, and those are not incompatible feelings. They don't cancel each other out, and this is a secret to the film's spooky power. No one should walk out of the film feeling guilty or complacent.

A swastika Zoller whittles into his sniper's perch in Nation's Pride rhymes with the Basterds' nickname carved into a rifle butt, and of course, Raine's handiwork across the foreheads of surviving Nazis. These echoes draw disconcerting parallels, connect ideas to be compared, but do not necessarily imply coequals. Continually complicating matters are glimpses of common human experience peeping through holes in Nazi uniforms: the one-word story of Rachtman's Iron Cross, an off-duty soldier celebrating his child's birth, Landa's disarming dorkiness beneath his hard, smooth legend. In the person of Pvt. Zoller, this stinging theme is distilled. He thinks he and Shosanna are in a romantic comedy, plays his role with much charm and confidence. At the Nation's Pride screening then, what is it that makes him flinch, avert his eyes, abandon his seat? Embarrassment at his performance? Pain at the memory of taking hundreds of lives (his explanation)? Pain that it took the power of cinema to make him feel the weight of those deaths; that his favorite art form had turned on him? Or the crushing realization that he is not in the movie he thought he was in? In Zoller's defining moment, he disrupts Shosanna in the projection booth, tries to play romantic lead one last time, is pushed too far, and threatens to assault her. He feels entitled, as occupying force. Human, certainly, and a G.W. Pabst fan to boot, but the equation is unbalanced: he's a human being that has irrevocably chosen to throw in with the Nazi Party. There are, in the end, those things Nazis believed, things they did, which cannot be made up for by doses of charm, frailty and circumstance. Things get complicated, Inglourious Basterds admits, but some of the identities we flicker through stick with us and muck up all the others. And Zoller's a Nazi.

Rachtman and Landa are both indignant that the Basterds do not play by War Rules, that they hold their enemy in contempt. They're right, as far as it goes, and as far their indignation is not coupled with oblivious arrogance. Rachtman is unrepentant to the last, thinks he is going down with dignity and a soldier's honor. Things get complicated, but ultimately, Sgt. Rachtman goes down as a Nazi with his head caved in by a baseball bat.

Landa is so amoral as to edge into anti-moral. During a boast that he does not hate Jews, and is possessed of the amazing ability to "think like a Jew," it may never cross his mind that if he could truly think like a Jew, he would not hunt them down for the Party. It is just part of a story: he's the Jew Hunter. He's a master detective. He's an SS Standartenführer, a multilinguist, a saboteur, a turncoat and a war hero... and oops. One of the stories Landa has chosen to occupy drowns out the others. And as Landa is the last Nazi standing, Lt. Raine has one final piece to sign before the gallery hanging at Nuremberg. In a film about faking it until it's real, about verbal sleight-of-hand, and the ability of a great storyteller to be anyone he or she wants to be, what Aldo Raine has done is decide Hans Landa's story for him.

As Operation Kino bursts into bloom, Inglourious Basterds makes its most startling connection. The association is self-critical and self-congratulatory, it's funny and scary, it's honest and false, it's everything Tarantino's critics hate in his work and everything they see missing, it is the surface and it is the core. Adolf Hitler is at the movies, a violence-saturated piece of propaganda about the romantic legend of a tough guy bringing down an abstracted enemy for the audience's satisfaction. Hitler laughs and rollicks and he gets really into it.

Before anyone could reasonably begin processing what this means, that Tarantino has willingly drawn connection between his imagined audience and a theater full of Nazis, and thereby implicated himself, Sgt. Donowitz steps in, grim triumph, revulsion and deep psychosis spilling out of his eyes, and demolishes Hitler's skull with a machine gun. Pulped. Things are complicated, ethical ideologies are diced, stirred, simmered and in the critical moment, a choice is made. A fantasy of vengeance is not the same as a wish for justice, as moral instruction, as poetic justice, as a prescription for behavior. It may be weird, it may not be the voice of our better angels, but it is a real human impulse. Choose your stories wisely.

The final German Night in Paris is a similar brand of unsettling as Carrie's last stand: the phantasmagoric theater of destruction is presided over by Shosanna's manically laughing giant face. She is made of smoke and light, wreathed in flame, a cinematic godhead. She shapes history. She demolishes history. She is producer, screenwriter, actor, director, editor, distributor, exhibitor, projectionist and projection.

And Shosanna is a film critic. She programs her theater with her heart, sneers at Riefenstahl's politics, counter-programs with Le Courbeau, and cannot abide smears on G.W. Pabst's art even in the face of what she has been through. Because she's from France, and perhaps it is a France of the cinephile imagination, but in her country, they respect directors. In France, things are different. They got the metric system. They wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

22 comments:

Ed Howard said...

Wow, what a fantastic piece, one of the best I've read about this film thus far -- and that's really saying something considering that Inglourious Basterds has prompted more serious, analytical discussion than perhaps any other film in recent memory.

There's way too much here to respond to, but it sounds like you basically read the film the way I do (as elaborated here), as this wonderful meta synthesis of The Movies, continuing Tarantino's ruminations on identity and genre and the ways in which pop culture reflects and resonates with "real life." It's Tarantino's masterpiece, no doubt about it, the film where all his obsessions and signature themes really come together, where it becomes impossible to ignore his seriousness, and the ways in which that seriousness is intimately connected with his silliness and irreverence. I especially love your observations about the narrative burrowing in the second chapter, the way a simple story keeps getting diverted and time-shifted and tied up in flashbacks and back story; Tarantino's intuitive feel for structure has reached its peak here, and the most stunning thing about it is that through all these diversions, the storytelling remains crystal-clear and razor-sharp.

Chris Stangl said...

Thanks, Ed. If anyone who stops by here hasn't read the Bellamy/Howard back-and-forth on BASTERDS, you're missing one of the crucial early positive pieces of criticism on the film. If I have any major arguments, it's that I think Eli Roth is completely hilarious and note-perfect as Donny Donowitz. But I thought Tim Roth should've gotten an Oscar for FOUR ROOMS, so what do I know?

I've always been frustrated, even alienated, by the way detractors and admirers alike frequently proceed from the assumption that Tarantino's work is both shallow and hollow, and that we all know this, even if they decide shallowness is a legitimate purpose unto itself. I get confused when critics write things like "[Tarantino's movies] are abstract art, not strong stories, not emotional experiences" (and that's Jim Emerson). It means that these people haven't cried at or been haunted by a Tarantino film, possibly not even been fully absorbed by the experience. Their loss, I suppose, but the received wisdom is the bedrock of most writing on the director.

The common accusation that the artist shows no evidence of having lived in the real world with other human beings is kind of offensive but largely baffling. What I see pouring out of Tarantino's films is a great love for people, the arts, stories and life itself. His is a profoundly uncynical cinema; even the artifice is completely sincere. I'm looking at my DVD shelves, trying to think of another filmmaker more in love with people, their speech, their faces, their reasons, and the list is miniscule; Tarantino's films are just so jazzed about spending time with their characters (and his actors) that the screen is crowded with affection.

That said, I feel fairly backed into a corner when trying to write on the director, when the films do a fine job of sticking up for themselves. I do think Tarantino aims for the fences every time out. He's playing the long game, and making films for an audience and discussion 20 years hence. The last two weeks have demonstrated that we're still not done grappling with RESERVOIR DOGS, let alone PULP FICTION.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

This is spectacular writing, Chris, and an excellent consideration of the movie in a manner that, frankly, astonishes me, even after having written about it all last week myself. You've really done a fine job of summarizing the ways in which this movie works, doesn't work, the accusations, the simple reality of what Tarantino has done here to craft a fully imagined universe on film. You've given me a lot MORE to think about, and I really appreciate that you've done it in such a confident, inquisitive, knowledgeable way without taking a smug tack that so many of the film's detractors do. So often I've argued with folks about this movie who lay down their complaints and ultimatums as a way of insisting that we proceed in thinking about Tarantino as if all the standard observations about his films-- they're hollow, self-serving, self-consuming, impregnable exercises in hermetic cinephilia-- are givens. I hope you don't mind if I just throw a chunk of what you've written up on my wall at SLIFR as a way of enticing readers, believers and nonbelievers alike, into taking on what you've laid down here. Superb job!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

And so you are clearly right about Tarantino's obvious love for people and the worlds they live in. How easy it is to dismiss him as having the inability to reflect life when you're not paying attention the films themselves.

JJ said...

There's been a lot of superb critical writing about Inglourious Basterds; and I don't mean to slight any of the other authors and critics, but....

Chris, I honestly think this is the definitive essay about the film so far, and one of the best works of criticism I've ever read. It's right up there with Greil Marcus' "Mystery Train". Great, great job, sir.

jim emerson said...

Magnificent piece, Chris! I'm so glad you brought up Tarantino's exploitation roots (he loves disreputable films and disreputable genres, largely because they get no respect) -- and the Nazi-sploitation stuff, in particular (something with which I'm laregly unfamiliar beyond "The Damned"!).

I should point out, though, that I don't see any contradiction between comparing "Inglourious Basterds" to "Herr Meets Herr" (notice the pipe Bugs-as-Stalin smokes in the final shot) and taking the movie seriously. Nobody takes cartoons -- especially Warner Bros. Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies! -- more seriously than I do, and in "IB" the Nazi top brass (Goebbels and Hitler) are presented as outlandish satirical cartoons. But that's just one dimension of the film. You describe the movie-movie universe of Tarantino's films beautifully -- including the wish-fulfillment that is so central to QT's movies (and movies in general).

Also, when I characterize Tarantino's films as "abstract art," I'm not saying they are incapable of moving people. How could I say that? (As a voice in the crowd in Firesign Theater's "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers" says: "That's metaphysically absurd, man.") I'm saying they do not conform to traditional notions of character development or storytelling of the sort that seeks to engage the audience on an emotional level with, say, ploys to make the characters seem more "sympathetic." That's not to say Tarantino's movies are not manipulative (they glory in cinematic manipulation -- suspense, surprise, etc.). But I think even some of his fans occasionally misread his films, making them seem more palatable, perhaps, by pretending they are more conventional moral tales than they really are.

I'd love to know more about how you see Rachtman's death and the cinema finale. Do you think QT is trying to undercut the Basterds or Shoshanna's revenge, or create moral qualms in the audience, by "humanizing" (to use a horrible development-exec term) the Nazis?

Again, congratulations on some really fine writing!

jim emerson said...

PPS. Ooops. Apologies. I mischaracterized what I actually wrote! Here's what I said, with a little more context:

There's not much more to the story, really, except that it takes place in an alternative universe. As I wrote earlier: QT's movies "are abstract art, not strong stories, not emotional experiences. I thought of Hitchcock, who said his films are not slices of life but slices of cake. Tarantino makes candy necklaces, tasty chunks strung together -- little climaxes without much overall dramatic shape." I should clarify: Although Tarantino himself describes the structure of the "Kill Bill" movies as simply checking off items on a list, both "Bill" volumes and "Inglourious Basterds" do build, not strictly chronologically, to climactic showdowns.

So, I was too short and vague there. What do I mean by "not strong stories"? I was playing off of QT's own remarks that "Kill Bill" wasn't much of a story but a simple revenge movie. Tarantino's movies are cleverly structured, but not highly developed stories. They're pretty basic. As for "not emotional experiences"... that's not the same as saying the films are "shallow and hollow." I compared him to Warhol, not to Jeff Koons! So, to elaborate, I'll just quote this from later in the same piece:

I suppose it is possible for, say, a Warhol silkscreen or a Schwitters collage or a Lichtenstein comic-painting to get an emotional response from you, but that's not really what they're particularly good at. Like them, Tarantino is a conceptual talent, an abstract pastiche pop-artist, and that's primarily how his films function.

Because we're human, we tend to think that something that "moves" us is "deeper" than something that doesn't. We use our emotional responses to validate the art. What I say in the "chapter" on emotion is that I am moved by Tarantino's filmmaking, his way with images (and his recontextualizing of moments from other movies, such as "The Searchers") -- but, no, I have not felt much emotion for particular Tarantino characters (outside of "Jackie Brown") because I don't think they're really operating on an emotional level. Is that good or bad? No. It is what it is. But, again, I'd like to hear more details from anybody who was moved to tears by a particular scene or character in a Tarantino film, and what they were responding to.

Craig said...

Jim -

I'm rarely "moved to tears" by anyone's films, so I can't say that's exclusively the province of Quentin Tarantino. But I often find his films touching, and not just "Jackie Brown." In "Pulp Fiction," I am moved by several moments: Travolta and Thurman's dance; Travolta blowing Thurman a kiss; Bruce Willis apologizing to Maria de Medeiros after flying into a rage over the watch; Ving Rhames pardoning Willis; Samuel L. Jackson's quiet moment of reflection before the restaurant robbery; the interaction between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer after Jackson turns the tables on them.

What am I responding to in those moments? Maybe it's how the humanity of those characters bursts through the tough-guy (or -gal) bluster. I could say the same for the closing passages of "Kill Bill: Vol. 2," when Beatrix and Bill shed their superhero/supervillain skins and become something recognizably human. When Uma Thurman lies on the bathroom floor and gives thanks, that's a touching moment for me. QT has a way of staging scenes like this so you don't get the sense that he's crowding you emotionally; he gives you the freedom to have your own responses, and I like that.

That said, I did weep during "Inglourious Basterds," in part due to character moments, but I think on a larger scale to a combination of images and elements -- what you simply and accurately called "the filmmaking" and the experience watching it.

Dan R. said...

I really felt that the final apocalypse was a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark than Carrie. Raiders' finale of course has the Ark of the Covenant (a Jewish religious symbol) being opened the angel turning into an angel of death, who then melts the Nazis. Probably the greatest mass killing of Nazis on screen.

Similiarly, Tarantino takes a beautiful Jewish girl's face, turns it into a smoky apparition that kills a bunch of Nazis.

Chris Stangl said...

First off, thanks to everyone for the linkage, and I wish my Internet Self weren't so dawdling about keeping dialogues going...

Jim -- I'm happy you had time to read this piece, though it ended up more argumentative than the celebration I had intended. I think "Herr Meets Hare" is a fantastic reference point for the film -- if not in general tone, but at the very least, BASTERDS yanks its version of Hitler straight from period Warner Bros cartoons. It is a strong choice, a potentially damaging one that is amply balanced by the other major Nazi characters. We take cartoons very seriously around here too (and I'm a cartoonist), so I don't take the Looney Tunes comparison to be inherently derisive.

I read your piece as linking the two films' spirit of pop cult and cinema-form play, impeccable professional sheen (a worthy achievement in itself, in this worst of all possible eras for popular movies and animation alike) to a sort of developed, less backhanded version of Option #2 in Dana Poland's PULP FICTION monograph: the film's strength is that it "says" nothing, and if it does, it speaks only about itself or about The Movies. Its depth is its surface, or it is shallow but good shallow, on purpose shallow. "Shallow" not being unfelt or stupid, but "surfacey": like a Warhol silkscreen or screentest, if it's About something, it's about the process of picture-making. Again, that may be plenty, no mean feat, and provide a bounty of interesting criticism (indeed, not "shallow and hollow" but maybe surfacey and ripe). But I don't believe it's all Tarantino is up to, I don't think these stories and characters are intellectual constructs, but feel them pulse and bleed and sweat, feel them grieve and love (?) and laugh and be very afraid. I feel them thinking and knowing. Not as viscerally or naturalistically as, I dunno, IKIRU or THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT or CHARLEY VARRICK. But they aren't the shiny gamepiece creatures of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.

I try to avoid the loaded/empty trap of accusing art of being "deep" ("shallow," however, I'll do). Art only runs as deep as we're willing to go, and as the text provides more to chew on as we burrow in -- termite art indeed. Great pop art -- "great trash" as it were -- may have lovely water flowers floating on its surface tension, but goes a long way down; it resonates because there are living sea monsters under there. I'm thinking of the tech sheen of Phil Specter girl group records concealing/conveying an oceanic quantity of yearning and heartache, of Nabokov's shifting panes of reflective glass capturing layers of colored smoke and how much of the human condition gets trapped in the air filters. If we want to look at beautifully rendered, ultimately hollow models of hearts and brains, I'd look to Spielberg, Kubrick, Disney. I do put Tarantino in a kind of shallow-deep entertainers club with Lynch, Von Sternberg, Leone, (and most of all) the Coen brothers. You get back what you're willing to put in. There are books worth of criticism to be written on form and theme but the deeper we can stomach chewing, the greater the banquet of ideas and mystery. I don't mean to stratify, but as genius manipulators, intellectual picture puzzle makers, I'd list Godard, Hitchcock, Welles, De Palma, Argento; they get a response -- and how! -- and there is an infinity to talk about, but I don't know that they want to get their hands on your soul.
(cont'd)

Chris Stangl said...

(cont'd)
Crying is, of course, a terrible yardstick for these matters. But yeah, I've cried at every Tarantino feature but JACKIE BROWN. I do feel Tarantino believes his characters and their stories down to the guts. It's not really about liking or sympathizing with characters but being interested and invested in them as make-believe people and recognizing, empathizing with the core emotion in inflated circumstances. So the huge beats -- Jules' conversion, that moment he closes his eyes and makes the choice in the Hawthorne Grill, Mr. Orange's dying confession to the moaning Mr. White, Beatrix weeping with joy and horror on the bathroom floor -- are big Movie stuff, stories well told, cinema well rendered, but emotional crises so perilous and enlarged they are not of my (our) experience. I can't say I relate on a one-to-one basis, but I smell the happy stink of humanity, which is approximately what I'd say about RICHARD III and OTHELLO. I don't know an O-Ren Ishii, but I know women who had tough lives and responded by turning into bad motherfuckers, and in any case, I recognize the person in that supervillain. I get her. And I almost don't want to overstate this, because a lot of what's going on is characters dealing with movie universe abstracts with real responses; PULP FICTION doesn't tell me anything about the numbed psyche that must come with being a hitman, or BASTERDS about the daily ethical confusion of living in an occupied nation, but the characters react to outrageous extremes in otherwise very real ways.

See, at the same time, Tarantino's films are loaded and made of experiences I've gone through, relate to, recognize, scenes and feelings not often portrayed in the genres being mashed-up. A personal favorite scene in PULP FICTION is of Vincent Vega in the Wallace bathroom after his not-a-date with Mia. It obviously turned into a date, and our ethically-challanged protagonist gives himself a pep talk in the mirror: do not sleep with this woman. You want to (will), can (will) but it's a terrible idea, and if you do, you are failing a moral test (that you made up for yourself). And I know that bathroom debate, even if the stakes were not life-and-death. And I know Jimmie Dimmick's situation, as friends call in an improbably inconvenient favor and you know you'll relent but not without pushing those friends' buttons and whining the whole time. And Hattori Hanzo turning over the finest sword he ever made: I promised my God/myself I would never do this ever again, but here I am doing it. And Bill and Beatrix: hey, we aren't supposed to be together, but you're the best and I want you to be okay and I want you to give you closure. And Jungle Julia buoyant-to-disappointed text message mini-romance, hooray, aw, shit. Shossanna trying to drink coffee, smoke and chill out while a blowhard keeps flirting with her. Whether we've lived this stuff or not, most all of Tarantino's characters are given dimension and shade beyond archetype, quirk-n'-virtue, and film reference.

But no, probably not Adolf Hitler.
(cont'd)

Chris Stangl said...

(cont'd)

As for the potential of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS as a morality play, and what is going on in Operation Kino and in Rachtman's last stand... We're outside the real life "what would I do" problem and inside it at the same time. It is a story about storytelling. I am loathe to quote artists on their own work as a means of prying open the text, but I came independently to the same conclusion as Tarantino when he enthuses "... At some point those Nazi uniforms went away and they were people being burned alive. I think that’s part of the thing that fucks with the catharsis. And that’s a good thing." A juvenile way of putting it, perhaps, and not a complete statement of artistic purpose. There aren't answers here, but the question is certainly being weighed: is this an "okay" fantasy, or too soul-polluting to serve a cleansing function? Can this make us feel better, or is even the imaginary act of turning Nazi atrocities against them too mad and debasing? There aren't answers, but INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS takes care to remind us in pivotal moments what is exceptional about these villains (the Nazis are "humanized" a little -- they were/are humans after all, and that's what's truly frightening, revolting and important to remember -- but in the end they are Nazis), and, however unhealthy we're having this fantasy anyway. That, unto itself, is a kinda pretty, honest and human position for a storyteller to take.

Chris Stangl said...

Oh, and Dennis, thanks again for the traffic boost, and quote all you want! It's all for charity, folks!

Craig said...

There aren't answers here, but the question is certainly being weighed: is this an "okay" fantasy, or too soul-polluting to serve a cleansing function? Can this make us feel better, or is even the imaginary act of turning Nazi atrocities against them too mad and debasing? There aren't answers, but INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS takes care to remind us in pivotal moments what is exceptional about these villains (the Nazis are "humanized" a little -- they were/are humans after all, and that's what's truly frightening, revolting and important to remember -- but in the end they are Nazis), and, however unhealthy we're having this fantasy anyway. That, unto itself, is a kinda pretty, honest and human position for a storyteller to take.

This is very enlightening, and I think I agree; but out of sheer perversity let's add another layer (because Tarantino does). Only twice in this film do characters directly address the camera, and both times it happens when Raine brands a Nazi. The first time it's when Raine marks Pvt. Butz, and the second is when he marks Landa. Most of the attention in both instances has been on the dialogue ("Practice," "This may just be my masterpiece"), but this overlooks the POV of each shot. The POV is us. But it's also Butz and Landa. We the audience are Butz and Landa; we are implicated, in a sense, as Nazis. So while we're certainly invited to share in the movie's catharsis, Tarantino also makes sure to redirect it against us.

Reint said...

Wow Chris, thanks for this amazing piece of writing (and thanks to Jim for pointing me this way).

I've seen the film three times now, and it has gotten better with each viewing. During the last one, I was holding back tears when Shosanna was getting ready for her big night to Bowie's song, because I was just so moved by the great filmmaking on display (don't even get me started on the close-up of Marcel saying "Oui, Shosanna" with a smile, right before flicking his cigarette. Just thinking about it makes me well up).

I wrote a review as well, which also referenced that Captain America cover, but sadly it's in Dutch. Still, if anyone happens to understand my language, here's a link: http://www.mixedgrill.nl/2009/08/27/recensie-inglorious-basterds/

Thanks again Chris! Great work!

jim emerson said...

Chris: A belated thank you for your thoughtful and eloquent reply. I can't think of many filmmakers whose work I find less emotionally affecting than Tarantino's. Even Kubrick, Haneke, von Trier (all widely considered emotionally detached filmmakers) seem warmer to me -- and De Palma and Leone are operatic in ways that have no equivalent in Tarantino's work. (The end of the projection booth and the Giant Face come mighty close, though.) Again, I'm not saying that as a criticism, because I don't think QT's movies, from the evidence I see on the screen anyway, display much interest in evoking emotion. Thank you for articulating so well how you see them.


We the audience are Butz and Landa; we are implicated, in a sense, as Nazis. So while we're certainly invited to share in the movie's catharsis, Tarantino also makes sure to redirect it against us.

Craig, I'm not sure I follow. I realize that the camera is placed in the position of the Basterds' Nazi prey (after they get their foreheads carved with swastikas), but how does the movie implicate the audience as Nazis? Are Shoshanna and Marcel the equivalent of Nazis, too?

Craig said...

Thanks for responding, Jim -

Implicated, in a sense, is what I wrote, meaning I wasn't taking my own words too literally because I wasn't fully sure what I meant either.

Here's my thought process, though: I was thinking about what Chris and others have written with regard to the Nazis' "humanity" in the film, and thinking about what Ed Howard wrote in his "Conversation" with Jason Bellamy about how Tarantino rarely has POV shots like that that essentially break the fourth wall - that there's usually a reason for them. And I was thinking about how odd and uncomfortable both shots made me feel, which I initially attributed to the violence and cruelty. That's part of it. But then I realized it's also the vulnerability of the angle, putting the audience essentially prostrate on the ground as Pitt and his big knife loom overhead, putting us in the eyes of a pair of Nazi characters who may deserve what they get and whom we want to see punished. That's what I meant by redirecting our desires for vengeance against us. Does that make sense?

jim emerson said...

Thanks, Craig. I understand better what you were getting at. Those POV shots are indeed odd -- with the Basterds talking about the branded Nazis (and looking at the camera) as if they're not there. (Passed out, perhaps?) I'm not sure what to make of 'em.

Jim W said...

Re: Craig's comment about POV

Chris wrote Before anyone could reasonably begin processing what this means, that Tarantino has willingly drawn connection between his imagined audience and a theater full of Nazis, and thereby implicated himself.... referring to Hitler "really getting into it" while watching "A Nation's Pride." I think the connection is that many in Tarantino's audience enjoy Tarantino's films very much for the violence, very similar to the way Hitler and the Nazi high command are reveling in the violence in the film they are viewing.

Juanita's Journal said...

Can this make us feel better, or is even the imaginary act of turning Nazi atrocities against them too mad and debasing? There aren't answers, but INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS takes care to remind us in pivotal moments what is exceptional about these villains (the Nazis are "humanized" a little -- they were/are humans after all, and that's what's truly frightening, revolting and important to remember -- but in the end they are Nazis), and, however unhealthy we're having this fantasy anyway. That, unto itself, is a kinda pretty, honest and human position for a storyteller to take.


For me, Nazis like Zoller were never "humanized". They were simply being human beings . . . like the rest of us. The reason, I believe, they became Nazis in the first place was due to their human nature. Being human can be about being compassionate and loving. It can also be about having the capacity to be a monster. And nearly every human being has that capacity. As history has taught us, human beings from many countries and cultures (including ours) have proven just how monstrous they can be. What the Nazi did . . . was nothing new.

Anonymous said...

Damn, and I walked out 2 hours into it. The girl I was with wasn't into it and the bar scene was dragging. I felt this was easily Quentin's least mature work. He has a very good understanding of the mechanics of film, a geeky encyclopedic knowledge but I think his ego has outgrown his potential to tell stories. With all the mish-moshing of styles, I found the "characters" if you will, very two-dimensional. QT was one of my favorite directors but I honestly doubt I'll ever bother watching the final 40 minutes of Basterds. Reading the review, I know what happens, and I can honestly say I don't care.

Steve said...

Hi Chris:

I've read your piece multiple times and after receiving a blueray copy of Inglourious Basterds for Christmas, I eagerly skipped to the cafe scene in Chapter Three based on the following:

"...Tarantino composes for the entire frame, constructs screen geography by holding shots as long as possible and, in Basterds in particular, uses deep focus to impart as much information as possible in a shot. Take some time with the scene in which Zoller pesters Shosanna in a cafe...Tarantino places Shosanna by the storefront window and keeps everything mostly in focus from the woman in the foreground to the buildings across the street. Sidewalk pedestrians recognizing Zoller are fully visible as they move from exterior to interior space, and several interlocking stories are being told at once."

I thought I had missed this entirely in my initial viewing in the theatre but after going over the scene several times on blueray I'm not sure if I see what you have described. I see pedestrians going about their business but nothing that resembles any reaction to their recognition of Zoller. Thoughts?