Sunday, September 27, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.13 - "Epitaph One"


Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).

The Engagement: In the not-too-distant future, 2019 AD, the world has turned into 1990: The Bronx Warriors, but plagued by rampant and malicious Imprinting, and Wiping. A raggedy-taggedy group of survivalists find the abandoned Dollhouse facilities, and plan to hole up like it was the Monroeville Mall. The hitlist of horror clichés post-apocalyptic thrills and spills come fast and furious with stalk-n-slash shower murders and evil-cute little girls. The "Actuals" follow a breadcrumb trail of flashbacky-Imprints left by Caroline, providing glimpses of the Doll-'verse between 2009 and 2019. In these tantalizing peeks, Dr. W. Saunders is scarless, Topher has gone bazonka, Caroline and Paul are friends, and Paul is all smug about it. At the end, a Caroline backup copy is squirted into a prepubescent girl and everyone leaves!

DALLAS 1.13: "EPITAPH ONE"

Janani: Just in time for all of its mysteries to be undermined by the arrival of Season 2... it's your hastily considered review of "Epitaph One"!

Last season I made a mental petition to Joss Whedon to blow up the physical Dollhouse, like he did Sunnydale High.

When I reflect back on that wish, I see that what I wanted wasn't so much a destroyed building as a chance to see everything within the building -- bodies, ideas, technologies, privileged knowledge -- escape, breach security, flee the tight artificial complacent confines of The Chair and The Lab and The Handlers, burst barriers, surge and sprawl out and hyperextend. Order unravelling to disorder: nature's course, in concert with the body-brain games played in "Omega" that demolish the security of terms like "you," "me," "ours," "them," "not-me," "not-you." All systems are down: security protocols, law and order, the assurance of discrete consciousness and sanctuary inside your own mind! All of which seems to beg that immortal question:

WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THE FENCES AREN'T ELECTRIFIED?

I keep returning to your thought about sci-fi stories defining high concepts as "failures" based on disastrous outcomes rather than shakiness - logistical or moral - in the concepts themselves. Even before the various breakdowns in Season 1, we (and every other viewer of the show) approached the Dollhouse as Inherently Problematic (as did the writers). As such, the terrors of Epitaph One - the instant Imprinting, Active armies - don't come from left field, and aren't the central or most important Revelations of the episode. They're logical extensions, expansions, enlargements, reapplications of the Tech applied by Topher, in more contained ways, in 2009.

What fascinated me most, in the end, were not the many too-late, too-weak expressions of regret (Topher, Adelle, etc.), nor the feeble attempts at resisting Tech and retaining discrete identity (birthmarks). Nor was it the interesting use of several genres' worth of tropes (madwoman in the house, demon child, woman offed in the shower). Nope -- I keep returning to the glee of Ambrose, embodied in Victor, chomping delicious food and describing, reveling in, the future of Imprintation. So much to chew on (ahem) there: the Tech didn't really escape like a raptor, it was showed the door; we get an additional sense of Adelle's restraint, how deeply the fate of Tech varies according to who holds the reins and authorization; we get literal appetite conflated with an appetite for development, action, evolution, the Next Inevitable Thing. Tech isn't a villain, a Butcher, in its own right. That would be us and us alone.

Of course, the Ambrose nosh scene is a memory! So we have a couple seasons to see how it all really played out. For now, the thought of endless copies of imprint-immune Caroline, the show's chosen Indestructible Element, distributed throughout the world until time immemorial, is giving me the beginnings of a headache. What about you?

Chris: Ambrose is utterly unconvincing, of course, and the technology seems to fall into the wrong (wronger?) hands because it was always, inevitably a bad idea. His motivation, not that he needs to make explanations, sounds like what it is: greed. He doesn't play straight to an all-but-universal fear of mortality, or our collective suckerdom for Great Man stories. He pays them lip service with the the bent that immortals get more of everything. His sales pitch preys on elitism and extolls the cash-making virtue. Very rich people will be able to afford to jump bodies forever. That can't possibly sound good to anybody but very rich people, and nobody likes them.

The curious elements in that scene are DeWitt's and Brink's reactions, uneasy, appalled, protesting. I am reminded of Sierra's former handler, spitting back at Adelle: "Did you thing this wouldn't happen?" The contracts signed by incoming Dolls mean nothing. Never did. The care and well-being of the workers was always a vital cog only to keep the machine of industry running. Rossum doesn't "care" about souls or what people "need." These aren't shocking developments, they're plain-faced scrubbings of the L.A. office's best intentions. Adelle and Topher have their jobs because their extraordinary dedication and talents are useful to Rossum, as are their fuzzed-up morals and deluded rationale; they are manipulated and exploited as surely as Dolls are useful because they are young and pretty and healthy. (By the by, Season 5 of Angel explores these themes with remarkable depth and detail -- the damage done to one's heart and mind when attempting to redirect the stride of the beast from from within its belly.)

And the scene's masterstroke is that Ambrose isn't there. His body is not in the L.A. Dollhouse, and his mind is not confined to one Wipeable, shootable, smashable brain. If you criticized the not-quite-panopticon design of the Dollhouse a ways back, how's this one?: Ambrose exerts power over his captive employees while not being anywhere. Adelle and Topher (and elsewhere Saunders and Langton) look pretty helpless here. How do you reconfigure the game when you can't see or touch or get at the pieces ("We've always been above the law... only now we're also writing it"... who needs both?!)? How do you punch through thin air? You can't fight a ghost. We might actually look back to Episode One, "Ghost", for a parallel, as Eleanor-Echo faced a similar quandary and found a similar solution. You fight a ghost by being a ghost. And a Caroline ends "Epitaph One" in the place where Ambrose starts all this trouble: they're disembodied and many-embodied. Indestructible like biologically immortal hydrozoans. It isn't underlined like a Twilight Zone zapper, but the irony is that the very ab/use of the Tech that Ambrose demands is the same technique that allows the resistance fighter Caroline to survive.

There's also a poignant catch to the Hydra Imprint scheme, and it isn't much mentioned until the end of the episode (though it formed some of "Haunted" and "Gray Hour"). None of the copies of yourself are in synch with one another. "I hope we find me alive": Caroline still wants, instinctually, bone-deep, for there to be A Real Caroline. The Ambrose-Victor who ate that crab may go back to DH Central and be debriefed. Maybe he gets Wiped. Maybe Ambrose Prime "had" the experience of eating the crab, maybe not, but it can't mean as much as it does to those with of us with the brief lives Ambrose mocks and dismisses.

So yes, there is an inevitability to "Epitaph One", and at the same time, in a neat writer's trick, the whole thing dissolves into thin air. It's a series finale and and it's not. It's a season finale and it's not. It's a glimpse of the narrative timeline's future, and it's not. Whedon has hinted in interviews that since the flashback scenes are memories, they may be imperfect. But something far more clever is built into "Epitaph": the flashbacks are all blessed with ambiguous entry and exit points (did Adelle "reclaim" Victor from Ambrose? Does Caroline shoot Adelle? No and no, but you see what I mean), and furthermore, they are "memories" in a story about constructing false memories. Nothing in "Epitaph One"'s flashbacks has to be written into the official history of the Dollhouse, but everything could be.

JS: If "Epitaph One" had been released at the chronological end of Dollhouse's run, in 2012 or whenever Whedon concludes the show, and ended on Caroline's sanctimonious "Kids playing with matches, burned down the house," I would have responded by burning down my TV. But as it's placed now, we get to watch exactly how the matches were scattered, how they were lit, in what order, on whose orders, who hesitated, who abstained, and whose hands trembled in the lighting. And if the writers approach this right, we'll be reminded of the pleasures of heat and flame as well. I'm no scientist, venture capitalist, or influential steward of resources, but I do understand greed and its justifications -- though I relate more to Topher's intellectual greed than Ambrose's decadence. I'm not denying that material greed is part of Topher's makeup -- get this man a refrigerator! -- but the impulse behind statements like "That's so brilliant...why didn't I think of that?" runs deeper.

The placement and design of this character are beginning to make much more sense to me - if he had more of the characteristics of, say, Langton, he just wouldn't function as well as he does, subvert the role of Mad Scientist/Evil Genius/Scientific Sinner as well as he does. Ambrose approaches the world with a sort of suave voracity, a willingness to consume; Topher matches that with a determinedly grubby, unsuave, child's hunger to know, to improve, to revolutionize, to realize visions -- to bring Imprint time down from 2 hours to 5 minutes to instantaneous, to enable remote Wiping, to act on the world, mark it, impress it, because, dammit, that would just be so cool. These are traits and aspirations we encourage in children, even demand of them, yet suddenly fear and condemn when we see them in adults. His sobbed question, "If I can figure things out, is that curiosity or arrogance?" has no easy answer. He thinks he is the shit, but only when he succeeds; failure undoes him. In his match play, he is ultimately more concerned with whether curtains burn faster than ottomans, and with how awesome the eventual explosion will be*, than with going down in history. Iris!Caroline's huffy remark will, I hope, be revealed for what it is -- a particularly strident, honking, uncomplicated point of view that is merely one among an ensemble of motivations and arcs.

Speaking of "Caroline" -- you make a terrific point about the hordes of Carolines and Ambroses out there, unsync-ed, having un-identical experiences. Taking this just a step further: the "Caroline" stored at the Dollhouse is already obsolete. Check me if I'm missing something, but unless any of the daughter-Carolines return to store their minds at the Dollhouse for future generations to upload -- or unless Safe Haven has backup technology -- their experiences and accumulated wisdom will never be replicated, correct? It's a bizarre reversal of the arc we traced all through Season 1 -- the Compositing of Echo/Esther/Taffy/Margaret/et al. into PolyEcho, reflecting either the writers' desires or (perhaps?) our own viewerly desires to extract a narrative of an Inviolable Self - a Self that matures and acquires additional facets over time, sure, but with some hardy core element that withstands any and all erosion.

Chris, what the hell is that element? Does Whisky's phrase about "dying as you were born" even make any sense? No human in the history of the world has "died as she was born"! Obviously I'm stretching Whisky's meaning -- she means "to die unmeddled with, unimprinted, unmanipulated" -- but even that is so poignant and hopeless a wish. Aging, social life, consciousness itself make this impossible. The solution -- as is usually the solution associated with phantoms in white gowns -- seem to lie toward purity, pristineness, quasi-religious seclusion from the dirty, fucked-up world. Must an intact Mind be an isolated Mind, shuttered away in a Safe Haven? And (as per the multiple Carolines) must an intact Mind be ONE, SINGLE, DISCRETE mind with one brainstem, one brainpan, one train of thought -- or might a collective consciousness evolve with a collective immunity to Imprintation?

We say these things, of course, as viewers with precisely that sort of mind -- individually encased brains staring at individual screens, as mortal and temporary as the faces in the photos on the Dollhouse Memory Wall. "Remember us," it says. I say (a little coldly, but not to the writers, just to the faces and what they symbolize): why? Among all the other stories it enfolds, "Epitaph One" is an archaeological narrative. It's about the sweep of history and a few of its vignettes that we are pausing to explore. If S1 (and the coming seasons) concentrate on the urgency of these individual lives, 2019 places them in perspective. Besides - Caroline "reproduced." It's what we're on earth to do. It's all we can hope for - to make something that endures after our bodies are gone.

*Said as someone who has set things ablaze in the spirit of purest inquiry. Caroline could have said the same thing about people who dangle paper towels over lit gas stoves "to see what will happen."

CS: Pff. That li'l Caroline! "They tampered in God's Domain!," she might as well be tut-tutting. It sums up the folly, but doesn't tell us anything, save that Caroline doesn't understand other peoples' motivations. Kids playing with matches do not have a goal in mind, have no ambition and cannot profit from their dangerous recreation.

For a girl who has multiple personalities pumped into her brain on a weekly basis, Caroline has a tough time getting into other people's heads. We might note that Buffy Summers and Angel both find their quests hindered in early seasons by narrow worldviews and moral dualism.

But she may have pegged Topher. I don't think he subverts our genre fave mad science types at all, but he is a modern variant and thoughtfully constructed character. (On a side note, and I fall into this trap constantly, the hip modern critic tends to place extraordinary value in the Subversion of any and everything. Sometimes this indicates a genuinely radical turn in the text; often it is just coded flag-planting that we find Tradition and Conservatism dirty words. In this case, maybe we just need more convincing, fresh and science-sympathetic takes on mad scientists.) Of all Rossum or Dollhouse employees, Topher is the one who most loves the task because the science is blazing and sexy and dangerous. Strike that; he's the only one. The specific task of poking around peoples' neurons suits him because of particular social inadequacies and personal anxieties; Victor Frankenstein is psychologically right for his scientific matchbook because of anger at his society's model of God that is really a fear of death. Victor and Topher are rather different men, but both stunted adolescents who are excited/enchanted that they can hold the glowing stick in hand.

This is troubling to us because: science is awesome. Curiosity and deeper understanding of nature lead to the kind of improvement and invention that represent the species' finest achievements. We aren't people who want to see scientists punished for pushing at boundaries. No one wants to see NASA chided because Reagan wants to build an X-ray laser. And still, it is disconcerting to consider Oppenheimer denouncing his naughty leftist politics so he has the thrilling opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project: the very! biggest! match! ever! was just too cool and fun to pass up. But this is what cautionary tales and Science Amok! stories do. They bitch-slap the guilty after the fact. So the scientist succumbs to madness and curls up in a Doll Pod, or dies of pneumonia in the Arctic or stares into the flame of the Trinity test and thinks "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." When the Modern Prometheii get riled up and chant "Fire! Fire!," they could use a Butt-Head to tell them "Settle down, Beavis." That Butt-Head is going to have to come from inside themselves.

Financiers, corruptors and enablers are often punished as well, chained to a rock and eaten by their own procompsognathus for all eternity. Regarding the ark Ambrose spoke of in the kitchen, we can be sure everyone -- DH staff and audience alike -- is thinking the same thing, that it's bound to turn out to be a death ship. That's Topher's fault for building it, Adelle's fault for captaining it, Ambrose's fault for commissioning it. It's Caroline's fault for volunteering for the crew. It's everyone's fault tolerating the ship's existence, even Ahabian Paul Ballard. And that's reborn Caroline's mistake in her evaluation. This wasn't a couple of idiots ruining it for everybody, but a lot of kids and a lot of matches. In this story everyone fucked up, so in the apocalypse everyone suffers.

Know what else I'd like to see go bananas with Ambrose's fleshy Ark of Immortality? I'd like to see a perma-body client who has gone insane from the process but keeps being provided with pretty new skin. I'd like to see a neurotic 200-year old psyche trapped in a studly young body, but forever unable to leap his inner hurdles: eternal and eternally miserable. I'd like to see a violent monster locked in beautiful bones carving a chaotic swath through history, brilliant and dangerous but unable to forge meaningful connections with other people.

Wait a minute, I was thinking of Drusilla, Angel and Spike. Moving on!

So the story is over with two more-or-less simultaneous images:
-Child-Symbol-of-Humanity's-Salvation Caroline leading survivors out of the Dollhouse. The scene resonates off "Needs" and "True Believer" (here she's leading them back into a compound!) and the earlier "Epitaph" flashback of Dushku-Bodied Caroline evacuating the 'House. It is an image of hope and salvation but also loss and struggle; the story is not ended.

-The barely human Whiskey as a white angel of destruction gassing everyone left on the stage. An act of erasure and mercy. She wipes the slate and the story is ended.

One beat is about remembering and continuing, one about forgetting and fading. Do they contradict each other? Work in harmony? What I'm seeing is the pattern of "Epitaph One", something like closure but without locking the door behind you.

JS: I guess someone didn't lock that door securely enough, because "Vows" is about to come strolling through it. I'd debate Topher's novelty with you a little more, but I'm inching ever closer to the TV! See you in a bits.

CS: Well, I think the man with the Tech would fit in nicely with the cast of The Big Bang Theory, but we can worry about that for the next four months. Before I sign off, one fast note, a hope for Season Two:

The Eros/Todestrieb tensions of the finale's intercutting is strongly reminiscent of the end of Dawn of the Dead (1978)... as is the entire set-up of the post-apocalyptic survivors holing up in a Xanadu for the brain-dead. This is an interesting parallel more than a rip-off (I hate saying that and leaving it unsupported, but hey), but makes me wonder why Dollhouse has not been mining its premise's potential for satire, indeed why Whedon rarely heads to those sniper towers. Perhaps the results of his relatively broad script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) dampened his interest, perhaps the desire to wrench hearts is too overwhelming. But Whedon is so funny and astute at the art of subversion -- and he's written one great satire in "Once More With Feeling" -- that it seems like a natural fit.

ONWARD!

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.