Monday, August 31, 2009

Assorted thoughts on Inglourious Basterds

I try to keep overt political statements out of this blog, but I can’t think of a way to discuss Inglourious Basterds without taking a stand on torture. So: I’m against it. Always. Read Andrew Sullivan if you want to know why.


More specifically, I can’t think of a way to discuss this movie without taking a stand on depictions of torture in popular culture. And that’s a more difficult stand to take. I had to give up on 24 halfway through the first season because I was disgusted by what it was saying about torture, and about the torture regime then brewing in American government. Easy call, right? I disapprove of art that excuses torture.

But I loved this movie, and I’m pretty sure it excuses torture. So where does that leave me?

I want to preserve my view that popular culture can be, or at least, contain a space for us to envision things, work out fantasies, experience catharses, that we shouldn’t and probably even wouldn’t condone in real life. Popular culture as a safe space, or maybe a safety valve.

But at the same time I don’t want to deny that popular culture is connected enough to real life to affect it. Like, I think it’s a stretch to think that America’s addiction to Dirty Harry and Jack Bauer didn’t pave the way for Dick Cheney.

Then again, what if the popularity of 24 was only a reflection of pre-existent cultural trends that independently led to Abu Ghraib? Then again again, how could you even tell if they led to it “independently” or not?

Difficult issues; better minds than I have failed to resolve them. All I know is that I hate-hate-hated 24 and loved Inglourious Basterds, and hope that doesn’t make me a hypocrite.


I haven’t blogged about Tarantino before, but I love him. Jackie Brown is my favorite one of his joints. Which may tell you that I agree with this recent appreciation of him. I like him most for his incredible ear for dialogue and his formal experimentations; his action I like, but it’s not what makes me await each new film of his so eagerly.

I second what Lim says about the dialogue in IB:
Tarantino gives the conversations room to soar and stall and double back on themselves (especially in two agonizingly tense and protracted scenes, in a farmhouse and a basement tavern). Language is the chief weapon of the insinuating villain, brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz, a Nazi colonel fluent in German, English, French, and Italian. Power resides in the persuasiveness of speech; the success of undercover missions hinges on the ability to master accents; and as characters strive to maintain false pretenses, words are a means of forestalling death.
Landa’s facility with language is balanced by the barely articulate eloquence of his opposite number, Aldo the Apache. This is Brad Pitt at his best: he perfectly renders Aldo’s utterances, comical and stupid and clever and sublime all at once. He’s an idiot, but no fool, and in every way Landa’s match.

But the verbal obsessions of the film are most visible in its extensive use of subtitles. At least half the film’s dialogue is in English-subtitled French, German, or Italian. Tarantino pulls no punches here: even when you think he’s pulling a punch, pandering to the audience by making his Nazis speak English, it turns out to be a sucker punch. Language is the main thing in this movie. Even the violence, most of it, is about what it says.


Brad Pitt is a mediocre actor. But he’s a great overactor. I usually can’t bear to watch him in straight roles, but give him something over the top or cartoon shallow, and he can come up with nearly Johnny Depp-like levels of weird intensity. Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, Ocean’s Eleven. His role here is one of those, and his performance rises to the occasion.


Dig what the word “holocaust” originally meant. It’s a Greek word, but most commonly associated with Hebrew rituals described in the Old Testament. It’s a burnt offering in which the animal sacrifice is wholly consumed by flame.

Now think about the climactic scene of this film, in which the Nazi high command (and their concubines and guests) are burned alive in a movie theater. (Well, some of them are shot first.) Their deaths are engineered by a number of people, but mostly by Shosanna, a Jewish woman taking revenge for the killing of her family. She films herself proclaiming this revenge, and splices the clip into the film the Nazis are gathered to watch. By the time the clip shows, however, she’s already dead, and by the time her climactic line arrives – “this is the face of Jewish vengeance” – the screen is going up in flames. Her face ends up projected onto a billow of smoke.

It’s a very mysterious sight, a dead girl speaking beyond the grave, appearing as if a ghost, pronouncing vengeance, dedicating these deaths to the murdered. I would submit that this scene is a literal holocaust of sorts: a burnt offering.

And the offering is wholly consumed: even the sacrificers’ bodies are burned in the fire and subsequent explosion.

Tarantino may be an idiot, but he’s no fool. Or maybe he’s a fool, but no idiot. Either way, I don’t think he’s doing what a lot of people may assume, which is taking the Holocaust lightly, reducing WWII to a joyride. I think this film, in its own twisted, exhilarating way, is a very serious response to the Holocaust; the imagined immolation of those responsible for the Holocaust is a sort of pop-culture offering to the dead.


So is it a human sacrifice? Or an animal one? Notice how many times humans are compared to animals in the film. In the fantastically taut opening scene, we have Landa, the Jew-hunter, comparing Germans to hawks and Jews to rats (he thinks he’s being complimentary). Later Eli Roth’s character is dubbed the Bear Jew. Then of course there are the Nazis calling Jews “Jew dogs.” The sniper in a bell-tower is compared to a bird in a nest.

The comparisons go deeper than verbal epithets. Remember that opening scene, with Landa comparing Germans to hawks; this is when we first see Shosanna, hiding under the floorboards – not unlike a rat.

Now think of the last scene. Where is she as she exacts her revenge? In the projection room, gazing down at her victims; the film-within-a-film visually compares her to the sniper in his bird’s nest, and maybe we begin to think of her as the hawk, and the Germans as the hapless rats.

Why all the animal imagery? To drive home the point that in war everybody is dehumanized? Does it excuse the torture?


Does anything excuse the torture? Is this film, as some have called it, torture porn?

It may well be. It certainly doesn’t signal that we’re supposed to disapprove of the Basterds’ tactics: it doesn’t present them as a cautionary tale, or as anything but f’ing awesome.

That may be okay. There may be a place for the catharsis of seeing Jews bash in Nazi heads, as Jeffrey Goldberg suggests.

But if Tarantino’s treatment of the Basterds and their murderous ways is so cavalier, so insensitive, then why do so few of them survive? And if the torture here is so pornographic, then why don’t we get the money shot?

Think about it: the whole movie seems to be leading up to two confrontations. One with the Nazi brass in the theater, and one with Landa. The first confrontation pays off in spectacular fashion – but not really for the Basterds. The two who are there die. The Bear Jew gets to empty a machine gun into Hitler like Clint Eastwood’s wet dream – but unlike Dirty Harry, he doesn’t live to tell about it. In fact, nobody in the theater lives to tell about it – who’s going to tell the outside world what the face of Jewish vengeance looks like? And, as we’ve observed, Shosanna is dead by the time her revenge kicks in. It’s a satisfying scene – but the longer you think about it, the less it feels like a real payoff for the Basterds.

The other confrontation, with Landa, doesn’t go at all like you expect it to. He cuts a deal, and Aldo more or less accepts it. Landa is the one Nazi in the film we come to know more than any other, and to hate more than any other. If there’s anybody in the film who deserves to have his head bashed in with a baseball bat, it’s him. But we don’t get it. We’re left unsatisfied – even the thrill of seeing them carve a swastika in Landa’s forehead is hollow, because we know plastic surgery can fix it, makeup or hats or hair can hide it.

Jack Bauer tortures and saves the world, and Scalia lauds him. The Basterds torture and – what? It’s less clear.


What about the other charge against the movie, that the Basterds’ brutality almost makes us pity the Nazis, which we shouldn’t have to do?

It’s true that the Basterds’ barbaric violence is held up as a contrast to the Nazi behavior we see in the film. Landa, Goebbels, the SS officer in the tavern, are all so eloquent, so polite, so civilized, while Aldo and his boys are presented as basically Neanderthals.

But I think Tarantino’s game here is actually pretty simple. It’s to contrast the rotten and hypocritical civilization of Europe with the direct and healthy barbarism of America. Landa’s politeness is a veneer hiding his innate murderousness: we finally see this at the end when he strangles Brigitte. Aldo’s savagery is honest to the point of nobility. It’s no accident that he emphasizes his Native American ancestry, and has his men collect scalps. It’s a horribly ham-handed, not to mention politically incorrect, characterization, but that’s the level on which this movie works. That’s the way these characters think. In a twisted way, Aldo and his men are noble savages.

I think Tarantino is trying to keep from letting the Nazis pick up any sympathy from us anti-torture types. The closest thing we get to a “good German” among the Nazis is Wilhelm, and he’s killed by a German, not a Basterd. All the other Nazis are pretty much shown to be evil; we don’t regret their suffering.

Except...what about that first encounter, when we first see the Basterds in action? The Nazi sergeant there is fairly gentlemanly, and gets his head bashed in. Hmm. I don’t know. But this scene did contain one of my favorite moments in the movie. As Aldo is explaining to the surviving Nazi private how and why he’s going to mark him, we see one of the Basterds in the background; a yellow leaf has landed on the breast of his coat, hanging there both as a parodic echo of the Nazi’s chest insignia and, more importantly, as a reminder of the yellow Stars of David Jews were made to wear in the ghettos. A mark for a mark. And a very subtle, eloquent moment for Mr. Tarantino.


You know what I think? I think this guy's a serious film director.

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