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.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tolkien: The Children of Húrin

My recent Tolkien jag ended with me picking up The Children of Húrin, the latest (2007) product of Christopher Tolkien's work with his father's manuscripts. In a way, it's exactly what I wished for while slogging through The Silmarillion: a proper novel-style realization of one of the key incidents, which was told in dry, annalistic fashion in Sil. One wonders if Christopher might be able to come up with a similar synthesized version of some of the other key tales in the legendarium, such as Beren and Luthien...

Here's what happens. Húrin is a Man, and we know what that means in pre-LOTR Middle Earth. He's a loyal student of the Elves, a believer in their lore and more than that in their goals, and so he fights side by side with them when Morgoth invades. Húrin is captured, but despite his human frailty, he refuses to divulge to Morgoth the location of one of the hidden Elven kingdoms, Gondolin. So Morgoth curses Húrin's children, and curses Húrin to have to sit on an iron chair and helplessly behold the sufferings of his children.

The child whose sufferings we most follow is Túrin. I won't go into detail about his life; you can read up on it here. In short, he spends his whole life in exile among the Elves in their various hidden kingdoms; he wants to fight Morgoth - he wants to do good - but everything he does turns to evil. He ends up bringing at least one of those kingdoms, Nargothrond, to ruin, murdering his best friend, marrying and impregnating his sister: Túrin has it rough.

I described this book to Mrs. Sgt. T, and she said: "what a downer!" She's right. This is perhaps the most concentrated dose of Tolkien's grim outlook.

Túrin isn't a perfect man - he has his flaws, including pride and wrath and stubbornness - but he's well-meaning, full of pity and feeling, capable of love, and stalwart in his opposition to evil. But he suffers anyway. His flaws, in other words, aren't of the tragic kind; and yet his story is tragic. He suffers greatly; he suffers for his father's acts; and his father's acts, too, are blameless.

In short, I don't detect any didacticism in this tragedy - no "avoid hubris" moment. It's grimmer than that: all this suffering comes as a result of an unyielding opposition to evil. Evil, in Tolkien, can crush Men. Because they're weak.

I found it a strangely cathartic novel. I mean, it offers absolutely no hope, no redemption. But that's precisely what makes it so moving. Your heart just aches for Túrin, because he goes through so much, and he really doesn't deserve to: you pity him, which is an important emotion in Tolkien. It's a noble one, and a worthy aim for a story of this sort.

I found it interesting that (Christopher?) Tolkien chose to end the tale where he did, with Húrin, finally released, finding Túrin's grave. In The Silmarillion we learn that Morgoth more or less broke Húrin; he never willingly gave up Gondolin, but he unwittingly led Morgoth's servants there, and then managed to inadvertently trigger the fall of the third of the hidden kingdoms, Doriath. It's not hard to see this as the full end of the doom (as Tolkien would phrase it, and in fact does) of Húrin and his children. But it's left out of The Children of Húrin, which only brings the father back at the end of the story to see his son's grave and mourn, sort of a grace note to the tragedy. That may be for the best: seeing how all Húrin's valiant efforts, as well, come to naught might have been just too grim to take.

Monty Python's Life of Brian

I’m going to do that thing people hate it when you do, which is to think seriously about a comedy.

We just watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian the other night. Brilliant stuff, of course; we especially enjoyed watch/listening to the initial script read-through they included on the bonus disc. It reveals that originally the Pythons were thinking of a Brian whose career much more closely mirrored Jesus’s; and also a Brian who was much more active and motivated than the one in the final film.

This is interesting to me because I think the character of Brian in the final film is the secret to its success. He’s a naif. He’s not an idiot, but he is something of an innocent, and this not only lends his few pearls of wisdom (“you’ve got to work it out for yourselves”) the authority of God-given common sense (irony intended), it makes him a much more sympathetic character in the end. By the end of the film you care about Brian, and you really don’t want to see him crucified.

Graham Chapman perfectly captured this innocence and purity in the Brian character, and he often did it physically, as well as verbally. I’m thinking of one moment in particular that I submit really makes the movie.

Famously, the Pythons included in the film one instance each of full frontal male and female nudity. They’re in connection with sex, but not in a sex scene: the seduction and the consummation are not depicted. Rather, we see Brian and Judith wake up in bed the morning after.

My point in noting this is that the eliding of the sex act from the film makes the nudity completely gratuitous. There’s not even the excuse of a sex scene. There’s no reason to show them nude – except to wave a red cape in front of the Mary Whitehouse-type bulls in the public ring (a worthy motive, to be sure).

And except for the fact that, well, it’s perfectly natural to think that these characters would be nude, given the circumstances. And in fact, if you look at the way its handled, the nudity isn’t titillating at all. It’s not cheap. It’s funny, certainly: Brian throwing open the window to discover a multitude staring up at his altogetherness; Judith jumping out of bed naked to argue with Brian’s mother. Comical stuff.

But not randy stuff. Not jiggly. In fact I’d argue that in the case of Brian, the moment is quite meaningful. Look at the way Chapman stands. It’s a natural posture, for someone throwing open a window, but at the same time, isn’t there something classical about his pose here? Look at his hips, how they’re not square, but slightly off-center. Look at the relaxed yet defined contours of his abdomen, his chest. What we’ve got here on film is the real-life equivalent of one of those classical male nude sculptures that show up so often in Terry Gilliam’s Python animations.

Again, it’s about the most un-titillating nude you’ll see in film. It’s beautiful. And it fits the character – it reveals something about the character, his innocence, his guilelessness, and his fundamental goodness. It’s a totally unguarded moment: he’s feeling tremendously good about the world and his place in it, for a change, and he throws open the window to greet it – and then it’s all crushed, and he spends the rest of the scene hunched over and cowering. This was maybe Brian’s only real moment of happiness. I don’t think any of this is accidental.

Judith’s nudity is not quite as central to the film’s theme, but it’s equally carefully placed, I think. First of all, I think it’s there to balance Brian’s. But it also reveals (pun admitted) her character as much as his nude moment reveals his character. He allows himself to be seen nude only in a moment of innocence and peace; but by the time she steps forth naked, conflict has already entered the scene. She comes out to argue with Brian’s mother, and she doesn’t bother to wrap a sheet around herself to do it. This is fitting for Judith, a revolutionary, someone for whom petty bourgeois modesty would be a waste of time or worse. Brian nude is an innocent; Judith nude is a fighter.