Quentin Tarantino, 2009
#1, 2009 Skandies
There is a famous sequence in Pulp Fiction in which a fight between an underworld kingpin and a boxer who crossed him spills into exactly the wrong pawn shop. The proprietor gets the drop on both men and then he and a buddy of his start ass-raping the crime boss in the basement... but the boxer manages a surreptitious escape, finds a sword, and rescues his erstwhile enemy. At which point the crime boss blasts his surviving assailant in the crotch with a shotgun. "I ain't through with you by a damn sight," he promises. "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass."
Now imagine that the subsequent hour of the movie were footage of the crime boss and his underlings torturing the rapist to death and you basically have every movie Tarantino has made in the past decade.
I don't know what exactly the story here is, but at some point between 1997 and 2003 Tarantino apparently decided to start making the same film over and over again, and so far he hasn't stopped. It's a simple two-part formula. Part One: the baddie or baddies commit some sort of atrocity. Part Two: they git whut's comin' to 'em. In Kill Bill, the Serpent Society massacres Beatrix Kiddo's wedding party, puts her in a coma for several years, and kidnaps her child; cue four hours of knives through sternums, plucked-out eyes, and exploded hearts as she exacts gruesome revenge. In Death Proof, a psychotic stuntman massacres a carful of young women and attempts to do the same to another; cue an interminable sequence of battery and skull crushing as the latter group exacts gruesome revenge. And now we have Inglourious Basterds, in which the Nazis massacre six million Jews, among them the family of Shosanna Dreyfus; cue two hours of scalping, carving up, and playing baseball with the heads of Nazi soldiers, followed by the counter-massacre of several hundred top Nazis, as Shosanna and a group of Jewish soldiers exact gruesome revenge.
Now, it seems to me that there are basically two ways to interpret Tarantino's project in these films. One is that it's what my pop culture professors called "somatic cinema," appealing to the inner predator's innate thirst for violence. Though Tarantino was pigeonholed as someone who made violent films right from the beginning, in the '90s he tended to keep anything more outré than gunshots offscreen. Not so afterwards. Where once it was the circumstances of a Tarantino character's demise that shocked viewers, in the '00s it also became the method. It's the difference between "Holy shit! I can't believe one of the main characters just got killed due to some inopportune Pop-Tarts!" and "Holy shit! I can't believe I just saw one of the main characters get her face scraped off by the tire of a Chevy Nova!" But whereas for a simple splatter director that would be enough, Tarantino is more interested in a different type of somatic appeal; he's aiming less at the inner predator than at the inner vigilante who demands to see evil punished in kind. The thinking behind Inglourious Basterds, by these lights, would therefore be something like this: "You may not normally enjoy watching a human being reduced to a heap of steaming gore... but you would if it were Hitler, right? If it were Hitler, then that would be awesome!"
The other take on Tarantino's revenge flicks is that they're actually nuanced reflections on our conflicted feelings about violence. Kill Bill, for instance, may be a martial arts movie, and the aim of martial arts movies may be to entertain viewers with aestheticized depictions of people murdering each other, but it turns out that a key part of the backstory is the protagonist's desire to keep her daughter from coming to view violence as acceptable. Death Proof may be a schlock horror movie, and the aim of schlock horror movies may be to entertain people with grotesque depictions of people murdering each other, but the very schlockiness of the movie signals that this is the lowest of lowbrow entertainment and that really we should all be above this sort of thing. And then you have Inglourious Basterds, which signals to the audience that they shouldn't be enjoying the slaughter of the Nazis by... uh... well, the Nazi sniper doesn't like watching the movie-in-a-movie about himself, right? So that makes us question the, y'know, the...
...oh, I can't pretend that this is anything but the usual contrarian academic bullshit. Come on. Tarantino made this movie because he thought killing Hitler would be awesome. Yes, he's smart enough to include a couple of tips of the hat to the notion that violence isn't an uncomplicated delight. But a triple-scoop chocolate sundae with cherry on top isn't a fuckin' fruit salad. When Lt. Aldo Raine declares that "Ah sure as hail din't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross fahve thousand mile a' water, fight mah why through half a' Sicily, an' jump out of a fuckin' aeroplane to teach the Natzis lessons in humanity — Natzi ain't GOT no humanity!", it seems pretty clear to me that we're supposed to be pumping our fists at the righteous slaughter to come. At this point there are two obvious objections to this interpretation:
(1) But wait, Tarantino goes on to deliberately humanize the Nazis! We meet a Nazi soldier who's celebrating having become a new father. True! And yet I doubt that any more than a scant few thereby had their minds changed about the general inhumanity of Nazis. In a year that saw legions of teabaggers take to the streets in their government-subsidized mobility scooters to protest government spending, can we really be so naive as to think that logic can make any dent in the three-pound block of solidified cognitive dissonance that is the human brain? My guess would be that a fairly typical reaction to the end of the bar scene in Basterds is to pull for Wilhelm to make it out alive so that his little boy doesn't grow up an orphan — right up to the point that he is abruptly shot dead, a moment of shock that then jolts the viewer into doing a 180 and deciding that it's just as well because ultimately he was a Natzi and a Natzi ain't got no humanity.
(2) And if we're supposed to be cheering on Aldo Raine, why is he depicted as a cartoon redneck who only makes it to the end of the movie through dumb luck? Why are his sidekicks depicted as kind of demented? Answer: militant ignorance is considered a plus these days. Dementedness possibly more so. And even those who wouldn't hang out with the Basterds tend to concede that the existence of groups like them, while grotesque and incomprehensible to people like me, saves lives, and that deep down in places we don't talk about at parties, we want and need them on that wall and/or in that French countryside. Here's a comment that popped up in my Facebook feed on Veterans' Day by a game designer of my acquaintance: "Special thanks to the people that protect my right to make games about the sort of stuff they actually did. Anyone that actually punched a Nazi in the face is my personal hero." This struck me as interesting for a few reasons. One, it demonstrates the sort of unconscious denial evident in the way people talk about war: those WWII vets didn't "punch Nazis in the face" so much as blow them to pieces with grenades, roast them alive in tanks, etc. Two, it shows how people cling to World War II, which ended more than a retiree's lifetime ago, rather than talk about the more recent hegemonic wars in Vietnam and Iraq that were about protecting civil rights to the same extent that your elderly dog's disappearance was about relocating him to a beautiful farm. And three, it shows the amount of audience goodwill that a character like Aldo Raine starts off with. A hick accent isn't enough to telegraph to those predisposed to like him that taking pleasure in watching Nazis get bludgeoned with baseball bats and scalped is actually, y'know, bad.
Nor, if Tarantino's intent was to trouble the notion of "killin' Natzis," do the cast and crew seem to have gotten the memo. Mélanie Laurent, the '09 Skandie winner for Best Supporting Actress, said that her reaction to the script was "like, wow, it's been my dream to kill Hitler since I was like four," while the less celebrated Eli Roth expressed "a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling." Tarantino himself aggressively dismissed concerns about the violence in Basterds: "I hate that hand-wringing shit," he told The Atlantic, citing Red Dawn with approval. "The Wolverines capture a soldier, and there's a little bit of back-and-forth — should we kill him or not — and C. Thomas Howell just blows him away with his shotgun. Those are the kind of things you say, 'That's exactly what I would do.' It's what I want to see." When interviewers express discomfort with the film's pro-cruelty, pro-mutilation stance, Tarantino shrugs: "I was too brutal to the Nazis?" Suggesting, again, that they had it comin'.
The problem here is not that the Nazis didn't have it comin'. The murder of six million Jews would seem to serve as evidence that they did. But by that token, what do we make of the murder of ten million Indians from 1876 to 1878 — 25 million from 1875 to 1900? The Deccan plateau had enough rice and wheat on hand to feed the native population when the 1876 drought hit, but viceroy Robert Bulwer-Lytton insisted that it all be shipped to Britain. When local people began to starve, the British response was to put them to hard labor in concentration camps in exchange for less food than the Nazis fed the Jews. The annual death rate in the camps was 94 percent. Historians have begun to call the artificial famine in India the "Victorian Holocaust." Yet Inglourious Basterds counts the representatives of the British Empire among the good guys. They didn't have it comin'?
Aldo Raine says that his battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance. Who were the Apaches resisting? Why, that would be the Americans, who had conducted a centuries-long, largely successful campaign of genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America. Four hundred treaties, all of them broken by the United States, a country whose representatives Inglourious Basterds also counts among the good guys. They didn't have it comin'? If people who punched Nazis in the face should be our heroes, shouldn't those who did the same to Britons and Americans be accorded the same veneration?
The problem with "they had it comin'," as Unforgiven points out, is that we all have it comin'. Basterds places, among the Nazis being gunned down, the well-dressed wives of the SS officers; they didn't shove anyone into ovens, but they benefitted from the system that did and Tarantino thus has no qualms about killing them off. But anyone who lives a First World lifestyle benefits from the entrenched system of exploitation that brings us our shoes and gasoline and cell phone batteries, and thus has a body count to atone for and a debt of suffering to repay. Shall we set a few Indonesian child sweatshop workers, Iraqi widows and orphans, and Congolese coltan miners loose with machine guns in the Beverly Center?
I mean, sure, I admit that there's part of me that did indeed enjoy the sight of hundreds of top Nazis trapped in a burning theater being gunned down. But here's the thing: that same part of me would have been even more delighted if the targets had been Republicans. After all, Hitler's been dead for two-thirds of a century; the Republican Party is, right now, actively trying to destroy pretty much everything I believe in, and has been very successful at it for at least the past thirty years. The reptilian part of my brain that liked watching Nazis get slaughtered would therefore say, why stop there — let's see George W. Bush get waterboarded, Dick Cheney shot in the face, David Addington sent to a secret torture prison, John Yoo's testicles crushed, and Grover Norquist drowned in the bathtub! While Rush Limbaugh and everyone affiliated with Fox News die alongside Josef Goebbels! Now that's a movie!
No? That crosses the line? Well, where's the line? It seems to me that underpinning Inglourious Basterds is Nazi exceptionalism, the notion that the line is between the Nazis and everyone else, that the Nazis were so uniquely evil that we can throw our own morals out the window where they're concerned. Sorry, no. As discussed above, the Nazis were hardly unique in their genocidal record; hell, at the very same time that the Nazis were consolidating their power in Germany, Stalin was inflicting the Holodomor on the Ukrainians, killing as many as ten million of them. Or maybe it's not the scale of the Nazis' evil that sets them apart, but rather the consensus itself — i.e., they're uniquely evil in that everyone agrees that they're uniquely evil? That's no good either: our consensus about the Nazis was Nazi Germany's consensus about the Jews, and look where that led. The amygdalar eliminationist impulse — Nazis gotta die, Jews gotta die, Republicans gotta die, bicyclists who blow through stop signs as if traffic laws didn't apply to them gotta die — is not evil in itself; it's part of everyone's inheritance from nature, red in tooth and claw. But when you indulge it, suggest to audiences that there's ever a circumstance in which it's okay to act on it... you've thrown open the very gates through which the Nazis marched.
Strictly as a piece of filmmaking, Inglourious Basterds is first-rate. These days I spend a lot of my time up to my neck in tired summer-movie formulas and it's a blessed relief to watch Tarantino's idiosyncratic 25-minute scenes unfold. It's true that they're pretty samey after a while — the farmhouse scene, the strudel scene, and the bar scene all pull the same trick of having characters struggle to stay cool and keep up their end of what purports to be a pleasant conversation, knowing full well that they're being carefully scrutinized for that one little slip that would give away the secrets they're frantically trying to hide. I also have to differ with those who have proclaimed Col. Landa one of the all-time great characters — I've seen urbane monsters before and this one didn't particularly stand out from the crowd. But still, there's more audacity, more personal vision, and more of the thrill of being on the receiving end of some masterful storytelling in one minute of this movie than you get in most entire films. I could spend another couple of paragraphs just checking off the inspired moments. And it's not just the script that's first-rate, either — Tarantino managed to round up a bunch of people with phenomenal screen presence, from the aforementioned Mélanie Laurent, the angelic face of Jewish vengeance, down to bit players like Léa Seydoux (who with a look establishes the stakes for the father in the farmhouse scene and makes his capitulation understandable).
But I find myself thinking back to the beginning of Chapter Three of the film, at the 38-minute mark. We see a tall neon sign saying "CINEMA," then tilt down to the marquee. In the center of the screen is a name familiar even to those who aren't aficionados of mid-20th century German film:
Leni Riefenstahl's films are, or at least were, considered great pieces of filmmaking as well, but as they were made in the service of the Third Reich, Riefenstahl's name became a byword for the debate over how we should think about art with great form and evil content. And as far as Inglourious Basterds is concerned, with its pretty darn good form in the service of a very dangerous idea... well, what's that American expression? "If the shoe fits..."?
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