Hello, readers. It has certainly been a long while since I've posted anything of volume or real substance...months in fact. I have had a very busy summer. However, the ConFluence blog is back with a vengeance and I am going to re-launch it with thoughts pertaining to one of the (sadly) only three films I've seen this summer in a theater, and the only one of the three which is a new release.
Needless to say, Quentin Tarantino is a fascinating pop-culture case in that, as a personality, he stands just as well-known and in-the-limelight as his films stand, popular as they are. No other film director today curries such favor with the public eye and for this reason among others, very little effort has been needed or required to follow his evolution as one of America's most beloved artists. I may not be the biggest Tarantino fan in the world – in point of fact, I have often harbored a genuine disdain for the flamboyantly pedantic auteur as a writer-director and have listed him on this blog as one of my “most disliked filmmakers” – but it is extremely difficult to dismiss him totally as not to admire the three things that have often served in rendering the style of his work distinguishable and singular to him as a filmmaker: gumption, chutzpah and moxie, the latter two Yiddish terms never more appropriate than now, vis a vis his latest Inglourious Basterds which ostensibly concerns itself with a group of “Apache basterds” [sic, however obvious that denotation is by now] or, to be specific, Jewish-American soldiers who pledge to scalp one hundred Nazi soldiers before the end of the war. The film ultimately unfolds to finally emerge as one of the boldest ventures into cinematic revisionist history “lessons” (read “populist fantasies”). Victimization as a theme is pervasive throughout, operating within a traditional (but ultimately untraditional) "good guys vs. bad guys" dramatic dynamic.
Village Voice writer Ella Taylor opened her recent interview of Quentin Tarantino, "Mr. Blood Red, Volume 2: Quentin's Final Solution," with the remembrance of an earlier interview she had conducted with him in 1992. In it, she challenged the filmmaker for the "casual violence" in his film Reservoir Dogs which had just scored in a big way at Sundance. Tarantino replied then by saying that violence was one of cinema's key aesthetics and that, following in the footsteps of other American auteur directors, he has every right to use that aesthetic. How appropriate, then, that it seems every major film-writer seems intent, in different degrees, on exploring implicit bits of atonement for his own "reckless" but trademark penchant for often exaggerated violence in the six feature films he has thus far written and directed. She is fair enough to mention that for all of the bang-bang, there is just as much (if not more) talk-talk. For those who have seen Tarantino's recent film Inglourious Basterds, this becomes all too clear in a scene towards the film's end involving a character watching a violent, propagandistic war-picture in a theater with an enthusiastic audience whose feverish zeal feeds all too frighteningly off of the onscreen bloodshed -- yet Tarantino, at this point, takes certain great pains in making us observe and feel the weight of one of his characters exiting the theater as a result of the simulated movie violence being all too real to him (or maybe perhaps not real enough, hence escapist and without conscience). Could it be reasonable to equate this character's bold dissenting action with the director's own ambivalent but still perceptible (and newly emergent) psychogical climate concerning violence in cinema? Yes and no. Yes, in that we are made aware at other points in the film of a filmmaker newly cognizant of his own perhaps insidious desire to foster ra-ra-ra reactions to violence in his work, and no in that Tarantino gets the last laugh in the final scene, as if to say, "This is still who I am, take me or leave me" (even with the line "This could be my masterpiece" uttered no less). And leave it to Tarantino to posit his cinematic atonement via a story of no-holds-barred revisionist history. In Tarantino's films up until this latest work, victimization has never been a theme even remotely on his radar. Characters came and went with the will of a finger on a pistol. These were worlds without victims, or at least people who could explicitly be called victims within the context of the broader narrative. I think of Chazz Palminteri's line in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, "I never bumped off someone who didn't deserve it." We are expected as an audience to cheer their deaths, most of the time, because they were deserving of it when looking at the broader narrative strokes. These "victims who aren't victims" functioned to advance the story of a filmmaker with a devil may care attitude towards casually bumping off his characters to progress his plot, and never did we get a chance to truly feel sorry for anyone on display. "Here today, gone tomorrow...who's to care?" We as an audience were never able to consider a character's mortality following his/her murder in one of the filmmaker's previous films. It was all within the context of a larger plot, pace and a sense of moving a story forward. Now, it seems, Tarantino has let the idea of victimization enter into one of his pictures.
Starting my analysis of the question at hand on a personal basis, how do I regard the film considering the fact that I myself am a Jew? To address this, I will mention that the New York theater in which I saw the film was filled with kippot (yarmulkes) and there was actually applause at the final fade-out. Did I feel vindicated in witnessing an alternative movie reality in which the Jewish characters got the last word, for once, against their Nazi oppressors? Again, it comes back to this question of how Tarantino handles his first examination of victimization, and the dialectic between victim and victimizer. Jews have always traditionally been the victims in World War II films. From Montgomery Clift's tormented Jewish soldier in Dmytryk's The Young Lions (1958) to the legion of Hollywood Holocaust (read: Hollycaust) dramas, and even back to the Nazi propaganda films when seen in retrospect. What happens when victim becomes the victimizer? Take for instance the two Jewish "basterds" opening fire on a crowd of unarmed movie-theater patrons in the film's last act. What does this imply? The filmmaker very clearly expects us to think about the implications in the images at this part of the film. It is beyond the point of even weighing the crimes of the victims against the crimes of the victimizers. First off, I greatly enjoyed the film as entertainment and had a real blast which is more than I can say about most any other of Tarantino’s films. It is perhaps the first time I didn’t feel like yelling at the screen, as I felt like often in Death Proof and Kill Bill (I dislike his often ornamental, self-congratulatory dialogue and non-stop references, which are vexing to me not because I cannot catch them but because I catch them too much and it irrevocably clouds his objectives), and Brad Pitt has never entertained me more than in this film. Nevertheless, I still cannot fully turn my back to the harsh realities that exist beneath the confectionary fictions. Despite this, and to reiterate, the revisionist history is not in vain as we are forced to thoroughly consider victims and the theme of victimization, and this cannot be fully explored without this revisionist history.
To explore these ideas in specificity, I am going to cite a few sequences as examples. One of the opening scenes features Nazis machine-gunning a Jewish family in hiding. Going back to Palminteri's quote in the Woody Allen film, this is among the first of those who, in Tarantino's eyes and in one of his films, do not deserve the bump-off they get. Granted, it thickens the plot ultimately, but we are forced to consider this later in the context of what comes in between. At the time, nothing is in context and we are forced to be subjected to cold-blooded, immoral murder. We also have a telling scene featuring a young Nazi officer who has a newborn son. In a rather unorthodox Mexican standoff (the most askew example of one throughout Tarantino's trademark use of them), we are made to consider the German officers humanity amidst his pleas that his son has just been born and, in spite of his loyalties, he like any other just wishes to return home to the safety of his family. He is killed anyway, and we as an audience almost feel a sense of guilt that he is. This trend in "the new guilt" reaches its apex when Tarantino has one of his characters walk out of the violent film-within-the-film, because to him (the unclear pronoun here is intention), the cheered violence has reached a point of perversion, and he as an audience-member (and filmmaker respectively) is simultenously the victim and the cause of that perversion.
This serves in rendering Tarantino's perception of propaganda as well. Goebbels is hilariously portrayed as a temperamental auteur who is touched to the point of tears at the Fuhrer's approval of his latest propaganda war-film masterpiece "Nation's Pride," the aforementioned film-within-the-film.
I read a great deal about the film before seeing it, and most of the writings I examined broached the question of the ethics of such a venture, and if a film like this borders on social irresponsibility. J. Hoberman, in the opening paragraph of his Village Voice review calls the film “rich in fantasy and blithely amoral.” This question of social irresponsibility may seem silly considering that a filmmaker as dynamically stylized as Tarantino does not concern himself with weighing himself down with ethics or even the faintest fidelity to historical fact while making a film like this. Nonetheless, I feel the question is one worth fielding. Is Inglourious Basterds an effrontery to the history it allegedly covers and the ramifications of that history? In my opinion, no...for all the reasons listed above. In addition, could it be deemed acceptable if, presupposing a filmmaker’s responsibility for fidelity to truth, a director’s “moral compass” became joyously demagnetized to successfully yield total escapist entertainment? It is fair to mention here that, in interviews, Tarantino has acknowledged this as a “personal” film. I am inclined as his audience to concur.
It is rare that I engage in specialized movie reviews on this blog, particularly of new releases, and when I choose to do so, the reason would always be to address broader subjects concerning film and filmmaking as opposed to subjectively dissecting something for the sake of simply recording my impressions of a movie. This is indeed such a case of addressing a larger issue. Concerning chutzpah and moxie, Tarantino perhaps is the only working filmmaker on the face of the Earth who has the guts to visually and dramatically juxtapose the arrival of the Nazis in an opening scene to the legendary, ill-fated entrance of a villainous Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West and/or the similarly ill-fated entrance of Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (complete with the coy opening chapter title “Once Upon a Time…in Nazi-Occupied France”). It doesn’t stop just there. He employs all varieties of spaghetti western aesthetics throughout the film, from its Morricone-quoting score (often from the composer’s most obscure soundtracks) to its action choreography right down to its command of the Scope frame (and never before has Tarantino used the 2.35 aspect ratio so effectively as he does in this film). He also clearly takes great pride in his little touches (e.g. the use of the old late 60’s/early 70’s Universal Pictures logo, his casting of Rod Taylor as a taciturn Winston Churchill against comedian-actor Mike Myers).
Is it fair to call Inglourious Basterds Tarantino's most mature film, then? I cannot say it's unfair, and I think he may even feel that himself. I also think this is what is behind a great deal of the dissent the movie faced upon its premiere at Cannes. No one is used to this kind of Tarantino, a slightly more inward, sensitive version of his earlier self...and for once, a director dealing in victimization in his trademark use of violence. This film can be likened to Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in that we have a director known for the violent worlds he renders on film and, for the first time, we see the sensitivity of Peckinpah in relation to his characters, even compounding his treatment of the "old cowboys" in The Wild Bunch. Tarantino may have landed on a new planet, away from his victimless, victimless world, and he might be drawn towards affecting his audiences in different ways.