UPDATED 8/27 1:09 p.m.
Behold, day three of the ongoing e-mail conversation between The Kind of Face You Hate’s Bill R. and I regarding Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. I don’t know if it reads this way to the merely interested, but my own feeling about the way this discussion is playing out, with all the extra commentary from readers at both my blog and Bill’s (with Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles poised to join the fray), has allowed access to a greater exchange and examination of ideas and impulses and reactions to this movie that a single review (at least one that I would be capable of writing) ever could. I’m really enjoying the back and forth, and I hope you are too (whoever you are). I encourage you to pipe in, agree or not, and liven up the discussion even more, either here or at Bill’s place, where there are some very interesting examinations of the film’s violence and its tone going on-- which just happens to be the part of the pool into which I feel like jumping into (no diving!) tonight.
(Access part two and part one of our ongoing discussion by clicking the links.)
Bill, I’m gonna start off by reiterating a couple of things from your comments page and from that Atlantic article (the link to which has been fixed, by the way) that I think are germane to where I’m sensing the conversation is headed.
Here’s part of what I had to say on your site regarding a point made by one of your readers:
“I don't want to forget The Caustic Ignostic's point: `It's not that IB is a cerebral film masquerading as a visceral film, or a visceral film that critics are inappropriately reading as a cerebral film. It's a cerebral *and* visceral film. I suspect QT would scoff at the notion that he had to choose, or that the audience wants to choose.’
I think this is crucial, certainly to the way QT lays the groundwork for what he's up to in Death Proof, as it applies to IB. The first group of girls die in that spectacular sequence, which gives us the visceral thrills of suspense and kinetic car action-- the basis of QT's genre exploration-- but goes further by emphasizing, in a honorable way, the true price being paid by these girls with whom we've spent the last half hour (however fascinating or pointless you may have felt that visit was). We see the gruesome reality of the crash for each victim, which leads to some uncomfortable contemplation to go along with the excitement we've felt, but QT does it not to pooh-pooh us for getting off on the action, but instead to suggest the real humanity lost here.”
From the Atlantic article, here’s IB producer Lawrence Bender:
“`At the end of the day, the people in that auditorium’—during the film’s climax—‘are Nazis. You kind of feel bad for them because they’re burning to death, but you’re not feeling too much sympathy, even for the Nazi who gets a swastika carved in his head.’”
And here’s Jeffrey Goldberg, writer of the Atlantic article, who does a good job, I think, wrestling with his own ambivalent reaction to the film’s violence, speaking from the perspective of one who fought in the Israeli Army:
“But why risk creating sympathy for Nazis at all? Why have any scene that, in Neal Gabler’s words, `conventionalizes Jews, puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else’? Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity. But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.”
To my mind, the open-mindedness with which Goldberg infuses his own questioning and the interview with Tarantino is refreshing. Inquisitive and serious, but not baiting (he knows Tarantino will supply the juicy quotes without a whole lot of prompting), Goldberg makes clear that Jews are not immune to fantasies of revenge even as he questions the appropriateness of some of the specific imagery in IB. That, to me, is playing fair.
The questions that he asks above, though, in response to Bender’s less qualified response (Bender is Jewish also), is the nail on which some have become snagged in regard to Inglourious Basterds. Why risk creating sympathy for the Nazis at all? Well, I think a very simple response to this question, an answer also, perhaps, to why some of these other more sober dramatic inquiries into the Jewish experience don’t seem to work very well (Jakob the Liar, Life is Beautiful, Defiance), is that while Tarantino is unapologetically keyed in to the pleasures that movies can offer us, not even close to the least of which is the unambiguous and vicarious rush of seeing justice meted out to those who may escape it in “real life,” he is also an artist interested in exploring the possibilities within what might on the surface seem like simplistic reactions to purgative violence.
I go back to my example from Tarantino’s previous movie, Death Proof. If that movie was simply an opportunity for a genre apologist to riff on familiar themes and situations from some of his favorite trash classics (which, on one level, is exactly what Death Proof is), then I don’t think Tarantino spends as much time letting us get to know, and get annoyed by, the first group of girls who will be sacrificed to Stuntman Mike’s psychosexually twisted aggression. He would set things up in a much quicker, choppier fashion (all the better to approximate the expository quality of a movie like, say, Trip with the Teacher) so we could more rapidly get to the good stuff. Therefore, in addition to the white-knuckle staging of that head-on collision, and the violence done to the vehicles themselves (which anyone who loves car chase cinema will enjoy without apology or hand-wringing, despite the damage done to those muscle car beauties), we get a particularly terrifying, and moving, tribute to Tarantino’s commitment to the humanity of those women, a few of which we may have concluded previously to be shallow bitches based on their conversation. As Stuntman Mike’s car shreds the top of their vehicle, Tarantino used his newfound visual mastery as a director to offer to us privileged information—we see the horrible violence visited upon each of the victims in ghastly detail. This may be the most cathartic, disturbing car wreck ever committed to film, and it is so because Tarantino chooses to consider the violence of the moment from an angle in addition to the one that his homage would seem most likely to accommodate.
In the same way, the Caustic Ignostic suggests that compartmentalizing IB as either a cerebral film or a visceral one is to deny the way the movie actually works on our sensibilities. (This insistence of the either/or, which I think Tarantino would scoff at, and justifiably so, is at the heart of the divide between what people have come to expect from Tarantino —violence, verbosity-- and how those elements are most often actually incorporated into Tarantino’s movies.) It’s clear that he is interested in providing the rush of satisfaction that history and the movies have routinely denied viewers—a specifically Jewish vengeance fulfilled on screen. But I do also believe that, no matter how much he may marginalize his intentions about creating a fleeting sympathy for Nazis as victims in interviews, a sense of ambivalence for herding humans into a building and burning them alive is part of what’s going on here. Tarantino is too smart, too aware, too (yes) sensitive, for it not to be. The mark of this movie’s status as a masterpiece is that such impulses can co-exist in the precise moment with the Revenge of the Giant face, as Shosanna’s triumphant declarations, projected on a burning silver screen, and then on the smoke rising from the ruins of her beloved cinema, echo forth amidst the screams, a moment she has been denied witness to herself by an awful twist of fate. I would never suggest that it wasn’t a tremendous rush to see Adolf Hitler’s skull perforated by machine gun fire, and I think that in the context of what Tarantino has done here such a catharsis is justified and satisfying. But I would suggest that, for me at least, the extra dimension of contemplation, which has been put in play by the director (whatever his motivation), over the pain and horror inflicted on the Nazis in the theater—the recognition, however fleeting, of them as human beings—makes IB an even richer experience for me. Maybe in interviews Tarantino downplays this because it’s not quite in tune with his own self-portrait as an artist-provocateur. But then, film history is rife with film directors who talk a certain game in interviews, while the films themselves, for richer or for poorer, reveal talent (or lack of it) and intentions that the director may have glossed over during his act of self-promotion. The bottom line is, Inglourious Basterds works on different levels, even when one of those levels, the satisfaction derived from the choreographed destruction of the Nazis in that beautiful burning cinema, is clearly the dominant level.
Goldberg’s final point, that the carving of a swastika into the foreheads of the Basterds’ Nazi victims “doesn’t sound like a Jewish thing to do,” is similarly double-edged. My suspicion is that Goldberg is not downplaying the element of revenge behind the carving so much as the image being carved. Perhaps it would make more sense to him (and I’m merely speculating and putting conclusions into Goldberg’s mouth here) that Aldo’s squad would carve the Star of David into these killers’ foreheads instead, thus forever marking their Nazi victims with a reminder of those whom they sought to exterminate. If this were Tarantino’s choice dramatically, I would think it would be equally justifiable, but it’s also not much of a leap for me to imagine that in doing so he might find the movie and its tone moving a little too close to the self-righteous indignation of the typical Hollywood response to the Holocaust. That they choose to brand the Nazis with symbols of their own ghastly behavior, giving them an inescapable legacy, works perfectly well within the film, however, as I see it. And it may or may not be important that the man ordering the scalping, and who administers the movie’s ultimate swastika-carving, is not a Jew himself, but a Tennessee hillbilly, one not far, genetically speaking, from Tarantino’s own family tree, who claims Native-American ancestry (as does Tarantino), linking him and the Basterds to an entirely different but not dissimilar tributary of historical genocide.
I’m far more troubled by Goldberg’s second poser: “Why have any scene that, in Gabler’s words, ‘conventionalizes Jews and puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else?’” When we start talking about the immorality of suggesting that one group of oppressed people would never entertain thoughts of revenge, and the immorality of charting their adventures should they do so, then we’ve either elevated, or reduced (depending on your sociopolitical leanings), an entire people to a status above or below that of just about everyone else on the planet who is even momentarily honest about their capacity for such feelings. Maybe Gabler believes that the Jews are above such reactionary violence, or that if they did go about it, then that violence would need to be balanced by the kind of moral debates indulged in by the characters in Defiance in order for it to be palatable screen material. Tarantino bypasses all that because he knows that such a dialogue is likely to be dead in the water, on top of unrealistic for the particular situation, and he has confidence that his talent as a filmmaker will be enough to convey that ambivalence without making a big, Oscar-baiting point out of it. (The look on Eli Roth’s face as he strafes the auditorium with machine gun fire is plenty enough of a nudge in this direction, and I was glad for it even as I was reveling in the story’s violent climax.) This suggestion that Jews should be excluded from tales of revenge, or even the suggestion that they ever entertain them, are the subtext, I think, of objections like Daniel Mendelsohn’s, or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assertion that the movie is morally akin to Holocaust denial. (That Rosenbaum has yet to elaborate on his claim, at least to my awareness, is telling.)
Absent from any of these objections seems to be an awareness that Nazi baiting and use of the presence of Nazis in the history of World War II as fodder for Hollywood extravaganzas is not exactly fresh news. As I sat with my kids watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen Monday night (an activity I recommend to all parents of age-appropriate children, especially if it comes packaged with a beautiful new 35mm print of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a second feature), my mind was whirling. Incredible how any objections that may have been raised in 1981 to Spielberg and Lucas’s appropriation of Nazi characters and imagery for their wacky WWII fantasy, which ends with Nazi evil being melted into hellish oblivion, not by Jews but by the very Hand of God, seem to have evaporated. Could this distinction between the two films in terms of how revenge is meted out be the source of the difference? Or are we just not prompted to take the Indiana Jones world as seriously because of its serial connections?
Well, guess what-- Inglourious Basterds is derived from a Hollywood line of WWII fantasies as well, from The Sands of Iwo Jima to The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, none of which has much more claim to historical plausibility than does Tarantino’s movie. The movies produced during World War II were recognized then, as they are now, as specific forms of propaganda meant to bolster the morale of the troops and American audiences, and as such rarely engaged much in the way of wartime atrocities or the reality of significant loss of American life. (Wayne's Iwo Jima dealt with tragedy, but was keyed more toward American uplift.) That Inglourious Basterds does deal in the historical reality of the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in the context of a thrilling Hollywood-style spectacle (it is, in reality, quite opposite from what one might reasonably expect from Hollywood these days) is apparently reason enough to object to IB which, for Rosenbaum, exists “at the expense of real-life Holocaust victims.” It seems then that Rosenbaum ought to be having a lot more difficulty with the history of war on film than he seems to have in general. Maybe a target as big and juicy as Tarantino, the director and his duped, sycophantic audience just waiting to be deflated and held up as an example of disgusting amorality, is just too irresistible.
I’m looking forward to hearing what your feelings are about all of this, Bill. I doubt I'm far wrong in supposing that you would be pretty annoyed at anyone who tried to downplay the effect of the revenge angle in the movie, especially as a means of making the whole brew go down with less trouble. Finally, before I go to bed, I wanted to key you to old friend Jim Emerson, who is catching up on Tarantino and who weighs in on Inglourious Basterds here. I am very happy to include him in this very satisfying conversation and hope he can find time to check in with us.
Okay, let’s change it up. What did you think of the performances? I’ve heard lots of talk, even from some who loved the movie, about Brad Pitt’s insufficiencies. I’d love to turn back and talk about Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, even Mike Myers and their invaluable contributions to Tarantino’s achievement here. And amongst all this praise, are there any elements of the movie, big-scale or small-scale, that don’t work for you? Let’s hear it!
UPDATED 8/27 1:09 p.m.
Bill has made it out of the gate with his end of this portion of our e-mail exchange. I envision him coming out to the ominous tapping sound of a baseball bat knocking its way through the tunnel arch of a bridge support, emerging into the sunlight and brandishing his words like weapon with which to lay waste to all comers. Nah, he's more subtle than that, but just as much fun to watch as, say, Donnie Donowitz himself. Take it away, Bill!
First off, your points, and those made by Caustic, are well taken. I absolutely agree with you about the crash scene in Death Proof, despite my reservations about that film as a whole. This was slasher film violence you weren't meant to laugh off. It was mean to hurt, an idea that I loved, and which made the downhill slide that followed all the more disappointing. And I would agree with you that much of the violence in Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's follow-up to that philosophy, although I remember him saying as far back as Pulp Fiction, that when it came to his films and their use of violence, he wanted the audience to laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and then suddenly stop laughing.
My reason for being less affected in that way when it comes to his new film is a simple one, and I've pretty much said this very thing a few different ways already, but here it is again: never before was Tarantino applying his facility with on-screen violence to Nazis. I'm sure we've all read more than we cared to about the sheer demonic creativity of what the Nazis -- and not a few of the German ground soldiers -- did, the different ways to murder people, and make them suffer, that sparked their brains in the course of doing business. Having swastikas carved into their foreheads and seeing them burned alive would seem like child's play to Hitler and Himmler and Mengele (why couldn't he have been in that theater, too?).
Goldberg does indeed play very fair in that Atlantic piece -- it's a really great little article -- but as far as risking creating sympathy for the Nazis, I must say I don't quite follow him. For one thing, for a film that is so over-the-top, the characters all nevertheless feel real, which is the mark of Tarantino's talent. Were he to have gone in the direction Goldberg may have preferred, he would have had to turn Landa and the others into a cartoon, and I think it's sort of hard to truly hate a cartoon. There's no flesh or blood or mind to latch onto, nothing to recognize as human, and therefore nothing to perceive as a true aberration to humanity. And plus, obviously, I felt no sympathy for Landa. Meanwhile, does anybody, including those who view the violence as double-edged, feel any twinge of anything other than disgust for the fictional versions of Hitler and Goebbels in this film? I would imagine not. They sort of are cartoons, or, more accurately, outlines of the historical knowledge we all carry into the theater with us. No one of sound mind was in danger of feeling any pity, however tempered, when they saw Hitler's face coming apart.
Which brings me to Zoller, a character I found to be a fascinating and wholly original creation. A German war hero, much has been made of his final scene, with Shosanna, in the projection booth. After she shoots him, she gazes out at the movie screen, onto which his life story, Nation's Pride, is being projected. Her face softens, because he's just told her he didn't like watching the film, and also probably because she gets a sense of what he went through in combat. So she softens, sees that Zoller is still alive, and approaches him. What does her pity get her? A death right out of Argento, at Zoller's hands. Furthermore, let's not forget how he violently bulldozed his way into the projection booth, looking for sex. His insistence on this made his claims about finding Nation's Pride uncomfortable to sit through seem a little disingenuous. And look, very few soldiers have ever come home from war, relishing the memories of the men they've had to kill. American GIs returning from WWII were just as tortured by what they'd done as Zoller claimed to be, but does that mean that the Americans thought that what they'd done hadn't been necessary? So why should Zoller have been any different? Let's not forget that however much he may have failed to enjoy watching his exploits on screen, he'd still happily hitched his star to Joseph Fucking Goebbels, and no one can tell me that anyone who had Goebbels’s ear didn't know what the Nazis were all about. So fuck Zoller, is what I'm trying to say.
EVEN SO...yes, of course, it's not beyond Tarantino, or even me, to feel a bit of a chill as that theater goes up, and as the Bear Jew pumps round after round of ammo into the backs of terrified people in evening wear. That whole ending has a definite Italian horror film vibe to it, enhanced by the anachronistic electric sound of the Bowie song (which was written for a horror film, remember) and punctuated by that astonishing image of Shosanna's laughing face projected onto the black smoke. Right or wrong, satisfying or not, cathartic or repellent, that ending is horrifying, by definition. That doesn't mean that I don't wish some form of it had happened in reality. And as for film directors being known for talking about their films a certain way, despite their actual intentions, well, Tarantino has talked both games. So when you're watching the film, you're seeing what you see, not what he says.
It's beyond me what Goldberg's point is when he suggests that Jews should, at least in fictional representations, be free of the impulse for revenge, and I think you've said everything sayable about that point. But I would like to point your attention to a sort of review of Inglourious Basterds by Jeff Wells (and perhaps as a result open up a can of worms that I'd rather leave alone). As I say, it's not actually a review -- it's more of an attempt to destroy a film that he hates, but which is becoming successful against his wishes -- and in it he focuses on one of the film's other controversial scenes, which is that baseball bat-killing of the German officer by the Bear Jew (Eli Roth). Allow me to quote:
“The bottom line is that Pitt and Roth, who plays Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (a.k.a., 'the Bear Jew’), behave like butt-ugly sadists in this scene while Sammel behaves like a man of honor, character and dignity.
Tarantino has Sammel defy Pitt by saying ‘fuck you and your Jew dogs’ so it'll seem right and fair that an anti-Semite gets his head beaten into mashed potatoes with a baseball bat. But what speaks louder is (a) Sammel's expression, which is clearly that of a man of intelligence and perception, (b) his eyes in particular, which have a settled quality that indicates a certain regular-Joe decency, and (c) his refusal to give Pitt information about nearby German troops that would lead to their deaths if he spilled.
Isn't this is what men of honor and bravery do in wartime -- i.e., refuse to help the enemy kill their fellow soldiers, even if it means their own death?”
Dennis, as you're well aware, you and I occupy different areas of the Political Spectrum, American Division. But we've always gotten along well, and I thoroughly respect you and your views. And what I'm about to say doesn't even have much to do with "Liberals" per se, because Jeffrey Wells is obviously a special case, in that he is both a lunatic and an asshole. But nevertheless, my first point is that my take on Tarantino has always been that he is very much an apolitical filmmaker. That takes nothing away from what you say about his sensitivity or humanity, which points I agree with; I just don't believe that he makes films that he intends to fall in a Left or Right-wing category. Second, despite my robust embracing of this film, I would never for a second attempt to claim Inglourious Basterds for "my side". Nevertheless, some critics have attempted to offer the film to my side, after giving it a slap upside the head, based on its approach to revenge and American violence during wartime. While I must politely decline the offer that I think is inherent in some of the things Wells has said about the film, and which Rosenbaum has flat-out stated, I must make mention of the fact that, in the course of my travels, I've found that some people do not like it when you accuse them of steeping their world-views in the concept of moral equivalency. And all I can suggest to them is that if they so dislike being associated with moral equivalency, then perhaps they shouldn't embody the concept quite so thoroughly.
I suppose that's what is known as a "digression". My apologies, and moving on...
As for performances...well, I honestly don't think there's a bad one in the bunch. That opinion doesn't only include Mike Meyers, who I think is perfectly amusing in his small role, but Eli Roth, who has gotten mostly slammed, even by the film's admirers. Roth doesn't have a great deal to do in the film, as far as range is concerned, but what he does need to project -- bloodlust, glee, rage, a Boston accent -- I think he gets across just fine. I will say that in that last shot of the Bear Jew you referred to earlier, I didn't see any hint of any emotion other than cold satisfaction. But you've seen the film twice, and I haven't, so for now I'll defer to you on that.
And Pitt is a blast. I think he's made his three best films, and given his three best performances, and the last few years, with The Assassination of Jesse James by Etc. and So On, Burn After Reading, and this. I don't know what kind of performance people would rather Pitt have given. He's playing an over-the-top, as written, Tennessee hillbilly who demands that his men scalp their Nazi victims, and the lines he's given to deliver -- which you and I have been shamelessly pilfering for our post titles -- would hardly work with a more muted reading. Again, I think he's sensational, and I don't know what else could be desired from the role.
Of course, there are two performances that are objectively unassailable: Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, and Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus. There's not much I can say about either that won't come off as gushing, but among my favorite moments from Laurent is her release of breath, fear, panic and rage when Landa finally steps out of her sight in the restaurant. Her eyes and breathing tell the whole story of that scene. Waltz is a revelation, or maybe that word only applies if you've seen the performer before, but didn't realize they were quite so good. I'm sure I'm not alone in never having even heard of Waltz before, and yet you can't look away from him from the second he first appears. He's just so damn smooth, so assured, and so purely that character. Where the hell has this guy been? I read recently that he's primarily a TV actor, so I can only count Tarantino lucky that Waltz decided to audition.
As for what didn't work for me in the film, there's honestly not much. I can only remember one moment that caused me to actually worry, and that was when three of the Basterds are called to employ their facility with the Italian language. It's not that I didn't chuckle, but generally it was way too broad for me, even in this film. Ultimately, it didn't matter a bit, because as a plot point it was completely irrelevant, because the only character to whom they tried to pass themselves off knew the score going in, and wasn't fooled for a second. So it's just a bit of comedy that didn't quite land. I was also briefly unsure about the Bowie song, but as I said before that ended up tying in beautifully with the giallo tone of the last half hour or so.
So what about you? And what's next!?