Monday, August 24, 2009

Glorious Basterds

Inglorious Bastards was the surprise of the decade for me. Having read Tarantino's script mid-last year my expectations were low to abysmal. The script was overly indulgent, juvenile, pretentious, lame and dull. From that first reading, I was ready to predict the end of Tarantino's career. Having seen the film last week, I can say I've never been so happy to be wrong. The film is exhilarating and tense, emotionally poignant yet also unadulterated fun.

But reading the script first actually clarified to me what makes Tarantino such a good director. His films take place in a brilliantly and imaginatively thought out world, down to the last detail. What we’re given though is a privileged but essentially limited insight into that world. The effect is that it leaves us wanting more but in the best possible way – it inspires our imagination. Think of the complete lack of explanation regarding Brad Pitt’s noose mark, or the truly bad-ass characters of Wilhelm Wicki and Hugo Stiglitz – minor roles yet I wished they owned the movie. That’s not a criticism of the film but a sign of my love for it. It's a world that exists outside the constraints of narrative and the demands of the audience - and is all the more real for it. Critics who argue that the Basterds story ended up being fairly insignificant forget how Tarantino's films work. They're films inspired by cinephelia, which means they're based on details, moments and scenes that are decidedly anti-plot. Even the scenes that appear driven by narrative (the tavern scene and the cinema climax) are in fact accidental (the chance presence of Nazis in the tavern, the synchronisation between Shosanna's plot and the Basterds operation). It's an accident that refers not to narrative but to the anti-narrative reality of Tarantino's world, a world that is hidden even to himself.

No Tarantino film explores this more than Inglorious Bastards. Watching the film is like being let in on a secret, a secret that only cinema can encapsulate. So much of the film seems concerned with the way characters are viewed - a secret that is a mystery even to the characters themselves. Think of Landa’s ambiguous discussion of his nickname (first he likes it because he’s earned it, then he disowns it because it degrades him); or the card game played in the tavern where others are aware of your identity but you are not; the scene where Shosanna discovers how Zoller is viewed by the public; the legend of the Bear Jew that the Basterds themselves take pleasure in. When Pitt tells the German officer that the Bear Jew is the closest thing they have to the movies – is he referring to the baseball bat violence or the anticipation of that violence fueled by legend? The amount of time the scene spends on anticipation would suggest the latter. Likewise, the pleasure of the film is the tension of a secret both revealed and hidden.

Inglourious Basterds thus works because it creates a world that is a mystery to us but one that is also revealed in subtle details. Characters work like detectives, each one trying to reveal the secret of the other: Hans 'the Jew Hunter' Landa is of course a self-titled detective; Archie Hicox is a former film critic (another kind of detective); the German officer in the tavern prides himself on detecting accents (indeed the use of foreign languages reveals further details that English speakers would not pick up on); Zoller’s own fascination with the mysterious and resistant Shosanna also neatly parallels these characters. It seems to be this tension of the secret that Tarantino believes cinema embodies and it is a tension that is given full catharsis in the film's epic climax. The enjoyment of the climax is the complicit and transgressive enjoyment of a secret revealed. Not only does the massacre of the Nazis take place in a alternative, non-existent history (the secret transgressive fantasy of history itself), but it seems to be a crime perpetrated by both cinema (the flammable film stock) and the fantasies of dead people (Zoller and Shosanna). In Tarantino's most emotionally poignant scene to date, Shosanna and Zoller end up dying at each other's hands (again the true perpetrator here is simply bad luck) but living on in the image on the screen. Their characters' secrets or fantasies less a personal trait than an 'accidental' yet inherent property of the cinematic gaze itself. Likewise, Inglorious Basterds is a film that almost exists outside of itself, beyond its closing credits. It is a film literally inspired by a love of film, of a world beyond our limited gaze yet also the very condition of that gaze.


In response to those critics who argue that IB is a defense of Israel's position or somehow insensitive to the Jews and the significance of the Holocaust:

Firstly, the film is proudly and demonstrably a fantasy, one that revels in the black and white dichotomy of WWII films. Indeed, Tarantino has said in interviews that he was directly inspired by WWII propaganda films, which were often made by directors living in Hollywood after the Nazis had taken over their countries. Basterds' willingness to problematise this fantasy and our enjoyment of it (eg. Pitt's speech about the Nazi comes straight after Landa's speech about the Jew) is not some sign of disingenuity but actually a mark of the film's fundamentalist honesty. It's the same kind of openly transgressive, cathartic violence that vigilante films like Rambo, Taken and Commando take part in. I don't think there's anything wrong with that precisely because of the level of honesty these films have about their revenge fantasies and means of catharsis. It's their brazen honesty that makes these films so much fun (it's also an enjoyment that you can only really have in the cinema). IB's controversial climax isn't a lie against history but the film's complete honesty about its status as cinematic fantasy (how do you 'lie' about how the fate of WWII anyway?), with all the problems that entails.

Ultimately the film privileges this level of emotional sincerity above all things. The Basterds are literally the name for the band of scalping Jews - there's no glossing over the horror of what they're doing. The Nazis on the other hand are portrayed as disguising their violence with culture, ideological pretension and social mores. For Tarantino this is far more offensive than what the Basterds are doing and ultimately marks their point of difference - emotional honesty. The basterds' carving of swastikas on the heads of Nazis is the film's fundamentalist enforcement of that honesty. No longer do the Nazis have the glamour of class, culture or social pretense to mask their libidinal desires and racist thoughts. Now they've literally got to wear their prejudices on their head.

What I find far more dishonest and offensive are the sentimental or sombre Holocaust realist films which ostensibly sympathise with the Jews but disguise any libidinal desire the Jews might have for retribution. Films such as Jacob The Liar, Life Is Beautiful and even Schindler's List are borderline patronising and condescending. If a Jew has any desire for real agency in these films it is usually minimal, concealed or behind the scenes. Critics of IB's Jewish portrayal seem to prefer the idea that the Jew should not be anything other than a victim in a WWII film, when really what other person but the Jew has the right to enact such divine vengeance against the Nazis? IB is one of the few films I've seen (along with perhaps Black Book) that's fully honest about this and recognises that if any medium should express the Jew's desire for vengeance against the Nazis it's in the WWII propaganda films. Ultimately Basterds is a fantasy, but its honesty about that fantasy is far more real than most Holocaust kitsch.

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