Inglourious Basterds

I finally discovered iWeb on my computer and spent a good many hours making a website for myself, complete with witty title and minimalist layout. But then I went to publish it and it said I'd need to subscribe to MobileMe for the lowlow price of $99. Per year. Apple, really, that's so 1999.

It said I could publish the webpage if I had an FTP server or some suchness, but I'm willfully ignorant of anything to do with the Internet that doesn't involve pictures as a matter of course. I didn't drop out of my computer science course for nothing, thank you very much. And besides, publishing iWeb pages outside of MobileMe's subscription service eliminates the option for blog comments, which is pretty much the same problem I'm suffering from now. If anyone knows the code for adding a comments section in, I'm all ears...

Look for a trimmed down and possibly revised version of this over at the Pittsburgh Observer in the next week or two.

I think Inglourious Basterds is THE MOST SUBVERSIVE MOVIE OF ALL TIME EVER, and here's a review proving it. You'll regret reading this if you haven't seen the movie already.

So I likes a good analogy like I likes a good mountain. And being what you might call a mountain enthusiast, that’s no small statement. The problem with mountains, though, is that you can’t explain the how and the why of one and expect someone to really get it. The limits of expression are tighter than LA traffic when you’ve got to explain why something was moving or worthwhile. All we’ve really got are adjectives to string together to try to describe something beyond your average lexicon. Likewise, you can explain the proportions of an analogy easily enough to any Jenny from the block, but expecting her to understand the why of the analogy—the reason it’s important—is a wholly different game.

Which is to say, this is a review of the big analogy made by Inglourious Basterds and why this film is Tarantino’s masterpiece to date.

Now, I realize you can’t start labeling things masterpieces without just cause, especially when Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and even True Romance earned higher Tomatometer ratings. But I think Tarantino’s behind me on this one. At the end of the movie, when Captain Apache finishes his business with Landa’s forehead, he says, looking down into the camera,

You know something, Uitivich, I think this just might be my masterpiece.

There you go.

For my money, Tarantino didn’t toil away hundreds of hours on his script to end on a whimsical line. Let’s take it in context. Inglourious Basterds was billed as being “An Inglourious, Uproarious Thrill-Ride”—not much different from the rest of his movies. But most of the cast are connected to the film industry in some significant way: Bridget von Hammersmark is an actress, Frederick Zoller is a war hero-turned-movie star, Lt. Hicox is a film critic, Joseph Goebbels is the director of Nation’s Pride, and of course Shoshanna owns the movie theatre where that film is set to premier.

“I think this just might be my masterpiece” isn’t just Captain Apache admiring his work to roll credits on a morbid note—it’s also Tarantino giving himself what he considers to be a well-deserved pat on the back. Let’s take a closer look as to why he might think so. It won’t take long.

As I see it, Tarantino makes two important analogies to get his point across. You can consider the first one the serve—he gets his idea up in the air for everyone to see. The second one—the point of the film—is the spike.

The first analogy is the King Kong bit. Again, my hope is that anyone reading this will have already seen the movie—or at least read the script—so I’ll skimp on the details. We’re in a tavern—in a basement—in cozy, Nazi-occupied Nadine, France. Lieutenant Hicox and the Bastards expect to meet Bridget von Hammersmark with little incident, but ol’ Quentin proves to be a cruel god. After a small altercation, our Gestapo friend from chapter 3, Major Hellstrom, reveals himself and takes issue with Hicox's accent. Soon enough he has them playing a card game. The idea of the game is to guess the name written on the card on your forehead. Hellstrom goes first. He’s sporting King Kong between his eyes. Being a Gestapo, he asks good questions, and soon he’s confident enough to answer.

Only he’s not right.

His answer is “the story of the Negro in America.”

If you felt odd after this scene, it was because you just got punched with an unexpected analogy, right on your frontal lobe. King Kong is similar to the story of the slave trade in America. It’s a neat comparison. Interesting, even. Move on.

Well not so fast. You can move on from that analogy, just consider it a fun tidbit, but you’d have missed the point.

Before I get to what exactly that point is, let's by way of a fer’instance think back to Kill Bill, vol. 2. There’s a scene near the end that offers us a similar but more explicit example. Right before the climax Bill and Beatrix are having a long heart to heart. Bill gets to talking about superheroes. He says that when most superheroes put on a costume, they become a superhero. But in the case of Superman, you have a guy who dresses from hero to zero, not the other way around. Clark Kent, Bill concludes, is Superman's "critique on the whole human race." He's a clumsy, self-conscious coward, and ultimately just a costume, beneath which lies the man of steel. And just as Superman will always be a superhero, Mrs. Arlene Plimpton, regardless of how many beers she drank or how much barbecue she ate, would always be Beatrix Kiddo, killer extraordinaire.

"Ah, so," says the Bride. "The point emerges."

The trick is seeing beyond the poetry of the analogy. The Bride did it without too much trouble, but that was the nature of the film. Kill Bill was all about straightforward revenge. Inglourious Basterds, on the other hand, is about Nazis, the scariest human hunters in recent history. (The main antagonist of the film, Colonel Landa, is smarter and cleverer than everyone else and spends his screen time showing off the systematic prowess of the Third Reich at its best. The other Nazis don’t do a bad job either.) The analogies Tarantino makes and themes he works with in this film, then, might be expected to be more complex.

Back to Nadine.

Consider what happened with Hellstrom’s botched guess: Hellstrom was a Gestapo, and it’s a Gestapo’s job to figure stuff out. Thus, subtly, Tarantino set the audience up to expect the Major to get the answer in ten questions or less, and our expectations are reinforced by his performance—not to mention that “King Kong” was scrawled on his card for us to see. But at this mini-climax, when he answers wrong, something complex happens. The moment is passed over in a hurry, but it’s such a shock, trivial though it may be, that the audience is left confused, surprised, and—if we never thought about King Kong being like the slave trade before—fascinated.

Ultimately, we were tricked. We were right to expect Hellstrom to answer King Kong, because that was the right answer. It was a trick, and our being tricked was harmless. But this was just Tarantino serving us up an idea to consider. The King Kong bit was a trick, but more than that it was a microcosm. Which I guess makes it an analogy about an analogy. How neat.

Now let’s consider the real fireworks. The second analogy, of course, comes at the climax, when the giant face has her revenge.

First, let’s consider our cast of characters. We’ve got as principle members the Basterds, Shoshanna/Emmanuelle, and Colonel Landa.

The Basterds are the heroes of this flick. Some say there are no good guys here, but that’s thinking too far ahead. They’re mean guys to be sure, but whenever they’re on camera there’s a sense of comedy and even lightheartedness, as opposed to scenes with Colonel Landa and the other Nazis, which are tense and scary. Now, despite their being the protagonists, the Basterds go about their business by committing war crimes and acts of terrorism to frighten their enemy. They’re treacherous and they scalp the dead. They’re also not very smart: Colonel Landa laughs himself into a fit when he hears the Basterds’ cover story at the movie premier.

Now, as was mentioned before, Colonel Landa is calm, cool, collected, and several steps ahead of anyone he speaks to. Nobody in the movie is a match for his prowess. He’s a detective, a damn good detective, and we hate him for it. There’s a telling line in the restaurant when Landa is about to make the deal with Lt. Raine. When Landa mentions the Basterds by name, Raine reacts with surprise. Landa, frustrated, says, “We simply aren’t operating on the level of mutual respect I assumed.” Raine guesses not.

It’s an interesting line, because Raine essentially admits to thinking the Nazis are dopes, when in fact he and his men are the fools, just very lucky fools with lots of guns. But Raine’s not entirely wrong: the Third Reich has in this movie decided to put all their highest ranking officers in the same place at the same time in territory awfully close to the Allied front, just for a night at the movies. In a film glorifying the fall of Nazi Germany, we might expect this kind of bad foresight and poor insight from the Nazis, but Tarantino has it coming from both sides. The only two characters who ever successfully think their way through situations are Landa, and the only person to escape him, Shoshanna.

So what have we got here so far? Inglourious Basterds is billed as a movie about Nazi-killin, and it delivers pretty much as thoroughly as it can. We’re privy in a few hours to deaths by clubbing, stabbing, gunfire, real fire, and explosion. People are killed via their heads, necks, chests, and genitals. People are killed on the battlefield, in private, in public, and in between.

Tarantino delivered on Nazi-slaughter promise, and he did it using lowlifes as heroes. It’s an interesting concept, but if that’s all he did then this film certainly isn’t a masterpiece. Let’s take out the scoreboard. Wild killing sprees? The Bride vs. the Crazy 88 beats the climax of this film, and more tastefully to boot. Big, disconnected cast? You won’t find one better than Pulp Fiction’s. Witty banter? All of Tarantino’s films deliver big time. So where does he get off rolling the credits after the word “masterpiece”?

Nation’s Pride. The fictional propaganda film Goebbels made after Frederick Zoller’s heroic exploit on the Italian front is set to premier in Mademoiselle Mimieux’s (aka Shoshanna’s) theatre. It’s the premier of this film that the Basterds plan to blow up, and that Shoshanna and Marcel plan to burn down.

The movie was written to be the epitome of Nazi propaganda films: blindly patriotic, highly unlikely, and tasteless in the extreme. Still, the audience goes wild and Hitler even remarks to Goebbels that it’s his finest film yet. Nation’s Pride is a film about a heroic Nazi taking down hundreds of idiot American soldiers. The audience at Mimieux’s theatre, Hitler included, go wild when they see it. We expect them to die spectacularly at the height of their hate, but when Shoshanna’s movie comes in on reel 4 and the bullets rain down and the flames fire up and the bombs go off and everyone dies, something complex happens.

Something connects.

We’ve been watching a movie with an unlikely plot, where the heroes were admired despite their faults, the villains reviled despite their virtues, where war crimes and acts of terrorism were glorified and history was rewritten to have us win the war more gloriously than we actually did. When Shoshanna Giantface exacts her revenge, the analogy comes full circle. Nation’s Pride was a Nazi propaganda film—and Inglourious Basterds was an Allies one.

Ah, so. The point emerges.

Nation’s Pride is a mirror set up at the heart of the film to show us what we’re like when we’re not paying attention. What are we like when we’re at unawares? Nazi scum. Tarantino managed to trick us into enjoying a movie for visceral reasons, and at the end he showed us the most notorious war criminals of the 20th century doing the same.

It’s one thing to be entertained. It’s something else to be entertained by something Hitler found entertaining. And it’s a whole different ballgame altogether to be entertained by something Hitler found entertaining because he was a monster. Now there’s an analogy for you. I doubt the line between entertainment and social experiment has ever been defined, but Tarantino has made a film that puts people in a situation where their natural reaction may or may not be akin to how the average German citizen would have reacted during the propaganda blitzkrieg of the 1930s—and our reaction tended to be just like theirs. If you’re the kind of person who thinks art can convey messages worthy of consideration—and if you’re the kind of person who thinks masterpieces are justified as such by the beauty or import of their message—Tarantino’s just handed the West a big bag of implications wrapped in a masterpiece package.

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