YEAR IN REVIEW
"The Wolverines capture a soldier, and there's a little bit of back and forth, should we kill him or not, and C. Thomas just blows him away with a shotgun... those are the kind of things you say, 'that's exactly what I would do.' It's what I want to see, and when I don't see it, I become frustrated, and then if feels like a movie as opposed to real life."
- Quentin Tarantino on John Milius' Red Dawn (1984),
The Atlantic, September 2009.
THE ONLY BAD MOVIE THAT MATTERS
quentin tarantino's inglourious basterds
The quote above tells me two things about Quentin Tarantino 1) He seems to be deeply confused about fantasy versus real life. 2) He doesn't actually pay any attention to the type of schlock cinema of which he's supposedly an aficionado. The second point would be much more shocking than the first to anyone who has been following the filmmaker's career at all. Tarantino has developed a reputation as an expert on disreputable cinematic junk, a video store Jacques Derrida breaking down, analyzing and ultimately harnessing the power of these discarded and disregarded works of trash art to create post-modern meta-works of Trash Art. From Swedish rape revenge thrillers to Tokyo shock to Harlem hustlers, Tarantino supposedly has an expertise and affinity, a preternatural connection and understanding, to "that sort of thing" rivaled by no one. If the above quote doesn't instantly pop that myth, it at least punctures a small hole in it. In regards to 1), it's hard to say how much of a myth has ever existed that Tarantino indulges his pulpy fantasies as a way of understanding reality.
In Red Dawn, a rag-tag group of American teenagers flee from the suburbs into the wilderness and regroup to form an armed resistance, taking on the Soviet invaders that have conquered the heartland. It's sort of an alternate reality sci-fi film, the kind popularized by Phillip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle; but what it really is, is the strangely specific personal fantasy of filmmaker/gun enthusiast/draft dodger/Walter Sobchek-inspiration/nutjob John Milius. The memorable and urgent intensity of the material, derived from its mixture of paranoia and jingoism, clashes openly with its under-talented, overly pretty movie star cast. Soul Man's C. Thomas Howell, Ferris Bueller's Day Off's Jennifer Gray, Some Kind of Wonderful's Lea Thompson and Dirty Dancing's Patrick Swayze comprise the core group of freedom fighters. The cast can be characterized this way: Charlie Sheen is its legitimate heavyweight. It's a weird, weird film, one that folks of Tarantino's generation (and slightly younger) remember fondly for its weirdness.
But the scene from Tarantino's quote never happens in the film, at least not anything like Tarantino describes it. He seems to be talking about a scene where C. Thomas Howell shockingly and cruelly executes one of his classmates who has been forced by the Soviets to swallow a tracking device under threat of death. (Howell uses a machine gun, not a shotgun – an understandable mistake, but the sort of fetish detail I don't expect him to get wrong.) The friend begs for his life while his compatriots try to come up with a plan of action. Howell cuts the conversation short with his unilateral decision. The scene, like most of the film, is queasily decisive in its ugly, violent philosophy and troubling in its moral implications. What now makes the film especially queasy is that Milius explicitly intended it as a tribute to the "mujahideen freedom fighters" (just before they blossomed into Al-Qaeda) who were battling the Soviets in Afghanistan at the time. The take-no-prisoners, terrorist tactics of Al-Qaeda: " that's exactly what I would do."
Tarantino mentally reconstructs the scene to be more morally palatable: an innocent, desperate classmate becomes a Soviet soldier. This allows C. Thomas Howell to become a decisive hero, not a borderline psychopath. Milius' point was that to make an omelet, you've got to break a few eggs – desperate times call for desperate measures. It's a debatable point, but it's a legitimate issue to discuss. Tarantino retells the scene so that the omelet comes pre-prepared and you don't even have to think about the eggs: there's no ambiguity, no difficulty, no problem. Over the course of his quote, he remakes the scene so that it's even more like a movie (bringing a shotgun to war!), more simplistic, more viscerally satisfying because the violence lacks complication and then, hilariously, adds the capper about "a movie as opposed to real life." Not many folks reasonably expect him to be much of thinker - generally, he has the reputation for being more of a savant. But what point is there to a Quentin Tarantino if he doesn't even actually have that much-touted preternatural connection to B-movies?
By just about any measure Quentin Tarantino is the most important filmmaker of his generation: you could quantify the ratio of praise to derision, mass of critical analysis, volume of film created in imitation, international notoriety, ratio of artistic credibility to commercial success. If it's too much to say that he changed the discourse on movies altogether, it's only because his notions about cinema and popular culture are so heavily informed by the already substantially influential critics-turned-filmmakers of the French New Wave. In many ways, there is no filmmaker that has mattered as much in the past fifteen or so years as Tarantino – any argument to the contrary would need to rely at least a little bit on novelty. Brad Pitt's character winkingly ends Tarantino's newest film, Inglourious Basterds [sic], with the line "I think this might be my masterpiece" and it wouldn't be unreasonable to hold Basterds the standards of a masterpiece.
The film engages a lot of the same subjects that filmmakers reserve for their masterpieces: war, race relations, the Holocaust, cinema history, etc. Filmmakers choose these subjects because there's a great deal of complexity and meaning to them – there's a lot of rich material to work with there. But with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino seems to want to undercut the Importance of his subjects. His film is a fantasy, it feints at being a fairy-tale: it begins with a title card reading "Once upon a time
" and ends with the historically inaccurate (to say the least) assassination of Hitler in a movie theater. It contains many smaller fantasies within those bookends: a piquant festival-oriented movie theater that only screens thematically relevant films, the interrogation & extermination tactics of a loquacious Austrian SS officer (the urbane Nazi cliché), the racial harmony of its heroes,* the efficiency and tactical capacities of an elite squadron of Jewish soldiers behind enemy lines, the German army's mortal fear of the small squadron. The film seems very clear about its intentions to exist in a fantasy world.
The film eschews reality to engage in series of revenge fantasies in which Jews (and a redneck and a black guy) are the ones doing the violent killing and debasement. Over and over again, Tarantino presents our heroes as direct mirror images of the Nazis. The titular heroes seem to be modeled on the Einsatzgruppen, the German paramilitary death squads that roamed the Eastern European and Soviet countryside violently executing those deemed morally repugnant. More than once, our heroes violently murder unarmed and surrendered soldiers; the film climaxes with the wholesale slaughter of a crowd interspersed with German and French civilians (including, apparently, the actor Emil Jannings.) There are smaller mirrors running throughout: a comparison of nicknames conferred for viciousness and efficiency ("the Jew hunter" and "the bear Jew"), the heroes marking the Nazis they allow to live with something that will always identify them as a Nazis just as the Nazis tattooed numbers on the forearms of Jews in concentration camps, the mutilation of the Nazis corpses recalling the desecration of Jewish bodies, both groups possessing a moral clarity which permits them to remorselessly exterminate moral undesirables, the film ends will a mass film-burning that instantly recalls the Nazi book-burning rallies.
Over and over, Tarantino presents his heroes as being just like the Nazis, only scarier, more violent and less remorseful. It's a strange tactic, to say the least. Partially, it feels like an unimaginative rehash of the tired "cops and criminals are really two sides of the same coin" theme that has been run into the ground by shitty police flicks for at least three decades – it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that this sort of mirroring has just been absorbed as a narrative structuring method by the filmmaker (it's a staple of genre work) and ends up in his movies as a matter of habit more than as any kind of statement. The best that be said of the film is that Tarantino hasn't thought through these mirrorings and they add up to nothing; the worst is that he totally thinks it would've been awesome if the U.S. had it own Einsatzgruppen remorselessly slaughtering Germans and then debasing their corpses.**
At this point, I'm sure many readers would want to remind me that the film is a fantasy and that the facts of what was going on in Occupied France late in the war don't matter: this is not intended as anything approaching reality, but as a cathartic re-visitation of traumatic events unmoored from the constraints of how things actually went down. Because the film exists outside of reality, it doesn't matter that in their behavior and philosophy the heroes of Basterds are essentially indistinguishable from Nazis. One of the film's many fantasies is the unquestionable moral culpability of whoever ends up skewered by the knives or blown to a pulp by the bullets or burned alive by the explosives of our heroes. As in Tarantino's version of Red Dawn, you don't need to feel bad about cheering for gruesome death because the jagged the edges of the situation have been definitively smoothed off. The film climaxes with an undifferentiated mass of people being incinerated in a makeshift death chamber, a literal holocaust played as a triumph. But the only way to justifiably indulge this repulsive fantasy is in knowing that in reality America, whatever its flaws, was wildly different from Nazi Germany and that the actions of its soldiers and politicians were heroic in comparison to the Nazis. The fantasy needs history to have any potency.
If an audience recoils at the debasement of history and reality on display, they are reminded that the film exists as a pure fantasy; but the fantasy is only justifiable because of the facts of history. It's a circular argument that leads absolutely nowhere. This is a lot of writing to prove what a good segment of the film's admirers probably find pretty obvious: the film should probably be taken only as an amoral entertainment. If that's the case, the only ontological question worth asking: will our heroes take out the Nazi high command? The only question Tarantino engages: are you entertained? Now, let me get to my point: it's more than a little depressing that the only question the most important filmmaker of a generation knows how to ask is "Was it entertaining?" The reason Inglourious Basterds matters is that because if this film is in any way considered important or praised by critics, remembered by history or looked at with admiration and affection then art matters not at all.
The reason Tarantino's "hey, it's just a movie" posture sits so poorly with me personally is that it makes his B-movie aficionado persona seem more than a little disingenuous. Anybody who loves B-movies knows that what makes them so interesting and vital is that they have the leeway to not only take narrative risks and provide more graphic, uncensored content but to step out of the rigid philosophical, moral and intellectual boundaries necessitated by the cost of an A-movie: they can risk attracting a smaller audience (or, more accurately, repelling a larger one) because they don't need to play it safe in order to make back their money. It's essentially the same principle behind Art House movies. Anthony Mann's Men in War and Robert Aldrich's Attack can take much more complicated, ugly, realistic or raw positions on the nature of war and morality than a big budget war movie like Sergeant York which needs to be a little romantic and a little simplistic, unless the studios are willing to risk a financial loss. For these obvious reasons, Hollywood Blockbusters like Transformers, A-movies, comprise the category of film most likely to ask only "where you entertained?" and nothing further.
For Tarantino, the inverse seems to be true. He presents himself as a guy who just loves movies and uses that as a shield to deflect criticism: don't be some pretentious intellectual here, Mr. Critic, my movie is just a piece of pulp fiction, an exploitative B-movie good for nothing beyond amoral kicks. It's drive-in fare, not Oscar Bait. But he's clearly not paying attention (as if Grindhouse wasn't proof enough): good B-movies almost always (intentionally or not) raise more complicated questions than the only one Tarantino poses with his newest film. Just as Basterds clearly has no intention of treating history, WWII or the Holocaust with respect, it also has no intentions of using its B-movie accoutrements as anything other than a cheap cover for its lack of seriousness, intelligence and originality concerning the subjects of history, WWII or the Holocaust. Again, the best that can be said of the film's constant invocations of B-cinema is that they are incoherent; the worst is that they are a self-serving cover that allows him to court credibility and relevance while allowing him to dispense with any achievements that would justify him being regarded above Brett Ratner, Michael Bay or Nancy Meyers. It's another intellectual "get out of jail free!" card diametrically opposed to the spirit of Don Siegel, Sam Fuller and, hell, even John Milius.***
Should Inglourious Basterds be faulted for having nothing on its mind beyond "Are you entertained?" Surely, I can see that movies like District 9 and Invictus would be a hell of a lot better off if they didn't feint and fumble at Importance? A strange moment occurs towards the fiery climax of Basterds when the Nazi brass have gathered for a movie premiere and the heroes begin to put in action their plan to slaughter the lot: Tarantino unselfconsciously cuts between shots of Hitler and Goebbels hooting and hollering in extreme enjoyment of some onscreen violence (a Nazi sniper taking down enemy soldiers) with the heroes beginning to murder everyone, literally everyone, in sight. It's an odd moment: as the Nazi sit the theater cheering on the undifferentiated slaughter onscreen, Inglourious Basterds' audience theoretically sits in a theater cheering on the undifferentiated slaughter onscreen.
Does he think his audience shares a mindset, even for entertainment, with the Nazis? Does he think that's a bad thing? Again, the best case scenario is incoherency. If Tarantino is arguing that his audience as sick as Nazis for enjoying his film, it would be tough to disagree.**** He's made a pretty flimsy straw-man, though, to blow down if that's his point. I can't help but think that Tarantino would've been better off having actually gone with his girlfriend to that infamous screening of Au Revoir les Enfants and not just ridiculously mangled its title.***** Louis Malle's autobiographical film happens to touch on a lot of the same connections Tarantino seems to have made with the Nazi audience/Basterds audience comparison (about how resentment and fantasy combust when combined) and instead of the resulting head-scratcher, he might've actually been able to make something resembling a point.
Actually, the fact that so much of the content of Inglourious Basterds bears an unmistakable and unfortunate resemblance to a point is the reason I have to fault it for having nothing on its mind beyond "are you entertained?" It constantly raises these comparisons and questions and incongruities and to ignore them you have to work very hard to shut down your brain. I'm not simply talking about ignoring the parade of anachronisms and historical inaccuracies (which is hard enough), but also ignoring the content and tenor of its fantasies - fantasies which in their essence revolve around imitating the pitiless cruelty and depravity of Nazis! But, don’t worry, it's a B-movie, like Fritz Lang's Man Hunt.
Lang's work, of course, deeply cared about the question of how to judge a man for his crimes, how to even define and confront criminality on a basic level (M being the clearest example.) Tellingly, Inglourious Basterds makes no distinction between Germans, Nazis, the SS and conscripted soldiers even though at that late period of the war, a good many of the soldiers would be there as part of a forced conscription punishable by death (their situation not dissimilar from the classmate with which Tarantino was frustrated for not being shot-gunned to death quickly enough by C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn.) The film is 100% unconcerned with the German relationship to Nazism – he, of course, even sets the film in France. Strangely, he barely even touches on France's relationship to Nazism, save for a moment where a French Jew and her black boyfriend torture a collaborator (who protests that he is no such thing) into developing a roll of film for them. Once again, the film employs a blanket disregard for the complexitites of history, with a B-movie posture providing the cover. In The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich infamously included a scene of Jim Brown dropping grenades on helpless Germans (including women) in a bomb shelter: I believe him when he says he wanted to show how "war is hell."****** When Eli Roth machine guns theater patrons, Tarantino luxuriates in the hellishness: it's the film's fairy-tale ending.
Watching Inglourious Basterds, it is impossible for anyone who has seen Germany, Pale Mother not to think of that film. A semi-autobiographical telling of director Helma Sander-Brahms years as a little girl in WWII era Germany (and into post-war years), it traces that horrible era for infant Sanders-Brahms and her mother (played by the great Eva Mattes) as they wait for their father/husband to return from the perilous Eastern front. After a bombing raid destroys their home, the mother takes her tiny daughter to scour the countryside searching for food, shelter, a way to rebuild their life and regain some sanity after many insane years. The forest locations recall the scenes where the Basterds do their worst damage living out Tarantino's cruelest revenge fantasies. Sanders-Brahms witnessed her mother violently raped by two American soldiers who afterwards justified it as a fitting punishment for a German woman with a soldier for a husband. If not for the fact you know Sanders-Brahms is alive and has made a film, you would be certain the murder of mother and daughter were to follow the rape.
Of course, it doesn't take much to demonstrate the shallowness and stupidity of Tarantino's film. I can imagine his version of Germany Pale-Mother in which the mother forms an elite squad of German widows (The Pail Muthers) who randomly troll the countryside torturing, killing and mutilating American soldiers. There are many who explicitly argue that the shallowness and stupidity of Tarantino's work does not matter. But Germany, Pale Mother also happens to be about fantasies and fairy-tales, the middle section of the film dominated by an extended re-telling of The Robber Bridegroom that begins "Once upon a time..." The film's complicated take on the purpose and function of fantasy, of the stories we tell ourselves and our families for catharsis, is a deep rebuke to the puerile blood-lust that powers Tarantino's film. Fantasy is an attempt to control reality that invariably fails, that's the whole tragedy: the husband of whom we dream will not be the shell of a man we find in our home after the war. But once again, many readers will bristle: none of this matters, neither to Tarantino nor his audience.
And if the only question that matter is "are you entertained?" then Germany, Pale Mother loses and Inglourious Basterds wins. Aesthetically-sepaking, Sanders-Brahms' film is lumpy and misshapen, with long tedious stretches and distracting stylistic tics that more or less fail. Inglourious Basterds is slick, fast-paced, effective and frequently very funny: Tarantino has an undeniable talent for entertaining. Comparing the two side by side, most audiences and writers would quickly dismiss Sanders-Brahms' film as inferior – but why? Because Tarantino's film kicks much ass, while Sanders-Brahms' film kicks nary an ass at all. The intellectual, spiritual and moral superiority of Germany, Pale Mother matters very little at the end of the day, the overwhelming superiority of style in Inglourious Basterds is the only card in Tarantino's hand and the idea seems to be that discussing anything else is childish or pretentious. Writing about anything beyond style in regards to Tarantino is like bringing a tank to a turkey shoot: sure, you blow up your target, but you look like either an asshole or a lunatic. But why has the meaning of "artistic superiority" been reduced to only that one element? Should it have other components or would suggesting that only be childish or pretentious?
So, allow me to move on to two artists it would be egregious to suggest don't possess a comparable or superior stylistic talent to Quentin Tarantino: Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch. You'd have to be either an asshole or a lunatic to not see they possess an aesthetic genius (savant or otherwise) of the highest order. A pair of the greatest novelists******* who ever lived, a German and an Austrian respectively, both men were well established in their careers when the Nazis rose to power in their homeland. Eventually a passionate critic of the Nazis, Thomas Mann fled to Switzerland and then the U.S. Meanwhile, his books were burned en mass by his countrymen. Perhaps most importantly in terms of Tarantino's film, in the early 1920's Mann embraced the right-wing, nationalistic politics that evolved into Nazism. Gradually, his views shifted leftward. In short: he took off his uniform. It is unclear whether Tarantino thinks he should have a swastika carved into his forehead or not – but we probably shouldn't waste any time discussing it: Tarantino might get frustrated and then things would feel like a movie as opposed to real life.
In 1943, while in exile, Mann began work on a novel called Doctor Faustus. Mann was tortured by the fact that he and other reasonable Germans had been helpless to prevent the horrors of WWII from coming to pass; the book was a pained and desperate attempt to not only understand what went wrong, but to fight for solace and peace when it seemed most impossible. We can only speculate why he didn't write a simplistic revenge fantasy in which the heroes acted exactly like the monsters who had torn his country apart and ruined his life. In 1929, Mann earned his Nobel Prize laureate status for having expanded the possibilities of the art of the novel. Four years later, he no longer had a country, his works tossed to the flames by men and woman of a nationality which he would always consider himself a part. Maybe I am kidding myself, but I like to think that Doctor Faustus, a novel as beautifully humanistic as it is fiercely intelligent and morally righteous, an attempt to grapple with the horrible legacy of his countrymen, occupies the highest state to which art can ascend. Also, truth be told, it kicks a little ass.
Hermann Broch, on the other hand, lost all hope for the redemptive, transformative power of art. He abandoned creative writing altogether and threw himself into the scientific study of mass psychology, hoping there he would find (and then shred) the roots of humanity's worst evils. 1938, upon Austria's annexation by the Third Reich, the Nazis arrested Broch and threw him in jail where he awaited execution in a concentration camp. In that time, he began to mentally compose The Death of Virgil (a fantasia of the story of another author's execution by the state) and completed it shortly after his famous friends like James Joyce and Robert Musil engineered his release. But almost immediately after his ordeals, Broch no longer believed there was any point to writing stories and telling tales, he felt his former ambitions in art were narcissistic and delusional. A broken man, he saw in art only "vanity and mendacity" where others (and I would assume all critics) see something vital, essential, hallowed. The Sleepwalkers, a prescient deconstruction of the moral and psychological conditions that led to the first Great War, meant nothing. The fact that Broch had written one of the greatest novels of all time only led to the fantasy that such a fact mattered. I hope Broch was wrong. Because if he wasn't, Inglourious Basterds is as good as a movie can be.
* A part-Apache Ozarks redneck completely at ease with his team of Metropolitan Jews, a blonde Jewish woman having an affair with her black employee.
** This scenario suggests the traditional Anti-Semitic implication that in real life the Jews were either too weak or cowardly to sink to the level of their enemies and unleash some righteous fury - the grotesque cliché is that German Jews were too scared and wimpy to do what Tarantino would've done in "real life."
*** Tarantino's Conan movie sure wouldn't be a diatribe on the necessity of annihilating false religions and the moral duty of superior human beings to pursue exceptional existences, regardless of the cost to people lower than them.
**** And people have a problem with Michael Haneke!
***** Probably apocryphally, Tarantino rejected a girlfriend’s entreaty to see Louis Malle’s film by saying, “I don’t want to go see no Reservoir Dogs.”
****** It’s a rightfully controversial scene and a debatable demonstration of the chosen theme, but it jives with the rest of his career. Additionally, The Dirty Dozen’s heroes are low-life career criminals and the film explicitly concerns whether the nobility of their suicide mission in any way squares them for their condemnable pasts. In Basterds, there’s nothing like that kind of moral tension.
Without getting too for afield, I’m well aware that many b-movies have right-wing (even Nazi-ish) inclinations; think of J. Lee Thompson, the master of reactionary paranoia, or Pauline Kael famously labeling Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry fascistic (although that’s not a b-movie - the line separating big budget releases like Red Dawn, The Diry Dozen and Dirty Harry from their b-movie roots and style is another discussion (as is the relationship between "b" cinema and "Hollywood" for directors like Siegel, Aldrich and Thompson who began their careers in the former but moved into the latter while retaining more than a small measure of their former style and mindset.)) Perhaps Tarantino is consciously caricaturing and distorting a particular tradition of b-films in order to reveal their hateful, reactionary, even Nazi-ish tendencies. That, of course, makes his b-movie lover persona even more disingenuous if he really holds those films in so much contempt. More generously, it could mean he’s the cinematic equivalent of “Weird Al” Yankovic: mindless parody to demonstrate the insipid or ridiculous qualities of the target of critique.
I'd be able to buy (and respect) that argument if Quentin Tarantino were in any way attempting to imitate (in caricature or otherwise) the work of Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, J. Lee Thompson, etc. But as Inglourious Basterds (and especially Deathproof) prove, he has no interest recreating genre work so much as making his own totally idiosyncratic works that re-appropriate b-movie parts here and there. The accusations of him being a rip-off artist stick precisely because he recreates gestures, costumes, songs, images, names and narrative situations but never ideas, sentiments, tones, feels or philosophies: he re-appropriates surface details, but never essences. His recounting of the Red Dawn scene is the perfect example of this: he catches some details while entirely missing the point. (It's critically popular to suggest that Tarantino intends to "improve" on these bad old genre flicks, which again raises a host of issues.)
******* Incidentally, both were Modernists. Modernism’s wishy-washy shadow, Post-Modernism, is the brand of sophistry most commonly used to elevate Tarantino. Because he’s “deconstructing” genre films by re-appropriating bits and pieces of them.