pourquoi? parce que

Inglourious Basterds **

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IB11An extremely sensitive debate has unfolded around Inglourious Basterds (and rightly so). One opening salvo came from Daniel Mendelsohn at Newsweek, whose deep concerns with the film have peculiar resonance. Quentin Tarantino’s film is concerned with inversion – principally, the subversion of the violent 1950s and 1960s action films set in the theatres of the Second World War (within the mould of a classic spaghetti western). Put succinctly, Inglourious Basterds is about Jewish revenge. Obsessively drawing upon conventions from War and Western genres, then turning inward on the traditional auteurist subject of the cinema itself, Tarantino ultimately has the raw power of cinema defeat the Nazis (having already tortured, butchered, burnt and explicitly annihilated the Germans, as effigies of nemesis). Mendelsohn contends that this genre-mashing postmodern omelette leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and broke too many eggs in the process. “Using the Holocaust, even tangentially, as a vehicle for a playful, postmodern movie that so feverishly celebrates little more than film itself” is the first sin. I would happily defend a director’s choice to reject historicity, but by toying with several key symbolic aspects of Nazi terror and violence (mass burning, symbols carved into flesh, etc), Tarantino leaves himself open to hard criticism. By turning these acts against the Nazis, and moreover, by having Jews perpetrate the atrocity, his inversion amounts to either an exploitative leveling (that brings the victim into the fold of the condemned) or a vicious misreading of Jewish philosophy (an eye for an eye, ad absurdum).

IB10Jonathan Rosenbaum actually finds this as troublesome as Holocaust denial. And indeed, there is something deeply troubling about taking the unspeakable (presumed beyond even the remit of poetry) and naming it in genuflection to the big screen. Clearly Tarantino didn’t meant to turn Jews into Nazi butchers (just into butchers), but his thoughtlessness grates (and denies the possibility of some valid instrumental purpose). What this means for his film turns on how audiences will interpret it. “The emotions that Tarantino’s new film evokes are precisely what lurk beneath the possibility that “again” will happen.” Thankfully, at least amongst the audience with whom I attended, vituperation, zealotry and ignorant indifference were not evoked – perhaps bemusement, and critical distance. I would hate to be amongst the audiences who hoot and holler for the slaughter that awaits. Mendelsohn’s main contention, though, is that Inglourious Basterds exemplifies the fragility of memory: disproportionate emphasis of Jewish heroism, German resistance, sympathy for German moral confusion – a move away from concepts of the ‘victim’ and ‘passivity’. I agree, but am more concerned by the tacit desire for a dialectical world of good and evil, crime and violent punishment. Tarantino seems to find the Holocaust assimilable into such dialectic linearity: as though the acts of retribution within his movie relate in any way to their inspiration. He cannot grasp the self-evident absurdity of this equation (one the one hand, the impossibility of revenge; on the other, the horror that is its genesis). His subversion is positively neanderthal.

IB2Could Tarantino be using a surfeit of violence to excavate its fundamental absurdity? This was Burgess’s project in A Clockwork Orange, and his main objection to Kubrick’s film was its failure to bring that to bear on screen – to throw violence into high comedy. As an all-American film-maker, Tarantino should have the best chance at fulfilling this legacy – after all, Don DeLillo pointed out that American violence is one of the few kinds with comic potential. Yet the violence of Inglourious Basterds draws neither laughter nor shock, but instead, winces of bafflement at its distastefulness. If Tarantino’s target is not violence itself, perhaps it is its application. Could this be a reversal of his established take on revenge? He has a reputation for fetishizing and glorifying violent retribution (he finds visceral pleasure in revenge as both necessary and satisfying), but could this be a snap inversion, a commentary on the futility of revenge? Here, I come to think of Park Chan-wook and his vengeance films – often cited comparable to the Tarantino oeuvre. Seitz and Uhlich at The House Next Door also bring up Park Chan-wook, whose work has shared some of the plastic artificiality of Tarantino, but whose take on revenge is more palatable. I too think that the Vengeance cycle takes up Burgess’s point in a way quite foreign to Tarantino, who has typically employed violence as mere punctuation, as stylistic window dressing. There seems to be something of a progression in Inglourious Basterds, in as much as its philosophical work does seem to encroach on the violent content, and is no longer solely the preserve of dialogue. Perhaps this was a mistake – with this sort of subject matter, one could have more easily justified the representation of violence as meaningless than as one of the various muddled interpretations Tarantino gestures to.

IB9Even casting all of this lofty argument aside, Inglourious Basterds is a mess on the most basic criteria. Peter Bradshaw’s scathing review points to the plodding monotony of the narrative and mediocre dialogue, the cryptic flatness of Brad Pitt’s performance, and the unskilled use of space and pace to boring effect. Despite excellent acting from Waltz and Laurent (in the face of that clumsy script) it fails on almost every level – as a war film, as a spoof, as trash and as pulp. It fails as a bad-taste ahistorical fantasy (even Iron Sky looks like a winner on this front). Tarantino’s former adventures in style have receded into great lumps of nothingness. Where once Tarantino would show, now he tells. The deterioration in the quality of dialogue is symptomatic of his new mantra, style over substance (Tarantino’s dialogue has obviously been written in American English and then transliterated to the various languages and dialects of his characters, with the calorific slouch of resounding inauthenticity – but that’s coherent with the plasticity of his aesthetics more generally). Showing is a matter of expression – facial, tonal, subtextual. Tarantino has increasingly resorted to brazen signposts – text on screen, with little arrows to point out the who, what, where, when. Seitz and Uhlich felt compelled to bring Bergman into the matter, in a rather insulting yet illuminating comparison, as an example of how dialogue can take part in showing. They neglected to mention that alongside those dense and rich speeches were a glut of visuals that are possibly more instrumental to the showing – or those films in which dialogue plays a much more marginal role (what of The Silence?). Excepting the concluding scene of Inglourious Basterds, very little ongoing showing takes place at all. Mark Kermode, meanwhile, thinks its problems are primarily structural (although second in line comes self-indulgence to the point of banality and venality). It seems plausible that a massive intervention to impose discipline on his work might have brought out and made cohesive the elements of real substance in Inglourious Basterds.

IB5Yet many found something to like in Inglourious Basterds (though few could put their fingers on precisely what something was). One critic to cast the film in a convincingly favourable light was Alistair Harkness, who identifies the unpredictable insouciance and affective potency of the scenes which really work. Equally important to the film are its examination of myth-making, rumour and reputation as part of the propaganda machine, the concept of distorting images for political ends, and the fascinating character behind Pitt’s Aldo Raine (who ends up as the source of all the film’s vituperation, the bastion of an eye-for-an-eye philosophy that has bent him out of shape, and at once the only Basterd who isn’t Jewish, but rather an all-American southerner: something fascinating is going on here). Equally, Philip French points to the gripping opening, and I would add to this the basement card game scene, in which a masterful manipulation of tension builds to a crescendo of anticipated violence. But he must concede that its plotting is ridiculous, its structure feeble, and its nature exploitative (unfortunately, of the audience, rather than in method). Glenn Kenny immediately trotted out the Godard references, as would any Tarantino fan worth their salt. Beside a charming fascination with pop culture mimetics and dyed-in-the-wool cinephilia, Tarantino brings to the table an attitude that films should be about film, and that the essence of film is desire (as Godard genuflected to André Bazin at the opening of Le Mépris). Kenny naturally concludes that Inglourious Basterds takes a look at popular desires (guilty secrets) concerning the conflict with totalitarianism and the Holocaust. He also perspicaciously claims that only a blindsided fan of grindhouse cinema could pull this off. I quite agree, in as much as it takes a certain degree of grit and stupidity to march through such a minefield. IB4Tarantino has never been able to conceive of his favourite genres as products of their situation (for example, the exploitation movies made under harsh constraints and creative limitations by real talent), and therefore fails to make much of his tributes to them (all of which sits quite logically with his self-aggrandizing disdain for historicity). It also takes someone who completely misunderstands what Bazin meant – because Tarantino doesn’t make films about our desires, but uses them to fulfill his own – because he takes film to be the most important subject matter, rather than a necessary mediator – because he conceives of freedom as a key to self-indulgence, rather than an imperative to experiment in form and content. I am sure that those amongst the general public for whom Inglourious Basterds constitutes wish fulfillment are in a disturbed minority. Amongst them is David Cox, whose typically contrarian post suggests that Tarantino really wants to revel in the reimagining and narrativization of history in film. “Only a spectacular Armageddon of Jewish revenge of the kind Inglourious Basterds delivers could possibly have provided a fitting end for the Führer. Reality got this one wrong. It gets most things wrong.” What discomfiting, wrongheaded and violent talk. Karina Longworth, on the contrary, takes a balanced line when reflecting on how her understanding of IB has changed over recent months. Having originally found little to remark on, she has come to find some interest in what the film says about propaganda and film, but hasn’t yet a firm enough grasp to develop an argument. It is difficult to tease meaning out of Inglourious Basterds, but it does capture a sense of relevance and engagement with today’s political and cultural movements, however disturbing and misconceived an adventure it may be.

IB6Here’s an idea. Inglourious Basterds seems to represent two kinds of world: one which manifests that black-and-white dialectic of good and evil in a sardonic tone; another in which events are moralized in shades of gray. In the first, Raine carves swastikas into the foreheads of screaming Germans because they are capable of removing their Nazi uniforms – otherwise, when they leave the film (if they survive) they will become indistinguishable from an innocent; we are to delight in the graphic, distressing bludgeoning of an officer by The Bear Jew, mythologizing himself in the paradigm of the all-American sports hero; and the Basterds all take part in the scalping of German corpses as though it were an every-day duty. Most of these fail to come off with any degree of humour (aside from the scalping, a Western motif which just about manages to operate on the plain of violence rendered absurd), but the intent is clear. In the second world, which constitutes at least the opening chapter, objections are voiced with quiet sincerity. The farmer who allows a Jewish family to hide in his home becomes complicit in the violence which unfolds – by virtue of speaking to Col. Landa in English, the victims beneath his floorboards have no chance to escape. But this is only after he has, under the auspices of free will, found himself turning them over in resigned self-interest and a failure to adhere to a categorical imperative. We are presented with the awkward empathy that banal evil engenders in us right at the start of the film. Perhaps it is this perversion which gives rise to the rest – that other world, a perverse fantasy to cope with our own condemnable egoism. Slavoj Zizek will have a field-day with this film. Inside this fantasy, we are liberated from culpability by lumping all blame on the Vaudevillian sadists who get the chop. Unfortunately, I suspect Tarantino doesn’t make his films with Lacanian psychoanalysis in mind: this is his genuine desire. He is a man devoid of ideological sentimentality, to the point of offensive irreverence – he cannot lay claim to a framework of responsibility in which his violence is meaningfully articulated. However morally serious the opening chapter may be, by the close of the fifth, it becomes repugnant to even think of the film in terms of seriousness, morality, responsibility or mere structural integrity.

IB7Recall Tarantino’s rant about Top Gun, or his piece on ‘Like a Virgin’ in Reservoir Dogs – there we hear roughly how Tarantino thinks (his vulgar hermeneutics, his unchecked stream-of-consciousness schizoanalysis) and for the first time, in Inglourious, we get to see it on film. He is a man child, with a breathtaking grasp of technique, who occupies an over-mediated homogeneous world, devoid of meaningful discrimination. His observations are less insightful than simply maladjusted, hit-and-miss jokes. He has a desperately short attention span, and without any creative constraints whatsoever, will throw every vapid stylistic idea that occurs into the mixing bowl, oblivious to the darkness cloaking the whole. This way moral peril lies. In the concluding act, those who glorify film, but whom are unworthy of it, die in the cinema – violence reaches out of the film-within-the-film (an ultra-violent war propaganda romp called ‘Nation’s Pride’) into the auditorium. There is a braying lust for violence in the crowd, which transforms into terror and a bum-rush to the exit when the screen bursts into flames of Semitic vengeance. Here are articulated a lot of interesting ideas about the relation between the viewer and the world, mediated in the film and on film. Not that Tarantino gives us a chance to think on it, packing everything interesting into a minute or so of screen time, concealed within a maelstrom of fire and sick fury. If he were really a successor to Godard, one would hope he might give it a little more air to breathe. I was intrigued by the enlarged face of Shosanna on screen, by its words, its smile and laughter, its fire, and the afterimage hanging in the smoke. With the facial expressions of the Jewish bomber assassins, as though caught in one of Truffaut’s freeze-frames, in a contorted grimace of vile rage, as they fire bullets into a crowd of Germans. The way the scene evokes images of massacres of Jews on the continent, and of terrorist atrocities in the Levant, and how this conditions the aspect of the vengeful act, opens up the possibility to be thrown into disgust or venomous zeal at the node this rapturous moment of Real introduces to the world. The symbolism of Hitler’s face annihilated, literally shot to pieces. Concealed and consumed within a maelstrom of fire and sick fury.

Edit: Brad Pitt has claimed that Inglourious Basterds destroys every symbol that can be exploited by this genre. Is QT really that smart? Is this actually semiotic deconstructionism, as I coyly harped earlier?

Inglourious Basterds, Dir. & Writ. Quentin Tarantino, Star. Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Universal Pictures, USA, 2009  //  in spite of the above, I wish to express sincere admiration for Tarantino’s efforts at making great films available to wider audiences, and a love of his first three films.
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Written by James P. Campbell

23/08/2009 at 21:20

2 Responses

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  1. A very good criticism.

    mahesh hapugoda

    18/02/2010 at 08:07

  2. I struggled with this film at the time but have not gone back to it as I know there is much more to be said. I find this critique so linear and interpretive to the point of exhaustion. I was clearly at this point in 08.

    One of the final scenes where Shoshanna thinks she has killed the German soldier who lies on the floor. She watches the film of him in the scene where he is holding off the enemy and dies in the attempt. through film she finally feels feelings for him, the film image of him, as women today feel for Rob Pattinson. She goes over to him and touches him at last gently, affectionately, having been moved to feeling by the film image,and he shoots her.

    Her red dress, is resonant with Tosca, who kills the The Duke, Scarpia, who has murdered her lover while promising to release him if she fucks him, then tells her he is dead. This “Scarpia” has murdered her family and she revenges herself.

    Just one reading of this film and there are many if you jump out of linear time and interpretive analysis.


    03/11/2011 at 23:54

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