Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dastardly art about the forces that spur vioence (Film: Inglourious Basterds (2009) by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino's use of violence in films like Pulp Fiction is supposed to be commentary on violence in film and television, but I have found them merely exploitative. This is not because media does not glorify violence, but because Tarantino's use of self-referential gestures and cute trademarks while using slaughter patently as entertainment is too cavalier. We already live surrounded by bloodshed - take the last 48 hours: with the murder of seven victims by a militant in Southwestern France and the outrageous shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old in Florida by a man claiming he was feeling threatened - I find the irony too disrespectful of lost lives. What the hell is so funny? So my own positive assessment of his film Inglourious Basterds (2009) surprised me.

I still didn't find it funny, but this film set in occupied France about a band of American Jewish marauders brutally attacking Nazis succeeded for me in three ways. In the context of World War II the violence seemed historically suited to the circumstances. Its extremity wasn't just decorous but functioned as a comprehensible revenge fantasy. Finally, it used history both accurately and inaccurately, and this is what I admired about the film most. The history of World War II has been explored endlessly and is, hopefully, familiar to most of the film's viewers. At least we know who wins, right? So in seeing a film about a plan to bomb the premiere of a film by Goebbels at which all the key Nazis will be in attendance in Paris, we know how the plot will come out - don't we? That's just what is so clever about this Quentin Tarantino film - we don't. He both uses and ignores history in this film as it suits him and I found the results surprising. The action of this film in light of the body of Tarantino's work acts upon the viewer as a provocation. If his previous films were both glorifying violence and simultaneously daring us not to be attracted to his stark designs and cinematography, his choreographed bloodshed, and his ultra-cool performances, Inglourious Basterds double-dares us. It says, so you claim to be outraged - how about World War II? How about the most supposedly "just" war in history with the world most supposedly unforgiveable enemies ever - how does the violence make you feel then? I wasn't laughing, but I cannot deny that it provoked rage as well as outrage and satisfaction as well as disgust. Those are not comfortable feelings in the context of eight unforgiveable murders so freshly in our consciousness, but they speak to the motivations that drive violent behavior. These are motivations available at times to us all, says Tarantino's film, and it is the use of a work of art like this that it makes us reflect on our feelings even when we don't like what we see.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Loved the film - I think it's one of his best. Nice to hear your thoughts on it. I saw it as yet another expression (perhaps his clearest so far) about his love of movies. That's what I saw the movie to be really about. It's about the movies. The opening is pure Spaghetti Western - but I also loved how everyone in the film spoke their language of origin - the majority of it is n subtitles - a real commentary on how Hollywood has often treated war movies, other languages. The Nazis were background to his point about the importance of art, film, and how everyone - everyone - even Goebbels - wants to get in on the action. The German film star/war hero - the spy who is also a film critic back in London - the German actress who is also a spy - the runaway girl who now runs a movie theatre for NO reason except her "aunt left it to her" (really??) - everyone's involved not just in war, but MOVIES - it is the movies that draw them together. Burning up the pile of silver nitrate - as revenge on the audience of Nazis there - to me, it was a powerful statement about movies themselves, and how we want to see ourselves up there, or experience a catharsis of some kind - even propaganda serves a purpose. It's all fake anyway. But we keep going to the movies, we keep looking for something up there - redemption, escape, revenge. I just watched it recently again so it's fresh in my mind.

Ted said...

I like your catharsis in film take, I obviously had a much more literal response.

Runs Like A Gay said...

I found the violence in Basterds to be far more problematic than Tarantino's other films.

The cartoon characterisations in Kill Bill, for instance, reduce the impact of the violence. It is as fake as the universe he creates.

In Basterds I found the combination of historic events and Tarantino's lack of humanity combine to suggest that the lives of the Nazi's as individuals is less than the lives of the Allies. The scene I find most objectionable is the way the Basterds treat their POW's with base contempt. There is no line drawn between the Nazi high office and the footsoldiers, they are all condemned as a race, and that to me is very distressing.

Ted said...

RL - Interesting take, but I don't agree. I find the obviously fictional use of well-known historic figures and war is another way of creating the same unreality you mention. Nazi's are hardly a race, one was not born a party member. Historically, Nazi officers and soldiers alike showed unbelievable contempt for humanity and that is one way that Tarantino's FANTASY of revenge attempts to provoke the viewer psychologically, especially those viewers who would like to imagine themselves as above any motivation for anger or violence themselves. As a work of film and about film, the World War II film has become its own genre and Nazis are its bad guys. Tarantino's beating of the bad guys is, in one way, typical of him in that it spoofs Hollywood violence by making it obviously extreme. You may find the extremity of the violence distasteful, but it is not much match for World War II. The outrageousnous is Taratino's point exactly. The Nazis, the English, The Americans, the Russians were all violent - they were at war. A war in which some estimate as many as 40 million people died. The part that is clearly fantasy is that a small party of Jews led by a hillbilly lieutenant would have combed the countryside scalping individual soldiers. Plenty of Jews would have slit Nazi soldiers throats rather than be gassed to death, and did in the rare opportunities they had such as the Ghetto uprising, but they would hardly have had the time to scalp them, let alone find a suit in which they could dress to go to a film premier. The extremity of the revenge is made obvious fantasy by this confluence. Finding the extent of violence problematic would seem to be Tarantino's intended effect.