Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Basterdized" History

A scene from Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds"

When I was in fourth and fifth grade, my social studied teacher--who had quite the library of young adult historical fiction in her classroom--leant me the book The Upstairs Room, about two Jewish girls hiding in an attic in German-occupied Holland during World War II. I remember waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning and sneaking out of the bedroom I shared with my sisters in order to finish the book in solitude, tears streaming down my face by the end. It was the beginning of a mild Holocaust-literature obsession: Number the Stars, The Journey Back, Letters from Rifka, Anne Frank and, a couple years later, Survival in Auschwitz.

This is, I think, not an uncommon obsession for a certain type of young girl. The amount of young adult Holocaust novel aimed at females (that is, with young female protagonists) is quite staggering, and there were few girls in my (Catholic) fourth grade home room who weren't entranced by Anne Frank. There was--still is--something sacred, horrible and profound in the suffering portrayed in these works about the war and the Holocaust. I think most girls--myself included--gravitated toward the ones of Jews in hiding because while they reminded us of the terrible atrocities conducted by human beings, they also demonstrated the other human extraordinary capacity for kindness and bravery--I always liked The Upstairs Room best because those girls survived; there was a happy--but not naive or untruthful--ending.

But something about Quentin Tarantino's (also, I guess, happy) revisionist ending of his new revenge World War II flick, Inglourious Basterds [sic], was deeply unsettling to me. (I am not alone.) Still, I was surprised by my bristling response. Tarantino's ultra-violent, clearly fantastical postmodern revisionist pastiche is far less exploitative than, for example, Herman Rosenblat writing a fake Holocaust memoir. At least Tarantino's motivations, if misguided and naive, seemed pure. And part of me wanted to find Tarantino's gleeful, unconventional and pop treatment of the war and particularly of the Nazis refreshing. Richard Brody, on his blog, said, on this point, "If there's a virtue to the ostensibly transgressive aspect of [Tarantino's] pulp-fiction obsessions, it's precisely in his willingness to use despised or downmarket forms to bring up difficult or controversial matters.") Yet the film still felt wrong.

I think maybe this had to do with the film's oscillation between "serious film" and "grindhouse flick." Tarantino has been able to seemlessly meld the two before, as in Pulp Fiction, for example, but this time the two tendencies seem disjointed and jarring. The film isn't straight-up B-movie fun because it poses too many troubling--and interesting--questions (about history, Jewish identity, the power of film, etc.). Yet it doesn't examine these questions in any interesting or meaningful way. The problem isn't that the movie is revisionist or funny or ultra-violent, it's that it is so half-baked that it provides neither the cathartic cinematic escape that it promises nor the gravitas that the subject deserves.

A lot of this also rests on one big problem with Tarantino, made more and more apparent with each of his subsequent films: He wants desperately to be a formalist. The arcane references, the anachronistic music, the jarring voice-overs that take you out of the narrative (there's one part in Inglourious Basterds where Samuel L Jackson, in voice-over explains the flammable qualities of nitrate film), the schlocky over-the-top cartoon violence--all the things that make a Tarantino film a Tarantino film. Ostensibly. The thing is, though, that Tarantino isn't a formalist, he's a storyteller--and, generally, a pretty good one. There's nothing wrong with being a good storyteller, and Tarantino should highlight this gift, rather than obscure it or throw it out the window, as he has in this film. A group of Jewish Nazi hunters who scalp their victims isn't a story--it's a conceit. There was a sliver of a story in Basterds--the one about the Jewish cinema owner in occupied France who seeks vengeance for the death of the rest of her family in the hands of the Nazis--but Tarantino obviously thought cute jokes and postmodern flourishes and bloody beatings and shoot-outs were more important.


Chris said...

I have to say that while I feel this is Tarantino's least polished and most disjointed effort thus far, I still enjoyed myself and find the film worth further viewings/more investigation.

Example: The metatextual nature of having torture porn "auteur" Eli Roth be the actor responsible for machine gunning Hitler.

You have Hitler laughing at the cinematic deaths of American soldiers from his box seat. The film he is watching was credited to the cinematic Goebbels, but was in reality shot by Eli Roth. Eli Roth then, in character, commits a series of violent acts ending in turning the laughing Hitler into a barely identifiable mess of basic bodily components.

Part of me says this is to provoke the audience to confront the fact that while they scoff at slasher film trash, they would gladly cheer Hitler being brutally murdered for their edification. Another part says that it's commenting on the perversity in the joy of watching depictions of human suffering and death (and the perversity in creating those images). Point of fact, Eli Roth's character also dies.

On the Hot Mess scale, I feel Inglorious Basterds is nowhere near Southland Tales, but it doesn't come within an arm's reach of the other side of the spectrum, either.

And I love Southland Tales...

Alex said...

I haven't yet figured out how to articulate why i like this movie (or read it in any review), but it never really crossed my mind that it would be "offensive." I mean, it's a Tarantino movie -- it's going to be violent and obscene (although this one wasn't really, language-wise). So, accepting that 1. it's a Tarantino movie and 2. it involves Jewish soldiers killin' Natzees, you're in. And I don't think it would be different if Tarantino was Jewish. He's worked in/co-opted/whatever so many different cultures in his filmmaking that to me, it's just another revenge fantasy. And you have to admit that WWII, while difficult to work with tastefully, is kind of the ultimate context for a revenge fantasy.

And yet, the first scene could have been in the most serious of Holocaust films (except for maybe the great big pipe).

The movie definitely has problems -- some people loved the scene in the bar but I thought it dragged; the shifts in tone and quality from chapter to chapter don't flow together well, blah blah blah. But the Shoshanna plot is beautifully shot and creepy as hell (and a whole other can of worms to analyze), the acting is fantastic, Christoph Waltz does a great job of being intensely unnerving and alllllmost sympathetic.

One bummer, though: Eli Roth is smokin' hot, so I looked him up, and he makes these toolish-seeming slasher movies. Oh well.

Raquel Laneri said...

I didn't actually think the movie was offensive (some of the reviewers I linked to did), and I don't think Tarantino's revenge fantasy is any more exploitative than the manipulations of other "serious" films such as "Life Is Beautiful," which, though well reviewed at the time, has experienced considerable backlash. Still it was unsettling to me, and I think because it is presumptuous and half-baked.

Alex, I agree that the first scene of the film is really great filmmaking... I wish he had kept up with that. I also thought the Soshana storyline was very good. I think that storyline was a good blend (minus the silly Samuel Jackson voiceover) of B revenge flick and serious WWII film. If he had done that with the Basterds material, actually made them real characters, then I think it could have been a really good movie. And maybe I wouldn't have felt so weird about the revisionist history. Oddly, I don't think I would have minded the ending if it was straight-up revenge flick either. Then it would have been just mindless (well minus the movie meta aspect) entertainment.

But, Chris, getting to your point about the metatextual nature of having Eli Roth playing who he plays in the movie, I agree that that is interesting. But it is also interesting b/c it doesn't draw attention to itself. But so many of the "Tarantino-isms" or film referencing, quoting, etc., felt forced and too in-your-face and out of place here.