What does Quentin Tarantino have to do to be taken seriously? Okay, granted, maybe for a start he should stop peppering his chat with references to trash cinema of the Seventies, a passion even most of his sympathetic critics tend to indulge rather than share.
But can Tarantino’s motormouth alone be the explanation for the reaction to Inglourious Basterds? With honorable exceptions, this has divided between: (1) “he’s trying to have stupid fun with the Holocaust and World War 2, and it’s a mess”; and (2) “what great, stupid fun!”
Although audiences have embraced the movie – it’s already his biggest-ever hit – the reviews wouldn’t exactly send sensitive souls dashing to the pictures. I’m a Tarantino fan – even Kill Bill brought admiring tears to my eyes – and I still might not have bothered with Inglourious Basterds if I hadn’t read Gilad Atzmon’s excellent and intriguing article in this CounterPunch: Atzmon argues that the film is, among other things, a critique of present-day Zionism.
Now that I’ve seen it, I’m still hmm-ing about this part of Atzmon’s thesis, but not about the underlying supposition: that this is a brilliant, astonishing and important piece of movie-making with a profoundly serious motivating purpose, albeit one that is playfully executed. And, this being Tarantino, I suspect that purpose involves, primarily, a moral exploration-cum-critique of cinema rather than of Middle-East politics.
The central method by which this is accomplished is by toying with our movie-conditioned expectations – a point dimly grasped by those who have noted that in this film the Germans are cultured and the Americans/Jews savage, but who have gone on to comment as though this were either an accident or an aberration. It seems to me that it’s central to Tarantino’s purpose. Despite appearances to the contrary, this director is not careless.
Take, for example, the sadistic military officer who is reduced to a caricature that barely goes beyond his ridiculous accent. In this peculiar WW2-movie, he’s not German, he’s American, and played by a big movie star (Brad Pitt) to boot.
Or take the band of Nazi-scalping Jews that he commands, the “basterds” of the title. Our expectation as viewers, from both the title and the apparent genre, is that the film will not only follow, explore and explain their exploits, but it will individuate them, man by man. Instead it barely pauses on them, with the only clue about “back-home” coming when one of them beats a brave German to death with a baseball bat, then launches into a Boston-accented radio commentary in which he stars as Red-Sox hero Ted Williams. Tarantino apparently shot, but abandoned, back-story scenes, and shows no interest in the group’s internal or external command structure while at war. The only “mechanics” that the movie-director dwells on in this movie are the gorgeous gears of an old film projector.
Tarantino delivers violence, to be sure, but it’s not genre-typical: the movie’s one gunfight is finished in a blur. Instead, virtually everything worth knowing about in this film happens around a table, and usually involves talk, a lot of talk: whether it’s in a farmer’s kitchen, a fancy restaurant, a Parisian café, a provincial bar or an empty bistro, someone is making a decision while someone else tries, and usually fails, to conceal something.
In the last of these table-talks, the film’s compellingly horrible German officer, Major Landa, tries to recall the English expression, “the shoe is on the other foot” – but really what he should say is: “the tables have turned.”
There are no prizes for spotting this movie’s many homages to film history, from the spaghetti-western opening onward. But film history is also the explicit subject of the film, much of which is set in a movie-house, and involves Joseph Goebbels in David O. Selznick mode, preparing to premiere the latest masterpiece of Nazi cinema.
One character is an English critic who specializes in German films. When he tells his superiors in 1944 that he hasn’t seen any German movies of the previous three years, we recognize, perhaps, that this is a permanent film-historical black hole, that even Germany’s non-propaganda is largely forgotten. And maybe we also recall that World War 2 is perhaps the central event in the history of the medium, a conflagration in the midst of Hollywood’s Golden Age that somehow failed to remove its retrospective glow: indeed, Hollywood was enriched by its refugees.
Like a 21st-century Brecht, Tarantino invites us to stand back and consider the dimensions and conventions of his fictive universe. Inglorious Basterds relies upon, but also implicitly interrogates, certain cinema shorthand: we like the basterds because they’re Jews – no more needs to be said, and it isn’t; we really like Shosanna Dreyfus (her surname a reminder of French anti-Semitism) because not only is she a Jew but because she loves a black man; we can hate the rather sweet young Fredrick Zoller because not only is he German but because he has a convenient egotistical tantrum just when we might have softened toward him. Shosanna, in fact, softens toward him briefly because he happens to have a sensitive moment on the cinema screen.
Perhaps most importantly, the Germans who fill the cinema for the movie’s climactic scene are obviously sadistic beasts who deserve to die because they cheer and laugh at screen violence…. Oops – what’s a Tarantino-fan to make of that?
Other bits of deliberate table-turning abound, at various levels: the Jewish basterds take their tactics from the history of the Apaches, victims of American genocide; the parallel plots to kill the German high command converge but steadfastly refuse to meet; the British characters (including an immobile, grunting Churchill, and a general who sounds precisely like Austin Powers because it’s Mike Myers under all that make-up) are played by a Canadian, an Australian and an Irishman, another case of the empire striking back.
Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Raine is, like Tarantino, a part-Italian Italian from Tennessee. So when Raine falls on Landa (as their names tell us he must) to inscribe him with a swastika, then in a shot from Landa’s point-of-view declares the carving to be his masterpiece, we may assume he speaks for the director. Tarantino’s masterpiece marks us all – as humans but especially as cinema-goers – as potential Nazis.
Inglourious Basterds is, it seems, being widely enjoyed as a revenge fantasy. But the final revenge takes virtually all the “good” characters and leaves the worst alive. Tarantino has often implicated the audience in onscreen violence before; but this time the dream of revenge ends up like a nightmare.
HARRY BROWNE lecturers at Dublin Institute of Technology. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org