Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) December 23, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood, Literature.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender
There is always a reason to dislike Tarantino’s films—they’re gimmicky, they sensationalize, they poke fun and turn serious the same way, they make over-the-top references and go crazy in stacking them scene after scene, their stories wander like a headless chicken—and more so, to dislike Tarantino himself, the way he insists on doing them, amusing and bemusing critics and audiences alike, like Lars von Trier minus one of his balls. Yet he cannot be ignored. People still watch his films. Young ones dig his popular works; the obscure continue to dignify his early, and even latter, B-movies. Tarantino has gained a following that he himself may not be aware of, for he seems to be less pressured and more confident: his only responsibility seems only to entertain. Quixotic as someone puts it, his latest work Inglourious Basterds would always be called ambitious—the World War story that demands a multi-lingual crackerjack, the Nazi colonel who meets everyone in the narratives whose characters who have similar intentions never actually meet—but Tarantino tramples on that said ambition, only to come out smoking with a ridiculous yet convincing historicity.
The war as setting hints at responsibility—the idea of effort, the difficulty of achieving accuracy, the possession of ideologies, the need to make a stand, the utter risks of blasphemy—but that’s the ruse of history: we tend to give it the importance more than it deserves; or maybe not. But that’s beside the point. Tarantino does not see it as history. He sees it as story—which it really is—fiction, its authenticity lost but its power stays as persuasive as always. The War ended; it happened. But in the film it ended differently, curiously. Only we find it appalling—even appealing—because it did not actually happen. Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann, and hundreds of Nazis did not die inside a burning cinema, did not die in the hands of a Jewish couple; did not die as overly dramatic as that. Tarantino’s big lie remains big until it reaches the climax, which, if Goebbels’ words are to be believed, describes its being cinematic: “. . . when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” And yes, how silly it has become to reach that final fold.
The lie that Inglorious Basterds tells isn’t something to be taken seriously, though; the lie is so deliberate in its outrageousness that, like any Tarantino film, one is aware that this is cinema. The presence of an absence; the most beautiful fraud, as Godard regards it; cinema the colossal lie-maker. Tarantino treats the War like the Los Angeles lowlifes, the killing like the Bride exacting her revenge, the various faces of the war like the faces of the thugs planning a heist. But with the palette of the War—a grand scheme of everything corollary and contradictory—it leverages the so-called aestheticization of violence more easily, not even an excuse but a reality, something that glorifies it more, soaking the film with profanity and citing the Holocaust as immediate response to criticism. Surely, what happens in the film couldn’t be any bloodier than what really happened, right? So there.
Notable how Tarantino seems less constricted, freer to inject his homages, more credible in his use of music, not to mention more dynamic (like the tunes are dancing their way out of the screen in effect), and as perfect as ever in his casting. The last two—the choice of music and of actors—being Tarantino’s inimitable asset; that while his hands are in full control, touches of his quirk splattered everywhere in his films, one cannot deny the presence of John Travolta and Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction or forget Dusty Springfield soothingly singing “Son of a Preacher Man” in it; the way in Inglorious Basterds there is the royal highness that is named Christoph Waltz—who, truth be told, is the singlemost achievement of the film, a menace who chews more than he could bite off, and is possible to emerge as the most effective yet most loved devil in recent years, his baleful tenderness so alluring his presence is such grace—and Morricone that makes the potpourri all the more insane.
The indulgent quality of Tarantino’s works is what actually makes them click. It is a self-conscious decision—to throw references left and right to the point of overexertion, making the audience aware that he loves spaghetti westerns and macaroni combats, that he identifies with the films and the actors of his youth, that he prefers his soundtracks to sound like mixtapes, that he adores Godard, that he loves bastardizing the things he love and making it look otherwise—and over the years his aesthetic has always been described and defined as cool, and it still is right now, if the term is not so overused. But he runs the risk thinking that the audience could easily relate to them. He is indifferent; but that’s not to say that he is irresponsible. He is more concerned with seeing the result of his pastiche, the surprise of seeing them work after all. And again, I must say, it did work in Inglourious Basterds.
It is able to remove the importance on its sleeve; like the War is just some event in the past that can happen again anytime; how is the War different from the wars we face everyday anyway? not in the tone of existential questioning but in the rhetoric of having it asked. Self-awareness is evident in every frame; this is entertainment, this is cinema, this cannot be any farther than what it isn’t. Yet even those who are not committed to cinema—those who don’t consider films as their boyfriends and girlfriends for life—could also enjoy it, though not as much as those who do. Tarantino converts filmgoers into film maniacs; and he makes film maniacs love films even more, obsessing in them like he does.
Is she reading The Man in the High Castle?
In his review of the film Noel Vera makes an important mention of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, comparing its vision to Inglourious Basterds’. He argues: “Dick, in effect, plays with reality in ways Tarantino can’t even begin to grasp—where Tarantino thinks in terms of victory or defeat, death or revenge, Dick thinks of broad political and economic forces, shaping a complexly realized society that in turn shapes us in complex ways; where Tarantino indulges in Three Stooges slapstick with a dash of sadism, Dick has a Japanese insulting an American with an offer to mass-produce his wares (it takes the American some minutes to even begin to realize he’s been handed a putdown, not an opportunity)—the exquisite cruelty of the moment goes beyond anything in Basterds. Dick’s High Castle is the game of make-believe played at grandmaster level; Basterds feels more like a session of tug-o-war with the other end of the rope tied to a fireplug—stupid and pointless, if occasionally amusing.”
While Mr. Vera’s point makes a lot of sense, I can’t see why it should make the film any less inferior—not only to the book, but to the genre of science fiction itself. The tone, in a way, suggests that while PKD’s novel has a grand vision of things that had not become, therefore a healthy imagination of sorts, which by all means I agree, Tarantino’s film is more like junk food compared to it—like fastfood meals or hamburgers in highway stands consumed out of convenience—marketed so well that almost everyone eats them, the customers so delighted they promise to come back. That may be right; but not exactly.
Interpretation is the writer’s business. PKD and Tarantino are interested in maintaining a certain fiction, a valid misrepresentation of history, or, as what this genre would love to say, an alternate-reality—the alternative present. This alternative present means there is an alternative past and an alternative future; an alternate history and making of history so to speak. PKD’s idea of cross-cultural roles are in fact deeply rooted on race—the Germans, the Japanese, the Americans, the Jews, the Africans; and in those classifications there are smaller classifications that further define their roles. The race functions as identity. The realities are dictated by the ones in power; though optimism is an existing motif. PKD has big ideas; he may really be the man in the high castle, the I Ching itself.
Tarantino’s idea, however, decides to hide those big ideas—surely, he has them; otherwise what else could he show off?—and decides to ridicule them instead; in fact, the way I see it, they even become more pronounced. Comparisons are unavoidable, of course; but how good they can be but mere reinforcement of approval or dissent? Qualifications of a certain work should not be trampled based only on comparison; specifically, on what it is not, using the idea of other works that excel on doing the same thing as be-all and end-all example. I regard The Man in the High Castle as an exemplary piece and if another writer writes an alternative world tale better than it is, I would acknowledge it—but it wouldn’t change the fact that PKD’s novel is great (not to mention that he’d been there first; his vision developed way before we had all these technologies around us.) On the same note, discussing the qualities of Inglourious Basterds as opposed to Night and Fog’s own, for instance, is insane, useless, and downright ridiculous; unless someone is up for something less than the film but himself.
Well, for the sheer fun of it, I’ll give it a try. If I should make my own comparison, running instead against the greatness of PKD, and shaming myself—I ask, could someone read The Man in the High Castle in two-and-a-half hours and be as entertained as watching Inglourious Basterds? I am afraid I have to wait for answers, but as of now, by default, Tarantino wins that match. But then one could argue about lasting importance, about contribution, about vision, about credibility. . . See? Stale comparisons don’t work. They just put someone on top, and someone else below; which is more than what writing really is. Better to remember PKD’s version of the Gresham’s Law instead: the existence of fakes undermines the value of the real. History is all perspective; fiction is all-powerful. Our servings of fake realities are our survival. Glorify the fake and enjoy it while it lasts.
And while we’re at it, it just strikes me, Inglourious Basterds tells us that Cinema kills the Nazis, right? I can’t help but laugh on the idea. Could there be any thought as berserk as that? Or is this the parallel universe that the sci-fi writers are talking about? Go, tell. Fiction, how amusing and how great.