The Tarantino Solution 3: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 27, 2009 11:06pm | Post a Comment
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Aryan Some Differences

While its propaganda might seem dated, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin presents a critical alternative to heroism as traditionally depicted in most films, collective instead of individualistic. Along with a wishfullfilling counterfactual approach to history and a five act structure, Inglourious Basterds shares a similar approach to the heroic act, closer to the first 20 or so minutes of Saving Private Ryan than its remaining hour and a half. (I note that two early supporters of Eisenstein's film, who helped bring it to world attention, were Goebbels and -- as Tarantino has it -- his Hollywood role model, David O. Selznick.) Eisenstein's two most prominent characters, the sailors Vakulinchuk and Matyshenko, serve more as inspirational catalysts for the inchoate revolutionary spirit than a John Wayne (or even Tom Hanks) type who dominates narrative destiny through his will. As Bill Nichols suggests in his analysis of the film (in the book Film Analysis), the idea of a revolution begins to widen across each act:

One of Eisenstein's great achievements as a filmmaker is that he provided a model for a cinema of groups, crowds, and masses rather than individuals. In Battleship Potemkin he does so by telling the story of three distinct examples of political awakening over the course of five acts. [...] Each awakening broadens the political scope of the film, from the revolt of one ship's crew through the rising up of one town to the rebellion of the entire fleet. -- p. 163-4

Indeed, as he points out, Vakulinchuk dies in the second act and Matyshenko doesn't reappear until the fifth -- hardly the kind of heroism as charismatic leadership favored by a Leni Reifenstahl or George Lucas (the latter's well-known appropriation from the former receives a nice spoof here). No matter how seemingly innocuous the fantasy (from the Golden Age Superman, despite his defense of labor, to Star Wars), there's always a whiff of authoritarianism that accompanies this great man portrayal of heroism -- that a change for the betterment of all comes solely from the determination of a few. That is, follow those so privileged by God, genetics (Aryan, Kryptonian) or midi-chlorians, not morality per se.

Eli Roth satirizes this authoritarian subtext in his film within a film, Nation's Pride. Made by Goebbels (the diegetic one, not ours), the film depicts one lone private, Frederick Zoller, fighting off the nameless hordes with nothing but sheer will and an endless supply of ammo. He even manages to plant one in the eye of Eisenstein's peasant in montage (see above), only it's an American soldier and the intended audience of Nazis is expected to identify with the person doing the slaughtering, not the slaughtered -- an Audie Murphy film injected with Schwarzenegger's steroids. That he manages to rub out exactly 300 Americans evokes Zack Snyder's chiseled fable of fascistic glory where the same number of Spartans kill thousands of others much darker than themselves. All of which is reminiscent of the young Germanic Arminius kicking the Roman Varus' ass in the Teutoburg Forest back in the year of 9 A.D., an event that would become one of the founding myths of German nationalism. By Zoller's making an explicit analogy between himself and Sergeant York -- the titular sharpshooter in Howard Hawks' film played by Gary Cooper, an actor who shared the Nazis' hatred of pinkos -- it should become pretty clear that Inglourious Basterds has quite a bit to say, not only about other films, but about the transcontinental and trans-ideological appeal of this Triumph of the Will-styled heroism.

The deification of the heroic individual isn't so bad as long as he's doing the right thing. The problem, of course, is when he's the ideological correlate of the Other, as in Roth's propaganda film. But, even there, it's a problem with a clear solution: eliminate those who are foolish enough to follow false idols, namely your enemy. More difficult to suss out is one's own idolatrous identification with Horatio Alger's brand of determination. My Brecht is showing, but it's by getting the audience to identify with the hero rather than his actions that ideology can most easily slip in, as it discourages a critical distance from the narrative subject. Because of the reverence with which we tend to hold the abstract hero, it's a short slippery slope to a Holocaust film made with the best of intentions, yet which ultimately focuses our attention more on the moral awakening of the Aryan protagonist than the long, hard work of all the oppressed Jews who made his awakening and subsequent virtuous actions possible. I wouldn't say Schindler's List is immoral, but it does show how the Great Man approach tends to give credit to the charismatic at the expense of what was in reality a collective act. Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan demonstrates the difference in enunciation when he starts with collective action:

Only to settle into the more classical hero identification:

From a sacrifice en masse to another story of guys on a mission that revolves around the character arc of a leader who's a little more important than the rest. Well, who doesn't like guys on a mission? Spielberg gives a pretty good example, even though the ending makes my teeth ache and the generic storyline is a real let down after the best war scene in cinematic history. I bring it up by way of contrast with Tarantino's own take on the subgenre. Tarantino is too big a fan of Hawks' transparent style to ever be a full-fledged Brechtian, but he's imbibed a whole lot of Jean-Luc Godard. That is to say his style isn't the more classically oriented Spielberg's. Inglourious Basterds' long scenes of dialog require identification for the tension and comedy to work. However, when he anachronistically uses disco-era font to introduce Hugo Stiglitz or plays Bowie's "Cat People" over Shosanna's preparation for her big night with the Nazis, he creates some Brechtian critical distance. Most important is the way he de-centers the typical heroic narrative.


What some friends and critics found disappointing, I thought the film's strongest virtue, namely that the Basterds aren't in the film near as much as the title suggests. Unless, as in the posters above, all the anti-Nazis are included as de facto members. But that's not who you expect; you expect the guys not introduced until Chapter 2, Stiglitz and:

By the way, whatever happened to these two?

The Basterds proper only occur in 3 of the Chapters, taking a back seat in the 4th to the British film critic turned spy, Lt. Archie Hicox, and the German movie actress, Bridget von Hammersmark -- the latter being the one who devises the plan, Operation Kino, to assassinate the Nazi high command.

Given that the other major assassination plot is hatched by Shosanna independently of the titular heroes, Tarantino proves himself once again to be -- perhaps second only to Russ Meyer (an Eisensteinian, I might add) and Andrea Dworkin -- America's foremost emasculating feminist. 


The real kicker is the ironic success of these two plans, which is nothing less than a critique of heroic identification as it's so often implemented in war films and propaganda (virile and manly, the Nazis would say). Resulting from a violent mishap at the tavern where Hammersmark meets Hickox and the Basterds, Landa comes to discover Operation Kino. He strangles the actress, kidnaps the dashing, blue-eyed leader of the Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine, but leaves the two Basterds with bombs strapped to their legs at the theater with all the Nazis. Sensing that his team is about lose the war irrespective of Operation Kino, Landa appeals to the Americans' utilitarian ethos by cutting a deal: he'll let the bombs go off, thereby ending the war a little sooner, if he gets to live out the rest of his life as a war hero on Nantucket Island, instead of the war criminal that he is. Thus the Clark Gable/Gary Cooper hero role played by the movie's big star, Brad Pitt, is morally reduced to sitting on the sidelines, brokering a deal with the narrative's most evil Nazi. Not quite "hooray for our boys."

Stick around for the startling conclusion ...

The Tarantino Solution 2: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 20, 2009 11:11pm | Post a Comment
Page 1  (Again, BEWARE SPOILERS!)

I’m waiting for any of the enthusiasts for Inglourious Basterds to come up with some guidance about what grown-up things this movie has to say to us about World War 2 or the Holocaust — or maybe just what it has to say about other movies with the same subject matter. Or, if they think that what Tarantino is saying is adolescent but still deserving of our respect and attention, what that teenage intelligence consists of. Or implies. Or inspires. Or contributes to our culture. -- Jonathan Rosenbaum, again

Certainly, there's a difference between Bonhoeffer taking no pleasure in his decision and the viewer's finding entertainment in Shosanna's, namely that between real world events and their aesthetic use. Since Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum are film critics, I'm guessing they aren't of the "art after Auschwitz is barbaric" persuasion, so their problem is with the film's message, its delivery and reception. The Jewish devised cinematic hell to which the Nazis become condemned might even be seen as tragic if you're sympathetic to their goals. As the administer and representative of the Volk's will, Col. Landa's murdering Shosanna's family sets into motion the wheels of fate that is their (the Nazi's, if not exactly Lando's) destruction. From the Greeks to Shakespeare, tragedies, we should recall, were (and still are) performed for pleasure, or what might be called entertainment. The world of art would be a lot less interesting if it came with the book of answers that Rosenbaum demands of Inglourious Basterds. How about a quote from Vladimir Nabokov?

I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called "powerful" and "stark" by the reviewing hack. There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, [...] Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art [...] is the norm. -- from "On a Book Entitled Lolita"

Now, Rosenbaum is one of our best film critics, not some "reviewing hack," and Tarantino ain't exactly Nabokov, but everything else fits the bill. This former's criticisms, this time around, don't amount to much more than pandering moralism, and the latter, like Nabokov, is more interested in staying true to the story he's telling than whatever it might say about the real world. But this doesn't mean that his story has nothing relevant to say about whatever Rosenbaum is referring to with "our culture." The film isn't mere entertainment, or what some fanboy defense might call "just a movie," but rather a sort of parody in Nabokov's sense when he said, "satire teaches a lesson, parody is a game."

Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were admirers of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, likely hearing echos of their own call for the restoration of a soul to the dehumanizing technocracy of modernity ("the mediator between the brain and hands must be the heart!"). However, humanity, like violence, depends on the details. They didn't see an analogy of the oppressed workers at the bottom of Lang's pseudo-utopia -- who kept it running for the pleasure of the bourgeoisie and rich -- to the Nazis' use of Jewish slave labor in factories like Mittelwork where the V-2 bomb was manufactured. As Col. Landa spells out to the farmer in Chapter 1, the Jews were seen as racially other, not deserving of the moral obligation that obtains to one's neighbors in the ethnic Lebenstraum (living space). For a similar reason, American kids aren't expected to look in abhorrence at singing grapes being used to sell their own execution or anthropomorphic squirrel-operated machinery in The Flintstones. Ignoring such human traits is fine in fantasy, but not when someone tries to supplant the real with the fantastic. And, as Landa argues, the Jews weren't seen even as the equivalent of squirrels (much less the happily working and talking kind), but rats. It's this kind of rationalization that makes the bureaucratization of evil possible.

So when Tarantino parodies the burning in Lang's Nazi-favored film with Shosanna's own version, there's more going on than geeky appropriation. At the moment in Goebbel's Nation's Pride when Pvt. Zoller (the Nazi "Sergeant York") asks, "who wants to send a message to Germany?," Shosanna's image cuts in to answer that she does, commanding Marcel standing behind the screen to set fire to the film stock. The real Shosanna is already dead, killed in the projection booth by the real Zoller as she was showing a bit of compassion for the not-quite-dead wouldbe rapist, having just shot him in the back. The last bit of human compassion having been drilled out her in grieving slow motion (one of the few nods to Enzo Castellari's Inglorious Bastards), the only thing left is a mechanically reproduced image to be shown only once in a particular place, creating an aura of terror for this particular group of "art" lovers.

In Metropolis, it is the mechanical Maria who is put to the stake, having tricked the workers into destroying the machines that would keep the city functioning. I'm not going to summarize the serpentine plot of Lang's film (read it here if you dare), so suffice it to say the means-end utopia was brought down by a robot simulation of one of the oppressed (Maria) that was the bypodruct of the city ruler's faulty/inhumane ratiocinations. (That is, Fredersen, the ruler, gained possession of Hel, the love of the inventor Rotwang, eventually using her up -- she died during childbirth -- which led to Rotwang making the robot as a replacement, but it had its own demonic plans that involved taking the form of Maria.) Thus, Shosanna (and maybe Tarantino) saw the analogy that Goebbels and Hitler didn't. Define another's humanity out of your ratio-moral system and the only interaction left possible is with the robotic husk. Shosanna's moral choice in such an immoral situation was, like Bonhoffer's, to point the demonic reproduction to which she had been reduced back at the Nazis and let it take its course.

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The Tarantino Solution 1: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 13, 2009 11:00pm | Post a Comment

So, there's been a whole lot of hoo-ha surrounding what's quite obviously the most interesting and entertaining movie of the year, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The moralistic critics have done their best to trivialize the white power movement's Holocaust revisionism by suggesting the film turns "Jews into Nazis" (Daniel Mendelsohn) and one wonders "what it was (and is) about the film that seems morally akin to Holocaust denial" (Jonathan Rosenbaum). On the other, "with friends like these ...," side, the defense hasn't amounted to much, either, the typical suggestion being some variation on the line that as pure entertainiment/fantasy, the movie has no morality, nor does it need it. Patooehy! I agree that entertainment is the film's virtue, but disagree that it occurs at the expense of morality. In fact, its morality grounds and justifies what Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum see as the Jews acting like Nazis, but what I call the aesthetic enjoyment of the film. Thus, I think a moral defense is in order. Be forewarned: MANY SPOILERS WILL OCCUR!

The Dreyfus Affair

What all retributive theories seem to share is the claim that the relation between crime and punishment is (primarily) conceptual (or “internal”). The justification of punishment is that punishment in itself is an appropriate response to crime. [...] Reaffirming the wrongness of the crime is good in itself, good enough (all else equal) to justify the punishment. Telling the truth about a crime is itself an important good.
                      -- Moral philosopher Michael Davis explaining the basic tenet of retributive justice

In his review, Mendelsohn is particularly offended by the final chapter that features Shosanna Dreyfus trapping --  with the aid of her boyfriend, Marcel -- the entire Nazi high command in a theater, then burning it down (referencing some science learned from Hitchcock). The fact that Shosanna is a Jew who barely escaped with her own life after watching a group of Nazis being led by Colonel Hans Landa slaughter her family in chapter one has no bearing on Mendelsohn's indignation. Violence is evidently content-free, the violent what-fer being morally equated to the violent crime. Even the dimmest of ardent capital punishment opponents should be able to free himself from Mendelsohn's mental paper bag here. That is, even if one holds that the state should never be able to kill murderers, it takes quite a bit of willpower to get mixed up on the order of events involved: there would be no state-sanctioned violence without the criminal act of murder occurring first. Now, there might be other good, moral reasons for not wanting the state to kill murderers, but they in no way make the two killings morally equivalent, or equally justified. Similarly, not all vengeful fantasies are the same, either. Here's a thought experiment:

Who do you think should be more worrisome to a neighborhood: Little Jason, who dreams of going back in time to assassinate Adolf Hitler before he became Der Führer, or little Eddie, who dreams of one day making all the whores pay for their satanic influence?

Seems pretty clear to me that some dreams of retribution are healthier than others. All too often the revenge fantasy, such as Last House on the Left, is dismissed for the pleasure the audience receives in the violent performance of retribution without considering the basis for said pleasure, namely the retribution itself. As Charles Boyer said in Arch of Triumph regarding his desire to see Charles Laughton's Nazi get his comeuppance, "revenge is a personal thing, this is something bigger." Regardless of the emotive state obtaining to the act of revenge (or its fantasy), the moral question is whether the act is just or not. Maybe it worries you, feeling elated at seeing Hitler's head being reduced to a rotten peach by the Basterds' machine guns. Or maybe, like our concerned symbolic parent Rosenbaum, it worries you that others take delight in such a thing. Worrying about pleasure, like the pleasure itself, is only tangentially related to the morality of Tarantino's fantasy. The relevant questions are: Did the Nazi high command deserve to be burned alive? If so, is there anything wrong with a Jew delivering it? And, given that history had it otherwise, is there anything wrong with fantasizing about Nazis receiving a taste of their own final solution? Since I've already pretty much answered the last question with a 'no,' I won't keep you guessing how I'm going to answer the first two: Yes and no. At least, I'll be arguing these are perfectly moral stances to hold, not to be dismissed as exploitative emotional reactions.

The only good Nazi: Charles Laughton gets his just dessert in Arch of Triumph.

There are many theories of justice (explore at your leisure), but Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum's objections are rooted in retributivism's chief theoretical rival, utilitarianism. That is, we shouldn't even fantasize about treating the Nazis as they treated others, because we lose something of our collective humanity, which is a detriment to the general good. A similar case was recently made on very real grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill regarding the release of the critically ill convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya where he can die (in 3 months, we're all assured). Notwithstanding al-Megrahi's continuing claim of innocence, MacAskill didn't question the conviction, but made his decision based on compassion being the greater good: "Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people -- no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated."

What was Zappa's line about hippie love? "I will love everyone. I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street." Yep, compassion for the remorseless sounds like a real virtue, alright. Saad Djebbar, a lawyer for the Libyan government, suggested an alternative utilitarian interpretation of the decision, stemming from realpolitik, rather than compassion: "Rest assured that the (Scottish) government has done the UK government a great favour[.] Britain and Scotland will grow in the eyes of the Arab states."

If that makes you feel icky, you might be a retributivist. The case makes for an interesting contrast to the response of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to Madina Amin's request that her husband, the huggable butchering tyrant, General Idi Amin Dada, be allowed to return back home, as he was deteriorating in a coma. Without a lick of supposedly Western compassion, Museveni promised the General would "answer for his sins the moment he was brought back."

Perhaps Museveni should've listened to the words of his fellow Christian, Pope John Paul II, when he recommended to the poor, oppressed people living in General Augusto Pinochet's Chile, "[d]o not let yourself be seduced by violence and the thousand reasons which appear to justify it. [The Church rejects] all ideologies which proclaim violence and hate as means to obtain justice.” Achieve the greater good by turning the other cheek ... as long as it's in opposition to communism, of course. As this fellow suggests in analyzing the former Pope's moral concerns, the "greater good" for His Holiness was the church bureaucracy in Latin America, not the liberation of the people. Thus, nary a critical word was uttered regarding the dictator's murderous days in office. In fact, the Pope personally gave Pinochet communion.

Call me a Billy Jack fan, but I prefer Dietrich Bonhoeffer's conversion to vengeance when he decided to suffer a potential bad ruling at Judgment Day in order to rid the world of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer didn't think he'd be a better person, only that he was willing to suffer to do the right thing. I find it hard to see his desire as unhealthy, or in any way morally equivalent to Hitler's. Violence and violent desire have content. Continuing to play fair with a cheater in a card game isn't going to get you anything but less money; the game has to be stopped. Demanding some money back isn't the same thing as being cheated out of it in the first place. If a person denies you your basic humanity and is willing to act in accordance, he doesn't deserve your compassion.

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Solid Gold! Interview with David Lynch

Posted by Charles Reece, August 29, 2009 07:18pm | Post a Comment
My pal Kyle and I had a chance to interview the best living director. Here 'tis:

Stick around for the credits; the Amoeba film crew did a beautiful job making it.

No Atheists in the Afterlife? Thirst (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 16, 2009 11:30pm | Post a Comment

A fantastic adaptation of Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin. Not that I've ever read any Zola, mind you, but I've read about him. Maybe after I've finished working my way through the entire output of the 19th century Russian realists, I'll be ready. If only Zola had featured more vampires in his stories .... Well, Chan-Wook Park knows how to get me interested in realism, at least -- same as the Russians -- with ideological discussions of atheism.

Sang-hyeon is a Catholic priest with a martyr complex or strong death drive (amounts to the same thing, I suppose), who plays guinea pig in a macabre experiment to help doctors find a cure for a virus that's particularly dangerous to Korean men. He's the only one to survive the voluntary infection, due to a  transfusion using vampire blood. The catch is that he now needs to feed on normal human blood to keep from sweating his own and breaking out in disfiguring boils. Initially, he's racked by guilt over his bodily urges, which leads to his sucking on a comatose patient's IV and a fellow priest, Noh, who has a more sanguine attitude about the vampire virus. Sang-hyeon sees vampirism as a loss of humanity, whereas Noh sees it as a gift, and a potential cure for his blindness. Due to his miracle cure, the vampire picks up a religious following of Catholics who see him as another messiah, parallel to that other popular tale of transfiguration. Is he a vampire who walks like a man, or man who acts like a vampire?


Despite the similarities, Thirst doesn't belong to the "vegetarian" vampirism that Buffy made popular and can now be seen in Twilight. It was easy to sympathize with Buffy's beau, because when Angel did evil deeds, it was as the soulless Angelus, who constituted a separate identity (even if the two entities shared the same body and memories, they certainly had no control over what the other did). There's no identity switcheroo in Twilight, but the good vampire Edward is able to survive on animal blood (see 'carouche'). Angel was capable of that, too, having lived on rats for many years after regaining his soul. Furthermore, the two diegeses share a supernaturally enforced Victorian restraint, since the vampires get real thirsty for their lovers when sex is involved. Taking blood and sex out of the equation pretty much makes hash out of vampires, since they're reduced to a more pathetic version of us, but with superpowers. Instead, Park's film is closer in its themes to another vampire show that sometimes gets lumped into the vegetarian subgenre, True Blood.

Maybe because it's on HBO or because it's not written by a Mormon, but True Blood manages to defang the mythology without violating it (although the hamfisted erotic dialog comes close). Here vampires keep their sanguinary sexual desires, are responsible for previous slaughters, and have to choose to live off of synthetic human blood (like only shopping the frozen food aisle). Making a somewhat analogous case to Peter Singer's animal rights argument, Southern gentleman/-vampire Bill Compton has come to view humans as deserving of the same rights as his own kind, since we're capable of the same feelings as he, if not moreso. Whereas True Blood's moral questioning is basically utilitarian, Thirst's is faith-based. The divine image has been transmogrified into a distorted mirror, so is Sang-hyeon still obligated to God's favored creature? If the vampire is nothing more than pure carnality, then its moral status is that of all the other animals not given the lead in the story of Eden. Scorpions aren't being immoral when they strike.

Thirst's vampiric version of the 19th century nihilist is Tae-joo, an orphaned girl who came under the care of the domineering Lady Ra and her spoiled, sickly boy, Kang-woo. Rather than being raised as the boy's adopted sister, Tae-joo became his caretaker and wife. Sang-hyeon was a childhood friend to the family and, post-transformation, meets up with them again when Ra comes begging for a miracle to cure her son. Between games of mah-jongg with the family and friends, the priest and the wife begin to slip away for bouts of hedonism that's erotic in a way the metalhead couple making out in a mall could appreciate. Based on how she grew up, Tae-joo doesn't see much that's special in humanity, so wants nothing more than to leave it all behind by being turned. After a series of sinful events, including the plan to kill Kang-woo, Sang-hyeon grants her the salvation she desires. That's when he discovers that some vampires are more Darwinian than others. She's pure survival-of-the-fittest with nothing filling up the hole of faith. Humans are reduced to the status of actors -- that is, cattle -- and she's the only director that matters. Feeling himself drawn to the abyss, with his monstrous status of being nothing but an animal, only with the ungodly power to upset the divine heirarchy, Sang-hyeon can see no other moral choice than self-immolation -- and, thus, the movie's central conflict. Obviously, the couple hasn't read much utilitarianism or other atheistic moral philosophies. They might've discovered with Bill that there's more of a connection to humanity than the forced choice between nihilism and theistic middle-management allows.
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