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 ...

Watchmen (2009): Some Arguments about Design

Posted by Charles Reece, March 14, 2009 11:32pm | Post a Comment

The Impotent God Snake

I love discussing issues of time in comics and film, so Zack Snyder's Watchmen makes for a good opportunity to reflect on its relation to both media. I'll be returning to this sometime in the future. For now, I'm going to stick to a few problems with Alan Moore's conception of Doc Manhattan that the movie doesn't do much to improve on. There is one improvement, though, namely the Mjölner-sized hammer he has hanging between his legs, befitting a puny scientist resurrected as a god. Dave Gibbons merely gave him the statistical average. The Doc can create anything from anything else -- perhaps ex nihilo, if you believe in miracles -- and exists in all points in time simultaneously. One can't get more virile than absolute mastery of matter. However, even though he can still sexually please his woman, he's ontologically impotent-- everything already existing as it was/is/will be, independent of his will. His control of matter is constrained by the deterministic course of the world. Thus, the fact that we never get to see the hammer of the gods raised on camera is a telling sign of his lot in existence (as well as the failure of our last, best chance to see expensive CGI-porn). While Doc's attending the Comedian's funeral, he's shown to exist in Vietnam, where the latter murders a girl who's pregnant with this child. The girl, like the Comedian, is already dead to Doc, so he stands by flaccidly and "lets" the murder occur. When Doc voices concern, he gets a moral lecture from the most nihilistic of the bunch:

The Comedian elaborates on why Doc's relationships all turn to shit, but there's a metaphysical problem here. For example, Doc is shown doing some sort of research when he's first introduced (in both the film and comic), but what exactly is the purpose of doing research when he already remembers what he's going to discover? This is the same old theological paradox that exists for the monotheists who believe in an omniscient god and free will: either everything's determined, because the deity knows what'll happen, or people can freely choose, meaning the deity isn't all-knowing. Some theologians have tried some hoo-hah to get out of this dilemma by suggesting God exists outside of time, but that's a verbal game. Besides, even if this circumlocution worked, it most clearly doesn't here, since Doc is shown to exist temporally. He didn't create everything, but exists within a creation not of his choosing.

Regardless of the ending (the film's or the comic's), Doc's simultaneity makes the possibility of his being fooled by Ozymandias' plan impossible. Tachyon particles might cause some interruption in his temporal perception during the period T1 to T2, but once in T3, Doc's perception is back -- meaning that he should be able to "remember" his thoughts in T3 before T1 begins. A possible out for this narrative dilemma that wasn't used is suggested by the scene above, as well as the one where Doc and Laurie are on Mars, and he tells her the course of the conversation they're about to have. That is, Doc is cosmologically inert, unable to affect the causal chain of events. All he can do is watch and interact as fate has already determined. As he says, he's a puppet who can see his strings. Had the story consistently depicted him as the self-aware puppet, philosophical nerds like me could've suspended disbelief by saying he goes along with Ozy's plan, knowing of it from the outset, because that's just the way things are to be in the Watchmen's deterministic world. I suspect the reason Moore didn't go this route is because he still wanted to hang on to free will within the book. While rendering Doc's agency impossible, Moore used some Star Trek gobbledy gook in order to keep the surprise of philosophical libertarianism in play.

Wait, No Did Mean Yes?

Snyder's film eroticizes the attempted rape scene, making Sally Jupiter's eventual consensual sex with the Comedian more logical, if more morally twisted. Moore and Gibbons' take was as follows:

For the most part, as he does throughout the film, Snyder slavishly follows Gibbons' panels as a storyboard, but he adds a shot of Sally bent over a pool table, looking at the camera as if there's a part of her that's kind of disappointed the Hooded Justice enters to stop the rape. Now, any fan of Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, Blind Beast or, even The Collector isn't going to have his or her envelope pushed too far by Snyder's little transgressive gesture, but it's a bit surprising when it appears in a $130 million dollar superhero adventure movie. On the other hand, Snyder's conservatism (cf. 300) comes through in the way he sets up the scene: the kino eye ogles Sally's half-naked body -- in an off-Hollywood, Bettie Page kind of way -- just before Comedian enters, as if asking the audience, "What would you do?" This doesn't mean the film justifies Comedian's assault, but it does smack of the scenarists trying to add scriptwriting 101's narrative justification to Moore's more psychologically believable characters -- that is, subsituting a fictional whole for the latter's understanding of sexual desire as nonrational.

An Abattoir of The Mentally Challenged

You'd have to go pretty low on the professional critic foodchain to get one as predictable as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane. If he didn't fancy himself high-brow and have his predecessor's gift at turning a phrase, he'd be about as exciting to read as The Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. Without a hint of irony, his views favor what then-critic François Truffaut long ago sliced and diced as the "tradition of quality" (in "A Certain Tendancy of the French Cinema”). Lane is, in other words, the perfect example of a snotty critic. Nothing wrong with snottiness, mind you, only when it's wrapped around middlebrow moralizing. Like with new money's taste in fashion, just because it's expensive doesn't make it worth wearing. Thus, if a film revels in its genre-ness, Lane isn't going to like it.  Such things aren't what people of imagined distinction are supposed to like.

Lane can't be bothered to think too hard about such obvious trash. Regarding Rorschach's line from the second panel above:

That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs. (And still the adaptation won’t be slavish enough for some.) Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights. In the end, with a gaping pit where New York used to be, most of the surviving Watchmen agree that the loss of the Eastern Seaboard was a small price to pay for global peace.

The only thing Lane manages to get right is that "abattoir of retarded children" was written by an author trying too hard. However, the author is the diegetic Rorschach, not the realworld Moore. The line is supposed to be overwrought and funny, not give the audience (well, the target audience) something to quote like it came from Commando. Rorschach's mental life is confabulation, concocted from the jejune conspiracies of Ayn Rand and far right journals:

Rather than acknowledging the drudgery of an always postponed apocalypse, these millenialist types want a good end to history, one that only comes in stories, mostly geared towards children. While no more religious than Rorschach, Rand subsitutes his and the more literally inclined monotheist's fable for reality: "Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong" (from here). There is always an end. To admit otherwise would be a slippery slope to Hell, or some equivalent, such as Continental philosophy. Kitschy, purple prose is nothing if not pretentious, so what else should those pretending to have the final answer to everything write like? (That's why modernized English versions of the Bible don't work: the style doesn't match the content's seriosity.) Rorschach's life is his own version of an old children's radio show about a masked vigilante. Of course, he tries too hard -- that's the point. Fanboy, all too fanboy.

Moore's "commentary" on the character is, I believe, summed up at the end of the book where Rorschach's last hope at getting "the truth" out there is with the nutjob journalists to whom he sent his journal. Unfortunately, the humor is botched in the film due to its leaving the newsstand interactions (depicted above) out. The viewer doesn't get the feel for just how nutty The New Frontiersman is by showing a slovenly fat, possibly liberal guy reaching for the stack where the journal is lying. Like all on the far right, the threat of violence is all Rorschach has to get his point across. With him dead, that's that.

Of course, stuff has to get left out (and the often off-panel fight scenes have to be beefed up to a commercially re-spectacle level), but the major problem with the film is that it doesn't re-interpret what it leaves in. Instead, its fidelity to the included makes the whole movie feel like the comic, but with pages cut out. The big reveal of Rorschach's face, for example, loses a lot in translation without the minor appearances of his conspiracist secret identity month to month.

It's these hacked out lacunae that result in the final third of the film feeling like it was tacked on. As Night Owl II and Rorschach are investigating the cancerous deaths of Manhattan's known associates, they discover Ozy's business has something to do with the victims. Upon flying to his arctic hideaway to ask him about it, he tells them something like, "by the way, I just murdered millions of New Yorkers."

Speaking of The End, It's Nigh Ludicrous as Ever

Along with Alan Moore's name, this is the other most noticeable present absence:

For the smartest guy on the planet, Ozy's not much more than a brutish utilitarian, using the hedonic calculus as if it were one of those bones at the beginning of 2001. Regardless of whether he's fooled the world into thinking his New York holocaust is the act of invading alien squids (comic), or Doc Manhattan's playing the God of Abraham (film), there's some obvious flaws in the plan. While the plan in the comic plays to the xenophobia that exists in all cultures, bringing them all together multilaterally against the Big Other, it fails to take into account that after, say, 10 years of no alien reappearing, societies will go back to fearing each other. This is something like black nationalists and white supremacists postponing their differences until they've together vanguished their common enemy, the Jews. A few years of peace from a war that wasn't definite hardly warrants (from an utilitarian perspective) the killing of millions. And while the film's continuing watchful eye of a present God does away with the need to continually kill more people to keep the danger imminent, it's a bit hard to swallow that Russia's forgotten that God's an American. I'd say the movie ending probably works better in terms of plausibility, but the comic's ending has more of connection (aesthetic, formal, ideological) with the superhero genre.

Ah well, the story is more about power than any particular philosophical position or the logic of the plot -- another point about the comic/film to which I'll hopefully return. But I'm tired, so I'm going to shut up now.