Traps / Frisson
This is the text of a talk (its various drafts written on the same day, titled “Traps” and “Frisson”, have been combined and interwoven here) given as part of a panel on Inglourious Basterds organised by the Jewish Studies department of Monash University on 24 September 2009. The evening event, much to my surprise, packed out a large hall and – even more surprisingly – most in the crowd seemed wildly enthusiastic about the film! I have since reworked parts of this speech into various essays, including “Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort” in my collection Mysteries of Cinema (2018); as well as, on this site, my remarks comparing Inglourious Basterds with Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. [8/8/19]
I once wrote an article called “The Offended Critic” [now collected in Mysteries of Cinema]. It was about what happens when critics – film critics, in this case – take up a position of offense, of outrage, when they take (as we say) the High Moral Ground on a movie. In short, I believe that the position or posture of the Offended Critic – and when I say it’s a posture, I don’t mean it’s insincere, it may be entirely sincere – can be a trap. But there’s also a trap on the other, extreme end of the viewer-response spectrum: when it is proclaimed that there is nothing at all ever to be offended about – or even critical or plain thoughtful about – when everything in culture is taken, and justified, as just some kind of spectacle, ritual or knowing, ironic game.
These two extreme positions I have just sketched – let’s call them the Offense position and the Anything Goes position – hover around and haunt all commentary on culture, whether high or low culture. But they really come out to play when we have a media event – and Inglourious Basterds, whatever you may think of it, is definitely a media event in many parts of the world – and here tonight, in this very room, we are making our own modest little contribution to that carnival of endless talk about Tarantino. ( I have to tell you, since I have already been asked to write four articles on Inglourious Basterds, from magazines all around the world, in the past 2 or 3 weeks, I am really starting to wonder if there is something else, maybe, some other film or filmmaker, we should all rather be talking about).
In the midst of a media event like this, the traps of critical extremes become even more exacerbated, more exaggerated, and we become more prone to falling into them. Such an event around Inglourious Basterds pushes us into taking up ever-more extreme polemical positions pro or con, for or against it, love it or hate it. Now, I don’t exactly hate this movie – I’m not sure it’s worthy of my hate, exactly – but I sure don’t love it either, and my tendency (as you’ll soon discover) is to be critical of it.
Let’s at least be aware of the two extreme poles in relation to this film, which have already chewed up literally millions of words on the Internet – such is the fire of this media event. First, there is the position of extreme offense: Inglourious Basterds is a bad thing, a negative influence, a mistake, a kind of cultural sin or crime – and, at the very least, an impertinence, perhaps a misjudged provocation that misfires. Then, second, the opposite extreme position: Inglourious Basterds is just a whole lot of crazy fun, “just a movie” as so many of its supporters say; or a movie about movies (it’s hard to argue with that one); or a fantastic, invigorating subversion of politically correct dogma about how to show a whole range of hot-button, historical issues.
In short, any public discussion of this film is a bloody minefield. We are desperately trying not to spring all of these booby-traps lying in wait for us on the ground – but if we’re too careful going about it, we won’t say anything at all. Let me take this risk tonight.
Before we get into all that, I would like to play a clip which sums up these two extreme positions I have just talked about. It’s a popular YouTube video, some of you might know it already, titled: “Quentin Tarantino Destroys a Movie Reviewer During Interview”. It took place in 2003 at the time of Kill Bill (Volume One), and it features QT (as his fans and foes alike call him these days) and a female film reviewer named Jan (but not our Jan Epstein here on tonight’s panel). Let’s watch it …
Now, you have to give it to QT: he manages to hang himself in just about every interview he gives, even as he stands up so stridently for himself and his whole cinema ethos. In this clip, he manages to contradict himself about half a dozen times in hardly a few minutes. Try to hold all this together in your head in the way that Tarantino does. First, films with “gruesome, graphic violence” (as TV Jan puts it) are, to him, “so much fun” – meaning, not serious, not real.
Next, he tells us that he makes “movies about other movies”, about the exciting, violent action movies of every kind he saw as a child – and he means by this that he makes entirely artificial films, “live action cartoons” – again, nothing serious, just spectacle, thrills, kinetics, pure cinema (another favourite term for QT fans).
Then he goes surprisingly highbrow, he gets a bit classical, a bit lit-crit on our asses: “Revenge is one of the classic staples of drama”, he earnestly intones, no doubt silently invoking Shakespeare and the Greeks. So: screen violence is now (in another classic move) catharsis or ritual, and therefore socially useful and necessary.
Then something ethical creeps into his spiel: his heroes and heroines “live and die by a code of honour” – that sounds good and promising. And finally, the big revelation: “Revenge is messy, it never works out the way you want it to”. Well, surely, it must work out the way he (Tarantino) wants it to – after all, he made the movie! Well, we get what he means, more or less. More importantly, his grand statement here almost sounds like – and it only makes sense as – a kind of real-world, real-life advice. He’s not, after all, just making-a-cartoon-movie-about-other-cartoon-movies; now he’s seriously suggesting to us, very confidentially, that if you’re planning to take revenge on those Nazis, then know, going in, that it’s messy, revenge is messy, and it won’t work out the way you want it to, because innocent people are going to be hurt!
So Tarantino has moved, in the space of about thirty seconds, from being a devil-may-care prankster to an adolescent moralist. And this is where I begin my critique of Inglourious Basterds.
Watching this film in close proximity to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), I had a certain revelation that sadism in cinema, the sadism of physical violence, is back – back with (as they say) a vengeance. In Tarantino’s film, the band of “Nazi killers” during World War II, led by Brad Pitt, gleefully scalp their victims – and, to eternally “brand” any survivors as the craven scum that they are, they carve Nazi insignia into their foreheads. “It’s my masterpiece”, intones Brad admiringly as he finishes his final touch of gruesome, bloody work on the head of the evil Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) in the last frames of the fiction – no doubt speaking boastfully for the director himself as he sizes up his latest creation, without a moment’s wait wasted on historical hindsight. Who needs the judgement of history, when QT can award himself his own immediate five-star rating?
But the historians, among many others, are judging. On all matters of history, Tarantino has come under rapid fire for his latest opus. Let us be fair: Inglourious Basterds does mark a significant change in his career, from making only what he has referred to as “movie movies” – i.e., films that only refer to other films, in an ecstatic state of cinemania – to making something that tackles, in a frankly outrageous fashion, questions of history and politics. This broadening of vision coincides with an expansion of Tarantino’s usually all-American cultural references (until now, even his genuflections to the French Nouvelle Vague seemed mainly mediated through other American films that had already gone down on one knee) – and that’s intriguing. Suddenly, there is an explosion of multiple languages (French, Italian, German) and locations; nods and winks and stylistic allusions abound not only to the tough American mavericks like Samuel Fuller or Robert Aldrich, but also to Henri-Georges Clouzot, Leni Riefenstahl, and Soviet cinema of the ‘20s (that last reference is especially strong in the oddly anachronistic Nazi propaganda film-within-a-film, directed not by Tarantino but his protégé Eli Roth of torture-porn-media-panic fame … but that’s another story).
Still – even within a film that Tarantino offers to us openly, brazenly, as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, Jews at last getting to wreak their murderous revenge not only on innumerable Nazi officers but also der Führer himself – even then, the work on history is strange and perplexing. Within only a matter of weeks of its global theatrical release, commentators, professional and amateur alike – especially on the Internet – had vigorously debated seemingly every detail of the film, from its deliberately misspelt title to its grand, apocalyptic climax in a burning movie theatre. (Personally, I find it a pity that not even a small fraction of these pundits seem to be aware that the exiled American filmmaker Abel Ferrara, too, ended a not terribly old film, the remarkable but little-seen Mary , with a highly politicised mêlée in a movie theatre, a bit like in Inglourious Basterds, and Matthew Modine’s ecstatic exclamation in the middle of all this chaos as he locks himself into the booth and switches on the movie projector, is: “The film is the bomb!” – and that is a big scene I value about a hundred times more than the corresponding scene in Tarantino.)
QT himself has not been slow to add gasoline to the fire of all these arguments – he likes his art to be incendiary in every way, literally and figuratively. His comments in interviews tend to encourage confusions rather than resolve them. For example, on his opportunistic use of the Native American “Apache” mythology of scalping – well, Tarantino has some indigenous American blood in him, in his family, he does in fact know that scalping was not an indigenous practice, but one introduced by their European colonisers, and he likes to boast that, as a child, when he watched Westerns with his Mum, they sided with the Indians against the white cowboys – but, when asked about the scalping in Inglourious Basterds, this is what Tarantino said (I actually had to sub-edit his stream-of-consciousness or ‘motor mouth’ a little here, from its radio interview transcript, to get it to make even free-associative sense):
The idea of using the Apache resistance … it works effective(ly) to actually get German soldiers to think of Jews that way … And they’re not just any Jews, they’re the American Jews. They’re Jews with entitlement. They have the strongest nation in the world behind them. So we [Americans] are going to inflict pain where our European aunts and uncles had to endure it. And so the fact that you could actually get Nazis scared of a band of Jews, that’s … a gigantic psychological thing. The other thing is even the Jews … metaphorically aligning themselves with Indians … you have genocide aligning itself with another genocide.
Now: genocide aligning itself with another genocide? Let’s first get clear that QT meant that as a good thing. It is an extreme – perhaps monstrous – transformation of the principle of “an eye for an eye”, transposed to the world-historical stage of the 20th Century. Yet can we effectively criticise Tarantino for not being an intellectual, a political historian, a moral philosopher? Those who champion Inglourious Basterds stand up for the filmmaker’s right to be provocative, to shake up safe, neat conventions of historical representation, to indulge in and satisfy our deepest, least realistic fantasy of racial retribution. And, above all, his right to have fun – gruesome, black-comic fun; fun with his subject, fun with himself as celebrity auteur, fun with us as the audience whom he effectively leads down a path and then startles, over and over. And those who deny that fun are (you’re hearing this a lot at the moment) killjoys, party-poopers, the politically correct police of respectable culture.
An abyss quickly opens up between those on one side for whom Inglourious Basterds is “morally akin to Holocaust denial” because “anything that makes Nazism unreal is wrong”, and those on the other side, all those tactical amoralists who find the film a daring, invigorating and complex gesture in the context of current, mainstream cinema. Zach Campbell puts the post-Tarantino dilemma of critical culture well: “While every good film critic is probably a bit of a moralist, not every good film critic is a good moralist.” And I would add: not every good filmmaker, either – with Tarantino sometimes indeed being, in his career, a very good filmmaker (my favourite remains Jackie Brown ).
It is a delicate matter trying to pry open Tarantino’s political unconscious – to grasp (without altogether killing the joy that so many spectators derive from his films) the personal and social complex of which Inglourious Basterds may be the symptom – and if this film is nothing else, it sure as hell has got to be a symptom of something. For Tarantino today, revenge has become his dominant – perhaps his sole – subject. Kill Bill, Death Proof (2007) and now Inglourious Basterds play out the theorem Tarantino has so often sworn by: announce a character’s revenge plan, give a persuasive reason for it (usually in an elaborate flashback), painstakingly trace each step of the plan, and – this above all – give the audience the orgasmic pleasure of finally seeing that revenge fully, elaborately achieved. Shohei Imamura’s immortal title Vengeance is Mine (1979) could be the label for Tarantino’s entire oeuvre.
Tarantino has never had any qualms about presenting and sensationalising vengeful, sadistic violence. In fact, the horrifying events of 11 September 2001 in USA appear to have had a delirious, perhaps partly unconscious effect on his creative psyche: since that time, his films have become ecstatic fables of unfettered violence, albeit justified by some handy moral alibi (such the divinity of motherhood in Kill Bill). The right to strike back – so much a part of American ideology and the American psyche – overcomes every material barrier in his recent films: geography, language, culture, money. As QT says, over and over, what he is really after is a really big effect, what he called a “gigantic psychological thing” – and for some viewers and reviewers, he obviously succeeds in this.
Tarantino is comfortable with the simplified polarities of melodrama: by boiling World War II down to the struggle between one bad (male) Nazi and one wronged (female) Jew, he manages, miraculously, to obliterate from view the entire French Resistance! And the (maybe unwittingly?) disturbing sequence in which several remaining “basterds”, soon for sacrificial immolation, indiscriminately and without a moment’s hesitation slaughter every German in the movie house, is enough to inform us, once and for all, that Tarantino is no Samuel Fuller when it comes to the complex ironies and reversibilities of wartime ethics. The ambiguous liberation of the concentration camp in Fuller’s masterpiece The Big Red One (1980), with its vision of an American soldier, the “liberator”, firing obsessively into the live body of a German who is hiding in the ovens – this incredible scene is not one that Tarantino could ever conceive, or shoot. There is neither room nor time for ambiguity in Tarantino: sadistic revenge demands a straight-down-the-line thrill.
Now, there is another kind of trap, a more minor one, that comes with disliking, being offended by, even hating a film. If it’s the politics or the ethics or something large and unmanageable about the film you don’t like, it’s easy to immediately translate that into the less heated realm of purely aesthetic disapproval – to just say, as so many non-fans have said, “Well, it’s just not a good film”, or a “well-made” film, not well structured or written or edited or acted or directed. And I have to be frank here – and go ahead and spring this selfsame trap – by testifying that the film really did not excite me as a piece of cinema. If it had excited me, on any level, I would have then had the impetus to go back to the film, to try to re-enter its other levels somehow, and maybe make more positive, constructive sense of it.
Inglourious Basterds, in my opinion, does not display its director at the top of his form. This strenuous entertainment, so eager to please and to succeed, exposes the weakness of Tarantino’s narrative constructions once the usual shuffled time-schemes and other familiar tricks (which here have only a clumsy, cameo role) are absent – I’m talking about tricks like the writing on the screen, brief burst of narration, selective flashbacks, which the film can’t make work either as a chaotic, all-in, freewheeling structure, or as a tightly controlled, more classical one. Tarantino gives the same, repetitive weight and shape to every tableau-like scene: always the same (sadistic) slow burn of suspense, the same extended dialogue, the same Mexican stand-off of weapons, the same chaotic burst of cataclysmic death. Tarantino’s cinema been going backwards ever since Jackie Brown – his only film with a strong political-racial subtext, not to mention an adult love story, an adult relationship, at its centre – and compare that to the paper-thin rapport between Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) and the Afro-French projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido) in Inglourious Basterds.
Earlier, I called Tarantino an adolescent moralist, and I would like to make clear, in closing, exactly what I mean by that. Adolescent moralists are a type; you meet them, hear them and see them all the time – they make for good, juicy media events. Adolescent moralising is all about pulling off a sudden, surprising twist of standard moral values and standard moral statements – in order to create a collective shock, a public frisson. The twist in Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino saying: in my film, in my fantasy, the victims of genocidal violence also get to be the perpetrators of genocidal violence – and isn’t that great and fantastic and shocking and disturbing and complex and messy all at the same time? Well, that’s maybe a bit too much for one film to be all at the same time.
OK, it has caused a frisson – that’s why we all showed up here tonight. But if we heap praise on this movie, we may as well go back to handing out official literary awards to Helen Demidenko-Darville-Dale’s infamous Australian novel The Hand That Signed the Paper (1994), since that book rested on exactly the same naughty, windily “provocative”, adolescent thought about the big issues of history: a reversal of the moral positions of victim and perpetrator. In her case (and her later journalism bears this out), the grand gesture was reminiscent of the daringly stylish French literary right-wingers of the 1950s known as the Hussards (one of many influences on the Nouvelle Vague). I’m not daring to taint Tarantino with that particular cross-historical and cross-cultural association; all the same, adolescent moralizing has to be scrutinized carefully in its resonances and effects.
The general title of this seminar asked: “Can Hollywood Rewrite History?” The answer is yes; it always has and always will, because fiction has that license. But I think the question should be: how does it rewrite history, and why? Especially when it comes to that why, Tarantino really doesn’t show any sign – in this film at any rate – that he has a darn clue.
© Adrian Martin 23 September 2009