Tarantino’s Basterds

Let me say, right from the beginning, that I have never been one of Quentin Tarantino’s biggest fans.  I enjoy his films, mostly.  I think his dialogue is often very good.  I love the way that he frames and moves through his shots.  I am not, however, able to respond to his films in the ways that other people do.  On the one hand, I cannot wallow in the popular culture references, in the violence, in the genre mashing that attracts the greater part of his audience.  On the other hand, neither can I find much profundity in the irony and social commentary that attracts his more intellectual admirers.  I find his work far more interesting than the generic Hollywood films that are generally found in theatres, of course, but this is not exactly a grand achievement.

On Tuesday night, however, I went with Don Moore and John Jantunen to see Inglourious Basterds, and I think my opinion of the film might very well be summed up in the words that close it.  They are spoken by Aldo, an American officer in charge of a Jewish special forces unit that has been dropped into Nazi France to wreak havoc on the occupying forces.  Throughout the film, he has allowed only a very few of his Nazi prisoners to survive, and he has carved a swastika into the foreheads of each of these men as a way of marking them as Nazis even after they have removed their uniforms.  He takes a certain pride in this operation, remarking at one point that he is getting quite good at it, and suggests that you only get to be the best with practice.

In the final scene, Aldo is taking charge of a German SS officer who has made a deal with the Allies.  He knows that he cannot kill his prisoner, but he is also unwilling to let the man escape his crimes, so he resorts again to carving a swastika on his prisoner’s forehead.  The closing shot is of Aldo’s face from below, from the perspective of the newly branded officer, as Aldo says, “I think this may be my masterpiece.”

All of which is to say that Tarantino, at least in my opinion, could have put these same words in his own mouth, and perhaps, in a way, he even does, since there are more than a few similarities between how Aldo and Tarantino use violence as a medium.  In any case, whether or nor he had the audacity to say so himself, I think Inglourious Basterds is indeed Tarantino’s masterpiece, at least to date.  What distinguishes it from his previous films, at least in my opinion, is the structural complexity of the story, the many layers of parallelism that engage the audience itself in the film’s social and ethical critique.  I could give many examples of this, but one will have to suffice.

In the climactic sequence, a Jewish theatre owner is hosting the première of a Goebbles film.  The entirety of the Nazi high command is in attendance, so the owner and her black lover have decided to lock the doors and burn the theatre down around the audience.  The film being premièred is about a young German soldier who single-handedly defends a tower against 300 Allied soldiers, and the footage is mostly of these Allied soldiers being gunned down in various ways.  Hitler and the other Nazi luminaries are shown laughing at this carnage, and Hitler even mentions to Goebbles that the film is his best work.

This moment produces an interesting irony, however, considering that the audience of Tarantino’s film has been similarly laughing at depictions of German soldiers being shot, scalped, smothered, strangled, and beaten with baseball bats.  Suddenly, the audience of Tarantino’s film is being paralleled with the audience of Goebbles’ film,  and our laughter begins to appear disturbingly akin to Hitler’s laughter, a laughter that comes from seeing the death of those we have always assumed to be deserving of nothing other than death.

Film logic has always told us that Nazis are the one unambiguous evil.  Nazis appear on screen only to be killed.  They can be killed without conscience.  In fact, they can even be killed with a certain humour, and we will laugh along.  Yet, this laughter, Tarantino implies, is very much Hitler’s laughter also.  The only difference is in the kinds of people that we are amused to see dying.

This is not say that Tarantino is in any way excusing the Nazis.  Quite the opposite: without offering them any excuse whatsoever, he is implicating his own audience in their behaviour and implying that we are also guilty of the same unambiguous evil that the Nazis have come to represent, and when the theatre burns down around Hitler and his staff, there is the uncomfortable implication that we, as an audience of Tarantino’s film, might expect a similar fate.

We are left to wonder whether there might not be those who would indeed happily burn us in our seats because we have been all too content to watch them dying, because we have always assumed that they exist only to die.  There may not be an orphaned Jewish girl behind the projector or her persecuted black lover behind the screen, but there are any number of candidates to take their places, some who have already taken their places, the oppressed and forgotten people of the world for whom violence and torture and terrorism appear to be the only choices available.

Which brings me back to that final scene, where Aldo is etching a Swastika in his prisoner’s forehead.  Perhaps Tarantino’s film puts us in the place of that prisoner.  After all, it is in that moment, for the first time, that the camera takes the point of view of one of its characters, and we are made to look, through the SS officer’s eyes, at the face of the one who has just marked us forever.  Perhaps we are meant to recognize that we too have committed the same kinds atrocities through the very ways that we live, that we too have cut a deal that lets us escape responsibility for the violence that our lives inflict on others, and that we too, through the film, are now being marked as a permanent reminder of our culpability, though we have no uniform that others might recognize.  Perhaps, Tarantino’s film is his way of sitting on our chests, taking a knife in his hand, and marking us as those who are content to have certain kinds of people die so that we can live the way we do.  Perhaps this is his masterpiece.  Perhaps.

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13 comments
  1. John Jantunen said:

    I wonder, though Luke, whether Tarantino might have shot himself in the proverbial foot, hobbling the film as it were, by succumbing to the audience’s demand for the graphic violence we have come to expect in his films. Is it possible, I ask, to make a film about our craving for increasinly gratuitous scenes of violence, and the consequences, social and otherwise, that result from this without actually depicting any onscreen? Evidence would seem to indicate that Tarantino might be moving in this direction as in his last two films, Basterds and Death Proof, he has used violence not as an end in itself, as is so often the case with Hollywood movies, but as a means of harnessing our expectations of violence in the creation of genuine tension, which I think is the true casualty of all this cinematic carnage. I would suggest that until he takes that final step and challenges us, the audience, with a film that eschews the easy distraction of violence, Stephen King calls it the gross-out, for the visceral engagment that comes from a purely suspense driven film he will not have created a true masterpiece (see The Vanishing, Dutch Version, for what this might look like).

  2. John,

    I do think that it would be possible to make a film that confronted our culture’s relation to violence without actually depicting violence on the screen, but I do not think that Tarantino could create the parallel that he does without depicting violence. We need first to have witnessed the violence and been amused by it in order to see ourselves reflected in Hitler’s own amusement. In this case at least, the violence remains necessary to the argument, and perhaps it even stands as a recognition that, in order to address real violence, it does not suffice merely to eliminate it from our screens.

  3. John Jantunen said:

    I just remembered, there is a film that did have the courage to do what what Tarantino did not (a fact which doesn’t necessarily diminish what he did accomplish with Basterds). Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games (I have not seen his remake although apparently it is also quite good) was precicely about the viewer’s relationship between the violence depicted on screen and its perpetrators. Where it strayed from Basterds was in its uncompromising engagement of the audience in the true horror of what was happening to its protagonists and Haneke’s genius was in never letting the viewer off the hook for our complicity as, I think, Tarantino does too often. There is a scene…but damn I don’t believe in spoilers so I can’t talk about that. Suffice to say, never before or since have I seen the true consequences of violence portrayed in such a way, stripping it of all pretensions to style and leaving the viewer as catatonic as both the camera and the characters on screen.

  4. John,

    I have never seen Funny Games. We should rent it some night.

  5. Mike Hoye said:

    I wonder, though Luke, whether Tarantino might have shot himself in the proverbial foot, hobbling the film as it were, by succumbing to the audience’s demand for the graphic violence we have come to expect in his films.

    I think you’ve got this backwards. The graphic violence doesn’t diminish his point in the least. If anything, the violence and the audience’s reaction to it emphasizes the final point of the filmmaker’s marking of his audience as monsters, and ultimately of the audience’s complicity.

  6. Mike,

    I agree, absolutely as long as people are actually taking the time to reflect on the film for a moment. The problem is, and I think this is John’s concern, that most people are perfectly content just to revel in the film’s violence. If they fail to understand the point Tarantino is making, is the film still successful? This is not Tarantino’s fault, of course. It is the fault of a public that lacks the interest and the capacity to actually think about the things they see, and, unfortunately, I am not sure what can really be done to change this situation to any significant degree.

  7. Curtis said:

    Personally, without having seen the movie, and going from Luke’s description, I don’t see from where the complaints of violence being depicted comes from. Knowing the film is a Tarentino, knowing at least in descript what it is portraying and what has been given as it’s prevalent theme, the only way this film could have gotten it’s point across, to my understanding it to then focus on the faces of the perpetrators doing the killing in every scene, a Nazi is gunned down, focus on the face of the man gunning him down. At which point the fact which Luke has gained and described at what the film may be telling us, is completely lost. From what I know about Tarentino movies, the violence, with some exceptions to specific moments in pulp fiction, or reservoir dogs has never succeeded on me as being real or believable, except in those specific scenes, such as john travolta being shot by bruce willis as the pop tarts pop, and that only strikes me as successful because of the prolonged experience of ‘The Moment of Clarity’ which precedes the shooting, a long look of understanding between the two men. Otherwise I find the violence in his films to be something of a purposefully fasical horror, almost comedic, and always a commentary, that it doesn’t have to be real to pacify our need to consume barbarity- and truly making the statement that in a civilised society, we do not know out limits nor the reality what violence is, we just have a series of pipe dreams about what it is to kill or brutalise others, based on a series of reverberating instincts, much like a lion behind bars knowing it should hunt and kill, but never actually knowing what that is, because it’s behind bars. Perhaps it is more successful because Tarentino now uses war, the arena where this pipe dream is most commonly unleashed with all it’s previously internalised fiction the most in history. And because that’s where it is released from the public who go to war, perhaps it is best used to show the public who have not what exactly it is we are suffering from. Perhaps, as Jim Morrison proposed upon the sexual varacity of the mob and it’s need for ejaculation, Tarentino has expressed what has been going on in us by displaying the gore and violence not as a service but as a diservice. Another good example of this demonstration comes in the book and Movie, Perfume in the two final scenes, on a similar level with love and violence, where in the first a crowd is thrown into a massive orge over a smell, and then consumes the main character down to nothing by a similar scent because they are so deprived of moments of process, a kind of starvation, that they can only express it through improper execution, it then is much more courageous to give the people what they think they want, vogue and chic and then force them to process their lack in a full abundance of consumption. Otherwise it’s like A Clockwork Orange without sex violence, Beetoven, or giant fallacis, or Shakespeare without anything that makes Shakespeare great. What good is Andronicus without the cast of Characters knowing full well what they are doing and keeping on doing it except those who try and accomplish the most good. Assuming the Heroes are indeed good. What good is Aaron unless he is the only one who can defend his dilute son, while everyone else wishes it dead because it is a dilute and a political scar to everyone else, including Aaron, what good is the whole play without the most morally abase character having so much ethical high ground in one excellent moment against everyone else, even if it is simply natural love against all others who should have that natural love? Without the violence which is almost comical in its extreme, without the violence which is absurd against Titus and Job, and all other Characters, do we not lose successful commentary- of how much suffering is enough. If we do not ask the question, is God amused, and so also why are we amused, then it fails and without the violence those questions are not asked. I repeat then that unless the joy on the killer’s face was focused on at every instance, then without violence the point is lost, and in the face focus then it’s less aparent the point. It lacks the final question of Luke’s description of the final scene, ‘Why is Aldo carving a swastika into my forehead?’

  8. John Jantunen said:

    Luke,
    I disagree that nothing can be done to change this situation to any significant degree. All it takes are filmmakers willing to creatively engage their audience and an audience up to the challenge of being creatively engaged. We are, in many ways, in a golden age of filmmaking with unprecedented talent working to produce films that don’t so much try to reflect “reality”, which is the stock answer used to justify graphic depictions of violence which, most often, do little to actually reflect the real consequences of violence on the individual and the society (please, please watch City Of God and then tell me whether that film would have been better served by the level of brutality Tarantino utilizes), but challenge the audience to re-imagine the reality in which we live (Kaufman’s Synecdoche, NY, Liegh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and Aaronosky’s The Wrestler immediately spring to mind). What I think bugs me about Tarantino is that he seems to believe, like most of us I suppose, that he can have his cake and eat it too. That he can still use the allure of graphic violence to attract an audience and then castigate the viewer for being so predictable which is like saying that it’s okay to live in a monster house, travel to exotic locals three times yearly for vacation and eat fresh avacodoes 365 days a year just because you had the eco-sense to buy a Prius.

    Curtis,
    Until I saw Jarmusch’s Dead Man, I never would have thought it possible to make a film about the Native American genocide without seeing any dead Indians. Instead of having close-ups of those responsible for killing off the Native’s whilst they died, as you would suggest is the only alternative when not wanting to use on screen graphic violence, Jarmusch cast a modern man adrift in a conquered landscape that he was unfit to occupy. It was the absurdity of his predicament which resonated with me and not showing any dead Indians in no way devalued the tragedy that we, as conscientious viewers, witnessed through the main character’s wanderings; a man who, much like us, knows not the price of his pressed suit and top hat. The difference between Jarmusch and Tarantino is that Jarmusch has the patience and the uncompromising commitment to valuing the potential lying dormant within his audience to pull this off (over and over again) while Tarantino has neither. It’s interesting, to note, that it is within Basterd’s first scene that Tarantino comes closest to fully engaging the audience and he doesn’t resort to gratuitous violence to achieve this. He presents a man with a choice, an unspoken choice even, and allows the man to decide whether his principles are worth the death and likely rape of his daughters at the hands of the Nazis. If he had only managed to maintain this level of suspense, the oldest trick in the book to get an audience on side, then he surely would have created a masterpiece.

    Also, it is interesting that you use Perfume, the movie and book, as an example. It was one of the books that my wife used to learn English, she is German, and she passed it along to me early in our relationship. It is the story of a man forced outside of society who, by dint of a rare talent, stumbles on the possibility of creating perfection (in this case the perfect scent), believing that this will lead to his acceptance in a society that, otherwise, has little use for him. The paradox is, that to create this perfect scent he must further isolate himself from the society that wants so desperately to be a part of and through this detachment (represented by sociopathy) he inevitably destroys both society (as represented by the small town which takes him in) and himself. Rarely, I think, has a piece of pulp fiction (for that it was it is, part mystery, part horror, part fantasy) managed to so uncompromisingly depict the dire consequences of completely insulating oneself from the world and its inhabitants. In the end, believing that the only way he can be loved is by dousing himself with his creation he returns to the place of his birth, his people, and is summarily torn apart. He does not do this because he is giving the people what they want, or what he thinks they want, but because he is under the delusion that there could still be a place for a man such as himself when plainly there can not (and for good reason). It’s very much like Hesse’s Magister Ludi where the main character believes that he can create a practical application, through the glass bead game, for academic ephemera without having any real understanding, or contact, with the world outside of the school that he hopes will benefit. Finally, unaware of the limitations of his flesh (the real), he dives into a cold lake and suffers a fatal heart attack forever consigning his glass bead game to the status of a minor footnote in history. Naively, I would hope that such would be the fate of Tarantino’s films if it weren’t for the sceptic in me who fears that his brand of diluted cultural criticism, which only serves to reinforce that which his is supposedly critiquing, will be revered for generations to come precisely because it never challenges its audience beyond superficial juxtapositions masquerading as introspection.

  9. Curtis said:

    Well John,

    First, I have seen neither of these films. I was going mostly on the one scene I have seen and Luke’s description of things, which to me seemed to say something different, though not much than your point, and depended much on violent depiction. The other things to consider, is that even the most insightful film needs to branch itself with certain fan services if it really wants to impact it’s wider potential, and not just pour drinks for its own caste of choir [the people who already understand what it is saying and then remark on how they knew they knew sort of thing, which is actually I think what alot of intellectual analyses amounts to, otherwise it would follow with honest intrigues at elements and sufficing ‘I don’t know”s. I am not saying that Tarantino’s film is on some calibers with master works, but I do know if he attempted to cater to a ‘higher wavelength’ intllectually, people would have wanted a vulgar gratuitous parable and walked out. He might have been praised as a film maker, lost alot of money, and a thousand people wouldn’t be walking around saying, ‘it was good, I didn’t get it’ they’d be saying ‘it was crap, I didn’t get it’. Tarantino is making a Hollywood film the potential that it can say anything at all is outstanding. And moving the violence from the senseless accidental ‘unreal’ of a cartoon, or the white interior of a cadillac, into the motivated, real atmosphere of war, historical war, no matter how stretched does allow for the notion, this cannot be cleaned up by Harvey Keitel.

    What it brings to my mind is a painting my art teacher in Highschool made. He painted a depiction of David, the painting where he is holding Goliath’s head, not the sculture, and super imposed David’s own head where Goliaht’s should be, it was confusing and powerful and I think he mentioned some sort of author but I cannot completely recall.

    At the very least the film might be valuable because it destroys for us, that forth wall, like the fourth wall.

    And to now be brief, what you gleaned from reading perfume, I did not. I thought the clear declarations that Jean Baptiste was evil, and that his motivations were not to fit in but to dominate cancel a good portion of your sentiment. His goal was indeed to have a love affair with scent, at the expense of his and thirteen females’ humanity, to truly be a disgusting God whom he showed up with the Luciferian angelic hidden in his flask.

  10. Curtis said:

    Sorry, I meant to say in two places, ‘It was crap I didn’t get, i walked out’

    and elsewhere, the fourth wall, like the Scream films.

  11. John Jantunen said:

    Curtis,

    If Jean Baptiste were simply evil then why is he a sympathetic character and if his motivation was only to dominate then why did he choose to sacrifice himself at the end of the book?

    John

  12. John Jantunen said:

    Also,

    It’s funny but I happened to watch a doc yesterday afternoon on CBC concerning low birth rates for males and the reps from the chemical industry were using the same argument you used to justify Tarantino’s use of violence to justify the use of DPA in baby bottles when research indicated that the long term negative consequences to our species could be devestating.

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