Saturday, January 30, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

I had a pretty deep WWII obsession when I was a kid. I had a few books on the subject, but I wasn't a big reader, so I mostly just looked at the pictures of cool weapons and vehicles, and didn't really absorb a lot of the real history of the conflict. Instead, I mostly experienced WWII through movies, comics and role-playing, both with little green army men in the vacant lots that dotted my still-growing suburban neighborhood, or with toy guns and pinecone hand grenades in the small tracts of woods that remained. For movies, you could occassionally catch The Dirty Dozen or Guns of Navarrone on the local station, but mostly it was HBO, which showed movies like Patton, MacArthur, Midway, A Bridge Too Far (my favorite, although I'm not really sure why), Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, and Enzo Castellari's The Inglorious Bastards. I watched all of these, but as time went on, I started to feel a slight disapointment with them, because they were so dry compared to the comics and my own made-up stories. The stories in WWII comics were always just nuts, action-packed stuff, with comandos sneaking in to blow up Nazi bases and all kinds of crazy scenarios. There was one anthology comic (might have been called All-Out War! or something like that) that had a continuing story about a Viking Commando: he was thawed out of a glacier, you see, and now he fights for the allies, and uses his battle axes to scale up the wall of an old castle to kill the "Huns." And that wasn't even in Weird War Tales, where they had stories about squadrons of gorilla commandos, or dinosaurs being used in combat or whatever. THOSE were the kind of stories I wanted to see in the movies.

And I would bet good money that Quentin Tarantino grew up reading those too, because that's about the pitch level of Inglourious Basterds, with it's ridiculously pulpy premise of a platoon of Jewish American GI's conducting a guerilla campaign in Nazi-Occupied France, with the goal of killing as many Nazis as brutally as possible. Operation Kino, the rag-tag mission to blow up the entire German high command, Hitler included, is straight out of those comics as well. And the story of Shoshanna is not far off this mark either (she seems to lay the plans for her revenge based on how good it will look on the screen).

You almost have to wonder why there was a need for the two stories at all. IB could probably have been a better film if it had just concentrated on Shoshanna's story. What is the purpose of these guys filling Hitler full of lead so that he'll die a few minutes sooner (well, other than that it looks awesome)? But in QT's Movie-Movie Universe, there is a sort of logic to the way these two stories interact. You can sort of imagine that Shoshanna is starring in her movie, and the Basterds are starring in their movie (where the individual characters are more fleshed out), and what we eventually got is bits of both movies getting mixed together (when the Basterds enter Shoshanna's theater, are they being filmed by a different camera crew from the other side?). [An aside: going back and reading that AICN post, it's surprising how IB had at one time been considered part of the Realer-Than-Real Universe, and it shows how much this project must have changed in Tarantino's head over the course of the decade. The final product is, by the time it reaches its climax, even more Movie-Movie than Kill Bill, with Hitler being repeatedly shot in the face with a machine gun while the theater burns down around him and Shoshanna's face, projected onto the smoke, curses the Nazis to death, until the dynamite finally blows the theater to smithereens. It's an absuredly entertaining fantasy. And as long as I'm digging up 10-year-old posts from the AICN archives, I really like this one where Quentin more or less describes the climax of Inglourious Basterds while introducing a Fernando Di Leo double feature.]

Inglourious Basterds is a film about propaganda, war through means other than physical violence: words, ideas, images. The second half of the film centers around Goebbles' propaganda films, movies produced by the Nazi regime specifically to advance the Nazi cause and promote German nationalism. These films are weapons of war, as surely as any tank or bomber. It's a war fought through ideas, and on the flip side of it, we have Shoshanna Dreyfuss, a culture jammer who hacks into Goebbles' system with her own counter-propaganda film, warping the weapon back on its weilder like Bugs Bunny bending back the barrells of Elmer Fudd's shotgun. Aldo Rayne and his squadron of Basterds are propagandists too, of a different sort. Their goal is not to win the war by amassing massive casualties (to "make the other poor bastard die for his country"), but to weaken German morale by striking terror into the hearts of Nazi soldiers. They are, in other words, terrorists. Rayne explicitly states this in his speech to his troops. Hitler understands this as well, and the imperative he issues is not to kill the Basterds at all costs, but to issue a gag order on soldiers spreading the Bear Jew mythology. Hans Landa, too, uses communication as a weapon. He doesn't find Jews by waterboarding collaborators, just by manipulating them with words (and "uncomfortable silences").

By the way, did anyone else think it was hilarious that Mike Meyers was cast as Basil Exposition?


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