Monday, November 23, 2009

I'm a worse person than I was Sunday morning, and I blame Quentin Tarantino for it. I went to see Inglourious Basterds at the dollar theater yesterday afternoon, and came out of it angry, upset, and feeling deeply uncharitable to my fellow man. Tarantino movies have always shown a strong streak of nihilistic sadism in the past, but his ability to tie the meanness and viciousness back into a valid and occasionally sublime artistic summation has let me excuse that streak as part of his aesthetic creative engine. I'm thinking of material like the "Mr. Blonde w/ ear" scene in Reservoir Dogs, the Buck business in the first Kill Bill movie, the "eye" scenes in the second, and basically the whole script for Natural Born Killers. But he never really turned that sadistic nihilism against the viewing audience before like he has in Inglourious Basterds. (Well, I say that, but I've never gotten around to watching his contribution to the Grindhouse double-feature, so maybe it's in that.)

It's an ugly movie, a soul-eroding movie. It reminds me of nothing so much as the Blair Witch Project, but whereas that experiment turned its sadism, hatred, and fury against the film-maker as a class - message: stop looking! stop filming! leave evil be! - Tarantino's movie is a diatribe against the potential viewing audience. It's a film made with a burning rage against those who enjoy war pictures, especially those which fixate upon combat action footage. I'd apologize for spoiling, except that I honestly don't want anyone to see this movie, so I'll come out and describe what upset me:

Tarantino presents the film climax as the symbolic murder of the viewing audience. The set-piece is a three-fold terrorist assault upon a movie theatre filled with the National Socialist elite, complete with the "big four", Hitler, Goebbels et al. They're gathered together in a Paris theatre to watch the 1944 premiere of a high-budget propaganda piece about a German sniper's heroic one-man stand, filmed with the actual sniper a la Audie Murphy's autobiographical post-war film, To Hell and Back. In the build-up to the climatic bloodletting, we're repeatedly assaulted with snips and cuts from the propaganda piece, filmed in a cinema verite style with repeated on-screen killings of American soldiers. It's a brutal, ugly piece, and we're conditioned to hate the audience as they applaud every cleverly filmed death.

At the end, as the sniper-hero turns to the camera to deliver his propagandistic message to the audience, the doctored in-story film cuts out to the piece created by the actual film's heroine. She introduces herself as the Jew who is going to kill them all, in a presentation rather like the Apple 1984 commercial. At the end of the filmed clip, she gives the order to her awaiting accomplice, who starts a fire behind the screen, with an enormous pile of spilled-open nitrate film reels. The resulting cacophony is dominated by her posthumous maniacal laughing face, floating horribly over the smoke and fire and the brutal, gleefully filmed mass death.

Supposedly the whole picture was designed as an experiment in testing the hypothesis, "there isn't anything too terrible you can do to a Nazi in a film". I very much believe it. But the thing is, he's set it up so that there is no moral center to the film. The titular Basterds are murderous, animalistic clowns, with no dignity or humanity to them. The Germans are, well, Nazis - and unstintingly portrayed as such. Even the Marlene Dietrichesque double-agent actress is shown to be duplicitous and murderous. The Jewish heroine - a young woman who survives the murder of her family by the primary antagonist, Col. Landa - is never given an actual positive personality trait. She's as humorless and murderous as the hero of a third-rate Jacobean revenge tragedy; her only putative virtue is her victimhood.

The film ends with the scalping, torturing clown Lt. Raine gleefully proclaiming of one last, pointless mutilation that "I think this might just be my masterpiece." There is no escape from the sadism of this picture. I left the theatre sickened and ashamed to have participated in it by having sat through the whole show. Because the awful thing is, it was a "show", and a horribly gripping one, worse than a train-wreck, because train-wrecks are accidents and every last second of this film was planned. Even the clownishness, the ahistoricality, the bizarre mis-casting of Mike Myers as a British general, the buffoonery of the Hitler portrayal, the random anachronistic rock music and the sheer ludicrousness of the plot don't keep it from being compelling, doesn't keep it from being a coherent filmwatching experience.

But it is, quite simply, a dehumanizing movie. It seems to have been made to demoralize, to derange the moral sense. The film's view of war is a series of atrocities unconstrained by law, purpose, justice, discipline, or morality. But I can't say that it's an honestl anti-war film - the core message is too wrathful, consuming, hateful. The final image, of American soldiers mutilating a Nazi war criminal so that he can't ever take off the uniform, is calculated. The idea of never letting them take off their uniforms is a device which breaks down the bounds between the atrocity of war and the securities of peace which ought to be the concern of a proper anti-war, pacifistic message-picture. This device, and the way that it was placed just prior to the credits, rips open the war-atrocities the picture presents us & spills it into our safe-zones, like a bullet-punctured intestine leaking into a peritoneal sac.

Incidentally, I was the only person in the theater, barring only the occasional usher shuffling through. That theater's days are numbered, if they can't get an audience at a dollar a show, they're doomed.

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