Thursday, March 18, 2010

Look – We’re Not So Different After All

(Spoiler alert – I will be discussing plot points to Tarantino’s latest war flick in this blog entry.  Just so as you know.)

One of Hollywood’s favorite themes is the notion that we’re all really more alike than you might think.  Usually this comes in the “Hey, the guy that looks different that you fear?  Well he’s just like us!” variety.

But every once in a while, that gets turned on its head with a “Hey, that guy that’s totally immoral? Well, we’re just like him!” 

Two of this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees carry such a sub-theme; one very much intentionally, the second one not so much.

Let’s start with the intentional one.

As you have heard or seen by now, Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS takes a revisionist look at World War II – one where the war is brought to an early end with a plot to kill off Hitler. 

But Tarantino not only revises historical events, he also subverts an historical sense: the idea that the Allies were morally superior in that conflict. 

Subversive indeed, as this is the one bi-partisan touch-point that nobody argues without being called a loon.  Hitler was a monster of incomprehensible evil; the good guys weren’t just morally justified to fight this war, they were morally obligated.

As it so happens, I side with the majority on this one – Hitler bad, Allies good.

Tarantino, though, says “not so fast.”  Not by arguing that Hitler was good (the Gnatzeeze of this film are Oscar Award Winning evil), but rather that “we” are just as evil.

Tarantino uses several scenes and images to show us just how bad the bad guys are; and each one is mirrored with the “good” guys.  To wit:

1)  They are dispassionate.  Colonel Landa casually drinks his milk as he small talks his way toward a horrific betrayal and shooting (in a brilliant scene that by itself guaranteed a statuette for Waltz); Lieutenant Raine chit chats with the soldier who is about to have his brains batted in; Shosanna unemotionally discusses the details of the revenge killing of a theater full of Germans.

2)  They see killing as entertainment.  The Nazis cheer and laugh through a movie of sniper Zoller picking off American soldiers; Raine joyfully accepts a Nazi’s refusal to co-operate, announcing that watching German heads being bashed in is the closest thing his team has to a cinema; Taratino’s audience (us) gets our revenge fantasy kicks as we sit in a theater watching a theater full of Nazi’s go from cheering the deaths of American soldiers to dying themselves – as we cheer along.

3)  The more death, the better.   Zoller is lauded not because he defended a town, but because of the number of bodies he took with him, just as Landa is proud not just of finding specific Jews, but the number of Jews he has hunted and killed; Raine demands 100 scalps from each of his men; the venue for the final revenge is a theater with just over 300 seats – a tad more than the number of those killed by sniper Zoller.

Lest we think that we aren’t really meant to see our own face in the nasty light of the enemy, Raine states it point blank:

“Members of the National Socialist Party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimidation and terror.  That’s exactly what we’re going to do to them.”

And the final image of the movie (which will soon get its own blog treatment):  Raine stares straight at the audience, at our foreheads more specifically, as he remarks that the identifying mark he sees there may be the best work he’s ever done.

INGLOURIOUS is the anti- ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, where we were shown that the Germans were good people, just like us.  Here, we are shown that the Allies are evil people, just like “them.”

This is an interesting theme to toy with.  If the movie came out two years ago, it would have been heavily accused (and possibly outright dismissed) as being an overt political statement.

But it didn’t come out two years ago; it sits there today, daring us to take joy in revenge at the small cost of admitting that we are the enemy.  It’s a twisty thing to wrap one’s head around – Tarantino presents the theme with unmitigated glee; no somber music or mood lighting to reinforce a “you see what I’m doing, right?” moment of introspection. 

He just gives it to us, assuming most will joyously follow along –“yep, the Nazi is punished, I’m evil, all is right in the world!”

Can’t say as if I like this, Quentin coming in and messing with my preconceived notions of my own superiority.  Let me reiterate, this revisionist movie hasn’t revised my notions of history – I still say if ever just war existed, this was it. 

But it does give me uncomfortable pause. 

I suppose (awkwardly comparing Quentin to Jesus) that this is akin to the feelings the audience had to the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

It wasn’t enough that the Nazarene had to tell us that the Samaritans were good, like us; he had to go and put in the three dudes that ignored the beaten man, the three dudes that represent us, that point out we’re just as bad as we perceive our enemy to be.

Just my thoughts,



Linds said...

I'm still just monumentally not okay with this film. I wish I could believe that Tarantino meant all this - and I wish I could stomach watching it (already not my kind of movie + way too much time spent reading primary sources from the Holocaust). I just look at the history of Holocaust film, and still can't get over how much of a misfire this one seems to be - cathartic violence. I know thoughtful people can analyze it and find great truth like you did here, but most I've talked to have just become convinced that it's okay to turn Jews into Nazis on screen because it's revenge, not an unprovoked attack.

Or maybe I just really shouldn't have spent two years writing on the topic of how Germany uses film to reconcile with its own history. Am I too hopeless an egghead to be able to value this movie, dear professor?

David Goulet said...

I agree with Linds on this one. This movie is not Defiance, which looked at the subject with more sincere gravitas.

Tarantino is just smart enough to know he had to make this look deeper than just a WWII pulp fiction story. There is at least a pretense of subtext.

All his films are a triumph of style over substance. Not that there aren't moments of introspection, but they are moments. IB is no different than Kill Bill, only the arena gives it added moral weight.

IB is no more a commentary on war than Dusk to Dawn is a commentary on faith.

I think this is why Tarantino frustrates many of us. His filmmaking is exciting to watch, his plots uber smart, his dialogue so sharp. But ultimately he lets us down because his movies are never really about anything that matters. We want them to be, but they aren't. His films are a reflection of himself.