Friday, August 21, 2009

History Blows, Gloury Rules

My preconcieved notions of Inglourious Basterds ran something like this: Tarantino's landfill consummation of film history, particularly his penchant for publicly elevating exploitative shlock to high art, would result in a film whose willing immersion in gruesome transgressions inadvertently captured the horror of life under Nazis as well as the fractured psyche of anyone who attempted to resolve it on its own terms. Just the look on Donny Donnowitz's face during Aldo Raine's speech spoke leagues in the trailer as to the extra-moral and deeply disturbed nature of his participation. But that's not the whole case.

As it turns out, Tarantino has done something else, something no less important: He's imbued the lives of his characters with a filmic relevance that a cinema verite approximation would trample over, not unjustifiably but just irrelevantly so when so much of our history is written not just by historians, but by authors of fiction. WWII for long has not just been something that happened, but a pliable backdrop for by other means genre exploration, be it espionage or romance or self-congratulatory narcissism (or all three in the superficial yarnification of Where Eagles Dare). Forget allegorical attempts at understanding the real, but the bending of reality to the personal stampage of creative will.

To take a reputably high art example - Gravity's Rainbow having less to do with the reality of WWII horrors than with Pynchon's acid-drenched rearrangement of the endlessly marginal information stored in his head. When it didn't directly engage in WWII it was off on Freudian tangents of peculiar libidinal intrigue, the deathly pall of supernatural/kabbalistic lore, sci-fi conceits and ahistorical occultist parallels drawn across enemy lines.

Thankfully, Tarantino isn't that kind of ambitious, his playing ground here is always related to the war but by the indirect two-way mirror of the war film, which is where we find the literature relevant to this context. The Dirty Dozen's death row inmates thrown into enemy territory with the chance of vindication had more to do with 60's political climate of racial strife, political self-determination via distrust of authority, and existential developments in the perception of morality.

Tarantino's concern with the present has less to do with current events than our fixation on the past and its portrayal. One level is through the aforementioned film genrifiction, the other is through cultural sensitivity. When pioneer Holocaust historian (because at one point it wasn't even a niche) and primary Shoah source Raul Hilberg was denied access to the Yad Vashem archives it had to do with his complicated portrayal of Jews during the Holocaust, mainly the disingenuously representative politics of the Judenrate that he believed were complicit in ongoing machinations of genocide:

"I had to examine the Jewish tradition of trusting God, princes, laws and contracts [...] Ultimately I had to ponder the Jewish calculation that the persecutor would not destroy what he could economically exploit. It was precisely this Jewish strategy that dictated accommodation and precluded resistance."

Another controversial assessment of the Jews during the Holocaust was Hannah Arendt's implication that "without Jewish help there would have either been complete chaos or a severe drain on German power." Further eroding the importance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or the Bielski brothers is the unintended perpetuation of said passive reputation by conservative polemicists arguing against Palestinian violence by suggesting the Jews never resorted to blowing up restaurants, as if the resulting near-success of the Final Solution somehow makes that come off as a good thing.

And now, there's a furor (ahem) in the Jewish critical community about the film's parallels to terrorism and the glorification of its usage, the titular Basterds being a rag-tag band of psycopathic Jews enlisted by the American army to offset Nazi stability by spreading fear through their ranks with the use of scalping, insignia carving, brain bashing and any other sadistic means of disposal. (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT: Their ultimate goal is to blow up a movie theater where the four most important Reichsters will be attending the premiere of Goebell's new propaganda action film, a plan that unkowingly runs along a similar plot hatched by of the owner of the theater, a disguised fugitive and sole survivor of a round-up massacre that killed her entire family.)

While they should be more worried about what actual Jews are up to in the occupied territories the film plays with the grey area between the abject meaninglessness/inscrutability of existence and the cathartic release of cinematic analysis and reappropriation. The Basterds and the plot aren't merely wish fulfillment but a commentary on its non-existence. It's not the propaganda of Riefenstahl, where idealization supersedes honesty, but post-propaganda in which the framework of the presentation is aware of the facts' overwhelming bulwark against its fancies.

It's Tarantino's understanding of the variegated tonality of filmic representation with which he allows his protagonists to achieve canonical (in the religious sense) ascension to historical importance. The unabashed recycling of soundtracks, plot devices, setups and tropes are here used because they exist, not because they correlate to something particular, but how they make something particular relatable, the final irony here being how the parlor tricks reveal the inherent alienation/remoteness of the film's central dilemmas. The atmospherically epic western framing of deceptively placid interrogations gives weight to the disorientingly overwhelming plight of the victim, as in the opening sequence where a farmer's wits are strained trying to coolly please the prized Gestapo "Jew-Hunter" there to sniff out the family under the floorboard, soon becoming the origin story for one of the main protagonists.

Thus, Inglourious Basterds is not just the retroactively retributive war movie its adverts suggested but a delirious con game of mutable bluff. Tarantino's repertoire consists of pulp variables and encyclopedic auterism but all within the art of maintaining interpersonal cool with vested interest. Characters talk to each other, but almost like the other person's response is merely an expectedly sculpted reflection on whoever just spoke's well-kept facade, a cocky disposition requiring awestruck reassurance to make sure the trick is working.

To ensure the trick works, and the charm of its deceit endures, crafted are a tryptich of outsized archetypes. Christoph Waltz's SS Col. Hans Landa, a self-styled detective whose mark is every last hiding Jew, hence his moniker "The Jew Hunter," whose motivation is the satisfaction of superciliously outsmarting his victims. Brad Pitt, licking his chops, obviously relishing the chance to play deep-fried Lt. Aldo Raine, a classic southern charmer who draws on his part Apache heritage as an explanation for the guerilla warfare the Basterds unleash on the Nazis. And Melanie Laurent's Shosanna Dreyfuss alias Mimeux, the tight-lipped, no-bullshit proprietor of the cinematheque who doesn't need the allies to unbridle her fury. Almost no one here is wasted, even the generally repugnant Eli Roth as The Bear Jew playing what eerily resembles the modern Kappa Delta Jewish American with aimlessly xenophobic balls to spare here transplanted in a historical situation where his dick moves are actually useful.

Here, though, the violence is a mere intermittent startle. Instead, the action is almost entirely foreplay, consisting of interminably drawn out poker games where the playing hand is the conversational bluff and the stakes are death. One of the central ironies of the Holocaust is that it was perpetrated by what was until then considered the apex of civilization, emblematic of the intellectual and moral superiority of western culture. In Basterds, the use of manners, wit, and general congeniality are used primarily to ensnare the next possible victim, creating a juxtaposition between the tenets held dear by the hospitality management side of the self-aggrandizing clash of civilizations ideology, and the methods used to uphold their position outside of their diction.

But this being as much a war movie as it is a war movie about war movies the scripting of the diction is just as important. Tarantino isn't only revising history, but revising the fictional approximation of history, with its historical innacuracies, composite characterizations and unrelated genre excercises by taking it to its logical conclusion, where the wide gap between what happened and how it's now told becomes the point in itself.