Friday, August 28, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

In 1951, Theodor Adorno said that, "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Fifty-eight years later, Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' embraces that barbarism for the sake of catharsis. It abandons realism in order to address the underlying shock and anger from WW2 that most films about the period have heretofore been unable to touch upon.

When I first heard that Tarantino was making a WW2 film I was suspicious. I was far from convinced that his style would suit the setting and content very well, and the initial trailers did little to assuage my apprehensions. The final product completely demolishes the conventions of the war film genre in lieu of his signature personality. What surprised me, however, was how expertly interwoven the style and message of the film are. The film is indisputably a Tarantino production, and for what it is trying to accomplish I doubt it could be as successful were it anything else.

The movie isn't about a group of Jewish-American soldiers running around occupied France scalping Nazis, as the trailers and descriptions have suggested. I mean, that happens, but it's a surprisingly small part of the overall narrative. Greater emphasis is placed upon a Parisian movie theatre which hosts the premiere of Joseph Goebbels latest propaganda film, 'A Nation's Pride.' More specifically, the film is about the act of making films about the Second World War.

In outspoken opposition of many war films, 'Basterds' throws historical realism out the window. This film is not about trying to represent the events of the war faithfully, and in fact it throws out the very notion that a film could possibly do so. This film does not adhere to reality, it rather represents our pain, hate, and desire for revenge in the wake of something as terrible as WW2.

Instead of the diegetic melodrama of most war films, the emotional story of Basterds rests within the audience. One of the reasons war films are so consistently fruitful and resonant is because of the scar that the actions of the Nazi party left upon the mass consciousness. Nazis, from Hitler to Goebbels to the most low-level foot soldier, have come to represent pure evil as a cultural/historical signifier. No matter how much we try to humanize them there remains a quality of evil to their very existence that, if nothing else, makes for good movie villains.

The memory of the atrocities they committed makes us root for anyone who fights against them, and for their deaths. In 'Basterds' there are "good guys" that we are barely given a chance to care about but we do so simply because they are not Nazis; at the same time we cheer and laugh at the deaths of characters who beg for their lives simply because they are Nazis. Tarantino recognizes this collective sense of hatred, and his film reacts to it in a way that is simultaneously barbaric and soothing in terms of its treatment of the wounds of WW2.

'Basterds' is literally barbaric insofar as it is quite savagely violent Brad Pitt and his cohorts scalp Nazis before our eyes and Eli Roth gruesomely beats one to death with a baseball bat. In terms of how Adorno used the word, however, the film sharply differentiates itself from purportedly realistic portrayals of history. The Omaha beach scene in 'Saving Private Ryan' is chilling, but it would be a callous stretch to say it captures the feeling of being on that beach in 1944. Whether or not its so-called "realistic" depiction of events as they occurred is respectful or barbaric is a subjective judgment, but Adorno felt such things could not be represented and that to attempt to do so would be cruel.

Tarantino's 'Basterds' openly rejects such realism in lieu of a style of film making that is in an emotional outburst of pain, anger, and remembrance. By giving himself complete freedom in terms of manipulating historical events, Tarantino allows himself to make a movie that is therapeutic through its literal assault on past villains in unexpected and viciously satisfying ways.

Tarantino aligns himself with filmmakers like Henri-Georges Clouzot, who explored the splintered and battered psychology of the populace of Vichy France in 'Le Corbeau.' That film is scheduled to show at the Parisian movie theatre that is central to the plot of 'Basterds,' but it is replaced with Goebbels's 'A Nation's Pride.' That film, a sort of Nazi answer to 'Sergeant York,' takes the idea of historical realism to the extreme by casting its protagonist subject to play himself, reenacting his own actions.

'Basterds' acts as a counter to "realistic" and romantic depictions of history, foregoing purported realism by instead fantasizing revenge upon those evil figures held responsible for historical atrocities and the damage to the mass psyche. Tarantino's story captures the horror, pain, and anger surrounding the events of WW2 without ever showing a concentration camp, taking as a given our knowledge and sentiments regarding the reality. He outright rejects the making of films that attempt to translate the actual events to screen narratives, accusing them of callousness and insufficiency in terms of their attempt to depict history.

'Inglourious Basterds' is a war film unlike any other that I have ever seen. There are moments that make you laugh, moments that make you cheer, and moments that chillingly remind you of the horrible events that occurred in the 1940s. Overall it forces (and this is without question, it leaves no room for ignorance or casual acceptance) the viewer to rethink the very notion of what it means to make a film about the war. It demands a reevaluation of the very notion of respectful treatment of delicate subject matter, and the concept of barbarism in terms of Adorno's use of the word.

Pitt's final words both close the film and effectively speak for Tarantino, who says "It just might be my masterpiece." I for one am pleasantly surprised to find I agree.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The problem with zombies in this day and age

I'm going to start out this rant with a Roger Ebert-style disclaimer: I never made it past page sixteen of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. With that out of the way, let me begin by talking about how bad the book is, and what that means.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Summer movies

Just wanted to get an update up to ensure this blog is not abandoned. I'm living in the woods, so things are tough. Quick review summaries for what I've been watching:

Away We Go - Remarkable. Potentially the movie of the summer. Cute, hilarious, heartfelt, and completely honest and unassuming. Run, don't walk, to your local theatre if it's still playing.

The Hurt Locker - Good, but not the art flick that it's getting the reputation for being. It's a straight up and fairly formulaic action movie "with a little heart." Enjoy it with some popcorn and no assumptions.

District 9 - A interesting if slightly schizophrenic Meshing of the fictional-documentary social-commentary and sci-fi action genres. You really have to enjoy both sides to like the whole, but it's interesting no matter what your tastes are, and well-deserving of the hype it's received.

Julie and Julia - Haha, didn't see this one coming, did ya? This movie was surprisingly cute and very competent at recreating the periods it covers both in feeling and appearance. It doesn't dive very deep, but it successfully achieves the semi-euphoric and fully-delectible sentiment it strives for. Don't see it on an empty stomach or a diet unless you're feeling masochistic.