Friday, 12 February 2010

Inglourious Basterds

If the initial trailer and the subsequent promotional materials seemed to suggest a kind of ultra-violent, men on a mission style Nazisploitation picture - in which a group of revenge-seeking Jewish-American soldiers form a band of scalp-hunting executioners literally carving a path of vengeance through the forests of occupied France - then the eventual experience of Inglourious Basterds (2009), as a complete film, will no doubt be a surprising one. Far more rewarding than The Dirty Dozen (1967) meets Hostel (2005) approach that the studios seemed to be encouraging with their publicity images of bloodied knives, baseball bats and rifle butts, the actual thrill of Inglourious Basterds is never exclusive to the presupposed notions of carnage and retribution that such intentionally provocative images might normally suggest. Instead, it can be found in the film's particular emphasis on language. Not necessarily the languages that are spoken by the various characters - or how such languages are used (or not used) to further a possible plan of action - but the more important languages of fiction and film.

This, as an idea, is something that Tarantino has been refining for the majority of his career. From the seemingly meaningless but ultimately character-building pop culture-heavy chitchat of films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), to the more self-aware, self-referential patter of the subsequent Kill Bill, Volumes 1&2 (2003-2004) - where the general form of the thing could potentially be seen as a filmed commentary or dissertation on the genre(s) being explored - the ability of dialogue to suggest multiple ways of looking at the film through the creation of stories within stories was always one of the director's greatest strengths. As an extension of this, Inglourious Basterds is perhaps the first film by Tarantino where the power of language is really looked at within a greater dramatic context. Only during The Second World War - the last real war in which the protagonists were, predominantly, Caucasian, and therefore more able to adopt a particular language in order to feign cover behind enemy lines - could the use of language be considered as deadly as the Walther PP or the Bowie knife. The notion of words as weaponry is therefore an important device in Tarantino's film; not only establishing the dramatic motivation of the later plot development (as in - the deliberately hackneyed plot to blow up Hitler?) but also the psychological aspects as well.

The words themselves may seem fairly innocuous, as various characters, largely unknown to one another, sit down to discuss work, or movies, or the benefits of cream with strudel, but through these quirks of conversation Tarantino is able to achieve the creation of a world, based in fact but defined by fiction, where one single, half-mumbled gesture from a previously anonymous dairy-farmer - a devoted husband and father no less - can result in the massacre of a sheltering Jewish family. These ideas, relating to language and the power of words, are made definite in the film's much talked about opening sequence; which, on a more obvious level, establishes the dramatic elements of loyalty, role-play, justice and retribution, and yet beyond this initial interpretation, seems to suggest the by now familiar Tarantino approach of postmodern appropriation: where the references to film, fiction and the general pop culture create a recognisable grammar for the film itself. Although the dialogue in Tarantino's work is often leisurely, idiosyncratic and arguably self-indulgent, revelling as it does in the awkward speech patterns, prose and anecdotal asides that his characters slip in and out of during a single conversation, it is nonetheless essential in developing these characters: not simply as people that we can relate to or care about, but as signifiers; where the subject matter discussed - or the particular way in which said discussions pan out - suggests hidden layers of interpretation and characterisation.

With an opening chapter title boldly announcing the location, "Once Upon a Time... in Nazi-Occupied France" - immediately followed by a suitably heroic widescreen composition depicting the abovementioned farmer chopping wood in a long-shot that frames his small house as if it were a studio recreation of some forgotten frontiers homestead (a literal 'little house on the prairie') - it becomes immediately obvious what Tarantino is attempting to achieve through the visual style alone. The iconography throughout is crucial, with at least three shorthand references to the work of Sergio Leone and a general nod to the work of John Ford creating a sense that this is a mythical story, again with ties to history, but somehow greater than the reality; a cinematic history, in the grand tradition of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West, 1968). However, the shorthand references to Ford and Leone aren't simply examples of Tarantino showing off his movie geek obsessiveness. On the contrary, both serve a definite purpose. These elements of obvious homage create a world for the viewer that is immediately recognisable; establishing the relationships between characters - or the ideas of loyalty and betrayal - and a certain logic (movie-logic?) that forewarns the viewer that there's something slightly more self-aware going on behind the violence, conflict and assassination attempts; something that plays on the more recognisable codes and conventions of the war movie, in the greater, historical sense.

This opening sequence, which introduces us to the literally larger than life character of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) - a "Jew hunter" who considers himself to be a serious detective, and applies a method-actor's logic to sniffing out his prey - seems designed to capture that sense of anticipation so evident in Leone's work: with the two most memorable scenes in the aforementioned Once Upon a Time in the West (the arrival of "Harmonica" by train, and the subsequent massacre of the McBain family by Frank and his gang) setting something of an obvious template. It also plays into the Leonian idea of the confrontation; where the build up to a moment of violence is often so prolonged and so focused on the personal, idiosyncratic rituals that make such sequences resonate on a deeper level of emotional investment, that the violence, when it does occur, seems all the more unexpected and cruel. The form of the film, in this respect, isn't merely an attempt to juxtapose the style of the Spaghetti Western with the political conventions of the Hollywood war drama - which, in itself, was already characteristic of the Italian Zapata Westerns of the 1970s: films such as Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General (El Chucho, quién sabe?, 1967), Sergio Corbucci's Compañeros (Vamos a matar, compañeros, 1970) and Leone's own Giù la testa (released as Duck, You Sucker! and A Fistful of Dynamtie respectively, 1971), which was a critique of the Zapata subgenre, as well as a perfect example of it. Instead, these juxtapositions and associations create something approaching stenography for the viewer; a kind of cinematic slang very much in keeping with the standard Tarantino dialogue - which plays on a kind of stylised conversational approach steeped in self-reference - making the passage of information between the director and his audience much more direct.

We can see an obvious example of this in the use of the film's title and its particular function in describing (or branding) the supporting characters (the aforementioned Nazi-scalp-hunters) through an accented misspelling: presenting the title as the characters themselves might pronounce it, therefore giving the notion of language within the film a recognisable voice. The title itself is by now obvious to most viewers as a direct reference to the Enzo G. Castellari film The Inglorious Bastards (Quel maledetto treno blindato, or literally That Damned Armoured Train, 1978). Through this, Tarantino establishes, briefly, a sense of the men on a mission, action adventure movie that Castellari's film attempts to replicate, while also self-consciously endearing itself to the Euro War, or "Macaroni Combat" subgenre; a sort of European (usually Italian, but not exclusively) pastiche of the Hollywood War Movies popular at the time. So, what we have in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is, on some level, a parody of a parody; which is perfect in its own way of illustrating the director's quite interesting idea of using the conventions of a film like The Eagles Over London (La battaglia d'Inghilterra, 1969) or Salt in the Wound (Il dito nella piaga, 1970) (and their own references to movies like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare), to create his own commentary on the outlandishness of war and the ridiculousness of a conflict between two human beings, both from the same ethnic background, class and generation, conditioned into hating one another for the benefit of an abstract cause.

Of course, in Tarantino's work, the notion of conflict isn't simply restricted to the depiction of "war" in the real-life sense, but of the idea of a cinematic conflict: as in the conflict of various juxtaposing styles, ideas and philosophies. Although most critics and viewers are quick to point out the more obvious lifts from the work of Ford and Leone, the driving force behind Tarantino's intellectual experiments seems closer to his early idol, Jean-Luc Godard. There are some superficial though no less relevant Godardian touches littered throughout the film, with the particular references to real-life figures in a fictional framework, exaggerated for the purposes of satire. So we have the character of Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) presented as a would-be Hollywood film producer, full a would-be Hollywood film producer's bluster and bullshit, which, rather than simply creating a mockery out of the real-life Goebbels, manages to humanise him in a way that is a benefit to the film's actual creative intent. There is also the naming of certain characters in a way that is significant, culturally, to Tarantino's primary influences: names such as Hugo Stiglitz (the Mexican cult-actor) or Omar Ulmer (a play on the film director Edgar G. Ulmer), or the use of the alias Antonio Margheriti (the director of Cannibal Apocalypse, 1980), which would, in spirit at least, suggest the influence of a film like Alphaville (1965) or Made in U.S.A. (1966).

Though the reliance on the more obvious movie caricature of films like Death Proof (2007) and Kill Bill seems to be more subtle here, certain examples of it can still be found. Not necessarily in the previously discussed opening sequence, but in the smaller, seemingly throwaway moments, which seem handpicked in order to establish an underlining message that "violence begets violence". Such examples could include the shot of Aldo "The Apache" (Brad Pitt) and The Bear Jew (Eli Roth) staring down, into the camera (showing us the POV of one of their recent victims) in a manner that recalls the near-iconic shot of a masked Malcolm McDowell taunting the prone Patrick Magee in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971); or perhaps through the later references to Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), Elem Klimov's Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985) and Lamberto Bava's Demons (Dèmoni, 1985), which all occur during the penultimate sequence set during the premier of the fictional propaganda film Nation's Pride, where the kaleidoscope of references seem deliberately chosen in order to illustrate the various potential presentations of violence on film (the lurid, to the surreal, to the pure exploitation).

Such suggestions can also be found in the general feeling of the war-time Parisian setting, the meeting between the displaced Jewish farm girl turned cinema owner Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and the German war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), and the espionage film subplot of the Basterds and their double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) attempting to formulate a plan. Each of these segments open out like the plot of a self-contained film; almost as if each instalment could carry its own independent narrative - be it a film about a noble family man struggling with his conscience and a loyalty to his children as he takes in a neighbouring family of sheltering Jews, or even a burgeoning war-time romance between two people from either side of the conflict (as just two single examples). Instead, Tarantino uses these short scenes to construct a much larger-tapestry of events; employing the literary use of chapter-points familiar from Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, and therefore encouraging this idea of each element of the narrative becoming its own miniature drama, both self-contained mini-movie and an integral part of the actual film as a whole.

There are other examples too, like the introduction of Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), looking like a stunt double Sean Connery just walked off the set of Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far (1977) and straight into a typically serious, stiff-upper-lipped, War-Time propaganda piece from the early 1940s (surprisingly no less distracting for featuring a ridiculous Mike Myers characterisation and an appearance from a stogie-puffing Winston Churchill), or the extraordinary "Putting Out Fire" sequence, in which the transformation of Shosanna from innocent country girl to 40s femme-fatale is presented as an 80s pop cinema cliché: with the use of David Bowie's title song from the Paul Schrader remake of The Cat People (1982) offering an anachronistic commentary of the central themes of the film. In this sequence in particular, the cultural reference points, and the way in which each element of the iconography can be interpreted by the viewer, is simply jaw-dropping. Through montage, Tarantino shows the metamorphosis of Shosanna as if she were an actress preparing for a role: choosing a costume, applying makeup, etc. He also further suggests that the exaggeration of the violence and the retribution still to come is in many ways filtered back through the general, recognisable symbols of the cinema itself.

In striping two lines of red lipstick across either side of her face Shosanna establishes an explicit connection with the Apache theme of the Basterds, while also further illustrating the film's continual quotation of the western genre (in this instance, the classic westerns of John Ford, or the spirit of Debbie from The Searchers). By the end of the sequence she is reborn, cinematically, as the archetypical Fassbinder heroine. As she adjusts a netted veil, framed by the infamous black, white and red of a distant Swastika, she could just as easily be Maria Braun or Veronika Voss; the great symbols of post-war Germany in Fassbinder's later work. What these moments do, besides maintaining the plot and illustrating Tarantino's individual approach to the genre (or the pastiche of it), is to set up a far greater thread of interpretation that runs throughout the film: specifically the depiction of a world, both contemporary and historical, that is entirely reflected through the magic of the silver screen.

In several interviews supporting Inglourious Basterds at the time of its initial release, Tarantino suggested that what his film was really about, beyond the more recognisable genre practicalities of war-time espionage and personal retribution, was the true, all conquering power of the cinema itself. It is here, in Tarantino's film, that we see the invention of a cinema that acts as a creative force somehow strong enough to bring down the Third Reich; not simply in the metaphorical sense, but in the realisation that film is a deadly weapon; an actual combustible celluloid, as well as a creative medium with the ability to offer a group-forum for the communication of ideas. In this sense, the ideology goes back to Godard's 60s belief that the cinema could be used to change the world, and although Tarantino seems less interested in changing the world in a contemporary sense, with any attempt to read the film as a critique of the current situations in Iraq or Afghanistan (or anywhere else for that matter) seeming somewhat limited, it is no less remarkable as a central idea.

In the final chapters of the film, Operation Kino and Revenge of the Giant Face respectively, the idea of a cinema that is about cinema (the creation and the viewing of it) is confirmed, not just through the self-reflexive chapter-titles, but through Tarantino's direction of the film's major scene. In the attack on the cinema, Tarantino creates an astounding sequence that works on at least several layers; offering the obvious thrill of the climax, in which various strands of the narrative converge in a kind of closure, but also intensifying his theme of the cinema as a force to be reckoned with. The juxtaposition between images of celluloid being loaded into film canisters (or projectors) with bullets being loaded into magazine-clips had already been made during the scene of Shosanna's Bowie-scored transformation. However, in the cinema massacre sequence, the cross-cutting between the endless machine gun fire of the on-screen soldiers and the shots of celluloid running through the projector seem designed to make such connections all the more explicit. There is also the pertinent image of Fredrick Zoller, larger than life on the frame-within a frame cinema screen, pointing his blazing machine gun out at the audience, and then the fantastic mirroring of this, life vs. art, as the real-world audience (the one that we saw the movie with) cheer the eventual slaughter of this Nazi audience, who themselves were previously cheering the massacre of the opposing forces in the film within a film. Could this particular presentation be seen as Tarantino quite radically flipping the film's creative purpose, turning it back against the audience - against an audience that had always embraced the violence of his earlier work, but failed to question his own creative intentions? - Possibly. In Tarantino's film, the violence is as unforgiving as that of his characters, resulting in a powerful anti-war commentary where the recognisable distinction between the heroes and the villains is completely removed.


[Spent shells]

[An attack on the audience?]

As the narrative develops, it is almost as if the initial plot - the two strands of revenge, from the Basterds to Shosanna - becomes less important; or at least, less important in the sense of paying off in the final act. Although the theme of revenge is carried right the way through the film, you could argue that this is really more of a study of vengeance, as an ideology, rather than simply a film about the character's pursuit of it. Like Richard Lester's cult classic How I Won the War (1967), the stylisations of Inglourious Basterds seem deliberately tailored to reduce the spectacle of war to a kind of comic book fodder; showing up the absurdity and irrationality of it, on a philosophical level, and lampooning it mercilously. So the end product is less an anti-war film than an "anti anti-war film" (Lester's classification); a riposte to the overly serious presentation of something like Saving Private Ryan (1999), where Spielberg attempted to produce a film that would place the audience right alongside his characters, so that we could experience, as close to first hand, the real horrors of combat, but instead made the whole thing rather exciting, and thrilling.

If Death Proof was essentially about transcending the casual misogyny of the horror film genre, then Inglourious Basterds could be seen as an attempt to strip away the supposed nobility of war; illustrating the conflict from numerous narrative and character perspectives - from the Americans, to the French, to the British and the Germans - and ultimately exposing the futility of it. That rather tragic notion that these people, who can (and do) hold conversations, show charm and charisma, sit side by side undetected, are conditioned into blowing each other away with bombs and machine gun fire. While many critics consider Tarantino to be nothing more than a shallow purveyor of hardcore violence - or worse, a sardonic hipster who glamorises cruelty and makes the thrill of bloodshed akin to a celebration - the actual brutality of Tarantino's work is never superficial. The violence of Inglourious Basterds is conspicuous, but never explicit. Perhaps because the film exists so far beyond the parameters of cinematic realism - rewriting history for its own satirical ends - so that these characters are ultimately robed of a recognisable humanity; reduced to symbols of status, religion, ethnicity or nationality; much like actual human beings during an extended period of war.

Inglourious Basterds is currently available on Region 2 DVD from Universal Pictures.