Monday, November 09, 2015

Operational Cinema: Inglourious Basterds and You

Inglourious Basterds (sic)[1] is a World War II movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantino[2].  The film raises questions of historical accuracy, the validity of revenge, the costs of racism, and the acceptable usage of violence as told in five chapters. The film is long on plot and suffused with themes, so for the purpose of this review only the first chapter, “Once upon a time in … Nazi-occupied France,” will be summarized.
The film opens in the idyllic French cow country during the Nazi occupation of the country. A farmer (Perrier LaPadite) chops wood as a delegation of German military drive up the lane. The delegation is led by Colonel Hans Landa, who has been placed in command of the search for Jews in country. In fact Landa is so good at it he’s been dubbed “The Jew Hunter” by the people of France. Landa says he wants to visit LaPadite’s farm as a simple formality in order to officially close the file on the LaPidite family. What Landa and LaPidite both know, and what the audience gradually learns as LaPidite slowly realizes what already Landa knows, is that there is a Jewish family that has been hiding underneath the kitchen floorboards for the past year[3]. The last Germans who searched the farm didn’t suspect a thing, because they would never hide there themselves. The colonel interrogates the farmer and humbly brags about how he is proud of the nickname the French people have given him, “precisely because I’ve earned it.”[4]  Landa offers terms to LaPidite, who accepting, points out where the Dreyfusses are hiding. The Germans soldiers machine gun the floor, massacring the whole family, except for one teenage girl, who escapes the slaughter and runs out into a field, with Landa trailing her with his pistol, waiting for a sure shot, and right when it appears he has it, he shouts, “Au Revoir, Shosanna!” and drops his pistol to his side as she runs over a hill out of sight. Does he let her go because he can’t make the shot, or to let the infamy of the Jew Hunter circulate even wider? After all, anyone Shosanna would tell the truth of her tale to would obviously be sympathetic to the Jews, and hence would be even more afraid to continue giving aid to them if the Jew Hunter was on the case, just like LaPidite was when he found out who had come to call on him.
Tarantino sets up all of the themes of the film in this first nearly 20 minute scene. All the characters are playing a part throughout, save for the terrified Shosanna as she runs from the massacre of her family.  A theme that is central to nearly every moment, every image, every line of dialog, is that of performance -- of existence as a form of acting, and human identity as both projection and perception.”[5]
The second chapter, called “Inglourious Basterds” deals with a group of Jewish commandos, led by a descendant of Jim Bridger named Aldo Raine, who are dropped behind enemy lines undercover to terrorize the German forces.They are a propaganda unit to counter Goebbels' -- a movie at loose in the world. Forget Dresden, the Basterds are carpet-bombing the Germans with the most powerful weapon of all: fear.[6]” The Basterds, as the Germans call them are guerrilla fighters who kill German squads, but let one survivor go after marking him with a swastika carved into his forehead. The principle reason they give for doing this is that “We like our Nazis in uniform. That way, you can spot ‘em just like that. But you take off that uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you was a Nazi. And that don’t sit well with us.”[7] This may seem like a simple case of a gruesome revenge fantasy, but many Nazis attempted to flee Germany after the war to avoid being prosecuted for their crimes, and many succeeded with the help of relief organizations as well as churches in escaping from justice and setting themselves up with nice new lives in places like Argentina..[8]
Tarantino never states whether the commandos are religious Jews, or just culturally and ethnically Jewish, but either way the fact that they mark their victims has religious and cultural significance to the Jewish faith. In Leviticus 19: 28 it states, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh… nor print any marks upon you.” The fact that Jews were tattooed in concentration camps was disrespectful to their religion, to say nothing of their human rights. The act of the Basterds in marking Nazis is evidence of the belief of the soldiers that, in the words of Lt. Raine, “Nazi[s] ain’t got no humanity.”[9] The Basterds’ belief in this idea is shown by the fact that they mark their enemies in a way that is considered an abomination when it is perpetrated against their own people. The question is raised by the scenes of the Basterds killing Nazis simply because they wear a certain uniform, if killing people because of their political persuasions is moral, or not. And that’s a good question. But that’s exactly what wars are all about.
The issue in this film is that we are actually shown the faces of the Nazis.  We see how good they are at their jobs, we hear of their bravery in battle, we see the pride  and love they have for their children, and are even shown one Nazi’s tears of joy when commended by the Fuhrer. Shorn of context, these characterizations make us admire and sympathize with these characters. Interestingly, we are never shown anything of the concentration camps, and they are never even brought up! But we know they were there. We know what happened there. We know that they killed millions of undesirables purely for the sake of furthering their power.
Subtextual criticism is brought up in the film itself by film critic-turned-secret agent Archie Hicox, so it is safe to say this is a movie that openly invites audiences to bring subtext into the theatre with them. Does bravery in battle matter when one’s moral bravery has been abandoned? Does it matter that young Sgt. Wilhelm is a proud and loving new father, eager to share his favorite movies with his new baby boy? Does he deserve to live in a time of war when he has signed up with the Nazis? If one makes quality films but does it for the glory of racist fascists, should one take pride in the work?  So the question remains, is what the Basterds do up close and personal worse then what regular soldiers do in battle from the safe distance of a foxhole?
In the next chapter we see the decadence of the lifestyle of the Nazi high command when the escaped Shosanna has lunch with a German war hero (Fredrick Zoller), Joseph Goebbels, his mistress, and some SS officers who interview her in order to determine if the cinema she owns would be a proper place to host Goebbels latest masterpiece starring Zoller. The pampered poodles of Goebbels’ mistress sit at the table with the Nazi entourage. Tarantino lingers on lavish close-ups of delicious looking strudel and crème. Why? To show that these people have the will to power to have the best of everything, but instead of obtaining it and sharing the surplus with the people of the world, they waste it all in conquering, subjugating, and destroying their fellow man. Landa even describes the strudel as, “Not so terrible.”![10]
The last two chapters deal with a plot hatched by the American OSS and the British SOE, to assassinate the German high command (Hitler, Goebbels, Hermann Goring, and Martin Bormann) at Shosanna’s cinema during a gala premiere using the Basterds as the operatives. Shosanna has also decided to blow up her theatre to create her own oven to roast the Nazis. The two overlapping plots to kill Hitler[11] dovetail and intertwine in the last chapter as plot complications force the Basterds to improvise, to disastrous results, which leads Landa to detect their plot. Landa is a self serving piece of human trash, with no real loyalty to the Nazi party he has sworn to serve, so he makes a deal to let the bombs blow as long as history is rewritten to state he was a double agent for the allies the entire time. The deal is struck, so the Basterds’ bombs go off, as well as Shosanna’s undiscovered plot to set the theatre ablaze, but not before Shosanna is murdered by the previously thought of as nice Nazi Zoller., and the Basterds left at the cinema by Landa wreck vengeance on Hitler by machine-gunning him to death.
With the death of Hitler in the film, we see we’ve not been in our reality, but watching an alternate history. We should have know this the whole time. Movies are not reality. Tarantino never lets us forget we’re watching a movie, a hallmark of French New Wave cinema[12]as he uses chapter headings,  repurposed film score from classic films, voice-overs, constant references to characters watching movies, split screen, and ‘80’s rock songs as score. Tarantino’s intention is unclear here, but that is a hallmark of art films, where the director gives just so much, and leaves the rest up to the audience. The trailers for Inglourious Basterds promised a thrilling revenge commando movie, but what Tarantino made is a European art house movie about the actions taken on all sides during World War II. The film poses many questions, some extremely uncomfortable, about our moral logic, our duty to our beliefs, and the toll of war on societies[13]. The film is a masterpiece, and will stand the test of time. It is also fun. As Tarantino said,
Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims. We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.[14]

[1] The title is purposefully misspelled. The only clue the film offers for this is a shot where Lt. Raine sets his rifle against a rock and we catch a fleeting glimpse of the words “inglourious basterds” carved into the rifle stock.
[2] Film is the most collaborative medium of all the arts, but for the sake of space as well as style, I will leave out mention in the body of the review of the contributions of the cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor Sally Menke (1953-2010), and other essential personnel.
[3] Doris L. Bergen, War & Genocide (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 185. Most of the Jews that were hidden in Europe were children, because it was easier to hide and explain them than adults. Boys were riskier to hide than girls as few European Christians circumcised their boys, and the Jew hunters of the time would routinely ask men and boys to pull down their pants to determine if they were Jews.
[4] Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds (New York: Weinstein Books, 2009), 11.
[5] Jim Emerson. Inglourious Basterds: Real or Ficticious, it Doesn’t Matter. Scanners With Jim Emerson. September 1, 2009.
[6] Jim Emerson. Some Ways to Watch Inglourious Basterds (Sic). Scanners With Jim Emerson. August 25, 2009.
[7] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 37.
[8] Gerald Steinacher, Nazis On The Run (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2011), 286-289. Shockingly, two large organizations that helped former Nazis flee justice were the Catholic Church, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
[9] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 19.
[10] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 66.
[11] Roger Morehouse, Killing Hitler (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), 322. There were many, many plots in real life to kill Hitler, a majority of which were plotted by members of the German military, but something always seemed to go wrong at the last second and Hitler walked away from them all. But not in this film.
[12] Aaron Koehler,” C’est Si Bon! French New Wave Cinema & Its Impact on Contemporary Film” (ENG 122-316, Community College of Aurora, 2013). Rough draft in my possession.
[13] The author has seen the film a total of four times.  On August 22, 2009, September 18, 2009 (both in movie theaters), December 25, 2009, and May 8, 2013 (on home video), and these and other themes, far too many to address in this essay constantly well up and present themselves with the smallest bit of intellectual effort on the part of the author.
[14] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2009.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Django Unchained

            Django Unchained starts off at the lowest point in the slave Django’s life.  We don’t know it yet, but he’s just been sold away and separated from his wife, Broomhilda, for attempting to escape to freedom together.  He’s being marched through Texas, barefoot, chained to other slaves, with just an old pair of ratty pants, and an old blanket to try and keep warm.  In this first scene, the promise of the title begins to unfold.  Django is literally unchained with the help of Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz needs Django to help him with a bounty he’s after, and only Django can help him with it, because he knows what the bounty looks like.  Schultz and Django have an interesting relationship because it starts off very one-sided, but develops into a true partnership and friendship.  Schultz despises the institution of slavery, but doesn’t really care about individuals who are slaves, because he doesn’t have any personal experience with them. Throughout the film, Schultz gains that experience, and at the end of the film, it causes him to act against what we’ve understood to be his character up to that point, so much so that he apologizes to Django after the fact. Django truly becomes unchained after being freed.  He becomes the fastest gun in the south, he becomes an expert bounty hunter, and he becomes a hero as he saves his wife from a living hell. Django always had this in him, and the film shows us the clues, for example, we see him run away with Broomhilda, we see him do everything he can to save her from the lashing of the Brittle Brothers, even the fact that he and Broomhilda are married at a time when slaves weren’t allowed to be married, shows that he has a rebel heart against evil and tyranny, it’s just waiting to have a chance to come out and expand. King Schultz may initially give him that opportunity, but Django takes it whole-souled and wholeheartedly.  And at the end of the story, with the corruption of Candieland destroyed, his wife saved, and their freedom papers in his pockets, it is his victory.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This film is like a fable written by Terry Gilliam, and filmed by Terrence Malick.  It’s impressionistic, hazy, up for debate, sad, strange, and beautiful. It’s a movie that makes you want to make movies.  If it was better, you might not be as inspired by it.  The film is about a rundown community of jolly fools who live on the edge of survival and civilization, in a place called the Bathtub. The world has passed these people by, and they are just fine with that, besides, there’s “No crying in the Bathtub.” This is a place to experience and celebrate the mysteries of life, and to realize your connection to, and your purpose in, the universe. Nobody in the Bathtub exemplifies this more than Hushpuppy, a six year old spitfire of love, passion, and joy who just wants her mommy back and her daddy, Wink, to take care of her.  Wink wants to make her strong enough to take care of herself, because he’s slowly dying, so he’s downright frightening and seems like a danger to Hushpuppy in some scenes.  He says his job is to “keep you from dying.” Gradually, as the film unfolds, we begin to see why Wink is this way.  His wife ran off after Hushpuppy was born. True love crushed him, and all he knows now is that living is good, so he’s too tough on Hushpuppy. He gives Hushpuppy her own double wide on their property. Until she burns it down, gets rescued by Wink, and a giant storm hits the Bathtub, flooding everything.  The polar icecaps start melting, and the Aurochs, giant wooly mammoth-boars get unfrozen from the ice, and head toward the Bathtub.  Society finally notices the Bathtub, but only makes things worse, and Hushpuppy leads a gang of pre-pubescent girl orphans on a quest to find mothers.  Hushpuppy is a kid character for the ages. She saves the Bathtub from the Aurochs by being herself, and taking the time to explain her situation to bloodthirsty animals, something only a kid would think to do. She knows what’s right, and doesn’t question it.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is a story of first love, set in 1965.  The lovers are two 12 year olds, Sam, an orphan, and Suzy, who lives on New Penzance Island. Sam meets her on a Khaki Scout field trip to the island. They become pen pals and concoct a plot to run away together while Sam is on the island for a Khaki Scout camp. The difference between the adult characters like Suzy’s parents, Captain Sharp, and Scoutmaster Ward, is that Sam and Suzy have an openness to the world, even as they rebel against the constraints placed on them by that adult world by running away to create their own.  As their adventure goes on, they learn more about each other’s world views, and the limits of each other’s experience, as well as one another’s faults and flaws, but this doesn’t cause tension and conflict in their relationship. They accept the reality of the other. They take each other as they are, for what they are, and try to help each other be better. Sam and Suzy’s openness and acceptance of each other is contrasted by the attitudes of the other Khaki Scouts in Sam’s troop.  The other Scouts are children who play at adult roles, like Redford, who can’t stand any deviance from social norms, and takes on the role of an enforcer of society’s rules, the way a policeman, or a principal would. After the runaways are apprehended, one of the Scouts, Skotak, has a change of heart about their involvement in the capture and their unthinking rejection of Sam.  Skotak gives a speech convincing the others to help rescue Sam and Suzy. It doesn’t matter that of course, two 12 year olds can’t run off together and live a happy life, what matters is the changing of our hearts to love and accept other humans, and seek their happiness. Eventually the adults are won over to this purpose as well, but with their additional wisdom and years of experience, are able to cut to the heart of the matter, and give Sam and Suzy what they really needed all along, a family to belong to.