Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tarantino’s Nihilism Ends World War II
By Alexander Marriott

Warning: Plot Spoilers Ahead, if you want to see the ‘Inglorious Basterds’ you may not wish to keep reading.

I see many movies, but am only rarely left in a position after seeing any film where I feel compelled to write a serious review of it. Today is such a day. On the recommendation of a friend, who wanted me to see both ‘Inglorious Basterds’ and ‘District 9’ (both of which held no appeal for me whatsoever based on trailer previews), I agreed to see whichever one of them he dictated with the understanding that if I liked his selection I would then see the other. Upon assuming I would probably dislike ‘District 9’ he instead went with ‘Inglorious Basterds’ as the surest way of getting me to see both films. This strategy of my well-meaning friend failed, below are the reasons why.

Before proceeding to the flaws of this particular film, I need to address the general tenor and outlook of the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s previous works (‘Reservoir Dogs,’ ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Jackie Brown,’ ‘Kill Bill,’ ‘From Dusk Till Dawn,’ etc.) all display a very disturbing penchant for nihilistic portrayals of violence and humanity spliced with a knack for mixing unique cinematography and music to create some of the most indelible scenes of modern cinema. Occasionally, as in ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ there are characters portrayed who are not purely malevolent nihilistic violent pods, as that film was built around a plot involving an undercover police officer (played by Tim Roth) who was attempting to infiltrate and take down a ruthless band of thugs. Roth’s choices are the dramatic force which moves the plot along as he lies on the floor bleeding to death and we’re let in on the preceding action which led to this final series of moments (a typical Tarantino tactic). His work has, however, gotten increasingly nihilistic while pushing the envelope on stylized violence. The two ‘Kill Bill’ movies highlight this move, as he mixed a standard revenge plot with samurai sword fights, martial arts fighting, and a typical Tarantino hodgepodge of sadistic and darkly amusing characters.

Now to his most recent effort. Set during World War II, ‘Inglorious Basterds’ weaves together a couple of different stories (typical, again, of Tarantino). The first story we are introduced to involves a young Jewish girl, Shoshana Dreyfus, who barely escapes a frighteningly psychotic Nazi Colonel, searching for hidden Jews in the French countryside. After watching this colonel browbeat and terrify the brave French peasant who is hiding Shoshana and her family and eventually breaking the man into admitting his “crimes,” and then proceeding to murder the hidden family beneath the floor, we are introduced to the second main story line. Brad Pitt, portraying (if you want to call what Pitt does acting) a caricature of a hardass army lieutenant from Tennessee, organizes an illegal band of Jewish-American soldiers to be dropped behind enemy lines and murder “Nazis.” His speech, which is supposed to rouse them (and presumably us) to go on this mission is merely an odious appeal to racial anger (somehow, only Jewish soldiers are “really” invested in killing Nazis) and illegal homicidal violence. This is a key point. The German Armed forces, like all enemy soldiers in World War II (at least our enemies), were guaranteed rights under U.S. law due to Geneva Treaty obligations. Any plot to murder surrendered “Nazis” by us or anyone else would be, ipso facto, a violation of the laws of war. This is not meant as a paean to German soldiers who were fighting on behalf of a despotic cruel socialist regime of murdering racists, but the movie shows our “heroes” brutally and sadistically beating surrendered soldiers brains out with baseball bats. What is the point of such a scene? Some of my fellow moviegoers were prompted to laugh at this scene. Why? What is funny about watching a psychopath (and that is the only word for a man who would deliberately and in cold blood beat a surrendered man on his knees to death with a bat) beat a man to death and then dance around making ridiculous comments about being a slugger at Fenway Park? If this is comedy, then I shudder at the soul of the person who would conceive of it as such, and even more at those who would laugh. If it is not meant to be amusing, then what is it meant to be? Nothing. It is horrific violence, which does not create sympathy for the Jewish soldiers, quite the contrary. The surrendered German’s “crime” (at least the only one the movie lets us know about) was that he refused to point out the positions of his comrades on a map. That was his right (just like it was the right of Americans captured by Germans), he only had to give his basic information and then should have been shuffled away with the rest of the captured German rabble.

But the American racists who we are expected to cheer on, presumably because they are Americans and Jewish, can’t be made to abide these rules and notions of propriety. Their mission is couched in the very same racialist language that Goebbels and Hitler used (Pitt blathers about “the German” as if Germans were some separate and distinct form of humanity). This collectivist nonsense was not justifiable when the Germans employed it, nor when the Americans actually applied it in segregating their armed forces. But it is incredibly bizarre for a modern director to romanticize Hitler’s ideology in the words and deeds of Hitler’s fictional opponents (Pitt and company). I cannot imagine actual Holocaust survivors (let alone veterans of the Armed forces, Jewish or otherwise) reacting well to this horrific and insulting portrayal where they accept the notions which underlay the mass murder going on in the East.

Zoom ahead to 1944, Shoshana has moved to Paris and somehow owns a movie theatre (the explanation for this is peripheral and weak at best). She is attractive and living under an assumed identity to avoid detection from the Germans. Her beauty brings the attentions of a young German war hero who becomes smitten with her. He is the toast of the town as a movie produced by Goebbels about his exploits is set to premiere soon. The man pursues her persistently, eventually wrangling her into a meeting with Hitler’s propagandist (who Tarantino insists on making a grotesque caricature cartoon of a character, as if Goebbels as a serious figure would not condemn the man’s historical reputation effectively enough – see Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in ‘Conspiracy’ to see just how effective that is with two different but no less horrible Nazis) where he convinces Hitler’s number two to have the premiere at Shoshana’s cinema. Shoshana is then interviewed by the very Colonel who murdered her family. Shoshana is representative of what is left of Tarantino’s humanity. She is a sweet woman who has managed to survive and find some measure of private happiness with her assistant Marcel. Shoshana is no wilting flower though, she seizes the opportunity to have her righteous vengeance and plots with Marcel to burn her cinema to the ground while the Nazis have their premiere.

Violence for the sake of violence continues to dominate the film as we see more murdering and bloodshed unfold, including a bizarre subplot involving a German actress who is a British agent and her attempt to infiltrate a British spy and Pitt’s thugs into the premiere and blow it up. Unfortunately, this is a Quentin Tarantino picture, so this plan goes awry in a humongous shoot-out at the rendezvous point, an allegedly deserted bar. Surprise surprise, it’s not deserted. And while the spy and his cohorts are able to bluster their way past the drunk German grunts in the place, no such luck with the creepy SS officer. When the masks are off if takes a couple of minutes of dialogue before the guns start blazing. Seconds later everyone is dead except the wounded German actress and one of the German grunts, who had been celebrating the birth of a son. Of course, Pitt then shows up and tries to get the actress out, going out of his way to assure that no one will get hurt (a clear lie given previous dialogue, and the fact that Pitt is playing an unscrupulous killer pretending to have scruples) all of which simply leads to the German actress killing the grunt after Pitt convinces him to let his guard down. Again, as he is a German soldier, I don’t actually have much sympathy for him, but Tarantino seems to go out of his way to make all of these scenes particularly sympathetic to the Germans, an odd paradox considering who the main characters are and what they’re doing and (theoretically anyway) why they are doing it.

So after Pitt is satisfied that our German frau is not double crossing them he hatches a plan worthy of his immediate demotion. He and two of his blunt instruments will pose as Italian film industry people, while they try to hide behind their pretty benefactor and sneak into the premiere with bombs wrapped around their legs. Obviously, this is doomed to failure, particularly since Tarantino has made the smartest character in the movie (aside from Shoshana that is) the German Colonel from the opening scene. This Colonel quickly figures out that the actress was at the bar massacre and quickly makes asses of Pitt and his goons who don’t speak any actual Italian. ***Here I must digress for a moment. Pitt’s character is an arrogant, violent, unthinking nabob who basically does whatever he wants paying very little heed to the consequences. I cannot be certain of why Tarantino wrote the character in this way other than that it represents the current fashionable elitist/European stereotype of what Americans, particularly those nebulous creatures who may disapprove of the current exalted leader, are like at their absolute worst. But since every American portrayed in the film is simply a variant of Pitt’s psychopath, we can only assume that he is not meant to be a curious outlier, but a representation of something fundamental about how Americans act or tend to be. Counter this to the brilliantly ruthless colonel and the elegant if fatally inept British spy, etc. What we are left with is the distinct impression that Americans are seriously and fundamentally flawed. But as I say, this is merely a digression based on a general gist I detected from watching the film, back to the review.*** Then he drags her into a room, shows her that he knows what she’s done with incriminating evidence, and then he strangles her to death. This is a painful scene to watch. Again, what is the point here precisely? Yes, he’s a killer, he strangles a beautiful woman to death. Why do we need to see her eyes and face as he crushes her neck? Tarantino already has set the man up as a horrible monster in the opening scene. This is gratuitous overkill, literally. This scene is merely one of many reasons why I will never view this film again, at least not in its entirety.

Of course, I said the film was set during World War II. It is not, nor does it pretend to be, historically accurate in any way. I actually have no problem with that. Historically set fictional alternate fantasies are fine vehicles for any decent and/or interesting plot and theme. Historical novels have been written with great profit for hundreds of years now with just this sort of result. Unfortunately, this film entirely lacks those things. I mention this because, of course, Hitler has decided to attend the film premiere, thus putting the entire German state leadership in one room. Shoshana’s plot, and Pitt’s idiotic substitute, now have the potential to end the war (in Europe anyway, you don’t even know that there is a World War going on by watching this movie). The Colonel, suddenly conscious of his historical legacy, decides that he’s going to jump ships, and demand terms from the Allies in return for allowing Pitt’s other two men (they are in the theatre) to carry out their assassination. The Allies, of course, agree to whatever he says and so he defects without warning the curiously non-existent security patrol at the theatre of impending disaster. Pitt, being the sadistic guy that he is in this movie, accepts this situation as a fact of life, except that he carves a swastika into the Colonel’s forehead as a sort of permanent scarlet letter of shame. A fitting punishment for sure, except that of all the people Pitt has had the opportunity to kill in the film (and has), no one has deserved it more than this Colonel. Why defy orders so horrendously and then stop short of killing the bastard? It makes no sense, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to (the movie could just as easily been titled ‘Stupid Basterds’).

Shoshana’s plot is, of course, the climax of the film. Rigging the theatre to burn down, she has her projectionist assistant, Marcel, lock the theatre goers into their unwitting crematorium (again, no security to thwart this, which is odd when the four or five highest ranking people of the Nazi state are in the room, but at this point Tarantino has added pointless silliness to the film’s other less than admirable attributes). Marcel then goes behind the screen to wait for a key moment when film of Shoshana interrupts the movie and tells the assembled Nazi’s they are going to be destroyed by a vengeful Jewess. While this is happening two other things are occurring: 1) Pitt’s two lackeys have discovered where Hitler is and are plotting in a nearby bathroom to kill him and 2) the young German war hero is attempting to force himself on Shoshana in the projectionist’s room where she is waiting for her “surprise” to begin. ***Another digression. The German war hero is being celebrated for having held up in a crows next and killed some 200 allied soldiers in a three day standoff before the allies abandoned their efforts to dislodge him. At one point, one character refers to him as a German “Sergeant York” a reference to the American World War I hero who single-handedly killing 28 Germans and capturing 132 more. There was also, of course, a movie made about this man called ‘Sergeant York’ with Gary Cooper playing the title character. There was a World War II parallel to this as well on the American side in the exploits of Audie Murphy who later starred in the movie about his own exploits, just like Tarantino’s fictional German. The clips we see of this film that is premiering look suspiciously like the sorts of things portrayed in ‘Sergeant York’ and I cannot help but think Tarantino is taking a swipe at that movie and those like it which lauded the heroic actions and exploits of American soldiers. I might be mistaken, but I wouldn’t put it past him. Back to the review.*** Of course, the “basterds” kill Hitler and Goebbels, riddling up the bodies with a few extra magazines of machine gun rounds for good measure, another needless scene which I guess we’re supposed to take sadistic joy in or laugh at? Who knows? When they aren’t pumping dead Hitler full of lead, they are taking random shots at the scrambling and now burning Nazis in the theatre below. Shoshana uses her wits to get away from the soldier so that she can protect herself by shooting him. She then shows her humanity by kneeling down to express regret over the unfortunate necessity of killing him as he lays there. But this is Tarantino, so no one ought to be surprised that the soldier then rolls over and kills her with his pistol before he himself expires. And so she does not even live to see her plot succeed. While all this has been happening, people have been throwing dynamite around like it’s going out of style (don’t ask why, it would make no difference if I explained it anyway) so when all of this has gone on enough—even Tarantino has a breaking point—all of that dynamite explodes and anyone who had been left alive is now tidily blown to bits. The actual ending of the movie is the carving up of the Colonel, but the cinema exploding is the more fitting end.

Tarantino’s World War II fantasy ends with the only (Marcel seems like a nice guy, but he’s an extension thematically of Shoshana) redeeming character dead and some sort of vague suggestion that the war (in Europe) was ending. What is the point of it all? Is it supposed to be a comedy? It is poor taste to say the least to make light of this particular historical epoch if not done with particular care and finesse. Yes, it matters a lot when people who were alive during the period and dealt with the real consequences of the period are still alive. That may not seem fair, but too bad. Tarantino’s nihilism would not be justified if applied to the Civil War or some other conflict either, but personal insults tend to hurt more than those made to those who are long dead and buried.Tarantino has never been a fan of those two words though: care and finesse. Why are we supposed to watch this two and a half hour bloodfest? What do we, as audience members, get from it? What is the theme of this movie? As far as I can tell, the theme is nothing. Nothing, other than that large pointless shoot-outs are “cool” to watch and that sadistic murdering can be funny if the murderer is a Jew and the victim is a German. The war itself is utterly lost. The casus belli for this imaginary illegal racist American killing squad—the holocaust—is also curiously absent. Perhaps because that might beg the question of why such a squad was not sent some place where the Nazis they happened to be killing were those involved in murdering Jews in massive numbers instead of marauding the French countryside murdering petty German soldiers. The movie is a pointless exercise and a waste of time. That would be bad enough if it were not also perniciously violent (I am not in any way opposed to dramatized violence, but like anything else, context is the key point) and ultimately profoundly disrespectful of the people who were actually victimized by German, Italian, Vichy, Japanese, and Soviet tyranny in this era and the brave men and women who fought against it from numerous countries around the globe. Tarantino should stick to making nihilistic fantasies set in fictional nihilistic places with his fictional nihilistic characters and stay out of the actual real life world setting filled with—yes—horrible evil and violence and murder and death and rape and destruction, but also filled with heroes and goodness and love and all the things that make life worth living and that give us hope when we confront those who would seek to destroy our lives, liberty and happiness. Were the world of 1941-1944 actually populated by Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ the outcome of that titanic struggle would hardly have been any bullet ridden Hitler and Goebbels. There would have been no struggle at all.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Letter Sent to Senators Reid and Ensign, and the Honorable Shelley Berkely of Nevada

If you haven't already written to your representatives in congress, please do so during the recess.

6 August 2009

Dear Senator Reid,

As you consider the prospect of “reforming” healthcare over the congressional recess I would like to share my views with you, as one of your constituents. I am twenty-five years old and a doctoral candidate in American History. I spend most of my time examining and studying the early political and intellectual history of our republic. I do not normally feel compelled to write to my elected representatives, though I always take the time to consider contemporary issues and elections seriously as a concerned and engaged citizen of the republic.

At the conclusion of our Revolution, those various figures great and small whom we generally call “Founding Fathers,” faced as scary and uncertain a future as any faced by any group of men in the history of the Western world. This is not needlessly melodramatic, but a simple fact. No sizeable republic had existed anywhere outside of small enclaves in Italy, Switzerland, and Holland for well over seventeen hundred years in the days of ancient Rome. Self-government and, more importantly, limited government, was, at best, a noble dream. Whether it could work given the nature of men, the precarious position of the United States in a world soon to be consumed by the fires unleashed in Revolutionary France, and the contradictory institutional arrangements among the sections of the new republic was anything but certain.

The early government of the United States was not limited in scope, power, or activity because of weakness or inability to marshal resources not gained until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was limited deliberately. Not because the Founders or anyone normally views it as a good thing that people don’t have employment, healthcare, food, education, or anything else commonly assumed to be a “right” today. It was limited because these items, items which are produced by other citizens, were not seen as the legitimate “rights” of other citizens. All men have the fundamental right to their own persons and the products of their own labor. They do not, however, own the products of other men by right. The critical development signified by the American Republic was the notion that government was instituted for the expressly limited purpose of protecting individual rights, including the fundamental rights of property.

Healthcare, no matter how vital we may think it is, is not a right. It is a service and/or series of services produced and offered by a whole host of our fellow citizens. One such citizen is my sister, a registered nurse in Clark County. This is not a question of prices and costs, but of rights. The government has been improperly intruding into the economy for over one hundred years now, with sometimes horrific effects, recently on display in the last year or so. The healthcare field is no exception to our mixed economy nightmare; it has been actively meddled in for decades from Medicare and Medicaid to the creation of HMOs, creatures of government interference. As awful as this situation is, the government is now considering, under pressure from President Obama, making matters much worse.

The government has no business getting involved in health insurance, even under the “benign” rhetoric of the current plan before congress. There is no mandate for this in the Constitutional charter ratified by the people of the United States in 1787-1789. Your job is, explicitly, to live within the confines of that document or to amend it for some non-delegated purpose. Creating a government insurance program is not a delegated power of the congress. There is a reason for this beyond the more primitive state of human healthcare in the late eighteenth century. A person cannot have a right to the products and services of another. That situation is normally called slavery. It was not compatible with human liberty when the republic was founded, and it is not compatible now. Such a situation is founded upon force, not liberty. It is, at base, fundamentally unjust and not worthy of this country. You should be working to rid the republic of all vestiges remaining that suggest force is a proper way for government to interact with the citizens who are its lords and masters.

Do not turn the American Republic, the republic of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison into the “bread and circuses” nightmare of Imperial Rome. If we go down that road any further, there will be increasingly little chance that we will find our ways back. Our situation today of affluence, power, and technological dominance over nature was not an accidental development, nor is its continuation at all assured. Your actions now matter immensely. History will judge whether you acted, like the heroes of other epochs, to guarantee a rebirth of liberty, or whether you pandered with other people’s money to “guarantee” services provided by yet others. As a historian, I am as certain of how this moment will be recorded as one can be. One path is glory, the other is ignominy. Please consider these matters and please choose wisely.

My regards,
Alexander Marriott