Splice of Life
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Quentin Tarantino, U.S., The Weinstein Company/Universal
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction took cinema and the culture at large by such storm in 1994 that people weren’t sure what to make of it in its wake. The film was so ineffably there, so alive, so self-satisfied and confident in its own powers, that it almost seemed to defy explanation. It emerged in the right place at the right time, and it coasted on thrills endemic only to its medium: in narrative, dialogue, character, performance, and photography it felt complete, sustained, and monolithic, even as it referenced a bunch of things that its unintended core audience—impressionable teenagers on the cusp of being cultural tastemakers—had little knowledge of. The impact of Pulp Fiction was palpable, but of course the aftereffect of any immediate and swift sensation is the questioning of its purpose and meaning. Did the film resonate beyond its intimidating surface pleasures? Tarantino’s breakthrough seemed then (as it does now) a shocking mix of the puerile and the sophisticated, a game being played with the audience that respected them as much as it gleefully toyed with their feelings and expectations. Digging deeper—to justify the profound emotional response it elicited—one would always return to the same question: If there’s a true philosophy providing the backbone to the film, is it one purely of cinema or of life? Then the confounding follow-up: But what’s the difference, especially to a devoted, maniacal cinephile such as Tarantino, for whom life is defined by cinema?
At the time, we only had the Bible-quoting hit man Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) as evidence of a philosophical outlook—his ultimate disavowal of “the life” at Pulp Fiction’s trick non-ending seemed a fairly apt demonstration of man’s (and therefore a filmmaker’s) capacity to reject violence and find inner nourishment. Now, in 2009, we have five more Tarantino films to help us make sense of him, yet the same questions remain. What should not be ambiguous anymore, however, as we view Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume One and Two, and Death Proof from the rear view mirror, is that Tarantino is indeed a deeply philosophical filmmaker—however it’s become increasingly clear that philosophy manifests as more analytical than moral. For Tarantino is himself a film critic, yet the screen is his text, and his area of study is the ignominious genre film. His clearest example of this is Death Proof (the refreshing half of the lopsided Grindhouse flop venture), his 2007 deconstructed cine-essay on the rape-revenge movie, which both utilized and inverted that subgenre’s syntax.
Tarantino is after something similar with his new one, Inglourious Basterds, a long-in-gestation World War II saga that, like Death Proof, aims to constantly comment on its own construction even as it provides satisfying, intricate mass entertainment. However, whereas Death Proof could have been easily dismissed as a nasty nugget and an introverted experiment, Inglourious Basterds, which evokes historical atrocities and includes a handful of real-life figures as characters, opens a fresh can of worms for Tarantino. Even if Tarantino is here clearly excavating that most disreputable of genres, the Nazi exploitation film—which could be said to include everything from The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen; to The Damned, The Night Porter, and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, to even Raiders of the Lost Ark—Basterds can’t help but bring questions of Tarantino’s artistic philosophy roaring back.
Tarantino is too aware of his legacy (to a fault, one gleans from interviews) to devote his considerable craftsmanship to what could be perceived as negligible entertainments, so he builds mythos around his characters and scenarios as much as he does around himself (remember “the fourth film from Quentin Tarantino” credit that opened Kill Bill Volume One with a literal bang?), and he always sprinkles enough highbrow bread crumbs—film historical references, complex narrative parallels, sophisticated camerawork—for the critics to find their way back from the leveling, crowd-pleasing action spectacles he deploys with aplomb. Not a hit-and-run filmmaker, Tarantino never sidelines his audience with spectacle and violence only to retreat (see those Hollywood directors who treat viewers as though each and every one is a cretinous fanboy waiting for the next thrill); he wants to dazzle and then stick around for the discussion. And more than any of his other films, Inglourious Basterds is an invitation into its maker’s headspace. Not only is this his first work in which cinema is foregrounded as a narrative driving force, it’s also framed as historical savior, as well as punisher. It’s a palpable, definitive statement of purpose from Tarantino (only the imagination can save us), and some might call it churlish and self-regarding, even naïve, but it’s genuine, from the heart, and powerful. If one of a filmmaker’s main objectives should be to make you feel the force of his convictions, then Tarantino has achieved tremendous success here. And in its depiction of the outcome of World War II, Tarantino doesn’t just provide revisionism, he implicitly, and winkingly, acknowledges the subjectivity of film historicity.
Initially the film doesn’t seem quite so ambitious as all that, with its small-scale opening that both strikes as one of his best mounted conversation-based sequences as well as one of his most ideologically fraught. There’s an authenticity to this torturously prolonged scene—in which Christoph Waltz’s sinister Hans Landa, a.k.a. “The Jew Hunter” (who will turn out to be the film’s main heavy, and Waltz its mesmerizing breakout) gently interrogates French diary farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), who, it has been rumored, is hiding Jews in his home—yet it’s not historical verisimilitude he’s after, but rather the syntax of a bygone era of moviemaking; as with so much of Tarantino’s films, it’s “authentic” only in the style it evokes. Suspense is attenuated as we are directed to alarmingly benign details (the stuffing of pipes, the pouring of milk into a glass, the methodical replacement of an ink well). There’s initially something very “cinema of quality” about this first chapter, from the basic set-ups to the brilliant casting— stoic, sleepy-eyed Menochet looks like he stepped directly out of René Clément’s Forbidden Games—at least until the camera starts circling the table with restless anticipation and in one fluid descent leaves Hans and Perrier to peek beneath the floorboards at the terrified Jews hiding there. It’s the sort of adroit movement that Tarantino likes to show off every twenty minutes or so, as a means of reasserting his visual authority. Of course, when used to show so loaded an image, it can become questionable, at worst distasteful. Thus this opening segment, while a tour de force, is also anomalous in Tarantino’s oeuvre: the terror approximates real events, and the violence, perpetrated against innocents, has consequence. For some, and not just his steadfast detractors, this will serve to discredit the film, the example of its preference for drama over empathy; yet hardly divorced from the rest of Basterds, it simply sets in motion a web of events that will lead to a fantastical wish fulfillment reimagining of history. Its realism is something of a red herring.
Inglourious Basterds acknowledges itself as a fairy tale (“Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France…” reads the opening on-screen text, evoking that deity Leone) and hence a construction. In form, the Tarantino films it most resembles are those in the Kill Bill saga—like each of those samurai-western-yakuza-kung-fu hybrids, it’s compartmentalized into five chapters, told achronologically yet locking into place with revelatory precision—which locates it in a similar mythological register. Even as Tarantino is working through ideas of memory as reflected in pop cultural imagery, he’s still doing so within the strict boundaries of the thriller. While it’s not a genre mix-and-match like Kill Bill, Basterds manages to give each of its segments its own tone, manner, and arc; while they probably wouldn’t stand on their own as individual short films (with the possible exception of the fourth chapter), they provide further proof that Tarantino conceives in terms of set pieces and musical movements—as if we needed more proof after the exquisitely designed and executed House of Blue Leaves blow-out that climaxes Kill Bill Volume One and provides the centerpiece for the whole diptych. Of course, his proclivity to grind together all those types of films that influenced him has been evident in the mise-en-scène and soundtracks in all of his work this decade (and even manifests in such seemingly small details as the different types of fonts deployed in the opening credits), but here they feel more than ever like coherent pieces of a single puzzle. This is why, despite its surface correlations to Kill Bill, Basterds feels in tone most like Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s one post–Pulp Fiction film that isn’t dramatically compartmentalized or bifurcated.
Basterds is so tightly constructed that it feels somewhat ironic now that much of Tarantino’s initial acclaim was attributed to his mastering of the incidental conversation; Pulp Fiction’s context-free quotability, its eagerness to stop cold and indulge in off-handed topics divorced from the plot, was what made it special. Today, Tarantino’s mastery of film dialogue—or to be more precise, his adeptness at conveying the contortions and deceptions of language, as well as the pleasure in the escalating tension of a classical back-and-forth—remains, yet it is dedicated more than ever to moving the story ahead. This might be out of necessity for this film’s complex WWII plot machinations, but it also seems somewhat of a piece with, surprisingly, Death Proof, which only seemed upon first glance to be built out of spare-part bullshit sessions, but whose stream of long-winded conversations—especially deceptive since they were among girlfriends lackadaisically hanging out—all contained crucial character and plot information that later paid off. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino constructs long, impressively built verbal mind games, in which one character may or may not be catching another in a lie, a motif extended over scenes spoken in English, French, and German, sometimes all three at once, the most frightening set in a basement tavern, a virtuoso segment (one that literally features a drinking game of “Who Am I?”) that ranks with the best sequences he’s ever done. His dexterity at writing scenes like these is especially crucial to a film populated with so many role-players—double agents, actors as heroes, heroes as actors, villains posing as heroes, etc.
The most dramatic deceiver though is Shoshanna Dreyfus, the sole Jewish survivor of the dairy-farm massacre that ends the first act, who ends up the dyed-blonde proprietor at a movie house in occupied Paris, her identity changed to the gentile, and decidedly cinematic, name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. Played with frayed intensity by Mélanie Laurent, Shoshanna/Emmanuelle is Basterds’ unexpected protagonist, an avenging angel more furious even than the renegade Jewish-American troop that gives the film its title and which has become its sensational marketing tool. Surely, the “Basterds,” led by Brad Pitt’s chewily twanged Aldo Raine, who hails from the Smokey Mountains and claims Jim Bridger as a direct ancestor, are the driving force of the film, their take-no-prisoners vengeance-fueled fury (he demands one-hundred Nazi scalps from each member of his group) the film’s most indelicate and controversial element, yet Shoshanna helps give it its emotional center. The unwanted, tenacious courtship foisted upon her by German war hero and cinephile Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who spots her changing her marquee late one night (down comes G.W. Pabst’s L’Enfer blanc de Piz Palü, starring Leni Riefenstahl), sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her theater being chosen as the venue for the premiere of “Nation’s Pride,” a fictionalization of Zoller’s exploits and a crown in the jewel for Third Reich propaganda minister and wannabe movie mogul Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Promising to be a star-studded event, with guests including not only Emil Jannings and German starlet Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) but also all of the high-ranking Nazi officials, the premiere provides the ideal location for a dramatic, one-fell-swoop sneak attack from the Basterds, joining forces with British spy and, natch, former film critic Lt. Archie Hicox (a downright golden Michael Fassbender) and double agent von Hammersmark. Unbeknownst to them, Shoshanna waits in the wings, and with her lover, black projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido), like her a social outcast, plans her own brand of cinematic retribution.
It’s a furiously, joyously complicated plot told with Tarantino’s customary control and clarity, and never moving too fast to stop and take in a small but unforgettable detail (the way Hans Landa slices into a perfect piece of strudel; the deep crimson of Shoshanna’s premiere-night dress set against the red Nazi banners outside her moon-shaped window). It’s also a monstrously insensitive vision that has already enraged those who look for some sort of truth or agenda in every onscreen representation of Jews, let alone during World War II. It goes without saying that Tarantino isn’t the slightest bit interested in dramatizing Jewishness in any vivid or particularly meaningful way: religious and cultural identity in this film exist only in terms of those movie conventions it evokes and cultivates. Is it “socially relevant”? No more than it is tender or subtle. But to take it to ethical task for Jewish representation results in a dead end: the film could easily fan the flames of either side of the debate. Does the film trade in matters of moral equivalency, as Daniel Mendelsohn claimed in his Newsweek article “When Jews Attack”? Some would argue this, since its troop of brutal, scalping Jewish soldiers mete out sadistic, Apache-cribbed violence one might more easily associate with their Nazi victims, and the film’s climax finds the Germans caught in their own glorified oven (in this case, an immolating movie theater), a ludicrous and dramatic reversing of history. Some, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum included, have even claimed the film to be a form of Holocaust denial. Yet rather than see anti-Semitism in the film, one could just as easily criticize it for ultra-Zionist revisionism, featuring baseball bat-armed Jewish supermen, macho enough to make even David Mamet proud, taking matters into their own hands. Any two serious considerations of the film as anything other than cheeky revisionism or cinematic passion play would thus cancel each other out; not that Tarantino doesn’t take history seriously—he just defines it differently.
Of course that history would be that of cinema, and Basterds’ unforgettable climactic images—in which a woman’s face, spliced into the film onscreen at an opportune moment, cackles as everything burns around her in a nitrate blast—constitute Tarantino’s most primal and pure expression of that subjective history. In fact, even once the screen has disintegrated, she still appears projected onto white smoke hovering in the air—the world has gone to hell, yet cinema, our contorted, refracted visual memory of the past, remains. It’s an intensely personal idea, and the closest to a philosophical statement Tarantino has yet visualized. For him, film is all; and here it’s all consuming.