Quentin Tarantino: Glorious Bastard
To say that the true subject of a recent film by Quentin Tarantino is the power of film as a communicative medium rather than its ostensible and facial subject matter is to repeat oneself. Unlike his past outings, Inglourious Basterds does not require an extensive knowledge of films from the early 1970s that would be obscure to a general audience, and instead only demands that the viewer actively engage in the viewing—no mean feat for your average viewer, given that the film exceeds one hundred fifty minutes in length. However, the act of engagement in a work of art (for any duration) is typically sufficient to separate the audience intended to receive the artistic message from the audience meant to subsidize and incentivize the creation of the work of art from the studio’s perspective. Indeed, Tarantino has been creating wedges to attain this separation throughout his entire career.
Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s greatest piece of art to date, does not demand the extensive knowledge and familiarity with the tropes of the genre he has chosen to adapt that have been the hallmarks of his almost counterintuitively commercially successful career. Indeed, the fact that Tarantino has been widely commercially successful for at least a simple majority of his films is curious given how much of his work involves citations to movies utterly unbeknownst to the popcorn-popping audiences who raise the funds for his next homage to a director of whom they similarly have no knowledge. This fact is a testament to Tarantino’s skill in the exoteric/esoteric allegorical dialectic; his penchant for raw and extreme acts of violence have always thrilled audiences, and often glorified the protagonist or atagonist (my own term for a main character for whom pathos is intentionally ambiguous—Mr. Blonde of Reservoir Dogs, for example) perpetrating those acts. The titular basterds are such atagonists, though popularly viewed as protagonists, for whom the audience automatically feels predisposed to cheer given that they are Jews exacting their revenge on their oppressors. Of course, the basterds’ explicit mission and intent are to commit wanton acts of violence and murder—essentially genocide, in a poetic stroke of irony—against any and all Nazis, regardless of their degree of complicity, as a form of blind “returning the favor” of the Holocaust, while perpetrating random acts of unjustified violence bearing similar moral obloquy of those acts they had intended to punish in the first place. The basterds do not take prisoners of war or bow to the civilized conventions that even the Nazis themselves had afforded to enemy combatants; they merely kill and maim, embodying violence at its most raw and most despicable.
Nonetheless, the simple fact is that rarely, if ever, have Tarantino’s violent characters attained long-run positive consequences as a reward for their violence. Most meet their demise, whether as a direct and proximate result of the Mexican stand-off they find themselves in (e.g., pretty much every character in a Tarantino movie ever) or by the mere contingency attendant to their line of violent business (e.g., Vincent Vega killed by Butch Coolidge after an act of carelessness). The characters that do seem to get the treasure—or perhaps the MacGuffin—are those who do not automatically shy away from violence, but do not directly engage or glorify it unless necessary (e.g., Mr. Pink, Clarence Worley, etc.). These are often your Horatio characters, men of learning, not warriors. The only possible exception is The Bride, but her violence is arguably justified as preemptive self-defense, given every other character’s reaction to seeing her alive, or alternatively as dexterous and finessed martial arts (e.g., the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique) overcoming brute strength and malice. Tarantino, like thousands of poets before him, though popularly viewed as glorifying violence and other such brawny virtues, actually takes care to glorify strategy, artfulness and intellect far more than brutality.
As such, Inglourious Basterds’ true protagonist is unsurprisingly Shosanna Dreyfus, the persecuted auteur whose ingenious plot to use cinema to trap and extinguish the Nazi threat almost seems a necessity, and not the basterds as the popular audience is led to believe and feel. Hell, it’s simply the smarter way to market a movie: “Jews killin’ Nazis,” who wouldn’t go see that? However, as noted before, despite the initial sympathy with the basterds’ mission, their wholesale slaughter and torture quickly reveal them as even more morally abase then their quarries, and their violent stratagems slowly and inexorably catch up with them. Indeed, the basterds reveal themselves to lack any kind of end-strategy for their tour of Nazi-occupied France. They plunge headlong into the heart of the enemy in a blaze of total-immolation, swastika-scars and never-ending ammunition, damning the consequences all the while. Their mission could only be headed by their fearless, depraved, and unthinking commander, Aldo Raine, and their combined brainlessness inexorably turns any justifiable pathos into embarrassment when the basterds’ pathetic plan to assault the nest of Nazis is unveiled. Their attempts at masquerade and intrigue are laughable (and poignantly laughed at by Colonel Landa), and would never succeed in their own right, thus squandering their potentially valid and admirable goals.
Even more horrifying are the actual details of the basterds’ plan to eliminate the Nazi elite: suicide bombing the theater. Though I admit I infer maximal, and often excessive, political commentary into the works as I interpret them, I firmly believe that the basterds similarity to modern terrorists is not accidental; at one point Col. Landa, the most coolly rational character in possibly any Tarantino film to date (with the possible exception of Mr. Wolf), simply calls them terrorists. The allegory of Nazi Germany as modern America and the basterds as modern terrorists is fairly clear: an imperial state is fighting a doomed war effort, with its leader demanding unquestioning nationalistic loyalty; the nation’s imperialistic reach and occupation are untenable in the long run because of the resentment of the dissident and retributive occupied who eventually turn to violence to expel their occupiers; the insurgents are primarily religiously identified and treat the rebellion as a crusade against an aggressor; the insurgents display an indifference to pleas for mercy or clemency or adherence to any rules of war; the insurgents use tactics of torture, including the use of saber-like knives and scalpings intended for public display and demoralization more than any strategic goal; the insurgents are willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause as suicide bombers, and are willing to kill undoubtedly innocent victims in pursuit of the goal of making the occupying nation’s war effort unbearable. And yet, almost every audience member who views the film roots for the basterds.
The artistic apogee of Inglourious Basterds comes precisely at the moment the basterds shoddy plan comes to fruition. The Nazi elite had been comfortably and loudly enjoying Goebbels’ nationalistic tribute, which glorified the death and destruction of their enemies at the hands of an unlikely and outnumbered hero, cheering on the wanton violence. Zoller, on the other hand, a lover of cinema and a poet at heart, was apparently forced to commit the grandiose acts of violence in some self-defense, as demonstrated by his sickness at viewing his violent acts so glorified. Within a span of a few minutes, the scene is eerily recreated right there in the theater playing Inglourious Basterds: the Nazis are ruthlessly annihilated by the ragtag and bloodthirsty basterds, and the American audience viewing the film (at least in my theater) erupts in applause at the cathartic moment of utmost destruction of their past enemy, blithely oblivious to the ramifications of their affirmations. Like Zoller a few minutes prior, I was pallid at the notion that my countrymen were cheering such a dishonorable and terroristic slaughter of civilians trapped in a box with no weapons, trying to enjoy their blithe images of nationalistic self-glorification.
The fact that Tarantino makes art happen within the theater itself is what makes Inglourious Basterds undoubtedly his greatest artistic work to date. While Pulp Fiction is incredible as a piece of post-modern storytelling, it intentionally abjures commentary in favor of exploring narrative tricks and developing an elusive theme of turning shit to gold (or vice versa, depending on your perspective). In a sense, Pulp Fiction is about not advancing a plot or commentary so much as glorifying its various thematic elements in their own rights. Inglourious Basterds is the opposite: Tarantino holds a mirror to his more oblivious or inattentive audience for all who care to see. In that sense, Inglourious Basterds reveals the key to Tarantino’s entire career of fashioning movies to be truly understood by those who pay attention, yet still gobbled up by those who don’t as a subsidy and MacGuffin—setting the film in motion, studio-budget-wise this time)—for those who do pay attention. Indeed, firmly in the Homeric tradition before him, Tarantino renders the literate glorious.