NB: Includes mild spoilers to Inglourious Basterds, Violence and Language.

basterds1Here’s the big joke: eight vengeful Jewish American soldiers roam the fields of France between 1941-44 killing German soldiers, and under the direction of their hillbilly Lieutenant (Brad Pitt), scalps them. Literally. In close-up technicolor. If they are allowed to live, for propaganda purposes, a large swastika is carved into their foreheads, with an enormous Bowie knife. We get to see that too.

The Melbourne critic Karl Quinn makes a direct address: ‘Was it really necessary to show men being scalped in such close-up detail?’

Quinn’s answer: ‘Yes, it was necessary. On the terms that Tarantino set for himself, at any rate … It serves a dual purpose, moral and aesthetic. It makes us squirm (a familiar pleasure-pain of a certain type of cinema), but in refusing the quick cutaway that usually diffuses the unpleasantness, it actually makes us feel the violence. Arguably, Inglourious Basterds isn’t just a reimagining of the war movie, it’s a reimagining of how we tell stories of war and brutality and sadism, so that we feel something of their horror. It is, if you will, a necessary evil.’

Quinn’s reading is contestable, but unusually subtle. Compare:

Paul Byrnes, Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Naughty, apocalyptic fun … There are many scenes that do shock — the scalping is particularly gruesome, as is one scene where one of the basterds … takes a baseball bat to a Nazi officer.’

David Stratton, At the Movies:The whole thing is handled with an almost child-like glee … it’s violent, of course, but hey, World War II was a violent business and war movies were never like this before!’

Leigh Paatsch, News.com.au: ‘Irreverent, irrational and irresistibly entertaining … Tarantino’s trademarked, highly stylised use of blood, guts and violence still bursts to the fore on occasion.’

Louise Keller, Urban Cinephile: ‘Drama, horror-fest, romance, spy thriller and comedy with tinges of slapstick are lovingly and theatrically style-slapped into shape by the fearless Tarantino, whose child-like enthusiasm infused with graphic violence, is easily imagined.’

Jim Schembri, The Age: ‘Of course, you shouldn’t make fun of the Holocaust. But there’s nothing in the movie rule book that says you can’t have fun with the Holocaust … what really makes Inglourious Basterds stick out … is its sheer playfulness … a comic burst of violence (Aldo loves etching swastikas into the foreheads of his Nazi captives)…’

Everyone remarks on the amount of violence on display, but then it serves ‘a dual purpose, moral and aesthetic’, does it not?

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Comic violence

I think it was the novelist Don DeLillo who coined the phrase, in a remark something like this: It took America to create comic violence.

Basterds has a full super-sized serving of the ol’ ultraviolence, but it’s all okay, because of its: ‘almost child-like glee’; ‘child-like enthusiasm infused with graphic violence’; ‘sheer playfulness’ – because it is ‘naughty’; ‘irreverent, irresistibly entertaining’.

None of this would be of moment except that the film is riding at the top of the Aussie box office, and at the aggregator Rotten Tomatoes it has scored a rarified 88% “Fresh” score. (See below for some contrary, negative reviews.)

And who would be so churlish as not to applaud a mission leader who vows to ‘dee-stroy those gnatzis’ and proceeds to do so with those all-American symbols: baseball bat and Bowie knife? (He equates Germans to Nazis: ‘The Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty they endured at our hands.’)

So in that frame of mind let us see how the American Empire is faring in the corners of one of their more recent, factual wars. This is from Salon’s indispensable Glen Greenwald who has recently posted the bluntly titled ‘What every American should be made to learn about the IG [Inspector General’s] Torture Report’. Which is, according to US Attorney General Eric Holder, “a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations.” Greenwald’s post includes these funkily redacted items from the report:

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Threats of execution:

1692

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Threats to kill detainee and his children:

95

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Threats to rape detainee’s female relatives in front of him:

94

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Rather less violent than Tarantino…

But hey wait, Tarantino’s film is just fun, right?! It’s just a jolly jape. It begins with the words ‘Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France…’ Code: a fairy story, right? And after all, as Karl Quinn noted, the filmmaker is only working ‘on the terms that Tarantino set for himself, at any rate.’

It should be recognised the whole film is a revenge-fantasy, and therefore nothing can be taken seriously. But that’s not quite true, because Tarantino manipulates you, requires you to take one thing seriously – that the German/Nazi, each and everyone, is a vicious, merciless, evil monster. This is the prerequisite for enjoying all the fun times ahead.

*MILD SPOILER ALERT* He does this in the very first scene where a German officer, nicknamed the Jew Hunter, psychologically tortures, with prolonged sadistic pleasure – which is, of course, a sadistic pleasure provided by the film director – an otherwise virtuous French farmer to give up the Jewish family* he is hiding, implying he will let the farmer’s own family live. On the betrayal the officer has his men kill the family in long, protracted rakes of their guns across the floorboards.

And at every step of the way right to the end the German/Nazi is shown that he cannot be trusted (only one German woman is featured and she is a double spy, on the side of the angels); that he will be ruthless and murderous, and if given even the tiniest opening – as in a particularly mean moment adjunct to the climax – he will kill you. So, Tarantino forces your assent that these vermin – German/Nazis – deserve the cruel worst. And then Tarantino applies, in ironic film-buff, film-theorist, postmodern fashion: comic violence. Which provide catharsis and laughter.

Karl Quinn’s final words on the matter:

‘Then again, it could just be a vile piece of exploitation cinema. It’s a bloody good one though.’

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I must have known what was in store; I’m sure I did. Apart from a long, draggy talky scene, it wasn’t boring; Tarantino gives good fireworks. But I have to say I’ve lost my tolerance for American gore. With comic violence. It’s all of a piece, what’s on the screen eventually spills over on the streets. Life imitates art. Rah rah rah and so on. But it’s not the intellectualising – it’s the brutalising. When I stop feeling brutalised by multiple scenes of brutal violence, comic or not, is when I’ll need to have a long sabbatical in a quiet country town in the South Island of New Zealand, like Gore or Clinton.

Tarantino in the Guardian: ‘Well, if people are offended by it, I don’t care,’ he snaps. ‘I’m going to do what I do.’

Quite. Yup. It’s only a movie, only Hollywood. Not like, say, Reality TV. Or actual war. The Americans, after all, are famously able to separate fact from fantasy.

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*Jewish farmers (!) in the French countryside in 1941 (!) called Dreyfus (!) Now that’s fast and loose.

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Some negative reviews:

Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster: ‘Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is leader of the Basterds, who improbably survive for years in France, enjoying – and I do mean enjoying – a rampant killing season with the ultimate intention of finding Hitler and sending him to hell. The premise sounds action-packed but it’s mostly hot air and yackety-yak.’

The New Yorker‘s grouchy David Denby, with a really serious, malicious *SPOILER* which I will resist repeating: ‘Tarantino’s hyper-violent narrative reveals merely that he still daydreams like a teen-ager … Tarantino may think that he is doing Jews a favor by launching this revenge fantasy (in the burning theatre, working-class Jewish boys … spolier removed …), but somehow I doubt that the gesture will be appreciated.’

Lee Siegel at the Daily Beast turns the tables with a wild and wicked rant, in Tarantino mode, right at the end of his calibrated piece. No Spolier but lots of Language, Violence:

‘So let me try for a new type of criticism that might match idioms with Tarantino’s films and rise to meet them on their own terms. I would like to challenge him to a fight that will decide the validity of hollow, movie-think violence. More particularly, I would like to knock his fucking teeth out of his mouth, break the bridge of his nose and push it up into his head. To hell with seven types of ambiguity, the objective correlative, and the anxiety of influence. Let the blood flow out of his ears, and then let him watch as I shatter his kneecaps, pulverize his ribs, and—yes, indeed—rip the scalp off his fucking vacant head.

‘I’ll meet this glorified videogame programmer anywhere in Manhattan he wants. (As long as I’m home to pick my son up at nursery school at 5.) And don’t let him tell me that my invitation is out of context, full of movie-talk, and juvenile. I’m not buying that. Not anymore.’

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Previous posts:
Obama’s holiday reading list (and, Books I’ve Bought But Haven’t Read, Vol. 1)

The Joy of Irrelevance

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