Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
Here we are at the very end of the Quentin Tarantino project, on the cusp of his next movie coming out and hopefully being awesome. I’ll admit when I started this it was partially because it was a nice short trip, and partially me gearing up for Django Unchained, but I think the lesson to take away from Tarantino movies is that comparing them to each other is often difficult, especially since his choices are so deliberately distanced from each other.
That said, I feel like Django has a lot of potential to be very much like today’s movie, not only in that it represents a period deviation from his timeless-now aesthetic, but in that it represents a sort of particular type of film making, a distillation of the exploitation impulse into something that isn’t tied to the typical low budget and problematic trappings of that genre. Which brings us to today’s movie, the much beloved Nazi/Jewish/war/cinema/finger counting exploitation epic…
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
What becomes readily apparent upon rewatching Basterds for the first time since 2009 is just how much it invests in establishing its strange, relatively sedate wartime setting. For much of the film, we’re dealing with a fairly modest depiction of Nazi-occupied France, from the small groups of fear-inspiring SS officers to the resentful but mute French who suffer under them, to the terror of the Jews as they hide and flee and die, and the typical confident swagger of the Americans that drop in to kick ass and save the day. There’s a certain unbiased sense of weight to it all, removed from the typical ‘cool’ quality that most of Tarantino’s films have.
And then things start to slowly slip. It starts with Christoph Waltz, who is far too charismatic to be a Nazi monster, nudging us into the uncomfortable place of being fascinated by him more than we’re repulsed by him. The Basterds are not just a motley crew, but a cartoon group of superhero soldiers, from the mythical Bear Jew with his giant bat and penchant for nonconsensual trepanning to Hugo Stiglitz and his rock and roll title card and guitar riff, the badass stoic given his just and proper due. And Shosanna, poor Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), gets thrust into an unlikely meet cute with a Nazi war hero, only to be pulled into a way to achieve revenge on the monsters who murdered her family and her people.
And what it unfolds into bears very little resemblance to reality, taking a sharp left as the various stories come together into a heady mix of alternate history that manages to keep a half dozen plates spinning in an adventure that manages to feel epic even without a single huge battle sequence. But what it also does, from the beginning with the Nazis riding up to the French farm to the end with Hitler getting his face blown off, is embrace the truth of a whole subcategory of cinema: exploitation film.
This requires some definition, because on the face of it Inglourious Basterds is very far away from exploitation. It’s often fairly sedate, full of great actors being beautifully shot, a tense mostly foreign language film that relies on slow builds and a lack of lurid content. There’s some blood, sure, but for the most part it’s people talking for over two hours in French and German. Hardly exploitation on the surface. But more than the tropes, exploitation films revolve around a single core idea—they are the cinema of wish fulfillment. Whether it’s the stick it to the man sensibilities of blaxploitation, or the uncomfortably incompatible concepts of women’s wrath against oppressors and seeing beautiful, fierce women being oppressed of a dozen gross rape-heavy female revenge movies, the kernel of all exploitation cinema is the idea of seeing something on screen that doesn’t happen in real life, where bigotry or crime goes unpunished and good people often suffer and die without a moment to shine.
Through that lens, the art house sensibilities that linger on the surface of Basterds quickly give way to a wonderland of exploitation sensibilities. From simple concepts like the obvious ‘kill Hitler’ plan to the more subtle, things like the amazing Hugo Stiglitz stinger and the basic cultural wish fulfillment of seeing an average Jewish guy becoming a bogeyman of Nazi lore. Can you imagine if Tarantino’s original plan had gone through, and it was Adam Sandler who came out of that black tunnel wielding that bat? People would have lost their god damn minds, and rightly so. Eli Roth is a pale follow up, but even so there’s something fundamentally exciting about this down home Americana version of Jewish vengeance, a juxtaposition to the fantastical, cinematic version enacted by Shosanna, which manages to evoke The Wizard of Oz even as it happens to be one of the three separate plans that seal Hitler’s doom.
Hell, Michael Fassbender’s whole character is predicated on what is basically the ultimate film nerd wish fulfillment fantasy: that somehow, someday, the entire effort of a World War may rest upon the expertise of a film critic.
And it’s that wealth of plans coming together that really seals this fundamental truth of Inglourious Basterds‘ excess of good clean escapist fulfillment. Not only do they kill Hitler, but they really kill Hitler: Shosanna’s fire would have done him in, Donny and Omar blow him away with so many bullets he dissolves into a spray of meat, and finally Landa gets in the blow history will remember with a perfectly timed bomb that not only ends the war but then seals his supposed escape from Europe to the US as some sort of war hero. Which is the ultimate twist, that the monster we’ve been so torn on becomes the hero that history will remember (even if we, through the power of film, know the real truth), only to get that last moment where Aldo (Brad Pitt) whips out his knife and gives us the fulfillment of seeing proper retribution achieved on someone we almost, sometimes, want to root for.
Basterds is a film that knows the fundamental truth of cinema: it creates myths that matter more, sometimes, than the reality of their sources. World War II was complicated, ended badly and after much struggle, and cast a long shadow over the entire 20th century. What Tarantino offers is more than just entertainment, it’s a way to relish the possibilities, the world we wish was real, where no bad deed goes unpunished and the good guys achieve their means through fulfilling, interesting ways. That’s not just escapism, it’s a sort of emotional catharsis, allowing us to play creatively in places that are often too dark to tread culturally. It frees us of that baggage, giving us back the ability to go there and explore the space, in a way that not only opens new creative avenues, but gives us back a legacy that is otherwise held hostage by history’s greatest monsters and tragedies.
So About That Django Movie…
Which brings me to my ultimate point, as we head towards the end of this article and I begin to openly speculate: I think this is exactly what we’re going to see in Django Unchained. I think that Tarantino has already shown more sensitivity to portrayals of black characters on film than some black directors (looking at you, Tyler Perry!) and he doesn’t approach the idea of a slavery revenge story without making sure he has that movie down tight as a drum in terms of what he wants to accomplish.
But if he succeeds? If he can make a strange hybrid spaghetti western blaxploitation film that straddles the line between slave vengeance and art film? He will have accomplished something even more magical than the already great Inglourious Basterds: a film about slavery that isn’t wildly problematic, but that doesn’t hold to the self-righteous moralizing of most films on the subject. Not that movies like that are bad, because they are often very good (I’m a huge fan of Amistad, for example), but in creating something that takes it in another direction, you open up more eyes and brains to the subject, create new ways to think about something that has been so deeply buried culturally that most people can’t even talk about it without getting uncomfortable.
Fuck uncomfortable, art is about getting beyond that. And if nothing else, Tarantino always brings us something more than easy awkwardness, even if we have to get over our preconceptions to reach it. And that alchemy, whether it’s mixing genres like his early films or mixing the trappings of high- and low-brow cinema in Basterds, remains a vital talent I wish was used more intelligently in films in general.
What’s Next For Directed Viewing?
A quick note before we end: I’ll probably review Django Unchained when it comes out, but I’ll certainly be adding to this project with a more complex write up after that, something that is more in keeping with the critical tone I want this project to take. No time frame for that, probably not until 2013, but it will be coming. Like many of the projects of contemporary directors, the journey of Directed Viewing never ends.
That said, I want to take this time to announce that Directed Viewing is officially on hiatus until the new year. I have a short project taking up this slot for all of November, and honestly I simply haven’t found another director I want to do yet. I intend to resume in 2013, but I’d love to hear your suggestions for who or what you want me to cover as this project tackles a brand new year. Feel free to email me, leave a comment, or even just reply on twitter. I don’t care how you do it, just know that your feedback is what keeps me going. Thank you for taking the time to read this (or any of my writing), and I’ll see you here next year for more of the auteur wank you’ve come to expect!