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Contra-Basterds

I hope you're enjoying all the arguments swirling around "Inglourious Basterds" as much as I am -- not just here, but all over the place. Since I posted "Some ways to watch Inglourious Basterds [sic]," I've been reading other people's reviews and comments and interviews about the movie and, hell, even Quentin Tarantino doesn't always agree with Quentin Tarantino about what the movie's up to. (And why should he? Like all of us, he contains multitudes.) It's not about the Holocaust, but it is about the Holocaust; it's not real, but it's real; it's not fantasy, but it's fantasy; it's not history, but it's history; it's not amoral, but it's amoral; it's not moral, but it's moral...

What some people have difficulty with is exactly what others delight in: "Inglorious Basterds" is never situated in one reality or another reality. It's always juggling various combinations of reality and unreality -- history, alt-history, war movie (platoon movie, mission movie, spy movie, detective movie, propaganda movie, European art movie...), cartoon, folklore, satire, comic book, revenge fantasy, etc. -- and the combinations change from one moment to the next. And that, I think, is its subject. I don't think there's anything more to it than QT trying to create movie-moments. He does, and some of them are superb. I don't blame people who find its story and characters thin, or factual liberties preposterous, or generic conventions twisted, or (a-)morality ambiguous, or humor offensive, but he's got no reason to apologize for creating his alternative historical universe in a Hollywood movie -- a world in which all of the above are woven into its warp and woof.

Because "Inglourious Basterds" provides so much to talk about and to interpret, I thought I'd put together some fascinating observations (some of which I wish I'd made myself; some of which I think are off-base, but nevertheless revealing of something about the film) and set them bouncing off one another to get your own analytical juices flowing, starting with QT's (and others') takes on the nature of the world in which it unreels:

"I stop short of calling it a fantasy. I present it in this fairytale kind of thing as far as for the masses to take in, but that's not where I'm coming from. Where I'm coming from is my characters changed the course of the war. Now that didn't happen, because my characters didn't exist, but if they had existed, everything that happens in the movie is possible."-- QT, after a Museum of Jewish Heritage screening in Manhattan

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"In a sense, 'Inglourious Basterds' is a form of science fiction. Everything unfolds in and maps an alternate universe: The Movies. Even Shosanna's Parisian neighborhood bears a marked resemblance to a Cannes back alley, complete with a club named for a notorious local dive. Inflammable nitrate film is a secret weapon. Goebbels is an evil producer; the German war hero who pursues Shosanna has (like America's real-life Audie Murphy) become a movie star. Set to David Bowie's 'Cat People' title-song, the scene in which Shosanna--who is, of course, also an actor--applies her war paint to become the glamorous "face of Jewish vengeance," is an interpolated music video." -- J. Hoberman, Village Voice

"It almost feels like [Shoshanna] has no idea she's in a Quentin Tarantino movie." -- George, Scanners comment

"I like doing a genre movie but breaking it up in a non-genre way -- bringing real life into it. One of the sequences that I really wanted to get into the movie but wasn't able to was a sequence where some characters would be stuck in a minefield and they'd have to get across. Now, we've seen that before, but we've rarely seen it played out how it would be in real life. And there is the same aspect about that in this, as far as the tavern scene is concerned. He has to pull off the German. It's not 'Where Eagles Dare,' where Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood apparently speak German so wonderfully that all they have to do is put on some officers' uniforms, and they can mix it up with the Nazi hoi polloi [laughs]. Since English is standing in for German, we don't buy it. I'm trying to play that scene out for its real -- and hopefully entertaining -- rhythms as opposed to just trying to bum-rush it.

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"For instance, in a sequence like that, you've got the scene that's going on up top, and underneath you've got the suspense. The suspense is like a rubber band underneath it, just kind of stretching and stretching and stretching and stretching and stretching. And normally in a scene, you do try to make it as compact as possible, so it just has the most effect, and it's not boring and the air doesn't come out of it. But in a sequence like that -- and pulling it off is paramount in this -- it's like the longer the scene can go [laughs], as long as that rubber band of suspense can keep stretching, the better. That scene is better at 20 minutes than it would be at 8. And also I like the idea of this big build-up to this white-hot, short burst of violence."-- QT, Inside Movies interview

"I'll concede that when Tarantino recently (and plausibly) faulted Truffaut's 'The Last Metro' as a film about the French Occupation that should have been a comedy, that qualified, at least for me, as a grown-up observation, and one that made sense to me. I just don't see any comparable observations in his movie."-- Jonathan Rosenbaum

"The idea behind [the Basterds] doing an Apache resistance is, they'll ambush seven soldiers, say, and they kill them and they take their scalps and they desecrate their bodies and leave them for the Germans to find. It's not about those seven guys that they killed. It's about the story that's going to go [around] about the Basterds and how it's going to get into the psyche of the German soldiers."-- QT, Charlie Rose interview

"In brief, Tarantino has gone past his usual practice of decorating his movies with homages to others. This time, he has pulled the film-archive door shut behind him--there's hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside the cinema except as the basis of a nutbrain fable." [...]

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"The Nazis, for him, are merely available movie tropes--articulate monsters with a talent for sadism. By making the Americans cruel, too, he escapes the customary division of good and evil along national lines, but he escapes any sense of moral accountability as well. In a Tarantino war, everyone commits atrocities. Like all the director's work after 'Jackie Brown,' the movie is pure sensation. It's disconnected from feeling, and an eerie blankness--it's too shallow to be called nihilism--undermines even the best scenes."-- David Denby, The New Yorker

"The metaphor is not lost, you know, in that, via these film prints and via her cinema, Shosanna is intending to put the Nazis in an oven and create her own final solution. I must say, that's an aspect that most people don't talk about with regard to 'The Dirty Dozen,' and to me it's one of the strongest aspects of that film. I don't know how much people contemplated that when the film came out. But now that we're so knowledgeable about the Holocaust, when you see that film now, you can't not see it: they create their own oven for the Nazis. And not just the Nazis: their wives, their girlfriends, all the collaborating-with-the-enemy bitches that are hanging out with them. They pile up those grenades and they douse them with gasoline, creating their own napalm, and they just burn 'em. [laughs] I mean, it's pretty fucked up!"-- QT, RottenTomatoes interview

"Energetic, inventive, swaggering fun, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a consummate Hollywood entertainment--rich in fantasy and blithely amoral." -- J. Hoberman, Village Voice

"If the title weren't already taken, it'd be tempting to think of Quentin Tarantino's new movie -- indeed, his entire career -- as 'Infinite Jest.' Inside the fevered junk-pop particle accelerator that is this director's brain, moments of power and banality, meaning and absurdity, all collide into each other, creating movie mash-ups as brilliant as they are pointless. You take a Tarantino film seriously at your risk, which is why 'Inglourious Basterds' is his greatest risk yet: a rollicking action-comedy about -- wait for it -- the Holocaust."-- Ty Burr, Boston Globe

"No, it really isn't [about the Holocaust] at all. I mean, my thing is, the idea that leads you in, and this is how I work with storytelling in general -- it's more of the thing of the bunch of guys on a mission. Like a '60s movie, like 'The Devil's Brigade' or 'The Dirty Dozen' or something like that. But that's the way I normally do stuff. I start off with a certain genre, and then, that's the jumping-off point. Now, I intend to expand the genre, sort of blow the doors off of it. But the starting-off point is that: there's a bunch of guys, and there's a mission. I actually think that this movie's closer to something like E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," with a community of characters, an overall 'big story' that leads somewhere and a mix of invented characters and historical figures."-- QT, San Francisco Sentinel interview

"Since many people have been asking me to elaborate on why I think "Inglourious Basterds" is akin to Holocaust denial, I'll try to explain what I mean as succinctly as possible, by paraphrasing Roland Barthes: anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong. For me, "Inglourious Basterds" makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp -- as a historical reality, I mean, not as a movie convention. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention, it loses its historical reality."-- Jonathan Rosenbaum

"I set up scenes and I jerk you off to have a climax. And in this movie I jerked you off and I fucked with the climax... At some point those Nazi uniforms went away and they were people being burned alive. I think that's part of the thing that fucks with the catharsis. And that's a good thing."-- QT, after a Museum of Jewish Heritage screening in Manhattan

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"Tarantino is creating an alternate propaganda here. This last image of the burning theater more than anything recalls the evil of the gas chambers (its setting accusing moviegoers, us, of participating in the same celebration of killing the Nazis did), and any pleasure we take in the film's climactic destruction of the Germans complicates our usually automatic dismissal of any justifications heard in the past by Nazi apologists who say they were swept up by the populist frenzy at the time since we, the viewers, are also guilty of the same.

"It just may be that some critics are right in accusing 'IInglourious Basterds' of luridly exploiting a horrid chapter in humanity's history. But at least it does so without hypocrisy."-- Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

"Why would they condemn me? I was too brutal to Nazis?"-- QT, Atlantic interview

"For the last 30 years, all the movies coming out about World War II, whether it be feature films or TV movies... lots of TV movies... they really focus on the Holocaust and the victims of World War II. That has been the diet for the last 30 years. But even during the war, when they were actually fighting the war, and even during the '60s, you know, with the guys-on-a-mission movies, there was no crime in telling a thrilling story. You didn't feel like an idiot, for example, when you said, 'I had FUN watching "The Great Escape," ' even though Nazis mow down and kill people. I have a great time watching that movie. It's very entertaining. And that doesn't make my movie better or worse, but it's something that has been lost in the last 30 years of the telling."-- QT, San Francisco Sentinel interview

"Holocaust deniers should love that 'Inglourious Basterds' purports killing Adolf Hitler because its unreal fantasy not only flouts history but it vitiates the last half-century of post-Holocaust moral contemplation and historical reckoning. Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel's life's work is not hip. Hip is watching a Jewish-American (played by Eli Roth) take a baseball bat to a Nazi's head. "It's the closest we get to going to the movies," Brad Pitt approves in a lead role that amounts to a cameo. [...]

"Only the most gullible film geek will think QT is confirming cinema's righteous social influence."-- Armond White, NY Press

"Man, I go to do a WWII movie and it ends up being a love letter to cinema. I cannot not!"-- QT, Charlie Rose interview

"It's axiomatic that in Tarantino's films, every shot, scene, line is resonant with previous cinema. Why should that be a sin? It's called virtue when James Joyce packs every word, sentence, scene in 'Ulysses' with history, myth, art, everything in Western civilization's cultural grab-bag that might enrich and empower his novel. So when David Bowie growls 'putting out the fire with gasoline' as, pre-conflagration, scarlet-gowned Shosanna applies her makeup Mata Hari-style (conjuring Dietrich's doomed German spy in Josef von Sternberg's 1931 'Dishonored'), Tarantino's allusions complete an aesthetic circuit that enlarges the screen's sphere of illumination."-- Kathleen Murphy, MSN Movies

"Tarantino acknowledges history the way he, and many of us, have experienced it--through the lenses of filmmakers and historians both fine and faulty--and it becomes for him a way to reflect on cinema's place as a propagandistic force throughout history, to restructure and build upon the standard tropes of WWII motion picture iconography (while virtually ignoring the most obvious one, the battle scene), and make space for the emotional force of revenge, in a far more ambivalent way that either he or his detractors seem to care to acknowledge."-- Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly rule

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"The movie is presented as fantasy, but it's about much more than revenge. What Tarantino seems to be fantasizing about is this: What if Jews had succeeded in scaring Germans, in being known to pose fearsome physical threats to those who harmed them? What if, in effect, Jews had succeeded in getting into the heads of the German leadership? (A key scene shows Hitler obsessing over the Basterds.) Would it have altered the behavior of the German government and its officials and soldiers in ways that could have led more quickly to Germany's defeat? And what would it have meant for Jews to do so? Would it have meant renouncing a crucial aspect of Jewish identity? What, for that matter, is Jewish identity? [...]

"The problem with the film is that Tarantino isn't really up to the task of offering interesting answers to such questions; moreover, he's so wrapped up in his big ideas that, for once, he doesn't make the film well."-- Richard Brody, The Front Row / The New Yorker

"['Inglourious Basterds' is like] being plunged cold into the brain of a total nut who knows exactly which shelf he put the VHS tape of who-knows-what junk on but can't quite remember whether Hitler really existed or whether he was invented by Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator.' "-- Philippe Azoury, Libération (via Richard Brody)

"I'd always thought about the whole "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" -- but that didn't necessarily mean it was a fairy tale. I don't really look at 'Once Upon a Time in the West' as a fairy tale per se, even though there's a fable-like aspect or a folkloric aspect to it. I think that would be a closer way to say it -- like folklore almost [laughs]. That wasn't the plan all along though. I thought that I would honor history.

"But when I got to that point in the piece, I literally had to stop and ask myself, 'What am I doing? My characters don't know they're part of history. My characters don't know that there are things that they can do and things that they can't do. I've never ruled any of my characters like that, a now's not the time to start.' So ... my characters change the outcome of the war. That didn't happen because my characters didn't exist. But if they had existed, everything that happens is very plausible. And when I say 'my characters,' I don't just mean Aldo (Pitt) and the Bear Jew (Eli Roth). I mean Frederic Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). If he had done what he did at that time in the war, Goebbels very well would have made a movie about him [laughs]."-- QT, Inside Movies interview

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"[Re:] complaints from certain critical circles that 'Inglourious Basterds' "disregards history". I have indeed followed this to some degree, and that particular bit of hypocrisy is something I find especially confusing. For one thing, films based on history often disregard history -- what do these critics think of 'Amadeus' or, for that matter 'JFK'? -- without quite the rending of garments that Tarantino's film is inspiring -- "akin to Holocaust denial"??? Who said that? And did they offer one ounce of logical reasoning to justify a statement that is nonsensical on its face?

"Plus, let's look at the history Tarantino distorts. In essence, he says that the Allies still won World War II, but V-E day came maybe a year earlier, and for different reasons. I'm sure I don't need to remind you, Dennis, that there is an entire subgenre of science fiction called "alternate history", which imagines what the future, or the present, would be like if major historical events had not happened, or had happened differently. There is also an entire sub-genre of alternate history that deals with what would have happened had Hitler won World War II. To my knowledge, the publication Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle or Len Deighton's SS-GB or about half the ouvre of Harry Turtledove, or countless others, have been met without a peep from critics about their offensive disdain for historical record."-- Bill R., The Kind of Face You Hate

"The whole idea of bringing down the Third Reich, assassinating Hitler, and ending the war in the way that I do was a concept that I knew would appeal to Jewish American friends of mine. They read the script and they'd go, 'Yeah, wow! Great! That's a wonderful fantasy. I've thought about that forever." [...]

"It wasn't until I started talking to the Germans that I realized that it was their fantasy, too, at least for the last three generations. Then at the premiere in Berlin, I could tell the audience couldn't wait for the moment when Hitler gets shot. They were cheering."-- QT, Parade Magazine interview

"Tarantino makes no claims to historical truth, but it helps to ground his story in facts. In truth, something similar happened -- legions of Jews hunted down and murdered Nazis during and after the Holocaust. Several noteworthy books, like Rich Cohen's 'The Avengers' (Knopf, 2000) and Howard Blum's 'The Brigade,' (HarperCollins, 2001) have covered their story in full. Those books, in addition to interviews with historians and aging Jewish soldiers suggest, however, that the 'real face of Jewish vengeance,' to borrow a line from the film, is both more frightening and more pained than anything in Tarantino's film.

" 'There really was a very wide range of responses to the Nazis,' said Deborah Dash Moore, a historian at the University of Michigan and author of 'GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation' (Harvard University Press, 2004). Of the 500,000 Jewish Americans who fought in the U.S. military during World War II, there were those who 'used the cover of war to take revenge,' she said. 'They shot civilians. They lined Germans up and shot them,' just like the Nazis had done to Jews. [...]

"In [Dash Moore's] book, there is a more troubling case too: Samuel Klausner, a religious Jew who said he dropped a bomb on a German town that he knew was not a military target. In a letter home to his parents, he wrote: 'This evening there is one less town in Germany. I dropped my own personal bomb right in the center of town.... I took great pleasure dropping that bomb,' he wrote, 'even though I knew it would not hit any military target.' He justified his actions like this: 'It was just a small part of a repayment for 5,000,000 Jews.' "-- Eric Herschthal, The Jewish Week

"More than multi-leveled pop-culture references and cross-hierarchical cinephilic fervor, the Tarantino project has always been, at heart, about wish-fulfillment, largely of a fairly adolescent variety....

"With 'Basterds' we have Tarantino doing wish-fulfillment on a world-historical stage--rewriting the end of World War II. This takes the kind of chutzpah, both conceptual and logistical, that only a past master of grindhouse cinema could muster. In almost anybody else's hands the outrageousness of the various scenarios enacted in this epic would be an insult to history, but here they're not, because although the stage of this film might be world historical, 'Inglourious Basterds' is finally not about history, or reality, or any such thing but about movies, which is all that any of Tarantino's movies have ever been about.

"And it is, for all that, or maybe because of all that, a picture that is sometimes genuinely and breathtakingly moving."-- Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

"I wasn't quite sure how to feel about "Inglourious Basterdsfor a while after I saw it, and I think the reason is I was instinctively trying to dig deeper beyond the veneer (or facade?) to find something I could feel about. [...]

"As a post- (post-post?) modern exercise in artifice, though, my admiration for this film comes down to the fact that I've never seen anything else quite like it. It's at turns epic, cartoonish, darkly funny, talky, slow, suspenseful (at least artificially), and on a few occasions, mind-blowing. And totally f***ed up insane. But I kind of enjoy and admire insane."-- Kris Pigna, Scanners comment

For a perspective on Tarantino's view of movies vs. reality, Jonathan Rosenbaum quotes from a 2003 interview QT did with Rolling Stone:

Q: Has 9/11 or the war on terror had any impact on you personally or creatively?

A: 9/11 didn't affect me, because there's, like, a Hong Kong movie that came out called "Purple Storm" and it's fantastic, a great action movie. And they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a giant skyscraper. It was done before 9/11, but the shot almost is a semiduplicate shot of 9/11. I actually enjoyed inviting people over to watch the movie and not telling them about it. I shocked the shit out of them...I was almost thrilled by that naughty aspect of it. It made it all the more exciting.

"I actually like the parallels that the Basterds are, for all intents and purposes, suicide bombers going into the theater to blow up the premiere and the fact that it is a military-slash-civilian endeavor that they are blowing up."-- QT, Museum of Jewish Heritage screening

"It's a metaphor about the power of cinema, but at the same time it's literal -- the power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich."QT, Toronto Globe and Mail interview at Cannes

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