Tarantino & Me: The Grrrl on Film Response to Inglourious Basterds

A few days ago I was chatting with my dad about our various writing projects.

Dad: You know how you've been writing about Quentin Tarantino?

Me: Yes?

Dad: You know he used to work in a video store?

Me: Uh-huh.

Dad: And you used to work in a video store?

Me: Yeah.

Dad: Well there you go.

Well there I go. Once upon a time Quentin Tarantino worked in a video store – and so did I.

Today I write about pop culture, and Tarantino makes it.

There you go.

Tarantino's latest film also begins "Once upon a time . . ." and as to be expected, reactions to his "movie movie universe" movie, Inglourious Basterds, are once again as mixed as his genre conventions.

Though I didn't explicitly say so in my recent three part post here for Bitch exploring the question of feminism in Tarantino's work, I'm a fan – a cautious, conscientious fan, who recognizes that his work is problematic on many levels. For me, the combination of the issues in his work, and the visceral pleasure of the movie experiences he creates, presents a conflict that is worth exploring. Additionally, and I think this is crucial to my experience and interpretation of his work, he is a movie-maker of, and pop culture influence on, my generation. Pulp Fiction is as much a marker in my life as Star Wars, Goonies, or Trainspotting, Wonder Woman, 90210, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Tarantino and I may not have grown up watching the same movies, regardless of our once-upon-a-time employ, but his work has led me to his influences, which in turn have furthered and enriched my relationship to popular culture.

So why didn't I enjoy Inglourious Basterds?

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Admittedly, I wasn't too keen on the premise: a Dirty-Dozenesque bunch of guys kill Nazis and collect their scalps. But a Tarantino premise is just that – a MacGuffin if you will (though here, the MacGuffin could easily be World War II). A Tarantino film is very much an extended tagline, though also much more than that too, and Inglourious Basterds has been receiving rave reviews claiming it's a return to form and his best, most mature film.

I can't agree.

The reasons why are for those who have either already seen the film, read the script, or who don't care about spoilers. There are SPOILERS ahead.

Also, since I've already addressed the issue at length, this is a feminist giving her opinion of the movie rather than a feminist critique.

The movie started out promising. The first scene is gorgeously filmed, brilliantly acted, and choreographed for maximum tension. Much has been written about Christoph Waltz's alternately charming and terrifying portrayal of the character, Col. Hans Landa. But Denis Menochet's dairy farmer, Perrier LaPadite, more than holds his own as a man trying to protect his own family, as well as the one hiding beneath his floorboards.

In the next chapter we meet the Basterds and it becomes a different film, no less Tarantino – and perhaps even more so. The Basterds bring the funny with their vengeance as they scalp Nazis, carve Swastikas in their victim's foreheads, and bash their enemies brains in with baseball bats. They get nicknames too: The Bear Jew (Eli Roth), Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) and The Little Man (B.J. Novak). One of the men is an ex-Nazi recruited by the Basterds named, Hugo Stiglitz (after the real-life Mexican actor of the same name). Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) gets his own mini-movie back-story that along with a later, and unrelated, voice-over by Sam Jackson gives the impression that the tone of the movie might be heading in a more familiar and playful direction. But time and again we are in a cinematic tug of war between humor and play, and polish and terror.

Now I can get with a revenge fantasy; I can even pretend for the sake of an engaging film that all Nazis involved in World War II were evil. But the scenes Tarantino strings together here, many of which are admittedly captivating, are so disconnected tonally as to frustrate the point of the film. Is there a point? Is revenge the point? Is killing Nazis as ruthlessly as possible the point? (Yes.)

Even mid-way through the movie there were enough satisfying moments that I was hopeful the film would be as good as so many critics claimed. But for me the end didn't provide the emotional release of Tarantino's previous films. I mean, Beatrix kills Bill. Stuntman Mike gets the shit kicked out of him by Zoë Bell. Everyone gets theirs and here the Germans do too. But it wasn't satisfying.

Not because it was ahistorical. And not because Hitler shouldn't have been pumped full of bullets. But because by the climatic scene we'd already been exposed to enough disturbing violence – and yes, of course I expect sickening violence from Tarantino, I did recognize what movie I was going to – but I didn't expect what felt like chaos. I didn't expect people burning to death to be shot with machine guns too. (If they're burning to death, why must they also be pumped full of angry bullets?) I guess it's not my fantasy.

While the violence in Kill Bill was so over-the-top it was ridiculous - even excusably playful - here it's nauseating. Inglorious Basterds went beyond playful manipulation of movie conventions and it's unclear if we are really supposed to root for our "heroes" when they are just as sadistic as our enemies.

Prior to this end battle we have been watching Hitler and Goebbels watching scenes of destruction and laughing. Are we supposed to take pleasure in doing just what they were? Is this Tarantino's commentary on movie audiences? Asking us to excuse or cheer the Basterds's sadism because their enemies deserve punishment is a pretty big request. And it goes beyond vengeance into sadist territory when we see the look on Eli Roth's face – maniacal and sad – as he dishes out justice as terribles as his acting.

The true heroes of the film are two unrelated female characters. The first is Shoshanna Dreyfus, played with radiant and somber bravery by Mélanie Laurent.

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Back in the first chapter, it is her family that is hiding beneath the floorboards and that were murdered by Nazi bullets in front of her. After her solo escape from the massacre she resides in occupied Paris under an assumed name and runs a small movie theater she inherited from extended relatives.

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She has a lover, but is courted by an aggressive and presumptuous young Nazi "hero" and actor who refuses to take her no for an answer. He arrogantly believes that convincing Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to host a film premiere at her theater will flatter her. She uses the opportunity to gather all the high-ranking Nazis and set fire to them.

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The Basterds have the same idea, and the premiere is when the storylines converge.

The Basterds are informed of the event by a German actress working as a spy for the British. Diane Kruger is elegant and sophisticated in her role as Bridget Von Hammersmark (a minor observation – for a German actress Kruger's accent was rather forced – though perhaps this was intentional).

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Bridget manages to get three of our anti-heroes into the premiere as her escorts. An overlooked detail reveals her subterfuge to Col. Landa and he suffocates her with his bare hands – we are forced to watch as she gasps for breath and her eyes cloud over.

Shoshanna is graphically murdered too – but not before she has set her plan in motion. As the theater gets set to burn she's approached by the young officer pursuing her affections. In very Tarantino form she shoots him, then he shoots her. But with Shoshanna we see bits of flesh and gut about the floor she has fallen to and pain on her face as she cries. It's choreographed and lingering and upsetting. Yes, violence is done to men here too, but even the graphic head-bashing was shot in wide-angle, not close-up. Heads are held down while being scalped and we don't see the victim's eyes. A close-quartered fire-fight is shot so quickly it's difficult to see who got shot where. Were the women given the most emotional, drawn-out deaths because they were the most heroic characters and our suffering at their loss was some twisted way of honoring them?

I'm not so concerned with the level of violence, what bothers me is how differently it was filmed with Shoshanna and Bridget and with the overdone destruction at the end. In fact, there was quite a lot I like about Inglourious Basterds. The use of music and cinematography in Chapter One was luscious. Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, and Denis Menochet all turned in stellar performances, as did Michael Fassbender as a British film critic turned soldier. I liked the humor, and I liked Shoshanna's fierce application of make-up-as-war-paint.

This is my initial reaction. And if anything, Tarantino provokes us to react. I get what he's doing, or rather, what we his intellectual audience are assuming he's trying to accomplish. It's part Jewish revenge fantasy, part comedy, part cultural exploration of art and language, part fairytale of one woman's swan song, ten-parts Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and a meditation on the power of cinema.

But is it?

As Tarantino told CNN "I don't even know how I do what I do." -- which I think is a fitting, if simplified, summation of his intent.

I'm surprised that my criticism of this film is so similar to criticism of his other movies – movies that I have enjoyed (choppy, no cohesion, overdone violence . . . ). Perhaps I'll change my mind. Perhaps I won't. But today I'll simply say that I thought it was inglorious indeed.

I'll leave with you with some other opinions of the film, and I hope you'll take advantage of the comments section to share yours.

Manohla Dargis for the New York Times:"[T]oo often in "Inglourious Basterds" the filmmaking falls short. Mr. Tarantino is a great writer and director of individual scenes, though he can have trouble putting those together, a difficulty that has sometimes been obscured by the clever temporal kinks in his earlier work."

David Denby for The New Yorker: "It's disconnected from feeling, and an eerie blankness—it's too shallow to be called nihilism—undermines even the best scenes."

Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic: "Tarantino, a famously derivative filmmaker, has managed to create out of these parts something that seems entirely new: a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to their would-be exterminators."

Mick LaSalle for the San Francisco Chronicle (On a side note, if LaSalle likes a film I usually don't, and if he gives an unfavorable review to something I generally enjoy it. He hated Kill Bill.):"It's not enough to say that "Inglourious Basterds" is Quentin Tarantino's best movie. It's the first movie of his artistic maturity, the film his talent has been promising for more than 15 years. The picture contains all the things his fans like about Tarantino - the wit, the audacity, the sudden violence - but this movie's emotional core and bigness of spirit are new. . . . "Inglourious Basterds" provides exhilarating release, but it's also a deeply sad film. It leaves the audience suspended in a tangle of strong and conflicting thoughts and feelings, the hallmark of great art."

Daniel Mendelsohn for Newsweek:"At the climax of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, which is set during World War II and which is concerned, at least superficially, with Jews, you get to witness a horribly familiar Holocaust atrocity—with a deeply unfamiliar twist. A group of unsuspecting people is tricked into entering a large building; the doors of the building are locked and bolted from the outside; then the building is set on fire. The twist here is not that Tarantino, a director with a notorious penchant for explicit violence, shows you in loving detail what happens inside the burning building—the desperate banging on the doors, the bodies alight, the screams, confusion, the flames. The twist is that this time the people inside the building are Nazis and the people who are killing them are Jews. What you make of the movie—and what it says about contemporary culture—depends on whether that inversion will leave audiences cheering or horrified."

 

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

*Spoilers*

I watched the film on Friday amidst a crowd of young and old Tarantino fanatics and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The trailer left me yawning. I realize that this is probably one of my biggest flaws as a critic, but cinematic violence doesn’t bother me in the least. I grew up watching bloody shenanigans in horror movies (Aliens is one of the first movies I remember watching when I was about three) and nothing in Inglourious Basterds seemed too over the top to me. Every bullet fired and scalp sliced fit in with the character‘s sensibilities. Is that the problem? Well, that’s debatable. The basterds didn’t seem like they cared about the sanctity of human life very much. Perhaps that’s why Tarantino rounded out the European characters a bit more. I feel like we associate the violence in WWII mainly with the Nazis and in IB, the violence is more or less completely done by the American soldiers. I didn’t blink an eye at the end shootout by the basterds, but I really felt the effects of Bridgett being strangled by Col. Landa because we hadn‘t really seen any real violence from that character until then.

I agree with a lot of people in saying that it’s Tarantino’s most mature flick since Jackie Brown. The entire movie is what, ten scenes? The conversations were riveting and I was on the edge of my seat during the bar sequence. The tracking shot following Shoshanna as she’s getting ready also really delighted my cinematic heart. Robert Richardson outdid himself with the cinematography. I dug the way he integrated movie references into the flick because they actually felt in sync with what’s going on in the story. I never believed for one second that Jordan Ladd’s character in Death Proof would know what Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill! is, let alone like it enough to wear a baby doll t-shirt in its honor. In IB, however, all of the tiny little references felt realistic - Shoshanna really did look like Danielle Darrieux when she was all dressed up and Henri Georges-Clouzot’s flicks really played in Paris during WWII. I also loved the Marlene Dietrich billboard in the background when Shoshanna/Emmanuelle is having a drink and reading at the bar.

From a feminist perspective, like in all QT’s movies, you have to dig a little deeper than you really should. I left the theatre feeling similarly to you in regards to the female characters being the true heroes of the film. That’s why their deaths were far more traumatic than any of the other characters. If those ladies had survived to tell the tale of their bravery or simply lived to be applauded by their fellow comrades, then that would have taken away from the glory of the male characters. That’s why they’re ingluorious - because they didn’t really have anything to do with winning the QT version of the war. Can you imagine what Shoshanna’s efforts would have done for women around the world? If people knew that a young Jewish woman had killed Hitler and the other big hitters of the Nazi army? I dare to say and think that we might not have had the ’50s and the feminist movement might have started much earlier if the world knew. AND that she used cinema to make it happen?! I smiled from ear to ear when she came on screen, gave her speech, and got chills when the glow of the projector gave us her final image.

I'd just like to say that

I'd just like to say that I've really enjoyed this series of posts about Tarantino's films. I am a very sensitive person and have serious trouble watching graphic violence. These are movies I would never have seen and now not only do I feel like I have a better sense of his films as a whole, but I also get a feminist perspective on them. Thanks.

I'm sorry but I loved it. I

I'm sorry but I loved it. I love gratuitous violence the way he does it and maybe I liked it because I had relatives die in the Holocaust. I liked that there were once again, strong female characters. I found myself clenching my armrests many times throughout the movie. Or maybe I just thought Brad Pitt was fuckin' hilarious. I also liked it because it wasn't really centered around the Holocaust concentration camp suffering part. I've studied a lot about the Holocaust, read so many books and taken so many history course and while unfortunately this movie isn't true to history, it's satisfying to me.

What is the point?

I disagree that the point was to use film as an opportunity to simply take revenge on the Nazis. The scene where Hitler expresses anger at the Inglourious Basterds mimicked the kind of dialogue that the Allies expressed against Hitler - it felt as if Tarantino deliberately switched the roles that the two parties played, explored and made evident that the "bad guys" aren't the only ones who are violent, gruesome, cruel - even the "good guys" (the Inglourious Basterds) can be just as unnecessarily heinous.

As a film, Inglourious Basterds is brilliant because it plays against the reality of what actually happened; our moral assumptions about what happened versus what is happening on the film; deliberately presents the layering of cinematic structures within the film (an actress plays an actress in the film; an actor plays a war hero who becomes an actor playing a war hero - and his "film self" lives on even as he's shot dead, as is the same with Shoshanna).

Also, in terms of violence, there was much less gratuitous violence in this film than there has been in Tarantino's past films. Tarantino loves to aestheticize violence, clearly, but the aesthetics more than the violence were even more evident in this film. Aldo's last line in the film as he's carving a Swastika in Landa's head - it's his masterpiece, a piece of artwork he cannot forget. It's somewhat silly to assume that as a filmmaker Tarantino isn't aware that he is aestheticizing violence and that he's especially aestheticizing violence against women. The extended strangling of the actress Bridget was, in my opinion, both brilliant and disturbing. Did you note that both the deaths of the women occur after they have been sexually threatened by the men who kill them in some way? Tarantino is taking advantage of - as thrillers, horror, crime films are wont to do - the cultural vulnerabiltiy of women and exploding them in a way that, thankfully, didn't feel simplistic but multi-dimensional, readily making itself available for critique.

I'm a little late to this party

I liked the movie but you bring up some good points. Bridget's death was unnecessarily long and drawn out. Shosanna's death was supposed to pack an emotional punch, so I understand a bit why it's drawn out. You're supposed to care about this character. You're supposed to care about her dying.

Frankly, I think you hit the mark when you muse that this is Tarantino's commentary on movie audiences. He takes and twists and elevates to absurdity too many elements of the traditional war movie to be anything otherwise. The violence; the band of heroes; their unrealistic, exaggerated importance to determine the fate of the world. In his other movies, the violence is all pure fantasy. This is his only one with a historical backdrop. Except for the high command, the particular Nazis may not be real, but they still represent real Nazis (or German soldiers). In the theater scene, they're watching some military movie based on real events in which they're laughing because the people getting killed are "the enemy"-- the same as we do in the stereotypical World War II film- we may not be laughing, but the enemy is dehumanized. The same as we do in this film. Had they survived, one imagines Donny and Omar walking out of the theater/machine gun scene of Inglourious Basterds to call their girlfriends, while the more insensitive members of the audience are laughing.

I like both of the female characters here. They don't fall into typical movie stereotypes, they're important, they're smart, they're well acted, they have interesting lines, and they're sympathetic.

But they're also both femme fatales. Diane Kruger's character is a stupid, spoiled actress who manages to get 2 of the Basterds and Lt. Hicox killed- not to mention Wilhelm and everyone in the bar--, and then gets caught by Landa and almost gets the rest of the Basterds killed. She's portrayed as a kind of dumb blonde who is used to everyone fawning over her and likes partying too much to be involved in something as serious as an intelligence operation. An out of the box, interesting, well acted female character who plays an important role in a male-dominated war film? Yes. A feminist hero? Not necessarily. In a real life situation, a person like von Hammersmark would have at least thought of a better backstory than mountain climbing with no idea which mountain. She would have at least been that smart.

Shoshanna is not quite as bad but it's still Zoller's attraction to her that is his (and his nation's) downfall. So in this sense she is a femme fatale for the Nazis as von Hammersmark is for the Basterds. In contrast, Landa and the other Basterds are consummate professionals. One of the messages of this movie could be-- stay away from women. They'll make you sloppy/get you screwed.

Oh, and if there is any ambiguity

that Tarantino is playing with notions of good and evil here, instead of simply inviting his audience to join in the sadism, think about the fact that the Basterds are supposed to be Apaches. And in case anyone tries to dismiss the Apache theme as mere coincidence, Tarantino throws in a reference to Karl May's Winnetou, chief of the Apaches. In May's day, he was a bestselling German author writing about a tribe that was being wiped out by America's own ethnic cleansing. So the Basterds a tiny group of warriors of an ethnic group that is being destroyed in a holocaust by the dominant military occupiers, fighting back against these occupiers... and they're Apaches.

And if there were any doubt that Tarantino's

intention was to make a morally ambiguous film rather than simply have audiences joining in to the sadism (though some inevitably will), there is the fact that the Basterds' theme is that they're Apaches. So here is a hopelessly outnumbered group of fighters of an ethnic group that is being cleansed from the continent by the people they are fighting-- and their theme is Apache. And in case anyone analyzing this thinks it's a coincidence, Taratino throws in a reference to Karl May, the bestselling German author, and his popular character, Winnetou, chief of the Apaches. Of course in May's day, his own Germany was innocent of ethnic cleansing but his American subject was not.

On the Accent

Diane Kruger is elegant and sophisticated in her role as Bridget Von Hammersmark (a minor observation – for a German actress Kruger’s accent was rather forced – though perhaps this was intentional).

Uh, yeah. She's German. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diane_Kruger