Well, I will say that Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is unusual, imaginative and often funny and suspenseful, if a bit long. On the other hand, it made me feel ill. Where does this bad feeling come from? I first felt it when I saw the teaser trailer of Brad Pitt briefing his men. I’d like to address this without spoilers, and without engaging too much with what Tarantino has said about the movie, since that stuff is really too dumb to get into.
First off, I might as well admit to being one of those extremists who regards THE DIRTY DOZEN and WHERE EAGLES DARE as somewhat crassly exploitative — I think if you’re going to tackle something as serious and unpleasant as war, you ought to have something worthwhile to express about it. I think SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was basically a crock, but you could argue that the Normandy landing sequence gave people a fresh sense of what that conflict was like, and that is a worthwhile goal. Of course, the whole aesthetic was swiftly subsumed into the video game industry, which is a little, er, questionable, and perhaps shows a basic flaw in the Spielberg approach.
So INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an entertainment based in a fictional version of WWII which does not respect actual events. In style and music choices (plenty of spaghetti western samples, plus David Bowie’s theme from the Schrader CAT PEOPLE) Tarantino makes it clear that this film is intended to be taken the same way as his previous work, a genre-splicing nasty romp which might test the audience’s endurance with some gore or cruelty, but intends for them to basically have a good time. If you cringe at the scenes of mutilation, you should think of it as an emotional workout rather than a meditation on man’s inhumanity to man. This movie is not a meditation on anything.
So I already have a problem with that. I might be willing to allow that a “Jewish revenge fantasy” might have some cathartic value, but Tarantino isn’t Jewish, so he would be basically pandering to somebody else’s fantasy, which seems less legitimate. What, in fact, is he doing?
The presence of Eli Roth, director of the QT-produced HOSTEL, as actor and director of the film-within-a-film (which, apart from being in black and white and 1:1.33 ratio, is an incompetently inaccurate recreation of 1940s cinema, featuring jump cuts and what look like Steadicam shots — wouldn’t the point here be to make a decent, convincing pastiche of Nazi cinema?) is a pointer. HOSTEL and its sequels have been called “torture porn,” but that’s not really accurate. The victims are the POV characters, and the film seeks to give the audience a vicarious experience of being harmlessly “tortured” — another emotional workout, an exaggerated and simplified form of the horror movie’s pleasures, a crude take on what Hitchcock called “putting the audience through it” — why you would really want to have that experience is beyond me, but there it is.
The striking difference in what Tarantino is up to is that in his film, the torturers are mostly the heroes, and by making their victims Nazis, he wants to give us permission to enjoy the torture and mutilation without guilt. We might still experience squeamishness, we might even question whether the Basterds are “right” to behave as they do, but this is all part of the emotional workout. Pretty much any response is fine with Tarantino. This is why the trailer made me feel… unhappy.
I’m not keen on Nazis myself. But I think that unless you can answer the question, “What would you do if you were a German drafted in the late ’30s?” — which none of us actually CAN answer — you probably don’t have the right to judge people just for putting on that uniform. At any rate, if you’re going to make a film celebrating war crimes enacted against Nazi soldiers, it might be good to provide at least some evidence that you’ve thought about this stuff. Otherwise you’re on the slippery slope to Auschwitz, the video game.
On the other hand — “It’s a film about cinema,” said Joe Dante, who was quite enthusiastic. Perhaps not a war film at all. Or a film about the victory of movies over war, somehow. Certainly, that’s literally what happens in the climax, which contains, all too briefly, the most beautiful image Tarantino has ever conceived or executed (no spoilers, but if I say “face in smoke” you will recognise it when you see it). The script drops some interesting names, which QT fans might check out and get a kick from, conceivably, which would be good (anything that leads audiences to Clouzot or Pabst would count as positive, for me), and is maybe the first to examine Goebbels (or “Gurble,” as Brad Pitt pronounces it in his hillbilly accent) as a movie exec, which he was, among other things. The movie stuff, which doesn’t really involve the Basterds themselves too much (it does seem a little like QT didn’t find his own creations interesting enough to sustain the film) gave me mainly a good feeling. And then there’d be another gross bit.