Archive for Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Technicolor

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2009 by dcairns

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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.

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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.

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The Horror…

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2009 by dcairns

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In VINYAN, written and directed by Fabrice Du Welz, Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart play a couple who lost their young son in the tsunami while holidaying in Thailand. Unable to accept that he’s dead, they stay on, and when Béart thinks she sees the boy in a video of survivors in neighbouring Burma, they decide to hitch a ride with triad people-smugglers into the heart of darkness to rescue him.

The whole time I was watching the film — magnificently shot by Benoît Debie (an amazing aerial shot introducing and then sinking inexorably into a verdant ruin, the film’s Conradian darkplace, is breathtaking) with impressive sound design and fine performances, especially from Sewell — I was conscious of discomfort at the portrayal of the Thai and Burmese characters.It was only after the film ended that I became aware that I was shaking with anger. An unusual reaction for a mild-mannered, good-humoured type like your friend and humble blogger.

It wasn’t just that the “ethnic” types on display were all either shady gangster murderers or weird, alien, incomprehensible and possibly psychotic “savages,” although that is certainly central to my problem. Since the film starts out with both feet at least partially planted in the realist domain — I’d say heels, arches and balls of said feet in realism, toes in psychedelic melodrama — but ends in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST by way of APOCALYPSE NOW, with face-painted feral children re-enacting your favourite moments from the Kurtz compound, there’s a tonal problem which cannot really be resolved except by dismissing all the film’s sociological/ethnographic trappings as pure fantasy. And if it’s pure fantasy, riding it in on the tsunami seems like a pretty gross error of taste.

But the error is more egregious than simply exploiting a real-life tragedy for purposes of entertainment. That happens all the time, of course, and there are all sorts of factors which can come into play and arguably make it more acceptable: the passage of time seems to be one many of us accept. It’s hard to imagine the INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS getting made, in any form, near the end of World War II, but certainly there will be those who don’t have a problem with it now. And making an entertainment with a real-life tragedy as backdrop might also be quite acceptable if we could say that the entertainment has its heart in the right place.

Of course, neither time nor heart-placement seem to be on the side of VINYAN. The tsunami is horribly recent, a living memory to millions, and the really offensive thing about this movie is that it wades into a landscape ravaged by a natural disaster and casts the victims as the villains. This seems to me to be like making a monster movie in Germany in 1947 with cannibalistic Jews as the monsters.

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It’s all very unfortunate, to say the least, considering the amount of craft and talent at work to make this film. There are some absolutely stunning images, not just the expected landscapes, but the way the light falls on Béart’s eerily beautiful, scalpel-sculpted face, or Sewell’s rugged, hollow-eyed mask of pain. The relationship between the protagonists is mostly compelling — though as Béart slides into madness, all we really get is the lowered chin and up-gazing eyes known to impudence as the “crazy Kubrick stare,” a once-effective gimmick which, through substituting posture for psychology, has become seriously devalued currency. But at least,as regard the couple at the film’s heart, there is a seriousness of intent. But there is no seriousness about the portrayal of the world of the film, which is an idea of the East that would have looked lurid and one-sided in a 1930s Hollywood melodrama. And when you weigh the dimensional and clearly motivated white folks against the evil and, yes, inscrutable Asian characters, the imbalance tips the film into an abyss. Praising the film in the Edinburgh Film Festival’s programme, fest director Hannah McGill focuses on its portrait of a distraught couple, calling it a kind of “APOCALYPSE DON’T LOOK NOW.” You might as well call it DON’T GOOK NOW.

Since I don’t believe the filmmakers are purely evil, I have to assume a colossal blindness to issues of sheer human decency. DW Griffith owed his bigotry to his upbringing but was still culpable for his inability to mature past it. JUD SUSS is a crafty piece of anti-semitic porn, wily and insinuating but quite resistible to anyone not already steeped in racism: the film’s wickedness is quite conscious. VINYAN seems at least as worthy of condemnation because surely there’s a point where thoughtlessness becomes criminal, and it worries me that people will accept it merely as a hardcore thrill-ride like the director’s previous CALVAIRE, and not question the sinister lens through which it observes the East.

Those Burmese and Thais are very far away. Their culture is very different from ours. They’re not like us, are they?