Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Clerk's Tale

When I was a little kid, I idolized the guys who worked at Blockbuster.  In their blue collared shirts, bad haircuts, and cargo pants, they stocked VHS tapes, shuffling dutifully between the shelves as TVs in the corners of the store flashed action scenes with fireball explosions.  The video store guys (and they were all guys) seemed to have sacrificed something important to these glowing boxes, something other people prized: adulthood, maybe?  Happiness?  They joked with each other in movie quotes, drank Jolt, and never seemed to age, caught for all time in a kind of patchy adolescence.  The pictures they preferred were not so much good or bad, but implacably cool, almost sociopathically unsentimental, with unhappy endings and unrated trailers.  They drove to work in dented cars and left with new releases.

These were their patron saints.

The first thing I remember learning about Quentin Tarantino was that he worked in a video store, and this knowledge has informed the way I view his films, especially since Tarantino's aesthetic seems so in line with the aesthetic of the movie guys I grew up admiring.  Tarantino's movies are compulsively meta-cinematic, laden with a dizzying array references to everything from blaxploitation to anime, but first and foremost they're cool: suspenseful and nasty and sarcastic and violent and above all, entertaining.  Emotionally, they're cool to the point of being chilly, and at their worst (like in parts of the second Kill Bill movie), they can come off as empty stylistic exercises, lovingly designed worlds inhabited only by cardboard cut-outs, like the 2D Darth Vader propped up next to the shelves in the sci-fi section.

Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's latest, is possibly his most interesting film yet, at least for me, simply because rather than fighting this tendency in his work, he embraces and even explores it.  Inglourious Basterds tells the story of a daring military coup: mid-WWII, the head honcho Nazis, including Der Fuhrer himself, pile into a French theater for a screening of Goebbels's latest propaganda effort, a film called "Nation's Pride" about a Nazi sniper who single-handedly killed hundreds of American soldiers in a matter of days.  What the Nazis don't know is that a crack team of American Jews are out to shoot them in the head as many times as possible, and the theater's owner, a disgruntled Jewish Frenchwoman, plans to blow them sky-high by setting her nitrate film reels ablaze.

Here's what I found interesting about Inglourious Basterds.  Like most of Tarantino's films, it takes an older genre as its trope, this time the spaghetti western.  Like Once Upon a Time in the West, this picture starts out with a family killed, heartlessly and unnecessarily, by a straight-up villain, the self-proclaimed "Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa.  When we meet Lt. Aldo Raine (with a hick accent from the Smoky Mountains, natch) and his posse, who plan not only to kill but scalp as many Nazis as possible, it seems that Tarantino is laying out a classic story of cowboy justice: good vs. evil, the old American way.  "Nazis ain't got no humanity," Raine declares, and we're inclined to agree. 

But as the movie progresses, Tarantino keeps allowing hints of doubt to creep in.  The Nazis here are not inhuman, at least not all of them.  In one scene, we meet a Nazi soldier whose son Max has just been born; he's beaming with joy over the future of his child, and harmlessly playing bar games with his friends.  In another scene, Shoshanna, the revenge-seeking theater owner, grudgingly admits that her cinema is named for a talented German filmmaker -- an artist is an artist, regardless of nationality.  And even Private Frederick Zoller, the war hero and star of Nation's Pride, is more vulnerable and endearing than is convenient for us to believe: Goebbels calls him a "strangely persuasive monster," and it's true.

At the end of the film, when the Nazis are watching their propaganda movie, crying out with laughter and spontaneous applause as Zoller's character on screen pops American after American with his seemingly unlimited supply of ammunition, Tarantino is certainly poking fun at them.  But he's pointing a finger at us too.  After all, if we're Americans, we've come to the theater for essentially the same reason as these doomed Germans: to watch a triumphant picture in which our enemies are slaughtered en masse, in the most graphic way contemporary filmmaking techniques allow.  Isn't Nation's Pride basically just Inglourious Basterds in fascist drag?  And if so, aren't we a little like Hitler, slapping his thigh and telling Goebbels this is "the best one yet"?  It's an uncomfortable moment of recognition, one that tinges our self-congratulation, our patriotism, with doubt.

In the end, of course, Tarantino lays these doubts to rest.  One of the most memorable motifs in Inglourious Basterds is Lt. Aldo Raine's habit of asking any Nazi in his charge what he plans to do with his uniform after the war.  When the captive Nazi replies he will burn the uniform, or never wear it again, Raine replaces it with something he won't be able to take off: a swastika, inscribed in the Nazi's forehead with the point of a hunting knife.  To Raine, the uniform is not just a costume, the black hat or white hat of a face-off in the wild west.  By donning it in the first place, the Nazi has permanently mortgaged his individual personhood; regardless of who he might be "inside," he no longer deserves to be seen as a three-dimensional character.  Now he's a target.  Raine's just adding the bull's eye. 

Raine's absolutism is appealing in its simplicity, perhaps necessary in a time of war, and the film ultimately endorses it -- but not unquestioningly.  And it's that questioning that makes Inglourious Basterds more than cool for me; it makes it smart.  The guys at Blockbuster would approve, and this time, they'd be right.


Research Intensive Investing said...

This is about the only title you could have used to trick me into reading a review of what ends up being a Tarentino movie, but I did find it thoughtful...


The Chawmonger said...

Thanks for reading, R Double I :-)