Monday, August 31, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: A sort-of review by a not-really critic

I suspect that killing Nazis is, for most Westerners, more or less like killing zombies is for me: an end in itself, a wellspring of amusement and satisfaction, an everlasting Gobstopper of joy that banishes all unpleasantness. I have a bottomless appetite for zombie-slaying, hating the undead with a passion as I do; given the chance, I would gladly risk my real life on a daily basis to kill real zombies, should they ever become a genuine threat (though I would be loath to see such a threat foisted upon the world). Replace "zombies" with "Nazis" in the previous sentence, and that's what I imagine the general consensus is in the Western world, and why we Americans so enthusiastically consume WWII shooters: it's righteous violence for a good cause against an implacable evil that is diametrically opposed to our very existence (in the shooters, that is... and in the imaginations of many overzealous patriots... the reality of the situation gets quite a bit stickier when we try to paint it in black and white like that, though).

So I watched Inglourious Basterds last night. I had only seen one preview of it, and it looked like either a satire or parody of the World War II genre; then I found out it has Brad Pitt in it (who is hot to death and a good actor to boot); and then I found out it was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who has never done anything I haven't liked. Well, maybe it's a commentary on World War II films, but it's not a satire or a parody (at least, not in the usual way). And as for Tarantino's involvement, the tone of the movie is more or less Pulp Fiction in the 1940s (Tarantino himself describes it as a spaghetti Western in WWII). That's about all I can say without getting into spoiler territory, so take that as you will; I do recommend seeing the movie if any of that sounds even vaguely interesting to you, though.

Beware of the Spoilers! They are all floating down here!

Inglourious Basterds is a Tarantino movie through-and-through: the protagonists are not people you'd have over for dinner for any sane reason, the plot is continuously contorting itself in a series of convoluted and inscrutable gyrations like a confused stripper on E, and there's not really a central message or point except that the world is a messy place where everyone's got their fare share of fuckups, hangups, and moral failings. Normally, this makes for witty one-liners, juicy water cooler gossip, and car-crash-like scenes that make me feel good and guilty at the same time (good because I like what I'm seeing; guilty because I feel prurient for liking it). I like this feeling. So I hope you understand when I say that it was even more pronounced while watching Inglourious Basterds.

Brad Pitt's character, Aldo "the Apache" Raine, scalps Nazis. Literally. He's got a command of eight American Jews who all hate Hitler and every last bit of Aryan supremacist bullshit he stands for, and Aldo tells these men that each of them owes him one hundred Nazi scalps. Aldo doesn't take prisoners - those few who he doesn't scalp are sent back to their leaders to tell horror stories of how their entire unit was killed and scalped - oh, and the survivors have swastikas carved into their foreheads with a Bowie knife, too. The reason for this last bit is that a Nazi uniform can be taken off: Aldo likes it when the Nazis wear their uniforms, because it makes them easier to identify; if they take their uniforms off, though, they can blend in with the rest of society. Aldo can't abide this, so he gives these men "something they can't take off." ::shudder::

But Nazis are evil, dammit! Right, guys? Well, OK, yes... but so is scalping people and permanently scarring them! How much evil is permissible in defense against a greater evil? Should despicable fear tactics such as scalping and mutilation be considered "good" when employed against things like genocide? Shit, I don't know. I mean, I'm a consequentialist, and as such I have to acknowledge that demoralizing an enemy is an effective tactic. As Sun Tzu wrote, the best way to achieve victory is to remove your opponent's desire to fight. But man, where do we draw the line?

This kind of moral inclarity is delectable to me. If you want to feel good about Nazis "getting theirs," then this probably isn't the movie for you - or Hell, maybe it is, but you might not get the same things out of seeing a Nazi officer beaten to death with a baseball bat that your friends get out of it. And there's a whole bunch of neat little character development segments and some really cool symbolism (such as when Shosanna Dreyfus is putting on her makeup, and it looks like she's putting on warpaint during a couple cuts). But all this is secondary in my mind to the moral muddle that Tarantino creates by eschewing the cartoonish portrayal of World War II seen in most of the genre (or perhaps by applying such cartoonish strokes liberally upon all sides). You know what I'm talking about: Hellboy doesn't fight Nazis, he fights "Nazis" who can't be reasoned with (like zombies), and "Nazis" also populate Germany, Italy, and France in most of the World War II genre. Tarantino's Nazis are closer to real Nazis, whom it must be remembered were also real people, than they are to "Nazis."

So yeah, I enjoyed watching Inglourious Basterds, and I recommend at least one viewing, but this sure isn't your daddy's World War II film. Given how saturated the market is with your daddy's WWII film, I say hooray for that.

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