Inglourious Basterds: Comic Book or Graphic Novel?
September 3, 2009 Leave a comment
Recalling the days we spent aswelter amid our video-game art and chandeliers, all I can summon up to say on this sunny September morning, when so much of your city is burning and you are in a housedress, is: You! Makeup!!! And have you seen Inglourious Basterds? Because it is a riproaring superfun marriage of makeup and fire.
[SPOILER ALERT: the rest of this is about stuff that doesn’t happen in Inglourious Basterds and some stuff that does]
Inglourious Basterds is a long string of references and allusions that ends up being the film equivalent of tofurkey when you were hoping for a nice juicy bird. It is, in shape, more or less what you hoped it would be. You are full by the end. Plotwise, though, it’s a long exercise in distraction in which you have to forget that what you’re eating is tofu in order to enjoy it. As anyone who has eaten tofurkey knows, this isn’t really possible unless you have lots of blood and really excellent costuming.
Tarantino’s a master of spectacle and the magnitude of IB’s penultimate ending should satisfy—and does, visually, and that counts for a lot. But the fact is, he launches a thousand ships and leaves a number of ‘em languishing, forgotten, at sea. I’ll get to why this matters in a minute.
First I want to admit that it shouldn’t matter because Tarantino’s approach to moviemaking is like Jon Stewart’s approach to political commentary: they both claim they’re buffoons and insist that their objective is satire and entertainment. This is a genial half-truth, and their fans always insist that they’re really doing some serious statement-making.
With Tarantino, I’m not convinced this is the case—or—and maybe this is a better way of putting it, and I feel he’d be the first to agree with me—the only statements in which he’s sincerely invested concern movies themselves. Whether it’s slashers or spaghetti westerns or kung-fu films, his movie-making is really meta-movie-making and it’s (not quite) equal parts homage and entertainment. It’s almost—almost—fan fiction.
To put it another way, it seems wrong to blame Inglorious Bastards for not being a graphic novel when all it wants to be is a comic book.
You might even call it a comic book about comic books. Take the Nazi film-within-a-film, Nation’s Pride, produced by Goebbels and starring German war hero Friedrich Zoller. It’s fun to speculate that Nation’s Pride is supposed to be a satire of Tarantino’s own oeuvre with Goebbels sitting in the director’s chair. Pride revels in the mindless pleasure of violence, sure, but it does so with political intent. It’s an instrument of indoctrination. It’s propaganda. That’s where Tarantino means, I think, to draw the line between Basterds and Pride. It’s no accident that the film titles exactly contradict each other and both participate in a kind of triumphalism; the difference is that Tarantino’s remains firmly apolitical and unrooted in history. Real history, that is. “History” in Basterds is incidental and expedient. The outcomes are more or less the same: Hitler dies, but he dies in 1941. That doesn’t matter. It’s how the Nazis are brought low that makes IB a revenge fantasy. (And just barely, since in Basterds Hitler is totally uninteresting and the revenge we want is against Landa, who is much, much scarier precisely because he’s a political mixmaster: amoral and uncommitted.)
In IB, Real history gets buried by film history. Tarantino bludgeons us with film allusions and some of them are quite glourious. But no matter how cleverly he pays homage to Leone or how much he reproduces WWII German film iconography, the homage falls flat when Tarantino gets more interested in the allusion than the plot. His attention gets fatally divided.
I said he left a bunch of ships at sea and I meant it—this is the Iliad gone permanently off course so that Rome never got founded, and the Helen that launched ‘em all is Film. It is—don’t get me wrong—a fabulous mess. But it’s a mess. In the spirit of mess, I’m gonna puree metaphors like Tarantino purees cultural violence and declare, Chekhovianly, that he left a bunch of guns on the mantle that never went off.
They didn’t go off because there were too many fingers waiting to pull the trigger. There are two competing axes of interest in the movie. One is Landa vs. Aldo Laine. This is the rivalry Tarantino ties himself to because it fits the generic influences he’s trying to model. The film gets stuck on that axis (heh) and ends on it, and it’s a shame, because compared to the consummate architecture of the film’s opening the Laine-Landa relationship is a little bit, well, stupid.
The real battle should have been Landa vs. Emmanuelle. I’m told spaghetti westerns often accommodate more than two nemeses and that there’s often a third party. It wouldn’t be inconsistent, in principle, for Landa to have two adversaries: Laine and Shoshanna. But Basterds fails to consummate the triangulation. In the end it depends on (and repeats) the drama of the one-to-one encounter: British film critic against German officer, Landa vs. the farmer at the film’s opening, Laine vs. Landa at the end.
That showdown at the end should have included Emmanuelle. The surprise we see on Landa’s face when Aldo Laine cuffs him in the woods should have come in response to the spectacle of Emmanuelle laughing.
Because Laine is an unworthy adversary for Landa: boorish where Landa is delicate, clumsy where Landa’s graceful, squinty where Landa is open, and dumb where Landa is smart. The Basterd plot to assassinate the Nazis is breathtakingly stupid and the film knows this. Three minutes into the scene we understand that the stupidity is the joke, that the plot has no hope of working, and that stupidity is constitutive of what this group does.
Shoshanna/Emmanuelle is Landa’s match. She’s supremely urbane. She crafts an identity for herself that not even the Germans suspect (we think? Or maybe they do? More on this in a minute). She’s creative and ruthless and, like Landa, engineers the fiction that’ll produce maximal suspense for an implied (not an actual) audience. Namely, for us. Just like Landa, whose opening polylinguistic trap is for us, since the Jews under the floorboards can’t understand what he’s saying. And totally unlike Aldo Laine, whose every tactic is meant either for the recipient or for his fellow Basterds. His performance never breaks the fourth wall, and breaking the fourth wall is important in this film.
What’s more, Emmanuelle is a filmmaker who makes a terrorist film while inside Nazi-occupied France. She fits in everywhere. Her origins are successfully masked, and if her affect is the opposite of Landa’s—frigid instead of warm—it’s impersonal in the Frenchest of ways and the effect is a total success.
She’s also—and this bears repeating—the only moviemaker in the film besides Goebbels, and therefore a second stand-in for Tarantino. Like Tarantino, she rewrites Goebbels’ propagandistic bloodbath and makes Nation’s Pride symbolic but unmetaphorical: she takes a filmic conceit and makes it real. (I wonder whether the number of spectators in the theater matched the number of soldiers Zoller shot dead?)
The showdown should be between the stony survivor who ends the war—Shoshanna—and the affable officer that killed her family.
But that’s not quite the story we get because the gaps aren’t filled in. There’s a possibility, in fact, that she ended the war with his help! And it’s not an interesting possibility. It’s the kind of possibility that feels, when you finish reading a mystery, like a loophole.
It seems to me that Shoshanna exerts the ultimate kind of “rat” revenge. The burning of the theater MIGHT be where Landa’s expertise breaks down. We know he can think like a Jew, we know he can intuit where Jews hide, but it’s suggested here that he CAN’T think like a Jewish woman who plots to burn down her theater. The possibility simply does not occur to him.
It’s the MIGHT that’s the problem. I might be wrong. And that’s the problem. The movie doesn’t give us enough clues. It’s like one of those SAT math problems where you have to check E: Not enough information.
Which brings me to the most important gun-that-never-went-off of them all: Landa and Emmanuelle’s encounter in the restaurant. We get none of the mutual reckoning, none of the cards-on-the-table acknowledgment of equals.
In fact, we leave the scene wondering if it was a showdown at all! IN A TARANTINO MOVIE. HE IS NOT THE MASTER OF SUBTLETY. PEOPLE ARE POINTING GUNS AT EACH OTHER’S GENITALS IN SEVERAL SCENES. What kind of storytelling is this?
A review of the scene I mean:
Landa arrives at the meeting with Goebbels and Frederich Zoller, which Shoshanna has been coerced into attending. He arranges for them all to leave so he can “question” her. He orders dessert: strudel and whipped cream. He questions her over a sinister glass of milk that horrifyingly recalls the movie’s Chapter 1.
1) Does he know Emmanuelle is really Shoshanna? (He knows everything about Emmanuelle’s family, so this seems likely?)
2) Does he know about her plot to burn down the theater?
3) Does he care?
4) If he knows, why doesn’t this get any attention at the premiere, in which he and Emmanuelle never even exchange a sinister/fearful glance?
5) It seems like it would, since he takes immense pleasure, once he finds out about Bridget von Hammersmark’s involvement, in unmasking and killing her with his bare hands. It’s a moment that surprises with its savagery: this is not the clinical or urbane killings over which we have seen him preside in the past.
Why this matters:
Landa’s whole focus at the premiere is wrong. He’s distracted by the stupid Basterds and the Hammersmark escapade. The end of the war has nothing to do with the Basterds, and the threat he neutralizes, and on the basis of which he negotiates, was nonexistent. The end of the war starts on that dairy farm when Landa decides not to shoot Shoshanna as she runs away.
If he doesn’t know about her real identity, OR if he doesn’t know about her plot, this little strudel-and-milk scene is the first time we’re seeing the extent and the limit of his omniscience. This is huge. The film’s end confirms our sense that Landa is rightfully the film’s center, no matter how much Brad Pitt murders an accent and distorts his chin. We are interested in his limits.
Again: in a film that plays, over and over, with the idea of frustrated plot, Emmanuelle’s is the only plot that actually works in the entire movie. And she isn’t American or military or a spy—she doesn’t exist in any official capacity at all. (It’s confirmed in the end that the Basterds aren’t guerrillas, and that they’re actually in communication with official US channels. Unless Aldo has Landa talking to a big fat nobody on the phone. Which is a possibility. But that gun doesn’t go off either). Everybody in this film might be undercover and off the grid. Emmanuelle’s only affiliation is Marcel, a black man. Film is their ammunition and the spark that sends everything up in flames wins the “who-has-the-biggest-pipe-contest” in Chapter 1, when Emmanuelle’s family is murdered and this all began is a cigarette.
Whether Landa knew about her plot or not matters deeply. Because his knowledge—and his implicit gaze—shapes the entire narrative. For Emmanuelle and Marcel to be the ULTIMATE Inglorious Basterds we need Landa to be watching. And he isn’t. He’s distracted by a much stupider plot. This is Tarantino’s problem too.
Okay, so the avenging heroes of IB are a black guy and a Jewish blonde. But after the unbelievable spectacle they engineer, a spectacle that uses makeup—which Emmanuelle applies like war-paint—and red velvet and, most importantly, film to blow up a theater and end political storytelling once and for all, IB ends on a whimper. It’s the opposite of instant gratification. That exquisite and morally suspect conflagration of justice in which we delightedly watch the idiotic Hitler and the gibbering Goebbels suffer for their sins is missing the only villain worth killing: Landa.
Missing him, our focus gets wrenched back to the troop of men so stupid that many of them get killed and not even the camera cares enough to give them a last lingering look—and a conclusion in which the stupidest character of them all, Aldo Laine, whose accent is as atrociously performative in English as it is in Italian, leading us to believe that at any moment he’ll take off his mask and reveal himself to be the hero in disguise we’ve been waiting for this whole time, a double-or-triple agent that is Landa’s fit nemesis and Emmanuelle’s fit ally. A guy whose scars derive from some drastically important near-beheading that happened off-screen before the movie started. The story that could have made Laine interesting is withheld. (And this is deliberate—how easy would it have been for one of the SS officers to speculate about the horrifying events that gave rise to Laine’s scars? Instead they go unnoticed. I don’t know what this means, but it seems related somehow to Heath Ledger’s Joker giving different accounts of how he got his smile.)
So he isn’t interesting. Instead, he and Shoshanna almost seem to be two sides of the same split character—they could almost be Ed Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club. He seems to bear the physical evidence of the psychic scars Shoshanna suffered in Chapter 1.
The movie’s real ending happens off-screen too—Laine is only slightly redeemed by the implied consequences of that swastika he carves into Landa’s forehead prior to his move to the US.
(Then there’s the third axis which is less compelling but interesting for its movie meta-commentary, the Bridget von Hammersmark storyline that has the only real showdown, a 23-minute scene in which a British film critic plays a word game against a German intelligence officer while they’re both aiming at each other’s balls, and the upshot is that film equates the black man’s tragedy with King Kong. No doubt a comment on the fact that Tarantino is equating the Holocaust with the spaghetti western. In which case the Jewish girl and the black man destroying film should be the perfect ending, except that IG would be the movie they’d destroy.)
(Sarah Boxer at Slate bemoans the publication of a comic book edition of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s anti-censorship manifesto in which only comics were safe enough and shallow enough to be exempt from burning. Don’t know what made me think of that.)
Maybe the point is that film—and storytelling—distorts our investments monstrously so that the killing off of Hitler and Goebbels and every other important member of the Nazi party is a B-plot? Or maybe the point is that Shoshanna’s demonic laughing as the movie screen comes burning down is where we end too, laughing at Landa’s predicament at film’s end? Or maybe the point is that the first filmgoers famously believed that the train coming towards them onscreen would crash through and hit them, and that they were right? Or maybe the point is that film is the greatest weapon? Or that it should all be burned? Or that we are all potentially Nazis and Indians? Or that even in the ultimate revenge fantasy the intellectual Brit dies, the European turns his coat and the dumb American Inglourious Basterd wins, complete with typos and crappy accent, even though the Jew and the black man did all the real work?
But I don’t think so. I think the point was to have fun.
Q (and I feel qualified to ask this, having played “Flee the Pirate-Nazis” in my youth, so understanding perfectly the pleasures that accrue from hybridizing the plot-attributes of gory genres): What happens when you mix Indian scalping with Nazi mind-games and Roman decadence and guerrilla warfare and spy movies and hot blonde ladies?
A: Some killer dialogue and some really pretty explosions.