Monday, 19 October 2009

Revenge of the Giant Face

Ah, let's indulge in some time travel shall we? Let's go all the way back to September 2009, when Sean Collins had this to say about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds:
It is, in other words, a deliberate assault on the facts surrounding the deaths of millions and millions of people, including the systematic genocide of six million Jews in the Holocaust... It's morally monstrous and its practitioners are moral monsters.
Oh, wait, shit. That's not quite right. That's what Sean C. had to say about Nazi-sympathizing turd-monger Pat Buchanan. Sorry everyone, but problems like this tend to occur when you start to mess around with history, you know?

In order to find what Sean actually thought of Inglourious Basterds we have to go back even further, to August 2009 no less! It was a kinder time, a gentler time, a time where a man could read an essay on the cathartic, history rupturing violence of Tarantino's latest picture without any danger of stumbling onto this long winded response.

Here's what Sean actually said about the film:
...Inglourious Basterds may be the punkest movie I've seen in I can't even think how long. Maybe ever. It's about nothing less than the power of art to destroy evil. It's about how important it is to love film more than the likes of Hitler hate life. It's about how movie violence, art violence, art designed as a FUCK YOU, can help you deal with the violence that so terrified Chamberlain's cohorts and to which Hitler and his cohorts were so indifferent. It's Woody Guthrie's "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS" guitar slogan made literal. It's a lingering closeup on the bloodlust-saturated eyes of Eli Roth, the beautiful Jewish torture-porn poster boy and enemy of good taste, as he empties a machine gun into the bodies of members of the Third Reich. And it's a total fucking fantasy. Yet that's what makes it so vital.
Collins then went on to compare the release he finds in Inglourious Basterds with the traumatized euphoria of a Nine Inch Nails concert. It's a good essay -- so good, in fact, that it almost had me convinced that I felt the same way. Except that if I'm honest, I didn't find any release in Tarantino's spaghetti-western-war-punk-fantasy.

That said, Inglourious Basterds didn't bother me the way it bothered David Fiore! Still, I get where Dave's coming from, because it's a deeply strange movie -- the mix of stomach wrenching tension, goofy comedy, expressive violence and defiantly "Tarantino-esque" banter makes it hard for the viewer to know how they're supposed to react. Even the film's first chapter, which Sean correctly describes as being loaded with real danger, has at least one absurd laugh in it. It's not easy to keep a straight face when Landa pulls out his massive comedy pipe, is it?

Well, somehow he manages, but I couldn't help myself. My laughter was absurd and inappropriate, but then so was that fucking pipe!

The difference between my take on the movie and David Fiore's would be that I'm happier to take this uncertainty as part of the ride. Dave suggests that Inglourious Basterds allows us to think about the way political perspectives are formed in an "unusually visceral" way, and I think he's absolutely right! Tarantino's movie circles around a series of overlapping schemers before plunging into the heart of the venn diagram -- which, of course, happens to be located in a cinema! This is where my reading starts to look a lot like Sean's, because the unreality of the film is key to its success. Tarantino isn't exactly shy about the fact that this is a fantasy -- after all, Inglourious Basterds starts with a title card that reads "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France" and peaks with a scene of ghostly revenge that's straight out of a Hammer horror movie. The fact that this climax is explicitly linked to the use of film as a weapon is just so much metafictional gravy, really.

So why can't I find catharsis in this process? Because as good old Dave Fiore noted in another Basterdly post, "if the movie works at all, it works in the reverse direction–as a statement about the inability of art to do anything but respond to other art..."

It should be clear by now that the differences between my take on the movie and those of my fellow bloggers are actually pretty small, but I'm going to keep on blowing them up into something big anyway. Why? Because it's more fun!

So: Dave's right, Inglourious Basterds is about art vs. art, and that's why it's so fucking good! Again, none of this is hidden -- the movie's finale sees all of its characters collide at the premier of a Nazi propaganda film, which makes the messy, blood-drenched ending seem like a triumph of aesthetics over agitprop. This is a shot to the face of those who would wield art like a cudgel, and if that seems like a paradox to you then that just means you're still awake.

All of this points to why my opening Pat Buchanan joke doesn't really work, because while Tarantino messes around with history here, he makes damned sure you know exactly what he's doing! He also takes pains to show that this is violent, bracing business, but that might just be because his movies are all about violent, bracing business. So as a whole war's worth of plots and schemes crash into each other, the blood starts to flow and you start to count the casualties start to stack up. Tellingly, the characters who survive the climactic carnage do so by pushing their stories harder than the rest. For example, in the movie's first chapter, Landa acts as though he is comfortable being the "Jew Hunter"; in its last, he makes a fairly audacious play to find a new narrative for himself, and with it a pivotal role in history. And he gets all of that, but when Pitt's Lieutenant Aldo Raine carves a swastika into Landa's head he adds a little something extra to the Nazi's story. Which is oddly fitting, given that Landa adds a little something to the movie every time he wanders into a scene (seriously, every single mannerism is a like a comedy pipe pulled out at just the wrong occasion).

If you find yourself asking whether this jumble of cinematic pleasures is enough to justify a fully-fledged assault on history, well -- isn't that an interesting conversation to have? Inglourious Basterds doesn't open a can of worms, it machetes the fucker to pieces and then shouts "HEY LOOK, MORE WORMS!!"

Which is probably why Mike Barthel's take on the movie is my favourite so far. Using Inglourious Basterds as a jump-off point to discuss the US Constitution, Barthel waxes euphoric on the power of art as interpretation. He also comes out with this beauty of a paragraph:
The unfortunate reality of American political discourse is that people don’t really understand how the government works, and because of that, the smooth functioning of the government actively requires hiding certain things from the public. This is not to say these things are wrong; at least a few people in the government are smart, moral people who care about the Constitution, and they have thought through these complex issues and given them the thumbs-up. But they are complex issues, and getting through them requires several years of careful study and an ability to listen to arguments you don’t immediately agree with, all of which it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get people whose first impulse is to draw a Hitler mustache on something (anything! a butternut squash! whatever’s closest at hand!) to do.
When he starts to talk about Hitler moustaches, Barthel accidentally echoes David Fiore's point about America's obsession with swastika branding, framing it as an impediment to honest and open political process. So what's the solution? I don't have it, and Tarantino probably wouldn't care about it if he did, but I'm starting to think that this man might be on to something:

Yes, that's right, it's pedantic British comedian Richard Herring, getting his Mein Kampf on. I saw Herring's Hitler Moustache show at the Fringe in August, and while I won't subject Herring's routines to excessive paraphrase here (that dubious pleasure is reserved for my "real life" friends!), I will say that it was one of the best shows I've seen this decade. By branding himself with the Hitler moustache, Herring becomes a comedy villain. He becomes an uneasy joke, but as a joke he's free to question every statement that comes out of his mouth without ever giving up on meaning or morality.

The best example of this effect comes when Herring stops trying to provoke laughter and starts to berate members of the audience who didn't vote in this year's European elections. His rhetoric in this part of the show is as sincere as it is scathing, but there's an implicit irony at work that stops it from being overbearing. No matter how agreeable the sentiments Herring expresses are, you're still being lectured on politics by a man with a Hitler moustache. That small clump of hair, boldly brandished, becomes an invitation to not take what its wearer is saying at face value. It's a fuzzy reminder that there's always room for argument and debate, and as such it serves much the same function as Inglourious Basterds' "Once upon a time..." introduction.

In stark contrast to Inglourious Basterds, though, Hitler Moustache has an overt political agenda. Starting from the proposition that the toothbrush moustache can be reclaimed for comedy, it quickly becomes a rallying cry against prejudice and complacency. In a routine that was very poorly represented in this Guardian article, Herring uses crass racial stereotyping as a jump-off point for an absurdly clever examination of conflicted liberal attitudes to cultural differences. This isn't blank irony of the kind that gave David Foster Wallace nightmares, because Herring doesn't use comedy to disavow meaning. Instead, he uses it to reaffirm the fact that our opinions have to be tested if they're to be truly useful. Of course, being the man who got a forty minute comedy skit out of a yogurt-heavy trip to the supermarket, Herring is an expert at attacking a proposition from every possible perspective. That he manages to do so while taking on contentious subject matter, and that he creates constant laughter in the process, is what makes this show a triumph.

Plus, Herring also takes care of the nasty argument closing/moustache drawing trick in a silly and novel way. Or so you'd think, but it seems that some people still want to draw the 'tache on, even when it's already there! But hey, even that weird bit of graffiti-artistry is fitting when you look at it from the right perspective. Hitler Moustache is nothing less than a weaponisation of irony, and it's made me want to try to be smarter, funnier and more active in local politics all at once.

As for Inglourious Basterds, I'm not going to pretend that my take on the movie is anywhere near definitive. For one thing, I've not even touched upon how great Melanie Laurent is as Shosanna Dreyfus:

Seriously, some of the things Laurent does with her face warrant a separate two thousand word essay!

Still, I've got a big enough ego to think that if you read this essay alongside Sean's, and Dave's and Mike's and Geoff's etc, then you might just start to get an idea of what Inglourious Basterds is actually all about. Most likely you'll get a hint of it in the places where these pieces clash or blur into each other or seem wildly divergent. If Sean Witzke ever gets around to writing a full blog post on the film I think he'll probably get closer to the spirit of the thing than anyone else, but this post of mine? If you just read it on its own, and if you give it just a little bit too much of your time, you might just start to see a face staring up at you through the screen. It might look like Hitler's face, or it might look like Herring's, but if you look closer you'll realise that it's not really either of their faces. No, if anyone's face is peering out at you through these words then it's a blank parody of my face, beady eyes peering out from a queasy void:

And what should you do when you see this face? Well, like I said, you should probably move on to other blog posts, or better yet, turn the computer off and go out for a walk or something. Still, if you wanted to pause for a moment and graffiti my face I wouldn't be too sad. Just so long as you try to be a bit more imaginative than I've been here, which shouldn't be too hard. After all, I'm sure you can do better than this:

Well... can't you?


sean witzke said...

I don't know man, I think largely Tarantino's reacting to David Mamet's point that all Holocaust films are ultimately pornography and then saying fuck it and making real holocaust pornography.

David said...

See, this is another reason why you should write that Emma Peel Session!

I can see the holocaust porn aspect of the movie, but I don't think it's irreconcilable with my take on the film -- I was trying to get across the idea that it's all about the power of one story to radically reinterpret another.

With Inglourious Basterds, I feel like Tarantino is both giving the finger to other WW2 movies and sticking the boot in to the story the Third Reich were trying to tell. Of course, this painfully textual take is indicative of too much time spent in the English Lit classroom, but that's my damage so there you go!

I think maybe that line about how Basterds is "about art vs art" is this essay's weak spot, and that email you sent me suggests that you've found it like the crafty Wu-Tang assassin you are. Damn you!

Seriously though, that line does quite a few different things -- it stops my reading from collapsing into either Sean Collins' or David Fiore's while suggesting that it would be possible to collapse their readings into each other. Still, it's not a point I can 100% defend unless I take a view in which all history becomes a battle of aesthetics, which isn't something I'd feel comfortable doing. Because, you know, there's just a little bit more at stake than that!

On a much, much, much smaller scale, there's more at stake in Inglourious Basterds than that too, which is where my hypothetical Shossana post would come in.

Still, I think we can both agree that Inglourious Basterds is too good in too many ways, yes?

In short: write that essay!

Tear this one to pieces in the comments!

Rip it up and start again!

David said...

That said, you could probably argue that thinking your grand story is more important than human lives is exactly the sort of thing war-mongering dictators tend to do. Which takes us back round to Sean Collins' essay, I think.

David said...

And hey, you'd almost think I didn't have a flight to catch the way I'm typing my hands off here!

That's me off on Holiday now, but I'll be back in a week and hopefully I'll bring some posts with me.

Feel free to abuse the facilities while I'm gone!!

Andrew Hickey said...

Wow, that's fantastic. I've not seen Basterds yet, and am off to see Hitler Moustache tonight, so can't comment in any greater detail, but that's one of the best things you've written...

Duncan said...

it's not a point I can 100% defend unless I take a view in which all history becomes a battle of aesthetics, which isn't something I'd feel comfortable doing

Geoff Klock would!

Anagramsci said...

very interesting post my friend!

I like the way you've read some agency into the characters' behaviour --with Landa and his antagonists playing a shell game with Nazi stigmata (in name and in gorily physical fact)

this Hitler moustache fellow seems pretty great too... there's no escaping the Schicklgruberian legacy... best to confront this graffitied paradigm head on, 'cause the most dangerous political elements (in north america and europe) are getting fat on it... this is just another way that Mark Gruenwald's intervention in the Captain America mythos can help us to think about what ails the liberal democracies (one fine day I'll have to do my Gruenwald series)

I must say, for a movie that I didn't enjoy actually watching very much (apart from my enthusiasm for Laurent), IB certainly gave me (and a lot of people I like) scads of food for discussion--definitely a win for Tarantino


David said...

Hey, looks like blogger's back up now, finally. It died just as I tried to publish a comment.

Let's see if I can remember what I was trying to say -- back in a minute!

David said...

A-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight!

One, two, three, four, five, six, and on you go:

Right, that's me just about caught up with myself. Good holiday, but as always this whole "back to reality" thing's been a real pisser.

Anyway, moving on...

Andrew -- wow, thanks for that!

Does my post still hold up now that you've seen Hitler Moustache? I'm interested because while I like this essay a lot as a piece of writing, it did take me forever to finish it because I was worried that it didn't really do justice to its twin subjects.

Your write-up of Herring's show was excellent, by the way. You managed to quote routines without killing them, and as such I think your post gives people a much better idea of what Hitler Moustache is all about.

Seriously people, go see it if you can!

Duncan -- yeah, I have to admit that I was thinking about the estimable Doctor Klock when I wrote that line. I loved his interview with Plok, and I've got a lot of time for How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, but I'm not normally too into that sort of Bloomian criticism. Plus, yeah, there is life outside of aesthetics -- FACT.

Still, I won't go on about this too much right now 'cos I'm planning to write a short post in response to some of these comments.

Dave -- love the term "Nazi Stigmata", wish I'd thought of it because I'm not really a fan of the way I phrased that part of this post.

And yeah, I'd agree with you that the hitler moustache can be a horrible political weapon, and that it needs to be decommissioned as soon as possible.

Any Eventuality just posted an interesting review of Inglourious Basterds which posits it as an outright critique of this process of enemy making. I don't know that I can 100% agree with the piece, since some of the film's violence is played with gross enthusiasm and gusto, but there are definitely parts of the movie that call the enjoyment of cinematic violence into question, and this essay lines them all up real well.

Andrew Hickey said...

Yep, the post still holds up just as much...Thanks for your comments. Sorry I've not been in touch about the mag BTW, been VERY busy, but will do soon...

David said...

Nae worries Andrew -- just give me a shout if you still want me to contribute!

Andrew Hickey said...

Oh, I definitely do. Just been rushed off my feet with stuff...