Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Inglourious Basterds - A Meditation on War, Terrorism, Violence, Deception, Cinema, and Deal-Making

Having re-watched Inglourious Basterds (IB), and after having imbibed some of the commentary and engaged in my own offline bull-sessions with assorted parties,* I now present a partial and spoiler-riddled listing of many of the pregnant questions and observations it places before the viewer. I believe I mentioned the following has spoilers, didn't I? If not, I'd like to make clear that this list will include spoilers.

  • Among other things, the opening scene establishes the thematic frame of the film, namely, the relationship between civility and violence, dramatized in the hyper-polite, well-mannered interaction between the German Col. Landa and a French dairy farmer who is hiding Jews. The interaction is well-mannered, that is, until the shooting starts, and throughout the scene, the anticipation of the violence is palpable -- the only question is what form it will take and who, if anyone, will emerge alive.
  • The violence with which this scene culminates is remarkably tame and indeterminate by the standards of this film. Why? Why doesn't Landa fire his gun at Shoshanna? Are we certain Shoshanna's family is dead? What does the reserve of this opening scene set up, and what does it decline to set up, in the way of conflict and characterization?
  • The guys at The Film Talk assure us that the French farmer looks almost exactly as Stanley Kubrick looked at one stage of his life; interpret this as you will, perhaps taking into consideration that Kubrick dealt with the violence-civility line quite explicitly in several of his films, notably Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and so on. I can't say what 2001: A Space Odyssey was trying to address or mean or tell us, if anything -- I've been meaning to give it another try -- but maybe it fits this too.
  • Col. Landa executes an ambush at the dairy farm by switching to English, a language he knows the hiding Jews do not know. Several scenes later, the American Lt. Raines perpetrates an ambush by switching to Italian, after he is assured that Germans do not have an ear for it. What are we to conclude about the tactic of cloaking oneself in language in this way? Fair game? Dishonorable?
  • Upon our introduction to Lt. Raines, we learn several things: that he is descended from Apaches; that he comes from Tennessee; that he has a terrible (and never explained) wound on his neck that seems to have been made by a noose; that he wants a small unit of soldiers -- "Jewish-American" soldiers to be exact -- to join him in a campaign of Apache-inspired ambush, trickery, torture, killing, and terror. Notably, one of the first things he tells his men is that his unit will be operate outside the allied liberation of Europe -- their work will happen before and independently of that (D-Day) landing they've heard rumors about. He seems to be giving himself and his unit permission to step outside the rules of war, which they promptly do. Where have we heard this song before?
  • Why is it important for Lt. Raines to have Jewish-American soldiers? Is this connected with the neck wound in any way -- did citizen Aldo Raines turn up on the wrong side of a lynch mob in Tennessee, perhaps? Is Raines jewish? Did he start on the "white" side of a lynch mob only to find his mob outnumbered and overpowered by the "black" side? Is his neck wound a permanent mark that gave him the idea of leaving a permanent mark on the few Germans he left alive?
  • Three of Raines's men strapped explosives to their bodies, concealed it under their clothing, and went in among the enemy to kill them. Where have we heard this song before?
  • On the matter of the rules of war and codes of honor, there are at least two instances where deals are struck and then, apparently, broken: the deal by which the "Mexican standoff" is resolved in the basement bar, and the deal by which Col. Landa surrenders to the allies but betrays the Nazi high command. I say apparently because the former deal is shattered by the German actress, who had no say in the deal struck. She herself committed to nothing. Likewise, it's not clear whether or to what extent Lt. Raines considered himself a party to the deal between Landa and Raines' superior. The deal was struck, after all, while Raines was disarmed, bound, and at the mercy of Landa; and we only heard Landa's side of the telephone conversation, so we don't know the explicit terms. Nor do we know what orders, if any, Raines received concerning the deal. The larger question -- another from a song we've possibly heard loudly and recently -- is the extent to which people are bound to compacts to which they were not direct signatories or freely-negotiating agents. Does the actress's alliance with the allies bind her to the deals they strike? All of them? Is that an appropriate standard to which to hold a secret agent? Is Raines always and automatically bound to the terms of deals his commanders improvise? That these deals were struck in "ticking time bomb," life-or-death, exigent scenarios make any difference?
  • We are shown Nazis and sympathizers sitting in a movie theater avidly enjoying the sight of a German soldier gunning down allied soldiers. If we look carefully, we can see another group of people sitting in a movie theater avidly enjoying the sight of killing. For most of us, this can be facilitated by use of a hand mirror. What does this suggest about the nature and morality of watching violence on the big screen?
  • Joseph Goebbels, the chief of Nazi propaganda, figures prominently in this movie, as does his work -- his propaganda film is interspliced with a propaganda film from a small corner of the French resistance. Arguably, both of these films have been spliced into a third propaganda film, Inglourious Basterds, although it's not clear what it's propagandizing. What have we learned, if anything, about propaganda?
  • Beyond mere propaganda, cinema is explicitly weaponized: a movie theater is used as a fire trap, and nitrocellulose film is used as the fuel. Earlier in the movie, just before "The Bear Jew" clubs a Nazi soldier to death with a baseball bat, Lt. Raines comments that watching these beatings are, for his unit, the closest thing they have to going to the movies.
  • By the end, it's finally apparent why it began with "once upon a time ..." -- it's a fanciful rewriting of history. So it was all a fairy tale. Right?
Movies are entertainment, whatever their form. Right? This one is entertaining, sure, but it's also rife with questions lacking clear answers, and all its questions -- there are more besides these -- are interesting ones.



* Marla, the twins, my son, my wife, Aunt Ginny, Patty-Sue, Ned, JJ, Cabbage, Wilbur, the ghost of the lizard Pogo, Gena, Ol' Red, and last but not least, BFD (Cf.), who contributed some of the material above -- all of it you find uninteresting, to be exact.

1 comment:

action movies said...

I can truly agree with "can be facilitated by use of a hand mirror". it's linked to the both sides of the movies' characters, and the real viewers themselves. but anyhow, let's not get it too far - to conclude - it's a great movie.