Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Tarantino Divide

With the release of Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds, he has received a flood of divisive responses with some seeing the film as an invigorating piece of tour-de-force filmmaking (like me), and others dismissing it as an interminable film with barbarous violence and a confusing focus: "Are we watching farce or a serious attempt to re-imagine the Second World War?". Do I feel that I have to defend Tarantino and his new movie? Not at all, but I think it's important to state that Inglourious Basterds--like almost all of his movies--is made to create a division between fanboys and haters, but overall, Tarantino still created an exceptional film.

**Spoilers Will Most Likely Await Further Down**

One of the main complaints that people have of Basterds is that it simply cannot make up its own mind as to whether or not it takes itself seriously. Quite frankly, I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that it's quite obvious that Tarantino was not attempting to create a World War II film with true gravitas, but a spaghetti western that happens to take place in Nazi-occupied France. If you're having trouble deciding whether or not Basterds is farce (a film, mind you, which supposes that World War II ended in a French cinema by eight suicide bombers, and has Hitler being murdered via machine gun), then perhaps you're simply not watching the correct movie.

I will agree with some critics that the desensitized nature American audiences have toward brutal violence is a bit disturbing. I did cringe when audiences hooted and cheered when the character Sgt. Donny Donowitz (played by Eli Roth), beats a Nazi with a baseball bat to the point that his face is nothing but pulp, but there are many moments when Tarantino reflects our own sadism against us.

The bat-wielding Donny Donowitz.

In the film's climax, important members of the Nazi party sit in a cinema, laughing and cheering as they watch a film where Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (played by Daniel Brühl) eagerly snipes away at three-hundred American soldiers, one by one. Then, in a plan set up by the Jewish cinema owner Shosanna (played by Mélanie Laurent), a mountain of flammable 35mm film is lit, incinerating the entire theater, while the Nazis are locked in. As they desperately attempt to escape, Shosanna presents her own face on the screen and laughs at their terror.

I won't presume to know what Tarantino was trying to say in that scene, but I will state what I obviously saw: when the audience was sentenced into watching Nazis laugh at the countless murders of American soldiers, they sat with tense, stone faces. Only when the Basterds came in, and the fire was set did the audience release their animosity, and re-enter the energy of the movie. The film mirrored our own sadism, and for me, created an unforgettably ironic theater atmosphere in which people, perhaps unknowingly, were forced to face their own demented views of violence.

The face of this reflection is Col. Hans Landa (the f
antastic Christoph Waltz), who is easily the film's most delightful character, even though he is a Nazi detective better known as the Jew Hunter. Some may remember that I discarded last year's The Reader because it asked us to feel sympathy for a Nazi, which is all but impossible. Tarantino doesn't ask us to feel sympathy for Landa, but he does dare us to be swayed by his charm, and many find this to be a bad thing. Nazis will always be the bad guys, some think; and even though Landa is the de-facto "bad guy", he is probably the most likable person to watch in the movie.

Hans Landa: A Misunderstood Man

Audiences aren't usually entertained by moral ambiguity, but Quentin Tarantino has always been successful despite this. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is filled with the same paradox in which the protagonists are murderers, gangsters, drug-addicts, etc. He's been accused at various times of glorifying violence, even though I feel he has always glorified the characters, and not their actions. It's been a rather grand debate ever since Tarantino has appeared on the scene, but no matter how you feel about the films themselves and their content, it's rather difficult to make the case that they aren't some of the more innovative films of the last two decades. It's probably better to be divisive than to be mediocre.

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