UPDATE 8/29: My wife jumped on me after reading this for the suggestion that the act of taking scalps from victims was somehow endemic to the Native American people. While she agreed that’s how it’s presented in this film, she told me that the Europeans introduced the practice to indigenous Americans, and not the other way around. I was not too surprised at this, though it’s certainly contrary to the popular narrative, and promised to find a source online and add a footnote. Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the film’s most notable detractor, beat me to it. It doesn’t change my opinion of the film — Tarantino’s riffing on film history rather than real history, and Aldo Raine probably wouldn’t know the difference, Apache blood or no — but I agree that it’s well worth noting.
Among the most satisfying of exploitation subgenres, for those who swing that way, is the rape-revenge picture. The basic structure is well suited to the grindhouse feature — it offers an excuse to stage scenes of sexual violence (the “rape” portion of the formula) alongside images of even more graphic, brutal violence (the “revenge”) while packaging the exercise as both moral lesson and wish-fulfillment fantasy. The appeal of the story is fairly primal — an early prototype for this sort of thing, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, was based on The Virgin Spring, a 1960 Ingmar Bergman film that had its own roots in a centuries-old Swedish folk song. As folk tale, the rape-revenge yarn functions as a stern warning, perhaps first appealing to an imagined audience’s prurience and sadism with the story of a violation, then warning them about the civilized world’s uniform, punitive, and perhaps grisly response to such an assault. As film, the subject matter is even more charged. Given feminist ideas about the male gaze and the embedded sexism of 100 years of film history, the idea of staging a rape for movie cameras, in a film destined to reach a (presumably base and horny) grindhouse audience, has the stench of amorality (if not outright immorality) about it.
One possible response to that complaint is to note that they’re called exploitation films for a reason and leave it at that. Yet there can be something empowering about these films, too. Film theory’s presumed viewer for these films is male, but go see a Friday or Saturday night showing of a vaguely or explicitly rape-y studio horror movie, like the recent Halloween, Friday the 13th, or Last House remakes, and you may be surprised at how much of the audience is made up of willing young women getting off vicariously on the trauma depicted and catharsis imparted on screen. I wouldn’t say any of those movies has a feminist subtext, but the genre may have hit its apex with Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, which made its twice-violated hero, a mute New Yorker who eventually rises up against her oppressors with a gun and a hacksaw, emblematic of a wide-ranging move away from victimhood. I know of no sadder, stranger moment in grindhouse cinema than the scene at the end of Ms. 45, when Zoe Tamerlis’ avenging angel, having shown up at a masquerade party dressed as a nun and packing heat, is taken down not by one of the men who are the targets of her rage, but by one of the women in the room. At that moment, she speaks her only line in the film, a cry of anguish and disbelief: “Sister … ?” It’s one of those moments where what seemed like a narrowly proscribed B-movie suddenly opens up and reveals the world it depicts to be more vast and mysterious than a viewer might have guessed.
Quentin Tarantino has never made a rape-revenge movie, though Kill Bill Vol. 1 contains one in miniature (I’m thinking of Beatrix Kiddo’s hospital escape), and Death Proof is, structurally at least, pretty close to the real deal. In its unprecedented indulgence of conversation among female characters, Death Proof can be read as a celebration of women — chatty women, sexy women, tough women. It passes the so-called “Bechdel test,” popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel as one possible criterion for use by women to identify movies that don’t patronize or condescend to them, with flying colors. It also features as the climax to its first of two major narrative segments an especially sadistic and brutal murder, as Kurt Russell’s psychopathic “Stuntman Mike” takes Rose McGowan’s Pam for a rip-snorting ride in a car that’s been built to afford maximum protection to the driver while allowing the passenger to bang around during a horrific crash like so many ice cubes rattling, hard, inside a martini shaker. And its second long section ends with Stuntman Mike’s capture and probable murder at the hands of the film’s second group of talkative women, this one led by the indefatigable stuntwoman Zoe Ball. Death Proof doesn’t fool with any of that I-have-become-what-I-beheld ambiguity that some of the other films truck in, treating acts of violent revenge partly as corruption-of-the-innocent scenarios. Instead, Tarantino goes instead for the frisson of rage, the sigh of relief, and the cry of satisfaction. He wants to elicit cheers and applause from an audience that sees a group of women refuse to become victims, instead giving chase and finally giving this genial but sick fuck exactly what’s coming to him.
Inglourious Bastards is like that, too. Inspired to a vanishingly small degree by the 1978 Enzo Castellari action film of the same title — and even more loosely based on the actual events of World War II — it may not literally be a rape-revenge film, but it’s all about turning tides, making victims into aggressors, and using the psychological universe that is cinema to redress wrongs. If you’ve been living under a rock and thus have no idea what Tarantino is up to this time out, I’ll explain: the Holocaust is the rape, and the Basterds are the revenge. Brad Pitt plays Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a Tennessee boy (part Apache) who has assembled a crew of Jews — and one traitorous German soldier — to hunt and brutally kill Nazi soldiers in occupied France. They do so not with the grim efficiency you might expect, but with a raging theatricality involving knives and baseball bats. There’s been a bit of a dust-up over the film’s insouciant disregard for the actual history of World War II, which no less an authority on film and politics than Jonathan Rosenbaum declared “seems morally akin to Holocaust denial.” That’s nuts. Inglourious Basterds is not a film about World War II. If it fails to depict the horrors of the Holocaust outright, it’s because its director knows it doesn’t need to — for anyone who’s paid enough attention to popular culture to want to buy a ticket to see a Quentin Tarantino movie, not to mention to those with even a passing interest in history, the reality of the Holocaust has been maintained across the years, its nightmarish details amplified to almost mythic proportions. From the film’s opening scene, which features a bearded, gentle-looking farmer struggling to keep his cool under interrogation by a chillingly cordial SS officer known as “the Jew hunter,” the dedication of the Nazi war machine to exterminating the Jewish people is simply understood. Without that obscenity — without the agreement in our collective consciousness that those actions constituted obscenity — there’s simply no motor driving Tarantino’s film.
The first sequence involving Raine and his basterds features scenes of torture and murder, as three German soldiers are interrogated about enemy positions after their fellow Nazis have already been killed and scalped. (Like I said, part Apache.) One of them is bludgeoned with a baseball bat; another is shot in the back. The third gives up the intel and is sent home to Hitler for his trouble with a swastika carved into his forehead to forever identify him as a Nazi. It’s an intensely visceral scene featuring violence as pure spectacle and using the impulse toward vengeance as juice to get the vehicle running. Again, it’s a scene that can’t exist without relying on the audience’s understanding of Nazis as vile beings, the kind of monsters whose presence defies every notion of conventional justice and decency. You can almost imagine Mother Earth herself doing a righteous little fist-pump every time a Nazi dies in this movie.
But Inglourious Basterds is not about the real world. It’s not a film that means to be prescriptive — to lament the war that World War II could have been if only the Jews had stood up for themselves. It’s a violent wish-fulfillment fantasy, and if such a thing is necessarily immoral, then Inglourious Basterds is immoral. But it’s also — necessarily — a provocation. Whether or not he admits it in interviews, Tarantino forces his audience to come to terms with its own bloodlust. But where a stentorian film like Funny Games (either version; take your pick) asks the question, “Why aren’t you heading for the exits?”, Inglorious Bastards asks, “Are you heading for the exits?” And then, once it sees that you’re staying put, it rubs its hands together and declares, “Great, we’re on the same page.”
Like much of Tarantino’s work, Inglourious Bastards is a film about the way we react to films. Or at least it’s about the way Tarantino reacts to them. And this is where it’s really bold, because what he does in this one is to work from the common baseline for representations of Nazism and World War II in the movies, and then burn that motherfucker to the ground. (HEAVY DUTY SPOILERS COMMENCE.) He’s got it in him this time around to rewrite the iconography of the 20th century, demanding that we bust Adolf Hitler down a few notches, for Christ’s sake, from the untouchable status he’s long been given by a world still in awe of the evil he wrought. That’s how Inglourious Basterds comes to have as its action climax a spectacular conflagration in a movie theater commandeered by Nazis. It might seem a bit ridiculous in the context of contemporary Hollywood, but Tarantino is here trying to imagine a way that cinema could have brought the suffering of World War II to an early end, snuffing out the lives of Hitler and his chief lieutenants — including, of course, Joseph Goebbels, who ran the Nazi motion-picture propaganda machine — in a conflagration presided over by the visage of a vengeful Jew straight out of German expressionist film. Just as Tarantino gets a kick out of imagining a troupe of battle-hardened jews steeling themselves to clobber Nazi soldiers, he wonders at what might have been if the Resistance had been able to counter the Reich’s use of cinematic propaganda with its own use of film as a weapon.
And so it is that brave Soshanna Dreyfus (a smoldering Mélanie Laurent), her family murdered by the despicable Colonel Hans Landa (the infuriatingly polite Christoph Waltz), the Jew hunter, hatches a plot to turn her only asset in this world — a French moviehouse with more than 300 seats and a stockpile of flammable old nitrate film prints — into a makeshift oven in which a full cadré of German muckymucks gathered for a premiere screening of an obnoxiously militaristic pro-Nazi film will be broiled alive. Shosanna presides over the occasion in her own raging propaganda reel, which is spliced into the Goebbels-approved print on display. It’s cinema versus cinema, a point nailed home not only by Tarantino’s choice of David Bowie song (the creepy version of “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” from the Paul Schrader) for the soundtrack, but by having the camera track in an arc behind Marcel, Shosanna’s projectionist, who stands before a mass of old film prints on the floor behind the screen. As the camera moves around him, we see the pile of nitrate prints juxtaposed against the on-screen projected image of a huge collection of guns and ammunition from the Nazi film. It’s mise en scène as intellectual montage, and a very deliberate equation of cinema with weaponry. When the screen finally disappears from view — collapsing, or merely obscured from view by smoke, I forget — her close-up can still be seen, taking on a weird three-dimensional quality in all that billowing grey fog. Abel Gance twice envisioned a film (J’accuse, in both silent and sound versions) that he hoped could talk the world down from the precipice of war; Tarantino has made a movie that pretends it has the power to change history. It’s easy to argue that Gance’s was the mature artistic statement — but in the end, both approaches are folly.
I’d like to report that Tarantino intended for his film to bring the audience’s enjoyment of this stuff under intellectual scrutiny — to question the wisdom of revenge as a policy, as Spielberg did in his fairly bracing film about hardened counterterrorism agents, Munich. But then Tarantino is not Spielberg, nor should we expect him to be. For one thing, Tarantino has made it clear in interviews that he believes Inglourious Basterds is absolutely brimming with awesome — that every Jewish man in his coterie professed that they were made positively tumescent by the mere concept of a whole bunch of Jews running around behind enemy lines and giving the Nazis an unspeakable what-for. Of course, authorial intent can be a terrible red herring. Sometimes a director really doesn’t fully appreciate the real implications of his own films, and sometimes — as when Lars Von Trier defended his much-maligned Antichrist at Cannes by declaring himself to be the best director in the world — he’s just fucking with you. But this brings me back to the rape-revenge movie, and the fact that nothing in the Tarantino filmography to date seems to point to a desire to look critically at even the most unsparing violence or to call into question an audience’s enthusiastic appreciation for stylish representations of violence on screen. Instead, he’s stoking the flames. I say cautionary tales are nice and moral lessons can be very valuable. But really, at the end of the day, a filmmaker’s primary responsibility cannot be to his audience — that way madness lies, as he tries to second-guess the possible reactions any nutjob or malcontent may have to the visions he puts on screen. A director answers, as any artist must, only to himself. As Sondheim put it in his great musical, Sunday in the Park With George: “Stop worrying if your vision/is new/Let others make that decision/They usually do/Just keep moving on.” Or, as Tarantino recently told an interviewer, “My theory is as long as I can get an R rating, anything goes.”
Tarantino’s own motives in all this may be questionable, disreputable, or flat-out childish. But his responsibility is to let them reach their fullest flower in his fecund imagination and then put them on screen in the best way he knows how, so that an audience will have the chance to chew it over. In this case, it’s plenty good enough. Inglourious Basterds works as a rousing call to action on behalf of the victims of tyranny, and it will forever be remembered as a peculiar giant among unapologetic revenge narratives — since Frank Miller never got around to writing that promised Batman comic book where The Dark Knight went after Osama Bin Laden, the basterds are the current state of the art in pop-culture mythmaking. In this case, it becomes our job as audience members to contextualize what he’s done, and to triangulate it against our own moral codes. When “the bear Jew,” played by Eli Roth, comes out of his tunnel swinging for the fences, are you sickened by his swaggering bloodlust? (Does it bother you even more that this man also directed Hostel II, in which some rich European biddy bathes in the blood of poor Heather Matarazzo, suspended nude from the ceiling above her?) When Tarantino fails to offer evidence that these particular German soldiers are more than young footsoldiers, swept up in the blinding hysteria of Aryan propaganda and blind nationalist pride, does it make you feel conflicted? (Does it bug you that Kate Winslet won an Oscar last year for playing a sympathetic concentration-camp guard?) Coincidence or not, do you notice that the psychological warfare the basterds use against the German enemy is the same kind of stuff that’s currently being investigated by the U.S. justice department, which speculates that federal and international laws may have been violated in the C.I.A.’s treatment of so-called enemy combatants during the war on terror? (Does it matter to you whether or not Tarantino considered any of this? Are you so sure he didn’t?)
I’ve given considerably short shrift to Tarantino’s bona fides, which must be said to include the chilling and highly entertaining performance of Waltz, which won the acting award at Cannes; the extended scene set in a basement tavern where Tarantino tightens the screws expertly and so methodically; and especially his superior control of the segments of the film that tell the story of the revenge of Shosanna Dreyfus. Nor have I really enumerated his shortcomings, which include a decided failure to maintain a consistency of tone; an apparent spaghetti-stuck-to-the-wall strategy of storytelling; or an obvious inability to rein in the scenery-chewing Pitt, whose peculiarly unmodulated oddball performance threatens to take any scene he appears in completely off the rails. (I wouldn’t call that a problem in itself, but placed next to such fine performances as those of Waltz and Laurent, it rankles.) But what matters more is the director’s impressive employment of the Reich’s fondness for Riefenstahl-style propaganda as a jumping-off point for an alternate history in which cinema itself, shamed at being turned to such evil ends, rages against the dying of the light. The revisionism of Inglourious Basterds may be shockingly violent, but it’s bold enough that it forces you to take a position on bloodlust; crazy enough that it makes you feel, for a moment, that anything might be possible in the light of truth projected 24 times a second; and ingenious enough to keep you riveted for two and a half long hours. Compare to the other stuff playing at your local multiplex — what Tarantino has managed to do is not just an accomplishment. It’s a bloody miracle.