Gorgeous, depressing, magnificent, infuriating. Love, lust, and something else that embraces and evades the two; what a show. Rachel Weisz is terrific.
In the late 1930s, as a little man named Adolf Hitler prepared the fearsome German army to run roughshod over the country’s European neighbours, Charles Chaplin, one of the greatest of all film artists, responded to the threat of war in the only way that made sense: He prepared a new comedy, The Great Dictator, that mocked Hitler directly. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine Chaplin could have done anything else. Ignoring Hitler was already out of the question. The similarities between Chaplin and the Nazi leader were often remarked upon, including by Chaplin himself. For one thing, they obviously shared the same moustache. (More than coincidence?) They were born within the same four-day period in April 1889. They both grew up in poverty, and there were superficial similarities in their sensibility–Hitler was a frustrated artist and, like Chaplin, a fan of Wagner. Chaplin’s son famously remembered his father saying, “Just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”
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.
Paul Verhoeven has received some of the stupider film reviews in recent history. I’m still floored by the number of people who see Robocop as an endorsement of, rather than satire on, the idea of unfettered and uncompromising law enforcement. Robocop may be the ultimate bad L.A. Cop, but the storyline, which had Peter Weller playing an armored cyborg struggling to regain his humanity, was a far cry from Dirty Harry wish-fulfillment. (I’m assuming Verhoeven needn’t be held accountable here for any number of unthinking meatheads who might have taken away from the film some kind of inspirational message about the validity of Rodney King tactics among police officers, but some viewers would doubtless argue that point.)