Friday, February 5, 2010

American basterd II

Two equally-great directors?

(Being the second part of the three-part - probably - series "American basterd")

Quentin and Leni - A Love Story

If there's one thing you can say about Quentin Tarantino, it's that he's both highly self-aware, and hyper-aware of film history (or at least the segments of film history that suit him) - and his screenplays tend to be pastiches of film trivia that match his personal quirks. Thus the script of Inglourious Basterds is a blizzard of obscure film references (often even obscure to the director's fans). Of course you could argue - and I'm willing to play along - that the whole point of Inglourious Basterds is the mash-up of history and film fantasy: after all, the idea of the flick is that WWII is ended "early" by a Jewish girl immolating Hitler, and the entire Nazi leadership, in a movie theatre in Paris (by means of inflammable nitrate film!).

So in a way the many film refs represent the movie's plot gone meta: Tarantino's characters are not merely players in his fantasy of history, but are also avatars in his personal history of fantasy. "Aldo Raine," the supposed hero, is almost too obvious in its references, while "Emmanuelle Mimieux," I suppose, represents a polyglot of Yvette Mimieux and the famous 70's porn milestone; meanwhile "Bridget Von Hammersmark" is likely a combo of Metropolis star Brigitte Helm and contemporary director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; I'm sure I missed zillions more (indeed, perhaps everyone and everything in the movie is a reference). Just to drive the point home, in one scene (a kind of parlor game) all the characters are playing other famous characters, and even their characters (like Edgar Wallace and his creation, King Kong); everybody represents somebody else.

Yet it's surprising how un-resonant all this is; the references simply operate like links on a Wikipedia page - they don't build into anything. Perhaps that's because there's nowhere to build to. Tarantino's conceit, of an action-movie ending to WWII, simply doesn't correlate to the buried themes of the real, historical conflict - it doesn't illuminate anything, or extend anything; after all, it's an adolescent imposition on an adult situation. Thus it actually shrinks everything, draining away both moral and meaning: the Holocaust becomes an abstraction, the Jews become action heroes, and Hitler comes off as perversely comical. In fact the images of Goebbels's literal, burnt body photographed outside Hitler's bunker (above left) are far more shocking and resonant than the vengeful inferno conjured by Tarantino.

Maybe that's why the director seems not merely self-aware, but actually a little nervous about his own position vis-à-vis his creation: he clearly realizes he's gone a bit far by turning the Holocaust and the Occupation into objects of personal diversion; indeed, what he has done the Samuel Jackson of Pulp Fiction might think of as a sin! So Tarantino spends a lot of time subtly back-pedalling, and working through a veiled apologia for his own movie, by citing a lot of other directors with questionable politics. And perhaps that's why he has his blonde, blue-eyed (!) Jewish cinema owner ("Shosanna Dreyfus"), whose entire family was murdered by Nazis, nevertheless host a German film festival at her Paris theatre, because, she says, "in France, we respect directors." Uh-huh. (After all, why let a little thing like the slaughter of your family get in the way of your film-going?) At such moments it's hard not feel Tarantino fumbling for an excuse for whatever atrocities he may be about to commit - because after all, it's not like he's Leni Reifenstahl, is it?

White-on-white melodrama, proto-Nazi style.

Funny you should mention that name! Because Leni's movies likewise figure in Basterds - only not the ones she directed for Adolph directly, of course; Tarantino's not dumb enough to go gaga for Triumph of the Will. Instead he merely flirts with the edge of "controversy" by repeatedly referencing The White Hell of Piz Palü, a slab of mountain melodrama (above) in which Reifenstahl chewed the scenery under the direction of G.W. Pabst (while Arnold Franck shot the Alps - I think the whole thing is now up on Youtube). He even has one character (a film critic!) describe himself as "from Piz Palü" - in other words, he has popped right out of the screen, like Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo, from a magical land where pure film exists free of all historical and political reference.

But do you think there really is such a place, Toto? Even Quentin's not so sure - note the ironic escape hatch in that film title, The White Hell of Piz Palü. "White hell" = Nazi Germany, get it? And just in case you don't, Shosanna has a token "Negro" lover, "Marcel," to keep Quentin's Mandingo-thang going, and help hold his "progressive" badge in place (the exploitation of the Gen-X version of anti-racism is his only actual political stance). Marcel's status as agitprop is more obvious than usual, however, because he doesn't have much to do or say until the finish, when in another moment of big, dumb metaphor, he provides 'the spark' that creates the final conflagration. Although needless to say, the director still knows precisely how to flip the identity-politics card, and can't resist a few homophobic flourishes - his villain, Hans Landa, is hilariously epicene, and just to seal the deal, before Brad Pitt carves a swastika into his forehead, he whispers that he's doing it because the Nazi is a "pecker-sucker" (apparently "Nazi" isn't a bad enough insult). So I guess us faggots can keep our pink triangles in Quentin's parallel universe (although we can probably count as political progress the fact that this time around, Tarantino only whispers his homophobia).

But anyway, back to that big apology! If we decided, like Shosanna Dreyfus, to "respect" directors who collaborate with fascists (like Leni), or cohabitate with FoxNews (like Quentin), what would be, or should be, our reasons? Tarantino offers several arguments over the course of Basterds, but some of them are contradictory, and all of them are specious.

The Screen and the Smoke Screen: Triumph of the Will vs. King Kong vs. Battleship Potemkin

But first let's take a closer look at the little parlor game at the center of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino makes his case via the "real" movies his characters discuss, and that haunt his own film - the work of Leni Reifenstahl, King Kong, and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. All of these, it is hinted, have horrifying political subtexts, which, it's also hinted, we should ignore.

Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Eli Roth's Nation's Pride.

Take King Kong, that primal RKO backlot fantasy of a giant, romantically-inclined ape taken from "Skull Island" to New York, where he meets a spectacular end atop the Empire State Building. In Tarantino's eyes, or at least the eyes of his Nazi factotum in Basterds, it's a tale of "the American Negro carried in chains to the New World from Africa." (Never mind that Skull Island was in the Indian Ocean.) Meanwhile Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein's famous silent evocation of the first rumblings of the Russian Revolution, pops up in the imagery of Nation's Pride (above), the synthetic Nazi propaganda flick (directed by torture-porndog Eli Roth) that draws Hitler and his entourage to their doom. And the leading lady of Piz Palü, of course, wound up promoting the Führer himself.

Obviously, to Tarantino, these three very different movies, which land in various zones of "pop," "art," or "propaganda," are all similar at some level. King Kong is racist, Potemkin is fascist propaganda in reverse, and Leni may have looked good on an Alp, but she was a Nazi in embryo. Like his own work, they're all entanged in unsavory politics of various stripes. Therefore Tarantino's implication is that if we reject Inglourious Basterds, we must also reject them.

Yet is that really true? (And even if it is true, is it much of an argument for Inglourious Basterds?)

The white woman in peril! 1933's King Kong.

But first - sure, there's enough to some of these ideas to give them traction among college professors and video clerks. The claim that Merian C. Cooper's (and Ernest B. Schoedsack's) King Kong is racist, for instance, is by now a freshman-year film-course cliché. And not without cause: all kinds of racist and sexist tropes are at play in King Kong - the virginal "white woman" is what Kong most desires, before he dies atop the biggest phallic symbol in the world, etc, etc. Thus were a zillion academic papers born, as well as outraged commentary by the likes of the Daily Kos.

But at the same time Kong seems to transcend racist categorization; his attraction to Fay Wray's "Ann Darrow" is portrayed as love, not lust, and he can't be defined as "the other," either, because by the end of the movie we all identify with him, not his white persecutors. Every kid who sees King Kong thinks Kong is cool, and Ann Darrow is an idiot. And as the film has been repeatedly remade, it has steadily shed its bigoted baggage - in the Peter Jackson version a few years ago, Naomi Watts's Ann was openly in love with the big lug, and the "native dance" of the original was portrayed as, yes, a racist construct performed for a 30's white audience. The core of the movie had moved beyond its original trappings.

Time has pulled a kind of reverse number on Battleship Potemkin; its politics, frozen as they are in 1925, seem to hostile viewers like a naïve call-to-arms for Stalinism. Yet needless to say, the originality and power of its vision far exceed anything Quentin Tarantino has ever come up with, and of course the film does roughly transcribe an actual historical event, a real rebellion.

This correspondence with the real world makes Potemkin the antithesis of Basterds, and renders its parody in Nation's Pride more than a little bizarre. You have to wonder - did Quentin and Eli really think this through? They seem to be saying that while their auto-erotic torture fetish can be co-opted by crazed Republicans, that's no different from Eisenstein's vision going south with Stalin.

Only not really. The salient question is again whether the essence of Potemkin transcends the political outcomes that followed it. Did Sergei Eisenstein actually prescribe an oppressive political model, point by point, which Lenin or Stalin might have followed, as we can see by now is the case with the far right and Inglourious Basterds? Hardly. Indeed, Eisenstein found himself continually under fire from the Soviet dictatorship - they understood his movies were about liberation rather than pseudo-progressive autocracy. Projects were taken away from him by the authorities, and he was officially denounced for his forays into the West (unbelievably, he attempted to make films of Arms and the Man and An American Tragedy!). It's true that throughout his career Eisenstein tried to engage with (and influence) Stalin's dictatorship - a terrifying prospect, certainly (and far more frightening than standing up to the likes of Sarah Palin). But the great Russian director was certainly never some tool of tyranny, and the suggestion from the likes of Eli Roth that he was is nothing less than dishonest and insulting.

So despite Quentin's attempt to align himself with the likes of Merian C. Cooper and Sergei Eisenstein, there's really only one filmmaker in the trio he cites with which he's truly comparable: Leni Reifenstahl.

More on that correspondence in part three of this series.

1 comment:

  1. And then we can extend this to the theatre world where that other disciple of Leni Reifenstahl, Peter Schumann can talk about how those poor Nazi soldiers and SS were probably sadistically tortured by those barbaric Russians and Poles. Oops! He already gave that interview!

    That's yet another problem with torturing "the bad guys"-- it makes it easy to portray them (and their cause) as sympathetic!