Wednesday, February 3, 2010

American basterd

Our answer to Hans Landa?

Recent polls show 58% of Americans are eager to waterboard the undie-bomber to get information out of him. Less than a third of Americans seem to think this would be wrong (while 12% "aren't sure").

Surprised? I'm not - those numbers are probably why the Obama administration hasn't dismantled our torture regime (much less charged its true begetter, above, with war crimes). Granted, the poll in question is by the right-tilting Rasmussen, so we should knock a few points off those numbers. Still, it seems these days many Americans love torture even more than they love comfort food (of which it probably counts as a form).

And why shouldn't they? Hollywood has been feeding them a steady diet of it since 9/11. Indeed, Tinseltown's notoriously "liberal" culture seems to break down completely where torture is concerned; we're force-fed the virtues of diversity constantly, but it's hard to think of a single movie or TV show that has taken a strong stand against "enhanced interrogation." Instead, "torture porn" has become ubiquitous, in fact by now has devolved into sub-genres, from the police procedurals on TV to the fratboy stylings of Hostel to the Oprah-esque self-improvement regimen of Saw.

Of course the avatar of all this was Quentin Tarantino, the man who pulled "pulp" into the mainstream; indeed, what struck one immediately about his breakthrough movies, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (way back in the early 90's), was the centrality of torture to his vision. Curiously, however, his fans and critical supporters cast a blind eye on this predilection, even though Tarantino often interrupted the flow of his films for U-turns into bondage and sadism; his plots effectively stopped while characters got their ears chopped off or were sodomized. Given the grosses for Pulp Fiction, even fewer dared comment on the director's obsessions as he kept up the good work in further movies (and no one noted that his one film without an explicit torture sequence, Jackie Brown, was quite the bore).

Talk and torture

But with his latest, Inglourious Basterds, the bound and tormented elephant in the room became impossible to ignore: almost every sequence in the movie revolves around some form of interrogation. Indeed, there's no real "action" in the picture, and not much in the way of a chase, or love story, or political intrigue, either; the whole thing is either talk or torture (or both). As a result, at last the "progressive" mask so many liberals had clasped to the director's bloodied, union-busting brow began to slip, particularly as the far right crowed about his obvious support for "enhanced interrogation." And the far right was quite right to do so: every scene in Basterds, just like every episode of 24, devolves into a session of coercive questioning, in which the victim (a French farmer, a Nazi soldier, a German actress) inevitably gives up the truth to his or her tormentors. See? Tarantino says over and over. Torture works!

Of course whether or not the political meaning of that message was central to Tarantino is open for debate. Indeed, the fact that sadism is a sexual, not political, obsession for the director has been made pretty explicit by his partner in crime, Robert Rodriguez, who, in his portion of their double feature Grindhouse, inserted at the beginning of every sex scene a scratchy title telling us that this particular reel had gone missing; so we skipped the skin and dove right back into the severed limbs. The violence served as a sexual surrogate.

In this, of course, Rodriguez and Tarantino were only consciously operating in a long tradition. The essence of "pulp fiction" has always been the transliteration of violence (political violence included) into sex; its chained slaves and cell-block women were and are always devised and presented as fetish. And I suppose once upon a time, when sexual drives still had to find traction in the real world, an intellectual case could be made for them as a means of fomenting political progress and "liberation."

But is that still the case? Today many people find a simulation of freedom in a "second life" online, and the Internet has made masturbatory satisfaction so readily available that the new sexual problems are not frustration but impotence and boredom. Thus pulp isn't about liberating anything anymore: it is, instead, merely a cog of the system, a niche sexual product that Big Brother (along with, I'm sure, the Chinese communists) is happy to dispense on the Net, even if you can't find it at Wal*Mart.

At any rate, Tarantino doesn't present his scenarios as a means to the pleasure of liberation - no, the restraint, the encasement is the source of his satisfaction. His attitude maps intriguingly to his generation's fascination with tattoo and scarification: in effect, the only way to "rebel" for Gens X and Y, who have been smothered with acceptance and tolerance, is to attack themselves. Thus Tarantino is obsessed with pushing himself and his fans through endless gauntlets, and as soon as he works through one scenario, he has to start another - someone has to be bound in leather, or tied to the hood of a car, or paralyzed, or even buried alive, as soon as possible. In Inglourious Basterds, he even combines his jones for restraint with his foot fetish: his fictional German star, "Bridget von Hammersmark" (God), is shot in the ankle, then tortured, and finally appears with her broken foot encased in a cast, but in nose-bleed heel position, nails painted blood red. Quentin must have creamed over that one.

As, let's admit it, do we. Societies often mimic the psychological tics of their artists, so it's no surprise that something similar is going on in our public embrace of torture: like Tarantino, we conflate it with our entertainment (and I suppose it's inevitable that we eventually accord it an Oscar). Indeed, it's obvious that we torture with a difference. Hitler and Stalin tortured out of psychosis, but also, it must be admitted, out of cold, but realistic, political calculation - and neither of them made movies about it (meanwhile, we've even made comedies about Gitmo).

Why we torture.

In contrast, Americans torture for the sake of a fantasy - our chances of being caught in a terrorist attack are lower than being struck by lightning. And yet we persist in the practice, almost cling to it. We're torturing, at the deepest level, because it comforts us, much the way a Thomas Kinkade picture does, and in a perverse way reinforces our sense of cultural superiority: we can torture because we're trying to stop the killing of Americans, who are of course the most special people on the planet. And we revisit the mix of horrifying thrills and warm moral certitude that torture gives us in movie after movie, show after show.

Yet when you point out the new political meaning of this kind of pulp - that it re-inforces modes of subjection rather than liberation - those who are still in its thrall inevitably scream bloody murder. Don Hall, the "angry white asshole of Chicago," for instance, got his panties into quite a bunch last summer when I first brought up these points about Inglourious Basterds (Hall sent me emails calling me "a douchebag and a coward" for days, it seemed - an obvious sign I'd hit him where he lived). At that time, I promised a thorough dissection of Basterds, on which I never delivered - I'm busy, Tarantino is deeply dispiriting, and the continued applause from the far right seemed to make my political points self-evident.

But I sat through the movie again over the holidays - a nephew got it from a clueless relative - and I felt there was a bit more to say about Tarantino's intriguing self-critique (or perhaps apology) in the picture. And now this piece of Republican catnip has actually been nominated for an Oscar. Hence, this and the following posts.

1 comment:

  1. The interesting bit is that while Tarantino has always had a fetish for torture, at least in his earlier films, the act of torture generally signified that the character was dangerous, out of control, a threat to his partners, even a monster that Tarantino's usual cast of criminals and amoral types feared.

    It's recently that he's turned torture into something heroic, pragmatic, and politically expedient. Perhaps he still votes as a liberal, but he is riding the political undercurrent since it conveniently coincides with his fetish.