Sunday, March 25, 2012

Difficult histories

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

I didn’t get a chance to write promptly here about Quentin Tarantino’s WW2 adventure Inglourious Basterds, but it’s hardly a problem when the Internet’s overflowing with so much rich debate and commentary about the film. Whatever one’s views on it, very few movies now have such a sense of active pollination; it’s expertly seeded with nuances and oddities and excesses and mysteries of the kind that feed a thousand blogospheres. Why does a character pull out a giant pipe in the opening scene? Why does he later offer a young woman a glass of milk?…these are already as debated as the Obama health plan. Add to that Tarantino’s inherently provocative approach to history (flagrantly rewriting not just a few details but the whole mega-narrative) and his happy mining of cinematic allusions, and you spawn a range of reaction from charges of “Holocaust denial” (Jonathan Rosenbaum) and rampant self-absorption, to clear assessments as a masterpiece (the film’s final line puckishly suggests Tarantino might share this view).

Holocaust Denial?

I’ve often been cooler on Tarantino’s movies than the critical consensus was, but I happily cast my vote with the enthusiasts here. It’s an old example now, but I recall being appalled by Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, a movie which I think came by its feel-good aspects dishonestly. Tarantino takes more overt liberties with the facts of the Holocaust than Benigni for sure, but he’s truer than the gutless Benigni could ever be to the most important thing: that this was cold-hearted calculated mass murder, and that any “beauty” lying in its margins was at best compromised or fleeting or inadequate. With this established, well, I suppose anything less than absolute fidelity to historical truth (impossible in any event within a manufactured narrative cinema) could be called a form of denial, but one person’s denial is surely another’s form of dialectical assertion. Either way, I agree with Scott Foundas in Film Comment, noting how Tarantino “seems actively engaged here in exposing the cheapening, rewriting, and wholesale liquidation of history through its cinematic representations, even as he himself makes a self-aware contribution to that very legacy.”

But the main thing is that it’s such a rich, assured and consistently impressive viewing experience. Tarantino structures his film in five chapters, and even in the fourth of these is still introducing major central characters, but then ties it together brilliantly in the fifth. As he always has, he evokes past movies galore, and allows his people to chatter away at length - these traits have often seemed undisciplined, but he consistently controls them here for the purpose of considerable (but not cheaply earned) suspense, black comedy, or thematic complexity. Tarantino himself has been emphasizing his film’s fidelity to language, noting the limitations of classic genre contrivances (such as the undercover Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare seemingly speaking German perfectly behind enemy lines, although what the film’s audience hears of course is English standing in for German); his opening sequence might seem at first to be succumbing to this tradition as what’s initially French dialogue switches to English, which then reveals itself however as a conscious ploy of the key Nazi character, calculated simply to detect and kill Jews.

Killing Machine

Far from being a denial, it seems to me this captures the basic horror of the Holocaust, its redefining an entire environment as an ethnic killing machine, better than any gloomy epic recreation. This is just one example of the film’s amazing scope; it manages to seem less constrained by facts and propriety than almost any war movie ever made, while never making you think this means the director simply doesn’t know, or has forgotten.

As he always has, Tarantino reinvents the careers of many gifted actors, most of all here the barely known Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who’s now a winner at Cannes and could easily contend for an Oscar. Waltz is indeed brilliant, fusing perfectly with the director’s sensibility, but Tarantino also gets the best-ever performance out of the usually negligible Diane Kruger, while doing better than fine with just about everyone else involved. I’ve just about lost my appetite for Hollywood’s formulaic one-week wonders, but although Inglourious Basterds lent itself to being sold as that (the initial Brad Pitt-centric trailer could hardly have evoked its overall fabric less accurately), it joyously and thrillingly isn’t. It’s no surprise that Tarantino is smart and funny, but I never thought he’d so successfully find a way to unashamedly dive into his long-standing passions – from both the high and low culture drawers - while actually seeming artistically brave and, goddamn it, even wise.

Lorna’s Silence

Another movie I liked and didn’t write about at the time, but which should be out soon on DVD, was Le silence de Lorna by the Belgian Dardenne brothers. It’s a similar bottom line actually: I’ve often liked the Dardenne’s movies less than other people did, but with this one I’m up to speed. They specialize in unadorned treatments of deprived (financially or spiritually or both) working-class Belgians, and are often described as having a quasi-documentary type style, although I’ve sometimes found some of their narratives overwrought. The new one actually has the most potentially melodramatic elements yet. Lorna is an Albanian immigrant into Belgium, who recently obtained citizenship through a paid marriage to a local junkie, planning to kill him off so she can enter into a reciprocal arrangement with a Russian; her true love, with whom she opens of opening a snack bar, is another man again.

And that’s just the start. Who knows how widely representative these machinations are, but the film’s fabric is convincing and engrossing, as Lorna’s initial appearance of self-determination, of climbing the rungs of melting pot Europe, slowly reveals itself as an illusion. The film starts with money changing hands (for film buffs, the Bresson bell rings!) and retains a grimly transactional view of even intimate relationships: when Lorna finally finds something true and moving, it transforms her internal world, while all but destroying her external one. This could also be seen as rather over-determined, but on this occasion I appreciated the filmmakers’ generosity toward her, even if it’s necessarily limited.

European co-productions used to evoke unwieldy and/or trashy brews of mismatched directors and cast members, often marked by lousy dubbing, ragged editing and a general displaced quality, which might nevertheless occasionally suggest a certain wayward genius. Tarantino loves this genre, and gleans much of its spirit for Inglourious Basterds (not least of all the title, which doesn’t particularly represent the film he made). Now Europe itself is an ongoing co-production, with mobility and intermingling of capital and policy-making and employment and influence: it’s a noble dream, but as the Dardennes show, mostly an inglourious basterd of a reality.

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