[Re-printed from my story "What Inglourious Basterds Owes to History" publlished at IFC. Spoilers ahead for those who haven't seen Inglourious Basterds.]
There have been two moments in film this year that have moved me to my cine-loving core. Both involved individuals stirred by the power of image, art and mythology. And both illustrated a personal investment for each character (some, real-life characters), revealing a potent significance and identification -- something that ascended beyond mere fandom. Simple and yet complex, these moments were meaningful to these people.
One, occurred in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Watching John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) fatefully sitting inside the Biograph watching Clark Gable as Blackie, essentially playing a version of Johnny (Johnny Dillinger) in Manhattan Melodrama, the look on J.D.'s face was gripping. And not only because we know what's going to happen to the legendary gangster once he steps out of that theater, but for all of the imagined ideas going through Dillinger's head at that moment. How could he not think of his girl (or any girl he'd like to sleep with that night) while basking in the gorgeousness of Myrna Loy? How could he not ponder the picture's ending? And how could he not get a kick out of the very idea, that he, the most popular American criminal at that time, was watching the most beloved Hollywood movie star at that moment? An Icon for an icon. And then, as he exists the theater, a cowardly tooth for a tooth.
And then there's the moment in the movie of discussion here, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a moment that, given all of the controversy surrounding the picture's violence, is one filled with human empathy and, as Tarantino said, tragedy that's closer to "Romeo and Juliet." It's when theater owner Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew seeking vengeance for the execution of her family, agrees to hold the premiere of war hero Fredrick Zoller's (Daniel Brühl) picture Nation's Pride. Readying for her spectacular final act, in which the movie will cut to her giant, beautiful face declaring that all of the Nazis in attendance (including Goebbels and Hitler) are going to die ("look deep in the face of the Jew who's going to do it"), Shosanna is abruptly interrupted by Zoller himself. Ducking out of his own movie because he doesn't like watching violence, the young, smitten man comes on strong, and in order to defend herself and complete her mission, she shoots him.
But then... she glances at his movie from the projection booth. While all of the Nazi top brass have been gleefully enjoying the blood-soaked antics of Zoller, Shosanna responds to an intimate moment. Her face softens as Zoller, in beautiful black and white, takes a breather from the carnage and appears quite emotional and even, a bit tortured. Acting? Perhaps. But ever the cinema lover, it's upon watching his face on screen (not writhing on the floor) that she walks towards his half-dead body, emotional about what she's done. And like John Dillinger, just that act of taking in a movie facilitates her own demise. Zoller shoots her.
But unlike John Dillinger, she gets the final payback - and through her own movie. With help from her black lover Marcel (Jacky Ido), she takes down the "despicable German swine" Bill Epton-style: "Burn, baby, burn."
Is Tarantino glamorizing violence here? To be blunt about it, hell, yes, he is. Should we feel guilty about it? To be even blunter, fuck no.
And I'm not simply being flip with this declaration. I'm not trying to trivialize the real-life atrocities that occurred under Hitler during World War II (or under President Truman for that matter, let's not forget Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Japanese internment camps). And neither is Tarantino, who though never shy about expressing pro-vigilance in real life (and that's his own business, frankly), crafts a movie that delivers both pulpy satisfaction and a complicated look at how we process violence -- historical, personal or otherwise. All of his pictures, from Reservoir Dogs to Jackie Brown to Kill Bill to Basterds, have revealed the filmmaker's interest in the grandeur and meaning of violence, aesthetically and thematically. And many filmmakers, from Cecil B. DeMille to Samuel Fuller to Sam Peckinpah to Stanley Kubrick have crafted works of violent beauty. But that was the past, and as controversial as The Wild Bunch or A Clockwork Orange were in their day, most critics find these pictures acceptable -- classics -- working on a different level. Enough has been written. Not so with Tarantino. And so the reaction? Outrage!
Of course, there's a difference between Alex's ultraviolence and the Basterds' Nazi-hunting, Apache-style scalping. I know that the anger lies in Tarantino making a movie in which Jews viciously retaliate against Nazis, which, to some critics, makes the Basterds just as hideous as their goose-stepping enemy. I know that certain critics believe that QT's spectacular alternate universe of fantastical revisionism, one in which Hitler meets his maker all bloody and burned in (of course) a movie theater, is a form of Holocaust denial (Jonathan Rosenbaum, specifically). But...really? I've not read a critic (and perhaps I've missed one) who actually believes a person will walk out of the theater thinking that's how it all went down. That Adolf didn't off himself in a bunker and, instead, was burned alive after the director of Hostel and Hostel II pumped his face full of lead. (And for anyone who's stood up for Eli Roth's movies -- god, wouldn't that be awesome?). But the idea that Tarantino is going to eradicate memories of the Holocaust is almost as ludicrous as believing Col. Hogan really did convince Col. Klink he was psychic, and that the episode "Psychic Kommandant" really did happen. I realize there's a lot of dummies in this country, but...do I say it? Please.
Let's return to the Biograph. Let's pretend we're John Dillinger for a moment. Let's pretend we've killed people. Let's pretend we've robbed banks during an economic depression in a country that's not only killed many, but among other minorities, oppressed blacks, Jews, women and those who were here first -- the Native Americans. As in, all groups addressed and celebrated via Inglourious Basterds. Haven't we all pretended such a thing? And not just as children, but as adults? Through dreams, imagination and art, and in this case, the art of cinema, doesn't the very act of tapping into our own primal (and very real) need of vengeance offer catharsis in a world filled with hypocrisy and uncertainty? Why should we feel guilty about it?
And in terms of Inglourious Basterds, a movie that seamlessly mingles superbly written, tense dialogue with horrific though inspiring violence, it does mean something. If a person thinks I'm sick in the head because I find it strangely beautiful and, by the final line, thrilling, when Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) carves that swastika into Lt. Landa's (Christoph Waltz) forehead, then so be it. The fact that Raine will allow Landa his life (which we like; I'll admit I didn't want Landa to die), but not the ability to hide is Tarantino's version of "never again." And the fact that Tarantino allows you to get off on this moment, even just a little, does indeed make you complicit. Yes. But it also makes you a human being.Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.