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Tarantino & Inglourious Basterds: An Uncomfortable Laugh

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Perhaps my favorite scene in all of movie history is muttered by Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jules, in Pulp Fiction in response to Vincent, played by John Travolta, just after they have finished carving up human flesh.

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Vincent: Want some bacon?
Jules: No man, I don't eat pork.
Vincent: Are you Jewish?
Jules: Nah, I ain't Jewish, I just don't dig on swine, that's all.
Vincent: Why not?
Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don't eat filthy animals.
Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.
Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I ain't eat nothin' that ain't got sense enough to disregard its own feces.
Vincent: How about a dog? Dogs eats its own feces.
Jules: I don't eat dog either.
Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
Jules: I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy but they're definitely dirty. But, a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way.
Vincent: Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?
Jules: Well we'd have to be talkin' about one charming motherfuckin' pig. I mean he'd have to be ten times more charmin' than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I'm sayin'?

It's hysterically funny and truly sickening. What Tarantino does such genius is deepen his serious message by forcing the viewer to try to hold humor and violence in their mind at the same time. The net effect is to shed new light on the violence, making us consider it even more seriously.

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In Inglourious Basterds, we are asked to take this juxtaposition one step further by looking deeply into the horror of the Nazi occupation of France. The movie tells the story of a Jewish cadre of American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, behind enemy lines who set out to scalp a hundred Nazis each. We get graphic views of their handiwork with breakaway scenes reminiscent of the World Wrestling Federation.

As I watched the movie in a packed theater last night, the women in the row behind me giggled at the absurdity of what we were watching. I found their laughing just as troubling as the movie itself. I wanted to turn around and yell at them, "Don't you get it? He's going deeper into the insanity of what actually happened? It's not suppose to be funny, it's horrific!"

[SPOILER WARNING]

We are forced to witness humanity in its unfiltered, raw form. The one Jew that escapes the dairy farm massacre of the opening scene, Shosanna, becomes the love interest of a Nazi war hero, Private Fredrick Zoller, who himself is unsettled by his killings and is portrayed as endearing. Shosanna shoots Zoller in the end. But then she appears to realize the hypocrisy of what she has done. She reaches out to him just before he wakes from his bloody slumber to shoot her. They both die in a Romeo and Juliet style, filled with hate and remorse and love intermingled in an unresolved, blood-spattered mess.

In the final scene, Hitler and all his henchmen are left to burn to death in a locked theater under the projected image of the now dead Shosanna's face as it twists and contorts in the smoke and flames. We see the last remnants of the Basterds shooting up the crowd with machine guns, and can't be sure if this is some kind of revenge fantasy on steroids or a statement on the futility of such a fantasy.

Brad Pitt, left with the ultimate Nazi devil known at the "Jew Hunter," cuts a bloody swastika in his forehead with a huge knife to mark him as Satan forever. We see the knife, the cut flesh, and Pitt's pride at his artistry. It is repulsive and thrilling at the same time.

As with Pulp Fiction, it may take several viewings for me to settle on my own interpretation of Inglourious Basterds. But there is no doubt that Tarantino is the master at forcing us to get inside our own reactions to violence through uncomfortable laughter. That's why there's no moviemaker like him.