There Will Be Blood, USA, 2007
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on the Novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair
Inglourious Basterds, USA / Germany, 2009
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Okay, okay, I’ve resisted the temptation to use this (or any) forum to write about movies. It’s too easy, and I could spend far too much time doing it. There was a moment in high school when I thought film critic would be a novel career, but I quickly decided against it, citing, in equal parts, a world already saturated with critical opinion, and a desire to make movies of my own. But while watching Inglourious Basterds (2009), I realized I was witnessing one of the great feats of modern storytelling, and that poor Mr. Tarantino – simply because, along with being a gifted filmmaker, he happens to be a sicko who fills his movies with grotesque and offensive oddities, while often treating serious moments with levity and irreverence, and because, though he draws on cinematic tradition, he doesn’t care about fulfilling anyone’s expectations of what a movie should be but his own – would not get half the credit he deserved for what clearly is his masterpiece (what a beautiful cherry on top, that closing line), and thus, I realized I had something to say. Incidentally, I promise there will be no more awful run-on sentences like the previous one. Let my lack of brevity be a testament to my passion for the subject. I love movies – always have – and it bothers me that the two best movies in recent years were, and will continue to be, so shallowly dealt with and oftentimes misunderstood by critics and audiences.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) before it, possesses a unique psychological underpinning, the depths of which we seldom experience in film, or any art, for that matter. In There Will Be Blood, we wrestle with the psychology of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the most epic, nuanced and tragic film protagonist since Charles Foster Kane. In Inglourious Basterds, we wrestle with the psychology of both the viewer – which is to say, ourselves – and the writer-director – Tarantino – as we watch one man’s interpretation of the post-Holocaust collective unconscious unleashed via simple characters and a straightforward, albeit clever, plot. I loved No Country For Old Men (2007), and I’m sure I’ll love whatever movie ends up beating out Basterds for this year’s Oscar, but despite what critics and awards juries might conclude, Inglourious Basterds, like There Will Be Blood, represents a feat in storytelling so grand, so rare, and so profound, we’re lucky to experience it at all, let alone twice in three years.
There Will Be Blood had such an active protagonist in Daniel Plainview that, for once, critics actually wrote about the most important aspect of a movie – the protagonist’s goal, and what he does to achieve it (or, the plot). Usually critics take up far more column inches on the acting, cinematography, etc.; all vital elements, but only insofar as they serve the story, which is the reason the movie is made, and the reason people go to see it. With There Will Be Blood, we finally had such a strong protagonist that critics were actually paying attention to his actions and motivations. Unfortunately, the majority of the reviews only went skin-deep. There was all this talk about “greed” and “capitalism,” when really, what drove Daniel Plainview was similar to what drove Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) in Citizen Kane (1941) – a crippling desire to fill an unfulfillable void.
Kane spends his entire life trying to fill the void left by his mother, who abandoned him as a child. Plainview spends his entire life trying to fill a void left by godlessness. Even if he’d wanted to, he couldn’t believe in god. He is incapable of coping with this absence of meaning. He is empty inside, and his fatal flaw, really, is that he lacks the insight to understand why. While others flock to church, he sits back, scoffs at them, and builds an empire. Is he greedy? Does he just want a bunch of money? Or is he searching, always, for fulfillment he will never get, a fulfillment everyone else in town gets each Sunday at church? There Will Be Blood provided writers and critics with a golden opportunity to delve deeper into the subjects of greed, what motivates it, and capitalism, the human forces driving why it operates the way it does. But too many of them were excited to draw some sort of comparison between Plainview’s own imperialism and the America’s presence in Iraq, or, failing that, prove their own benevolence by casting off his actions, implying that he got what he deserved, and that we’re a more fulfilled movie going public for it. Sure, Plainview deserves his fate, but the most profound aspect of the film isn’t that he is greedy, but why he is greedy. They pinned this movie as an epic allegory about capitalism and greed, but had they looked deeper, they would have found the most compelling film meditation on god and religion ever made.
While There Will Be Blood engages us, the viewer, to be a quiet witness to the action, Inglourious Basterds keeps us at a distance. From the opening credits, which utilize multiple colors and fonts, switching almost arbitrarily from one style to another, the hand of the director is present. There are, at various points, a comic book-style reveal of a bomb strapped to a character’s leg, a bold title superimposed over a freeze frame to introduce a supporting character well into the film, and a descriptive note with an arrow pointing to one of the characters, superimposed over the image (hearkening back to Mia Wallace’s “don’t be a square” moment in 1994’s Pulp Fiction). There are scenes of utter suspense, but Basterds never dwells in fictional verite for very long: multiple films within the film; film trivia playing a vital role in the plot; and celluloid itself, the very fiber of it, responsible for the fate of not just the story, but, within the story’s conceit, World War II. Film and filmmaking at once make up the viscera of the world of the filmmaker – the story and the techniques used to tell it – and the world of the film itself, forcing us to be aware, constantly, that we are watching a movie. This is crucial to the experience of watching Inglourious Basterds, because the meaning of the film exists not in the characters’ psyche but, uniquely, in our own.
There have been many articles citing Inglourious Basterds as a Jewish revenge fantasy, which, for at least some, it most certainly is. Eli Roth, who plays the “Bear Jew,” described the film as playing out a “deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling.” And Lawrence Bender, the producer of the film, went one step further, calling it, simply, “a … Jewish wet dream.” Whether or not, or to what degree, the film is a revenge fantasy depends solely on the individual viewer (I know where I stand, but that’s another essay entirely). But the film brings about an even more nuanced dilemma than the question of what, in our wildest fantasies, could or should have happened to Hitler.
Unlike Daniel Plainview, whose tragic lack of self-awareness leads him to make choices that subvert his real desires, the characters in Basterds know exactly who they are and what they want. While Plainview is startlingly real and complex, the Basterds and company are simple, inhumane, and unrealistic. Which is fine. There is nothing real about what takes place in Inglourious Basterds. The film is a postulation. As Tarantino has explained, none of this stuff happened, but had the characters been real and had they been placed in WWII, it would have; which is to say, it doesn’t matter whether they are realistic, as long as what they do in the movie is true to their characters. And what they do, if you haven’t seen the film, is scalp Nazis, carve swastikas into their foreheads, and, ultimately, burn them all to death – Hitler, Goebbels, et al. Whether or not Nazis (and please note that I understand the difference between Nazis, SS, German infantry, and Germans, and concede that their conflation in the mind of some viewers is a possible negative side-effect of the film) or anyone ever deserved this treatment is a philosophical question I don’t care to tackle. What concerns me, and what Inglourious Basterds so brilliantly, viciously posits, is what the legacy of the Nazis should be. By carving swastikas into their foreheads, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) spends the entire film making sure no Nazi left alive will be able to “remove his uniform.” This way, they will never be able to hide, from others and from themselves, what they did. While this is certainly the most exacting manifestation of “never forget” imaginable, its implications extend beyond the Holocaust, and beyond war altogether.
We face transgressions, and the many different ways to deal with those who have transgressed, on a regular basis. We can forgive, forget, hold permanently in contempt, or we can exact revenge as a way toward catharsis. We encounter this dilemma in all facets of life, oftentimes with our enemies, but also with ones we love. True, the Jews in Inglourious Basterds never existed, and therefore never had to deal with the memory of their transgressors. But we – the Jews living today – do, every day, in our collective memory and inherited knowledge of what happened. Our story is one of many. We are not alone amongst cultures, tribes, and human beings who have to wrestle with this dilemma. While most filmmakers tell the story of the Holocaust in relatively black-and-white (no pun intended, Spielberg) terms, Tarantino took a bold approach, and instead of telling us how bad it was (come on, we know how bad it was), he raised some of the most important questions we – as Jews, as human beings, as those who have ever been wronged – could possibly ask. How do we look upon those who have wronged us? Do we seek vengeance? Do we offer forgiveness? To what lengths should we go, must we go, to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?
Take Tarantino’s predilection for ultra-violence with a grain of salt. This is a brilliant man who, like Anderson, made a film that won’t be recognized as the best of the year, but deserves to go down as one of the best of all time.
And with that, I’ll say goodbye to my inner film critic for another few years or so. There certainly are enough others to do the job. And, more importantly, I’ve got a movie to make. Au revoir.
Michael Forstein is an active filmmaker, editor and writer living and working in Minnesota.
Contact the Author: Michael Forstein