Inglorious Basterds Quentin Tarentino (USA 2009) Brad Pitt; Melanie Laurent,Christopher Waltz
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 8 Sept 09; ticket price £7.00
No one ever expects….the Spanish Inquisition
Halfway through Tarentino’s first chapter of Inglorious Basterds (IB) the SS officer interrogating the French dairy farmer casually suggests that they converse in English. There is some specious rationale given for the request which is in fact made in order to save the viewers the chore of reading subtitles which are never very popular with American audiences. The farmer, as this is a film, and he is an actor and is hoping to get paid some TV royalties graciously agrees and the interrogation proceeds in perfect English from both parties.
In a way this opening switch to English says everything about film according to Tarentino (QT) who takes the position that the world no longer subsumes cinema; rather cinema subsumes the world. Cinema no longer responds to the world or its needs the world responds to cinema and its needs. That’s similar to Shakespeare and other dramatists; but the artistic license Shakespeare assumed in relation to history had the object of asking questions about tragedy, character and human nature, in the play out of events. QT in this most postmodern of flourishes, reduces history to a statement about style and attitude. An endemic proposition in IG ( whether intended or not)seems to be to stretch Post modernism to its limits so that it cracks up in the contradictions of its own absurdity. By which I mean, viewer and the film reach a point where it’s possible to say anything about anything and something about nothing. This being the case, content is voided of meaning leaving only the shells of style and attitude to fill the screen.
One question, not a particularly interesting one, but a question nevertheless is whether IB is a conscious expression by Tarentino of the image culture’s ultimate reduction of ideas to the expressive mode of the comic book, or whether so immersed in Hollywood is QT that his work is simply a kind of automatic writing: a conditioned response to the stimulant of being at the vortex of US culture, Hollywood.
The plot line with its comic book conventions and inventions seems to owe some debt to British veins of absurdist humour as developed by Monte Python where staple humorous devices and techniques for provoking laughter involved the reframing of ideas, characters, individuals and institutions wildly out of context; and stretching ideas to the limits of the absurd: the Spanish Inquisition, Karl Marx as a game show panellist, the Ministry of Silly Walks. The form of the humour seems best suited to short sketches as the point of the comic idea is to deconstruct or to delink or reduce to absurdity the object it targets. Once through the humorous device, the objective is achieved, end of story. In this sense Pythan was essentially nihilistic, a realisation that perhaps led Terry Gilliam to try and develop feature films that worked their way out of the comic snake pit.
A defining feature of Pythan was that the ideas were all contained in the style of presentation: characters were simply ciphers for the comic ideas; they had no other function. QT certainly seems to have absorbed the praxis of the Pythans, their imitators and the various shows that have picked up the baton such as Black Adder. So IB takes the form of chapters which are really no more than a series of short loosely connected sketches each of whose form is controlled by a single sketch idea (The interrogation, the parlour game, the revenge game) and which are loosely linked by thematic stock stereotypical characters. With the license of the feature film to extend stylistic expression into extreme violence, as a governing attitude, QT as with the ‘Kill Bills’ is able to develop the idea of violence as a purely American obsession, an endemic cultural resource which can be magnified deconstructed delinked and parodied.
My realisation at the end of the IG was that there was nowhere for it to go, as it had been nowhere, that it had simply gone through a series of familiar gestures exploiting a stylised violence and vacuous characterisation to energise the project. What QT parodies is already parodied in real life by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib or Bagram acting out their own versions of Tarentino style movies; and by High School kids imagining they are the instruments of fate (or god) as they gun down their classmates or spray shopping malls with bullets. In a culture that parodies itself there is no place for parody to go except the dead end of gross caricature, which is where IG ends. And that is where QT has got to: no place. He’s probably very pleased with himself for arriving here.
Because when you get to no place you can burn it down and start all over again with a new movie. The which is exactly how QT resolves IB. (Except for the little epilogue that allows Brad and Chris to do a turn together: Brad carving the swastika into Chris’ forehead with his big knife)