Sunday, August 23, 2009

Quentin Tarentino's Exceptional States of Exception

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a surprisingly thoughtful as well as clever film. Tarantino establishes new kinds of multiple plotting within a five act structure (the film calls them chapters). Reviews thus far have focused either on the self-conscious references to other films, regarding Basterds as more or less typical Tarantino, or its alleged anti-Semitism. In my view, the film is not anti-Semitic. It allegorizes the politics of film violence in ways that puts intense pressure on an apparent distinction between the diegetic Nazi audience viewing the war film within the film (Hitler loves it) and the audience watching the Tarantino film (us). More interestingly, Tarentino indulges and interrogates a fantasy about ending WWII by killing Hitler et al and Nazism in toto through two scenes involving what Carl Schmitt (Nazi and Catholic political theorist) called the "state of exception." During a "state of emergency," Schmitt argues in The Concept of the Political, the state could suspends the laws and treat a certain class of people as exceptions to the rule (trials and appeals were done away with people the Nazis viewed as enemies of the state--non-persons, actually). The first state of exception scene involves calculating the odds.:"999.999" probability versus "fate" offering "a hand from the pages of history." A story that seems too good to be true actually is true. The second scene closes the film. The war is now over, yet Brad Pitt leaves his trademark on the Nazi collaborator /traitor who allows Hitler et al to be killed; Pitt carves very deeply a swastika into the SS villain's forehead and saying to the one surviving American soldier, "I think this is my masterpiece." In this closing scene, the exceptional part Apache practice--continues in peace time as a masterpiece--(Pitt is part Apache and is linked early on to John Wayne through a door frame shot straight out of John Ford's Searchers --that film's plot begins soon after the Civil War has ended; Tarantino's opening scene is reminiscent of the Indian attack near the beginning of The Searchers, minus the implied rapes). The war is over, but art allows for more violence in a single case. This kind of artistic ends the film but calls the status of ending through "good" violence versus "bad" violence into question. In the scene in the movie theater when the French Jewish heroine Shoshanah comes on screen and her boyfriend ignites the silver nitrate film behind the screen, the screen image goes up in flames. The diegetic cinema screen and her image seems to go up into flames as well, even as the heroine's laughter starts to seem banshee like (her laughter makes her sound like a witch--as if the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz hadn't melted.)The sequence recalls the "bad" Maria robot of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, on the one hand, and her destruction but also calls up the retaliatory fire bombing of German civilians (planned by the British since 1940) by the British and American in Dresden and other German cities. The tone of Inglourious Basterds is extremely well-callibrated--the violence is surprisingly toned down in almost even case and is done very quickly; suspense is created like in the usual (even good) war action films, and Tarantino's humor comes through in the monologues he gives some characters (the actors perform them wonderfully). But the humor is never so great that you can do more than smile. There is really no release in the film. The first violent film I found to be shockingly subdued. Tarantino has a character invoke Hamlet at one point, and QT's film indeed seems like a revenge tragedy (most of the "good" characters who die do so very abruptly). Justice and peace are seemingly impossible to combine, as we cycle past violence into the violence of the present, Nazi Germany having become much more than a specter that more than haunts the United States.
A lot of the criticism on rounds its alleged anti-semitism (american Jewish GIs act like Nazis) is based an failure to read the film's plot as well as it lessons in film history (the sequence on silver nitrate footage as explosive) and their integration. In terms of the plot, there are two conspiracies to kill Hitler and the audience. Both succeed. One includes the Jewish survivor of hte SS murder at the start of the film, who shoots the film's star (the German version of Sargeant York, according to the German solider turned star of the Nazi opposite film number, Pride of the Nation (a fictional film based Targets (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1968) based on the true story of the Texas Tower sniper and that ends in a drive in screening of a film starring Boris Karloff, who also stars in Targets) and then in turn is shot and killed by him though can't possibly have survived the three shots she gave him in the back, a sort of repetition of the brutal and surprisingly long scene in which the German film star (Diane Kruger) is strangled by Hans Landa, the SS villain. There's an overhead shot from the end of the climatic fight sequence from Taxi Driver here as well. As you can see, a lot of the film runs through late 60s into early 70s cinema--hence the spaghetti Western sound track themes). Nevertheless, the heroine's black lover gets her signal because it comes through her addition to the film. So her plot succeeds through film, through her film of the conspiracy, not by simple "action," and that action, of course, means using film footage as a bomb. And Hans Landa has left a bomb under Goebbels' seat which explodes before the bombs on the legs of the two GIs do. Moreover, it is Landa who lets the plot succeed. So there is a German-Jewish tension at the heart of the film's multiple plotting that cannot be resolved by equating of totally separating Nazis and Jewish civilian resistance fighters and Jewish GIs with Nazis. Moreover, the film again and again points to the centrality of film for the Nazis, much as it was central to the war effort in the U.S. Tarantino just literalizes the film as weapon metaphor, turning film itself into the explosive. Here Tarantino borrows a scene from Hitchcock's Sabotage--a film canister carried by Stevie explodes while he is on a London bus; the beginning of htis sequence appears in Tarentino's film). Just as Roosevelt had screenings of films like Olivier's Henry V and supporting Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, so Hitler viewed various films, including, according to the film the Lives of he Bengal Lancers (in which Gary Cooper also stars, as he does in Sargeant York, as a kind of take action, engage the enemy NOW officer). The film's references to UFA, Leni Riefensthal,ad son all work to make the point that violence in film is not separate from violence outside film either for liberal democracies or fascist states; moreover, propaganda films made by the U.S. and by Germany aren't that different. Tarantino keeps drawing parallels and doubles, but mixing things up as well. The people in the two conspiracies don't know about each other and act independently, and Hans Landa only knows about one of them. The logic of action movies like the Eagle Has Landed or melodramas like Casablanca is entirely subverted by vertiginous references to historical events that were filmed and to films about history that refer to other films. So when Tarantino says that the civilian french couple who run the French cinema are like suicide bombers, it is naive to think he is drawing a simple comparison between real suicide bombers and cinematic ones. We already know, don't we, that television, the internet, and film are all central to Al-Queda? That they post videos of violence--that the Americans engage in their own psy-ops and always have? That the distinction between terrorist violence either by Israel (settlements, bulldozing, bomb dropping, gun fire) or by occupied Palestinians is not to be reduced to the same or the totally opposite? IG doesn't deny a difference between "real" history and film history but prevents any kind of interpretation in which one kind of history is read as the master of the other: the specters of victims haunting the present produced by traumas of the past can ever be exorcised or "re-membered" because the trauma itself already included always already spectral media (film, photography) which always route evidence through fantasy.
The mark of the Swastika at the end of IG is a remarking, a repetition of an earlier scene. In the first scene, we see a the end that the soldier has a swastika carved in his forehead. So we know the "masterpiece" at the end can be hidden as well. What marks Naziism is not is not an open wound or scar, but a hidden wound. Nazism did not know itself for what it is. Neither do Americans know their liberal democracy for what it is, Tarantino implies, as we are mired in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know but don't want to know about the extralegal violence the government (even under Obama) commits in the name of "state security."
Daniel Mendelsohn's reading of the film as anti-semitic: (My thanks to Jimmy Newlin for this link).