Sunday, August 30, 2009
Spectacle as Violence, Violence as Spectacle
Anyone who is familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s body of work is accustomed to his twin obsessions: movies and violence. Yet it is only in Inglorious Bastards, his latest film, that the director’s two themes achieve their perfect enunciation, as well as their point of coalescence, where it is virtually impossible to tell one from the other.
The film is structured as two parallel narratives that barely converge at its end. The one tells the story of a young French woman of Jewish descent who runs a movie theater at the center of occupied Paris under a borrowed identity, and thus eludes the Germans’ grip. When the entire Nazi elite, Hitler included, decides to gather at her theater for the premier of Goebbel’s latest piece of cinematic propaganda, she plots to use this opportune moment in order to burn down the theater while all the generals and party officials are trapped inside. The second narrative relates the story of a clandestine unit of the US army. Their mission is to infiltrate behind enemy lines in occupied France and kill as many Nazis as possible in the most gruesome way possible, simply in order to instill fear and horror among the German troops.
The “artful” or “creative” violence inflicted by the Americans is spectacular in its very essence. Their success is not measured by their ability to sidetrack German operations, conquer land, or dwindle the ranks. The war will be won on the shore of Normandy, rather than in the basement of a tavern in the countryside. Their success is measured by their fame, or their notoriety, among common German soldiers who hear about their terroristic exploits through word of mouth. Though, in the film, Nazis do die and true blood is spilled, the annihilation of bare lives is far from being the point. In Auschwitz, the Jews died a death that was not meant to be seen or known. The idea was to kill as many people while making the least noise. The hope was that no one would be left to tell the story of what happened, and that if someone did survive, no one would believe his or her story. On the other hand, the task of the American soldiers in the film is to make Nazis die only in order to make their German brothers know that they have died. They made sure that the story of their horrible death would proliferate rather than be silenced. It is as if the Americans operated with this question in mind: If a head of a Nazi is smashed with a baseball bat in the middle of a forest but no one hears it crack, is the Nazi actually dead? The answer of the commander of the American unit (who, like Tarantino, was born and raised in Tennessee) is a negative. The commander is essentially a film director, trying to produce the most effective possible violent spectacle, to be acknowledged by the greatest number of people. At the very end of the movie, he carves a swastika with his knife on the forehead of a German officer. “I think this just might be my masterpiece,” the commander mutters with his southern accent, though it is really Tarantino who is talking here, quite justly, I think, about his film.
Meanwhile, in the parallel narrative of the movie, the Jewish proprietor of the Parisian cinema prepares her Nazi trap by amassing all the celluloid that she can put her hands on (celluloid, after all, is one of the most flammable materials known to man; you can use it in order to make a film, but it is also a very good bomb). Nevertheless, the theater owner, like Tarantino, is a cinephile, and so a mere fire would not suffice. In addition, she shoots a short film, to be screened for the German dignitaries before their inevitable death. When the right moment arrives, the reel of the Nazi film is replaced by a reel that shows a close-up of the Jewish woman, telling the Nazis about her true identity, about her people who died in the holocaust, and about the fact that all present in the theater are about to be burned alive. As the screen itself burns down, it is only her ghostly image, now projected onto the escalating smoke, that continues to mercilessly laugh at the spectators who try to run for their lives. Here we come to understand the other side of the same coin: the cinematic apparatus, which usually produces seemingly harmless spectacles, transforms into the most efficient killing machine. The old problem of violence in film as a gateway to real-life violence, which has always occupied Tarantino’s prudish critics, is transformed here into a scenario in which the film itself is, literally, violent. It is as if Tarantino tells us that the inclusion of violence in a cinematic spectacle is not merely a choice exercised by the director. Violence is in a way the very cipher of cinema.
As dazzling as it may be, the spectacle that we experience every time we enter the movie theater has little to do with the way that the pope’s church and the monarch’s court used to assert their supremacy through the propagation of glory. In opposition to the glorious spectacles produced by the priest and the prince, films are based neither on ritual nor on liturgy, and they inspire neither honor nor solemnity. The true power of film--a bastard form of art, created by bastard artists--lies in the very fact that it is inglorious.