Watching Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for the sixth time recently all I could do was absorb the language barriers; all those dinner parties I sat through in Buenos Aires while intellectual friends of my ex-wife talked in rapid fire Argentine Spanish finally paid off. When one is in a situation like that, one can't really do anything except smile politely and try not to take it personally and muse along BABEL-ish lines. After all, small children and animals feel bored and left out by adult conversation all the time... if you multiply that factor by Nazis in an occupied country speaking German, now you can start to get super mad just thinking about it. When Americans go to Paris on vacation and expect the waiter to know English, that's bad, but at least he doesn't have to. The tourists can't have him shot; they should take his rudeness as a sign of solidarity --he's free to be rude. No one is going to end up jailed or shot should any bad blood arise.
It might help to understand the feeling of being at the mercy of someone with whom you are having a 'civil' interaction if you've been either a drug dealer during the Reagan administration, or while trying to get through Turkish customs. But nowadays, just going through airport security should be enough to savor some of that long-term slow burn paranoia when one bunch of people has absolute power over another, and each side pretends--one for their own vanity and human needs the other for basic survival--that everything is copacetic. These moments are when Tarantino shines. In his world, every meal, every round of drinks, is pregnant with these sublimated maskings. One side plays at being a cat, the other pretends they're not a mouse. Anything can go wrong and over drinks, deserts, and changing table guests, the suspense can become almost unbearable.
The Cinematic Mountain of Leni Riefenstahl
These scenes work so effectively on our nerves because they tap into a deep, unresolved response of infantile rage at the bullying ignorance of adults. We all remember being a child when parents and adults all claim to know what's in our best interest. They decide when our bedtime is and what TV shows we can watch and if we can have ice cream. They can spank, whip, imprison, strip-search etc. you at their whim. In fact the only times we face this trauma, most of us (once we are 21 and/or out of our parent's house) is when we're passing through airport security checks. A relatively brief span of time, mostly, so we can screw our courage to the wheel long enough with little effort no matter how weak our poker face. But the poor devils in Tarantino's last two films each have to contend with whole dinner times going past, or lengthy conversations. A parallel might be trying to get through a whole dinner with strict parents as a ten year-old trying to hide the fact that you're stoned and drunk out of your gourd, and by dessert you think you've got them won over so your mask starts to slip a little, and you keep hitting the wine even though your mom glowers at the water level.
This is how the Jewish heroine of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has to live most of her life, such as tense moments like the luncheon (above), where she's unceremoniously dragged then expected to be charming as people talk in rapid German (which she does not speak, as we learn indirectly in the beginning) about her theater, never even asking if she wants to host their big film night at her theater, all but forcing the honor on her, with blithe unconcern about her personal desires. They certainly know it's hardly an 'honor' for the oppressed French to host any Nazi event, but to mangle a line from THE MALTESE FALCON, "for her sake I let her pretend."
That's Tarantino's genius level one -- the power of lengthy dinner conversations to completely document not just the dynamics of power and deception, but of the way lengths of time work to change those dynamics, wearing down some positions and strengthening others, and the power of the words we absorb in their seemingly casual use when they later come into play, into action.
Even as early as PULP FICTION, QT buries valuable intel in the rambling opener with Jules telling Vincent about Tony Rocky Horror, a big Samoan guy getting thrown out of a window for giving Marcellus Wallace's wife a foot massage. This bit of knowledge adds great depth to our apprehension at the very thought of Vincent--who weighs far less than the average Samoan drug dealer--going on a date with the very same Mrs. Wallace, and when she almost ODs on his watch, well, now we're really scared for him in ways we would never be without the saga of Tony Rocky Horror.
We would need also to have absorbed the dialogue back at Eric Stoltz's dealer pad about 'the Madman' and 'Panda' to appreciate the strength of said smack... in other words a whole day and night of seemingly random pop culture referenced-infused dialogue is needed, every last word, to finally snap shut an elaborate trap that is never clearly spoken or delineated. And then, that apprehension over Wallace's capability for wrath continues when we learn Bruce Willis needs to go back for his watch; and we needed the full length of Christopher Walken's speech about hiding that watch up his ass in a POW camp, to make us invested in Willis' need to go back and get that watch, even when the full brunt of this Tony Rocky Horror-killing bastard is going to be waiting.
So this latest viewing of BASTERDS was the time I realized Soshana can't understand what Goebbels and friends are laughing about at the lunch since she doesn't speak German. Her blank cutesy expression as the men talk around her can throw you off if you're just following their subtitles instead of listening to them in the polite way we listen to a table of people talking very fast in another language who are presumably thinking we understand what they are saying. In America we have such a deep embarrassment about our knowing only 'American' that we automatically assume every European speaks all European languages. And in BASTERDS we would think Shoshana knows English if not for her failure to bolt while hiding under the dairy farmer's floorboards in the opening scene.
In this first lengthy dinner scene -- the Paris bistro with Goebbels -- we get a sense of constant on-edgeness that must accompany life under occupation, wherein every smile, laugh and wink one gives to the occupying enemy are all there out of pure terror and desperation rather than any kind of love or cooperative spirit. A good analogy in the US would be if that the TSA extended its authority to random house searches and if TSA guys wanted to invite themselves over for dinner, search our bedrooms, and sleep with our daughters, we were expected to smile and nod and let them in, and never once mention bombs or sabotage --just as we can't when in the TSA line--even as our hearts curdled up in blind rage as they decided to move into your master bedroom.
And that's why every demeaning expletive and subjugation and atrocity is necessary in Tarantino's last two films--INGLOURIOUS and DJANGO UNCHAINED. Because no amount of vengeance, of cathartic destruction can be truly cathartic without it; if it sickens you beyond measure than the film is only doing it's job and this bloody catharsis is for you. This is the kind of trauma we should be getting from our movies, not the casual torture of films like Saw and Wolf Creek. Serial killers and psychopaths are frightening but they're isolated individuals and it doesn't take a great writer, only a sick mind, to dream up such films' events; but in Nazi Germany and the Antebellum South psychopathology is the law; extreme racist barbarism is the societal norm. That's the Quentin difference.
DJANGO and INGLORIOUS each have one of these scenes, and these two films are separated by these scenes from the rest of QT's oeuvre. While gangsters, thugs and assassins from his earlier films are outlaws in a world in moral twilight, the pre-Civil War South and Nazi-occupied France are worlds beyond moral twilight because the morality of the prevailing social structure is evil and violent. Slavery and subjugation is moral according to the Confederate South, and Hitler's Germany. They use modern democratic social structures to obscure the evil, but in these two films undisguised evil gloats from its established position of power via even the smallest of presumably friendly gestures. In a sense the Nazi's openness with their evil is almost more noble than the red state congressman who preaches family values and wants to ban gay marriage and sodomy, but then goes and picks up a male hustler at a bus stop; who wants to ban free speech but would never ban the right of rednecks to fly confederate flags outside their courthouses (imagine if the Germans wanted to keep Nazi flags in their court rooms, why is it any different?)
In being open with their oppression, the Nazis also set themselves up as an easy target, of course, and in doing so they--as with the slave owners in DJANGO--remind us that the power of cathartic violence lurks under the surface of any violently imposed social order. As the recent psychopathic gun violence in our country indicates, our citizens are hopping mad but aren't sure who is oppressing them, so they don't know who to shoot at. So thank your oppressors for letting you see their face up close, should they ever do that, because when you kill them finally in a moment of explosive release it will be so worth the wait.
ONE LAST THING -
Drugs are also Tarantino's sinthom magnifique - most tellingly in a seemingly plot-advancing scene in a vet's office after the basement shooting. It begins with a morphine needle to the thigh of Brigit Von Hammersmock. The Basterds have commandeered the office of a veterinarian, and are in his operating room - while he stands by in a robe. A bullet has shattered some bone in her leg. Aldo Raine presses on the wound in a bit of torture to force the truth out of her, angry at losing three men in what he perceives as a possible ambush. He relents when starting to believe her but his manner never changes -- as the morphine hits her system though Brigit slowly morphs from defeated to intrigued to almost excited, especially once the idea of pumping her full of more morphine is discussed. It's a subliminal melange of addictive trigger motions I haven't seen so subtly played since that of Juliane Moore hearing about all the delicious drops she can pilfer from her dying husband's scrips in MAGNOLIA. In fact there might be so much crazy subtle acting going on in these moments that these things I see might not even be in the actors or director's minds at all, not even unconsciously, that it might be just my own addictive, paranoid personality...BUT... that Tarantino can start me thinking like that, in these great self-deconstructing paranoid loops speaks to his startling genius.