Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, February 08, 2013

Language! Drinks! Cake! Oppression!

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 Argentinian Spanish suddenly came into clarity. Quentin's whole film is about being at one of those dinner parties. Is he dating an Argentinian? Or wait, no, Che! Che es claro! C'est un chick francais.

Either way, when one is in a situation like that, one can't really do anything except smile politely, look at the speaker like you understand a word they say, 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 France speaking German, now you can start to get super mad. 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 know it. The tourists can't have him shot; they should take his rudeness as a sign of solidarity --he's free to be rude.

It might help to understand the feeling of being at the mercy of someone with whom you are having a 'civil' interaction if you were a teenage pothead during the Reagan administration watching your car get slowly searched by an idiot cop and acting like it's all good, la-de-da- any glimmer of paranoia or worry that might tell him he's 'getting warm' will send you to jail... hat long-term slow burn paranoia when one bunch of people has absolute power over another,  and each side pretends--one for their own vanity, 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 pretends to not be a cat about to pounce, the other side pretends to not be a mouse about to bolt for the exit. Anything can go wrong and over drinks, deserts, and changing table guests, waiting for a check, the suspense can become almost unbearable.

The Cinematic Mountain of Leni Riefenstahl

These scenes work so effectively on the nerves because they tap into a deep, unresolved response of infantile rage still simmering after years enduring the bullying ignorance of adults. We all remember being a child and having no say in our life's direction. Parents decided when our bedtime was and what TV shows we can stay up for (none). They can spank, whip, imprison, strip-search etc. rummage through out drawers looking for drugs they heard about on Fox, and we can't do a thing about it. All we can do is count the hours and months and years until we're out of there.

But that's the thing, most of us don't have to submit to this once we are 18 and/or out of our parents' house. But the poor devils in Tarantino's last two films each have to contend with torturously long bar and restaurant and kitchen table scenes while 'playing' being someone else and how, eventually, by drawing out the interrogation and then letting the prey think they 'passed' and you are about to leave (but first a toast, or cream, or a pipe) and you start to lower your guard. 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. And your friend who stayed for dinner is like dude, ixnay on the ineway tilunway erway outway the oordway

This is how the Jewish heroine of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has to live while hiding out in Paris, such as tense moments like the luncheon (above), where she's unceremoniously dragged by the self-adoring 'German Sgt. York'. She's 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, all but forcing the "honor" on her, with blithe unconcern about her personal desires. They must 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." Or another line, from a 1931 favorite of mine, "it's just only old Svengali, talking to himself again."

That's Tarantino's genius, level one -- the power of lengthy dinner conversations to with utmost fluidity chronicle 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 almost subliminally to expected meanings, laughing when our memory of them is rewarded by those small details coming unexpectedly to the fore.

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 flashback of Christopher Walken's monologue about the history of the  watch to make us invested in Willis' need to go back and get it, even when the full brunt of Wallace's wrath is going to be waiting.

QT never feels the need to underline his overlapping brilliance, which is why his films reward close study - they are created for the DVD generation and so I don't feel ashamed that it wasn't until this fifth viewing of BASTERDS that I realized Soshana can't understand what Goebbels and friends are laughing about at the lunch since she doesn't speak German nor see the subtitles we're provided with. 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 certainly think Shoshana knows English if not for her failure to bolt while hiding under the dairy farmer's floorboards in the opening scene. But that whole scene seems so apart from the later ones that it takes awhile to connect them - it's as if QT wants us to keep watching and digging, so buries new chunks of realization deep in the fabric of his rapid-fire dialogue.

So in that first lengthy dinner scene -- the Paris bistro with Goebbels -- we get a sense of constant on-edgeness that must accompany life under occupation. A good analogy in the US would be if the NSA extended their authority to include random house searches of all its citizens and if NSA agents wanted to invite themselves over for dinner, search our bedrooms, and sleep with our daughters, and if we ever complain or do anything but smile and make them feel as welcome as if we'd invited them, we'd wake up at GTMO if at all. The price of freedom from this is eternal vigilance, yadda yadda ---BUT even if we didn't grow up under German occupation or deep south segregation, even if we're lucky enough that we're more or less protected from such invasions, most of us remember the hopeless rage we felt towards our parents as children who never got to do anything ever and it's not fair and Waah Waah I hate you I hate you and the plotting to one day destroy them. Quentin understands that it's the job of great exploitation cinema to act as a catharsis to these deep-seated unresolved rages, on the personal, psychic, historical, social, and viral level.

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 will feel truly exalting. This is the kind of trauma we should be getting from our movies, not the casual torture of films like HOSTEL and WOLF CREEK. Serial killers and psychopaths are frightening but they're isolated individuals or groups whose actions are against the law. In Nazi Germany and the Antebellum South, casual torture, subjugation and atrocity are the law; extreme racist barbarism is the societal norm. The idea of what's 'right' as far as bloody vengeance is muddied by our inability to see the forest for the tree-like social order we're living in, and that's the Quentin difference.

Ae second example of time elapsing is the sheer length of the basement drinking game scene in BASTERDS; audiences generally complain that it's too long and claustrophobic which is the point. Perhaps in some ways the film never quite recovers from its show-stopper aspect. But here's the thing -- it shows the gradual erosion of nerves over a lengthy session of drinking and chit-chat, the length between thinking you're getting away with your ruse and feeling like you finally have, that your enemy is about to leave or give you what you want, only to have a last minute prolonged moment of suspense as suddenly everything reverses and you're caught but by then that's it - you don't give a shit about getting away with it anymore or even getting out of there alive. You've been stifled so long under the garb of your false identity and the other's ranting egotism that your rage overrides your sense of self-preservation and BAM! Say good-bye to your nuts.

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.


Drugs are also Tarantino's sinthom magnifique - he sees the parallel between cinema addiction and alcohol and opiate addiction, most tellingly in a seemingly plot-advancing scene 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 anguished to calm, from defeated to intrigued, from near despair to almost excited, especially once the idea of pumping her full of more morphine is even 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 subtleties might not even be in the actors or writers minds at all, not even unconsciously, that it might be just my own addictive, paranoid personality...BUT... that's the power of myth and metaphor after all, the way kids' don't notice bad special effects or cheap sets because they're bubbling over with an imagination that never wastes a moment to fill in details. It's a habit we start to lose when we get older, unless we suffer from withdrawal or a bad fever, or really cultivate it through lots of time writing, painting, cinemagoing and doing drugs, all things that involve going deep within the Self, surrendering to the loss of a fixed locus of identity. Language isn't the only thing forced to behold the strangeness of itself when talking with someone of another language, it's national identity itself, employed towards its own opposite to win a war (as in codes). Crack the code, win the war, learn the language, lose the imagination... or else cinema.

1 comment:

  1. The tricks Tarantino can do with conversation are his main inheritance from his most unacknowledged master, the novelist George V. Higgins, whose main concern was the digressive sociability of hardened criminals. You're on to something when you point out how QT has further emphasized the power inequalities and petty oppressions at play in such moments. The sad thing about it all is that no one can do a really faithful Higgins adaptation (see Killing Them Softly) out of fear that they'd be accused of imitating Tarantino, while QT himself has probably moved beyond any interest in adapting Higgins himself.


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