Thursday, October 01, 2009

On Inglourious Basterds' rampant stereotypes


Saw Inglourious Basterds, which I know you have all probably seen already. Most of my thoughts about it are relatively common -- it's a compelling and sometimes confusing mishmash of tones and styles; probably Tarantino's best since Jackie Brown (still my favorite of his films); it seems to be much more about movies than about life and consequently a little empty in the end. I did like it, pretty much. But you don't need me to tell you that stuff. 

(Some oblique spoilers follow, nothing too bad I hope.)

However, one thing that stood out to me, especially in light of this Tyler Cowen post about how the movie romanticizes Naziism, is that every ethnic group in the movie is portrayed as some sort of super-ethnic caricature.

The Jews, the basterds, are all super-Jewy, to the point of being ridiculous Jewish stereotypes. The Nazi Hans Landa, meanwhile, is the epitome of the movie-Nazi-aesthete. Hitler is super-movie-Hitler -- his first line is "Nein, nein, nein!" And it goes on. The single representation of a gentile American is Brad Pitt, who is a symbol by himself but who is given a dramatically exaggerated southern accent to make the point. There's even a scene in the movie featuring of all people Mike Myers, playing a British guy and made up into a kind of grotesque bad-teeth-bad-skin Englishman.

So, OK. Tarantino is definitely up to something with all this. What? I think Brad Pitt gives a hint when he talked about Inglourious Basterds being the "end" of all WWII movies. To me that seems like an idea Tarantino would fancy. Roll up the tropes and conventions of WWII film, including of Nazi cinema itself, turn them inside out by embodying them -- then put a symbolic end to all of it. The fact that the film also involves a scene where thousands of feet of celluloid are burnt in a giant fire would seem to fit with this theory. This is the culmination and teleological end of WWII cinema.

That's what I think the idea was, anyway, or the pretense. Whether Inglourious Basterds was actually successful at it, or even whether that's a good aim for a movie to have, those are different questions. I would guess the answers are no and no. Still, this is a somewhat more satisfying explanation for some of the movie's choices than simply that Tarantino thinks Nazis are cool.

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