Inglourious Basterds: A Comment On The Films of Quentin Tarantino

I’m beginning to get the point.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me four times, well, I must be an idiot.  Inglourious Basterds wasn’t all that bad, but I have an internal tension while watching his films.  I’ll expound that tension for you now.

Let me start with what I love about Quentin Tarantino.  First, he is a masterful story-teller.  Not only does he come up with a really interesting concept for a movie (a woman avenges her “death” by hunting down the five super assassins responsible, a group of Jewish Americans terrorize the nazis behind enemy lines), he lays out the plot in such a gripping way.  Pulp Fiction was a groundbreaking method of moviemaking.  The movie isn’t in chronological order which leaves you putting the pieces together long after the film is over.  Also, there are several layers to the plot so that it is never a straight-forward action film.  All the other tools (the cinematography, the fight scenes, ambitious efforts) add an esthetic element that leaves you wowed.

A second point of favor in Tarantino’s films, which I’ll counterbalance later, but for now, his movies have a moral point.  In Kill Bill Vol. 2, one of the super assassins meditates on his own guilt and how he deserves to be killed.  Taking a step back in the film, Tarantino seems to be saying evil deeds deserve revenge.  Yet, when we take revenge, it keeps a cycle of revenge going.  Revenge is a dirty business which we need to be wary of entering.  In Inglourious Basterds, the moral point seems to be similar.  Revenge makes you ugly.  In this movie, the nazis seem to be more human than the Americans.  They have more restraint to do evil than those that want to exact revenge on them.  It was reading some reviews with this point and the fact that it’s up for an academy award for best picture that made me want to see it.

But, here is my tension, I’m not sure we come away with the moral point from his films, nor am I sure that we’re supposed to.  The film pushes you to root for the Avenger.  The violence they perform in getting their revenge doesn’t seem to be presented as monstrous (which when you stop to think about it, it is incredibly so) no as regrettable, but as cool.  The violence is so stylized in how it is shot with beautifully choreographed killings.   And, each of the avengers have a machismo about them that one can’t help but think they are cool.  The style contradicts the way you should be morally responding to what is being depicted.  The moral gets eaten up by the style.

There is certainly objectionable content in his films, but that’s not my problem.  The Bible has shocking violence at times.  But, how that violence is depicted matters a lot to me.  Does the movie lead you to feel the way about violence that God does?  Does it lead you to view with sobriety and sadness?  Does it lead you to view it as dangerous to your own soul?  Does it lead you to want to avoid it if at all possible?  I grew up in the Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger movie era where one man guns down whole armies with a lot of machismo and humor.  These movies had a desensitizing affect on my perception of violence in a way that I was unaware of.  I found myself laughing as someone’s head was shot off or as I saw someone explode.  A movie that changed the way I saw war films was Saving Private Ryan.  War was no longer something cool.  I saw it as it truly is, horrific.  Now, I’m not a pacifist, but I am shocked at how many movies want to desensitize to the horrors of war, murder, torture, and much more.

This desensitizing effect towards violence seems to be a part of every Tarantino movie.  Perhaps, this isn’t your experience, but only my own.  For me, it’s not a matter of avoiding movies with bad things in them and only stick to the G-rated Disney section.  But, how is immorality being depicted?  How are you being moved by what you see?  Are you wanting the wrong thing to happen in a film?  As I watch movies, I’m challenged by the call of 1 Corinthians 13:6, that love does not rejoice in wrongdoing.  There are some movies we shouldn’t see.

I would love to hear your own reaction to the film as well.

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About Ryan Wampler

Much of my thinking is trying to connect the dots between the Bible, the lens through which I see the world, and the way I actually live my life. I’m a Mizzou grad, and got a theological education at a post-grad school in St. Louis. My particular areas of interest are: reflecting on books and films and connecting theology and culture.
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9 Responses to Inglourious Basterds: A Comment On The Films of Quentin Tarantino

  1. Andy says:

    After Lindsey and I saw the film we had a long discussion about whether the violence had a redeeming quality and came up with a few ideas that pointed in that direction.

    Think of the final scene. The violence is way over the top. There is a giant face of a girl whom the nazis wronged laughing while the good guys shoot automatic weapons into a crowd of screaming nazis, laughing as they do it. Tarantino has engineered the perfect set of circumstances to get us on the good guys side, he even chose as his villains the nazis, who are everybody’s favorite example of evil.

    The moral filth of the nazis rises to a fever pitch as we see them laughing and enjoying a film about one of their war heroes destroying his enemies. The amazing thing about the final scene is how Tarantino uses it to hold a mirror up to the face of everyone watching his movie. We judge the nazis for enjoying a movie about their enemies being destroyed in such a brutal way, and then (and this is the craft of Tarantino) he puts us in the place of the very people we were a moment ago judging. We watch the people we love to hate be graphically destroyed who can help but feel justified.

    After the movie ended I found myself wondering if Tarantino was trying to get me to ask the question of myself: what is the difference between the nazis and I? I too can learn to hate. I too can learn to rejoice when the consequences of the world’s deep brokenness are paraded before me on a screen.

  2. wamplerr says:

    Great thoughts, my friend, Mr. Patton. I agree that the theater scene is juxtaposed to show up a mirror. The woman’s laughing face over the smoke and fire is a devilish scene. And, I agree that I think this is supposed to be the underlying point. As I said in the post, I truly am open to being alone in my tension. But, I am still left wondering if the style doesn’t eat up the moral. The guy who lights the fire in the theater does it in such a cool way, with cool music, and even in slow motion. It’s so cool. It comes across as a heroic scene. I just wonder how many people come out thinking “that was so cool how they got those nazis” vs. “wow, revenge makes us into worse monsters than our offenders.” I’m not sure that we are as much leaving his films contemplating the consequences of revenge, in as much as being entertained by it. For me, the question I’m posing is does the style eat up the moral? I’d appreciate your thoughts here.

  3. biz says:

    Super interesting post. I still haven’t seen Inglourious Basterds yet, but I’m a huge Tarantino fan. Like you said, Ryan, I think he is a masterful storyteller, and I’m a sucker for a good story (Narnia, Harry Potter… LOST), and I do see your point about the violence being something we shouldn’t rejoice in. I had a talk with Jeff and Patrick about this the other day, and while I’m sure I don’t have a 100% redeeming view of his films, I think it effects people differently. What made me think of that is how you said that watching only G-rated Disney films isn’t the answer. I couldn’t agree more, because I think that those films are just as destructive (whether women want to admit it or not) as a Tarintino film for a man (and possibly a woman). I just really think that Disney’s portrayal of romance, marriage, and life in general is unbiblical, and so women expect perfection out of men and/or their relationships. This isn’t a new concept, I know, but I just had to say it.

    So, do we think it’s alright to watch these movies if we are consciously trying to remember not to “rejoice in wrongdoing,” like you quoted from Paul? I think so. The stories are creative and unique, and much more refreshing than a romantic comedy.

  4. lindsey says:

    I tried to make the point that there is moral substance to the film, it only comes in the form of the grotesque. The grotesque distorts reality for a purpose. I think that is the case with Inglorious Basterds. Is it Tarantino’s fault if people don’t understand the deeper meanings of his story? I don’t think we want to hold our artists to that low standard. It’s not their job to paint their meaning in neon light. Their job is to make good art. It’s our job to think carefully about it and discern what it means. The film is a mirror. If we aren’t sick at what we see when we walk out of the film, it says more about us than it does about the film.

    The cigarette flying through the air is an aesthetically beautiful moment and that beauty plays a part in how we feel about what is happening. But is the criticism that Tarantino should have made it uglier? Made it more ludicrous to fit the savageness of the act? That very thing happens a few minutes after the cigarette scene. When the man up on the balcony is shooting Hitler’s face and the camera lingers on a close shot of his face as bullets render it unrecognizable. It looks obviously like a mask filled with little explosive charges made to look like bullets. The camera lingers on it far longer the is necessary. That’s the moment I realized, “oh… he’s playing a joke on us.” There is something else going on here.

    This is a long comment, but I think O’Connor has something to add. In “The Church and the Fiction Writer” she writes, “What leads a writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin… By now, anyone who has had the problem is equipped with Mauriac’s advice: “Purify the source.” And, along with it, he has become aware too of sources that, relatively speaking, seem amply pure, but from which come works that scandalize… In the end, he will either have to stop writing or limit himself to the concerns proper to what he is creating. It is the person who can follow neither of these courses who becomes the victim, not of the church, but of a false conception of her demands… The fact would seem to be that for many writers it is easier to assume universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art, and it is considered better to save the world than to save the work. ”

    She points to a crucial question: What should the church be asking of artists? At what point are we asking them to produce lesser art and when is it worth it? It is such a difficult question.

    And in fairness to what you are saying, here is the next sentence in the essay, “The business of protecting souls from dangerous literature belongs to the church. All fiction, even when it satisfies the requirements of art, will not turn out suitable for everyone’s consumption…”

  5. lindsey says:

    I posted that and remembered when Lindsey’s picture came up that I was on her computer…hilarious.
    -Andy

  6. Patirck K. Miller says:

    I think what O’Connor said makes a lot of sense in this context, too, Andy. Clearly, the first question to ask before viewing this film is a personal one, “Knowing my own heart, and my own propensities for sinfulness, should I watch this film? Do I enjoy stylized violence or am I repelled by its monstrosity?”

    For me the answer is yes–I watch movies like 300 and leave sinfully enjoying the violence for violence sake. So, I decided not to watch this particular movie.

    Although I chose not view this film, I’ve watched all of Tarantino’s other movies, and read a great deal of O’Connor and the other American gothic writers. There is an accute distinction between the “grotesque” in O’Connor and Tarantino–namely its portrayal. For the gothic writers, and especially O’Connor, the grotesque was repulsive. At the end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “the Misfit” did not seem cool or heoric; in fact, he still frightens and revolts me. However, “The Bride” in “Kill Bill” was not only portrayed by an attractive actress (Uma Thurman), but committed monstrous violence with such sylization that it no longer seemed monstrous.

    So, I think Ryan’s criticism that Taratino’s violence fails to revolt viewers, is not unfair. In fact, I think it’s a great part of Tarantino’s purpose–he wants to make aspects of violence cool. Saying so honors his work, because I’m certain they spent immense amounts of time and effort choreographing and filming these scenes. Unfortunately, in doing so he distorts his films’ ability to “mirror” so that they are more like something you’d see in a Carnival than in your home.

  7. wamplerr says:

    I love the dialogue. Good stuff. Biz, you are exactly right that even movies that seem to be “family friendly” can be destructive in their sentimentality whether it be in fostering false ideas of their own or in giving off the picture that Christianity cannot speak to the harsher realities of life. Sometimes, we need to watch movies that expose us to hard realities and not just movies that entertain us.

    There is certainly a subjective personal element to our response to movies. Some of us can stand back and not be influenced by the less helpful messages of a movie. We all need to be aware of how we are being affected by what we are reading, listening, or watching.

    Many people likely came out of Inglourious Basterds with the intended moral in mind. I came out in tension.

    I decided to see if I could get any interviews with Tarantino about his intentions in making the film. This one in Atlantic Monthly is quite interesting…

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/hollywood-8217-s-jewish-avenger/7619/

    If this interview represents his intention fairly, then the movie truly is meant to depict a glorious revenge upon the nazis. Even the morality we read into it perhaps was not intended to be there. This raises more questions about our interpretations of a piece of art apart from an artists intention or perhaps how artwork that touches reality sometimes has to contradict the view of the artist. But, I think this might explain why the avengers seems so cool. Tarantino thinks they are.

  8. Matthew says:

    I fear you might have missed the main moral point of Inglourious. Revenge (or even violence) doesn’t have much to do with it. Basterds is claiming that film itself has the power to destroy or save. Just as propaganda helped fuel the Reich, true film will save the Allies. Violence is a by-product, a symptom, of its power. Watch it again and notice when and how film–or its industry–is used. It’s even the point Tarantino makes about it in the Atlantic interview…only in film do Jews get to turn the tables.

    (http://1000milepub.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/inglorious-industry/)

    I understand the points you are trying to make about violence in film…but despite its campy gratuity, violence is a secondary issue in Inglourious. In fact there really isn’t even that much of it, relatively…wasn’t that one of the major critical knocks of the film, that a war movie was so talky?

    But a main issue here, especially highlighted by Andy’s comment, that regeneration through violence that seems to be much a part of Tarantino (too bad he isn’t that good at it…see Cormac McCarthy) is worth talking about. Can’t we rejoice in slain Nazis, especially in art? Can’t we sing with the multitude in Heaven in Revelation 19 that the Prostitute, the city of idols, is dead, and her smoke goes up forever? Should I not rejoice that God used some very real All-American inglourious basterds to bring down one of the all-time biggest thug d-bags in the history of the world in Saddam? Because I do.

    Thank the Lord for regeneration through violence. Because without it, I am lost. So I can’t help but for the most part enjoy it in art.

  9. wamplerr says:

    Matthew, thanks for the comment. Discussion is great for nuancing one’s statements.

    I agree that film is intended to be symbolic, but film gives them the chance to enact their fantasies of revenge. It’s not just German soldiers, but wives and other women as well who are mowed down with great laughter in the film. Eli Roth, who plays the bear Jew in the film and directed the Hostel movies, described this movie as “kosher porn.” He said in that interview: “It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling,” Roth said. “My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day.” I’m not sure that violence or revenge are in the background as much as in the forefront. It seems to me that the moral cry for justice is in the background.

    I certainly think it’s appropriate to long for justice. I’m not sure Inglorious Basterds is parallel to the longing for justice in Revelation 19. I do think it’s a challenge to hold together the call to love our enemies and to long for justice. But, somehow we need to try. That’s why it seems that violence should be used with reluctance as a last case scenario, with great humility, and somehow with hope of redemption. Personal vengeance seems to be forbidden in the Bible since it’s disregarding the grace God has shown to us. Vengeance is mine says the Lord.

    Violence certainly can be redemptive. Violence can be a means of administering justice. I’m not sure delight in violence in itself is a biblical virtue.

    As for regeneration through violence, I’d have to connect more dots as to whether people in Tarantino’s films ever reach regeneration, or even in McCarthy (though I think his books are powerful in many other ways). Dostoyevsky and Flannery O’Conner, however, would be illustrative of that point.

    Any further comments to help nuance this all are welcome. I’m certainly open to being wrong.

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