Monthly Archives: March 2010

Oscar Grouching #3: Inglourious Basterds

Continuing my discussions of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I move on to an especially fun and interesting entry, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Shortly after I saw it on opening night back in August ’09, I wrote a short and rather bitchy post about Basterds and Tarantino in general. While I don’t exactly take back everything I said, I would like to rephrase and reconsider a lot of it; I think I gave short shrift to the undeniable mastery that underlies a lot of Basterds and deserves to be appreciated. There are some very good reasons it’s received 8 nominations, the third-most of any film this year, and I think it’s more artistically and aesthetically stimulating than much of the competition (like Avatar). But before I launch into all of that, here’s the snippet I wrote about it in my Oscars article for the Carl:

“But Cameron and Bigelow… don’t have a monopoly on war; everyone’s favorite 46-year-old enfant terrible also had plenty to say about it in 2009. Adverts for Inglourious Basterds claimed that ‘you haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino,’ and that tagline reveals more than I think it’d care to admit. Basterds isn’t really about war, but about how Tarantino sees it, and his vision of World War II is a hodgepodge of The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Italian war movies of the ’60s. But Tarantino’s cinephilic, perpetually adolescent interpretation of history is still far more ambitious and, ultimately, interesting than Cameron’s anti-imperialist tract. His dazzlingly amoral revisionism probably won’t get Best Picture, but at least we’ll get to Christoph Waltz receive his bingo as Best Supporting Actor.”

This is a movie that ends with the words “I think this may be my masterpiece.” It’s not the kind of staid, artful film that usually wins lots of Oscars; it’s irreverent, sometimes sadistic, and often inflammatory, in both literal and metaphorical senses. Yet it epitomizes Tarantino’s crafty way of concealing an art film like a Jewish refugee in the basement of an action-packed blockbuster. The ads, typically inane and dishonest, made it out to be two straight hours of Eli Roth clubbing Nazzies to death, and this certainly accounts for a large part of what Tarantino’s up to. However, the meat of the film is the ongoing conflict between Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hiding out in Paris, and Hans Landa (Waltz), the diabolically eloquent “Jew Hunter.”

It’s these confrontations with Landa that make the film what it is. Tarantino could’ve made one big, perfectly acceptable war movie homage, and we’d all have forgotten it by now. Instead he went for a series of magnificent set-pieces where words (in English, French, German, and even Italian) are hurled like daggers. The first of these is the best, a carefully composed tribute to Sergio Leone that sees Landa visiting the owner of a dairy farm in rural France. Waltz smiles as he asks for a glass of milk, smiles as he plays the innocent bureaucrat, and smiles as he forces the farmer to tell him where he’s hiding the Dreyfus family.

Waltz, as Landa, is always fascinating. He’s merciless, but polite. Brutal and willing to kill, but about the most cultured villain to [probably] garner an Academy Award since Hannibal Lecter. He’s an efficient Nazi officer, but he’s also cowardly and more interested in self-preservation than in the longevity of the Reich. And Waltz’s English has a perfectly accented lilt to it, so that he can put his enemies off their guard with a silly malapropism one second, then land the death blow with a few well-selected words the next. We always see him from someone else’s POV, and we never quite identify with him, but he’s a compelling and fully realized nemesis – certainly not one of the caricatured “Nazzies” the Basterds are after.

This is one area where the film deploys its many ethical tricks. Landa is worldly, self-aware, full of contradictions; the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine (a play on the name of actor Aldo Ray), are the film’s sideshow, occasionally popping up to brutalize and scalp some more terrified Nazzies. Raine himself is a one-note joke which Pitt does wonders with, a jingoistic, torture-happy southerner charged with leading his all-Jewish troops in a mission of revenge.

In the Basterds’ portion of the movie, Tarantino gleefully employs (and exaggerates) every formula he’s culled from the likes of 1960s-’70s American and Italian WWII movies, and it’s fun – especially for him – but it gets old fast. By the time he’s thrown together techniques cribbed from his beloved blaxploitation, kung fu, and spaghetti western genres in order to tell the back story of Nazi prisoner Hugo Stiglitz, the ultra-referential aspect of his style has almost grown wearisome, and the viewer is thankfully treated to a storyline that’s no less violent, but far more substantive: Shosanna’s systematic, single-handed, Kill Bill-style vengeance against the entire Nazi elite.

It’s here where Tarantino’s genius with suspense becomes more pronounced, as do his moral difficulties. All his parlor talk about comparing the treatment of African-Americans to King Kong might as well be about whether foot massages count as sex, since outside of these glib, well-written passages of dialogue, he’s totally unwilling to take on hard questions of race and genocide. Despite the film’s premise, the Holocaust turns out to be a non-factor in the characters’ actions, since for example, Landa’s by-the-book elimination of Shosanna’s family motivates her in much the same fashion as Bill’s coma-inducing attack does for the bride. Shosanna has a vendetta against one man, generalized to the Nazi ruling establishment.

And as for the Basterds, well, they’re killing the Nazzies because they’re Nazzies. The film’s overarching thesis is that this is Tarantino’s war, as he perceives it filtered through decades of Robert Aldrich and Riefenstahl and Samuel Fuller, and the Basterds’ attitudes reflect this. They blissfully criss-cross Europe scalping Nazzies due more to the propagandistic cultural significance of their targets than because of any actual wrongs perpetrated by the government of Nazi Germany. Tarantino sets up his elaborate racial revenge fantasy, but elides the instigating event, and this produces the film’s great strength and weakness, its utter amorality.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you read Basterds as a thoughtful self-critique or not in its tendency to unhinge all its actions from their historical and ethical contexts, until each scalping or machine-gunning becomes just the act of an individual tagged as a “Jew” against one who’s a “Nazi,” labels with as much significance as the Union and Confederate soldiers in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Tarantino’s favorite film, and another which strips events of their historical meanings – like the existence of slavery – for the sake of the story.)

Is it a sly commentary on the nature of cinema to desensitize us both to violence and to the complex origins of wars? Or is Tarantino doing just that as a matter of layered pastiche, with no commentary intended? I think the answer – which would take closer viewing than I’m able to perform now – would reveal a lot about Basterds‘ level of profundity, though I remain skeptical. However, I think its merits as an example of high-intensity postmodern filmmaking are as great as any of Tarantino’s other work, up to and including Pulp Fiction; here, the battles are won and lost not by Raine’s clownish marauders, but over strudel on the café tables of Paris.

As for Basterds‘ Oscar chances, I’m fairly optimistic. I think Best Picture is extremely unlikely, but Tarantino’s bravura directing and endlessly quotable screenplay – his specialties, as opposed to political or emotional depth – are certainly laudable, and at the very least remain in the running, even if The Hurt Locker could sweep those categories. Luckily for Christoph Waltz, though, he has no real competition: his first publicly visible screen outing will indeed turned to Oscar gold, thanks to his mesmerizing screen presence – and to Tarantino’s sharp dialogue. While Inglourious Basterds may not authentically engage race or history, its cinephilic reveries are nonetheless a welcome sight at this year’s Oscars, and its engagement of film history is as daring as anything in recent memory.

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Uzumaki: Spirals and Sanity

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like spiral patterns in an otherwise normal room.]

Ashley:

I first saw Uzumaki several years ago when I was deep in my anime/Japanese culture phase; I watched any Japanese film I happened upon and this was one of them. My best friend and I had no clue what the movie was trying to say or do but it freaked us out and we liked that. I saw it a few more times after that, enough times for it to be nestled warmly in the back of my brain as one of my favorite strange films. Watching it again as an older, much more intelligent person than my12-year-old self I am, delightfully and frustratingly enough, left with the same questions I had then.

Uzumaki tells the tale of the small town Kurouzu, its inhabitants, and the dark infestation slowly plaguing them. The town seems off from the start; green filters give the town and its denizens an eerie, sickly look and no one really acts natural or at ease. The film sets up an odd kind of wackiness, bordering  on dark comedy.

SURPRISE! Silly, creepy stalker! Odd, weirdly funny moments like this create an unsettled atmosphere, setting the stage for the weirdness to come. And come it does. We first see signs of (more extreme) weirdness in the form of Shuichi’s, one of our main characters, father filming snails, or more specifically the spiral shapes of their shells. Shuichi confides in Kirie, our final girl, that his father has been exhibiting this kind of odd behavior for awhile and has acquired a disturbingly large collection of spiral-shaped items. After his father’s (very spirally) suicide, this vortex-sickness seeps into the rest of the town.

Something that I found myself continually struck with was the obliviousness and nonchalance exhibited by some of the characters: as the crematorium’s smoke creates an ominous black spiral in the sky that curls down into the depths of Dragonfly Pond, one girl looks on impassively, stating, “It spirals like that when they cremate someone…” During a news report on the bizarre happenings of the town, a reporter matter-of-factly comments on the suicides, deaths, and people-transforming-into-snail phenomena. Kirie herself is infuriatingly unaware of the seriousness of the situation despite the fact that she’s witnessed horror after horror. The only sane man it seems is Shuichi, who from the very start, even before the terror starts really manifesting itself, tells Kirie that he wants them to leave. But as the unease and terror mounts, as the bodies start to pile (and twist) up, no one makes the move to get the hell out until it’s way too late.

Along this same vein, the few people who do try to figure out what is going on either end up caught by the spiral and dead or their information goes nowhere. There is an awesome research-montage that gives us literally not one answer. It implies some things but leaves us no closer to any answer about what the origin of the spiral obsession is. Is it the town itself? Is it one person (perhaps Shuichi’s father?) who has contaminated the rest? How are these people turning into huge snails? What the fuck is going on? And the ending leaves us completely unsatisfied. What happened to Kirie? She has to be alive in some way; she’s telling the story, as evidenced by the opening and closing shots:

Uzumaki is a strange creature in both concept and execution. The idea of a town under some sinister influence is not new, but it’s very rare for the villain to be so abstract and have no discernible origin. In the film, there is no master spiral, no madman run amok. Just a very strange town with a very strange disease.

Andreas:

I’d only ever heard little tidbits about this film (aside from the fact that the title meant “spiral”) so I was mostly blind going in. My first impression was one of overwhelming weirdness: the opening scenes of this film take for granted that the audience will expect a Japanese horror movie to be weird. As Ashley discussed, we’re placed into a very grotesque, absurd world even before the blatant “horror” aspect of the film comes into play.

Kirie’s state of constant disorientation, Yamaguchi’s obnoxious behavior (and the confusing angles from which it’s photographed), and then the obsession consuming Shuchi’s father from the first second we see him onscreen – it all works to establish a baseline tolerance for weirdness in this movie, which makes it that much easier to make the leap over when things get really weird. In retrospect, it makes you feel like maybe something was wrong with the townspeople all along, and maybe it was only a matter of time before their little quirks spiraled into the abyss of psychosis.

Why spirals, anyway? While talking about this movie, Ashley and I mulled over comparisons from the movie The Birds to the graphic novel Black Hole. But Uzumaki (even if it doesn’t quite match those works’ terrifying heights) brings something new to the table: its “enemy,” if you can call it that, is so intangible, so omnipresent, and so inexplicable. I’ll even go out on a limb and compare it to a movie Ashley and I recently saw, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon, which is a world away from J-horror.

Yet they do have similarities: in both films, you can’t definitively trace the source of the violence. In Uzumaki, it’s never resolved what sparked the outbreak, the curious quasi-disease that afflicts the town, person by person. And in both films, the contagion is rife with potential purposes, meanings, and outcomes, all of which remain tantalizingly undetermined. In The White Ribbon, this leads to question after question. Did the same evil that affected the children lead to Nazism? Did it come from their puritanical upbringings, from the brutal authority of their fathers, or were they intrinsically cruel?

In Uzumaki, we can similarly wonder why and how this had to happen. Apparently, Junji Ito’s original manga spells out that it’s caused by a spiral shrine buried underground, but even this doesn’t really clear up what end is served by the bizarre symptoms and self-destructive actions exhibited by the townsfolk. Who does it benefit? What consciousness would have willed this plague into existence? The answers are just out of reach, and the only person who might find them dies in a car crash toward the end of the movie without tying up any of the mysteries.

But after all, it’s much more fun to observe everyone’s responses to the unthinkable catastrophe engulfing them. The film’s attitude toward its characters is well-balanced, alternating between initial sympathy for the horrors they’re experiencing, and then a more detached, humorous view as they fail to keep up with the accelerating disasters. This even devolves into open mockery as Kirie’s reactions – like clinging to Shuichi and restating her undying love – show that she’s in the wrong kind of movie. She fancies herself a romantic heroine, but in the increasingly distorted universe of body horror that is Uzumaki, there’s no place for sentiment. Only insanity, or else an absurd acceptance that death (or far worse) is right around the corner.

Another little point of comparison for Uzumaki: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. I have yet to see Prince of Darkness, but I noticed a lot of parallels with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. The books of Sutter Cane and the madness/mutations they cause are much more literal, straightforward, and less interesting than the spirals of Uzumaki, but all these films share the common theme of characters encountering virulent forces which will probably destroy mankind.

The grim ending – where the maddening power of the spirals appears to be spreading and spreading – is especially interesting when you look at the middle portion of Uzumaki. Before the parade of grisly suicides, accidents, and dismemberments that precede Shuichi’s demise, the townsfolk try to cope with the onslaught as best they can. Shuichi’s spirophobic mother is hospitalized; they get over his father’s death and the ensuing spiral of ashes; and kids keep going to school despite the occasional snail-like deformity or out-of-control spiral hair.

One moral to take away from the film (other than “We’ll all turn into spirals and die someday”) is how easy it is for people to accept very sick situations if they’re imposed very gradually, just like the story of the boiling frog. Sure, they’ll note the incredibly fucked-up events surrounding them, but then they’ll go on with their lives. Shuichi twice says that he wants to leave town, but each time he and Kirie find some excuse for staying. On this level, I think, Uzumaki is not just perversely WTF, but also at times wickedly funny.

It takes the subgenre of horror movies wherein small towns are infested with some form of evil, then twists it out to the furthest possible extreme, until it has shades of cunning self-parody. For the most part, it’s a pretty flawed movie that sometimes feels like it’s only grasping for shock value, but at these moments it contains visible horror genius.

So all in all I feel like Uzumaki is a mixed bag. It’s certainly frightening – the words “washing machine” and “corpse” should be enough to confirm that – and this works effectively with its own sick brand of Japanese humor. It doesn’t hand out any satisfying answers, but still keeps you from wondering, Then what was the point? It’s a very queer bird of a movie, and more or less defines the phrase “not for all tastes,” but to the horror fan it offers a very dark vision of spirally chaos encroaching on an already weird world. And snail-people. More than enough snail-people.

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Oscar Grouching #2: The Hurt Locker

So, I am persistently continuing this series of posts about this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. I think it’s a very interesting – and for that matter, historic – race, as I detailed in the previous post. And, as evidenced by the film I’m about to discuss, it stands to say a lot about the current state of the American consciousness. This film, which ties Avatar with its 9 nominations, is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. By way of introduction, here’s what I had to say about it in my recent article on this year’s Oscars:

“But then, [with regard to Avatar‘s chances] you have to consider the ex-wife factor, because Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is rampaging through awards season like a humvee filled with soldiers who specialize in defusing bombs. Like Avatar, The Hurt Locker is about conflicted soldiers, but these ones – led by Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner – don’t fall easily into character types. Instead, they’re just ordinary guys in an extraordinary, very dangerous situation from which they’re unable, or maybe even unwilling, to escape. Capturing the addictive trauma of war with its journalistic style, The Hurt Locker is a difficult and deserving movie. It immerses the viewer so long in the grit and gunfire of Iraq that the shops and homes of suburban America look as alien as the floating mountains of Pandora.”

I could look at The Hurt Locker and its role in this contest from a lot of angles. It’s a damn multifaceted film. First of all, let’s think about the impressive woman behind it, Kathryn Bigelow. This is the only one of her film’s I’ve seen, though I’ve long yearned to see her 1995 dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days. Since the ’80s, she’s specialized in intense genre movies, from the vampire western Near Dark to the more standard action movies Blue Steel and Point Break. She’s been designated an auteur of sorts, and one of these days I’d like to look deeper into her work. She is also James Cameron’s ex-wife (1989-1991), throwing a very fun wrinkle into the mix. They seem amicable, but it’s very fun to have such a close rivalry – over both Best Picture and Director – between two people with such a once-strong bond. Gives some real drama to the Oscars, don’t you think?

But personal life aside, Bigelow is a formidable woman, at least judging from her most recent film. It smashes any silly preconceptions that great female filmmakers automatically have to make films about women’s issues. The Hurt Locker is an well-structured, unrelenting time bomb of a movie, whose only significant female character only appears for a few minutes at the end. The lack of obvious feminist discourse in Bigelow’s filmography reminds me of another important female director, Ida Lupino, the only film by whom I’ve seen has been The Hitch-Hiker. It’s a brutal little noir with no feminist subtext in sight – like The Hurt Locker, it’s about the relationship between three men trapped together in stressful circumstances. Lupino’s never really gotten her due; maybe the Bigelow’s sudden success will cause her to be rediscovered? I can only hope.

The point is that Kathryn Bigelow is a very rare animal and a very talented director who will hopefully open the floodgates for more acceptance of female directors. It’s so great to see a group of nominated directors who aren’t totally pale and male; a quick glance shows that the last variations in race or sex were Alejandro Iñárritu, nominated for Babel (2006), and Ang Lee, the winner for Brokeback Mountain (2005). Historically, the Academy likes their directors white and penis-having, trends that are temporarily halted by Bigelow and Precious‘s gay black director Lee Daniels. More on him later, more about The Hurt Locker now.

It’s a film that scores the tricky feat of being both extremely topical and universally applicable. Superficially, it’s about the ongoing Iraq War, based directly on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mark Boal’s experiences while embedded there. This is pretty damn timely, especially considering that Apocalypse Now wasn’t released until four years after the Vietnam War had officially ended. This timeliness is both a curse and a blessing: The Hurt Locker pays absolutely no heed to the historical context or consequences of the war, but this gives it a feeling of immediacy; it’s not about the war so much as the soldiers, who have to live from skirmish to skirmish. Whereas Apocalypse Now was all about deconstructing the war’s accumulated mythologies, The Hurt Locker regards Iraq as a work-in-progress, and focuses unblinkingly on a specific unit.

Bravo Company’s bomb disposal unit consists of three men: the leader Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), and his subordinates Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). As I observed in my article, one beautiful element of this film is the way they’re characterized. Avatar dealt in the language of total moral legibility, where every character can be categorized as “good” or “bad” based on the first glimpse. The Hurt Locker doesn’t really provide portentous snippets of dialogue as signposts for who we’re supposed to love and hate. All we’ve got is three flawed and confused men. James makes frequent poor decisions of which Sanborn, with frustration, takes note, and tensions run high both as a result of his behavior and the possibility of an explosion at any given second. Eldridge usually watches the proceedings with quiet interest, nodding along with Sanborn’s grievances but saving his real feelings for his last scene in the film.

If I haven’t made it clear from all that, this is a very different kind of war movie. It’s character-driven and episodic, following the unit from one potential bomb site to another; the repetition almost leads to feelings of deja vu and an uncertainty of where, exactly, the movie is going. By the time we come to the last shot, which takes every badass image of warfare from recent cinematic memory and turns it on its head, we realize that we haven’t been following a narrative arc, but an emotional arc within James’s psyche. Bravo Company isn’t trying to “take the anthill,” as Adolphe Menjou would’ve said in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. We have no linear progression to an achievable goal. The film’s structure resembles that of a video game (like, say, Gears of War, which Eldridge is seen playing). It doesn’t end. It just circles back around to the next level. The influence of video games has been mentioned in numerous discussions of The Hurt Locker, and it’s very visible – this is a truly 21st century war movie, in its style and story.

The gaming aspect of the film’s visuals also connects to a common criticism, which is that The Hurt Locker functions more or less as a two-hour advertisement for the thrill and intensity of military service. I’m not saying that this point has no validity, but I do think that both the articles I link to are somewhat wrong-headed in their readings of the film. It’s always funny, with a work as ideologically ambiguous as this, how critics tend to either decry it as jingoistic and hawkish, claiming that it only shows the “fun” side of war, or else condemn it as anti-American for daring to show the inner strife of combatants.

The truth is more difficult than that, because The Hurt Locker is hardly unassailable in its politics, but neither is it as unequivocal in its presentation of war-as-a-game as some would have you believe. The second of the articles I linked to, Tara McKelvey’s “The Hurt Locker as Propaganda,” describes James’s brief furlough home during the last portion of the film as “a dull, dreary world,” complete with a cereal aisle that ostensibly signifies “American consumerism gone amuck”; it adds that upon his return to Iraq, James is “filled with a sense of purpose, courage, and even nobility that does not exist in suburban America”.

While this isn’t strictly false, it does force The Hurt Locker into a dualistic box where it doesn’t belong. Yes, suburban America looks dull and dreary when compared to the thrilling scenes of war that preceded it, but that’s not because of some inherent superiority of the former. It is, as McKelvey observes, all about the contrast; the film’s real point is that after so much time becoming acclimated to the stresses of warfare, James can’t perceive his home life in the same way. In this department, The Hurt Locker resembles Apocalypse Now, wherein the “wisdom” that Colonel Kurtz reaches through the horrors of war makes him retreat into the jungle while his family waits back home. The moral isn’t “Join the military – it’s so much more fun than home”; it’s “Join the military and you’ll become unable to enjoy being home.”

The Hurt Locker, after all, is a film with a definite thesis, its first onscreen image: “war is a drug.” The point of a drug is that the addict craves more, and that all other pleasures in life are diminished until the drug becomes an all-consuming means and end. (Look at Trainspotting, where the choice is between “life” and heroin.) When James goes home, he isn’t disappointed by the rampant consumerism or the tedium of tearing leaves out of gutters. He’s in withdrawal, totally incapable of relating to family anymore, and it’s utterly tragic. The next and last scene, with James suited up and strutting down a Baghdad street, reads almost as a parody of army propaganda. It’s anything but noble.

This is a talented man, the best at what he does, who’s been reduced to a junkie, and by the end of the film, he is the suit. He’s gone from a full human being to a video game character, compelled to cycle through until he runs out of lives. Yes, The Hurt Locker viscerally and even quasi-sexually depicts the dismantling of bomb after bomb, and this yields several scenes’ worth of decidedly pleasurable cinema. But this is part and parcel with any war movie, so much so that François Truffaut once commented that no movie is truly anti-war, since they’ll always communicate some fun, thrilling aspect of war. Just look at Apocalypse Now‘s helicopter attack to the tune of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which is the textbook illustration of this effect.

But Bigelow and Boal don’t just passively accept this. They cleverly and insistently undermine it. This is a very smart war movie, and far from being a recruitment ad. I don’t know if it’s the best movie of 2009 – I’ll have more to say about that later – but I am glad to see all the critical approval. Unlike Avatar, it doesn’t just let the audience sit back, identify with a protagonist, and then applaud themselves for being such wonderful people. If we see ourselves in James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, we have some hard questions to confront. That Iraqi’s just filming you dismantling the bomb, after all. Would you be justified in shooting him? And James’s climactic attempt to free an innocent man just throws in an extra layer of difficulty.

I think it’ll take some time to figure out what The Hurt Locker‘s front-runner status really says about America/Hollywood’s willingness to talk about and understand the Iraq War, but love it or hate it, it’s out there. I also suspect that the close proximity between the film’s release and the start of the war has a lot to do with its lack of a clear political stance, and that murkiness in turn has probably buoyed its popularity. As the criticisms show, you can read a lot into this movie based on your own inclinations. When faced with populist bullshit like Avatar and brilliant, original filmmaking like The Hurt Locker, despite its few flaws, I’ll take The Hurt Locker every time.

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