Monday, August 31, 2009

My Battle With War As Entertainment


There's a constant war that rages within me. It's a vicious war and it goes something like this. Can a film about war be considered entertainment? Or better written, can I relax the sphincter enough to enjoy a war film and not feel bad about it? It's a good question - one that I seem to play both sides of. A movie is usually considered entertainment. It's true that a great film surpasses that, but mostly people escape to theaters or DVD Players to laugh, to cry, to be scared. I would never tell someone that Saving Private Ryan (minus the opening and closing scenes) "Fucking rocks and you must see it!" But I would say it's a very good war film. One that I have revisited several times. And so the question is, why have I revisited it several times? And I suppose the answer would be for it's entertainment value. What? There's entertainment in watching American Soldiers being blown to bits? To see a man holding his insides and calling for him Mommy? See my dilemma? I would be lying if I said that watching the soldiers approach Omaha Beach with the fear in their sunken eyes didn't cause my heart rate to rise. Or the ending standoff isn't some of the greatest action I've ever seen. But should I feel guilty for feeling that way?

And what of other war films? Like Three Kings, which I loved. Or more recently with The Hurt Locker, which I think is one of the standout films of the year. At no point did I feel dirty for enjoying those films, even though they were about war. And what about Platoon? Apocalypse Now? The Deer Hunter? Full Metal Jacket? I have enjoyed all of these and could revisit them again and again without a second thought. But I would describe each one of these as a great war film, which is almost like saying someone is a great black man. Or a great Asian man. Why do I have to label it? Can't I just let it be a great film? Must I categorize it? It's almost like I'm apologizing for it already. Or drumming up pre-conceived notions that may or may not have existed before. And of course, I'm not even including the other countless war films from the past.

This war within me came to a head recently with my viewing of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. It played out as a very entertaining film but it dealt with heavy subject matter - that being World War II and the flight of Jews during that time. In commenting about it on Ed Howard's blog Only The Cinema for TOERIFC, I found it hard to outright say that I enjoyed the film. I felt guilty about doing so. Or at least describing it as an entertaining film. As a matter of fact, I felt it wrong for Verhoeven to take the approach he did with World War II as the background.

As far as I can tell, I seem to mostly have a problem with World War II, due to its subject matter. There have been many enemies in many wars, but I think the Nazi's are about as close to the devil incarnate as I have seen.

So of course, it makes no sense that I completely loved Inglourious Basterds. Or maybe it does. Honestly, I don't know anymore. Maybe I love it because it puts the Jews on the offensive. (the same reason why I can revisit Munich) Maybe I love it because it knowingly tips its hat to movie after movie. Maybe I love it because I'm in love with Melanie Laurent. Maybe I love it because it might just be Tarantino's most sophisticated writing to date. The opening scene between Colonel Hans and the French Farmer is filled with dialogue. But where in the past Tarantino's dialogue solely existed to prove how cool the character was, or Tarantino was, this dialogue defines motives. Creates tension. Dare I say, advances the story.

Maybe I love it because it's lovable. Because Tarantino made it that way. The moment that the opening credits began and type font after type font appeared on the screen, I was smiling. Not unlike when a great comedian takes the stage. Before that comedian has opened his mouth, I'm enjoying myself because I know I will enjoy myself. I think for all of Tarantino's trailblazing in the film industry, the truth is he wants you to enjoy his films. He needs you to enjoy his films. He is not a Steven Soderbergh who will go off and make a film that only a handful of people will like. Or see. No, Tarantino is a pleaser and you can tell that through every aspect of this movie and every movie he's made. The music, the freeze frames, the characters, the dialogue. He makes his movies like you're in on the joke.

Inglourious Basterds is not without its faults. I could have done without the chapters. To me, they were unneeded and frankly felt as if Tarantino had lost a little trust in his audience's ability to keep up. I hated the scene where Colonel Landa was being introduced to Aldo Raine, Donowitz and Ulmer as Italian filmmakers. It was too slapstick for me and felt out of place in the story. And while Tarantino has made strides in the dialogue department, there were still some places that felt a little too chatty. Specifically, the scene between Colonel Landa, Raine and Utivich. The scene should have been there to advance the story, and it felt like Tarantino was showing off a bit. But probably my biggest complaint, and it's not necessarily a complaint as a wish, I wished that we could have seen more of the Basterds. An entire movie could have played out introducing each one of these characters to us and showing us why this brotherhood was so important. I'm not usually one for insisting on a backstory, but this would have been good to speak to the motivations.

What I guess I like about Inglouious Basterds, and what I like about every single Tarantino movie for that matter, is that I left entertained. The fact that he can make an entertaining film against the backdrop of one of the worst wars in history is a testament to his talent. Either that or I'm finally ending my war against war movies. We will have to see.

18 comments:

bill r. said...

I loved this movie more than just about anything, but I agree with you that there should have been -- or COULD have been -- a lot more to the Basterds. I wanted to know them all better. The film works like gangbusters without it, but then again, I would have been fine if this film had gone on for days.

Rick Olson said...

I struggle with the idea of loving a war movie as well, Pat. Where I come down is that gratuitous violence for me draws the line. I felt there were some moments of that in "Basterds," though that wasn't the reason I thought it wasn't one of QT's best outings.

PIPER said...

Bill,

I agree that the film works great like it is. I saw it a second time Friday night at a 10:20 showing and couldn't believe I got home after 1. I had forgotten how long the movie was because it was so enjoyable.

Rick,

The violence and the mental anguish always bugs me. But to me, those are the two ingredients needed to ultimately promote the idea that war is hell. So that's a hard line to follow for me.

And for some reason or another the violence didn't bother me so much in Basterds, although I found myself cringing at a few of the scenes. The last scene especially. To me, Basterds was so over the top that it wasn't unlike watching a Raimi movie. It was kind of expected. Less about the "War as Hell" idea and more about the genres it was paying homage to.

PIPER said...

Oh and one last thing,

While I found Basterds to be enjoyable as hell, I still don't know that I put it up there at the tippy top. I'm still a fan of Pulp and Kill Bill and Dogs. But time may change that. I don't know.

brian said...

Pat,

This is a great post.

Here is a quick comment to a great post:

Tarantino makes entertaining movies. The fact that it's a war movie is besides the point.

Hokahey said...

I appreciate your thoughtful post.

Could you enjoy a movie about rape? I could if it was artfully and thoughtfully done.

I have always loved war movies. I was brought up on them. They are about a major human folly that fascinates me because I can't comprehend how humans will do what they do - and that means go bravely into battle as well as engage in killing. This fascination has taken me to countless books and movies.

Yes, you can enjoy a war film as entertainment if it is well made and it makes it clear that war is bad. The only problem I've ever had with this is that some people think I'm twisted for loving Black Hawk Down or The Deer Hunter.

PIPER said...

Hokahey,

Thanks for your comments.

I love The Deer Hunter as well, but not necessarily for the war aspect of it. The first half as it deals with all the characters is really fantastic. And I watch it for that. I think I've seen the Christopher Walken finish about twice because it's too painful for me to watch over and over again.

Black Hawk Down has too much Bruckheimer stink on it for me.

PIPER said...

Brian,

Thanks. I agree. The idea that it is a war movie is secondary. It's an entertaining movie first.

Chris Voss said...

I think the same question can be asked of films like THE DIRTY DOZEN or even THE GREAT ESCAPE - a lot of the "war" films in the 60s play on the same level as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS - which is to say, on a very different playing field from more "serious" war films like the others you mention in your (excellent) post.

Just curious, but I wonder what I lot of the critics who are deriding INGLOURIOUS think about those films?

Squish said...

I don't believe in elitism. I don't think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience.
- Quentin Tarantino

PIPER said...

Chris,

Some criticism that I've read is that it's void of emotion. And this speaks to Hokahey's comment as well. And Brian's comment. Inglourious Basterd's is an entertaining film first. A war movie second. I didn't necessarily leave Inglourious Basterds thinking that war was hell. It was just an interesting backdrop for the story. And if you take an offensive (revenge) focus on it, it can be entertainment. I think of the film Uncommon Valor which is just Vietnam junk, but I still love it.

Squish,

It's a great quote and speaks to Tarantino's motivations. Even if you don't get all the tips of the hat that his films are filled with, you still enjoy them because he approaches each film like what he would enjoy watching and seeing. And his taste just happens to mesh with a large general audience. That doesn't always work, but it certainly does for him mostly because Tarantino enjoys the process of making films. What goes into them. I often think of the scene with Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction where he's trying to pick a weapon before he goes back down in the basement of that pawn shop. He starts with a bat and then sees a sword up on the wall and ends up going with that. It was very cartoony in the way it was portrayed. But also very human and fun. I remember seeing that and thinking how fun that small scene was and how I hadn't necessarily seen that before. Or seen it done with so much glee.

It's this reason that I think I love zombie movies so much. To see what people will create to efficiently kill zombies. My son and I often go into restaurants and whatnot and play a game to decide that if the zombie holocaust descended upon us at that moment, what would we use as weapons. Ramble, ramble, ramble. I'm rambling.

Back to my point though. While I don't think that Tarantino is elitist, I think that his work can be taken out of context and used as elitist. Specifically, there's a post done that lists all of the films inspired and were payed homage to in Inglourious Basterds. There are dozens and dozens of films. It's an interesting post, but feels a little elitist. To me, at least.

brian said...

Could I be entertained by a movie about rape? No.
Could I be entertained by a move about torture? No.

So, am I a hypocritical for being entertained by war movies like "Saving Private Ryan," "Apocolypse, Now," and "Inglorious Basterds?" Maybe.

filmchris said...

This is a really good post, indeed.

However, there's one little issue you've left me curious about- how do you feel about a film that very pointedly presents several Nazi characters as anything but the Devil incarnate?

PIPER said...

filmchris,

Give me an example that I can react to.

filmchris said...

These are the two that stand out in my mind: Fredrick Zoller (fresh faced cinephile turned war hero who doesn't want to relive his violent experience onscreen) and Wilhelm (a drunken new father who just wants to get out of that basement alive).

PIPER said...

filmchris,

It's hard for me to see either of them as sympathetic, because whether they openly support the Nazi movement or not, they're still guilty. This is the case where you can't get half-pregnant. In the end Wilhelm killed for Hitler and in the end, Zoller did as well. And the scene between Zoller and Shosanna in the projection booth goes to show that Zoller is not as sympathetic as we might first have thought. He doesn't think twice to get violent with Shosanna. Zoller was angry with Shosanna because she did not fear him and his uniform the way the others did.

I think about the character of Muntze in Black Book. He was one of the leaders of the Gestapo, yet he was painted in a sympathetic light. So much so that Rachel falls for him. But in the end, he still has the knowledge of all that goes on. Whether he chooses to embrace it or turn a blind eye to it, doesn't matter to me. He is still guilty.

filmchris said...

Piper,

I can certainly see your general point about Zoller and Wilhelm being guilty simply because they are German soldiers. In fact, I'd say that my own worldview measures up very well to yours.

However, in the context of the film, I think it's fair to say that neither Zoller nor Wilhelm could be equated with Hitler or Landa. What do we see them do in the movie? Zoller is actually a pretty well-behaved and likable kid, save for the scene in the projection room (Also, I disagree with your reading of his motivations there. I don't think he's threatening Shosanna as a Nazi jackass, but as a young star whose head has gotten too big.) In fact, when Zoller and Hitler actually share space in the theater, their reactions to A Nation's Pride are radically different.

Wilhelm, meanwhile, is really just a happily drunken buffoon who gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He may wear the same uniform as Landa, but in the short time that we see him onscreen he is a far different man.

To return to my original point, I don't see these two characters as anything remotely like "the devil incarnate," other than the uniform they're wearing. I don't believe that to be incidental, either. Did you feel the same way seeing Zoller and Wilhelm gunned down as you did seeing Hitler's face getting destroyed? I certainly didn't.

PIPER said...

filmchris,

I think it's up for debate about Zoller. The scene where Shosanna actually feels remorse and goes to comfort him only to be greeted with a bullet in the chest, to me, summed up his character. That on the surface he was this innocent, but deeper down he was an evil soldier. And beside that scene, it's hard to see him as innocent considering that he stood in a tower and shot down dozens of soldiers. And for what? To save lives? No. To keep occupied territory for the Nazis. Yes, he was repulsed by the film, but he still did it. And it can't be said that it was spur of the moment considering that he did it over a series of days. And I personally think he was repulsed because of how romanticized it was. It's entirely possible that Zoller didn't mind the killing, he just minded the way it was inaccurately portrayed. But kudos to Tarantino for making this vague enough to be debatable on both sides.

And there's not enough knowledge about Wilhelm to really sum up his character. He was drunk and was a new father. Take those two things away and we might see a different character. He might have full intentions to raise his son as a Hitler youth. Or not, we just can't really say.