Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Torturing Bastards

Yeah, so this whole thing happened and then Thomas Garvey wrote this whole thing. And, well, I guess I'm not one to shy away from a relatively dumb fight/disagreement/what-have-you. Because I'm a sucker. But I did just see Inglourious Basterds and have a number of thoughts. (I will try to avoid spoilers, but they might slip in there, so, you know, beware. You have been warned.)

So, for those averse to clicking on links, the whole crux of the discussion is this: Thomas has asserted that, among other things, Quentin Tarantino's work paved the way for the Dick Cheney and the torture committed by US soldiers and intelligence officers. I (and others) disagree. The connection between Tarantino's work, in particular Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (as the two that feature the most graphic and brutal scenes of torture), and the actions of our government nearly a decade later feels pretty tenuous to me. Certainly Tarantino has often depicted torture and used in sensational ways, in addition to misogyny and other sensational and distasteful elements. But to make a clean, direct line from Tarantino to Cheney...? Eh, I just don't buy it. And Thomas' various arguments haven't been particularly persuasive.

So now, he posts on it, and seems pretty triumphant about it, because he found a right-winger who liked Inglourious Basterds at Andrew Breitbart's fever swamp of stupidity, Big Hollywood. I would say a little bit more about Big Hollywood, but Isaac beat me to the punch. It's a step above quoting WorldNetDaily to prove that Obama is a Kenyan-born socialist racist bent on devouring our precious bodily fluids.

But what's really wrong about this argument is that we're talking about Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's most recent film, made after Abu Ghirab and the black sites and the discussion of "enhanced interrogation." Now that I've seen it, yep, it's sadistic, graphic and vicious. I do agree that Tarantino does love filming violence. He films it the way other filmmakers film sex. But...the movie is very much about torture, about the violent things done in war, and about revenge. It's a meditation on the destructive nature of revenge. I think that is honestly where it stumbles. He makes a point of drawing an equivalence between the (mostly) Jewish US soldiers and the Nazis. Both commit acts of torture, both use torture to get information in very similar ways. The climax of the film (not really a spoiler, since it's been talked about in many places) features a packed theatre of Nazi bigwigs laughing at the slaughter of American soldiers, followed immediately by a bunch of US soldiers slaughtering said Nazis in a manner that we are clearly meant to cheer. I think there's a serious false equivalency going there.

If you're going to say that Inglourious Basterds is a "brief for the kind of abuses that Cheney and the CIA got away with," you can't ignore the conclusion it comes to: the heroes aren't much better than the Nazis; we just like them better. That isn't the point that I think Cheney or the right-wingers who are busily trying to explain that torture isn't torture want to make.

Sorry, Thomas, finding one person, who's not a film critic or film expert, but a politician writing with a clear political bent doesn't actually make the case you're trying to make. I'm taking it that, after combing through Tarantino's own writings and works, he couldn't find any evidence of a conservative bent. So he found someone who already had that bent and imposed it on the movie. By that logic, the Clash and the Who are right-wingers. But also, to make the argument that a movie that came out in 2009 is somehow responsible for actions taken 6 years ago is just plain nonsensical. And to make his original argument, that QT's earlier work is what paved the way, you need to explain how his long gap in filmmaking during the key years leading up to the recent events factors into it.

(And, really? You congratulate this guy for catching the subtle, subtle subtext of this movie? Yeah, it's pretty apparent, pretty obvious and feels pretty much intended, right from the start. I fact, as you can see, from the quote here, it IS intentional, and it isn't just a jingoistic American portrayal.)

To be honest, I think you might have an actual point somewhere in there. I was talking to my friend after the show and he also made the point that, after movies like Inglourious Basterds, the torture we hear about in the real world seems pretty tame. It does help inure the populace, but the bigger problem is when the people who make policy seem to have trouble telling the difference between the movies and reality.

In the movies, in most, if not all movies, torture is 100% effective (Inglourious Basterds is no exception) and only done to extract information. It can be resisted by a superior will or the willingness to die before divulging that information. People who torture are either sadists doing it for the pleasure or good people facing a ticking timebomb (i.e. Harrison Ford in Patriot Games). None of this is how it works in the real world. (For a better depiction of the way torture is actually used in the real world, check out this article and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode it mentions.) That our leaders were so deluded and, frankly, criminal, that they either didn't know that or didn't care is a bigger problem than one director and his five feature films.

To keep this at least slightly related to the world of the arts, Thomas has avoided my main issue with this whole discussion: so, okay, you think that Quentin Tarantino's films led to torture. Do you think that was his intention? Or do you think that was an unintended consequence? If QT is indeed a big old conservative on the inside, does that invalidate his art? I have issues with many of his films, even though I like most of them quite a lot, but they are, unquestionably, art. Even Inglourious Basterds. It's not a superficial, one-sided, rah rah rah, kill them Nazis movie (though, in some ways, that's kind of what it's missing). It's a pretty serious mediation on the price of vengenance, the cruelty of war, what it turns people into, and what kind of people we ask to fight our wars for us. The Basterds take as much pleasure in the vicious killings they commit as the Nazis do (in fact, one of the few characters who shows some sense of remorse for the murders he's committed for his country is a Nazi war hero...but then he turns out to be kind of a rapist). We are meant to cheer them on, but we're also meant to ask ourselves "What are we cheering for?" as they shoot civilians in the back.

For me, the overlap point of an artist's politics or personal beliefs and what I make of their films is a sticky one. If I reject the work of someone whose politics I disagree with, then can I condemn someone else for rejecting another artist for politics I agree with? Does it really matter? I have a long-standing disrespect for Elia Kazan, due to his actions and politics during the blacklist era (seriously, I mock-spit on the ground every time I saw his name and mutter "rat-fink" under my breath...because he was). It has in some ways kept me away from On The Waterfront. I can probably make the argument that On The Waterfront was responsible for the Vietnam War, because it advanced the idea that Communism was dangerous and should be resisted at all costs. Does that make it less of a work of art? I'm not asking this facetiously. I don't know. It's a legitimate question and discussion. Let's talk about that. Then we don't have to worry about spoilers so much.


Anonymous said...

To be clear? Have you kept away from On The Waterfront? Because unless you are being ironic about it's connection to the Vietnam war...


99 said...

To be perfectly honest, I have stayed away from On The Waterfront, but only slightly for political reasons. Mostly just plain laziness and lack of opportunity (it's not the first thing I think of to Netflix). But I do have serious issues with Elia Kazan and the way he behaved during the blacklist era.

I was being facetious when I drew a connection between that movie and the Vietnam War, though. I think it's ridiculous to connect Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction to the torture regime of Dick Cheney in the same way it would be ridiculous to blame On The Waterfront for the Cold War.