Monday, January 26, 2015

Inglourious Basterds Told the Wrong Dang Story

I'm going to describe a movie for you and I want you to think for a minute about whether or not you would see that movie:

A young woman witnesses the death of her family. She alone is able to escape and find shelter, but she is haunted by the memory of their deaths and the knowledge that their killers are still out there. The woman reinvents herself in a new city, takes a new name, dyes her hair, even falls in love, but always in the back of her mind is the understanding that her family is dead and the men who killed them could come for her at any moment. The city she lives in is still under their control. There is nowhere she can go that is safe.

One day, while going quietly about her business in her new home, the woman comes face to face with one of her family's killers. A man who, while he did not pull the trigger, belongs to the same army and organization that ordered their deaths. The man does not recognize her and instead asks her for a date. She refuses. But the more she refuses the more he is intrigued. The woman now finds herself haunted not only by her dead family but also by this killer who has decided he loves her.

The killer worms his way into her life, forces her to face her tormentors, and invites them to invade her home, her business, and her every moment. Finally, the killer makes it so that a film of his exploits, killing people like her family, will be shown at the theater the woman runs. The audience will be made up of her family's killers and their kind. And she cannot refuse.

So she makes a plan. She decides that she will not sit idly by and leave her family unavenged, and she will act to save the families of all the others who might be hurt. On the night of the film, as the killer's acts are sprayed across the big screen, the woman and her lover set fire to the theater and kill everyone inside. Both she and her killers are dead.

The end.

I mean, yeah, it sounds like a super depressing movie, but doesn't it also sound really compelling? I would watch the crap out of that! It's a traditional 1970s-style revenge flick, with systemic oppression, intrigue, racial inequality, and gender dynamics coming out of every pore. It's a great movie. And, I'm happy to say that it's a movie that really does exist. Sort of.

The movie I described - in case you didn't recognize it - is the B-plot from Quentin Tarantino's revisionist masterpiece Inglourious Basterds. The story follows Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew, whose entire family is killed by the Nazis. She alone escapes, only to find herself, years later, with a movie theater full of Nazis and a bunch of really flammable film.

This plotline is pretty much the only reason I like Inglourious Basterds. I'm serious. There's not a lot else in there that I can appreciate. While I enjoy Til Schweiger, I like him better in Was Tun Wenns Brennt and Daniel Bruhl is a lot more fun when he's not being a Nazi. I mean, he's straight up adorable in Goodbye Lenin!* The whole thing with Donnie the Bear Jew is interesting, but ultimately kind of dumb, and the A-plot mostly makes me want to shake Tarantino by the shoulders.

"Not every historical problem is solved just by saying that it would have ended differently if the oppressed were given more guns!" I want to yell. "The complexity and tragedy of historical events is not helped by your dick-swinging revisionist macho fantasies! These are the lives of real people and they deserve respect not some sneering condescension and to be told that they should have just defended themselves."

But enough about my dislike for Quentin Tarantino.

The real thing I want to get at here is a problem I find all too common: the thing where a perfectly decent movie could have been an amazing movie if only the story had focussed on a different character. In this and most cases, what I mean by that is a minor female character. There are too many movies that stink just because they chose to follow the wrong lead. And this is one of them.

Edge of Tomorrow is good, but don't you want to see a movie about Rita Vrataski kicking butt without any backup? Yeah, Inception is a really cool movie. But you know what would be way cooler? An entire movie from the perspective of Mal, the dead memory in Cobb's mind. Like a whole movie about Mal haunting him and slowly realizing that she's dead, just a memory in her husband's mind, and trying to figure out what to do or how to get out or anything like that. It would take the trippiness and awesomeness of the film up to eleven.

King Arthur is fine and all, but wouldn't it be more interesting to actually spend a whole movie following Guinevere, the Wode warrior captured by Romans and tortured in a Roman prison before being set free and fighting the Saxons for the future of her nation?

What I'm saying is, because filmmakers almost always default to the idea that the most interesting story is the one about the white guy "everyman", they fail to notice the really really interesting stuff actually happening in their movies. Shosanna's story is way more interesting that that of the "Basterds". Every time the film switches to follow them, I get kind of annoyed because I know it means we're not going to see Shosanna for a while and that's who I'm here for.

In a very real sense, the problem here is that the female characters, the minor female characters have stories that are implied or glossed over in the film, but those stories are ones we almost never get to hear and as such they're actually more interesting to me. We so rarely get to see into these characters' lives that it becomes my fondest wish to see them. Shosanna's story is compelling because it's not been told. Not really. Not as the focus.

For that matter, Diane Kruger's character, Bridget Von Hammersmark, a German actress secretly working for the Allies while also making Nazi propoganda films, is really interesting because we never see movies about that character. We see movies where that character shows up for a couple of scenes and then dies horribly, but we never actually see a whole movie about her. I want a whole movie about her.

By pushing these really interesting women and stories into the background all the time, the message Hollywood (intentionally or unintentionally sends) is that they're not worth telling. They're not worth the time or effort to tell well. They're boring or inconsequential or invalid. Not nearly as interesting as watching a bunch of white guys shoot another bunch of white guys for two hours. No way.

And, while I'm mostly talking about women here, it's also a problem with characters of color. There are so many characters of color who just pop up in other movies but would be way more compelling if they got films of their own. It's a problem across the board, and the real people who suffer from it are us. All of us. Because not only do we not get to see that our stories, the real ones about us (sorry, white guys, not talking to you for a second), matter and should be told, we also don't get to see good stories.

When we come down to it, that's my real complaint about Inglourious Basterds. The story that the film chose to tell, the story that it focussed on and therefore implied was the most important, is not the most interesting story in that movie. Not by a long shot. And Inglourious Basterds is a worse movie for choosing to spend most of its screentime on a bunch of guys with guns rather than Shosanna. 

Shosanna's story gives me honest to goodness goosebumps when I think about it. It's so powerful. Really, truly important. It has gravitas. And yeah, there are some fantastical elements, but it's a story about a young woman coming to grips with the death of her family, taking revenge, and grabbing hold of her own destiny. She has agency. She acts with authority. Shosanna is a superhero.

I mean, just take that scene where she's preparing to greet a bunch of Nazi bigwigs, at the behest of a man who has been sexually harassing her for months, right before she murders all of them. She puts on her makeup like she's going to war. Her face is stone and she slashes her cheeks with lipstick like it's warpaint. Who doesn't feel that in their bones?

Her story is so important because it's a story about the people whose power was taken taking it back. I'd much rather see a story about the disenfranchised rewriting their own history than be told it all would have been better if there were more Americans with guns.

Yes, the problem is one of representation and structural inequality and addressing our own prejudices and biases when we see films. But it is also just straight up about making good movies. And good movies are ones that tell stories we haven't seen forty kajillion times. For my money, I'd rather see an original, inventive film about a protagonist I've never seen before than sit back and let the waves of familiarity sweep over me. Any day.

*Yes, some of the excuse for writing this article is to show off that I have good taste in German cinema. Sue me.


  1. Well, another story that could use with a "subverted" viewpoint, if you want a good German film is "Das Leben der Anderen"...

    1. I love that movie! I actually wrote about it a few years ago, I think. So good. And you're right, it does do a good job of showing a subverted viewpoint for an area of history we rarely talk about.

  2. But you know what would be way cooler? An entire movie from the perspective of Mal, the dead memory in Cobb's mind.

    You'd have to drop any idea that it's not supernatural (Cobb's brain wouldn't be big enough to host both him and Mal), but otherwise, yes.

    I mean, yeah, it sounds like a super depressing movie, but doesn't it also sound really compelling?

    And HELL yes.

    1. I'm okay with it being a straight up ghost story, because a straight up ghost story from the perspective of the ghost sounds super duper cool.

      Someone should write that.

  3. It's been a good year or two since I've watched Inglourious Basterds in its entirety, but I'd argue that the very point you make about Shosanna's storyline being the most interesting is proof that Tarantino actually did do a great job with the storytelling in this film. One of the first, if not the first (I do not recall at this moment), scenes sets up the conflict between Shosanna and Hans Landa with the milk drinking scene. It's a very common technique to drop the audience into the heart of the action within the first 10 minutes of the film, and therefore I'd argue that the storyline which we call the "B story" is actually at the heart of Inglourious Basterds (whether or not its characters occupy most of its literal screen time). And accordingly, Christoph Waltz, billed as a supporting actor in the film, ends up earning the most recognition for his role as Hans Landa in this film (Oscar win). A lot of this recognition I would argue can be attributed to the fantastic writing of the Shosanna-Landa storyline by Tarantino and equally fantastic portrayal of its protagonist by Laurent, which by extension lends more richness to Waltz's character of Landa. If anything it would be Hollywood that is shunning the strong female lead, not Tarantino. With that being said, Laurent did earn nominations and wins as a main actress of the film and as part of the cast of the film. I do agree with you that Shosanna's storyline is perhaps the most compelling of the film, but I would not change the way it was told or say that Tarantino does not give enough attention to great (female) roles in his films. Take for example the epic undertaking of Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, and its upcoming third installment, Kill Bill Vol. 3. I guess when it comes down to it, it all depends on what type of film you want to watch. Anyway, really cool stuff on your blog!

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