The first thing I didn’t expect about Inglourious Basterds is this: it was hilarious. Really just knock down drag out this is damn funny, kind of funny. Maybe not as much if you aren’t familiar with WWII, or with movies about WWII, or movies made during WWII. (though that last category gets over my head) The jokes are subtle a lot of the time. They are references. There’s a scene in Britain complete with a Churchill so drunk he functions as little more than furniture. Churchill isn’t, in fact, a speaking part. From my companion’s perspective, I appeared to be choking from laughter at that.
The second is that it is the most meta film I have ever seen, including Tristam Shandy. I couldn’t help at various points poking my friend and making references to JOI’s The Joke (one for my infsum buddies). Moments of other films didn’t just come up, they were practically pointed at by the actors. The discussions of film theory took up more time than QT’s famous violence. The plot hinged on the history, culture, chemistry and even mechanics of film. This movie played with reality vs fantasy in war movies while the characters talked about how real the character of the war movie in it was.
As people keep noting, it’s a movie that turns the Jews into the Nazis and the Nazis into the Jews and takes great fun doing it. But it doesn’t stop there- the Jews even become suicide bombers, striking a contemporary note. It’s a revenge movie in just about every possible vector. It was an obscene love affair with the warm and powerful hate that revenge can turn into a kind of orgiastic joy- with a price. Unlike Kill Bill, there’s no one Bride. Just about everyone is down to get theirs, and they do. The psychic price for revenge in IG seems to be life, which most characters give willingly and enthusiastically. But it’s not, that’s a red herring. Revenge turns out to be much more expensive.
It wasn’t really a period piece. The 1984 Apple ad made an appearance, along with Austin Powers further back in time, as a general. There were others as well. And something about Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) felt anachronistic from the start, and by the end, I believed that was on purpose. Raine, it is explained repeatedly, is part Apache. He’s called Chief several time, and cites that as his reason for favoring scalping. He was a reference to something older- the American genocide- and something younger- mixed race whites being proud of their blended heritage. Aldo Raine seems quite intentionally in, but not of, this movie.
Only two serious characters in it don’t seem to have any revenge motive- Landa and Raines. They are men that spend the entire movie with smiles on their faces, like they know something the other characters don’t, smiling like they know what’s really going to happen. It’s Raine that bodily reveals the true price of total revenge. It is this: Revenge will make you one flesh. More totally than sex or love or culture or media, it is revenge that will erase the differences. Your blue-eyed Indian children will stalk the Earth, and they may love you, but they won’t know how to tell you and your most hated enemy apart.
It left me shaky and wide eyed, wondering down the empty 2am streets of Boston, walking all the way back to Cambridge with my companion without really noticing the time go by. I don’t know if I believe QT. But, strangely enough, history seems like it might be on his side. Perhaps it’s an idea that is more palatable to me expressed as no cultural identity survives massive conflict- not even the winner’s. We touch each other, we change each other, we start again. QT is not where I expected to find something like this, and it makes me wonder if this is something new for him, or if I should go back and watch the others to see what I missed.