September 8, 2009

Certain Theses Regarding Ingloriousness (I)

If you’ve been worried, dear reader, that I might have been eaten by the gibbering non-Euclidean monstrosity in that glass of single malt, then worry no more. It hasn’t gotten me yet. My absence here of late is the result of more mundane annoyances. Between driving from Michigan to Florida, having my car break down not once but twice, moving all of my earthly possessions from South Miami to South Beach, I’ve had my hands full. However, everything’s settled down now. At the time of this writing, I’ve just gotten back home after a swim in the ocean, and, having poured myself a martini—specifically, my own recipe for a Super-Duper Dry Martini, a recipe I may share with the readers of Awkward Haiku sometime in the future—I’m now ready to resume my blogging duties.

Specifically, I rise now to speak…OK, if you want to be all boring and literal about it, I’m not rising and speaking, I’m sitting and typing, occasionally pausing to take a sip of my martini….but if you’ll allow me to sacrifice accuracy a bit for the sake of a nice turn of phrase, I rise now to speak about ingloriousness in general, and the basterds in particular. With some stuff about Philip K. Dick and Michael Chabon on the side, since it seems relevant.

If you haven’t gone to see the movie yet—and why on earth haven’t you? Damn thing's been out for weeks--and you plan on seeing it, then the following words are in order. In a preview, it’s right and proper not to give away very much about a movie. The proper function of a preview is to whet the appetite of the viewing public so they’ll go out and see it, and the obligation to not reveal very much follows from that function in a fairly straight-forward way. Unfortunately, contemporary American culture seems to be full of people who can’t grasp the conceptual distinction between a preview and a review. The proper function of a review—as well as related forms, like say, the form of a “blog post about a movie”--is to talk about, think about, provoke thought about and provide insight into a movie. Not to advertise it. Someone talking about a story doesn’t have any obligation to avoid revealing very much, and if they act as if they do, they’re interfering with their own proper function.

Look. Stories are, in the final analysis, arcs, and you can’t talk informatively about an arc without revealing things about the endpoint of that arc. The insidious silliness of the “spoiler alert” culture, where someone writing about a movie feels a weird pseudo-obligation to be hyper-aware of the points at which they’re “giving things away” and provide careful warnings about that, is a corrosive influence on the fine and noble tradition of movie reviewing, and I refuse to be part of that. So, if you haven’t seen Ingorious Basterds, and you plan to, minimize this window, open up a new one, google the showtimes at your local theater, buy a ticket, get in your car, go to that theatre, pick up your ticket, buy some buttery popcorn, some goobers, or, if you aren’t worried about making yourself sick, maybe some nachos or hot dogs, and watch the damn movie. It’ll be a blast, and Awkward Haiku will be waiting for you when you get back.

Got it? Good.

So, how was it? Pretty cool, right? Pretty bad-ass when Hitler's face was blown into little bits at the end, wasn’t it? Damn straight it was. Manage to avoid theater-hot-dog-induced stomach cramps? Glad to hear it. Now, let’s talk about the movie.

The movie that you just saw had very little in common with the movie those previews promised us, and that’s a very good thing. The previews promised something halfway between Kill Bill Volume One and something approaching torture porn. That movie was going to be all about killin’ Nazis, from beginning to end. It was probably going to be stylish and cool and the tempo was going to be spot-on—I mean, we knew all along that this was a Tarantino movie--but the Nazi-killin’ and talking up Nazi-killin’ was all that was going to be there.

You’ll notice that the bits of the movie that the previews were all about only took up a relatively small slice of the running time. In fact, if you go back and watch the previews, you’ll notice that several key lines of preview-dialogue—the extended version of Brad Pitt discoursing about the glories of Nazi-killin’—didn’t make into the movie. These are all good things. The movie had better things to do.

What Tarantino does best is dialogue. Kill Bill 1 was a cool-ass movie, and when I’m sitting around my apartment, drinking some scotch with my friends, and it comes on, I’m always up for re-watching it, and I always enjoy it. But no one would call it one of the best movies ever made. Now, Pulp Fiction? That was one of the best damn movies ever made. That’s the difference. He can put together a ridiculously fun action sequence with the best of them, but the best Tarantino movies? You’re watching them for the dialogue. For the random cool weird conversations about unexpected subjects. That’s the real glory of Tarantinoness, and Ingorious Basterds had it in spades. In fact, while a week after watching it, I’m still very much in the ‘happy afterglow’ stage of things, I’m inclined to say that this is the best movie the man has made in a long time.

In fact, if an insanely talented film-maker with more or less unlimited resources had made a movie specifically as a ridiculously indulgent birthday present or some such, specifically for me, it would have looked a lot like Ingorious Basterds. “Here you go, Ben. It’s an alternate history movie, it’s fun as shit, it’s full of weird conversations and historical tid-bits and, just to make sure you like it, I included some weird digressions on things I know you’re into, like the glories of single malt scotch, and hey, just as a final treat, Hitler’s face gets blown into itty bitty pieces at the end. So, yeah, hope you like it.”

Seriously. This is a movie where we learn that there’s a special place in hell for people who waste good scotch, so if you’re about to die, and you’ve got some in front of you, lap it up. If God were as clued-in as Quentin Tarantino, that shit would be the eleventh commandment.

But, to take a step back from pondering how deep into my head Tarantino might be, some much more interesting things were going on in this movie. And that brings us to ingloriousness-in-general.

Here’s a relatively little-known tid-bit of science fiction history…Philip K. Dick wrote a couple of chapters of a sequel to his masterpiece Man In The High Castle, then abandoned the project. Not because he’d lost interest, but because he didn’t think he could psychologically withstand spending another novel in the head space of Naziism.

Fairly obviously, the fascination with that head space was one of the primary motives that drove him to write High Castle in the first place, and that obvious fascination was what made Dick’s book infinitely more interesting than the thousand “What if Hitler had won the war?” novels that have been written before and after it. Dick said many times that the two big philosophical questions that all of his science fiction grappled with in one way or another were:

(1) What is real?


(2) What is human?

The streak of wrestling-with-(1) running throughout Dick’s considerable creative output is pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever read his main books, or even seen a few movies based on his stuff. His books are full of false realities and shifting realities, fakes and fake fakes and lingering uncertainties. I love Dick’s brand of pop epistemology as much as the next guy, or, hell, stastically speaking, probably much more than the next guy. But (2) is, in some ways, even more interesting.

And that’s the point where we’ll pick up in a couple days.

(To Be Continued)

1 comment:

Quentin said...

I want part two!