I’d like to suggest, at the outset, that there are three key viewing positions for any “history film”; three positions a viewer may take in relationship to this kind of film.
Firstly, there is (let’s be blunt) The Naive Audience: the “Naive Audience” is entirely credulous. They see the information onscreen as absolute truth of what that historical period was like. Because they’ve seen, for example, Schindler’s List, they feel they know everything about the Holocaust. This kind of viewing position receives all the historical information without any question about its veracity. After all, this person would argue, the filmmakers can’t say this is “Based on a True Story” unless it was, right?
Secondly, there is The Critical Audience. The “Critical Audience” views all films about any historical topic as suspect. Single errors (for whatever reason) will result in the entire films’ dismissal. The posts in the Coliseum in Gladiator were actually from the Circus Maximus and therefore the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing. [I reviewed a collection of essays on Gladiator written mostly by Classicists and each chapter pointed that out to me!] In particular, the “Critical Audience” is worried about the “Naive Audience” response; they are concerned that there are people out there with “wrong information”. The “Critical Audience” congratulate themselves on their intellect and are concerned that those people who aren’t as smart as they are might believe the errors.
The third position is The Curious Audience. The “Curious Audience” is inspired by a film to know more about the topic. Maybe they’ll take university history classes. Or read a book by a historian. If their interest is peaked, they’ll read more. Engage in the topic. They will not let the film’s inaccuracies and dramatic licence deter them from their enjoyment of both the “actual” history and the films. Even if the “Curious Audience” doesn’t follow up on the history, they remain sufficiently sceptical to not “believe everything in the film is 100% accurate”; but still lack the overall cynicism to throw the film-baby out with the historical bathwater. Unfortunately, the “Curious Audience” tends to also be silent; or at least quieter than the “Critical Audience” who tend to be “shouters”.
Thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds we can situate much of the film’s criticism: the “Naive Audience,” who believes everything they see without question, will conclude that Hitler was killed in 1944 in a French cinema and that he was shot at close range repeatedly by a Jewish American commando. The “Critical Audience” responses are fury at such a crass fabrication of historical details and dismiss the film outright. They point to the “Naive Audience” wandering around like village idiots content in their “wrong beliefs”. The “Curious Audience” enjoy Tarantino’s fiction for what it is, and perhaps contemplate why Tarantino tells his story in the way he does.
The sad fact is, I don’t believe the “Naive Audience” actually exists. At least, I’ve never met “that guy”; “that guy” who is so incredulous as to believe any historical drama is a definitive and final word on a historical moment. “That guy” is an illusion, a chimera invented by the “Critical Audience” to justify their own self-congratulatory and sanctimonious superiority. I’m willing to suggest that most people fall into the “Curious” category, but we all know people who are members of the “Critical Audience,” and they’re usually pretty full of themselves. “Well, if you’ve read about the subject like I have…” The “Critical Audience” exists only to ensure that they are thought to be the smartest people in the room.
I’m assuming we all fall into the “Curious” category; we shouldn’t be bothered by Inglourious Basterds historical inaccuracies, because Tarantino did not make a “historical film”. We know the film isn’t going to be historically accurate because of the title of the film’s first chapter: “Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”. By using the traditional opening of a fairy tale, “Once upon a time…” Tarantino outlines immediately the correct key in which to situate the film.
Back in 1997, Roberto Benigni attracted a lot of criticism for his Holocaust “fairy-tale” La Vita e bella; while Benigni’s film occupies a strange place between historically situated events and the elements of his fantasy, Tarantino allows no such ambiguity. Part of the criticism levelled against Benigni was that the fairy-tale mode was completely inappropriate for a film detailing an Italian perspective on the Holocaust. And in fairness to Tarantino, while the Holocaust remains perpetually in the background of the film, the industrialized extermination of European Jewry is never given centre stage.
The thing about fairy-tales is that everyone assumes they know what they are. Myths, legends and fairy-tales are all used mostly interchangeably with one another, despite actually being very different things with different functions. In order to understand how Inglourious Basterds works as a fairy-tale, we need to understand what fairy-tales are.
The American anthropologist William Bascom, back in 1965, published a simplified schema distinguishing the key three forms of “oral prose narrative” (as he called them): myth, legend and fairy-tale or folktale. Myths were a culture’s sacred stories, stories which defined the culture and explained the universe for them. Legends, on the other hand, could be sacred or secular, but unlike myths, took place in our recognizable world; there is a historical anchor to a legend that myths do not have. Myths, in contrast, take place in some kind of “otherworld”, before the world is as we’ve inherited it. Legends we can plot on a map. Rabbi Loew, for example, is the subject of legend because Prague exists and we can travel there to see it with our own eyes. In Prague is the Altneu Synagogue where, in the attic, the Golem is said to remain. The Garden of Eden, on the other hand, is a myth because there is no historical or archaeological corroboration for that story; it has been suggested that it probably referred to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but there is no hard evidence to verify the story in Genesis. With both legend and myth there is a degree of belief involved; however this is not to suggest belief in the literal truth of the Golem or the Eden stories. Stories embody ideas and it is the cultural ideas that these stories embody which are important, not their literal truth or fictionality. Both legends and myths suggest a figurative truth: what does it mean to say that G-d lead the Israelites from Egypt? Did the Exodus ‘actually’ happen? The question is moot. What does it mean to say the Israelites are G-d’s ‘Chosen People’ and the discursive possibilities which open up with that question are what is actually more important.
Fairy-tales, on the other hand, are self-consciously fictional narratives; they are ahistorical and “a-geographic” – that is, they occur in a fictional time period in fictional places. The “Nazi-occupied France” of Inglourious Basterds is not the historical France during the Nazi occupation during World War II, but a fictionalized and idealized time and place. The magic words, “once upon a time”, like the Fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella and her ‘Bippity-boppity-boo”, magically transform a real place and time into a self-consciously fictional world. Tarantino’s script effectively re-works the central story (in folklore, we’d call it a tale type) of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, and I’m unaware of much serious criticism of the earlier film for being fictional. Had Inglourious Basterds advertised itself as “Based on a True Story”, there would be grounds for dissent; but quite the opposite, Tarantino uses “once upon a time”. Parenthetically, it’s worth noting few films use “based on a true story” anymore and tend to use the woollier “inspired by true events” to allow greater creative freedom with the facts. So, it is worth repeating, it is not just that fairy tales are fictional narratives, but that they are self-consciously fictional narratives; that is, the tale teller and the listener agree what follows in the account will not be “true”. How that signal is given is a fascinating study in its own right.
Before moving on to how one recognizes a fairy-tale film, it is probably worth noting that “fairy-tale” is problematic word, particularly in its colloquial usage. To anyone who has studied folk narratives (academically or as a fan) can attest to, very few of the so-called “fairy tales” contain any fairies at all; the term is a bit of a misnomer. The “fairy tale” is a 19th century invention where traditional and orally circulated fictional narratives were deemed only appropriate for bourgeois children; they lacked the sophistication of modern literature, but seemed to amuse the children and the child-like (i.e. the ‘peasants’ who told the stories). Furthermore, folktales (i.e. the real ones collected orally from the “folk” and fill up archives around the world) were never intended exclusively for children. Fairy-tales for children is likewise a 19th century invention; mostly these stories told of adult concerns and adult fears. Scarcity of food, poverty, oppression, rebellion are not the topics of “children’s” stories, although they’ve become them due to Victorian bowdlerization and sanitizing the originals.
So “fairy tale” is seen by folklorists as a pejorative term. Bascom uses folktale, but recognizes that both myth and legends are also folktales, so the term doesn’t sufficiently denote this class of fictional narratives. Within Folklore Studies, the agreed upon term is the German Märchen, after the Brothers Grimm’s use in their Kinder- und Hausmarchen. Mostly I use “fairy tale”, simply because it is more commonly understood, even though problematic.
In theory, any fictional film could be considered a “fairy tale”, but indiscriminate labelling would lead to more confusion than clarity. At the level of fiction though, we can begin by exploring how and in what ways does a particular film recognize its own fictional mode? Ultimately, this is a function of visual rhetoric. Should a film try to convince us of its narrative veracity, then we are probably looking at a legend-film. If key images in the film convince us of larger, symbolic resonances, then the film may be trying to convince us of its mythic nature. So how does a third class of film narrative try to convince us of its fictionality? What, visually, does a film do to reassure us that what is being shown is not real?
Once the fictional nature of the “fairy tale” film has been identified, we next need to consider the purposes of that kind of narration. Most stories can be retold in different modes, in different genres. Why was this particular mode or genre chosen to convey those particular ideas? In other words, why tell a particular story as a fairy-tale? The psychoanalytic approach as espoused by Bruno Bettelheim, for example, posits that fairy-tales enable the child to become socialized. The horrific journeys fairy tale characters travel are psychological negotiations that children must make in order to grow into healthy and functional adults. Fairy-tales reflect children’s deepest darkest fears and Bettelheim warned that to deny children these fears risks potentially making them more susceptible in their adult years. Bettelheim notes,
In order not to be at the mercy of the vagaries of life, one must develop one’s inner resources so that one’s emotions, imagination and intellect mutually support and enrich one another. Our positive feelings give us the strength to develop our rationality; only hope for the future can sustain us in the adversities we unavoidably encounter” (Bettelheim 1999:269)
The theory, which is equally applicable to adults as it is to children, is that the violence and horror in vernacular fictions underlines and reinforces the idea that life itself, to quote Thomas Hobbes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. And children shouldn’t be protected from this awareness, but, through the mediation of children’s fairy-tales, where often it is the littlest that defeats the ogre and saves the day. For adults, although Bettelheim doesn’t go there, we can extend this approach to consider how horror movies (for example) condition and recondition adults in much the same way. Adults too need the ritualistic dramas of grown-up fairy tales to progress through the daily charnel house that is modernity. But this is something that the folk have known for hundreds of years.
The psychoanalytic approach to fairy-tale analysis has been heavily criticised by social historian Robert Darnton in his The Great Cat Massacre. For example, Erich Fromm interprets “Little Red Riding Hood” as being about adolescent sexuality based on analysis of the story’s key symbols. For Darnton, the problem with this analysis is that none of the symbols Fromm states as particularly salient occur in the orally collected narratives, they appear only in their literary and reified forms (Darnton 1999:281). Bettelheim comes across even worse: Darnton criticizes Bettelheim for treating fairy-tales as if they were patients on the analyst’s couch, ignoring the realities of oral collections as consisting of variant texts, not literary products (1999: 283).
Whilst Darnton recognizes the fairy-tale is a fictional genre, he notes that this does not preclude it discussing real issues facing the cultures which tell those tales. Eugen Weber also noted that folktales “can tell us a great deal about real conditions in the world of those who told and those who heard the tales” (Weber 1981, 96). Weber continues, suggesting that the human emotions of the folktale should be read as real emotions of the folk themselves. “A careful reading of the [Grimm’s] collection reveals a number of recurrent themes: hunger, poverty, death, danger, fear, chance …” (Weber 1981, 96).
So, to summarize then, fairy-tales are self-consiously fictional narratives, which announce their own fiction textually (in the actual text itself). They are not the same thing as myths or legends. These were never intended exclusively for children’s consumption and originally spoke of adult concerns and fears. While we may be tempted to read these stories psychoanalytically, such analysis often makes unsubstantiated claims about meaning which need to be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to interpret these narratives as ritualistic dramas which put the world to right by its conclusion.Finally, despite the genre’s fictional mode of presentation, fairy-tales often discuss real (adult) emotions and fears.
I remember sitting in my office, sometime around January 2009, when I first saw the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and my initial reaction to the trailer was that if Tarantino achieves even half of what he promised in the trailer, this was going to be one of the greatest films of all time. When I finally saw the film in August later that year (after 8 months of anticipation), the results far surpassed my hopes. And I do consider this to be a remarkable piece of contemporary cinema.
I also recall that around that time I read a criticism of Tarantino’s work which accused him of “grindhouse elitism”; that his films were only for that minority of people who were as “cool as he was” and could understand all of his exploitation movie references. I don’t have a problem with this, because apparently I am as cool as Tarantino; and I can live with that. I was thinking about that criticism when Inglourious Bastserds started. This title card came up on screen: “Chapter One: Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-occupied France”. The next image was the one on the left of the screen. I immediately had a bizarre connection in my mind with the image on the right, from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Somehow my brain went from “Once Upon a Time” to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but the image echoed Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The shot on the right isn’t even the first shot of that film; it’s the first shot of the second section of the film, where we are introduced to Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes (“the Bad” of the title). That initial connection was further suggested by the next few shots; both Landa and Angel Eyes are seen arriving from a distance in similarly composed shots. The heart in both sequences is also echoed in that both are tense interrogation sequences: Landa talking to LaPadite and Angel Eyes with the Mexican farmer. This opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds has a very strong Spaghetti Western vibe to it; [play clip] like the Italian westerns, there is very little dialogue (which is odd for a Tarantino movie, and which he more than makes up for once we’re introduced to Landa) and the music is quite evocative. The music in question comes from another Italian western, The Big Gundown by Sergio Sollima, also starring Lee Van Cleef. The Ennio Morricone score also samples Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” giving this sequence not only a Spaghetti Western quality, but a German on too.
While the Western genre is often associated with myth, at least from an American perspective, the Spaghetti Westerns, in their appropriation of this American mythos, becomes much less ‘authentic’. For it to be considered myth, these films must embody the most significant of a culture’s beliefs. A similar dynamic of mythic appropriation can be seen in the work of the German author Karl May’s 19th century Western novels. And like May, the Spaghetti Western filmmakers, in appropriating these narratives, transform them into fairy-tale-like fictions. Sergio Leone’s use of “Once Upon a Time” in the title of his 1968 western reflects this fairy-tale quality.
This fairy-tale quality of “Once upon a time” adds a texture to the film wherein Tarantino is free to refashion Europe in the 1940s anyway he likes. By opening the film like this he creates a discursive resonance for the film; we need to understand what the Spaghetti Western did to American mythology in order for Tarantino to translate it back to Europe. Without understanding that flow of transnational cinematic histories, the film would become nonsensical (which for many it was). Tarantino avoids suturing us into a historical recreation of Nazi-occupied France with his magic fairy-tale words. Effectively, Inglourious Basterds does to the “War in Europe” what the Spaghetti Westerns did to “the Old West”. And like any good storyteller, Tarantino’s game of references winks to the knowing cineastes in the audience.
Inglourious Basterds has two key storylines, both of which connect up at the end. In one, Shoshanna Dreyfus, a French Jewish girl, narrowly escapes being massacred along with her family hiding in the cellar of a local farmer, Pierre LaPadite. Shoshanna reinvents herself as “Emmanuelle Mimieux” (a double wink, referencing both the erotic Emmanuelle film series and American B-movie actress, Yvette Mimieux) who owns a Parisian cinema and is, as they say, hiding in plain sight. The second storyline takes its inspiration from the Robert Aldrich 1967 war movie, The Dirty Dozen. In case any of you are unfamiliar with Aldrich’s film, here is the original 1967 trailer.
Clearly, Tarantino has based his “Basterds” on Aldrich’s Dozen
Inglourious Basterds is meant to play like the guys-on-a-mission World War 2 adventure movies, not as a recreation of a specific historical event. While the fairy-tale allusions in the first chapter may be, I’ll grant you, obtuse – you need to know your Spaghetti Westerns to see the connections – the second chapter is classic Hollywood fiction. While the actors in “Chapter One” may be largely unknown to American audiences, and the Jewish-American soldiers in “Chapter Two” might not be household names, I would imagine that most people would recognize Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine. Some might even recognize Hostel director, Eli Roth, as Sgt. Donnie Donowitz. The casting of movie stars in movie star-type roles creates a fictional frame; while Pitt is an excellent actor (and very good in this film), we are always aware we’re watching Brad Pitt. He is too famous now to disappear in a role. Because we are watching Pitt chewing up the scenery in a self-consciously over-the-top performance, we are aware of the fictional mode of the story.
More traditional fairy-tales permeate the film as a whole. Shoshanna catches the eye of a handsome young German sharpshooter, Fredrick Zoller, who, for his valiant actions against the Allies, has become a hero of the Third Reich. The film based on his exploits (and in which he stars, playing himself) has just been made and Joseph Goebbels is in Paris to organize the film’s premiere. Zoller insists that the film’s premiere be moved to Shoshanna’s cinema in order to attempt to woo her. With the highest ranks of the Reich due to be in attendance, Shoshanna conspires with her lover and projectionist, Marcel, to take full advantage of this opportunity and to burn the cinema down with all the Nazi brass inside. Tarantino reworks the traditional fairy-tale, so that the charming Prince has the ball at Cinderella’s place, and she uses the opportunity to extract her revenge for the enslavement of her people.
Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, in an Oscar-winning performance) takes on the role of the film’s Big Bad Wolf. Nicknamed “The Jew Hunter”, Landa has made his reputation on being able to root out hidden Jews throughout France, including being responsible for the massacre of Shoshanna’s family at the beginning of the film. Shoshanna is as much Little Red Riding Hood as she is Cinderella; always trying to keep one step ahead of this Wolf. For her big night, the night she destroys the entire Nazi high command, she dons a vibrant red dress to underline this connection. Tarantino, with seeming incongruity, has David Bowie’s title song from the Paul Schrader remake of Cat People playing on the soundtrack; a song conspicuously of the early 1980s, despite the faux-40s setting, further avoiding any chance of mistaking his intention for historical accuracy. Somehow, the Bowie/Cat People connection works: If Landa is the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella is going to burn the ball down, who better than a Red Riding Hood Panther Lady to stop him?
Shoshanna’s story merges with the Basterds’ on this prestigious night; they too have infiltrated the premiere and also plan on taking out the Nazi big-wigs, including the Furher, who is in attendance. Neither knows of each other’s plot; neither knows the other at all. The Basterds were able to infiltrate the screening with the help of German movie star and spy for the Allies, Brigit von Hammersmark. In an earlier sequence, where VonHammersmark first meets the Basterds in a cellar bar in a small French town, what should be a quiet rendezvous turns into a massacre. In the melee, she loses a shoe. Just as Shoshanna is able to play both Little Red and Cinderella, Landa is able to play both the Big Bad Wolf and a (not so charming) Prince Charming, when he ascertains that the Allies’ spy he is looking for is the actress. In a scene right out the classic fairy-tale, Landa discovers the lady he’s been looking for by the shoe fitting (literally) the spy’s foot.
So What’s It All Mean?
I’m going to show a rather long clip – and warning, it’s incredibly violent. This is the Basterds in action, doing what they do.
Within the fairy-tale nature of the film, by setting this sequence in the woods, near an old bridge or aqueduct, the Basterds are like a vengeful seven dwarves. The music is, again, Morricone’s score for The Big Gundown. But in the middle of the sequence, intercut to fill us in, is a strange narrative segue into the story of Hugo Stiglitz. Hugo Stiglitz is the name of a Mexican born star of exploitation movies throughout the 1970s & 80s; who Tarantino honoured by naming this character after. The segue is made further strange by having it narrated by an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson, the font Stiglitz’s name is written in evokes a 1970s exploitation quality, and even the music segues into Billy Preston’s score for the Blaxploitation movie, Slaughter (starring Jim Brown, who was also in The Dirty Dozen).
Because we are never encouraged to read the film as historical reconstruction, we need to read it allegorically. By virtue of any fictional representation involving some degree of fantasy, understanding the unreality of the film requires consideration of that fantasy as an extension of what cannot be said effectively any other way. Fantasy gives voice to what cannot be stated otherwise. Inglourious Basterds makes manifest a re-empowering of historical Jewish victimization. It is hard to resist psychoanalytic interpretations sometimes – of seeing the scalping of the dead Nazis as symbolic castration in the name of revenge – but such an interpretation is hardly hidden, it is hardly subconscious. Tarantino’s film gives us World War 2 as we would have liked to have seen it; a revenge fantasy that recognizes Nazi anti-Semitism, but with no mention of the death camps.
The French fairy-tales Darnton discusses, where in this fictional world, peasants win against wealthy landlords through guile and intelligence, where the smallest of children can bring down the mightiest of giants, are consciously inverted fantasies of their daily experiences. The problem with psychoanalysis (as grand theory) is that what is ascribed to be unconscious is usually very conscious. The folk were never fools, despite the number of fools in their stories. Contrary to Freud’s bourgeoisie, these peasant storytellers knew exactly what they were saying and why they were saying it. Any element in an orally transmitted story (folklorists would refer to it as a motif) could not persist across time and space unless it served a definite purpose. Otherwise, it would have been forgotten. What persists is what is important. So, as Darnton argues, to find out what a story means, often all one needs to do is ask the storyteller; they probably have a pretty good idea. If the storyteller is unavailable, because the story in question is from an archive, one needs to identify those aspects in the text itself which gives evidence to what the storyteller felt the story meant.
In the same way that Tarantino constructs his World War 2 ahistorically and anachronistically, specifically through his use of music and other non-diegetic elements of the film, the horrors of the Nazi death camps, despite no specific references to them, is always in the background. The Basterds themselves, as a commando unit of Jewish-American soldiers, is recognition of this. When Donnie Donowitz, the Bear Jew, bludgeons to death Sgt Rachtman, he first asks of the sergeant whether or not he received his Iron Cross for killing Jews. The image of the Bear Jew in particular, in his muscle shirt carrying a baseball bat, is an image of Jewish physical strength and brutality to rival any Israeli Sabra. The carving of the swastika on the foreheads of those few the Basterds leave alive is a direct reference to, historically, how easily, after the war, Nazis were able to disappear or were even welcomed with open arms by the governments of the United States, Canada and many other Allied countries. If there really was an Aldo the Apache and Bear Jew carving swastikas onto the heads of all enemy soldiers they encountered, denying what one did during the war would have been much more difficult. As with all fairy tales, Inglourious Basterds puts the world to right.
This is the Face of Jewish Vengeance
The dénouement of the film is possibly the most controversial aspect of Inglourious Basterds. Shoshanna has locked all the doors to her cinema and taken her collection of nitrate prints behind the screen to be set alight. She has filmed a short insert which she edits into “Nation’s Pride,” the Fredrick Zoller film. Meanwhile two of the Bastserds, including Donowitz, are still in the cinema, with dynamite bombs strapped to their legs, trying to finish off their mission, even if it costs them their lives. Warning again- this sequence is pretty violent
Having Hitler killed in this sequence, rather than the suicide in his bunker the following year, while entirely ahistorical (and some critics have accused Inglourious Basterds of being “irresponsible” because of this), works within the film’s fairy-tale logic. History, in this case, is much less satisfying; this is how Hitler should have died, Tarantino seems to be saying. Donowitz not only shoots the Fuhrer at close range with a machine gun, we cut back to him, lying dead on the floor as Donowitz liquefies his face with bullets. Tarantino is not trying to rewrite history (another frequent criticism of this film), because the true magic of the film is its dialogue with history. Inglourious Basterds is not a replacement for history, and trying to dupe the “Naïve Audience” as such. The film only works if the historical record is equally known.
Shoshanna is able to have the last word, despite her actually dying in the projection booth after having been shot by Zoller. In many respects, with so much metacommentary on the part of Tarantino, one could posit the argument that cinema creates a kind of immortality. Much like the criticism of killing Hitler in this sequence, the true horror of Shoshanna’s vengeance is that she kills the Nazis in a Nazi-like method: by locking them in a closed building and setting it on fire. Shoshanna’s actions have an Old Testament aura of justice to them. Her vengeance isn’t just for killing her family, but in the ahistorical awareness of what the Nazis actually did to the Jews. Her face fills the screen-within-the-screen as it burns, literally sacrificed by fire: Holocaust. And as the smoke billows through the cinema, with the projector still running, Shoshanna’s projected face becomes three-dimensional and almost like the Great and Powerful Oz in the 1939 film.
Inglourious Basterds is a film which has been heavily pilloried for its historical inaccuracies, specifically killing off Hitler in 1944 in a Parisian cinema. But chastising the film for that is unnecessary; films like The Dirty Dozen, which Tarantino’s film is indebted to, were never made to be seen as anything other than fictions. As a fiction film, however, Basterds has many similarities with fairy-tales – not just fairy-tale motifs within the film, but fulfilling a function akin to fairy-tales. Namely, to offer vernacular entertainment which wears its anachronistic fantasy on its sleeve.
Perhaps the controversy is based on a cultural discomfort of publically expressing some of our violent fantasies at how we wished World War Two had happened. Like being caught playing soldier with oneself and then vehemently denying you were doing anything of the sort. I’m sure I’m not alone at having fantasied about what we’d have done if we had a time machine, or a machine gun, or a time machine with a machine gun. And the skills to use both of them. Playing Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy that partially expresses our own cultural frustration at feeling powerless to do anything in light of what we now know happened to European Jewry under the Nazis. And is part of the frustration some people have with the film that a non-Jew so thoroughly realized our fantasy, almost as if he’d read our childhood diaries.
Finally, we also have to trust, and this is perhaps my most important point, that just as we know a particular film might be fictional, or only part of the story, or a poor interpretation of history, that we’re not the only ones with that information. We don’t have to be the “Critical Audience”; if we’re the “Curious Audience”, we facilitate discussion, not end it.
Bascom, William. 1965.The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78: 3-20.
Bettelheim, Bruno. 1999. The Struggle for Meaning. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 269-273.
Darnton, Robert. 1999. Peasants Tell Tales: the Meaning of Mother Goose. In M. Tartar (ed). The Classic Fairy Tales. London: W. W. Norton, 273-280.
Weber, Eugen. 1981. Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folktales. Journal of the History of Ideas, 42.1: 93-113.
This past week I attended the amazing Spaghetti Cinema academic conference and film festival, organized by Dr. Austin Fisher (University of Bedforshire).
As I presented a paper at this conference, before I revise it for publication, I thought this might be a good place to post the paper along with some pretty pictures.
Sometimes, I can be an idiot; specifically when I propose to present a paper on how Quentin Tarantino draws upon spaghetti westerns in his latest film Django Unchained before I actually get to see the film in question. You see, Tarantino’s film, while it evokes this – perhaps most famous of – filoni by its title, the actual film is much more rooted in the codes and conventions of Blaxploitation cinema than Italian westerns. As Homer Simpson might say, “Doh”! However, closer analysis of Tarantino’s film actually opens dialogue between these Italian westerns, the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, and contemporary Hollywood.
It is easy to label Tarantino as ‘post-modern’ and his films as ‘post-modern pastiche’; Tarantino’s filmmaking draws upon decades of exploitation cinema – both American and International; and Django Unchained explores how the alternative canon of paracinema Tarantino valorises, directly calls into question the myth-making predilections of the Hollywood western. Such a pretence of artificially and fusion of high- and low-culture in order to question the plenitude of the original genre, is of course, postmodernism proper. But the term has become so ubiquitous that its usage has almost drained it of any meaning, as in Kim Newman’s recent feature in Sight & Sound noted, “On the one hand, these borrowings add layers to the referentiality which is always an element of Tarantino’s postmodern genre cinema; on the other, it feels a little like cheating – shoring up an audience’s feelings for the present movie by reminding them how much they liked something else” (Newman, 2013, p. 35). For a critic like Newman, postmodernism is not much more than a game of ‘spot-the-references’ or a self-indulgent mnemonic.
In an interview which first appeared in The New York Times, Tarantino cites, specifically for Django Unchained, the influence of Sergio Corbucci; not only as the director of the Italian western which Tarantino’s title directly references but that “his was the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre” (Edwards, 2012, p. 8). Based on that interview, and Tarantino specifically citing Corbucci’s influence on his latest film, this was where I decided to start my investigation.
The cinematography and over-all ‘look’ of the film is not particularly Italianate despite Tarantino’s use of snap-zooms typical of Italian vernacular cinemas, including the spaghetti westerns. Towards the end of the film, as King Schultz is awaiting the bill of sale he has just procured in his purchase of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Hildy, for short), he flashes back to an earlier point in the film where he watched an escaped slave set upon by dogs at the command of Calvin Candie, the film’s main villain. While Schultz recalls the incident, we see intercut within the images he sees in his head of the brutal reality of slavery. This use of flashback, while not unique to Italian westerns, does reflect the kind of visual poetry and economy of representation which characterize vernacular cinema.
Interestingly enough, despite the genre’s reputation of being particularly gory and violent, the hyper-violence of Django Unchained ruptures the homage rather than supports it. While the body count of the average spaghetti western is quite high, it rarely showed blood splattering in slow motion in the way Tarantino likes to use it.
Unpackin’ the Signifyin’
To begin to unpack the Corbucci references Tarantino is drawing from, the most logical place to start is with the character of Django Freeman himself. His first name obviously is an intentional allusion to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 (and arguably his most famous) film, Django. While Django inspired a lengthy series of unofficial sequels, Tarantino is not really drawing upon those films for his own. There is little comparison to make between the characters played by Franco Nero in Corbucci’s original and Jamie Foxx in Tarantino’s film. There is one ‘geekgasmic’ moment when Foxx and Nero meet at a bar and the two ‘Djangos’ are face to face. It’s a cheap gimmick, but for fans of the genre, it is the equivalent of a ‘money shot’. But the point is that there are many character names which Tarantino could have availed himself to instead of Django. Ringo, Sartana, Trinity, Sabata – all had their own serial narratives in the genre.
King Schultz gives Django a surname, something none of the Italian directors do; as now that Django is effectively bought by Schultz (and it was common practice for slaves to take the surname of their owners), he gives him the name ‘Freeman’ to indicate his freed-man status. Schultz buys Django because, as a bounty hunter, Django is able to identify the wanted Brittle Brothers and Schultz needs Django’s help in identifying them. The bounty hunter theme is a particular trope of the Italian westerns (Bondanella, 2009, p. 341), and, as I discuss below, prevalent in the Corbucci’s films. The two men hit it off and hit the road as bounty hunters, at least as long as it takes for them to find where Django’s wife, Hildy, has been brought and plan her rescue. While rescue plots are less prevalent in the spaghetti westerns, the vengeance plot is everywhere (Bondanella, 2009, p. 342). La vendetta is somewhat reflected in Django’s identifying the cruel taskmasters he remembers from his earlier servitude, the Brittles, but only in a minor way. Vengeance spurs Django on as he returns to the Candieland plantation after Schultz has been killed, but he is equally motivated by the desire to rescue Hildy once and for all. So although we can read la vendetta in some of Django’s actions, unlike Corbucci’s anti-heroes – Navajo Joe, Silence or even his Django – it is not his primary motivation. But it does function as a useful plot mechanism to allow Django to become a bounty hunter.
As both a freed slave and bounty hunter, Django operates in the shadow world of 19th Century America, in those grey areas of legality (particularly in the ante-bellum South). Django inhabits a world where Caucasian-Americans are in control, and prone to killing a black man, legally or not. Big Daddy and Calvin Candie, both plantation and slave owners, are the law in their respective communities. Django, riding in on his horse alongside Schultz in his cart, are viewed as provocations to these racist landowners. It would not be entirely inappropriate to see Tarantino’s Django as a trickster figure, much like the B’rer Rabbit figure from African-American folklore; Django is able to talk himself out of most situations, as he does with the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees. Tarantino has shifted the Django character, quite specifically, away from the spaghetti western themes and into the world of Blaxploitation, where ‘stickin’ it to the Man’ (in this instance both Big Daddy and Calvin Candie can be seen as ‘the Man’) and being a fast-talking trickster figure are the norms. While not central to the genre, a few Blaxploitation westerns were made; if Blaxploitation was hybridizing and (post)colonizing traditional American genres like the crime film, the gangster film, and the horror movie, why not also (post)colonize the western? Films such as The Legend of Nigger Charley (Martin Goldman, 1972), The Soul of Nigger Charley (Larry Spangler, 1973) and Boss Nigger (Jack Arnold, 1975), all starring Fred Williamson, weren’t the most popular of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, but at least these filmmakers were trying any and all hybrids imaginable. I digress with this only to arrive at Take a Hard Ride (1975), a western which featured a Blaxploitation dream-cast of Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Charles McGregor but directed by Antonio Margheriti and also featuring spaghetti western superstar Lee Van Cleef. This digression was to suggest that the inclusion of an African-American cowboy within a spaghetti western, while not common, is still in keeping with the aesthetics of spaghetti westerns in general. Tarantino’s Django, in fact, has much in common with Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (played by Burt Reynolds); a Native-American out for vengeance against the blood thirsty White men who massacred his village and killed his wife. Corbucci’s Django is also bent on revenge for the murder of his wife. And like Joe, Tarantino’s Django is hung upside down by his ankles and tortured. Not beholden to American archetypes, the spaghetti western filmmakers were free to provoke and exploit the genre by featuring racially Other anti-heroes.
I’ve already mentioned that Tarantino’s Django is motivated by his love for his wife and quest to rescue her (like Siegfried to Brunhilde, to which the couple are compared); while this is not a common theme in the Italian westerns (despite how bloody this quest turns out to be), Tarantino doesn’t appear to know what to do with this particular female character. She is loosely based on Pauline, from The Great Silence, played by Blaxploitation leading lady Vonetta McGee (in her first role). Again making that connection between spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation movies.
Dr. King Schultz is a different case altogether. While the casting of Viennese actor Christoph Waltz as a German dentist on the frontier is in keeping with the Italian western’s international casting obligations (due to the complex international investment in these films), most notably Klaus Kinski in several. The character of Schultz appears to be a fusion of Kinski’s villainous bounty-hunter, Tigero, in Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Franco Nero’s Swede in Corbucci’s Compañeros. From the latter, Schultz is suave, polite, and overall good humoured, and sporting some truly impressive facial hair. The combination of Schultz and Django also echoes the teaming up of the Swede and Vasco. From Tigero, Schultz too is a bounty hunter, but both men also store up the bodies of those they kill until they can collect the bounty on them. I’ve already alluded to Schultz as a man of conscience, particularly when he has had a bellyful of Candie’s crass degradation, and breaks his and Django’s cover by shooting the plantation owner in the carnation over his heart. Such a shot is also how Jack Palance’s Curly is killed in Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968) (Frayling, 2000, p. 236).
The final observation I want to give you is suggested by Christopher Frayling’s identification of the key theme in Corbucci’s The Hellbenders (1967), “the erosion of Southern chivalry” (Frayling, 2000, p. 42). While slavery in the ante-bellum South is not going to be glorified, particularly by a director with such an affinity for African-American culture as Tarantino, he evokes the venal, ruthless, violent and often the stupidity of White Southerners. The sequence in Tarantino’s Django which features Big Daddy’s proto-Klu Klux Klan (listed in the credits as ‘Bag heads’) attack on Django and Schultz draws its inspiration from Corbucci’s Django, wherein Major Jackson’s own klan of ‘bag-heads’ try to gun down our hero. Despite the pseudo-French affectations of Calvin Candie, his true nature is revealed by his hobby of buying slaves as fighters for competition; notably ‘Mandingo’ fighters (the toughest of the tough). This practice is also the centre of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975); another film which, not unproblematically, has also been aligned with the Blaxploitation genre.
The Blaxploitation-spaghetti western connection was also made concurrently with the films themselves. The Black Panthers were understood to be particularly fond of these movies for their anti-Imperialist/anti-American positions (Hoberman, 2012, p. 38). In Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) goes to see Django at the Kingston Rialto and sees the film as defining his own struggle against ‘the Man’. It is the film which plays in his head as he is finally gunned down by the Jamaican police.. As Austin Fisher observed:
… that the militancy expounded in some of the Italian films found an apt bedfellow in the very milieu of grindhouse cinema mentioned above. In the ‘blaxploitation’ genre, violent action similarly rubbed shoulders with belligerent ideological discourse in independent film aimed at audiences marginalized from mainstream culture (Fisher, 2011, p. 181).
The connection between spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation is not a particularly new one
Despite the title of his film being a direct invocation of the spaghetti western, Quentin Tarnantio’s Django Unchained is equally rooted in Blaxploitation cinema. Due to the production context outside of mainstream Hollywood, the Italian westerns were able to explore darker themes and grittier narratives which directly challenged Hollywood’s own myth-making heritage. As J. Hoberman noted recently, the spaghetti western filmmakers had “been weaned on [Hollywood] westerns and to have internalized every genre cliché” (Hoberman, 2012, p. 38). Tarantino, a generation later, was weaned on the spaghetti westerns, as well as the other genres of the grindhouse, including Blaxploitation. He too internalized all the clichés of those genres and in his own films, is able to use these exploitation colours for his palate. The irony is that the exploitation filmmakers’ reaction against the ownership of these symbolic codes is now being slurped back up by Hollywood hegemony through Tarantino’s work. Hoberman’s suggestion that the spaghetti western’s inherent anti-American or anti-Imperialist perspective (Hoberman, 2012, p. 40) is potentially echoed in Tarantino’s rejection of the semiotics of Hollywood culture for the culture of the grindhouse. And yet, despite Tarantino appearing to reject American imperialist cinema, at the same time is equally part of that same cinema he appears to reject. How very postmodern.
Bayman, L. & Rigoletto, S., 2013. The Fair and the Museum: Framing the Popular. In: L. Bayman & S. Rigoletto, eds. Popular Italian Cinema. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, pp. 1-28.
Bondanella, P., 2009. A History of Italian Cinema. New York: Continuum.
Edwards, G., 2012. Quentin Tarantino: Film-Maker. The New Review, 30 12, p. 8.
Fisher, A., 2011. Radical Frontiers inthe Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris.
Frayling, C., 2000. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I. B. Tauris.
Hoberman, J., 2012. In Praise of Da Pasta: The Subversive Sadism of the Spaghetti Western. Film Comment, 2012(May-June), pp. 36-43.
Newman, K., 2013. Trail Blazer. Sight & Sound, 23(2), pp. 34-37.
An excellent piece on the importance of grammar, but also the importance of sensitivity as well.
My name is Chandra, and I am a recovering grammar snob.
There was a time that it gave me a blush of pride to be referred to as “the Spelling Sergeant” or “the Punctuation Police”. I would gleefully tear a syntactic strip out of anybody who fell victim to the perils of poor parallelism or the menace of misplaced modifiers. I railed against atrostrophes and took a red pen to signs posted in staff rooms, bulletin boards and public washrooms. I was, to put it bluntly, really, really annoying.
Four years ago, I was hired in a program that helps disadvantaged adults acquire fundamental literacy skills. To say that it has been an eye-opening experience deeply understates its impact; in fact, it has been mind-opening. And one of the ideas that has fallen into my newly-open mind is that being pedantic about the language skills of perfect strangers is kind…
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This Sunday, Splendid Cinema presents Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming, with co-writer & director James Plumb on hand for Q&A after the screening. Details (and trailer) below.
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