The Art Of Film Editing & The Plague Of Ego


SPREADINGEDITBANNERThe below video comparisons and text contain massive spoilers. Do not read or watch if you have not seen either cut of “The Plague”.

As anyone who knows me or has read my blog knows, I wrote and directed a film called THE PLAGUE which was taken away from me in post-production and re-cut by the various producers involved into a film that barely resembled the film we had actually made. It was structurally, tonally, and artistically altered beyond recognition. And unlike most studio cuts of films which are merely shorter versions of the director’s vision, THE PLAGUE was re-cut from first frame to last. Not a single edit was used from my cut of the film. The producers decided they knew best and had the artistic sensibility to put the film together on their own without the participation of the writers, director or veteran cinematographer (Bill Butler of JAWS and THE CONVERSATION fame). “We own this now and see no reason for the writers and director to be involved.” That’s verbatim. The result was a characterless mess devoid of tone, style or meaning. It was not, in any way, shape or form, the film we had made. And yet, our names remain as the film’s creators and visionaries. For good or ill.

In discussing this with folks, I discovered that it was quite challenging for some to grasp just how different two cuts of the same film could be. As a filmmaker and editor, I was used to the inner workings of post-production and understood intimately just how powerful the art of editing was to a film’s success. And I’m not talking commercial success, but its success as a story, to dictate what type of an experience the filmmaker hopes to impart on his/her audience.

And in this age of fast moving films with high-tech budgets, audiences have grown accustomed to a certain pace. Gone are the slow-moving films of the past; particularly in the horror genre which has been relegated to gore effects targeted at teenagers and young adults. For example, it would be impossible for a studio to make a film like ALIEN today. They can make another sequel, sure, but it would have very little in common with the tone and pace of the original. Ridley Scott’s long tracking shots of the ship, the eerie, unsettling tone of the entire opening sequence, the static shots of people searching for the creature would be all but removed and Scott would be told with misguided certainty that “Nothing is happening in this shot. Get rid of it” If I had a nickel for every time producer Jorge Saralegui said that to me, I’d have enough money to buy the rights to my film back.

Because I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to give folks an example of some of the differences in tone and style between my cut of the film known as THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT (openly backed by the cast and crew) and the producers’ cut known as CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE, I’ve decided to offer side-by-side comparisons of a few choice scenes. Now, while this will show you how editing can make a huge difference in storytelling, pacing, tone, tension, etc., it will not show you how proper editing can suck you in and involve you in the characters’ stories and allow you to invest and care. For that, you would have to watch both films in their entireties. Something I hope to one day be able to offer you with an official release of my cut of the film.

As for the image quality of the two cuts you are about to see, the producers’ cut was taken directly from the 35mm negative and has gone through the full and expensive post-production process to make it look “professional.” My cut of the film is from my workprint. It was assembled from DVD dailies and not the original 35mm elements. It has not gone through ANY professional post-production processes and therefore looks like a work in progress. In other words, the image is not as sharp and clean. The music is a temporary score that mirrors my desires. The music in the producers’ cut is, like the editing itself, not at all what I would have gone for or intended.

So, while the producers’ cut is more “polished”, I ask that you take into consideration that THE WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT will, when officially released, be even sharper, cleaner and richer than CLIVE BARKER’S cut of the film as it will not only be from the original film elements, but it will adhere to the specifications laid out by Bill Butler and myself as to quality and color-timing, which was done incorrectly in the producers’ cut.

One of the main things consistently altered from the Writers & Director’s Cut was cross-cutting between story lines. It was my intention, both visually and thematically, that we would cut back and forth between events and characters to connect those events and to build tension. The producers chose to show each sequence in its entirety before moving on to the next. For me, that not only dramatically reduced tension, but it avoided making necessary connections between characters and themes. The style of editing therefore also changed as the producers put these sequences together in an order they were never intended to go in. The earlier scenes in the movie move back and forth between the world of our main characters, and the world of the kids. And both worlds were meant to have unique and different styles. Much like two cars heading on a collision course, one car moving quietly and straight forward, the other swerving and careening. The two different styles were intended to create an inevitable tension and dread of what would happen when these two elements collided.

The following examples are from an early scene when the catatonic kids are strapped into their hospital beds and go into a twice-daily seizure. This was meant to be intercut with David’s son, Eric, who was going through the same seizure back home. The scenes were designed to be visually and thematically intercut as you will see here in THE WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT:

Now take a look at the producers’ version of these scenes. You will notice that in removing the inter-cutting story lines and adding digital “zooms” that were not meant to be there, both the mood and tone of this sequence is very different:

Next we have a scene of the kids turning and looking toward an unsuspecting nurse. We’ll start this time with the producers cut. Notice the transitions at both the beginning and end of this sequence. They are different from what you will see later in the Writers & Director’s Cut. The intended connections between earlier and later scenes have been completely removed. You will also notice the placement of shots within the scene is completely different. For example, the long push-in shot on the nurse is placed in a completely different part of the scene, thus greatly reducing the tension and altering the pacing of the scene:

Now for the Writers & Director’s Cut. Notice the transition out of the previous scene between Tom and Sam. We pan away from Sam and the image seamlessly dissolves on the same movement into the nurse. It should also be stated here that the shot of Sam that starts this sequence was a pivotal one for me as it gave us a silent moment to see Sam’s inner workings and vulnerability. It is one of those great shots and performance moments that many producers never see or understand. How much is told through expression and body language. And since one of the reigning themes of this film is silent communication, it is more than a little appropriate. Unfortunately, producer Jorge Saralegui’s goal as he stated it to me was, “We’re going to cut out the characters and turn this into a killer-kid film.” And that is essentially what he and the other producers systematically did. Remember, the kids’ scenes were meant to move and feel differently from the character scenes. And this scene was intended to move directly into a scene revealing Kip and Claire and not a shot of Tom at home watching TV. While the TV news report does connect these two scenes in the producers’ cut, it does not connect the characters in any way. Nor does it work toward the eerie feeling or slow build inherent in the Writers & Director’s Cut. And while the producers chose to put a scene on the TV that tells you about how the world is reacting to the kids, my intention was to show a scene of familiar violence that I felt was current and an example of how we unintentionally show kids that violence is a means to an end. Even when we think they’re not paying attention!

The visual transition at the end of the scene with the kids turning was meant to tie Kip and Claire directly to the kids in the school, kids whom they feel emotionally connected to, and to allow us to –at first glance– believe Kip and Claire to be just two more catatonic kids. Until someone speaks. We disappear behind the head of one kid, and come out from behind Kip’s head. Here’s how the entire scene was intended to play and feel. You’ll notice the editing choices throughout are completely different:

Here is how the intro of Kip and Claire was presented in the producers’ cut. It not only makes no attempt to connect the characters to anything else in the film, but they also changed the Sheriff’s dialogue to something simpler and more “direct” for those audience members clearly incapable of thinking for themselves:

One of the most crucial moments in the film is when the kids awaken. It is the moment the entire first act has been building up to. As a result, it should work on many different levels. Here is the scene as the producers put it together. It is almost completely devoid of mood, tone or purpose:

In the Writers & Director’s Cut, this scene is introduced through a montage of all the main characters engaged in very ordinary human moments, but moments that tell us about each and every individual and relationship. These wordless snippets are the calm before the storm. This montage is accompanied by David reading a passage from the Grapes Of Wrath with Tom’s voice-over. What is said here is essential to not only what is happening in the film, but to Tom’s attachment to the book. Many answers to many of the film’s mysteries lie in this passage. It brings us closer to the characters, gives us crucial tools for the story, and builds the film to this very important moment.

The intention of the above montage was that the camera would dolly left to right across our main characters. That is a comforting direction for the camera to move. But, when we fade up on the kids in their beds, the camera is now moving right to left, a much less comforting direction and in opposition to what we’ve just seen. It is a contrast and it works to make us uncomfortable.

Next up is another prime example of building tension through cross-cutting. I structured the script and film to cut back and forth between Tom’s journey in the air ducts and Sam’s journey in the laundry chute. Unfortunately, the producers once again chose to re-edit these sequences into individual scenes that play out in their entirety before moving on to the next. For me, this greatly reduces tension and, as stated earlier, no longer makes connections between the characters and what they are experiencing. Here is how the producers chose to cut these scenes together, greatly reducing the intended visual style of the film:

And here’s how those scenes were intended to play out and still do in the Writers & Director’s Cut:

If you noticed in the above scene, when the nurse looks down the laundry chute into the darkness, we expect to see a kid. But it is Tom that emerges as we seamlessly inter-cut with the next scene. For a moment, we are afraid of Tom, until we realize it’s him. The line between the kids –the monsters– and Tom is blurred for a moment. They are us. We are them. This connection is absent both visually and thematically throughout the producers’ cut. This is unfortunate since this is what the film is about. Without these elements, it’s just a “killer-kid film”.

One of the “biggest” sequences in the movie was the escape from the school. My intention here was not only to create a rousing and scary action scene, but to connect our main characters to the kids. The idea of the story is that the kids are, essentially, us. They are doing what they are doing because of us. The violence they learned is directly linked to the violence we teach and set by example. Notice in this next scene how Jean’s violent action is visually linked to the kid banging on the doors. Jean’s hands are bloodied and so are the kids’. As Jean punches and loses control, so do the kids. This builds to the kids eventually breaking down the doors and attacking. Connecting these elements visually is critical to both the story itself and the ultimate impact of this scene. Here is the Writers & Director’s Cut version:

Notice here in the producers’ cut that, instead of cutting to the kids’ hands pounding on the door, the producers chose to insert out of focus shots of the bloody face of the girl Jean is punching. This was not a shot I was involved in shooting. It is a gratuitous moment and works only to make us perhaps sympathize more with the kids than with Jean, the antithesis of what I would want the audience to feel at this juncture in the story. I chose to give us a quick glimpse of that with Deputy Nathan shooting the boy in the shoulder and the boy’s reaction to it, but any more actively works against the story, as you will see here. You will also notice that the producers had actor Josh Close ADR a line of unscripted dialogue as he calls, “Claire…” while watching the kids behind the doors. Another example of the producers assuming the audience is stupid. Overstating the obvious. Also notice how different the rhythm and tone of the entire sequence is from what was initially envisioned. It is sloppily put together, awkward, and not nearly as tension-filled:

Notice how the producers felt the need to add in unscripted dialogue of the characters saying at the end of the scene, “Go, go, go! They’re coming!” when it is pretty obvious to anyone watching that the kids are coming! Once again, the producers don’t trust the basic intelligence of the audience.

Here’s another scene that was meant to be shown without a word of dialogue and was, again, an example of story and character cross-cutting. The moment between Jean and her brother Sam as she gives him the morphine was scripted and shot wordless. In the producers’ cut, it contains dialogue added in post. The producers’ mantra: “if they’re not saying anything out loud, then nothing’s being said”. The most basic understanding of character and theme are lost with such a notion. If you repeat it throughout a film, then the film itself is lost.

The kids in THE PLAGUE communicate silently. We, as a people, communicate with one another beyond the words we use. How do the kids learn to be violent? Through us. How is that done? Did we tell them directly to be violent? No. We showed them through examples we set: hate crimes, police brutality, domestic violence, capital punishment, war… Quite often we relay this message in silence; in actions without words. And therein lies the importance of Jean and Sam communicating silently. The following scenes were designed to cross-cut back and forth between Sam/Jean/the Sheriff, and Tom/Alexis. Once again, that was not the approach taken by the producers. Here is their version:

And here is the Writers & Director’s Cut version as it was written and shot:

Dee Wallace is an extraordinary actress who was all but completely removed from the producers’ cut. Here is a scene that adds tremendous character to both Dee’s Nora and the horror and anger she feels. This moment, however, not only serves her character, but Kip’s character as well as he is the focal point of her anger and hatred here. It is a sample of what Kip (and Claire, for that matter) have been living with all their lives. It draws us closer to those characters; makes them human. We then see the impact this has on Tom and Jean in what is also a crucial moment in the growth of their relationship AND more silent communication through looks and glances that tell us more than words ever could:

And here is the truncated, characterless interpretation by our beloved, clueless producers:

Sometimes even the smallest alteration in cutting can have a profound effect. In this scene when Jean finds her brother Sam dead, it was important that we, as the audience, lose Jean here. By that I mean she goes to a place we cannot follow. It is through Tom that we witness Jean’s actions. He must be our eyes here. So when Jean enters the room, notice that we don’t cut to what she sees (or know yet if Sam’s alive or dead), until Tom enters and we push in on him and THEN we see what’s happened. Through HIS eyes! It’s a crucial delineation and essential once again to the flow of the film and the perspective the filmmaker wants us to have. It is NOT something that can be changed effectively in post. The film would need to be designed and structured differently from that point on. We are also witnessing Jean’s emotions and reactions, not through her face or words, but through the sudden rigidity in her shoulders and all around body language. Here is that scene from the Writers & Director’s Cut:

Now the producers’ cut. Notice how the producers cut to Sam and Nathan on the floor off of Jean’s entrance and don’t wait for Tom. Also notice how anti-climactic that moment is without the restraint and patience that was meant to be on display here. You may also notice that the producers added Jean whispering “Sammy” as she kneels down beside him. Once again, as if the audience didn’t know who it was lying on the floor there!

And finally, the end of the film. An ending that clearly makes little sense in the producers’ cut. Here is the “let’s get this over with” version the producers threw together:

Now you will notice in the Writers & Director’s version of this scene how important the kids’ faces are. How important it is to connect the boy in the red sweater with Jean and THEN introduce the other kids and finally see them as KIDS and not monsters, which is the whole point of the film. In the producers’ cut, the connection between Jean and the boy seems directionless, empty. In the Writers & Director’s Cut, more time is given to connect these two in a profound and necessary way. And, once again, in utter silence. What they’re feeling, how they react, is there for all to see and interpret. Nature works its way into this closing scene, a peacefulness, an understanding, an open door to things to come. And our boy in the red sweater may very well be Tom or, we feel, some part of Tom. And we feel that Jean senses this as well:

Well, there are hundreds of other examples throughout both versions of these films that are as important as the ones I’ve shown here. Like I said earlier, they are truly two completely different films. It’s obvious which one I prefer and, hopefully, it’s obvious why.

Editing can make or break a film. And poor editing and a lack of creative insight destroyed the story of THE PLAGUE that we worked so hard to bring to an audience. What was delivered via DVD was intended for a lowest-common denominator audience. The notion that the audience is dumb seems to be rampant in Hollywood today. And usually from folks who are none-too-bright themselves and, sadly, have little understanding of the craft of filmmaking. Were it otherwise, examples like this would not need to be made. But as it stands, the story behind THE PLAGUE is one of many just like it. So next time you see a film that had potential it didn’t live up to, know that there may be a version out there that does. It’s just being kept from you.

To learn more about THE PLAGUE and to help get the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT released, visit our site spreadingtheplague.com, sign our petition, and join our Facebook group.

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The Art Of Film Editing & The Plague Of Ego

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS


Contains massive spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film!

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There’s more to Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS than meets the eye. If you were hoping to see KELLEY’S HEROES, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE or even a remake of the original THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, this film probably left you feeling like Tarantino missed some crucial elements of the Men-On-A-Mission/War genre.

In fact, Tarantino, who has exhibited his love of film and genre-filmmaking time and again, has bumped himself up a notch here and twisted our expectations to make a film that is both artistically and historically subversive.

But let me start with a brief introduction to Tarantino and my reactions to his earlier films. While I loved RESERVOIR DOGS and its character-driven and deeply cinematic approach to the Heist-Gone-Wrong genre, I found PULP FICTION (Tarantino’s most commercially popular film) to be rather slight. It was cinematically fun and contained moments of truly witty, well-written dialogue, but at the end of the day the film left me feeling empty. And while JACKIE BROWN was entertaining and gave us a chance to see some sorely missed faces return to the big screen, the film didn’t knock me out, though I did appreciate it. The KILL BILL movies I found to be terrific. Not deep or meaningful, but filled with a love and mastery of a specific genre that Tarantino knows very well. It is a glourious1homage to so many films that one has to share Tarantino’s knowledge to recognize them all. Luckily, that’s not a prerequisite to the film’s enjoyment. It just adds another dimension. DEATH PROOF, the second feature on the GRINDHOUSE double bill, was a mixed bag for me. I found the scenes with Kurt Russell to be mythic and engaging and exactly what I would have hoped for. The long passages of dialogue with the young women, however, particularly the first set, seemed endless and a tad masturbatory. For me, it took the wind out of the GRINDHOUSE sails, particularly after Robert Rodriguez’s rousing zombie actioner that preceded it. All this said, I believe each and every one of the above-mentioned films deserves another look as INGLOURIOUS proved to be so much more than I initially thought.

Upon leaving the theater after the brief closing credits for INGLOURIOUS, I thought to myself that I had just seen a truly captivating and fun Tarantino film. Already one of my favorites. But there was something nagging at me; areas of the film that seemed “underdeveloped” or misdirected. But Tarantino’s no dummy and he knows his genre films better than most. So what exactly was I feeling? What was that brewing just beneath the surface?

Well, through conversations with friends and my own inner dialogue, I started to see the film Tarantino had made, instead of the film I had expected him to make. And like some of the greatest filmmakers of all time (e.g. Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes) Tarantino’s new film will elicit different reactions based on expectations and might easily be dismissed and/or misunderstood. At least initially. That said, I don’t consider Tarantino a director of the caliber of a Kubrick or Cassavetes (yet), but I think in this age of lowest-common-denominator filmmaking, Tarantino still understands the word “cinema” and has placed his own stamp on it. This puts him leagues above many of his working contemporaries.

Let’s start with the Basterds themselves. A seemingly familiar team of rag-tag rebels thrown together by circumstance and talent to create the perfect unity for accomplishing a near-impossible task at great risk to themselves. And like all Men-On-A-Mission films, the lives of thousands, maybe millions, hang in the balance. However, the main thing that appears to be missing from Tarantino’s take on the genre is time spent getting to know these characters. In INGLOURIOUS, the Basterds are sorely lacking in dimension. We know little about most of them and, as a result, have little investment. Naturally, this seems to be the antithesis of the genre as we know it. Especially since one of Tarantino’s specialities is finding ways to make even the smallest character unique and three-dimensional. Take the inglourious-basterds-2scene in the underground bar, for example. The celebrating Nazi soldiers are given moments that tell us something about their personalities and interactions. When the female soldier (Petra Hartung) puts her pal in a headlock and teases him by twisting his nose (an iconic image of youthful innocence and playful — albeit somewhat masculine — affection), the young man’s anger, resentment and humiliation is present even as the camera pans away. Relationships, personalities and hierarchies are established almost instantaneously. Even the frightening Maj. Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) seems to be the only one present who recognizes that the film KING KONG was a reflection of America’s fear of the black male. While playing a name game, Hellstrom asks Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) “Am I the story of the negro in America?” When Hicox answers “No”, Hellstrom replies with “Well, then, I must be King Kong.” It is Hicox’s oblivious denial and lack of awareness that allows Hellstrom to be certain of the correct answer. So it takes a racist Gestapo Major to recognize an allegory for America’s fear and racism when we ourselves may not see it. And this, without question, tells us quite a bit about Hellstrom. It also serves as a hint to the audience that the film we ourselves are watching may be richer in social meaning than its facade suggests.

Even the new Nazi father, Master Sgt. Wilhelm, played with drunken delight by Alexander Fehling, immediately gains our sympathy and understanding. We don’t want him to die. We want him to go on to see his son Maximilian grow up. And there is an air of sorrow when he does not.

So why not make the Basterds equally as sympathetic? As revealing? Why not give them equal presence? It is Hellstrom and Wilhelm who steal the bar scene. It is they whom Tarantino chooses to explore. By comparison, Fassbender’s Hicox is shown to be both arrogant, dimensionless and sloppy. It is he who singlehandedly undermines the entire mission with his lack of self-control and self-awareness.

At first, one starts to think perhaps crucial footage was cut from the film in order to accommodate a shorter running time. In fact, some footage was cut (as is always the case), but I’m starting to think that may have been a wise, insightful move. The Basterds are presented as brutal, Nazi-scalping killers. And if one is to keep score (as you should), the most graphic violence in the film comes from these men.

inglourious_basterds_8By contrast, let’s take a look at the Germans, the Nazis, the “villains”? They are, oddly enough, more developed characters than our “heroes”. Christoph Waltz’s star-making turn as Col. Hans Landa, while being a frightful man in may ways, is also portrayed as engaging, intelligent and, at times, somewhat charming. He’s the German Sherlock Holmes. Only he’s hunting Jews. And we admire his skill, as appalling as its intent may be. And though he may not necessarily be “likable”, his time onscreen is nothing short of mesmerizing. And while he is responsible for the death of an innocent Jewish family early in the film, this massacre is shown with bullet holes in the floor as opposed to a splattering of blood and guts. Not like the graphic nature of the Basterds whose scalpings are shown in gory detail throughout the film. And both inglourious-basterds-brad-pittLanda and Brad Pitt’s commanding Basterd, Lt. Aldo Raine, each let one survivor go, both scarred in their own way. Both men are playing God. The difference is that Pitt’s Raine is presented as the quintessential American caricature. He’s dimensionless and boiled down to a series of stereotypes. This is, essentially, how we have portrayed Nazis and villains in film after film. The Aryan-featured SS officer with a scar down his cheek, a thick, repulsive accent, and a kind of sadistic glee. Pitt’s “Nazi Killer” is just that. Only he’s the American version with a scar across his throat.

We’re also reminded here of the Hollywood stereotype of American Indian “savagery”. After all,  Raine claims to be part Indian and thinks of his merry gang as “Apache Jews” and is himself known as “Aldo the Apache.” The fear tactics used by the Basterds are the same tactics used by American Indians against the U.S. Cavalry; essentially, being outnumbered, the Indians created an overwhelming degree of fear in the minds of their enemy through unspeakably violent and humiliating acts. So much so that the enemy believed it would be better to kill themselves and their families rather than be captured.  In contemporary terms, these tactics are commonly known as “acts of terrorism.” Even Col. Landa, in his face-to-face conversation with Raine toward the end of the film, makes a similar comparison. “And your mission–some would call it terrorist plot– is still a go…” If one stops for a moment to look at the Basterds’ final plan, it is to strap explosives to themselves and blow up a theater full of people. One need not stretch one’s imagination too far to make the necessary comparisons to today’s threat of suicide bombers. Nor would it be inappropriate to draw a line between some of the Basterds’ tactics and American military methods used at facilities such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

holeLt. Aldo Raine’s interrogation of Bridgett von Hammersmark (played by the lovely and tough Diane Kruger), is nothing short of brutal and heartless torture as Raine calmly presses his finger deep into Hammersmark’s fresh and oozing bullet wound. What makes this scene even more subversive is that it is intercut with a quick “fireside chat” with a vulnerable and all-too-human Adolf Hitler as he explains his reasons for wanting to attend the upcoming screening of “Stolz der Nation.” Placing these two contrasting images side-by-side competes with our desired concept of heroes and villains, Americans and Nazis. To portray Hitler as more sympathetic than the American soldier trying to stop him clashes head-on with our collective self-perceptions by twisting and shattering beloved and much-needed icons. As a result, Inglourious_Basterds_Hitler_talksTarantino successfully blurs the lines between heroes and villains and what happens when human beings lose sight of their own humanity. No matter what side they’re on. And it is in that same conversation mentioned above between Raine and Landa, that Landa compares the two men as equals. “Tell me Aldo, if I were sitting where you’re sitting, would you show me mercy?” To which Raine replies with unabashed honesty, “Nope.” This is soon followed by Landa’s disgruntled observation, “Lt. Aldo, if you think I wouldn’t interrogate every one of your swastika-marked survivors… we simply aren’t operating on the level of mutual respect I assumed.”

Two peas in a pod.

But Landa is not the only character Raine is compared to. Despite claims that Pitt’s performance came across as if he were in a different film from the rest of the cast, Pitt plays the part of Raine with a full understanding of his role within the big picture. It is Martin Wuttke’s committed portrayal of Adolf Hitler as an angry, spoiled child that comes across equally as broad and stereotyped. Raine and Hitler inhabit similar worlds within the genre. But unlike Pitt’s Raine, Wuttke’s Hitler is never shown enacting any violence himself. In fact, in one scene, Hitler and the soldier Raine set free are essentially crowned Basterds-8-300with a halo of sorts. And Hitler never questions the surviving soldier’s lame alibi, but instead sets him free, though the weight of history and Hitler’s childlike relish at watching Americans slaughtered in the film within a film “Stolz der Nation” still keeps him a dangerous, buffoonish sort of villain worthy of a bloody end. But those same childlike qualities and vulnerabilities make his death just a tad less satisfying than, say, if he’d killed the surviving soldier as one would expect a villain like Hitler to do. He does not interrogate this “swastika-marked survivor” as Landa or Raine would.

By the same token, Raine and his men are only heroes to us in that they’re killing Nazis and history has shown us just how horrible and atrocious the Nazis were. But, as we’re starting to realize, in Tarantino’s Nazi occupied France, the Germans are presented in a somewhat different light than we’re used to from the genre. And though Tarantino is clearly relishing his ability to rewrite history, he is not presenting the Nazi’s as innocents or heroes. He’s not glorifying or forgiving them. Hardly. That’s not the history he’s rewriting. But he manages inglourious_basterds16something fascinating. When Richard Sammel’s Sgt. Werner Rachtman is asked by Raine to divulge the whereabouts of his fellow soldiers, their weapons and mission, he “respectfully” refuses. Even though he knows that he will face a brutal and painful death. But even though this man is a Jew-hater and murderer, there is also a bravery and strength of character, something admirable about him. And when he answers with a “Fuck You” to Raine, we understand and hope that we would have a similar conviction and commitment to our own beliefs. Yet his “Fuck You” is also followed by “And your Jew dogs”, forever reminding us who this man is, what he represents and, at the same time, instilling a sense of bewilderment at our own conflicted reactions to him. It is this depiction against the dimensionless brutality of Raine and his merry gang of mercenaries that we, as the audience, start to experience something that, at first, seems “wrong.” Isn’t Aldo Raine the hero? Aren’t the Basterds the good guys? Shouldn’t we be admiring them? Perhaps, but Tarantino concludes the sequence with Sgt. Donny Donowitz questioning the purpose of a medal hanging from Rachtman’s chest: “You get that for killing Jews?” “Bravery,” is Rachtman’s answer. And brave he is, by any set of standards. Even Rachtman’s walk to his inevitable death is given to us in slow-motion as a stirring spaghetti-western-flavored score — usually reserved for heroes and stoic characters — unspools in the background. Rachtman is then ceremoniously beaten to death with a baseball bat. And Tarantino trains the camera on every skull-cracking, brain-squashing moment. And we do recoil somewhat. Even though we know that this Sgt. has committed atrocities possibly worthy of such a death. And yet there’s something else in the air, something off in this interpretation of the genre as we know it. Even the young terrified Nazi soldier who is given his freedom gains our sympathy. We “feel” for him, his fear, his humanity. We don’t want to see Raine and the others beat his head in, too.

inglourious_basterds_eli_roth_mIt should be pointed out that the American who wields the bat that crushes the life out of Sgt. Rachtman is horror/torture-porn director Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER, HOSTEL). Not personally a fan of Roth as a filmmaker, I carry that slight aversion onto his acting and presence in the film. He’s not awful, not by a long shot, but he’s also not of the caliber to be acting alongside the likes of Waltz, Pitt and others. There is also something definitively unsettling about seeing this guy who directs pornographically violent films, wielding a bat and series of machine guns and acting out what seems like a disturbed childhood fantasy. I’d like to think that Tarantino made this choice on purpose; that it was meant to be a statement in and of itself. That would certainly coincide with the rest of the themes inherent in the film and filmmaking. But Tarantino also used Roth to annoying effect in DEATH PROOF and produced Roth’s HOSTEL, so one can assume he’s fond of the guy. But Roth’s own take on INGLOURIOUS just adds to my distaste: “It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling…. My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day.” This led Roth to tag INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS “Kosher Porn.” Perhaps this is the place Roth needed to go (or was led) in order to play the character of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. The Bear Jew, but I do not believe it defines the essence of the film. It is a simplistic interpretation that I believe speaks more to Roth’s sensibilities than to the film’s.
 
Which brings me to a slight aside: Is a film its filmmaker’s intent? If Tarantino shared Roth’s interpretation of INGLOURIOUS, would that make it so? I believe, unequivocally, no. Like the makers of KING KONG who may not have intended their film to be an allegory for the slave trade, we do not know how many of the connections made here regarding INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS were intentional on the part of Tarantino. And truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. Once a piece of work is put out there for public consumption, it no longer belongs to the artist; his or her intentions are secondary to the experience of the film itself, as Tarantino himself will attest to:

“When I write, I’m not very analytical about it, I don’t ever deal with the subtext cause I just know it’s there… I just keep it about the scenario, I keep it on the surface, all my concerns… And one of the fun things is that when I’m done with everything, now you get to be analytical about the process, and now I can watch the movie and see all the different connection things and see all the things that are underneath the surface. But I don’t want to deal with the underneath while I’m making it or when I’m writing it… because, again, I don’t want to hit these nails on the head too strongly. But that’s one of the things that I love the most about when I do write film criticism and stuff, is getting into the subtextual areas.”

In fact, when confronted with similarities between the Basterds and Al Queda, Tarantino answered:

“I wasn’t trying to necessarily make a political point in there. It literally was just the next step in the story as far as I was concerned. However, once I did it, the irony was not lost on me at all.”

By the same token, Tarantino wasn’t completely oblivious either, as his statement here on his intentions suggests:

“I wanted the film [to work] sort of the way ‘Bonnie and Clyde‘ worked when it came out. It was an old genre that took place in the ’30s, but it was actually telling you something about the time today. And that was what I was trying to do with this in this genre.”

It is what is inside the filmmaker that comes out in his or her art and finds its way into the subtext. Any artist who trusts their talent and is not stifled by some predetermined formula knows this to be true. Tarantino again:

“My movies are painfully personal, but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. ‘Kill Bill’ is a very personal movie…. It’s my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre…. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If I’m thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then that’s me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe they’re not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, that’s just me letting my subconscious rip.”

With that, I’ll continue.

In the above-mentioned Sgt. Rachtman death scene, we are given a glimpse into the background of one of the Basterds. Til Schweiger’s Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz. At first, I assumed this was a device that would be used to stiglitzreveal the histories and personalities of all the Basterds. But this turned out not to be the case. Again, no mistake. Sgt. Stiglitz was a Nazi turned Nazi-killer. He was inducted into the Basterds for his skills. He is still a German. And he is given more development than any of the American or British characters in the film.

I was told there were scenes shot detailing the past of Eli Roth’s Donny Donowitz. If true, I don’t know why the scenes were removed, but judging from the structure of the film and the themes present in this cut, I believe that better serves the film.

Now let’s take a look at the characters of the French Jew Shosanna Dreyfus and her unrequited Nazi suitor Pvt. Frederick Zoller, played by Melanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl respectively. Shosanna is cold and distant, but understandably so. Her family was brutally murdered by the Nazis under the command of Col. Landa. This “other” storyline has richer characters than any concerning the Basterds. The inglourious-basterds-danielbruhlpersistent Zoller is a walking contradiction; a German war hero who singlehandedly slaughtered upwards of 200 Americans in a 72 hour period, and who is also charming, sincere and extremely likable throughout most of the film. We can’t help but like him despite the fact that he has committed mass murder. After all, he was just a soldier doing his job and his affections for Shosanna seem downright innocent and boyish. However, the closest thing to a friend, or perhaps a mentor, that Zoller is shown as having is none other than Joseph Goebbels, played with disarming vulnerability by Sylvester Groth. Certainly not the Goebbels of our history books nor of American films past. This Goebbels has a genuine love of cinema and even sheds a tear of pure unadulterated joy when his Führer/father-figure proclaims that Goebbels’ newest film may be his best ever. Ironically, the German director responsible for the Führer’s new favorite film is nowhere to be found. He is not seated in the private booth with Goebbels and Hitler, nor is he (or she) ever mentioned or congratulated. This is especially noteworthy as Zoller is the star of the film within a film and Shosanna pangs him earlier with the line “I’m French. We respect directors” when he asks her why she included director G.W. Pabst’s name on the marquee for an earlier film showing at her cinema.

Meanwhile, Shosanna’s true love, her projectionist and partner in crime Marcel, played with understated pride by Jacky Ido, enacts a crucial role in the events to take place and in aiding in the development of Shosanna’s onscreen character. Sadly, he himself has far too little screen time and the film yearns for the possible inclusion of a scene that was supposedly shot and removed before release detailing how Shosanna became the owner of the theater and met and fell in love with Marcel. Not having seen this footage, I obviously cannot comment on the actual benefits of its inclusion into the story. Nonetheless, the result is once again going against convention and not giving equal attention to our typically heroic characters and, though we like Marcel, we are given little of him.

But Shosanna has another man in her life. Col. Landa. The scene staged between these two is filled with all the tension one would hope for from such an encounter. It is landafarmeralmost Hitchcockian in the way its deceptively simple dialogue places you on the edge of your seat. Like the film’s opening scene between Landa and Denis Menochet’s strong and sympathetic Pierre Lapadite. Few films can claim such a riveting opening consisting almost entirely of 20-plus minutes of pure conversation (as well as appropriately inspired camerawork).

But back to the scene at hand… One wonders fearfully if Landa knows who the woman he is sharing strudel with actually is? Was his ordering Shosanna a glass of milk to compliment her dessert an innocent gesture or a subtle torture? Or is all this insistence on milk and creme just Landa’s way of weeding out Jews by seeing who will consume dairy products not in sync with proper Orthodox dietary laws? We never find out. Shosanna’s plot to kill the Nazi elite, though successful, is never revealed to Landa, whose job it is to prevent such actions from occurring. Shosanna gets her revenge, but the man who killed her family is not there to witness it. He never knows who was behind it. Tarantino pulls the rug out from under us yet again as he denies us, as well as Shosanna, that moment of gleeful, personal revenge. In fact, Landa is too busy working out the details of his happy future living the good life on Nantucket Island to notice much else!

And here is where the lines blur even deeper as we find ourselves spiraling toward our climax. The charming and terrifying Landa gets his hands truly bloody for the first time in the film as he strangles to death German actress turned British spyinglourious_basterds14 Bridgett von Hammersmark. There is a brutality here that we have not seen before. Though he is responsible for the killing of Shosanna’s family, he has his soldiers do the actual dirty work. It is an important distinction and somehow manages to change how we feel about this character when he decides to do exactly what von Hammersmark was attempting by betraying his country and his comrades. It is he who carries on her work! His killing of von Hammersmark is not a product of national pride, but of personal pride. It has more to do with her foolish attempt to trick him than with what it is she is trying to achieve. Landa becomes truly monstrous at this point, beyond his already unsettling presence. And this, ironically, just moments before he decides to become a willing U.S. ally and let the Basterd’s plan run its course. It’s almost as if he had to prove his brutal worth within the context of the film before trying to become a Basterd himself.

At the same time, Shosanna’s boyish Nazi suitor shows another disarming quality as he exhibits a level of disgust at watching the film version of himself massacring the “enemy.” But just as we think we know where this is going, Tarantino throws us for another loop as Zoller shows us the dark side that allowed him to kill those people in the first place. Gone is the charming suitor, and in his stead we find a wrathful bully angered by Shosanna’s apparent lack of feeling. But it’s only after Shosanna has shot him down, both literally and figuratively, that she finally shows any real signs of sympathy and remorse. But it’s a direct result of her glimpsing Zoller’s “innocent onscreen hero” projected on the big screen before her and not Zoller himself. She, like the film’s Nazi audience, is taken in by the propaganda machine responsible for so many mistruths and untimely deaths. And it results in her own. Her moment of weakness (or humanity–you decide) is met with her brutal shooting at the 1224252968211_1hands of the real Zoller whose final act is one of bloody vengeance. Shosanna doesn’t live to see the fruits of her labor. By this point in the film, Shosanna is inexorably linked to her Nazi audience both physically, emotionally and psychologically. When she puts on her rouge to prepare for the evening’s bloody proceedings, it is clearly more war paint than makeup, and the swastika looming in the background completes the picture. It should also be noted that it is film itself, the highly flammable 35mm nitrate prints Shosanna has collected, that is used to spark the fire that destroys everyone in the theater and ends the war. Like its effect on Shosanna’s feelings toward Zoller, it is both creative and destructive, truth and lies, as our characters are both beautiful and ugly simultaneously. They are flip-flopping now at a rapid pace. The distinction between villains and heroes narrows even further. All victory, for the characters and audience, is marred.

And it is around this point in the film that we start to realize that Tarantino is truly playing God, not only with our moral conscience and our genre expectations, but with history itself. While we’re busy wondering how Hitler and Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi elite will escape the impending arson (because history insists that they must), Tarantino gives us the one thing no film in this genre has attempted before. He lets them all die. The war comes to a screeching halt and millions of lives that were lost in actuality, are spared. We are permitted to celebrate the fantasy death of these historical monsters as the film’s opening statement “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” comes to fruition. But all at a price.

While watching the film version of Zoller’s “heroic” massacre of American soldiers, the Germans cheer and celebrate each and every brutal killing. And in doing so, they disgust us. But suddenly the tables are turned as we find ourselves cheering the deaths of Hitler, Goebbels and others trapped inside the burning theater. As they panic and claw at one another in an attempt to escape the flames and smoke that will consume them (oven and gas chamber references welcome), two Basterds mow them down with machine guns. Men and women, in their best celebratory attire, drop like flies, their bodies riddled with bullets. Meanwhile, ibface2-thumb-500x264-11600Shosanna’s laughing face is projected onto the smoke from the flames like that of a crazed demon or the devil herself. She has placed herself in the film. She is the film. And the propaganda of her final act is now aimed at us. This is truly a scene of genuine horror. Heroes and monsters are suddenly lumped together as the audience watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS becomes a mirror image of the audience of Nazi elite watching Stolz Der Nation or Nation’s Pride. We are denied our moment of pure vengeance, of having done the right thing, of the heroes overcoming the villains. Everyone here is a villain. Even Donowitz’s frenzied destruction of Hitler’s face is both satisfying and sickening all at the same time. Hitler’s long dead by the time Donowitz turns his machine gun on him one last time. It all happens so fast that we are never given a moment to revel in Hitler’s realization that he has been outwitted and undone. It simply doesn’t occur. Our fantasy scenario has been marred and we are left unsure as to whether we should cheer or put our heads down and mourn the loss of all humanity.

And this is carried out right up to the last frame in the film. Though we know Raine’s carving of the Nazi swastika deep into Landa’s forehead is just and deserved, it is also shown in such graphic detail as to be simultaneously sickening. In fact, it is through Landa’s (and, in an earlier scene, a young Nazi soldier’s) point of view that we witness Raine’s final deed of “just vengeance,” making us, the viewer, the recipient of his knife-wielding handiwork. These shots, consciously or unconsciously, are disturbingly reminiscent of a famous publicity still (used on the film’s soundtrack LP cover) from Wes Craven’s chilling and bloody 1972 revenge-fest, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, taken from a scene in which one of the film’s sadistic killers, while out in the woods, carves his name into his victim’s flesh and then leans back to admire it, while his equally twisted partners-in-crime look on, impressed.

As a result, in the final shots of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Raine and his Basterd partner (B.J. Novak) seem a bit more demented than heroic, even though we can’t flaw them for their actions and, to a degree, celebrate them. But Tarantino makes it just a tad harder to revel in their deeds without infusing a small tinge of something else there too. Something lacking humanity.

And so, like Cassavetes’ use of the public’s expectations of the Hollywood Romance genre to turn the audience on their heads in MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, Tarantino takes our expectations of the Men On A Mission and American World War II genres and completely subverts them. He gives us our cake, and lets us eat it, too. But he purposefully leaves out the sugar.

melanie

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS