I would agree that our culture displays a whole lot of meaningless violence, yes, even to a pornographic level, but of all the films to accuse of this, THE REVENANT is simply not one.
Back in 2009, I was interviewed by illustrious writer and chef (yes, that’s correct, he’s also a masterful culinary expert) Herbert M. Brindl for Rogue Cinema. I’ve been interviewed a fair amount over the years in all kinds of publications — from print to the internet — regarding my somewhat harrowing and sadly-all-too-common experiences as the writer/director of my first feature film. Some of those interviews I’m quite proud of, others I can’t help feeling I could have articulated better. This particular interview, however, I always felt pretty darn good about.
I stumbled across a copy of it the other day and found myself enjoying re-reading it from this new vantage point almost four years later. My film had been taken away from me in 2006 and this interview came at a time, unlike many of the interviews to come before it, where I had a few years to process what I had experienced and what that experience had become, what it meant, and what I was starting to take away as the lessons inherent in such milestone events. Much of what I said then still holds true now, though there are, of course, even more lessons that have emerged and areas that felt a bit grey at the time that have manifested into a somewhat more coherent form today. Time and reflection, mixed with new experiences, will thankfully do that.
Here is that interview, unedited, as it unfolded:
Director, Writer Hal Masonberg Rogue Interview. First published June 01, 2009:
HM: I grew up in New Jersey. I left when I was 16 and never looked back. I’ve moved around a lot since then. As for filmmaking, I’ve always been passionate about film. From as early on as I can remember. Even before I knew what directing was, I knew I wanted to be the guy who was telling the story up on the screen. For a lot of people, I think film works as an escape from daily life. And it certainly is that for me at times, no doubt about it, but even when I was a kid, I loved going to films that forced me –no allowed me, to think. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 60’s and 70’s so the “mainstream” films at that time were pretty incredible! Especially compared to what we have now. We didn’t know at the time that we were in a golden age of cinema, but it turns out we were! That period in my life still infuses my approach to storytelling today. That and classic films, which I watched incessantly growing up and continue to do so today. I guess I’m just a good old-fashioned film geek.
HMB: What are the movies you grew up with?
HM: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was the film that captured me and changed my life forever. I saw it in its initial release and then again in its first reissue. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, talking about it… I was also a big Charlie Chaplin fan as a kid. They showed MODERN TIMES at a local movie theater for a number of weeks and I went several times each weekend. I was also an avid reader so I would buy the paperback of the latest film, and the “making-of” book if there was one. Regardless of whether or not I’d seen the movie yet, and I’d consume them all. I just loved everything about film.
HMB: I know you spent some time in Sweden. What was the reason behind your move there?
HM: Initially it was an invitation from friends. I looked into studying film there and found that I could. So I jumped on the opportunity. I was already a big fan of Bergman films, but I also knew there was a ton of other fantastic filmmakers in Scandinavia that I didn’t have access to. So I went there, learned Swedish and had a blast. And yeah, that experience still influences my own approach to filmmaking. I’d probably fit in much better there as a filmmaker than I do here in L.A.!
HMB: Any European filmmakers you admire and what do you see as the differences between US and European filmmakers/films for you?
HM: Well, this is a big question. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m not a huge fan of American films produced at the studios. For the most part, they’re fairly empty, despite the big budgets and the technical expertise. I’ve worked in the Hollywood film industry now for over 18 years and my personal experience has been that it’s almost impossible to make a film at a studio that actually reflects the vision of the writers and directors. So many people working in Hollywood are there because they love business, not film. But they have little-to-no understanding of the business they’re in! If you ran a tailor shop, I’d expect you to know something about tailoring. If you owned a restaurant, I’d expect you to know something about food and appetites and ambience. It’s the same with the film business. Only at the studio level, so many of the people working there don’t have a love of cinema. Nor do they have a very deep understanding of the artistry behind it. There’s an attitude that’s rampant in Hollywood that there’s only one way to do things. And any variation from that is wrong. There’s also an assumption that the audience is not as savvy as the executives making the big decisions. And that’s a scary thing because my experience has been that a lot of film execs are not all that savvy!
In my personal experience–and the experiences of many of my friends and colleagues–there seems to be a lack of respect for filmmakers at the studio level. And by that I mean the writers and directors. On my film, THE PLAGUE, we were told by the VP of acquisitions at Sony that they owned the film now and saw no reason for the writers and director to be involved. Now you have to understand, no one at Sony had ever met nor spoken with either myself or my writing partner Teal Minton. The film was sold to them by Armada Pictures, who let our contracts run out, and then took what we had shot and re-cut it into something completely unrecognizable. And then Clive Barker (whose producers were largely responsible for re-cutting the film and keeping both Teal and I out of the editing room) had the gall to say in an interview that the film we made wasn’t the film we had written or pitched. Nothing could be further from the truth. But Clive was almost entirely absent from the development and production of this film. Even his own producers were fond of commenting on how clueless he was as to what was going on with THE PLAGUE. They were constantly telling us things behind his back to prepare us for the fact that Clive was out of the loop. God knows what they told him when they kicked us off the film. I read in an interview with Clive sometime later that he claimed I had gotten in my car and drove away from the editing room before the picture was locked. And that’s very likely what his own people told him. Meanwhile, they were telling us that Clive no longer wanted us on this film and that they were re-cutting it into what producer Jorge Saralegui called a “killer kid film.” Of course that was the exact term we all used to describe what the film was NOT. Jorge’s choice of words was no accident and was accompanied by “get the hell out of here you fucking piece of shit! This is MY film now, not yours!”
Now in the almost 3 years I worked with Jorge, this kind of behavior wasn’t uncommon. I glimpsed it early on in small ways, but once we got on set I felt like I had to do a lot of damage control with some crew members who ended up on the receiving end of what I saw as intense verbal abuse and public humiliation. But again, Hollywood seems to be a place where people can act like this and still continue to work. Jorge’s not unique here. For me, I find people work better if you treat them like the human beings that they are. I know I’ll bend over backwards to help someone who appreciates what I do and knows how to express it.
The good thing here, of course, is that I now know exactly the kind of producers I DON’T want to have on any of my other films. Between Jorge and the Armada producers, I have a pretty good idea of what the tell-tale signs are of the kind of people that simply have no place on the set of any film I’m directing. The process of making a film should be thrilling. Damn hard work, crazy long hours and extremely stressful at times, but thrilling nonetheless. The last thing I need is for someone to be vomiting up their dysfunction all over the very same crew I’m depending on to get this film in the can on time and under budget. Not to mention whether or not they have what it takes to see the film through post-production without sacrificing the integrity and artistry of the project itself.
Which brings me back to your question… (laughs). I haven’t worked abroad, but I have friends who do. And it seems to me that there is a slightly different attitude toward writers and directors there. The types of films that can be successful in Europe are often more daring than what we produce here. But that said, even our worst films do business there so it’s not like everyone’s an intellectual looking for “art” films. I recently attended a British/American filmmaking conference as my next project is set largely in England. I asked the panel of actors whether they felt there was a difference between the final integrity of the films they made here in the States versus the films they made in England. All of them agreed that the integrity and vision of the film and the filmmakers was more respected in England. BUT… they also said that there often wasn’t enough money to shoot what was needed and those films suffered as a result. Here in the States, we have more money which allows you to get the takes you need. Unless you were working on THE PLAGUE! (laughs again). So I think you have to find the right balance. There are pitfalls to both.
As for contemporary European directors I admire, Krystof Kieslowski was one of my favorite contemporary directors. I think THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and BLEU are two of the best films I’ve ever seen. And THE DECALOGUE. I wish he was still with us and making films. That was a great loss. I also love Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Though not European, I think he’s really pushing the edge of films that work on a primal level. They’re “felt” before they’re understood. I also admire Julio Medem. And Isabel Coixet. I think she’s just terrific. And I love that Pedro Almodovar refuses to heed the sirens call of Hollywood. And why should he? He has everything he needs to make the films he wants right there in Spain.
HMB: Mr. Masonberg, before we get to your petition and the problems that surround “The Plague”, tell us about your version of the film which you wrote and directed. What inspired you to write a story about kids and violence in society?
HM: My writing partner Teal and I missed seeing smart horror films. It was as simple as that. Our favorite horror films were all clearly reflections of fears that existed in society at the time they were made. And those social fears still managed to resonate no matter how many years later they were viewed. Somewhere in the eighties, horror in America became a genre geared toward teenagers and concentrated more on graphic violence and gore effects than on story, character or, in my opinion, anything truly horrifying or terrifying. I stopped going to horror films for what seemed like ages. So, Teal and I decided that we wanted to make a film that harkened back to those films we loved and were so effected by, and at the same time make the themes a reflection of our time and some of the fears we face today. Kids and violence in society and how we act and react out of fear seemed incredibly timely for us. And while writing and shopping the script, the massacre at Columbine happened and other school shootings, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… All the themes we were exploring were coming to a head right before our eyes. And I still think the Writers and Director’s Cut of THE PLAGUE is as timely today as ever. Maybe even more so. But the producers’ cut is devoid of those themes. It is, in essence, just another teenage horror flick. It’s exactly what we DIDN’T want to make!
HMB: What are three Horror movies that left you thinking, asking questions and looking inward?
HM: There are many, but the ones that come to mind are DON’T LOOK NOW, THE INNOCENTS, THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY’S BABY, Lon Chaney’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS… It doesn’t take much to look into these films and the periods in which they were made to see what social fears they were addressing. But the best thing is that they still scare the piss out of you today. When Jorge was informing me that he was cutting down the characters and turning THE PLAGUE into a killer-kid film, he used THE EXORCIST as his reasoning. He claimed that THE EXORCIST was about a girl possessed by a demon. He proclaimed that the title of the film we were making was THE PLAGUE, not THE TOM RUSSELL STORY –Tom Russell being the main character in the film played by James Van Der Beek. But I couldn’t disagree more. And this is where I get back to my earlier point about many producers working in the film business not understanding the very business they’re working in. THE EXORCIST is not about a girl possessed by a demon. It’s about two priests and a mother. We never spend a single solitary second alone with the little girl played by Linda Blair. Our entire experience of that girl is through the eyes of others. The first 40 minutes of that film is dedicated to Father Karras, Father Merrin and, most especially, Chris MacNeil, the girl’s mother played by Ellen Burstyn. It’s their story! This film is about a question of faith and a mother no longer recognizing her own daughter and feeling helpless. How many parents must suddenly find themselves thinking, “That’s not my child. I didn’t teach him or her how to talk like that, act like that.” This girl is cursing, acting out sexually, lashing out at her family… Hello? If it was just a film about a girl possessed by a demon, it wouldn’t have been any better than the dozen or so EXORCIST knockoffs that followed it! No, what happens to that little girl is frightening, but it hits home because we’re witnessing it through the eyes of a mother. Now THAT’S terrifying! Take out those characters and all you have are spinning heads and pea soup. Which is pretty much what I think of the producers’ cut of THE PLAGUE. Spinning heads and pea soup.
HMB: How much was the budget for “The Plague”?
HM: I was told three and a half million. Though I don’t know if all of it ended up on the screen. Some questions have been raised about that.
HMB: What was it like to work with Dee Wallace and some of the other actors?
HM: Dee was a champion. I’d work with Dee again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m counting on it. The producers seemed to have absolutely no appreciation for what she gave to this film and that is witnessed by the fact that most of her astonishing performance was left on the cutting room floor in the producers’ cut. Dee is not only a team player, she’s an incredible human being and an amazing actress. Most of the other actors were a joy to work with as well. John Connolly as the Sheriff. Here’s an actor who I think is just fantastic and very underused. I was honored to have him in THE PLAGUE. Bradley Sawatzky, a local Winnipeg hire who played Deputy Nathan Burgandy… An amazing actor and the sweetest human being you’ll ever meet. Brad Hunt who honored the film, myself, and the role of Sam from before we started shooting till the moment we wrapped… Josh Close, Brittany Scobie… There were so many incredible people on this film, both in front of and behind the camera. I was truly blessed in more ways than not. I only wish the film itself reflected their commitment and passion. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to me to get the proper cut released. No one who worked on this film got what they wanted at the end of the day except the people who only cared about putting a paycheck in their pockets. And I know a few people on this production who are still fighting to get all of that!
HM: Well,I addressed some of this above, but I’ll add a little more here. One of Clive Barker’s producers, Anthony DiBlasi, confided in me that if Scott Shooman, the VP of acquisitions at Sony, got what he wanted, then the film would never resemble what we set out to make. This was once we got back to L.A. to start post and Anthony and some of the other producers had their first meeting with Shooman. Anthony wasn’t happy. In fact, he seemed pretty scared and distraught. About a week later, I put in a call to Clive to let him know how the cutting was going. It was my understanding that Clive had final say over the cut since his name was gonna be above the title, although at that time we all thought it was going to be Clive Barker Presents THE PLAGUE, not CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. I think that one may have even taken Clive by surprise! Anyhow, I told Clive that I had cut the first 40 minutes together and was really happy. He wanted to see what I had done and I was eager to hear his thoughts. He asked if I thought I would need to do any reshoots and I told him I was hoping not to as I had been discovering some truly great workarounds to the footage we didn’t get (our shooting schedule had been reduced from a supposed 28 days to a mere 20 at the last minute). We had a great chat and we hung up and I returned to the editing room. Next thing I know, my manager calls telling me he just got off the phone with Jorge Saralegui who was screaming that I had “gone behind his back” by calling Clive. All I could think about was how often these guys kept saying that Clive didn’t know what was happening with THE PLAGUE; that it was a waste of time talking to him. What I didn’t see coming was that they would actually become frantic at the mere thought of me calling him. What were they worried I would say? Clive never managed to come to set while we were shooting THE PLAGUE and so I hadn’t talked to him for several months. So far as I was concerned, it was about time I checked in. But something else was going on here. Something beyond my understanding of the relationship between Clive and his producers. I called Jorge. He admitted that he might have overreacted, but he was already in full defensive mode and remained cold and distant.
Next thing I knew, Anthony called me to tell me Clive no longer wanted to see what I had been working on, but would instead wait till I was finished editing. So I asked Anthony to be in the editing room with me from that point on to represent Clive’s interests. It was important to me that they were happy with the film as well. Anthony was very supportive and loved the cut that we had put together. It was still rough, but Anthony had told me repeatedly that I shouldn’t try and complete the cut in the six weeks allotted After the six weeks, then the producers get to step in and make any changes they want. But the plan was to continue working together. As it should be. When we finished the first rough cut, Anthony was thrilled. He really felt like the movie was coming together. I asked him if he thought Clive would like it and his response was “I don’t know what I’d do if he didn’t!” Turns out Clive didn’t. And now I know exactly what Anthony would do in that situation. I was told Clive wanted me off the project. I tried to contact him, but my calls went unanswered. It was like walking head-first into the Twilight Zone. Friends disappeared into the shadows, everyone became cold and distant. Suddenly, all the collaboration, shared vision and hard work was tossed headlong out the window. Jorge claimed they were turning the film into a Killer Kid flick, which is what they claimed Sony wanted it to be, and my participation in the process came to a screeching halt. I knew there was more to the story than I was being told, but what that was I still couldn’t say. It’s my suspicion that there were people putting words in Clive’s mouth that may never have actually come from there. But I don’t know.
One of the major themes in THE PLAGUE was how we react out of fear and the damage it can cause both internally and externally. It seemed ironic and, perhaps, grotesquely fitting that fear appeared to be a major driving force behind-the-scenes as well.
HMB: This sounds like it’s more a Studio standard method than an exception, what happened to you with the “Plague”. After that, were you in contact with other directors that had the same experience as you, meaning no final cut and and being excluded from the editing process?
HM: Yeah, other directors poured out of the woodwork once I went public. You hear about this happening all the time, directors having films taken away from them. But I think it’s more rare when it’s a low-budget film. Though I could be wrong. Sadly, many of the directors I came in contact with chose to stay quiet about it. I think that’s the norm. Lord knows my lawyer and agent at the time both strongly advised that I just “walk away”. So I did. But not from the film. I walked away from them. They didn’t seem to get that it was the film itself that was most important to me. Not my career or how this film was gonna “help me.” It’s funny, you know, after I was removed I had a ton of people say to me repeatedly, “Yeah, but at least you got to make a film!” And I’d say, “No. I didn’t.” They didn’t seem to get that having my name on a film, any film, was not what was important to me. So far as I’m concerned, I’ll never be done making this film until it’s out there as it was meant to be seen. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t move forward and keep making other films, I’m already in the process of putting together the next one, but THE PLAGUE is also something I’ll keep working on until it’s finished and available to the public. And by that I don’t mean to suggest that the experience of making THE PLAGUE wasn’t successful, because personally I have gotten so much out of the experience. What happened on THE PLAGUE defines how I will approach any film I make from this day forward, my attitudes toward artistic expression and the things that are most important to me. Including listening more closely to and trusting my gut. But the film itself, as a film, isn’t finished. Not until people can see it as we made it.
HMB: How did you handle this disappointing experience emotionally, and how did you overcome it?:
HM: I had several friends hold me down and keep me from tossing myself out a window! Truthfully, it was the most painful experience of my adult life. Which I realize is really hard for some people to understand. To lose something I had invested so much into… To be betrayed by people I had put my trust in… Filmmakers talk about their films being like their babies. And it’s true. I know for some people it’s hard to imagine a film being that important. But I had fought on and off for eight years to get this film made. I had been dreaming and struggling to do this from as early on as I could remember. And this was a story that was important for me to tell. And to know my name was going to be on a film that in no way reflected who I was and, in fact, was adding to the deluge of horrible, mindless horror films flooding the shelves of every corner video store… It took a long time for me to even start to recover. But part of the recovery process was not allowing myself to be a victim. I gathered the dailies that I’d kept on DVD and started putting the film together as it was intended to be. It was a fantastic experience in every way. Liberating and creative, exciting… It reminded me of exactly why I wanted to make films in the first place. Something that’s easy to forget working in this town. I remember reading about Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film SYDNEY, which was taken away from him, re-cut and re-titled HARD EIGHT. I believe in the article I read that Anderson climbed into bed and didn’t get out for six months. Exaggeration or not, I understood the feeling. Same with Stephen Gaghan who claimed in an article that his experience with his first directorial feature ABANDON was more painful than the death of his father! A pretty extreme sentence. But again, I got it. Here was the Academy Award winning writer of TRAFFIC, and he was ready to pack his bags and leave Hollywood forever. Instead, he made SYRIANA which broke all of the “rules” he had been taught by the studios on how you write and make a good film. He threw formula right out the window and made a truly extraordinary film. One he might not have made if his experience on ABANDON had gone differently. You never know where that silver lining is until much later. And that’s my attitude with THE PLAGUE. I’m only now just starting to see all the great things that have come and are yet to come out of this extremely painful experience.
HMB: Is it true that you are still owed $70,000 in director’s fees by Sony?
HM: I deferred $70,000 of my salary. Sony now claims CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE lost upwards of a million dollars and therefore no money is owed to me. So I’m back at the old day job earning some survival money while I put the next film together. But it does strike me as odd that the folks at Sony put together a cut of THE PLAGUE, marketed it to Clive Barker fans, released it straight to video, and then lost money. I mean, my understanding was that Sony owned the film now and knew what to do with it. It seems to me someone tried to sell a film to Clive Barker fans that was never intended to be for Clive Barker fans, though they certainly tried to pass if off as such by re-cutting the living hell out of it, adding stock footage and recording tons of new dialogue. The irony here is that never seems to work and no one ever seems to learn. And the very people that the film was originally intended for would NEVER have rented or gone out to see a film with Clive Barker’s name above the title. That’s a very small, particular audience. And I’m not saying anything derogatory about that audience. It just wasn’t the target audience for THE PLAGUE. And I’m talking either cut! But it seems the studio had a marketing plan that was more important than whether or not the film we had made fit into that particular strategy. So some brilliant person made the same mistake made by a thousand people before him and tried to change the film to fit the mold. But you know, when someone keeps trying to wedge the square peg into the triangle hole… You either pump ’em full of medication or you simply take the peg away from them and give it to someone who knows where the square hole is.
HMB: The producers cut is called “CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE”, was Clive Barker actually involved in the film?
HM: I met Clive maybe 5 times. And three of those times were no more than 30 seconds apiece. The story wasn’t based on any of his work, he wasn’t involved with the writing or development, he never visited the set and I never saw him in post. The script existed for 5 years before anyone at Clive’s company even read it. Yet the film’s titled CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. Does anyone else find that a tad misleading? Clive gave me two pieces of advice: The first was that there should be a big scare every seven minutes. Every seven minutes! This was the day before I left to head up to Canada to shoot the film. First, one has to wonder if Clive had read the script cause there certainly weren’t scares written in every seven pages! What was he suggesting here? Second, is anyone else sick and tired of these ludicrous “rules” on how to make a film? It’s like taking one of those silly connect-the-dots children’s puzzles and using it as a sample of great sketch artistry.
The second piece of advice was that I should pick one or two scenes that were most important to me and put all my creative energy into those. The rest of the film I should shoot like a TV movie. Now I’m sure that was probably the best advice he could give on how to shoot a film like this in 20 days, but it sadly had nothing to do with how I want to make films and why I was making this one. It was more or less the antithesis of my approach to anything I care about. But I think if you watch the films Clive’s directed, you may realize that, if nothing else, he at least takes his own advice.
HMB: Mr. Masonberg don’t you think it was ironic that later on, Mr. Barker himself had to deal with miseries of his own because a distributor (Lionsgate) was screwing him on one of his movie (Midnight Meat Train). Not re-cutting it, but messing with its theatrical release?
HM: I did find that ironic, yes. Especially as he was asking fans to gather together and write Lionsgate in protest. I wrote a blog titled CLIVE BARKER’S KARMA? That said, I do hate to see anyone have their film messed with. Anyone. I know that film was important to Clive. But from what Jorge Saralegui had told me while we were shooting THE PLAGUE, he already felt like they had lost control of that film and had been pushed out by Lionsgate even back then. It was a bit of a sore subject already and they hadn’t even started shooting yet.
HMB: Mr. Masonberg what happened as you delivered your film to the editing room? Is it true that “henchman’s” forced you out of the building?
HM: Well, there were no henchman. Only Clive’s producers Jorge Saralegui, Anthony DiBlasi and Joe Daly. Anthony and Joe sat quietly with their heads down while Jorge, beet red and screaming at the top of his lungs, called me a fucking piece of shit, threw my editing notes on the floor and claimed THE PLAGUE was no longer my film but his. When I confronted him with the fact that he had done the same thing to John Woo on BROKEN ARROW and to Jean Pierre Jeunet on ALIEN 4, his response was, “That’s right, I did! And now I’m doing it to you!” What I was referring to was a set of stories that Jorge would tell ad nauseum on set claiming that John Woo didn’t know how to direct an action scene and was “shaking in his boots the whole time,” and how Jean Pierre Jeunet didn’t have a clue where to put a camera, etc., etc. Jorge seemed to be not only putting these filmmakers down for the very talents they were most renowned for, but seemed to also be suggesting that he had saved those films by taking them away from those directors in post. There were other directors he’d worked with that he didn’t speak highly of, but these were the two I chose to reference in that moment. Specifically as he was so fond of repeating those stories with what seemed to me like rather misplaced pride.
HMB: Why did you choose Oscar nominee Bill Butler as you cinematographer?
HM: I knew Bill’s work on JAWS, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, FRAILTY, so many, many others, but most specifically THE CONVERSATION which is one of my all time favorite films. I knew Bill would understand that I was not looking to make a film with lots of wild camera moves and quick cutting. This film was to have a slow build and allow the actors to move within the frame. I knew he would understand my compositions and bring a world of wisdom and knowledge to the table. Bill’s the best. And his lighting technique is beautiful and subtle. I’m not fond of the harsh lighting of many of today’s films. There’s a “slick” look that is just not appealing to me. Unfortunately, Bill was not allowed to color-time his work on this film so the producers’ cut looks nothing like we had intended it to. The colors are all wrong, but worse, it’s too damn bright! We chose to shoot the film brighter than intended for maximum detail, it’s why we picked the film stock we did. So we exposed the film with the intention of then bringing it down several stops to create those rich, deep blacks. And this stock would allow for that. We were also promised a digital intermediate. That was included in the budget. It never happened. Bill was not invited to complete his work on this film. It’s really a major insult to the man and his work. Last time I spoke to Bill, he still wanted to know if we would ever get the chance to color-time the film correctly. I still fully expect to pick up that phone one day soon and let him know it’s time to finally make this film look the way it was shot to look! But for the moment, that decision lies in Sony’s hands.
HMB: Your next move in the “Plague” story reminds me of a biblical fight, “David vs. Goliath”. You started a petition and the Spreading the Plague website to get your own cut of the film released. When did you decide to fight back? And where you concerned that you could get “Blacklisted”?
HM: Ahhh, the age-old Hollywood blacklist… I think it was what my lawyer and agent feared. But I was never really concerned about that . My attitude was and still is that I have no interest in working with anyone who would “blacklist” me for fighting to get the proper cut of my film released. Like I said before, my career is not as important to me as the film I’m making. Which isn’t to say I don’t want the film to be successful. I do. And in fact I believe my cut of the film would have been very profitable were it released as intended and marketed properly. And it’s my intention to prove that, even with the bad taste the other cut has left in the mouths of most of the folks who have seen it, if the online reviews are any indication. The thing is, so many folks are running around trying to be successful in Hollywood, but they don’t seem to see that they’re running scared. You don’t need anyone’s permission to make a film. Especially these days. The studios no longer wield that threat. You want to make a film… Make a film! Hell, I used some of the top filmmaking software on my Macintosh in my living room to complete my cut of THE PLAGUE. Sure, if I want to make a $200 million film, I’m probably gonna need a studio behind me. But I don’t need $200 million. My personal definition of success seems to be very different from the definition of the people who were telling me my career would be over if I finished my cut of the film.
HMB: After you started your petition and your website spreadingtheplague.com, did you get any response from Sony or Clive Barker?
HM: Nothing. Clive’s people called my manager to ask “What the fuck?”, but that was all I ever heard about. It wasn’t until a bunch of fans started an email campaign to Sony to ask for a release of the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT that Scott Shooman, who had never met nor spoken with me before, called my manager to find out what was happening. When I heard he called, I picked up the phone in the hope of starting a dialogue. He called me back a few days later and seemed rather irate that people who had nothing to do with THE PLAGUE were receiving hundreds of emails. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted Sony to release the proper cut of the film. He told me straight up that would never happen as Sony had already lost money on the project. I reminded him that he was largely responsible for the cut that lost money, not me. So I said that if Sony wasn’t interested in releasing the proper cut, then I wanted the rights to distribute the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT myself or take it to another distribution company. I was fine with them continuing to make money on their cut. I just wanted mine out there as well. I even proposed a split-rights deal in which they wouldn’t have to put a single penny into the film, but would get a significant percentage of whatever profits it made. As I saw it, this was a chance for them to recoup some of that lost money AND satisfy the fans AND get me off their back. No go. “We don’t do that.” What Scott Shooman offered instead was that Sony would be willing to sell me the distribution rights to all things PLAGUE for $1 million. I searched my pants pockets, pulled out a couple of quarters and told him I didn’t have enough. So the campaign continues.
HM: John Cassavetes once said something to the effect that you should pick the five most important reasons why you want to make a film. Now those will be the first five things they’ll try and take away from you in Hollywood. I’ve learned that I should never give up anything that I don’t think I could live without. If the film itself is what is most important to me, then I don’t hand the film over to anyone who doesn’t care about it as much as I do.
HMB: One of your upcoming directing projects is the indie feature “CLEAN”. What can you tell us about it?
HM: When my old agent saw what happened to me on THE PLAGUE, she stated that maybe next time I should try and make something more commercial. I had to laugh. THE PLAGUE is probably the most commercial film I have in me! CLEAN is, for lack of a better term, a psychological thriller about identity. And I say for lack of a better term because nothing I write seems to fit snugly into any one genre. Even THE PLAGUE is more a drama with horror elements than what a horror film is thought of by today’s definition of the term. CLEAN is fairly challenging in that it follows four interconnected characters all spiraling downward as they frantically search for some meaning to the question, “Who the hell am I and can I trust my own memories?” The stories move back and forth in time and out of sequence. I think it will be very successful on the indie circuit. It leaves a lot up for interpretation. Which is something I love. I found when films don’t do what people expect them to or want them to, they tend to think the film is flawed. Some even get angry. I have a feeling CLEAN will elicit that response from some. But others will gravitate toward it and hopefully be blown away. The last two people who read it had two very different reactions: One claimed that it left him numb. The other said she starting weeping as soon as she was finished reading even though she wasn’t sure exactly why. And I love that! I love that two people sitting next to one another in a theater could potentially have two completely different reactions to the same film. I remember when I went to see Terence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD. The friend I was with felt like the film had missed all the emotional beats. It left him cold. Meanwhile, I was sitting in my seat crying like a little schoolgirl. I thought the film was almost entirely emotional. Like the most effective poetry. I was blown away.
HMB: What do you like and don’t like about the business?
HM: That I haven’t already mentioned?
HMB: Some advice for newcomers in the directing and writing world?
HM: Don’t believe anything anyone tells you. Especially if they’re trying to tell you what you CAN’T do. And decide what’s most important to you and why you’re doing it. And know that there are good people working in the film industry. They’re just surrounded by some of the most dysfunctional people you’ll ever meet! And ask yourself honestly if the people you’re working with want the same things you do. It’s not a crime to want different things. It just might mean you shouldn’t be working together. And try and move beyond your ego. It’s not good for collaboration or for creativity.
HMB: What’s next for Hal Masonberg?
HM: Well, getting CLEAN made is top priority. Then another film I’ve been writing set in Cornwall, England. A really beautiful story. Also looking at putting together a web series so that I can start working with all the amazing actors and other talented people I know out here. There are only so many roles and jobs on a film. There’s too much unused talent in my little circle. I can’t just sit by and not create something designed specifically for them. And how great to work with people you love and admire. What could be more satisfying than that?
HMB: Please choose 5 film people out of the film business (dead or alive), you want to have at your dinner Table.
HM: Ugh… I hate these questions… And can’t resist them… Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Michael Powell, Carole Lombard, Krystof Kielowski. All gone now.
HMB: Any people that came along in your life you wish to give a special thanks to and credit in this interview?
HM: You, for one! This interview wouldn’t be taking place if you hadn’t been interested! And to every damn person who has been putting up with my endless PLAGUE campaign!
HMB: Thank you so much for the interview Mr. Masonberg, and all the best for 2009 for getting your cut of “The Plague” released on DVD!
HM: Thank you.
I recently responded to a friend’s Facebook post commenting on the differences between Anthony Burgess’ novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the material. I tried to describe why I thought the changes that were made by Kubrick were valid and why I saw his concentration on sex and sexuality in the film (compared to the novel) as being so crucial and important an element.
What I wrote was a combination of my own thoughts and observations, mixed with ideas raised in conversation with others and, finally, other notions and observations made by professional critics, both contemporary and at the time of the film’s release.
Here is my response as I sent it. I repost it here simply as a conversation starter and because I so enjoy this type of discussion. I hope you do, too:
I think it’s important to see the film of CLOCKWORK within the context of the time in which it was made. Newfound sexuality, the sexual revolution, sexual conversations were out there in a way that was the antithesis of where they had been in the years just prior to this period. Sexual violence was also something that was finally being discussed as opposed to swept under the rug. I think it does a disservice to Kubrick to think of him as unsophisticated or adolescent. I think he’s one of the few directors for which these terms do not apply. Don’t mix up commentary on a subject for being a justification or acting out of a subject. As for subtlety, the film may be more subtle than you think in this regard. The simple fact that some people saw the film as “cool” or “got off on it” is extremely telling. I don’t think Kubrick himself was making the film to elicit such responses. He was making it in reaction to such responses and raising the topic for conversation. That said, subtlety is not a requirement for me in storytelling. Though it’s something I admire greatly. But there have been many masters of filmmaking who are not known for subtlety. In fact, quite the opposite. The great David Lean being one of them. Never subtle, but almost always amazing.
What Kubrick wanted to address in CLOCKWORK reflected what he saw in society. He wasn’t trying to simply adapt Burgess’ ideas or vision. He was “interpreting” them to what he felt was important and contemporary. In his eyes. A great book should leave one thinking, asking questions. The end of a book should be (in my opinion) the beginning of a journey for the reader in life. Burgess’ book sent Kubrick on his own journey which, for me, is incredibly appropriate and exactly what I would want from him. That said, I think that Burgess and Kubrick did say many of the same things and I don’t feel the film is as far removed from the book as you do. There have been a few films that were direct, literal adaptations of books and, in many cases, those films did not work for some of us as well as other adaptations that tried to capture the “essence” of the material as opposed to transcribing it directly. It’s another medium and another storyteller at work. One could not adapt a painting into a film and expect them to be the same.
Burgess wrote the novel 10 years before Kubrick turned it into a film. There were great cultural shifts in those 10 years which are reflected in Kubrick’s adaptation. Burgess’ wife had been raped after the war and a lot of what’s in his book comes from an autobiographical perspective. Kubrick is taking in the story via his own experiences, as we all do, and what the characters and story mean for him. As for the book’s ending, Kubrick was more of a pessimist with a sense of the ironic than was Burgess. That is why he kept the ending he did (he did read Burgess’ other ending). The film reflects the social anxieties and political concerns of its time. Not to mention, fashions, styles, etc. The naked women furniture in the Korova Milkbar were inspired by sculptures (by Allen Jones) that had been on display and gaining lots of attention. Again, Kubrick was making a commentary. Even Alex’s costume in the film was very different from the description in the book. Kubrick was making a commentary on a certain type of cricket-playing English gentleman.
Filmmaker Fellini stated of CLOCKWORK “I was very predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realized it is the only movie about what the modern world really means.” Again, I think it’s crucial to take the film in under the context of the times. And to give Kubrick some credit. He was never a flippant filmmaker. And he, unlike many other filmmakers today, dealt with sexuality directly and in ways that were often misunderstood (EYES WIDE SHUT). Also, Burgess was a Christian and came from that perspective. Kubrick, on the other hand, was more of a pessimist and saw the State as using many of its most violent and disturbed individuals to maintain control. Alex’s droogies becoming policemen and Alex himself being hired by the Minister of the Interior at the film’s end. Kubrick was always very vocal in regards to politicians and the military and their use of “collecting” violent individuals to enact their needs and maintain control. Again, look at the political and social upheavals, the wars, police actions, taking place at the time. Alex and his droogies are “evil” but also very human. Are they so different from a society that acts similarly but in the name of morality?
Alex is the Id. And I think any portion of him that we may recognize (consciously or, more important, unconsciously) in ourselves is a very scary notion which quite easily elicits anger and a condemnation of the film itself instead of an exploration of what it evokes in us as human beings and members of society. Alex also has some very noble and attractive qualities: he’s witty, smart, VERY much “alive,” not to mention his deep appreciation for music. Another thing to consider is that Kubrick uses films of violence as the tool with which to try and control Alex. They are the government’s form of propaganda. Kubrick is HIGHLY aware of the power of film and of violence in film. And he says as much in this sequence. He is making a commentary on his own medium and, in a way, the very film he is making.
Kubrick also chooses to comment on how open-sexuality, which had until recently been a rebellious act, had now become incredibly casual. This is one reason for the imagery in the home of the woman he kills with the penis statue. CLOCKWORK is also, in many ways, satirical. It can not –should not– be taken at face value. No Kubrick film should if it is to be understood and its many secrets revealed. And yes, there is a journey that needs to be taken in order to get to that place. But it is a journey I, as a lover of film and filmmaking, find wholly worthwhile.
And I absolutely think Kubrick’s vision is about “choice.” The entire film suggests that to try and make Alex good, they are, in fact, making him less than human. And their tactics are equally as horrific as Alex’s own. “It is necessary for man to have choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human — A clockwork orange.” –Stanley Kubrick.
In his write-up on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at the time in “The Catholic News,” John E. Fitzgerald wrote: “The film seems to say that to take away a man’s choice is not to redeem him but merely to restrain him. Otherwise we have a society of oranges, organic but working like clock-work. Such brainwashing organic and psychological, is a weapon, that to totalitarians in state, church or society might wish for an easier good even at the cost of individual rights and dignity. Redemption is a complicated thing and change must be motivated from within rather than imposed from without if moral values are to be upheld. But Kubrick is an artist rather than a moralist and he leaves it to us to figure what’s wrong and why, what should be done and how it should be accomplished.”
America loves a bully. Despite the word’s definition: A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker. We, as Americans, celebrate the bully at every turn, while accusing those who use brains over brawn as being weak. Take our current president, for example. Here is a man who is consistently painted as being weak by his critics, both Republicans and Democrats alike. America’s love of the bully is what, for so long, made Russia such a formidable opponent. They were bullies and they were threatening our global bully position. Yes, we often claim to be the saviors of other “weaker” nations, but when given an opportunity to move a couple of notches up the evolutionary ladder, we almost always resort to our most basic, animalistic tendencies. That being said, we often do manage to grow eventually, but not before enacting irreversible brutality on both ourselves and those around us.
Barack Obama is fully capable of devouring his enemies and critics. But he does so with a knife and fork and a bib tucked neatly into his shirt. His recent live Q&A at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore proved that to be the case. Despite the ongoing insistence by the radical right that Obama is nothing without his teleprompter (that he’s all smoke and mirrors and his “illusion” of intelligence and knowledge has more to do with his well-rehearsed oratory skills), Obama cleaned the floor with these fools on live national television while suggesting “a tone of civility instead of slash and burn will be helpful.” And no teleprompter! His victory here was so complete that, according to MSNBC’s Luke Russert, one Republican official and other GOP aides confided that allowing the “cameras to roll like that” was a “mistake.” Even Fox News cut away from the live proceeding 20 minutes before it ended! And Ezra Klein of the Washington Post called it “the most compelling political television I’ve seen…maybe ever.” But in perfect pathological fashion, folks like Florida Republican Marco Rubio continue to insist that Obama is helpless without his teleprompter. It should be noted that Rubio made that claim again the other day while standing before a set of teleprompters and flipping through pages of notes on the podium before him.
So what exactly is this pathological rewriting of reality? I had a handful of very disturbing interactions with a Libertarian acquaintance of mine recently and felt I got a series of first-hand examples of this kind of mindset. The same mindset that allowed Fox News to cut away from Obama in Baltimore and replace him with talking heads who immediately started rewriting history even as it was happening! And what was most terrifying about my exchange with this Libertarian fellow who sees himself as “an extremely socially, ultra-liberal independent voter” was the complete and utter lack of self-awareness that accompanied it. This fellow would make accusations against Obama and other politicians, basically regurgitating “facts” which he’d heard or read elsewhere and, when confronted with proof to the contrary, would either A) delete his previous comments (when interacting online) or claim never to have said any such thing; or B) refuse to respond to any rebuttal by changing the subject entirely or simply calling his debate opponent crazy. All the while NEVER backing up any of his statements or admitting when he’d been proven wrong. Even when confronted with deleted comments he claimed never to have made (they were, unbeknownst to him, saved on our email accounts), he would then backpedal by saying “Well, that’s not what I meant to say.” But when asked what it was he had meant to say, he would again resort to name-calling, but never actually answer the question at hand. It seemed, time and again, truth and reality were of no interest to him. There was a complete and total pathology at work that would allow him to create new realities in any given moment to suit his desires. With this tact, logic and reason had no effect and were therefore of no importance. And while, in certain situations, an interaction like this might serve as a source of mild amusement or come across as innocently baffling, here, in the political arena, it was downright terrifying. And I took it to be a signifier of a mindset all too common by some of today’s most vocal political protesters.
Meanwhile, political henchmen and possible presidential candidates like Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin stir the pot by publicly proclaiming Obama weak for apologizing internationally for America’s past transgressions (mostly committed while Cheney was Vice President). As if admitting you were wrong or apologizing for mistakes was ineffectual and spineless as opposed to honorable, ethical and, that dirtiest of all words, conscientious. They also condemned the president for politely bowing before asian world-leaders (despite it being tradition and a sign of respect–much like a handshake). But to the bully, showing respect or admitting that there may be common ground is tantamount to surrendering. So while Obama continues to act like an intelligent, thoughtful, educated and civil world leader, many Americans simply can’t stomach the fact that he’s not more outwardly aggressive.
Recently, the National Review’s Daniel Pipes outlined his thoughts on how Obama (“a president whose election I opposed, whose goals I fear, and whose policies I work against”) can regain the respect of the nation and lift his sagging poll numbers in an article he called “How to Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran,”:
“[Obama] needs a dramatic gesture to change the public perception of him as a light-weight, bumbling ideologue, preferably in an arena where the stakes are high, where he can take charge, and where he can trump expectations… Such an opportunity does exist: Obama can give orders for the U.S. military to destroy Iran’s nuclear-weapon capacity.”
Because, let’s face it, two wars is not enough. And they weren’t Obama’s. Obama needs his own trophy war if he wants to gain the respect of all those Americans who believe him to be a socialist wimp. And of course the simple-solutions everywoman, Sarah Palin, agreed wholeheartedly with Pipes:
“If [Obama] decided to toughen up and do all that he can to secure our nation and our allies, I think people would, perhaps, shift their thinking a little bit and decide, ‘Well, maybe he’s tougher than we think he’s—than he is today,’ and there wouldn’t be as much passion to make sure that he doesn’t serve another four years.”
And what’s saddest about all of this is that they may be correct. This would, quite likely, make a significant percentage of Americans more comfortable with Obama. Sure, it would plunge our already disastrous economy deeper into the toilet and hundreds of thousands of lives would most likely be lost in a war that would extend far beyond any comprehensible expectations (not to mention result in the further alienation of our Nato partners and other countries and citizens around the globe), but at least Obama would take his rightful place as another American bully and save face among his fellow citizens who think him a sissy boy. Or would it? We already know that, despite appalled denial, many Americans still struggle with racism and are not comfortable with a black (or even half-black) president. So what would happen if this president suddenly got tough, angry even, and became the bully we’re all so used to seeing in that highest of political offices? Well, he’d have a whole new set of problems to face that, well, a white guy might not, as Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times discussed back in April of 2008:
“For new school black politicians, it is an essential question: How do you recognize the righteous anger of those frustrated by racial inequality without looking like just another Angry Black Man?
Those of us who write often about black folks and politics knew there would come a moment when the first black man with a realistic shot at becoming president would have to face this challenge — reconciling black anger and frustration with white fear and resentment.”
Would Obama go from intellectually-threatening wuss to scary, angry black guy in the eyes of the fearful? I mean, in this country, as sad a commentary as it is, a white president and a black president are still not treated equally in the eyes of some of our citizens. Take that Wingnut email being forwarded that takes outrage at Obama putting his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office:
Does this photo of President Obama in the Oval Office convey anything to you about his attitude?
Would you speak with the Chief of Staff, your Chief Economics Adviser, and your Senior Adviser with your feet up on the Resolute Desk – a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880?
We should inundate the White House with emails demanding he keep his feet off of our furniture.
This arrogant, immature & self-centered man has no sense of honor, or of simple decency.
While this posture is disrespectful in any culture, it is absolutely never done in any executive setting.
Further, in over half of the cultures of the world, it is recognized not only as disrespectful, but as an extreme insult.
He thinks of himself as a king — and not as a servant of the people, humbly occupying our White House for his term in office.
Electing him was an enormous mistake — and will cost us in many ways, for generations.
Where were all the letters of appall and outrage when our last (white) president did the very same thing?
So one wonders if it is possible for a man like Barack Obama to be the bully America loves without being stamped “another Angry Black Man.” Would he gain some level of twisted respect from the very men and women who fear him (after all, in America, fear equals power and strength, right?), or do we only like our bullies to be white?
Personally, I’m thrilled not to have another bully president even though I find myself at times wanting Obama to be a little more forceful in his political dealings. While I admire and celebrate what I hope will turn out to be a more evolved approach to politics (it’s one of the reasons I voted for him), I believe he would actually be more effective if he were a bit more ruthless. Sadly, the current climate in Washington is set up to keep Obama from achieving any successes, regardless of whether or not they are in the best interest of most Americans. So he is essentially bullied by a divided House and Senate who will try and keep his hands tied for as long as he’s willing to allow them. At the same time, I believe Obama has a bigger picture in mind and is actually putting his money (and career) where his mouth is:
“I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president… There’s a tendency in Washington to think that our job description of elected officials is to get re-elected. That’s not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and to help people. And, you know, that’s not just the view of elected officials themselves. That’s also the filter through which the media reads things.”
So while I am frustrated and angered by the eternal roadblocks put in place by lesser men and women, I am also thrilled to see America with an intelligent, self-aware leader who recognizes the changes that need to be made if we are to grow out of our infancy. Sadly, our love affair with violence (both verbal and physical) and our passion for vengeance and our need to be “stronger” than any potential opponent regardless of ideology or purpose, gets in the way of our actually making strides in the betterment of our people, our nation, or our world. And perhaps the above-mentioned live Q&A in Baltimore is a significant step in Obama bridging the gap between substance and politics. NBC’s Chuck Todd commented on the live event:
“The president should hold Congressional ‘town halls’ more often. Public needs to see this if they’ll ever trust Washington again.”
The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein added:
“Obama assumed the role of responsible adult to the GOP children, or, at the very least, of a college professor teaching and lecturing a room full of students.”
Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s former press secretary, backed up that statement with:
“On one level it looked brave but on another he was the substitute teacher there, lecturing the audience. A lot of us have been waiting for that moment, a little more fight, a little more politics.”
And then there’s that poor fella so outraged by the IRS he decided that violence was the only answer to his problems and so he created his own 9/11 by crashing a plane into an Austin IRS complex. It seems in our celebration of bullies, we simultaneously send out a non-stop message that violence is a justifiable means to an end. I tried to address this concept metaphorically in my film THE PLAGUE, but the studio behind it decided that the film should actually be the polar opposite of its intent and set about systematically removing the film’s message and attempt at cultural self-reflection. Instead, they tried to turn it into a film about killer-kids; essentially, they were far more attracted to the notion of a film that celebrated its violence rather than one that made an informed commentary on it. And this is, as many of us already know, not a new development in the industry. God-forbid anything should elicit individual thought or stir conversation or promote questions. The studios would rather keep people right where they are (our base impulses sell more tickets than our intellect or common sense). Like Sarah Palin, who actually sells herself as a presidential candidate by publicizing the fact that she’s not qualified to run this country:
“I’m never going to pretend like I know more than the next person. I’m not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I’m going to fight the elitist, because for too often and for too long now, I think the elitists have tried to make people like me and people in the heartland of America feel like we just don’t get it, and big government’s just going to have to take care of us… I want to speak up for the American people and say: No, we really do have some good common-sense solutions. I can be a messenger for that.”
Good common-sense solutions. Like bombing Iran. And I don’t know about anyone else, but the thought of a president who doesn’t know more than I do about running this country scares the shit out of me. But somehow this comforts many. They can relate to Palin. And she can be a bully. Unreasonable, unrealistic, ignorant, under-educated and completely incapable of admitting –or even understanding– when she’s wrong… Sounds like someone else I know. Or a vocal group of people I read about daily.
Here’s a quote I thought hit the nail on the head:
“If you were to imagine a bunch of middle-class white people who conceive of themselves as the oppressed productive backbone of the country, and who embody a strange collection of unbridled ignorance and bizarre ahistorical conspiracy theory, you’d have a pretty good handle on the teabaggers.”
Yep. That pretty much sums up Palin and her many followers and fans. That gun-toting, angry mob you see on the news pretty much every day. And like so many people in this group, they struggle, fight and vote against their own best interests. Blogger Ben Grossblatt put it quite eloquently, I thought:
“The Tea Party is a quasi-Libertarian collection of people who think Obama is a socialist, and who delude themselves into believing they’re more than just ventriloquist dummies for the Republicans. They fancy themselves populists, but they support the same economic and legislative policies that have put regular people under the heel of big business.”
Big business, in the form of corporate entities, is the friend to the “tea-bagger”, despite any claims they may make to the contrary. And why is that? Because big business are bullies. And, no matter how much we may fear them, they give us some measure of comfort in the fear they elicit. We have a certain twisted “respect” for their power over us. And to make matters worse, we secretly hope to one day become a member of those wealthier-than-god, untouchable bullies. I think Reagan’s trickle-down economics proved that to be true. A failed economic plan that put the biggest tax breaks in the hands of the wealthiest Americans and opened the door for what turned out to be the complete corporate takeover of our nation (the world?) and still has the support of some of America’s least-wealthy and most-hard-hit-by-the-recession individuals. And despite the gross reality of this backward economic plan, there’s always a chance that one of us may find ourselves a member of that elite group (you sure you don’t like elitists, Ms. Palin?) and then we can finally reap the benefits of a misguided nation which fights to eliminate its middle-class (despite true Capitalism’s dependency on it) and broaden the division between rich and poor. Because the rich have historically always bullied the poor. And, as I said before, America loves and respects a bully. Even when we’re under their heel.
Cheney has some serious problems with President Obama bowing respectfully to foreign leaders. And yet he expects Americans to lay down before him and be trampled over by his corporate cronies. This is a man who has taken advantage of more people to get what he wants than any other American figure in recent history. There is a thorough and complete brainwashing that goes on here. And it’s brainwashing through fear, which has always been America’s greatest enemy. And now he’s at it again trying to convince his incurious hordes that Obama needs to “Man-up” or “step-down.”
Commenting on Obama’s bow to the Japanese Emperor during the president’s trip to China, Cheney commented that:
“”There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone. Our friends and allies don’t expect it and our adversaries perceive it as a sign of weakness…
“I think it’s fundamentally harmful and it shows in my mind that this is a guy, a president, who would bow, for example, who doesn’t fully understand or have the same perception of the U.S. role in the world that I think most Americans have.
“What I see in President Obama is somebody who bows before foreign leaders and spends his trips aboard primarily apologizing for U.S. behavior. I find that very upsetting.”
Really? Cause Lord knows the world openly embraced our macho posturing during the eight years of the Bush Administration. Why, we were seen as parent figures, protectors, the good guys, right? Thank God for an evolved America. Leading by example, and all that. You know, like the Bush Administration’s charming, jingoistic vision of “cowboy diplomacy.”
No, the truth is Cheney’s view of America has something to do with carrying a gun and shooting your friends in the face. Accident or not, it’s the perfect metaphor for Cheney’s approach to heroism, manliness, and American strength. And anyone who goes “hunting” with this man has what’s coming to them.
What was it Ghandi said?
“The science of war leads one to dictatorship, pure and simple. The science of non-violence alone can lead one to pure democracy…”
Here’s Cheney commenting on war:
“It will be necessary for us to be a nation of men, and not laws.”
Well, that’s never been more on display than in Cheney’s attitude toward war and interrogation. According to journalist/author Mark Danner (Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War):
“According to the Bush administration, the Convention Against Torture allows waterboarding; allows confinement in small boxes; allows sleep deprivation for up to eight days; allows beatings; allows the use of insects and various other things to terrify detainees; allows the use of heat, light, severe cold, prolonged nudity.”
Danner also goes on to describe some other “ineterrogation methods” supported by Cheney:
“[They] threatened detainees with drills, that they were going to drill into their heads, threatened to shoot them in the head or threatened to rape their daughters or rape their wives.”
And now Cheney (and his daughter Liz) are systematically attempting to undermine our current president by suggesting he is “weak.” Danner continues:
“Republicans, in the person of the Cheneys, Kit Bond and others, have criticized the Obama administration nonetheless for starting a witch hunt of Bush administration officials, which clearly isn’t the case.
But as you saw in this lobbying group that Cheneys have now set up, the Republicans see rich political ground to be harvested in these issues. And this goes back really to three months after the attacks of 9/11, when Karl Rove stood up before the Republican National Committee and said, “Americans trust us to protect the country. You know, we can win on this terrorism issue.” And indeed, for two elections, they did win. And the Cheneys are now really trying to set up the Obama administration as an administration that’s weak, Democratic weakness, renouncing torture, renouncing the techniques that supposedly are needed to protect the country.
And I think there’s a very calculated strategy at work here, particularly in the event of another attack. That is, the Obama administration is being put in a position where if there is an attack on the country, it can be very vigorously blamed by the Republicans for leaving the country open to the attack by its supposed refusal to torture detainees.”
Liz Cheney commented on Obama’s bow versus her father’s own stiff meeting with the Japanese Emperor back in 2007:
“You could also look at the comparison and think, Cheney 2012.”
Eek. Is Cheney really the reigning example of American “strength?”
If you ask me, I think Cheney’s values are now, and have always been, on display for anyone who wants to see them:
“We have to make America the best place in the world to do business.”
“The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.”
Even Cheney’s comments on Saddam Hussein sound more like another country talking about America’s past and the recent Bush/Cheney’s present:
“Saddam Hussein had a lengthy history of reckless and sudden aggression… and had built, possessed, and used weapons of mass destruction.”
Even in talking about the “terrorist agenda,” Cheney continues to make oblivious comparisons to his own “agenda”:
“Given the nature of the enemy we face today, and the fact that their ultimate objective is to force us to change our policies and to retreat within our borders, the last thing we need is to convey the impression that terrorists can change our policies through violence and intimidation.”
How about that Gandhi fella again:
“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”
Contains massive spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film!
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 homage 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 scene 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.
By 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 Landa 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.
Lt. 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, Tarantino 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 with 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 something 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.It 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 reveal 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 persistent 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 almost 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 spy 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 hands 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, Shosanna’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.
I commented on this just several days ago in an earlier post, but it seems even ordinary Republicans are commenting on the very real dangers inherent in this sort of irresponsible campaigning. While the “lynch mobs” are getting their anger and hatred fueled by both McCain and Palin, the “real” Republicans are starting to insist that this has nothing to do with what they signed on for and some are actively beginning to revoke their support for McCain/Palin.
At a McCain rally just last Wednesday in Pennsylvania, a woman yelled out about Obama, “He’s a damn liar! Get him. He’s bad for our country.” Activists are openly calling Obama a terrorist. At another rally on Thursday, the crowd busted out with name calling with one woman ranting, “Obama Osama!” , while local officials at other McCain/Palin rallies have warmed up the crowds by railing against “Barack Hussein Obama.” In the meantime, John McCain and Sarah Palin have done nothing to temper this behavior, but have, in fact, continued to incite it!
Even John Weaver, McCain’s former top strategist, has openly commented that it is McCain and Palin’s responsibility to temper this behavior:
“People need to understand, for moral reasons and the protection of our civil society, the differences with Sen. Obama are ideological, based on clear differences on policy and a lack of experience compared to Sen. McCain. And from a purely practical political vantage point, please find me a swing voter, an undecided independent, or a torn female voter that finds an angry mob mentality attractive.
“Sen. Obama is a classic liberal with an outdated economic agenda. We should take that agenda on in a robust manner. As a party we should not and must not stand by as the small amount of haters in our society question whether he is as American as the rest of us. Shame on them and shame on us if we allow this to take hold.”
Today, former Republican Gov. William Milliken reported that he will no longer be supporting John McCain:
“He is not the McCain I endorsed. He keeps saying, ‘Who is Barack Obama?’ I would ask the question, ‘Who is John McCain?’ because his campaign has become rather disappointing to me.
“I’m disappointed in the tenor and the personal attacks on the part of the McCain campaign, when he ought to be talking about the issues.”
Milken, who is 86, went on to comment about the McCain/Palin ticket:
“I know John McCain is 72. In my book, that’s quite young. [But] what if [Palin] were to become president of the United States? The idea, to me, is quite disturbing, if not appalling.
“Increasingly, the party is moving toward rigidity, and I don’t like that. I think Gerald Ford would hold generally the same view I’m holding on the direction of the Republican Party.”
Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican U.S. senator from Rhode Island, said he’s voting for Obama and urging others to do likewise:
“That’s not my kind of Republicanism. I saw what Bush and Cheney did. They came in with a (budget) surplus and a stable world, and look what’s happened now. In eight short years they’ve taken one peaceful and prosperous world, and they’ve torn it into tatters… there are a whole lot of us deserting.”
Bob Eleveld, a former Kent County Republican chairman who led McCain’s West Michigan campaign in 2000, had this to say:
“I think the straight talk is gone. I think he’s pandering to the Christian right. That’s some straight talk from me.”
Here’s a video from a McCain rally in which Senator McCain lets a supporter rant about “socialists taking over our country” and refer to Barack Obama and other Democrats as “hooligans.”:
John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at California’s Claremont McKenna College and former Republican operative, had this to say about Republicans acting out their longstanding frustrations:
“McCain has always frustrated the Republican base. In this campaign, he has alternated between partisan attacks and calls for bipartisan cooperation. It’s nice that he thinks he can round up congressional votes the way a border collie rounds up sheep. But you can’t be a border collie and a pit bull at the same time. The crowds want a pit bull.”
I said it earlier and I’ll repeat it because it bears repeating. This is dangerous. This is not a battle of ideologies, but a lynch mob. There is very real violence that can erupt out of this and people may be killed as a result. McCain and Palin are losing this election and they are desperate. Desperate enough to incite the most dangerous and long-brewing characteristics of their worst followers. And this is the team running for highest office in our land? Is this what we’ve been reduced to? A country built on angry mob mentality? This country has been split in ways not seen since the Civil War and only nearly matched by the protest movements of the Vietnam era. Do not underestimate the power of people when they become frightened and feel cornered and their hatred, fear, and anger is given fuel.