Saturday, September 5, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: a valuable reminder

I just saw it last night. It's everything that I'd expected and more. Here's my recent FaceBook post about it:
Loved it! At least my 3rd favorite Tarantino film—maybe even 2nd. Some of the best performances ever and no trace of fear, shame, or hesitation. A thoroughly enjoyable movie that did what it needed to do without pandering to the delicate sensibilities of the opiated masses. War is f#*%ing ugly—always. And nobody remains clean or innocent. Were the Nazis perpetrating horrendous crimes against humanity? Did they need to be stopped? Of course. Do I think for one minute that the righteous allied forces always kept their hands clean and fought honorably? Hah! Also, the film did a great job of emphasizing that no matter how important you think your life might be to the grand scheme of things (or how much time and energy the director invests in developing your character), when you die, you die. That's it. End of bloody story—for you. The frequency with which such stories reach their untimely conclusions is just dramatically increased in Tarantino films—and in war.
I'll warn you that if you're easily offended by gruesome and violent acts, you're going to be offended. But that's all the more reason to see it. Go be horrified by it. Go feel sick and uncomfortable. Go and then wonder if you should have gone, as you try to get that icky, dirty, tainted feeling out of your mind. Go and be reminded of just how appallingly perverse humans can be when motivated by greed, lust, or power, or when forced to it by injustice, deprivation, war, and genocide.
I have performed 40 autopsies, and have seen at least five times that many more dead bodies. A fair number of them were intact and would not be likely to shock the average viewer (except perhaps for the drainage of glistening nasal fluid that is pretty much ubiquitous among corpses). Many more, however, were grotesquely mutilated—some torn and smashed in car crashes, some riddled with bullets, some with their heads blown off by a slug from a 12-gauge shotgun, some with their throats or abdomens slit open, and some burned to a crisp (most frequently in automobile accidents). I even did autopsies on one of three people crushed by a single boulder and on a man whose head was quite literally flattened by being run over by a garbage truck.
But my point? My point is that violence and violent deaths are disgusting. Humans have, along with the capacity to commit violence, developed a wonderful distaste for witnessing the mutilation (and the consequent grisly remains) of their own kind. That visceral response that we feel, the nausea and creeping shivers up the spine when we see someone in agony or when we're faced with a mutilated corpse—that's a highly evolved survival mechanism. We're hard-wired to react to it. The reactions vary. We might hide or fight or run away or rush to help, but react we must. It is natural and right to be offended by violence and carnage. I applaud those who feel ill or vomit during scenes of torture, rape, or execution, and my hat is off to that medical student who faints in the autopsy suite the first time he sees a scalp incised and reflected back from a shiny white scull. This is how a human should respond.
The problem with violence in movies isn't that there's too much of it. It's that there is too much casual, palatable violence. I think that the PG-13 rating is one of the worst inventions of the 20th century. To allow a violent act to be portrayed on film without portraying it in all its grisly detail is a crime of censorship. Should a child or teenager be allowed to see explicitly gruesome movies? Maybe not. But should he or she be allowed to see movies in which tens to hundreds of people are killed and hardly a drop of blood is shown? ABSOLUTELY NOT! It is such polite portrayals of violence that allow us to hear daily of scores of deaths of civilians and soldiers without batting an eyelash, much less shedding a tear or vomiting our guts out in horror. It is the scenes in which the hero is tortured only to then get up again and fight another day that allows us to forget that such crimes against humanity destroy lives and leave people both physically and psychologically crippled for the rest of their lives.
Every time we see a car chase in which an innocent bystander vehicle is launched into the air, instead of getting to follow our dashing hero as he expertly maneuvers his vehicle, relatively unscathed through narrow alleys and off unfinished overpasses, we should be forced to watch that other nameless, always ignored driver as his seatbelt snaps (it does happen) and he is ejected through the windshield, nose and ears being sheered off and clavicles snapped in the process, only to be smeared across a hundred feet of pavement, leaving a trail of internal organs, blood, and fat.
Every time Jack Bower slips the blade of his $495 Microtech HALO OTF knife between some dirty terrorist's ribs, and then runs off to save his SO of the day, we should have to sit with that dirty terrorist and watch as he gasps for breath, blood pooling around him almost as quickly as it floods his pleural space, collapsing his lung. He can't get enough of a breath to scream in agony, but his eyes are wide with terror, his face streaked with tears, and he thrashes about as suffocation and exsanguination vie for those final moments of life.
And every time that same honorable and admirable Mr. Bower punches a similar (but this time captive) dirty terrorist in the face repeatedly, in an attempt to extract vital information, rather than getting to see how that information saves the day, we should get a good close look at the face of that dirty terrorist, as it has become unrecognizably distorted by bleeding lacerations, echymoses, and soft tissue swelling. We should count the broken and dislodged teeth and feel the excruciating headache-like pain that envelopes one's whole body when one sustains blunt trauma to the head. And we should stay with him over the next few hours as the subdural hematoma (from when Jack kicked his legs out from under him and slammed him to the floor) continues to grow, compressing his brain, causing loss of neural function and ultimately death.
But no, we get all the addictive adrenaline high of the action, that rush of excitement, that other highly evolved reaction (this time to threats and danger), without having to live the whole experience—without having to also feel the nausea and anguish that is an integral part of violence. Yes, fights, car chases, epic battles, and even righteously motivated high-stress interrogation scenes are exciting, even exhilerating. Yes, I enjoy watching them too. But they are only part of the story. They're like sex without STDs or unwanted pregnancy. They're like cheeseburgers and milkshakes without obesity. They're the shot of heroin without the injection site abscess. They're the rich without the poor.
When someone says that a movie is too violent, they usually mean that it made them feel uncomfortable because it portrayed violence too explicitly, and when I hear it, it makes angry, because they are asking for censorship. They want to deny themselves the only truly valuable depiction of violence on film: the reminder of exactly what it is that we do to each other every day, through wars, crimes, and stupid, preventable car accidents!
So go see the movie already. Be sick. Vomit, if you must. Cry. Get mad. But don't you dare hide your eyes or get up and leave. If you're uncomfortable, good. Revel in the discomfort. Be grateful for it. It's part of what makes you human.
And really, Inglourious Basterds is a tremendously fun and entertaining movie. It's not all just violence and gore, but that is what you're likely to hear about from those who disparage the film.


Procyon Sky said...

Wow. What a breath-taking post. I think it's the most original examination of violence in media that I've ever read. There's a pediatrician at UNM who argues that we should censor imaginary violence, on the presumption that doing so would reduce violence in the real world. If I understand you correctly, you're arguing just the opposite -- to discourage real world violence by making the imaginary version exactly like the sordid, degrading reality. Thank you for writing this, it is amazing.

M. Huw Evans said...

Thanks for the comment Areophany. Actually, I don't argue that it's ultimately good for us to be watching depictions of violence on film at all, in an absolute sense, but I do think that if we're getting our kicks from violent action flicks, we should be forced to have our noses rubbed in the reality of it. Also, I do think that as long as our country is so heavily involved in (easily disregarded) violence all over the world, that it is good for us to be reminded of what's really happening. In an ideal, peaceful world, I would probably argue against cinematic depiction of violence at all, as it would be just some wild fantasy, having nothing to do with real world existence. Until that such an impossible Utopia comes to pass, however, yes, I would argue that we should be exposed to depictions of violence and that they should be as stomach-turning and heart-wrenching as possible.

Reave said...

Excellent post! I remember the first time I was exposed to ACTUAL violence on video; surfing the web I stumbled upon a gruesome high-resolutioon video of a Russian soldier being executed in Georgia by having his throat cut open, and couldn't look away until the video ended and I emptied everything I'd eaten in about a week into a trashcan under my desk. When I recovered, I was appalled, of course, not just by the video but by the fact that I had watched hundreds of people "die" in movies and had had absolutely no idea what it was actually LIKE. I've always avoided Tarantino's films because I felt like he was glorying in horrible violence, but reading this post makes me wonder if he isn't up to something else. Thanks for the viewpoint!

George Berger said...

Ilorien, that is indeed an excellent post. Fine, powerful, and persuasive style. But you will never get me to see a film with explicit violence. The only exception I can think of now is "A Clockwork Orange." I liked it once, but was convinvced by a fellow SF fan that its choreographed violence was done largely for the publicity.

M. Huw Evans said...

Reave -
Thanks for the comment. Of course I don't know what Tarantino's purpose or agenda is in his frequent portrayals of excessive violence, but I do feel like he and the Cohen brothers, and a few other directors do a good job of reminding the viewer that violence, bloodshed, killing are not as simple as pulling a trigger and walking away -- that they are ugly and disturbing. I still don't necessarily support violence on film, but if it's going to be there, I think it should be hard to watch.

George -
I do think that the vast majority of explicit violence that is portrayed on film is done just for the attention -- the media hype that will get more people to go spend $10 on a theater ticket. I won't go to a movie just because it is violent, but if a movie that I think is likely to be good for other reasons includes violence, I don't avoid it. And I appreciate it when violence (if portrayed at all), is done so in a realistic and nauseating way.


George Berger said...

Hi Ilorien---I don't, Ilorien. I don't care how "realistic and nauseating" it is. A film with violence done that way might even have the most praiseworthy of messages. I simply won't go. I cannot handle it.

Unknown said...

Outstanding argument, Ilorien. I have a lot of trouble with onscreen violence too, and your articulation fits my discomfort like a glove. Visual and intellectual dishonestly in violence make it all the more appalling: the idea that violence is clean and without consequence.

The most breathtaking violence I can recall seeing onscreen was in the apocalyptic stylings of ID4 or Cloverfield: lovingly rendered, shocking, gargantuan... and all done against buildings. No human suffering whatsoever. All adrenaline; no blood or guts.

It's the tragedy of heartlessly devastated real estate. Who cries for the fallen architecture? Will these buttresses ne'er fly again?

M. Huw Evans said...

Thanks for the comment, Cameron. I agree... it's tragic just how many nice buildings, cars, and historical landmarks get blown to bits in movies. Good thing they're all empty so nobody gets hurt. BTW, are you either of the Camerons that I know personally?

Zech Moore said...

Wow. I concur. That is amazing. What a wonderfully written article!