That title, adapted from a Raymond Carver short story, should be the question at the heart of all discussions of Quentin Tarantino’s new Inglourious Basterds. The movie sits at the intersections of film and our world, history and fantasy, and reality and myth. Yeah, it has unpleasant aspects (what Tarantino film does not), but that, too, is part of another of the crossroads at the heart of the film, the one between bad and good—or, to put it another way, between the human tendency to see what we do as fine and dandy and what the other does as evil.
As a member of the second generation to speak “Film” fluently (Martin Scorsese’s was the first in America; the slightly older nouvelle vague in France was probably the real first), Tarantino does not approach the themes of his movies via the metaphors of the experiential world (as was necessary before “Film” had developed its own stock), but via the images that films have established in all of our heads by the time we’re thirteen. Take the “basterds” themselves: As Jeanine Basinger points out, combat movies contain “a hero, a group of mixed types, and a military objective of some sort” (The World War II Combat Film, 23). Tarantino crosses the expectation this engenders with a real bastard (played by Brad Pitt); a group all with the same hair, skin, and ethnic identity; and a goal with neither strategic nor tactical implications. He knows that most of us have come to think of war in terms of the movies we see (or the video games we play), and he recognizes that this is not enough for successfully evaluating war in a world where the pain of combat isn’t merely an experience on screen or one reserved for the “bad” guys. A world where evil isn’t the purview of only one side. He knows that war would be much harder to justify without the simplifications of the movies, so forces us into another intersection, that between the purposefully blindered vision of the world and the fully realized, the nuanced consideration of all aspects of a situation—and shows us that even one able to see things that way (like the movie’s Col. Landa) can be evil.
At this point, no one approaching a Tarantino film expects an easy two hours (a little more, in the case of Inglourious Basterds). A master of the styles of “classical” Hollywood, he understands the expectations we’ve been trained to bring to film viewing, and knows how to exploit them for his own ends. Like Stephen King, he starts with what we know and then leads us into situations unlike anything we could have imagined.
Unlike Defiance (Edward Zwick, 2008), the last war film I saw—and another Jews-fight-back movie—Inglourious Basterds won’t fade to the point where I have to do a Google search just to remember its title (as I just did for Defiance). Inglourious Basterds is unsettling, and was meant to be. That means, I hope, that it will become part of the language we use when we talk about war through film from now on, keeping us from the self-serving and smug images we use about death and destruction, far away though these latter may be (for now).