After watching Inglourious Basterds last week, I skimmed through a few films I was referring to in my review and felt that Tarantino’s movie, its last chapter in particular, refers to them in a manner slightly deeper than mentioned. What I present here may be plainly speculative, but the very fact that Tarantino’s film retains enough ambiguity to generate such arguments makes the film one to be celebrated. Inglourious Basterds, more than any other movie, seems to be closest to Jean Luc Godard’s History of Cinema (1988-98). If one considers Godard’s film as a classroom lesson in cinema (Why not? The movie even resembles an office presentation!), then Tarantino’s movie is a student project (that would easily get an A+) based on that lesson. It seems that everything that the French discusses in his video anthology is absorbed and blended cleverly into a mainstream flick by Tarantino. For the sake of simplicity, I lift and reproduce the same lines from my post on Godard’s film to compare it with Inglourious Basterds.

“If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date.”

Tarantino’s film, on a basic level, as the director himself confesses, is a form of wish fulfillment. As with his other films, Inglourious Basterds unfolds as a revenge saga. But by situating his plot amidst real life events, unlike its predecessors, Tarantino is able to involve his audience more and provide better justification to the characters’ actions, rather than dealing with simple morality.

“[Godard] argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.”

Here, Tarantino seems to deviate. He seems to be of the opinion that cinema, perhaps all art, can’t ever change the world (unless, of course, you consider the way he uses it in the movie!). Proof? Take a look around. What it can do is to change the image of the world when it is passed onto a new generation.

“And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.”

This is exactly what Marcel does when he burns the films – destroying those exploitative propagandist films of the Nazis and perhaps also those WW2 films that insist upon being loyal to reality and hence impotent. With the fire at the cinema hall that flips conventional reality, Tarantino places us at the beginning of a new history – of cinema (courtesy Tarantino) and of the world (courtesy Marcel).

“Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them.”

This theory seems to form the core of Inglourious Basterds. Why should art ever trail history? As Bazin would say, Realism in cinema should just be the means, not the end itself. Tarantino, like Godard, sure can’t change history, but, at least, he can examine the history – again, of cinema and of the world – that could have been.

“Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.”

Tarantino, also, fills the film with fascists who seem to be exploiting the medium for questionable purposes. Goebbels’ film, like many a mainstream film that are made by another kind of fascists, has manipulated reality and wants its audience to buy that as truth. And Shoshanna’s film (like Tarantino’s) is what Godard seems to be wanting in place of Goebbels’.

“There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility.”

Marcel, who had ‘created’ the small film with Shoshanna, is the one who would be setting fire to the pile of nitrate films. Tarantino, too, highlights his hand as he flicks the cigarette on to the heap – the hand that went from mere documentation of reality to direction of reality.

Brandon Colvin is of the opinion that Inglourious Basterds is primarily a comedy. I’m going to take a diametrically opposite path and say that this movie, when reduced to its human elements, stripped of all its film references and modernist facets, is a tragedy with a martyr called Shoshanna at its heart. The word ‘tragedy’ is often used loosely and seems to denote every tale that has a pathetic, miserable and depressing outcome. But, surely, Tragedy does not base itself upon emotions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A tale is said to be tragic when two morally unquestionable and righteous forces are made to clash and a situation evolves when one of them has to let go of its stance, despite all convictions and emotions for the greater good. Tragedy is always the result of a choice that calls for a great sacrifice to go with it. As they say, it is our choices that define us. And a tragic choice defines us for life – either as a hero or as a coward (“merely human” would be the euphemism). Sansho the Bailiff (1954), even with its heavy pathos, is a melodrama whereas The Dark Knight (2008), despite its uplifting upshot, remains a tragedy. Shoshanna could well have married Zoller and led a very content life. Instead, she repudiates that path and takes up the task of liberating the Jews at the cost of her own life. Tarantino, apart from using Ennio Morricone’s moving piece Un Amico, employs mythological and historical iconographies to underline the magnitude of this tragedy.

The final chapter of Inglourious Basterds has got to be the densest that Tarantino has ever filmed. The chapter is ambiguously titled “Revenge of the Giant Face” as if recalling some B-movie from the 50s. But more than that, it seems to me now, it tries to allude to two of the most iconic “giant faces” of women that we know. The first would be that of Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – a film that is constructed out of hundreds of such giant faces. The tale of Joan of Arc by itself is a tragedy in which Joan sacrifices a normal life for the good of her people, much like Shoshanna, who, too, goes down in flames at the end of her journey. Only that Shoshanna doesn’t just suffer and prefers to take all of them down along with her. And then there is the most dreaded giant head in Greek mythology – that of Medusa the Gorgon – a mere gaze into whose eyes is supposed to petrify you. Daniel Ogden (source: Wikipedia) describes this stare of Medusa’s as “seemingly looking out from its own iconographical context and directly challenging the viewer”. Now, the Nazi officers in the final chapter are watching a fictional film, seated safely away from real life action, without any apparent threat from the images on the screen. When Shoshanna slips in her own film, with her gaze directed towards the Nazis, she essentially “looks out of context of the movie”, challenging, literally, the viewers, in a manner in which the modernist director used their actors, and petrifying them by dragging them out of their passive state.

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Dreyer

Medusa - Franz von Stuck

Inglourious Basterds - Tarantino

But then, our ideas about these two iconic characters are derived only through images and shadows – through paintings, through Dreyer’s film and through textual accounts. As George Steiner put it, “It is not the literal past that rules us. It is images of the past.” With the passage of time, history and mythology mingle to such an extent that it becomes virtually impossible to separate them. In Chris Marker’s magnum opus The Owl’s Legacy (1989), Jean-Pierre Vernant illustrates the mythos behind this practice of image (which is a word that referred to doubles, miniatures, copies and ghosts in general in Ancient Greece, the land of tragedies) creation. He tells us that images, for Ancient Greeks, were a means of facing man’s worst fears by reducing them down to caricatures. In Medusa’s case, this meant that they could see her directly in the eyes (a la Perseus who used a mirror – an image creating device – to slay her) and subsequently use these images to intimidate enemies. In Vernant’s own words: “So there is a way, though images and through stories of disarming the horror of death that the monstrous face expresses and which the image carries out so that what can’t be seen can be depicted in many ways” (recalling Godard’s quote about movies in History of Cinema: “How marvelous to be able to look at what we cannot see.”)

In the final chapter of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino absorbs these images of dead characters from tragedies in mythology and history, blends it with the “image” of the tragic Shoshanna, who too is now dead, and, in essence, creates a mythology (Shoshanna the martyr) and history (Shoshanna the WW2 hero) of his own. Now, this is not far from what he does with his other characters in his movies, wherein he imbibes mythos and facts from within cinematic history to create new ones for his own characters. Only that, in Inglourious Basterds, his canvas seems to have expanded, with his universe transgressing boundaries defined by the history of cinema.  Furthermore, Tarantino uses the images of the movie – his Medusa mask – to “look at what he cannot see” in reality. Throughout the movie, he keeps attacking Hitler’s “image”. He depicts Hitler as a weak and paranoid individual with vermin like attributes. When he kills him in the final shootout, it is the “image” of Hitler that he wants to kill (much like the mentality behind voodoo and effigy-burning practices), for he can’t kill him in reality – exactly the same thing that Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) does in Come and See (1985) when he fires at a photograph of Hitler in an attempt to undo the images of history, if not history itself.

In The Conformist (1970), Bertolucci equates the fascists with Plato’s prisoners of the cave, suggesting that they are blinded by fake ideologies fuelled by personal insecurities. In The Owl’s Legacy, Marker equates the audience in the cinema hall (citing Simone Weil) to those prisoners, proposing that they are blinded by images they see on screen and take them for reality. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino combines both these notions and presents us Nazis watching movies in a cinema hall. These “blind” Nazis enjoy the massacre that Zoller is doing on the screen, assuming that this is how it was. Zoller, on the other hand, is the only person there who knows it wasn’t so and leaves the cinema hall, breaking free from one of the captive caves he is occupying. Additionally, Tarantino does not forget to free his audience from the chains of their cave. Like it was done in Bertolucci’s film, he keeps reminding us that we are watching a movie and whatever we are seeing is a mere paining on a plastic canvas (contrary to what other films on historical subjects want us to believe). In chapter two, Raine, seated at the centre of an arrangement that resembles a Greek theater, tells the captured Nazi officer that “watching Danny beat the Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies”. Raine seems to know that he is just the shadow of a man placed on a simple image. And because he regularly attempts to remind us of the fakery of it all, Tarantino’s violence also helps to serve the same purpose – to try to disengage us from whatever is depicted on cinema screen even when it is unmitigated and concrete. As the movie’s title confesses, its all a fraud and a very beautiful one at that.

[The Conformist (1970)]

[The Owl’s Legacy (1989)]

(Images Courtesy: Imaginary Year, Hellenica)

Il Conformista (1972) (aka The Conformist)
Bernardo Bertolucci
Italian

“That’s why a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen, a true patriot… A true fascist.

 

The ConformistBernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is everything that a viewer could ask for – a great story, interesting characters, stylish visuals and a purely cinematic language to convey them all. Using images that possess the judiciousness of a Tati, meaning of an Antonioni and elegance of an Ophuls, Bertolucci, not even 30 at that time, conjures up a film of both high mojo-quotient and long “shelf-life”. Evidently inspiring The Godfather series, The Conformist is the kind of film that persuades you to understand what the difference between direction and visual illustration is. The next time somebody kills you with that irritating “The book was better” act, hit them with this one. Not that The Conformist is better than its book version, but only that it makes such comparisons invalid.

Adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Bertolucci’s script follows a young man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), during the years just before the second big war. He is about to get married to a typical middle class woman, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), with “paltry, little ambitions – all bed and kitchen” in order to become a “normal” person in the society. He is also all set to be inducted into the Italian fascist party and has to carry out the assassination of an insurgent in Paris, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), incidentally his professor during his college days. Employing ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s hypnotic tracking shots and handhelds and seamless, highly-stylized, tense cutting between various timelines, Bertolucci attempts to illustrate the reason for the rise of fascism by delving into the psyche of one man with a troubled past and an uncertain future.

The Conformist is a difficult film, not because its themes are heavy or its form too radical, but because the statement it proposes is a tad indigestible. Once you get over its slight simplification of ideas and reasons, it is a sweeping masterwork that you are looking at. I probably haven’t seen any film that as clearly reveal how we have all confused sexuality with morality, morality with religion, religion with politics and politics with security. The tension is palpable in almost every shot of the film. Consider the central scene of sheer cinematic awesomeness where Quadri and Clerici recollect what actually went wrong. Using staggering interplay of light and shadow, gestures and movements and room space and sound, Bertolucci develops the central motif of the film in pure film language, without ever betraying the diegesis of the film. Bertolucci’s script takes up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that humans are all prisoners inside a dark cave unable to differentiate between real objects and the shadows that they cast on the walls, and adapts it so as to examine the dark history of the country. It is after this point that every element of the film cries out for attention and the ambivalence of the central character brought to light. Especially remarkable is the final shot of the film where, after Italo is swept away by a Rossellinian crowd, Clerici sits on a low platform near the fire, looking towards a homosexual street dweller through prison-like iron bars, still unsure of his political, sexual and moral footing.

The ConformistIn fact, all the major characters in the film tantamount to prisoners of Plato’s cave. None of them actually know what their principles actually mean or what they want from it all. Clerici is confused with both his sexual orientation and political ideology. His wife, Giulia, does not see beyond the two things that Clerici mentions. The professor seems to spend an idyllic life like that of the bourgeoisie –the very people whom he is fighting against. Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda) is none but a female counterpart of Clerici. Only that the mass she is conforming to happens to be the resistance group. The tragedy about Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) is that the people he despises is the very group he works for (“Cowards. Perverts, Jews. They are all the same. If I had my way, I’d put them all up against the wall. They should all be eliminated at birth”, he says). Even the blind Italo (José Quaglio) joins the group not because of his political leanings, but for “normalcy” and hence safety. It’s almost as if the people who oppose passive acceptance of political philosophies are themselves creating another form of fascism by unanimously scandalizing it – an idea ambiguously explored in Daldry’s The Reader (2008), where it is as much a taboo to humanely understand the people associated en masse with the Holocaust as it is to carry out the inhuman acts of fascism without questioning it.

What is brilliant is the way Bertolucci brings to surface this ambivalence of his characters. He regularly captures Clerici in the frame along with his reflection on mirrors, glass panes and windows. He places him behind wind shields and transparent surfaces and cuts in tandem between the views from both sides. He softly blurs out of focus and then into it when recording Clerici. He breaks both continuity and the 180 rule (also serving as a distancing tool) to have his characters oriented in opposite directions. At one point, Clerici even assumes two quirky firing stances – one symmetrically away from the other. Furthermore, throughout the film, Bertolucci takes Clerici through regions of light and darkness – knowledge and ignorance – thus elevating the already expressionistic tone of the film. It is as if this duality of Clerici’s is as inseparable as his features, perhaps because he never completely believes he is doing the right thing by trying to fit into pre-fabricated structures of the society. As Bertolucci rightly says in an interview:

“Marcello is really a very complex character, searching to conform because of his great, violent anti-conformism. A true conformist is someone who has no wish to change: to wish to conform is really to say that the truth is the contrary.”

As a matter of fact, Clerici is swappable with any character in the film, for he imbibes something from each of them. He behaves like Giulia in order to become one of them. He gradually finds himself moving towards Quadri’s ideologies than the fascists’ (In the layered scene at the ballroom, Bertolucci cuts to a photograph of Laurel and Hardy, indicating the frivolous and merely superficial antagonism between them). Clerici sees himself in Anna. His craving to become an acclaimed fascist comes in the form of Manganiello. One could even say that he meets his own future self in the form of his conformist father (Giuseppe Addobbati) at the asylum, whose political and (alleged) sexual contradictions are not far from Clerici’s own. But he is actually the closest to his friend Italo – insecure and scared because of a difference but unable to see beyond immediate refuge (Bertolucci once superimposes their faces, when Italo is reading a piece of text in praise of Mussolini and Goebbels). Italo even says early on in the film that they are, in a way, similar, after which we notice that he is wearing an unmatched pair of shoes. The idea of physical and ideological blindness recurs throughout in the film to reinforce the Plato allegory.

The ConformistI have always considered Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975) as one of the greatest movies ever made and the best one about the Holocaust that I have seen. Watching The Conformist, one can clearly see where Wertmüller’s movie gets its inspiration from. Both films seem to complement each other thematically. While Seven Beauties examines how man’s fake principles fade into oblivion when it comes down to survival, Bertolucci’s film shows how man can assume false policies in order to survive. However, formally, both the films seem very similar in the sense that both of them exaggerate melodrama to the point of caricaturing it and consequently, derive meaning out of that absurdity. Both use oversaturated colour palettes and chromatic shifts generously to keep reminding us of the phony nature of it all. In fact, Bertolucci keeps prodding us with theatricality. As Clerici recites his father’s past, three women are performing a song in the background (Incidentally called “Who’s happier than me?” – another allusion to the prisoners of the cave). He meets Anna in a ballet class. There is even an edited scene that involves blind people dancing to a piece of music.

Bertolucci is one of the biggest New Wave fans and it shows in the host of movie references that he places in the film. It wouldn’t be a coincidence if you spot allusions to The Little Soldier (1960) or Alphaville (1965) in the film, for the director himself tells us so in an interview. Not counting the humourous nods to neo-realism and Buñuel, Bertolucci is continuously in conversation with his mentor Jean-Luc Godard throughout the film. With anecdotes about the film’s first screening and the influence of Godard on his style, he mentions here how Quadri was modeled with the French director in mind and his assassination, in a way, signified the film’s stylistic and ideological shift from Godard’s. But clearly, the relationship is one of reverence. When Clerici tells Manganiello at point: “What a strange dream I’ve had. I was blind and you took me to a Swiss clinic for an operation. And professor Quadri performed the operation. It was successful. I regained my sight and went off with his wife who had fallen in love with me”, one suspects that this is not just a token of his wavering political and sexual stance, but Bertolucci’s own gratitude towards Godard for his influence.

The ConformistHowever, Bertolucci deviates from Godard by making The Conformist a highly individual-oriented film. While Godard’s is a study of the effect of social and political structures on the individual, Bertolucci’s is the exploration of the effect the psychology of (a generalized) individual has on socio-political norms. His Clerici is a character tailor made for in-depth psychoanalysis and many facets of the film clearly remain subjective. For instance, why does he “see” the same woman thrice, at different places, in the film? Why does no one else stalking Manganiello? Does he even exist? Why does Clerici marry Giulia, even though he hates her typically bourgeois mentality? Bertolucci’s mise en scène suggests that the answers are functions of Clerici’s psyche, which is evidently affected by his childhood trauma and sexual “deviation” (Although every reading of The Conformist insists that it illustrates the role of sexual deviance in the rise of fascism, a case could be made for any kind of difference – sexual as with Clerici, physical as with Italo and even religious, as with the mystic Hanussen). This way, Bertolucci calls for a reassessment of fascism as a force that has grown bottom-up because of individual insecurities, fears, motivations and ignorance rather than a mass hysteria initiated by an arbitrary single man.

(Pics Courtesy: mcnblogs.com, brynmawrfilm.org, dvdactive.com)