FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
From time to time I've debated, like many others on the web, the question as to whether or not all works in the tradition of the "alternate history" fall into the domain of what many call"fantasy and science fiction"-- or, as I term said domain "the metaphenomenal." I plan to write another essay for my theory-blog soon about the reasons why INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is an example of a purely isophenomenal "alternate history" film, so I'll dispense with any detailed theoretical justifications in this review. However, like some of the naturalistic films I've reviewed here, BASTERDS is relevant in that it uses many of the same tropes one would find in an "uncanny" version of an alternate-world narrative, such as (to cite a quick example) Philip Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.
BASTERDS is also a work of superior mythicity, and as such, it contains too many levels to explore in a single blog-post. In contrast to the vast majority of war-films set in the Second World War, Tarantino only follows recorded history up to a point, and then "rewrites" it by showing Hitler and his high command suffer violent deaths in a movie theater. In 2009 a number of small-minded reviewers became indignant about this rewriting, claiming that playing games with the facts was tantamount to wishing away the Holocaust. These critics obviously paid no attention to the fact that Tarantino, by executing the Nazi high command in such a place, was in effect saying, "Yes, of course this is a fantasy: not only is it a movie about Hitler being killed prematurely-- by Jewish executioners, no less-- but the slaughter takes place within the confines of a French movie theater." No professional critic could have missed the dozens of arcane cinematic references crammed into BASTERDS-- with particular attention to the formidable history of German cinema-- but some critics chose to use this fact as ammunition against Tarantino for his supposed escapism, rather than as the underlying context of the entire film.
The complex cinematic references supply much of the film's mythic structure, but they're not the very heart of the story. BASTERDS anticipates many of the moral and symbolic strategies that I analyzed in Tarantino's 2012 DJANGO UNCHAINED here. In both BASTERDS and DJANGO, the writer-director begins with an aspect of history that tends to be portrayed in cinema in polarizing good-vs.-evil terms-- the Holocaust in 2009, American slavery in 2012. At no point does Tarantino redeem either the politics of Nazism or of slavery, but in contrast to more unimaginative filmmakers, he makes it abundantly clear that the people who devote themselves to these political movements do not perforce lose their humanity. For instance, one of the major plotlines of BASTERDS follows the arc of French Jewess Shoshanna, who flees Nazi persecution and becomes the mistress of the aforementioned theater. Only one factor makes it possible for her to have the chance to destroy the Nazi high command: the fact that Frederick, a young Nazi soldier, becomes besotted with her and moves heaven and earth to help her improve her fortunes.
Had Frederick appeared in a morale-building film within the sphere of the actual war, Hollywood would have made him the lovelorn Nazi a preening fop or a violent asshole. At best he might have been an honorable but still patrician type, like Conrad Veidt's character in the 1939 SPY IN BLACK.
But Frederick, rather like Calvin Candle in DJANGO, appears to be a generally pleasant young fellow who just doesn't have any awareness that he's doing anything wrong. Indeed, whereas Candle is less sympathetic in that he ignores the sufferings of his slaves, Frederick is simply oriented on defending his own people against invaders. Indeed, if anyone within the arc acts like the stereotypical Nazi, it's Shosanna, during a scene where she and her aide Marcel use violence to force a Parisian citizen to help them in their plot against the Nazis.
The film's main source of ultraviolence, however, are the "Basterds" of the title: a Special Service commando force operating in Nazi-held territories. Possibly because the group's leader Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) boasts some Apache blood, the Basterds specialize in scalping many of their victims, the better to spread waves of superstitious terror. By a series of very involved plot-devices, Raines and his people end up participating in Shoshanna's assault. Although the Basterds are technically the "good guys," they too are seen doling out as much, if not more, brutal violence than the Nazi soldiers -- though once again, it should be obvious to any viewer that they are on the right side of history.
I should mention that the killing of the high command is also only made possible through the collaboration of Nazi defector Hans Landa (Christoph Walz). Despite being something of a villain to both sides-- he persecutes Shoshanna, but turns on his own people when it suits his needs-- Landa is also the source of much of the film's humor, partly because he's sort of a Nazi "Sherlock Holmes" in terms of his perspicuity.
Rather than making a historically accurate film that would merely tell viewers facts they could find out from history books or Internet sites, Tarantino has made one in which history and fiction play off one another, in a manner analogous to their interaction in real life. It's more than just "metafiction"-- a lazy critical term for any sort of narrative that suggests self-consciousness about its own status-- but is rather an unblinking look at the way good and evil intermingle in human nature.
Like most war-films, this partakes of the nature of the drama more than any other mythos. In terms of the naturalistic trope the film uses, the "exotic lands and peoples" trope comes closest to describing BASTERDS' historical rewriting-- but this time, it's not the natural inhabitants of the land who seem exotic, but rather the "Jewish Indian" invaders of that land-- though the exoticism of the "Basterds" pales before a similar "tribe" of characters found in the uncanny film RED DAWN.