Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Tarantino Is Doing

Around the third grade I took to writing a series of short stories set during my favorite conflict, World War II. They were all written in the first person, and although I knew that the exploits of the protagonist were not exactly my own, this form of narrative had an extra thrill for me. And thrilling these stories were. Their protagonist was a sort of super hero of the conflict, seeing action in all theaters, on land, at sea and in the air.

In one of these stories, the narrator, while flying his fighter plane, encountered a flight of Nazi aircraft. He engaged them and shot down the flight leader, who managed to bail out. As the enemy pilot bailed out, the narrator recognized him as none other than Adolf Hitler!

When I submitted this particular story to my father for his comments, he said he was nigh certain that Hitler was not a pilot, and even if he was, he would not have been flying patrols along the front. At the time I thought this a rather unnecessary fixation with historical detail. Moreover, I found this bit of information about Hitler rather disappointing: we all know he was the leader of the Nazis, a fearsome band of warmongers. So why wasn't he out front personally warmongering, like a modern-day Alexander?

When I recently saw Quintin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, I immediately recognized what he was doing. The film, about which I have written here and here, centers on a group of Jewish-Americans who operate behind enemy lines, scalping Nazis. Their plans to kill all the top Nazi leaders - who are in Paris for a film debut - merge with the efforts of the French Jew who owns the cinema in question.

Not only does the visual style of the film hearken back to an earlier age of pulp comics and movies, but the basic notion of over-the-top pseudo-history is something I think you can find in the childhoods of most little boys. Why do we dream in this kind of way? I have not yet definitively answered this question to my own liking, but I have some theories.

The kind of super pseudo-historical character I created as a child lends a certain clarity to the historical narrative. No single historical individual actually served in all theaters, fighting every enemy, engaging in every form of combat; thus, to tell the story of the war as a whole we are forced to tell the story of vast forces, of military committees and other impersonal bodies which waged this global conflict. By creating a decidedly unhistorical character, my third grade stories were able to capture the entire war in a single person's experience. The other day I was reading an essay from a collection in honor of M. R. D. Foot, which noted that Foot enjoyed writing the history of the resistance during World War II precisely because it placed the focus on individuals rather than the divisions, corps and army groups of the conventional forces. I suspect that Tarantino's unhistorical tale accomplishes something similar: we know that Hitler was the single most important element in the Axis bid for power, so why not put him in the sights? We know that the Jews were some of the most hounded victims of the Nazis - and vigorously hunted them down after the war - so why not makes Jews the Nazi's face-to-face enemy? And why not tell this story with roughly a dozen characters, to keep things neat?

I think a second reason I wrote counterfactual stories as a child was that I wanted to be able to change things. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to have a role in the victories and reverse the defeats. But in writing historical fiction of the usual sort, characters' actions have to fit within the framework of what actually happened. They are prisoners, in a sense, of history; their actions are not allowed to change anything significant. Hitler may not have been a pilot who was shot down, nor was he ever ambushed by Jews in a Paris cinema, but these kinds of stories allow their authors, readers and viewers to partake in new outcomes, not simply reading about the defeat of evil in the past, but defeating it in new ways in the present. For a child in the third grade, the present age has rather few evils; if there are dragons to be slain, Nazis make excellent candidates. But even for adults, the evils of the modern age can be quite complicated. A story like Tarantino's may not provide detailed programs for solving modern ills, but it does provide moral clarity and the possibility that evil can be defeated again and again, in ever new ways. And that's not such a bad lesson, now is it?

On a related note, Sally Menke, Tarantino's editor on every film he has ever made, passed away the same day I happened to watch Inglourious Basterds. May she rest in peace.
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