Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Inconceivable Baster

Though it's hard to believe for all of us arrested adolescents who have eagerly followed that legendary Sundance "Class of '92", just as all of us have gotten older, today, so is the de facto Big Man on Campus of that collective. Today is the 50th birthday of the world's favorite directorial lightning rod of all things uplifting and unseemly about modern film culture, a man both championed and castigated (sometimes by the same critic) but impossible to cast aside, Quentin Tarantino. I've been an eager follower of his work for so long, I can remember when Film Threat magazine wasn't at war with him, and in the thirteen years I've been immersed in the Los Angeles film lovers community, I've had the privilege of having more than one lengthy conversation with the man, and also more than one alcoholic beverage. As such, yes, I am not only in the tank for the man, but have been tanked as well.

There is a really fascinating through line in all of his movies that as yet, almost no critics have openly explored. It's been a theme on which I have long contemplated writing an entire book; I already have the title. I don't want to divulge either element, because in all likelihood if I do, some other guy who isn't shackled by a $14/hour retail job in a $1000/month city will just usurp it and run with it, and kill the market for my version when it finally gets done in Godard knows how many years.

However, as a small gift on his birthday, I'm presenting a sidebar sliver from what will be my INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS chapter. I don't expect the big man to read this, or even agree with any of it, since that would be imposing a singular reading on a work that contains multitudes. But for those of you like me, who see such interesting threads in the tapestry you begin to worry if Paul Bettany is going to materialize in the room, I think you will enjoy this. I published an earlier version during the glory days of MySpace, so I apologize if there's 23 or so of you who already saw this piece.

A frustrating aftereffect from watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is that, since with any Tarantino production, the viewer develops a substantial interest to see films subreferenced within it, sadly, many of them also prove to be among the hardest ones of the near dozens of homages within. And two in particular for me are the most fascinating, because of what they unconsciously lend to reading the film.

The first, Andrew L. Stone's HI DIDDLE DIDDLE is a light madcap musical comedy of romance, chicanery, and schemes within schemes, that features one of the few successful sound performances by silent great Pola Negri. Besides's Pola's mention in the "celebrity" game in the basement pub, the film is directly, if briefly referenced, through a phonograph playing the standout number from the film, "The Man with the Big Sombrero," originally performed by June Havoc, rerecorded in French by Samantha Shelton. A promo clip, directed by music video veteran Meiert Avis, even digitally inserts Shelton into the exact scene from the film, where she mimics Havoc's choreography to a T, as you will see in the clips below. I was always dismayed that this neat little item was not included as a bonus element on the soundtrack album or on the home video releases of BASTERDS.

But what makes things interesting about how this film has its place in the stew of influences is that HI DIDDLE DIDDLE is one of the few American films that had even a whiff of being not 100% enthusiastic about U.S. involvement in World War II. Let's say the typical American sentiment of participation can be approximated in Eddie Izzard's observation of English war movies of the period, where the otherwise-looked-down-upon proletariat were suddenly made to appear noble because they were going off to fight and die..."We as East Enders, we as people from the East End of London, the working class of London, we must go with our strange accents, go to the war, I must do it." (I always wondered if unconsciously this played a part in Tarantino's plotting of the Basterds' modus operandi, considering that the punchline of this bit is the soldier promising his children, "I'll bring you back a Nazi, with real hair!") By contrast then, as detailed by critic and historian David Gasten, HI DIDDLE DIDDLE gently but firmly suggests that "the war" has so overtaken every aspect of American life that nobody can concentrate on anything else, that the screwball events and complications that occur in the story would never take place if everyone weren't obsessed with doing their ostensible patriotic duty. And as all these events interfere directly with a young hero with only 48 hours of shore leave to marry, and more importantly consummate said marriage, it's also rather daring in depicting the otherwise taboo subject of wartime cockblocking. 
Tarantino has cited his love for HI DIDDLE DIDDLE on multiple occaions, though its politics seem to be less important to him as its relentless pile-on of HELLZAPOPPIN'-style gags, so perhaps any sort of statement on patriotism is not intended on his part. But over the span of BASTERDS, as our normal emotional responses to wartime tropes are questioned and subverted - the steely, ignoble nobility of the German major who chooses death at the hand of the Bear Jew; being in a theatre watching and cheering the massacre of Nazis who are in a theatre watching and cheering the massacre of Americans; - it is entirely plausible that amidst what looks like a rah-rah-America movie about kickin' Nazi ass, that very notion would be tweaked by referencing one small occasion when Hollywood did not swallow the "Good War" pill. 
The second film in my sights, ALLONSANFAN is a bitter epic satire by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, arthouse darlings from the late '70's lauded for films like PADRE PADRONE and NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS, and still making waves today with their just-released neo-realist tale of prison lifers staging Shakespeare, CAESAR MUST DIE. Taking place post-Napoleon in Italy, a former revolutionary (Marcello Mastroianni) jailed for his rebellion, has been freed and just wants to go back to his former life of comfort. However, he is dragged back into the fruitless struggle against the powers that be by his former comrades, no matter how many times he secretly betrays them and tries to escape to "normalcy." There are complications along the way due to immediate family, sexual escapades, illegitimate children, and other surprises. And his venality is especially brought into contrast by a naively doggedly young buck named "Allonsanfan" his name a comical malaprop of "Allons enfants," the first words of the French Marseillaise, indicating his status as a true believer in the revolution, versus Mastroianni's status as an opportunist at best. Made in the early '70's, it got a belated U.S. release in the early '80's, but has been long unavailable in any licensed form domestically (though I've seen it bootlegged to YouTube and torrents are likely out there). Thus I suspect Tarantino never saw this film - likely he just had the soundtrack as a Morricone fan and thought the score was cool. Nonetheless, there is definitely ground for homage deeper than just music.
Spoilers here, but you're not likely to see this movie anytime soon, so ya might as well keep reading...

The striking music that is featured in the ending and credits of BASTERDS, and as such has become synonymous to the movie in the same way Fukasaku's theme to BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY will be thought of as "the KILL BILL theme," is especially crucial to the ending of ALLONSANFAN. In a vivid touch of surrealism, which uncannily also suggests some of the imagery later used by John Landis in his video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (though of course nobody in that project saw this film either), the living mix with the dead, many of whom we have seen perish throughout the course of the film, in a last dance of defiance; the composition is called "Rabbia e Tarantella," or "Rage and Dance." We then see Mastroianni, while trying to get forgiveness from Allonsanfan for betraying him to the opposing forces, is himself killed by the troops he sold out to, after wearing their giveaway color jacket. Symbolizing the old maxim of Hell's greatest torment is for traitors, since he has spent the entire movie being torn between the camps of rebellion and bourgeoisie, he dies being a member of neither.
Fast-forward this to about 6:20:

Once you have processed this imagery and information, it's easy to find parallel when in BASTERDS, Col. Landa, who has betrayed the Germans for his own comfort, is himself double-crossed by Raine and marked for good with the swastika. Though there is no "dance of the dead" in this scene, if indeed Tarantino saw ALLONSANFAN, then perhaps by hearing this "raging tarantella" over this sequence, we are to imagine the dead souls of the Jews he killed, the Americans claimed in combat, and the Germans he has turned his back on, all stomping in anticipation of the ultimate traitor getting his comeuppance. Knowing his appreciation for Russ Meyer, as this scene played, I was truly expecting to hear the words of Z-Man Barzell stabbing Martin Bormann in the climax of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS..."You beg for mercy, while the cries of six million innocents still ring in your ears? They are waiting for you!"

Again, all of this is mere speculation and opinionation. Even if it any of what I suggested were true, Tarantino would likely never admit to any of this, as he has widely held that to reveal what "his truth" is would ruin the creative interpretations that the viewer creates for themselves, which is ultimately his real interest; whatever you got from the movie, you should be allowed to keep that reading if it helped you enjoy it. But subterranean concepts like these demonstrate his skill at not only reassembling diverse influences into a new exciting work, in the same manner that the best hip-hop artists took existing samples to create new musical statements, but also creating interest in the viewer to investigate and experience those very works of influence. And in a climate where most people's idea of classics originate from the '80's, something that makes anyone want to check out anything in Black and White or in a foreign language is a most welcome item.

So while I don't know whether this 50th will find him in the midst of a celluloid orgy, or perhaps abstaining from the cinema to enjoy close friends and heavy cultural discourse, but I hope Mr. Tarantino will derive happiness today not just from a well-lived life, but also from the millions of kindred souls who through his example have discovered many of their new favorite movies have been waiting for them a long time. On behalf of those millions, thank you, Quentin, for introducing us to each other.

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