Postmodern Basterds

I’ve seen appallingly few of the 2009 Oscar nominees, but I did manage to catch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds yesterday. QT has been called a “postmodern” director because he loves parody, he loves to re-imagine the film genres with which he youthfully and nerd-ily fell in love — the samurai movie, the exploitation movie, the heist film — and to amplify their characteristic cheese into slick, Tarantino brand meta-films.

What’s interesting about Inglorious Basterds is that, although it was (sort of) billed as a revisionist historical film, it’s actually QT applying his formula to Hollywood’s WWII genre films of the 40’s and 50’s — which were themselves pure propaganda. So you end up with Brad Pitt doing a John Wayne impression for two hours; one film icon impersonating another.

On a related note, Essayist Lee Sandlin wrote a brilliant piece exploring, among other things, the disconnect between the historical reality of WWII and the American popular perception of it:

Out of idle curiosity, I’ve been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war — war stories they’ve heard from their families, facts they’ve learned in school, stray images that might have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn’t interested in fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past. To give everybody a big enough target I asked about World War II.

I figured people had to know the basics — World War II isn’t exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. Other than the black death of the Middle Ages, it’s the worst thing we know of that has ever happened to the human race. Its aftereffects surround us in countless intertwining ways: all sorts of technological commonplaces, from computers to radar to nuclear power, date back to some secret World War II military project or another; the most efficient military systems became the model for the bureaucratic structures of postwar white-collar corporations; even the current landscape of America owes its existence to the war, since the fantastic profusion of suburban development that began in the late 1940s was essentially underwritten by the federal government as one vast World War II veterans’ benefit. (Before the war there were 3 suburban shopping centers in the U.S.; ten years after it ended there were 3,000.)

Then too, World War II has been a dominant force in the American popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, when my own consumption of pop culture was at its peak, the war was the only thing my friends and I thought about. We devoured World War II comic books like Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock; we watched World War II TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and The Rat Patrol; our rooms overflowed with World War II hobby kits, with half-assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s largest collection of torn and mangled World War II decal insignia. We all had toy boxes stuffed with World War II armaments — with toy pistols and molded plastic rifles and alarmingly realistic rubber hand grenades. We refought World War II battles daily and went out on our campaigns so overloaded with gear we looked like ferocious porcupines. Decades after it was over the war was still expanding and dissipating in our minds, like the vapor trails of an immense explosion.

(Read through the Sandlin piece if you have time, or you can listen to an excerpt in episode 195 of This American Life)

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