Why Scalzi is Wrong: the Great Basterds Debate

I woke up mulling about the John Scalzi column I read yesterday about why Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglourious Basterds is NOT a science fiction movie as some (e.g. me) claim it is. 

As always, Scalzi is judicious in his diatribe, so though he does a comprehensive job of demolishing the ‘Basterds is SF’ argument, he also acknowledges that if fans want to claim it as SF, they should feel free to do so. As he puts it, ‘Hey, if you mess with the timeline, the geeks are going to come out of the woodwork and start chanting, “One of us! One of us!” I wouldn’t suggest that scifi fans shouldn’t feel as if Basterds fits into their genre. Take it! Love it! And, if it wins the Best Picture feel free to claim it as yours.’

I’ve written a rebuttal to Scalzi’s comments in my Comment to his blog; but I’m still left feeling there are big issues here to be thrashed out.  It takes us into the murky waters of genre theory. And it involves asking some major questions: What is genre? What is SF? What is the difference between SF and fantasy?  Millions of words have been expended on answers to these questions and yet, no one seems to agree.

And at some level, that fact kind of annoys me.   Healthy disagreement is, well, healthy; but this level of disagreement reeks of mental chaos. And as someone who loves science, and the rigour and logic of scientific methodology, it irks me; because if scientists were this ‘open-minded’ about every topic under the sun, there would be no science.  (To put it another way: if arts graduates had invented the space rocket, it would look exceedingly pretty, but it wouldn’t fly.)

So let me go through Scalzi’s points one by one; and then I’m going to put my head on the chopping block and offer my own attempted answers to all those big questions. 

Scalzi argues that Basterds isn’t SF because:

’1) It wasn’t marketed as SF.’

’2) The science fictional aspects of the story are not necessarily essential to it.’

’3) It’s kinda more like fantasy than SF anyway.’

’4) If Inglourious Basterds is science fiction, so are most historical movies.’

For those new to this debate, who haven’t seen the movie, the point to bear in mind is: Tarantino’s film is set in World War II, and tells a fictional but plausible story about a team of US guerrillas (the ‘Basterds’) operating in Hitler’s Germany; but certain events that take place in the movie most emphatically DID NOT happen in real life. In other words, it’s an alternate history drama; and alt-history is a recognised sub-genre of science fiction.

Okay.

Scalzi’s point 1) is a good one. It’s generally acknowledged that ‘genre’ is something that is in part created by marketing.  The  crime genre wouldn’t be as vividly defined as it is if the publishers didn’t market their tales of criminal activity under the banner of Crime Fiction. There are Crime bookshelves in bookshops; specialist Crime awards, etc etc.  And it’s a fact that a Margaret Attwood novel with ‘science fictional’ elements will be treated as a literary novel; but a Philip Palmer or a John Scalzi with SF elements will be sold, marketed, and branded as ‘SF’.

But that’s not good enough.  Genre is more than a marketing tool; it’s a vivid, real thing, a slippery but true concept that adds value to the fiction we read, and the movies we see.  Genre is like language; you can’t ‘explain’ it, but you can learn to understand it. 

To back up that opinion, I will call upon my second favourite Professor (after the ineffable Professor Nicole Peeler – hi Nicole!) namely Professor Rick Altman, of the University of Iowa, whose book Film/Genre is a definitive and brilliant analysis of what genre is, and how it works, and how it changes depending on the way it is perceived.

In Altman’s film theory jargon, ‘Genres are most commonly taken to come into being when a body of texts shares a sufficient number of semantic and syntactic elements. This production-driven definition needs to be matched with a reception-driven definition recognizing that genres do not exist until they become necessary to a lateral communication process, that is until they serve a constellated community.’

 Ouch. That was ugly! Sorry to inflict the jargon on you – but bear  in mind, this is a specialist academic book and these guys feel the need to talk that way. Elsewhere in the book, however, Altman is more readable; and the reason I think THIS GUY KNOWS WHAT HE IS TALKING ABOUT is because he actually does research.  He uses a literary version of the scientific method; he studies a great deal of data, he finds the patterns that are hidden there, and thus draws his conclusions from evidence, not out of his own arse. 

And much of the data Altman assesses is to do with actual movies produced by actual movie studios.  He’s sifted through the files of  most of the major studios to find out how THEY define genres.  And the conclusions are startling.  The genre of ‘musical’ for instance, didn’t actually exist in the early days of movies.  Instead, it was used as an adjective, modifying nouns like comedy, romance, or melodrama.  Here’s an abbreviated version of a list of movies of the 20s and 30s and the genre descriptions that were attached to them in their publicity material:

Weary River – epic

The Broadway Melody – all talking, all singing, all dancing dramatic sensation.

The Vagabond Lover – romantic musical comedy

Devil May Care – romance punctured with subtle comedy.

The Tender Foot – a Merry Western Comedy full of Laughs and Ginger.

The Love Parade – light opera.

The Rogue’s Song – operetta.

Roadhouse Nights – melodrama  and button-busting comedy

College Love – 100% talking, singing, college picture.

There are two points here; The first is that we wouldn’t now necessarily define the genres of those films according to the way they were marketed THEN.  So Scalzi’s Point 1) falls off a cliff.

Point 2) is that genre is clearly evolutionary.  The very words we use to describe genre can change over time; and as far as movies are concerned, new genres are born all the time.  Altman is particularly brilliant about analysing this; he points out that Hollywood studios love to copy their own hits, and the hits of others. So one successful movie about gladiators (a ‘history drama’) will spawn a dozen more movies about gladiators (creating the ‘gladiator movie genre’.)  In the same way, the film Rififi is a brilliant movie about a gang of low lives staging a heist; and it’s now a template for the entire ‘heist movie genre’.

In the UK film industry, this ‘genre born out of coypcatting’ tendency is most clearly examplifed by the movie The Full Monty. It was a hugely successful movie; so for years UK producers have tried to produce other movies that are ‘like’ The Full Monty – ie ensemble comedies with quirky loveable British characters and rude moments based on an unlikely but true story. Now I know that doesn’t sound like a genre – but it is!  My friend Geoff Deane wrote one of the most successful of the Full Monty copycat movies – Kinky Boots, an ensemble comedy with quirky loveable British characters and rude moments based on an unlikely but true story. (The inspiration for the movie was a documentary about a guy up North who owned a shoe factory and started making fetish footwear.)  I’m not decrying the movie by saying it’s a copycat picture, nor I am in any way undervaluing the fabulous job Geoff did on the script. But that was always the deal – Geoff was told from the start that the producers wanted a ‘Full  Monty type hit’ and they got one.

Thus are genres born…

That’s a long rebuttal to Scalzi’s point 1).  But my underlying intent here is to suggest that you can’t define genre by what it says on the poster.  Any serious film scholar has to have a beady eye for what the genre really is, according to the actual material in the movie.

Point 2) is, I’m sorry, a dubious argument. The ending of the film is great, and it depends TOTALLY on this alt-history twist. Take that away, and the story collapses,  and becomes a less good movie. So yes, it IS essential to the movie.  A similar argument applies to Ken MacLeod’s splendid The Execution Channel, much of which takes place in a world that is very like our contemporary world, but which has a dazzling SF twist in the closing chapters.  If Ken had written a different ending, his publishers might have queried whether this was ‘really’ SF; but he didn’t! He knew all along the coup de roman he was going to pull off, and he pulled it off.

Point 3) is a tricky one.  Does alt-history have to have a scientific explanation to be SF? Does The Man in the High Castle have such an explanation? Does The Yiddish Policeman’s Union have such an explanation? Okay in Star Trek stories there were often tales that take place in alternate histories that depend on the Enterprise passing through a black hole, or some such.  But alternate history stories to my mind work best if they’re just presented ‘as if’. 

So does that make them fantasy, or SF? Strictly speaking, the answer should probably be neither: Alternate History could and maybe should be treated as a separate genre. But because it’s a subgenre that evolved out of SF, it kind of fits there.  And  of  course ‘science fiction’ is a term that by no means covers the full range of possibilities of the genre it describes.  It drives me mad  when people say: ’1984 can’t be an SF novel because it has no science’ (though in fact it does.)  For SF is about more than just science! It’s about speculation, and extrapolation – hence the attempt by some writers to rename the entire genre as ‘speculative fiction’.

But this gets to be angels dancing on pins stuff.  Alternate History IS Science Fiction, in my view, because that’s the genre that spawned it. It can also be fantasy (as in Naomi Novik’s fantasy series about the dragon Temeraire that fights in seabattles in Napoleonic times.)

Scalzi’s Point 4) is that lots of historical movies get the history wrong; so can’t they be classed as SF too? The answer; no they can’t.  That’s just, sorry, dumb-ass sophistry.  All drama relies on fictionalising, even the historical stuff!  And when in doubt, print the legend; that’s the golden principle of storytelling.  John – it’s just not the same thing!

This leaves one final question; does this actually matter? I mean, really?  I don’t think it matters hugely to Scalzi, to be honest. He’s just having fun, sounding off, teasing geeks  like me.  Scalzi is a guy I admire hugely; he’s a fine writer, and a master polemicist, who does one of these columns every week and is a master of arguing the contrary point just to get everyone talking.  So why, let’s be blunt about this, am I getting so genuinely hot under the collar?

The answer is: for me it DOES matter.  It matters because Inglourious Basterds is a fine film, and a valuable film. Yet though it’s had commercial success and Oscar nominations, it was pissed upon by all the critics I read, who mocked its excessive violence (which is in fact essential to its genre!) and Tarantino’s woeful ignorance of history.

But Tarantino knows his history! And he’s deliberately falsifying it, as part of his artistic strategy of ‘genre-mashing’, and playing games with the audience.  So though I’d argue it’s technically correct to class this as an ‘SF movie’, it’s equally correct to call it a war movie, and an action movie, and a B-movie hommage.  It’s all those things,  all at the same time.  That’s the game Tarantino plays; he makes movies for a sophisticated audience who know genre, and love genre, and enjoy the rollercoaster ride experience of totally changing genre a reel before the end.

Genre is a label but it’s not a straitjacket; it’s a creative tool, that offers a direct route to the audience’s imagination via their own insights and knowledge and expectations of ‘this kind’ of film.  Ultimately, many of Tarantino’s films (excluding Jackie Brown which plays a different game) constitute a genre of their own – the postmodern, genre-hopping, genre-mashing ‘Tarantino movie’ genre.

And smarter critics, steeped in the traditions and tropes of speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy fiction, would have spotted all that, and not written such dumb reviews. 

Inglourious Basterds is in my view, a  fine and startling piece of work.  Like Hitchock’s Psycho – which also changes genres in mid-movie – it shocks by doing the truly unexpected just when you least expect anything  so unexpected to occur….

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