30 Dec 2009
Having had the chance to savour Basterds at length, the time has come to revise and expand on my initial blog about the glorious uniform porn the film provides. For a movie which changes history, it does a great job of re-creating aspects of WW2 better than many of its peers. The original blog still stands, but this one will add some of the more obscure details, and look at some of those awesome, Tarantino-type tidbits that pander to us trivia freaks!
The Basterds And Their Patches
The eight men in the Basterds have clearly been handpicked, Dirty Dozen-style, from a number of outfits. I guess Raine just combed the files looking for eight Jewish-American soldiers with a knack for killing; or they could have "volunteered" one way or another.
Every American serviceperson wore some kind of insignia on their left sleeve, which represented their unit. We can get a rough idea of each Basterd from their divisional patch.
Starting with the closest, and moving back:
PFC Gerold Hirschberg - well, he's actually wearing a service jumper instead of a jacket, so we'll never know his outfit!
PFC Michael Zimmerman - proudly bears the giant patch of the 'Big Red One', the 1st US Infantry Division. This was the first American division in action in Europe, and logged more time in combat than any other US infantry unit. Zimmerman is one of the three Basterds who disappear after the second chapter.
PFC Omar Ulmer - who will later go down blazing in the theatre, isn't actually wearing a division patch. His badge is 1st Army, meaning he served in some capacity on the Army's headquarters staff. He could have been anything like a driver, a cook, or a clerk.
PFC Andy Kagan - the second mystery Basterd. Kagan's patch is of the 3rd US Infantry Division, the 'Rock of the Marne', mainly famed in WW2 for being Audie Murphy's outfit.
PFC Simon Sakowitz - the third mystery Basterd. He wears the large and distinctive 'Indianhead' patch of the 2nd US Infantry Division.
PFC Smithson Utivich - the only Basterd that we know is alive at the end. His patch is indistinct, and is giving me frigging headaches. It looks like some kind of Airborne badge, but it also could be a headquarters-type one like Ulmer.
I seriously can't make it out; and given how arcane this kind of insignia can be, I have to give up.
Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki - last in the line, this guy's badge can't been seen here, but is obvious in another shot. It's the blue-and-gold lozenge of the Rangers, probably the 5th Battalion. It makes sense that this elite commando unit would recruit a native-born German, and suggests he too had been in action for some time.
And of course : Sgt. Donnie "the Bear Jew" Donowitz - Aldo's number two, and the most fearsome of the Basterds. Out-of-shot in this photo, but earlier in the scene we see he has a 'Blue and Gray', or 29th US Infantry Division, patch. This outfit played a major role on D-Day, and suffered heavily.
A Few Weird Things About Landa
Several things about Landa's medals are wrong, although absolutely no-one except a fetishist would notice. There is some solid continuity; when we first meet him in 1941, he is wearing neither his Anti-Partisan or Proficiency Badges, which were not yet instituted. On the other hand, he is wearing the Eastern Front, or so-called "Frozen Meat", medal - awarded for service in the Russian winter..of 1941-42. It's most remarkable he got one six months before they were actually awarded!
< While we're on the subject, the SS Proficiency Badge is a bit of an issue.
Technically this award was never given to actual Germans, but rather to the many European volunteers who joined the SS. It symbolised that they were "honorary" Germans, but not "proper" SS. Landa is an Austrian cop, but after researching the subject further, I'm very doubtful he would have qualified for this. I'm putting its inclusion in his medals down to 'rule of cool'.
On the Big Night, Landa pulls a few more medal shenanigans. The Gold War Merit Cross with Swords around his neck would not be developed until the end of the war, and none were ever actually awarded! The Frozen Meat medal is there, although now at least he could claim some qualification for it. But most intriguingly, he has a couple of very old Austro-Hungarian medals in that rack, which he is far too young to have earned. I don't think the Reichsfuhrer would have been impressed with such examples of "stolen valour"!
As an aside to Landa, his driver (and possible boyfriend?) is worth a word.
The unfortunate Hermann is an SS-Mann (Private) of the SS 3rd Division, "Totenkopf" - a notorious outfit. He wears the yellow piping and badges of a signalman or radio operator. He also has the Eastern Front Medal and an ornamental Nazi Party pin.
The SS Disguises
When they attend their fateful meeting in the basement of La Louisiane, Hicox, Stiglitz and Wicki are all disguised as officers of the Waffen-SS. The three paint a very convincing picture of a group of elite, hardened veterans:
Wicki (at left) is an SS-Obersturmfuhrer (Lieutenant 1st Class) of the 2nd SS Division, "Das Reich". He bears the Iron Crosses 1st and 2nd class, the Eastern Front Medal, a Wound Badge (in Silver, meaning twice) and a General Assault Badge.
Hicox (center) is an SS-Haupsturmfuhrer (Captain), also of "Das Reich". He only has a War Merit Cross (no Iron ones) but also bears an Assault and Wound Badge.
Lastly, Stiglitz (at right) is another SS-Obersturmfuhrer, this time of the infamous 12th SS Division, "Hitlerjugend". The fact that this serious Nazi-hater is masquerading as an officer in one of the most fanatically Nazi divisions, is grimly humorous. He's a mess - uniform unbuttoned, hatless, and missing a couple of medals! But then, that's Stiglitz!
SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Dieter Hellstrom of the Gestapo
This fellow is the very image of the Hollywood Nazi. The black uniform with brown shirt and swastika armband became a filmic cliche of Gestapo tyranny long ago. And like a lot of his cinematic forbears, Hellstrom, as a Gestapo Major, should not have been wearing this. By 1944, the black uniform was seen as a "shirker's outfit", something only the clerks and desk jockeys of the Allgemeine-SS wore. Everyone else had gone over to field gray, whether they actually served in the field or not. Or in the case of Gestapo officers, they adopted the equally classic long black coat and fedora - the Herr Flick look.
So although it's utterly inaccurate, Hellstrom's uniform performs the job of screaming GESTAPO GOON well enough. I am kind of surprised that Tarantino didn't go for the more disturbing, parodic Flick type, however. (And how about the name? I, of course, couldn't help thinking of Patsy Walker's second husband, but that's just me).
His medals are, as ever, revealing. Once again we see the Proficiency Badge on a guy who shouldn't technically be wearing one (or at least, would wear it only while in civilian garb). The other two medals are obscure Party ones, awarded for attendance at one of the pre-war rallies, or the like. I believe the middle one is a long-service badge. It is interesting to note that Hellstrom is quite young to be a Major, in contrast to his older yet junior-ranking Allied counterparts. He's a guy who's enjoying his thuggery - the way he grins like a power-tripping creep after bringing Shoshanna to see Goebbels, reveling in her fear - so he naturally must have risen fast in the Gestapo. Sadly, there were a lot of Hellstroms in reality.
The Greyshirts of La Louisiane
The merry assemblage of Wehrmacht personnel who all get wasted in the basement are pretty unremarkable. The boys appear to be regular infantry, one with a standard Assault Badge. Just regular dudes having a few brewskis. Their female colleague is an interesting inclusion; those women who served in the Wehrmacht have had very little on-screen representation. Her jacket is nowhere to be seen, but it's safe to assume she's a Blitzmadel, not unlike Helga (seeing as we're on the Allo Allo references).
Feldwebel Werner Rachtman
When Donowitz taunts this weary veteran about his medals, Rachtman's steady reply is one of the best moments of the movie. His courage in the face of a very grisly death is borne out by his decorations. He's a classic Alte Mann, an old-school Feldwebel (Sergeant) who could have made Field Marshal years ago, but had instead remained utterly loyal to the guys at the Front. He has both classes of Iron Cross, a Bronze Wound and Assault Badge, and most notably of all, the Close Combat Clasp (in Silver) above his breast pocket.
Among real soldiers in the Reich, this Clasp was often more highly esteemed than the Knight's Cross. It showed that the bearer had been in the hardest fighting, non-stop, for longer than any soldier should have to endure. It was rarely awarded, so for a regular Army sergeant to get one is definitely noteworthy.
Nazi Girl Scouts
Everybody seems to know about the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) but not many people realise it had a girl's branch, the League of German Maidens (Bund Deutscher Mädel, or BDM). The appearance of three BDM girls at the Big Night - probably as a reward for their cookie sales - jumped right out at me. The whole Big Night scene is uniform trivia madness; but these three made an interesting addition. Of course, they all die horribly with the rest in the theater, but ah...well...they were Nazis, right? I suspect they were included here on purpose, as part of IB's very complicated look at just what the Nazis were. Among the mediocre Party creeps in their fecal brown outfits, and Dicke Hermann in his outrageous uniform, there were three bobbysoxer girls who were waving the swastika too.
A Few Weird Things About Zoller
For one of the Reich's top soldiers, this guy seems to have a very poor grasp of uniform and medal protocol. He does get to show off the 'experimental' uniform some soldiers of the Grossdeutschland Division got to wear; if you compare it to regular German Army uniforms like the ones above, you can note its rather weird modernity.
At his lunch with Goebbels and Shoshanna, things seem above board. He has the Marksman's Aiguillette, as you'd expect for a master sniper. The Iron Cross 2nd Class and Assault Badge are standard infantry, with that ever-present Eastern Front Medal also in evidence. But anyone familiar with decorations of the Reich would ask : where's the Knight's Cross? He would most certainly have one, yet he doesn't even have the Cross in 1st Class. Dude certainly seems to have been shortchanged on his medals. Yet, later...
Heigh-ho! A Knight's Cross - complete with all the trimmings - has suddenly appeared. Yet still no Iron Cross 1st Class, without which he never who have got his Knight's. Believe me, its absence is really obvious.
That's all for now. Your local library can certainly help; there's no end of books on the subject of WW2 uniforms. Also, check out IMDB's trivia page on the flick for a few more details - like how Hicox wears his beret French-style, and so forth. Hope you find what you're looking for!
16 Dec 2009
In 1943, a very strange document landed on the desk of one Ray Palmer. As the editor of sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories, Palmer was used to receiving all kinds of submissions. But this document - ominously titled "A Warning To Future Man" - was something entirely separate from the pulp mainstay.
The author, Richard Shaver, had a hell of a story to tell. He revealed - as an item of fact - that a highly-advanced species had once ruled the earth, up until a nasty burst of solar radiation some ten millenia ago drove them away. Some of these beings had apparently remained hidden in their sophisticated cavern-cities far below the surface. A few, called "Teros", were human-like and noble-natured. But the majority had devolved into sadistic, perverted dwarfs called "Deros". Shaver said "Dero" stood for 'detrimental robot' - in this sense, robot meaning emotionless and cruel.
These horrid Deros were, according to Shaver, well at work terrorising us surface-dwellers. Using the arcane technology of the ancient race - which seems to have involved all sorts of "ray" machines - they were responsible for everything from flu outbreaks to massive earthquakes. A recurrent theme, one Shaver was most obsessed with, involved the Deros abducting women for all sorts of unpleasant reasons. He described numerous such scenes with considerable relish.
The Deros also found time to zip out in spaceships, to further their nefarious goals. At this stage Ufology was not yet popular; Shaver's use of them would become significant later.
Palmer realised he was really onto something, and edited Shaver's piece for the magazine. Shaver had actually claimed this was all genuine, and that he had in fact spent eight years as a prisoner of the Deros. Palmer had to revise and re-write portions of the story to sell it as a work of science fiction - adding a plot, and removing the more graphic rape and torture scenes.
First published in AS in March, 1945, the Shaver stories saw the magazine's circulation soar. The story itself rapidly grew into a national, and international, phenomenon. Palmer would later state that AS normally got "50 to 60" letters a month; with the publication of the Shaver stories that number jumped to an incredible 50,000. Almost all of those letters were from people who claimed these stories were true - that they had experienced contact with the Deros. It grew to a point where a 1951 issue of Life magazine examined it, and the idea briefly entered into the popular consciousness.
Then came the backlash. Fans of 'hard' sci-fi were not impressed at what they called the "Shaver hoax", and ridiculed it as a publicity stunt. Astute observers noted that Shaver's claims bore all the hallmarks of paranoid schizophrenia, particularly with the elaborate, self-involved fantasy world and emphasis on an "influencing machine".
In 1948, AS stopped running Shaver's stories. Palmer would later claim some sinister coercion forced him to stop; cynics suggest declining sales and the increasing mockery of the stories were the cause. Palmer was also disillusioned when he discovered that Shaver had indeed spent eight years as a prisoner - not of the Deros, but rather as a catatonic in a psychiatric hospital.
Funnily enough, this was right around the time the UFO craze really took off. As Palmer notes in the interview below, Shaver was somewhat ahead of the curve with regard to flying saucers.
Viewed from our distant remove, it's pretty easy to be scornful of all this. Shaver was undoubtedly a disturbed guy, at time when schizophrenia was very poorly understood. The parameters of the fantasy were familiar to thousands around the world, in varying states of schizophrenic distress. It wove in a number of things - the hollow earth legend, fears of miscegenation, paranoid delusion - to create, paradoxically, a story that is utterly plausible to some.
I like to think of the Shaver stories as a great example of "found documents". This is, in essence, a work of fiction passed off as fact. They are usually first-person, and provide supporting data - maps, documents, and so on. In a sense they are something like "reality fiction" - if that makes any sense. An interesting example of the type would be Dracula. This is an epistolary novel - a bundle of documentation relating to the "Dracula case", as it were. The reader engages with Dracula more as a case study than a novel.
The genre is a particular staple in horror films - for example Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and Cloverfield. The proliferation of amateur cameras and the viral power of the Internet have made this even more popular today. Back in 1997, I remember watching with bemusement a little piece called Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County. Pre-empting the Blair Witch by a year, it was supposedly one family's amcam account of their alien abduction. The fact it ran a cast list at the end, had a wad of disclaimers, and was based on an previously revealed hoax, wasn't enough to stop many people claiming the "footage" was legit. Such is the awesome power of the media.
With regard to the Blair Witch, the producers of that little classic made a "documentary" about the case which, I thought, was even creepier than the film itself. It illustrated why I personally enjoy the "found documents" device - especially when it is well handled. A good, deep mythology is crucial to any horror story - the audience has to believe.
Another creepy trope of fiction that I fancy is the motif of harmful sensation, sometimes called the brown note. Briefly, this is like the Evil Eye, or Medusa's gaze - you look upon something and die, or at least are profoundly affected. Recently, the Ringu cycle of movies made this trope very well-known; the plot hinged on a cursed video, the viewing of which doomed the viewer.
I particularly like it when the idea of the "found document" is incorporated into this motif. Not surprisingly, this combination pops up a lot in the mind-blasting horrors of Lovecraft. Only in his warped realm could one find an opera which destroys existence about halfway into the third act.
The work in question is the hideously mistitled Massa di Requiem per Shuggay. Originally appearing in one of Ramsey Campbell's brilliant Cthulhu works, the opera is passed off as a genuine document from 1769 - however it is incomplete. A grim tale is told of how the Church ordered all copies to be burnt, along with their heretical author. The score - apparently considered "unplayable" by any sane musician - isn't really the problem; it's the libretto, which is actually a veiled summoning ritual. A successful performance ends with Azathoth showing up, and he's not there to throw flowers on the stage. Here's the entry for the Massa, from the latest edition of the Call of Cthulhu RPG:
Talk about bringing down the house - there's no showstopper quite like the Daemon Sultan. It's one piece the Concert Programme won't be featuring in their Sunday Opera special, I'd wager.
8 Dec 2009
I feel one has truly matured as a blogger when one has been burned - or at least singed - in virtual effigy. Having sampled such Dantean vengeance this morning, your faithful blogger feels he has achieved that dubious honour.
Some folks over at the Outrageous Fortune forums found my piece about the weird trolls who sometimes lurk about over there. Here. They took umbrage at what was immediately perceived as an attack on themselves. Jumping on my (indiscreet, I admit) link to teh Myspace, my profile picture was put up for a good tomato-throwing. So I had to wade in and explain myself more clearly, and point out that this sort of thing was just what I had been talking about. The picture-grabber was kind enough to take it down and apologise, and I think everyone's feathers were returned to an unruffled state.
I did let myself down in the original piece by suggesting there was a conflict of interest involving the forum and the show's publicity department, without means of fair reply. That is poor journalism, no matter how light-hearted I may have intended it, and it has been removed accordingly. I'd just say it was a bad reaction to seeing a reviewer, who dared to suggest an alternate opinion, have their email address offered up for harassment.
Needless to say, it sent my visitor count through the roof. Come for the insults, stay for the comics trivia!
Anyway, this is indeed a comics blog, so let's take a look at one of the coolest, funniest, and possibly most offensive superheroines Marvel has ever come up with - Big Bertha.
Bertha - real name Ashley Crawford - is a parody character. But like so many of her ilk, she has a greater depth and poignancy than many 'serious' characters. She is a member of the Great Lakes Avengers, Milwaukee's
What I - and many fanboys - love about the GLA is that they're plain, honest characters genuinely trying their best, as ineffective as it may be. Along the way they raise some very pointed issues about the politics of the superhero comic. It helps that their best writer, Dan Slott, is a master at this sort of thing.
In her civilian guise, Bertha is Ashley Crawford, "Wisconsin's Top Supermodel!". It seems she could be as big as her MU colleagues Millie or Patsy, but her loyalty to the GLA keeps her in the back country. Her (mutant) power is a kind of ability to "Hulk out" - when she becomes Big Bertha, she adds 300 pounds of muscle, and turns into an incredibly powerful behemoth.
Oh yes, the questions about body image are being hammered home here. And how do you think she reverts back to Ashley?
The GLA kind of humour is definitely something you either love or hate. I suppose a regular, nerdish familiarity with the tropes makes the irony sharper. But what makes a character like Bertha so damn cool, is the skill and affection with which she's written. She knows she's a joke, and that's the joke, and we laugh with her at the insanity of the whole concept.
Beyond being her beautiful parodic self, Bertha had a truly hilarious story of her own a few years back. The notorious Deadpool, king of Marvel's losers, decided to move in with the GLA as he related to their "lovable underdog" status. However the Merc with a Mouth turns out (surprise!) to make a nasty couch fungus, rapidly becoming very obnoxious to his new roomies.
The GLA boys decide to manipulate the one weakness they know Deadpool has. After his true love, Bea Arthur, Deadpool has a major crush on Big Bertha. They ask Bertha to take him out on a date, and use her feminine wiles to persuade him to leave.
Wade's downcast because he's hot for Bertha, not Ashley. But making the best of it, the romantic pair travel to a seedy joint where the in-jokes come fast. The Simpsons and The Sopranos collide violently and our couple's date is interrupted. ("Yeah, so I like Journey, what about it?")
Afterward, Bertha and Deadpool have a little heart-to-heart:
Awww, poor Deadpool. I feel his pain.
Now for something completely different to finish. The ending of this year has seen a proliferation of best-of lists, as everybody tries to wrap up the decade (with technically a year still to go) and their favourite parts of it. I used to be a bit leery of lists - they seemed a bit lazy; but once I got over myself, I learned to understand them. Also, none other than Umberto Eco - certainly NOT a lazy writer - has praised the virtue of the list as a ward against death. How can one argue with that?
So a time has come for the listing of things. It's prompted me to scour the Interwebs, remembering the past ten years, and thinking 'bout a few things. Some calls seem easy to make : I'd put Alias as comic of the decade, for example. But how about music videos? I've been trying to think all of the goodies from the past ten years, and it has led to some interesting finds on Youtube.
I am not positing No More Kings' "Sweep the Leg" as video of the decade, but I would include it in any list. The whole piece - song and video - is a detailed tribute to that 80's classic "The Karate Kid" - and reunites all of the original cast, with the notable exceptions of Elizabeth Shue, and of course the late Pat Morita. But in this vivid fantasy, the hero of the piece is Johnny Lawrence, the 'bad guy' and loser in the original film. The real kicker? The video was written and directed by Johnny himself, William Zabka. Zabka also plays himself in the lead role - rollerblading down the street, fantasizing about a comeback/rematch that re-writes the end of the original film. It's a great little piece of 80's nostalgia, with in-jokes aplenty.