Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘Inglourious Basterds’

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It’s a bit hard for me to understand the person who has heard of both Quentin Tarantino and the Holocaust, who then willingly goes to see a Quentin Tarantino movie about the Holocaust, and yet leaves the theater afterwards claiming to feel “offended.” Putting aside the highly fraught question of what exactly it is we mean when we say we are “offended,” do you really expect us to believe you didn’t know in advance what you were walking into? (See TNR for an example of this sort of strange reaction. Writing as if his meaning were clear beyond all possible clarification, Isaac Chotiner proclaims: “[T]he film is one of the most morally repulsive movies of the past decade.” In what respect, Charlie?)

Traxus and I spent some time after the film trying to puzzle all this out, but our discussion bounced around the question of whether Inglourious Basterds was completely without moral content (my initial inclination) or else the morally weightiest of Tarantino’s films (Traxus’s take and the one I eventually came around to, though it’s not exactly incompatible with the first).

Spoilers about the end of the film follow.

What we were specifically trying to work out was the way the film-within-a-film works as an (obvious) metacommentary on the whole, with a shot-reverse-shot logic that repeats itself almost exactly inside and outside Nation’s Pride. This, Traxus was arguing, suggests a kind of formal moral equivalence between the Nazi enjoyment of their propaganda film and our enjoyment of ours, on at least two levels. First there is the level of content, which we both agree is the weaker of the two. (Nazis constitute a threat that is now so vanquished as to seem completely impossible and even cartoonish, and the impossibly excessive fantasy of a alternate history in which Hitler is machine-gunned to death by Jewish-American GIs breaks whatever remaining hold the catharsis of the moment might have held on us.) But on the level of subject position Traxus has, I think, a much better point—the can’t-miss-it repetition of shot-reverse-shot, over and over, really does suggest the audience’s willing construction of this violence in a way that approaches actual moral weight.

But for my money it’s the scene that follows the cinema massacre that finally implicates the audience in this fantasy of brutal violence. Faced with the unhappy choice between letting Nazi Hans Landa walk away from the war a false hero or else executing him against orders, Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine squares the circle by carving a swastika into Landa’s head (but otherwise letting him live). It’s an act he’s done earlier in the movie, but the callback is (first) a moment of genuinely pleasurable narrative cleverness that (second) turns rapidly disturbing as the actual scarring is performed on-screen. Several bloody shot-reverse-shots later, Aldo says something like “I think this is my masterpiece” directly into the camera, followed by an immediate cut to the credits: WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO, with Tarantino thereby claiming his guilt/authorship over all these events and, by implication, once again accusing us of our participation in them.

Only here do I feel as though Tarantino has drawn out my dark side. Everywhere else, the violence in Inglourious Basterds is not pleasurable, at least not for me. (There’s also not all that much of it, hyperbolic reviews aside; most of the film is calm dialogue.) I don’t revel in violence, even against Nazis, and I’m no more glad to see an actor playing Hitler pretend to be shot than I would be to see him pretend to get away. The cinema fantasy scene and the film’s other violent set pieces have, I think, no real vibrancy to them; it’s only Hans Landa who gets under my skin and exposes my inner possibilities of hate to light. (And I don’t think it’s exactly fair to blame Tarantino for something that was inside me all along.)

While not exactly parodic, the rest of the violence does take on (for me) a cover-charge quality, a price that must be exacted to get to the good stuff. And there’s quite a bit of good stuff here; this is a great and enjoyable film, with good acting, typically skilled directing, and a better-than-expected script. If it’s not exactly a perfect film, it may well be a perfect Tarantino film. And I would humbly suggest that anyone who likes Tarantino’s other films, but hates this one, isn’t evaluating this one on the merits but is instead letting the fear of irreverence towards the Holocaust cloud their aesthetic judgment. It is, to butcher Adorno, still possible to make an exploitation flick after Auschwitz.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 25, 2009 at 4:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] Basterds. I feel almost entirely certainly this is a terrible idea, and may in the end prove that those of us who liked the movie were fooling ourselves about its depth all […]

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