Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nazi Ain't Got No Humanity: Dennis, Bill, and Inglourious Basterds - Part Three

[Spoilers aplenty follow]

And now comes Part Three of my conversation with Dennis Cozzalio about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds! It's quite possible that, in this round, I enter territory I shouldn't have, but what the hell! That's why they call me The World's Bravest Person. Post your comments here or at Dennis's place, as always. Also, click here for Part One, and here for Part Two.

DC: Bill, I’m gonna start off by reiterating a couple of things from your comments page and from that Atlantic article (the link to which has been fixed, by the way) that I think are germane to where I’m sensing the conversation is headed.Here’s part of what I had to say on your site regarding a point made by one of your readers:“I don't want to forget The Caustic Ignostic's point: `It's not that IB is a cerebral film masquerading as a visceral film, or a visceral film that critics are inappropriately reading as a cerebral film. It's a cerebral *and* visceral film. I suspect QT would scoff at the notion that he had to choose, or that the audience wants to choose."I think this is crucial, certainly to the way QT lays the groundwork for what he's up to in Death Proof, as it applies to IB. The first group of girls die in that spectacular sequence, which gives us the visceral thrills of suspense and kinetic car action-- the basis of QT's genre exploration-- but goes further by emphasizing, in a honorable way, the true price being paid by these girls with whom we've spent the last half hour (however fascinating or pointless you may have felt that visit was). We see the gruesome reality of the crash for each victim, which leads to some uncomfortable contemplation to go along with the excitement we've felt, but QT does it not to pooh-pooh us for getting off on the action, but instead to suggest the real humanity lost here.”

From the Atlantic article, here’s IB producer Lawrence Bender:

“`At the end of the day, the people in that auditorium’—during the film’s climax—‘are Nazis. You kind of feel bad for them because they’re burning to death, but you’re not feeling too much sympathy, even for the Nazi who gets a swastika carved in his head.’”

And here’s Jeffrey Goldberg, writer of the Atlantic article, who does a good job, I think, wrestling with his own ambivalent reaction to the film’s violence, speaking from the perspective of one who fought in the Israeli Army:

“But why risk creating sympathy for Nazis at all? Why have any scene that, in Neal Gabler’s words, `conventionalizes Jews, puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else’? Given the chance, of course, I would still shoot Mengele in the face. That would be a moral necessity. But I wouldn’t carve a swastika into his forehead. That just doesn’t sound like the Jewish thing to do.”
To my mind, the open-mindedness with which Goldberg infuses his own questioning and the interview with Tarantino is refreshing. Inquisitive and serious, but not baiting (he knows Tarantino will supply the juicy quotes without a whole lot of prompting), Goldberg makes clear that Jews are not immune to fantasies of revenge even as he questions the appropriateness of some of the specific imagery in IB. That, to me, is playing fair.

The questions that he asks above, though, in response to Bender’s less qualified response (Bender is Jewish also), is the nail on which some have become snagged in regard to Inglourious Basterds. Why risk creating sympathy for the Nazis at all? Well, I think a very simple response to this question, an answer also, perhaps, to why some of these other more sober dramatic inquiries into the Jewish experience don’t seem to work very well (Jakob the Liar, Life is Beautiful, Defiance), is that while Tarantino is unapologetically keyed in to the pleasures that movies can offer us, not even close to the least of which is the unambiguous and vicarious rush of seeing justice meted out to those who may escape it in “real life,” he is also an artist interested in exploring the possibilities within what might on the surface seem like simplistic reactions to purgative violence.

I go back to my example from Tarantino’s previous movie, Death Proof. If that movie was simply an opportunity for a genre apologist to riff on familiar themes and situations from some of his favorite trash classics (which, on one level, is exactly what Death Proof is), then I don’t think Tarantino spends as much time letting us get to know, and get annoyed by, the first group of girls who will be sacrificed to Stuntman Mike’s psychosexually twisted aggression. He would set things up in a much quicker, choppier fashion (all the better to approximate the expository quality of a movie like, say, Trip with the Teacher) so we could more rapidly get to the good stuff. Therefore, in addition to the white-knuckle staging of that head-on collision, and the violence done to the vehicles themselves (which anyone who loves car chase cinema will enjoy without apology or hand-wringing, despite the damage done to those muscle car beauties), we get a particularly terrifying, and moving, tribute to Tarantino’s commitment to the humanity of those women, a few of which we may have concluded previously to be shallow bitches based on their conversation. As Stuntman Mike’s car shreds the top of their vehicle, Tarantino used his newfound visual mastery as a director to offer to us privileged information—we see the horrible violence visited upon each of the victims in ghastly detail. This may be the most cathartic, disturbing car wreck ever committed to film, and it is so because Tarantino chooses to consider the violence of the moment from an angle in addition to the one that his homage would seem most likely to accommodate.
In the same way, the Caustic Ignostic suggests that compartmentalizing IB as either a cerebral film or a visceral one is to deny the way the movie actually works on our sensibilities. (This insistence of the either/or, which I think Tarantino would scoff at, and justifiably so, is at the heart of the divide between what people have come to expect from Tarantino —violence, verbosity-- and how those elements are most often actually incorporated into Tarantino’s movies.) It’s clear that he is interested in providing the rush of satisfaction that history and the movies have routinely denied viewers—a specifically Jewish vengeance fulfilled on screen. But I do also believe that, no matter how much he may marginalize his intentions about creating a fleeting sympathy for Nazis as victims in interviews, a sense of ambivalence for herding humans into a building and burning them alive is part of what’s going on here. Tarantino is too smart, too aware, too (yes) sensitive, for it not to be. The mark of this movie’s status as a masterpiece is that such impulses can co-exist in the precise moment with the Revenge of the Giant face, as Shosanna’s triumphant declarations, projected on a burning silver screen, and then on the smoke rising from the ruins of her beloved cinema, echo forth amidst the screams, a moment she has been denied witness to herself by an awful twist of fate. I would never suggest that it wasn’t a tremendous rush to see Adolf Hitler’s skull perforated by machine gun fire, and I think that in the context of what Tarantino has done here such a catharsis is justified and satisfying. But I would suggest that, for me at least, the extra dimension of contemplation, which has been put in play by the director (whatever his motivation), over the pain and horror inflicted on the Nazis in the theater—the recognition, however fleeting, of them as human beings—makes IB an even richer experience for me. Maybe in interviews Tarantino downplays this because it’s not quite in tune with his own self-portrait as an artist-provocateur. But then, film history is rife with film directors who talk a certain game in interviews, while the films themselves, for richer or for poorer, reveal talent (or lack of it) and intentions that the director may have glossed over during his act of self-promotion. The bottom line is, Inglourious Basterds works on different levels, even when one of those levels, the satisfaction derived from the choreographed destruction of the Nazis in that beautiful burning cinema, is clearly the dominant level.

Goldberg’s final point, that the carving of a swastika into the foreheads of the Basterds’ Nazi victims “doesn’t sound like a Jewish thing to do,” is similarly double-edged. My suspicion is that Goldberg is not downplaying the element of revenge behind the carving so much as the image being carved. Perhaps it would make more sense to him (and I’m merely speculating and putting conclusions into Goldberg’s mouth here) that Aldo’s squad would carve the Star of David into these killers’ foreheads instead, thus forever marking their Nazi victims with a reminder of those whom they sought to exterminate. If this were Tarantino’s choice dramatically, I would think it would be equally justifiable, but it’s also not much of a leap for me to imagine that in doing so he might find the movie and its tone moving a little too close to the self-righteous indignation of the typical Hollywood response to the Holocaust. That they choose to brand the Nazis with symbols of their own ghastly behavior, giving them an inescapable legacy, works perfectly well within the film, however, as I see it. And it may or may not be important that the man ordering the scalping, and who administers the movie’s ultimate swastika-carving, is not a Jew himself, but a Tennessee hillbilly, one not far, genetically speaking, from Tarantino’s own family tree, who claims Native-American ancestry (as does Tarantino), linking him and the Basterds to an entirely different but not dissimilar tributary of historical genocide.

I’m far more troubled by Goldberg’s second poser: “Why have any scene that, in Gabler’s words, ‘conventionalizes Jews and puts them in the same revenge motif as everyone else?’” When we start talking about the immorality of suggesting that one group of oppressed people would never entertain thoughts of revenge, and the immorality of charting their adventures should they do so, then we’ve either elevated, or reduced (depending on your sociopolitical leanings), an entire people to a status above or below that of just about everyone else on the planet who is even momentarily honest about their capacity for such feelings. Maybe Gabler believes that the Jews are above such reactionary violence, or that if they did go about it, then that violence would need to be balanced by the kind of moral debates indulged in by the characters in Defiance in order for it to be palatable screen material. Tarantino bypasses all that because he knows that such a dialogue is likely to be dead in the water, on top of unrealistic for the particular situation, and he has confidence that his talent as a filmmaker will be enough to convey that ambivalence without making a big, Oscar-baiting point out of it. (The look on Eli Roth’s face as he strafes the auditorium with machine gun fire is plenty enough of a nudge in this direction, and I was glad for it even as I was reveling in the story’s violent climax.) This suggestion that Jews should be excluded from tales of revenge, or even the suggestion that they ever entertain them, are the subtext, I think, of objections like Daniel Mendelsohn’s, or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assertion that the movie is morally akin to Holocaust denial. (That Rosenbaum has yet to elaborate on his claim, at least to my awareness, is telling.)
Absent from any of these objections seems to be an awareness that Nazi baiting and use of the presence of Nazis in the history of World War II as fodder for Hollywood extravaganzas is not exactly fresh news. As I sat with my kids watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen Monday night (an activity I recommend to all parents of age-appropriate children, especially if it comes packaged with a beautiful new 35mm print of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a second feature), my mind was whirling. Incredible how any objections that may have been raised in 1981 to Spielberg and Lucas’s appropriation of Nazi characters and imagery for their wacky WWII fantasy, which ends with Nazi evil being melted into hellish oblivion, not by Jews but by the very Hand of God, seem to have evaporated. Could this distinction between the two films in terms of how revenge is meted out be the source of the difference? Or are we just not prompted to take the Indiana Jones world as seriously because of its serial connections?

Well, guess what-- Inglourious Basterds is derived from a Hollywood line of WWII fantasies as well, from The Sands of Iwo Jima to The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, none of which has much more claim to historical plausibility than does Tarantino’s movie. The movies produced during World War II were recognized then, as they are now, as specific forms of propaganda meant to bolster the morale of the troops and American audiences, and as such rarely engaged much in the way of wartime atrocities or the reality of significant loss of American life. (Wayne's Iwo Jima dealt with tragedy, but was keyed more toward American uplift.) That Inglourious Basterds does deal in the historical reality of the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in the context of a thrilling Hollywood-style spectacle (it is, in reality, quite opposite from what one might reasonably expect from Hollywood these days) is apparently reason enough to object to IB which, for Rosenbaum, exists “at the expense of real-life Holocaust victims.” It seems then that Rosenbaum ought to be having a lot more difficulty with the history of war on film than he seems to have in general. Maybe a target as big and juicy as Tarantino, the director and his duped, sycophantic audience just waiting to be deflated and held up as an example of disgusting amorality, is just too irresistible.

I’m looking forward to hearing what your feelings are about all of this, Bill. I doubt I'm far wrong in supposing that you would be pretty annoyed at anyone who tried to downplay the effect of the revenge angle in the movie, especially as a means of making the whole brew go down with less trouble. Finally, before I go to bed, I wanted to key you to old friend Jim Emerson, who is catching up on Tarantino and who weighs in on Inglourious Basterds here. I am very happy to include him in this very satisfying conversation and hope he can find time to check in with us.

Okay, let’s change it up. What did you think of the performances? I’ve heard lots of talk, even from some who loved the movie, about Brad Pitt’s insufficiencies. I’d love to turn back and talk about Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, even Mike Myers and their invaluable contributions to Tarantino’s achievement here. And amongst all this praise, are there any elements of the movie that, big-scale or small-scale, that don’t work for you? Let’s hear it!

BR: First off, your points, and those made by Caustic, are well taken. I absolutely agree with you about the crash scene in Death Proof, despite my reservations about that film as a whole. This was slasher film violence you weren't meant to laugh off. It was mean to hurt, an idea that I loved, and which made the downhill slide that followed all the more disappointing. And I would agree with you that much of the violence in Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's follow-up to that philosophy, although I remember him saying as far back as Pulp Fiction, that when it came to his films and their use of violence, he wanted the audience to laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and then suddenly stop laughing. My reason for being less affected in that way when it comes to his new film is a simple one, and I've pretty much said this very thing a few different ways already, but here it is again: never before was Tarantino applying his fecility with on-screen violence to Nazis. I'm sure we've all read more than we cared to about the sheer demonic creativity of what the Nazis -- and not a few of the German ground soldiers -- did, the different ways to murder people, and make them suffer, that sparked their brains in the course of doing business. Having swastikas carved into their foreheads and seeing them burned alive would seem like child's play to Hitler and Himmler and Mengele (why couldn't he have been in that theater, too?).

Goldberg does indeed play very fair in that Atlantic piece -- it's a really great little article -- but as far as risking creating sympathy for the Nazis, I must say I don't quite follow him. For one thing, for a film that is so over-the-top, the characters all nevertheless feel real, which is the mark of Tarantino's talent. Were he to have gone in the direction Goldberg may have preferred, he would have had to turn Landa and the others into a cartoon, and I think it's sort of hard to truly hate a cartoon. There's no flesh or blood or mind to latch onto, nothing to recognize as human, and therefore nothing to perceive as a true aberration to humanity. And plus, obviously, I felt no sympathy for Landa. Meanwhile, does anybody, including those who view the violence as double-edged, feel any twinge of anything other than disgust for the fictional versions of Hitler and Goebbels in this film? I would imagine not. They sort of are cartoons, or, more accurately, outlines of the historical knowledge we all carry into the theater with us. No one of sound mind was in danger of feeling any pity, however tempered, when they saw Hitler's face coming apart.

Which brings me to Zoller, a character I found to be a fascinating and wholly original creation. A German war hero, much has been made of his final scene, with Shosanna, in the projection booth. After she shoots him, she gazes out at the movie screen, onto which his life story, Nation's Pride, is being projected. Her face softens, because he's just told her he didn't like watching the film, and also probably because she gets a sense of what he went through in combat. So she softens, sees that Zoller is still alive, and approaches him. What does her pity get her? A death right out of Argento, at Zoller's hands. Furthermore, let's not forget how he violently bulldozed his way into the projection booth, looking for sex. His insistence on this made his claims about finding Nation's Pride uncomfortable to sit through seem a little disingenuous. And look, very few soldiers have ever come home from war, relishing the memories of the men they've had to kill. American GIs returning from WWII were just as tortured by what they'd done as Zoller claimed to be, but does that mean that the Americans thought that what they'd done hadn't been necessary? So why should Zoller have been any different? Let's not forget that however much he may have failed to enjoy watching his exploits on screen, he'd still happily hitched his star to Joseph Fucking Goebbels, and no one can tell me that anyone who had Goebbel's ear didn't know what the Nazis were all about. So fuck Zoller, is what I'm trying to say.
EVEN SO...yes, of course, it's not beyond Tarantino, or even me, to feel a bit of a chill as that theater goes up, and as the Bear Jew pumps round after round of ammo into the backs of terrified people in evening wear. That whole ending has a definite Italian horror film vibe to it, enhanced by the anachronistic electric sound of the Bowie song (which was written for a horror film, remember) and punctuated by that astonishing image of Shosanna's laughing face projected onto the black smoke. Right or wrong, satisfying or not, cathartic or repellent, that ending is horrifying, by definition. That doesn't mean that I don't wish some form of it had happened in reality. And as for film directors being known for talking about their films a certain way, despite their actual intentions, well, Tarantino has talked both games. So when you're watching the film, you're seeing what you see, not what he says.

It's beyond me what Goldberg's point is when he suggests that Jews should, at least in fictional representations, be free of the impulse for revenge, and I think you've said everything sayable about that point. But I would like to point your attention to a sort of review of Inglourious Basterds by Jeff Wells (and perhaps as a result open up a can of worms that I'd rather leave alone). As I say, it's not actually a review -- it's more of an attempt to destroy a film that he hates, but which is becoming successful against his wishes -- and in it he focuses on one of the film's other controversial scenes, which is that baseball bat-killing of the German officer by the Bear Jew (Eli Roth). Allow me to quote:

The bottom line is that Pitt and Roth, who plays Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (a.k.a., 'the "Bear Jew"), behave like butt-ugly sadists in this scene while Sammel behaves like a man of honor, character and dignity.

Tarantino has Sammel defy Pitt by saying "fuck you and your Jew dogs" so it'll seem right and fair that an anti-Semite gets his head beaten into mashed potatoes with a baseball bat. But what speaks louder is (a) Sammel's expression, which is clearly that of a man of intelligence and perception, (b) his eyes in particular, which have a settled quality that indicates a certain regular-Joe decency, and (c) his refusal to give Pitt information about nearby German troops that would lead to their deaths if he spilled.

Isn't this is what men of honor and bravery do in wartime -- i.e., refuse to help the enemy kill their fellow soldiers, even if it means their own death?
Dennis, as you're well aware, you and I occupy different areas of the Political Spectrum, American Division. But we've always gotten along well, and I thoroughly respect you and your views. And what I'm about to say doesn't even have much to do with "Liberals" per se, because Jeffery Wells is obviously a special case, in that he is both a lunatic and an asshole. But nevertheless, my first point is that my take on Tarantino has always been that he is very much an apolitical filmmaker. That takes nothing away from what you say about his sensitivity or humanity, which points I agree with; I just don't believe that he makes films that he intends to fall in a Left or Right-wing category. Second, despite my robust embracing of this film, I would never for a second attempt to claim Inglourious Basterds for "my side". Nevertheless, some critics have attempted to offer the film to my side, after giving it a slap upside the head, based on its approach to revenge and American violence during wartime. While I must politely decline the offer that I think is inherent in some of the things Wells has said about the film, and which Rosenbaum has flat-out stated, I must make mention of the fact that, in the course of my travels, I've found that some people do not like it when you accuse them of steeping their world-views in the concept of moral equivelancy. And all I can suggest to them is that if they so dislike being associated with moral equivelancy, then perhaps they shouldn't embody the concept quite so thoroughly.

I suppose that's what is known as a "digression". My apologies, and moving on...

As for performances...well, I honestly don't think there's a bad one in the bunch. That opinion doesn't only include Mike Meyers, who I think is perfectly amusing in his small role, but Eli Roth, who has gotten mostly slammed, even by the film's admirers. Roth doesn't have a great deal to do in the film, as far as range is concerned, but what he does need to project -- bloodlust, glee, rage, a Boston accent -- I think he gets across just fine. I will say that in that last shot of the Bear Jew you referred to earlier, I didn't see any hint of any emotion other than cold satisfaction. But you've seen the film twice, and I haven't, so for now I'll defer to you on that.

And Pitt is a blast. I think he's made his three best films, and given his three best performances, and the last few years, with The Assassination of Jesse James by Etc. and So On, Burn After Reading, and this. I don't know what kind of performance people would rather Pitt have given. He's playing an over-the-top, as written, Tennessee hillbilly who demands that his men scalp their Nazi victims, and the lines he's given to deliver -- which you and I have been shamelessles pilfering for our post titles -- would hardly work with a more muted reading. Again, I think he's sensational, and I don't know what else could be desired from the role.

Of course, there are two performances that are objectively unassailable: Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, and Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus. There's not much I can say about either that won't come off as gushing, but among my favorite moments from Laurent is her release of breath, fear, panic and rage when Landa finally steps out of her sight in the restaurant. Her eyes and breathing tell the whole story of that scene. Waltz is a revelation, or maybe that word only applies if you've seent he performer before, but didn't realize they were quite so good. I'm sure I'm not alone in never having even heard of Waltz before, and yet you can't look away from him from the second he first appears. He's just so damn smooth, so assured, and so purely that character. Where the hell has this guy been? I read recently that he's primarily a TV actor, so I can only count Tarantino lucky that Waltz decided to audition.

As for what didn't work for me in the film, there's honestly not much. I can only remember one moment that caused me to actually worry, and that was when three of the Basterds are called to employ their proficiency with the Italian language. It's not that I didn't chuckle, but generally it was way too broad for me, even in this film. Ultimately, it didn't matter a bit, because as a plot point it was completely irrelevant, because the only character to whom they tried to pass themselves off knew the score going in, and wasn't fooled for a second. So it's just a bit of comedy that didn't quite land. I was also briefly unsure about the Bowie song, but as I said before that ended up tying in beautifully with the giallo tone of the last half hour or so.

So what about you? And what's next!?


Greg said...

I don't have time to elaborate on all of this right now as I'm preparing for dinner but I just wanted to say that this is an extraordinary conversation. You two have done something special here.

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Sorry for the typos and hurried posting. Here's a corrected version:

Since many people have been asking me to elaborate on why I think IB is akin to Holocaust denial, I'll try to explain what I mean as succinctly as possible, by paraphrasing Roland Barthes: anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong. For me, IB makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp--as a historical reality, I mean, not as a movie convention. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention, it loses its historical reality.

bill r. said...

Greg - Thank you very much. That means a lot to me, and I'm sure to Dennis, and I look forward to you diving into the discussion.

Mr. Rosenbaum - So is it fair to say that your approach to the Holocaust as an artistic subject is akin to, or somewhat close to, at least, Adorno's "poetry after Auschwitz" statement? If so, I can respect that, without personally believing it myself.

But I feel like I'm either misreading you, or at least inflating the scope of what you mean.

Don Mancini said...

Bill, I agree with you about the performances, and specifically about Eli Roth. His getting slammed was predictable, given that he is famously Tarantino's friend, and given that, like his friend, Roth is successful, ubiquitous in the media, and never one to hide his light under a bushel. But I thought he was good in the movie. Physically, he doesn't live up to the hulking image conjured by the moniker "Bear Jew," and that does seem odd. Nor is he, say, a surprisingly puny shrimp whose swagger belies his myth and diminutive presence -- which might have been funny. Still, I thought he effectively projected righteous rage, especially in that final Tony Montana-like image of him (SPOILER!!!) machine-gunning Hitler's face to pulp.

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I think Adorno's point is quite different from mine. I don't object in the slightest to "Night and Fog" or "Shoah," both of which are works of art, and neither of which treats the Holocaust in a way that diminishes its historical reality. On the contrary: these films are acts of remembering. All that Tarantino or his movie can "remember" is other movies. But surely this is obvious.

bill r. said...

Don - I don't know that I quite thought of the disparity between Roth's appearance and the nickname "Bear Jew", because, really, Roth had the eyes for the role. He projected a very cold-hearted love for the job he'd taken upon himself.

bill r. said...

Mr. Rosenbaum -

All that Tarantino or his movie can "remember" is other movies. But surely this is obvious...

But surely not. A great deal of the conversation I've had with Dennis so far has been given over to what Nazism was and what the vengeance depicted in this film meant. Yes, the film is also about a love of films in general, but that's hardly all it's about. Haven't enough people discussed the film in other terms for you to at least consider that possibility?

Further, Shoah and Night and Fog are obviously works of art, but they're non-fiction works of art. My question had more to do with works of fiction that deal with the Holocaust, and you're overall reaction to that idea.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"Insofar as it becomes a movie convention, it loses its historical reality."

Greg: Thanks for putting succinctly what I've been trying to get at regarding what bothers me about Mr. Rosenbaum's comment. It seems he is coming very close to suggesting that a subject such as the Holocaust may not be put in the context of a fictional piece without it becoming a movie convention, and by putting it in such a context one causes it to lose its historical reality and significance. That's a mighty big chunk which to try and swallow, and it would seem to negate, or at trivialize, much of film history's attempt to deal with the "realities" of human history in a fictional context. I would be very interested in a demonstration of how exactly that happens, if this is indeed Mr. Rosenbaum's point. If it is not, then either he is being unclear or I am not up to the level of the discussion.

(Nonfiction is, of course, a different bird, and subject to its own possibilities in regard to the trivializing of historical horrors. But that should be obvious too.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I never said that fictional depictions of the Holocaust weren't permissable. By movie conventions I mean cliches or tropes drawn from other movies (and for me, QT can't do or imagine anything else). So this means that every time he claims to be dealing in some fashion with the Holocaust, he's filtering it through other movies, and other cliche-ridden fictional movies at that. Simply saying that the Holocaust existed or that people are discussing or arguing about it now is not the same thing as making it historically real, any more than Tom and Jerry cartoons can be said to depict real violence in the real world just because they show a representation of it via cartoon violence. And of course QT freely admits that historical reality couldn't be further from his mind or intentions. To get at that, I'm afraid you need something more than a ton of other genre movies.

So I guess our disagreement is just over what we're willing to call historical reality. The reason why I quoted QT from his Rolling Stone interview is to show that he can only see 9/11 as another movie. If he's that far removed from recent reality, how can he be expected to see the Holocaust as something further away from movie fantasy?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

“Simply saying that the Holocaust existed or that people are discussing or arguing about it now is not the same thing as making it historically real… So I guess our disagreement is just over what we're willing to call historical reality.”

Perhaps. And I think this is where acknowledgment of Greg’s point is important—the indulgence of the revenge fantasy is impossible without acknowledgment of the context within which it exists. It's worth noting that this is not a movie “about” the Holocaust, but one which acknowledges it as the continuing impetus for the characters and the events that take place in it. In order to then make it historically real, is it true then that one is not permitted to take liberties with the facts of historical events that surround it? Tarantino is not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that the documented reality of the Holocaust is any different than history and historians would have it. He is taking liberties, within the context of the cinematically self-aware wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy that he has mounted, with the fates of those who perpetrated it, liberties which, other than ending the war several months earlier than it would have anyway, do not significantly alter the end result, which is that the Allies prevailed.

Inglourious Basterds deals with the desire for retribution, however callous, misguided or justifiable. Mr. Rosenbaum, if you have problems with the idea of revenge as a common quality of humanity (and I don't necessarily know that you do), then maybe it's that we two are acquainted with a different strain of humanity; and as revenge is a motif that drives the engine of much of popular fiction, then a good deal of popular movies and fiction beyond this film are going to be problematical. I also suspect that our difference of opinion as regards historical reality is marked by the fact that I don’t think Tarantino takes it as his job to make the Holocaust “real.” He is giving us credit as a thinking audience for being able to connect those dots for ourselves, and to distinguish a movie that plays fast and loose with the realities of Auschwitz from one that says that Auschwitz existed and here’s what I would like to have seen done about the people who created it. I think that’s what he means when he utters the deliberately provocative statements that suggest to you that historical reality is far from his mind or intent, and that’s a long way from “Fuck it! Who cares? Auschwitz is a myth!”

And I’m glad I didn’t post this before you added your words about Tarantino’s 9/11 comments. I too found those comments indefensible, at the time and now. But eight years have passed since he made them, and I’m willing to bet that, in retrospect, he might have some reservations about them himself. (I wonder if anyone has any knowledge of whether anyone in the press has ever asked him to comment on those comments.) Just as I believe QT has gained a measure of concern and ambivalence for understanding and dealing with the horror of violence in his films at the same time that he measures it out (which puts him in good standing with many directors who have taken exploitation film conventions as their partial subject), I would like to believe in the proceeding eight years he might have reason to understand that those comments, which may have been made out of a sense of confusion that most of us shared (and many of us are lucky not to have our initial reactions to such horrors laid down in print for posterity), didn’t reflect well on his sensitivity. I am not willing, however, to make the jump that he is incapable of seeing the Holocaust for what it is because of those comments. His 9/11 head movie is one left to those who care to speculate about it and what it means. Inglourious Basterds is, for what we will all make it of it, right in front of us.

Greg said...

I must agree with Dennis that I don't believe it is any filmmaker's duty to make historical events real. I realize you are not saying it is Jonathan but by consistently applying the negative critique that QT has filtered his history through other films the implication is there.

May I take a moment to step back from the Holocaust aspect of the critique and ask how many films present a pure reality of anything in the first place? I don't doubt that The Godfather is a pastiche of many facts, rumors, legends and tales of mafia life but that doesn't mean - or more specifically it shouldn't mean - that I cannot enjoy the artistry of what is presented in front of me by the director, actors, cinematographer, et al unless real history is being presented, or at the very least not being diminished. Again, I realize you did not say fictions could not be produced but the question I am raising is what fiction would be acceptable according to the conditions you have set? It would seem to me any film that does not detail actual events using actual victims/eyewitnesses would fall short of the task. Wouldn't any film not using actual names and dates make the Holocaust less real by your arithmetic?

I accept that there will probably be no resolution amongst us because I don't think we're having any problems understanding each other's arguments, just arriving at different conclusions based on deeply held convictions. I believe the film fails if the reality of the Holocaust is diminished. Since I believe the film succeeds I further believe it is relying upon the absolute reality of the Holocaust to gain its power. And let's face it, anyone counting on the movies to fill in for them the details of history is in dire straits indeed. Movies rarely document history but they often use history and the knowledge the audience already has of it to make a point or tell a story in a way that simple facts cannot. It's an iffy proposition at best and many films fail in this regard but I think QT made it work by using the audience's knowledge of the worst systemized mass murder in history.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Just got back from seeing this. Am I missing something, or is Inglorious Basterds not a Holocaust movie? I didn't think it why are we talking about it in regards to Tarantino's film? It's a WWII movie. There have been hundreds of WWII movies that have been made that haven't been about the Holocaust. I don't think you can disregard the obvious relationship between the two, but I don't think Tarantino is really making any kind of statements about the Holocaust with his film...until those final images in the movie theater.

Like Jim Emerson said...this is not like Life is Beautiful. This is more akin to Red Dawn (and hey, Milius is even thanked in the credits).

I don't know. I could be way off...and I really feel out of my league here considering the people who are voicing their opinion.

I will now go back and read what you and Dennis have been talking about since I completely spoke out of context here and responded strictly to the comments here.

bill r. said...

Kevin - Yeah, even though I've talked at length about Nazi war crimes in this discussion, you're still %100 correct. If we're going to place this film in a specific genre, "Holocaust Film" is not the one anyone is going to choose first. While the Holocaust is foregrounded a bit more here than in most WWII movies, considering the idea of Jewish revenge, it's STILL a WWII film, and it is a bit perplexing that suddenly, because of the revenge element, some people have decided this is a movie about Auschwitz.

Fox said...


Awww.... nothing like a Jeffrey Wells quote to go with my morning coffee.

Though, I guess Wells' "men of honor" argument isn't so surprising considering that he adores Soderbergh's hagiographic Che films.

It seems like it's easy for Wells to forget the sins of any figure when that figure is depicted in an "honorable" way on screen (although, I don't think QT is making Sammel look that way at all in that scene. He has a sneer on his face, not honor).

P.S. And if I also opened a can of worms, I completely understand if you want to close it.

bill r. said...

Which can of worms did you open, Fox? Your further Wells bashing, which is a can I would never want to close, or the Che thing? I still haven't seen that, but I doubt a tempest will ensue anyway. Those battle lines were drawn a long time ago, and I doubt anyone's currently in the mood to start that debate back up. After all, we still have Inglourious Basterds to fight about!

Fox said...

Oh, I guess I just didn't want to distract from the discussion at hand by getting in my jabs at Jeffrey Wells. It's probably because it's still early in the morning (for me), and I'm cranky.

But bringing it back around to IB, is it me, or was the film really not so visually sadistic as people are saying? Maybe it was just my expectations that were undercut, but outside of the baseball bat scene (which, even then, I though QT held back on the viciousness... as silly as that may sound), and maybe the bullets chopping up Hitler's face like lettuce, I didn't think the violence was that visually nasty. For the most part, QT's camera doesn't linger on suffering like French horror and that genre's American contemporaries do.

bill r. said...

No, it's not that graphic. I mean, it's graphic, but I think "brutal" is probably a better word, but I think it's kind of at a standard level for modern war films. Where some people believe it gets dicey is the context of it all -- whose committing the violence and why, and the fact that we're supposed to enjoy it to some degree. Which, you may have noticed, is not something that particularly bothers me.

Ryan Kelly said...

Okay, I've finally read all this, and am happy to have finished my own piece so I have time to comment on this, a series of conversations between two of my very favorite bloggers.

I find myself in an odd predicament with this movie --- I understand where the detractors, Rosenbaum included, are coming from; yet I don't agree with them at all, in spite of the fact that I would level some similar, but not quite identical, charges at the film myself. Rather, I find myself in agreement with those who are over the moon for the movie, even if I don't quite see what they see in it. It's a work that leaves an occasional bad taste in my mouth, but I don't think that's good enough reason to ignore its many virtues. I just feel like many of the people who don't like it aren't engaging with the movie on its own terms at all.

So I agree with those I disagree with, disagree with those I agree with, and everything is all fucked in my world.

I think that if we were to level the accusation that Tarantino was denying the Holocaust and WWII by turning it into a movie convention, we could level that at many Hollywood productions, including Spielberg's highly touted works of art-history, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (more the latter, though). But I think he is presenting it as a movie convention to deconstruct it as a movie convention; simultaneously celebrating, spoofing, and turning a critical eye on the history of war in the movies.

And yes, Tarantino sees life through the prism of movies. I don't think there's anything wrong with it because he's never denied it; films are just how he relates to the world. Taking away his typewriter and camera would probably take away his voice more than the removing of his vocal chords would. Unlike Spielberg, Tarantino doesn't deny that everything he knows about war he learned from movies. And I've always personally been against using Tarantino's somewhat regrettable public persona as a means to deny the depth of his movies; would it be fair to use what a jerk John Lennon was capable of being to discount the worth of his art?

And, yes, I agree with you and Fox that the movie is nowhere near as brutal as it's been touted as, by both critics and its own advertising. I walked into the theater bracing myself for a bit of the old ultra-violence, and was happy when it was there only in fleeting instances. Surely it's no more violent than The Longest Day, The Dirty Dozen, or even Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Great work from you two, and I can't wait for the next installment, even if it means that this enjoyable series must sadly end.

Tom Carson said...

@Jonathan: I have a lot of respect for your argument, but it would help if you'd cite even one fiction film about the Holocaust that lived up to your standard of not trivializing its reality (is there one?). Without meaning to be deliberately perverse, I could argue in return that IB -- by virtue of its unmistakable 'movie-ness' -- is morally preferable to Schindler's List (let alone Life Is Beautiful), because inadequacy to the historical record isn't an issue in unabashed fantasy.

At least Tarantino is free by definition of the peculiar hubris that leads filmmakers to accept Oscars 'on behalf of the six million,' or some such -- as if making a movie about the Holocaust were equivalent to having *done* something about the Holocaust. I can't remember whether Spielberg said anything of the kind and don't want to misrepresent him, but he's certainly no stranger to the Hollywood fallacy of acquiring moral stature by osmosis.

Also, you know better than most that QT didn't exactly invent the idea of using WW2 as grist for exuberant pulp. I grew up on countless comic books and shlock movies that did exactly that, and so did Tarantino. That -- and not the 'real' World War 2 -- is what he's simultaneously enshrining and (sigh) deconstructing here. Since the meretricious version of WW2 has its own cultural reality and even heritage -- e.g., I know The Great Escape's boyish high spirits are an insult to the real escapees, but love it all the same -- isn't it as valid a stimulus to a filmmaker as anything else?

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

To Tom Carson:

I've lodged plenty of complaints on my own about "Schinder's List," but if you want me to cite one fiction film that at least touches on the Holocaust and does so respectably, made by a witness to its immediate aftermath, I'd point to Fuller's "The Big Red One". I don't object to Polanski's "The Pianist" either, though I wouldn't describe it as one of his best or as any particular favorite of mine.

However, for politically incorrect stuff about Nazis, I'll take Paul Verhoeven's glorious "Black Book" over "IB" or anything else QT could ever dream up, any day of the week. And Verhoeven qualifies as a direct witness, too--even if, like Polanski, he was just a kid at the time.

bill r. said...

Does this mean the filmmaker has to have been, in some way, a witness before their fictional representation meets your standards? You hadn't mentioned that as a criteria before, but you're stressing it now.

If so, that's fine, I guess, but it also means Tarantino's film had been judged unacceptable before you even saw it.

bill r. said...

Ryan - But I think he is presenting it as a movie convention to deconstruct it as a movie convention; simultaneously celebrating, spoofing, and turning a critical eye on the history of war in the movies...

I just can't agree that that's what he's doing. Do you think killing Hitler was in any way Tarantino's way of pointing out that historically-based movies often get the facts wrong?

Ryan Kelly said...

Not directly, no, though for me that was certainly one of the results of him doing something so blatantly outside of the canon of history. I just feel that, if more movies were more honest, they would have done the same thing. You can't tell me Valkyrie didn't want to kill Hitler... they just couldn't, because the film makers didn't have the sheer gaul necessary to subvert history in that way. Turning history into a dumb action spectacle is okay, but twisting the facts around a little to give the story a more complete narrative arc isn't. It's refreshing that Tarantino doesn't confine himself to an arbitrary set of rules, because that makes the movie all the more satisfying.

But you don't think Tarantino is turning a more critical eye towards genre in his last two movies? That was one of the things that particularly struck me about Death Proof. You can celebrate a certain genre and still correct perceived 'flaws' within the genre. A big one for me in IB is that people actually speak in their native tongue, instead of speaking English in whatever accent the character has... something that indicates Tarantino has a lot of respect for language, another thing not generally discussed with all these 'style-over-subtance' claims lobbed at him.

bill r. said...

But you don't think Tarantino is turning a more critical eye towards genre in his last two movies? That was one of the things that particularly struck me about Death Proof. You can celebrate a certain genre and still correct perceived 'flaws' within the genre. A big one for me in IB is that people actually speak in their native tongue, instead of speaking English in whatever accent the character has... something that indicates Tarantino has a lot of respect for language, another thing not generally discussed with all these 'style-over-subtance' claims lobbed at him...

Ah, well, no, I don't actually disagree with that. I thought you meant something more academic, or more overtly "meta" (shudder!) than that.

Regarding Death Proof, which I didn't like very much overall (as I've said again and again) the greatest piece of subversion of genre he achieved in that was the car crash murder of the first group of girls, because it takes slasher movie violence, which is at some level meant to be laughed at, and made it hurt again, maybe for the first time since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (probably not the first time, but I can't be bothered to look into it). And what was so great about it is that it could function as a comment on the genre without ever feeling or looking like a comment on the genre.

But I'm just repeating Dennis now. Short version is, okay, Ryan, I see your point.

Greg said...

I find the "direct witness" criteria a bit screwy if I may say so myself. Under that guideline no movie can ever be made about any topic predating the birth of the director without diminishing its historical reality. Huh? But more importantly, The Big Red One and The Pianist have actual concentration camp scenes. This, undeniably, states that according to JR's view any film taking place during WWII that does not contain recreated footage of the camps diminishes the historical reality of the Holocaust. I am sure this is not the intended view of Mr. Rosenbaum but unfortunately this is where his rather unfocused arguments have led us. I simply haven't seen anything stated that confirms the orginal statement or in any way explains why IB is akin to Holocaust denial except misdirection and circular reasoning.

Tom Carson said...

@Jonathan: I'm a huge admirer of The Big Red One, especially the reconstructed version. The Pianist, like you, less so -- I think it's pretty admirable in many ways, but also unexpectedly conventional and impersonal for a movie on a subject so painfully close to Polanski's heart.

I also liked Black Book very much, and can see good reasons for preferring Verhoeven's "political incorrectness" to Tarantino's. But at that point, aren't we just disagreeing about taste? That's fine, and I'd be out of my league in a hurry up against a critic as formidable as you. But it's also a good few rungs down the ladder -- and maybe blessedly so -- from whether IB amounts to Holocaust denial by other means.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Gentlemen, sorry to have had to be out of the mix today and thus miss out on taking part in the conversation. I have been in the bosom of family this afternoon and I cannot complain. But I would like to check in briefly.

Greg wrote: “I find the ‘direct witness’ criteria a bit screwy if I may say so myself. Under that guideline no movie can ever be made about any topic predating the birth of the director without diminishing its historical reality. Huh?”

Well, it does seem that this is the conclusion to which this logical argument has arrived, whether it is the intended conclusion or not, and that’s disappointing, to say the least. It seems that to follow this path is to understand that there can be no historical reality at all in the movies. Of course, movies are inherently “unreal” (we all know the reasons why), so even nonfiction depictions of historical realities deemed acceptable under Mr. Rosenbaum’s standards, such as the Holocaust or, say, the United Mine Workers strikes, are as much at risk of dishonor as a fictionalized movie about a historical subject made absent of one (a director, a writer) who was a direct witness to that history. (Pauline Kael, it’s worth remembering, had issues with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, that were heavily attacked by the movie’s supporters.) So I guess we’ve pretty much sealed off the value of the western or any other movie dealing with a period of history that takes place any time roughly before 1920.

The question still remains, even if we accept all of this at face value, as Greg posed it: how is any of this falling short of historical reality, in the case of Inglourious Basterds, morally or in any other way akin to Holocaust denial? Mr. Rosenbaum has shifted the terms of the argument away from his original, very confusing stance, and there, I suppose, is where it shall remain. (By the way, I loved Black Book too, so it seems even matters of taste are squishy and sometimes undefinable.)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Also: I discovered this afternoon that a Rabbi Irwin Kula, of whom I have no personal foreknowledge or experience—he may be a revered figure of modern Judaism, or he may be no one’s idea of a source of representative Jewish religious counseling – has checked in on the matter of this movie. In an essay published on The Huffington Post entitled Inglourious Basterds, Vengeance and Redemption”, Kula accepts the idea of IB as a Holocaust film—a notion we have wrestled with here—but comes to a different conclusion than Mr. Rosenbaum does. Rabbi Kula, it seems, loves the movie. A couple of quotes:

“There may be six million stories in the Holocaust, but Inglorious Basterds tells the one we have been afraid to tell about ourselves: the story of what we would really like to do to those Nazis.”

“As Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and most important witness of the Kingdom of Night, teaches: ‘Some stories are true that never happened.’"

“Of course a vocal minority will offer some culturally sophisticated politically correct critique that the movie is sacrilege and minimizes and trivializes the Holocaust… (But) simply loving or hating Inglorious Basterds misses the realization that has gnawed at me since the morning after. Is it possible that all the necessary (and noble) civilizing attempts to respond/make sense/set things right regarding the Holocaust - museums and memorials, theologies and books, curricula, conferences and anti-racist laws-- have also been deflections from giving voice to and even feeling the most primal and honest response to the beating, and shooting, and hanging, and burning, and gassing of six million Jews and millions of others? Does the very fact that Tarantino gives us license to enjoy and even relish the violence against Nazis reveal a mustard seed of repression?”

I offer these quotes from Kula having no idea if he is right or wrong, and I certainly do not offer them to once and for all denounce Mr. Rosenbaum’s point of view. I just find it interesting that a rabbi, who again may not be representative of the general position of Jews on either the Holocaust or Quentin Tarantino, can at least find room to consider that the movie might be something other than an abomination or evidence of perpetuating evil in the face of, and at the expense of, yes, historical reality.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ah, well, no, I don't actually disagree with that.

Bill... you're scaring me! Are you feeling okay?

I thought you meant something more academic, or more overtly "meta" (shudder!) than that.

"Formalist" is more the word I'd use, but as has been pointed out the movie works on many different levels than the formal one. To me, it's just something that gives the movie a lot of richness and depth. But people won't accept depth because it comes from Tatantino, who for whatever reason is treated as the village idiot of film directing.

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