Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Inglourious Sadests

In Monty Python Speaks, John Cleese showed his age:

"I feel very out of tune with the audience. I go and see something like 'Pulp Fiction' and, frankly, it appalls me. Most of it is dialogue tricks which had been explored by Harold Pinter thirty-five years ago; the structure did not strike me as being clever as it did everyone else; and the content seemed to me (and to an awful lot of my generation) as the product of a sick mind."

Cleese said this in 1999, when I would've respectfully disagreed with my comedy hero. I dug Quentin Tarantino, one of the few directors whose films I'd see on opening weekend. Tarantino spoke a pop culture language I understood intimately; we were raised on much of the same schlock, which informed our creative mindsets. Having loved kung fu and gangster movies as a teen, I connected with Tarantino's operatic violence. To me, Tarantino was as pure a specimen of popular American cinema as Martin Scorcese. Not as gifted, but in the conversation.

I still enjoy a lot of Tarantino's work, but age, shifting perspectives, and some conservative mellowing have softened the thrill I once got from his improbable fight scenes. Pulp Fiction now feels very contrived, static, almost a self-parody. I prefer Volume 2 of Kill Bill, mostly for David Carradine, an icon of my early years. But Inglourious Basterds is something else again. Two things struck me about it: in many ways, it's Tarantino's most mature work to date; in other ways, it expresses some of the vilest sentiments I've seen in a film.

The interrogation scenes, where deception and dissent are hunted down, are first rate. Here Tarantino takes his time, allowing the tension to simmer. The scene set in a cafe basement feels naturalistic and real. You know it won't end well, but the performances and mood are so seductive that you drift to its climax. Scenes like this make Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs look like claymation. Tarantino's artistry has decidedly evolved. So rich are these scenes that when we shift to the mind-bending violence, it's as if Tarantino couldn't hold it in any longer, ordering his characters to go batshit on his behalf.

Now, I know that Basterds is a knock-off of the WWII film genre, set in an alternate universe, not meant to be seen as docu-drama. And Tarantino would tell me to loosen up and accept the violence for what it is. But given some reactions to the film, I'd say that there are plenty of people who not only accept the violence, but revel and find meaning in it.

Eli Roth, who plays Donny Donowitz, the bat-swinging Bear Jew, called the film "kosher porn. It's something I dreamed since I was a kid." Reports of various screenings suggest that Roth's cinematic dream is widely shared. Basterds is also a smash in Israel. An Israeli blogger, David, observed:

"What proved most unsettling, more than the scalpings and crushed skulls via baseball bats, was the audience reaction at the screening. A good percentage of the sold-out crowd consisted of teenage Israelis and young American, religious students apparently studying here for a year.

"Whenever another Nazi got his just reward, the crowd broke out in lustly cheers as if Alex Rodriguez had just hit another one out of the park. I know they’re heartless Nazis, but I felt like I was at a Kach rally."

At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, there were similar reactions. During a post-screening panel discussion, Rabbi Jack Moline

"proffered that the Jewish people have become mired in thought for so long that the idea of physical redemption has been lost. The saying 'two Jews, three opinions' comes to mind on this point. As the concept of Talmudic discourse has proliferated, especially in the wake of the Holocaust (Why did this happen to us? Is it our fault?), Jews may have lost the instinct of revenge, which Moline points out is in fact a basic human instinct. The film provides that for a generation of Jews who view the holocaust in a new light. 'Inglorious Basterds' represents a voice for that generation."

It seems that no one really questioned Rabbi Moline's reasoning. The idea that Jewish people, specifically Israelis, "may have lost the instinct of revenge" would be news to Palestinians and Lebanese, as well as to Jewish dissidents and peace activists. That it took Tarantino's barbarous fantasy to give voice to a more vengeful Jewish generation should raise eyebrows if not serious inquiries.

Ethnic and religious concepts about vengeance aside, making Hollywood Nazis the brunt of such barbarism is a simple method to elicit righteous applause. They're genocidal monsters, right? So hit them even harder while laughing at their agony (which the Basterds do, sounding like Clockwork Orange Droogs beating the old drunk under a bridge). Yet I wonder if audiences would express the same glee if Tarantino made a Palestinian Basterds film, using the same scenario.

"We're gonna be doin' one thing and one thing only: killin' Zionists."

I suspect the panel discussions would become a lot more serious and somber.

ON THE QT: Reader/friend Michael H. sent me this link, where Tarantino talks about watching Basterds with an Israeli audience:

"So now, in Israel, I’m watching the film, and we get into the theater sequence. And literally, not when Hitler gets killed, but when you hear Shoshanna’s voice say, 'This is the face of Jewish vengeance,' the whole theater just erupted in applause. I think there were two guys that started it, but everyone jumped in. And you know something? It was violent. It was scary. There was violence in that cheer. It wasn’t like cheering Indiana Jones. There was something bloodcurdling about it. I don’t want to overstate it, but there was an edge to it. There was violence in it . . . there was blood in the air, which was wild. It was a wild thing to experience. It was a great experience, and it was real.”