Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why I Won't Be Watching Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino is in Israel this week to promote his Holocaust action-comedy-exploitation film Inglourious Basterds, and this afternoon he gave a press conference. Film blogger and critic Yair Raveh live-blogged the event, including Tarantino's response to the inevitable question of whether there are red lines in filmmaking, and whether the Holocaust lies beyond them. (It should be noted that this is my translation from Hebrew of Raveh's no doubt hasty translation of Tarantino's English answer, so I may be losing meaning and nuance. The gist, however, seems quite clear.) (UPDATE: Raveh has posted a video of the press conference.)
I've been asked why I didn't make a Holocaust film. Well, I did make a Holocaust film. But I think that in the last twenty years Holocaust films have been very depressing [the literal translation of Raveh's text is 'bummer,' and I'm not sure what Tarantino's original word choice was] because their focus was on victimization. I came at it from another direction. I didn't work in the Holocaust film genre but in the adventure film genre.
Since watching its trailer several months ago it's been my goal to ignore, as much as possible, the existence of Inglourious Basterds. I had much the same reaction to the trailer and to the film's basic concept as I did to Becoming Jane several years ago--a dull, incoherent rage--but felt that to speak with any authority on the film I would have to watch it, which I most fervently did not want to do. Better just to leave it alone, I decided. Which means that I have no one but myself to blame for even reading Raveh's report from the press conference. Having done so, however, the rage is back, as incoherent as ever. It's a happy coincidence, therefore, that Sady Doyle should choose today to discuss Inglourious Basterds (in an aside to a post about Michael Moore) and in so doing hit on some of what makes me uncomfortable about the film's premise:
Tarantino seems to have moved from flat-out nihilism to nihilism disguised as empowerment, in recent years. ... the thought of [him] applying this to World War Fucking Two was really not appealing to me. I’ve heard there’s not even that much violence in the movie, that it’s all talk-talk-talk, that it’s mostly about a girl, and you know what? Super. Great. Did you get the requisite foot fetish scene in, QT? Oh, you totally did? Awesome. But here’s the thing I can’t get around: the feeling that it’s using World War Two as a setting and Nazis as villains, not so that Quentin Tarantino can actually deal with the sobering realities of genocide and the human need for revenge and resistance, but so that literally anything the good guys do will be considered justifiable. Basically, I think he’s using the Holocaust to write himself a blank check.
Which is an important point, but honestly doesn't even come close to covering all the ways in which Inglourious Basterds makes me uncomfortable. There's the stark, either/or choice the film presents between victimization and monstrousness. There's the apparent assumption that the dourness of previous Holocaust films is a bug rather than a feature. There's the triumphalism of the film's premise and particularly its ending, which seems to implicitly criticize real-life victims of the Holocaust and minimize its horror. Most of all, there is, as Tarantino himself says, the use of a Holocaust setting to tell an adventure story. To hear him tell it, the 'Holocaust film' is a genre, and he's simply taken its tropes and transplanted them to another genre. Even ignoring the fact that this genre does not suit the history it's appropriating (Tarantino is, after all, hardly the first filmmaker to twist history to fit a story it doesn't support) I find this notion, of the Holocaust as fodder, not a story in its own right but the raw material from which other stories can be constructed, utterly risible.

Perhaps even more aggravating than any of these issues, however, is the fact that it is so obviously a mug's game to criticize a Quentin Tarantino film on ideological grounds. You have to be prepared to be called a humorless killjoy for overanalyzing a humble action film, and then, if you point out that fun is being wrung out of the systematic murder of six million people, to be told that the triumphalism and empowerment of the film's plot justifies its exploitation of that history. It's a film, in other words, that defeats criticism first by asking us to ignore its historical associations, and then by trading on them. All the while, of course, it basks in a coolness so arctic that simply to suggest that it might be problematic is to distinguish oneself as hopelessly uncouth. Tarantino films are all about ironic distance--from violence, from emotion, from the campy trash he loves to imitate and recreate. To take them seriously enough to criticize on moral grounds is to relinquish that distance, and therefore to be Watching It Wrong--you've lost the game before you even started playing.

There are some huge caveats that need to be made here, and the first is, once again, that I haven't seen Inglourious Basterds. This post is about the impression I've formed of it from its promotional material and the critical response to it, and that impression may be partly or wholly mistaken. The second, and more important, is that I'm drawing the boundaries of acceptable depictions of the Holocaust much closer than I would for other historical tragedies because it has a personal association for me. To be honest, I'm comfortable with this attitude, and can at least claim that I'm not a Johnny-come-lately to it. Even back when the entire state of Israel seemed united in a collective plotz over Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, I was eying it dubiously, and though, once again, I haven't seen the film, I suspect that critic Kobi Niv is on to something when he suggests, in his polemical and probably over-argued book Life is Beautiful, But Not For the Jews, that the reason for its popularity is simply that everyone, no matter their religion, loves a good crucifixion story. Still, the fact remains that there is a broader question of how or even whether to glorify or enjoy violence, whether in blatantly fantastical action films or in straight-faced historical films. Though I make no apologies for treating the Holocaust as a special case, it may be that I need to take a closer look at my reaction to violence in other films, and particularly ones that trade on real world tragedies that aren't part of my history.

With those caveats in place, let me just reiterate the reason I won't be watching Inglourious Basterds. It seems to me that Tarantino's answer to the perfectly legitimate questioning of his choice to make a Holocaust exploitation film is to fall back on artistic freedom as the highest possible virtue, to essentially ask "Can't I use the shape of the Holocaust, devoid of its truth, its horror, its moral lessons, to tell any kind of story I want?" To which my answer--and you may very well have a different one--is: No, you can't.

18 comments:

Jonathan M said...

Oh come now Abigail... you know you secretly wish that someone would refer to you as "The Beeeeeaaaaaar Jeeeeeew" ;-)

As I said in my review, the Basterds themselves don't actually figure that much in the film and the character who is arguably the film's protagonist is neither a victim nor a monster.

However, I can entirely understand your scepticism about a film that essentially asks you to empathise with a bunch of people exacting bloody revenge upon the Nazis. Revenge that the film presents as not only perfectly justifiable but also cool and admirable. It's one thing to consider the morality of taking revenge on a person who killed a loved one, but when the revenge is exacted against an institution in return for the attempted extermination of your race and culture, one's moral sense starts to fall apart and that's something that should be treated with respect. Tarantino blunders into these kinds of issues in a cavalier fashion (as did Banigni IMHO) and it's only natural for a thoughtful person to react to that with not only scepticism but also a degree of emotional outrage.

It's customary for someone in my position to suggest that you go and see the film but Inglorious Basterds isn't an important film, or a thoughtful film or even a particularly good film. You can certainly live the rest of your life quite comfortably without seeing it. The verbal duels are fun but they're not necessarily worth going out of your way for :-)

ecbatan said...

Nitpick -- QT purposely made not one but two misspellings in his title: it's Inglourious Basterds.

I take your points about the film, particularly the way in which it is clearly using the Holocaust as an excuse to make us feel good about bloody revenge. I haven't seen the film either, so can't really comment any more.

Matt said...

Thanks for posting this. It's very thought-provoking.

Can you give me some idea of the prevailing feelings in Israel about the film...critics and/or ordinary people? Your argument seems pretty devastating to me (although not only have I not seen the film, I haven't even seen the trailer) but I'm guessing if it was widely shared the movie wouldn't be playing in Israel. It's not that the general opinion must be right, but I'm curious how deeply they think through these issues.

Anonymous said...

Would it matter if you knew that the film never goes anywhere near a concentration camp? It's easy to notice the element of Jewish revenge fantasy in the movie, but the film barely touches upon, and makes no real attempt to explore or exploit, the Holocaust. That Nazis are bad and Jews might especially think so is taken 99% as read.

The "Holocaust movie" label doesn't fit well, in my opinion. Hell, it's not much of an adventure movie either. IB is a revenge flick that's more about movies than anything else.

Foxessa said...

From the gitgo I knew I wasn't watching this movie, whether in the theater or on dvd, and I've ignored as much as possible any media concerned with it.

But I am such a killjoy that I don't watch his other stuff either. Movies that are about depicting with great delight great violence, death and mayhem are morally repugnant.

Love, c.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Jonathan:

the Basterds themselves don't actually figure that much in the film and the character who is arguably the film's protagonist is neither a victim nor a monster

That's what I've heard, and Tarantino himself said the same at the press conference, which does lead me to wonder why the Basterds are emphasized in the film's title and promotional material. I suppose the reason could simply be bankability - Brad Pitt killing Nazis probably sells better than an unknown (outside her own country) French actress doing so.

Rich:

Thanks, fixed.

Matt:

That's an interesting question, though I don't feel qualified to answer it with any authority. The film won't open officially until tomorrow, and it'll be interesting to see how Israeli reviewers react to it in the weekend papers. As for the audience, Tarantino has his fan base in Israel, and even outside of that group I think that there are enough people willing to watch the film on the level of 'killing Nazis! Yay!' that it should do reasonably well. My gut feeling is that I don't think Israeli reaction will be significantly different from the rest of the world - a lot of enthusiastic fans, and a few dissenters like myself.

Anonymous:

Would it matter if you knew that the film never goes anywhere near a concentration camp?

Again, I haven't seen the film so it's hard to say, but my gut reaction is that that makes it worse. Once again, it's as though Tarantino is using our associations with the word Nazis to justify violence against them, but doesn't show the reasons for those associations because that would be a major buzzkill.

The "Holocaust movie" label doesn't fit well, in my opinion. Hell, it's not much of an adventure movie either. IB is a revenge flick that's more about movies than anything else.

Well, yes, that's precisely my problem.

Foxessa:

Movies that are about depicting with great delight great violence, death and mayhem are morally repugnant.

Part of my ambivalence towards my own argument is that I can't claim to feel that kind of blanket condemnation. I don't seek out exploitation films, but I think there's an element of exploitation in most action films, and I did like Kill Bill, after all. I'm clearly drawing a line - exploitation of fictitious personal tragedy is OK, exploitation of historical national tragedy is not - but I'm not sure whether than line makes any sense except to me.

Jakob Schmidt said...

I don't think that IB is that cynical. I wouldn't suggest you go and see it, because I understand and resepct your reservations, but still, the movie, to my mind, plays out a bit differently than you think.
First of all, it really draws attention the the fact that it's a fantasy (it starts with the title card "Once upon a time ..."). That doesn't mean that it is "just" a fantasy and that any serious criticism is misguided, it just means that it doesn't strive to depict history accurately. Of course, you can argue about what it does instead.
As ecbatan pointed out, IB is not a movie about the Holocaust. However, the first chapter of the movie does present a very haunting image of victimization: a cheerful ss officer turns a man who shelters a Jewish family into a nazi collaborator by means of psychological violence. The man is totally helpless, as is the Jewish family sheltered by him. The rest of the movie, as I see it, plays out as a fantasy triggered by this extreme kind of victimization.
Furthermore, I don't think that Tarantino uses the Holocaust as implicit justification so that we can cheer for the Basterds killing and torturing Nazis, because the movie has very few moments that prompt us to cheer for the nazi-killing(okay, there is the sequence about Hugo Stiglitz, killer of 13 Gestapo-Officers, that kind of does that ..). Actually, many Nazis in the movie are much more well-rounded characters than the pretty sketchy basterds. The movie allows you to invest some of them with a lot of empathy (Not all of them. Hitler and Goebbels are carricatures, and I'm quite happy with that after having watched the indigestible nazi-kitsch of "Downfall").
Not that the movie would prompt you to condemn the actions of the basterds, on the other hand. It is pretty much content with showing that a certain kind of fantasy of revenge against the nazis is as monstrous as it is understandable. The first chapter of the movie makes it quite clear why the basterds are killing nazis, while the remaining chapters make it clear that this still means killing human beings (there is a lot of dialogue about human beings and uniforms that acknowledges this problem, without giving any easy answers). It doesn't say "and that's why revenge is wrong" or "and that's why revenge is right". It just spells it out. Okay, it probably does say "and that's why killing nazis is at least better than being victimized by them." But being a fantasy, the movie doesn't judge real people for the fact that in real life, they had no chance or were not willing to fight instead of becoming victims.

However, living in Germany, I might look at this movie from a different perspective than you. Most of the internet discussions I have about it put me against people who hat the movie for being "anti-German" and ask why they should cheer for "them doing terrible things to our grandfathers"; people who would like to forget all about history and who claim that it is time to "move on" and already stop condemning nazism, and who, at the same time, keep relativizing the Holocaust by claiming that "the allies did terrible things to us, as well" and such. I must confess that I thoroughly enjoy the fact that these people feel offended by IB.

Alison said...

literally anything the good guys do will be considered justifiable

I expected it to be like this, but I took exactly the opposite from the film.

Anne-Elisa said...

Speaking as a French Jew here, I agree with Jakob Schmidt in terms that IB is a much more sophisticated movie, in terms of how it tackles revenge fantasies, the power of cinema, and issues of victimisation and empowering victims, than you give it credit for. Which obviously doesn't mean that you should watch it or that you're wrong for feeling uncomfortable with such a movie.

There are many movies I felt much more disgusted and appalled in how they decided to tackle the subject - I remember my reaction to 'Black Book''s trailer for example. Tarantino is more in your face and seemingly unapologetic in the way the movie is presented as a Nazi-killing rampage flick, yet, perhaps because of that honest, perhaps because of the thoughts put in the layers and meta commentary, I find it more palatable.

Andrew Stevens said...

if you point out that fun is being wrung out of the systematic murder of six million people

This isn't a criticism, either of your point, post, or of the idea that the Holocaust has unique significance to Jews (because I absolutely agree that it does and probably agree that the Jews were treated worse than the other people slaughtered), but eleven million people were systematically murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps. Six million of them were Jews.

Abigail's Mom said...

Of course Andrew is correct that the Nazis systematically killed many peoples: gypsies, homosexuals, communists, etc.

Also of the six million Jews, actually "only" five million died in the camps; the rest from "natural" causes. This includes Abigail's great grandfather who died in 1943 because he was refused medical treatment after surgery.

Andrew Stevens said...

Also of the six million Jews, actually "only" five million died in the camps; the rest from "natural" causes. This includes Abigail's great grandfather who died in 1943 because he was refused medical treatment after surgery.

I would certainly include him as one of the victims. Mostly I guess I'm saying that the Nazis would be considered the embodiment of evil even if they had done nothing to Jewish people. 20 million dead Russians can't be wrong.

Zahra said...

Love this piece, especially the paragraph about being called a "humorless killjoy" because the film deflects criticism, and the point about re-examining one's reaction to works that exploit tragedies to which you aren't personally connected. (I'm with Foxessa here.)

I also like the way you framed this with your refusal to see the film. I think their should be more room for a certain type of media criticism about why you are choosing not to participate.

Todd C. Murry said...

I think the movie is rather clearly about making us confront our own reactions to movie violence by allowing us to have a reaction, and then forcing us to confront that reaction using the holocaust as a transgressive element to “up the ante” as far as possible in service of getting the most polarized reversal in the audiences head. The big epiphany of the move is had by someone watching an audience react to movie violence from a projection booth, for Christ’s sake, and is followed by the director killing said audience.

The real questions are 1) is the movie successful in this (A: sort of… it seems happy just to ask the question “are you implicated,” and doesn’t feel the need to explore the answers; it’s happy just to provoke the thought - it kind of reminded me of Mad Men’s tendency to just present you with a moment and leave you the responsibility to make something out of it) and 2) does any failure on this front make the movie malignant, given that it is playing with such a sacrosanct topic (A: probably).

Raz Greenberg said...

I strongly disagree on the principal here, but I wanted to see the film before I respond. Still, I'll start with the principal: "Holocaust Film" is most definitely a genre - when you have a set of stylistic and content conventions that bring together a group of texts, you got a genre. You don't have to like it, but to say it isn't the case is to turn a blind eye to reality. And as with any other genre, it often crosses paths with different genres. Again, I am not saying that it's necessarily a positive thing, though I wouldn't be so quick to call it a bad thing. There's a notion about being unable to write poetry after Auschwitz, which sounds nice in theory, but doesn't really work in the real world. People wrote poetry after Auschwitz, people wrote poetry ABOUT Auschwitz, and people wrote novels (in literature, BTW, you have a complete genre classified as "Holocaust Fiction" - and no, it's not about Holocaust denial), drew comics and made films on the subject. "Inglourious Basterds" is hardly the worst insult to the memory of the Holocaust victims in this process - not even on the top-10 list, if there ever was one.
Which brings me to the film itself, that actually makes this discussion rather irrelevant, because Tarantino's film, as noted in another reply here, isn't really a Holocaust film. It's not the director's "Schindler's List", or for that matter "Saving Private Ryan" either. If I have to go for a Spielberg parallel here, the closest thing would be the Indiana Jones films, that likewise took a serious, and in many ways tragic period in history, and turned it into a roaring adventure - while also caricaturizing the serious and tragic aspects of that period. Maybe not in the same volume that Tarantino does it, but "Raiders of the Lost Ark" had at least one joke that referenced Nazi anti-Semitism, and "The Last Crusade" made a great comedy of book-burning in Berlin, featuring Hitler in a guest role, with Lenni Riefenstahl filming it all. In fact, I kept flashing back to that scene from "The Last Crusade" while watching "Inglourious Basterds" - the Indiana Jones films are an example of Spielberg's love for the cheap and popular cinema, not unlike Tarantino's. If this love gave Spielberg a free pass to turn painful history into entertainment, then Tarantino deserves a pass as well.
With regards to the film itself, well, it's very entertaining. In fact, it's Tarantino's least pretentious film in YEARS, and I found it to be his best since his stunning debut with "Reservoir Dogs". When he concentrates on entertaining the audience rather than trying (and failing) to sound like an intellectual, he's very good at what he does. Does this entertainment caricaturizes Nazi evil? Yes, but as I just said, Tarantino is hardly the first person to do that. Does it caricaturize the Jewish suffering? To a certain degree, maybe - but this is something the Jews themselves have done for years, long before (and after) the Holocaust.

abe said...

A lot of people have noted that the film is more interested in the Nazis than it is the Jewish characters.

The American Jews are the film's most one dimensional characters.

Mark Kermode's pan of the film is priceless though:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAMx3lCbj5Q&feature=related

See my blog for a review of the film as well (spoilers!)

alixtii said...

I'd agree that Indiana Jones falls under the same critique--but to assume that absolves Tarantino rather than implicates Spielberg is to beg the question, no?

free movie said...

I rather think that you should take this movie as a weird comdy, and not so "hard" as a movie with subtext and deep meanings, even the important issues its touching...go watch it again and take it easy :)

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