Friday, 4 September 2009

Jews, Nazis and Tarantino

I went to see Inglorious Basterds with some amount of apprehension. I’d heard that Eli Roth said that the film is a “Jewish wet dream” because we see a team of Jewish soldiers brutally kill lots and lots of Nazis. The level of idiocy on Roth’s part is mind-boggling. Even if there is a part of the human psyche that wants revenge, from Jews or anyone else, why watch a movie that indulges such negative, destructive impulses? Are Jews supposed to feel appeased somehow, watching a movie with people pretending to kill other people who are pretending to be Nazis? Think of it as a question of what kind of stories we need to tell ourselves. Movies provide cultures with a working-through of ideas and feelings. The only thing I can imagine this film will provide us with is stoking the flame amongst Neo-Nazis that Hitler should have ‘finished the job’, and that Jews are 'just as bad', and are capable of the same level of savagery (Neo-Nazis will inevitably be interested in seeing the film), and it will also invite the delightful comparison that gets banded around, whereby Jews are behaving like Nazis. This comparison comes up every once in a while from liberals, Jews and anti-semites alike.

A digression: are Israelis behaving like Nazis? No. They are insofar as Palestinians are treated like second-class citizens, just as Jews were in Nazi-occupied areas before they were sent to death camps. But it’s a bogus comparison because a few more conditions would need to be comparable. For instance:

• Palestinians would need to be sent to death camps
• Israel would need to Invade Syria, Egypt and other surrounding countries
• There would need to be have been terrorist Jews killing German civilians in the 30s and 40s

If these things were happening, the comparison might have merit. Instead, we have impoverished Palestinians retaliating by firing rockets into Israel, prompting Israelis to elect politicians who are going to come down hard on Palestinians, and the whole thing winds up in a big ugly cycle. I imagine most Palestinians are caught in the middle between Palestinians terrorists and heavy-handed Israeli soldiers. Dreadful.

Anyway: it’s a lousy comparison, and I think people enjoy saying that Israelis are acting like Nazis because irony is appealing, and people get a little buzz out of being provocative when they think their entitled to be.

But back to the movie, and back to Tarantino. Something that bothered me about the Kill Bill movies is that they spent too much time contemplating themselves. I realize that that was the point of those movies – small incidental scenes turn into 10 minute sequences (walking into a nightclub, or a sword being ceremoniously given away), but the whole thing just seemed in awe of itself. Inglorious Basterds seemed happy just to get on with the story (with the exception of a 5-minute lipstick application scene). More conventional on Tarantino’s part, but a welcome return to commonplace convention. He did remain consistent with his other work by having monologues in which we are invited to reconsider something we’ve always taken for granted. In this case, it’s why we have a bigger problem with rats than we have with squirrels (previously, he’s covered a new understanding of Superman, what they call the Big Mac in France, what the song Like a Virgin is really about).

He also follows his earlier trademark-thing by citing movies and filmmakers he’s interested in – Leni Riefenstahl gets name-dropped (a famous Nazi-Propaganda filmmaker), Pabst and David O Selznik gets mentioned too. This is just part of his ‘wink at the camera’ thing where he recommends films to fans who want to look up bits of film history. Shogun Asassin gets menitoned in Kill Bill, and I’m sure there’s a reference to some 70s action movie that gets mentioned in Death Proof. Well, I kinda like the ‘lets celebrate cinema’ thing in movies. Nanni Moretti does that too and it’s always cool. Godard did it as well of course (though he’s not a fan of Tarantino, incidentally). Somehow, in Tarantino’s hands citing film history is starting to feel a little bit tired.

Another criticism: while Inglorious Basterds was about 2hrs 30, it still felt like there were too many threads and characters that weren’t given space to breathe. As a result, I wasn’t really in the zone during the climax. Perhaps Tarantino should have split this movie into a 12-part mini-series as he said he considered doing. If he had, it may have been the masterpiece he claimed it to be.

In spite of my criticisms, I did come away from Inglorious Basterds feeling like it might be his most interesting work. Whether it’s his best, I’ll not comment because I try not to be in the business of evaluating stuff too much. But it did get my brain going more than any of his other works. I found the very first scene very compelling and affecting indeed, and there is a scene in an underground bar which plays out beautifully. Despite what some critis said, I didn’t think the scenes played out for too long at all. They played out nicely, and Tarantino found a new way of using time rather than his usual *blam blam blam* pacing.

In conclusion then: Inglorious Basterds is a socially irresponsible movie (though hopefully ultimately innocuous, like most art), but it picks up on a bunch of Tarantino-esque tropes and is compelling to watch, despite a bunch of shortcomings. Also, comparing Jews or Israelis to Nazis is stupid.

There you go.


Karen Burke said...

Great post, hon.

The other day I was reading a Right Wing critic of the extreme self-denial of some climate change campaigners. He was making some valid points, but he shot his argument in the foot by using the term 'Green Nazis'. The tacit assumption is that readers will translate this word 'Nazi' as 'hardliner'. But by using the word 'Nazi' instead of 'hardliner' he believes he will hammer his point home. He assumes wrongly and I hope people aren't fooled enough to collude with him. If he means hardliner he should say hardliner.

Paul Taberham said...

Thanks Karen!

Yeah, add "evil" to "hardliner". Deeming someone a Nazi basically seems to be shorthand, like you say, for those things.

Time people stop comparing everyone and everything they don't like to Nazis...