28 November 2012

The Bear Jew

I think Inglorious Basterds is a demonstration of Tarantino's genius and relevance. It's a great film, period. There's a lot to be said about the picture and maybe someday I'll say it but at the moment I'm thinking about the scene which I think is the heart of the film: Eli “Hostel” Roth as Sgt. Donny Donnewitz, “The Bear Jew”, threatening the German captives with his baseball bat.

It's a powerful scene in part because it very deliberately plays with the relationship between the cinematic violence as a source of cathartic pleasure, cinematic violence as source of cathartic horror, and the enjoyment of cinematic violence as a politically troubling aspect of culture. The sequence very deliberately takes an audience back and forth between pleasure at let's beat up the Nazis and discomfort with the callous nihilism that implies. The scene is by turns scary, exciting, and disgusting, shifting tones more quickly and more often than I would have believed possible. Amazing enough that it takes us from horror, to excitement, to horror again ... but it actually brings us back to pleasure and excitement again repeatedly, dragging us back there from disgust, and then once more back to disgust, again and again. Tarantino manipulates the hell out of the audience with an unmistakable purpose. Watching it made me discomforted by my own reactions.

Which is the point.

Not for nothing does that scene end on a horrifying note. Is this what you want? Tarantino asks us. Because I will give it to you. The movie in the movie theatre at the end makes the indictment of the audience's complicity even more explicitly, but it's there throughout the film.

This gets an added frisson from knowing that Tarantino and Roth have both made careers of making films that appeal to our bloodthirstiness.

So we were talking about movies over lunch at work the other day.

I'd been talking about how Punch-Drunk Love makes explicit the strange rage and frustration which drives Adam Sandler's screen persona, and then a bit later was describing my theory about Basterds. Some wag suggested that Tarantino should have cast Sandler instead of Roth as Donnewitz ... but as we talked about it, we concluded that this wasn't just a silly idea, it would have worked.

Well guess what? In an interesting interview, Eli Roth let slip that this actually was the original plan.

FILM CRIT HULK says something a little bit similar (at astonishing length) about Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Over on Twitter, I returned to this topic, saying —

This thread and replies are fascinating because I both understand this reading and think it is profoundly wrong

Something I really appreciate about Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained is that they are a very rare species of Hollywood cinema that understands that half-measures in the face of fascism don't work and doesn’t try to equivocate about the morality of its political violence

tl;dr Nazis and slave-owners getting absolutely Itchy & Scratchy wrecked is good

Like, Quentin isn’t a Marxist or anything but it’s hilarious when people call him a reactionary. Absolutely no conservative on planet Earth would take this much joy from depicting jackboots and slavemasters getting turned into torrential streams of uncanned Chef Boyardee

Basterds and Django call shenanigans on cathartic movie violence. Both say hey, in the world we portray in movies, slavery and WWII would have been over quickly with victories over evil. So movie logic is bullshit.

I don’t see how one can watch the Bear Jew sequence in Basterds and read the movie as just a cathartic good time killin’ Nazis. It drags us back and forth over the line of I Want To See It Happen / Oh Gods No I Don’t.

Tarantino marshals every bit of cinematic vocabulary he can — framing, music, editing, et cetera — to give this guy a Stoic Heroic Sacrifice at the hands of cruel maniacs.

That's a Wehrmacht soldier who expresses his antisemitism directly. Tarantino gives us this not in defense of Nazis but in critique of cinema.

Understand, I love a cathartic good time killin’ Nazis. My favorite scene in all of cinema — Magneto confronting escaped Nazis in Argentina in X-Men: First Class — is exactly that. So I am not above enjoying Inglorious Basterds that way as well. It invites us to! But in service of trying to get us to examine why we like it.

Tarantino gives us a theater full of Nazis gleefully enjoying a movie depicting pointless nihilistic violence. He asks: “What the fuck is wrong with me and my audience?”

Not for nothing, the logic of cinema reverses at the end. The Action Heroes’ plan fails, while the the Nazis are defeated by ordinary people, a Black man and Jewish woman, by those ordinary heroes burning their back catalogue of films.

Django Unchained has its own ambivalence about the fantasy of cinema projected onto real historical horrors. Yeah, it feels great to unleash Black Cowboy Murder on slavers, and movie logic lets Django and Broomhilda get away. But slavery is not defeated, is it? Literally as I was walking out of the theater, it was clear to me that Django was not about slavery but about movies about slavery, about making it impossible to watch Gone With The Wind uncritically.

If you want a Tarantino film that actually grapples with the hard question of What Do We Do With Fascists, he did make one: The Hateful Eight ....

1 comment:

Cobb said...

Oh man did you nail that one. Just wait until Django Unchained!