Amoeblog

The Tarantino Solution 2: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 20, 2009 11:11pm | Post a Comment
Page 1  (Again, BEWARE SPOILERS!)

I’m waiting for any of the enthusiasts for Inglourious Basterds to come up with some guidance about what grown-up things this movie has to say to us about World War 2 or the Holocaust — or maybe just what it has to say about other movies with the same subject matter. Or, if they think that what Tarantino is saying is adolescent but still deserving of our respect and attention, what that teenage intelligence consists of. Or implies. Or inspires. Or contributes to our culture. -- Jonathan Rosenbaum, again


Certainly, there's a difference between Bonhoeffer taking no pleasure in his decision and the viewer's finding entertainment in Shosanna's, namely that between real world events and their aesthetic use. Since Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum are film critics, I'm guessing they aren't of the "art after Auschwitz is barbaric" persuasion, so their problem is with the film's message, its delivery and reception. The Jewish devised cinematic hell to which the Nazis become condemned might even be seen as tragic if you're sympathetic to their goals. As the administer and representative of the Volk's will, Col. Landa's murdering Shosanna's family sets into motion the wheels of fate that is their (the Nazi's, if not exactly Lando's) destruction. From the Greeks to Shakespeare, tragedies, we should recall, were (and still are) performed for pleasure, or what might be called entertainment. The world of art would be a lot less interesting if it came with the book of answers that Rosenbaum demands of Inglourious Basterds. How about a quote from Vladimir Nabokov?

I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called "powerful" and "stark" by the reviewing hack. There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, [...] Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art [...] is the norm. -- from "On a Book Entitled Lolita"

Now, Rosenbaum is one of our best film critics, not some "reviewing hack," and Tarantino ain't exactly Nabokov, but everything else fits the bill. This former's criticisms, this time around, don't amount to much more than pandering moralism, and the latter, like Nabokov, is more interested in staying true to the story he's telling than whatever it might say about the real world. But this doesn't mean that his story has nothing relevant to say about whatever Rosenbaum is referring to with "our culture." The film isn't mere entertainment, or what some fanboy defense might call "just a movie," but rather a sort of parody in Nabokov's sense when he said, "satire teaches a lesson, parody is a game."


Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were admirers of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, likely hearing echos of their own call for the restoration of a soul to the dehumanizing technocracy of modernity ("the mediator between the brain and hands must be the heart!"). However, humanity, like violence, depends on the details. They didn't see an analogy of the oppressed workers at the bottom of Lang's pseudo-utopia -- who kept it running for the pleasure of the bourgeoisie and rich -- to the Nazis' use of Jewish slave labor in factories like Mittelwork where the V-2 bomb was manufactured. As Col. Landa spells out to the farmer in Chapter 1, the Jews were seen as racially other, not deserving of the moral obligation that obtains to one's neighbors in the ethnic Lebenstraum (living space). For a similar reason, American kids aren't expected to look in abhorrence at singing grapes being used to sell their own execution or anthropomorphic squirrel-operated machinery in The Flintstones. Ignoring such human traits is fine in fantasy, but not when someone tries to supplant the real with the fantastic. And, as Landa argues, the Jews weren't seen even as the equivalent of squirrels (much less the happily working and talking kind), but rats. It's this kind of rationalization that makes the bureaucratization of evil possible.

So when Tarantino parodies the burning in Lang's Nazi-favored film with Shosanna's own version, there's more going on than geeky appropriation. At the moment in Goebbel's Nation's Pride when Pvt. Zoller (the Nazi "Sergeant York") asks, "who wants to send a message to Germany?," Shosanna's image cuts in to answer that she does, commanding Marcel standing behind the screen to set fire to the film stock. The real Shosanna is already dead, killed in the projection booth by the real Zoller as she was showing a bit of compassion for the not-quite-dead wouldbe rapist, having just shot him in the back. The last bit of human compassion having been drilled out her in grieving slow motion (one of the few nods to Enzo Castellari's Inglorious Bastards), the only thing left is a mechanically reproduced image to be shown only once in a particular place, creating an aura of terror for this particular group of "art" lovers.


In Metropolis, it is the mechanical Maria who is put to the stake, having tricked the workers into destroying the machines that would keep the city functioning. I'm not going to summarize the serpentine plot of Lang's film (read it here if you dare), so suffice it to say the means-end utopia was brought down by a robot simulation of one of the oppressed (Maria) that was the bypodruct of the city ruler's faulty/inhumane ratiocinations. (That is, Fredersen, the ruler, gained possession of Hel, the love of the inventor Rotwang, eventually using her up -- she died during childbirth -- which led to Rotwang making the robot as a replacement, but it had its own demonic plans that involved taking the form of Maria.) Thus, Shosanna (and maybe Tarantino) saw the analogy that Goebbels and Hitler didn't. Define another's humanity out of your ratio-moral system and the only interaction left possible is with the robotic husk. Shosanna's moral choice in such an immoral situation was, like Bonhoffer's, to point the demonic reproduction to which she had been reduced back at the Nazis and let it take its course.

Page 3

The Tarantino Solution 1: Inglourious Basterds (2009), A Moral Defense

Posted by Charles Reece, September 13, 2009 11:00pm | Post a Comment

So, there's been a whole lot of hoo-ha surrounding what's quite obviously the most interesting and entertaining movie of the year, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The moralistic critics have done their best to trivialize the white power movement's Holocaust revisionism by suggesting the film turns "Jews into Nazis" (Daniel Mendelsohn) and one wonders "what it was (and is) about the film that seems morally akin to Holocaust denial" (Jonathan Rosenbaum). On the other, "with friends like these ...," side, the defense hasn't amounted to much, either, the typical suggestion being some variation on the line that as pure entertainiment/fantasy, the movie has no morality, nor does it need it. Patooehy! I agree that entertainment is the film's virtue, but disagree that it occurs at the expense of morality. In fact, its morality grounds and justifies what Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum see as the Jews acting like Nazis, but what I call the aesthetic enjoyment of the film. Thus, I think a moral defense is in order. Be forewarned: MANY SPOILERS WILL OCCUR!


The Dreyfus Affair

What all retributive theories seem to share is the claim that the relation between crime and punishment is (primarily) conceptual (or “internal”). The justification of punishment is that punishment in itself is an appropriate response to crime. [...] Reaffirming the wrongness of the crime is good in itself, good enough (all else equal) to justify the punishment. Telling the truth about a crime is itself an important good.
                      -- Moral philosopher Michael Davis explaining the basic tenet of retributive justice

In his review, Mendelsohn is particularly offended by the final chapter that features Shosanna Dreyfus trapping --  with the aid of her boyfriend, Marcel -- the entire Nazi high command in a theater, then burning it down (referencing some science learned from Hitchcock). The fact that Shosanna is a Jew who barely escaped with her own life after watching a group of Nazis being led by Colonel Hans Landa slaughter her family in chapter one has no bearing on Mendelsohn's indignation. Violence is evidently content-free, the violent what-fer being morally equated to the violent crime. Even the dimmest of ardent capital punishment opponents should be able to free himself from Mendelsohn's mental paper bag here. That is, even if one holds that the state should never be able to kill murderers, it takes quite a bit of willpower to get mixed up on the order of events involved: there would be no state-sanctioned violence without the criminal act of murder occurring first. Now, there might be other good, moral reasons for not wanting the state to kill murderers, but they in no way make the two killings morally equivalent, or equally justified. Similarly, not all vengeful fantasies are the same, either. Here's a thought experiment:

      
Who do you think should be more worrisome to a neighborhood: Little Jason, who dreams of going back in time to assassinate Adolf Hitler before he became Der Führer, or little Eddie, who dreams of one day making all the whores pay for their satanic influence?

Seems pretty clear to me that some dreams of retribution are healthier than others. All too often the revenge fantasy, such as Last House on the Left, is dismissed for the pleasure the audience receives in the violent performance of retribution without considering the basis for said pleasure, namely the retribution itself. As Charles Boyer said in Arch of Triumph regarding his desire to see Charles Laughton's Nazi get his comeuppance, "revenge is a personal thing, this is something bigger." Regardless of the emotive state obtaining to the act of revenge (or its fantasy), the moral question is whether the act is just or not. Maybe it worries you, feeling elated at seeing Hitler's head being reduced to a rotten peach by the Basterds' machine guns. Or maybe, like our concerned symbolic parent Rosenbaum, it worries you that others take delight in such a thing. Worrying about pleasure, like the pleasure itself, is only tangentially related to the morality of Tarantino's fantasy. The relevant questions are: Did the Nazi high command deserve to be burned alive? If so, is there anything wrong with a Jew delivering it? And, given that history had it otherwise, is there anything wrong with fantasizing about Nazis receiving a taste of their own final solution? Since I've already pretty much answered the last question with a 'no,' I won't keep you guessing how I'm going to answer the first two: Yes and no. At least, I'll be arguing these are perfectly moral stances to hold, not to be dismissed as exploitative emotional reactions.

The only good Nazi: Charles Laughton gets his just dessert in Arch of Triumph.

There are many theories of justice (explore at your leisure), but Mendelsohn and Rosenbaum's objections are rooted in retributivism's chief theoretical rival, utilitarianism. That is, we shouldn't even fantasize about treating the Nazis as they treated others, because we lose something of our collective humanity, which is a detriment to the general good. A similar case was recently made on very real grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill regarding the release of the critically ill convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya where he can die (in 3 months, we're all assured). Notwithstanding al-Megrahi's continuing claim of innocence, MacAskill didn't question the conviction, but made his decision based on compassion being the greater good: "Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people -- no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated."

What was Zappa's line about hippie love? "I will love everyone. I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street." Yep, compassion for the remorseless sounds like a real virtue, alright. Saad Djebbar, a lawyer for the Libyan government, suggested an alternative utilitarian interpretation of the decision, stemming from realpolitik, rather than compassion: "Rest assured that the (Scottish) government has done the UK government a great favour[.] Britain and Scotland will grow in the eyes of the Arab states."

If that makes you feel icky, you might be a retributivist. The case makes for an interesting contrast to the response of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to Madina Amin's request that her husband, the huggable butchering tyrant, General Idi Amin Dada, be allowed to return back home, as he was deteriorating in a coma. Without a lick of supposedly Western compassion, Museveni promised the General would "answer for his sins the moment he was brought back."

Perhaps Museveni should've listened to the words of his fellow Christian, Pope John Paul II, when he recommended to the poor, oppressed people living in General Augusto Pinochet's Chile, "[d]o not let yourself be seduced by violence and the thousand reasons which appear to justify it. [The Church rejects] all ideologies which proclaim violence and hate as means to obtain justice.” Achieve the greater good by turning the other cheek ... as long as it's in opposition to communism, of course. As this fellow suggests in analyzing the former Pope's moral concerns, the "greater good" for His Holiness was the church bureaucracy in Latin America, not the liberation of the people. Thus, nary a critical word was uttered regarding the dictator's murderous days in office. In fact, the Pope personally gave Pinochet communion.

Call me a Billy Jack fan, but I prefer Dietrich Bonhoeffer's conversion to vengeance when he decided to suffer a potential bad ruling at Judgment Day in order to rid the world of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer didn't think he'd be a better person, only that he was willing to suffer to do the right thing. I find it hard to see his desire as unhealthy, or in any way morally equivalent to Hitler's. Violence and violent desire have content. Continuing to play fair with a cheater in a card game isn't going to get you anything but less money; the game has to be stopped. Demanding some money back isn't the same thing as being cheated out of it in the first place. If a person denies you your basic humanity and is willing to act in accordance, he doesn't deserve your compassion.

Page 2

[Insert wordless visual here.]

Posted by Job O Brother, March 30, 2009 03:55pm | Post a Comment

Not to lure you away from the safe and nurturing environment that is the Amoeblog, but, for those of you interested in reading it with your eyes, here is a link to a recent interview I had with one of my favorites, Marianne Faithfull.

Now then, on to a topic that is not oft spoke of; that is, silent films. Amoeba Music Hollywood has a small but rich silent film section which, at this writing, is located on the mezzanine. I’m taking this opportunity to advocate a greater appreciation and exploration of this antiquated genre.

For many people, silent films are a known but ignored craft, as though the technological progress that married sound to film rendered the silent precursors an inferior product. While I do hail “talkies” as a wonderful invention, I still feel there is much joy to be had in silent cinema. If nothing else, knowing a bit about it can be enough to get you laid by art-school chicks taking a break from experimenting with bisexuality.


The first silent I saw that rocked me was the tragic drama Pandora’s Box [original, German title: Die Büchse der Pandora]. Released in 1929 and directed by Austrian Georg Wilhelm Pabst, it stars the gorgeous and gifted Louise Brooks in the lead role.


Another gem I treasure is Wings, the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (and the only silent film to do so). Released in 1927 and directed by William A. Wellman, it stars Clara Bow, the quintessential flapper icon, and has a cameo by not-yet-superstar Gary Cooper.


Clara Bow emerged from a childhood fraught with poverty and abuse to become a top Hollywood box-office draw. Her brash manners earned her scorn among celebrity circles, however, and after retiring from the movie business, she was reduced to living inside a milk carton and selling her toes for Necco Wafers.*




Clara Bow, coupled with pop vocal singer, Helen Kane, was the inspiration behind Max Fleischer's beloved cartoon character, Betty Boop.


I would be remiss to write about silent films without mentioning the biggest star to come out of them, namely, Charlie Chaplin. It is convenient that, while I am often annoyed by the actors which are today hailed as great, contemporary stars, I am satisfied that Chaplin is absolutely warranted the admiration he’s bestowed.


Chaplin distinguished himself as an actor, director, composer, and sex machine. After a career on the stage, he found greater fame in film as an actor for the Keystone Film Company. He debuted his now famous character “the Tramp” in two films: Kid Auto Races at Venice and Mabel's Strange Predicament, both released in 1914.




Hold on a second – I’ve a powerful thirst… I’m gonna go get a frosty beverage. While I do, enjoy this performance by Petula Clark of a song written by Charlie Chaplin…


…Okay. I’m back, with thirst quenched. Going on…

Because his political views were decidedly left-of-center, he was targeted by pretty, pretty princess J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. When Chaplin returned to his native England for the premiere of his film Limelight, Hoover sabotaged the actor’s U.S. re-entry permit. Chaplin eventually made his new home in Switzerland, where he spent his time on his hobby, collecting teenage, blonde girls.


Next, let us consider the great actress Theda Bara. While Bara made over 40 films (between 1914 and 1946), only six of these remain available in their complete form. Cleopatra, one of her most popular films, is now lost; only 40 seconds of film footage and photographs of Bara in her costume remain. Bara’s aesthetics have gone on to inspire future artists, like Siouxsie Sioux and, less obviously, Eazy-E*. She eventually married a wealthy man who wanted her to give up acting in films, so she switched her format to the bedroom [insert drum roll].




Different From the Others [original, German title: Anders als die Andern], released in 1919, is important as one of the first (and, perhaps, the first) films to portray homosexuals in a compassionate light. A product of the Weimer Republic, the film was eventually considered “decadent” by Hitler and the Nazi Party, and copies found were burned.




One of the actors from Different From the Others, Conrad Veidt, went on to achieve fame for his role in another film I fancy: the early horror flick, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [original, German title: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari]. A neat-o example of the German Expressionist style, the film, with its eerie backdrops of painted-on shadows and warped stages, remains spine-tingling. It’s great for Halloween parties, or for snuggling and seducing art-school chicks taking a break from experimenting with bisexuality.


I am currently enjoying Die Nibelungen, director Fritz Lang’s cinematic version of the epic poem Nibelungenlied, written around the year 1200. I’m not finished watching it, so I’ll reserve commenting too much, for fear of making a fool of myself and reporting that it stars Sandy Duncan in her greatest performance to-date and is the only sex-comedy to be filmed using goat’s milk feta instead of the more traditional celluloid. I will say, however, that so far, it’s rather phat.


Most of the films mentioned here are available in the Silent Film section of Amoeba Music Hollywood. Next time you’re in the mood to challenge your ADHD and enrich your film viewing experience, be bold and give one of these a try. You can always pick up a copy of something starring Reese Witherspoon to watch afterwards, if need be. Tsk.


*Not actually true.

Fraulein Devil aka Elsa Fräulein SS aka Fraulein Kitty

Posted by phil blankenship, April 13, 2008 11:30am | Post a Comment
 



Wizard Video 74

The Tormentors

Posted by phil blankenship, October 29, 2007 06:56pm | Post a Comment
 





Trans World Entertainment 46001
BACK  <<  1  2  3  >>  NEXT