Monday, August 24, 2009

An Open Letter to David Denby, Keith Phipps and Dana Stevens in response to their Inglourious Basterds Reviews (spoilers))

The New Yorker

Dear David Denby,

In discussing the way Inglourious Basterds invokes film and filmmakers -- Goebbles, the Art Deco theatre, the cinemaphile characters (including actors and actresses, theatre owners and projectionists, and critics) and the Basterds themselves ("A kind of Jewish Dirty Dozen") you write, "Tarantino has gone past his usual practice of decorating his movies with homages to others. This time, he has pulled the film-archive door shut behind him -- there's hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside of a nutbrain fable."

I don't understand why creating what Tolkien called a "secondary world" should be such a problem. I understand that that is a different project from trying to make a film "about something" (rather than a film that "is that something itself"); I fail to see why the former is necessarily better than the latter. I am also puzzled why of all people a film critic should be so bothered by a film that is soaked in films. It seems to cater to those of us that love film. Also: there are so many plays about plays for example, including Midsummer Night's Dream -- are they all deficient on principle as well?

I say this without conceding that this is what Inglourious Basterds is doing. When you say that "there's hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside of a nutbrain fable" you seem also to mean that Tarantino's film is empty because it focuses on film and not on say, real world issues. But isn't film PART of the real world, and so when Tarantino "pulls the film-archive door shut behind him" and begins to comment on the vault -- don't we all have access to that vault through netflix? And don't you and I especially, as people who care enough to write about films, care especially for this very subject? If you got access to a great vault of films wouldn't you be excited? Tell people about it? Get people excited about what you found in there? Isn't that sort of what Tarantino does (especially in Kill Bill)? Isn't at least a small part of what Tarantino is doing is going after those Oscar grabs like The Reader that humanize Nazi's? Isn't he responding to the real world when he tells the audience, and the people who make and enjoy those films, "A Nazi ain't got no humanity. He needs to be DE-stroyed." Agree or disagree with the sentiment, I think it is unfair to make it seem like he is just in his own fantasy land here.

You write "Whether the Basterds are Tarantino's ideal of an all American killing team, or his parody of one, is hard to know. Very little in Basterds is meant to be taken straight, but the movie isn't farce either. It's lodged in an uneasy nowheresville between counterfactual pop wish fulfillment and trashy exploitation, between exuberant nonsense and cinema scholasticism.... The cinema it seems is both innocent and heroic; it creates great art and it will end the war."

I think comic book fans are faster to get what Tarantino is doing, partly because comic books go to a lot of trouble to create a kind of detailed secondary world (and fans help with that project) and also because the characters inside walk that line you describe: The Silver Surfer and Beta Ray Bill for example, or Kirby's New Gods could be described equally as ideals or parodies. The difference in communities is that comic book fans don't see this as an "uneasy nowhere" -- there is a energizing dissonance, a sense that anything could happen and be somehow justified aesthetically. "Exuberant Nonsense" is a great phrase and I wish you meant it in a complementary way, as Blake did when he said "Exuberance is Beauty" or the critic Stephen Booth did when he described the best poetry as "Precious nonsense." (I know there is a good quote somewhere from Auden about poetry being nonsense, but I am not going to look for it now).

And there are many films that make great claims for art, and I am sure you do not dislike them or mock them for that reason.

You write "Tarantino is mucking about with a tragic moment of history. Chaplin and Lubitsch played with Nazi's too, but they worked as farceurs, using comedy to warn of tragedy; they didn't carve up Nazi's using horror-film flourishes."

The other thing comic book fans know is that Nazis make great villains, and always have. I suppose it is sad to think that comics and other pulps (including the recent Nazi Zombie film Dead Snow) are held in such low regard that this is the first time I am seeing someone really chase after using Nazis as villains. Hellboy, with it's Nazi-Satanists, was probably beneath mention. How do you feel about their use in something like Indiana Jones, I wonder? Tarantino is obviously edgy, but that movie was pure family adventure fun. The comparison to Chaplin and Lubitsch seems unfair in part because it stacks the deck against Tarantino -- he comes too late in history to warn. Thankfully, he knows how to make the most out of coming late in the day -- by learning from and remixing all the movies Chaplin and Lubitsch missed out on, what with their being dead.

You write, "Tarantino's hyper-violent narrative reveals merely that he still dreams like a teen-ager."

Well, fair enough, I guess. That is an easy swipe because New Yorker readers are a demographic all ready to look down on teenagers. And what with spending 800 Million on Transformers 2 (which I did not see to be fair, but will when the Rifftrax.com commentary comes out), fine, yes, teenagers. But in taking Tarantino to task for the cliche of Hans Landa ("The role may be a cliche but Waltz is brilliant in it" -- and why isn't that enough?) you ought to avoid cliches yourself. "Those darn Kids!" We should do better than that. Teenagers have a lot to be ashamed of but what wouldn't you give for the teenage energy and enthusiasm Tarantino displays. He LOVES things. And he wants to TELL you about them. Where exactly would film be without a little wish fulfillment? Even the most critically acclaimed grim existentialist drama's fulfill the pessimists wish to be right about how the world really is.

You write "The film is skillfully made but, but it's too silly to be enjoyed, even as a joke. Tarantino may think he is doing Jews a favor by launching this revenge fantasy (in the burning theatre, working class Jewish boys pump Hitler and Goring full of lead), but I somehow doubt that the gesture will be appreciated. Tarantino has become an embarrassment."

"Too silly to be enjoyed." Try taking that out of context for a minute and looking at it. Do you really believe that something can be "too silly to be enjoyed." If I believed that I would be concerned what it said about me as a person. Combined with the crack about teenagers, you present yourself as sort of humorless, which is surely not what you intend (especially since you present yourself as ready for a lighthearted romp when you positively review Julie and Julia along side Inglourous Basterds under heading "Americans in Paris").

To call out Tarantino as an embarrassment fails on a couple of levels. The main one is that you reveal yourself to be writing something other than a movie review -- this is a kind of moral criticism, which is sort of outside of your scope, or at the most auxillary to your scope. You have to engage the film in its own terms first, which you seems largely unable to do for Tarantino (though you do do it for Waltz).

But I have to say that the real embarrassment is the New Yorker. Many weeks ago in an issue I cannot locate Anthony Lane (I believe) reviewed Watchmen. I am going by memory here, but he clearly disliked it about as much as you disliked this, and was also unwilling to engage it on its own terms (he laments the lack of comedy and lightheartedness for example, not noticing Moore's wry joke that a character named "The Comedian" is thrown to his death at the opening). Now I enjoyed Watchmen, but it was hardly a favorite movie of mine -- as Inglourious Basterds is. Regardless of my feeling about this I still cannot understand the mean-spiritedness of both you and Lane striking at these films that you did not enjoy by SPOILING THE ENDING FOR YOUR READERS. The New Yorker was kind enough to print a letter to the editor in regards to Lane's spoiler, but you followed up not too long after by telling everyone that the film ends with Roth shooting Hitler and Goring, the shock that the 152 minute movie builds towards. This seems to be a betrayal of the principles of your job, when even if you did not know better before, The New Yorker brought to you attention with that letter to the editor.

I would like to submit myself as a candidate for your replacement at the New Yorker. I have written two books, hold a doctorate, and have learned (just recently) not to use words like "farceur" and "idiot de la cinematheque" to bludgeon readers into submission.

The AV Club (Keith Phipps)

Dear Keith Phipps,

You write, "Inglourious Basterds is a film years in the making and hours in the watching, but it seems designed to inspire mere minutes of reflection. ... its moments of greatness—and there are more than a couple—feel weirdly disconnected, stuck in a movie that doesn’t know how to put them together, or find a good way to move from one to the next."

I actually don't want to get into this opinion of yours too much. I think that the stylistic clashing is part of the fun, but like noise music I can concede that it is an acquired taste. The thing that really bugs me is that your site gave the movie a B-, when you gave Crank 2 an A. I thought it was wonderful that the AV Club responded to a complaint along these lines so reasonably. But I have to feel that by the AV Club's own criteria described in that article Inglourious Basterds deserved better. Surely, for example, Tarantino was AWARE that his movie was stylistically uneven, what with the kind of random narration to name one case. The question is did the film succeed on its own terms, and I think that it really did.

The thing is Kieth Phipps, I really don't have a problem with you. It is just that your publication makes me feel OLD, as the New Yorker makes me feel young (in the worst way). I am 30 years old and I find that my values corespond neither to the New Yorker (which I always unconciously assumed was up ahead, waiting for me) or to the AV Club, which I have been reading for years. I don't know what to do with claims like in the Terminator Salvation review where the 3rd Terminator movie was referred to in passing as "adequate" rather than say "risible" -- and that was YOU writing that review. You gave Terminator Salvation a B-, the same grade you gave Inglourious Basterds. Would you like to reconsider, seeing those grades side by side like that?

Slate

Dear Dana Stevens,

I would like to answer a question of yours.

"But Tarantino's signature nastiness and his juvenile delight in shocking the audience undercut the movie's larger purpose. Which is what, again? Watching someone get beaten to death with a baseball bat, or having a swastika carved into their flesh in tight closeup, is sickening whether the victim is a Nazi or not. In the scenes where the bloodthirsty Basterds (one of whom is played by Eli Roth, the director of the ultra-sadistic Hostel movies and a friend of Tarantino's) perpetrate these exploits, are we supposed to be cheering them on? Is the best way to work through the atrocities of the 20th century really to dream up ironically apt punishments for the long-dead torturers?"

Yes.

(I really wanted the word yes to be my only comment here, but I cannot stop myself, now that I am on a roll).

Dante, for example, did it when he dreamed up ironic punishments for history's greatest villains.

It is a basic film tenant that you set up tension, then resolve it, as for example, when you have a bad guy, and then you punish them. Basic but reliable. Nazi's are the worst of the worst -- but even if you had never heard of them, Tarantino himself has demonstrated, just in the context of his film, what monsters they are. So yes, when terrible things happen to them we cheer. It is just an illusion, but I am sure you have cheered on illusions before, when you knew it was not real. If a magician sawed a woman in half then put her back together the fact that you know she is not being hurt -- but that she looks like she is -- is part of the fun. It is significantly more kind than say people who watch certain stunts and sports and HOPE someone gets hurt for real.

Also in Slate

Dear Dennis Lim

You wrote

Inglourious Basterds addresses head-on many of the standard anti-Tarantino criticisms. You say he makes movies that are just about movies? You think they present violence without a context? Luring the elite of the Third Reich to an Art Deco cinematheque in Nazi-occupied Paris, Basterds gleefully uses film history to turn the tables on world history; its context is nothing less than the worst atrocity of the 20th century. This only seems to have further infuriated Tarantino's detractors, some of whom are appalled that this terminal adolescent would dare to indulge his notorious penchant for vengeful wish fulfillment on such sensitive and sacrosanct material.

Needless to say, Tarantino's movie shares little common ground with—and, indeed, is probably a direct response to—your typical Holocaust drama. It has no interest in somber commemoration, and it refuses to deny the very real satisfactions of revenge. Like all of Tarantino's films, Inglourious Basterds is about its maker's crazy faith in movies, in their ability to create a parallel universe. His films have always implicitly insisted that movies are an alternative to real life, and with Inglourious Basterds, for the first time, he has done something at once preposterous and poignant: He takes that maxim at face value and creates his own counterfactual history. It may not be his masterpiece, but for sheer chutzpah, it will be hard to top.


THANK YOU DENNIS LIM!

Sincerely,

Geoff Klock

29 comments:

Jason said...

I don't think I have ever in my life agreed with Keith Phipps's opinions. Even though he is always the go-to critic for either a new Alan Moore project or something involving Ray Davies/The Kinks.

Moore and Davies rank high in my personal pantheon and Phipps obviously loves them both as well ... yet even when he writes about *them* I find myself going, "What? THAT's what you like about their stuff? And you DON'T like ... WHAT???"

Scott Tobias and Nathan Rabin are the champion film critics of the AV Club, I think.

jennifer said...

these reviews are rubbish. is there any discussion of the writing, characters, plot? or are we just bemoaning the fact that tarantino didn't warn us about the nazis, like the great filmmakers of the past?
shoshanna was a beautifully played heroine.
franz had mesmerizing scenes. and a arch that had to end in the nazi sign carved into his forehead.
brad pitt's tennessee-accented italian"bon jerno" was priceless. i'd see the movie again just for that.
and, terminator salvation equal to this movie? wtf!

ScottMcDarmont said...

I just skimmed this so I might have missed if anyone mentioned this, but along the lines of Tarantino's 'faith in movies to create a paralell universe', the ending makes perfect sense when you consider, to Tarantino, the great WWII epics aren't The Longest Day or The Thin Red Line but The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape: The great WWII 'Caper' movies. Within this genre is the subgenre of the 'plot to assasinate Hitler' caper. Of course, traditionally, this plot always fails because 'That's not the way it really happenned.' Tarantino is daring enough to say well why should the ending be bound by 'what really happenned' when nothing else in the movie 'really happenned'.

Anyway, I loved it... will probably see it again before the weeks out (there were some projector/audio problems towards the beginning that marred a good 5 minutes of the movie for me).

Vincent Caramela said...

Yes!

Geoff, I second your brash proposal to succeed Denby as main New Yorker film critic. As a passing reader of the NYer, I've never much cared for Denby as a movie "reviewer" and usually pass his section by (I still give Lane a chance, but his reviews are getting harder to stomach) - however, I have found Denby's other books (not at all dealing with film) to be shockingly enjoyable. Further enforcing my belief that it's time for the old man to go.

Andy said...

Geoff this was the dessert to my meal of Inglorious Basterds on a cool Monday evening. Having just tussled with the boys over at the Filmspotting podcast over their Distric 9 review, I feel your frustration. The job of a movie critic is flawed. Almost inevitably, critics seem to become more jaded as time passes. But more importantly, they all work off of their own set of rules. Josh of the AV Club justified his Crank review by saying it did what it set out to do. Both Josh at the AV club and Matt and Adam at Filmspotting seem to abhor assigning a rating to a movie. Yet that is what the audience demands. My buddy had an idea for a site that critiques critics. I think I may have to help him get that up and running...

P.S. I only logged on to take a break on the New Gods post which I SWEAR is almost done ;)

P.P.S. "AND I WANT MY SCALPS!!"

Mikey said...

David Denby: "Tarantino has become an embarrassment."

Which causes me to ask the question: An "embarassment" to who exactly?

Anagramsci said...

I think Shoshanna was a lamely written character--but she was certainly brilliantly portrayed by Melanie Laurent

Pitt's Italian was indeed amazing

there are a lot of thing to enjoy in the film, along the way...

but this is a major motion picture carrying a heavy political payload, and if people are interpreting its stance toward Allied/Axis conflict in terms as simple as Geoff's one word rebuttal re:torture, then we are in deep trouble

I like to think that it's more complex than that:
http://anagramsci.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/more-basterdy-or-we-like-our-nazis-in-uniforms/

Dave

Dr. K said...

Great work here, Geoff. Denby's reviews of Tarantino have always struck me as oddly moralistic, well overstepping the boundaries of film criticism. In that review, too, he refuses to accept that Tarantino creates an artificial "secondary world." You may find this quote particularly telling (and annoying): " 'Kill Bill' is what’s formally known as decadence and commonly known as crap. It will doubtless cause enormous excitement among the kind of pop archivists for whom the merest reference to a Run Run Shaw kung-fu picture from 1977 is deliciously naughty—a frisson de schlock that, for them, replaces any other vital response to a movie." (Add "fisson de schlock" to your list.) Denby has blinders on when it comes to Tarantino, and you're right to point out that he sacrifices his credibility as a movie reviewer in this review.

Vincent Caramela said...

Andy, I like your idea of critiquing the critics. Criticism, in all its disciplines, is like any other art form – it goes through its periods and cycles of dullness and mediocrity to its brief flashes of enlightenment and intelligent provocation. A few days ago I was reorganizing my bookshelves and I came across the recent anthology entitled “American Movie Critics.” Sure, the book was padded with a few forgettable passages but briefly looking over the contents it became apparent that the true greatness of a movie critic comes out either in a time of chaos (Pauline Kael emerging in the late 50’s and 60’s during the fall of the studio era and, of course, Vincent Canby whose writing I always found to be a little on the moral and “herdish” side but still discussed with honesty the upheaval going on with Hollywood) or inspiration (Andrew Sarris extending the theories of the French film critics to an American audience) or just mere audacity (Manny Farber taking the elite to task with his brilliant “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” or, again, Kael going on record and championing the work of Brian DePalma when most of the herd wrote him off as a cheap Hitchcock knock-off).

I think it’s that same energy that brought us here to Geoff’s blog in the first place; before “How To Read Superhero Comics and Why” where else could we go to find intelligent examinations of the superhero genre? Comic s Journal? Fuck no, to them superhero comics were trash and not worth (except maybe a brief tangent about Alan Moore and The Watchmen) wasting their breath on. That’s why I treasure Geoff’s book and proudly display it on my shelf with other good examples of criticism. Anyway, enough ass kissing. I’m out.

Geoff Klock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff Klock said...

Jason -- agreed.

Andy (and Kieth Phipps if you are reading) -- you are right. The whole notion of letter grades is a bit silly, a kind of necessary short short short hand. The AV Club admitted as much in their discussion.

Dave -- you mentioned in your blog post that I responded to Dana with just one word (which is totally what I wanted to do, and kind of wish I still did, so you are not in the wrong here basically), but I did have some more to say. In all seriousness, and without malice or sarcasm on my part: take me to school and tell me what you think I need to know. I would LOVE to have a conversation about this. You could write this on your blog and we could link back and forth if you want. My main defense of myself, as you can see from my comments below the "yes" is that I agree with Tarantino that the violence in film is primarily an aesthetic thing (Tarantino said people who do not like violence in movies are the same people who do not like dancing in movies, and I ADORE that quote). Take my ass to school, and I will respond. We will make each other smarter.

(does everyone on this blog see that I am BACK! Something FINALLY got my attention and made me hit this keyboard again! Of course it was Tarantino! Thanks for waiting!)

Dr, K -- thank you for the kill bill quote. It is never wrong to be right about somebody.

Vince -- thanks for the kind words.

[I deleted the last comment, which was mine, to edit it slightly.]

sara d. reiss said...

I just thought this would be interesting to link to, given the breakdown of critics and opinions:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/browbeat/archive/2009/08/17/can-a-film-critic-be-too-contrarian.aspx

Anagramsci said...

hey Geoff--

oh I confidently expected people to click through and see the rest of your argument (or to have read it already)--but I think the one word response carries a force all its own

I suspect we're always going to disagree about the value (and the consequences) of aestheticizing violence... for me to appreciate the razor at all, I need to feel that it has been carefully entwined around the barber's pole of irony (i.e. Kirby without Stan Lee's narrator is no good to me)...

I know the arguments in favour of dramatizing balls to the wall force in action--and you really are my go-to guy for the intelligent discussion of such things, but it's always gonna make me queasy, when I see it in practice (and not in a cathartic way)

onward!

Dave

Telosandcontext said...

Geoff, you are a slayer. I have nothing intellectual to add to anything you said. My only comment is that Inglorious Basterds is a new entry on my list of "line in the sand" films. If you don't like this movie, you stand on the other side of the line with THEM.

Jonathan Rich said...

Geoff,

I'm sorry, but do you honestly believe that the best way to work past the Holocaust is to dream up violent films about torturing Nazis? As a Jew myself, that solution seems like the exact opposite of an appropriate response to one of the greatest horrors in human history. One of the reasons Nazis are considered "evil" is because they lacked empathy to such a degree that they systematically murdered 6 million Jews. If our response to Nazi brutality is equally gruesome Jewish brutality, how are we any better than they are? The message sent by this film is that violence is ok, as long as we kill the people who deserve it. The same exact belief held by the Nazis.

Also, your analogy to magic tricks makes no sense. The "illusion" in the act of sawing a women in half isn't the simulation of violence, but of the violation of the laws of physical reality. We cheer the illusion because we know that a human body cannot split itself in half and magically come back together again.

By contrast, Tarintino is presenting sustained doses of violence that is eminently human and well within the realm of emulation. The viewers cheer Tarintino's film because they gain pleasure from watching violent acts against "bad guys" who deserve no less.

The violence that is saturated in Tarintino's films sicken me. He does not use violence to provide insight into the human condition -- he simply likes to trivialize (and therefore legitamize) violent behavior. Is there anything redeeming about his entire body of work? I'd have to say, "probably not."

Jonathan Rich said...

And don't think that media violence has no influence on human behavior. Hollywood plays a major role in shaping world culture and storytelling and 99% of films present simplistic "us vs. them" notions about problem solving. If only a small percentage of American pop culture was devoted to encouraging cooperation and empathy instead of competition and violence, the world would be in a much better shape. Contrary to Tarintino, violence is neither cool, funny, or justified.

And forgive me, but the quote comparing violence to dancing makes no sense. People don't oppose media violence for aesthetic reasons, but because violent aesthetics produce harmful social consequences. If Tarintino can make the case that musicals are a negative influence on society, he may have a point. But as it stands, his argument doesn't even engage his critics at their own level.

James said...

Geoff - did you email any of these guys? I'd love to hear their responses.

Joy Reed said...

Whatever movie he ends up doing, his fans love him.

Vincent Caramela said...

Jonathan, I’m probably beating a dead horse here (with a baseball bat, mind you) but it's interesting how the excessive violence debate is at full force again considering Tarantino's previous films. When both volumes of Kill Bill and Death Proof was released I never heard anything near the mass uproar the anti-violence crowd has been generating – I guess anime violence, superhuman feats, and “exotic” weaponry (is it a stretch to include Stunt man Mike’s car into this category?) deadens the blow and make the violence seem less visceral, I suppose. I’m sure you weren’t a fan of those films either but to condemn Hollywood and “American pop culture” for lacking any signs of encouraging “cooperation and empathy instead of competition and violence” (which are all noble things, by the way) all I must say is what about films like “Pay It Forward”? Wasn’t that an inspirational romp? Or, looking at recent films, what about “Julie and Julia” (there’s positive action for you; no bloodshed anywhere unless you’re a vegan) or even that horrible and phony ending at the end of “Funny People” had to be worth a tear or two? And those are just a few films off the top of my head… so, Jonathon, I think there is enough diversity to keep your camp happy while still letting us trolls have our fun.

Trust me, there is a lot more I want to say but in the effort to keep these comments somewhat short and manageable I will gladly allow others to have their say.

Anonymous said...

I loved that Tarantino didn't bother to explain to us about the "cigarette burns" that popped up when Shoshanna was changing over the film reels - he just assumed we'd all seen Fight Club.

-Mitch

Anonymous said...

I loved that Tarantino didn't bother to explain to us about the "cigarette burns" that popped up when Shoshanna was changing over the film reels - he just assumed we'd all seen Fight Club.

-Mitch

Geoff Klock said...

Sara -- thanks

Dave -- well if you every feel like having a whole detailed conversation about it, let me know (when you say onward, you mean that you want to move on to a new topic, not that is it my turn to counter your point, right?)

Lucas -- I know what you mean. "line in the sand" movies would make a good blog post actually.

JR -- you write "If our response to Nazi brutality is equally gruesome Jewish brutality, how are we any better than they are?" If they murder 6 million people and we SIMULATE violence on screen, then we are much better than they are.

I agree that the violation of physical reality is key to magic -- but why does the subject of such tricks involve men buried alive, women sawed in half, or someone being put in a cabinet and then shoving swords into the cabinet. Violence is a key part of the show. You don't END with a card trick.

Tarantino's analogy comparing musicals to violence does not say that people do not "oppose violence for aesthetic reasons." It just means that both film experiences are primarily aesthetic ones, and thus harmless. Whether it really is harmless is a scientific question, but the question is at least debatable.

James -- I did not. I am sure those dudes use Google alert, or someone will forward it around if it is any good.

VC and Mitch -- very good points.

Peter said...

Jonathan said that 'The message sent by this film is that violence is ok, as long as we kill the people who deserve it. The same exact belief held by the Nazis,' which is a position I've seen echoed in a lot of Inglourious discussions.
To me, reading the film this way is ignoring what's really going on in Tarantino's theatre. Watch that scene in the cinema again, and pay particular attention to how many times Tarantino cuts from his film-within-a-film to shots of the Nazi elite (including Hitler) laughing, cheering and having a grand ol' time watching a German soldier in a bird's nest picking off the Allies. Then, wait five minutes. Look around you in your theatre. Watch the reaction of the people beside you, laughing, cheering and having a grand ol' time as they see a pair of American soldiers in a bird's nest picking off Nazis.
Basterds is (clearly) a movie about movies, and a big part of it is the power of movies as propaganda. The folks who are criticizing Basterds as shallow because of its violence are ignoring (willfully or not) one of the movie's major themes, and doing it a huge disservice.

Geoff Klock said...

Seriously -- does someone want to tell me how Tarantino should be in trouble but Dante gets a pass? I want to KNOW.

Jonathan Rich said...

Geoff,

I wasn't comparing Nazism to the act of making a violent film; I was comparing what Jews in the film did to what Hitler did. The message the audience gets from the film is that barbarism is an acceptable response to barbarism. That is the "moral" of the story. Either way, do you honestly believe that simulating acts of horrific violence is the best way to cope with the Holocaust?

Tarintino's argument is basically "it's just a movie!" which means that he is willfully ignorant of his social responsibility and the influence of media on culture.

Violence is not merely a harmless aesthetic comparable to dancing. We have to ask ourselves when viewing a film: if this particular act was to happen in real-life, what would be the appropriate response to it? Would the act be socially acceptable? If you saw someone getting beaten to death with a baseball bat in real-life, would you still say it was just as harmless as watching a dance?

To treat an act that is extremely harmful as if it were no different than a harmless act is obscene. Tarintino is teaching us to laugh at violence, to be fascinated by it, to thirst for it. The viewer sees nothing of the consequences of violence, only the "coolness" of it. Sorry, but the negative consequences of violence demands that film-makers have responsibiliy for how they portray it.

Jonathan Rich said...

Vincent,

Violence is inherent in American culture. It has been a part of our cultural identity since the slaughter of the Indians. The handful of artifacts in popular culture that celebrate cooperation instead of competition are few and far between. Think of who our nation mythologizes about:

Pro wrestlers, Clint Eastwood, Scarface, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gladiator, GI Joe, Knights in shining armor, Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers, James Bond, Zorro, Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, General Grant, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George Washington, Billy the Kid, Al Capone, etc.

Tarintino is no different from any other part of America's cowboy culture -- he just does it with a post-modern twist.

Jonathan Rich said...

Peter,

there is no evidence in the films or in any of Tarintino's statements that his portrayals of violence are intended as an ironic commentary on the power of movie propaganda. I think his actual beliefs tend to be best summarized by his quote comparing media violence to dancing. His depictions of violence are aesthetic, not educational.

Mikey said...

Sure, America mythologises pro wrestlers and what not. But Hercules has always been an asshole whether you're talking about the Marvel super-hero, the WWF wrestler, Kevin Sorbo or the Greek demigod.

I'd rather have an aesthetic rather than educational depiction of violence (brrr). Although it's possible to have the former without the latter, but not vice versa.

Geoff Klock said...

Peter -- A very good point, but I am also sort of comfortable with a cultural chauvinism that says "you know what? interesting. But not the same thing. Because Nazi's are irredeemably evil and the American's are not." But I totally see what you are saying and it is very well observed.

JR: you write "If you saw someone getting beaten to death with a baseball bat in real-life, would you still say it was just as harmless as watching a dance?" I would not just say it was harmless because it is NOT harmless. But none of the people harmed in the film are really being harmed. They are all safe, and happy, and PAID in fact. It is all an illusion and that is what makes it fun. Because it is not really you can enjoy the aesthetics in a way you would not in real life. You said "I was comparing what Jews in the film did to what Hitler did. " but you cant compare that because the jews in the film only appeared to hurt people -- it was just a movie. Hitler, in real life, killed people. It is just not the same thing. I agree that "Tarintino is no different from any other part of America's cowboy culture" I just think that that is GREAT.

also -- why get upset about this film? It seems like you are offended by violence in film and fiction of any kind, which means you must surely avoid a major thread of world literature. And again -- what's the difference between Tarantino and Dante? Do you also object to Dante?

Mikey -- agreed