– David Denby (1)
Earlier in 2009, before David Denby, a film reviewer for The New Yorker, had referred to Quentin Tarantino as an idiot de la cinematheque, he had written this about the film District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009): “There’s plenty of violent spectacle, but it’s part of a politically resonant fable.” The film’s locale is Johannesburg, so Soweto comes to mind, but as an American I think of District 9 as Guantanomo and the Prawn-like aliens as Muslim Terrorists. But this link doesn’t resonate in any way. The director isn’t interested in this Guantanomo connection. So what is the political dimension here that is so powerful that the video game pyrotechnics of most of the movie are drowned out? What is the political resonance here? Nothing more I think than an extension to real aliens (they look like shrimp on two legs) of our globalized multicultural passion. Except Nigerians. The Nigerians are it seems too alien. They are gangsters in the District making a buck on the Prawns; nasty gangster capitalists who sell and eat Prawn flesh for its supposed – according to Nigerian superstitious belief – immortalizing qualities.
But there is a moral resonance here that apartheid has made us aware of. Because, however, it resonates on behalf of our multicultural globalized ‘Prime Moral Directive’, I view it as moral pandering. In a world driven by a multicultural ambition, director Blomkamp kicks up the intensity and rides the moral righteousness of multiculturalism, behind which I see a globalized free market’s drive to eliminate all barriers, from trade to national and cultural identity. Blomkamp asks us to feel for “difference,” no matter how alien it may be.
Now Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds, which came out at the same time as District 9, displays what David Denby calls a “moral callousness.” It doesn’t resonate morally at all. Tarantino doesn’t have a moral compass in a decade when, I recall hearing on “entertainment news” cable TV, Brittney Spears satisfies her own moral compass and that’s what counts, right? Bill Clinton, according to the Cato Institute, didn’t have a moral compass, or, didn’t back when he was President. No one has said that George W. Bush lacks a moral compass though the record of his eight years would demonstrate an obliviousness that goes across the board, from political to moral.
All this is prologue or a stage setting, call it the moral surround, of Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds which I find – with a certain powerful reservation I save until the end – morally honest, candid and refreshing considering that surround. I don’t say it takes a moral stand but rather repeatedly, in scene after scene, lays bare what transpires to a moral review instead of immediately closing it down as if we were a culture that had a commonly shared moral sense, or, one that wasn’t a front for our “moral callousness,” our deeply divided moral views, or a moral apathy that is not limited to the Millennials. I do not argue that Tarantino is a thoughtful moralist or any sort of moralist at all but only that a great part of his talent as a director is to repeat and reflect what we are rather than at once imposing some ordering or resolving, whether it be moral or philosophical or psychological or political. This restraint or perhaps naivete is also refreshing in our age of spin and sputter, blog and twitter.
Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the “Jew Hunter,” is as ingratiating a Devil as Walter Huston’s Nick Beal was in The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941; UK title and USA reissue title; original title All That Money Can Buy) more appealing, more human than Conrad Veidt as Colonel Strasser in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943), less odious than Ralph Fiennes as the Nazi Commandant in Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). As he drinks another glass of fresh milk he so clearly relishes we expect such neighborly warmth to explode into blood. And it does. This is a stock scene, a classic re-enactment but it possesses a spellbinding freshness. The audience has grown used to digital/graphic novel narrative timing and this is classic analogue. Tarantino is a master of “shooting and editing. . .with classical rigor,” of narrative unfolding that is slow and paced and yet always ahead of the viewer’s expectations. This is no mean feat in our postmodern world where films can no longer give the feel of direct experience but seem always to be sampling and quoting. Although Tarantino is referred to as “a famously derivative filmmaker” and one would think his work illustrates Umberto Eco’s announcement that in our postmodern world we can no longer say “I love you” but only “I love you the way a Barbara Cartland character loves,” (2) there is no “we’ve already been here and this is imitation” quality to Tarantino’s narrating. Tarantino’s characters sample the film’s past but manage not to leave us with a sense of déjà vue. Duplicity (Tony Gilroy), another 2009 film, cannot escape a certain staleness. We are removed, watching a film trying hard to be reality and not a film. This is a huckster, guy and gal rivalry but it’s pale compared to Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy sparring, or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. George Clooney does Cary Grant in Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen, 2003) but it remains within a “this is the way Cary Grant would do it” box. In Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who re-do Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember are literally in the shadow of that movie, sucking its blood to sustain our interest in romance re-done. We’ve escaped to computerized hi-jinks and animation to avoid this. Tarantino doesn’t.
The closer we are to what we feel is real and the further we are from what we think is reel, the greater the impact upon us. In this first scene Colonel Landa explains his mission, his dedication to his mission, his understanding of the rat-like psychology of those he pursues, the choice the French farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), has to make in order to save his family. He then exterminates the Jews hiding under the floor boards but allows one of them to escape. We do not know whether he honors the promise he has made to the farmer to spare his family. This “refusal to show us how events play out comes across as sheer negligence, or indifference,” Denby writes. Moral callousness at work. But consider how Tarantino has worked our fascination for the evil Colonel Landa against us, how our complicity in his rationality (I say this because we, like the farmer, acquiesce to each point of Colonel Landa’s discourse) weakens the same rationality we would use against him.
Follow the rationality interest a bit further to the scene when some of the American Jewish Nazi hunters under the command of “Aldo the Apache” (Brad Pitt) join with a British intelligence officer, Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), at a meeting with a German actress, Bridget von Hammersmack (Diane Kruger), who is a spy working for the Allies. An SS officer unexpectedly joins them and the tension at the table is palatable. Tarantino unfolds it steadily, always ahead of us, alternating between a pedestrian everyday slowness and sudden nervous-making escalation. We are held on the precipice of violence but don’t know when or how, and, meanwhile, typical of Tarantino, we attend a discourse on nothing less than how a really intelligent mind works as the SS officer pursues through a series of questions an identity pasted on his forehead but unknown to him. “King Kong.” His mind moves so deftly as he gathers more and more information and slowly puts together the puzzle that we are awed. I mean we are aware that this SS officer who first approaches the spies with some doubt as to whether one of them is German or pretending to be German will very soon know that everyone at the table is a spy. His mind is too probing and too good at detecting. He is altogether too clever for these spies. And yet, he is the evil SS. Once again, it is clear that reason sides with the enemy as well as with ourselves, and perhaps, is more deftly used by the Nazis than the American Jewish Nazi hunters. Which side, the good or the bad, reasons its way to the correct moral stand?
When Colonel Landa also unexpectedly appears at the premier of Joseph Goebbels’ film, he also confronts American Jewish Nazi hunters pretending to be Italian filmmakers. But Landa speaks a fluent Italian while “Aldo the Apache” and his cohorts pronounce their own names differently each time Colonel Landa asks them to repeat what they’ve said. So we have witnessed Colonel Landa speaking fluent English, French and Italian as well as his own German. What do we note regarding the American Jewish Nazi hunters? The “Bear Jew” (Eli Roth) comes out of a cave and smashes with a baseball bat the head of a German soldier who dies, quite clearly, quite bravely regardless of how evil he may be as a German soldier. “Aldo the Apache” cuts a swastika on Colonel Landa’s head at the end of the film and declares it his masterpiece.
What is the opening to moral review here? I think that the American Jewish Nazi hunters are Barbarians of the Good, by which I mean that everything is morally permitted – stupidity, ignorance, savagery (“Aldo the Apache” sticks his finger in the German actress’s bullet hole to get the truth out of her) – because goodness can never commit an evil in its battle with evil. You can take this attitude right up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s advocacy of torture at Guantanomo: we’re the good guys; we can’t do anything wrong. If we have reasoned our way to this view, then perhaps we’ve reasoned as Colonel Landa and the SS officer reason. If we come to this view on purely moral grounds then we fail to apply the same moral evaluative criteria to ourselves which means our moral base is no more than our own self-interest and the preservation of our own order of things with the help of the needed moral justification, the needed moral front, the needed moral alibi. The need, in short.
Consider further how Colonel Landa’s last second choice to spare the fleeing girl, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), and his pleasure in asserting his own freedom to choose, mimics what we all take to be the sign of our humanity: our freedom to choose. By not choosing to show what happens to the farmer and his family, we are left with a Colonel Landa whose evil has not the certainty that, say, for instance, George W. Bush conferred immediately upon Osama bin Laden. No doubt our American cultural surround at this first decade of the 21st Century requires, in the way an addict needs heroin, its evil tightly and firmly packaged without any what ifs, messy preemptive challenges, or moral reviews such as I am making here. We have progressed far indeed from the confounding rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost that William Blake presented in his prophecy Milton, wherein Satan fascinates us with his energy and intent while surrounded by a pale, inert and unimaginative goodness.
Now let me say at once that I do not think the moral opening here is to any Nietzschean or Blakean or relativist notion of evil. The opening is simpler and more easily observed: our entrepreneurial drive to innovate the new and drive the old into obsolescence, to compete vigorously and creatively destroy our competition, to overthrow the opposition presented by tradition, religious and ethnic identity, and imagined community, and allow market values to rule in their place, to connect a rational choice to self-interest in every domain – all this smacks of Satanic energy and purpose, of, in fact, a Nazi-like credo to dominate.
Whether we are all Nazis now or whether we are Barbarians of Goodness who escape moral condemnation is a dilemma that presents the ultimate opening to a moral review that I believe Tarantino’s film makes.
But he also, I believe, pre-empts such a review by converting an historical moment to a Tarantino blood farce. And the historical moment is one that has defined moral evil in the 20th Century. This muddling and degradation of a moral model is not refreshing.
Although we seem not to be able to summon any rational ethics upon which our moral notions are based, at least not one that is both universal and universally accepted, we do construct a moral sense, a moral compass, if you will, based on the case, or our historical experience. There’s a transcultural recognition here, for instance, that genocide is a moral evil, though depending upon your cultural position – whether your are Native American, Armenian, Turkish, Palestinian, Jewish, German, African and so on – you may deny the event or re-assign the villainy. Husbands beating wives and restricting their public appearances, child abuse and pornography, slavery, terrorism are some instances of clear cut moral models. Women seeking abortions, States executing the condemned, corporations polluting the planet for profit, health insurance companies denying legitimate claims, corporate executives raining down huge bonuses on each other while accepting tax payer bail out money, the selling of automatic weapons, lobbyist control of Congress are, however, examples of much argued cases and therefore the moral compass swings wildly. Although many would like to place the Nazi’s systematic extermination of Jews as an unarguable instance of moral evil, we have witnessed both a questioning and a denial of the event itself. We have “rational” arguments presented that interpret history not conclusively but persuasively enough to generate debate, to muddy the clarity of a moral position. This has been an effective strategy in our postmodern climate where reason is under suspicion and history itself collapses into a narrative told from a certain perspective. I’m thinking of the Intelligent Design/Darwinian theory debate as well as the Global Warming: True or False Debate as well as the questioning of the Civil Rights movement as having an encouraging or deleterious effect on Blacks, or, more recently, whether a President who wants to improve health care is really looking to put your grandmother and grandfather to death.
Inglourious Basterds affects the power of the Holocaust as a clear case of moral evil not by such tactically summoned arguments or wild irrationalism but by fantasizing a revenge drama that is itself, as I have shown, full of moral ambiguities. The Holocaust does not have the cast of Barbarians of the Good, Nazi Super-Intellects, and, most surely, the clear and satisfying closure of Tarantino’s film. How deeply is evil defined by that very failure of the Jews to do no more than fall victim to the butchery of the Nazis? If we learn what moral good and evil are by what we ourselves have done, then the absolutely stunned and passive innocence of the Jews in the face of brutal and irrational attack is at the heart of the lesson, of the moral meaning. Whether or not present day Jews live in a dream of revenge, retribution and retaliation and would therefore find themselves drawn to Tarantino’s on-screen revenge is yet another matter for moral review. It is a matter that has nothing to do with Tarantino’s positioning of the Holocaust in a violently vengeful screenscape, a positioning that seems to not only resolve and cleanse what historically remains an open wound but robs the Holocaust of what I call its historical “cold file” status. It’s a tragedy whose tragic ending lingers and does not end.
Much effort has been made in film to maintain this lingering shadow of the Holocaust and Tarantino’s film opens on the heels of such a film, Defiance (Edward Zwick, 2008), a “true story” of Belorussian Jews who resisted the Nazis. This is a film that reawakens memory whereas Tarantino’s film risks canceling that memory, a great risk when one considers the perilous state of historical memory in our “that was so five seconds ago” new millennium. When a startling clear case of moral evil remains on our historical register we are as close to knowing and developing our moral sense as we humans can be. What David Denby calls Tarantino’s “mucking about with a tragic moment of history,” I define then as a muddling of that moral sense by translating historical tragedy into pulp fiction.
Jeffrey Goldberg in an Atlantic article “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger” (September 2009) finds Tarantino’s “first movie to reference real historical events . . . disconcerting.” (3) Perhaps we can see this confusing and collapsing into fantasy script of the moral impact of an historical event as yet another opening to a moral review: The collapse of history itself into a Twittering moment where only the present moment is sacred may eventually leave us without anything to which a moral compass can point.
But if we are comfortable in our role as Barbarians of the Good perhaps this will not matter. I find myself morally opposed to this possibility.