Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Burn the Theater Down

I went with Sara to see Inglourious Basterds last Sunday.

I remember going through a Holocaustophile phase in high school and early college -- I read Elie Wiesel's Night, A Hiding Place, the YA novel Number the Stars, A Separate Peace, Slaughterhouse Five, watched Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (and cried during both), and consumed both of the Maus comic books, etc. etc. And I still want to read both The Diary of Anne Frank and Mein Kampf before I die.

But I worry that my once-and-maybe-future obsession with the Holocaust really just belied my eagerness for a sort of emotional shorthand for brutality, inhumanity, the banality of evil, etc. and also! don't forget! a cultural high card for the awesomeness of those guys who bombed Dresden and used nuclear weapons on those imperialistic Japanese terrorists and then went on to drag the world into a battle of good and evil based on whether the government owned Starbucks or not, a war served "cold" because we never fired a shot -- except in Korea and Vietnam and Cuba and Afghanistan and errm.

That is to say, I worry that I look backward on the Holocaust the same way that I, as a young and aspiring Mormon child, looked forward to the Apocalypse -- clearly demarcated good and evil, a little violence porn, and really big guns that swoop in to save the elect at the end. It's like we've replaced the Bible with the book of Revelation, like we've replaced our complex ethical vocabulary with one word -- and we the Holocaustophiles can't help but repeat the same arcane whispered curse, over and over and over again.

I think this jadedness is the exact place from which Tarantino created Inglourious Basterds. I hear that he researched for years and years in order to write a straight, historically-accurate WW2 film, but then somewhere down the line opted for an epic where American Jews parachute into occupied-France in order to scalp Nazis. Did he think that there's nothing left to say? Or was he only bored of what he might?

Either way, Tarantino must have known his audience -- as Sara and I sat in the St. Louis Moolah Theater, we could hear so many viewers laughing not-so-nervously as "The Bear Jew" beat Nazi soldiers to death with a baseball bat, though dropping to a nervous silence when the Germans talked glibly about the United States' history of slavery. Tarantino probably tipped his hand, though, when he placed a film-within-a-film, a German nationalist film about the hero Zoller sniping resistance soldiers in Italy, at the center of the film, and then had the Nazis laugh at it -- just like we Americans laugh at American heroes ambushing Nazi occupiers --

And so when the ending comes around (the ending without which I probably would have disliked the film a little) with its brilliant but decadent closure; with its "take this, Tom Cruise and your Valkyrie and your confounded historical plausibility! here's Brad Pitt and Inglourious Basterds, doing the wholly cathartic, wholly fictional, wholly ironic mess you wish you could have done" bravado... with all of its gritty, sexy violence -- well, you can't help but think that Tarantino wants the theater that you're sitting in to explode in an updraft of film-fueled fire, conflagration, and holocaust as well.

But maybe not. Slavoj Zizek wrote somewhere that we live in an ironic age -- an age where we are fully aware of all the politically-abhorrent, aggrandizing, ideological self-indulgences that go down everyday; an age where we have permanently taken on an ironic smirk in order to feel like we aren't still doing them. Tarantino may be smirking as Jews carve swastikas into Nazi foreheads: but underneath it all, Inglourious Basterds is really a jeremiad for the fact that after we'd landed at Normandy and crossed German borders, fought the Battle of the Bulge and killed a lot of lesser Germans, Hitler had already shot himself. That even after all our heroics, we didn't get the photo finish that we always felt we deserved.

- Ryan

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