Jonathan Rosenbaum posted a rather damning blog entry on his website regarding QT’s “IB” that was subsequently picked up and scoffed at by a smattering of online critics. Rosenbaum responded to the hubbub over his equating “IB” with Holocaust denial in a postscript, reprinted here:
Since many people have been asking me to elaborate on why I think “Inglourious Basterds” is akin to Holocaust denial, I’ll try to explain what I mean as succinctly as possible, by paraphrasing Roland Barthes: anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong. (He was speaking about Pasolini’s “Salo,” but I think one can also say that anything that makes Nazism unreal is wrong.) For me, “Inglourious Basterds” makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention , by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies , it loses its historical reality.
First, let me address another issue, namely that Rosenbaum has also challenged the blogosphere to cogently argue in Tarantino’s defense — what, precisely, is this film contributing to our culture? Does the director have mature assertions to make regarding WWII, or Jewish identity, or the “Final Solution”? Does it even have much to say about film?
My sense is that the answers to all three questions respectively are “nothing,” “no,” and “no”. The first two should be obvious enough, with Tarantino’s trash-fixation; for all the intellectualizing about “wish” or “fantasy” fulfillment the movie can hardly be viewed as historical scholarship in any sense of the phrase (not that it aspires to, and not that this should be considered a shortcoming). The last rejection is likely to incite debate, but too often Tarantino seems to be alluding and emulating without care or purpose; his enthusiasm for arcane genre is inspiring, but what of this leaks into his directorial voice feels like the irritating echolalia of a kid who just saw “La Jetée” or “Duck, You Sucker” for the first time and won’t shut up about it (the opening credit sequence to “Jackie Brown” with its eye-rollingly smug “Graduate” visual quote comes to mind). If only the retro-Universal logo at the start of “IB” signified something beyond a callow desire to mimic such arbitrary and facile ornamentation (he doesn’t just want to make a film *inspired* by Spaghetti Westerns or Kung Fu…he wants to force his audience into a masturbatory time machine so he can participate in these modes quite literally, even as he mashes up disparate genres with filmic ADD).
But, that’s not what we’re here to discuss. Can the film be justly called “Holocaust denial”? Insofar as Rosenbaum qualifies the term to describe an object that wedges a distance of understanding between the viewer and the event, I would have to admit that yes, it can and does. The question that remains, however, is whether or not this precludes the film’s candidacy for success or excellency or aesthetic merit, as Rosenbaum suggests.
The notion of filmic — or perhaps better put, narrative — morality is a difficult one to discuss, even more so today where it seems as though the most widely praised filmmakers are cynics, inventing microcosms that suggest more hope for the nefarious (or at least ethically ambiguous) than for the innocent or steadfastly compassionate, which have come to be depicted as sharply naive. We’ve gone beyond simply cheering the bad guy in his tainted struggle, knowing that he’d either get his or be redeemed in the end. The casting of the chief antagonist of “Chinatown” turned out to be remarkably prescient, as it’s now the director/writer who’s often the “villain,” being cheered on for his/her sadism without — and this is a key departure — any notable repercussions in the text of the film (how can there be?). This has also been followed by, to my thinking, a shift in film criticism, away from discussion of characters and themes and more to aesthetic subtexts and subtle relationships between form and content; it’s not that we’re no longer talking about what films seem to be saying, it’s simply that they seem to be speaking to us in tongues half the time.
The point being, can a film be “wrong,” to use Barthes’ terminology — morally unjustifiable — and still be a good movie? My elementary argument in this late hour would be something along the lines of “why not?”. And I’m not referring to the easy divide between a film’s visceral detail and its “story” (ie, the way that a depicted killing can be ethically dubious but rendered beautifully through mise-en-scene, cinematography, etc), but rather to the difference between the nature of expression (cinematic eloquence, perhaps?) and the nature of what is being expressed. This is a much more complex dichotomy to read into “IB,” particularly because even if read as Holocaust revisionism it seems to be cutting corners in all sorts of places — it only achieves truly mind-bending bowdlerization in the fiery finale, content instead to use the threat of Holocaust throughout as a tension-increasing agent (and it is used, I must say, remarkably — Tarantino had my attention, at least, for the entire duration of his flick).
Those who are dismissing and/or embracing this as a propaganda film akin to Riefenstahl’s are on the right track. The ending is a grand set-piece of wish-fulfillment, to be sure, but not for Jews — for young cinephiles who not only wish that actual wars could resolve themselves climactically like the conflicts in pictures, but films about actual wars as well. When I exited the theater after seeing “IB,” my first reaction was directed squarely at the denouement: Hadn’t Tarantino just re-organized WWII the way that the Revolutionary War and the 100 Years War have been in the past, inventing a kind of tall tale? Is gunning down Hitler in a burning theater any more a sin than conjuring a fraudulent romance between Pocahontas and John Smith (I’m looking at you, Terence Malick!)? The answer depends, of course, on whether or not we have a social commitment to uphold the veracity of certain events above others (we do), and whether or not that responsibility implicates artists (I’m not so sure that it does, though clichés like “dramatic license” are sticking in my throat).
Tarantino’s meta-stance may occlude a few less-perspicacious detractors, because he can always claim he’s revising Holocaust literature rather than the real thing, and the film itself illustrates this protectively (it’s a grand, day-old stew of tropes and simulacrums). But ultimately the tenor of the movie’s reception is reliant on an audience’s thirst for disengagement — which is why some critics and bloggers are claiming that older viewers just “aren’t getting it”. You’ve got to be hip to not only what Tarantino does but also ne’er-do-well’s like Lars Von Trier (he also gets a thrashing on Rosenbaum’s blog, by the way), whose films are often so unnecessarily menacing and discomfiting they seem like endurance tests. I’ve written about the so-called “point” of “Dogville” before — it has something to say about primitive psychology and the need for feudal protection, I think — but even if my interpretation were deemed valid and somewhat authoritative I’m not sure I’d agree with it as fu
nctional commentary. And yet the film is disturbingly poetic, and probably one of only a few masterpieces from the 00s. Why?
Because, like “IB” (not a masterpiece, but still very good), it epitomizes what (at least some) people who are in-tune to the culture of today expect to reap from it; not the seeds of change any more, or any comforting observations about cosmic equilibrium, but masochistic mirror-manifestations of the self-referential and tangential nightmares we’ve become (to be slightly alarmist). One gets the distinct impression that Von Trier (certainly) and Tarantino (maybe) are mocking us from the projection booth (“Young Americans”?), making the on-screen explorations of their barbed idolatry even more potent. We don’t even write books or make films about events or socio-political concepts anymore; in spite of their protean content, they’re mostly about other, older books and films (or in the case of “Dogville,” experimental Teutonic dramas). What’s even more disturbing is that books about books and films about films — even as they tackle their true subjects ever-so-superficially — are often intensely satisfying and emotionally resonant.
I often doubt my generation’s ability to properly fathom crises like the Holocaust — but Tarantino seems to be saying that we don’t really have to. Wasn’t the Holocaust just a movie, anyway? An excruciatingly palpable, mass-murdering movie?