Friday, August 21, 2009

Tarantino's Way vs the Jewish Way

I haven't yet seen Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, so I'm not going to say much about it. But Liel Leibovitz, in a piece in Tablet Magazine, calls the movie (and its maker) a failure. Leibovitz suggests that Tarantino's comment in the production notes--“I like that it’s the power of the cinema that fights the Nazis. But not just as a metaphor, as a literal reality.”--is indicative of this overall failure.

In contrast to Tarantino's failure of both "morality" and "imagination," Leibovitz predictably points to films like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, and Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. Of these films he writes:

"It’s no coincidence that all three of those filmmakers are Jewish. Theirs is the Jewish way. Rather than burn film, they develop it into art. They are talmudic, offering endless interpretations to the fundamental question of our species, the question of our seemingly endless capacity for evil. Tarantino, however, is not interested in such trifles. He doesn’t see cinema as a way to look at reality, but—ever the child abandoned in front of the television set, ever the video-store geek—as an alternative to reality, a magical and Manichean world where we needn’t worry about the complexities of morality, where violence solves everything, and where the Third Reich is always just a film reel and a lit match away from cartoonish defeat."

I like the idea that Lanzmann, Ophuls, and Melville's approaches are talmudic, but I'm not convinced that it's Tarantino's tendency to create alternative realities that make his approach anti-thetical to the Jewish or so-called talmudic one. Isn't it possible that the staging of such an over-the-top alternative reality might actually force us to "worry about the complexities of morality"? Again, I haven't seen the film so I won't say much more. I'm just not convinced that there isn't something useful about what Tarantino is doing. And, is there no way, as Leibovitz suggests, to see Tarantino's film as art? I don't know. We'll see.

I'm not going to compare Tarantino to Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski, but this discussion makes me think of the latter's A Short Film About Killing, which contains the longest murder scene in cinematic history. But Kieslowski is famous for grappling with moral and ethical quandries, and so his inclusion of this scene seems to ask the question: As members of a so-called civilized society, how much can we bear to see, and for how much of our own past and present transgressions can we bear to take responsibility? It will be interesting to see if this kind of thinking makes its way into Inglourious Basterds.

PS I'm so annoyed by Tarantino's insistance on mis-spelling words in his title.

UPDATE: Charlie Bertsch has written an extensive piece on Basterds over at Jewcy--it's worth reading. After seeing the film, I can say that, moral scrutiny aside, it is certainly not a film about the Holocaust, though I'm not sure I really expected it to be. In many ways, it's another film about film, epitomized in the final scene of the movie, where everything is set ablaze in the cinema.


David Suissa said...

Can a juvenile, over-the-top and irreverent treatment of the Holocaust "force" us to consider moral questions? Good question. I agree that we should not rush to dismiss alternate realities as a way to bring us closer to actual reality.
Which alternate realities do that better than others?

Monica said...

The thing is, most of the "treatments" of the Holocaust--especially in cinema--are irreverent, if you ask me. Life is Beatiful is a great film, but a terribly irreverant treatment of the Holocaust. I have a feeling I will not like Tarantino's film, but I can't be sure. He has a reputation for drawing our attention to forms and genre, which is something that isn't often done in so-called Holocaust films. And, frankly, form is often the problem when it comes to re-presenting the Holocaust.

David Suissa said...

Yeah, they might be irreverent, but they're rarely over-the-top and juvenile, which seems to be Tarantino's voice of choice. Beyond form and genre, there's also a self referential attitude, a certain hip knowingness. Who knows how that will play in this case-- when he's outside of his usual artificial comfort zone?
Maybe it's so difficult (impossible?) to accurately and fairly deal with this subject that Tarantino's juvenile and reckless playfulness might just do the trick-- but I doubt it. Still, he must be doing something right, because I can't wait to see it!

shahar ozeri said...

Interesting. I too will have to reserve judgment until I see the movie, but when I heard about Tarantino's movie--they carve swaztikas into Nazi's foreheads, so I hear-- I couldn't help but think of Lamed Shapiro, especially his short story "The Cross." In the story the narrator meets a guy on a train in America who has a cross carved into his forehead by Russians during a pogrom. It's a rather brutal parody of the requirement to wear tefillin. Much of Shapiro's work is pretty violent, Tarantino should make one of his stories into a movie.