Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Holocaust What? Part 2

I observed here that World War II does not bring out the best in American filmmakers. Most of them find themselves in too deep water. Now Quentin Tarantino has turned that quagmire into a waterslide.

The success of Inglourious Basterds in European markets is a strange moment of cultural communion: the movie is set in Europe but celebrates cocky Americanness. Its auteur has walked the line between Francois Truffaut-style cin├ęphile and Kevin Smith-style video store geek. August is traditionally the time for mindless shoot-em-up flicks and not weighty Holocaust fare, but the new movie appears to deliver both.

Farce is the new tragedy now that almost all the war's veterans are dead. Pat Buchanan and Nicholson Baker see no reason to go to war against the Nazis. This German reviewer is thrilled that Tarantino can bring as much unreasoned lunacy to depicting the Third Reich as they brought to their task of world domination.

But the joyless Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Inglourious Basterds offensive and likens its director to Sarah Palin. The critical community has tended to agree, and holds that Tarantino has no moral authority whatsoever.

Which is funny because Tarantino's greatest theme is the dissolution of moral authority in the age of talking images. The vile doings of his characters are viscerally exciting and often go unpunished. His misspelled new movie seems a culmination of a tendency to shirk serious questions about violence. The cinema of Tarantino is not so much amoral as anti-moral: he thinks cheap titillation serves the movies better than historical lesson-learning.

All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations...Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.

--Walter Benjamin, from "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction"