The Subversive Basterds

Richard Spencer's dissenting review of  The
Inglourious Basterds
eerily mirrors my own impression.

 

An excerpt:

. . . it kept hitting me that on a
dialectical level, the film’s message might actually be the exact opposite of
what it’s purported to be (and what The Producers think it is.) Basterds might
offer Jeffrey Goldberg the chance to experience a kosher wet dream—and another
opportunity for Germans to scold themselves—but then, as incredible as it may
sound, this Bob and Harvey Weinstein-produced film includes some of the most
anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews that have ever seen the light of day in
America. Both Steve Sailer and Stefan Kafner have suggested that Tarantino, in many
ways, puts himself in the position of Joseph Goebbels in his filmmaking. Put
another way, if one were to imagine the ultimate anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi
propaganda film about how the Second World War was marked by distinguished
German officers being terrorized by a band of Jewish maniacs, would it look
much different than Inglourious
Basterds?

I should clarify that I rather liked the film. On a purely visceral level, as an eccentric and intriguingly uneven exercise in cinematically contained sensation, it "works" — but not as a war film. Nor, exactly, as a Holocaust film. When you sense what Tarantino is up to, Steve Sailer's formulaic expectations seem as misplaced and clueless as Jeffrey Goldberg's hardwired Rorschach response (though neither reaction is in the least surprising). But Spencer is on to something. Beyond the much remarked allusions to spaghetti westerns which critics are trained to spot, Tarantino's masturbatory romp is layered with telling references to the same psychopathically amoral grit-and-gristle 70s-bred one-week-only grindhouse horror and exploitation subgenres that influenced Eli Roth's excellent Hostel franchise.

Yes, Hans Landa, the seductively genteel polyglot Nazi, loves his dairy — just like Alex from A Clockwork Orange. But the repeated promotional POV shot, where the not-so-good Gentile, Aldo Raine (and whichever Basterd) loom over their victims to mark the flesh (circumcision, anyone?), is an unmistakable aesthetic nod to the famous lobby card for the original Last House on the Left — which, needless to add, depicted the bad guys in like pose. The scalping gore may be explained by convenient reference to western lore, but have you seen Dr. Butcher M.D. or William Lustig's Maniac? Something tells me that Tarantino has. Just as I'm sure he's seen Ilsa She Wolf of the SS, which I less certainly suspect to have influenced the mise en scène of the more sadistic sequences in the The Inglourious Basterds. I should mention that the film is genuinely funny. Not "Bloodsucking Freaks" funny, but "Eaten Alive" funny. And I mean this, sincerely, as a compliment. From one death pussy to another.

Spencer is dead right to suspect that Tarantino is playing games, even subversive games, where perpetrators and victims are as interchangeable as sockpuppets. He is also right to see, as revealed in the closing line of his review, how the game ends in the pure spectacle of splatter, without cultural resonance beyond that available to an erstwhile VHS glutton who knows the form and does it well. Goldberg's reaction isn't catharsis; it's latent bloodlust — the same impulse that drew the pockmarked lonerboy to the horror aisle at the old neighborhood video mart — to rent I Spit on Your Grave. For the fifth time.

Later, the kid will think about all of it and ask the next question. I'm not sure if the question would interest Tarantino. I don't think it would even occur to Jeffrey Goldberg. Eli Roth is another matter. Consider this a fan letter, Bear Jew.

Memento mori.                      

5 thoughts on “The Subversive Basterds

  1. By the way, what’s the deal with Mangolia Dahrlis, or however you spell her name? Every time I read her she annoys me. She seems to be saying in her review that the movie is evil because Christopher Waltz plays a charismatic villian. Did she feel that way about Joker in Batman? Or is it just (as I suspect) the fact that Waltz is a Nazi, and therefore (in the eyes of a hyper-PC New York Times film reviewer) must be shorn of all amusing, appealing or interesting character traits? Man, that b*tch is tiresome to read. What a dumb broad.

  2. Aschwin:
    The Last Horror Film goes in my Q. Several people have recommended that I see Martyrs, and I will. Relative to your commentary, I would also cite Gaspar Noe’s work. Where does it fit?
    I think “torture porn” is just a silly label attached to a spate of films that borrow from the gritty look and mood of 70s horror. It’s a generational thing, really. I do think there are some good films in the recently branded crop. As much as I like the culturally significant Hostel films, I think Wolf Creek is the yet-to-be-acknowledged classic of the microgenre. At base, it’s a moody and suspenseful play on the fairy tale themes that Mikitta Brottman writes about in her great essay on the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
    Horror has always been potent with ideas. Every now and then, critics notice.
    Andy:
    I’m looking forward to your review. My meta-review is just built on a hunch about what critics are missing. I’d love to have a few beers with Eli Roth.
    I haven’t read Mangolia Dahrlis’ review, but I thought Waltz was great. If she were watching closely, she would have noticed that his character isn’t really a Nazi. Nazis are party men. Landa is an amoral egoist, like Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs.
    TGGP:
    I am an expert at wasting time. Don’t follow my example.

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