Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The impassioned response to yesterday's entry about that Quentin Tarantino movie requires me to take another look at my thinking on the subject. I realize, in retrospect, that my take on "Inglourious Basterds" could have been read as a kind of survey from the ivory tower of critical theory, as disconnected from the real world as from the moral considerations of conscience. But I think I may claim to be no less outraged than my outraged friends by the horrors of the Nazi era and the unimaginable barbarity of their Holocaust; nor, indeed, by their trivialization at the hands of those who would wish to exploit those dreadful events--whether for ideological or commercial reasons.

Here's my thinking: there are different ways of expressing outrage, and of fulfilling the necessary task of perpetuating the memory of the worst that humankind can do to its own species. One of them is sacred, respectful, truthful to the historical detail. My friends mention the film made from "The Diary of Anne Frank," and I would add the work of writers like Elie Wiesel and Andre Schwarz-Bart. There are many others. These are beautiful, elegiac works, and a testament to the human ability to weave tragic strands of memory into works of art.

Another is ridicule. I think, for example, of Mel Brooks's The Producers and its hit song, "Springtime for Hitler"...

... or of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. I don't know whether my friends would accuse either of these two of trivialization, but as I see it, ridicule is a useful and legitimate weapon in the arsenal of those who wish to attack even dangerous excesses.

Even if we can agree on this point, however, I understand that the issue went further than political satire. It also concerned what was seen as the trivialization of violence and brutality. To my mind, though, even these distasteful subjects can be successfully satirized. I wonder, for example, what my friends might have thought of a movie like Arthur Penn's masterpiece, Little Big Man, for example; or Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, whose last scene depicts a world enveloped in mushroom clouds. Admittedly, the latter shows no scenes of graphic horror, but Arthur Penn, as I recall, did not shy away from the horrors of bloody battle scenes.

It's my belief that if I laughed as I watched "Inglourious Basterds," as I did, and uproariously at moments, it was not at the sacrifice of my humanity but rather because of it. There is a point at which the mind ceases to be able to deal with horror, and it can break down either way. The experience of hysteria suggests that terror can take the form of either uncontrollable fear or uncontrollable laughter. And it's hard to tell the difference between the two.

I certainly honor the outrage of my friends, and acknowledge the authenticity of their point of view. But I also want to argue that my own take on the movie was not simply an intellectual exercise or an attempted excuse for something morally repugnant. It came out of a genuine place of love and respect for our shared humanity--a humanity that regrettably, and all too frequently, includes its opposite: the inhumanity that Nazism manifested with unprecedented ferocity. In any event, I surely welcome the debate.


TaraDharma said...

" it succeeded in toppling over from horror into hilarity;'" is Tarantino's stock in trade. One of the most hilarious scenes (forgive me) in Pulp Fiction is the backseat shooting of a character. It is all about the movie, not the movie-maker. I know plenty of artists who I would never personally be a friend with, but I can still appreciate their vision.

Your point is well taken regarding other satires about Hitler and Nazi Germany. Sometimes humor is the only sane response. Thanks for the thoughtful follow-up to your first post.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Tara. Your words are noted and appreciated.

mandt said...