Friday, September 4, 2009

Putting out blogfires...with gasoline!

So I saw Inglourious Basterds opening weekend and loved it. And I think the uproar over Tarantino's handling of the Holocaust and the movie-house alternate history was actually stupid. You'd think that no movie-maker had ever used the Nazis as easy historical punching bags before August 21, 2009. But apparently, suggesting that Jewish people might, like other people, wish to take revenge on their persecutors is out of line. Or something.

Other people have done better jobs of dismantling these arguments (start here, for example, and move forward chronologically). But the thing that struck me about Mendelsohn's article is the last paragraph: "It may be that our present-day taste for "empowerment," our anxious horror of being represented as "victims"—nowadays there are no victims, only "survivors"—has begun to distort the representation of the past, one in which passive victims, alas, vastly outnumbered those who were able to fight back."

I think that Mendelsohn has identified the fact that America does not like to watch people lose (especially when they feel like they are threatened, as in our current economic and political circumstances). We like to believe that the underdog will triumph, the poor but smart and nice guy will get the girl, and good will win out over evil. And these victories are usually because the hero is so darned good, awesome or competent (if not all three). There's little sense of "fate". We rarely see anyone who, despite their best efforts and hard work, fails utterly and completely. The best example of this kind of ending is Chinatown, which still ends powerfully, because the bad guy wins and the good guy hasn't done anything to hurt or stop him. And there's nothing he can do anymore.

But what surprises me is that Mendelsohn (and the other anti-IB people) pull this on Inglourious Basterds, of all movies! This is a movie that makes its own mythmaking-machinery visible to the audience (cf. Brad Pitt's speech about the Basterds' mission, the portrait of Hitler painted as a less-imposing Hitler rants, Nation's Pride being explicitly described as a "German Sergeant York") and certainly complicates the relationship between history and what happens on the screen. People might not recognize the inaccuracies in a million other films (Gladiator, Braveheart, The Patriot, etc.), but they certainly know how WWII ends!

But why not say this about any of a dozen other films about the Holocaust? Schindler's List focuses on some gentile saving Jews. Life is Beautiful is about a guy saving his son from a concentration camp by pure whimsy. Defiance is about Jews standing up and fighting against their oppressors. Described in this reductionist sense, don't all these attempts to understand the Holocaust in cinema fail utterly? Mendelsohn does call out Defiance as an attempt at a feel-good film, but why didn't he write this article then for its release?

In fact, the only Holocaust movie I've seen that points out the characters' helplessness and defeat by the machinery of the Nazis and their death camps is Bent! As far as I remember, the only victory Bent dares to claim for its heroes is in not giving up that final inch of themselves (to paraphrase Valerie in V for Vendetta). And ironically, that film was about the people who get ignored by Holocaust films/books/etc. Quick question: how many movies focus on the Gyspies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses persecuted by the Nazis? There might be less of them, but their experience too sheds light on the Nazi killing machine and philosophy.

But getting back to my original point, the problem is that Americans like to believe that they have the autonomy to save, alter or improve their lives, that there is no force they cannot defeat by sheer force of will and ingenuity. As far as beliefs go, it's not a bad one. But this tenet of American society really falls apart in the face of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Or the problem of pain in general.