‘Inglourious Basterds’ coming to Madison

This week’s highest-profile cinematic release is, of course, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. It’s always nice when the most noteworthy film to come out in any given week actually opens in Madison that same week. So far, the reception for Basterds has been extremely mixed, if not somewhat accusatory. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that the film’s revenge-porn intentions effectively render Tarantino “the cinematic equivalent of Sarah Palin, death-panel fantasies and all.” Daniel Mendelsohn, writing for Newsweek, fleshes out this notion of perverse mutation to an even more disturbing degree:

“In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis. In history, Jews were repeatedly herded into buildings and burned alive (a barbarism on which the plot of another recent film, The Reader, hangs); in Inglourious Basterds, it’s the Jews who orchestrate this horror. In history, the Nazis and their local collaborators made sport of human suffering; here, it’s the Jews who take whacks at Nazi skulls with baseball bats, complete with mock sports-announcer commentary, turning murder into a parodic “game.” And in history, Nazis carved Stars of David into the chests of rabbis before killing them; here, the “basterds” carve swastikas into the foreheads of those victims whom they leave alive.”

Based on these frightening analyses, I can’t help but wonder whether Tarantino (who we have to assume exercised a serious amount of authorial power during the production of Inglourious Basterds), by taking the weapon away from the irredeemable killer and placing it in the hands of the allegedly vengeful victim, isn’t inadvertently projecting some kind of warped victim-complex onto figures who history has almost universally villainized. Mendelsohn asks, “Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carboncopies of Nazis, that makes Jews into “sickening” perpetrators?” From its premise alone, it’s clear that Inglourious Basterds proceeds from a certain notion which the film treats as axiomatic: audiences dig revenge, particularly when it’s being taken against the greatest villains of the 20th century (I haven’t seen the film yet, and so I can’t say whether Tarantino makes any effort to establish the pathetic innocence of many Nazi rank-and-file/low-level soldiers). Perhaps the harshest indictment of all has been offered by the New Yorker’s David Denby, who writes:

“Tarantino may think that he is doing Jews a favor by launching this revenge fantasy (in the burning theatre, working-class Jewish boys get to pump Hitler and Göring full of lead), but somehow I doubt that the gesture will be appreciated. Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque. “Inglourious Basterds” is a hundred and fifty-two minutes long, but Tarantino’s fans will wait for the director’s cut, which no doubt shows Shirley Temple arriving at Treblinka with the Glenn Miller band and performing a special rendition of “Baby Take a Bow,” from the immortal 1934 movie of the same name, before she fetchingly leads the S.S. guards to the gas chamber.”

What’s also been missing from the discourse surrounding Inglourious Basterds is any discussion of the film’s form; in so much of his previous work, Tarantino has revealed himself to be not only an orchestrator of the over-the-top but also a practicing cinemaddict with an often obvious taste for allusion, both in terms of the iconography he draws upon and the historically-informed techniques he uses in designing and constructing his films. Is it possible that Inglourious Basterds is a film whose subject matter is so polarizing that its own constituent structures and devices are all but concealed?

I’m sure that I’ll have more to say about Inglourious Basterds after I, uh, actually see it this weekend. In the meantime, let’s rejoice in the fact that a work of art capable of stirring such a seismic response is coming to Madison at all.

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