I’ll admit it, I felt great watching the first half of Inglourious Basterds. We saw it a few weeks ago, and it was exactly the palate cleanser I thought I needed after that appalling gorgon Helen Thomas gave tongue to her revolting little swan song. It wasn’t Thomas herself who gave me concentration camp nightmares. What really made my flesh crawl were the throngs of little cockroach voices cheering her on in comboxes everywhere. (They feel safe to come out when it’s dark, you know). I know that people are at their worst when anonymously reacting to a news story, but I was horrified by the sheer numbers of those who felt comfortable shrieking out in fury against the Jews. Things have changed. You don’t have to be paranoid to realize that antisemitism is creeping back into style.
So I enjoyed this movie, at first. Who wouldn’t want to see pure evil get some payback for a change? The story was fascinating, and each scene was, of course, gorgeously shot. I laughed and laughed at the funny scenes, and in the tense scenes, I nearly chewed through the arm of the couch. Even though I covered my eyes while the avenging basterds carved up helpless Nazis by the dozen, I enjoyed it. On the whole, it was an entertaining, wildly original movie. But I felt sick and guilty by the end.
Not because of its incredibly brutal and graphic violence, which was, according to the Tarantino tradition, lovingly caressed by the camera so that not a single splat of brain tissue was left behind or forgotten. I think his ultraviolent genre is tiresome, but I can work around it and enjoy a movie, as long as my husband tells me when it’s safe to look.
The movie annoyed me because I don’t know what it was for. I guess it was, in part, supposed to be an indulgent revenge fantasy which makes reparations for the Holocaust, using the only means a movie maker has: by redoing it all on screen. This is the way things should have happened, right? It scratched that anti-evil itch. And as I said, I enjoyed it at first.
I don’t mind a movie that isn’t for or about anything, as long as it’s entertaining . . . unless it’s this one. Why? Because every time the Jews won, I was reminded of how, in real life, they didn’t. The revenge was so complete, so over-the-top, it stopped working for me. Hitler wasn’t merely gunned down at close range — his killer went back and sprayed more bullets, and more and more and more bullets, back and forth across his dead face. The sheer boundless triumph of the victory was answered, in my mind, by a persistent echo which said, louder and louder as the movie went on, “The opposite happened.” I’m sorry, I know this is terribly melodramatic, but the piles of dead children in my recent nightmares didn’t get much satisfaction from this film.
I had other problems with it, too. Why were there no Jews in it? I know there were supposed to be — but why did those characters not appear Jewish in any way? Okay, some of the actors had big brown eyes, but aside from that, there was not a speck of Jewish culture or sensibility to be found. That would have made the revenge more satisfying, if some of the avengers had been identifiable as Jews in anything but their thirst for vengeance.
There’s another big problem: vengeance isn’t actually an especially Jewish trait. Oh, in personal matters, maybe (just ask my husband). But in large matters, Jews think too much to be able to carry out a plot so simple as utterly blotting out the enemy. Jews are never single-minded, but in this movie, all they had to say was “YAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!” as they gouged out larynxes with their bare hands, or whatever. No argument, no analysis, no guilt, and no jokes? Come on.
There was no sadness in the movie, either, only rage. That struck me as unforgivably lacking in a movie about Jews. Jews are always sad, even when they’re enjoying themselves.
I know you can argue that this wasn’t really a movie about the Holocaust, or about Jews, or about the war. I get that: it was about revenge in general. My husband thinks that, if the movie was saying anything at all, it was saying that revenge is hollow. It certainly felt that way by the end, with the distorted image of the giant face laughing maniacally as everything went up in flames — an image so tawdry and overblown that it had to be deliberately clichéd, right? So it wasn’t just a regular cliché, but an ironic cliché? Meant to show you that . . . what?
It was also clearly supposed to be a movie about movies. Everything happens within a theater, either literally (at the end, when all the biggest Nazis die) or figuratively (when the “German Sergeant York” is rewarded for killing Allies by starring as himself in a movie about killing Allies). References and homages to other films abound. Okay, so it’s about movies. But . . . what about movies?
Tarantino is so childish, but he frames scenes like a god, so it’s hard to stay away. He keeps hinting at gargantuan talent, but he’s so darn lazy: his movies are set up to be meaningful, but rarely deliver. Once again in this film, Tarantino is under the impression that he is actually saying something, when he merely sets the stage, and then rolls the credits.
I wouldn’t say “don’t watch this movie.” I would just caution you that you will feel agitated and unhappy inside after you do (and not only because of the nearly illegible yellow subtitles) . Quentin Tarantino is not going to grow up, so I just wish he would would hire a partner who could take his original ideas, his brilliant comic inspirations, his wild pairings of image and sound, and turn them into a movie that knows what it’s about.
What do you think? Am I missing something here? I was fully prepared to enjoy this movie, but it didn’t happen.