July 10, 2011 § 28 Comments
…in two recent films: Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Shutter Island (2010). Tons of spoilers follow.
Tarantino’s Basterds fantasizes a revenge movie solution to the Holocaust and to the war itself (or the European Front at least), carried out by Jews and led by Americans, in particular a hillbilly with Apache ancestry who keeps reminding everyone of that ancestry, such as by teaching his team of Jewish-American terrorist/guerillas bits of ‘Apache’ warrior culture, like scalping. It acknowledges a certain relativizing argument that would make Americans/Jews ‘just as bad’ or at least complicit with Nazi violence (by superimposing the extreme violence of modern U.S.-backed Zionism on the relative paucity of organized Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, highlighting the role of Nazi collaborators with the Allies and resulting dirty deals ‘we’ were forced to make with Absolute Evil, showing Americans doing bad things to people – though nothing as bad as what we do now) only to refute them. Not with historical fact, but by erasing or foreclosing those facts with a myth. A specifically American myth of retributive violence in its most ‘populist,’ gender- and race- libertarian narrative form – ’70s ‘exploitation’ cinema. Tarantino transplants that aesthetic from the civil rights, black power, and 2nd wave feminist milieu from which it grew (and which it often opposed in complicated ways) to a struggle it never directly addressed – the Nazi genocide of European Jews (‘Nazisploitation’ focuses on torture, rape, and kinky sadism rather than revenge). Set in 1941, the story – the assassination of the German High Command in a movie theater – is timed to head off the most deadly period of the Holocaust and most acknowledged Allied atrocities. it also re-emphasizes American victory in the propaganda war between Goebbels’s Ufa and ‘Jewish’ Hollywood. It’s a revenge fantasy directed at rehabilitating the historical memory of today’s oppressors (the U.S. and Israel) instead of empowering today’s oppressed (as left-ish ’70s exploitation film was). More on IB as meta-propaganda at my old blog. A well-made opposing argument that takes the film’s moral relativism between Nazi, American G.I., Jew, and audience to be its final word is here.
Shutter Island draws on older, ’50s pulp genre (Lewton and Hitchcock, and their ’70s paranoid revival in films like The Wicker Man), filtered through some combination of Lynchian unease and videogame-like narrative pacing, to frame a look back at the Holocaust that fixates on a little-known atrocity on the American side – the Dachau massacre. Leonardo DiCaprio’s ambiguous protagonist is obsessed with guilt for his participation in this ambiguous crime, repeated on the personal, domestic level in his murder of his mentally unstable wife for drowning their children. The guilt for both is over excessive vengeance inflicted on the victimizer, which is itself a response to guilt for failing to save the victim. This dual sense of moral transgression and unheroic failure haunts the postwar American dream, which the film suggests is a product of its repression. Family life, which was supposed to reward The Greatest Generation for its participation in The Good War is rendered impossible, a site for the repetition of battlefield trauma (DiCaprio’s comeback career seems to be based on playing America’s lost innocence – see Catch Me If You Can, Revolutionary Road, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, Body of Lies). That much is also in the novel. More intriguingly, Scorsese’s Shutter Island reinterprets genre-inflected paranoia in film of the ’50s-’70s as the result of whitewashing WWII, what became America’s Heroic Age, fountainhead of the 20th century American Dream. Postwar horror, SF, and thriller traditions start to read as so many allegories dramatizing the struggle to remember this painful truth — that American innocence was not simply ‘lost’ in Vietnam, but was illegitimately extracted from the wreckage of postwar Europe. At the same time, the liberalism of that era, represented by Ben Kingsley’s tough-love psychotherapist, is itself refuted – Kingsley leads DiCaprio to remember the truth about himself and give up his film noir delusions in order to save him from being lobotomized, only to have the latter fake insanity, effectively choosing brain death over forgiveness. “Is it better to live as a monster or die a good man?” he asks, having already chosen his answer: when it comes to real American history, judgment precludes rehabilitation.
These films represent two ways of making contemporary, disillusioned America responsible for the Holocaust, and by extension, responsible for its (beleaguered) status as world superpower. We can restate the comparison in the form of a question: does Gothic/psychological horror or ’70s exploitation provide the most convincing narrative means for rewriting history as the domain of American agency? SI depicts psychological repression resulting from the impossible desire to take responsibility for events that undermine agency (neither Leo’s killing of Nazi prisoners nor his murder of his wife are strictly his fault, but for him they have to be, and that’s why he goes crazy). IB rejoices in the movies’ power to heal historical wounds by creating an alternate myth-history more appropriate to current propaganda needs (America/Israel are righteous because they’re willing to be bad for obvious reasons). But for both, guilt and the transmutation of guilt into potency, the Holocaust is a tragedy too significant to have had nothing to do with the U.S.A. — it is no less than the source of America(and Israel)’s moral authority, one of the most hilariously flimsy arguments in human history.
It should be mentioned that IB is vastly more exciting as a film than SI. The latter’s attempts to emulate Lynch are about as effective as Spielberg’s attempt to channel Kubrick in AI, and its frequent ridiculousness isn’t leavened by the thrill of affirmation. Its denouement is instead enervating (to an extent only achievable by disillusioned liberalism + Scorsese’s Catholic guilt), and we then have to call the film hard to take seriously instead of praising it for its daring. Tarantino, on the other hand, hasn’t made a better film. IB is just as ridiculous, but is able to make regression look and feel revolutionary, perhaps the special genius of these remedial times.