Hollycaust Now

July 10, 2011 § 29 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.

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§ 29 Responses to Hollycaust Now

  • Qlipoth says:

    I wonder how many really died in “the Holycost”. Some say no more than 14, 000.

  • W.Kasper says:

    Aren’t both films really about two perpetual adolescents so lost to alphabetical-order film-buffery that history basically means nothing to them? Even current events? Particularly the kind you can’t schedule private screenings for?

    Take Scorsese out of mid-20th century New York and the world becomes whatever movie he used to make sense of it. Even old – or ‘new’ New York – strikes a dud note for him. I watched Gangs of New York the other night. It’s like a great movie crying to escape from the empty homage, camera movement pastiche and desperate Oscar bids (his class and status insecurities coming to the fore are the most interesting things about his late career).

    As for Tarantino – he just grew up on worse movies, themselves already paying homage to homages. As worn down as an overused videotape on its 20th recording – an ideal ‘auteur’ for today’s Hollywood.

    Both may have more in common with Dan Quayle than they’d like to admit, with his famous line about the holocaust being “the worst episode in America’s History”. But he probably created his reality from prime time TV dramas.

    • traxus4420 says:

      i’m tempted to say ‘well, that’s just culture.’ but to be less flippant, yes, there is an element of ‘look at all this stuff i collected’ to the pastiche, but i think both tarantino and scorsese are really interrogating their source material and influences in these films, and how all of that relates to actual history. exactly what they come up with is the interesting part to me – and i would have been very surprised if anything they was especially far from mainstream opinion, considering they’ve both done their part to shape what mainstream opinion is.

      agree about gangs of new york…i can’t get very excited about his recent output. shutter island was interesting but not an especially great movie.

      • W.Kasper says:

        “yes, there is an element of ‘look at all this stuff i collected’ to the pastiche”

        Suppose that applies to foreign histories, as collected by Hollywood in general. Especially the western front advancing rightwards (on the map) that IB uses. Does mainstream opinion consider WW2 largely as a war against Jews, that America had to avenge (offering the Promised Land to compensate for their tardiness)? With Russia etc. as kooky outsiders providing assistance here and there? The same narrative applied to humanitarian intervention/regime change.

  • that qlipoth isn’t me

  • Nice post. Brings to mind also Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. And this which I know you’ll enjoy


  • 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.

    God you’re so full of shit, it smells all the way down to Israel.

    The obnoxiousness of this vulgar-Marxist take on the film is that it blatantly twists the facts of what you actually see on the screen!!! What we see in the film is that at the end of the story, when the victorious Inglorious Basterds get ahold of the suave Nazi gay motherfucker, they CARVE A GOODAMN SWASTIKA INTO HIS FOREHEAD. Clearly, then, American retributional Old Testament violence is just as bad as Nazi violence, and clearly, as well, Americans and Jews have become the new Nazis, continuing that violence; the post-modern simulacrum, as your linked blawger rightly points out, just means that Tarantino is implying the audience in this global violent collisseum. It doesn’t mean that ”facts” are being ”foreclosed” with ”myth”.

    Sure, that whole story could have been told like some 1960s adaptation of Balzac, with boring realistic dialogues and long interludes about picknicking on the French riviera, without the post-modernism, without suspense and excitement, without HUMOR, and in this way we would be strangled into the kind of a rigor mortis that struck Missus Chabert when (around 1968) she put on her auntie’s tight corset.

    On the other hand, you and the other Orthopaedic Marxists would get a chance to pat yerselves on yer backs, which is what all this shit is really about.

    • traxus4420 says:

      oh, it’s you again…

      for the last time, there is such a thing as criticism that doesn’t reduce to thumbs up or down.

      you must just skim, i’m sure of it, but because i’m feeling generous i’ll summarize (for all the thanks i’ll get):

      yes, there is a relativizing move in the film, and audience implication. but that’s not the final word (and if it was, that’d be kind of boring, like the hundreds of editorialists and bloggers who have called bush and cheney ‘fascist’ over the years). there are no meta-ethics in tarantino movies beyond exploitation cause and effect (which was once the radicalization of hollywood narrative logic, and is now explicit in many hollywood films, including this one). the winner wins, it’s good to win, and that’s just how it is. the film quite knowingly shows you things that are ‘supposed to’ appall ‘typical’ hollywood liberals and traditional conservatives — the greatest generation acting like savages, jews being violent, etc. — but of course no one is appalled. it’s great fun, and on the film’s own terms it’s perfectly acceptable to root for landa one moment and raine the next without cognitive dissonance. thorne’s reading portrays tarantino as cynical, which i think is too easy. he loves his audience. he’s being very honest — acknowledging (and exaggerating) moral relativism between the U.S., Israel, Nazis, and You, while at the same time inviting you to see his films without historical or moral judgment. here he’s actually murdered historical facts that everyone knows and other movies have accepted as given (hitler, obviously) to do that, to have you directly confront how much more enjoyable and confirming and revealing (american, tarantinian) fantasy can be. Stolz der Nation is a silly and pathetic joke (and directed IRL by his jewish sidekick eli roth in naziface); his movie is a masterpiece.

      i mean that, by the way, IB is an absolutely stunning movie. having just seen it again it impressed me even more than it did the first time.

      in terms of history the film is interesting because more than most it really shows the extent to which america has dominated these past decades — it owns the movies, and when we watch them we see american power, israeli power, al-qaeda’s power through the eyes of the one superpower capable of seeing through the eyes of the oppressor, the insurgent, and the victim, and giving them what they want.

      • W.Kasper says:

        “Oh it’s you again”
        – LOL

      • I didn’t realize that you liked the film, but that’s because with your PoMo Buddhism, you always tend to take ”the middle ground” and you never show your feelings. You could work in a massage salon, I think.

        The point is that you’re implying there’s a ”distortion of historical fact” taking place via post-modernist mannerism. And though that is performatively correct, it doesn’t really matter. If you take the film affectively, without getting into all that socio-political analysis, there is clearly a sense of profound discomfort about the American heroism that is simultaneously being ”sold” to audiences. In fact almost every scene is played on this sado-masochistic edge, it begins humoristically or enthousiastically, and then turns violent, sour, evil.

        I don’t know if the message ”America is the new Nazi Germany” is relevant or not, I really don’t think films are relevant anymore on principle, I’m interested in the way you tendentiously twist reality in order to impose your point about the necessity of historical-materialist analysis. Why is it important that films continue to speak to us in some outdated code?

      • the film quite knowingly shows you things that are ‘supposed to’ appall ‘typical’ hollywood liberals and traditional conservatives — the greatest generation acting like savages, jews being violent, etc. — but of course no one is appalled.

        And this is another Marxist classic: tell me, how do you imagine anyone – even a star of Quentin’s stature – making a commercially successful movie which directly and blatantly targets hollywood liberals and conservatives where it really hurts them? Who would pay for this film?

        You’re projecting a position of criticism outside of the system, which doesn’t exist anymore.

      • traxus4420 says:

        “If you take the film affectively, without getting into all that socio-political analysis, there is clearly a sense of profound discomfort about the American heroism that is simultaneously being ”sold” to audiences.”

        that IS a sociopolitical analysis — clearly you haven’t moved into the realm of pure affect just yet. and “profound discomfort about the American heroism” can be found in such diverse products as Rambo, 24, and The Dark Knight. it’s pretty conventional, as is striving for a “sado-masochistic edge.” the one novel bit it seems to me is that here the american badasses don’t invite identification but oppose it, confronting the audience’s ambivalence vis-a-vis the primacy of ‘superficial’ (uniforms) versus ‘deep’ (motivation, political, etc.) criteria for moral judgment (in movies). villains are whoever is marked as a villain, and that’s the only legitimate distinction.

  • “to have you directly confront how much more enjoyable and confirming and revealing (american, tarantinian) fantasy can be.”

    this is really itself kind of odd – a film the content of which depends on the subjective pleasure so much – the film only has content if you enjoy it physically. If you are bored, it means something else, or really nothing – it’s having you directly confront how much less enjoyable this fantasy is than the thing in the screening room next door; for at least a third of the audience, and probably everyone who didn’t see it, the film exhibits how necessary what’s missing here (themes, symbols, motifs, implied psychology, the construction of space, narrative etc) is to the creation of the effects whose typical loudest moments are superficially reproduced but without the support structures. (an actress is pretending to be tortured, a special effect is mimicking cutting off someone’s scalp, an actor is dressed as Hitler)

    David Denby is a film addict, someone who just loves to sit in the dark and look at pictures, no matter how inane. He can object to meanings but he’s almost never incapable of enjoying the experience. and he thought it was too silly to enjoy. I think its for a pretty specific taste. But this then becomes a kind of realisation of the cult potential – it’s a message only to those who react physically to it in a certain way. To others it’s just blank. Invisible ink.

    but it seemed much less 70s than very candied looking, bright and clean and comic booky, a very Reagan era look – far more like Lynch (all about tableau, no construction of implied spaces and arrangements, no diegetic level etc) than Shutter Island looked (SI was rather traditional pre-pomo with very exact sense of space and everything, and traditional characterisation and standard reliable diegetic level with fantasy departures etc).

    Also “exploitation”, we recall, is short for “headline exploitation” – exploiting news trends. The idea of those films was fast, cheap response to existing interest/demand. Not at all pomo. If there’s a headline or hot topic being exploited here its hollycaust itself.

    • W.Kasper says:

      I think a big influence on both is Sam Fuller. Consciously in Scorcese’s case, more yesterday’s reheated pizza for Tarantino. Shutter island owes more to Shock Corridor than Hitchcock etc. History as frenzied male melodrama and ‘two-fisted’ confused guilt. Except Fuller actually experienced some of the historical madness that informed his tabloid style. Not necessarily more ‘authentic’, but certainly more interesting than what these (aging) wunderkinds conjured.

    • And you old tart, still not watching movies and yet philosophizing about them? We have an expression in Serbian – MUDROSER (´´wise shitter´´)

    • traxus4420 says:

      “it’s having you directly confront how much less enjoyable this fantasy is than the thing in the screening room next door”

      do you mean the hangover? denby’s review is confused – he calls the film entertaining, tarantino a “virtuoso of images,” is disturbed by what he perceives as nihilism, and dismisses the whole thing as silly. those are all different opinions that he never really puts together. i’m not sure what this means: “the film only has content if you enjoy it physically” – even if you don’t its attempts to wring it out of you are still legible, so if it has content, you can find it. i’m bored by michael bay but i can see more or less how he wants me to react and why. i can’t think of a movie that doesn’t depend on its power to create an affective experience – otherwise what is it? cliffs notes to a novel? that’s content too, it’s just inert. thorne ‘liked’ it because he thought it was brechtian, basically. with a few exceptions, most reviewers (including denby) seem to be making a judgment of some sort about their visceral enjoyment of the film, not saying they didn’t experience any.

      IB, like just about all of tarantino’s movies, relies on the expectation of “what’s missing here (themes, symbols, motifs, implied psychology, the construction of space, narrative etc)” – i don’t think they would make sense without those assumptions – which they court, through the performances, the pastiches of scorsesean establishment of space (the swooping tracking shots, which in tarantino are just intensifiers), the genre borrowing, the elaborate background mythology, in IB historical events – only to foil them, spectacularly so in this case. hence my referring to it as ‘meta-propaganda.’ it’s a (big-budget, star-studded) exploitation version of something like schindler’s list or saving private ryan, contextualizing the Serious Historical Picture Whose Lessons Apply To Us Today and its kitsch seriousness within a larger field of war and propaganda movies (and ‘terror’). i think it’s legible as an argument against the centrality of what you think it lacks (which judgment you can make without seeing it, that’s part of the point), and is at any rate tarantino’s most intellectually coherent film.

      it’s very sophisticated and very pernicious, definite parallels with zizek.

    • traxus4420 says:

      the scorsese-lynch connection for me was his attempt to build and then heavily rely on an atmosphere of dread conjured up from weird looks, heavy background rumble, annoying music, and awkward dialogue perched on the border of straight camp. it didn’t work because the other elements of his narrative style – the ultimately realist diegetic level, classical composition, character psychology, etc. – contradict them. it’s like something he was playing around with, which felt unmotivated/cheap.

    • that IS a sociopolitical analysis

      yes, because of course there’s no such thing (at least in a movie) as ”pure affect”, but I was saying, albeit clumsily, that the politics in this film is affective, it accomplishes political effects by the manipulation of affect, so it is illegitimate to critisize it for ”mythologizing historical fact”. Again I think you’re trying to turn off the Internet and shut down Adobe Photoshop, returning with new vigor to modernism.

      all that said, I see nothing new in Inglorious Basterds. It is masterfully crafted, and enormously entertaining, but there’s no paradigm shift. For that you have to look at new Serbian Black Wave cinema:


  • Or, I suppose, “terrorism”?

  • But I suspect since all criticism is in part a personal essay, which comes into dialogue with the discourse of a film, you are in fact talking about YOUR OWN and Colonel Chabert’s position as comfortable upper middle class intellectuals distrustful of Tarantino’s venture into ”de rigeur” big budget parody mode, fearing that he’s pretending to be a working class dissident only to impress you, the vacuous bourgeois socialists, while in fact he’s just another Hollywood video nerd, part of Chabert’s Tee Vee conspiracy against Communism. All the while you’re so wretchedly aloof and bored that you can’t even openly admit that the movie’s lumpen sentiments moved you, made you laugh or even maybe cry. You intellectualize your enjoyment by calling it ”pernicious” and ”sophisticated”.

    This would all be kind of endearing and funny if the underlying reality weren’t that you’d NEVER seriously trade yer comforts to burn yerselves on the square for those modernist ideals; the radical gesture you demand of the movies, is something you don’t do by default, because your pedigree won’t allow you.

  • ” even if you don’t its attempts to wring it out of you are still legible,”

    I think you may be overestimating the Tarantino-literacy of the nonfan public. To me its like a foreign language honestly. Scorsese fails terribly but you can tell what the attempt is. If you’re not property reacting to IB, it’s really hard to guess that those who are reacting properly are experiencing.

  • Yeah SI reminded me also of that superficial simulation aspect of Age of Innocence. He knew the trappings of an intense romance…the self-denial, the obstacles. He was trying to produce effects like Colin Firth’s Darcy or Rufus Sewell’s Will Ladislaw or Auteuil in La Veuve de Saint Pierre, well dressed, refined men in frustrated passions, but by the numbers. He didn’t know how to do it – he just resorted to trying to visually explain it, with closeups of cigars and food, like a powerpoint presentation – fire, rules – and relying on DDL who delivered the performance but it dissipates in the general fraudulence and cynicism of the effort. How hard that film worked to try to produce very artifically, with gimmicks, the feeling of thwarted love; same with SI’s efforts to produce that foreboding, mystery and sense of deep meaning.

  • “i can’t think of a movie that doesn’t depend on its power to create an affective experience”

    of course, but say the failure of Age of Innocence to produce the effects produced by the ang lee Sense and Sensibility doesn’t leave one in doubt about what the affective experience is intended to be. But in IG it’s really hard to know what it’s trying to evoke if it misses you.

    Like for example – someone told me the opening provokes you to want shoshanna to get awayt and to be hunted to a more exciting death.

    but when I saw it (before being told this by someone who was enjoying and reacting properly) i thought its trying to make you want Landa to drop her like a bird there as she runs, and then to disappoint you and maybe scold you a little (scorsese-like punishing the audience for its desires).

    but its really hard to know. Thorne thinks the audience is being invited to say “oh i am harvey weinstein at a premier dressed as hitler and burning up – tarantino hates me and my burning up is the expression of his hatred.” but how many people really know this is how to react? it’s hard to tell even whetehr the burning is supposed to dominantly involve hitler or the studio head he allegorises.

    as you say, though, one thing clear is that “nazis vs jews” is good vs evil meaninglessly and solidly in Nazi and US film. He’s showing you can pour anything in – westerns, torture porn, adventure – and this doesn’t move. You’re assigned a side or avatar and then film takes your consciousness for a drive for a while, you don’t interact with that aspect. It just doesn’t move – Nazis vs Jews – though it’s reversible depending on whether your avatar is nazi or jew. But you like the game, the villan opponent; liking him, he’s so boss, doesn’t mean you don’t want to win though.

  • […] other than to protect himself from criticism). It works similarly to how Nazi uniforms worked in Inglourious Basterds, to mark complicity in a social evil, rather than just responsibility for a personal one (the whole […]

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