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Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Allow me to shift gears for a moment because I've currently run out of ways in which to rip off Woody Allen.

On his Opinionator blog with the New York Times, literary critic Stanley Fish examines our current line-up of cinematic heroes in what has come to be known as the "revenge thriller." This includes films like the recent "Taken," and past classics like "Straw Dogs." He notes a strange tendency of identification in these thrillers. This identification, according to Fish, leads the audience to license some fairly heinous behavior on the part of the hero. He notes also that many of these films present high body counts, much of these perished individuals are innocent and constitute some rather significant collateral damage.

Obviously, Fish can't name every instance of cinematic vigilantism, but I want to add a title of my own: "Inglorious Basterds." Tarantino's latest foray into WWII territory serves as an exceptional example of this kind of film. I should preface this entry by saying that I only made it through thirty-eight minutes of the movie.

The opening scene is the best portion of the film that I saw. Nail-biting tension combined with menacingly clever dialog serve to create a scene that is as emotionally taxing as it is visually stunning. A man is being investigated for harboring Jews in his home in occupied France. Bellow the floorboards, those in hiding tremble. The scene clocks in at an excruciating twenty minutes; we know it can't end well. But it's all downhill from there.

Ranging from clever to self-indulgently pornographic, Tarantino never allows a boring moment to creep into the mix. Unfortunately, the film carries its cowboy violence to such banal heights that any and all credibility is surely lost. I'm sure Tarantino's not looking for any ( that waved bye bye when he introduces Eli Roth's predilection for dispatching his victims with a baseball bat and then adding ESPN commentary), but this piece of trash doesn't even deserve the title of being revisionist. If anything, it's a testament to why animosity ought not to be answered with animosity. Nazis act inhuman, ergo, they should be given inhumane treatment, a positively juvenile formula if ever there was one, and probably one of the lamest cinematic excuses to forge one of the most memorable bloodbaths this side of "Itchy the Killer."

As an aside, having grown up in Austria and lived in the shadow of this dark chapter in our history, this clumsy nod of sympathy (?) to the Jews is vulgar at best, downright sadistic at worst. Roth's presence in the film does nothing to allay the situation by the way.

I prefer and proffer the work of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. In his now-infamous "Funny Games," the audience is made an accomplice to the proceedings. We are indicted for our part in viewing the atrocities filling our screens for the sole purpose of titillation; we want bloodshed, that's why we rented the film in the first place, but we don't want to face this little fact. At one point, one of the torturers stares straight into the camera and asks whether we (the audience) believe the family will make it until nine the next morning. Haneke has stated that he wants to present an alternative to the cartoonish violence to which we've become accustomed. He wants an opportunity to show us that the acts we license on-screen may well have an impact on our actual psychological well-being. Fascinating concept. I wonder whether a self-proclaimed cinophile like Tarantino has ever stopped to consider this one.

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