Inglourious Basterds: nigh time for a Jewish revenge fantasy

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Title: Inglourious Basterds
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Language: English / French / German
Year: 2009
Critical Reception: Raves from Chicago Sun's Roger Ebert, TIME's Richard Corliss, Village Voice's J. Hoberman; Sketical reviews by Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt; Award nominations/wins: Golden Globes for Best Picture
Psych Index: Social Relations
In Brief: As far as vengeance and spaghetti escape films go, [Basterds] was unusually weighty, even with its exaggerated effects and humour. The sensitivity surrounding the subject may deter the production of a Jewish revenge fantasy, despite it being such a great premise for a revenge film (great real world injustice with clear baddies and no satisfying resolution or absolution is as ripe as it gets). Perhaps such a story may have needed a removed but interested storyteller, who would treat it with equal giddiness and respect, brusque and sophistication, and a clear grasp on the power of stories to create and recreate. Tarantino, the filmmaker known for synthesis and meta-reference, may just have been the director of choice for such a feat, and he delivered Basterds with much aplomb. Its status as his masterpiece (as he referred to it twice in the film) may be debatable, but the brilliant ending of Basterds had to be one of the most insane, layered and perfectly appropriate sequences committed to film.

Comment (SPOILERS ALERT):
My name is Shoshanna Dreyfus… and you’ve seen the face of Jewish vengeance. – Shoshanna Dreyfus

Chris Rock, a politically incorrect comedian with little regards for niceties, once defended the use of a derogatory term for its function of striking the perpetrator where it would hurt the most. I don’t condone violent means of communication, and I don’t think there’s justice in vengeance. I do, however, believe that the desire for justice by violent means is a natural, human, deep seated emotional reaction to a great perceived injury. We are as much the communal rats as we are the killer hawks – our aggression may be channeled through less murderous venues, but it is not a disease to be cured. The high road can only carry us so far before we become completely removed from one of the most impassioned, naked, and organic parts of ourselves. Obviously we can’t have people going around wreaking vengeance however they see fit; eye for an eye makes the world blind, right? We count on our justice system and sometimes karma to give us some closures, but the business of come-uppance isn’t satisfaction-guaranteed. However, what we may not be able to get through non-fiction, we may still be able to get through our fiction, in this case, cinema. That’s where Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009) came in: delivering the Jewish anger upon those who were most responsible for the great injury. Quentin Tarantino made sure that everyone knew it was a gift born of love for cinema and desire for a good story, and in his good story, come-uppance came with a bloody satisfaction-guaranteed seal.

Although the basterds carried the title of the film, it was equally (if not more) the story of Shoshanna Dreyfus as the Jew survivor cum theatre owner and film lover. After a very intense and thoroughly terrifying opener (uncharacteristically of a serious nature), Tarantino’s latest mash up began its twisted journey with the scene of Shoshanna running for her life, scared, hurt, but determined. The Jews from then on escaped victimhood and proudly proclaimed their stake in a deathly tango with the Nazis. The picture glided along by conversations as much as actions, though discussions of cinematic details may interest only the handful of film enthusiasts in the audience taking delights in seeing recreations of famous spaghetti cinema bits (e.g. The Searchers door). Nevertheless, with Brad Pitt leading the pack of charming cast, Basterds should have no trouble entertaining its mass audience – I should know, having seen it separately with a North American and a French audience, and seeing it equally embraced by both.

As far as vengeance and spaghetti escape films go, the film was unusually weighty, even with its exaggerated effects and humour. The sensitivity surrounding the subject may deter the production of a Jewish revenge fantasy, despite it being such a great premise for a revenge film (great real world injustice with clear baddies and no satisfying resolution or absolution is as ripe as it gets). Perhaps such a story may have needed a removed but interested storyteller, who would treat it with equal giddiness and respect, brusque and sophistication, and a clear grasp on the power of stories to create and recreate. Tarantino, the filmmaker known for synthesis and meta-reference, may just have been the director of choice for such a feat, and he delivered Basterds with much aplomb. Its status as his masterpiece (as he referred to it twice in the film) may be debatable, but the brilliant ending of Basterds had to be one of the most insane, layered and perfectly appropriate sequences committed to film.

Basterds was not for the squeamish or the bleeding heart – there was a scene involving the Bear Jew and a Nazi sergeant that was reminiscent of the gang beating in A Clockwork Orange. Coming from a director who loves women, as indicated by his previous films, it was also a bit surprising to see what happened to the women in this film. Yet, the objectives were clearly far from invoking the most outrage from the audience. I can just imagine Tarantino explaining his film in his usual nerdy excited manner: “it’s a film about hate, alright? But there’s love too, alright? My great, great love, cinema, is used to redress a great act of hate that had no street justice ending. But it’s not going to be nice; it’s going to be thrilling and fun, but also dirty and over the top and emotionally honest. You’re going to enjoy it.” And there are plenty of things to enjoy, unless, of course, you are squeamish or in possession of a serious bleeding heart. Everyone involved on screen seemed to relish the opportunity to flesh out their at once cartoonish and memorable character. If even Diane Kruger could seem interested in her role as the double agent Bridget von Hammersmark, you know this id-driven avenger could not be denied.

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