Inglourious Propoganda

I saw the film Inglourious Basterds the other day, upon the recommendation of a number of friends.  I left the theater feeling two simultaneous and somewhat contradictory feelings (in a word: ambivalent).  On the one hand, I “enjoyed” the film:  the tension-building dialogues exploding in a climactic release (apologies for the sexual undertones there), the hip, “anything goes” approach to style (anachronistic soundtrack, insider cameos, visual homage, etc.) and the powerful archetypal film characters (the bad ass soldiers, the avenging victim, the brilliant psychopath, etc.).  It was an incredibly well-made film, but it also gave me exactly what I would want (on one level) from a movie about people taking on the Nazis.  [SPOILER ALERT]  The Nazis get SLAUGHTERED!  The good guys win, and even if some of them died in the process, it was heroically in the act of destroying some of the most evil people in history.

inglourious-basterds-poster

But this is where the contradictory feeling came in.  It felt wrong to enjoy the massacre of Nazis.  (There was some part of me that felt like I was watching Team America: World Police without realizing it was a satire of American military arrogance.)

The scene that came back to me as I was reflecting on the film & realizing my ambivalence was when Hitler, Goebbels & the Nazi elite were watching the film within the film about the young Nazi war hero who killed 300 Allied soldiers from a tower.  Repeatedly, we watch the Nazis applauding scenes of the sniper picking off his attackers (probably Americans) and we scoff at this propagandistic depiction of violence against the enemy, portrayed as inhuman, anonymous targets for the hero to destroy.  Even the young Nazi hero seems to feel disdain for the way this is portrayed…

Though I did not find it ironic at the time, subsequently, we as the audience are treated to the sight of these Nazi filmgoers being burned to death & shot down like fish in a barrel by  Jewish soldiers (along with a highly fetishized moment of actor Eli Roth ripping Hitler’s face apart with a hail (heil?) of bullets).  It seems implicit that we will cheer this on, indeed, the whole film feels like a set-up for a moment that we can hardly believe could end this way (knowing actual history as we do).  Of course, it was an “alternate history” reality we see occurring, but it felt so much more satisfying than what actually happened.  However, I began to wonder how we as the filmgoers were much different from the Nazi movie audience cheering the death of Allied soldiers.

This led me to see the director of IB, Quentin Tarantino, as a sort of Joseph Goebbels figure of American populist cinema (depicting simplistic good/evil characters, giving an audience what it wants, using techniques–such as the score, B-movie conventions, etc.–to tap into the collective audience subconscious and manipulate them to the filmmaker’s ends), which oddly then, would make Harvey Weinstein, a Jew,  the Hitler figure…although I suppose it’s not completely surprising as he has been seen as a bit of a fascist dictator in the filmmaking business.

The film had a number of role reversals of Nazi for Jew (Aldo referring to Nazi’s as “not human”, the brutal beatings/casual executions of German soldiers, all of the Nazi’s being burned to death similar to the crematoriums), which made me feel like I was being set up/propogandized to applaud the same thing for the Nazis which I lamented for the Jews. I may be seeing something that is not there at all, but it seems like to take this film simply as a “revenge fantasy film” for Jews (see reactions from descendants of Holocaust survivors and Rabbis here)  lacks a certain amount of incredulity that a savvy director such as QT would expect.  Am I supposed to resist my enjoyment of this slice of fantasy justice, or give into it and become implicitly akin to the Nazi filmgoers?

Anyhow, regardless of whether I have appropriately interpreted this sequence of scenes, I would recommend anyone else who “enjoyed” watching all of the Nazis get killed as inhuman representations of pure evil to watch a film like Stalingrad where the audience follows young German soldiers, who don’t seem as gung ho about the 3rd Reich as we usually see in films, heading to the Russian front where they are led like sheep to a slaughter.  Anyone associated with the Nazi regime certainly finds themselves on the wrong side of history,  but we may need to be careful to allow ourselves to be duped into seeing ANYONE as less than human…even those who we feel like are the worst people in history.

Eight (Films) Is Enough

MY BEST FILMS LIST OF 2008 (I only saw 22 films this year, so it seemed like choosing ten of them was skewing the odds a bit—here are eight for 2008:
1. Wall-E…likely, there is no explanation needed here & you’ve probably seen it and thought it was pretty amazing yourself. (There is hope for us tubs of lard!)
2. The Dark Knight…same as above (except for the tubs of lard part). I will say that I wasn’t that blown away for the first 20 minutes, but then…something changed, and it became unbelievably captivating for the next two hours. Except for the part where he drives the “Bat-pod” up a wall—a sell out moment in an otherwise powerfully engaging, intense and haunting film. Christopher Nolan is pure gold (pretending Insomnia never existed).
3. Son of Rambow…now this may require a bit of explanation. A British film which some list as being released in 2007—but since it had it’s limited release here in May 2008 & because I’d love to sing its praises, we’ll include it in this year’s list! When I originally heard the pitch (two English kids remake “First Blood” using home video cameras) I was uninterested. Somehow, I ended up seeing it and deeply enjoyed every single moment. It transported me back to the transitional years between my childhood and adolescence with it’s 80’s setting & soundtrack, had me laughing loudly at the stunts the kids do in their film (obviously effects of some sort) and hit some deep places with its depiction of one of the young boys who is part of a Plymouth Brethren church (which places a high value on separation from secular culture), yet who feels drawn to creative expression, particularly as a way of dealing with his father’s death. Don’t make the same mistake I did—see this soon!

This movie is bloody good.
This movie is bloody good.

4. In Bruges…another example of a film I had no desire to see—I couldn’t quite tell what it was even about from the preview. But someone (perhaps YOU?) recommended that I see it & I’m so glad I did—the acting, cinematography, script are all excellent. It is dark humor on a pitch black scale, but there is also tremendous beauty and some glimmer of hope and redemption in this story of two hitmen running from the aftermath of a job gone very wrong. If you need a happy ending, don’t watch this. If you can deal with a morally complex dark comedy, this should be mandatory viewing. It’s sad that marketing almost killed this for me (the same thing happened a few years back with Moulin Rouge!).

The advertisements may suck, but the film does not.
The advertisements may suck, but the film does not.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button…I almost jumped out of my seat when the screen FILLED with buttons in the first minute of this film (for some psychologically undiagnosed reason, I can’t stand buttons), but it really is an incredibly engrossing & lovely film. I deeply enjoyed all 3 hours of it and was actually holding in HUGE SOBS at the end. After I left the theater, I started thinking maybe there were some problems with the plot, a bit of sentimentality glazing the characterizations (the old folks home in the movie seemed pretty idealized) and that on a subconscious level, the whole last third of the film may have been an apologetic for irresponsible parenting (I won’t give away exactly how this works), but on the whole, it was just incredible viewing. David Fincher is one of the great cinematic geniuses of our time.
6. The Fall…my friend Katherine, whose taste I implicitly trust, recommended this & as I was watching it, I became seriously bummed that this film seemed to fall under the “buzz” radar (it took a few years to even GET a release, but was “presented” this year by none other than David Fincher!), however it does make sense that something as odd as this would miss a big audience (as a film, it’s kind of a blue rose). Roger Ebert put it on his year’s best list and I’ll just point you to his review for further details. The visuals (set design, cinematography, etc.) are simply unparalleled in my mind.

Criminally underrated.
Criminally underrated.

7. Prince Caspian…this is a bit of a surprise to me as well. But I thought this was an excellent piece of fantasy—I found myself lost in the world of the film in a way I had not since the final Lord of the Rings trilogy (certainly not in the first Narnia movie). I’m not a C.S. Lewis purist, so perhaps that helped!
8. Iron Man…you saw it (over 500 million served!)—superb superhero film of a comic that I frankly knew nothing about. Robert Downey is the freaking phoenix.

Films I Wish I Could Have Seen that Might Have Made It On the List, But Which I Will Probably Not See in the Next 3 Days:
Transsiberian, Pineapple Express, Blindness, Slumdog Millionaire (update: saw it, loved it–it would probably fall somewhere between 4-5 on this list), The Brothers Bloom, Revolutionary Road, Synecdoche, New York, Waltz with Bashir, Defiance.

Any additions from your viewing of 2008 films? Anyone else remember the 70’s show “Eight Is Enough”?

Bibleman Begins!
Bibleman Begins!

Prick Up Your Ears…2008 C.E.

What follows is my unsolicited list of the finest 10 music albums of this year.  Full disclosure:  I have a rather limited musical palate and have been called a bit “elitist” when it comes to music (i.e. all tastes are not equally valid), so I apologize ahead of time for any arrogant presumptions or pretentious hype.prick-up-pic

Continue reading “Prick Up Your Ears…2008 C.E.”

Suspension of (Dissing) Belief

I came across a quote by the 13th century Persian mystic Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muḥammad Balkhi (whom we commonly refer to as “Rumi”) which began thusly:

Out beyond ideas of
wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

It started me thinking whether or not there was actually some way to sit for a period of time with people whom you think are absolutely wrong & simply be with them, to listen and understand without judging or evaluating (activities which we surely must do at some point, particularly if we find that someone is sexually attracted to underage children!).

I know that if I were a relativist, this would be a (almost said “relatively”) simple exercise, as long as someone did not presume to believe that something was ACTUALLY true!  And though I may belong to the tribe of Moral Absolutists (though qualifying myself as someone who believes in “graded absolutism”), I tend toward the view that while there are certainly absolute truths, I am not someone who has taken hold of all of them correctly and so I have to maintain a degree of humility toward other perspectives.  However, this makes the prospect of “dialogue” a bit more difficult.  People who believe certain things are true seem to want to PERSUADE others to believe the same thing that they do.  However, often in conversation where there is deep disagreement, this seems to lead to an inability to truly listen to and attempt to understand a different perspective, but rather becomes merely an exercise waiting one’s turn and thinking of one’s own argument while the other person is speaking.

For instance, if I were speaking with someone who absolutely did not agree that a child in the womb was a human being in any sense of the word, it would be difficult to listen to their views and ask clarifying questions, without responding with my perspective at all.  Yet there is something in me, the part that was intrigued by the Rumi quote, that wonders if this actually might be a good exercise.  Proverbs 18.13 says that “he who answers before listening–that is his folly and shame.”  James, the brother of Jesus, commanded that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1.19).  Maybe delaying our response and simply sitting with someone would be a way to practice these ideas.  After all, do we really think that we are going to convince another person to believe differently by cutting down their points as they are speaking?  Would they be more willing to listen to our ideas at a later time if they felt like we were truly making the effort to understand where they were coming from, without needing to immediately “correct” them?

This sort of ideological “suspension of belief” reminds me of a film I saw in the early 90’s called “A Midnight Clear.”  Without going into too much detail, it is set during winter in the Ardennes forest during World War II & contains a moment where American and German troops encounter one another, prepared to go to kill one another, but instead end up in a snowball fight and singing “Silent Night” together.  It’s an incredible scene, but makes the tragic ending of the film even more poignant, as the fighting later resumes…

Maybe this is the thing that is so difficult.  Seeing the enemy whom we want to defeat as a person, with deeply held beliefs, passions and feelings just like we do…I want to think more about this, but it’s a start.

ELIJAH ADDS: Great post and I wholeheartedly agree.  I once received advice from a mentor and professor of mine while in college, Ken Berding, which pertained primarily to relationships.  His advice was generally this: that when in a dispute or discussion find an object like a pen or something you could hold in your hand.  One person has the right to speak first–we’ll call him Alfred–and Alfred holds the pen while speaking.  The other person (whom we’ll call Beatriz) may not speak while Alfred has the pen.  When Alfred has made his case he passes the pen to Beatriz.  At this point Beatriz must repeat the case that Alfred has made according to her understanding.  If Alfred does not believe that his expression has been properly heard he may take the pen back and clarify.  When Beatriz finally expresses Alfred’s point(s) to his satisfaction she holds onto the pen and can now articulate her response. If only we entered a debate with such respect and humility.

But in our culture to be changed when faced with a challenge is shameful.  When two people debate in our culture no one wins, for neither party has become enlightened and neither party has been heard.

The Greatest Novelist of the early 21st Century?

As fascinated as I am by economic theory & Christian belief (ok, maybe not fascinated), I thought I might write something more aligned with my deepest passion:  literature.  And since this seems to be the place to say the things that seem of greatest significance to me, I will share my thoughts with you as if they truly did matter.

I believe I may have discovered a writer who will be remembered as one of the greatest novelists of our generation.  He certainly has joined the ranks of my favorite contemporary authors (just for shits and giggles, other favorites include David Lodge, Paul Auster, Ian McEwan and Tom Perrotta, as well as the late John Gardner and Italo Calvino).  His name, dear reader, is David Mitchell.  Have you heard of him already?  I am finding out about him 9 years late, but perhaps you run with more literate crowds than I.

If you are not familiar with Mr. Mitchell, I will introduce you to his works in the order in which I have read them (all within the last 3 months):

Black Swan Green…a “coming-of-age” novel which captures both the common human experience of teenage angst and reveals a singular story of beauty and depth that could only be told by a budding poet with a speech disorder (which he personifies as “Hangman” in a brilliant conceit) in early-80’s Britain.  I was stunned by Mitchell’s originality of language and his masterful revelation of the uniquely fascinating consciousness of his narrator, while often finding myself lost in the sea of characters and details into which he pulls the reader.

Ghostwritten…so Mitchell’s ability to uncannily depict the inner essence of a character?  He does it with NINE different characters here (one of which seems to be a disembodied consciousness who parasites off of various hosts) in a variety of global settings, depicted pitch perfect (well, I guess I can only assume that, not having been to Okinawa, Mongolia, St. Petersburg, etc.).  This was his first novel.  Genius right out of the starting gate.

number9dream…at first, I thought this would be the novel of his which I liked least, beginning with a fantasy sequence ala cyberpunk meets Walter Mitty, only to discover that this was the method of revealing his narrator–through a series of what have been called “alternate realities” that help the young Japanese protaganist escape from inner pain at losing his sister & never knowing his father.  It probably will remain a lesser of his novels, but still more capably executed and intriguing than most of the fiction around today.

Cloud Atlas…the masterpiece (for now).  Utilizing a variety of different literary forms (journal, letters, mainstream fiction, memoir, interview, oral storytelling, etc.) in a palindromic structure, Mitchell once again tells stories from a range of geographical settings, but now also from a variety of historical periods (1800’s to well into the future), again, all feeling spot on.  His vast imagination and attention to minute detail, along with the intertextual trick of bringing in characters from his other novels (which he does frequently), make this an encyclopedic work unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

This guy is amazing.  It’s often a demanding task to read his work, but the quality of his writing will probably insure that future literature “seminar” classes will be devoted to him, if not to EACH of his books.