Inglourious Basterds and the power of Cinema

by Joshua Gardner (Coordinator for the Washington Jewish Film Festival, which runs December 3-13, 2009)

Inglourious BasterdsAs coordinator of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, I have seen my fair share of Holocaust films, but I can say with certainty I have not seen anything like Inglourious Basterds before. It’s part tense World War II thriller, part over the top gore-fest and a one hundred percent Jewish revenge fantasy. Ok so maybe not yours or mine, but unmistakably Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy. Which other filmmaker could center a pivotal scene in a World War II film to David Bowie’s Cat People

For those unfamiliar with the premise of the film, Inglourious Basterds focuses on a rag-tag group of Jewish-American soldiers getting revenge against the Nazi’s and a young French-Jewish survivor also searching for vengeance. These separate story-lines collide when the Third Reich decides to hold a lavish movie premiere at the very cinema the French-Jewish woman owns. The film ends with a bang with the whole cinema, Hitler and all, being mercilessly destroyed. If I remember my High School history class correctly, this isn’t exactly how it happened.

I am part of the final generation that will get to experience a Survivor’s first hand story. I think for this very reason we are seeing resurgence in Holocaust film, a final push before the wounds of time slowly heal. I think Inglourious Basterds puts itself on this very edge of Holocaust filmic history, a challenging movie that puts forth the idea that film shapes history.  After first-person narratives fade away, the Holocaust will live on through Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful for a generation who never gets to meet a survivor. Who’s to say Tarantino’s version of history won’t be equally prolific for legions of young Jews in the future, an entertaining exercise in “what-if” theorizing.

Tarantino’s spin on the end of World War II is a cathartic re-envisioning; his ultimate ode to the power of cinema. And for all of the implications this film brings up it still manages to be one of the most disgusting, edge of your seat, World War II comedies I have ever seen. Suffice to say: it’s one for the history books.

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Waiting for Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s World War II revenge-fantasy isn’t in theaters for another week and a half, but Jeffrey Goldberg has a great article (Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger) about the film and Tarantino in The Atlantic. Perhaps as interesting as the eminently quotable director is the light shed on the psycho-sexual allure of the film for cast-member Eli Roth and his role as Tarantino’s Jewish consultant:

The horror-movie director Eli Roth—his film Hostel is the most repulsively violent movie I’ve ever seen twice—plays a Basterd known as the “Bear Jew,” whose specialty is braining Germans with a baseball bat. Roth told me recently that Inglourious Basterds falls into a subgenre he calls “kosher porn.”

“It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling,” Roth said. “My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day. My parents are very strong about Holocaust education. My grandparents got out of Poland and Russia and Austria, but their relatives did not.”

There’s more than a little truth to this wishful power inversion. And perhaps, pornography is the perfect analogy — titillating, unrealistic, demeaning, exploitative, a poor substitute for the real thing, but alluring and potentially habit-forming.  However, Roth also relates a crucial turning point in the development of the script at his family’s seder where Tarantino was a guest:

I was his Jewish sounding board,” Roth said. “‘Would a Jew do this, would a Jew do that?’ He kind of didn’t have an ending. But after the seder, he said, ‘I’m going home to finish.’ He understood that we are still pissed off about things that happened to us 3,000 years ago. At the end of the seder, we talked about how the Jewish thing was to remember, that there was no absolution.”

And that’s where I start to get nervous(er). If what you take away from a Passover seder is that we’re still pissed about slavery, well then… it’s like coming away from the 4th of July thinking Americans would like nothing better than to shove a firecracker down the throat of Queen Elizabeth’s corgi.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a part of me that is very excited to see this film. As much as I know the brand of sadism it peddles is probably not healthy either for Jewish or American culture (especially in a post-Abu Ghraib world), Tarantino films provide a kind of testosterone-boiling fun that I don’t want to miss out on just because of my Jewish scruples. I’ll be interested to see if that rush of adrenaline provided by the gore and profanity leaves me feeling I’ve enjoyed $10 well-spent, or just gory and profaned.

So, are you planning to see the film?

Spotting the Jewish in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Tomorrow night at 7pm we’ll be screening (for free) the film version of Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunteras part of DC’s Big Read. There are many differences between the film and the novel: the period is changed, the ending completely re-written and as expected, many liberties are taken with the plot and timeframe. But one of the biggest changes for me from the book to the film are the removal of a few key references to Jewish characters and Jewish characteristics.

112214__lonely_lIt’s not that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is what you could call a Jewish book. But Carson McCulllers clearly had a thing for Jews, or if not actual Jews, what Jews represented to her — a combination in different parts of wisdom, suffering and quintessential outsider status. In fact, in its early drafts, the central character of The Heart Is… was explicitly Jewish, Harry Minowitz. As McCullers later wrote:

Suddenly, as I walked across a road, it occurred me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

In the finished novel, Harry Minowitz does appear as Mick Kelly’s anti-Fascist Jewish neighbor and her first sexual experience. But that does not mean all of the Jew has been taken out of John Singer. Because he is a mute, he is a bit of a cypher for the characters that surround him, each able to project onto him the characteristics that each needs to be reassured. For Doctor Copeland, that image of Singer reflects his own self-perception: that of a philosopher misunderstood by his own people.  When Singer shows up at his Christmas party, Dr. Copeland observes, “The mute stood by himself. His face resembled somewhat a picture of Spinoza. A Jewish face. It was good to see him.”

Dr. Eliza McGraw, author of Two Covenants: Representations Of Southern Jewishness will be giving a short introduction at the screening that is sure to touch on these and other issues related to the novel, the movie (whose sole Jewish characteristic that I could discern was the casting of Alan Arkin as John Singer) and the role of Jews in Southern culture and imagination.

Despite its significant differences from the novel, the movie does stand on its own — and if you haven’t read the book, it will definitely inspire you to do so. And you should be reading the book as part of DC’s Big Read. So get crackin’.

This Week at the 16th Street J

Click to Register for Session IIHot Times in The City Summer Day Camp

Session II Begins Monday, June 30
Spots still available in Camp Skate, JKids and for CITs (we’ll even pro-rate if you’re reading this after Monday 6/30)

Is your kid spending the summer at Camp XBox? Get them off the couch and into the best urban camp in the country.

The Annual Washington Jewish Film Festival Friendraiser: The Debt

The DebtMonday, June 30, 7:30 pm
Join past donors to the WJFF for a great film and light reception. Meet Susan Barocas, the new director of the WJFF as it gets ready to launch its 19th edition this December.

2007, Israel, 35mm,
93 minutes, Hebrew, German and Russian with English subtitles
Director: Assaf Bernstein

This thrilling drama tells the tale of three Mossad agents who capture the “Surgeon of Birkenau”, a monstrous Nazi war criminal in 1964. The agents keep him confined to their safe house on the outskirts of Berlin awaiting further instructions to return to Israel. As they watch over the captive, a psychological duel begins between the Nazi doctor and the three young agents; leading to the doctor’s eventual escape. Unable to face their horrible failure, the agents fabricate the Surgeon’s death and return to Israel as heroes. More than thirty years later, the Surgeon resurfaces in the Ukraine, claiming he wishes to confess his crimes against humanity. Gila Almagor (Munich, In Treatment) plays the ex-Mossad agent Rachel, who must take action to protect their lie by terminating a man known to be dead and redeem the debt against which she has built her life.

Hebraica Mirrors by Matatiaou in the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery

Opens July 1 through September 30
Hebraica Mirrors by MatatiaouHebraica Mirrors includes over 60 fine prints on Arches Velum and leather parchment, representing the crossroads of contemporary design and traditional Hebrew calligraphy by the French Jewish artist Matatiaou. This universal graphic interpretation is inspired by the Zohar- the direct origin of the Kabbalah, written circa 1300. The exhibition comes to us from The Jewish Museum of Florida.

WJMF Sound Byte: Davka and The Golem

Daniel Hoffman and Davka perform their live score for The GolemI remember shortly around the time I graduated from college I started hearing from friends about how if you turned the volume off while watching the movie The Wizard of Oz and substituted Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon as the soundtrack, the two lined up with amazing results. The resulting phenomenon has been alternately called The Wizard of Floyd and Dark Side of the Rainbow.

It blew our minds that it worked so well–a movie from 1939 reinterpreted thanks to an album released in 1973 which we enjoyed at the height of our slackerdom in the early 1990s. It taught me a powerful lesson of how music can heighten the sensation of film watching.

Better however, than hearing canned music accompanying a DVD, is the visceral experience of hearing a live ensemble accompanying a film projected through celluloid onto a cinema screen. That’s what Daniel Hoffman and Davka will be doing when they perform their live score to the silent movie classic The Golem at the Washington Jewish Music Festival on Tuesday, June 3.

The GolemIt is another opportunity to appreciate the musical genius that is Daniel Hoffman’s, who is also the composer of David in Shadow and Light and currently performing five times a week in the band accompanying the show (I’d call it the pit orchestra except that they perform on a platform above the stage). Click below for a little taste of what you’ll hear as Daniel is reunited with his longtime band members from Davka. The clip is “Florian’s Theme” from their live soundtrack for The Golem.

Yom HaShoah–Making Memory Meaningful

This week marks Yom HaShoah, the day set aside for remembering the victims of the Holocaust. It is around this time every year that I receive an email from some well-meaning friend or acquaintance that goes something along the lines of, “keep forwarding this email remembering the six million until it has reached six million Jews and we’ll have had our revenge on Hitler.” I may be getting the details wrong, it may be the goal to send it not to six million Jews but to sixty million people. It may not say anything about having “our revenge on Hitler,” it may be a tad less dramatic, something about, “keeping memory eternally alive.”

I don’t forward these emails. Hitting forward may fulfill a desire for active memory for some, but not for me. No thanks. Then again, I can’t quite bring myself to hit delete either. Who am I to tell people how they should remember? Is it worse that they should remember through chain emails than not remember at all? Is deleting one of these emails, over-wrought though I find them, akin to aiding and abetting a creeping complacency in historical amnesia?

We’re showing a film tonight, The Last Fighters about the living remnant of a moment in history at once tragic and heroic. It won’t grant us some sort of revenge on the many evil and many more complicit people who conspired to make a place like the Warsaw Ghetto a reality. It certainly will not lessen the burden of finding ways to remember the genocide of the Holocaust without becoming enslaved to that memory. And in the years since Warsaw, we’ve witnessed Cambodia, Darfur and Bosnia, so we know that our memory alone cannot prevent future genocides from taking place.

What we can do is draw on the memory of those who were lost, those who fought and those who survived in the unending work of repairing a badly broken world. An email can’t do that alone. Neither can a film. But it’s a start. As long as it’s not the end.

Chametz on Screen–Completely Kosher: Hit Israeli Film “Noodle”

We won’t go into the reasons here, but pasta is one of the foods commonly forbidden during Passover. However, as with so much else in Jewish culture, I will argue that these laws do not apply to Chinese food. Or Israeli movies. Or Israeli movies in which large quantities of Chinese food gets consumed.

In that spirit, don’t miss Noodle this Tuesday, April 22, 7:30pm at the Washington DCJCC. Please note, the following trailer is in Hebrew without English subtitles (but you get the point anyway) and is only kosher for Passover if you refrain from licking the screen.

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