Swans Commentary » swans.com September 7, 2009  



Sick Glourious Basterds


by Art Shay


Film Review



(Swans - September 7, 2009)   I wouldn't have dreamed of taking my violently anti-violent wife Florence, a famous and famously peaceable rare book dealer and popular blogger, to see Inglourious Basterds, which I heard Quentin Tarantino plug on plug-happy Charlie Rose's talk table show a few nights ago. Rose, practically slavering, got Quentin to talk about his fictional Jewish Nazi-killers bringing back the scalps of the cruel miscreants to suit the part played by his part-Cherokee movie character redneckedly played by Brad Pitt. I knew, this being yet another blood-simple spurt by sanguine Quentin, that we'd get to see them there scalps being lopped off with hatchets. I would have seen the flick by myself because ever since WWII I've enjoyed movies and books in which Hitler's murderers get beaten at their own game.

But by shear chance as I emerged from my Apple Genius class, there was my wife emerging from one of the clothing emporia in our dying multiplex minutes before curtain time -- so we went. I was prepared for two hours of her head-aversion, usually a given at bloody movies or ones in which children are permitted to play in traffic, people are eaten, dogs are run over while trying to save babies, babies clunk down stone stairs in perambulators, or vampires are seen ogling the low-cut dresses of art show attendees with blood-starved mouths watering and a few expertly implanted fangs flashing menacingly.

My point in bringing up my wife's accidental attendance of this fictional revenge orgy by tough Jews -- one with a baseball bat and a Hank Greenberg power swing? Florence loved the movie, from the revenge premise to execution(s). And I mean executions. She only flinched at two or three of the bloody scalpings, and once at the unexpected shooting of a female conspirator she had grown to admire and for all I know, identify with, during the first half of the movie. Where have you gone Hank Greenberg? Doesn't work. (Reviewer's note: our tiny Bronx apartment building and its minuscule backyard abutted the James Monroe High School's baseball outfield. When I was 5 and Greenberg was 16, the story goes, one of his high school homeruns cleared the school fence and landed in our yard, where my mother fielded it on six bounces and gave it to our cruel landlord, who gave it to his son, who took it to Yale with him where it was eventually stolen by a townie on a battered bike and presumably batted to death like several Nazis were in the movie.) Tarantino quixotically spreads the batman's fame throughout the Wehrmacht, invoking the ironic fictional fear that 3 million automated Nazis had for seven lightly armed but vengeful Jews, one swinging a bat as if he was Hank Greenberg on steroids. It's beyond ridiculous, but so is Tarantino's fictional premise en route to creating an entertaining fantasy based on putting whatever the fuck you want to in front of a camera because you can, and beguiling most viewers except those who lost their families in the ovens.

Revenge fiction and Tarantino blood and guts are the key words to Basterds, which swiftly became #1 at the box office. And should stay there until Yom Kippur.

Best actor in the movie is the relentlessly smiling but cruel Nazi Colonel "Jew-Hunter Landa," played by the almost-certain Oscar winner, the German Christoph Waltz.With Waltz, Tarantino achieves the nearly impossible -- making an arch villain comprehensible, even admirable. Remember Pulp Fiction, in which Tarantino had Vincent accidentally shoot Marvin in the car? And made you worry if they could get the blood cleaned up in time? A bloody master is what he is.

The preposterous lie behind this completely fictitious homage to The Dirty Dozen makes the flick that much more engaging. In the fleeting credits was a note that reminded one and all lawyers that this movie was based on real events but not on real people. You sue Tarantino and you better hire someone in advance to clean the blood off your car, house, girlfriend's unmentionables, or the school your kid attends.

Some big Swans fans don't like the past joy I've taken in killing Nazi fliers in the real war. Next month I'll be at the head table of a reunion of 9 survivors of the infamous Kassel mission -- 35 B-24s went out, 4 of us returned. One hundred and seventeen kids like me, average age 24, were killed by FW 190s. A movie made largely of German films of that Sept. 27, 1944, will be shown. On an advance disc I think I saw my own Sweet Sue flying unscathed past a friend's plane as it blew up 40 feet away. The friend, Ira Weinstein, survived 19 months in a Stalag, and will sit next to me at the reunion.

Ira goes back to Germany every two years and has dinner with the German Luftwaffe crews who shot him down that fatal day. (Farmers forced him to bury five of his crew members who couldn't get out of their burning Lib fast enough.) I could never bring myself to break bread with these people, even though they vas obeying orders, as was I. My play, Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart? (Jimmy was my Squadron commander), which ran in Chicago three years ago, made that point to great applause. As somebody on Swans has reminded me, all war is immoral.

The trouble is I'm no Quentin Tarantino. My real life war plays over and over again in my mind like a CNN bulletin. It must by now be etched onto my synapses. It is exciting to see that an artist who writes and photographs, as I do -- but was born 18 years after WWII ended -- has made an imaginative masterpiece of the same materials from which I have merely made a life.

And come up with the same conclusion as must come to all sentient humans, even those ratiocinative aggressive moralists who think they have stumbled onto something new: Like cautioning water not to run uphill. For Christ's sake folks, all war is immoral.

And all killing, like all sex out of marriage, is officially verboten. But if nobody goes after the really evil fuckers, the wife-batterers, and the real-life murderers and wannabes -- and the fictional murderers -- real and sham -- even those cowards wielding those second amendment machine-gun penises... if we don't hassle them with ridicule they will not only win (as they've won the health-care war on TV by flashing their automatic weapons), but silence those of us who have something to say. Like Obama. Like Swans. Especially like Tarantino. More power to the SOB.

Make-believe also macht frei.


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About the Author

Art Shay is the author-photographer of more than fifty books, the former staff Washington correspondent for Time-Life and Life Bureau Chief in San Francisco. Shay has had 25,000 published pictures including 1,050 covers of magazines, books, and annual reports for such clients as Ford, 3M, National Can, Motorola and ABC-TV. His pictures hang in the National Portrait Gallery (Heffner, Durocher, Robert Crumb) in the Chicago Art Institute. His work is currently exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (through June 29, 2008) following an exhibition at the Gallerie Albert Loeb in Paris, France. The April 2008 issue of North Shore magazine (Chicago) says that "his pictures have the psychology of Dostoevsky, the realism of Hemingway, and the metaphor of Melville... He's in the Pantheon of great photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Strand, and Stieglitz." The Daily Herald (Chicago suburban) of May 5, 2008, called him "the pre-eminent photojournalist of the 20th century..."



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/ashay14.html
Published September 7, 2009