I come to praise Quentin Tarantino — not bury him.
But if I were burying him, I’d probably say something like this.
Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Brad Pitt (as Lt. Aldo Raine) leads a group of Jewish Nazi killers into World War II France with the express purpose of killing — and scalping — Nazis, has got to be the ultimate arrogance in terms of me-centric entitlement. By that, I mean our increasingly ubiquitous propensity to render everything, no matter how momentous, subservient to our Googling, self-indulgent view of the universe.
In this age of postmodernism, artists blithely appropriate previous art or aspects of reality for its surface value. But they rarely come up with anything profound that hasn’t been said already. The appropriation saves them having to have their own imagination. And their sense of entitlement is almost obscene.
Thus, Tarantino has given himself the hubris to vicariously walk up to the most evil man of the 20th century, stare him in the face, and blow him to kingdom come. And while he’s icing Hitler, Tarantino figures, why not take out Goebbels, Goering, Bormann and the whole Axis of Evil along with him?
The fact that Hitler took his own life in 1945? Whatever! That’s so Old School! Why should the History Channel get final cut on the “truth” of Hitler’s demise?
Does Taranto think — hey I’m still burying for now — he has moral authority to jump line in front of anyone who’d normally deserve first dibs at deep-sixing the Nazi leader? You know, people like the victims of the Holocaust or their families. Or the Jewish resistance. Or the men who sacrificed themselves on the beaches of Normandy. Or Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and all those brave Germans who lost their lives trying to stop the tyranny. Or Elie Wiesel and all those others who have devoted their lives to keeping humankind’s darkest chapter fresh in our conscience so we never forget.
Do all those people have to back up until they’re on that side of the velvet rope, so that Tarantino and his movie crew can save the free world?
What comes next after “Inglourious Basterds,” a revisionist return to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in which elite freedom fighters board the planes and turn their noses away from the twin towers at the last moment? What does that do for the 2,924 innocent dead?
While these thoughts would certainly pack some validity, there is this: killing Hitler? How awesome! Why can’t we find a way to make that happen? Why shouldn’t we enjoy that satisfaction?
Hey, in this era of entitlement, why not?
Yes, Tarantino is using modern history’s most immoral sanctioning of violence — the Holocaust — to justify using his own screen violence. Yes, he’s appropriating historical events that remain acutely traumatic for so many of its survivors, their relatives and just about everyone with a moral conscience.
But the fact that the Holocaust has become so intimidating and sacrosanct isn’t right. In the throes of respectful reverence, we have turned it into the unspoken elephant in the room. Our artists should take it on. Digest it. Reinvestigate it. Turn it inside out.
Whether Tarantino’s motives are pure is hard to say. Was this whole exercise just another postmodern drive-by of history? Or was there a moral element of justified vengeance? I’d like to think so. I’d like to enjoy this movie as an act of worldwide moral catharsis, that employs all the weaponry of modern moviemaking.
And it helps considerably that “Inglourious Basterds” is one of Tarantino’s greatest films — up there with the underrated “Jackie Brown,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”
The Allies already dealt with Hitler for thinking he could get away with humankind’s most morally repellent hate crime. But within the realm of fiction, why not subject Hitler to the moviemaker who gave us the ear-slicing scene in “Reservoir Dogs”? Why not enjoy the movie’s central conceit in which American soldiers get to scalp their captives and carve a swastika into their foreheads, so that the Nazis get a taste of their own medicine and the allies’ resolve?
Tarantino, like a perfect postmodernist, is borrowing this conceit from John Ford’s 1956 “The Searchers,” in which the movie’s antihero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) shoots bullets into the eyes of an already dead Comanche.
He explains why. He’s putting out the dead man’s eyes so — in the lore of Native American religion — he’ll be doomed to wander blind in the nether-zone between this world and the next. It’s an act of post-mortem cruelty meant to send out a message.
With “Inglourious Basterds,” there’s a message, too. Freedom may lose in the early rounds, but one day, it’ll come back and get medieval on whoever committed the atrocity. What could be more heartening and morally uplifting than that?
See this movie. It won’t turn back history. But it sure feels good to feel like we could.