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Pulp & History: Inglourious Basterds & District 9

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The intersection of movies wrestling with atrocity and the top-grossers of the week’s a rare occurence, but Inglourious Basterds and District 9 occupy the #1 and #2 spots respectively, while swiping some of pulp’s grammar to engage with the Holocaust and South African Apartheid.

If either of these movies actively worked within pulp traditions properly or respectably, this would actually be an advance from the usual Oscar-bait historical tragedy movies that are way more apt to gross big money. Paradoxically, there’d be some sense of sophistication and breaking down of categorical thinking if lots of people were going to see artfully trashy concept pictures about history. Thing is, Basterds and District 9 run on the same “historically important” fumes as Schindler’s List or Cry, the Beloved Country. Namely, a kind of sleight-of-hand trick that grabs lots of chin-scratching, simply because it tries to take-on the most taken-seriously events of the last century.

And because both offer some kind of “clever” flip on the expected, they’re celebrated for basically being particularly egregious. Basterds removes all the the confusions–the how’s, the why’s, the what the fuck’s–of history for a loaded “what if”, while District 9, sets real-life history next to made-up history, devaluing the former and gaining “clever” points on the latter. District 9 though, is pretty easy to dismiss. In short, the sci-fi metaphor–maybe the only sci-fi metaphor, aliens=outsiders/immigrants–makes no damned sense when you set the movie in the very place that doesn’t even need a metaphor–because it all really happened there. Aliens as shit-class citizens along with entire groups of people also marked as shit-class citizens sorta moots the point. These movies are “compassion fatigue” flicks, wrapping important things around too-clever so they’re stupid conceits and pretending it’s insight.

Tarantino’s WWII pulp-epic/cinematic essay is far more respectful and healthily problematic–that’s to say, you’re not a dolt if you defend it on thematic terms–but it does have that one “District 9 moment”. It’s the aspect that Jonathan Rosenbaum cited (see “further reading” at the bottom, a new tiny feature I’m trying out) and it has to do with carving swastikas into the heads of that one Nazi they don’t kill (so that he may spread the word of the Basterds).

A kind of reversal, though really a parallel, to Nazi perversity, it has the effect of over-extending something that totally doesn’t need to be over-extended to resonate. Like the aliens in District 9, swastika carving is beside the point, not a reinforcement of that point. When the reality of the Holocaust is as equally horrifying as carved-on skin and one can pick your favorite fucked-up detail of death (Mengele’s experiments, gas chamber concrete walls scratched by fingernails), there’s no need to up the ante any.

Of course, excess is a big part of Tarantino’s movie–District 9 however, grows more confusing the more you try to parse it out–and so, this critique and those like it are valid but nearly besides the point. Still, the whole sense of essentially turning Jews into Nazis and Nazis into Jews, despite being mindfully uncomfortable, doesn’t so much wrestle with “revenge” as it just totally advocates it–something even the pulpiest of pulp rarely does. Undoubtedly, the best movies or “films” about revenge are well, about revenge: What it does or doesn’t bring, the time spent and wasted enacting it, etc. Flat-out, this refusal to embrace rarefied Nazi evil is a key to something resembling solace for many Holocaust survivors–and you just can’t push that to the side…and you can’t lean on the implicit thick-headedness of pulp to skate by either.

further reading/viewing:
-Adam Katzman on District 9 vs. The Host
-”Film Threats” by Bret McCabe of City Paper
-Jonathan Rosenbaum on Inglourious Basterds
-”Blues in More than One Color: The Films of Quentin Tarantino” by Stanley Crouch
-Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1985)

Written by Brandon

August 26th, 2009 at 11:29 am

Posted in Tarantino, film, movies

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