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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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What do Jewish film critics have against 'Basterds' avenging Jews?


I guess if you can't get the Jews to agree on what to do about all those unauthorized Israeli settlements on the West Bank (this Jew is against 'em) then how could you possibly get all the Jewish film critics to agree on whether Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" deserves a big thumb's up or thumb's down?

The movie is a nice-sized hit, whether the critics love it or not, but I have to admit to being intrigued by the way Tarantino's fascinating rewrite of World War II history (with a Jewish Dirty Dozen playing a muscular role in the goings-on, scalping Nazis left and right) managed to drive such a big wedge between critics who usually agree on the merits of audacious cinema.

The divide is so clear that the movie aggregation sites are coughing up different results, with the film earning a mediocre 69 on Metacritic (lower than its grade. for example, for the raunchy "The Hangover") while it scored an impressive 88 on Rotten Tomatoes. At first, I thought the divisions were between high- and lowbrow critics, especially since Metacritic leans high while RT has a more populist bent. My father, a true movie populist at heart (in the sense that the only movie he'd seen in a theater all year until now was "The Hangover"), is a "Basterds" convert, clearly getting great pleasure from its view of Jews as guys who could take care of business.

But the more you look at it, the biggest critical divisions seem to be between Jews who embraced Tarantino's revenge fantasy and Jews who found it, in the words of the New Yorker's David Denby,  "ridiculous and appallingly insensitive, a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war or the Resistance seriously." Whatever made Denby think Tarantino could -- or should -- take World War II seriously after decades of cliche-ridden wartime dramas is beyond me. Apparently it's OK for Chaplin to mock Hitler in "The Great Dictator" and for Lubitsch to have his fun with the Fuhrer in "To Be or Not to Be," but Tarantino's brash, bravura flourishes somehow offend Denby's delicate sense of how history -- or mock history -- should be portrayed on screen,

Denby's concerns of moral callousness are shared by other Jewish critics. My colleague Kenny Turan was clearly offended by the movie's violence, calling "Basterds" a "glacial" film that "loses its way in the thickets of alternative history and manages to be violent without the start-to-finish energy that violence onscreen usually guarantees." The Baltimore Sun's Michael Sragow, another favorite critic of mine, confronted the Jewish issue head on, leading his thumbs-down review by saying: " 'This is the face of Jewish vengeance!' cries the heroine of 'Inglourious Basterds' to a cinema filled with horrified Nazis. If someone had photographed me at that moment, they would have seen the face of Jewish boredom."

On the other hand, a healthy contingent of Jewish critics lauded the film. It earned strong reviews from Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum and People's Leah Rozen while New York magazine's David Edelstein was impressed by the way Tarantino managed to "have a Nazi myth exploded by a subversive Jewish counter myth contained within a Tarantino revenge myth."

It just goes to show that every ethnic group is extra-sensitive about how their history is portrayed, even if the history is filtered through the cockeyed lens of a exuberant cineaste like Tarantino. I'm guessing that Tarantino imagined critics would be his core audience on "Basterds," not just because they've supported most of his work from the start, but because the movie is stuffed with all sorts of movie history references, from nods to German cinema gods like G.W. Pabst and Emil Jannings, not to mention the appearance of a British secret agent character who turns out to be a film critic himself.

Instead, the filmmaker gets the brush-off from Denby, who dismisses him as "an embarrassment." As the New Yorker critic wrote: "Tarantino may think that he is doing Jews a favor by launching this revenge fantasy ... but somehow I doubt that the gesture will be appreciated." Perhaps not by some snooty film critics, but this Jew thinks Tarantino hit the jackpot. After all, Jews have been portrayed as victims ("Schindler's List" ad nauseam), vicious hoods ("Bugsy"), schmaltzy cross-dressers ("Yentl") and bad comedians ("Funny People").

What's so bad about letting the Jews take a turn as baseball-bat-wielding Nazi hunters?  

Photo of Christoph Waltz as Nazi Col. Hans Landa in "Inglourious Basterds" by Francois Duhamel / The Weinstein Co.

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Saw the movie last night, had not read any reviews. I knew Tarantino wrote it and directed, and that Brad Pitt was in it. Those two characters will get me in the movies anytime, and I do not think that either one of them is particularly good looking, but I do think that they are both hard working storytellers with different but great talents. It is the kind of movie that can make some people very uncomfortable, and I do suspect that there are many different ways of making sense out of it. I appreciate your little piece above because it answers my only question after seeing the film "How does the Jewish community see this?"
In your piece I was informed that the Jewish community has not lost its ability to think, thus there is hope.

What I think is most striking is that, almost universally, critics seem to imagine the orgy of violence at the end of "Basterds" is an endorsement of vengeance, when it's clearly represented as horrific. The 'Giant Face' of that chapter is one of the most chilling images I've seen in cinema in quite some time.

"Basterds" is a damning portrait of revenge, not a celebration of it. Likewise, in a film where virtually every major character pretends to be someone else, I don't think the Nazis and the American Jews of the film are necessarily intended to be read Nazis or American Jews, but abstractly as the viciously cyclic relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed -- something made real in the pseudo-romance between the theater owner and the german soldier that is the centerpiece of "Inglorious Basterds."

We laugh and cheer for Pitt's band of thugs (referred to in the film as terrorists, not a lightly-used phrase in todays world) in the beginning, but in the end, though the Nazis are never portrayed as anything but deserving of what they get -- the getting of it is somewhat sickening.

What is particularly upsetting to some reviewers is that this puts the theater owner and Basterds, all Jewish, center stage as being awfully close to villains. But I think this a shallow reading of a film that constantly puts characters in the place of another (Americans pretending to be Italians, Brits pretending to be Germans) -- and asks us if, when (as in the card game scene) everyone else knows, we can guess our own identity.

The nerves this film touches are not just ones of history, but the present day.

Upon second viewing, I got a strong impression that this film is no more about WWII than "District 9" is about space aliens. In fact, I suspect that "Inglourious Basterds" and it's Bush-era misspellings are more about modern wars than past ones. And on the subject of righteous revenge, Tarantino's views are clear as day -- they may be the bad guys, and we may be the good -- but putting out the fire with gasoline is a good way to burn the whole world down.

"WWII wasn't just about jews, 60 million people died including 20 million Russians. "

Oh, brother, not again. There's a big difference between dying in the course of fighting a war, and dying because you've been targeted for extermination, plucked out of your home, and murdered.

And who is this "Jews" you're talking about who apparently all have the same opinion and/or reaction? I guess you're a big believer in hive minds.

thanks for taking this opportunity to put down Jews.
- why shouldn't they take themselves seriously.
- they don't ignore other victims of the nazis.
- they are well aware of the full cost of the war.

Just once I would like to read the comments of some Jewish interest topic without some know-it-all moron (i know, it's amazing how the traits co-exist) suggesting that Jews are always... (fill in negative assumption here).

I'm not generally a big fan of violent revenge fantasies, primarily because they are pretty simple-minded and constructed to get a primal reaction from the audience.

But Tarantino attempts to couch that reaction, especially in the final scenes, by juxtaposing the positions of the cheering German theater audience with that of the movie's cheering audience. I believe that we are expected to walk away from the film feeling a bit dirty about the extent to which we applauded the mayhem on the screen.

I felt the same way about "Munich." I thought it neatly tempered the revenge aspect of the story by showing the extent to which the characters become dehumanized by their acts of vengeance, no matter how justified they might have felt.

I am not a Jew. I am a 73-year-old who lived through World War II. It is disgraceful that this film was made.

What is the message sent to all younger people today? That you can play with History as much as you choose?

Based on this, in 50 or so years from now, some other bubble brain Tarantino type will do his schtik on the 9/11 Twin Towers tragedy and the youth of that day will say, "What a trip man!"

It is interesting that the writer thinks it bad that Jews live the land of Israel where Jews have lived for over 3500 years, but it is OK for Jews to be portrayed as beasts. Maybe Mr. Goldstein could gain something from studying the Torah that tells us it is indeed OK for Jews to build houses in Israel and that we should not be stopped by people that have been trying to kill us for thousands of years, but that also tells us that unnecessary violence is very, very anti-Jewish.

at kristina B,

The female protagonist is actually jewish, her name is Mélanei Laurent and she is descent of both ashkenazi and sephardic jews.

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