The Big Picture

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

August 28, 2009 | 10:33 am


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.