Cheap Catharsis (Tarantino, Slavery and the Holocaust)

Sherman's March

Not going to see Django Unchained for the same reason I didn’t go to see Inglorious Basterds. They are two versions of the same thing. I’m sure that Django is technically and brilliant and inter-textual. But while I can’t say anything about “the film,” I can say that “the idea” makes me squeamish. It’s the notion of a movie about slavery, or the Holocaust that makes (?!) one feel good. To put it bluntly, I read with great disgust in the New York Times how at the private screening of Basterds the students at the Jewish Theological Seminary cheered and stomped their feet.

For a remarkable criticism of  Tarantino, Django, and the Hollywood system, see this one by Cecil Brown: Or this one by Remeike Forbes://

As for me, what I don’t like is this combination of cynical catharsis and naïve catharsis, the suddenly solemn apologetic that there’s nothing wrong here, that  “art is fantasy, not fact,” that “you can’t censor art” juxtaposed to $15,000,000 at the box-office and counting.

On this, I’m a realist-fundamentalist. I hated Life is Beautiful, the stupidest movie ever made about the Holocaust and humor, and also the apotheosis of art in Roman Polanski’s more high-minded The Pianist. For  some reason I could barely stand Schindler’s List, probably because Spielberg always kept his eye on the collective mass, i.e. the people. About these kinds of things, I think the only thing one should or want to or need to feel is rotten, pure and simple, with nothing left over. That’s what it means to take these things  “seriously.” If it’s violence and revenge, I’d rather read or look at anything related to Sherman’s March or watch Frank Capra’s The Battle of Russia (1943), which you can see in its entirety here.

When did we lose the taste for  bitterness?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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10 Responses to Cheap Catharsis (Tarantino, Slavery and the Holocaust)

  1. Gail says:

    For naïve catharsis you can’t get worse than Spielberg.
    When did we lose the taste for bitterness? Are you kidding? Mass culture is the promise of happiness, not realism, not sophisticated woundedness, and certainly not bitterness.

    • zjb says:

      Right, Spielberg is naive. What marks Tarintino is the combination of naivete and cyncism.

    • zjb says:

      my question re: bitterness was both rhetorical and addressed to “the jews,” who were once, in the 1970s and early 1980s, better at being bitter about these kind of things.

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    It’s not catharsis, it’s displacement.
    It’s not history, it’s prophecy.

  3. Jenny Caplan says:

    I will say in Inglorious Basterds’ defense that as a piece of alternative history I don’t place it in the same category with other Holocaust films, like Life is Beautiful which I loathed as well. Basterds exists in a parallel dimension answers as much to science fiction as it does to dramatic realism.

    • Jenny Caplan says:

      That should read “and owes”, not “answers”. Silly autocorrect.

    • zjb says:

      But they are both intended to make the audience feel good, by slathering you in schmaltz, in the one case, or injecting you with a testosterone.

    • Jon Awbrey says:

      That was more or less my point, that this particular brand of historical fiction is no more about the real past than futuristic science fiction is about the future. They are talking about the issues of the present moment in displaced disguise. Sure, there’s a whopping overdose of wish-fulfillment, but there’s more to it than that.

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