The Common Good
December 2009

On Film: Representations of War

by Gareth Higgins | December 2009

Reexamining violence in entertainment.

I expected Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds to be a shallow, tasteless, and gratuitously violent revenge fantasy, in which a Jewish “Dirty Dozen”-style unit of psychopaths rampage across war-torn Europe, killing Nazis. I’d been excited by Tarantino’s earlier Reservoir Dogs, the first time I saw cinematic violence represented for what it is in the real world: a projection of broken desire that does not cleanse, heal, or make things better. Sadly, Tarantino’s later films left me disappointed—Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in particular appeared to make comedy out of horror, and titillate the audience with ever more spectacular ways of killing on screen.

But whether Tarantino intends it or not, Inglourious Basterds invites us to reexamine our attitudes to war and the representation of violence in entertainment. The reasons are many, but the most shocking is simple: The film climaxes with a fantasy—the murder of Hitler and his chief lieutenants while they are watching a propaganda film in which U.S. soldiers have been massacred by a German sniper.

As the caricatured embodiments of evil are themselves killed, Tarantino misdirects the audience into cheering something that only minutes earlier horrified us. This notion, that he is both applauding and critiquing the power and danger of art, and confronting us—an audience that might like to think of itself as “civilized”—with our own tendency to slip into violence, left me wondering if I have been wrong about this director.

Tarantino’s films are shocking and sometimes unpleasant to watch, and I still don’t know whether I like Inglourious Basterds. But the fact that one of this year’s biggest box-office hits suggests that all representations of war for entertainment are tasteless, that the desire for revenge doesn’t respect any national identity, and that the impulse to violence might be the most problematic thing we all have in common? The movies may be getting interesting again.

In that light, here are other intriguing films to choose from:

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story has garnered raves on the festival circuit for challenging the accepted values of selfishness wrapped up as “rugged individualism” and the crying need for communitarian values to play a role in corporations’ behavior.

The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man places its protagonist at the middle of the question, “Has God abandoned us?” Their response may not satisfy, but the way they unfold the story probably will.

And if Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are lives up to the delight of its trailer, adults will be finding their inner child at the multiplex—and maybe we’ll be closer to a better life for it.

Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster living in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, is author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul.

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