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March 25, 2010

A spoiler for Bernard-Henri Levy

One of my fellow bloggers at ARTicles has expressed some misgivings about the use of rude personal characterizations by myself in this space, worrying that such language could dumb down the discourse here, and, beyond that, come to cause this individual some social discomfort. While I regret this state of affairs, I have to say in my defense that I don't think my colleague really understands what I have to deal with in my little corner of the world and/or media whirl. It truly is enough to drive even a mild-mannered man to personal invective, and drink besides.

Take, for instance, a piece by Bernard-Henri Levy that appeared, I presume, in various newspapers and their websites today. The headline for it in The Australian is "Don't let Tarantino and his ilk distort the past," and it's a complaint about the "historical revisionism," as it were, of Tarantino's last film Inglourious Basterds. Levy is perturbed, of course, that in Tarantino's fantasia Hitler dies in a Paris movie theater rather than in the bunker as he did in real life; Levy argues--while still hailing Tarantino's "genius"--that real, and dangerous, revisionism lies in the "joyously macabre pranks" of Tarantino's film. Now, being a refined sort, Levy is probably entirely unaware of the dozens, if not hundreds, of "B" and exploitation films that took rather outrageous liberties with history before Basterds, and which Basterds is a kind of hypertrophied homage to. Nor does he appreciate that, unlike Oliver Stone's genuinely problematic J.F.K., Basterds never once presents itself as a historical corrective, but always as a cockeyed pulp fable; hell, the movie pretty much begins with the title card "Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France."
But never mind that. These concerns were addressed much more cogently, and in a more timely fashion, by, for example, the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum during the picture's theatrical release. (I don't happen to agree with Rosenbaum at all on this--and he's a film critic I have both a lot of affinities with and an abundant admiration for.) Where Levy really hits his stride is in taking Martin Scorsese to task for his depictions of Dachau, and of a gas-chamber "shower head," in his latest film Shutter Island. "What can one say," Levy wonders, "about the film's use of images from Dachau confused with those from Auschwitz in casual unawareness, notably the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the gate? Is it ignorance of willful confusion? What can one think of the mass graves where the colourised dead gaze at us with the eyes of wax of plastic dolls, haunting the hero's mind like a dreadful leitmotiv?"

What can we say, indeed? And here I must warn those who have not seen Shutter Island to stop reading here, because what we film reviewers call "spoilers" (short for "plot spoilers") lie directly ahead. We can say that these images are what they are: hallucinations in the deluded, psychotic, denying mind of the film's protagonist, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. All of the World War II material in the film is presented very explicitly from his point of view; they're all his flashbacks. The film reveals at the end that his point of view is very unreliable indeed. As is explained in a late sequence, DiCaprio's character had apparently been present at the liberation of Dachau, but little, if anything, in his account of the events he supposedly participated in there can be verified. DiCaprio's character has created a paranoid fantasy about the mental institution he's "investigating," weaving HUAC and the H-bomb and fugitive Nazis into it; it is not too much of a stretch to accept that he's woven the infamous Auschwitz directive into that fantasy as well. Hell, the frozen dead child he "sees" at Auschwitz is actually his own daughter, drowned by his wife years after these events. So what we're dealing with here is not a distortion of the past by the filmmakers, but a distortion of the past in the mind of a character within a fiction. And somehow Bernard-Henri Levy--who is not some drip off the street but apparently a Philosopher Of Note and a Prominent Public Intellectual--failed to catch that. And gets to publish a piece condemning a work that he clearly doesn't understand.  So how's one supposed to react to that? "Oh, I'm terribly sorry my good fellow, but what you fail to grasp is..." Yeah, that'll work.

Of course nothing else will, either.
March 25, 2010 6:36 PM | | Comments (4)


I may be misunderstanding his point here, but I'm almost positive that "Arbeit Macht Frei" appeared on the gates at several concentration camps, including Dachau.

Will, you are right. A Google search brings up a picture of the very slogan over the Dachau gate. (Apparently this site doesn't like links, apologies.)

It wasn't the "rudeness," it was the relevance of the epithet "moron" (and, in somebody else's comment, "jerk") to any sort of intelligent critical discourse. I won't repeat my objections to them, but suffice it to say that using "moron" serves to make only the writer feel good for an instant. I doubt whether any readers said to themselves, upon seeing Mr. Almond called a "moron," "Yeah, that really got him!"

On leaving an acrimonious panel on Pop Art in the early days of the style, audience member Marcel Duchamp remarked to another that conservative art critic Hilton Kramer, who had fulminated against Pop from the dais, was "insufficiently lighthearted." Now, that's telling 'em.

Just for the record, the image in the movie is unmistakably of the infamous Auschwitz gate -- not Dachau's, which was/is very different, with a smaller "Arbeit Macht Frei" that's embedded in the gate instead of surmounting it. Shutter Island nonfan that I am, I don't put much stock in the rationalization that this substitution reflects the DiCaprio character's distorted memories. It looked to me like either sloppy research or some bonehead's idea of artistic license.

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