Huffpost Entertainment
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Rabbi David Wolpe Headshot

Tarantino Yells Fire In Crowded Theater

Posted: Updated:

I've come late to the event. Finally watching Inglorious Basterds has convinced me however, that Quentin Tarantino is actually not so much a connoisseur of violence as he is a master of deceit.
Violence in a movie robs the audience of its imagination. Here is what it looks like to see a man scalped, the movie says. This is why movies are thought, by cultural snobs, to be inferior to books (I am such a snob, by the way.) Movies colonize your imagination and force you to envision a character, an incident, an event, the way the Director does.
In watching Inglorious Basterds, I realized that Tarantino (and Bender -- and all those responsible, but QT will be my shorthand -- and did ever a raucous man have less apt initials?) that they activated one's imagination. The entire movie is animated by coiled, suppressed menace. The direction is masterful indirection. Christopher Waltz' stunning performance at its heart depends in large part on Dickinson's poetic advice about the truth "tell it slant." He does not lie as much as leave us to understand the unsaid, the elliptically said, the volcanic menace beneath the polish. On screen in the dialogue and the actor's glances are the deceits that proclaim the truth.
It is risky to show charming Nazis, but dishonest to portray them as boorish thugs. There were boorish thugs, but also men of exquisite refinement. The poet Blake said of Milton that he was of the devil's party without knowing it, because he made Satan such a compelling character in Paradise Lost. The danger here is the same. By far the most magnetic personality on screen is a Nazi. But to understand the allure of Nazism is an act of moral imagination, not an abdication of it. Still in showing the cultivated Nazi there is the same layer of truth mixed with deceit; here is a monstrous elegance.
The entire movie tells of how the persecuted and the persecutors cannot speak the truth, not wholly. There is no free speech. So it is ironic at best that it ends with people shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater. Except of course, in a poignant inversion, while the speech is not free, the fire is real.
What does one make of the revenge fantasy as we come upon Hanukkah? Jewish power and powerlessness is a leitmotif of modern history. For me the momentary exhilaration of seeing Jews triumph on the screen was overwhelmed by sadness in the realization that such an ending could so easily have occurred in real life. Instead, millions upon millions paid for the lack of good people to understand the character of radical evil.
Evil at its most potent always has a compelling argument and charisma and the magnetism of the swelling crowd. Inglorious Basterds reminds us how close the techniques of good and evil can be; how similar, at times the motivations; how vastly, unfathomably different the world visions that two sides fought to realize. This is, after all a QT film -- some of the meaning hits you in the face, but much sneaks up after you leave the theater. It reminds us how much subterfuge, subtlety and camouflage are required to understand the world. Inglorious Basterds is a mesmerizing story that tells the truth, but tells it slant.