A quite revealing exchange has broken out between the acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan and Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein about the merits, or lack of same, of Quentin Tarantino’s award-winning and popular film Inglourious Basterds.
Klavan, a conservative whose fiction writings are quite admirable, started it with an item called “Inglorious Malarky,” which conveyed the following opinion and argument:
I found it an appalling movie—really; appalling. [I]t exhibits an understanding of human suffering so shallow it falls outside the bounds of civil discussion. . . .
[F]or Tarantino, no matter how talented, to address the issues inherent in the event as pure fodder for storytelling, to think his squirrelly man-on-man torture fantasies or his video geek understanding of life provide an adequate moral response to that level of history—I don’t know, man—it just felt to me like he was molding toy soldiers out of the ashes of the dead. . . .
When you ask yourself how our creative class could have responded so shabbily to 9/11; when you wonder how they could’ve made movies that gave aid and comfort to our enemies while our soldiers were in the field; when you wonder why so few of them thought to reconsider their ideology in the face of so horrifying a disproof, you may be able to find the answer in a film like Inglorious Basterds.
Clearly Klavan’s point is that only a class of people quite disconnected from any knowledge of and sympathy with real human suffering could have been so quick to forget the appalling horror of 9/11 and appear to reserve all their sympathies for this nation’s enemies. In short, he is accusing Tarantino and Hollywood in general of elitism.
That seems to me to be a fairly unassailable observation regarding Hollywood in general, given the avalanche of evidence Hollywood has provided over the past few decades. Goldstein, however, was appalled, or at least pretended to be so, in a blog item titled “‘Inglourious Basterds’: Is Quentin Tarantino trivializing the Holocaust?” Goldstein fired a volley accusing Klavan and everyone to the right of Goldstein himself of philistinism:
[B]ecause he’s a right-winger, [Klavan] happens to think that Hollywood is chock-full of leftist dilettantes who disrespect all sorts of important cultural icons, from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Holocaust. . . .
For me, this is simply the latest example of why so few conservatives ever distinguish themselves in creative fields like music or filmmaking the way they have in investment banking or talk radio. They either detest pop culture or have such inflexible rules about how it is supposed to be created that they end up stuck on the outside, looking at the filmmaking process with either scorn or derision.
Goldstein then goes on to suggest that Klavan’s dislike of Inglourious Basterds suggests that Klavan would have hated a classic comedy film of the World War II era:
I can only imagine what Klavan would’ve thought of Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be,” which gleefully mocked Hitler and Nazism in 1942, even as the horrors of the Reich were in full sway, casting Jack Benny as a vain Polish actor who finally gets to play his biggest part impersonating Hitler.
The film’s spoof of the Führer came too close to the actual events for the film to be a hit. But it’s now considered a comedy classic because of the same kind of artistic daring that makes Tarantino’s “Basterds” a mini-classic of its kind today. To try to wall off the saga of Hitler’s evil persecution of the Jews with all sorts of elitist rules about how that story can be told only diminishes its power instead of elevating it.
Thus Goldstein explicitly accuses Klavan of elitism and makes the spectacularly asinine claim that Inglourious Basterds is on the same artistic plane as To Be or Not to Be.
As one who has long argued against both elitism and the politicization of art and popular culture, I think that this little controversy lays bare a good deal of what is wrong with contemporary responses to art and popular culture. To wit:
Klavan’s critique does not say precisely what in Inglourious Basterds is so bad, preferring instead to give a general opinion. His article assumes that the reader has seen the film and will adduce on their own the evidence to back up his claims, which is a convention of this quick-hit type of writing (alas!). The article would be more effective and less vulnerable to perverse interpretations if he took some time to give some specifics.
Goldstein, however, is wrong to insist that Klavan write an actual critique of the movie instead of the piece that Klavan wrote. Goldstein is doing to Klavan precisely what he accuses him and other conservatives of doing to Hollywood in general: placing unfair, unnecessary, and harmful strictures on what can be said and how it can be said.
Goldstein is even more ludicrously wrong to class Inglourious Basterds with Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. Tarantino’s film is a self-indulgent mess that has some very good scenes or parts of scenes, whereas Lubitsch’s film is a classic that makes perfect sense through all of the comedy and satire. To pretend that Inglourious Basterds represents any kind of artistic courage—rather than an enormous frivolousness that appears winsome to some while striking others as appallingly boorish—much less the kind of courage Lubitsch showed in making To Be or Not to Be, is strong grounds for a diagnosis of dementia.
Personally, I see the film and Tarantino’s work in general as rather charmingly reckless and silly. Inglourious Basterds is a greatly flawed but often-entertaining film that ultimately doesn’t make much sense. I would wish it to be much better, but I don’t find it in the least offensive, nor do I see it as emblematic of Hollywood unconcern for the masses. I see it as emblematic only of Tarantino’s amiably demented personality. He’s a knucklehead, but a talented one whose aesthetic faults I usually find easy to forgive.
Thus I agree with Goldstein on that, but we part company there. Goldstein’s accusation of Klavan as a philistine is clearly unfounded, given that he opens his article with praise for Klavan’s aesthetic abilities: “Andrew Klavan is a gifted thriller novelist who happens to be a political conservative.” Goldstein’s claim throughout the piece is that Klavan’s political conservatism makes him tone-deaf to real art, and that this is true of conservatives in general. And I will agree that conservatives in general tend to have a rather blinkered view of what is acceptable in art and popular culture.
But I also find that contemporary progressives/left-liberals in general have a blinkered view of what is acceptable in art and popular culture. It is the disease of our times and affects people across the political spectrum.
Thus Goldstein appears to me to be a good deal less honest than Klavan. The L.A. Times writer feigns objectivity, while the novelist/screenwriter/blogger does not.
According to Goldstein, films expressing a left perspective are aesthetically superior on a consistent basis because their makers do not constrain themselves to conservative messages. That’s obvious nonsense. Those who constrain themselves to leftist messages mar their films equally, but Goldstein simply doesn’t mind that because he agrees with those points and gets a nice endorphin rush from seeing them confirmed by big Hollywood somebodies.
Hence Goldstein is making political judgments disguised as aesthetic ones, whereas Klavan is open and forthright about how his sentiments affect his judgments. Thus regardless of whether one agrees with Klavan on his interpretation of the film at question, one can admire his honesty and directness, and regardless of whether one agrees with Goldstein on the aesthetics of the film, his refusal to see and acknowledge how his own sentiments affect his valuations makes him look rather a fool.