August 19, 2009

Tarantino's Indian revenge fantasy

Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' is about what could have happened

He admits he is no historian, so story comes well before fact.

By Rachel Abramowitz
[A]ll that occupies his fertile imagination at the moment are his "Basterds," who maraud through Europe killing and scalping Nazis.

The squad is led by a dashing Southerner, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who Tarantino figures cut his teeth on baiting the Klan and who takes pride in his partial Apache heritage, and also includes such idiosyncratic soldiers as Sgt. Donnie Donowitz, a.k.a. "The Bear Jew," who bashes in Nazi heads with his baseball bat and is played by Tarantino buddy and torture-porn director Eli Roth. Ever the equal-opportunity avenger, Tarantino's secondary story line follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish woman who witnessed her family's murder by the Nazis only to reemerge as a movie-theater proprietress with a plan to wreak revenge on the entire German high command.

As it happens, Tarantino isn't Jewish. But why should that make any difference? "I don't think there has to be a reason to have empathy or to live in somebody else's shoes. Don't we all wear the same shoes at one end of the spectrum or the other?"

This said, he infused the Basterds with some old-school Native American fighting tactics, pointing out he is a quarter Cherokee. "I'm actually equating the Jews in this situation, in World War II, with the Indians," he says. "It's not nothing that they're doing Apache resistance. It's not about dying. It's about killing. They ambush their guys. They trick the enemy. It's not a straight-up fight. And then they go and they just completely desecrate the bodies to win a psychological war."
Revenge of the Jews, Tarantino StyleNot all of the heroes are Jews, however. Pitt’s character, nicknamed “Aldo the Apache,” is not, and is actually part Cherokee. “He’s been fighting fascism since he got into the war,” Tarantino explained; “Nazis, Kluxers, they’re all the same to him. But he’s a war-history nut, so he knows all about Geronimo’s battle plans and the idea of doing an Apache-style resistance against the Germans. Now he’s using Jewish soldiers for two reasons: One is because he feels that they will turn the mission into a holy war—while Gentiles in the military have the luxury of being soldiers, the basterds are fighting a foe that wants to wipe them off the face of this earth.

“The second reason,” Tarantino said, “is the effect the Jews are going to have in the psychological warfare against the Germans, which is the way the Apaches were able to fight the Mexicans and the Spaniards and the U.S. cavalry for years and years. When you see the boys ambush that German squad, it’s not about the seven guys they kill; it’s about the other guys who are going to see them scalped and ripped apart and degraded and disemboweled. So the Germans are going to know there are killer Jews out there, and it’s the f—-ing American Jews. The basterds are like, ‘Our European relatives could do nothing when the Hun pounded at their door, but we’re the American sons, and we don’t have to endure pain—we can inflict it. We’ve got the right to do that, because we’re f—-ing Americans!’

Nor is Tarantino Jewish. Like Aldo, he is part Cherokee, and he grew up in a born-again milieu in Tennessee where people imagined revenge against the Ku Klux Klan, not the Nazis. He said the film is not a Jewish revenge fantasy, though he admits that “Whether you’re Jewish or just tired of seeing the ‘Holocaust victim’ portrayal in cinema, there is a knee-jerk, fun, fantasy revenge aspect to the movie, all right? But that’s not all there is. I muddied it up.”
Quentin Tarantino:  The Kick-Ass DirectorTarantino was born on March 27, 1963 on Knoxville, Tennessee to Italian-American Tony Tarantino and half-Cherokee Native and half-Irish Connie McHugh.Comment:  Let's count how many ways the Inglourious Basterds scenario is wrong:

1) The Basterds employ Indian-style techniques, but there are no Indian characters or actors except the faux Indian Brad Pitt.

2) The Apaches weren't known for scalping people. I believe the practice occurred mainly in the Great Plains and places to the east. The evidence:

Did The Apache Really Scalp Their Enemies?No, not traditionally. It was actually the Mexicans who introduced this practice to the area. As a result of the constant conflicts between Mexico and the Apache nation, the Mexican Sonoran government returned to the old Spanish method of offering scalp bounties. This was not an exclusively Spanish innovation—the British and the French had followed this custom in earlier times.

The Mexicans scalped in order to claim a cash bounty, and it sometimes did not matter whether the scalp was Apache or not. In 1835 a scalp bounty law was passed in Mexico that offered 100 pesos for each warrior's scalp. Two years later the price included 50 pesos for a woman's scalp and 25 for that of a child! "The Apaches themselves did no scalping. However, the Chiricahua did at times take scalps—but not often, because of their fear of death and ghosts. Scalping was done only in retaliation after the Mexicans inaugurated the tactic.
ScalpingFor the Indians of the North American Plains and their neighbors to the east, those of the Great Lakes, the Eastern Woodlands, and the Gulf Coast, war was a major social tradition. Combatants in all these areas took scalps in the course of warfare, although how a scalp was taken and handled varied according to local customs. Plains Indians generally took scalps from the center of the victim's head, pulling hair and a silver dollar-sized piece of skin away after a circular incision. There are numerous instances of survival after such treatment, a reflection of the point that Plains Indian warfare was less directed at killing the enemy and more toward touching him, that is, counting "coup." Engaging an enemy hand-to-hand and then touching him while he was down but still alive confirmed a warrior's courage. Only the Teton Dakota regarded killing and scalping as the coup of highest worth. The Chiricahua Apache saw the taking of an enemy's scalp as disgusting, and declined the practice.WW II-era Cherokees = 1880s Apaches?

3) Tarantino modeled Aldo on himself, a part Cherokee who "grew up in a born-again milieu in Tennessee." It's unlikely that a Cherokee growing up in Tennessee in the 1920s and 1930s would know much about Apache fighting techniques used 50 years earlier and a couple thousand miles away.

Tarantino seems to be saying that killing and scalping are innate traits of Indians. It doesn't matter if they're Eastern Cherokees or Apaches because all Indians are the same. They seek bloody revenge because they're killers by nature--because that's what Indians do. Even the vast majority of Apaches who sued for peace and considered Geronimo a criminal would emulate him if they could.

4) Tarantino is perpetuating the worst Indian stereotypes: Killing and scalping! Apaches on the warpath! Death-dealing savages!

Imagine an equivalent movie about Indians. To fight back against the US government, these Indians decide to emulate stereotypical Jews. They begin conniving, manipulating, and scheming to amass wealth and power. They become so avaricious that they'd sell their own grandmothers for a dollar. Eventually their amoral wheeling and dealing lets them take over the banking system, bring the government to its knees, and thus save their people.

Does that sound like a movie Jews would appreciate? Why not? Many Jews have amassed wealth and power. Why shouldn't Indians emulate greedy Jew "bastards" the way Tarantino's Jews emulate savage Indian "basterds"?

Get the point? The stupid "savage" stereotype is wrong even if Tarantino's using it in a "noble" cause: killing Nazis. The scenario may please Jews and people who like revenge fantasies, but it will only perpetuate the worst Indian stereotypes.

For more on the subject, see Warlike Indians and The Best Indian Movies.

P.S. At least Tarantino hasn't claimed that being 1/4 Cherokee makes him an Indian. I'll give him credit for that much.

Below:  "Tarantino infused the Basterds with some old-school Native American fighting tactics, pointing out he is a quarter Cherokee." (Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times)


dmarks said...

Some day I will see my first Tarantino movie. This one won't be it.

Rob said...

My pal Victor forced me to watch Kill Bill Vol. 1 on one of our gaming trips. I haven't seen any other Tarantino films--not even the allegedly great Pulp Fiction. I suspect they'd be similar to Kill Bill Vol. 1: decently executed but full of gory, gratuitous violence. As a rule, I don't watch movies like that.

sparky said...

Pulp Fiction is offensive on so many levels. Tarantino has absolutely nothing to say, and he's the godfather of the current offensiveness that passes for hipster irony.

GENO1492 said...

My first Quentin flick was "From Dusk Til Dawn" starring George Cloony and Tarantino as fugitive brothers on the lam. Good vampire movie, the vampire scene was a little cheesy, but overall it was funny, perhaps a little offensive(if you're a lady). There are however, misogynistic references to women's gentalia by that Mexican dude(I forget his name) who was made famous in the "Cheech & Chong" movies.

Personally, I don't find Tarantino's stereotypes of Indians being the blood thirsty badass killers as offensive. At least, in my opinion, indians need to be tough too, rather than being portrayed as the victims all the time. We have to kill and fight back too.

Unknown said...

If were really after a movie where the Jews were portrayed as other than mere victims, he could have taken actual history - such the Warsaw Ghetto insurrection - and went with that.

Given that he doesn't take any actual history as a starting point for the film, I'd say you're on the money with your assessment.

I've never watched any of his movies. I caught a bit of Kill Bill on TV the other day, and wasn't impressed with what I saw - cliched, over the top ethnic stereotypes and all around stupid.

Nick said...

Wow you really don't get it.

dmarks said...

Sure does not seem like I am missing anything, for sure.