Watching the documentaries of Adam Curtis one gets a sense of the scope in time and across space of movements and the acts of the powerful that lead to certain events like 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq (setting aside if 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq are genuinely an events in the philosophical sense). His most recent film [the film, It Felt Like a Kiss, has now been taken down– APS] drops the didactic element of his previous documentaries, but does not completely emulate Chris Marker’s approach, and so there is some vestige of his previous didacticism in the text that punctuates the endless barrage of images, voices, music, and sounds that flow into vision of the viewer. Yet, the loss of this didactic element means that this film one no longer gives a sense of that scope mentioned above that lead to certain events. We are no longer inscribing these images within some wider meaning through which we may escape these images and the endless boredom and violence they invoke. We no longer see a chain of events, but a single catastrophe. We have the sense of seeing, without any hope of escape, from the viewpoint of the angel of history.
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would liked to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
This single disasters, presented with all the paranoia of a conspiracy theorist, is the only image available to us, the only movement we are in, the only power that is in this film. A melange of images captured by news cameras, ad cameras, home cameras, and the like, all of which are only allowed to film, to bear witness to the single catastrophe.
The genre of World War II films, predominately American in style, have always served as a kind of obscuring of this single catastrophe of history. They refuse to bear the same kind of witness to it that the angel of history does, and instead attempt to inscribe it into a circle of meaning. They attempt to make this war, a kind of transcendental form of war, mean something other than what it is as a moment of this single catastrophe. They not only redeem the violence of war and genocide, but they make that violence consumable (to borrow yet again Haneke’s saying).
Inglourious Basterds is a very different kind of World War II film. Brad Pitt, in a moment of typical bravado, has said of it in relation to this genre,
“The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot. With ‘Basterds,’ everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story.”
I think he’s right, and the reason why is because Tarantino’s film, autonomous from anything Tarantino might say of it, refuses both the fixed viewpoint of the angel of history and the circle of meaning that obscures the single catastrophe. As is probably clear I do not agree completely with those epistemological or ideological readings of the film as, despite many interesting elements to their reading, I think they leave something out. While I rather liked American Stranger’s review of the film, I have a rather different understanding of the film coming from, following the work of Mullarkey, a non-philosophical film criticism. One that tries to remain completely immanent to it, not to bring out what it really means, but in order to understand the affect we undergo, or perhaps that exists as the relation between us and the film, in viewing it.
Being one of those few people who was, though not a Tarantino fanboy, actually excited and looking forward to seeing Tarantino’s latest, I was still surprised to find myself moved by the movie. This strange thing, I thought after my partner (definitely a Tarantino fangirl) and I were on our way home, would require some thought. After all, it went against my views of violence which generally expects films of this quality to present it as unconsumable. Tarantino’s presentation of violence, while I think much more interesting and honest than your typical Hollywood blockbuster or your underground or mainstream horror film, is certainly something often sexy. The elegance of the fight scenes in Kill Bill, often lifted shamelessly from classic kung-fu films, is not repeated here but there is something sexual in the unreserved brutishness of the violence in Inglourious Basterds. There was, in short, something good and joyful in the hatred expressed by The Basterds’ violence against the fascist Jew-hating Nazi soliders, from the lowest ranking private to the Führer himself, and it was this good and joyful hatred that would be the focus of a full non-philosophical treatment of the film.
Somehow the film managed, in refusing to accept the viewpoint of the angel of history, to present what we many want to see and thus participate in when watching a World War II film. End the war by killing Hitler, make every Nazi solider and their family suffer, take revenge for any number of evils committed in the world but understood in the popular imaginary to be focused in the Holocaust.
That the Basterds are nearly all Jews did not, to my mind, signal that they were an acceptable Other, but instead expressed a desire to decimate every Empire of othering. They are a historical instance of the universal figure of the murdered and persecuted that struggle against a particular historical situation. To kill all fascists who have excommunicated themselves from humanity by what they have done, left undone, and allowed to be done. And, in refusing to forgive them for what they did, they refuse to forgive evil. Sure, in a Spinozist way this means that they too will die (as most do in Tarantino’s films), but they do so in a way that is obviously satisfied with this one action. They have refused forgiveness and refused to compromise with those that prey upon the weak, or who appeared to be weak, and in so doing have done something. Simply that, to do something, is the expression of this good and joyful hatred.
Now, of course I exist outside this film and so I understand the truth in seeing that these too are human beings and that their suffering is also an evil. Yet, for all that, I understood the affect of the film, what I’m calling good and joyful hatred, because when one sees the single catastrophe of history piling wreckage upon wreckage one wants, unlike the angel, not to awaken the dead, for we lack this power of the angel in the same way he lacks the strength to close his wings, instead we desire to do something even at the loss of your own life. To kill Hitler, not to save the day for America (which is yet another moment of that single catastrophe), but to do one small thing, not to merely see, and in that to conquer as much as a body can the single catastrophe of history.