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ghastly distanciation

February 21, 2012 Comments off

In Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds the American 1st Special Service Forces group of eight Jewish-Americans lead by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) are on a mission to “kill Germans”. Butz, a survivor of one of the Basterd’s ambushes, in flashbacks recounts the incident for the German Fubrer, describing every minute detail. The American squad is known for its extreme brutality in killing Nazi soldiers, especially they are known for scalping their captives. This is an example of what poor Butz saw from the script of Inglourious Basterds where the process of scalping is detailed:

EXT – FRENCH WOODS — DAY CU FACE OF DEAD GERMAN SOLDIER       

His head lies on the ground horizontal. A HAND reaches into FRAME, KNOCKS aside the dead German patriots helmet, and grabs a handful of the cadavers blonde hair. A LARGE KNIFE ENTERS FRAME, and begins SLICING ALONG THE HAIRLINE. This process is called SCALPING. After SLICING is complete, the SCALP easily peels off like a banana.

Butz was set free to tell the tale of the Jewish-American killing squad. The Basterds kill and scalp all of the members of Butz’s squad, including his sergeant Werner Rachtman whose skull is smashed with a baseball bat by Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz nicknamed “The Bear Jew” by the Germans. After Rachmant “respectfully refuses” to provide Aldo with information regarding the position of a “another kraut patrol fuckin’ around” the area, Aldo calls out the Bear Jew. Donny in his wifebeaters appears with his baseball bat, aligns his weapon, and then smashes Rachmant’s head in one of the most gruesome close up shots of the film. Inglourious Basterds hardly falls short of picturing most ghastly insert shots of bare violence.

William Charles, "A scene on the frontiers as practiced by the "humane" British and their "worthy" allies"", 1812

The movie’s fascinating script, masterfully shot, together with exceptional performances completely captivates the viewer. Tarantino’s classic appropriations and brilliant techniques of montage and storytelling engross the audience into the cinematic spectacle. It is an absolute movie experience in classical terms. But the spectacle is constantly interrupted by the violent inserts that break the dramatic order and makes the audience self-conscious. It is through these narrative breaks, detailed scenes of naked violence, of skinning skulls, smashing heads, carving swastikas, that the viewer comes back to his/her body in the movie theater. The scenes are so gruesome that are difficult to watch, many viewers turn their heads away or close their eyes, and are compelled to adopt a an attitude vis-à-vis the situation. The violence here serves as a tool to produce the famous Brechtian verfremdungseffekt or distancing effect. While Brecht used irony and songs, contemporary cinema of Tarantino uses violence as alienating means. If the audience is readily consuming the [violent] cinematic spectacle, the inserts confront him/her with the actual “content” of the film. A rather utopian reading of this interpretation is that through these violent disruptions of the plot, one would become conscious of the inherent everyday violence of contemporary life. But just as the distancing techniques of “revealing of conditions of production” has now become an advertising troupe, so is violence potentially commodified. The audience at a Times Square theater surprisingly clap their hands and laugh as the Bear Jew shatters Rachmant’s skull. Nevertheless, there is clearly a hysterical undertone to that laughter, it rattles with discomfort. Whether this kind of distanciation is effective or not, the audience of the evening news hardly ever see similar scenes of violence commonplace in conflict zones across the world. It is not that these scenes escape the eye of the camera and happen in its absence. Thanks to omnipresence of cell phone/digital cameras everyday brutal scenes of violence are captured by citizen journalists, spectators, passers by etc. and distributed over the internet. Furthermore, they are many such acts performed for the camera and propelled by it. But while Inglourious Basterds inserts scenes of violence to create critical distance, the news media refrains from providing such alienation effect. The videos of violence are deported to youtube ghettos, archives of opposition groups, NGO’s and human rights activists. Even youtube is quick to remove them due to their graphic content. The viral video of an Iranian female protester who was shot after the protests following the 2009 fraudulent elections, has now a Kitaro like sound track, and the final close up of her bloody face is edited out.

The news media edits the image of death out of the reports of the war, so that the audience overlook its underlying reality. By editing the images of violence or pixelating and redacting  the faces of the victims the media double victimize the subjects of human rights violations, it effaces them in the image just as the perpetrators obliterate them in real life. While for Aldo and his squad “watchin’ Donny beat Nazi’s to death, is the closest [they] ever get to goin’ to the movies”, on the news of the war people are either already dead, or about to die, but they never get to die on television.

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