Hollywood and the past
Steven Spielberg vs Quentin Tarantino
By Gilad Atzmon
History is commonly regarded as an attempt to produce a structured account of the past. It claims to tell us what really happened but in most cases it fails to do that. Instead it is set to conceal our shame, to hide those various elements, events, incidents and occurrences in our past with which we cannot cope.
History, therefore, can be regarded as a system of concealment. Accordingly, the role of the true historian is similar to that of the psychoanalyst: both aim to unveil the repressed. For the psychoanalyst, it is the unconscious mind. For the historian, it is our collective shame.
Yet, one may wonder, how many historians really engage in such a task? How many historians are courageous enough to open the pandora box? How many historians are brave enough to challenge Jewish history for real? How many historians dare to ask why Jews? Why do Jews suffer time after time? Is it really the goyim [gentiles] who are inherently murderous, or is there something unsettling in Jewish culture or collectivism?
But Jewish history is obviously not alone here: every people’s past is, in fact, as problematic. Can Palestinians really explain to themselves how is it that, after more than a century of struggle, they wake up to find out that their current capital has become a haven of non-governmental organizations largely funded by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation? Can the British once and for all look in the mirror and explain to themselves why, in their Imperial Wars Museum, they erected a holocaust exhibition dedicated to the destruction of the Jews? Shouldn’t the British be slightly more courageous and look into one of the many shoas [holocausts] they themselves inflicted on others? Clearly, they have an impressive back catalogue to choose from.
The Guardian versus Athens
The past is dangerous territory because it can induce inconvenient stories. This fact alone may explain why the real historian is often presented as a public enemy. However, the left has invented an academic method to tackle the issue. The “progressive” historian functions to produce a politically correct, “inoffensive” tale of the past. By means of zigzagging, it navigates its way, while paying its dues to the concealed and producing endless ad-hoc deviations that leave the repressed untouched. The progressive subject is there to produce a non- essentialist and unoffending account of the past at the expense of the so-called “reactionary”.
The Guardian newspaper is an emblem of such an approach. It would, for instance, ban any criticism of Jewish culture or Jewishness, yet it provides a televised platform for two rabid Zionist so they can discuss Arab culture and Islamism. The Guardian wouldn’t mind offending Islamists or British “nationalists” but it is very careful not to hurt any Jewish sensitivities. Such version of politics or the past is impervious to truthfulness, coherence, consistency or integrity. In fact, the progressive discourse is far from being “the guardian of the truth”; it is actually set as “the guardian of the discourse”, and I am referring here to the left’s discourse in particular.
But surely there is an alternative to the “progressive” attitude to the past. The real historian is actually a philosopher – an essentialist – a thinker who posits the question “what does it mean to be in the world and what does it take to live among others?” The real historian transcends beyond the singular, the particular and the personal. He or she is searching for the condition of the possibility of that which drives our past, present and future. The true historian dwells on being and time; he or she is searching for a humanist lesson and an ethical insight while looking into the poem, the art, the beauty, reason as well as fear. The real historian is an essentialist who digs out the concealed, for he or she knows that the repressed is the kernel of the truth.
Leo Strauss provides us with a very useful insight in that regard. Western civilization, he contends, oscillates between two intellectual and spiritual poles – Athens and Jerusalem. Athens – the birthplace of democracy, home of reason, philosophy, art and science;. Jerusalem — the city of God where God’s law prevails. The philosopher, the real historian, or the essentialist, for that matter, is obviously the Athenian. The Jerusalemite, in that regard, is “the guardian of the discourse”, the one who keeps the gate, just to maintain law and order on the expense of ecstasies, poesis, beauty, reason and truth.
Spielberg versus Tarantino
Hollywood provides us with an insight into this oscillation between Athens and Jerusalem: between the Jerusalemite “guardian of the discourse” and the Athenian contender – the “essentialist” public enemy. On the left side of the map we find Steven Spielberg, the “progressive” genius. On his right we meet peosis itself, Quentin Tarantino, the “essentialist”.
Spielberg provides us with the ultimate sanitized historical epic. The facts are cherry picked just to produce a premeditated pseudo-ethical tale that maintains the righteous discourse, law and order but, most importantly, the primacy of Jewish suffering (“Schindler’s List” and “Munich”). Spielberg brings to life a grand epic with a clear retrospective take on the past. Spielberg’s tactic is, in most cases, pretty simple. He would juxtapose a vivid transparent binary opposition: Nazis vs Jews, Israeli vs Palestinians, North vs South, righteousness vs slavery. Somehow, we always know in advance who are the baddies and who are the goodies. We clearly know who to side with.
Binary opposition is indeed a safe route. It provides a clear distinction between the kosher and the forbidden. But Spielberg’s mind is far from banal. He also allows a highly calculated and carefully meditated oscillation. In a universalist gesture of courtesy he would let a single Nazi into the family of the kind. He would allow the odd Palestinian to be a victim. It can all happen as long as the main frame of the discourse remains intact. Spielberg is clearly an arch-guardian of discourse – being a master of his art-form, he will certainly maintain your attention for at least 90 minutes of a historic cinematic cocktail made of factual mishmash. All you have to do is to follow the plot to the end. By then the predigested ethical message is safely replanted at the hub of your self-loving narcissistic universe.
Unlike Spielberg, Tarantino is not concerned with factuality; he may even repel historicity. Tarantino may well believe that the notion of “the message” or morality is over rated. Tarantino is an essentialist; he is interested in human nature, in being, and he seems to be fascinated in particular by vengeance and its universality.
For the obvious reasons, Tarantino’s totally far-fetched “Inglorious Bastards” throws light on present Israeli collective blood thirstiness as shown at the time of Operation Cast Lead. The fictional cinematic creation of a vengeful, murderous World War II Jewish commando unit is there to throw the light on the devastating contemporary reality of the Jewish lobbies’ lust for violence in their relentless push for a world war against Iran and beyond. But “Inglorious Bastards” could well have a universal appeal because the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” has become the Anglo-American political driving force in the aftermath of 9/11.
Abe’le versus Django
What may seem as a spiritual clash between Jerusalemite Spielberg and Athenian Tarantino is more than apparent in their recent works.
The history of slavery in America is indeed a problematic topic and, for obvious reasons, many aspects of this are still kept deeply within the domain of the concealed. Once again Spielberg and Tarantino have produced distinctively different accounts of this chapter in American history.
In his recent historical epic “Lincoln”, Spielberg made Abraham Lincoln into a neocon “moral interventionist” who against all political odds abolished slavery. I guess that Spielberg knows enough American history to understand that his cinematic account is a crude zigzag attempt, for the anti-slavery political campaign was a mere pretext for a bloody war driven by clear economic objectives.
As one might expect, Spielberg peppers his tale with some genuine historical anecdotes. He certainly pays the necessary dues just to keep the shame shoved deep under the carpet. His Lincoln is cherished as a morally-driven hero of human brotherhood. And the entire plot carries all the symptoms of the contemporary AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] lobby assault within the Capitol Hill. Being one of the arch-guardians of the discourse, Spielberg successfully fulfils his task. He adds a substantial cinematic layer to ensure that America’s true shame remains deeply repressed or, shall we say, untouched.
Needles to mention that Spielberg’s take on Lincoln has been cheered by the Jewish press. They called the president Avraham Lincoln Avinu (“our father” in Hebrew) in The Tablet magazine. “Avraham”, according to the Tablet, is the definitive good Jew. “As imagined by Spielberg and Kushner, Lincoln’s Lincoln is the ultimate mensch. He is a skilled natural psychologist, an interpreter of dreams, and a man blessed with an extraordinarily clever and subtle legal mind.” In short, Spielberg’s Lincoln is Abe’le who combines the skills, the gift and the traits of Moses, Freud as well as Alan Dershowitz. However, some Jews complain about the film. “As an American Jewish historian,” writes Lance J. Sussman, “I’m afraid I have to say I am somewhat disappointed with the latest Spielberg film. So much of it is so good, but it would have been even better if he had put at least one Jew in the movie, somewhere.”
I guess that Spielberg may find it hard to please the entire tribe. Quentin Tarantino, however, doesn’t even try. Tarantino, in fact, does the complete opposite. Through a phantasmic epic that confesses zero interest in any form of historicity or factuality whatsoever, he manages, in his latest masterpiece “Django Unchained”, to dig out the darkest secrets of slavery. He scratches the concealed and, judging by the reaction of another cinematic genius Spike Lee, he has clearly managed to get pretty deep.
By putting into play a stylistic spectacle within the Western genre, Tarantino manages to dwell on every aspect we are advised to leave untouched. He deals with biological determinism, white supremacy and cruelty. But he also turns his lens onto the slaves’ passivity, subservience and collaboration. The Athenian director builds here a set of Greek mythological god-like characters: Django (Jamie Fox), is the unruly king of revenge and Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the German dentist turned bounty hunter, is the master of wit, kindness and humanity with a giant wisdom tooth shining over his caravan. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the Hegelian (racist) master and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is the Hegelian slave, emerging as the personification of social transformation. To a certain extent, the relationships between Candie and Stephen could be seen as one of the most profound yet subversive cinematic takes on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.
In Hegel’s dialectic two self-consciousness’ are constituted via a process of mirroring. In “Django Unchained”, Stephen the slave, seems to convey the ultimate form of subservience, yet this is merely on the surface. In reality Stephen is way more sophisticated and observant than his master Candie. He is on his way up. It is hard to determine whether Stephen is a collaborator or if he really runs the entire show. And yet in Tarantino’s latest, Hegel’s dialectic is somehow compartmentalized. Django, once unchained, is clearly impervious to the Hegelian dialectic spiel. His incidental liberation induces in him a true spirit of relentless resilience. When it comes to it, he kills the master, the slave and everyone else who happens to be around, and he bends every rule, including the “rules of nature” (biological determinism). By the time the epic is over, Django leaves behind a wreckage of Candie’s plantation, the cinematic symbol of the dying old south and the “master-slave dialectic”. Yet, as Django rides on a horse towards the rising sun together with his free wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), we are awakened to the far-fetched cinematic fantasy.
In reality, by which I mean the world out of the cinema, the Candie plantation would, in all likelihood, remain intact and Django would probably be chained up again. In practice, Tarantino cynically juxtaposes the dream (the cinematic reality) and reality (as we know it). By doing so he manages to illuminate the depth of misery that is entangled with the human condition and in particular in the reality of black people in America.
Tarantino is certainly not a “guardian of the discourse”. Quite the opposite: he is the bitterest enemy of stagnation. As in his previous works, his latest spectacle is an essentialist assault on correctness and self-love. Tarantino indeed turns over many stones and unleashes many vipers into the room. Yet, being a devout Athenian he doesn’t intend to produce a single answer or a moral lesson. He leaves us perplexed yet cheerful. For Tarantino, I guess, dilemma is the existential essence. Spielberg, on, the other hand, provides all the necessary answers. After all, within the “progressive”, politically correct discourse, it is the answers that determine, in retrospect, what questions we are entitled to raise.
If Leo Strauss is correct and Western civilization is seen as an oscillation between Athens and Jerusalem, the truth must be said: we can really do with many more Athenians and their essentialist reflections. In short, we are in a desperate need of many more Tarantinos to counter Jerusalem and its ambassadors.