Norman Holland

Norman N Holland Ph.D.

This Is Your Brain on Culture

Inglourious Basterds and the Brain

We are all inglourious basterds, aren't we?

Posted Sep 11, 2009

I think the critics have completely missed the boat on this one. This is not a movie about Nazis and the Holocaust as Manohla Dargis and David Denby seem to complain. Nor is it a movie about Quentin Tarantino's fondness for old movies or his having comic book fun with violence. The movie uses those to demonstrate human nature. It's about our fondness for violent revenge fantasies and our (perhaps) disgust when we see them acted out in

reality. It's about movies and the way they act as wish-fulfilling fantasies. Look at that phallic knife in the poster.

The realistic opening gives us a horrifying scene in which the Gestapo Captain Hans Landa (marvelously created by Christoph Waltz) shoots a group of hiding Jews. The next sequence (Ch. 2) goes into comic book mode with the hillbilly Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) who wants his squad of Jewish assassins to bring him the scalps of all the Germans they kill. From there the film goes even deeper into comic book mode with the Nazis planning an improbable film opening, two plots to kill the attendees (Hitler among them), and a finale in which the Nazis, including Borman, Goering, Goebbels, and Hitler) are all either shot or burned alive, and the war comes to an abrupt end. "For once," Roger Ebert writes, "the basterds get what's coming to them." As the Jewish friend with whom I saw the movie said, walking out afterwards, "I wish!"

That's what the movie is really about: wishing.  Tarantino demonstrates to us, sitting peaceably in our theater seats, our own violent wishes, the pleasure we take in repulsively murderous fantasies when they occur in works of art. As Lew Schwartz wrote in the online PSYART discussion group: "We are taken to task for our pleasures." And J. R. Raper in that same discussion: Tarantino shows us "what sub-humans we become through our violence, whether righteous or atavistic."

The style is that of a comic book, yes, but the film builds toward a complex moral issue in a final dialogue between Landa and Raines. Landa has done horrible things, but he has also done a wonderful thing--killing top Nazis and ending the war. Does he not deserve to be forgiven and his evil deeds forgotten? Raines' cheerfully bloody answer is, No!

In effect, Quentin Tarantino is pitting two different brain systems against each other: pleasure-seeking and inhibition. One is our expectation-of-reward system along the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway. A number of studies have shown that revenge, like listening to music or thinking romantically, activates this system.

And surely, sitting in our theater seats, the happy thought of Borman, Goering, Goebbels, and Hitler all being shot or blown up or burned to death activates this system. Revenge is sweet. Brad Bushman a psychologist at the University of Michigan is often quoted for saying that people express anger "for the same reason they eat chocolate."

The opposed system is less clear, but in our ordinary lives some brain system plays a key role in inhibiting aggression. Laboratory rats whse septal nuclei have been lesioned, will respond with unrestrained aggression to the slightest provocation. In general, it must be the frontal lobes that inhibit actions, but that term covers a lot of neuronal territory. Can someone out there help me with this?

Tarantino is playing with these two opposed systems in our brains, and, because we have inhibited our motor systems--because we are "passive" with respect to works of art---we can enjoy the conflict instead of being anxious about it. As I found in writing Literature and the Brain, so many of our special behaviors in creating and re-creating literary works (including films) occur because our motor systems are inhibited.


Items I've referred to:

de Quervain, Dominique J.-F., et al. "The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishmen." Science 305(5688):1254-8.5688 (Aug. 27 2004): 1254-8.

Holland, Norman N. Literature and the Brain. Gainesville FL: PsyArt Foundation, 2009.

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