Tag Archives: fascism

Tarantino, Nazis, and Movies That Can Kill You – Part 2


Again, if you want to make sense of Inglourious Basterds, the questions are three: 1) Why take the triumphalist American history of WWII and make it even more triumphalist? 2) Why channel our perceptions of the 1940s via the 1970s? 3) And why commit mass murder upon the audience?

Here are some answers.

Tarantino is on record as saying that Inglourious Basterds is his “bunch-of- guys-on-a-mission film”—which would mean that it’s a version of the Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone. Like almost everything else that Tarantino says in interviews, I think that sentence is a lie or a trick, which should become clear if you pause to consider how uninterested the movie is in the Basterds as Nazi hunters; we see them fighting Nazis almost not all. In fact the Shosanna plot is entirely separate from the Basterds plot and commands our attention every bit as intently. I’d like to say this isn’t really a men-on-a-mission movie; this is first and foremost a revenge movie; and you might say Why can’t it be both?—and yeah, sure, it’s both, but Tarantino has also decided to make nearly all the Basterds Jewish, which means that the revenge framework actually spills over from the Shosanna plot and colonizes the mission plot, too. It’s like the revenge movie is sucking the war movie into its field of gravity. Revenge is the common term that unites the two separate plots. Plus we know that Tarantino is deeply engaged with revenge movies, which were a staple of the ‘70s grindhouse circuit: Last House on the Left, Death Wish, Thriller: En Grym Film, I Spit On Your Grave, movies like that. Tarantino, in fact, has already made an epic revenge movie—that’s Kill Bill—so we can’t be all that surprised to see him returning to the form here.

OK—but if it’s a revenge movie, it’s an unusual one, because it has that oddly doubled narrative—not just one, but two revenge plots, unspooling side by side, and eventually converging, though without either revenge-party ever knowing about the other. And what you think is at stake in the revenge plot will depend in large part on whether you decide to emphasize the Basterds or Shosanna. So ask yourself which agent of revenge your heart favors.

If you emphasize the Basterds, then what really jumps out in the movie is the image of the tough-guy Jew. There’s a word that is common in Hebrew slang—and that Hebrew has bequeathed to Israeli English—and that’s frier, which means something like “pushover” or “sucker”—and it’s become one of the most distinctive Israeli insults. Nobody in Israel wants to be a frier; nobody wants to be pushover. My Israeli friends boast proudly that the country has the world’s highest incidence of fatal car crashes—and I don’t know if that’s true—but I do know that my friends brag about it, which tells me all I need to know—and the explanation they always give is that no Israeli in a car will ever back down, as in: yield the right of way. So all I want to say is that testosterone has become a very big deal in some corners of modern Jewish culture, for reasons that are not hard to reconstruct, and you could think of Inglourious Basterds as playing into this, by projecting an IDF-style masculinity back into the 1940s. And this curious notion obviously goes back to one of the classic, nagging questions in the historiography of the Second World War: Why didn’t European Jews resist the fascists in larger numbers? If Inglourious Basterds generates a compensatory fantasy, it is surely here; it’s not fantasizing about Americans winning the war; it’s fantasizing about Jews winning the war; and this is a fantasy it shares, roughly, with other tough-Jew movies, like Defiance, which features Daniel Craig as the Bärenjude. Those movies ask the question: What if the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had spread? Or: What if there had already been a Mossad to counteract the SS?

Here’s the thing: If we focus instead on Shosanna, the movie will look rather different. Shosanna of course is also Jewish and also tough, so we can to some extent just fold her into that last point. But only to some extent. Why? Because the image of Eli Roth one handing a baseball bat is obviously an image of Jewish machismo, but the image of a burning movie theater is not.

What I mean is that Shosanna’s method of taking revenge is so different from the Basterds’ that it raises some new issues for us to think about. The blazing screen does not trigger the same set of real-world associations. Shosanna gets her revenge through film: She makes a movie passing judgment on the fascists, whom she then immolates in the flames of burning nitrate reels. So it’s not just that we see a filmmaker killing Nazis; it’s as though film itself were able to strike fascists dead. There are, I think, two different ways of clarifying what Tarantino is up to here.

1) One way to understand the film Shosanna makes and that we eventually see is as Tarantino’s homage to postwar French cinema—and to the kind of anti-fascist film that people like Buñuel were making even before the war. She makes a guerilla film, on the cheap: a technically rough, experimental, low-budget and anti-fascist film. It’s as though Tarantino were trying to engineer a history in which Buñuel never left for Mexico, or trying to backdate Godard by about fifteen years. The movie literally stages a showdown between fascist film and the anti-fascist film of the postwar Left. And this alone licenses us to say that Tarantino is deeply invested in the possibility of anti-fascist film. He has just given us, as hero, an anti-fascist director. Now would be the moment to be point out that he and his associates often seem to think that trash cinema is the continuation of anti-fascist film. If you’ve seen Robert Rodriguez’s Machete—or even just the fake trailer for  the non-existent ‘70s drive-in movie that was the movie’s original incarnation—the point will not be lost on you: An army of illegal immigrants rises up against white bosses and politicians by repurposing as weapons the garden tools of a day laborer.

There’s plenty of precedence for this: One of the key blaxploitation movies is this film from 1976 called Brotherhood of Death, which is about a group of black Vietnam vets who return to the US and start using what the army taught them to fight the Klan. So we know that Tarantino and Rodriguez are fixated on grindhouse, but what they’re too cool to say out loud is that they basically think of grindhouse as a people’s cinema—crude and insurgent—a precious collection of movies about black people taking out the Klan and women turning the knife back against the men who attack them and kung fu masters sticking up for Native Americans.

2) What I’m saying, basically, is that Quentin Tarantino is our Woody Guthrie; he is the Woody Guthrie of mondo and the midnight movie. That is not a joke. The most famous picture of Woody Guthrie gives the viewer a clear look at the folk-singer’s guitar, across which is scrawled: “This machine kills fascists.”

We need to think hard about the fantasy that is communicated by that sentence—because we’re trying to make sense of this image—

—and that sentence provides the second important clarification. Woody Guthrie didn’t just want to sing about justice; he didn’t just want to “inspire his listeners” or get them to raise their voices in the spirit of peace or whatever it is that we usually think folk singers do; he was trying to imagine a music so powerful that it would actually bring justice into the world; he wanted to strum justice into existence; wanted an art that wouldn’t just be in the service of revolution, but that would itself be the completed revolutionary act. And that’s exactly what Tarantino gives us at the end of the movie: “This movie screen kills fascists.” That fantasy—the fantasy of a fully revolutionary art—turns out to be very old. As early in the 1590s, some English poets were trying to write plays that not only depicted revenge, but actually achieved it; they were trying to imagine plays that could actually kill corrupt courtiers and oppressive princes, as though blank verse could actually draw blood. Or if we flash-forward to 1969, we will find Amiri Baraka writing these lines, in a poem called “Black Arts”:


We want ‘poems that kill.’

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead.


What we can say now is that Tarantino is paying homage to the history of anti-fascist film; and he is also trying to imagine a movie that could not only describe justice but actually achieve it. And of course, we need to put those points together and say that he is trying to imagine the perfect anti-fascist film—a film so righteously anti-fascist that it literally levels any fascist who wanders into its projected light; a film that fascists cannot watch; a film that turns fascists to dust. So maybe now we can say, or begin to say, explain why Tarantino has rewritten the history of 1944. Inglourious Basterds wants to give credit for the victory in World War II to someone other than the US and Soviet armies; to nominate, as the virtual heroes of some secret history, badass Jews and cinema itself. It’s an extraordinary idea.

…except I think that’s it all wrong. None of what I’ve just written actually works; or rather, the movie does in fact put in play the two fantasies I’ve been describing—the fantasy of a muscular Judaism and the fantasy of the perfect anti-fascist film—but then it takes them back—or at least makes them harder to occupy. First it gets us to share those fantasies and then it starts calling the fantasies into question. There are two good reasons to think this.

The first I will mention only briefly and ask you to think about on your own time. One of the plain ways we have to describe who Shosanna is and what she does in this movie is to say that she is a suicide bomber. If you want to get fancy, you will say that she is a twentieth-century Samson, pulling the roof down on the heads of the Jews’ celebrating enemies, but if you go back and read the Samson story, you’ll be forced to conclude before long that he, too, was a suicide bomber, so it’s really the same point anyway. At that point we will recall that there was a bomb attack on a movie theater in northern India in 2007; another in Mumbai during the wave of coordinated attacks in 2009; an especially bad movie theater bombing in Algeria in 1998; and so on. The movie undoubtedly produces an image of a heroic Judaism, but only at the cost of letting it mutate visibly into one of its putative opposites, which is the Muslim terrorist.

That’s one of the big surprises hidden away in the movie’s fantasies. The second is easiest to communicate through a series of paired images:



“You know something, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.”


Here’s my gloss on that sequence. 1) We see a Nazi soldier, shot from below, mowing down an improbable number of the gathered enemy. Then we see an American soldier doing the same thing—and in a similar shot. 2) We see an American soldier mutilating an enemy officer and calling it his masterpiece; and we see Hitler telling Goebbels that he has made his masterpiece. 3) We see a fascist turn to the camera in black-and-white and address the audience directly, speaking English for the first time. And then we see the anti-fascist turn to the camera in black-and-white and address the audience directly, speaking English for the first time. We can see what this adds up to. Tarantino has built in unmistakable visual rhymes between the fascist movie and its putatively anti-fascist alternatives. Just to be clear: There are three movies in play here—the movie we are watching, Tarantino’s movie; the fascist movie; and Shosanna’s anti-fascist movie. So two anti-fascist movies and a fascist movie. And the point is that each of the two anti-fascist movies plainly, demonstrably resembles the fascist movie. Everything in the movie starts bleeding into fascism. Two more pairings, to coax over the disbelieving:


An American soldier carves a swastika with a Bowie knife.

A German soldier carves a swastika with a Bowie knife.


“Our battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance.”

But of course what’s true in miniature is also true globally: The fascists are watching a patriotic war movie about the grotesquely exaggerated exploits of a national hero. And you can’t even get that sentence out of your mouth without realizing that, yes, we too have been watching a patriotic war movie about the grotesquely exaggerated exploits of our national heroes. The anti-fascist movie we thought we were watching outs itself as fascism’s secret twin. There’s a lot to say here, but the short version is that I think we are in the presence of a filmmaker losing his confidence in grindhouse as a people’s cinema and trying to find a way to make trash cinema yield a critique of itself instead. This all comes down to the audience: What I find most striking about the shots of the audience in this movie is how attentive they are to the immediate effects of screen violence upon a group of viewers. Let me put it this way: I saw the movie twice in a theater, and each time I saw it, when the movie screen went up in flames, someone in the room clapped—not a full-palmed ovation, just three fingers of one hand in the heel of the other, the quick little rat-a-tat of a person overcome by excitement. But then of course Inglourious Basterds, in four or five different shots, shows a movie audience of fascists whoop-whooping to a blood orgy. Let me come at it from another angle. In the movie, we see one audience member laughing. I’m guessing many people were laughing when you saw the movie; you might have laughed yourself. This gets at something important, because as long as Tarantino has been making movies, high-minded critics have fretted that he makes violence entirely too pleasurable: Michael Madsen slices off a man’s ear, and the audience are bopping in their seats because “Stuck in the Middle With You” is chiming on the soundtrack. You grin as Bruce Willis trades up from hammer to baseball bat to chainsaw to samurai sword. The only movie I have ever walked out on because of the audience was the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple—close cousin to Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction—and I left it because the rest of my row was cracking up while Dan Hedaya was getting buried alive, shrieking keen through mouthfuls of dirt. So how dare anyone make death funny? You have to imagine that Tarantino has always shrugged off that accusation; you can call up YouTube videos of him shrugging it off in interviews—except now he has conceded it. And we know he has conceded it because here’s the one person we see laughing at the violence:

There is only one person laughing, and it is mother-loving Hitler. That is the sight of a filmmaker profoundly alienated from his own fans, wigging out at the ability of the movies he most loves to produce in us a quasi-fascist joy in violence. So why does Tarantino hate us so much? He hates us for liking his movies the way we do; he hates us because he can so easily bring us round to enjoying the sight of people being gathered into a closed space so that they can be exterminated. He hates you for how easily you can be pushed into the Nazi position, as long as the people getting killed are themselves Nazis. He hates you because you are the fascist and you don’t even know it. And he proposes the self-consuming grindhouse solution to this grindhouse dilemma, which is that people like you have to die. You will uphold your death sentence with your applause.



Tarantino, Nazis, and Movies That Can Kill You – Part 1

I think I can show that Inglourious Basterds is not really a revenge movie, which, if you’ve seen the movie — well, you’re not going to believe me. It’s an implausible point, hard to make stick — and I’d rather start easy. So maybe I’ll just ask a few questions about the film, and then try to answer them, though maybe the questions are really the hard part, after all. It will be harder, I think, to get the questions right than to get the answers right; Basterds is so diabolically entertaining that a person could easily overlook how complicated a thing it really is. So I’m thinking that if we can just name the movie’s complications—if we can lift out its puzzles—the answers might start taking care of themselves.

My questions are three.

First question: Is Inglourious Basterds a historical movie? Is it a period piece? …or not? In some sense, yes, plainly, of course it is. It takes place at a specified moment in history—1944; the story unfolds against the backdrop of a major world event—World War II; it transforms real historical personages into minor fictional characters—Hitler, Goebbels, and the like—and it freely intermixes these “real people” with characters of its own invention. Those are the hallmarks of historical fiction in the mode of Walter Scott or Tolstoy. Scott’s Waverley features the real Scottish prince who, in the middle of the C18, tried to seize the throne of England and Scotland. War and Peace, in turn, actually has Napoleon as a character—a fairly central character, even, at least for part of the novel.

But there’s an obvious problem with this comparison, which is that Tarantino’s movie completely rewrites the history it has chosen to recount. And I can already hear the English professors amidst whom I work murmuring: But wait, historical fiction always, in myriad subtle ways, rewrites the history that it recounts. And they’re right. But Inglourious Basterds is not subtle about this; it does not even pretend to historical insight. It gleefully concocts an alternate history, in a manner that is impossible to overlook. In case anyone has forgotten: American Jews did not storm the Nazi high command and gun Hitler down in an act of heroic retribution. This is not a historical fiction in the usual sense, but rather a kind of fantasia or historical reverie—and the movie makes no effort to hide this. Not even in Tolstoy does Napoleon keep hold of Moscow.

But then this is where things really get strange. So the movie is a flight of fancy on a historical subject. OK; I think I can take that on board, because I’ve seen it before. In science-fiction circles, alternate histories have become a genre in their own right: What would England look like in the C20 if it had stayed Catholic—if, that is, there had never been a Protestant Church of England? What would the world look like today if Europeans had been wiped out in the fourteenth century by the Black Death?—a world without white people; I’ve always rather liked that one. Or closest to the day’s concerns: What would the US look like now if Hitler had never been defeated? Those books all exist and lots more like them: Historical novels about histories that never happened. But then we need to think about which event the movie has chosen to rescript: It doctors the end of World War II, and if we’re going to think about that, then let us call to mind another obvious thing: America actually defeated the Germans in World War II; or rather the Allies did. And Americans defeat the Nazis in the movie, too, with some help from French resisters. It’s worth pausing to register how odd that is. I mean, it’s not like the movie has taken a tale of American failure or hesitation and turned it into an American triumph. If you try to imagine Inglourious Basterds as a Vietnam movie, you’ll begin to see what I mean. There was a period in the mid-‘80s when Hollywood started churning out movies—like Delta Force or the second Rambo joint—in which the US Army was granted some kind of magic do-over in South-East Asia. In Rambo, Sylvester Stallone actually speaks the question: “Do we get to win this time?” And his commanding officer responds: “Yes, Rambo. You get to win this time.” What’s going on there isn’t especially hard to grasp. The historical record—or, if you prefer, popular historical pseudo-memory—contains, in reference to Vietnam, all sorts of ambivalence: feelings of failure, complicity, shame, and so on—and those feelings are a breeding ground for compensatory fantasies. But Tarantino has scripted an alternative to D-Day, of all things, which means he has replaced the most heroic moment in twentieth-century US history—a history that is already fully triumphalist, entirely devoid of ambivalence—with something even more triumphalist, but weirdly, ferociously so. He has scripted a fictional way of winning a war that the US won anyway. So what’s going on? That’s  the first question.

I have a second question that also involves the ways this is not a straightforward historical movie. I want to be careful here: Historical fictions are always complicated, because they always require you to think at the same time about two different historical moments; if you’re reading a historical novel, you need to think about when the book was set, but you also need to think about when the book was written. So take Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is the one recent historical novel you can count on someone having read. That book is set in the 1870s, but it was written in the 1980s. And a person might ask: What’s the difference between a book written in the 1870s, like Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, and one set in the 1870s? That second book, Beloved, has a historical shadow dimension that the first book doesn’t. Historical novels belong, as it were, to two historical moments at once. They are always implicitly putting two historical moments in front of you and asking you what connects them or what they share. So Beloved is a novel about America in the nineteenth century—it’s about the aftermath of slavery—but it is also a novel of the 1980s. The 1870s and the 1980s get held up next to each other. If you want to understand Beloved, you have to understand both what Toni Morrison is saying about the past and what she is saying to her contemporaries. It’s Reconstruction; and it’s the Reagan-era; and they’re side by side. Same deal with Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino was talking about this movie as early as 2001; he wrote different versions of the screenplay across the last decade; two or three times, he announced he was going into production only to change his mind; and then he finally began filming in October 2008—a month before the Obama-McCain election, if you want to think of it that way. So this movie is about 1944, but we can also think of it as pretty much the last movie of the Bush administration. And it’s a war movie—and we mustn’t lose sight of this—which recasts WWII as a settling of scores. And few viewers will have overlooked that it’s also a Western. The opening scene has a French farmer living in what you could mistake for the timber shack of a Montana frontiersman; there’s a shootout in a saloon where desperadoes are drinking whiskey; and so on. So who thinks about war as a Western? Six days after 9/11, George Bush stood up in front of the press corps and said: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that said: ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’”

We seem to be making headway. But the point I’m after is that Inglourious Basterds is actually more complicated than this. Historical fictions are always complicated, and this movie is more complicated still, not least because it is so obviously stitched together out of parts from other movies. Now we know that this is what Tarantino likes to do; he’s got a mash-up aesthetic. So that opening scene?—it’s borrowed from John Ford; and the scene where the French Jewish beauty and the young Nazi hero kill each other?—that’s ripped from a John Woo movie. Now again, movies and novels are always borrowing from other movies and novels, so maybe you’re thinking Big deal. But most movies and novels take some pains to cover their tracks; they don’t want you to spot their borrowings; they invite you to sink into the story, so that you can trick yourself into thinking that you are watching the past unfold organically before you. And Tarantino simply will not let you sink into the story. He does not hide his sources. The most obvious example is the moment when the movie introduces Hugo Stiglitz for the first time; suddenly the movie has a narrator, and the narrator is Sam Jackson, in voiceover, and with an underlay of boom chicka wawa, and every time you hear those pimped-out cadences, you get airlifted briefly out of 1944 and deposited in the mid-‘70s instead—so Sam Jackson, but Sam Jackson in his incarnation as latter-day soul brother.

That’s the single most intrusive moment in the movie; the visible incursion of another film genre into the World War II movie; but it’s hardly the only one. There’s the spaghetti Western soundtrack, which provides an ongoing temporal counterpoint to the action. Or there’s the title. I dutifully went and watched the 1978 Italian movie from which the title Inglourious Basterds has been filched only to discover that it bears absolutely no resemblance to the movie Tarantino made. The later film is in no way a remake of the earlier one. But then knowing that should help us see how programmatic Tarantino’s retro aesthetic is: He wants you to think his movie is a remake even when it isn’t a remake. In the event, the title is something like an all-purpose footnote; it doesn’t do much more than point you, broadly, to the entire body of late ‘60s and ‘70s-era trash movies that we all know Tarantino loves; and the music does the same thing; and so does Sam Jackson. Someone out there was disappointed to discover that Richard Roundtree wasn’t playing Hitler. So the movie doesn’t just whisk us back to 1944; and it doesn’t even really whisk us back to its alternate-reality 1944. Rather, it forces us to contemplate 1944 through a scrim of other movies, and I want us to think of this as an almost geological act of historical layering. This is how Inglourious Basterds is different from an ordinary historical fiction: There aren’t just two historical moments in play, there are at least three. Hence my second question: Why, in 2009, make a ‘70s-style movie about 1944?

One quick point to make, in passing, because it will be important to some people’s experience of the movie: This might be a trash movie; and it might rewrite history in preposterous ways; but its use of historical detail is nonetheless meticulous. The movie’s evident precision begins with its attention to language. It’s a tri-lingual movie, and the German in the movie is impeccable—entirely unlike the Halt!-und-Schnell! that you get in Schindler’s List and other graduates from the Hogan’s Heroes School of War Cinema. And beyond that, the movie is full of historical references that aren’t in the least offhand—references, I mean, that are knowing and apt. Tarantino works in references to early twentieth-century German children’s literature; he briefly introduces, as a character, a cat named Emil Jannings, who was 1) a real German actor of the period; 2) the first person ever to win an Oscar; 3) and a prominent Nazi. And on and on. Now if you’re in a position to appreciate these details—which basically means if you’re German—the experience of the movie has got to be all the more bewildering. The puzzles I’ve been describing intensify, because in lots of ways the movie seems unusually committed to 1944—the movie’s erudition, I mean, can’t help but convey a certain respect for the movie’s historical materials—and yet at the same time 1944 is constantly slipping from sight.

So … a second question. My third question is easier to explain, though it’s probably also the most important one. It all comes down to this image and to the scene that contains it:

We have to be clear about what’s going on here. I can imagine a person being keyed up enough at the sweet sight of all those Nazis getting killed to overlook the second thing that’s going on in the movies climactic scenes—not a second event—but a second, equally plausible way of describing that one event: The movie is showing a Jewish woman wreaking vengeance upon Germans, but it is also showing a filmmaker killing her own audience. That’s amazing; and serious thinking about the movie has got to start there. We need to think hard about the conditions under which some of us saw this movie. If you were lucky enough to see Inglourious Basterds during its original run—and so not on DVD—then you sat in a movie theater and watched people in a movie theater get wiped out. You might have been rooting for Shosanna or the Basterds—I know I was—but the people getting offed were, at the moment of their death, unmistakably like you. The aspect of the movie that most leaps out, I think, is its extraordinary hostility towards the audience. So my third question is: Why does Quentin Tarantino hate us so much?

So those are my three questions: 1) Why take the triumphalist American history of WWII and make it even more triumphalist? 2) Why channel our perceptions of the 1940s via the 1970s? 3) And why commit mass murder upon the audience? I will next attempt some answers.



A Passage to What?


If you stick with this one, I think I’ll be able to explain how it is that fascism can be made appealing to ordinary Americans, and no fooling. I want to be clear that by “ordinary Americans,” I do not mean Birthers and Teabaggers. I mean the rest of us: suburbanites, semi-sophisticates, people who sometimes vote for Democrats, carriers of canvas tote bags. And by “fascism” I don’t mean any politics to the right of my own; I don’t mean traffic cops and my gym coach. I mean unpleasant Italians in the 1920s, Teutonic ghastliness, the Spanish clampdown. I’m not saying that I can show you how a generically right-wing politics appeals to the American Right; there’s not much that needs explaining on that front. I’m saying, rather, that I can show how something rather like National Socialism can be made appealing to you.

It all starts with Salon.com, which is, I grant, an unlikely place to begin a conversation about fascism. Salon, after all, is an unmistakably “progressive” undertaking: based in San Francisco, founded by a former editor at Mother Jones, temperately anti-war, feminist, queer-friendly, &c. The site represents a kind of publication that has never really existed in print form or on glossy paper: a lifestyle magazine for middle-class liberals, a site where you can get in one click from some fairly trenchant analysis of the US government’s misplaced “imperial priorities” to recipes for “the best burger I ever had” (and in the event, also pretty good). Salon is perhaps the closest thing Statesiders now have to an American version of the UK Guardian, the sort of magazine that will occasionally let itself engage in utopian speculation, when no idiom is more foreign to official writing about politics than that. One recent article introduced its argument with a brief thought experiment about an “imaginary classless society.” But if you look just a little bit harder at that same article, it turns out that such a society would have a “universal middle class.” Socialism as the apotheosis of the middle classes, their driving of all other players from the field: that’s Salon.

Earlier this summer, Salon decided to start a book club: the magazine’s readers would all read the same long novel, at roughly the same time, and would have a public, on-line discussion about it over the course of three weeks. The first book that Salon chose was The Passage, a new vampire apocalypse by a writer who teaches at Rice named Justin Cronin. It’s a little misleading to single out Salon for pushing The Passage this way. The novel has been getting all sorts of attention: declarations of love from Time and The Guardian, a book deal so big that it was reported as a news item in its own right in 2007. Ridley Scott has already bought the rights. There has been touting. Salon was making sure it kicked things off with a novel lots of people were going to be reading anyway.

They were also making a clean break with Oprah, by throwing boy-readers a book they could gnaw at. There are at least two different ways of telegraphing what it’s like to read The Passage. One way is to note its literary affiliations: The novel basically just takes the premise of Richard Matheson’s slender, economical I Am Legend—vampires have taken over the world—and bulks it out to a length that is prolix and Tolkienian: so not just one survivor, as in Matheson, but an entire village of survivors, then a quest narrative, which eventually ramps up into an out-and-out war story, a cage match cosmic and Manichean, between the men of the West and what are really just bioluminescent orcs.

The other way is easier: The Passage is a fast-zombie movie in prose. One suspects that Cronin has called his monsters “vampires” only because, in the fashion cycle of collective dread, vampires are back. Gone, mostly, are the zombies of the last decade—the dilatory, the dawdling, the pointlessly milling dead. Pop culture once again prefers its ghouls to have purpose and penetrating stares. Cronin’s cannibals resemble bloodsuckers in some respects, and the walking dead in others; five years ago he would have called them zombies; but it’s 2010, so he calls them vampires. I want to be careful here. At some level, it’s pointless to try to segregate out from one another Hollywood’s vampire and zombie populations. Monsters routinely intermarry. There have been lots of vampire-zombie splicings, not the least of which is I Am Legend itself. Or rather: I Am Legend was, via its first film version—not 1971’s The Omega Man, but a 1964 Italian production starring Vincent Price—one of the major sources for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which means that the zombie movie as we know it actually began as a mutation in the vampire code. But we can just as well leave that history aside. The broader point is that any time a movie, 30 Days of Night, say, has its vampires attack in numbers—any time it deploys them against humans in formations larger than three or four—it’s going to start looking, whether it means to or not, like a zombie pic. Humans will board up their windows and huddle in locked rooms. They will fall to multiple, scrabbling hands.

So vampires often look like zombies. And then there’s the simple point that filmmakers and especially novelists have woven so many variations on the vampire that they, like the queer people they are often made to resemble, come in all possible forms: vampire politicians, vampire mechanics, the vampire homeless. It seems useless to insist that vampires are really one way and not another. One wishes to say all the same that the genre’s anchoring works—the stories and novels that have set the horizon for the form: Polidori, Stoker, Anne Rice—have always given special emphasis to aristocracy, etiquette, seduction, intelligence. For a creature to register emphatically as a vampire—for it to be recognizable as something other than a zombie—it needs to seem like a superior being, Luciferous and more than human; and it needs to be something you could possibly make the mistake of falling in love with. All I mean is that a certain Byronism is pretty well wired into the thing.

Cronin’s “vampires,” meanwhile, are dim and scavenging herd animals, not superhuman but rather the opposite: degenerate and cretinous. Rigor commands that I also list the ways they are not like zombies: They are light-sensitive; they don’t turn everyone they bite; a very small number of them emit their memories and commands in a manner extrapolated from antique vampire mind-control or mesmerism; they are fairly hard to kill. But these are secondary characteristics, whereas the monsters’ zombie traits are central to one’s experience of the novel: They don’t have manners, and they (mostly) don’t have minds. Most important: They come in nests and pods and swarms and packs and scourges and hordes.

I want to stick with “hordes.” It’s important to get the matter of genre right, because to opt for the fast zombie, as your particular horror niche, is to place in front of a readership a distinctive set of historical or sociopolitical concerns, concerns that are at this point built into those monsters. Here’s the quick-and-dirty version: Fast zombies, as cinematic and now literary figures, are built almost entirely out of perceptions of Asians and Middle Easterners and Africans and native Americans, some of them new—fast zombies sometimes get framed as terrorists—most of them old: they are above all savages. (They are in this sense unlike slow zombies. I’ve argued out the distinction here.) This was already true of the landmark fast-zombie movies—28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake—and Cronin simply follows suit on this front. When the zombie epidemic erupts, the novel begins to incorporate all sorts of Bush-era GWOT-speak, which means that its vampire apocalypse is at some level nothing more than the War on Terror imagined as lost. But then Cronin has at the same time found a way to reactivate some very old colonial nightmares: One scene has a settlement of human survivors—the creepy survivors; the bad survivors—readying a human sacrifice, to placate the vampire-zombies, in what is clearly a replay of early Spanish lore about the Aztecs. This association is then cemented by Cronin’s notion of where vampirism comes from: It is a virus, let loose from deepest Bolivia, a kind of bat-Ebola, and its sinister work will be to make the United States equatorial. Fast-zombie stories take civilization as their highest good—that might sound like an uncontroversial proposition, but it isn’t—lots of stories don’t. They then designate the zombies as that-which-can-cancel-civilization, a baggy category that can include both al Qaeda and Zulus. Or to put this another way: Fast-zombie stories are devices for making palatable some of the old imperial beliefs, or, if you like, for manufacturing neo-imperial anxieties, though they have their own distinctive way of doing this, one that rather than flaunting the sturdy supremacy of civilization, emphasizes instead the latter’s tenuousness and so the possibility that culture and progress and refinement could collapse in their very hubs and capitals.

What I want to do at this point is list a number of things that early reviewers have said about The Passage; itemize this generic praise back into its commonplaces; and then work out what those vague and blurbish abstractions, with particular reference to this specific novel, actually mean.

•1) Reviewers have routinely described the book as “epic.” This was inevitable, because the book is long, 750 pages and counting. But for once that tag seems appropriate; it seems to indicate something more than just length. The Passage shares with the classical epics—Homer, Virgil, Dante, and the like—techniques and scenes that one doesn’t typically find even in other big, multiplot novels: above all, a vast and prophetic time scheme that, strictly tallied, covers more than a thousand years. The novel falls roughly into three sections: The first part recounts the outbreak of the zombie contagion and the collapse of the US government and American society; the second part jumps ahead a century and describes the workings of a survivor colony living behind walls in the interior of California; the third part follows a band of adventurers as they peel away from that colony and march across the American West, battling zombies, briefly joining a sinister counter-colony, and then enrolling, some of them, in the rump US Army—or rather the Army of the Republic of Texas, which it turns out has been on the ground all along and is the novel’s rootin’-tootin’ deus.

What Cronin shares with the Mediterranean and Mediterranean-style epics, in other words, is their long-durée concern with the Fate of Civilizations, a concern that requires his distended and decidedly non-novelistic narrative canvas, the span of generations. It is from the epic, too, that he has borrowed his descriptions of the zombie armies, though perhaps unwittingly and at two or three removes. Epics are utterly fixated on the distinction between fully settled people and still tribal or semi-nomadic ones. The final books of The Aeneid describe a small army of Trojan survivors as they invade Italy and conquer its indigenous people. Milton’s Paradise Lost describes Adam and Eve as two dwellers in the wilderness, naked foragers in “the new world.” The first American epic, Timothy Dwight’s Conquest of Canaan, recounts in heroic terms a righteous people’s war of extermination against a nation of savages whose land they regard as earmarked. The affinity matters because it is in some of its epic qualities that The Passage is least like a fast-zombie movie, since the films generally have compressed time-frames; are interested only in the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath; and almost never show survivors successfully fighting back. This is how we know that Cronin is not just cashing in—because to write a fast-zombie epic is something entirely different from, say, just novelizing Dead Alive, simply by virtue of letting the novel proceed past page 250, past the nuclear explosions over Boise and Bend, Oregon—simply, that is, by allowing that there might be, even after the swarming, story left to tell.

This then brings us to the next claim that reviewers have been making, which is that…

•2) The Passage is a wonderfully hopeful book.  Time magazine called it “a story about human beings trying to generate new hope.” One of Salon’s readers remarked that “the post-apocalyptic world feels more hopeful than what preceded it.” Another reader agreed that the book’s middle and late sections are “immensely hopeful.” This hope is one of the things in the novel that most needs specifying, because Cronin has produced a full-on reconstruction narrative. It is hard to stress this point with the banging emphasis it deserves. The mood is one of settler expectancy, of pilgrims surveying a land whose savage inhabitants are dying of an introduced disease, though they still lurk ferociously in forests and canyons. The Passage, in other words, is trying to counter the despondent vibe of the long Iraq-Afghanistan decade by retelling the old America myth the way that public school textbooks are no longer allowed to tell it; by trying to get you to occupy the valiant position of the embattled pioneer, to imaginatively inhabit the geography of early settlement, what we used to call the frontier.

There are actually two major historical models that Cronin has incorporated into his book. The first is medieval Europe, especially in its early stages, the systole and diastole of contraction and expansion, the post-Roman heartbeat: villages in Normandy gathering in their borders like so much extra fabric; towns building walls; lords building castles; and then—back out into the wastelands; the outgrowth of an armed agrarianism; planned settlements for serfs beyond the Elbe, generous terms, no labor service, five years rent-free!; Teutonic Knights; Frankish machine-men with their monster-horses and their death-arrows; northern crusades into the heathen Baltic; the Spanish Reconquista—and no historical meme looms larger in The Passage than that: the Reconquest of America. The book’s survivors live in a walled city and have something like guilds and wear tunics and have all but abandoned books and carry crossbows, which were the tenth century’s great advance in military technology, a weapon  so unsportingly good at killing people that the Church tried to limit its use. Crossbowmen were briefly pariahs.

The survivors also ride horses, though this image obviously does double duty. For beyond its medievalism, The Passage is most obviously a zombie Western—Cronin himself has said as much—subcategory siege, with the California settlement doubling as fort. Survivors trek across Nevada and Colorado. They cook jonnycake. A man in a remote house pours boiling water into a tub for his pregnant woman and sits watch at night, shotgun across his lap, armed against whatever might come stalking out of the woods.

The Passage, then, generates “hope” only because it’s underlying notion is that we’ve been through this all before; it is telling, through proxies and vampire-puppets, a history whose ending we already know; and so reassuring us of a certain cycle or historical repetition. Cronin’s answer to our usual bum and apocalyptic trip is to help us envision another round of colonization. North America will get to resettle itself. Indian Wars will be refought. To this end, the novel works in five or six documents form the distant future—conference papers from some symposium a millennium down the line—which is our guarantee, from an early point in our reading, that civilization has survived somewhere and in some form.

Another claim out of the reviews…

•3) The Passage is especially interested in what one reader calls “the civic structure of the colony.” This is true—and it’s an extension of the last point—because it involves “hope” again—and not just hope, but this horror novel’s unexpected interest in hope’s proper literary form and vehicle, which is utopia. Absolutely nothing about The Passage is more surprising than the moment that comes about a third of the way through, after you’ve read hundreds of pages of an utterly routine X-Files/outbreak plot, and you turn the page, and that plot is gone, and a full-blown utopia has taken its place, which is another way of gauging Cronin’s sense of his own writerliness, since the genre-swap—from apocalypse to utopia—is among other things a shift over from a heavily cinematic form to a quite peculiarly literary one. I don’t know that film is structurally barred from attempting outright utopias; I do know that it almost never does. Cronin, for his part, goes so far as to reproduce in its entirety the survivor colony’s written constitution, which is how you know that he has the genre’s canonical texts in mind—Thomas More, William Morris, and the like—that he is actually speculating about the daily workings of an alternate political order. That list of basic laws is the token of Cronin’s utopian seriousness (and is one of the feature’s of utopian writing that a commercial film would have the hardest time reproducing). Salon’s book critic, Laura Miller, said that the utopia was her favorite section of the book, but she is professionally disallowed from using that word, so what she actually said was that she “loves stories about how people form and sustain communities.” “Isn’t life in this last city kind of ideal?” a reader asked, “—if you ignore the vampire bit.”

It is under cover of phrases like these—“sustaining community,” “ideal city life”—that the novel’s fascism rides in. This is itself rather fascinating, since utopia often seems like the special province of the political Left, in some another-world-is-possible kind of way. The term itself, officially neutral, nominally harnessed to no particular ideology, was claimed by socialist thinkers early on. Fredric Jameson continues to use it as a euphemism for “communism.” So it is all the more remarkable to watch an American novelist, in apparent sincerity, attempt a utopia with strong fascist elements. There are at least three:

a) The first thing the constitution does is establish sovereignty, a “final authority” charged with “safeguarding DOMESTIC ORDER” and empowered to declare “CIVIL EMERGENCY.” This is Schmittian boilerplate, and generically authoritarian rather than specifically fascist, but it is worth noting that Cronin’s California does, in fact, break with the main lines of Anglo-American political thought, which—with their doctrines of mixed monarchy, the division of powers, check-and-balances, institutional cantilevers and counterweights, programmed-in gridlock and indecision—have always been hostile to sovereignty of precisely this kind. Montesquieu and Madison are among the books that no-one in the future will be reading.

b) This second one will take a little more explaining. Some social historians think that modern politics came into being in the seventeenth century when European governments began allowing themselves to worry about demography, which is to say to worry about the size and health of their populations. This led, in a hundred different ways, to a politics of the body; a medicalized politics of health and hygiene and sanitation; new political initiatives around birth and death; &c. One way of thinking about fascism is that it marked the culmination and cancerous transformation of this centuries-old development, which, however, continues to shape all modern governments, and especially the social democracies, to some greater or lesser degree. The important point about Cronin, then, is that his utopian colony is nakedly biopolitical in just this way, a utopia of eugenics and euthanasia. Fully a third of the constitution’s provisions involve quarantine. There are entire chapters devoted to mercy killings; when colonists are dragged away by vampires, their closest family have to ritually keep watch on the colony’s walls and cut them down if they return. Cronin calls this “standing the mercy.” Women in his utopia are taught trades, but then forced to abandon them when they become pregnant, relegated into compulsory motherhood, in a special building they are not allowed to leave. It is Cronin’s bleak gift to make such a scenario seem reasonable to an ordinary American reader—to make plausible that old physiocratic preoccupation with demography, with keeping the numbers up—by forcing us to imagine a human population reduced to some few hundreds.

c) The colony is also pervasively militarized, which is one of the ways its order is most like a fascism and least like an ordinary authoritarianism, since yer run-of-the-mill authoritarian wants the leadership to preserve a monopoly on force. In Cronin’s future, everyone is taught how to fight. There are weapons ready in every room. This is an ethos of war and blood, a society that has regenerated itself by abandoning the pacifism and potbellies of liberal society, though on a casual read, this all registers only as a low-level Spartanism. Nine-year olds get put through their daily samurai drills: “Where do they come from?” “THEY COME FROM ABOVE!” “And what do we get?” “WE GET ONE SHOT!”

That’s how The Passage looks if you emphasize its utopian qualities, hence its imagined innovations, its breaks with the established order of 2010—and it’s worth underscoring that these add up to a kind of political argument, since Cronin is trying to explain the difference between a society that knows how to survive a terrorist-savage threat and the United States, which, in the novel’s terms, mostly doesn’t. To that extent, these breaks all have the force of recommendations, what the U.S. could have done, but failed to do, to keep itself intact: Streamline the political chain of command, make sure pregnant women stop working, strictly limit the rights of immigrants, lie to the children, seal the borders, build a wall around them, shoot anyone who gets close.

But we can also run the argument in the other direction, and emphasize instead those features of our readerly present that Cronin’s settler-utopians would preserve. The novel’s medievalism, reconsidered from this angle, turns out to be something of a red herring, since its survivors see themselves as the keepers of American techno-civilization; the guardians of illumination in a vampire dark age, though that word, illumination, now refers to halogen lamps and not manuscripts; the ones who can keep running—literally; this is in the novel—the Humvees of the lost world. The novel’s premise is that civilization has collapsed, and yet it remains most interested in the people who have inherited American achievement. Civilization will only be possible again when people figure out how to re-activate its machinery. The middle sections of the novel are accordingly made up of three stock scenes regularly repeated: Characters try to improvise a patch on some machine they consider essential but no longer know, curved-arch-like, how to manufacture. Characters leave the colony to scavenge century-old goods from decaying strip malls and military bases, hunter-gatherers foraging for high-tops like they’re loganberries. Characters encounter some forgotten or never-before-seen device and wonder what it is and how to use it. This aspect of the novel becomes more and more important until it effectively takes over, since the novel’s final order of business is to fold the colonist-survivors into the U.S. Army, which is a techno-survival of an entirely different order, the novel’s strange belated admission that civilization didn’t really collapse after all, certainly not to some zero point. What destroys the first host of vampire-zombies, then, is a nuclear bomb left over from the military—a military solution, then, to a problem created by the military. Salon’s Laura Miller says she likes that the colonists come to the realization that they “need the outside world,” but taken on its own the phrase “outside world” could mean just about anything, when the novel is by necessity much more specific: The colonists need a modern military and heavy ordnance.

The one observation that Miller makes that is flat out wrong is that the novel’s idiom is not ethical or religious. She has said this more than once: “Cronin’s novel isn’t about the clash between good and evil, but about humanity’s struggle to forge a better world.” “Cronin’s characters, unlike [Stephen] King’s [in The Stand], are not caught up in a struggle between Good and Evil.” It’s true that Cronin is being a little sneaky on this front. The survivor colony is nominally post-Christian; they remember Christmas only as a rumor or a legend; they have adopted a new calendar that makes no reference to Domini. But then Cronin makes it his business, in the novel’s final chapters, to smuggle back in all the Christian language that he has up to that point carefully withheld. The Passage, indeed, is so stupidly ethical that it features not only a demonic head vampire whose name contains the word cock, but two supernaturally good characters, as well, the more important of whom is a pre-pubescent girl, and cock and girl appear to one character by turns in a dream and tell him respectively to murder and not to murder a woman in that dream, as in: Cartoon devil on your left shoulder, cartoon angel on your right. That the other radiantly moral figure is a Catholic nun should sufficiently confirm the point. In fact, by the time the novel ends, readers will have to swallow: an immortal nun, an act of heroic martyrdom, characters galvanized upon hearing Bible stories, a set of fiendish counter-apostles called “the Twelve,” and a group fighting these hellhounds led by a man named Peter, about whom sentences like this are written: “He inched his way forward, each step an act of faith.”

More generally, The Passage is packed with writing borrowed from the traditions of sentimental and domestic writing, and this, too, adds up to a kind of shadow Christianity or orthodox morality. It is also another of the ways—indeed, the most pervasive way—in which The Passage tries to make literature out of its cinematic scenario. Everything is POV, free indirect discourse, interior monologue. Events are endlessly focalized, and an intimacy is thereby obtruded on this Gibbonesque-Hobbsean story of civilizations falling and original contracts being formed. It is hard to overstate just how much family writing there is in this book, paragraph upon paragraph describing the ferocious attachments one feels to one’s closest kin: The only moment of love the colony’s leader ever felt was when his daughter was born. One woman reflects at length on how “wonderful” it was “to feel a baby moving inside her.” A tough warrior out on the quest confesses that what he misses most are “the littles.” Time praised the book for its “psychological insight.” Laura Miller said it was a vampire-zombie story “with heart.” In sentences like those we see a hard Right politics being made psychologically credible to a contemporary readership—and the psychology in play is a reassuringly familiar one, the psychology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a PTA meeting, the known term that carries you to an unknown place. Fascism is something you do for the kids.

What we can say now, then, is that Cronin’s utopio-fascism is tempered by a certain conservatism. But then fascism, of course, came in all sorts of different forms; it had national variants for one; and each fascist intellectual dreamed up a slightly different fascism, none of which corresponded precisely to any of the fascisms that actually existed on the ground. In the interests of precision, then: Cronin is helping us make our peace with an American fascism, but his is not the fascism of the intellectuals and the avant gardists, not a Nietzschean and anti-bourgeois fascism, which would, let’s face it, probably prefer the vampires. His is a fascism that has in certain key tenets—respect for Christianity and a conventional military hierarchy—joined forces with the conventional Right: a Spanish fascism, if you follow me, rather than a German one.

But then it’s not enough to name, however precisely, which particular historical variant of fascism Cronin is trying to resurrect. The important point, rather, is that Cronin is trying to imagine a version of fascism that has never existed, and this gets us to the crux of the matter: How, after all, do you engineer a fascism that will be palatable to a contemporary American audience, and not just to any audience, but to a Salon audience, a bunch of literate Lefties, the type of people who participate in book clubs? The answer, I think, is quickly given: You subtract race from the equation. For Cronin’s colonists are all multi-racial; the novel makes a big deal of this early on. Racial categories are, like the Jesus story, one of those things from Before that the survivors have heard about but barely understand. The novel is more cunning than this even. The utopian section begins with a kind of oral history recorded by the last person who was born before the vampire apocalypse. And she’s an old black woman, although the novel never out and tells you this; it expects you to hear it in her cadences. That’s a far cry from, say, Tolkien, who is sheerest poison, Wagnerite Anglo-fascism without the tunes. Tolkien’s racialism was always all but overt, just under the surface, like Norplant: all those Celtic-Viking heroes and elephant-riding bad men from the East; that scheming, greedy golem-Jew; those monstrous Urak-hai-sounds-like-Iroquois. So whatever Cronin is up to, it’s not that. Instead, he has worked out a more subtle kind of racial feint; he makes a black woman our gateway into the fascist utopia. The novel actually does something similar in matters of gender, since our colonist-heroes end up visiting two other survivor compounds, each of which treats women much worse than the novel’s central settlement, which means that readers can tell themselves that the colony, whatever its policies on pregnant women, has achieved a fair degree of gender equity. And then that’s it right there: A fascism in which people of all races and genders can participate more or less equally—that’s how one creates a fascism that will pass first-line liberal scrutiny. If you make it so that fascism isn’t primarily racial, an American reader won’t even recognize it as fascism. But then, of course, Cronin can only produce this de-racialized version of fascism because he has transferred the entire apparatus of race onto the zombies, who are sometimes just called “the Many” and who are, of course, a population of the killable. He can loosen racial categories among the survivors, because he has preserved the lethality of race at a higher and more abstract level. Not that any of this is buried in the novel, exactly, since the survivors have a series of different racial epithets for the zombies, one of which is “smokes,” which, well, if you don’t know, you should probably look it up, is all I’m saying. One of Salon’s readers said that “smokes” was “invented language” —and thought it was neat. And it just ain’t … neat, I mean … or invented.