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Book Report: Author: Brutal honesty liberates

Recently, a thoughtful friend dropped by and shoved a book in my gut and said, "Read this. I think you'll enjoy it."

He's not in the habit of ordering people around so I was curious about why he felt so passionate about "We Learn Nothing," by Tim Kreider (Free Press, $20).

The dust jacket told me that Kreider is a cartoonist who draws and writes about the human condition in ways that startle.

For instance, why do we fall in love with people we don't even like? Or what if you survive a brush with death and it doesn't change you?

So I dug in and was amazed at Kreider' mordant wit and his skill as a writer:

"I'm as cheered as anyone when some crusader for family values gets caught in a cheap motel, defender of traditional marriage arrested in a men's room, or some censorious guardian of the children has his laptop confiscated. But I can't quite bring myself to join in the smirking over more ordinary lechery and weakness -- a former governor mooning over his soul mate at a press conference, a talk show host confessing on the air to affairs with his interns. Whom exactly do we think we're kidding? Is all this solemn reproach and pretended incomprehension just for the benefit of prigs and evangelicals the same way movies have to be hilariously bowdlerized on TV for the sake of viewers under ten? The usual rationale for our nosy interests in the private disgraces of public figures is that they show poor judgment, but this is like charging kamikazes with poor navigation....The truth is people are ravenous for sex, sociopaths for love. I sometimes like to daydream that if we were all somehow simultaneously outed as lechers and perverts and sentimental slobs, it might be, after the initial shock of disillusionment, liberating. It might be a relief to quit maintaining this rigid pose of normalcy and own up to the outlaws and monsters we are."

When I received "Screen Nazis," by Sabine Hake (University of Wisconsin Press, $34.95), I thought "boy oh boy!" I love movies.

I love movies about the Second World War because I grew up on them. And I especially like movies about the Second World War which features Nazis.

They scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid and now I watch them with joy, sure in the knowledge that they no longer exist (I hope).

So I figured Hake's book would be full of juicy stories about the fictional and non-fictional Nazis and the actors who played them. Would Helmut Dantine make it? Remember him? He was the Luftwaffe pilot who ended up in Mrs. Miniver's kitchen.

Or Conrad Veidt? The officer in Casablanca, who must have played a billion Prussian villains? How about Erich Von Stroheim? My thoughts raced past Sig Ruman and even to Peter Graves, the Nazi in disguise in "Stalag 17" as I opened the new book.

When am I ever going to learn that scholarly criticism has passed me by since my days struggling with the new criticism, which is no longer new, or even in existence?

There was little in the book about characters like Conrad Veidt or Walter Slezak. What there was in the book was theory couched in a morass of gobbledygook that stumped me from the start.

But wait!

Here's a page on Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds," the recent and infuriating movie in which all the Nazi bigwigs, including Hitler, are trapped and burned in a Parisian cinema.

Perhaps Professor Sabine Hake can explain the mess Tarantino has created, even his deliberate misspelling of "bastards." So I read on.

Here's what she writes about Tarantino's movie and Aleksandr Sokoruv's "Moloch":

"Of course, the question remains whether the parodistic irreverence in Tarantino serves any other purpose than to affirm the power of film over fascism, and whether the elegiac tone in Sokurov has any other role than to mourn the disappearance of power tout court. My answer in both cases would be a qualified no. Sustained by a self-perpetuating logic of empty signification, fascism in both films functions like a fetish in all three senses of the word: an object with almost supernatural powers (a myth in Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy's definition) that is then demystified; an object of desire (in French terms) that reveals the condition of lack and disavowal; and an obvious (in the Marxist sense) that is given commodity status in the contest of art cinema and film authorship. The unique forms of spectatorial enjoyment facilitated by such fetishistic self-referenciality are inseparable from what Mouffe calls the post-political: forms of engagement with political questions that avoid or dismiss political explanations."

Is she kidding? I have no idea.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.