Quick Review: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, I finally watched it. I’d had a hard time getting into it: first off-put by the banality of “LOL HItler” (World War 2 was eighty years ago), then by being bored during the first half-hour. Frankly, for a film that billed itself as a trangressive comedy, there weren’t nearly enough laughs (the most transgressive thing in it is the opening credits, which juxtaposes Nazi propaganda reels with a German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). The funniest character is Sam Rockwell’s Captain K, a one-eyed drunk with deadpan lines and a silent humanity miles under the surface. He’s actually a character, unlike Rebel Wilson’s Nazi matron, who’s a parody.

One struggles to find laughs otherwise. The Hitler Imaginary Friend bit isn’t as funny as it wants to be. One gets the gag – Hitler talking like a ten-year-old – and it’s not bad for all that. But it’s a shade short of being brilliant, especially as the film’s hook.

I must pause here to make the Historian’s Grumble. What year is this supposed to be? There’s talk of The Allies Landing in Italy, which was 1943. But then Imaginary Hitler references the Von Stauffenberg plot as occurring “last year”. But that plot occured in 1944, a month after the D-Day landings. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since the film ends in the Gotterdamerung of 1945. But it annoyed me, and prevented me from getting into it.

That said, the charms outweigh the faults. Scarlett Johanssen picks this film up and carries it on her shoulders. She’s easily the best thing in it: a performance light and nimble, yet utterly grounded. The film grows whenever she’s on screen, and her character’s arc provides meaning and heart to it. The character of Jorgi – Jojo’s porky pal, who ends up in the Volksturrm – is a delight, remaining entirely child-like as the world goes blood-mad around him. The relationship between Jojo and the Girl in the Wall gets better as it goes on, becoming less “LOL Nazis” and turning into something human. Both characters overcome distrust and establish grounds for social intercourse, which grow into a familial relationship. Elsa becomes Jojo’s long-lost sister (who is dead at the start of the film, for reasons that remain intriguingly unknown), and they come to rely upon each other. In that respect, the film is a human success.

Quick Reviews: Dovlatov and The Death of Stalin

What can I say, sometimes my mood becomes very Russian.

Dovlatov is a film about a Soviet dissident writer before he became well-known. It’s less a move than it is a portrait of the writer as a winsome rapscalion. Not very much happens except you spend a week or so in this guys’ life in 1971, deep into the Brezhnev Twilight, which is my favorite era of Soviet history because of the pure Empty Nothing of it. It’s after the War and after the Purges, but before anyone dared to let anything thaw. And the movie positively swims in that: letting the USSR of the 70’s make you want to put a bullet in your brain, and enjoy the fact that Our Hero remains himself in spite of the fact that he can’t get 25 rubles together to buy his daughter a doll. In an era where everyone feels oppressed, watching a man deal with actual oppression while refusing to give into it is quite inspiring. Nothing happens, plotwise, but that’s kind of the point. It feels bad in that way that feels so good.

The Death of Stalin was one of those things that I waited eagerly to finally pop onto Netflix. In today’s poltical climate, the idea that anyone would satirize the Soviet Union is kind of astounding. The ever-present Communist Alibi would seem to preclude its existence. And yet, it was praised by all the usual suspects. Sometimes things aren’t as black as you fear.

That being said, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. The Death of Stalin bills itself as a black comedy, but the reality of the Soviet regime really defies humor. You can draw mirth from seeing hapless individuals drawn into the blood void of communism for a little while, but the ferocity of the feud between Kruschev and Beria is too real to be laughed at. When Kruschev shouts “I will fucking bury you in history!” to Beria’s burning corpse (Spoilers if you’ve never read a history book), you agree, you sympathize, but you don’t laugh. It isn’t funny.

Also, those two are miscast. Steve Buscemi, playing Kruschev, looked like the real-life Lavrenti Beria, and Simon Russel Beale, playing Beria, is practically a ringer for Kruschev. And it’s not like Buscemi, who spent 5 seasons as a gangster on Boardwalk Empire, couldn’t have pulled off that mix of worming and psychopathy. A missed opportunity.

I will say that the film doesn’t even attempt the line that the Soviet Union was a good idea inexplicably run by bad men. After the monster Beria is shuffled off, we get barbed postlude captions telling us that Kruschev stayed in power only so long as he could keep a wilier sharp – the aforementioned Brezhnev – down. There may have been no pure monsters after Stalin, but gangsters they had, and Dovlatov doesn’t speak well of the world those gangsters maintained.

Managing the Flow

Currently, I’m trying to launch a brand. I dislike that phrase but there it is. I’ve set up the following things:

  • A Patreon
  • A Podcast
  • A YouTube Channel
  • A Twitter
  • A Gumroad (soon)

Additionally, I’m producing content for the next issue of UJ (out next month), and I’m trying to grease the creative wheels on a novel I’ve started. This is a lot for one man to do, when he has a household to manage.

On top of this, I’m doing it with minimal support. We have our fans, and even Patrons, but we don’t have a publishing house or an agency or even a website. We are a fart in a hurricane attempting, at this point, to be a louder fart.

This cannot but cause frustration. That feeling of shouting into a void. So the other thing I must manage is the black dog, which comes sniffing around the barn at odd hours and making a pest of himself. The struggle to be heard in the internet age is a real struggle.

There’s a book I’m reading related to this, called Deep Work, which I’ve started but put down so I could finish The Shining (more on that in another blog). It’s only tangentially about the internet and more about the way one needs to manage one’s time and inputs in order to do truly ground-breaking work. It has given me insight. While I’ve enjoyed reading the stuff that’s been created for the UJ Singles Collection (coming soon!), I can’t help but feel the wish to get to the next level. As my post about critics argued, art must come from artists, so the art can only reflect the artist. If the artist is distracted, what happens?

When Critics Don’t Help, and When They Do

When I say “critic” I don’t mean “someone who gives you feedback on a piece of art”, I mean “someone who applies a formal critical assessment to your work”. You know, the nerds.

This video, worth watching in full (it’s less than 9 minutes), discusses well two things:

  1. That authors/artists don’t necessarily follow a logic of intent, per se.
  2. That critics are guilty of imposing narratives on works, under the guise of “uncovering”.

In the process of creation, very often the thing being created takes on a life of its own. The logic of decisions made at the begining have a way of binding the creator’s hand. When a character starts with a set of facts an author has given him, that set often requires actions in the context of the story that the author may not have considered. So unconsidered ideas have a way of bringing themselves to the top. Hence, while Tarantino did not start with the idea “Mr. White and Mr. Orange have a father/son kind of relationship”, because of the way he drew those characers and the positions he put them in, that came to the surface. Intent is not a linear reality.

Having said that, I can’t abide the notion that “The author is dead”, and critics and audiences can simply decide what a thing means and is. Anyone can describe their experience of a work, and have it be subjectively valid, even unassailable. But the post-modern inversion that the audience creates the work is inane. The video discusses the King Kong/race theory, the idea that King Kong is a metaphor for slavery in America. The makers of the film didn’t intend that. Critics have pointed out the metaphor after the fact of its creation.

Now, I’d like to draw a careful distinction here. Applying the slavery framework to King Kong is an interesting way of looking at it. It provides a fresh perspective on both. It syncs up. But so does Dark Side of the Moon sync up with The Wizard of Oz (Although not perfectly. The album’s only about half the running time of the movie). It’s interesting. It gives you a fresh perspective on both. But it’s absurd to argue that either work was created with the other in mind, or that either are necessary to the other. It is not necessary to view King Kong as a metaphor for slavery. You can do it, sure. It’s worth discussing. But it’s simplistic to take the next step and say “That’s what King Kong is. That’s all it is.”

To my mind, critics are the ones who need to be careful in insisting upon their juxtapositions. Criticism absent acknowledement of authorship is theft.

Let Us Now Discuss Gone With The Wind

There are two ways this can go: desperate attempt to defend this oh-so 1930’s take on historical drama, or dump all over it as the irritation it is. I will do the second thing. I do not like Gone With The Wind and never have. I don’t know why anyone does. I shall give a set of reasons why, and then I will lament its erasure anyway, because it’s really not hard to do that if you aren’t a millenarian bookburner.

Why I Detest Gone With The Wind:

  1. Scarlett O’Hara.

The big problem I have with this film is the protagonist.  You see, the protagonist has to be someone we identify with, someone whose values and motivations are roughly on a par with ours. This way, when the protagonist encounters conflict in the story, we have sympathy for her. Sympathy is a Greek Word that means “feels with”. We feel what the protagonist feels, and thus we are involved in the conflict of the story. We want the protagonist to win and the antagonist to lose, or if there is no antagonist, to overcome the conflict.

But if the protagonist is someone whose motivations we either don’t understand or don’t respect, we can’t identify with that person. This doesn’t mean the protagonist has to be perfect and without flaw, but there has to be some desire or motivation that we share with that person. These can be, but are not limited too: love, success, discovery, etc.

As to values, the protagonist needs to be someone who has a set of ethics roughly in line with the audience’s. Otherwise, we don’t like the protagonist and won’t sympathize with them.

Finally, the protagonist needs to be someone who we could sit in a room with for five minutes without desiring to slap the living hell out of them. She needs to be a more-or-less likable person, or even if their motivations are clear and their ethics impeccable, we won’t want to see or hear them, much less root for them.

So, a quick protagonist checklist – the Protagonist needs:

a) a clear and reasonable motivation

b) a clear and acceptable set of ethics

c) not to be irritating.

And for me, Scarlett O’Hara fails on all three counts. Her motivations are murky and/or ridiculous, her ethics are at best questionable, and she has absolutely no personal charm that would balance that. She’s a spoiled little rich girl who spends the bloodiest time in our nation’s history angry that she can’t marry the handsomest man she knows, and she deals with everyone around her with a mix of high-handed contempt and vicious infighting. She’s Goneril in a green gown.

Far from sympathizing with her, I revel in her misfortunes and desire that she suffer more of them. The first time I saw the movie, even as kid, I kept watching because I dearly wanted to see her suffer. I wanted someone, anyone, to teach her that she wasn’t the center of the known universe. The only other time I’ve had this experience with a movie was when I first saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when I wanted someone to do the same to Charlie. Just kidding. I meant Veruca Salt. But considering Veruca is supposed to be a villain, the fact that she and Scarlett remind me of one another is not a good thing.

2. Ashley Wilkes Useless Wanker

Neither can I stand the to-the-manor-born fopwagon Scarlett spends three hours obsessing over. It may sound odd an American like myself to use the insult “wanker”. It’s a word we generally associate with English people, especially working class ones. And that’s kind of the point I want to make about Useless Wanker, which is that some things don’t sound right in the wrong accent. 

So will someone explain to me why Useless Wanker is the only character in the movie who speaks in an English accent, even though he’s supposed to be from Georgia, just like Scarlett? This makes no sense, and is never addressed. They don’t even come up with a stupid cover explanation, like Useless went to finishing school in London, or is mom is English. They don’t give us anything.

Feed me no swill that Leslie Howard was English and couldn’t do a Southern accent. Vivien Leigh was English, and she trotted out her stage-southern “fiddle-dee-dee’s” just fine. I don’t know if anyone in antebellum Georgia ever talked like Scarlett O’Hara, but at least she tried. She helped us to suspend disbelief. Howard was just being lazy. Which is why I supposed he’s playing Useless.

You might argue that not everyone ostensibly Southern in the film has an ostensibly Southern accent. Gable doesn’t, even though Rhett Butler hails from South Carolina. You would argue fairly. However, Gable’s lack of an accent offends less than Howard’s, for a couple of reasons:

a) Gable was already an established star. American audiences knew what he sounded like. If he’d tried some rinky-dinky accent, it might have distracted audiences rather than helping them.

b) Rhett Butler is an outsider. Sounding different from the people at Tara or Twelve Oaks helps to establish this character’s first noteworthy trait.

c) Gable still sounds like someone from the United States of America. Suspend disbelief is easier on his behalf.

d) Clark Gable was cool. He’s the best thing in this movie. He gets a pass.

On the other hand, Leslie Howard was mostly known for playing – guess what? – stiff-necked Englishmen. So he actually needed that effort not to sound like himself, to resemble someone belonging in antebellum Georgia. Instead, every word out of the mouth of this belle idee of the Southern Gentleman announces to everyone with ears that he’s a foreigner, and again, this is never explained.

Since we’re on the subject of accents, I should point out the silly brogue that Thomas Mitchell throws on to play Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father, an immigrant from Ireland. It’s not a dreadful accent, although I do find myself expecting him to fulminate that the Yankees are after his Lucky Charms. I am instead confused that none of his Hibernian nature seems to have rubbed off on any of his three daughters. Not one of them say anything like what their father says. Not completely implausible, given growing up somewhere vastly different from Ireland with rather strong pressures to conform, but still weird, and it adds to the difficulty I have with Scarlett. 

She seems completely unrelated to her father, despite the emotional bond the film takes pains to establish between them. Despite her name, Katie Scarlett O’Hara is about as Irish as everyone pretends they are on St. Patrick’s Day. This is another opportunity to give the protagonist depth that the film chooses not to make, despite the labor involved it making Gerald O’Hara the most Oirishest paddy what ever drank whiskey from a pot o’gold.

3. Fetishization of the Confederacy

I’m just gonna display my biases. I’m a Yankee. I had two ancestors who fought in the Union Army. I’m not a big fan of the Confederacy or the people who engage in apologetics in its name. I have never understood why anyone would want to honor it.

The Confederate States of America lasted a little bit longer than a presidential term. Every state in it has been part of the USA way longer than the CSA. The states on the Eastern seaboard were British Colonies longer than they were part of the CSA. The CSA was a failure in every respect.

Not only did the Confederate government lose the war, but it violated its own principles even as it fought for them. Far from being a libertarian haven, the CSA was a borderline fascist state by the time the war ended. Let’s go through the checklist:

  • Conscription – check
  • Assumption of dictatorial powers – check
  • Roving bands of terror squads seizing goods and executing those who resisted – check

In fairness, a lot of this stuff happened in the North, too. There was also conscription, and a pretty corrupt system of hiring substitutes to go with it. And Lincoln and the War Department certainly assumed dictatorial powers during the war. But the north didn’t go to war as a protest against the loss of liberty. The North went to war to put down a rebellion.

The only way you can possibly look back at this egregiance fondly is if you have grievances from that time that you cannot let go of. Which is exactly the problem that people who want to tear down Confederate monuments and to erase this movie have. But more on that later.

4. That Music

Look, it’s not a bad piece of music. It’s memorable, or hummable, or whatever. It used to be the CBS Million Dollar Movie Theme, when they had that sort of thing.

I even get the reason it’s repeated so many times. One of the themes of the movie is Scarlett’s profound and mystical connection to the plantation she grew up on – Tara. And the theme is called “Tara’s Theme” So, the idea must be that every time something significant is happening in the movie, Tara is all around her, swelling its heaving slave-flecked bosom in emotional catharsis.

Unfortunately, since none of these scenes ever indicate anything but plot points, and never actual moments of catharsis in the character, it just sounds like they’re turning on the music as a kind of punctuation, like the scene wipes in Star Wars.

Consequently, the theme is overused, overused, overused and I become numb to anything good about it. This isn’t necessarily the music’s fault, but I still come to hate it. It’s hardly great music, anyway. It’s a pretty simple melody, actually, and really only evokes one emotion, that of nostalgia, and considering what the film is nostalgic for, I’d just as soon not. I’d rather listen to someone torture a cat with a nail file, or someone playing harmonica with their rear end. I would rather listen to ABBA, than ever hear that theme music ever again.

So let’s do like HBO Max and erase it, so I can be happy. Down the memory hole with this trash! Right?

No.

Gone With The Wind is not a film to my tastes. The story it tells doesn’t interest me, and it’s full of the 1930’s being nostalgic for the 1850’s in a way that frankly offends me. But the solution I have for that is the one that occurred to many readers a good way through my rant:

I don’t watch the damn thing.

It’s that simple. I watch other things, which are too my tastes, instead. Gone With The Wind is not a requirement in anyone’s life. No one will be shocked that you haven’t watched a movie that no one under the age of 85 will remember seeing in a theater. You don’t need to have anything to do with it.

And by all means, correct the narrative that Gone With The Wind offers. Give us Twelve Years a Slave instead. Raising a voice to describe the horrors of our history is necessary and good.

But erasing voices is not. Healthy cultures do not destroy art. Yes, Gone With The Wind is art. Have you seen it? Whatever my problems with it’s characters and framework, it’s an epic piece of visual storytelling. Even I, who can’t stand the film, think the Burning of Atlanta is gloriously shot.

And that’s the last time there’s been a film that even touched on The Burning of Atlanta. Think about that. 150 years ago half of our country underwent invasion by the other half, and we can’t abide to look at how this was done. (Is this one of the reasons I wrote The Sword? You think?) We’d rather smash anything that reminds us of it.

And to no purpose. Erasing every last statue or rememberance of Robert E. Lee won’t change his place in the course of history. Commanding his name be slashed from the books like an Egyptian Pharoah won’t change that we are in the world he had a hand in making. His ghost remains with us.

You don’t like the fact that a sizable portion of your fellow citizens find Lee honorable, and Scarlett O’Hara an iron woman? You will not change their minds by attempting to crimethought it away. Quite the opposite in fact: The Blu-Ray Edition of Gone With The Wind is now the #1 Move on Amazon.com. That’s right, people are panic-buying an 80-year-old film because they think their cultural history is being destroyed by people who despise them.

Gone With The Wind deserves to be replaced by a better film. It doesn’t deserved to be removed from film history, or attached with a lecture telling us what we should think about it. The only way its unpleasant influence can be undone is by outdoing it. Make an epic about the Civil War that’s more entertaining, more satisfying, that stares our history in its face and balances the loss of the past with the joy of progress. Add to the art, lest we find ourselves repeating its subject.

Cover Aesthetics

I’m the sort of guy who likes minimalist covers. A single image, one or three colors, something striking, a bold font. I like seeing those kinds of books. I like buying them. One of the things that hold me off from a lot of Fantasy literature, especially the Pulp kind, is the genre of cover art just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m slowly getting over that, however, as I’ve read enough to know that the pulp style is usually an honest display of what’s in the book. That has it’s own merit, even if I still find it too busy for my eyes.

Something like this, for example…

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…is perfect. Dark colors suggest mystery, the image is striking and portends danger. And this novel is a Dragon-Award winner, and as good an example of the swords & sorcery genre as you’re like to find. 

Then there’s something like this…

9781513655604

Completely different genre, of course (comedic urban social novel), so it’s supposed to look slightly odd. But again, plain background, so everything is focused on the image, which is suggestive of graffiti and whimsy. I haven’t read it, but I kind of want to.

Nazi Horror

Things I learned today:

  1. Roman Polanski experienced the Holocaust to a terrifying degree, losing his mother at Aushwitz, which puts his career as primarily a horror director into perspective (it doesn’t excuse his crimes and the bastard should have gone to jail – Fiat Iustitia, ruat astrum).
  2. There’s a whole sub-genre of Nazi horror cinema. I suppose I already knew this, but a blog calling itself Planet Auswitz analyzing it does rather Make It Official in a way.

For my money, the true Nazi Horror movie is Conspiracy. An HBO original from 2001, it gives you the other end of the monster. It takes place at a cushy conference in a lakeside villa. Not a drop of blood is spilled or a shot fired in anger. Nevertheless, it is a chilling meditation on human evil.

conspiracy-filmThe film is about the Wannsee Conference, wherein high-ranking Nazi officials planned the Endlosung der Judenfrage – the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, what Jews call the Shoah (“Calamity”), and what popular culture refers to as the Holocaust. Note this nomenclature. What we commonly consider a bloodthirsty pogrom on a larger scale, some bizarrely Teutonic irruption of anti-Semitic feeling, was in fact an entirely rational conclusion of bureaucratic logic. The Nazis came to Wannsee to sort out this Jewish business, once and for all. And given the status of Jews in the Third Reich, and the ongoing war, that business could only get sorted out one way.

The film makes this clear. If you’ve ever been in one of those meetings where all discussion is an illusion, the decision has been made already, and you are just being informed of the expectation to enthusiastically lend your support, then you will get this film. The meeting begins with a palimpset of discussion of alternative solutions – mass sterilization, primarily – but although it’s practicalities are debated it isn’t serious for a minute. With that camel’s nose inside the tent, the SS shove towards acceptance of what was already being done – mass extermination of Jews throughout Eastern Europe — in fits and starts. As having soldiers shoot them one by one is impracticable, poison gas becomes the obvious solution.

The dawning horror on mens faces as they realize what this meeting really is and that they’re really going to do it, that no real debate or discussion exists, that the fix is in, makes this film a favorite of mine. The verite aspect as well: the actual Wannsee conference took place in just about the running time of the movie. And it’s perhaps my favorite Kenneth Branagh performance. He plays Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, as a consummate politician, gemutlichkeit, but the iron fist slips out of the velvet glove when it needs to. The SS takeover of Jewish Policy questions from every other relevant government agency is the real purpose of the meeting, and Branagh plays that skillfully.

These men, highly educated, deeply civilized, allowed their reason to be corrupted by a premise — Jews are the authors of the world’s ills — that they never examined. Once accepted, this idea drives all before it, until not just humanity and sympathy, but even law, become unreasonable. Spiritual horror at the inversion of morality hit on an altogether different level than zombies, even if both are really about the same thing.

Godard is a Godless, Worshipful Communist

Was, whatever. Any perusal of his filmography — especially from the Era of ’68 — could have led me to that conclusion. But reading Godard on Godard, his collection of film criticism I earlier linked to, has rather shoved my nose in it, to a distasteful degree.

In his obscure five-run magazine Gazette du Cinema, Godard wrote a piece called “Towards a Political Cinema” sometime in 1950. It begins thusly:

One afternoon towards the end of a Gaumont newsreel, my eyes widened with pleasure: the young German Communists were parading on the occasion of the May Day Rally. Space was suddenly lines of lips and bodies, time the rising of fists in the air. On the faces of these young Saint Sebastians one saw the smile which has hunted the faces of happiness from the archaic Kores down to the Soviet cinema. One felt for Siegfried the same love as that which bound him to Limoges. Purely through the force of propaganda which animated them, these young people were beautiful. “The beautiful bodies of twenty-year-olds which should go naked”

Yes, the great Soviet actors speak in the name of the Party, but like Hermione of her longings and Lear of his madness. their gestures are meaningful only in so far as they repeat some primordial action. Like Kierkegaard’s ethician, a political cinema is always rooted in repetition: of history. The actor infallibly becomes what he once was, the priest. The Fall of Berlin and The Battle of Stalingrad are Masses for a consummation.

He at least has the honesty to acknowledge propaganda as propaganda, and to absolve it, as everyone does, by its intentions. Communists always get their alibi.

One wonders if it occurs to Godard that the little Saint Sebastian’s has little choice in whether they were there or not. Under communism, everything not forbidden is compulsory, and everything compulsory is to be embraced with the enthusiasm of addicts. After a while, this simply becomes conditioning. One also wonders if this did occur to him, and this is precisely the reason he likes it. By the effacing of the individual alone can New Soviet Man be built. That’s why the gulags and the trials and the mass starvation were not accidental, not unintended aberrations of Communism. They were precisely the point. By terror are the little virgins sacrificed to appease the great God History.

There is nothing about this philosophy that is not Satanic.

 

Criterion Collection Lust and Other Class Settings

I haven’t watched a single thing on my art-house bucket list, but I’ve subscribed to the Criterion Collection subreddit, because displays of aesthetic approval from an institutional source matter more in the Matrix than actually developing aesthetic sense.

Which is fine, as most people have no idea what aesthetic sense even is. I include philosophers in that number. Among other things, I’m moseying through Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and he makes flash statements about unmusical people liking opera, but he never says what he means by “unmusical”. If Nietzsche had an ounce of Aristotle in him, he wouldn’t be so beholden to Hegel and Schopenhauer as pre-reading.

As it happens, reading German philosophy and watching New Wave Cinéma is mentally demanding, and as you can’t disprove the notion that any of them aren’t just jacking off, it rarely feels like a good time investment. But in small doses, it can be of use, if only as variety and challenge. Which was part of the point, if I recall correctly.