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.

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.

The Discreet Charms of the DVD

Since we’ve been locked in, I have taken it upon myself to rely a bit yes on the internet for the evenings entertainment, and to tuck into my ancient collecton of DVD’s and Blu-Rays. No chance of a failure of Net Neutrality (*snicker*) to deprive me of a viewing. Here’s what I’ve watched over the past week:

  • Waiting for Guffman
  • This is Spinal Tap
  • Ed Wood
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Lost in Translation
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

All of these, except perhaps the last one, are old favorites, all things I know I like, but all things I haven’t watched in forever. It’s always easier to crumple down into the couch and be served up some New Hotness by our content providers.

I mean, I watched Tiger King like everyone else, and thoroughly enjoyed the madness of it. That was a delightfully Marlovian tale: vengeance and hatred and conspiracy, with a dangerous doomed animals in the mis-en-scene (If there are any tigers left alive in the wild when this century is half-over, my old eyes will be surprised to see them). Also, fundamentally American: puritanism vs. license. All sinners in the hands of an angry God.

But it’s been fun to kick it old-school, to appreciate the collection that I was long told would be obsolete. Not so, my lovelies. I’ve taken it as another opportunity to unplug from the Matrix.

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.

 

Quick Review: The Rise of Skywalker

SWsplatterEverything in here is SPOILERS, because we’ve reached that reality in Star Wars movies. The guys at Red Letter Media have been saying since Rogue One that there are only so many things that can happen in Star Wars, so even if you technically haven’t seen the ninth (and final?) episode, you’ve seen most of the things it has on offer. There are escapes and jumps to lightspeed and blasting stormtroopers and epic lightsaber fights and grand space battles. Heroes will be tempted to turn to the dark side of the force. The villain who’s been THE villain will be THE villain again, and he will do the same villainous acts. There are one or two mild surprises, but even these are predictable. This is a Star Wars movie that approaches an almost mystical reverence for itself as such.

Thus, it veers hard away from whatever Rian Johnson was attempting to move towards with The Last Jedi, almost apologetically giving the fans every emotional touchstone they could want. Of course, such a course precludes any possibility of expanding on the Saga. What we are left with amounts to a do-over of Return of the Jedi, minus the Death Star (or with a million Death Stars, depending on your point of view). The only real emotions in it are feelings of being haunted by the weight of past actions and past glories, an unavoidable meta-commentary on the state of the story and the fandom and everything else. This movie, and Star Wars itself, is a run-down mansion haunted by ghosts.

Just to beat this point home, the climax of the movie is determined precisely by the past flooding back in to save the world from the past. Just as THE Villain (yup, it’s Palpatine), is back, standing in for *every* Sith, so Rey hears the voices of *every* Jedi. No one at Lucasfilm can think of doing things any other way. It’s either desperate or cynical and possibly both.

None of which is to say that it’s a bad movie. It moves along snappily. You’re not ever confused as to what’s happening and why. You never have a scene end and think “what was that all about?” J.J. Abrams’ trademark visual energy is very much present. I’ll even cop to one or two moves bringing about genuine emotion. But once it’s over, it feels entirely forgettable. It’s Star Wars: A Star Wars Story: Featuring Star Wars. It’s exactly what Scorcese was talking about with movies becoming theme park rides.

Which leaves us with that show about not-Boba Fett and not-Yoda. I’ve heard its pretty good. If they can keep that going a few more seasons, that galaxy might grow after all.

Of Snobbery and Boredom

A thought about my most recent review:

I don’t tend to like things unless they stand out from the herd. Call that elitism, call it snobbery; I don’t care. I can’t pretend to like things I don’t like.

One thing I feel obligated to point out is that I detest snobbery. Snobbery is close-minded, passive bullying. Snobbery is adopting a categorical rule that X kind of story, told by Y kind of people, cannot possibly be good. It is a sweeping (possibly hasty) generalization, a fallacy of relevance.

That line about not liking things unless they stand out from the herd sounds snobby as hell, but I dont’ really mean it like that. I’m not holding myself above the Great Unwashed and their low-brow tastes. I’m fine with common tastes and basic stuff. They can be a positive tonic.

What I mean by that is I get bored of seeing the same kind of stories over and over. Everyone likes to dump on Hallmark movies this time of year for their cookie-cutter plots, but the truth is almost every genre has tropes that it regularly employs. This is true of so-called “Prestige Television” as well. No one who sat through the Game of Thrones finale could have escaped how obligatory that ending felt.

Certain kinds of stories appeal to me more than others. That’s personal taste. What snobs do is conflate their personal taste with universal aesthetic truths. A story may not interest me, but it would be wrong to say that a story is bad because I’m not interested in it.

So you should never take my grumbles about Nothing to See at the Theater as serious aesthetic judgements. That’s just me being bored, and venting spleen accordingly. 80% of all my prejudices are “Good Lord, this again…” That doesn’t prevent me from overcoming it.