The Stimulus Does Not Provide Enough Funding for Transit (Or, More things we can blame on The Reader)

January 28, 2009

This was the year that the Holocaust film cohered as a genre. Fifteen years after the watershed Schindler’s List, the number of films about the Holocaust has grown so large that recurrent images have turned into conventions or even tropes. NY Mag offered a helpful chart for seeing which Holocaust movie was right for you and Slate published a Taxonomy of Holocaust films, crudely laying out the occasional simplicity of the films in a way that recalls the description of a wrestling film given to Barton Fink:

“Well…usually they’re simple morality tales. There’s a good wrestler and a bad wrestler whom he confronts at the end. In between, the good wrestler has a love interest or a small child he has to protect.”

While it’s redundant to adnumber texts on the formulaic nature of films (including my own review of The Great Debaters), I chose to cite Barton Fink because of how strange the movie is, how unclassifiable. Taking place at the outset of American intervention in World War II, the Holocaust is a theme of the movie: anti-Semitism is a current throughout, with Fink regularly called “kike,” and John Goodman’s character offers a “Heil Hitler” as the movie turns utterly surreal. The film even captures the reluctance of the Hollywood Jews to talk about what may be happening in the old country.

Barton Fink is a challenging film, the type that an A.O. Scott would endorse (though he may not put it in the category of Holocaust film). For Scott, the danger of Holocaust movies is not that they’ve become a permanent fixture like Westerns, but that they’re simplistic in their moralizing

It seems right that movies about a difficult subject should themselves be difficult. But the fate of difficult movies with subtitles, usually, is to slip in and out of American theaters without leaving much of a trace. The big Holocaust movies of the big movie season will make more of an impression, allowing audiences vicarious immersion in a history that they nonetheless keep at a safe, mediated difference, even as they risk bathos and overreach in the process. We don’t have to ask what the Holocaust means to us since the movies answer that question for us. more

Scott’s treatise was well-reasoned, and insightful, and it’s not at all surprising that it cut through and made the impact that it did. No one else had come close to ever articulating the discontents we feel with the genre, with capturing the repetitive and often troubling moral reasoning that categorizes so much Holocaust film. Certainly no one had ever done it as cogently and respectfully as Scott.

Sadly, his piece promises to be as topical in a year’s time. With The Reader nominated for Best Picture, I can’t help but worry about Eternal Return.

The Reader is not a terrible movie, just a mediocre one. The premise of the movie is actually quite intriguing: the onset of adolescence is retrospectively discovered to have meant something else as we learn more about the life of the other participant. It’s also one of the rare (only?) English movies about the experience of Germans who grew up with both guilt and mystification over what had happened. Some amazing novels have been written about the topic (anything by W.G. Sebald), and there will certainly be a great film made about the vicissitude of German experiences after the War. But this isn’t it.

It’s major problem is its shocking timidity. Winslet is naked for a good portion of the film, but the scenes are neither erotic nor traumatizing. She’s simply nude. Daldry, trying not to be sensationalist, veers too far in the opposite extreme. Yes there is the delicacy of depicting a relationship between a minor and an adult, but the film plays down all emotions attached to their lovemaking. Their love affair is muted to the point that Fiennes character’s repression is incomprehensible. We may understand the premise of why he becomes traumatized, but we don’t see it on film. There is no sexual politics, simply sex. This was the part of the film that had the greatest chance of doing something new and making an impact, and it was here that it’s failure is most disappointing.

It’s another example of a film limited in its scope.

On a final, different, note Ty Burr has some good thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire over at the Globe’s Movie blog. Burr’s blog is definitely one of the best film related blogs out there. My own thoughts on Slumdog here.

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