Tag Archives: judaism

Happy Pi Day!

That’s right: for all you numerologists and baked good enthusiasts out there, today was 3/14, known in nerd circles as Pi Day. (Tomorrow, by the same token, is the Ides of March, or the 2,055th anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination.) To celebrate, it’s best to either eat a pie of your choice—I, for example, adore the French silk variety—or sit down to a random viewing of Darren Aronofsky’s film debut, Pi (1998). It’s a hyper-paranoid, high-contrast, apartment-bound thriller. In short, it’s Black Swan with numbers.

I’m not kidding. Aronofsky’s body of work is impressively consistent. Pi’s nebbishy hero Max (Sean Gullette) works just as hard to be perfect, and pays just as much for it, as Black Swan’s Nina. Max may not have an invasive mother or an imagined archrival like Lily, but he does have one faction after another bugging him on street corners, begging (and more) for his numerical secrets. All these poor Darren Aronofsky characters! You just want to give them a big hug.

A final note while I’m discussing Aronofsky: it’s interesting to see how prominently Jewish identity looms in his work. It’s rarely foregrounded, like it is in the works of the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen; so far as I can tell, the Hasidic rabbis in Pi are the only obvious example. But look at Sara Goldfarb and her friends in Requiem for a Dream or, curiously enough, the fact that all four female leads in Black Swan have Jewish backgrounds. What can we glean from this (admittedly strained) connection? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, let’s break out some rhubarb pie (mmm!), some forks, and have at it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

Just before I left the Philadelphia area, Ashley and I sat down to a romantic evening watching a Holocaust drama – namely, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Adrien Brody, who deservingly won an Oscar for his performance, is Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (duh) living in Warsaw during World War II. Brody is the film’s core, yet he’s never histrionic or larger than life; as a matter of fact, he’s smaller than life, as he grows more and more emaciated and is forced into tiny, claustrophobic spaces. It’s a very understated film that replaces the expected emotional outpours (see Schindler’s List) with muted reactions and muffled sobs.

Whereas Spielberg’s List almost becomes giddy with the process of duping the Nazis (sort of like a prestige version of Indiana Jones), Szpilman is always receding and taking anything he can get. There’s no room for huge gestures when a sip of water is a miracle. For long portions of the film, Brody barely says anything while his friends and family argue about possible courses of action. After he escapes the ghetto and is smuggled into a series of apartments, he becomes purely a survivalist, ultimately risking his life for a can of pickles. Szpilman’s story combines luck with animalistic perseverance because, as the film suggests, those two traits are necessary to survive.

If you’re like me, your ears pricked up when I said the word “apartment” back there, for it’s no coincidence that Polanski also directed the “Apartment Trilogy” of horror films (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Pianist is, perhaps surprisingly, very much of a piece with this earlier work – only this time around, Polanski’s paranoid, fidgety style is applied to real-life horrors experienced by the director himself, albeit in Krakow.

It’s useful, I think, to look at The Pianist as an autobiographical/historical companion to Polanki’s fiction-based films. It shares its basic characteristics with much of his filmography: a frightened individual must escape from an overarching conspiracy that s/he is powerless to stop and incapable of fully understanding. Rosemary crumbles physically and emotionally in the satanists’ hands; Jake is rendered speechless by Noah Cross’s unfathomable, wide-reaching evil; Trelkovsky is warped by the posthumous pull of Simone Choule’s habits; and Szpilman is reduced to a shadow of a man by the unyielding grip of the SS.

All of these fights are intrinsically unfair because the characters’ opponents are conspiratorial and nebulous. Szpilman and the others are just human beings, ordinary and alone, being oppressed by indestructible systems. This comparison clarifies Polanski’s view of the Nazis: they’re agents of horror with the scales tilted violently in their favor, able to gaze down with ease on Szpilman even as he tries to escape their field of vision. Imbalances in vision, and therefore knowledge, are vital to the conflict in Polanski’s films. Just think of Jake Gittes’s investigation in the first act of Chinatown as he peeks through spyglasses and cameras, not realizing that he’s being set up.

Szpilman is similarly myopic, but unlike Jake, it’s not because he’s too headstrong to see; instead, it’s because he’s an individual and hence unable to perceive the historic arc of the war surrounding him. All he can do is listen for immediate developments; the Nazis have too tight a lid on their future plans. (In one horrifying scene, a woman asks a Nazi officer, “Where are you taking us?” and he promptly shoots her.) The visual equivalent to this myopia is the keyhole shot.

The keyhole shot, in which an object is viewed through a narrowed scope akin to a silent film iris, is one of Polanski’s stylistic trademarks. It was the entire substance of his early film Toothy Smile and was most famously used to look at Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. In the shot pictured above – and, later on, through a crack in a hospital window – Szpilman struggles for a glimpse of the hostile outside world. Like Polanski’s other apartment-bound protagonists, he wants to keep up a protective barrier while still sizing up external threats. For Carole in Repulsion, that threat was a single young man; for Szpilman, it’s the carnage that engulfs Warsaw in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising.

It’s not just Szpilman’s relationship with his volatile wartime world that reminded me of the Apartment Trilogy. It’s also the way the denizens of that world are represented. The Nazis and their Polish allies take their position of authority over the Jews seriously to an absurd and irrational degree. One Nazi insists that Szpilman’s father walk in the gutter, a ridiculous request that suggests the ridiculousness of its historical context, and a landlady who demands Szpilman’s papers greatly resembles Shelley Winters’ bitchy concierge in The Tenant. The Jews in the ghetto, meanwhile, adapt to their grotesque situation in different ways – some by lashing out, some by grifting their neighbors, and some by turning inward like Szpilman.

Polanski’s presentation of the ghetto, in scenes like the one pictured above, is sometimes tinged with the very blackest of humor. These little ironies aren’t “ha ha” funny; they emphasize the utter, incomprehensible injustice of it all. Another example is when Szpilman is discovered by the Russians as they march into Poland, but is shot at because he’s wearing a Nazi officer’s coat. The Russians corner him, conclude that he’s Polish, and ask, “Then why the fucking coat?” Szpilman’s response almost sounds like a bleak punchline: “I’m cold.” His suffering is so obvious that pointing it out verges on comedy.

The Pianist is a film about the kafkaesque side of the Holocaust: about how it slowly descended on an unsuspecting family who didn’t realize its enormity until it was too late. Structurally, it’s very much like one of Polanski’s psychological horror movies or conspiracy thrillers, but greatly magnified, as the villains here have created an efficient killing machine that encompasses an entire continent. Szpilman could never stop the Nazi onslaught, but the film does hold out one saving grace. Despite the loss of his family and community, he does live to play the piano again. In Polanski’s world, which was partially shaped by firsthand experiences with the Holocaust, that’s the best you can hope for.

As a final treat, I noticed a few images that very clearly echoed Polanski’s other films. It can’t be coincidence that Szpilman is given a potato that has begun to sprout, identical to the symbolic tuber from Repulsion:

And it’s not surprising that the order-into-chaos image of papers scattering in the air would appeal to Polanski. Here’s a shot that appears to anticipate the ending of The Ghost Writer by nearly a decade:

3 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Oscar Grouching #3: Inglourious Basterds

Continuing my discussions of this year’s Best Picture nominees, I move on to an especially fun and interesting entry, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Shortly after I saw it on opening night back in August ’09, I wrote a short and rather bitchy post about Basterds and Tarantino in general. While I don’t exactly take back everything I said, I would like to rephrase and reconsider a lot of it; I think I gave short shrift to the undeniable mastery that underlies a lot of Basterds and deserves to be appreciated. There are some very good reasons it’s received 8 nominations, the third-most of any film this year, and I think it’s more artistically and aesthetically stimulating than much of the competition (like Avatar). But before I launch into all of that, here’s the snippet I wrote about it in my Oscars article for the Carl:

“But Cameron and Bigelow… don’t have a monopoly on war; everyone’s favorite 46-year-old enfant terrible also had plenty to say about it in 2009. Adverts for Inglourious Basterds claimed that ‘you haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino,’ and that tagline reveals more than I think it’d care to admit. Basterds isn’t really about war, but about how Tarantino sees it, and his vision of World War II is a hodgepodge of The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Italian war movies of the ’60s. But Tarantino’s cinephilic, perpetually adolescent interpretation of history is still far more ambitious and, ultimately, interesting than Cameron’s anti-imperialist tract. His dazzlingly amoral revisionism probably won’t get Best Picture, but at least we’ll get to Christoph Waltz receive his bingo as Best Supporting Actor.”

This is a movie that ends with the words “I think this may be my masterpiece.” It’s not the kind of staid, artful film that usually wins lots of Oscars; it’s irreverent, sometimes sadistic, and often inflammatory, in both literal and metaphorical senses. Yet it epitomizes Tarantino’s crafty way of concealing an art film like a Jewish refugee in the basement of an action-packed blockbuster. The ads, typically inane and dishonest, made it out to be two straight hours of Eli Roth clubbing Nazzies to death, and this certainly accounts for a large part of what Tarantino’s up to. However, the meat of the film is the ongoing conflict between Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hiding out in Paris, and Hans Landa (Waltz), the diabolically eloquent “Jew Hunter.”

It’s these confrontations with Landa that make the film what it is. Tarantino could’ve made one big, perfectly acceptable war movie homage, and we’d all have forgotten it by now. Instead he went for a series of magnificent set-pieces where words (in English, French, German, and even Italian) are hurled like daggers. The first of these is the best, a carefully composed tribute to Sergio Leone that sees Landa visiting the owner of a dairy farm in rural France. Waltz smiles as he asks for a glass of milk, smiles as he plays the innocent bureaucrat, and smiles as he forces the farmer to tell him where he’s hiding the Dreyfus family.

Waltz, as Landa, is always fascinating. He’s merciless, but polite. Brutal and willing to kill, but about the most cultured villain to [probably] garner an Academy Award since Hannibal Lecter. He’s an efficient Nazi officer, but he’s also cowardly and more interested in self-preservation than in the longevity of the Reich. And Waltz’s English has a perfectly accented lilt to it, so that he can put his enemies off their guard with a silly malapropism one second, then land the death blow with a few well-selected words the next. We always see him from someone else’s POV, and we never quite identify with him, but he’s a compelling and fully realized nemesis – certainly not one of the caricatured “Nazzies” the Basterds are after.

This is one area where the film deploys its many ethical tricks. Landa is worldly, self-aware, full of contradictions; the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine (a play on the name of actor Aldo Ray), are the film’s sideshow, occasionally popping up to brutalize and scalp some more terrified Nazzies. Raine himself is a one-note joke which Pitt does wonders with, a jingoistic, torture-happy southerner charged with leading his all-Jewish troops in a mission of revenge.

In the Basterds’ portion of the movie, Tarantino gleefully employs (and exaggerates) every formula he’s culled from the likes of 1960s-’70s American and Italian WWII movies, and it’s fun – especially for him – but it gets old fast. By the time he’s thrown together techniques cribbed from his beloved blaxploitation, kung fu, and spaghetti western genres in order to tell the back story of Nazi prisoner Hugo Stiglitz, the ultra-referential aspect of his style has almost grown wearisome, and the viewer is thankfully treated to a storyline that’s no less violent, but far more substantive: Shosanna’s systematic, single-handed, Kill Bill-style vengeance against the entire Nazi elite.

It’s here where Tarantino’s genius with suspense becomes more pronounced, as do his moral difficulties. All his parlor talk about comparing the treatment of African-Americans to King Kong might as well be about whether foot massages count as sex, since outside of these glib, well-written passages of dialogue, he’s totally unwilling to take on hard questions of race and genocide. Despite the film’s premise, the Holocaust turns out to be a non-factor in the characters’ actions, since for example, Landa’s by-the-book elimination of Shosanna’s family motivates her in much the same fashion as Bill’s coma-inducing attack does for the bride. Shosanna has a vendetta against one man, generalized to the Nazi ruling establishment.

And as for the Basterds, well, they’re killing the Nazzies because they’re Nazzies. The film’s overarching thesis is that this is Tarantino’s war, as he perceives it filtered through decades of Robert Aldrich and Riefenstahl and Samuel Fuller, and the Basterds’ attitudes reflect this. They blissfully criss-cross Europe scalping Nazzies due more to the propagandistic cultural significance of their targets than because of any actual wrongs perpetrated by the government of Nazi Germany. Tarantino sets up his elaborate racial revenge fantasy, but elides the instigating event, and this produces the film’s great strength and weakness, its utter amorality.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you read Basterds as a thoughtful self-critique or not in its tendency to unhinge all its actions from their historical and ethical contexts, until each scalping or machine-gunning becomes just the act of an individual tagged as a “Jew” against one who’s a “Nazi,” labels with as much significance as the Union and Confederate soldiers in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Tarantino’s favorite film, and another which strips events of their historical meanings – like the existence of slavery – for the sake of the story.)

Is it a sly commentary on the nature of cinema to desensitize us both to violence and to the complex origins of wars? Or is Tarantino doing just that as a matter of layered pastiche, with no commentary intended? I think the answer – which would take closer viewing than I’m able to perform now – would reveal a lot about Basterds‘ level of profundity, though I remain skeptical. However, I think its merits as an example of high-intensity postmodern filmmaking are as great as any of Tarantino’s other work, up to and including Pulp Fiction; here, the battles are won and lost not by Raine’s clownish marauders, but over strudel on the café tables of Paris.

As for Basterds‘ Oscar chances, I’m fairly optimistic. I think Best Picture is extremely unlikely, but Tarantino’s bravura directing and endlessly quotable screenplay – his specialties, as opposed to political or emotional depth – are certainly laudable, and at the very least remain in the running, even if The Hurt Locker could sweep those categories. Luckily for Christoph Waltz, though, he has no real competition: his first publicly visible screen outing will indeed turned to Oscar gold, thanks to his mesmerizing screen presence – and to Tarantino’s sharp dialogue. While Inglourious Basterds may not authentically engage race or history, its cinephilic reveries are nonetheless a welcome sight at this year’s Oscars, and its engagement of film history is as daring as anything in recent memory.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Goy’s teeth and sensual daydreams

So, after a Thanksgiving week spent in suburban squalor, I am back at Carleton to act as the Cinema & Media Studies office assistant for three weeks. Mostly, this involves receiving mail, filing applications, and inventorying movies for 6 hours a day. [Note: Ashley suggests I wear “sensible, yet stylish heels and a pencil skirt” for my secretarial duties; if anyone wants to go back to 1959 and fetch those for me, I’d be more than willing to oblige.] Plus, I have to make my own food for once in my life. Eek! My computer was tragically damaged on the way down here so now the monitor’s pretty brutally fucked up, but I will blog on nonetheless in an attempt to remedy my absence.

So first of all: I had a number of fun cinematic experiences in the past week. Most of them involved me being cuddled up next to my DVD player watching great movies like The Wind (1928) or Brief Encounter (1945), but two actually required me to visit a theater and pay for a ticket. The first of these was the Coen Bros.’ latest film, A Serious Man, which I’m still trying to puzzle out. Are the filmmakers sadistic or sympathetic? Does their universe contain even the slightest glimmer of hope?

I won’t spoil anything since Ashley hasn’t seen the movie yet (and is pissed about it), but A Serious Man is basically about Larry Gopnick, a Jewish physics professor living with his family (a wife, son, and daughter, each dysfunctional in their own way) in late-’60s suburban Minnesota. At first everything seems superficially fine, but then everything pretty much starts going to hell, all at once. The Coens are no strangers to tormented Minnesotans – see William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, fielding viciously bureaucratic phone calls just like Larry does throughout A Serious Man. The big differences here are the personal and religious elements.

While Fargo was based on a true story of violence and local color that never really happened, A Serious Man is steeped in a milieu that did happen, to the Coens themselves – i.e., growing up Jewish in St. Louis Park in the ’60s. (Worth noting that Joel and Ethan would’ve been about 13 and 10 respectively when the film takes place.) In this regard, I think you could view A Serious Man as akin to Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Spike Lee’s Crooklyn; the director’s fondly (or in this case, brutally) nostalgic return to childhood roots.

Then there’s the Jewishness, which stretches into every corner of the film, glazed over with a layer of Coen quirkiness, whether we’re talking about the prologue’s beautiful recreation of shtetl life or the kafkaesque visits to increasingly unhelpful rabbis who mark the film’s progress. Woody Allen’s protagonists just crack wise about perceived anti-Semitism; a Coens protagonist has a deeply disturbing yet oddly funny nightmare about it. (OK, maybe Allen does too, if you count the monks-with-crosses dream from Bananas…) Similarly, one of the best parts of the film is probably the story of the Goy’s Teeth, simply because it’s so weird, so very Jewish, and manages to sum up film’s major themes in a few short, bewildering minutes.

I don’t think enough time has passed yet for me to determine where this film stands in the Coens’ filmography, let alone in film altogether. But I do think it’s a great direction for them to go in – we’ve got the same dark oddball humor as The Big Lebowski, only toned down to match the film’s evocations of a real time and place in its colors and characters. For example, instead of a hair-trigger Vietnam vet, we get a slightly autistic brother with a sebaceous cyst. The one aspect that’s been ramped up is the torturous ambiguity of the ending: if you’ve seen Barton Fink or No Country for Old Men, you know what to expect, only count on more.

This film has been frequently described as the Coens’ retelling of the story of Job. I’d go one step further and apply it to the whole Old Testament. Larry Gopnick wanders around the desert, falls to his knees, asks, “Why me, lord? Why me?” What answer does he get? You’ll have to see the movie to find (and even then, good luck), but let me say that familiarity with the poetry of Stephen Crane couldn’t hurt. Also, special kudos to Fred Melamed, who plays Sy Ableman. At least in my eyes, he’ll probably be 2009’s Best Supporting Actor.

The other, possibly even more amazing, film-related experience of the weekend was seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Minneapolis’s Uptown Theater on Saturday night. I love pondering the Rocky Horror phenomenon – why should this weird, gleefully perverted ’70s rock musical-cum-tribute to Poverty Row B movies be so wildly popular among nerdily obsessive audiences who treat it like the Second Coming of Halloween? Or did I just answer my own question? (Note: I am myself a member of said nerdily obsessive audience, as is Ashley.)

If you’re not familiar with the cult of Rocky Horror, you can familiarize yourself at rockyhorror.org; basically, fans will dress up as characters (Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter is understandably a favorite), reenact the movie while it plays on-screen (which the talented troupe Transvestite Soup did last Saturday), shout at the characters on-screen (e.g., calling Brad an asshole every time he introduces himself), and throw things! (Rice, toilet paper, playing cards…) That’s the gist of it.

Better yet? It’s lots of fun! Granted, many people do it with more than a little chemical alteration, but I’ve seen the play and movie sober, and enjoyed myself greatly. I think a lot of it has to do with the breaking down of barriers, the cutting loose of inhibitions encouraged by both the film and its surrounding cult. For example, “virgins” are required to make a twisted Pledge of Allegiance which concludes,

…and to the decadance for which it stands,
One movie, under Richard O’Brien,
With sensual daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

These sentiments – in praise of decadents, tolerance, and freely exploring fantasies – are echoed in Transvestite Soup‘s mission statement:

…to all other freaks, punks, Goths, Christians, pagans, gays, straights, misc., hippies, normals, whatever you are,
that here shall be a place where fun and humor rule supreme…

I think this is part of Rocky Horror‘s beauty, and maybe why so many flock to it – that is, so many of the people who’d be going to a midnight movie anyway. I mean, wasn’t the original cult/midnight movie Freaks, a similarly bizarre movie all about rejecting normality while embracing deformity and weirdness in all their forms? At least until its (very perplexing) finale, this is what Rocky Horror proclaims, too, through the desire-driven character of Frank-N-Furter, who sings, “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure!” as he and the other cast members swim orgiastically, draped in soaking lingerie.

So this, at least to me, is a large part of the appeal: it’s freedom, it’s acceptance, it really is Halloween all over again. In his It’s a Bird – a semiautobiographical meditation on Superman in graphic novel form, much of which deals with Superman’s relationship to the Other – Steven Seagle tells about an unpopular kid who dresses as Superman for Halloween. All of a sudden, he’s popular for a day. So naturally he decides to dress as Superman the next day. He’s promptly picked on and told to change his clothes.

I think the connection to Rocky Horror should be pretty clear: that theater is a self-contained world where no one will ever tell you to change your clothes (unless they’re being “a bitch,” as Carleton’s production of  the stage musical put it). It’s also a world without homophobia, or transphobia, or heteronormative discrimination of any kind – because what’s cooler than being a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transsylvania, at least while you’re watching Tim Curry sashay up and down that carpet? And what’s wrong with being at least a little – if not a lot – attracted to him, or the other fishnet-clad men (or women, or those who aren’t quite sure!) around you?

This is why I think Rocky Horror is more than just some goofy little ritual, and why so many people take it so seriously (which, at the same time, means taking it very lightly): it’s not just a case of another “so bad it’s good” movie you can get some laughs out of. It’s a campy, sequined, madness-drenched romp with a new motto advocating sexual exploration at every turn. And if you can get all that with a live, enthusiastic audience doing the Time Warp in the aisles – what more can you ask for? God bless Lili St. Cyr, and God bless Richard O’Brien.

W

ith sensuous daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Media, Personal, Sexuality