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Fruit Salad

Alice Faye performs "Journey to a Star"

Alice Faye doesn’t demonstrate much dramatic range in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943). But then, she’s not asked to: Faye is here mostly for her songbird’s voice, and between numbers her starring role is reduced to romantic white noise. She falls for a soldier, then misses her soldier, then (through a series of transparently contrived misunderstandings) perceives a betrayal and feels stung by it. Of course this is all patched up with ungodly speed during the film’s climax, but in the meantime Faye wrings some teary pathos out of it all. She’s really good at that, too. Her drama may be strictly interstitial, but she nails every last note of homefront yearning.

Miranda and her infinite Tutti Frutti Hat

The film’s true star, second-billed though she may be, is Brazil’s own Carmen Miranda. Whether she’s dancing the samba or stealing scenes, everything about her is exaggerated: her fruit drag, her comic mugging, her accent. Women of color were nearly nonexistent in the films of 1940s Hollywood, but Miranda’s flamboyance and exoticism make her a one-woman spectacle; an excessive mise-en-scène unto herself. Her performance is a racialized manifestation of Berkeley’s own over-the-top visual style, and as such it eclipses the work of the white leads. It taps into the seeming obsession with Brazil that seized the country in wartime—in fact, Miranda’s “Dorita” could be the distaff counterpart to José Carioca, the fast-talking parrot introduced in Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942). (Like Dorita, José is tightly associated with the song “Aquarela do Brasil.”)

The film's bizarre "floating head" climax

Miranda acts as the centerpiece for Berkeley’s Technicolor circus, a world that contracts and expands, that drifts between physicality and abstraction. His camera amplifies the already expansive choreography, often beggaring belief with the fluidity and duration of its crane shots. (Only a pair of cuts in the film’s first seven minutes!) As always with Busby Berkeley, the dance routines start out implausible and quickly ditch narrative altogether for the joys of pure geometry. They become macrocosms, sometimes literal kaleidoscopes, lacking purpose or explanation but still so weird, so ambitious, so beautiful. The Gang’s All Here may acknowledge the realities of war—the rationing, the heartbreak—but these impossible dances let the viewer disappear into the unreality of art.

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The Sorrows of Young Oskar

[This is my first, much-belated entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eaten too much fish. There once was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the gas man!

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) plays like a lost fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It has the same Teutonic roughness, the same cavalcade of sneering villains and magic tokens. In the spirit of “Hansel and Gretel” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s about a beleaguered child in a merciless world. But instead of stumbling along, sprinkling bread crumbs in the forest, Oskar Matzerath bends the world to his will. Uncannily aware of adult hypocrisy, he throws himself down a flight of stairs on his third birthday, vowing never to grow again. From then on, he brandishes his childhood as a weapon.

This is Schlöndorff’s poison pen letter to the previous generation, a “fuck you” to the parents who carried out the Holocaust and destroyed Germany. As the Nazis rise and consume Danzig, Oskar stridently beats his drum. As his mother runs secretly between the two men who may be his biological father, Oskar gazes on in silent judgment. To him, adulthood is a grotesque farce where Nazi rallies degenerate into rain-soaked waltzing, where marital strife leads his mother to gorge on eels. Yeah, Oskar’s a “bad seed”—calculating from the second he leaves the womb, indirectly killing both of his potential fathers—but the film never blames him. He’s been born into a bad nation.

The key here is David Bennent, the Swiss 12-year-old who plays Oskar across two decades of German/Polish history. Not for a second does he hold back to garner audience sympathies. Instead, he’s always pushing forward, growing louder and more abrasive, shrieking and drumming to express his contempt. The same goes for Bennent’s voiceover narration: shrill, conspiratorial, suffused with a childish solipsism but not a shred of innocence. He gives one of the most haunting child performances I’ve ever seen, and it sets the tone for the film’s vision of Nazi-era Danzig as a demented storybook.

Here, corruption and ethical compromise are visually mapped across staid furnishings, like a piano adorned with a radio and a picture of Hitler. The grays and browns of bourgeois life dominate the film’s palette, but reds puncture through that veneer in the form of dresses, fish blood, playing cards, swastika bands, and of course the pattern on that drum. Like Oskar’s glass-shattering screams, these reds are pain and rebellion made physical, breaching the Matzerath family’s complacent surface—a surface that’s reduced to nothing but screams, blood, and rubble by the end of the film.

So this is Schlöndorff’s revenge on those who preceded him: an angry movie, weird to the bone and pulsing with dark magic, so sexually frank that it was briefly banned in Oklahoma. And furthermore, a lush, imposing period epic that navigates political upheaval and warfare with the eyes of a mad child. But what better way to document such an impossibly horrible part of history? Theodor Adorno said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The Tin Drum is a barbaric movie.

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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:

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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.

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My Favorite Movies: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

A title that acknowledges England/Candy's royal history and modernized present

Now, to conclude my totally unintentional string of WWII-related posts, here’s the second installment of my series about my favorite movies. This is an underrecognized film by an underrated duo: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). (Viewable here, 163 minutes long.) I guess it’s not too surprising that it’s a relatively unheard-of film. It’s very distinctly British and, to an extent, pretty topical and specific, made to comment on the progress of the Allies’ war on Nazi Germany. But on another level, it’s a beautiful, universal film about the effect of historical events on individual lives and relationships, and about maintaining personal honor amidst of national dishonor. It recognizes human nature as repetitive and unchanging from decade to decade, yet also singles the Nazism out as a special case – “the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain.” It’s these many sides of this great film that I want to examine.

David Low's boorish, hypocritical Colonel Blimp

Colonel Blimp, first of all, is not the film’s main character. He was a satirical cartoon character created by David Low in the 1930s, an exaggerated representation of the jingoistic old English army officer. The film, meanwhile, centers around Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (who goes by a number of other names and ranks throughout the film), a Blimp-like figure who is given a life and dynamic personality of his own. This genesis of the central character starts to show, I think, the film’s intent, and one of the reasons why its production was opposed by Churchill: in the midst of a worldwide struggle between good and evil, when one-dimensional political cartoons were the ideological currency in America, England, and Germany, it dared to take a cartoon and turn him into a human being, and dared to do the same with a German, of all people.

Colonel Blimp‘s plot is fairly epic, covering 3 hours and 40 years, and earning every second with its humane, sympathetic storytelling. It begins in 1943, as a group of young Home Guard soldiers decide to make their war games “like the real thing” by taking the elite old officers, resting in a Turkish bath, hostage 6 hours before the exercise was set to begin. The leader of the young men, Spud, is knocked into the water by the incensed Wynne-Candy (who is, at this juncture, intimidatingly walrus-like, identical to the Blimp caricature), who begins a memorable tirade against Spud’s youthful pride:

You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my moustache, but you don’t know why I grew it! How do you know what sort of man I was – when I was as young as you are – forty years ago…

At this point, the movie segues (without even so much as a cut) into 1903 at the very same bath, where the Major-General becomes the young Clive “Sugar” Candy, no mustache and a full head of hair, on leave from the Boer War. This initiates the film’s chronologically circular structure, told mostly in flashback, through which it’s able to connect three wars, along with England’s (and Candy’s) role in each of them. The story essentially involves Candy, his German friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (of whom Candy at first says, “nobody could invent a name like that”), and three different women who come into their lives. All three are played by the very pretty, redheaded Deborah Kerr, whom Michael Powell described as “both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for.”

Deborah Kerr, a work of art in Technicolor's marvelous pallette

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, who play Candy and Kretschmar-Schuldorff respectively, are the fire and ice, the enemies-turned-friends who keep the movie going, but it’s Kerr who’s the glue that holds it all together. She fills in the blank spaces in their lives (she’s married to each of them during much of the film’s temporal gaps) and is the locus of desire that both unintentionally brings them together in the first place and seals their bond of friendship. In Colonel Blimp, Kerr is a fiery woman in three eras and three wars, with her final role as Wynne-Candy’s driver, Angela “Johnny” Cannon, marking a change in women’s positions during the present war [WWII]. Kerr may be better-known for singing opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I, but I think she ought to be recognized for her triple role here; she’s the active force that sets just about every stage of the plot in motion, directly or indirectly, in war or peacetime.

Amidst the film’s cyclical plot are some great scenes, too, observing the backs and forths of international relations and their effects on human lives. There’s the duel between Clive and Theo that causes their friendship, set on a wintry morning in a gymnasium in Berlin; the camera pans away just as the fighting begins and lets us see the results from Ms. Hunter’s (Kerr) point of view. There are the montages illustrating Candy’s activities between wars by mounting one trophy after another on the walls of his home, exotic animals whose origins trace out a map of British colonial possessions in Africa and India. There is the desolate no-man’s-landscape of Flanders at the tail end of World War I, where Candy meets Scottish and American soldiers, in addition to a crafty South African officer named Van Zijl. He ominously tells a group of German POWs, “I assure you that I have means to get what I want,” an early example of the film’s interest in fair vs. unfair combat.

As Powell & Pressburger train their camera on England in the first half of the 20th century, they’re able to show one interesting character after another, each reacting differently to the difficulties history has thrust upon them. It’s hard to do justice to a story that wide and deep – it covers so much, yet never feels like it’s hurried or touching too briefly on any one time period. And the whole time the viewer’s receiving this crash course in the aftermath of English imperialism, they are also treated to the lush Technicolor reds and greens of the London surroundings that turn to oranges and yellows as Clive and Theo reach the autumns of their lives.

Roger Livesey gives a monumental performance as Clive Wynne-Candy

It’s impressive that a movie so much about the causes and effects of war can also say so much about the ebbs and tides of normal life – about youth, aging, and all the in-betweens. I think that’s largely because war – and the consequent destruction – necessitates rebuilding, which is what the characters spend much of the film doing. Rebuilding houses, friendships, memories, lives. The title mentions the “death” of Colonel Blimp, and I think this can be interpreted a number of ways; although Candy himself doesn’t die at the end, it’s the death of what he represents and the ideals to which he clings, the death of British military supremacy, the death of the Old Guard, and the death of that cartoonish blowhard Blimp. The tapestry that begins and ends the film has a motto that’s a play on an old Latin phrase: “Sic transit gloria Candy.” Thus passes the glory of Candy. It’s an epitaph for the old colonel (or Major-General, or whatever) whose old world has given way to a new one.

I think I’ve done a little bit of justice to Colonel Blimp‘s mixture of emotion, artistry, and grandeur. Once you get swept into the story – which, unlike many similarly epic stories, never degenerates into overly melodramatic plot twists and unearned sentiment – you find yourself won over by its enchanting characters and, by the time they’ve aged several decades, they’ve become old friends. Despite its deep roots in British colonialism and 1940s debates about fair play in warfare, it remains accessible (and, you’d think, very relevant in the light of current politics). I wish I’d had more of a chance to talk more about the careers of Powell & Pressburger, but please read for yourself; they were incredible but underappreciated filmmakers. Wikipedia quotes David Mamet as describing Colonel Blimp as his idea of perfection, and he has a point. With its personal, bittersweet narrative running through a whole colorful world of multinational, multidimensional characters, addressing the private and public costs of war, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favorite movies.

Clive and Theo meet during a duel framed with beauty and humor

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Visions of wartime: Casablanca and Maus

So, continuing my unintentional theme of art involving WWII, I think I’ll now add more about Claude Rains’ performance in Casablanca, and possibly touch on Art Spiegelman’s comics masterpiece Maus.

So, back to Captain Renault: as I was saying, he’s an appropriate intermediate between the city of Casablanca and the rest of the world. Rains plays him as happily corrupt, amoral, and indifferent; while he may sympathize with Rick as a friend, ultimately he “blow[s] with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” Renault takes Rick’s indifference and one-ups him by adding a layer of pleased detachment. While Rick may claim to stick his neck out for nobody, we know he has a soft heart, between his past underdog sympathies and his romantic fixation on Ilsa. But Renault really doesn’t stick his neck out – even with his famous line “Round up the usual suspects,” he’s not so much sacrificing himself (especially compared to Rick’s monumental self-sacrifice that immediately precedes it) as he is giving in to the prevailing wind, all with an air of absurd amusement.

The slippery, dissolute Captain Renault

While the “same old story / a fight for love and glory” may form the core of the film, it’s characters like Renault, hanging around in the periphery, who give it the bottomless appeal of a “classic” and make it the conventional epitome of classical Hollywood filmmaking. The film, after all, is titled after the city where it takes place, and with good reason: its denizens, corrupt or innocent, victims or villains, are its subject of inquiry, and Rick & Ilsa are only two out of many. As Rick tells her during the climax, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Casablanca is a city of in-betweens. It’s marginal: politically – stuck between Nazi-occupied France and Lisbon (the gateway to the free world) – and geographically, as it’s not quite Europe but not quite Africa.

In Casablanca, the baggage of the past is up for grabs as people can redefine their nationalities, political identities, and relationships with the law and other people. It’s also a cosmopolitan city, where refugees from all over Europe (and the world) pool their collective cultural and monetary resources. And in the middle of the middle is Rick, his status as a “drunkard” overwhelming any sense of national identity. My point is that, in the end, Casablanca is a story about people crossing borders, whether physical or political; whether of the law or of the heart. So it’s fitting that one of its funniest, most memorable characters should be Captain Renault, a perfect centrist, who blows with the wind between Vichy and Free France, shutting down Rick’s or covering up Major Strasser’s murder, and does it all with a knowing smile. I think this character is just one of those great mergers of writing and performance, where the right man is reading the right lines, in this case the multitalented Claude Rains.

So, that said, I now want to talk about one of the most-lauded works of graphic fiction ever written, Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The concept is surprisingly simple: Spiegelman’s father Vladek narrates the story of his life during the Holocaust, from the late ’30s until his transfer to Auschwitz (this is where volume I leaves off; Spiegelman published volume II five years later, but I have yet to read it). The book’s distinguishing conceit? The Jews are drawn as anthropomorphic mice; the Nazis are cats. (And Poles are pigs.) So the big question: why is Maus so great it became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer?

A feline Hitler presides over Jews in hiding

Where to start: Spiegelman’s storytelling techniques bring us deep into his and Vladek’s lives while the use of anthropomorphic animals creates the perfect amount of distance; it’s an amazingly achieved balancing trick. The story is simultaneously presented through Vladek’s voice and perspective as an old man who’s endured decades of pain and trauma (including the relatively recent suicide of his wife, who figures prominently both as a shadow cast over the present and a living person in the past) and also, through cross-hatched illustration, as an objective account of Jewish life under the Third Reich.

Maus is subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” and the first volume bears the additional title of “My Father Bleeds History.” I think the latter goes a long way toward introducing us to Maus‘s attitude toward the past. Spiegelman treats his parents’ stories as living things; volume I concludes with him castigating his father as a “murderer” for burning his mother’s old diaries. In addition to the storytelling sessions, we see Art and Vladek’s interactions in day to day life, and they’re constantly colored by the past. Art discusses Vladek’s miserliness with his stepmother Mala, another survivor, and the Holocaust is always lurking in the background.

The specter of anti-Semitism intrudes on Spiegelman's creative process

Any interaction with Vladek is like a puncture wound causing him to “bleed history”; writing Maus is like an attempt to let it run until the blood starts coagulating (i.e., the story is fully told). While Inglourious Basterds may ask nothing much deeper than “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”, Maus instead confronts the question of “How do we cope with the fact that…?” In Spiegelman’s present, the past is alive and well, an elephant in a room full of mice (if you’ll indulge the mixed metaphors). And depicting the Holocaust in cat-and-mouse terms is, I think, as valid a coping device as any. To use the great opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And our understanding of how “differently” they do things in the past is entirely reliant on finding the right port through which to enter that country – and in Spiegelman’s case, it’s through the lens of mice.

Much of Maus‘s effectiveness, I think, comes from this contrast: the mice do not speak or act like mice; they act like Jewish human beings. But it’s the superficial appearance that alters our perception. I’d compare the effect to George Orwell’s Animal Farm – maybe it’s easier to understand Stalin when he oinks and has a squiggly tail. But the crucial difference is that Maus isn’t an allegory; it’s a direct memoir. We’re told the plain, real-life facts of Vladek’s life during the Holocaust. The only difference is that Spiegelman draws the characters as mice. It’s just a question of how, exactly, we can best perceive this atrocity, and in this case, it could be that it’s just easier to comprehend the story with the Jews as mice than it is to handle seeing human forms straight out.

Historical realism meets recontextualized propaganda imagery

A few months ago, I wrote a mini-essay for a publication at my school entitled “Anthropomorphic animals in animation”; among the points I made are these:

I think it’s legitimate to say that children at some level can gravitate toward anthropomorphic animals (and sure, plants & objects) because they sympathize their position…

[W]e like seeing things and animals triumph over the destruction humanity hath wrought because we sympathize with their peril…

Ultimately, it’s ironic for Spiegelman to present the Jews – villainized as “ratlike” in so much Nazi propaganda – as mice who innocently conduct their day-to-day lives, only to be systematically rounded up and victimized by the militaristic cats. But he’s not writing “a child’s guide to the Holocaust” – it’s a brutally honest, explicit, personal, and devastating book that I think conveys the true horrors even better than, say, Schindler’s List. Whereas Spielberg’s Holocaust is somberly excessive, with one larger-than-life hero and one demonic villain, Spiegelman’s is the story of one flawed man among many who just wants to save himself and his family – so basically, a normal human forced to cope with tragically abnormal circumstances. It’s the story of a mouse, not a Schindler (i.e., a movie star).

I think I’ve said most of what I’m able to say about Maus for the moment though of course a lot more has already been and has yet to be said. It’s an endlessly fascinating document, a brilliant approach to a very difficult subject, and it’s of vital importance in remembering and comprehending a past that still touches all of us, Jew or goy, American or European, whatever. It’s a great book and if you haven’t yet I strongly recommend reading it.

Real trauma distorted through art

I just want to make one last point: embedded in the middle of Maus, and also featured in Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, is a short comic called “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” It’s a stark, expressionistic tale of his reaction to his mother’s suicide, painful and depressing, but powerful and not easily forgotten. I think it can resonate with the part of anyone that recalls the sting of a sudden, life-changing revelation, and it’s very fitting for it to reside within the pages of Maus. Spiegelman is just an incredible, talented, influential artist and I’m happy to have the opportunity to read his work; his successful experiments have proven beyond any doubt the cathartic capabilities that exist in comics.

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