The Obligations of History

Mein Oskar KlipWith the Oscars just a few days away, all manner of odd things are happening in the magical world of Hollywood buzz.

Just this weekend, Kate and I witnessed the bizarre spectacle of Larry King interviewing Danny Boyle, Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto on his show; the increasingly disconnected King clearly had no idea who any of these people were, and spent most of the interview making goo-goo eyes at Pinto. Seriously, he’s old enough to be her grandfather … well, her great-grandfather … how old is Larry King, anyway?

What’s not happening, much to my barely disguised joy, is a lot of love for “The Reader”. And with good reason: It’s crap. But don’t just take my word for it; take a hop over to Slate, where Ron Rosenbaum takes the film apart conceit by repugnant conceit, putting it firmly in its place alongside the manipulative Holocaust tripe men call “Life is Beautiful”.

(I do think he misreads “Downfall”, though; that film doesn’t present ordinary Germans as innocents, because there are no ordinary Germans in that film; there are outsiders to Hitler’s bunker, certainly, but they’re still Nazis. Traudl Junge may have her illusions shattered about the Thousand Year Reich, but she’s still a true believer.)

Yeah, Kate Winslet’s still the front-runner for the Best Actress prize. But that’s an issue of attrition; everybody likes her, it’s her year, yadda yadda yadda. Me, I’m hoping Streep pulls ahead at the last minute. Everybody likes her, too, you know.

10 thoughts on “The Obligations of History”

  1. Are there any movies that you know of, excluding documentaries, that use the Holocaust as a background without being exploitive? Certainly there can be movies that center on horrific events – The Pianist and Hotel Rwanda come to mind – but does using such events as the background inherently trivialize them? I’m sure there were people who were upset at the Civil War being the backdrop for a love story in Gone With the Wind. (Others, of course, upset at the positive portrayal of slavery.) Is any sort of distancing technique problematic? I’ve always had a problem with both the book and movie Sophie’s Choice, not for Sophie’s story itself but for it’s narrator Stingo. This isn’t an original observation, but I did read one opinion which pointed out that if Stingo hadn’t been sexually infatuated with Sophie, we would never learn her story. The part of the novel that worked for me – the way Sohpie’s story kept changing bit by bit towards the truth – was buried, and didn’t translate well into the film.

    Where is the line drawn between using any horrific circumstance – Holocaust, child molestation, etc. – to explore people in extreme conditions and expoitation? Or is it like pornography, you know it when you see it?

  2. It’s a tough call, isn’t it? I think the pornography comparison is apt, since we’re basically dealing with exploitation.

    I think the problem we so often experience, as audience members, with stories about epic tragedy is that authors(or screenwriters) tend to use witnesses to the tragedy as their protagonists, rather than people directly involved in it.

    As a dramatic device, it makes sense — the witness survives to tell us the story — but it also sets us at a slight remove from the tragedy. “The Reader” doesn’t even include flashbacks to Winslet’s character during the war, which seems like an admirable move until you get the uneasy sense it’s designed to make her appear even more noble in comparison to her fellow defendants.

    Sometimes, an author makes it work; I’d argue that “Sophie’s Choice” is actually a great example, since the flashbacks are suitably harrowing and alien, and Stingo is a self-aware guide through the story; absent from the Holocaust but confronted with its toll in a very real and painful way, and ultimately unable to deny the gap between himself and those who experienced the event. But the work is explicitly about the gap, in that case.

    “Hotel Rwanda” has no such gap: It’s about a man trying to save his family from a genocide, and saving many more in the process. Paul Rusesabegna’s story is urgent and relatable, and Terry George’s direction lets us understand that his world is sliding into insanity long before he does. (That first half-hour could just as easily have given way to a zombie movie.)

    Compare that to something as simplistic as Roger Spottiswoode’s CBC-ready treatment of “Shake Hands with the Devil”, in which Roy Dupuis runs back and forth between groups of people trying to talk them out of killing one another. One is immediate and terrifying; the other is a movie about a guy who feels really bad about stuff. Not that Romeo Dallaire didn’t do his best to stop the slaughter, but Rwanda ultimately wasn’t about him — a fact that “Hotel Rwanda” puts in perspective by having its Dallaire surrogate show up a couple of times to show remorse and leave. He can get out, you see. Our guy can’t.

    “Life is Beautiful”, though, that’s just evil.

  3. I know you’re a big Slumdog fan. (I’m not.) How do address claims of the film being exploitative. “Poverty porn” seems to be the catchphrase that’s taken hold.

  4. Yeah, and I disagree with that term being applied to “Slumdog Millionaire”; it’s no more exploitative of its setting than Dickens was of the workhouses in “Oliver Twist”. Danny Boyle doesn’t shy away from the horrors his characters experience, because those horrors shape their world — but the horror doesn’t define it, either. The hero is defined by his optimism (and faith, if you want to go with answer “d”), and earns his triumph through his scars.

    I blame this fairly recent backlash on Harvey Weinstein and his minions, trash-talking the Oscar favorite so their own inferior work can look better by comparison. It’s “Shanking Private Ryan” all over again.

  5. This is a test post, only because the entry says Comments (4) and I know I posted a fifth comment. Weird.

  6. @ cc — Comment restored! It was trapped in my spam filter, which for some reason has stopped pinging me when it finds something contentious. I think it was just the inclusion of a URL that set it off. Sorry for the inconvenience!

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