Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Some people shouldn't make history movies

As friends who know us IRL can attest, my wife and I are rather different. One area where this comes out is in our movie preferences. I tend to like movies that are more story or character driven, whereas my better-looking half enjoys what she calls "stylish world-building" through costumes, sets, what have you. I like Braveheart, she likes Eraserhead, that sort of thing.

Since I read a lot of history, I am particularly engaged by movies that tell historical stories well. Everything doesn't have to be at a college thesis level of accuracy, but it is nice to see directors, writers and producers taking their source material seriously, especially when it's a heavier subject or one that continues to have a lot of modern-day implications/ramifications.

And then there are... the other guys. The guys that don't seem to feel any obligation to the history behind their stories, who become so wrapped up in the story they've made up or decided to tell that the real history is forced to take a back seat. A way back seat.

One of the directors whose approach to history I absolutely can't stand is Tarantino. Firstly, because I just don't like his work. I dislike his aesthetics, I dislike his writing, he and I have vastly different ideas of what makes something funny, and so on. But more than that, he just seems to take such a low-brow approach to telling history that it's like you're punished for knowing anything about his subjects. When I saw Inglorious Basterds, it didn't fill me with Jewish pride, and it didn't make me sit back and chuckle at the "clever" inversion of Jewish power tropes. It made me angry that Tarantino thought the best Holocaust story worth telling was some crap about fake Jewish commandos beating up Nazis with baseball bats. There are countless real stories of real people he could have used, at least for a starting-point, dealing with real emotions, real consequences and real history, and instead the Holocaust became a set piece for him to talk about... scalping? About how it's fun to kill Nazis? Feature Brad Pitt in a bad mustache and worse accent? Make Hitler jokes?

I found Basterds frustrating, but at least it wasn't as fundamentally upsetting Benigni's Life is Beautiful was. I found that movie offensive on just about every level, and have continued to struggle to understand how people saw anything to like in that movie. I'm sorry, but I have a really hard time letting myself drift into fantasy when WE'RE AT AUSCHWITZ. It just kind of kills the fantasy for me, and causes me to wonder about the mental health or empathy levels of the people that can. I don't like set piece movies as a general rule, but there's some history, especially tragic history, that seems really inappropriate to use for these purposes. I don't need to see the Sucker Punch take on Hiroshima or the Irish Potato Famine.

So too, I am very skeptical of Tarantino's latest poject, Django Unchained (I will admit upfront I have not seen the movie and am going on the comments of others). From what I've read it sounds like Tarantino has again decided to take a major topic in world history and use it as a background to insert irritating and context-less characters whose primary motivation is to be awful to each other. Color me unimpressed.

There are two big reasons why I find Tarantino so distasteful on these kinds of movies. First of all, he seems to be almost proud about swooping in from the wings to tell someone else's story without any background of what the real history was or what its ongoing impacts are on the people it happened to. Tarantino's blase approach puts very little effort into understanding how Jews understand or process the Holocaust, or blacks understand or process slavery. History is treated as infinitely malleable and apparently you can have your characters do anything, no matter how unfactual, and because it's "alternative history," we're supposed to buy it. For Tarantino there's apparently no difference between doing a movie about the Holocaust and adapting Twilight or Roald Dahl.

But then at the same time, he likes to get on his high horse and lecture the communities he's writing about, telling them that somehow his brilliant take on their history has some redeeming, high-art quality that not only everyone should appreciate and acknowledge, but that may even be able to help those communities move on from those tragic events. Black teenagers should watch Django to understand slavery was bad, and Jews should watch Basterds to understand that Nazis are bad. And once you understand slave owners and Nazis are bad, you are supposed to understand that killing them in excruciating detail is awesome. And then you have a movie. Tarantino wants it both ways: on the one hand, his work isn't supposed to be serious history, so it can't be challenged for being fictional or just plain wrong, but on the other hand, it's ground-breakingly deep and can heal generations-old wounds. Tarantino's history has no substance but still wants to be treated as important commentary. It doesn't work, and if history matters to you-- be it yours or someone else's-- it comes across as lazy and dismissive. "Your real stories aren't important or interesting, Jews or black people-- let me tell you why my made up crap is so much better." It's basically one step away from what Mel Gibson tried to do with the Hanukkah story (though then again, being a fundamentalist, at least Gibson might have stuck to the text a little more). To me at least, it reads as incredibly arrogant.

This is where I feel Tarantino actually starts hurting the history he supposedly wants to talk about: he can claim that his alternative history is clever or satirical, but that only works when the audience knows the real history to start with, and I'm not convinced most of them do. And because he isn't invested in understanding his subject matter through the eyes of the people it happened to, he doesn't really have a whole lot of standing to comment on it, so his POV comes across as very skewed. For example, Tarantino doesn't understand why Jews might have a problem with violently killing or gratuitously torturing Nazis because he's never bothered to find out how real Jews reacted to the real life atrocities and traumas of losing their families. He can't relate to it, therefore he dismisses those feelings and representations in film (hand-wringing, as he calls it) as unrealistic. He's decided he knows how people would "realistically" react to that situation, and that's all there is to it. Never mind that there's a lot of documentation showing that most Jews didn't react to the war with revenge, and that the ones who did weren't doing it for fun or thrills but as a deeply pained response to intense trauma at having their entire society annihilated. Tarantino complained about there being no Holocaust stories that talked about fighting back, but the truth is that he's never bothered to look. He could find any number of real stories about real people and examine what they did and why they did it. Those would be stories with context, depth, and integrity, because they could examine and present real moral dilemmas and conflicts. But Tarantino doesn't do those kinds of stories, because he feels that moral dilemmas seem "like a movie, not real life." Which I personally find hilarious because when I look at Tarantino characters, all I see are caricatures and cartoons. Spielberg and Edward Zwick are far from perfect directors, but I'd take Munich, Defiance and even Schindler's List over Basterds any day. Tarantino likes to present himself as a genius director, but he really just comes across as a gore-obsessed lunkhead.

Tarantino's approach to story and characters would frustrate me no matter what his topics were, but it's especially problematic when he decides to apply his low-brow, high-blood method to the Holocaust and slavery. He can claim he's just trying to entertain people, but a lot of people who see his history movies are coming in ignorant and leaving even more ignorant, but now thinking they now know more than when they came in. Black people don't need to see Django to understand their history, they need to be able to get as much of a national platform as Tarantino and get to tell their own stories through their own eyes. I don't buy the claim that people who care about history should be happy that Django (or Lincoln, which I haven't followed as closely) are "at least making people think about the Civil War." No. We can do better, and should want film-makers to do better. I don't accept that my only choices are Ken Burns' coma-juice or Tarantino's genocide-poitation.

When alternative history is done for the purposes of comedy or obvious fantasy, then I suppose it can be successful (or at least stands more of a chance). Cowboys vs. Aliens and Robin Hood: Men in Tights both come to mind. But movies that present alternative history in a realistic or plausible manner, by directors that claim they're actually honoring their subject matter by throwing in tons of crap that never happened, risk doing more harm than good. If you want to make a silly action, romance or horror movie, then go ahead. You can even use slavery or Nazis in it. But be explicit that that's what you're doing, and don't pretend like you're helping whoever's history you decided to rip off for your back-story.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wrapping up the Year

So, how about 2012? Here are some things I meant to blog about but didn't get to:

Personal stuff

- First of all, I prepared a gigantic Hanukkah presentation for my middle-schoolers and it went quite well. Highlights included funny music videos (Matisyahu, Maccabeats and Eran Baron-Cohen), lots of latkes and donut holes, and re-enacting the death of Elazar Avran with a student volunteer, an expo marker, and me as the mortally wounded elephant.

Some people object to an ecumenical Hanukkah message, pointing out that the holiday celebrates people who were emphatically not tolerant of others. I think the history can be presented either way-- in the context of a classroom, I think it's legitimate to frame it as a conversation-starter about personal and national rights-- specifically, the right to be different and live/worship as you please (or as I framed it, rather than seeing it as a Jewish Christmas, Hanukkah is better understood as a Jewish mash-up of July 4th and Thanksgiving-- combining national as well as religious significance and rights). Would Judah Maccabee have been ok with the various expressions of Judaism we see today? Probably not. Then again, I know plenty of Jews-- myself included-- who wouldn't be very ok with killing a guy for worshiping an idol or running around forcibly circumcising your neighbors. I reserve the right to pick and choose.

- On a related note, we visited Mrs. Yid's mispocha. We were informed we would be attending midnight mass with the family. We wore our respective Jewish headgear (scarf and kippa). As Mrs. Yid predicted, there were precisely zero questions and comments from my in-laws, so it's impossible to tell what they thought of it. (Note that this is the exact opposite of what happens with my parents, who are nothing if not vocal-- about everything.) To celebrate Christmas, the church rang bells and set off fireworks. Since this was 12:30 am, I'm sure this did not endear them with their neighbors.

This was the first time I have flown with a kippa on. It is the first time in a long time I have been "randomly searched." Mrs. Yid notes that she has been "randomly searched" every time since covering her hair a year and a half ago.

I find it much easier to wear a kippa in public when I am somewhere I have never been and around people who don't know me. Food for thought.

- Our friend Avraham had his adult bar mitzvah along with 6 other congregants. Half of the b'nai mitzvah class were converts, and many of them were dedicated, longtime members. It was very cool to see hear all the different stories and paths that have brought people to Judaism in general and our shul in particular. Also, after shul Abbot Yid called me and asked why I hadn't picked up earlier that morning. When I told him we were at services he scoffed, "Oh, I'm sorry, you were busy BEING HOLY!" I continue to wonder when he will get over this stuff. Probably never.

- I am leading Carlebach davening this Shabbat. Wish me luck!

National/Media stuff

- Dennis Prager has a university. Considering he spends his time writing crap like how "as a Jew, I love Christmas because it makes me feel tingly all over," this pains me greatly.

- Israel is having an election. All the candidates seem either outright incompetent or supremely unsatisfying. I am intrigued by the shake-up among the religious, left and nationalist right political sectors, though at this point it seems way too early to tell what will come from any of it. (Though big kudoses to Shas for managing to be racist against Africans and bigoted towards Russian converts in the same election cycle. Mazel tov, jerks.)

- With all the school shootings happening, it's a strange time to be a teacher. I find it very irritating that so much of the national media/random pundits feel qualified to blather on about what teachers "should" do during a school shooting without apparently knowing anything about school safety procedures. At every school I've ever taught at, the training focuses on putting classes into lockdown mode until the threat is identified and/or contained, then evacuating. As cold as it may sound to people, this procedure and training helped keep Newtown from being an even worse massacre. Can there be additional steps added? Sure. But don't tell me that teachers are should be pulling a Rambo when everything they hear from the school is, "lock your door and keep your kids safe." And yes, while I realize the issue may be more complicated than merely gun supply, that does seem to be a far more logical place to start than random pat answers like saying we should "focus on morality" (how?) or that it's because we've taken God out of schools (explain the 60+ US school shootings before 1962, Huckabee).

 I don't see easy answers to the school shooting issue, but I do think that some combination of increased gun control legislation, mental health resources and refocused school security systems would be a good start. I don't think arming teachers or passing blustery laws that score political points but don't change the reality on the ground are good answers.

- Lastly, conversations regarding Newtown and theodicy have helped me better articulate some aspects of my understanding of God. Namely, why the notion of God causing disasters makes so little sense to me. (Adapated from a Dovbear comment I made a few weeks ago.)

If you look around, the world does not seem to be controlled. If God is a factor, it seems to operate as an undercurrent, not an obvious force. As such, my conception of God is not focused on the idea of a miracle-maker or a punishment-dealer. My God is one of suggestion and hope. When I daven, I always take a moment to insert a personal prayer where I ask for blessings for my family, for my friends, for my coworkers, for the leaders of the world, and for myself. I ask for health, for happiness, for peace, and for wisdom. But those blessings aren't for miracles, and I don't expect them to be fulfilled miraculously.

For me, prayer is an articulation of hope, and by speaking to God I am trying, in some small way, to reach out to whatever forces may influence the universe. It may do nothing more than make me feel better. It may help reaffirm to me what my goals for myself, others and the world are and thereby spur me a little step closer to making them come true. I don't pray for God to move mountains, but to touch people's hearts, to make them care about each other and about doing the right thing. I pray that somehow, this force we call God will help influence good and brave people, so that eventually they outnumber and overcome the evil and apathetic and help tip the scales of history.

To me, that is God's job, not making it rain, helping me win the lottery, or shielding people from terrible events-- because I believe that those things by necessity will always happen. But if there is a God and he does influence the world, my greatest hope is that he will help us, impact us, empower us, to become better about preventing our own tragedies and reaching out to those touched by them. That's the God I believe in.

Shabbat shalom.