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by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

When you turn a book into a movie, context is usually the first creative facet to be sacrificed. Film is so obsessed with movement and plotting and situational conflict that, items such as explanation and rationalization are left to inference and suggestion. Then, it’s up to actors and filmmakers to find the right unspoken subtext.  When law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink wrote his international bestseller, The Reader, back in 1995, he used illiteracy and one character’s growing wealth of knowledge as a means of reflecting on the post-modern ignorance about the Holocaust. It remains a potent literary metaphor. Sadly, the big screen adaption of the novel by The Hours director Stephen Daldry casts aside the symbolism to focus on a mannered May/December romance. The result is a movie so unfocused and forced that we don’t care about any of the characters or their motivational malaise.

When he’s stricken with Scarlett Fever, 15 year old Michael Berg is inadvertently helped by an unassuming German woman who works as a conductor on the streetcar. As he mends, he slowly becomes obsessed with his memories of the enigmatic lady. It’s not long before he’s spying on her, skipping school to visit her apartment. Michael and Hanna soon begin an affair, their 21 year difference is age meaning very little to their passion. After a summer of lust and literature, she disappears, leaving her young lover heartbroken. All Michael has left is his memories of lazy afternoons in Hanna’s flat, she asking to be read to before they can fulfill their carnal desires.

Years later, while in law school, Michael attends a series of War Crime Tribunals, and there he learns that Hannah is a defendant. Seems she was one of several prison guards who selected victims for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The woman he slept with was an integral part of the Final Solution. Destroyed by the revelation, Michael must face a serious crisis of conscience. He has information that could actually help Hanna’s case. But his former paramour is unapologetic in her confession, and considering the monstrosity of her acts, Michael assumes his silence is more than justified.

In an awards season that has suddenly embraced the Shoah as a selling point, The Reader is not really interested in the extermination of the Jews. Sure, the film focuses on Hanna Schmidt’s ‘only following orders’ admissions, the rampant carnality of her character early on suddenly tainted with the blood of an entire ethnicity later on. In author Schlink’s own words, he wanted Hanna’s earthy sexuality to stand in direct contradiction to her concentration camp cruelty. But somewhere along the line, director Daldry and screenwriter David Hare lost this concept. Indeed, all throughout their version of The Reader, important storytelling elements inherent in the book’s magic are all but missing. Without getting into detail, everything Schlink was trying to accomplish with his approach is cast aside for more shots of Kate Winslet naked.

Aside from the fact that she’s a mother of two, there is no longer anything “brave” about this actress bearing all for a movie role. Ever since she dropped blou for co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the accomplished British thesp has had a hard time keeping her knickers on. Here, her Hanna is a quasi-pedophile who sees a strapping young lad hopped up and happy to oblige, and she immediately takes him to bed. Only later, once his adolescent hormones are good and engorged does her true tact become clear. Hanna needs Michael as a conduit to the written world. As someone who cannot read and write, she will gladly trade sex for an oral workout of a decidedly different kind. While David Kross does his best messed-up horndog hero, the duo’s love scenes have a static, unsympathetic aura.

By following Schlink’s strategies (the book is divided into three distinct parts), Daldry also runs the risk of making one section more important than the others. And with the number of nude scenes we see up front, it’s clear where his motion picture proclivities lie. The bedroom romps take up so much time here that, when we see Hanna is on trial for being a “model employee” of the Reich, the film has to rush through the realities. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the crimes committed, but all we see of the horrors is Michael’s solitary walk through of a closed camp. Even worse, the entire courtroom drama is dispensed with post haste, the quicker to get to Ralph Fiennes and the mandatory montages of moping about and recording books for an imprisoned Hanna to listen to.

The last act of The Reader is perhaps the biggest overall disappointment. In the book, Hanna becomes aware on her own, using Michael’s tape recorder and cassettes as a means of learning to read. After running through a litany of survivor literature, she realizes her place in history - and how truly terrible it is. In Daldry’s world however, this gray haired old lady spends time revisiting the classics she loved during her summer of love with Michael. There is no real measure of contrition, no acknowledgment of blame or long lasting culpability on her part. Her fate seems silly, almost tossed off as an after thought. Everything thereafter is clouded by a similar lack of clarity. Even Fiennes’ last act mea culpa with a woefully unexplained Lena Olin plays like a PC postscript for a viewership unaware of the whole Nazi/Jew “thing”.

In fact, much of The Reader misinterprets Schlink’s motives for trying to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Instead of concentrating on what current generations think, the film wants to focus on young passion and the suffering that comes from secrets. Winslet and Fiennes both acquit themselves admirably (though she actually deserves more praise for her clothed role in Revolutionary Road than anything she does here), and Daldry does an excellent job with tone, time period, and details. On its own, however, The Reader doesn’t make much sense. As a drama, it’s dull. As a reflection of the original source material, it’s a sadly mistake miscalculation.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Harvey Milk was more than a politician. He was more than a grass roots illustration of San Francisco’s struggling gay rights movement and underrepresented population. He was much more than a cultural icon, much more than a martyred victim of a senseless and still slightly unbelievable crime. What Harvey Milk represents is truly present in Gus Van Sant’s stellar telling of the last years of his life. While Milk never excuses the man’s sexuality, or makes it the sole reason for his rise and untimely fall, it does argue that his outrageous outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the role of the government and its people in a democracy. It’s a lesson we could all re-learn today.

As a closeted middle aged man in Manhattan, Harvey Milk is desperate for something better. After meeting up with future companion Scott Smith, the decision is made - they will both travel to San Francisco, where the Castro District is buzzing with growing gay pride. While still the subject of horrible homophobia, Milk’s corner camera store becomes a powerbase for a new kind of revolution - one surrounding human rights and their proper preservation. After running for elected office several times - and losing - Milk finally benefits from some redrawn districts. He is soon the first openly gay politician holding significant office in the United States. Unfortunately, his orientation and lack of political savvy put him in direct conflict with cowardly conservative Dan White. It’s a clash that will end in tragedy.

So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character’s rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she’s Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.

Van Sant also illustrates the normalcy surrounding the crazed Castro, avoiding much of the scandal and sex games (bathhouses and discos are mentioned, but not visited) to show that Milk managed to attract thoughtful, appreciative people into his fold. James Franco is excellent as Smith, the true love of Harvey’s hectic life (and the one sacrifice necessary for the man to push forward). There is such warmth in the performance that the same sex scenes of romance become organic, not off-putting. Emile Hirsch also puts on the mince as a very fey and very frank escort who ends up as one of Milk’s main supporters. The rampant stereotyping in the film is easily forgiven, since Van Sant is merely recognizing kinds, not arguing that they were the only elements of San Francisco’s scene.

It’s no surprise, however, that the two strongest turns come from our two main players. Sean Penn disappears so completely into the role of Harvey Milk that we occasionally have to shock ourselves into remembering that we are not watching a documentary. There is no mannerism in the performance, no obvious attempts at acting. Instead, with a lilt in his voice and a twinkle in his tired eyes, he brings the myth maverick back down to Earth, infusing him with a spirit that’s infectious and endearing. We root for this man just as much as the people who elected him to office, and when the unfortunate end comes, we feel the pain just as much as they do.

But it’s Josh Brolin who has the much harder role as family man turned murderer Dan White. While clearly unhinged about some element of his life, Van Sant does a wonderful job of establishing motive outside the obvious homophobic approach. White is seen as a limited success, someone shuttled aside rather conveniently to make room for Milk’s rapid ascension. His projects are put off, and when he tries to rally support to stop certain policies, he often ends up on the short end of the stance. When California votes to repeal certain protections for homosexuals (yes, Prop 8 is nothing new in the state’s history), White is on the losing side of the outcome, and this puts him on a collision course with fate. Brolin shows us the slow burn and the phony façade. We know he will crack, and we’re afraid of how calm he’ll be when he finally does.

In Van Sant’s capable hands, history is reflected alongside fiction, moments of made-up interpersonal tensions underscoring the rising anger in the gay community. If there is a weak link among the main characters, it’s the second half arrival of Diego Luna as Jack Lira, a thickly accented Spaniard that becomes obsessed with Milk. Hanging onto his lover like a wounded whelp and complaining about unimportant things like dinner times and a “lack of fun”, he’s the fifth wheel amongst a group of concerned, caring activists. But thanks to the brilliance in Penn’s performance, and the way in which Van Sant systematically deconstructs the time, the place and the positions, Milk remains masterful. It’s the kind of smart, sensitive biography that does the subject and his spirit proud.

And yet the real question remains - why, in 2008, is the issue of gay rights seemingly back at square one? Why, in a nation that apparently embraces multiculturalism and ethnic diversity so openly and easily, are we still using sexuality and orientation as a means of making distinctions between protected classes? Milk argues that the God squad are the cause of all the clamor, and he was/is right. But apparently time was all the Jesus gang needed to turn the clock back to the dismal dark ages. Thirty years later, Harvey Milk remains a monumental political figure. That society has since rejected his rational call to arms speaks as much for his import as the lack of such leadership now.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Faith is a very tricky thing. Belief without a foundation in fact, or the possibility of proving either, gives religion its raison d’être, and skeptics their fodder for a hundred careful criticisms. Of course, no one takes into consideration the believer’s side of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the certainty of their conviction. They have no question about the existence of a God, the sacrifice of His son for our sins, and the ongoing presence of both in their daily life. Yet there are also moments of disbelief, times when dogma fails to offer up an explanation or rationale. It is this inherent element of conviction that stands at the center of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, and oddly enough, it’s also a part of the overall experience for the viewer as well.

When he was accepted into St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, Principal Sr. Aloysius thought that black student Donald Muller would be a problem. But she thought the issues would be between the boy and some bigoted students. But one day, after meeting up with Fr. Flynn in the rectory, Donald returns to newcomer Sr. James’ class with liquor on his breath. He’s also upset and shaken. Bringing her concerns to Sr. Aloysius, the old nun suspects the worst - that Fr. Flynn has been “inappropriate” with the boy. But there is a clear hierarchy within the Catholic Church, and even though she runs the school, Sr. Aloysius cannot confront the priest directly. When her discussions with the higher up become confrontational and contentious, the Sister seeks the advice of Donald’s hardworking mother. What she discovers puts everything into perspective while casting uncertainty on every element in the story - Donald’s motives, Fr. Flynn’s explanations, and Sr. Aloysius’s pursuit of both.

Doubt is not the first “meta” motion picture, but it’s a safe bet that it’s the only one that takes its name, it’s internal conflict, and the resolution of both as a literal fact. In his knotty, ambiguous narrative, John Patrick Shanley shuns outright pronouncements for questions left unanswered and plot threads purposefully left hanging. The characters all exhibit the title tendency, though some avoid it until the very last scene and lines of dialogue. And yet Shanley wants to push the interactive envelope further, suggesting the film (like his play) is actually a work in two of three acts. The final segment comes once the credits roll and the audience heads home to discuss. There will be lots of investigation and interpretation about Doubt‘s finale, especially in light of our passive-aggressive predatory view of backdoor religious dealings. But whether or not we convict the individuals at the center of the story is not the key to Doubt‘s dilemma. What it says about us as human beings may be the movie’s most devastating statement.

Molestation and homosexuality are at the center of Shanley’s themes, but per the early ‘60s backdrop, both are held in hush-hush communicative contempt. Sister Aloysius responds to every rejoinder about her accusations with a standard “you know what I’m saying”, and even when another character calls out her own son’s situation, words like “gay” are never spoken. Without spoiling much, the crux of Doubt‘s plotline asks us to figure out why an older man would favor a younger, sensitive black child. There is no mention of sex or orientation, no evidence of wrongdoing except for the telltale odor of alcohol on the child’s breath. Everything is rumor and innuendo, past indiscretions and the appearance of impropriety dropped into a fog of unproven allegations and misunderstood motives. When the movie ends, we have even less clarity than during the stunning confrontations between nun and priest.

If it offers anything clear and apparent, it’s the hardworking grandeur of Streep and Hoffman’s performances. Amy Adams is left out of many of the main arguments, and while missed, it’s a good guess that she’d have a hard time holding her own here. Both of these able Oscar winners bring so much passion, so much anger, so much emotion to their tet-a-tet’s that we wish the entire film was nothing but debates. Shanley’s writing is focused and firm, never giving away too much without flying off onto unimportant tangents. As Fr. Flynn slowly realizes what Sr. Aloysius is suggesting, the look of hurt and hatred in Hoffman’s eyes is unforgettable. Equally, Streep sells us on her old school view of the world. She’s not really as mean as she makes herself out to be. Instead, her hardness comes from a life of loss, and the stone cold strength of her convictions. She knows she is right, and so far, nothing has proven her wrong.

Going back to Shanley’s own suggestion about Doubt being divided into three distinct parts, it’s obvious that sections one and two are the most potent. The beginning of the film takes a while to find its cinematic sea legs. We stumble around among various disconnected events, young boys being bad as their female classmates are read the standard religious riot act about “improper” dress and attitudes toward boys. One guesses we are supposed to see Flynn’s progressive nature and Sr. James discomfort with her order’s discipline based decision making in these sequences. But it’s only when Hoffman handles his character’s amazing sermons that we see any symbolic link to the rest of Doubt‘s designs. Perhaps the incompleteness comes from Shanley’s need to open up the play for the big screen. Maybe he underestimated the power of his last act affronts.

There will be some who see the ending as a massive, mannered cop-out. They will want closure, a consensus as to who or what was the boogie man in the closet (or out, so to speak) and hear someone say something to ease their easily manipulated and Dateline driven mind. Part of the success of Doubt onstage must have come from Shanley’s shadowy avoidance of finality, giving those callous contemporary theatergoers a dose of their own narrow minded medicine. The narrative makes it very clear that Flynn could be a victim here, a would-be non-warlock in a witch hunt, so to speak. Yet nothing within the final fifteen minutes suggests that kind of purity. Indeed, the best thing about Doubt could be the fact that everyone is guilty - either of over reacting, or not reacting at all. And don’t be surprised if you feel equally culpable when all is said and done.

by Bill Gibron

10 Dec 2008

In the current climate of motion picture making, where does the soundtrack really stand? When watching a remarkable movie like, say, Revolutionary Road, do you care that the music behind Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is working, or that you can head on over to ITunes after the screening and download yourself a copy of Thomas Newman’s extraordinary score? Do audiences really appreciate the supplemental CD of a film’s sonic sentiments, or are they just too busy buying into the prepackaged and programmed plotting to care much about the aural material surrounding it. Sure, there are rare instances when a movie makes itself so culturally significant (Titanic, The Dark Knight) that people will purchase anything connected to it. But what about the everyday effort? Do journeymen have any place in the merchandising domain, even when the do amazing work?

That’s the question facing the three soundtracks offered up for consideration as part of SE&L‘s recurrent recording roundtable, Surround Sound. This time, we see an upcoming family film, a current CG hit, and a usual independent offering getting positive notice, all threatening to have their composer’s sweat and toil trampled by a general public indifference. And what’s even more disheartening is that each individual offering is good - very good in some cases. But unless you have a cash register ringer so to speak (ain’t that right Miss Cyrus), few if any may become aware of your imagination and innovation. While it’s sad to say it, that’s the apparent state of the soundtrack biz. Anyway, let’s begin with an upcoming effort:

Marley & Me - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

For a relatively young man (37), Theodore Shapiro has had quite a unique career as a film composer. Getting his start on the MTV sketch comedy series The State, he quickly became the go-to guy for the entire Stiller/Wilson/Wain school of slacker comedy. Recently, he’s been involved in such high profile projects as The Devil Wears Prada, Blades of Glory, and Tropic Thunder. So it seems strange for someone working within such crazed crackpot canvases to take on a family-oriented animal lovers movie. But that’s exactly what Shapiro did when he signed up to provide the sonic backing for John Grogan’s memoir, Marley and Me. While it may seem like an odd combination at first, the music speaks volumes for the artist’s ability to adapt.

For something with a sincerely sentimental premise (following the adventures of a family dog from adoption to death), Shapiro’s score for Marley and Me is surprisingly spunky. Acoustic guitars ring across jaunty soft rock ramblings. Oddball bossanova moves accent the film’s sunny South Florida locations. While some of the sounds here are meant to copy the fun-loving, mischievous nature of the title pup (“Off and Running”), or the mandatory movie passage of time (“Two Year Montage”), there is an inherent melancholy to the way Shapiro chooses his approach. This is especially true towards the end when we get several, sobering snippets (“When It’s Time”, “Boy and Dog”). Such sentimentality, however, is often thwarted by a big, rollicking rock-n-roll statement like “Heading Home” or the terrific title track. By constantly repeating certain themes, Shapiro ensures that we will be humming the main melody lines long after we’ve forgotten the film they come from.


Bolt - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 7]

At one time, animated films were almost always mandated to be musicals. Even if the characters didn’t sing the actual songs, studios put potential pop hits directly into their pen and ink adventures, the better to guarantee brisk soundtrack sales later on. All that stopped in the mid ‘90s, when studios like Dreamworks and Fox tried to take the artform in a slightly different, more snarky and non-singing, non-dancing direction. And that’s where it’s stayed, more or less. Pixar proved you didn’t need production numbers to sell tickets, and over the years, the slow death of 2D animation meant a limit on the number of Alan Menken/Elton John penned ballads. The latest from Disney, the delightful Bolt, doesn’t propose to change this approach. But when you’ve completely re-recorded an entire vocal performance to take an actress out, and to put a multiplatinum tween recording phenomenon in, you just know there’s going to be a couple of indirect aural references to such charttopper’s powerhouse skills. 

The mandatory Miley track aside (more on this in a moment) and the material from Ms. Jenny Lewis also initially forgiven, Bolt begins its run through several soundtrack stereotypes. We get the big bold action opening and stunt sequences (“Bolt Transforms”, “Scooter Chase”), the pastoral scenic sections (“The RV Park”), and the moments of humble heroics (“Where Were You on St. Rhino’s Day”). In between Powell, doesn’t waver. Everything is either bongo-driven road movie forcefulness (“Saving Mittens”) or a mix of light and soft (“House on Wheels”). As for the two actual songs on the CD, the Cyrus tune is accented by some intriguing help from co-star John Travolta on vocals (some of his strongest since Grease, or that early ‘70s hit “Let Her In”). It’s great to hear the actor working his vocal pipes again. Similarly Ms. Lewis’ track is unobtrusive and sweet, a tad too maudlin with a title that begs for creative reconsideration (“Barking at the Moon” - in a film about a dog…), but it does offer some nice cross-promotion possibilities for the House of Mouse, who is always looking for a way to maximize the return on their product.

Synecdoche, New York - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

You expect weird from screenwriter turned first time filmmaker Charlie Kaufman. The man practically perspires eccentricity. He’s quirky in bizarro world wackness. If his scripts weren’t strange enough, his public persona is a mixture of hermit, serial killer, and that way too smart kid in school who ended up sitting in his low rent basement apartment making wine all throughout college. While many feel the man is too meta for his own good, his most recent film has got critics both praising him while simultaneously scratching their more than befuddled head. To try and describe this movie’s premise is next to impossible. But it’s safe to say that the work of the equally idiosyncratic Jon Brion is borderline brilliant. Unlike the music he’s recorded for Paul Thomas Anderson (Sydney, Magnolia, Punch-drunk Love) or select comedies (I Heart Huckabees, Step Brothers), this is one soundtrack that’s in perfect sync with the director’s delusional genius.

As a score, Synecdoche New York is a uber-weird combination of old school composing, hackneyed homage irony, and just a tad too much stinging self-consciousness. Tracks have names that defy description (“DMI Thing From When She Was in the Kitchen”, “Someone Else’s Forward Motion (Posing as Your Own)”) and every once in a while Brion will step in and turn everything into a piece of pure instrumental bliss (“Piano One”). This is one musician who likes to mix things up, complex string pieces purposefully crashing into somber, almost ethereal New Age ambiance. Toward the end, actual songs are introduced, with “Little Person” and “Song for Caden” having a similar, lo-fi appeal. The last number, “Schenectady” sounds a tad too much like Sufjan Stevens channeled through Randy Newman. Still, for something meant to match with Kaufman’s crazed visions, Brion does a bang-up job.

by Bill Gibron

9 Dec 2008

All across the web this past week, it’s been the subject of much metaphysical ink. As awards season slowly winds down, Hollywood is dragging out the proverbial heavy hitters, and oddly enough, quite a few deal with World War II, Nazi Germany, and in ways both direct and indirect, the Holocaust. Back in 2004, a documentary entitled Imaginary Witness discussed with great clarity and foresight the issue of bringing history’s greatest crime to the entertainment mediums. It’s important to remember that, less than 30 years ago, the amazing TV mini-series Holocaust was criticized for turning the fate of six million Jews into a commercial conceit. One wonders what the pundits in that piece would think about the current trend toward turning the Shoah into show business.

The arguments on both sides seem salient enough. Harvey Weinstein, whose company is pushing The Reader for Oscar gold, has a “more the merrier” attitude. By putting out films with Holocaust themes, he suggests, it keeps the “Never Forget” mandate alive.  On the other hand, journalists like Stuart Klawans suggest that “by continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.” Since many of the movies being made are not fact based, but instead rely on the Holocaust as a fictional catalyst for plot, character, and or thematic development, the import of the event itself is being shuttled aside for the sake of standard moviemaking formula.

It’s a trend that can be traced back to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Love it or loathe it, this serio-comic take on the tragedy proved that not every story about the suffering of Europe’s Jewish populace had to be Schindler’s List. Indeed, while Steven Spielberg set the benchmark with his haunting, horrific epic, no one would argue that it was the last word on the carnage (last year’s Counterfeiter confirms that concept). But sitting through the films being offered as part of 2008’s year end overdrive, one gets the distinct impression that the death, pain, and suffering inflicted by the Nazis has gone from being a monumental human atrocity to a go-to gimmick for an otherwise vacant cinematic statement.

Take the aforementioned Weinstein effort. Without going into detail, the war crimes of one character are debated in court proceedings that do little to illustrate their vile callousness. The only real passion for the crimes comes when, during sentencing, a group of concentration camp survivors scream out anguished epithets. Similarly, a last act element that feels tagged on allows the film’s protagonist, a German man (played by Ralph Fiennes) with a horribly guilty conscience, to make with the mea culpa. As he confesses his teenage affair with the woman who was once an “only following orders” murderer, situational stand-in Lena Olin gets to pass joyless PC judgment.

Or what about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? This is one of the few films ever that takes the tragedy suffered by millions of families and gives it over to the guys in the swastikas. Throughout the course of the entire film, a young German boy and a frail Jewish prisoner become typical childhood pals. When poor little Schmuel’s father goes missing in the camp, adventurous Teutonic lad Bruno BREAKS INTO the compound, dons the inmate’s garb, and begins the hunt. Eventually, he is rounded up and sent to the gas chamber, along with his newfound friend. Horrifying yes, but where is the emotion actually laid. We don’t get anyone crying for the millions of Jews who died, but Bruno’s Nazi parents are pie-eyed over the loss.

In some instances, the films present the Holocaust as a motive, nothing more. Tom Cruise pays the situation lip service when, in the upcoming Valkyrie his Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg argues for the reasons to assassinate Hitler. Once mentioned, the liberation of the camps is offered as a possible, post-coup agenda item. That’s it. In other cases, the issue is treated with a confusing ‘direct tenuousness’. In Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, Jeff Goldblum is very good as an ex-circus performer who survived the Holocaust by being a camp commandant’s court jester, so to speak. Years later, he’s in an insane asylum in Israel, reliving his days as the Nazi’s literal ‘dog’.

But Defiance may be the ultimate example of where all this is eventually going. Edward Zwick’s epic tale of the real-life Bieliski Brothers, who escape persecution in Poland and joined up with Russian Resistance fighters to battle the Germans, is like a modern Hollywood action film with the Shoah served up on the side. What these siblings did (within the context of a fictionalized film about same, of course) is astonishing, and it’s an important part of the overall narrative of the War. But is it any more reverent to offer up shoot ‘em up crowd pleasing bullet ballets as part of history rather than slapstick belly laughs? One senses that Zwick sees nothing wrong with offering violence as a viable solution. After all, who would really argue with such a Rambo-like response?

But this goes to the bigger issue of what the Holocaust is supposed to signify, both symbolically and cinematically. In The Reader, it’s a moral dilemma for a young man sexually obsessed with a fragile, enigmatic woman. In Adam Resurrected, it’s the ends to a mental means. Defiance makes it the “eye for an eye” rationale, while Valkyrie does something similar, if a lot more subtle. Only The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems to have its intentions in the wrong ethnic divide. Certainly there were good Germans (as Cruise and company try to prove over and over), but to make the death of one of the Fatherland’s own more important than the slaughter of six million others seems unconscionable.

Mind you, in all the cases mentioned, the Holocaust is not ridiculed or mocked. No one tries to argue it away, excuse it, or lessen its truly unimaginable hideousness. But we aren’t talking about a specific battle here, or an important but forgotten figure. This is genocide on a massive, premeditated, and unfathomably systematic scale. It’s as if each film here forgets what the overall purpose of Hitler’s Final Solution was - to eradicate the Jew from the face of the Earth. Does such an intention allow for what many might see as superficial treatment of the subject? And is Klawans right? Does the overexposure of the Holocaust threaten to turn it into a narrative device like drug abuse or molestation - one time hot button topics that now seem passé and predictable.

Indeed, the biggest fear here is not “forgetting”, but forgetting what’s important. Before he made Schindler’s List, Spielberg argued that he had to “grow up” as a filmmaker, maturity being the key to handling an issue this massive and important. Nowadays, all one needs is a script (typically based on a well-meaning novel of some sort) and an inferred sense of the serious to make their movie. In each way, the films here have aims that are good to grand, and in the execution no one truly stumbles. But at some point, the Holocaust will misplace its mainstream meaning, and that’s one part of this unbridled tragedy that never should be lost. Ever. 

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