Skip’s Quips: The Horror of ‘Jud Süß’

Blog Sketch 082813Everyone should see the movie Jud Süß.

There’s a reason for that: It’s one of the most horrifying pictures ever made. This is slickly crafted Nazi propaganda, a wartime movie that viciously portrays Jews as evil, conniving monsters out to rape non-Jewish women and destroy others while making oodles of money. I watched this film recently because I believed I needed to see it as part of my cinematic education.

I’m glad I did.

It’s a monument to the tyranny of the Third Reich and extremely disturbing. It also has strong production values and impassioned acting, which contributed to its effectiveness as propaganda. I can only wonder what its impact was when it debuted in Germany to already anti-Semitic audiences. It must’ve been scary.

I don’t think this is a movie that should be seen without context. Instead, it should be shown in museums and schools as part of an educational initiative. No one should forget what atrocities the Nazis committed, and this film is part of its effort to blame the Jews for all kinds of problems. As a Jew, I believe it’s essential to see this movie with the perspective that the Nazi regime used all kinds of tools to convey its vile, racist ideology. Everyone should remember what happened. Watching this picture is a way to do so.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: What Makes an Offensive Movie?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Eons ago, when VCRs ruled the world, my parents were showing my cousin and his wife the original 1968 film of The Producers. When the movie came to the sequence where Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock gets a “toy” for a present to himself – basically a beautiful woman for him to ogle – my cousin’s wife spoke up with indignation.

“That’s so sexist,” she said.

Well, yeah. Yes, it is.

Of course it’s sexist. It’s horribly, absurdly sexist. And that’s the point. Bialystock is something of a disgusting person. I mean, he’s trying to scam people with a show glorifying Hitler. If that’s not reprehensible, I don’t know what is.

There’s an issue here, though: What makes a movie offensive? Obviously, my cousin’s wife was offended by the inherent sexism of the character and the scene. But I feel it’s within the context of the film, which is no-holds-barred offensive, anyway. This is a flick that makes fun of (sometimes unfairly) Jews, homosexuals, seniors, hippies and other groups. There are few left out. And the whole point of the movie is to make fun of bad taste. Even Brooks reportedly said of his pictures that they “rise below vulgarity.”

Is my cousin’s wife right to be indignant, though? Is it all a matter of taste? Can offensiveness be subjective, all in the eye of the beholder? Or is there an objective quality to it that legitimizes the act of taking umbrage even to what many people regard as a classic: The Producers?

It’s hard to answer this question. If someone feels strongly that something is offensive, how could we mark that person as wrong? On the other hand, can someone miss the point or context of something altogether? That’s totally possible. Maybe both are totally possible. I’m not sure.

I broached the subject of racism and films that I feel should be taught in schools or museums at CURNBLOG recently here. My point suggests that there is an objectivity to offensiveness, that some films are inherently, unequivocally racist.  But the comments to this post indicate that people have differing views on the subject. Perhaps there’s something to that.

We should continue to explore it. It’s the only way to address the issue.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Looking Anew at a Laurel and Hardy Classic

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613To me, watching March of the Wooden Soldiers is like opening a Christmas present.

It still offers surprises, no matter how many times you do it. The fact that it was on TV on Xmas Day, as usual, drove that point home. This year, I marveled at the elegance of Laurel and Hardy’s routines. I smiled at the charm of Victor Herbert’s lilting score. And I pondered the idea that those mean “bogeymen” invading Toyland at the end were racist caricatures.

Yep, I did just that. It basically ruined my naive memory of viewings past. But it also instilled an awareness that many of the pleasures we grew up on don’t always retain their innocent luster.

OK, you say, but this movie is totally silly. It’s just fantasy and isn’t political. It’s escapist. It’s Laurel and Hardy, for crying out loud!

It is, but I’m reminded of other “innocent” routines in otherwise sterling pictures, such as the big musical number in A Day at the Races, that have disturbing social connotations attached to their entertainment value. In March, the bogeymen are monstrous, cartoony, but also apelike in their movements, unintelligible and savage. Plus, they attack Toyland in masses, attempting to carry off the inhabitants while causing as much damage as possible.

Doesn’t that sound like the white establishment’s worst fear—that the race it has pressed down for so many centuries will invade and destroy it?

This isn’t a subtle message, yet I’m chagrined that it has taken me this long to understand it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it so many times and, in the past, have only looked at it superficially. Now, however, I’m noticing the subtext, and although I still find the movie amusing, my joys are somewhat deflated. Like Races, it’s attained a mark that—though based in misconceptions of yore—serves as a strike against it. These ideas can’t be discounted, no matter how old they are or antiquated they seem.

That’s because they still appear on TV … every year, in the case of March. And they still have the capacity to be offensive.

If we examine all of our holiday traditions, I’m sure we’d all find concepts we disagree with. The hardest ones to explore, though, are the ones we’ve grown up accepting but don’t make sense once we revisit them with older eyes.

I’m feeling that way about March, though a present worth opening is also worth discussing. Perhaps we can continue to do that as the holidays amble by.

Skip’s Quips: Nitpicking the Hearts of ‘Coronets’

Blog Sketch 082813There’s a scene in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets that has troubled me for a while, and I’m not sure how to address it.

The bit occurs toward the end in a dialogue between debonair serial killer Louis Mazzini, who has murdered all of the members of his estranged D’Ascoyne family in line to inherit the dukedom before him, and Sibella, his conniving mistress, who has framed him for the supposed killing of her husband. Mazzini (played by Dennis Price), now behind bars, is asked by Sibella (Joan Greenwood) if he remembers the nursery rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” which—in the form depicted in the movie—features an atrocious, offensive term used pejoratively to describe someone who is black. Both characters say the word, equating it with the people Mazzini has dispatched … something Sibella insinuates as part of her realization that his rapid rise to nobility isn’t natural.

So this is an issue. It’s a crucial scene, and the two protagonists, whom we’ve followed throughout the film, make these remarks in the casual way reserved for people lacking even a cursory understanding of racial sensitivity. Yet these are protagonists, not villains, and despite their despicable actions, also have likable qualities—ones that are essential to the film’s watchability.

Can we separate these traits from each other? Must we view them as either good or bad? I’m reminded of the mobster in The Godfather who is repulsed by the idea of selling drugs near schools but has no compunction about doing so to African-Americans and letting them “lose their souls.” He was a cut-and-dry villain, and the movie points that out. But Mazzini and Sibella are textured, flawed; their traits are mixed. Racism is one of their worst ones. Does that preclude us from enjoying their adventures as a whole?

One alternative is rooting for the characters such as the movie’s callous duke, who’s much worse, so that’s out. Another, however, is the affable, photography-mad nobleman who has done nothing wrong and is blown up in his lab by Mazzini. We’re forced to disagree with this decision and laugh at the incredible villainy, so perhaps we don’t have a choice.

And maybe that’s what bothers me so much—not being free to decide for myself whom to like or dislike. The movie makes the choice for us and does so ingeniously. One can make the argument that the offensive dialogue is in character and in keeping with the era in which the film takes place, but I wonder if that’s enough. Does that legitimize its use?

It’s a question I’ll need to continue asking as long as I watch and rewatch the film. Only great pictures deserve that kind of inquiry.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: The ‘Wind’ Beneath My Consideration

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I’m a Gone with the Wind denier.

I deny that it’s a great film. I deny that it’s even enjoyable. And I deny that it should be shown on TV as much as it has been … or, for that matter, at all.

Saturated with racism, it’s a relic that defies viewing. Someone should lock it up and store it away, à la Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet every so often, it appears on the small screen, as if it’s a tradition akin to watching March of the Wooden Soldiers on Christmas.

Whose tradition are we following here? The tradition of offending people?

I believe in dissociating the creator from his or her art. But GwtW‘s so infused with cordial hate that it infects the film as a whole. You can’t separate the parts.

And I’m still wondering why it gets the green light on the tube.

Many people like it. Some feel it’s a masterpiece. I don’t. From a cinematic perspective, it smacks of tripe. Soapy, tiresome tripe. Oh, yeah: It’s long, too, and not long in a good, Lawrence of Arabia way. You feel every minute of it.

I’m in the minority on this, and normally I accept that. In this case, however, I don’t. GwtW shouldn’t be shown on TV, and its racism alone should be reason enough. The fact that it’s plain tedious offers further proof that we should blow it off.