MCN Commentary & Analysis

Can’t We All Just Not Agree?

It’s not a new phenomenon, but the last few years of self-righteous (and  simply righteous) indignation over everything have brought a new kind of film criticism to the table.

In some ways, it is as old as the hills. Many critics take an approach to film that looks down the nose at the audience and the films they love. Always have. Always will. The best ones do not.

But now we also have a group that postures itself as aggrieved by popular films they do not like and whine endlessly about how culture as we know it is under attack by these barbarians who, in disagreeing with their taste, allegedly want to narrow the cultural road to the broad tastes of the broadest group possible to the exclusion of all others (aka their tastes, aka good taste).

So, if you like the films that upset their sense of control, you are not only exposing your limited palate, you are pissing on progressivism, on equality, on the quality of the life that your children and grandchildren will live.

In twenty-five years or so of watching movies for a living, I can think of, maybe, a half dozen films the existence of which I really regretted. Probably not that many. God knows there are scores of horrible movies every single year. Same as it ever was.

But it is not my job to keep producers and funders from making the movies they think will help them make a living. I am not the arbiter of the choice of what gets produced. And I know, because I am all about the history of both art and commerce in this industry, that having such an arbiter is a horrible idea.

Why? In part, because (almost) everyone has a side of their taste spectrum in film and television that is silly or seeking excitement or “lowbrow.” So sorry, if you love Jacques Tati and/or Laurel & Hardy and/or Jerry Lewis, you don’t really get to decide that Adam Sandler must be banished to the shitpile of history.

Now… if you hate Adam Sandler’s work, GREAT! I don’t care. No one should care. Your taste is your taste and as far as I am concerned, that is inviolate.

However… if I enjoy an Adam Sandler movie – or as some do, all Adam Sandler movies – you may think me an idiot. And I am okay with that too. But what I am not okay with is turning that into an accusation that I am damaging the future of film as an art form or cultural in general or that my taste indicates that I hold others in some form of contempt or disinterest.

On a finer point, you are not a racist or hater or an idiot of some kind if you like or love La La Land. You also are likely capable of appreciating a great, intimate film like Moonlight. These things are not mutually exclusive. Just are not.

But there is a significant group of otherwise very decent and thoughtful and smart individuals who cover the film industry who are not only willing to suggest these kinds of ideas – backhandedly if not directly – are not only true, but that embracing this judgement of others is important and honorable, somehow protecting the films that they feel deserve more consideration by more people and that other films are in their way.

What I think is that there is every reason to celebrate and promote and sing the praises of the films with smaller audiences to every person who will listen. And that as film journalists, we have a responsibility to make the spaces we write in available to these films in much the same way we do higher grossing films.

In other words, if your outlet does a story a week about the success of La La Land and does no stories about Moonlight, you not only have a bad editor, you are perpetuating racism and gender bias in this industry. I think that this is a fair thing to argue.

But if La La Land is killing it at the box office and you do twice as many stories about that film as you do about Moonlight and other awards season films that are not getting as much attention from your audience, you are not a racist, you are working in a business. It may not make every reader happy, but there are real pressures in the real world. Sorry.

Of course, there are arguments to be made in and around and next store to what I just laid out. Exceptions on details always exist. Not my point.

But this habit of demonizing the perceived frontrunner for not being the film in the awards field that is politically proper is a horror show as far as I am concerned. And I am not talking about how anyone chooses to vote. That is a private decision. And I am not talking about major controversies, either in content or in the people involved with making a film (onscreen or off).

I am talking about a lot of media trying to shame people for liking or loving Green Book. Or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Or this season, Jojo Rabbit.

In the case of Jojo Rabbit, it started with the first North American showings of the film at Toronto. A group of critics – a distinct minority, but including some of the best – decided that the movie was an offense of various degrees because it was both too Nazi and not Nazi enough.

Some, like Owen Gleiberman, have taken a deeply offensive position that the movie is some kind of trick of hipsterism… as in, if you like it, you must see yourself as holier than he.

And maybe there is some idiot out there who actually feels that way.

Quoting Owen: “The key question Jojo Rabbit is asking its audience isn’t, ‘Are you willing to laugh at hate?’

The key question is, ‘Are you cool enough to get it?’”

Neither question is relevant to what this movie is. To call the movie “hipper than thou” is not just a self-pitying whine, it suggests insight into the filmmakers’ choices. But as you read Owen’s piece and see the film, there is no doubt that Owen has no idea what the filmmaker is doing. Owen is a smart critic. But this one eluded him. Right up there with Roger Ebert entirely missing the point of Fight Club.

(Back then, I thought it was important to convince Roger. I have since learned to not lean into other people’s personal taste.)

The predecessor of Jojo Rabbit is clearly not Life Is Beautiful or The Great Dictator or The Producers or Hogan’s Heroes or any of the previous films that include humor in accessing Nazi Germany. It is not about a parent trying to distract a child who is living in a death camp or a satire of Hitler or a satire about shocking audiences or an office sitcom set in a prisoner of war camp. It is coming from a completely different place.

The closest progenitor I can think of is the work of Dennis Potter, who often mixed genres in unexpected ways to mine the emotion that a more traditional approach couldn’t manage, because of the simple truth was too grim or too distracting for audiences to manage emotionally. As a high schooler at the time of the release of the American adaptation Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, I had to deal with the anger of my contemporaries (including my then-girlfriend) when happy musical numbers was juxtaposed with such a painful story.

I had the good fortune about 15 years ago to see Potter’s 1979 BBC film, Blue Remembered Hills on a big screen at LACMA. In the film, a group of 7-year-old children are played by adults (including Helen Mirren). Of it, Potter said, “When we dream of childhood, we take our present selves with us. It is not the adult world writ small; childhood is the adult world writ large.”

Jojo Rabbit is seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. It is the conceptual opposite of another film I admire greatly this year, The Painted Bird, which also follows a child of a similar age. The Painted Bird is an agonizing, painful journey of survival, pain following pain following relief leading to more pain. It is beautiful. It is high art. And it hurts for all 3 hours. But it is a dramatized history (even if there are questions about the author’s personal history). That is its ambition. And at that it succeeds.

Taika Waititi took another course. His boy is not in the kind of trouble that the boy in The Painted Bird is in. He is protected by his mother in their house in Berlin. She has decided that he will be safer without knowing the truth. And in that vein, she almost encourages him to participate in the film’s version of Hitler Youth. And Jojo does what most 10-year-olds tend to do. He falls deeply in love with what he is interested in being part of… his way of being one of the cool kids… his way of feeling he belongs.

You’ve heard the old saw, you have to laugh or you’ll cry. That is the course of Waititi. He finds the humor in human irrationality. Character after character walks the fine line between truth and humor. I’m sorry, Owen and the rest of you… People don’t laugh because they feel so cool because they get the joke. People laugh because they connect to the humanity.

And in the third act of this film, as the boy matures, the drama grows over the humor. I don’t want to include spoilers, but if you don’t find tears in your eyes multiple times in the third act of this film, you have either checked out 45 minutes earlier or you are simply unwilling to let a film bring painful human emotion to you. And when you accuse the film of being manipulative at that point, I dare say that you are rubber/gluing, which is to say that you are so busy trying not to be manipulated that you forget to feel and you miss the experience of this film.

I saw Jojo a third time this weekend and I was preparing to write a proper review to publish in the space where this is. I will write it. But I don’t really want to attach my feelings about this work to the cynical smackdowns of the sort that, of course, showed up online as I was about to sit down to write the review.

Owen closes with, “the only real answer Jojo Rabbit offers to hateful extremism is the extreme love the movie has for itself.”

Did the movie leave his hotel room before he woke up and not leave a number?

If it is such a personal affront, somewhere deep inside, it got to you. Dig deeper.

If Owen wants to know why he is “not clued-in enough to join that club” of self-satisfied Jojo fans, it’s not because of the movie… it’s because he made a decision about the movie early on, shut the rest out, and spent the last few months rationalizing his disconnection.

Wait! Am I making presumptions about his intentions and actions? Yes. His pieces on this film have taught me that this is what good critics do.

But he’s wrong. Good critics – which Owen usually is – look at the film for what it is, not the context they bring into the theater.

And while he drags A.O. Scott into it, he suggests that Scott is reviewing Jojo Rabbit, but the piece is almost all about earlier films. But Scott does misread when he writes, “The triumph of The Producers is to suppose a world where the anxious hopes of Chaplin and Lubitsch have come true — where fascism has been expunged, its spell permanently broken by humanism and humor. That’s the world of Hogan’s Heroes, too, and also of Jojo Rabbit.”

But it is not the world of Jojo Rabbit. There are prices paid in Jojo that are not even on the table in these other films. The gestapo may be mocked, but there is a real threat coming from them… or from the out-sized characterization of Rebel Wilson, who see the world in an insanely simplistic way. And the Sam Rockwell character brings layers of emotional turbulence, as well as the humor. You don’t leave this film feeling bad… but all considered, it is hardly a happy ending, unlike all the other examples.

I don’t really care one way or the other if Owen or anyone else loves or hates this film. But I do care about him or anyone telling me that I am wrong for feeling very real emotion both in the drama and the comedy of Jojo Rabbit. The film doesn’t make me feel good about myself for getting it. It does make me consider how the world keeps getting into horrible inhumanities while feeling that it is doing the right thing… including 38% of America today and a conman jackass in the White House. It does speak to the idea that humans can hold two opposing emotions or ideas at the same time and switch back and forth between them. It does use a rarely used tool to get me where Waititi wants, I think, to take me.

Not liking Jojo Rabbit does not make you an asshole or smug or arrogant or above me. Telling me that I am a smug, arrogant asshole for loving it does. So do us all a favor and stop it. Make your argument. Don’t tell everyone else that they have to sync with you or they are bad people.

Arguments over ideas and facts and the willingness to really consider them are critical to growing as people. Silencing and shunning those with whom we honorably disagree is never a good idea. Not everyone is willing. But those who are deserve respect. And those who do not – like absolutist adult Nazis or Trump supporters who see his illegalities as him being victimized allowing no room for factual dissent – have to be tolerated, if not engaged.

You know where you might learn that lesson? Watching Jojo Rabbit.

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