Sunday, March 07, 2010

IS THAT AN OSCAR IN YOUR CLUTCHES, OR ARE YOU JUST WAY TOO HAPPY TO SEE ME? A Lazy Sunday Afternoon Anticipating the 2010 Academy Awards

With just a few hours left before Oscar time, the sun, responding to an official dictum issued by Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic, has come out and is shining, so the final preparations have begun—all I have left to do is go buy some Hamms and at least plug in the vacuum cleaner. And so I thought I should do a little prep here as well. I should have done this yesterday, but I was occupied with one of the most delightful days I’ve ever spent as a dad (I’ll tell you about it later, I promise) so I had to put off Oscar stuff—considerably less important—for the morning of. It’s time for just a few notes and thoughts that have been running through my head and links I wanted to pass along before the pre-game show begins around 3:00 PST. No real structure here, just little post-its that hopefully will constitute a post in the end.


First off, if watching the Oscars on TV alone just isn’t something you want to do, yet you haven’t been able to talk anyone into coming over to join you, a couple of Live Oscar Blogs may be just the ticket for you. Glenn Kenny is gonna get started around 4:30, and there out to be some great material there for Glenn’s wicked wit as the stars travel up the red carpet.

You can also find lots of great comments courtesy of the stellar cast of on-liners lined up for Craig Philip’s Live Oscar Blog at Green Cine Daily. (Craig asked me to join in again this year, and I am completely honored, even though I have decided to restrict my MST3K wise-assery to the folks gathered in my living room, who will keep me on my toes, for sure.)

And good friend Ali Arikan is going to be live-blogging the Oscars all the way from Turkey at his blog Cerebral Mastication. Staying up all night for the Oscars-- they begin over there at 3:00 a.m.-- now, that's dedication! Join him, won't you?


A note from a very smart friend of mine received earlier in the week had the following subject header: “Why the Oscars Might Blow.” The entirety of the e-mail consisted of this announcement:

“(Adam) Shankman, who is also the show's choreographer, has cast about a dozen dancers (69 total will appear on the telecast) from So You Think You Can Dance, which he feels will broaden the program's audience.” For God’s sake, I hope I’m not actually missing Debbie Allen by the end of the night.


I’m one of those folks who finds Up in the Air entirely watchable and entertaining, and also about as superficial as a Healthy Choices Salisbury Steak dinner. The introduction of those real voices of the people who have actually lost their jobs throws the whole movie out of whack and lends a distasteful self-congratulatory tone to the whole affair. Clooney may have lost his soul by the end of the movie, but he’s still the avenging angel of the depressed economy—he’s still got a job informing people that they no longer do. (The movie lets the Anna Kendrick character off the hook far too easily with a very tidy and contrived set of circumstances.) And although the kinds of things about family being like a warm blanket of comfort when times are hard, and that being more important than money, may be fundamentally true, and it may be exactly the sort of sentiment the recently laid-off might say to themselves, and actually believe, in these circumstances, placed as the last sentiments the movie leaves us with, they are shockingly short-sighted and embarrassing, especially coming from a director who has never had to worry about the origin point of his next meal. The last time I checked, you still need money to buy the blankets and feed the people underneath them. More families and relationships have been rent asunder over financial horrors than have frozen to death in their apartments for lack of body heat. And as I was checked on all these bitter leaves, I was in no mood to hear the homemade cassette of the guy who wrote a theme song for the picture (“Here’s my song, Jason—hope you like it.”) Hollywood royalty Jason Reitman recasting himself as the Man of the People is the ultimate condescension to the working-class stiffs his movie leaves us flying over on our way to understanding how much better those who have next to nothing have it over the Ryan Binghams of the world.

But An Education was the movie nominated this year that really got my goat, especially in terms of its quite apparent (at least to me) and virulent strain of anti-Semitism. A friend wrote me recently to say that she had attended a Q &A with screenwriter Nick Hornby, who addressed the charges of anti-Semitism by saying that the intolerance of the time was something he didn’t feel should be glossed over, and this is why the characters’ nasty feelings toward the Jews are in the script. But the comment seems to fundamentally misunderstand where the troublesome roots of anti-Semitism in An Education really lie. The following is the text of a letter I wrote back to her:

I think that what Hornsby said about the screenplay being based on real events is undeniable, but that's exactly what I would expect him to say. Not having read the script, it's hard to assess any other attitude on his part. The problem is rooted in what that script becomes when it is interpreted as a film, when every excision, every editing decision, every decision period, has implications for the final narrative trajectory. It's hard to say, beyond blind adherence to "the way things happened" or "the way things were" (as if objective truth were even possible in a film, or a book, based on actual events, why it was even important to know that Sarsgaard's character was a Jew. If he were being set up for a more typical racial conflict, say over Mulligan's parental objections, then you have a reason (maybe not a particularly unique or even juicy reason, but a reason). But the Jewishness of the character doesn't affect ANYTHING in the plot and it is not reacted on in any way. The parents mention the "wandering Jew," which the excellent article by Irina Bragin informs us is a myth of racial intolerance based on the Jews subsuming and exploitation of a culture not his own, then moving on to plunder another and another. This slight bigotry on the parents part is never again addressed-- they are impressed with Sarsgaard because he is rich and nothing else, certainly not his age or his religion, matters a damn to them. His Jewish status therefore ends up functioning as context for his greed and immoral behavior, both as an adulterer and as a schemer out to manipulate "the schwarzes" into creating situations where he and his pal can blithely steal from unsuspecting senior citizens, thus fulfilling the stereotype of the Jew as caring only about money. Frankly, I can't believe Lone Scherfig managed to resist the opportunity to reveal Sarsgaard's horns as he sits in his car preparing to leave Mulligan in the lurch.

And as for that claim in the movie's defense that it's merely reflecting the common bigotry of the times, what about the scene where Mulligan confronts the headmistress of the school (Emma Thompson) with her intent to marry Sarsgaard? If the movie weren’t' at least sympathetic to this kind of casual anti-Semitism, I don't think it would have played the way it does. Thompson, in attempting to discourage the girl from getting married, hauls out the old horse about the Jews having killed our Lord. Mulligan counters with a sassy rejoinder about Jesus himself being a Jew, and then Thompson says, “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.” And just when you expect this insouciant, articulate young girl to jump to the defense of this guy's dignity or to express her love for him, she instead mouths off that she'd rather "marry my Jew" and have fun spending his money than studying her Latin. This is where the movies lets the argument lie, the implication being that Mulligan is willing to put up with him being a Jew if he can show her a good time. What's more, we're never led to feel, at any time during the film, that Sarsgaard's attentions are anything other than creepy and inappropriate and predatory. Sarsgaard is about as slimy and unattractive in that seduction scene as I've ever seen an actor on film. But shouldn't we as an audience have at least some suggestion that his intentions might be honest, even if they don't turn out to be, for the simple matter of dramatic ambiguity? There's never a doubt that this guy is anything more than a statutory scumbag-- a Jewish scumbag. Critic Joe Baltake, quoted in that article, suggests that the movie seems to go out of its way to justify Thompson's anti-Semitic outburst, and by the way it ignores every opportunity to suggest that anything other than the stereotypes about the Jew apply to this man, who is a Jew only by label here, I would have to agree.

The movie seals its point of view with a directorial choice that is downright shocking. (I would be surprised, and appalled, if Hornsby wrote it this way) Mulligan barely escapes having her life ruined and is seen on the Oxford campus, biking along and extolling her happiness at being able to go to school and create the opportunity for a better life for herself. She also tells us that she's happy to be spending her time with boys now, not men, who presumably have as much growing up t do as she does, and of course we are meant to contrast this new attitude with the experience we've just seen her come through. And the boy we see her riding happily across campus with differs from David not only in age-- he is pointedly blonde and blue-eyed, downright Aryan-looking in his fresh-scrubbed purity, the furthest thing from Semitic. This is exactly the kind of choice that, if avoiding the appearance of anti-Semitism, a sensitive director would be aware of. Why couldn't the boy have looked like Mulligan's earlier, fumbling suitor (the one who buys her a Latin dictionary for her birthday)? Had she been seen riding with a boy who looked like this, images of Rolf in The Sound of Music and the inferiority of her previous man because of his Jewishness, and because of all the specious and disgusting behavior that comes along with that, would have never occurred to me.

I left this movie reeling, and I wasn't sure if I was just being paranoid or what. So I went home and Googled "An Education Anti-Semitism" and I was shocked at how many different hits came up. The article by Irina Bragin rose straight to the top, and it is mightily convincing, confirming as it did many of the things I observed and pointing out several more offensive details that I did not. It blows my mind that charges of anti-Semitism are leveled against Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man, both films being the furthest thing from hatred directed at Jews, and yet we're supposed to think of An Education as simply a tender, bittersweet coming of age tale "to be cherished forever." (Kenneth Turan). In the parlance of our times, WTFFFFFFF?!


Speaking of the Basterds, I happen to be one of those who thinks there’s a distinct possibility that it could be at the center of an upset tonight in the Best Picture category. My theory, expressed convincingly by those folks at The Envelope who follow these things a lot closer than I do, runs like this: Kathryn Bigelow is a sure thing— the coronation of a woman as best Director may be something the Academy (there’s that mysterious monolithic “Academy” again) may want to do even more than they wanted to have African-Americans win Best Actor and Actress in the same year with Sidney Poitier blowing kisses from the opera box. But Avatar, while earning googillions at the box office, isn’t as universally loved as Titanic-- it’s being embraced largely as a technical marvel, with even its fans conceding that the story isn’t exactly fresh. (Let’s not even mention the degree to which Cameron misses the Eugene O’Neill mark—he misses the John Carpenter mark, for Christ’s sake—with his lead-balloon dialogue.) Is it the stuff of Best Picture? The theory, and I’m buying it, is that the Academy will say no. And the alternative, The Hurt Locker, a movie that is generally very well appreciated within the voting bloc, may be too small in its box-office to be crowned champeen in a year when the Academy went out of its way to broaden the viewership appeal of the Oscar telecast by expanding the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10. (Let’s not even mention the fact that the expansion from five to 10 never changed the fact that only five of those movies would be serious contenders and that the additional five would be seen, and rightly so, in terms of their likelihood to win, as mere window dressing.) So in steps Inglourious Basterds—big, controversial, a movie that most people seem to love, and it’s a big international hit too—no skyrocket like Avatar, but far less earthbound than The Hurt Locker.

But did Inglourious Basterds jump the shark in the last week or so before the deadline for submitting ballots passed. S.T. Van Airsdale at Movieline makes a strong case that the campaigning on behalf of Basterds reached an alarming and embarrassing new low for Harvey Weinstein, based on the outrageous excess of this full-page ad published in several major publications (including the Los Angeles Times) on March 2nd, the final day of balloting:

Read Van Airsdale’s detailed analysis of all the elements of the ad and consider whether Weinstein may have had a diamond in his hand before the heavy grip of this ad and and others like it may have pulverized the chances for Tarantino’s movie to reign supreme on Oscar night into a lump of coal.


Charles Taylor makes an excellent case of The Blind Side over Precious in a take-no-prisoners piece at After the drama queen display put on by Lee Daniels at the generally embarrassing Independent Spirit Awards on Friday night, I’m more glad than ever he has no chance to step on stage tonight (unless Mo’Nique drags his ass up there on the flowing tails of her Oscar dress).


And finally, by evidence of this interview, filmed (I’m guessing) around the time of the release Practical Magic back in 1998, Sandra Bullock proves herself one of the most down-to-earth and spontaneous movie star personalities in the business. She rolls with every good-natured punch when she sits down in a diner with genial loose-cannon comedienne Ruby Wax-- the two of them never hold their tongues, and they even end up getting in uniform and working the counter of the diner. It’s this kind of spirited, sense of being able to roll with just about anything that gets me on Bullock’s side every time, the latest example being her in-person acceptance of the Razzie for Worst Actress in All About Steve the night before she is likely to get crowned as Best Actress at the Oscars. (Yeah, that’s another one of my theories.) Anyone this sharp and with this level of self-deprecating is an automatic treasure, and I might be tempted to give her the Oscar for this interview even I didn’t already enjoy her performance in The Blind Side so much. Good luck, Sandy, and I changed my mind—I will have fries with that.


(And if you bet these in your office pool, I will take NO responsibility, positive or negative, for the outcome. If you’re foolish enough to let me make these kinds of decisions for you, you’ll get no sympathy from me.)




Supporting Actress: MO’NIQUE

Supporting Actor: CHRISTOPH WALTZ


Screenplay (Original): INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Screenplay (Adapted): UP IN THE AIR

Animated Film: UP

Art Direction: AVATAR


Costume Design: BRIGHT STAR

Documentary (Feature): THE COVE




Make-up: STAR TREK

Music (Score): UP

Music (Song): “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy heart)” CRAZY HEART

Short Film (Animated): A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH

Short Film (Live Action): KAVI

Sound Editing: THE HURT LOCKER

Sound Mixing: AVATAR

Visual Effects: AVATAR


All right, just about time to crack open the bean dip. I’ll try not to get any on the red carpet!



Jason Bellamy said...

Dennis: Interesting thoughts on An Education's anti-Semitism. I've seen the film twice and have no problem with it (in that respect), and so, yes, with all due respect, I think you're overreacting -- particularly when it gets to reading the final scene in which Jenny has a blond boyfriend. (As if Peter Sarsgaard is in any way a stereotype/caricature of Jewishness.)

I think you actually resolve your own outrage here:

It's hard to say ... why it was even important to know that Sarsgaard's character was a Jew ... The Jewishness of the character doesn't affect ANYTHING in the plot and it is not reacted on in any way.

In other words, the guy is Jewish and the movie doesn't make a big deal about it. You have made several arguments about unresolved issues of a supposedly deep Jewish conflict that even you agree isn't deep at all.

So, what to take of David's Jewishness? I say, yes, it reflects the times. Yes, non-Jews around Jenny react to his Jewishness for no apparent reason, and she ignores it entirely, which tells us something about her. It tells us something about Jenny's relationship with her parents that she would be willing to be with a Jew -- quite openly -- and that she would admit to her parents that he is a Jew, despite her father's "wandering Jew" comments. It means she trusts her own instincts and she trusts that, underneath it all, her parents are loving people who will trust her.

I have no problem that David being Jewish is mentioned and yet not focused on. That's life. I certainly have no problem with the fact that the film doesn't feel the need to answer every anti-Semitic comment with some kind of "Jews are great" counter. If we're just keeping score, Precious spends that vast majority of its film depicting African-Americans in an extremely unflattering way. Does that mean the film is anti-black?

I respect your feelings, and I don't discount your gut reaction. So maybe a key difference for me is that I fully believe that David loved Jenny beyond some evil, predatory agenda. I think that's why he proposes, even though there's obviously no way their relationship can work. He's captivated by her -- who could blame him? -- and he knows that underneath it all he's a con and that eventually she'll outgrow him.

Let me repeat that: Underneath it all, he's a con. Not a Jew. His Jewishness is never withheld from Jenny. It's never a factor in her feelings for him, positive or negative. And, as you mentioned, it isn't even a factor to her parents; they just want her happy and taken care of. Likewise, when Emma Thomson's character makes anti-Semitic remarks, she's made to be the fool.

I recognize that movies can deliver messages (intentionally or not) beyond their narrative aims. But if An Education, or any film, needs to be so careful in its treatment of any kind of racial/religious conflict that it feels the need to argue all sides of the issue and put the background in the foreground, we're heading in the wrong direction. Can't movie villains be Jews without being villains of Jewishness?

Those are my 2 (okay, maybe 4) cents.

heather said...

I can't understand how anyone watching the same movie that I did could argue that the fact that Peter Sarsgaard's character was Jewish doesn't affect the plot. It's what allows the entire plot to proceed in the first place--Carey Mulligan's father, having put his foot in his mouth and made an anti-Semitic comment in front of Saarsgaard immediately upon meeting him, rushes to explain that he is not prejudiced. Despite swearing that he would never let Jenny go out with someone so much older, he now realizes that to insist on it would make him look like the anti-Semite he is trying very hard to insist that he's not--so he allows her to go. The entire movie would have unfolded very differently had Sarsgaard's character not been Jewish.

His Jewishness also helps to emphasize the growing divide between Jenny and the rest of the world (they care, she doesn't), and it tells us a bit about Jenny's character and motivation as well--that, despite the fact that she's a good girl who listens to her parents and teachers, she isn't absorbing all of their lessons. She isn't content to go along with what she's been told by her elders; she wants to experience life by herself, on her own terms . . . and that foreshadows the course of their entire relationship.

Now, of course, that doesn't necessarily save the movie from charges of anti-Semitism. It could be anti-Semitic even if the character's Jewishness does affect the plot. I don't feel qualified to weigh in on that. But you can't argue that it doesn't serve the plot.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jason, Heather, thanks so much for your great, challenging comments. I hope I have been able to respond with the inquiring spirit and intelligence that informed your own words.

“I can't understand how anyone watching the same movie that I did could argue that the fact that Peter Sarsgaard's character was Jewish doesn't affect the plot. It's what allows the entire plot to proceed in the first place.”

Heather, I think you’re correct and that my point was either badly or at the very least hastily misstated. It is, of course, obviously true that Sarsgaard’s character being Jewish is a matter of consequence to some of the characters in the film, and some of what they do is informed by that their knowledge of that ethnicity. What I was trying to get at is the associations that the movie, not the characters, make about the character’s being a Jew. What you say about how the parents dodge their own anti-Semitic leanings, and how Jenny sees his ethnicity as just another thing that distinguishes him from the norm she is trying to leave behind, is all well and true. But the movie itself is entirely comfortable presenting the character solely in terms of the negative associations between his behavior and that ethnicity, which is emphasized by Sarsgaard’s unlikely offering of the information to Jenny when he first picks her up during the rainstorm. The movie identifies him as a Jew not to examine anything about what that means to him—it must mean something, even if it’s self-loathing, or he wouldn’t have mentioned it so quickly—but to contextualize him and eventually confirm his greed and immoral behavior.

And again, the movie doesn’t even allow Jenny to stand up for him against the blatant anti-Semitism of the headmistress—she is solely concerned with how running off with “my Jew” can serve to help stick it to the uptight establishment she so longs to leave behind. Maybe it’s worse that the character being a Jew is important in the film’s plot, insofar as it goes unexamined and ends up serving as fodder for justifying the prejudices of not only the parents and the headmistress, but of Jenny herself.

(Part Two Coming Next...)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Part of this addresses, I think, some of your argument too, Jason. To me it’s not so much important that the plot doesn’t revolve around specific events that are propelled by fact of David’s Jewishness. It’s the fact that the film itself has placed the information in the foreground in such a blunt way, as if to say this information above all is what should contextualize and color every aspect of David’s behavior from here on out, that is troublesome to me. The fact that it is barely mentioned is no discouragement, in my mind anyway, from making these associations but in fact is fuel for them by the way it is so prominently announced and then proceeds to hang over the whole film, like a shoe ready to drop.

It’s not a matter of being careful of how one portrays Jewish culture and whether one trafficks in stereotypes and balancing negative portrayals and comments with their opposite—the Coens immersed us in Jewish culture, stereotypes and religious detail and counter-stereotypes too in A Serious Man, to illuminating effect, even as they did so with their customary irreverence. It’s more a matter of understanding how those portrayals are affected by the directorial and screenwriting choices that are made in the film as a whole. I mean, I really do think it’s significant that the movie essentially allows Emma Thompson’s headmistress character to get in the last word regarding the supposed misinformation about Jesus being a Jew. Where’s Jenny’s tart retort to that? She’s utterly precocious in every situation, with every adult, up to that point. Why shut up now? As I said before, it really does seem to me that the movie seems to go out of its way to justify Thompson's anti-Semitic outburst, eventually ignoring every opportunity to suggest that anything other than the stereotypes about the Jew apply to this man, who is a Jew only by label here. If the movie really introduces the information of his ethnicity just to try to not make a big deal about it, then I think it’s the director who is being naïve that such disassociation is even possible.

(Part three Coming Next... Oh, how I hate this 4,096-character restriction Blogger has on comments...)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I think your comparison to Precious is apt too, Jason. Again, it’s not a matter of balancing negative portrayals with their shiny, happy opposites. It’s a matter of being aware of what you do present and how the use of images and associations builds and ultimately presents a view of the world, intentional or not. I don’t know if one could determine from Precious whether Lee Daniels is specifically anti-black, but it’s clear he has no problem exploiting obesity to score grotesque points off his characters (and sucker the audience in the process). He signals a loathing of The Other by grotesquely overemphasizing the main characters and their size, thus cueing the audience toward feelings that the movie will superficially attempt to guide us past. (Where is the uplift in Precious’s uplifting ending?) As Charles Taylor said in his piece for last week, “Daniels uses Mo'Nique and Sidibe's weight to confirm their characters' ignorance, to disgust us, presenting them in unrelenting close-ups that make them look less like people than beasts growling at each other in a tightly confined space. It's not just that Precious allows its audience to wallow in the pornography of compassion, it's that the film's supposed objects of compassion are presented as subhuman.”

You state that a key difference for you is that it was your belief that David loved Jenny beyond some evil, predatory agenda. Maybe it’s that mask of calculation that Peter Sarsgaard wears on his face that didn’t allow me to penetrate past the vague air of suspicion he projected throughout, but I was never able to make the leap to sincerity that you credit him with. (I often have a problem with Sarsgaard’s performances in this way, especially those that are intended to convey sincerity—he just doesn’t seem to have it in him.) But I don’t think it’s important at all, in terms of the effect of seeing Jenny with her bike-riding boyfriend at the end, whether or not Sarsgaard fulfills some Jewish-ethnic physical stereotype—he seems clearly to not serve this function, and maybe Lone Scherfig, the films director, felt she was disarming the possibility of these kind of claims from the beginning in casting Sarsgaard. But really, if the movie conveys the kind of anti-Jewish undercurrent that I perceived in it (and, admittedly, to many it does not), then it does seem entirely germane that the boy she’s seen being so freewheeling with in the final shot is not so much Sarsgaard’s physical opposite as he is much closer to a recognizable Aryan ideal; he doesn’t look like anyone else in the movie.

So, I guess the response I would offer to your ending question, Jason, is that certainly I believe movie villains can be Jews. And I’m the last person who would be in favor of the kind of politically correct checks and balances system that you rightly argue against. But I would propose that if a writer or director feels it’s important to identify a villain as a Jew, Jews being less immediately identifiable within the general Caucasian landscape than, say, Blacks or Arabs or Asians, then I would suggest that the director has some agenda in doing so. Heather has outlined one reason. I’m suggesting that in An Education there is another more specious one.

Jason Bellamy said...

Dennis: Thanks for the additional, well-argued thoughts. There are several things I’d like to respond to here, but before I do that I’d like to start with this:

This debate is a perfect example of what I like to call the “waterfall experience” of watching a movie. As we know: water follows the path of least resistance – it doesn’t reverse course and fight uphill. I think our wildly different readings of the film reveal that at one point (perhaps at the very introduction of David) the river that is An Education forked and I went one way and you went the other. From there, one reading influences the next, influences the next, influences the next. So by the end of the film it never occurs to me that Jenny’s bike-riding companion is a symbol of the “Aryan ideal,” while by the end of your experience that’s all that you see. When we’re talking about that scene, we’re not talking just about that scene itself but about the momentum behind that scene. Given that momentum, by the end of the film it would be unrealistic for you to see that scene any other way. Same for me and my reading. So even though I continue to disagree with you about that last scene (and others), I recognize how you got there.

With that said, some responses:

* I'll try to avoid repeating myself too much, but I see David’s Jewishness as serving two purposes: (1) revealing the non-Jewishness of the world Jenny inhabits; (2) revealing how little Jenny is concerned with living according to the rules established by that environment. To me, we learn of David’s Jewishness at the outset because at the outset it would be part of David’s identity to Jenny. But immediately she looks beyond it, even though she knows his religion, along with his age, will color how others view their relationship. That's the extent of the "point," if you will. I honestly never considered that David’s Jewishness was meant to “contextualize and color every aspect of David’s behavior.” And though I know exactly what you meant in saying that, and though I agree that many films engage in this kind of stereotyping, it’s here that I uncomfortably point out that if we think the film must see a connection between David’s religion and his actions, then we are somewhat validating that kind of stereotyping at large. To leave film for a second: Obama’s non-whiteness is obviously a huge part of his identity. But if we attribute every action and decision to his skin color, he will never be more than the “black president." He'll be color first, person second.

This is obviously a much large conversation and I don’t want to get lost in a tangent. My point is just this: I think it’s entirely possible to be constantly aware of the way a person’s identity is outside the norm (David’s Jewishness within Jenny’s Christian world; Obama’s blackness within the White House’s otherwise white history) without attributing that identity to their subsequent actions. Having said that, I’ve read enough of you, Dennis, to be entirely sure that you agree with me. And, like I said, films often use these stereotypical indicators as short-hand for character “development.” So cinema has conditioned us, sadly, to have the kind of reaction that you did: that David’s Jewishness must mean something about him. But at the risk of seeming either pious or naïve, that honestly never occurred to me in this film. It just didn't.

Jason Bellamy said...

* Moving on, you said this about the Emma Thompson scene:

I really do think it’s significant that the movie essentially allows Emma Thompson’s headmistress character to get in the last word regarding the supposed misinformation about Jesus being a Jew. Where’s Jenny’s tart retort to that? ... [I]t really does seem to me that the movie seems to go out of its way to justify Thompson's anti-Semitic outburst, eventually ignoring every opportunity to suggest that anything other than the stereotypes about the Jew apply to this man, who is a Jew only by label here.

To continue discussing David a bit, I want to take the last part first. (Suddenly I feel like I’m on Quiz Show.)

I completely and wholeheartedly disagree that the movie ignores “every opportunity to suggest that anything other than the stereotypes about the Jew apply to this man.”

I mean, really, who is David? He’s a college dropout. He’s a petty thief. He’s a serial womanizer. He is, in some sense, a child predator. He is, in his actions, entirely unreligious. Are those Jewish stereotypes? Any of them?

The truth, in my mind, is that David is nothing like a stereotypical Jew. Therefore he underlines just how incorrect and foolish the stereotype is (one can defy stereotypes and still present a character in an unflattering light). The only thing slightly stereotypical about David is that, because he is a thief, he is somewhat “wandering,” and he is Jewish, and therefore I suppose you could call him a “wandering Jew,” though when Jenny’s dad makes that statement I don’t think he’s thinking of anyone remotely like David.

So this is where we get back to my comments about David being a Jewish villain but not a villain of Jewishness. He is a scumbag and a Jew, and I honestly don’t see the two having anything to do with one another. If memory serves, Jenny’s father doesn’t react to the outing of David with any sort of, “Well, that’s a Jew for you.” By that point even he doesn’t attribute David’s Jewishness to David’s actions, which in a sense shows how empty and meaningless his “wandering Jew” comments were. (Which isn’t to endorse them or absolve them.)

No, the only character who seems to draw a connection between David’s Jewishness and his actions is Thompson’s headmistress. So, let’s look at her: This is a woman who looks to stifle Jenny’s desires to be anything much more than a teacher, a secretary or maybe a nurse. This is a woman who is more interested in teaching Jenny a lesson – even though she’s clearly learned one – than in welcoming back a previous straight-A student. Sure, Thompson’s character isn’t entirely moronic; even the fact that she’s played by Thompson plays into our sense that she’s a woman of some integrity. She is right, to a point, in putting Jenny in her place. But I see the film repeatedly presenting Thompson’s character as a relic, behind in the times, stuck in an old way of thinking, certainly not someone young girls should model themselves after.

Does Jenny really need to give this woman a final retort? Aren’t we nodding our heads with Jenny as she outlines the ways that school has been teaching her to think narrowly instead of broadly? Jenny doesn’t need to say anything because the only person in the entire film who draws a connection between Jenny’s mistakes and David’s Jewishness is Thompson’s character, and she'll never be budged. I’ll take Jenny’s no response over some trite “Jews are people, too” retort that would make me want to crawl under my chair. (Which isn’t to imply that there’s room in between for options that might have satisfied both of us.)

Jason Bellamy said...

* So this brings us to that final scene. Again, you read it the way you do because of the momentum of your previous readings. Same for me.

I would agree with you that the boy on the bicycle looks quite different from David, but not because of his hair color. It’s because he’s just a boy. I think that’s the point. Jenny states as much. If I reacted to the rest of the film as you did, I’d see some, um, intelligent design in the boy's blondness. But I don’t. If “he doesn’t look like anyone else in this movie” – and I’d say in his youth he looks somewhat like Jenny’s first suitor – then it’s here that I go back to David and say: If David is a Jewish stereotype, he looks unlike any other Jewish stereotype I’ve seen. I see his religion affecting how other characters see him, not how we should.

I'll rest there. Thanks again for the thoughtful debate, Dennis! Always a pleasure.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Again, damn that 4,094-character limit, eh?

Jason, this is wonderful stuff. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to engage with me and the movie like this. I dare say we've both given each other (and anyone else who has seen the movie) plenty of stuff to think about. I certainly appreciate your well-considered, respectful argument, even though we may disagree. And your metaphor of the water running downstream and forking at a significant place is one of those images I suspect I will refer to often when thinking about the ways we process a film, its imagery, its political content and the trajectory its characters.

I also hope that one of those sackcloth-and-ashes guys who claim that serious-minded discussion of film doesn't or can't exist online will take a peek here, or over at your site, or at one of our extended discourses with Ed, and eat a portion of their hastily scrambled words.

Thanks, Jason! You've definitely classed up the joint!

Just Another Film Buff said...

This comment is late. Very late. Wonderful discussions ont eh bunch of movies, Dennis.

I would be lying if I wasn't one of those who secretly wished a Basterds upset. But, let's not be too clever for the Academy.

On the positives, it reinforces my (bad) faith on the Oscars.


Jeffrey said...

Sarsgaard in An Education was a Jew? This is news to me.

For the record, I didn't care for how obviously a jerk he was from his first seconds on-screen and how nobody seemed able to recognize it. But his obvious jerk-ness was completely unrelated to his ethnicity (so does this mean I was just extremely inobservant?).

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