Thursday, December 31, 2020

Building Up to an Awful Letdown

Today is New Years Eve and we are about to say goodbye to a year that few are sorry to see go. For those dying to see the clock strike midnight tonight, all I can say is be careful what you wish for.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, here are some thoughts about a few things that we might, (and I use that term with great care), be saying goodbye to shortly.

Donald Trump - Starting with the most ridiculous of all, if there is a silver lining to the year 2020, at least for the majority of Americans, it's that we'll be saying goodbye at least for the time being, to the cruelest, most corrupt, stupid, inept, incapable and yes evil president we've ever had. The flip side is there are at least 74 million of my fellow Americans who still think he's pretty neat. I'm not sure whom I distrust more, Trump, or the people who support him, but if its the latter, something's gotta give if we ever expect to come together as a nation, especially during times of crisis when we need each other the most. We certainly have not for our current crisis so obviously I'm not very optimistic. After all, if a global pandemic can't bring us together, what can? Stay tuned. 

The Chicago Bears - Yes, my son's and my favorite football team. I've written in this space before, probably many times before, that my favorite day in the fall is the day when the Bears lose a game and it becomes evident that they have no chance of making the playoffs. On that day I officially decide not to care about them meaning I won't have to waste perfectly good Sunday afternoons watching them. Yes I'm truly a fair weather fan of this team, understandably so as they've broken my heart (except for one glorious year), and more poignantly my son's, so many times. Those years where they're terrible from the get-go aren't so bad, it's when they string us along with an exciting season with a good team and collapse in one truly horrendous way or another.

By far the worst heartbreak came a couple years ago during a playoff game here in Chicago against Philadelphia. Down by a couple of points at the end of the fourth quarter and deep in their own territory, the Bears' offense made a valiant drive to get them within relatively easy field goal range. All that separated them from a chance to move on in the playoffs or going home was a very makeable last second field goal. 

In case you don't understand what it feels like to be a Chicago Bears fan, here is a link to a video that will give you an idea. That the call is in Spanish only serves to prove how misery is truly a universal language.

This year the Bears got off to a strong start winning five of their first six games. After that fifth win, the radio voice of the Bears Jeff Joniack, proclaimed that the chances for a 5-1 NFL team to make the playoffs is something like 80%. Never to be a team daunted by favorable odds, the Bears went on to drop their next six games, at times in embarrassing fashion. 

That cherished day when I decided I didn't have to care about them anymore came late this year, on November 29th when the score of their loss to the much despised Green Bay Packers 41-25, didn't come close to describe the complete humiliation of that game. 100-3 would have been a much more accurate score. I did give them one more chance the following week when they actually looked good against a pretty crappy team, the Detroit Lions. But they managed to lose that one as well into the waning minutes of the game.

I asked my son, kind of jokingly after that game if the Bears still had a chance at the playoffs. Turns out they did, one of those cases where one team, in this case the Arizona Cardinals, had to lose a couple of games and the Bears would have to run the table, winning the rest of their games. 

Well wonder of wonders, the Cardinals have so far obliged and the Bears have won their past three in somewhat impressive fashion. Which means this Sunday, if the Cardinals lose to the LA Rams, something quite possible, and the Bears beat, who else, the f-ing Packers, something not very likely at all, they will be in the playoffs, either way, setting the table for another heartbreak.


COVID-19 - Now we come to the 8,000 pound gorilla in the room for the world this year. Between the lives lost, the pain and suffering of their families as well as that of the millions of infected who did not die, 83 million at this writing, the livelihoods lost or put on hold, just to scratch the surface, this kind of genuine, universal suffering has not been experienced by the world since the Second World War. 

It was exactly one year ago when we learned about a strange virus that had been circulating around Wuhan, China. Back then which seems so long ago, for most of us, the virus seemed distant and remote enough to be not threatening. How foolish of of us.

Like any war, there are heroes and villains. We know who the villains are, I already mentioned one of them. But the heroes are countless, starting with the frontline health care workers who with little regard to their own safety, cared for the hundreds of millions of infected, providing not only treatment, but in some cases the only human contact the victims had in the final moments of their lives, so they wouldn't have to die alone. Then there are the workers deemed essential, who kept the world running, again with little regard to their own safety. And the volunteers who gave so much of their time to help out from making masks when there was a shortage of them, to raising funds to help those less fortunate. And on and on and on, there are simply too many heroes of this crisis to mention. If there could be said to have been a silver lining to this dreadful virus, it would have to be the indefatigable spirit of those human beings who put the welfare of others ahead of their own. 

Then of course there are the scientists who put their time and considerable talent into developing the vaccines that will hopefully one day eradicate the virus. As we come to the end of this difficult year, we may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Or it might be a fright train heading directly our way, we'll just have to wait and see. 

In either case, one day we will turn the corner with the virus and perhaps the one thing we should all hope for is that while life may return to a sense of normalcy, it won't return to where it was before the pandemic. 

Hopefully our capacity to learn from our mistakes will kick in. But I'm not going to bet the farm on it, we've been here before and seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.  

But wait, I'm not going to end the year on a sour note.

It's traditional at the dawn of a new year, to remember the people we lost the previous year. This year's list is heartbreaking, I wouldn't even know where to start. But global calamities do give us a chance at introspection, looking at our lives finding what is truly important.

In that vein, a friend of mine and former colleague, posted a call for members of a Facebook group devoted to former employees of our place of employment to list the names of colleagues who are no longer living. Dozens of people posted names, some of whom belonged to dear friends of mine, some to others I hadn't thought of for years, and a few of whom I hadn't even realized were dead. What struck me ironically, was something that gave me great hope.

If you'll pardon me, I'm going to quote myself from an appreciation I wrote on my friend's thread:

What this thread makes me realize is that we’re never really dead while there are still people around to remember us. My life has been enriched by so many of these wonderful folks, and to those of you who are reading this as well. And hopefully I’m passing that love and inspiration on to my children, as they God willing will to theirs. I think that’s a good thought on which to end this rather difficult year. 
Life goes on, as George Harrison once said, within you and without you.
With that I wish you a peaceful, prosperous, happy and above all healthy 2021!


Another New Year's tradition, at least around these parts, is to air old Fred Astaire, Ginger Roger movies on TV around 3 or 4 in the morning. As it's hard for me to stay awake that late these days, the following recording of what I think is a very appropriate song given the circumstances will have to do.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Silver Screen Taboo

Christmas came and went softly and gently the other day. We stayed at home just like practically every other day this year, yet had some much needed family togetherness, as nearly one year's worth of family togetherness has kept us anything but together. Funny but I can't remember ever in my life being less excited for Christmas and perhaps that lack of buildup made this one particularly enjoyable and special.

One of the things we did this December 25th was watch a couple movies together, normally a difficult task as finding something the four of us can agree upon is nearly impossible. But we agreed upon a recent film that my wife and daughter had both seen and had their stamp of approval. It was a movie I had my doubts about but was still curious to see.

Released a year ago, Jo Jo Rabbit is set in an unnamed town in Germany during the closing days of World War II. Its title character, 10 year old Johannes "Jo Jo" Betzler, lives alone (or so he thinks) with his mother in a beautifully appointed Jungenstihl era house. We quickly learn that his enigmatic father has been away fighting the war with questionable loyalty to der Vaterland for two years, and his older sister has passed away from an illness.

Home alone much of the time and pretty much left to his own devices, Jo Jo is swept up in nationalistic fervor and is as good a little Nazi as he can be. So much so that his imaginary best friend who provides Jo Jo comfort, advice and much of the humor in the film, is none other than Adolph Hitler himself, (played by the film's director, Taika Watiti).   

Ever since The Three Stooges mocked der Fuhrer with their film short, You Nazty Spy! in 1939, filmmakers have been getting chuckles out of perhaps the most evil person to have ever lived. Understandably however, not too many as the theme has been deemed to varying degrees depending on the current zeitgeist, to be too hot to handle.      

Perhaps the most famous, poignant, and brutally funny takedown of Hitler on film was Charlie Chaplin's 1940 classic, The Great Dictator: 

As with every attempt to portray abject evil in a comic manner, there is a price to pay, In addition to being Chaplin's first fully "talking picture", The Great Dictator marked the last appearance of "Charlot", the name the French gave his beloved Little Tramp character. No doubt Hitler's physical resemblance to Charlot, especially the cropped moustache, led to the character's demise.

The Great Dictator was an American film made during the war but before our entry into it. Many forget there were not a few Americans at the time who like the aviator Charles Lindburgh, were Nazi sympathizers, consequently the film was controversial at the time of its release. Clearly from the scene above, the whole world knew what the Nazis were up to but the true extent of the evil they would perpetrate was not fully revealed. Chaplin later said that had he known before the war what he knew after, he would never have made the movie. 

Nonetheless the film stands as a masterwork of social criticism. The final scene in the movie is a dead-serious speech delivered by Chaplin in the double role as a Jewish barber who is mistaken for the great dictator. Despite the scene having been criticized over the years for its preachy heavy-handedness and sentimentality, it has withstood the test of time:   


Another great film made during the war where laughs are had at the expense of Hitler and the Nazis was Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. By this time the US was at war with Germany and much of the public, including Benny's own father were deeply offended, finding the film inappropriate and in bad taste. 


The period after the war saw loads of films based on WWII, but little can be found in the realm of humor for two decades as the wounds left over from the conflagration were still festering. That all changed in the mid-sixties with the introduction of the hit American TV sit-com, Hogan's Heroes. Set in a German prisoner of war camp, every episode featured an intrepid group of Allied POWS outsmarting their bumbling German captors, led by the foolishly inept Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer) and the lovable Sergeant "I Know Nothing" Schultz (John Banner). The show had a long six year run, (longer than the US involvement in the war), testifying to its popularity despite being roundly criticized for being inappropriate and in poor taste. 

In the same era, the mother of all inappropriate Nazi slapstick movies was released, Mel Brooks' 1968 farce, The Producers. In that movie, for my money, one of the funniest ever made, bad taste is the whole point.

The film's two protagonists, an impresario who's fallen on hard times, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his bashful accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) come up with a wild scheme to raise a boatload of money for a show by selling off 25,000 percent of the show's profit. In order to get away with that, they would have to produce the worst play in the world, a show that was bound to flop, guaranteed to close and never be heard from again after opening night. After that, the two would skip town with all the cash, leaving Max's investors, mostly wealthy love-smitten little old ladies in the lurch. 

After a tireless search, Max and Leo come up with their surefire flop: Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.  

All goes along swimmingly during the opening number on opening night: 


Their fatal mistake was the "actor" they picked to play the title role. In the hilarious audition scene, the producers have their pick of sincere, third rate (if that) actors, any one of whom would have been an ideal pick for the disaster Max and Leo had in mind. But after rejecting every last one of the would be Hitlers, in walks Lorenzo St. Dubois, better known by his initials, L.S.D. (Dick Shawn), a stoned, long-in-the-tooth hippie who stumbles into the wrong audition. Despite objections from the play's director Roger DeBris, Max insists L.S.D. be allowed to audition for the role, where with his backup band, a trio of flower children, he sings an anthem to love and flower power which perplexes everyone in the room except for Max who closes the audition with a jubilant: "That's Our Hitler!!!" 

Here in one fell swoop, LS.D. saves the play and in doing so, ruins Max and Leo's dreams of fabulous fortune:

It should be noted that virtually everyone related to these works as writers, directors and actors including The Three Stooges, Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Jack Benny, Werner Klemperer, John Banner, Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and on and on, were Jewish. Perhaps this gives these artists the street cred to pull this kind of thing off, something that members of other ethnic groups who were not victims of the Nazis would lack. 

Now we can add Taika Watiti to that list as well.

Not surprisingly, a lot of folks are turned off by Watiti's Jo Jo Rabbit. Either they understandably find nothing funny about Nazis, they feel that when the film does get serious, it's not appropriately serious, or that its message is not deep enough. 

I suppose the happy-go-lucky, light-hearted nature of the trailer with its upbeat soundtrack of The Monkees, The Beatles and David Bowie singing in German doesn't make it easy to take the film seriously. Neither does the fact that this film, like those mentioned above, is billed as a comedy, which I believe is a stretch.

While it's true that Jo Jo Rabbit doesn't give us the stereotypical, standard issue gravitas we've come to expect from films about its subject, it's certainly no Gay Romp in the Hitler Jugend either. There are some truly horrifying (albeit non-graphic) scenes, one of which is so heart-wrenching that it still haunts me 72 hours after seeing it, and I have no doubt it will stick with me for the rest of my days. 

Perhaps the biggest criticism leveled against the movie is Watiti's portrayal of a kinder, gentler, funny Hitler. However if you've been paying any attention at all, you know that he's not portraying Hitler at all, any more than Dick Shawn was in The Producers. In his case, Watiti is playing an imaginary person conceived in the mind of a ten year old child. That the child should happen to choose this particular "friend" shouldn't come as a surprise given the circumstances of growing up in Nazi Germany. Of course this is a highly personal and idealized Hitler, it would be ridiculous to imagine anyone, especially a child, conceiving the real Hitler as his imaginary friend. That critics take this Hitler mirage so literally is their problem, not the film's. 

What I think makes JJR so powerful is the relationships it develops between the child, played brilliantly by Roman Griffin Davis, and the characters around him, none of whom are exactly what they seem at first. His mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansen giving perhaps the most complex performance of her career), from the outset seems to be the perfect Nazi mom. After all how could a child develop such a fervent passion without the help of a parent? It turns out Rosie is anything but. We learn this first hand when the mother and child stumble upon a gruesome scene of the hanging corpses of several townspeople in the public square. "What did they do?" asks Jo Jo. "Whatever they could" was his mother's terse response. 

Why then one may ask, would Rosie tolerate Jo Jo's fanaticism? Like the film, the answer is both complicated and painfully simple, for his survival of course. Along those lines, Rosie enrolls Jo Jo in a camp of the Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend, sort of the Cub Scouts of the Hitler Youth. She entrusts his safety to another enigmatic character, the commandant of the camp, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) whose true relationship with Rosie remains one of the many unanswered mysteries of the movie.  

Jo Jo's second best friend after pretend Hitler, is Yorki (played by another scene-stealer, Archie Yates), an adorable, pudgy young man who is Jo Jo's bunkmate at Camp Nazi. Jo Jo is far more committed to the cause than Yorki, but his commitment we soon learn is superficial. When the camp counselors tell the children that a good Nazi has to be able to kill, Jo Jo is singled out to come forward, and then told to break the neck of a live rabbit. He can't do it, (hence his pejorative nickname), but with the help of his imaginary friend Hitler, he volunteers to do something that risks his own life, and pays for it dearly. His close encounter with a hand grenade disqualifies Jo Jo from military service and he is relegated to banal tasks such as posting leaflets, while in scenes that are both comic and heartbreaking, little Yorki ends up with a gun, serving with a group of children and old men enlisted to futilely defend the city from the advancing Russian and American armies.

The central relationship in the movie is between Jo Jo and Else (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager whom he discovers hiding in the closet of his sister's bedroom. Much to Jo Jo's chagrin, he learns that his mother has been hiding Else, a friend of her dead daughter, in order to protect her from the fate of her parents, a one way ticket to the concentration camp. The good little Nazi in Jo Jo feels compelled to turn in the girl to the authorities but Elsa who is six years his senior and a few decades more mature, brings up the obvious fact that turning her in would expose his mother.    

I don't think I'm giving too much away here by saying the two of them come to share a bond which becomes stronger than the one with his pretend friend. Elsa sees right though to the boy's true self when she tells him: "You're no Nazi you're a ten year old kid who likes to dress up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club." For his part, all the official lies he blindly excepted about Jews were dispelled once he actually got to know one. The two young people end up risking their lives for each other, both of them making reckless mistakes that might have proven fatal had it not been for the selfless acts of an unlikely, but very real guardian angel.

One thing that makes Jo Jo Rabbit so interesting is that it is one of the few films I know of that deals with the subject of the lives of ordinary (non Jewish) German people during World War II.  Something I learned years ago that I'm afraid lots of people still don't realize today is that the majority of the German public did not support the Nazis. But like Rosie, those who didn't,  understood that subversion, rather than speaking out was the only practical means of remaining true to oneself AND surviving. 

There are very few real Nazis in Jo Jo Rabbit, most of the characters' loyalty to the party is superficial like Jo Jo's, they are just normal people doing whatever they can to survive the nightmare. Even the real Nazis depicted, six members of the Gestapo who come to ransack Rosie's house hoping to find evidence against her, appear more like exhausted tax accountants on April 14th, just counting the hours until quitting time. Their scene is one of the most interesting of the film, both hilarious with their endless stream of perfunctory Heil Hitlers (a gag borrowed from To Be or Not To Be), and chilling at the same time.

Talk about the banality of evil. 
As I said, Jo Jo Rabbit is not for everyone. Its simple story is off-putting to those who feel the subject deserves more gravity and depth. I have to admit being a little put off myself by its cheeky vibe at the beginning. My wife looked over at me several times during the first twenty minutes or so and commented that I looked like those audience members during the opening number of Springtime for Hitler.  But I became a convert as soon as I realized that complexity and depth does exist in the film, lying just under the surface. If you care to look beyond the superficial its right there for the taking.   

The film's message is simple as can be. It's the same as Chaplin's at the end of The Great Dictator: taking the time to get to know one another helps us understand that we all share a common humanity. In other words, we have more in common with each other than we have differences. Armed with this understanding helps us jettison fear, lies, mistrust, anger, prejudice and hatred of our fellow human beings out the window, just as Jo Jo ultimately does with his pretend friend.  

It's a message we've heard all our lives and should know like the back of our hands. But after the last four years of life under a "leader" who purposefully divided this country by promoting fear, lies, mistrust, anger, prejudice and hatred for his own benefit, clearly it's a message we all need to hear now as much as ever.