Cold winter days are just right for curling up with some hot cocoa to watch DVDs filled with the pleasures of winter. And it is always wise to have some on hand for those days when it is too cold or snowy to go outside. One movie every family should watch is The Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, a wordless lyrical fantasy about a boy whose snowman comes to life. The exquisite illustrations and score perfectly complement the story, evoking the simple joy and childhood magic of playing in snow. The boy first brings the snowman into his world, showing him his home — unsurprisingly, the snowman does not like the fireplace but does like the ice cubes. Then, in a moment that still makes even grown-ups catch their breath, the snowman shows the boy his world, flying with him through the night sky to the ice lands, where they meet the snowman’s friends, including Santa Claus.
Some children may be upset when they see that the next morning, the snowman has melted. But even small children can understand that the boy will always cherish his time with his special friend. This movie can inspire children to build their own snow friends, and should lead families to talk about how what is most familiar to us (like a light switch) can seem interesting or strange or even scary to others. And what is familiar to others (like the Northern Lights) can seem exotic and thrilling to us.
Stuart Klawans, movie critic for The Nation for 20 years, has written a provocative essay about Holocaust movies for the website Nextbook. Like so many other Jews, I have made my contribution toward the multiplication of Holocaust films. On New Year’s Eve 1985, I chose to spend my money at a movie theater, watching Part One of Shoah. A few years later, when asked in the wake of Schindler’s List how many more Holocaust films the world needed, I snapped, “We can stop at six million.” But now, some dozen years and perhaps hundreds of movies later–in a season swollen with no fewer than six such releases–I respectfully request a moratorium on Holocaust films. By continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate. Call it the law of diminishing returns–or call it a paradox that mirrors the Torah’s famously self-contradictory commandment at the end of Parshat Ki Tetze, concerning the people who were the prototype of Nazi Germany: “Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.” Very soon, with Holocaust movies, we’ll need to forget if we want to remember.
This issue has been on my mind as well. While others on Beliefnet have written approvingly about the recent film “The Boy in Striped Pajamas,” I found it to be superficial and manipulative. A lot of WWII movies are. As our world is increasingly troubling and complex, it is too easy to return to the Holocaust and portray Nazis as the last unambiguously evil villains, and just as important, unambiguously defeated. And yet, the very magnitude of the Holocaust requires a mosaic of stories for us to understand it even imperfectly.
According to Klawans, the number of Holocaust-related films is increasing as the few left who were there to witness it are dying out. He describes a recent screening of the upcoming film “Defiance,” based on the true story of The Bielski Partisans, three brothers who hid more than 1000 Jews from the Nazis. But it seems to me he makes a powerful point against his argument when he describes the reaction of the audience. This audience, with its special moral authority, clearly did not care that the true story of the Bielski brothers was being filtered through calculated performances, invented speeches, dramatic conventions, and cinematographic effects. What mattered to them, as people irrevocably claimed by these events, was that their past was real, and so was the movie that acknowledged it.
This alone is a valid enough reason to make movies about the Holocaust, to reassure the survivors who saw so many stories lost forever that at least their stories will be told. We will not ever know all the more than six million stories of the Holocaust, but each succeeding generation has something to learn from the moral failings and moral triumphs of the era. That may not always mean dramatic re-enactments, however. The Holocaust movie I have found most insightful and affecting in recent years is Paper Clips, a touching documentary about a Holocaust curriculum in an almost all-white, all-Christian elementary school.
The obituaries mentioned the spirited attack on our involvement in Viet Nam at a White House luncheon that led to controversy, headlines, and years of difficulty in getting booked. The highlights of her performing career that were most often mentioned were her appearances in nightclubs, her performance as Catwoman in the “Batman” television show, and her unforgettable recording of “Santa Baby.” But today I am remembering her perfect casting as the villain in one of Disney’s most under-appreciated films, The Emperor’s New Groove.
Before the year is out I’d like to mention some independent films that did not get much attention in 2008 but are worth a look. These are not easy to summarize because they don’t follow the usual formulas. Some of their messiness comes from a more authentic and complicated sense of the world, some comes from having a tiny budget and some comes from being new at the process of telling stories with film. But they include some of my favorite moments on screen this year.
Kabluey is the story of a hapless loser (writer/director Scott Prendergast) sent to help his over-stressed sister-in-law while his brother is stationed in Iraq. He gets a job of soul-crushing absurd pointlessness, standing on an all-but-deserted road in a suffocating costume, the logo of a failing business, handing out fliers that no one wants. The costume gets some unexpected reactions from the people he meets and he begins to think differently about the effect he has on people. This is not one of those heart-warming cuddle-fests but it has moments of piercing sweetness and unexpected hilarity.
“Lifelines” One of the most exquisite images on screen this year was the lovely face of the brilliantly talented Jane Adams, who plays Nancy, the mother of a profoundly dysfunctional family in this film from first-time writer-director Rob Margolies (and originally titled “Wherever You Are”). Nancy and Ira (Josh Pais) bring their three angry and bitter children to a therapist (the always-marvelous Joe Morton) for a big announcement. In private meetings with each of the children, there are revelations that in another film might seem showy or melodramatic but a sure hand from Margolies and some exceptional acting from talented performers keep us involved and caring. The final twist is a bit too much but it is the mistake of a talented beginner and I very much look forward to seeing what Margolies does next.
And thanks to Dustin Putman for introducing me to “Kabluey” and “Lifelines.”
May 2016: Movies This Month Happy May! The blockbuster movie season officially starts this week with the latest superhero movie from Marvel, and the month will end with another superhero movie as well. But we'll get some good smaller movies, too. Here's what I'm looking ...
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