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David Poland

By David Poland

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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19 Responses to “Can’t We All Just Not Agree?”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    From outside the LA bubble, this is a big stretch. Disagreement over awarding a film about Nazis, is not 1,000th as deep as threats against human civilization and survival. Nonetheless, you make points that bear repeating…..again and again.

    Rebecca West, in her acclaimed reporting from the Nuremberg trials, emphasized that the Nazis who committed so many hate crimes, were also good parents, took care of their parents and their neighbors, had lovely gardens. They were like us…. except they tortured and enslaved Gays, Jews and Slavs.

    I believe that republican voters are colluding with horrendous crime, have blood on their hands …. otherwise they are lovely people. relatives, even.

  2. amblinman says:

    “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”

    Except La La Land is much more likely to make a killing at the box office because there will be twice as many stories about it vs something like Moonlight.

    Racism ain’t just reaction to a thing, it’s the circumstances that create the thing. That’s why discussing individual racism vs structural racism is a waste of time.

  3. amblinman says:

    Oh, and this:

    ” 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.”

    This is such white priviliged garbage I’m embarrassed for you.

    No, they don’t need to be tolerated. No, they do not have to be engaged. I have no reason to prove I have a right to exist. My oldest sis who is a woman and has been married to other women does not need to “prove” to anyone that she should have the same rights and protections as any other human being in this country. I do not need to “consider” a viewpoint that begins the convo with a premise that some human beings are lesser than other human beings due to where they were born or whom they love. Or how they choose to pursue happiness.

    We *have* been tolerating and engaging these folks. It’s why we currently have a party and potus whose entire throughline of argument involves telling other Americans they deserve to be triggered, angry, and left out. Someone tells you they are gonna punch you in the face, then punches you in the face, and keeps attempting to punch you in the face, maybe you stop “engaging” for a bit. It’s pretty clear what their motive is, now what’s yours?

    You have fun negotiating the terms of your surrender to these modern nazis. Ain’t participating. Fuck them. Vote ’em out, socially punish them until it becomes the worst thing ever to be identified as a Republican.

  4. Stella's Boy says:

    So all this is because some people don’t like Jojo Rabbit and DP does? And is he reducing our current political climate to honorable people disagreeing? That seems a bit naive. This screed reminds me of the guy who recently ranted against woke culture in the New York Times opinion section. Claimed it’s killing society and going to reelect Trump. He provided exactly one example. His sister claiming that some Democrats pick on her for being a person of faith. And that’s it. Is there some widespread, organized, and dangerous movement out there shaming and cancelling people for the crime of liking Jojo Rabbit? That would be news to me. I feel like there are all of these perceived slights and a rash a defensiveness without much if anything to back them up. And much of it strikes me as adopting right-wing talking points about SJWs and trigger warnings and safe spaces and the like. A snarky tweet about hating Jojo Rabbit is not exactly a threat to one’s livelihood. Oh and amblinman very well-said. Agree wholeheartedly.

  5. palmtree says:

    I just saw Jojo Rabbit a few days ago, and I was wondering when the blog would start talking about it (or maybe I already missed an earlier discussion).

    I liked it and felt all the feels and laughs that DP appears to also have felt, but at the same time I have very little idea of how it works or why I felt that way about such a complicated movie. This article at least makes me feel like there’s a shared question we all have about how to respond to something that just defies a clean response. It’s hugely messy and maybe that’s good.

    But I also agree with amblin. You can’t tolerate intolerance. It’s literally the one thing that you can’t tolerate, and is often called the Paradox of Tolerance. People assume all ideas are equal and therefore should all be tolerated equally, but in fact, if you have an idea that claims certain people deserve to be mistreated or stripped of power, then in that case “engaging” that idea will lead to being complicit in horribly intolerant acts. So to preserve a truly tolerant society, we need to discredit and denounce intolerant beliefs absolutely.

  6. Hcat says:

    Agree with above, my whole life I was told ‘it was the era they were raised in’ and all we had to do was play the waiting game until all the old racists and homophobes and misogynists died out and then the new age can begin. Well that turned out to be bullshit. It didn’t address what simmered in people (or the biases we do not acknowledge in ourselves), and it took very little to keep bringing it bubbling back up. Shunning and Shaming are perfectly fine tools of engagement, preferable to fisticuffs but honestly those will do as well. We are trying to have a society here and there are basic rules of participation.

    I don’t know how a disagreement about a movie fits into the larger scheme, a critic digging in their heels over a contrarian view does not seem noteworthy. But I am just glad this wasn’t the Scorsese article I expected when I saw the title.

  7. Spassky says:

    I was raised by a racist. A racist who beat the every living shit out of me all the time. I went to a school where I got the shit beat out of me for not being a racist. I became a racist. It was a really ugly period of desperate social survival.

    I got out and I’m happy society at large didn’t shut the door on me because of the horrible circumstances I was raised in. I’m deeply grateful to those that talked to me and could see a really scared person with no one in their life. I’m glad I’ve gotten past that trauma and can be a participant in society and have a diverse group of friends who accept me for what I have become and aspire to be, rather than what society gave me.

    Don’t tolerate the intolerant, but give those who were abused into it a chance. I don’t want to see Jojo Rabbit at Nuremberg.

  8. palmtree says:

    Very moving, Spassy. I’m glad to hear you got through all that, and it gives me hope that others are on a similar journey.

  9. Amblinman says:

    @Spass: I sincerely am happy for you personally. I am a recovering conservative Republican myself.

    However: it doesn’t matter. It’s not important that you aren’t a racist anymore. The victims of your/our racism didn’t and don’t get second chances at anything. The fact that you could opt out of the violence committed against you is a form of privilege.

    We go back to my getting-punched-in-the-face scenario: first we need to stop the folks doing the punching. We do not need to learn or understand why they’re punching, not initially. We need to stop the punching.

    PS: I had the shit kicked out of me in school because of anti-semitsm. I had no option to change my apparent affiliation with Christ-killers and other “smelly grubby Jews”. No words I could use to join a group and even get a little physical/emotional space. I could punch all the Jews in the face I wanted and if wouldn’t have changed anything for me.

    PS Part 2: if it seems I’m overly harsh: we have concentration camps on our southern border. Actual white supremacists like Steven Miller control our immigration policy. White nationalists have staged a string of terrorist attacks here and abroad. In 2019. They are not engaging. They are murdering, destroying families, denying others their pursuit of happiness.

    First course of action: stop the punching.

  10. Spassky says:

    You sound like you’re rich. I was never a conservative republican (I find it a little distressing that you think this is the only type of person capable of being a racist/violent bigot). I escaped into homelessness. I am Jewish and absolutely got the shit kicked out of me for it (by all colors and creeds, ha). I will never really escape the violence that I’ve experienced, and no one will I guess in the way you’re looking at it. I never did any punching. These things are a bit more nuanced than you seem to have actual experience with. They should not be a lifetime prison sentence (well, within reason). Escape is a relative term.

    What I really should say is that there is a controlling tier of people that prime underlings in any extremist agenda. I agree that violence should be cut off immediately (“stop the punching” or whatever your rhetoric is), but your main point is to not engage at all. Systemic change is the goal, but largely within the confines of non-regional political systems, this doesn’t address immediate violence.

  11. palmtree says:

    I too spent some time as a conservative Republican. It was easier to be conservative back then because it wasn’t as insane (in retrospect it still was problematic as hell though). But I wonder if I had stayed down that path whether I’d be just another enabler now or if I’d be able to come to my senses and exit the bubble. So when I hear a story of someone doing just that, I think it’s a big win, even if it’s one person at a time. Chipping away at 45’s base to me does equal stopping the punching…just on a smaller scale.

  12. Captain Celluloid says:

    Welcome back, David. We’ve missed you.

  13. amblinman says:

    @Spass: who gives a shit. Your initial post on the matter most certainly intimated you became a racist who engaged in violence. Now suddenly you were Jewish and homeless…and I’m back to saying who gives a shit because none of this addresses structural racism. Just two more white guys arguing over it.

    My larger point: we have an *avowed* white supremacist, Steve Miller, running our country’s immigration policies. Our sitting potus praises literal Nazis. We have actual concentration camps on our southern border. Fox News features guests who routinely engage in anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering in a climate in which people have been shot and killed for attending temple.

    I think…we’re all good engaging with racists, yeah? I mean….maybe you can tell me: what would it look like if we DIDNT engage these folks? MORE concentration camps on our border? MORE shootings of non-whites in Walmart’s and Jews in synagogues? MORE black people hurt/locked up/killed by a law enforcement industry designed specifically to hurt/lock up/kill them?

    Fuck your engagement. Fuck your racism. Neither of us get points for admitting what non-whites know is a fact. At the very least we can be honest about it all.

  14. Spassky says:

    I really hope you can find some peace and a better way of not just engaging others (others as in all types of people) but engaging your own anger. Take care.

    EDIT: I am still Jewish. (Ha)

  15. palmtree says:

    I absolutely 100% agree we need to shut down the systems of oppression (mass incarceration, kids in cages, climate denial, economic inequality, etc.), but on a personal one-on-one level, we should be talking to regular people and shutting down their easily debunked ideas. To not grab this low-hanging fruit is short-sighted. The best candidate for Pres will do both things, tackle the injustice from the top down and the bottom up.

  16. Michael Mayo says:

    Hi Dave, well, welcome to the club. We tried to tell you that electing a Marxist thug would unleash the modern Beria Brownshirts, but liberals never listen until someone comes after them. Enjoy it.

  17. Amblinman says:

    Gee, Mike Mayo sure blew my theory to shit.

    Someone: engage him! Quick!

  18. leahnz says:

    mike MAYO christ someone press the reset button

    (maybe some people should ask themselves why they aren’t MORE angry at nazis in da house)

    yeah DP welcome to the dumb asshole knob’s club! comeback’s going great sweetie

  19. spassky says:

    leahnz: what’s your take on jojo?

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