Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Coen Brothers did get a second of the camera though. . .

A friend of mine, Tamar, wrote this on Facebook in response to my last blog post:

"What did you think of Steve Martin's joke about the "Jew hunter" at the Oscars, followed by a camera zoom in on the Coen brothers?"

It seems most people, to judge by blog postings on the Internet, found Martin's joke very funny. I didn't find Martin's to be laugh-out-loud funny, nor was it offensive. At the risk of being overly analytical (alas, I can't help myself) I did find it a little odd. Here was a movie, "Inglorious Basterds", that isn't at all meant to be taken seriously. Tarantino's film doesn't take the Holocaust seriously at all. It's a fairy tale, like much of recent cinematic Holocaust fare (Boy in Striped Pajamas, etc.) In Tarantino's live-action cartoon we don't see any emaciated Holocaust victims, or concentration camps. Jews are portrayed as all-powerful and Nazis are portrayed as sympathetic buffoons or appealing, magnetic villians like Christoph Walz's Hans Landa. He uses the Holocaust as a mere setting in order to riff on his favorite subjects like the power of film, the power of violence, and other metanarratives.

The Landa character in the film, the Nazi figure with a larger-than-life, magnetic, charismatic personality, is as much a figment of Hollywood as the hooker-with-a-heart-of gold (which is also Oscar material-i.e., Julia Roberts). In reality, Nazis weren't men like Landa so appealing in their larger-than-life villainy, but, sadly, mere "Ordinary Men," as in the book by Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. But it's more comforting to think Nazis were really like Landa and not like the ordinary men-next-door.

Oddly, Martin's joke presupposes that we should take Tarantino's film, or Walz' Nazi, seriously, that somehow we need to be reassured that within the Academy Award Theatre there is a "motherlode" of Jews.

But maybe we do. While there may indeed be many Jews in the 'industry,' there aren't necessarily many "Jewish" films made, as has been the case in the history of Hollywood, even when studios are led by Jews. The Coen Brother's film (see my previous post) "A Serious Man" did not receive any Academy awards though it is a brilliant, thought-provoking work.

The camera pan to Joel Coen's face, right after Steve Martin's "Jewish joke", as if he somehow was the "token" Jew in the audience, was ironically apt in that the Coen Brother's film was really the only "Jewish" film made this year. The camera should have panned to Tarantino after that joke. Instead, it panned to the one filmmaker who actually made a Jewish film this year, to see how this filmmaker, who is "out" with his Jewishness, would react.

This brings to mind a quote from an essay in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture, edited by Vincent Brook, describing "a central confusion and an ongoing concern in American Jewish life: not simply the fear that Jews will so easily be absorbed, but the simultaneous and far more subtle anxiety that Jews can never truly be absorbed."

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