Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reading The Reader

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2009)

I’m currently feeling disappointed in cinema. You look at where we are – in a best case, entering a period of difficult realignment; in a worst case, well, much grimmer than that – and you ask, why were the movies so little help to us? It’s a cliché to call cinema a mirror of society: but if it is, the mirror had two faces and we were all enchanted by the lying one. So many “serious” movies focused on the past, or on contrived emotional dilemmas purportedly illustrating the universal triumph of the human spirit, or something like that, or else on foolish, often violent melodramas only capable of being interpreted as serious-minded within a degraded set of cultural criteria (I’d say the last three Oscar winners, Crash and The Departed and No Country For Old Men, belong in that last group). But where were the movies exploring, or even acknowledging, the tensions at the heart of this complex edifice: unsustainable, depraved growth, the malevolent false promises of the debt industry, the hollowing-out of what passes for debate and analysis?

A Kind Of Forgetting

I’m not saying we should have expected a tidal wave – just anything. I mean, normal blue-collar economic problems so seldom turn up on screen – even in independent films – that even something like last year’s Frozen River (despite itself excessively relying on dubious plot developments) struck many people as a near-revelation. I’m trying to think of any recent movie that grappled at all on a macro level with the contemporary economy, but drawing a blank. For me, there’s something melancholy and puny about this year’s crop of awards contenders. Indian slum fairy tales; priests and nuns; dead ex-presidents; of course people should make the movies they want to and are allowed to make, but why doesn’t anyone make a movie about where and how and why we are what we are right now? Nowadays, more and more, I come out of films, even ones I generally liked, bewildered about how I’m any better off for having seen it, or about how the filmmakers ever thought anyone would be.

Stephen Daldry’s The Reader is a good current example of an almost entirely worthless film. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining, in a certain dumb-ass way. But when a big chunk of cinema’s history is so freely available on DVD, who needs another trinket in the jewelry box? This belongs to a particularly durable sub-group of backward-facing movies, those latching in some way onto the Holocaust. In the last few months alone, in various ways, Valkyrie, Adam Resurrected, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas and Defiance belong to the same category. Writing in The New York Times, A O Scott called this “a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers” and as such as much a kind of forgetting as of keeping the past alive in memory. For me, the most egregious item in the canon remains Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, a crass, self-regarding doodle that somehow got taken up as a profound expression of human endurance.

The Reader

Other reviewers also suggested in various ways it might be time for a moratorium on movies in this area. Certainly The Reader, however well meaning the motives of those involved (and I haven’t read the originating book by Bernhard Schlink) seems opportunistic. That’s not confined to its use of the Holocaust though – from start to end the movie grabs at themes and topics without indicating more than a lamely functional sensibility. It jumps back and forth between decades in the over-used style du jour, but the root is a summer affair in 1950’s Germany between Michael, a fifteen-year-old boy, and Hannah, a tram conductor in her 30’s. They have sex a lot, and the rest of the time he reads to her, everything from The Odyssey to Tin Tin, She disappears after a few months; some years later he’s a university law student attending the trial of six women accused of crimes at Auschwitz, and she’s one of them. The trial yields a revelation about her and resulting moral dilemma for him; her influence on him reverberates through the coming decades. Kate Winslet plays Hannah, and Ralph Fiennes the grown up Michael.

I don’t really know where to start on setting out the film’s problems. I suppose the over-arching one would be the lack of any real sense of time or place or character or spontaneity. It bursts with “only in the movies” situations and exchanges. Winslet and Fiennes are both capable of greatness of course, but flounder here in pretentious actorly dignity. You never get a sense of a director doing much more than merely keeping up. It’s a chilly, affectless creation from beginning to end.

Throughout, there’s a sense of dots not being joined. The trial shows Hannah to be almost frighteningly lacking in introspection; a limited woman who followed orders and even years later doesn’t seem to have engaged in much self-interrogation; the stain of complicity in war crimes sits more easily with her than other far more defensible embarrassments. I found this the film’s most intriguing component, capable in more rigorous hands of a devastating emotional impact and metaphorical implication. But here it’s little more than a gimmick. The frankly almost moronic woman on show at the courtroom doesn’t mesh at all with the voracious consumer of highbrow literature viewed earlier. But then, the list in Michael’s journal of the books they experienced together, at the rate of an hour or two a day at the most, would have taken years to compile, rather than a single summer. The film is full of things like this.

Cinema Of Donkeys

Early on, it almost drowns in an overdose of stilted nude scenes, of the kind that makes you wonder whether anyone involved has ever actually had sex; towards the end, it starts feeling like the zombie refusing to die, adding on an interminable string of twists and postscripts. At the end of it, a chilly man has become somewhat humanized. The enduring power of a first love, no matter how much tarnished subsequently, has been demonstrated. A few other good causes have been duly boosted. We’ve sat through some wantonly lame conversations about morality, legality and the whole damn thing. About the Holocaust, we’ve been fed a few interesting one-off lines, but otherwise learned nothing (nor should we need to). What does any of this have to do with life as we live it now? Nothing at all.

The Reader is a comprehensive failure on any terms. But even if it had succeeded on its own terms, the value we’re collectively prepared to place on such an achievement ought to be severely limited. This is a cinema of donkeys, dutifully trudging along in the farmyard with what respectable movies have always meant, deaf and blind to the atrocities on the other side of the wall.

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