Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Valkyrie's critics are worse than Nazis

I made a rare trip to the movie theaters today, inspired by an interesting selection of films and the necessary free time to see them. Although my first choice was Eastwood's Gran Torino, I was running late and ended up on my fallback, Valkyrie. Many people have panned the film strictly because of Tom Cruise. Even the Germans and their government were suspicious of this production simply because Cruise was attached to it. He's not the most expressive actor, but he's not wooden. Better yet, he has a long history of starring in watachable movies, something his peers have failed to duplicate.

In any event, I do not have a problem with Cruise. I'm not a scientologist and I think he's nuttier than a bowl of trail mix, but I could honestly care less about celebrities' personal lives. What he does on screen interests me more, and I found none of the criticims of Cruise to be very valid. His performance wasn't distracting, and I thought he did a fine job. He didn't demonstrate a wide range of emotions, sure, but I don't think it would have fit the character if he did. I mean, there was no reason for him to start jumping up and down on a sofa.

I could forgive those criticisms, but there are some that go even beyond the "I don't like Tom Cruise so this movie sucks" variety. Let's start with Roger Friedman of Fox News. I don't know him, and I am not familiar with his work, so I will try to give him the benefit of the doubt that he is not just another Fox News tool. I will let his words speak for him:
I'm concerned that Valkyrie could represent a new trend in filmmaking: Nazi apologia. Not once in Valkyrie do any of the 'heroes' mention what's happening around them. Hitler has systemically killed millions.
The article goes on to state that, "Friedman criticised the set designers for minimising or hiding the swastikas that have become symbols of the evils of Nazism." Let me state, for the record, that either Friedman is a moron or a liar. It all depends on whether he actually sat and watched the movie, like I did. Valkyrie did not sit and pound the theme every ten minutes, as it would have dragged the story down and been annoying. In other words, a poor artistic move. The opening scene of the film had Cruise's von Stauffenberg summarizing in his journal all of the problems he had with Hitler's Reich, and it came up other times as the Resistance met and schemed.

As for the swastika...it's the first image in the movie. The image appears numerous times. I did notice that on the many instances when swastikas were present, the camera cut away before the full swastika. I chalked this up to director Bryan Singer's artistry. I also noticed von Stauffenberg didn't have swastikas on his collar, just an iron eagle on his chest. Two other scenes stand out - one at a club, when I took a second to wonder how many swastikas of every size were in the room, and the other outside the Gestapo headquarters, where a beautiful arrangement of about 50 Nazi flags were flying outside the building. This, along with portraits of Hitler in every room, make me wonder if Friedman saw the film. If he didn't, he's a liar. If he did, he's a moron. As a Fox News employee, there is always the possibility he is both.

He's not the only dingbat of a right wing media machine. Phillip Kennicott of the Washington Post, and I quote the same article,
...blasted the film's puzzling failure to portray von Stauffenberg's life before his unsuccessful assassination attempt - when he was untroubled by Nazism and served as Hitler's loyal soldier.

Kennicott also criticised the movie for failing to point out that the plot was hatched not out of moral objections to Nazism but only when Germany was facing imminent collapse.

Stauffenberg "was not a committed anti-Nazi until very late in the game", wrote Kennicott. "Many anti-Hitler conspirators weren't so much against Nazism, with its vile racial and militarist policies, as they were against Hitler's disastrous leadership of the war".
Regarding paragraph one, with Valkyrie clocking in at 120 minutes, I fail to see how tacking on unnecessary scenes helps in any way. Why don't we have it drag on for four hours and we could start with von Stauffenberg at the age of seven?

Regarding paragraph two, it's in the fucking movie. That's like criticizing the film for not pointing out that Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel) is bald. It's bloody obvious. I mean...how obtuse can you be? How is it possible to be a film critic and not understand basic plot developments? There is one specific scene where the Resistance is arguing, and one of the conspirators remarks that they are running out of time, since there's no point in offering a truce to the allies once they're already in Berlin. The idea that characters in the movie were not inspired to rally against Hitler because of Germany's imminent defeat is preposterous. The only way it could have been more obvious was if the movie rolled up the script and bashed Kennicott over the head with it.

As for paragraph three, von Stauffenberg is not Clark Kent. He probably took some time to develop as a human being. It takes a brave person to stand up against evil, and it's kind of missing the point to criticize someone for not doing it soon enough, especially when it cost him his life. With regard to the part about some members of the Resistance being against Hitler's leadership more than his methods, well, so? The film didn't harp on it, but it was there for anyone in the audience.

The problem with Friedman and Kennicott is that they are evaluating this production not on artistic merit and entertainment value, but on political qualities. As Roy Edroso has pointed out for years, movies are not propaganda. They don't have to promote an agenda, nor should they. In fact, Valkyrie could have been a pro-Hitler movie, and it should still only be criticized based on its aforementioned artistic merit and entertainment value. Friedman and Kennicott's complaints are not only factually wrong, but catering to their desires would have made a shitty movie.

Ignore those twats and take my advice - go see Valkyrie. Is it a perfect, inspiring movie? Not particularly, but I did not have any major complaints. I enjoyed myself, I was drawn into the plot, I appreciated the acting, I loved the soundtrack, and I found that it was worth my money. In an age where The Spirit and Yes Man are vying for your dollars, spend your time and money on something that actually earned both.

P.S. - Happy end of the year. Nice to see you made it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Not all blacks are Swahili

I have mixed feelings on Kwanzaa. On the one hand, I find genuine appeal in the seven principles (unity, self-determination, community, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith) that guide the holiday. On the other hand, I don't like the fact that it's tacked onto Christmas, as if black people aren't allowed to celebrate with Santa Claus and/or Jesus. I also don't care for the fact that it promotes Africans as one people. To me, that is as careless as identifying everyone from India to Japan as "Asian." Obviously, "African-Americans" (black people who trace their ancestors to the European-North American slave trade) do not know which people they come from. Their ancestors were stripped of their identity when they were brought to American shores. That doesn't mean people should just pick what they want.

For example, I can trace my ancestry back four out of five ways. The fifth aspect of my genetic make up is a mystery. We know my grandmother's father lived in Canada, but we don't know where his family came from. They were not forthcoming with the information, and apparently no one back then cared to ask. All we know for sure is that he came from Europe. That doesn't mean I get to pick which part of Europe he's from. It's not like a grab bag. "Ooh, what shall I choose? Scotland? Belgium? Czech Republic or whatever the hell it was back then? I've always liked Austria." It doesn't work that way.

The Jews have Chanukah because it is part of their rich and diverse history, something they have celebrated and identified with for centuries. Sure, they added the presents over the years to create a healthy competition with the more glamorous Christmas, but it is still a cultural staple. Kwanzaa is not. Kwanzaa starts at skin color and tries to work backwards, creating something out of a vague idea, that all African Americans share a common ancestral background. Africa was a continent of vast, sprawling, diverse - and sometimes competing - empires, with a heavy Islamic influence to the north. Africa today stands as a continent of 61 territories speaking over 1,000 indigenous languages. To clump all of that into one general theme is ridiculous.