Jewish Vengeance

Eli Roth BasterdI loved Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds — I think it was the first movie I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction where I immediately wanted to go see it again.  Not surprisingly, it is proving somewhat controversial — one friend reported that he and his mother walked out when they “realized that we were in for two-something hours of Hogan’s Heroes II,” and a number of people have noted that there is something a little uncomfortable about watching a blatantly cartoonish and unrealistic story of rampaging American soldiers capturing, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, even if they’re Nazis.  During Hitler’s big scene, I couldn’t help but think of all the frivolous Youtube homages that we’d soon be seeing based on it.

I think that one way of viewing the movie is as a thought experiment, “Under what circumstances would you approve of such behavior?”  I am pretty absolutist in my views about following the Geneva Convention etc., but it was difficult not to get caught up in the Basterds’ mission (and tactics).  And, without “giving away” the end, I will say that whereas for most of the movie I was thinking, “OK, this is silly but enjoyable,” by the end, when the Jewish Vengeance is delivered in an extreme and over-the-top manner that only Tarantino could provide (complete with an awesome meta-narrative about film-watching itself), I had a very unexpected reaction — I became totally exhilerated and ecstatic, nearly bursting into tears of joy.  It was an explosion of vengeful emotion that I had no idea I was capable of, and I’ve been hearing similar reports from other Jews who saw the movie.

This unexpected reaction has made me think about how little a role vengeance plays in the standard narrative of the Holocaust.  I’ve since been hearing stories about prisoners who were released from the death camps and then went around the countryside, marauding and pillaging, with the attitude that any nearby villagers were complicit in the crimes; I also heard a story, allegedly reported by the son of an American who was one of the first to arrive at Auschwitz, about how the prisoners barred the gates, and didn’t let the soldiers in until the prisoners had systematically murdered every single Nazi in the camp.  I have no idea if any of these vengeance narratives are true (and I’d like to find out), but if so, they are definitely not part of the well-established Holocaust victim narrative, and, like this movie, they raise some interesting questions about the limits of turning the other cheek.

Hello, birdie

A photo I snapped of my friend Brooke a few years ago in Vienna. A bird happened to swoop into the frame at the last moment, just as I was pressing the shutter release– a complete accident.


Incidentally, the ferris wheel poking into the picture in the background is the very same ferris wheel used in the filming of The Third Man, where Orson Welles delivers his famous ‘cuckoo clock’ line:


Mundane superpowers

I’ve long been drawn to the idea of mundane superpowers and just found out about the documentary Confessions of  a Superhero, which pretty much steals my thunder. Apparently, it’s a documentary about the ordinary people who schlep around Hollywood Blvd dressed as superheroes and, I gather, sort of follows in the same vein as Anvil! bio-pic by simultaneously portraying them as spirited fighters and obsessed sad sacks. Then, more to the point, there’s this promo photo for the film:


Love the green cast and wallpaper. Still, just as it’s Superman’s fate to be eternally upstaged by more personable superheroes, so does his photo eventually pale in comparison to this completely amateur and totally great image of Spiderman struggling to get back into shape:


I found this on the site of a Swedish designer and emailed him to ask for info about the shot, but apparently his entire server just got wiped out and he’s too deranged by grief to recall where he got the image himself. Shame.

I’ve often thought that if you were to aspire to a reasonably-attainable mild superpower, a good choice would be to have the ability to make people’s limbs fall asleep (either numb, or occasional wracking pins-and-needles, depending on what the situation called for). This would be reasonably useful, but you wouldn’t be over-reaching by asking for something like, say, the ability to fly, which is – let’s face it – a bit far-fetched.

Update: Rasmus Andersson (whom I previously introduced as the grief-stricken Swedish designer) has apparently come to his wits sufficiently to source the spiderman photo:

I managed to track down where I found the Spiderman picture — from photographer Chris Leah:

Thanks, Rasmus! The Chris Leah site is great and has a little vignette of spidey photos. Check it out.

Polish movie posters


On the heels of Krafty’s Polish Blues Brothers poster acquisition, I thought I’d write a bit on the genre at large. Poland has had a really unique relationship with poster design. The country emerged so devastated from WWII that it took much longer for TV and other communication technologies to make serious inroads, so the poster maintained this weirdly elevated status through the 60s, 70s and 80s. Poland formalized poster design to unusual degree (poster designers were taught in rigorous university programs, then went on to work in unions and accept state-controlled flow of jobs) and embraced it as a kind of national idiom. Polish posters tended to go in for a cheery, folkloric look in the 60s but then developed into something entirely different in the 70s and 80s as a strange, melancholic introspective style evolved.

There’s a lot to like about Polish film posters. For one, simply the fact that artists were allowed to work in this idiosyncratic, gloomy style while promoting films and not railroaded into some kind of generically upbeat, promotional mode. Second, the highly personalized interpretations of film themes (sometimes, you wonder if the designer had even seen the film or was merely working from a synopsis). Mostly, the fact that technological limitations freed designers from having to maintain a slavish realism in their approach. The production means weren’t available to reproduce stills from the movie at high quality, so it was sort of taken for granted that the designer’s solution would involve a certain amount of creative latitude. Sometimes, the technical limitations were turned on their head and used for effect, as in the Zloto Alaski poster where the black-and-white halftone pattern is made so big that you see it as a weird deliberate texture. Finally, in a state-controlled industry, nobody needed to promote themselves, so you don’t have that requirement that every damn person involved in the movie has to be listed along the bottom of the poster in type so condensed that no one can read it anyway.

There are too many good examples of Polish poster work to just select a few, so I limited myself to posters of American westerns.


Top: Midnight Cowboy, Waldemar Swierzy

Bottom, clockwise: Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, Mieczcyslaw Wasilewski; North To Alaska, Jolanta Karczewska; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Waldemar Swierzy

Blue-some buddies


After reading Krafty’s Blues Brothers post a second time, I now realize he didn’t mean to say that there are thematic similarities between The Blues Brothers and Star Wars (just that both are highly imitated)… but this is how I took it on first reading, and it got me thinking:

  1. Land Cruiser = Blues Mobile
  2. Rowdy alien bar = rowdy redneck country/western bar
  3. Death Star = IRS building
  4. Alec Guiness = Ray Charles
  5. Carrie Fisher = Carrie Fisher
  6. There’s something to this!

Where it becomes a stretch is when you try to draw parallels between main male characters: Jake and Elwood are the consummate partners, whereas Han Solo and Luke have a very different ‘upstart vs. wily veteran’ rivalry that powers much of the Star Wars plot. Then it hit me that Jake and Elwood are really more like C3P0 and R2D2: inseparable buddies who are with us from the movie’s opening scene and loyally adhere to a single mission while other plot arcs and characters with more compromised motives swirl around them. Even the body types are identical, with each group having a more moderate tall/thin member and a more impetuous short/fat member.

(Incidentally, this kind of analogizing was done to much better effect by some genius on youtube, who pointed out the underlying similarities between Star Wars and Magnum P.I. opening credits.)

On a slightly more serious and hopefully more insightful note: Krafty poses an interesting point about why the movie felt so seminal at the time (aside from our age and its R rating). I think it featured two key elements of 80s movie-making that were just coming into focus:

1.  Cutting, dark humor. I heard an interview once where someone claimed that the National Lampoon ushered in a new era of American humor with Animal House (which Belushi of course starred in) whose touchstone was no longer Jewish humor (characterized by ‘What a fool am I!’-type jokes) but rather more biting English and Irish traditions of humor (‘What a fool you are’). While The Blues Brothers wasn’t as dark or cutting as, say, Monty Python or even Animal House, there’s a gleeful kind of absurd and unexplained quality to a lot of the jokes that seems to come from the same place as David Letterman dropping refrigerators off buildings and making a musical beat out of it on his show around the same time. In other words, while the humor itself isn’t necessarily dark, the willful disregard for clearly-explained jokes seems to come from that same contemptuous, cynical place.

2. The being-cool and rocking-out factor. The Blues Brothers were simply cool, and while their coolness was on display throughout the movie, the musical scenes where they would sing cool R&B songs and do flips and stuff was the cudgel with which their coolness was impressed on the viewer. I can’t think of any movies before 1978 where you were simply invited to enjoy someone singing and being cool in the middle of a movie, but starting in the 80s, it becomes a staple: Tom Cruise rocking out in his underwear in Risky Business, the infamous Van Halen air guitar hamburger scene in Better Off Dead, Ferris Bueller performing Twist and Shout to the entire city of Chicago, etc. I’d never thought about it before, but I’m sure the watershed moment for this trope must have been Grease in 1978, which, by dint of being a musical, had Travolta suddenly being cool and and rocking out in all kinds of contexts. Movie execs must have realized the potential in this and started writing it into movies without worrying about how incongruous air-guitaring hamburgers might seem to future generations.

The Blues Brothers


Somebody posted a link to this Polish poster of the Blues Brothers on Facebook yesterday.  I think the post was meant as a joke — “Look at this weird Polish poster for this cheesy movie!” — but I immediately ordered a copy, which is now on its way to my house, I am assured via a personal email “with Kind Regards” from Krzysztof Marcinkiewicz. 

The fact is, I love this movie, and when I tell people it is one of the greatest movies ever made, I’m only partly kidding.  I honestly think it is as imitated as Star Wars, whether it is the themes (“Getting the band back together,” Carrie Fisher’s insane quest for revenge, the “mission from God” to save the orphanage that justified all of their middling crimes) or specific scenes (the jailhouse pickup to open the movie, the chase through the shopping mall, the over-the-top finale, etc.)  And let’s not forget the incredible number of cameos: James Brown as the preacher (and Chakha Khan in the choir); Aretha Franklin; Cab Calloway; Carrie Fisher; Billy Crystal; Pee Wee Herman; Frank Oz; Ray Charles; John Candy; John Lee Hooker; etc. etc.  For god’s sake, their backing band was comprised of the greatest soul session musicians of all time.  And I haven’t even mentioned Belushi and Aykroyd, two comic geniuses at the height of their powers.

OK, I will admit that the timing of its release (I was seven, and it may have been the first R-rated movie I ever saw) had something to do with its oversized impact on me.   And I’ll also admit that it hardly invented some of the tropes and themes that I’m still celebrating — but there is something about the way it melded all of that stuff together (along with the musical numbers) that seems totally innovative.  And I’ll bet you that this, and not some older precursor, is the reference point for modern comedy directors when you see those themes/set pieces/tropes recur.

I wish I had something insightful to say about the Polish interpretation of it that will soon be adorning my office wall (I’m not even going to bother floating the idea of having it in the house to my wife), but perhaps my certified design instructor co-blogger can take care of that angle.