Saturday, November 02, 2019

Gallows Humor

Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi) was the first Marvel movie I saw in a theater, on the six story high screen at the Bullock Imax in Austin. Man, I miss that theater. Thor: Ragnarok’s biggest strength is as a comedy, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Soon I realized that its director had a name, but I hadn’t seen any of his other work.

Then a few months later I was working in Charleston, SC and was hanging out with some friends when one of them put on What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Waititi). For such a casual mockumentary, I laughed through almost the whole thing and find it clever even after multiple viewings. I rank it up there with This Is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner) and Christopher Guest’s comedies.

Apparently there’s more that he’s done and I hope to get around to seeing soon.

Jojo Rabbit (2019, Waititi) is a black comedy that’s also a coming of age film and happens to be set during the end of WWII in Germany. But it’s also vibrant. And, in the end, it’s also a celebration of life and offers a sincere portrait of humanity.

Best of all, Jojo Rabbit is the kind of art that makes you ask yourself difficult questions about what you’re watching. And the subjective nature of the types of answers I imagine arising as a result of those questions is exciting. First of all, the film is about a young Nazi boy, JOJO, discovering a Jewish girl named ELSA hiding in the walls of his house. And I can’t imagine it taking viewers very long to guess that somehow by the end the girl will teach the boy to not hate Jews anymore.

For Jojo, hating Jews drives him more than anything else, motivated of course by its potential to please the Führer. Okay so like I hope this doesn’t make me sound too creepy or anything but, we have this adolescent boy with no friends (well, one) who now has a pretty sixteen year old girl prisoner in his home while his mom is gone all day and no one else is around. Isn’t that like almost some kind of kinky pornographic male fantasy? Please let me finish. So, after weeks of Jojo hating Elsa for being Jewish, lying to her and intentionally hurting her, he falls in love with her. But is it really love? I don’t think so. I think he’s horny. (This is where I realize the film is so effective as a coming of age.) Jojo’s going through a lot.

Jojo’s character arc is so wonderfully written because of how many changes he goes through, along with lessons he learns through the course of the film. By the end nothing is what it seems. But I guess that’s why his mother’s so important (played by Scarlett Johansson), because she’s constantly trying to get him to learn what life’s about. Yet even she tells him a few lies. But this is also integral to Jojo Rabbit’s functioning as a coming of age film—learning what you need to when you’re ready. And that’s something for the audience too: accepting that hopefully it’s never too late to change the way you think about things. Does that make sense or am I being too vague?

Another thing to add is the subtle depiction of the Sam Rockwell character and his adjutant as a gay couple. Because in a comedy as absurd and irreverent as Jojo Rabbit, by not resorting to gay jokes it makes it easier to empathize with these two. They don’t particularly seem to have any reason to be Nazis either. For instance, anytime Jojo asks CAPTAIN KLENZENDORF (Rockwell) about Jews he’s completely disinterested. However, what does interest him are his sketches for outlandish costumes he plans for wearing in combat someday—also one of the funniest bits.

Anyway, Jojo Rabbit all came together in the end and there’s a hit pop song that’s played in a German version I didn’t remember having heard until it played, and I cried, then cried some more, and felt really great about life and humanity and everything okay? Now I don’t really know a ton about history or anything but I do feel truly horrified when I think about the Holocaust, the famine, the mass extermination of six million Jews, the concentration camps, the final solution to the Jewish problem, the gas chambers, the liquidation of the Warsaw ghettos, Dachau, Auschwitz, Treblinka and while I watched Jojo Rabbit, even though it’s not acknowledged in the film I thought about it. And I thought about it after it was over. It’s the worst atrocity of human history I know of. But I can still laugh. Is that messed up? That’s the portrait of humanity I got out of Jojo Rabbit, which is heavy.

Jojo Rabbit is silly, tragic, sweet, compassionate, and optimistic. And again I think all of that bears the mark of true art. Unlike say Joker, which is just really dark and depressing.

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