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March 25, 2010


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Tom Russell Recommends That Bugliosi Book

"Oliver Stone's genuinely problematic J.F.K."

It's nice to read those five words coming from a film critic. Maybe I just hang around in the wrong corners of the internet, but pretty much every cinephile I've ever met seems to buy into Stone's bogus and paranoid fantasies. "JFK", to my mind, as immoral a film as BIRTH OF A NATION, the falsehoods it disseminates as insidious and ridiculous-on-their-face as those propagated by 9/11 truthers and birthers.


I'm pretty sure the point of J.F.K. wasn't WHAT happened, but what DIDN'T happen: namely, Oswald acting alone. Stone's kitchen-sink approach only highlighted the many groups and individuals with a motive, means, and opportunity for wanting Kennedy out of the picture.

I know many people who love the film, but not a single one who takes Stone's wild theorizing to be either fact, or even serious supposition.

Regardless, on a technical level the film is brilliant, and should at least be respected for that, even if one can't roll with the extreme version of the same methods on Natural Born Killers.

wilson hl

Your friend is right, for BHL is possibly the greatest joke brought to us by French TV. He appears regularly on talk shows to promote a book he just wrote, or simply to remind the world that he still exists. It's not like he has anything even remotely illuminating to say, and no one actually takes him seriously (being the regular target of comedian Noel Godin, who likes to hurl cream-pies at self-important buffoons, didn't help). Yet he's still invited to speak his mind whenever there's an Important Arts-related News Item (Polanski's arrest, whoddya think was interviewed to comment?)

[As for movies BHL, you see, is also the proud director of "Le Jour et la Nuit", starring his wife Arielle Dombasle (Marion in 'Pauline à la plage'), and which had quite a calamitous reception when it was released a while back.]


BHL as joke: of course, just as Zizek is a joke -- not without seriousness. Philosophical Andy Kaufmans who believe their own schtick as both joke *and* philosophy.

"...even less all that is moral, which needs a new "new wave" to remind us now, more than ever, of the true business of cinema." -- honestly? This could only come from a man whose awareness of contemporary cinema stops at the multiplex.

One thing I did learn, though: BHL claims that Pontecorvo was haunted by Rivette's attack until his dying day. While I have always taken Rivette's side on this, I've also always felt that Pontecorvo's attempt to do something 'heroic' with an image, though it failed fully in its conception and execution, was still worthy of a kind of respect. I'm glad to know that Pontecorvo felt Rivette's attack deeply.

S. Porath

I've got a question. I agree that to a certain extent, he missed the point of the film. However I think he raises an important question. He says "What can one think of the mass graves where the colourised dead gaze at us with the eyes of wax of plastic dolls, haunting the hero's mind like a dreadful leitmotiv?". This is a problem in imagery, not just in the concept of the imagery (Like mixing up Dachau with Auschwitz). It is tasteless in conception, and tasteless in presentation. Does the eventual revelation in the film excuse crass use of the Holocaust? When put on film, it's not just Daniels doing it, it is also Scorsese. There is a moral responsibility in putting something on film- I do not think it is enough for one to say "It's not me, it's the character". I'm not saying there's an easy way around it- but I think it is an extremely valid point to make. Mixing up the concentration camps is not as tasteless in its presentation, but, again, I think there's a good discussion to be had over whether it's valid to mess around with these things in the name of the main character of 'Shutter Island'.

Glenn Kenny

@ S. Porath: I guess it speaks well of certain readers that they're willing to do the work that a given writer can't, or won't. Just as a commenter on a different ARTicles post defended Steve Almond's anti-music criticism argument based on a distinction Almond himself failed to make, you're defending Levy in the context of a context that he either ignored or failed to grasp. I'm a guy who feels that the more specifics are in an argument, the better, and the fact that Levy failed to take into account a particularly important specific pretty much invalidates his perspective. At least as far as I'm concerned.

Your question is different: should it be permissible to use the Holocaust as "material," as it were, within a fictional character's psychotic hallucinations? You clearly believe that it is not only not permissible, but that to do so is fraudulent—that it gives the creator some kind of convenient "out." I rather disagree with you on this for the same reason I disagreed with Roger Sale when he accused the writer John Hawkes of having a contemptible imagination. But this is a different argument, and it's not the one that Levy makes.

The Siren

My all-time favorite BHL headline, over an interview with the preening old windbag: "God Is Dead, But My Hair Looks Great."

He doesn't really make any point in the article that he can stick to and defend--such as, as Glenn points out, that Holocaust imagery should be altogether off-limits. He just keeps pointing to things he doesn't like and pushing them to the side of his plate, like watching my kids have dinner. "An evocation of Guantanamo? Oooh, yuck, I'm not eating that."

Michael Adams

Since JFK has been brought up, I'll weigh in with an innocuous anecdote. I was in New Orleans during the filming and shared a hotel elevator with Jay O. Sanders and a short, rotund gentleman I took to be a crew member. This gentleman asked Sanders if the actor knew that the baseball cap he was wearing originally belonged to Jack Ruby. Sanders gave me and my wife a "Can you believe this guy?" look. One of the offshoots of conspiracy fever.


The Holocaust is part of the pulp American imagination of the postwar years. I thought that the script (and novel) really under-thought this aspect of the character, since there are some brilliantly demented ways that the Holocaust, mad doctors, HUAC, and maybe H-bomb testing could fit together in a PTSD-d brain with paranoid delusions, but I still don't think it's inappropriate that Daniels' personal trauma got mixed in with national and world-historical traumas. Also, as a staunch Oswald-acted-alone anti-conspiracist, I still love JFK, perhaps because paranoid people fascinate me. The movie doesn't make a good case for conspiracy, but it does make you empathize with what it's like to be in the mind of someone who can't stop believing every bullshit conspiracy theory that comes his way.

Tom Russell

"I'm pretty sure the point of J.F.K. wasn't WHAT happened, but what DIDN'T happen: namely, Oswald acting alone."

But that's the problem-- he DID act alone. It's not a matter of, well, no one knows for sure, this or that is ambiguous. No. Bullshit. He acted alone, and the enormous physical evidence alone supports that one hundred percent. To state otherwise is to be either completely ignorant or unhinged from reality.

And I'm not trying to be mean here or insulting, but at the same time JFK conspiracy theorists and the people who believe said conspiracies deserve the same derision we reserve for truthers, birthers, and holocaust deniers.

The Chevalier

I'm not sure whether I should be honored...

Anyhow. I was just thinking that it's kind of funny that in most movies when filmmakers portray dreams or hallucinations, they always go for something really imaginative and visually sumptuous. But in reality, I'm sure most people who have hallucinations aren't that imaginative. It's sort of like when characters speak dialogue that's too witty for that person to have ever actually thought up.

The Siren

"It's sort of like when characters speak dialogue that's too witty for that person to have ever actually thought up."

Well, that is one reason why I like movies, right there.

Michael Worrall

S. Porath wrote: "There is a moral responsibility in putting something on film.."

Says who? I was not aware there was such a rule in art. What if the artist's "morals" or world view are different then yours?


Tom, surely you're aware that there are large number of scholars and experts on both sides of the argument, and not everyone who thinks there was some type of conspiracy (or multiple assassins) is some kind of UFO abductee-type wack job. I was interested in talking more about Stone's filmmaking (or at least his intent), but I can tell from your condescending tone that you're someone who is a fanatic about the assassination so lets drop it.


Yeah, I tend to roll my eyes when folks trot out that complaint about certain movies or TV shows. Now, if it sounds just plain awkward (assuming that wasn't the actual intent of the filmmaker) coming out of the character's mouth, that's another issue altogether. But criticizing something for being too (verbally) witty to be "realistic"? Heck, that's one of the reasons I go to the movies, or watch certain TV shows. The key is for that to be part of the design of the character(s) from the ground up, so it doesn't seem too jarring.

Wit is a commodity that's missing in the vast majority of mainstream multiplex fare, and shouldn't be taken for granted when it makes an appearance. I adore creative use of language.


(My post was in response to Siren's comment.)

Jean-Baptiste Botul

I can't let the passing association of Zizek and BHL stand with some comment. Whatever you think of Zizek, he is at least professionally competent and takes his work seriously. BHL is a different sort of thing altogether. Consider:


Tom Russell

Lazarus, I'm prepared to drop it, but I've yet to see an pro-conspiracy expert who hasn't been thoroughly debunked and/or caught making up bogus evidence, much like the experts for, say, creationism. If you could name a few, I'd be very much obliged.

As for Stone's filmmaking and intent-- I think, like Joel Gordon said, that Stone really does get you into that particular headspace. Roger Ebert once said that the film is about how the time FELT, or something to that effect, and I think the way Stone mixes various formats/styles goes a long way towards disorienting the viewer (this is a confusing, bewildering, emotional time), thus investing the viewer in Garrison's quest to make sense of it all and restore order. JFK, in fact, is the only Stone film that I enjoy, the one subject that suits his style beautifully-- no matter how immoral I might find its premises.

If his intent really was to provide a "counter-myth"-- something Stone said only after his typically shoddy research was called into question-- well, yes, I still have a problem with that, for reasons you can probably guess.

James Keepnews

Tom -- Not to get all truther with it, but even the Church Committee in the 70's maintained that JFK's assassination was "probably a conspiracy". And towards the end of his life, Jack Newfield did a Frontline report on a Mob associate (also at the end of his life, thus unlikely to need much less want to make a name for himself) who claimed to have the inside dope on the Mob's role in JFK's shooting. Suffice it to say that Jack Newfield was fifteen times the "investigative journalist" most conspiracy theorists are or that you and I combined would be. Questions remain, is largely all I'm saying.

At the end of the day, of course, we'll never know exactly what went down, and that is the main flaw for me with Stone's delirious (and deliriously structured) JFK -- viz., his attempt to craft a single master narrative and place the "smoking gun", as it were, at the feet of LBJ and the military, which I expect we'd both agree was something of a reach at best. Had Stone been more interested in examining the delirium rather than simply assigning black hats (or, for that matter, assigning white hats to the, ahem, genuinely problematic Jim Garrison and Fletcher Prouty), it would have been much closer to the "counter-myth" he sought to create.

BHL is ending film criticism as we know it. There. Someone had to say it...

Fuzzy Bastarrd

Personally, I find it sad that JFK's assassination has provided fodder for a thousand theories, while Martin Luther King's assassination, which really was the product of an unsolved conspiracy (how the hell did James Earl Ray afford to stay in all those hotels?) never gets this kind of pop-cultural examination.

But to get back on topic… I don't think BHL is 100% off-base here. Yes, the "Dachau wasn't Auschwitz" stuff is carping, or wrong. But I don't regard the debates over the aetheticization of the Holocaust as over. There was something ugly, or at least profoundly tasteless, about SI's art-directed corpse-piles.

I understand that these are a 50s American's fantasies of the Holocaust, but it's hard to bring the Holocaust into a movie and not make all the fictional elements around it seem trivial. It's not as nightmarishly vulgar as Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda, which turned senseless tragedy into feel-good narrative. But it does invoke dilemmas of representation that the movie just didn't feel up to handling.


The morality of depicting (Holocaust) images is an interesting philosophical argument, but to take the position that certain parts of history are simply off-limits dramatically is a bit insane (especially without specifically articulating why).
Drama is not reality. History isn't even reality, as any self-respecting historian should admit. If (anti-)postmodernists want to argue that drama is muddling our past, go tell it to Plato.

Now, I might hypocritically entertain the argument that something like FORREST GUMP is morally questionable (thematically or technologically), or maybe even ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER....

Sheila King

I'm with the "there is nothing totally off limits in art crowd". I can even appreciate seeing an upside down crucifix bathed in urine in the DeMenil Art Museum in Houston, Texas, because it has something to say if only to some of us. The holocaust should always be with us, and it's good to be reminded that it happened and that it had horrific effects on those who witnessed, lived it or had the awful task of dealing with the remnants of the camps including the survivors or the soldiers responsible for this crime against humanity. Even in a hollywood film in which a person conflates his experiences there with his own personal loss and guilt, not to mention his own tendencies towards violence and denial. I never felt Shutter Island was trying to use the holocaust for some tasteless purpose at all. It's only if we forget to mention that this ever happened or try to hide it beneath a rug of sanctity that we are truly in danger of having it happen again.


I don't think anyone is saying, even BHL, that the Holocaust is "off limits, period" when it comes to dramatic representation. The question is whether or not Scorsese's use of those images, and that portion of our collective memory, is appropriate, and this seems to lead to two sub-questions, namely A) whether it is appropriate to use Holocaust imagery in dramatically tangential way, which Scorsese does, B) how far creative license extends when dealing with said subject matter; if there are certain aesthetic and historical standards that must be met when dealing with the Holocaust. Thus we get to the problem of Dachau vs. Auschwitz, and the "colorized" frozen corpses. (Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the question of whether or not the SS Warden would have/could have been listening to Mahler in his office.)

Whether or not Scorsese can be validly critiqued on these counts depends on how an individual viewer feels these questions should be answered. For my part, I think Scorsese, in his treatment of the story's theme and subtext, was acting appropriately. In the context of Daniels' fever-flashbacks, and the general attention to postwar anxiety and trauma, the inaccuracies and stylistic flourishes work, dramatically. In my view, the subtext got short shrift in Shutter Island, and could have been more elaborated. But what we do get, as an audience, permits those images.

The Siren

Well put Zach, as always. But I add that one of my (many, oh how very many) problems with BHL here and elsewhere is precisely that he *isn't* willing to just come out and say one shouldn't appropriate the Holocaust for entertainment. He wants to furrow his brow and express a great number of reservations and still be hip enough to sit with the cafeteria cinephiles because he pays tribute to the "stunning virtuosity" of Scorsese and Tarantino. Weaselly. As you and Glenn out, BHL bases his furrowing on things that are perfectly consonant with the world of SI. Plus, he owes Scorsese an apology for saying the guy doesn't know the difference between Dachau and Auschwitz. One Google search brings up a picture of "Arbeit Macht Frei" right over the Dachau gate.

Fuzzy Bastarrd

@ Siren: But I think it would be much, much more wrong to say "come out and say one shouldn't appropriate the Holocaust for entertainment"! These are vexed questions, with no right answers---making a flat deceleration is much more foolish than brow-furrowing "there's this, then there's that", which at least has the virtue of acknowledging the ultimate undecidability of the question. You could call that weaselly, or you could call it thoughtful, or you could just call it an accurate representation of the process of thinking through a complicated topic. Personally I'm much more offended when people try to lay down blanket statements of truth on aesthetic and moral matters, or worse yet, when they try to present the former and the latter as identical. I know that's supposed to be what makes fun-to-write-and-read criticism, but it's... well gosh, it's *wrong*!

(as wrong as BHL's Dachau-Auschwitz mistake, which would be irrelevant even if BHL were right. But if I can handle the completely anachronistic punks of "Summer of Sam", I can handle a little death-camp confusion)

It is interesting to wonder how this fits with movies like The Night Porter, Jakob the Liar, Life Is Beautiful, The Day The Clown Cried, and other Hollywood depictions of the Holocaust. What makes one valid, and another obscene? And can any of them do a quarter as much as Shadows & Fog did with its far more abstract narrative strategies? There remains something totalizing about the Holocaust that wipes out any fiction you place around it (why the Holocaust should carry a resonance that the many other holocausts don't is another question too), so whenever a movie tries to step over it, there's an inevitable moral queasiness.

S. Porath

@"there is nothing totally off limits in art crowd":

I agree...I was reacting to what was put there. Just because something is not off limits doesn't mean it's not irresponsible or tasteless. Someone decided it was correct to use that imagery. I think that 'Shutter Island's' reasons were insufficient to use the imagery. The artist can do what he will- I don't see how me finding it irresponsible or tasteless denies that.
(@Michael Worrall: If an artist's morals are different than mine, than I will object to his presentation of morality. There must be some line between disagreeing with an artist and invalidating him- no?)

Tom Carson

Just for the record, the image in the movie is unmistakably of the infamous Auschwitz gate -- not Dachau's, which was very different in appearance, with "Arbeit Macht Frei" unphotogentically embedded in the gate instead of surmounting it. As a Shutter Island nonfan, I don't put much stock in the rationalization that this substitution reflects the DiCaprio character's distorted memories. It looked to me like either sloppy research or some bonehead's idea of artistic license, either of which is offensive in this context.


Siren - I agree that BHL is being a weasel. As Glenn initially pointed out, he refuses to actually grapple with a complex question, and instead makes a series of glib non-points. It's intellectual posturing, and it's incredibly lame.

To Fuzzy's point about the Holocaust's having a "totalizing" quality - well, certainly that's one strain of thought. However, as you yourself point out, there is, in Western culture, an equal and opposite strain, in which the Holocaust has nearly endless relevance and utility as context for a story (in movies as well as books - and books generally tend to get away with much less scrutiny). I don't really know what to make of this. Is it opportunistic and shallow? Is it debasing the memory of the Holocaust, or keeping it alive, and testifying to the very human process of grieving, of making sense of the utterly senseless and horrific? I tend to lean towards the latter point of view on this. Night and Fog is incredibly powerful, and feels very appropriate in its gravitas. But I also think that most of the bashing Life is Beautiful received was unwarranted, and amounted to a lot of self-righteous posturing. I'd like to think that both films are, in their individual ways, valid.

Tom Carson

Ah, that's "unphotogenically embedded," etc., etc.

Sheila King

Yes, there is a certain lofty sense that the holocaust is "off-limits" in the criticism, or at least any depiction that doesn't meet certain standards. Question is -- what and whose standards are we talking about? Certainly an argument could be made against something that makes fun of the holocaust, belittles it or tries to play down the horror -- which to me Shutter Island really doesn't. As for Mahler being played as the commandant is dying -- it seems an odd choice, not only because it is Mahler, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, but because as Richard Brody of the New Yorker pointed out via one of his readers, it would have been impossible since this particular piece of music wasn't actually in circulation or even known as a recording until well after the movie takes place. Nonetheless, he makes an argument that maybe in the context of the film, it somehow seems fitting. Beyond that, it's a beautiful, evocative piece of music that doesn't seem out of place in the film, even if historically speaking it's virtually impossible for it to have been playing. What's interesting about depicting the holocaust in any film is that how do you make the victims look real, whether dead or alive? Where do you find actors that emaciated and hollowed-out to play the living survivors? It's really nearly impossible to get anything but a faint impression of the horror, no matter the film, unless it's a documentary with real and truly devastating footage. Shadows and Fog, of course, benefited greatly from this footage. Fact is that most people aren't going to seek out the real thing, but it can be used, even tangentially, in a film to make an impression, although that impression may always be somewhat less than the reality. Is it still worth mentioning if this is the case? And, yes, why this holocaust carries more resonance than others is certainly worth visiting.

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