My Final Words on ‘Jojo Rabbit’

These are the last words I will ever write about Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. After almost 4 months of fielding near-constant rudeness from the film’s fans, I’ve gotten tired of it. I’m tired of trying to explain to people who won’t listen why I found this film so harmful and upsetting. I’m just going to say my piece here, make my full and complete case, and then never discuss it again. This is my final statement on the film.

Jojo Rabbit let us know everything we needed to know about it as soon as its marketing campaign began. From the beginning, the film’s posters and trailers billed it as “An Anti-Hate Satire,” the kind of corporate mishmash terminology familiar to people who have watched massive media entities try to carefully worm their way into praise for “inclusion” and “diversity.” It was hilarious, then, to see a film that seemed by its nature so edgy and dangerous instantly defang itself. It was an obvious attempt to head off social media backlash to the premise and imagery. “Don’t worry,” it said, “this film is anti-hate, which means not pro-Nazi, and it’s a satire, which means nothing in it is real.” The use of “satire” in particular rankled; over the past decade, the term has become an easy way to deflect criticism for bad jokes, a way of saying “but I didn’t really mean it.”

 It’s more often a tactic of the right than the left, though. Youtuber PewDiePie has made a habit of brushing off questions about his frequent bigoted remarks and boosting of white supremacist channels by calling it all satire and refusing to explain further. Other public-facing white supremacists and neo-Nazis have also called their statements satire as a public defense, only to turn right back to their followers and keep saying them, because to them it’s all real. What, exactly, is being satirized here, and how? It’s not clear. What is clear is how meaningless the term has become. Calling your work satirical these days amounts to little more than saying “I don’t really mean anything I’m saying, so you can’t criticize me for it.” Despite being an ostensibly leftist work, Jojo Rabbit has more in common with those cowardly right-wing hacks than anything else. It hides behind its “anti-hate satire” label to excuse its refusal to actively engage with the implications of its premise. In other words, it calls itself a satire so that it doesn’t have to actually satirize anything. 

A good way of framing the problem with Jojo Rabbit is through a classic dynamic in Jewish comedy: the schlemiel and the schlimazel. The classic explanation of these archetypes goes, “The schlemiel always spills his soup, and the schlimazel always has the soup spilled on him.” In other words, the former is a klutz and an oaf, and the latter is an unlucky object of schadenfreude. These characters can exist independently of one another as well, and often do. Who is the schlemiel in Jojo Rabbit? The easiest answer is that all of the Nazi characters fill this role. After all, they are almost all depicted as clumsy, stupid, and incompetent. I’ll get into the uselessness of this characterization of Nazis later. For now I’ll say that I don’t think all of the Nazis of Jojo Rabbit can be accurately defined as schlemiel. Consider that the film takes place very near the end of World War II, and a running thread is how badly Germany is losing. The Nazi war effort is prone to constant mishaps and accidents. Failure, and probably death,  is imminent. In one scene, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) has asked his subordinate Finkel (Alfie Allen) to find some German Shepherds to assist with the war. Finkel is revealed to have rounded up a group of stereotypically dressed shepherds (as in, sheep herders), to which Klenzendorf sighs and does a facepalm. The unlucky recipient of Finkel’s foolish error is Klenzendorf. He is the schlimazel. 

Why does this matter? It’s key to understanding the fundamental problem with Jojo Rabbit, which is its perspective. We laugh at the foibles of the schlemiel, who may seem innocent and naive in his mistakes. But when we laugh at the schlimazel, it’s out of pity and sympathy. The schlemiel is funny because his mistakes can be kept at a distance. The schlimazel is funny because his problems, the problems caused by other people, are relatable. In the schlemiel, we see other people. In the schlimazel, we see ourselves. Why does Jojo Rabbit expect us to see ourselves in Nazis? 

The other concern here is the sheer toothlessness of the film’s comedy. It draws to mind the American liberal inclination to mock the right as stupid or hypocritical while letting their actual ideas and actions slip by. This has been the mission of shows like The Daily Show for ages now. It allows liberals to feel good about themselves without having to do the hard work of fighting reactionary ideology head-on. It also unwittingly provides the right great fodder for their own campaigns. Donald Trump notably rode to success by firing up conservatives against an elite class who belittles them. Whether or not their beliefs are right or moral is irrelevant. The point is that as a tactic to discredit your political opponent, it’s pretty useless. As evidence of this, I encourage you to look for white supremacists or neo-Nazis whose minds were changed after seeing the depiction of Nazis in Jojo Rabbit. In fact, while you’re at it, take a look and see if any of those people cared even a little bit about Waititi playing Adolf Hitler, a decision which Waititi again and again boasted would really piss these people off. None of them care one way or the other about this film. That’s because the film isn’t for them, it’s for self-satisfied liberals who want to be told that they are good people for holding their milquetoast ideas about diversity and acceptance. 

Let’s talk about Elsa, played by Thomasin Mackenzie. She’s a Jewish girl being hidden by Rosie (Scarlett Johannsson), the mother of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). The film introduces her as a horror movie monster. She skulks in the shadows, just out of sight. Her fingers slowly curl around a doorframe, like a ghost in a Guillermo del Toro movie. Jojo is terrified of her right away. Is this because the film is from his perspective, and Nazi brainwashing has conditioned him to see Jews as hideous monsters? If so, this might be an interesting choice. I don’t think this is a fair reading of the scene, however. As it continues, Elsa assaults Jojo, disarms him, and threatens his life if he tells anyone about her. This was the moment when I realized how disastrously misguided Jojo Rabbit was. Somehow, in a film about a Jewish girl forced into hiding during the Holocaust, she is made out to be in a position of power over the Nazi Youth whose house she is hiding in. It is offensively ludicrous that a girl in Elsa’s position would taunt and threaten and toy with a boy who holds her life in his hands. It reminded me of the film Zootopia, which presents an oppressed minority of predator animals in a world run by prey animals as a corollary to real-life racism. But in the history of Zootopia’s world, predator animals used to be vicious, fearsome killers. The message seems to be that while racism may be justifiable based on history, it doesn’t make sense in a modern society. Jojo Rabbit also presents a message of “tolerance” that seems predicated on the idea that bigotry is wrong despite being logical. 

Elsa softens up to Jojo, of course, but that development presents a whole host of other issues. Here we have yet another film where the responsibility of rehabilitating someone’s racism falls to one of their victims. In a film that genuinely satirized Nazism, Jojo might have come to see the Nazi leaders in his life as foolish and vapid and hypocritical, and through that come to question what they taught him. Instead, Jojo’s transformation comes mostly through an adolescent crush on Elsa. The intention here, I think, was to show that coming into contact with an actual Jewish person would contradict the propaganda Jojo had been inundated with. He would come to realize that the lies he’d been fed about Jews weren’t true, because they didn’t apply to her. This notion has its own problems, of course, chief among them that the only two resulting implications are “not all Jews are monsters” or “all Jews are saints”. Both of these ideas flatten the Jewish people such that antisemitism seems illogical. But the evil of antisemitism doesn’t come from it being illogical, it comes from it being immoral. Antisemitism isn’t merely stupid, it’s wrong. Jojo Rabbit skirts around making an ethical argument, perhaps because it knows its cloying dramatic sensibility can’t sustain it. But the real issue, as I said, is that this problematic intention doesn’t even come across. It’s Jojo’s attraction to Elsa that changes his mind in the end. I don’t think Waititi fully understands the fire he’s playing with here. A classic literary stereotype of Jewish women paints us as lustful seductresses who steal good Christian men away from their good Christian wives and into sin. Why is the only Jewish character in this film about the Holocaust such an empty, harmful stereotype? 

Compare it to the characters of Shoshanna and Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, another irreverant take on the Holocaust. In that film, Shoshanna is a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight in Nazi-occupied France. Zoller, a Nazi war hero, falls for her, and tries to woo her. He does so by making it clear how famous and powerful he is, but also by trying to casually downplay it. He wants her to think that he doesn’t care about his status as a Nazi icon, and might even be troubled by it. He wants to seem sensitive and intelligent. Shoshanna doesn’t buy it for a second. She rebuffs him again and again, only acquiescing to his interest when it’s clear it would be dangerous to deny him. The film ends up asserting that she was right to do so. Zoller kills Shoshanna in the end, though not before her plot to murder the entire Nazi high command has been set in motion. When her film plays for the Nazi audience at the climactic moment, it’s not a plea for understanding and sympathy. It’s a final kiss-off before she blows them all to hell. Inglourious Basterds understands what Jojo Rabbit doesn’t, that Jews shouldn’t bother to make an effort to reform Nazis who seem amenable to it. 

This is where I want to get into how Jojo Rabbit diverges from Caging Skies, the novel on which it is based. Besides the addition of the imaginary Hitler, the most significant change Waititi makes is in the ending. Jojo Rabbit’s ending sees Berlin captured by the Allies, and Jojo running home to Elsa not to tell her that she’s no longer in danger, but to lie to her that the Nazis won the war so that she won’t leave him. Elsa sees through him right away, but remains sympathetic to the boy. The film ends with them joyously dancing together in the streets, finally free. 

Caging Skies ends quite differently. In the novel, Elsa believes Jojo’s lie, and the story continues well into their adult lives. The two are eventually married, though Elsa continues to live in hiding in Jojo’s house, still believing that the Nazis are in power. Eventually, Jojo can’t maintain the lie any longer, and the novel ends with Elsa leaving him after discovering the truth. I find this ending much more powerful and honest. The film’s ending, with the Jew and the (ex-)Nazi united in hopeful dance, is insulting in its childish conception of everything about its context. A more honest version of this ending would see Elsa, no longer having to pretend to be Jojo’s friend for her own safety, fleeing his house as soon as she learns the city has been liberated. A smarter film, one that presented a perspective from someone other than fascists, would show the horror of Elsa being forced to befriend a boy who is so inundated with antisemitic propaganda that he doesn’t even see her as human. It’s a fascinating dynamic that is true to history, and not a patronizing neoliberal fantasy.

The problem is that Elsa really isn’t much of a character at all. More importantly, she could hardly be said to be a Jewish character. Yes, she fills the role of the suffering Jew in Nazi Germany, but only to facilitate the redemptive arc of Jojo. What about her is Jewish? At no point does she communicate any Jewish ideas or themes or perspectives. Vitally, it is her apparent “normalcy” to Jojo that spurs on his transformation. The film seems to say that Jews didn’t deserve the Holocaust because “they were just normal people, like anyone else.” But this idea gives into the dichotomy between “normal people” and “not normal people.” Why couldn’t this film be a celebration of what makes Jewish teachings and culture so starkly different to Nazism? Why must Jews be absorbed into a generic, neutral “humanity” to earn salvation? 

This is why I get so angry at people who defend Jojo Rabbit on the basis of Waititi being a Jew himself. That is far and away the most common response whenever I openly criticize the film. His Jewishness is used not to absolve the film’s sins, but to deny their existence. The argument is that film made by a Jewish person about the Holocaust can’t be picked apart, because it is by definition an expression of the filmmaker’s personal relation to that trauma and history. I am, of course, absolutely sympathetic to this idea in general. For example, I am consistently troubled by the vitriol leveled at trans artists who express complicated and disagreeable feelings about their own experiences. My problem with this defense of Waititi is the lack of Jewish perspective in Jojo Rabbit. He may be Jewish, but this isn’t a Jewish film. It contains no Jewish point of view. And no, Elsa name-dropping golems absolutely does not count. This, more than anything, is what infuriates me so much about Jojo Rabbit. In my original Letterboxd review of the film, I said it was more a Nazi movie than a Jewish movie, a line which more than any other has led to people spewing misinformed and confused vitriol in my direction. To them, I invite explanation of what else I’m supposed to call a film about the Holocaust with a cast that is 99% comprised of goofy, harmless, sympathetic Nazis. I don’t think that Waititi’s Jewish background immunizes him from criticism for a film with nothing particularly Jewish about it, especially not from other Jews. 

As I said, this will be the last time I talk about Jojo Rabbit. This article contains all of my thoughts on the film, except for what I’ve expressed in other published pieces. I’m done listening to the clueless, excessively rude comments from the film’s fans, and I hope I’ve addressed all of the most common counter-arguments here. I know this piece is a lot less casual and friendly than my usual output, but my feelings on this film are very raw and my concerns are very serious. Thank you for reading. 

Let’s Talk About The Gay Stuff in ‘It Chapter Two’

This article contains spoilers for It Chapter Two as well as the preceding film and the original novel.

Like the Stephen King novel on which it’s based, It Chapter Two opens with a hate crime. Adrian Mellon (here played terribly by former director of note Xavier Dolan) kisses his boyfriend at a Derry carnival, and the two are followed out of it by a gang of homophobic hoodlums. The two are viciously beaten, and a barely-conscious Adrian is thrown over the side of a bridge into a rushing river. He’s pulled out and eaten by Pennywise. The crime alerts Mike Hanlon to It’s resurgence, spurring him to reunite his friends to battle it again.

So, there’s gay stuff in It Chapter Two. Queer shit. There is Homosexual Content TM. If you read Stephen King’s novel, you knew it was coming. If you’re like me, you were dreading the film’s handling of the Adrian Mellon scene. We were right to do so. The scene is exceedingly brutal, seeming to relish the seeping blood covering Adrian’s now unrecognizable face the same way the film delights in the outlandish gore inflicted by Pennywise. In King’s book, homophobia in Derry is implicitly tied to the presence of It, both evils feeding off of and into one another. In the film, homophobic violence is no different than Pennywise’s fantastical “kills.” We’re meant to be horrified by both, but with the whispered suggestion that it’s still fun to watch.

This is where the queerness ends in the book. Not so in the film. Seemingly by way of apology for the Adrian Mellon scene, the filmmakers have added just a dash of gay to their main cast. Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Bill Hader as an adult) is heavily implied to be gay. I say “heavily implied” because it’s never outright stated. There’s no coming-out moment. Still, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.

The film’s lengthy middle portion is taken up by new flashbacks which take place during an unseen part of the first film, when the friends briefly split up after wounding and escaping from It. Each character has a new jump-scare setpiece encounter with It during this time. Richie’s begins at an arcade, where he’s playing Street Fighter with another unnamed boy. The game ends, and the boy slaps Richie’s hand, lingering just a half-second longer on the gesture than expected. The camera notes the physical contact. Richie responds by asking, a bit too desperately, for the boy to play another round with him. At this point, the bully Henry Bowers and his gang appear. The boy is Henry’s little cousin, and he instantly turns on Richie. The bullies call Richie a faggot and a fairy and chase him out of the arcade.

A frustrated Richie wanders to a nearby park, at the center of which is a massive statue of Paul Bunyon. Naturally, the statue comes alive, but its taunt of Richie is of particular interest. “Wanna kiss, Richie?” it asks him, before transforming into a garish CGI monster and chasing him across the park. The illusion vanishes and Richie is spared, and the film cuts to adult Richie in the same park, staring at the same statue. Then Pennywise appears to him and starts to tease him about his “dirty little secret.”

So at this point it should be obvious what the film is getting at. Richie is gay, he’s closeted, and this is the deep-seated fear that Pennywise is picking on. The problem is that there’s a clear divide in the film between the treatment of this idea in the child segments and in the adult segments. When Richie is a child, the depiction of his burgeoning sexuality is depicted with shocking subtlety and tenderness. As an adult, it’s nonsensical and heavy-handed.

The centerpiece of Richie’s sexuality is his relationship with fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak. The new flashbacks to the Losers as children have a new focus on the playful antagonism between the two. They tease each other and bicker in the way only close friends can. It’s never the primary focus, but it’s conspicuously present.

At one point, the two argue in the background of a scene over whose turn it is to lie in the clubhouse hammock. Eventually Eddie just gets in with Richie and they lie there together. Eddie gently kicks Richie’s face with his foot, knocking his glasses off. There’s something sweetly familiar to this detail, that moment of physical contact that meant nothing to Eddie but something more to Richie, a gesture with significance Richie couldn’t decode at the time. It’s, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually recognizable to my own experience of being a young queer person who had no idea who she was. You carry these little totems with you, tiny pinpricks in your heart. The details may drift away, but the way the moments made you feel never will. Is it great queer cinema? Not hardly. But it’s far better than anyone should have expected from a film like this.

That’s the kid scenes, though. The adult scenes are much, much different, presenting some pressing questions of coherency. Chief among them: Why is Richie still closeted in 2016? He lives in New York City, he’s a successful stand-up comedian, he has no family ties to speak of. Why can’t he just be out? Had the film’s timeline adhered to the novel’s, with the adult half playing out in the 1980s, this may have made more sense. It certainly does for the child Richie. I thought of the scene in the first film where Eddie, ever the hypochondriac, rants about the terrifying possibility of AIDS infection. What must young Richie have thought of that?

This isn’t to say, of course, that homophobia doesn’t exist in 2016. The film makes a point of this with the Adrian Mellon scene. Still, the film can conceive of no reason why Richie should have remained in the closet all these years beyond a general sense of shame and internalized homophobia, neither of which is ever actually depicted. We have no idea how Richie feels about being gay. There’s no sense of his life or personality as they relate to his queerness. Him being gay is just another Dark Secret for Pennywise to pick on. It’s Ben’s shame over being formerly obese, it’s Beverly’s fear of her abusive father, it’s Bill’s guilt over his brother’s death. It’s just another hanging thread to be tugged on, a board hung around the neck headlined “This Is My Trauma.” It’s cheap, it’s ugly, it’s borderline offensive.

And yet….there’s an “and yet.”

At some point in the film, we see a flashback to young Richie carving “R +” into a wooden fence. The camera obscures the final initial. The last we see of adult Richie is him returning to that fence, where we see that he carved “R + E,” and he gets to work digging out those same old lines, making the mark new again. Eddie didn’t survive the final battle with It, and Richie was more affected by this than his friends. As I watched him re-carve those letters, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of warmth, remembering the look on young Richie’s face as young Eddie lightly kicked it. Hader and Wolfhard turn a deeply lame character rewrite into something gentle and tender. They find a queerness that feels familiar in a script to which queerness is alien. It Chapter Two is not queer cinema. Its depiction of gay characters is largely trashy and pointless and incoherent. But in these performances, there’s something more. There’s real queer life. If only the movie was good. If only, if only, if only.

‘Phoenix’: The Best Imitation of Myself

She first sees herself in a shard of broken glass, laid so perfectly amid the rubble of a bombed-out concert hall that it might have been placed there for her, for this moment. She’s shocked, she jolts, she steps back, and then she stares. She stares at this face that isn’t hers, this person she can’t possibly be. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens a little, the mute horror in her mind slowly beginning to clarify. She has to be this person now. Later, she insistently points at an old photograph of herself. “This is me,” she exclaims. And later still, defeated: “I no longer exist.”

In the late spring of 2015, the words “Am I trans?” first crossed my mind. My diary entries from that summer are frantic, terrified, furious. I wrote about how it couldn’t be true, how it had to be true, how much I wanted to kill myself, how sad it was that I never would, that I’d never do anything, or be anything, or be anyone. I was reckoning, for the first time, with the idea that I had a self. For years I stuck my self in a deep dark hole in my mind, never to be looked upon, certainly not to be examined. I didn’t live at the bottom of this pit. I lived up at the top. I lived in my performance.

I was good at performing. I was funny, likable, a good hang. I got good at saying what people wanted to hear. I could be whatever the people around me wanted me to be, without them having to tell me. I wouldn’t have called myself manipulative. After all, to whose benefit was it? They were happy, and I was safe. I thought I was safer outside of my own head than in it. And all the while, this gnawing sadness I couldn’t explain. I talked to so many therapists, but what was I supposed to say? I had no words for the real reason I felt the way I did.

In 2015 I realized I was trans. In 2016 I told myself I wasn’t. In 2019 I came out. In December of 2015, I saw Phoenix. I sat in my university library and looked into a reflective shard of glass.

Nelly Lenz (played in the decade’s best film performance by Nina Hoss) has barely survived the Holocaust. The severe disfigurement to her face requires plastic surgery to give her a new one. She is given a face that isn’t hers. She seeks out her gentile husband Johnny, despite her friend’s warnings that he betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds him, he recognizes her, and doesn’t. She looks just like his dead wife, he says. Perhaps she could pretend to be her, so that he can collect her inheritance. He could teach her how to walk and talk and write and act like Nelly. She accepts, not just because she wants to be with him. More than that, she wants to be herself. She wants someone to tell her who she is, because she can’t see it in herself.

It’s what I was so desperate for. To be told I was trans by someone else, to be led by the hand into a new identity, a new self. I didn’t have a self before. I only had a performance. I needed someone to tell me who I was, because I didn’t have the fortitude to tell it to myself. What if I was wrong? What if this isn’t who I am? I needed to be recognized from the outside by someone who knew better. You can never see yourself except in pictures and reflections. And if I knew nothing else, I knew that the person I saw in the mirror wasn’t me.

Nelly smiles when Johnny compliments how well her handwriting matches up with his wife’s. When the whole world sees someone else, it’s nice to be seen for who you really are. She’s shocked when Johnny critiques the way she walks. “Nelly didn’t walk like that, it’s all wrong.” She second-guesses herself. She doesn’t think of the fact that her tentative stumbling comes from her continued recovery from the violence of the concentration camps. She thinks only of how he sees her, and how she can better be the version of herself that he remembers. She spares no thought to how she sees herself.

What Phoenix ends up saying, and what I was too scared to recognize at the time, is that you can’t let someone else dictate who you are. To open yourself up to that is to give yourself over to the whims of people who despise you. “I’m not a Jew,” Nelly insists. Her friend Lene retorts, “You are, whether you like it or not.” The Nazis certainly marked her as one. She bears that mark on the inside of her forearm. I often think about how close I brushed against the rhetoric of TERFs and transphobes, people who would have looked at a suffering, closeted girl and told her she was just a confused, disgusting boy. I think about how narrowly I avoided buying into ideas created by people who would sooner see me dead than happy. It’s only when Nelly finally sees in Johnny that past betrayal, that desire for her to disappear, that she finds the courage to reveal herself to him. It takes her a matter of seconds to quite literally find her voice in the film’s final scene. It took me another four years.

We don’t see what happens to Nelly after she fades into a bright white blur, but I know. I know that for her, and for me, the performance never ends. She and I must spend the rest of our lives playing ourselves for people who do not recognize us by sight or sound. Nelly practices her walk, I learn to train my voice. Nelly wears old clothes, I buy new ones. I shave my legs and torso and arms and back and face, I painstakingly fight to be free of these little daggers poking out of every inch of my skin. Nelly points at the photograph. “That is me. That is me.” To be trans is to perform for the benefit of others, to know that even the most well-meaning people are only humoring you. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the self is the performance. Maybe who you are is what you show to other people. I don’t need to be recognized by other people anymore. That anxiety is behind me. If I’m performing, the only audience is myself. As Nelly sings in her true voice, she closes her eyes. No one else is there. It’s only me.

Defining the Box: ‘John Wick,’ ‘Hitman,’ and Systemic Spaces

There’s a shot in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum that epitomizes the series’ prime fixation. It’s a tracking shot following Halle Berry’s Sofia during a chaotic gunfight in Casablanca. The camera follows behind her back as she takes shots from behind the cover of a pillar. There’s a horizontal plane on which the action operates; she is on the “bottom,” and the enemy is on the “top.” Most gunfight scenes are content to stick to such a simple axis of engagement, but most gunfight scenes aren’t in movies called John Wick. Without cutting, Sofia moves to another pillar along a completely perpendicular plane, and takes shots from cover there. She does this two or three more times in the shot, reorienting the direction of the action while further settling the geography of the space. It’s a brilliant moment.

The climax of John Wick: Chapter 2 takes place in a hall of mirrors-style art exhibit called “Reflections of the Soul.” A loudspeaker voice describes the work as John enters, and it might as well be describing the whole trilogy: “Within this exhibition, the interplay of light and the nature of self-images coalesce to provide an experience which will highlight the fragility of our perception of space, and our place within it.”

The John Wick films have always been concerned with space. It defines their beloved fight scenes as much as it does their narratives. These films always focus on defined spaces, the delineations between them, how the spaces are different, and (in Chapter 3) who gets to draw those lines. It’s one thing to say a fight scene has “clear geography.” Wick has always made that geography mean something. It matters where these fights are taking place.

The first important space we learn about in the series is the Continental Hotel, a New York respite for weary assassins to catch their breath and talk shop. The most important rule is that no “business” (i.e. murder) can be conducted on Continental grounds. The series introduces early on this idea that certain spaces have defined rulesets, and that the consequences for breaking them can be dire. It’s not just that the law exists — the space itself imposes its will on the people inside it.

It reminds me a lot of the recent Hitman games, which are a low-key twin to the Wick films. In these games, you play as the tabula rasa assassin Agent 47, whose ability to disguise himself as just about anyone helps him get close enough to take out his targets, often in elaborately designed accidents. It’s about as far from the directly confrontational action in Wick, but the two share an obsession with demarcated spaces. In Hitman, Agent 47 is prohibited from entering certain areas depending on the disguise he’s wearing. It’s a system the developers call “social stealth.” Certain floors are restricted only to bodyguards, for example. The kitchen is off-limits except to chefs. The laboratory is only for scientists. You get the picture. Each space has a set of rules 47 must appear to obey. Once he manages to construct that appearance, he can pass through unnoticed…provided he doesn’t break any of the other rules. A scientist or chef can’t openly carry a firearm, and being seen doing so in one of those disguises will cause a scene. The game can become something of a logic puzzle, with the player figuring out how to get from point A to point B traversing through various areas with different rulesets.

John Wick has no need for social stealth. He and the rest of the assassins he interacts with barely seem to exist in the real world at all. In one scene of Chapter 3, two young killers are taken out by a more experienced gang in the middle of Grand Central Station. Their throats are slit and they fall to the ground. No one around them seems to notice. A few shots later, the bodies have disappeared. In the most memorable sequence of Chapter 2, Wick trades silenced shots with another gunman in a subway station, the dozens of passersby around them none the wiser. The chaos caused in the first John Wick’s famous club scene is the outlier here. I’m willing to grant director Chad Stahelski that he hadn’t yet conceived of this aspect of the series’ wider world.

Still, Wick does follow the rules of the real world to some extent. In Chapter 3, a confrontation between him and fanboy killer Zero is halted when a line of hand-holding children cut between them. “That’s what makes you special, John Wick,” Zero says. “I wouldn’t have stopped.” Wick finds himself unique among his brethren because, having left the game for a time, he finds himself still tied to a basic social contract. He can’t float like a ghost through these public spaces like the rest of them can. He lives in both worlds at once.

The nature of Hitman’s medium means it must allow the player to decide for themselves whether or not 47 is similarly bound to the basic social laws of a public area. It does, however, penalize you for killing anyone who isn’t explicitly identified as your target. That includes people who are shooting at you, if your mission has gone especially haywire. The penalty affects your score upon completing the mission, which doesn’t really have any impact on gameplay. Once again, it’s up to the player whether or not they care about how many points they get. Hitman does what it can to nudge you in the John Wick direction, though. 47 can take very few bullets before he’s killed, so getting into a gunfight is never advisable anyway. And if nothing else, it’s just more fun to take out your targets without any collateral damage. The game is designed to incentivize obedience to simple human relational law wherever possible. Except where your targets are concerned, of course. Nothing to be done about that. They just gotta die.

Things come to a head in Chapter 3 when a representative of the all-powerful assassin High Table deconsecrates the Continental, meaning that “business” can be conducted on its grounds. The laws that held the area together completely change with a single phone call. Chapter 3 builds on the previous films’ ideas about the rules that govern certain spaces by asking: Who makes those laws, and why do they get to do so? It explores the notion that these laws are not immutable, not born of some inherent human ideal. They were created by individuals who had some incentive to make them that way, perhaps to the detriment of the people below them. And no matter how long these rules have stood, they can be taken away in an instant, because these rules ultimately aren’t for the benefit of the people on whom they are imposed. They’re there to enrich and empower the already rich and powerful. These spaces don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a web of intersecting laws and guidelines, all governed by a few specific actors. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Hitman being a video game means that it can’t change the rules of its maps at random as happens in Chapter 3. However, it hits at the same theme in a similar way. Almost every target in the two most recent games are part of the upper-upper-class, the mega-wealthy and uber-powerful. They are capitalist cretins, destroying the lives of people below them for their own enrichment. When 47 enters these maps, he is entering a space dictated by class divides. The Paris map in Hitman: Season One is the most obvious example. 47 must advance up a four-story mansion to reach one of his targets, each floor becoming home to a more and more exclusive club. By the time he reaches the top, he finds himself at an auction where people are purchasing everything from fixed elections to entire islands. In the basement, meanwhile, he comes across a weeping server being consoled by her coworkers. She’s been reduced to tears by the boorish, condescending behavior of the people she’s working for. The basement is her space. It is, in the eyes of the people in charge, where she belongs.

What makes 47 unique is his ability to traverse all of these spaces. He can be a waiter in the basement one moment, and a war economy patron on the top floor another. His baseline anonymity allows him to slip into any space he desires, provided he looks the part. He is the master of these spaces, his very presence denying the power of the people who created them.

John Wick masters spaces, too, albeit through force rather than deceit. His films have him smashing through windows, charging down hallways, racing across bridges, and causing his fair share of property damage. In one especially memorable bit from the hall of mirrors fight in Chapter 2, he susses out an enemy’s position behind one mirror by looking at his reflection from afar. He shoots through the mirror next to him, and hears the thud of the body hitting the ground. Even in a space deliberately designed to bewilder and disorient, Wick is never caught off-guard. He is in full command of his surroundings at all times. He even turns them into improvised weaponry on occasion. In Chapter 3, a brawl in a library is ended when he picks up a heavy book and begins slamming it into his opponent’s head. A little later on, he’s in a stable, and he gives a horse a hearty smack to make it kick his pursuer right in the head. He always knows where he is, and that has a tremendous impact on how he fights.

In 2019, so many action blockbusters don’t seem to care about where their action is set. How many of them end in anonymous rubble-strewn battlefields, or flat open ranges, or airport parking lots? This is a major aspect of what makes the John Wick films so special. It’s not just that Stahelski’s direction makes your mental map of a location crystal-clear. It matters what that map looks like. It has narrative and thematic purpose. John Wick is using these spaces to say something about its world and the people in it, as are the Hitman games. In these works, the worlds around their protagonists aren’t just staging or backdrop to the story. They are the story.

‘The End of Evangelion’ and Stan Brakhage

The film The End of Evangelion doesn’t open with the normal logo of production house Studio Gainax. Their typically unremarkable, austere card is replaced by the studio’s name briefly appearing in a lower corner of the screen, scratchy and erratically vibrating. Most people won’t think anything of this change (especially not considering the film that follows it) but it immediately put me in mind of a filmmaker whose influence is felt throughout the rest of the runtime. Studio Gainax and directors Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki make conscious reference to an icon of American experimental film. I’d like to break down how The End of Evangelion pays homage to the work of Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage’s artistic output (somewhere in the realm of hundreds of films created over the course of a half-century) covered a wide variety of formal and aesthetic ideas. Many of his best-known works share little obvious common ground beyond an impulse towards what, were the term not in use for a completely different purpose, I would call a direct cinema. Brakhage used the film strip not as a mere tool, but as a canvas unto itself. One of his most recognizable films, Mothlight, was famously created without using a camera. He collected elements of nature like moth wings and blades of grass, stuck them to a strip of film, and ran it through a projector. The celluloid became itself a physical element of the film’s creation and presentation, rather than merely a conduit for the images it conveyed. Brakhage was fascinated by the way film itself could be manipulated to create visual art. He stuck objects to it, he painted on it, and perhaps most famously, he scratched it.

Most of Brakhage’s films begin or end with the familiar signature “By Brakhage,” but in his mid-late period the title tends to appear scrawled by hand directly onto the film strip. The text is always wildly shaky, a product of the technique’s imprecision, and a fitting companion to Brakhage’s typical quick cutting and zippy movement. It’s this signature that The End of Evangelion calls back to with its production company logo. It’s a tribute to a man who was a clear forerunner not just for this film, but for experimental animation at large.

The film itself uses Brakhage’s scratching technique at key moments, to accentuate the characters’ emotional turmoil and suggest a frenetic, suffering mind. Brakhage was never quite so literal in connecting the tone conveyed by his aesthetic to the conveyance of any narrative feeling. That’s the nature of making a narrative film like The End of Evangelion, though.

I don’t know if Brakhage ever called himself an animator, or if he would have considered his film strip experiments animation. The case can be made, though, that he fits neatly into that category. His painted works in particular are the most obvious candidates, and all his non-camera films may technically qualify. Surely if stop-motion animation exists, the manipulation of real-life elements to create the illusion of motivated physical action, then Mothlight or its companion The Garden of Earthly Delights can be called a kind of animation. Was Brakhage a pioneer in a medium he never considered himself a part of? If you ask Hideaki Anno, I’m sure he’d say yes.

The End of Evangelion was produced using largely traditional animation techniques, a far cry from the level of experimentation on which Brakhage operated. Still, one can see more than a shadow of his work throughout the film. The use of quick cuts in the film’s scenes of heightened drama and action, while nothing new for fight-oriented mecha anime, in this context recall Brakhage’s editing style. Brakhage made frequent use of in-camera editing — that is to say, a lack of post-production editing, wherein shots are laid in sequence exactly as they were shot.

While this is absolutely not how The End of Evangelion was produced, its editing still recalls the rapid cuts of, for example, Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. It’s to the same effect, as well. Brakhage cut so quickly to blend his images together, an aggressive counterpoint to classic Soviet montage. His films are a miasma of light and color without many distinct “shots” in the way we typically think of them. Everything in a Brakhage film is meant to be part of one whole. The End of Evangelion similarly concocts a coherent “whole” image out of relative incoherence.

The other way it achieves this is through another familiar Brakhage technique: superimposition. It’s used in a majority of his films to some degree; one might call it his signature move. It’s all over Dog Star Man and most of what are considered his major works, like The Wonder Ring and Window Water Baby Moving. Brakhage used it to a similar purpose as his editing, that being the melding of discrete images to create something new. Superimposition allowed this more directly. Images could be combined through transparency to communicate something that they could not on their own, or even in edited sequence. Brakhage often used superimposition to suggest the resurgence of memory, which is exactly how The End of Evangelion uses it towards the end of the film. An extended montage of clips from episodes of the television show as well as other evocative imagery are laid on top of each other and rapidly cycled through, creating a visual experience akin wherein no one component is visible or even comprehensible. They all contribute to the whole. As far as the film’s narrative goes, what is Instrumentality if not the superimposition of billions of souls, all seen through one another as a single being of warm orange goo?

The End of Evangelion actually goes further than Brakhage and extends this technique to audio. Almost all of Brakhage’s work was silent, so concerned was he with the visual element that he rarely gave a moment’s thought to the audible. The End of Evangelion uses his visual principles in audio, overlaying multiple tracks of dialogue and sound effects so that they comprise a barely distinguishable whole, that whole being protagonist Shinji’s tattered mind. The voices of various characters swirl through his subconscious, mocking him and pleading with him and rejecting him and hating him. It’s at once a thousand thoughts and a single thought, as the images are numerous and singular, as the people of Evangelion’s Earth are individuals and one being.

Even The End of Evangelion’s brief break towards live-action makes one think of Brakhage’s The Wold-Shadow, a three-minute short wherein a still shot of a forest gives way to abstract paintings which recall the treeline imagery, as well as the found footage elements of Murder Psalm. It’s Brakhage in reverse, the “real” and “unreal” colliding. These live-action shots otherwise feel very Brakhage in their intimate sweep, their gentle movement, their vague sense of unease. The small montage of crayon drawings is also reminiscent of Brakhage’s scratching as well as his paint work. Brakhage is all over this film. You may as well call him co-director for the influence he exerts over it. In paying homage to Stan Brakhage, Evangelion shows its skill at iterating on the past rather than reinventing. Brakhage would have been proud, and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have been a little jealous too.

The Analog Terror of ‘The Ring’

I’ve tried several ways of saying it and they all sounded mealy-mouthed, so I’ll just be blunt: Horror movies almost never scare me. Time and again I’m been promised something truly terrifying, from Hereditary to The Witch to The Babadook, and time and again I walk away feeling distinctly unmoved. Even if I like the movie, horror rarely manages to, y’know, horrify me. I want a movie to stick in the back of my brain and keep me up at night, to make me jump at shadows in my room, to (borrowing a line from one of the few films to have this effect on me) make me too scared to close my eyes and too scared to open them.

Gore Verbinski’s The Ring does this to me. Even on my most recent rewatch, it kept me up late at night, its images looping around and around in my brain. I want to break down why this film scares me so much, in a way few other films can come close to achieving.

The first button of mine that The Ring pushes is the strangely unnerving qualities of TV static. When I was a kid, that visual snow freaked me out, and as an adult I think I know why. Blaring and bright, yet shifty and formless; it’s unavoidable and abstract. It demands your attention and offers nothing in return. It is the absence of meaning, imagery void of psychology or intent. It’s hypnotic in its abstract banality. Every frame suggests a hidden depth, a signal in the noise, a truth you’ll never find. Imagine being screamed at by a creature whose language and tone bears no resemblance to anything you recognize as communication, and it doesn’t even seem to be alive. It’s a bottomless pit, waiting to swallow you up. In the visual language of The Ring, it’s a deep dark well.

So to me, TV static is a great component of a horror setpiece. Stick it in a dark room on a rainy night, as the film does in its opening scene, and I’ll be clutching the arms of my chair. Verbinski elaborates on this with a static-y visual motif. The constant Seattle rain floods the image with a similar visual noise, and the way Verbinski shoots the city’s buildings also suggest a busy and meaningless pattern. It’s like the whole film is watched through bad reception, a dark transmission from Somewhere Else.

The Ring takes this idea even further, and it’s able to do so because it understands fundamentally why the static is so unsettling. It’s something about the inability to find significance in those images, the lack of any connection to comprehensible emotion or thought. We see this as well in the content of the tape, which is for my money the scariest thing ever put to film.

Some of these images have obvious narrative significance. In fact, much of the film’s plot is given over to deciphering what they mean. Some of them have direct answers, and the main characters even see where they took place with their own eyes. Some of them, however, do not. What is so scary about the tape, I think, is how even the more literal images erupt fully formed from some ghostly unconscious. They are not filmed as much as they are vaguely remembered, the stitched-together mental compositions of an abused child trying to make sense of her circumstances. We feel the camera’s absence in these shots even before we know about the tape’s supernatural origins. These images were not created intentionally, they simply began to exist out of non-existence.

Samara’s inevitable murder of the viewer feels less to me like a deliberate action and more like an obligation. We hear her talk about wanting to hurt people and not knowing why. She is subject to the whims of some grand unknowable force, except such a thing can’t even be said to have identifiable whims. It just is, and Samara just is, and the tape just is. This is why I find the tape so haunting, why its imagery hounds me as I try to go to sleep. It is plainly horrific but terrifyingly meaningless. Even the shots which have literal origins don’t seem to be included with the intent of sending a message. It’s all just noise. It’s all just static.

The film’s most iconic scare is, of course, Samara crawling out of the TV at the end. I think even this is related to what we’ve been talking about. The scare is so compelling because the TV in question is an analog one. Modern technology has become so microscopic that we are completely alienated from the actual physical inner workings of it. Not so with a tube TV, or disposable cameras, or VHS tapes. Their inner workings are big enough to see with the human eye, to hear with our human ears. They click and whir and buzz without our direct input, and you can’t help but feel there’s something strangely alive about them.

Samara crawling out of the TV is so scary because something about it rings true. Doesn’t it feel like something is alive in there already? Something manifested in static, incomprehensible, something that can stop your heart just to perceive it, but you need to see, you need to look. This is a film about that self-destructive urge to bear witness to something you’re not supposed to see, about staring down into a fathomless well and waiting for it to reach out and pull you under. It doesn’t end with the finality of a fade to black, but with a cut to static. It leaves you on a screen of impenetrable terror. It’s the scariest film I have ever seen.

Performance and Selfhood in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

“Whose body is this?”

Amnesiac cyborg warrior Alita asks it of her adopted father Ido. Her unfamiliarity and discomfort with it has become to much to bear. Salvaged from a scrapyard as a disembodied head and given a new shell, Alita knows instinctively that this body doesn’t belong to her. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t fit. She can’t be her fullest self while using it. She learns that this body was designed for Ido’s late daughter. Alita’s body is not her own.

When Alita wakes up in Ido’s clinic, she has no memory of her former life. Aside from the ability to speak, she has no memory of anything at all. She is as much a blank slate as a person can be, taking in every tiny experience for the first time. She has no real understanding of herself or the world around her.

And yet she knows that her body is wrong. This is perhaps the only thing she knows. She knows it because she doesn’t have to know it. She feels it somewhere deep within herself, some part she can’t access but only feel its reverberations thrumming arrhythmically through her mind. Something is wrong with my body. My body is not my body.

“Whose body is that?”

It’s a question the audience must ask when we look at Alita. Her eyes are not actress Rosa Salazar’s eyes, her arms and legs and torso are not Rosa Salazar’s. But her body clearly isn’t entirely a digital creation. The Alita we see on screen is as much a blend of Salazar’s physicality and computer-generated artistry as the character herself is a combination of a human brain and cybernetic body. Alita the fictional character is no one thing. Alita the constructed image isn’t either.

“Does it bother you,” Alita asks her love interest, “that I’m not completely human?” She’s asking the viewer as well. A supposed “over-reliance” on CG effects tends to be considered a negative, and some academics will tell you that such digital enhancement compromises the integrity of a performance. After all, how much can we attribute to the actor when every detail we see on screen may be the result of interfering animation? Alita: Battle Angel made me wonder: Does it matter?

Salazar’s performance (and I’ll call it hers for the sake of brevity) is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film, period. She is fearlessly emotive, every muscle in her face engaged in a way so many actors are trained to avoid. She’s not restrained by outmoded notions of acting “realism,” and thus she lacks the overcooked stiffness of so many so-called “great” performances. Every movement feels entirely natural and yet (in her first body, and we’ll get to that in a bit) faintly labored, betraying that feeling of unfamiliarity with this form that doesn’t belong to her. Salazar’s Alita is a fully human creation, even in its supposed inhumanity. It doesn’t matter if the physical nuances I’ve noted come from Salazar’s intentions or an effects artist’s. Alita is the product of collaboration, of human mind and digital engineering. She belongs to no one person.

Some time after learning the truth about the body she inhabits, Alita finds a new one. She can’t explain why she’s drawn to it. It’s a subconscious thread suddenly pulled taut. This body she’s found can belong to her. She can live inside it. She can make sense inside it. It can be hers.

She asks Ido to put her inside this new body. He refuses. He doesn’t trust this found form, recognizing it as the shell of an old enemy. Why, he asks Alita, can’t she be happy the way he made her? Why can’t she accept the body he gave her? It doesn’t matter to him that this new body is the right body for her. He won’t let her make that decision for herself.

It’s only after a reckless (one might call it suicidal) decision destroys the body Ido gave her that he agrees to put her in the new one. And when he does, the new one begins to change. It reshapes and reforms itself to, as he puts it, “match her subconscious image of herself.” She doesn’t look like his daughter anymore. For the first time, she looks like herself.

Alita shows off her new body to her friends, celebrating that she finally feels comfortable in her own metal skin. “It’s much more me,” she says. Finally, she achieves symbiosis between her self and her physical form. She is not two separate things, a mind and a body. She is a whole person.

Once Alita gets her new body, Salazar’s performance shifts ever so slightly. Her movement is more graceful, losing the slightly jerky quality she had in her first form. In addition to the righteousness she always radiates, there is now confidence. In addition to her strength, there is control. But it’s not just one big change. There’s an astonishing subtlety to how Salazar’s performance evolves over the course of the film. This is probably as much a testament to the editing as it is to Salazar and the CG team’s skill in creating the character, but that’s another conversation. This performance is constantly in flux, always moving and wavering in ways you may not consciously pick up on until you notice how different she seems from a half-hour prior.

It’s also notable how, as Alita becomes more comfortable with herself, she becomes a performer in her own right. It turns out that Alita’s truest self performs toughness, bravery, and heroism based on the buried memories of her military training. They come back to her in flashes, devoid of context, and she integrates them into her physicality and dialogue on the fly. The film calls into question the notion of a “true self” in this way. When Alita is being “herself,” she is performing, whereas when she doesn’t know herself she is much less guarded and more easygoing. Selfhood, says Alita: Battle Angel, is itself performance. To always act “naturally” is to not have a self at all.

Our selves are what we show to other people. They are how we choose to express, the decisions (or lack of decisions) we make about the physical forms we reside within. Alita becomes Alita over the course of the film. It takes the acquisition of a more fitting body for her to fully realize who she is, and who she wants to be. For Alita to be Alita, she must present herself the way she feels she must. She can’t be herself in the wrong body. Alita: Battle Angel is as moving an exploration of body dysphoria as I’ve ever seen. Salazar’s performance so profoundly understands the awkwardness and pain that come from being disassociated from your physical form, and the euphoria that comes when your body begins to match how you feel about yourself for the first time.

It’s not a wholly natural performance, but this isn’t a film about being comfortable in a natural, unadjusted form. It’s about the joy and necessity of changing yourself, whether with cybernetic tools or computer-generated effects. Alita: Battle Angel is an ode to artificiality for people who must become themselves through active construction. It’s a film for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and asked themselves Alita’s question: “Whose body is this?”

‘Escape Room,’ ‘Halloween,’ and the Immortality of Trauma

Hollywood franchising doesn’t leave room for healing.

Being an individual possessed of an AMC A-List subscription, last weekend I saw the film Escape Room. It’s the sort of film that Moviepass and its ilk are made for. I’d never make time for this kind of cheapo January horror schlock if I didn’t have 3 tickets a week burning a hole in my digital pocket. And maybe that’s my mistake, because Escape Room is quite close to being a good movie! It’s in the Cube or Exam mold, a low-budget thriller about a small group of people with distinct personalities who must solve deadly puzzles to escape from a mysterious game. It has one or two fun sequences, some predictably goofy twists, a few laughs, a few jump scares…all in all, there are worse ways to waste a midwinter evening.

What struck me about Escape Room about halfway through was this realization: “Oh, they want this to be about something!” After several contextless flashbacks which indicate that the escape room’s creators know more about the participants’ pasts than they should, it’s revealed that each player is the sole survivor of some kind of traumatic accident. The testy veteran lost her whole squad in an explosion. The surly burnout killed all his friends while drunk driving. The nervy college student was the only one to walk away from a plane crash. And so on and so forth. All of them carry the pain and guilt of being the ones who lived.

This isn’t uncharted territory for horror films. The genre has concerned characters with unresolved trauma for as long as it’s been around. Just a couple months before Escape Room we got David Gordon Green’s sequel/reboot of Halloween. That film followed its own lone survivor, Jaime Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, the final girl of the original film. Decades later she’s locked herself away in a trap-laden compound, waiting for the inevitable day when Michael Myers will return to hunt her down. This one event has consumed her personality. Her trauma motivates her every step. The film was widely praised for this characterization. Finally, people said, a horror film takes seriously the emotional consequences of wanton violence on its victims.

Except it doesn’t. Not really. And neither does Escape Room. (And here’s your warning that I’m going to spoil both of these films.)

I was cautiously excited when Escape Room started peeling back its narrative. I thought they were really going to go for it, really dig into how trauma and guilt affect these characters and lead them towards some form of catharsis. Maybe the escape room was one big therapeutic exercise, designed to help them resolve their issues and alleviate their anguish. That’s how I would have written it, anyway.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The escape room is actually a private reality show for the rich and famous, who get their kicks watching the proles kill each other and themselves in impossible puzzle boxes. Why are all the participants sole survivors? Turns out the gag of the event was to see who would be the ultimate sole survivor, the luckiest of the lucky. This is, obviously, a rather callous twist, but not an irredeemable one. There’s still room at this point for the remaining protagonists to defy the system and gain some closure on their personal issues.

The problem is that this is a Hollywood production in 2019. So there has to be a sequel.

After the two living heroes get out of the room, there’s a coda that shows the nervy college student approaching the surly burnout with evidence of the conspiracy. The two resolve to hunt down those responsible and make them pay for putting them through the ordeal. The film ends with a shadowy, faceless figure on a monitor tracking their movements and evilly hissing, “Let’s play again.”

No ending. No catharsis. No healing. Not even the vaguest of gestures towards that possibility. These characters are imprisoned in the film industry machine. Their trauma will be exploited until it is no longer profitable. They are not allowed to get better. They are not allowed to move on.

We see the same structure in last year’s Halloween. At that film’s end, Laurie, her daughter, and her granddaughter trap Michael in her basement and set it on fire. The three of them escape, their interpersonal drama washed away by this cleansing act of vengeance. But uh oh! We cut back inside the burning basement, and Michael is gone! He slithers away to stab another day. Laurie can never heal. Laurie can only survive. There will be a sequel, and they’ll both return and clash again, and again, and again, until the studio decides Laurie doesn’t play as well for audiences anymore and they kill her off for good. Michael, meanwhile, can never die. The enactor of trauma gets to live on forever. He never stops being marketable.

As frustrating as this can be for a viewer, there’s some truth in that. Trauma isn’t something that gets neatly tied up in a three-act structure. Healing is possible, but that violence doesn’t ever fully leave you. “Moving on” implies that you leave it behind. What it really means is making the choice to not let it hold you back. It’s still a passenger in your mind. It just doesn’t have to steer the ship.

But whatever expression of that truism there is in Escape Room and Halloween is merely the accidental result of a cynical exploitation of pain and suffering. These films have nothing to say about trauma except that it exists, and it sucks, and it can be sold to some audiences by its relatability. They have no conception of how it affects people beyond instilling a desire for revenge. They have no empathy for their characters, nor for the real people meant to find solace in their depiction. Hollywood turned victims into a demographic, selling them back their own pain and anguish. And if they want to keep selling, there can never even be the possibility of things getting better.

SHOT MISSING: ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ and the New History of Found Footage

Orson Welles invented a genre, and died before anyone found out.

Had it been released, as intended, in the 1970s, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind would have completely redefined the found footage genre. Well, “redefined” isn’t the right word. After all, found footage cinema didn’t exist during the film’s production. Welles was inventing it. So had it been released back then, it’s more accurate to say that The Other Side of the Wind would have defined the found footage genre in a way entirely different to our current understanding of it.

The concept of fiction which takes the form of a “real life” collection of documents is much older than film itself. Epistolary novels told their stories as a collection of letters between characters. Welles himself translated this idea to radio with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, which was written and acted as though it were a real news broadcast. Found footage has been with us for a very long time, but Welles would have been the first to bring the concept to the cinema.

As history stands, though, the most widely cited originator of found footage is the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust. It set down the genre’s rules and structure, a format that would popularly codified with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Though there were examples in between (Man Bites Dog being perhaps the best-known entry in the genre during this time) it’s safe to call these two film the mothers of found footage film. The guidelines they created were rarely deviated from by their imitators. For one thing, most found footage films that followed in their wake were also horror films. Blair Witch proved the possibility for terror which a locked perspective could inspire, and the success of Paranormal Activity nearly a decade later proved to studios the utility of the genre’s cheap-and-easy production model. Found footage became irrevocably associated with horror, such that painfully few filmmakers ever experimented with the form outside of that genre.

Another important aspect of found footage is that, obviously, the footage must be found. The use of the form implies a terrible fate for the people at the film’s center, usually spelled out in a Shakespearean prologue before we even see them. The finder of the footage is rarely relevant. They are typically unseen and unheard from, acting as invisible editors. Sometimes, as in Blair Witch Project, the implication is that the credited crew themselves are behind the assemblage of the footage. Most of the time, however, it’s simply a question left unanswered. We aren’t supposed to care about the person who found the footage and presented it to us. The motives behind their choice to present the film the way they have is, we’re told, irrelevant.

But what if the genre’s forefather had not been Cannibal Holocaust, but The Other Side of the Wind instead? It’s not a horror film, for one thing. Had it been released in the 70s, the entire concept of found footage would have been borne out of a drama with comedic elements. Would this have convinced filmmakers that the form was more elastic than it is commonly considered today? I think it would have. I also think found footage would be respected as the bold cinema experiment it is, rather than the cheap throwaway production style it’s so often perceived as today. Coming from Welles, it would have been appreciated as a brash step forward for the medium, if not in its time, then at least down the road.

But this isn’t the history we’re living. The Other Side of the Wind was released in 2018, following decades of other found footage releases. So let’s look at it in that context, in how it breaks some rules and follows others, and how it still manages to redefine the form.

The film opens, like so many found footage films do, with the reveal that the main character dies at the end. Voiceover from Peter Bogdanovich, in his character as a much older Brooks Otterlake, explains that the film is assembled from footage shot by many different people at the 70th birthday party of director JJ Hannaford, who drove off a bridge to his death at the end of the night. “The choice of this material,” he says, “is an attempt to sketch a film likeness of the man himself as he looked through all those different viewfinders.”

The genre significance here isn’t clear until the film is over. Here we have a found footage film whose perspective is driven not by the footage’s shooter, but by its editor. There is no one point of view through which we see Hannaford, but dozens of them, and they are only made somewhat coherent by Otterlake decades later. The film’s perspective is created in editing, and it’s still disparate and schizophrenic due to the sheer number of people filming. Everyone at the party sees Hannaford differently, and it takes Otterlake decades in the film’s narrative to put aside his own feelings about how he comes off in the footage and put together a representation of Hannaford. It’s impossible not to see the film as both tribute and repudiation of Hannaford by Otterlake, whose conflicted feelings toward his mentor are clear even at the time the footage was shot.

It’s easy to see the allure of this concept for Welles. He was a filmmaker who was more fascinated by the power of editing than of the camera itself. Early in the film, a film student interviewer asks Hannaford, “Is the camera a reflection of reality, or is reality a reflection of the camera eye? Or is the camera merely a phallus?” Hannaford answers: “I need a drink.” It’s clear that Welles found this approach to cinema, at best, a silly waste of time, and at worst a grating misunderstanding of the medium he so loved. His final real feature, F for Fake, is consumed with the mysterious power of film editing, and he would have iterated on that in The Other Side of the Wind. Welles seemed to want to experiment with this massive jumble of perspectives, to see if he could find something singular through their combination, or else to disorient and befuddle by the same token. For him, found footage was less about a collection of images which imitated reality and more about what could be found through the coherence or incoherence of those images. What if he could find a throughline in them, and what would it mean if he couldn’t?

An odd aspect of the film is how cameras are both universal and absent, visible and invisible. Oftentimes Welles employs a shot-reverse setup which does not show the camera that ostensibly is shooting one or both angles. At other times, though, cameras are everywhere, crowding the image, intrusive and domineering. Welles doesn’t insist upon the found footage angle in the former moments. Rather, he suggests that even if we can’t literally see every camera, these people are constantly being surveilled in ways even they cannot see. The camera is ever-present in The Other Side of the Wind, even when we don’t see it.

In the latter moments, though, cameras are unavoidable. If the camera really is a phallus, you could call Hannaford’s birthday a sausage party. His house is filled with an amorphous panopticon, oozing through every hall like The Blob, intent on absorbing Hannaford. It’s interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t. The planned ending of the film would have had Hannaford kill himself by crashing his car through the screen of the drive-in where his film was playing. It’s a playfully provocative image, and it would have implied a final surrender to the onslaught of cameras, a last desperate act captured for eternity. The finished film doesn’t contain this shot, however. It was never filmed by Welles before his death. Presumably Bogdanovich and his collaborators either were reluctant to shoot new footage or found it too difficult to create the shot without the also-late John Huston.

Whatever the case may be, the absence of footage of Hannaford’s death in the final film could be seen as the man escaping from the oppressive pressure of all those viewfinders, rather than succumbing to their power in a public display. This is so antithetical to how we think of found footage that it’s kind of astonishing. An important aspect of the “bad ending” so many found footage films have is that we have to see it on camera. At the very least, as in The Blair Witch Project, we have to see the moment just before it happens. We get no such satisfaction in The Other Side of the Wind.

This positions The Other Side of the Wind as an anti-found footage film of sorts, but also as the most honest expression of what the form really means. Found footage purports to capture the truth of its subjects, with realism and a constantly open eye. But so often in these films we see people performing for the camera, putting on a persona that exists only because they know they are being filmed. The camera, which is supposed to capture truth, creates lies by its very nature. Welles saw in the medium what few other found footage films have ever comprehended. He understood how the presence of the camera generates falsehood in its subjects, and that if such a thing exists as actual truth, it cannot exist on film. The panopticon tried its best to capture Hannaford, but it could only see him as he performed, not as he was. The only truth we know about him is that he chose to die, and no camera sees that moment of choice. Even in Welles’ planned ending, we would only have seen the aftermath of that decision.

It’s hard to imagine where found footage would be if The Other Side of the Wind had come out on schedule. It’s possible that it wouldn’t have altered the genre’s history at all, or that it wouldn’t have been considered part of the same lineage as Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project. Maybe found footage wouldn’t be considered a genre at all, as its genesis would be untethered from horror. Maybe the found footage landscape would be completely different. But it does little good to speculate. The Other Side of the Wind is a 2018 film. It is here, it is now. It exists in the context of decades of found footage work, despite having been shot before all of them. It makes me wonder what Welles would think of all those films. Would he see the value in their use of the medium he surreptitiously invented? I can say only this with confidence: I bet he’d be glad that people know he got there first.

A Jewish Perspective on ‘BlacKkKlansman’

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

“Jewish? I dunno, am I?”

You probably recognize the former quote, even if you don’t know its origin. It’s a saying by Jewish Talmudic thinker Hillel, one of the most significant figures in Jewish history. It’s echoed early in Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman by the famous black activist and organizer Kwame Ture, who history classes taught me was named Stokely Carmichael. He’s speaking to members of a black student union in 1979, unaware that he’s being secretly recorded by police detective Ron Stallworth. Ture doesn’t cite Hillel by name, the saying having long since outlived its speaker. Yet still we have an icon of the struggle for black liberation stirring his audience with the words of an icon of Jewish cultural values. BlacKkKlansman is a film as much about one as it is the other, and we see this with the speaker of the second quote.

Flip Zimmerman is a white cop. He’s teamed up with Ron in an undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron makes contact over the phone, and Flip plays Ron in the in-person meetings. Before his first contact with the Klan, Ron advises Flip to take off his “Jewish necklace.” “It’s not a Jewish necklace,” he insists, “it’s a Star of David.” “I didn’t even know you were Jewish,” Ron says.

“I dunno, am I?” he replies.

Jewishness in America wasn’t always a subclass of whiteness. Jews were a step lower on the racial hierarchy, an “off-white” if you will. It wasn’t until the horrors of the Holocaust became public knowledge that anti-Semitic prejudice became more or less taboo and Jews were assimilated into American whiteness. It’s a privilege we’ve enjoyed for decades, but with the knowledge that it’s a tenuous one. We take for granted that a white person who is Jewish isn’t a non-white person. But a member of the KKK would disagree, because whiteness is a construct meant to empower itself. These questions of identity and belonging are key to the modern Jewish experience, and Lee draws a direct line between this and the modern black experience. BlacKkKlansman is a movie about a black cop and a white cop. But to the KKK, it’s a movie about two non-white cops. It’s this lesson that Flip has to learn over the course of the film. “To you it’s a crusade, to me it’s a job,” he tells Ron. Ron retorts, “All that hatred, doesn’t it piss you off. Why are you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game?” At this point, Flip doesn’t realize that Ron’s crusade is a shared one. He’s a part of this fight whether he likes it or not.

“If I am not for myself, who is for me?”

Critics of BlacKkKlansman (most notably director Boots Riley) point out that the real Ron Stallworth never partnered with a Jewish officer, and that this invention is part of the film’s campaign to propagandize the police to marginalized people. But this misunderstands Lee’s entire project. He takes two people who are refused entry to “whiteness” by its violent gatekeepers, and shows how they cooperatively create an identity to infiltrate it. The film’s use of Judaism — and its invention of Flip—is a brilliant approach to an examination of whiteness as a construct.

Flip and Ron at one point discuss the idea of “passing,” that a non-white person could pass as white to gain access to its privileges. Prior to this, Flip hadn’t considered himself as a Jewish person at all, or indeed as anything but plain old white. When confronted with the anti-Semitism of the KKK, he’s forced to take stock of his identity and think about what whiteness means to him. In the act of adopting whiteness to fool the KKK, he becomes aware for the first time of the extent to which whiteness belonged to him in the first place. I don’t mean that Flip considers himself non-white, or that he has any right to do so. I mean that Flip must reckon what it means that his whiteness can be so quickly and violently revoked. “Maybe I have been passing,” he says.

It made me think of the times in my childhood when I was suddenly made aware of my difference from my friends and classmates. I grew up in a town so clueless about Judaism that I was once asked if I was allowed to celebrate Halloween. When my sisters and I were in elementary school, my mother would come into class and educate the other students about Hanukkah traditions. A few days after one of these lessons, I came into class to find a small manger on my desk, a message from another parent. Growing up Jewish in America means being the same as “everyone else,” until you aren’t. I wouldn’t dare compare this to the racist violence which black people are subjected to in this country; it’s not remotely on the same level. It’s Lee who draws a line between these struggles.

“And being for my own self, what am ‘I’?”

It’s this section of the Hillel quote that’s most significant to the film. BlacKkKlansman is all about the struggle to reconcile your personal identity with the box in which race and whiteness as a monolith tries to contain you. Who is Ron Stallworth? Who is Flip Zimmerman? Lee gives us so little information about either of them outside of their relationship to this case. They exist only in relation to whiteness, and their non-membership in it; they exist only as constructions in a white supremacist medium.

BlacKkKlansman is equally obsessed with the history of American cinema and its use as a tool of racial oppression. He opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind, he has his two main black characters debate the value of films about black cops, and he goes on to show the KKK laughing and shouting approvingly at The Birth of a Nation. Ron and Flip are not real people, any more than their combined “Ron Stallworth” is a real person. They are constructs by Lee, designed with the goal of examining the loss of identity that comes with being the victim of racist violence. The contradictions of a black man working in a white supremacist system, or a Jewish man being anointed a member of the KKK by David Duke himself, are contradictions brought on by the existence of whiteness itself. Are Ron and Flip ever “for their own selves”? And if so, who are they? It’s a uniquely Jewish question, respectfully adapted by Lee for his own purposes.

“If not now, when?”

The urgency of activism is one of the most important elements of Jewish faith. We are compelled to act, with our whole selves, and to act not sometime but now. BlacKkKlansman asks us to consider the nature of “action,” and the significance of acting within a system to change it. Ron argues with his girlfriend Patrice about the value of changing a system from within. She (not knowing at the time that Ron himself is a cop) insists that white supremacist organizations like the police can only be changed from the outside. Whether or not the film ultimately sides with Patrice or Ron is up to your interpretation, but it makes it very clear that Ron accomplishes very little in his investigation.

(Here we get into spoilers for the ending, so be warned).

After the KKK fail to bomb Patrice’s house and end up blowing themselves up, Ron and Flip’s chief call off the investigation, citing “budget cuts.” Some time later, Ron and Patrice find the KKK burning a cross outside Ron’s apartment building. Lee then cuts to footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, and footage of the murder of Heather Heyer at the event. It’s a harrowing conclusion, and the message is clear: Ron ultimately accomplished very little by working within the system. In showing footage of Trump letting the neo-Nazi marchers off the hook, he also questions the efficacy of Obama’s time in office. BlacKkKlansman demands that its audience account for its lack of action by depicting Ron’s project as ultimately a failure. It implores you to not try and make change by playing by the rules, because the rules are designed to thwart you. Ron couldn’t finish the job then. What will you do now? Lee deliberately invokes the Jewish activist spirit here.

Though Flip’s arc doesn’t have a clear conclusion (one of my main issues with the film), BlacKkKlansman is still primarily a work about the ties that bind Jewish people and black people together in a shared struggle against white supremacy. Our enemy sees us as one and the same, Lee says, so why should we divide ourselves? We must confront our enemy together, or not at all. BlacKkKlansman is a rallying cry of solidarity to all oppressed people. I found myself thinking of another Hillel quote, perhaps even more famous than the one Kwame Ture recites, and one I heard again and again growing up: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”