Monday, January 26, 2009

The Greatest American Films Part 3: #9 Oskar the Grouch

For my second entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen Schindler's List.

I knew that no one would be enthusiastic about my inclusion of Nolan’s Batman movies in my top ten list. They haven’t exactly had a lot of time to show their greatness. I believe that within the next few decades these two movies (and possibly a third or fourth depending on whether or not Nolan and Bale can make the magic work again) will be considered some of the finest films ever made. Their significance in the genre of superhero/comic book films cannot be overestimated. But the fact is these films really aren’t comic book movies at all.

I remember reading all the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes hoping that The Dark Knight would at least score above Spider-Man 2 (which it sort of did, the overall review is 95% and the top critics review is 93% for The Dark Knight, but for Spider-Man 2 it was the opposite). While I think the second outing for Peter Parker was a wonderful film and a fine comic book adaptation it has its feet firmly planted in the mind of Stan Lee. It is a moving comic book. But both of Nolan’s films have been first and foremost viewed as true movies. The first movie will probably never be as highly regarded as I think it should be. Begins was one of the most intimate portrayals of a man I have ever seen. It displayed great tragedy and great heroism all within a human being whose life spanned the globe. It also works on many levels, an excellent action/adventure, an original crime/thriller, an unrequited love story. The first film gave us an inspirational line that quite honestly trumps the advice Uncle Ben gave to Peter before he died: It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me. This isn’t a truth that can only be applied to superheroes. This is for all of us.

While reading the reviews for The Dark Knight I began to realize something, while there are many things you could possibly criticize either of these films for none of the criticisms that were being used were valid. They were simply put preferential disturbances. One negative reviewer of the film said the film was too serious. I believe he actually said something like “for crying out loud this is Batman, not Hamlet.” While another reviewer said in praise of the film “there’s some Hamlet in this Batman.” Most people would think that attributing similarities to what maybe the greatest play in the English language a good thing. Some reviewers commented that the film was too dark; it’s tone oppressive and depressing. But to accurately portray evil one must be confronted with its true face. Batman and Commissioner Gordon shine all the brighter as the film’s heroes because of the great darkness they are forced to fight against. Another critique that was common of the first movie and was carried over by some to the second film was that the martial arts were hard to see. Sometimes this sort of critique is valid, but not when it adds to the intention and mood of the film as it has with Nolan's Batman. Batman's fighting style is brutal, economic and far from beautiful. These films were misunderstood by the few people who gave it negative reviews.

For what these two Batman movies do to us as viewers is what all truly great movies should do in some sense. To wake us from our slumber. Great art always reflects the good, the true, and the beautiful. Great films are supposed to honestly tell us who we are and why we are here. The accidental aspects of Christology that appear in the film aside we are presented with real problems in a real world, solved not by superheroes but real people willing to make sacrifices. Many people believe that we shouldn’t base our beliefs on films. Roger Ebert once said that it was wrong to let a movie change your mind about something like a moral or political stance, because films are entirely emotional experiences. This statement is problematic for several reasons. The first is that all truly great films should be responsible enough to portray that which is true and right to the best of their ability so that if the film does persuade someone of something it should be a benefit to their worldview not detrimental. Another problem with this statement is that Ebert really displays his ignorance of philosophy, especially epistemology. Many of our beliefs are based upon faculties which are inherently non rational. My belief that I am typing on a computer right now is based on my experiential relation to the external world. I’m not saying we should believe everything we see and read but simply that if a film makes you feel something differently and believe something differently than you did before that can very well be a good thing. Stories change people’s lives everyday. They keep us going, they keep us happy. Film is important to our culture. We should take film seriously.

Schindler’s List maybe the most deadly serious film ever made. In a nutshell it is the story of a loser who manages to save 1,200 Jews from the holocaust in spite of the fact that he was a war profiteer.

Any film that deals with the holocaust is a serious film but this film tries to portray the true nature of Nazi racism and in many ways the true outcome of hate. In the midst of this comes a man who is completely unremarkable in every way. He is unfaithful to his wife, he is a terrible business man, he doesn’t have very much money, he is a shameless self promoter. He has no other desire for the war effort than to make money off of it. But we see in his pitiful little heart a great love blossom. If there was nothing else to say about this movie that would be enough. It is a story of change, unlike any I have ever seen.

But in terms of pure cinema this film is a masterpiece. For this film tells its story with colors and images. That's right. Color is one of the most important elements of this black and white film. To see what I mean simply look at the poster. The image of Oskar's hand grabbing the little girl's hand clothed in red is one of the most remarkable I have ever seen, and in this image the entirety of the film is encapsulated. For it is the scene where the little girl appears that is the turning point of the entire film. Oskar is enjoying himself. Enjoying his war profiteering, benefiting from the pain of others. He is seducing young jewish girls who work for him. He is slime. But on the day that the Krakow Ghetto is evacuated by the Nazi's and the Jews are forced to move into the concentration camp he sees amidst all the violence an innocent little girl wearing red. She has no one to help her. Oskar sees this. Nobody else sees this but Oskar. And he knows. He knows this black and white world he's been living in, this dreary existence has something good in it, something innocent. At that moment he is confronted with the truth, the bare naked reality of the world he has been living in and feeding off. And for the rest of the film he starts to care for these people. He starts to defend them, to treat them with dignity. He loves them and eventually goes to any and all lengths to save 1,200 Jews from the Nazi regime. And in what is probably the most touching part of the entire film he breaks down crying that he didn't do enough. He weeps over the one or two more Jews he could have saved. And then at the end we see the truth of the inscription on Oskar's ring as all the survivor's of the List and their children come forth to place stones on Oskar's grave.

There are other color moments in the picture that clearly indicate to us what the film means. The film is bookended by two all color segments. The Jews before the holocaust preparing for the Sabbath and the Schindler Jews after the holocaust venerating Oskar's grave. Then there is the colored flames of the candles at the end of the film indicating the beginning of the Sabbath and the renewal of hope. The black and white actually represents the holocaust and the color represents better times. Spielberg wanted to shoot the film in black and white because he wanted it to look like the actual footage that is available of that terrible time. He wanted to portray the actual holocaust as it truly was. A dreary dark time.

This film is about a man who was not a good man. He was selfish and unkind. But when the opportunity presented itself he proved that within him there was a dignity, a goodness, an ability to help those that cannot help themselves. He proved that man can be good and sometimes it takes the worst circumstances to see him at his best. And now I will leave you with the words engraved on Oskar's ring:

"It's Hebrew, it's from the Talmud. It says, "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."

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