“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” — Ranier Maria Rilke
It’s hard not to look at the year in film so far and not think about how great American movies and the Oscars were during the Nixon era. At the same time that cultural movements like Black Power and Women’s Rights and the anti-Vietnam protests were transforming American life, the silent majority was trying to shut it all down. Coming down off the high of the Kennedy presidency and the shock of his assassination, watching as tragedies crested in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and finally seeing the nation surrender to Richard Nixon as a two-term president, there was no better place to express the turmoil of those transformative feelings than on the big screen.
That astonishing era of the 70s in film and especially in the Oscar race has left a long shadow, one that has yet to ever be matched. But suddenly this year, it seems like there has been a tectonic shift in the landscape. In 2011, three pitch-dark films were headed for the Oscar race — Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, and Foxcatcher — but somehow, in the era of another JFK-like president, Barack Obama, there was less appetite for such moral murkiness and more of a craving for “good people doing good things.”
Yet now, as we’ve hit year three of the Trump presidency, we’re beginning to taste a little of what cinema might start to look like now, as least where artistic expression is concerned. At the same time that artists are becoming louder and more daring, so too is the American left (at least on social media) becoming more strident and puritanical, creating its own brand of oppression. That will surely mean a clampdown on some of what’s coming next, but for fans of the darker side of creative expression — hold onto your butts.
We’ve already seen a slice and dice of class structure in Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece, Parasite. Though films from other countries have never had a problem dwelling in darkness, that this film has resonated so strongly in the states bodes well for our acceptance of this kind of urgent storytelling. This is a film like no other, taking you places you’ve never been, and it is every bit a film that somehow manages to be not just about South Korea and its distinctive cultural milieu, but also about the global problems of poverty and income/wealth inequality. Joon-ho pulls no punches. He’s not letting anyone off easy and, thus, out of the madness of today, comes Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes.
Another harbinger was when Todd Philips’ Joker won the Golden Lion in Venice — as dark a movie that will be hitting the Oscar race, without a doubt. Joker (which I still have not yet seen) will surely come with its share of controversy. It is a movie that will offer us no heroes, offer no justice. It isn’t going to make anyone feel good about anything. But that isn’t its job. It is a supervillain’s origin story and you can’t get to evil without exploring the path it took to get there. This is sympathy for the devil, or a way to understand the monsters we can produce in this country when we aren’t paying attention.
Winning the People’s Choice Award at Toronto was Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit — a darkly comic romp. It’s about evil at humanity’s edge doing battle inside the mind and heart of a ten year-old German boy named Jojo (the wonderful Roman Griffin Davis). His imaginary friend is none other than Adolph Hitler, played by the film’s writer and director, Waititi. Adolph holds sway over Jojo’s life choices, for the moment, until real people start to outsize him.
Waititi’s heroes in Jojo Rabbit are the women who could shape who Jojo might become — if only that yapping, goose-stepping fascist would shut up. The lad’s biggest influence is his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who opposes the war and is also hiding a Jewish girl — a friend of her daughter, who died before the film begins. The girl (Thomasin McKenzie) eventually comes to represent the counterexample to Hitler’s Final Solution. As Jojo becomes closer to her, his imaginary friend, Der Führer, begins to lose power.
Following in the tradition of the greatest satirists, Waititi makes fun of that which we fear to name, let alone face. And in so doing, in that laughter, in that disregard, we remember who we are, who we can be, and who we might become if only we weren’t afraid, if only we could laugh at the ignorance of hate.
Waititi’s film asks us to laugh at Hitler as an almost-cartoon character, with funny one-liners and physical comedy. All the while there is the question as to what’s really happening there in Germany, as if there could ever be any doubt. But because today on social media nearly everything is taken literally, it would easy to dismiss Jojo Rabbit as a film that doesn’t treat something as serious as the Holocaust with a more somber approach. Perhaps it’s because we’ve lately lost touch with the art of the great satire, especially in American film. But Waititi has brought it back with obvious references to the very best satiric films ever made, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Great Dictator and even to Dr. Strangelove, which is perhaps its closest cousin.
Waititi has a freedom as a director and writer, and even actor, that is so refreshing in a time when so much entertainment feels so measured, controlled, and careful. This isn’t a film that is going to lecture anyone about anything. It is a surreal and audacious battle of good vs. evil. A coming of age fable for both a boy and a girl whose future might look bright since the right team won the war.
Never have I felt so proud to look at the American flag as watching the soldiers wave it as they helped to liberate Germany from tyranny. It’s a reminder of what’s still possible, celebrating the heroism of the courageous, and condemning the war crimes of the corrupt.
Waititi isn’t going to take you down Jojo’s Rabbit-hole without reminding you why he bothered. He is a man who has listened carefully to how women talk when they talk about their lives, about their dreams, and about happiness. And when those women are gone, they leave invisible directives for those they leave in their wake. In ending his film, Waititi pays tribute to one of the film’s best characters, Jojo’s mom. Jojo’s Rabbit, funnily enough, turns out not to be about Hitler at all, but rather, about those who resisted him. Especially the women.
Jojo Rabbit is one of the very best films of the year. Top to bottom, the cast is relentless and brilliant — in addition to the leads, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and little Archie Yates make it one of the best ensembles of the year.
We might very well be living in a time when films and filmmakers dare to become dangerous again. It might be a time when art has the power to turn a culture around in its way of thinking. It might be a time when audiences remember that films can aspire to be art and will fulfill that aspiration if we get out of the way and let them. It might be a time when the oppression and madness we all feel crushing down all around us can be alleviated and defeated by what humans do best: overcoming sickness and pain and transforming it into healing and recovery.