Friday, 17 June 2011

Just Like Inception

"No idea is simple when you need to plant it in somebody's mind"

It was when I was watching Inception for the fifth time that I realised something was different. My relationship with the film world has changed. I never stop loving it, and I don’t think I ever will. After all a girl doesn’t let go of her first true love that easy, but something changed.  
The fifth time I watched Inception was the first time it wasn’t in the cinema. I was with a friend and we were passionately pausing and discussing scenes, shots, frames, raising questions, developing theories and generally admiring the film. We spend nearly half a day doing just that. It was so wonderful and I was trying to remember another film that has affected me in this way. It was Fight Club. Not that I don’t re watch and obsess over other films, it’s just… well… the impact was different. Has it really been that long? I wondered. I looked at the film world with a questioning look and it looked back at me. "Why can’t you be more like Inception?" I asked, but the film world just shrugged and continued to be.  

I decided to go back to where it all began, the moment I fell in love with film world. I remember it well; I was twelve years old, only a young girl. I was no stranger to films; I have been watching them since I was an idea in my parents' minds. It was the world part of film world that was new to me.

We were given an assignment in 
school to write an essay about anything that interests us. I can’t remember exactly why, maybe because The Nathalie and I watched Jaws at the time and she was really scared, or maybe it was something else, but I decided I wanted to write about scary films. I wanted to understand why are they scary; after all they were only films. I started investigating. Everywhere I turned I was told that if I want to write about fear in films I must watch Alfred Hitchcock’s films. I went to the video store, yes I am that old, and got a copy of The Birds

I was quite a clever twelve years old, I did watch Hitchcock you know, yet at time I didn't know, realise or cared about Hitchcock’s significance to the film world. The love I felt then was brand new and naive, free from all the film education I later got. Suddenly films turned into a world where everything is possible, and it had a powerful effect over me. I was captivated by it and for the first time I had to be a part of it. I never watched a film in the same way again. I should say, though I love The Birds very much it is not necessarily my favourite Hitchcock, it was simply the first.  

During this year’s Oscar ceremony, yes I watch it live, I had a discussion, in Hebrew with the lovely people of SuperBlob, about the kind of films that win Oscar and why Inception would never be one of them. This has lead to a discussion about emotional impacts of films. Inception had and still has one of the strongest emotional impact a film has had over me in years. It’s hard to put my finger on that kind of feeling; it’s not a clear emotion like sadness, happiness, anger, disappointment and so on, though some people may get angry or disappointed with Inception, that’s not its intention. Nevertheless I think very powerful emotions are there.

Perhaps I should take a moment to explain what I mean when I say emotional impact. There are different levels in which a film, and I guess any kind of art form, could affect me emotionally. There are simple emotional effects, such as those I mentioned (laughter, sadness, anger etc.) there are films that take you through slightly more complex feelings of confusion, self discovery and doubt. Then there are films like some of the great Hitchcock films, Fight Club and most recently Inception, that form relationships for life.

As I mentioned four out of the five times I saw Inception were in the cinema, and one was the worst cinema for annoying, rude and loud audience. Every time I watched a film, any film, in that cinema people were interrupting. Every time but the time I went to see Inception

In all four different cinemas in different times and with different kind of audience, it was the quietest and most intense screening I have been to in a long time. I couldn’t even hear popcorn being chewed, and in all times, at the end of the film there was a collective gasp, regardless to what people thought of the film. Now that is what I call a powerful impact, and whether you loved it or hated it, it kept you glued to the screen.

Inception is not there just to entertain you or briefly touch you for a couple of hours, it wants something back. It wants commitment and at least for the two hours and twenty eight minutes of its running time, in which people can’t take their eyes of the screen for a moment, it gets it. From me it got it forever.  

There is a lot more to be said about Inception, which makes it even better. Even more so about Christopher Nolan, who is in my view the Hitchcock of our time, most importantly to me is that Nolan understands films and their world more than any other filmmaker today. 

His films present a concept, Memento, Prestige and Inception, all films related notions, explain it and then become it. By becoming the concept, Nolan’s films make the viewer experience the idea behind them rather than just watch it. This, for me, is the strongest emotional impact a film could have. It’s not caused by what happens on the screen but by the film watching experience. Making me laugh, cry, scared or angry is not very difficult I am easy like that, but to make me feel that kind of commitment to the film viewing experience, that is quite rare. 

So once again I look at the film world, and once again I love it with all my heart. "I can't stay mad at you" I think, and relish all that the film world has given me. "I will stop trying to change you" I surrender, and the film world continues to be.   

Monday, 13 June 2011

Sing For The Moment

I don't consider glee the kind of show that is affected by spoilers, but if you are one of those, than this post probably contains them. Also strangely it is quite difficult to find any visuals for glee only audio. So I could only get fan made videos. 

Trying to explain what is good about Glee is not easy without sounding apologetic.  I may not be as passionate about Glee as I am about some of the other shows I follow, but it brings me a lot of joy, and sometimes it’s even kind of wonderful.     

Obviously Glee does not rub shoulders with television royalty, such as the HBO and AMC glamorous productions. It embraces Lovingly musicals, which are still considered by many the lowest form of theatre and music, and the high school soap, an only slightly higher television form than reality. Therefore it will never be considered as significant or important television, but more likely mindless entertainment.

The twelve kids of New Directions, the McKinley High glee club, almost all of them big characters with big stories, are Glee’s biggest problem as well as its greatest merit. Add the adults and you get probably the most populated ensemble an ensemble show could have.

Given this overload of characters and stories it is no surprise that there are flaws. The script is at times infuriatingly problematic, some of the song performances are painfully bad and some of the characters are awkward. Surprisingly I find that I love those flaws almost as much as I love all the great things in Glee, and there are enough great things about it.

One of the advantages of having so many characters is that it helps distract me from hating Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and her annoyingly vanilla on/off love interest Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) and instead allows me to invest in wonderful characters like Brittany S Pierce, played by the lovely Heather Morris, who was such a revelation in the first season that her part was radically increased in the second. Noah ‘Puck’ Puckerman (Mark Sailling) the Jewish bad boy who watches Schindler’s List and eats Mushu Pork for Simchat Tora, and his coolest badass girlfriend, Lauren Zizes (Ashley Fink). Artie Abrahams (Kevin McHale) is the kid in the wheelchair who wants to dance, and as we discover towards the end of season one, would have been one of the more talented dancers of the group. Super- bitch Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) as it turns out can sing almost as well if not better than some of the lead singers. Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) is not the typical head cheerleader. I can go on but perhaps watch the show and choose your own favourites.   

I do, however, have to mention Glee’s biggest star, in my eyes. The brilliant “porcelain face”, Kurt Hummel played by the fantastic Chris Colfer. Not only is he the best singer of the group, and if at all possible he gets even better as the show progresses, but, as my lovely friend Liza said, he can cry on cue. What more can you ask from a man? His fight for a solo, traditionally sung by female, was one of my favourite storylines and was based on Cofler’s real life experienced of being refused female solos in his own school. When his father Burt (Mike O’Malley) gave the “I have a gay son and I’m proud” speech I cried like an orphan kitten in the rain, and when Kurt sang his versions of I Want To Hold Your Hand he had my heart forever.

Sunset Boulevard is not my favourite musical, but I love this song from it, 
and thinks Colfer's version of it is one of the most beautiful I have heard.   

I wasn't going to put more than one, but I couldn't resist. I love this duet of
Chris Colfer and brilliant guest star Darren Criss.

Perhaps the main reason I love the flaws as well as the qualities, is because Glee seems to be aware of them and address them with humour and good spirit, even if not always successfully.

Like many shows in the US Glee films its episodes as it is being aired, and often very close to the transmission time. Consequently echoes of the fandom sphere debates and comments are woven into the episodes. This can create wonderful moments like the opening episode of season two, where Jacob Ben Israel (Josh Sussman) interviews all the Glee cast for his blog and points out all the things that were pointed out by fans on the internet. Or Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) telling Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) that they should apologise to America for their Hair and Crazy In Love mash up, with which I agree, and Run Joey Run. Apologetically I whisper that Run Joey Run is one of the few Lea Michele performances I actually liked.

The other side of this coin is that sometimes it seems the creators are losing their own voice while trying to please everyone. This was quite strongly noticeable in the second half of season two. One of the things that bothered me, for example, were characters who were potentially quite evil like Quinn, Sue and Terri Schuester (Jessalyn Gilsig) suddenly becoming quite soft and fluffy, which apart from disappointing me, also went against the way they were built up to begin with. Only Santana was left to maintain satisfactory levels of evilness.

Like the kids, who are learning to sing, it feels as if Glee is learning how to make television, which for me it is a delight to watch.

Unlike their competator Vocal Adrenaline from Carmel High School, not all the kids in New Directions want to be performers. Only five of the twelve kids joined the club because they actually want to perform and only three out of those five actually want it more than anything. The rest were forced to join, followed a loved one, were sent by coach Sylvester to spy on them, or simply had nothing better to do. The only two things that they all have in common is that they either were losers to begin with or became ones by joining the club, and they all love to sing.

At the risk of sounding like a singing cliché, which is the best cliché to sound like by the way, love is what makes Glee such fun to watch.  It is a common mistake to say Glee is a musical; it’s not, it simply loves musicals passionately and shamelessly, and it loves singing and a little bit of dancing, even if it’s not always perfect at it.

It is the singing that I love most about Glee. Not all the performances are good and some of the song choices are not to my taste, but the singing and the performances constantly improve. Listening to the differences between Don’t Stop Believing from the first episode to its performance at the end of season one it is amazing to see just how much they all improved. It's hard to describe the kind of thrill a great Glee performance can give, especially if you followed the improvement. It fills me up and make me wish I could sing. 

One of the most beautiful manifestations of this growth and singing development is the difference between Lea Michele and Chris Colfer’s first and last duets. The first, in season one, was Defying Gravity, from one of my favourite musicals Wicked. Once again I apologetically whisper to my all knowing friends that I didn’t hate it as much as I probably should have. It was a “diva off” between Rachel and Kurt for a solo. Kurt lost the battle on purpose. For him it was more than just a solo, it was a struggle for acceptance within himself as well as from his surroundings. When they both sing For Good from the same musical, at the last episode of season two, it’s a different story. They had sung together several times by then, Rachel had slightly calmed down, and Kurt had gained a lot more confidence, they both been through a lot together and separately. This time they didn’t sing against each other, but rather supporting and complimenting one another. As much as I love to hate Lea Michele I have to bow in defeat. She and Colfer nailed that song and had me wrapped around their fingers. Despite the shortening of the original song, this performance was, for me, a little bit perfect. 

Friday, 3 June 2011

Give Us Your Children

This was originally writtend for and published it the brilliant Doctor Who e-zine The Terrible Zodin issue 8 autumn 2010. This post CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR TORCHWOOD CHILDREN OF EARTH as well as some Doctor Who episodes. Don't say I didn't tell ya!

“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess -- the children and the elderly. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!...”
--Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942

Growing up in Israel, I tend to forget that the Holocaust has affected others, like gays, Gypsies and communists, as it did the Jewish people. This is why when I first stumbled on Holocaust references in the revival of Doctor Who I was a little bit surprised. 

For those of us who have had Holocaust imagery drilled into us since we were kids, the image of an orphaned child with a gas mask, looking for his mummy, in “The Empty Child” can only be connected with one historical event. But it was only when I first watched “Planet of the Ood”, that I started to wonder about Russell T Davies and whether he had any Jewish connection. I know he didn’t actually write “Planet of the Ood”, but this episode was created under his creative control, and was the strongest in a long line of bleak and dark Doctor Who episodes, which all carry Holocaust imagery. I had to remind myself that the tragedy of the Holocaust doesn’t belong exclusively to the Jewish people.

Davies is openly and proudly gay, writer of the ground breaking Queer as Folk, who discussed issues of sexuality throughout Torchwood and Doctor Who. References to the Holocaust throughout his work need not be due to a Jewish connection, but rather simply, humane. Then came along Torchwood: Children of Earth, and I was left with no doubt in my mind that RTD must be a “closet Jew”.

Ianto’s death by gas on “Day 4” of Children of Earth may be the most obvious reference to the Holocaust  but far more important, is that the whole story centres around the children. The “Give me your children” speech  I quoted above represents one of the darkest and most chilling moments in European Jewish history.

Rumkowski was a Polish Jew who became head of the Lodz Judenräte. The Judenräte were the Jewish Ghetto’s authorities and was mostly composed of pre-war Jewish leaders. They were supposed to stand between the Nazis and Jews and take care of the Jewish community’s needs, but during the Holocaust, they were forced to provide Jews for slavery, those who were not chosen for labour camps would be sent to the extermination camps, and the Judenräte were forced to assist in their deportation. This was one of the many perversions carried out by the Nazis, forcing the Jews to become executioners of their own. Those who refused to cooperate, or couldn’t, would either be rounded up and executed publicly, or their refusal would bring more suffering to the whole ghetto community. On September 4th 1942 Rumkowski was forced to stand before the ghetto and make that speech.

Children of the Earth is not just another generic WWII metaphor with aliens = Nazis and humans = the Allies. This entire storyline conceived by Russell T Davies, with the 456 demanding the people of Earth give up their children and with Captain Jack complicit in past handover, strongly echoes the story of Chaim Rumkowski. The moral and conscious decisions which weighed upon Jack are not very different from those Rumkowski had to face, knowing that if he refused the Nazis, the whole ghetto would have suffered as a result.

I was motivated to try and research RTD’s background, perhaps to find a link to suggest a relationship to the Holocaust, but it wasn’t as simple as I thought.

I should explain that the story of the Holocaust is a very different story to that of World War II and this is especially true in portrayals in film and TV. Think of the differences, for example between Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Both are set during the same war but tell different stories. Saving Private Ryan romanticizes the war, it’s a patriotic tale of individual heroes. Schindler’s List by contrast tells the tragic story of the victims.

The first time the idea of Holocaust imagery sprung to my mind was when watching the Ninth Doctor story “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” written by Steven Moffat. Aside from the aforementioned orphaned child in a gas mask desperately searching for his mummy there are the Nanogenes from the Chula warship. Originally designed to heal, these Nanogenes have misread the DNA structure of humanity and created a monster. This reminded me greatly of the horrific genetic experiments Nazi scientists carried out on the sick and mentally ill during the war. Of course there is also the obvious reference to Oliver Twist. “I’m not sure if it’s Marxism in action or a West End musical” says the Doctor to Nancy.

I mentioned “Planet of the Ood” earlier, which was written by Keith Temple. The Ood themselves, however, had been introduced much earlier, in “The Impossible Planet” from RTD’s second series. “Planet of the Ood”   tells the story of the Ood, aliens born with the sole purpose to serve, or so Ood Operations would have humans believe. As the episode continues, we discover that Ood Operations actually abduct the young Ood and forcibly turn them in to slaves by cutting off their external hand held brains, as well as creating a telepathic barrier around the collective Ood consciousness brain to stop them from communicating with one another.

Most commentators of this episode have mentioned the issue of slavery and the grim reflection on our current society by suggesting even in the 42nd century we will be reliant of manufactured slaved. But I think this sad episode looks not only ahead but backwards with a bleak examination of our past. The look of the Ood is unpleasant to our human eyes and when we first meet them they are shown to be scary and intimidating. There are obvious parallels with Nazi propaganda in Germany throughout the 1930s which focused on portraying Jews as different and alien, scary and intimidating and gave them physical caricatures like the big nose.

The Ood are held in groups in big containers waiting to be transported, not different from the trains which transported Jews to the ghettos, labour, and extermination camps. Mr. Helpen of Ood Operations decides to gas what he refers to as a “bad batch” of the Ood and he even says “kill the livestock, a classic foot & mouth solution from the olden days, still works”. When we are first introduced to the Ood in “The Impossible Planet”, it is said the Ood were born to serve, that if they don’t serve they will die, and in “Planet of the Ood” the company that creates them as slaves wants us to believe that this is their purpose. “Arbeit macht frei” meaning “Work will set you free”, was the sign hanging at the gate of every labour camp during the Holocaust.

Looking widely at other episodes there is “Gridlock”, by Davies himself. In this episode we see a world where the air is poisoned, and you can’t breathe, due to the cars’ fumes. This world is a gas chamber, and underneath all this fumes there lie monsters.

The killing gas is reiterated in “The Sontaran Stratagem” / “The Poison Sky”, as well as in Children of Earth. This method of mass killing will always be associated with the Nazis, in the Jewish minds, but I believe also in RTD’s mind.

Experimenting upon human DNA, is another repeated motif in such episodes as “The Lazarus Experiment” and “Daleks in Manhattan” / “Evolution of the Daleks”. In the latter, the Daleks separate humans according to intelligence just as the Nazis used to with what they considered sub human forms such as those with special needs and non Aryans. Of course as most old Doctor Who fans know but as I’m just discovering as I begin exploring the old series, the creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, always intended that they be a metaphor for the Nazis.

“Turn Left”, also written by Davis, shows a world without the Doctor; it has become a global ghetto. “It’s the new law,” says the Italian father sharing a house with the Noble family, to Donna, before being taken away by the military, “England for the English”, and then Wilfred adds with tears in his eyes, in case the analogy wasn’t clear enough “labour camps; that’s what they called it last time”.

From the background material I’ve read about RTD, he admits the link, at least in his case, between major depressive disorder and creativity, and he is quite known for writing about bleak moral choices and the dark side of humanity, and what is more bleak and dark than the Holocaust?

Most of what I  read about RTD and the specific episodes I’ve mentioned, including Children of Earth, don’t explicitly come out and mention the Holocaust. Most of the writers will mention other classic sci-fi books, films or TV shows that influenced his writing, but I’ve got news for you; they’ve all been influenced by the Holocaust. What can I say, Hitler gave us a lot to write about!

Okay maybe it is all in my head, maybe I am seeing this because of the sensibilities created by my upbringing in Israel, but I really think echoes of the Holocaust are there in the subtext of Doctor Who and Torchwood. To me this adds value to his creation. RTD is a ground breaker in his portrayal of sexuality (a topic for another article but I’m sick of the narrow-minded definition of Captain Jack as bisexual) and has a strong moral stance regarding politics, religion and humanity, that he puts across. The Holocaust fits, in my opinion, with the viewpoints and issues that RTD is trying to put across in his writing.

This was a time when humanity was shaken, where morality had failed, not just in Germany, but around the world. Millions (not just Jews) were slaughtered, and the world let it happen. It doesn’t surprise me that the moral and human implications occupy much of Davies’ work.

After my research, I admit I couldn’t find any direct Jewish connection for RTD. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, for he treats this painful trauma in Jewish history with sensitivity and care and much like the true Jew, it seems Russell T Davies doesn’t forget.