Reviews Of Reel
Injun, Dreams Of A Life, Steal A Pencil For Me, And Imaginary
Witness: Hollywood And The Holocaust
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/5/14
I recently watched four films regarding racial and ethnic issues, while streaming from Netflix, and those four films were Reel Injun, Dreams Of A Life, Steal A Pencil For Me, And Imaginary Witness: Hollywood And The Holocaust.
Reel Injun is an 88 minute long documentary from 2009 and seeks to point out all the Native Americans stereotypes that Hollywood has used throughout its history- the savage, the noble, the alcoholic, and the mystic, which is very obvious, and does so by creating its own new stereotypes about Indians- such as driving beater Rez Cars, the hipster Injun, and the Indian who is deep without trying to be- a sort of variant on the Magical Negro.
Directed by Neil Diamond (not the singer), Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes the film falls flat from its very start, with heavyhanded moralizing, and vapid talking heads, which include the usual Indian suspects, like Chris Eyre, John Trudell, and Russell Means. Reams of classic Hollywood westerns are attacked for their racism, which is fair, save that the overall artistic quality of those films is never mentioned, which grates when the mostly mediocre to bad films made by Native Americans in the 1990s and 2000s are given a pass for their artistic failures just because they espouse PC values, like the bad 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. And this gets even worse because so many of these films, as mentioned, espouse their own 21st Century stereotypes.
The film follows Diamond on a predictable road journey from his northern Canadian reservation to Hollywood. But, there is no payoff, and the film’s talking heads state only the most obvious things, such as stating that the 1960s Hollywood attempt to humanize Indians was a stand in for liberal white guilt over the black Civil Rights movement. The film follows suit with the requisite filmic clichés of Indian films- static shots of someone staring off into nature, drum beats, and so on. Even the correct things stated- such as a correct attack on Disney’s Pocahontas film, takes only the safest tacks. There is no real daring in this film- neither creatively nor intellectually. Perhaps the most illuminating and enjoyable moment of this stale and predictable exercise in monotony comes when Indian extras on some John Ford films with John Wayne, relate how they spoke their native tongues in scenes to undermine the film, such as talking seeming gibberish which, in reality, had their characters telling the white characters to ‘eat shit,’ and so forth.
But an important point is missed by the directors, and that is that these extras actually enjoyed their work and the films, despite the film’s wanting them to be resentful. Good art, apparently sits well with people, regardless of their race. Films like Dances With Wolves and Smoke Signals get typically PC criticisms that are way too harsh on the former, admittedly mediocre, film, and far too effusive on the latter, merely good, film. All in all, the film plays things safe, and fails because of it, becoming a rather amateurish pseudo-journalistic documentary.
Dreams Of A Life, a 2011 film from the UK, clocks in at 95 minutes, and follows the life and death of a 38 year old black Londoner, Joyce Vincent, in 2003, from her stitched together childhood and mysterious adulthood, to the three years her corpse rotted after death. Apparently, the local utilities, neighbors, landlord, and police, had no clue the woman died. Oddly enough, in the decade since her death, this woman has become the UK’s equivalent of Chris McCandless, whose stupidity was chronicled in the book and film, Into The Wild.
Director Carol Morley seems oddly obsessed with this rather average woman, whose death she stumbled upon in a newspaper article. She seemed to have a good career in accounting, be popular, have no shortage of male suitors (black and white), set out to meet assorted famous people, then seemed to sink into depression, mental illness, bad health, isolation, and a premature death that, just sans a murder, is quite reminiscent of the possible fate of the female protagonist in Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion. Of all the films in this review, this one would seem to have the most potential for depth and greatness, but bad re-enactments that seem to try and make more of the woman than she was, and WAY too many talking head shots of supposed friends and co-workers, whose utterances include claims that they cannot understand how such a fate befell her (which lasts a good twenty or more minutes) doom this film to being one of those films that leaves one knowing nothing more of its main subject than what was revealed in the opening minutes of the film. And many of the people interviewed seem to have merely been people hooked into an on camera appearance merely to pad out the film, for they can barely recall the woman. The dead woman’s own sisters even refused to appear in the film.
The film’s end, after Vincent (played by Zawe Ashton) meets with celebrities like Nelson Mandela and Stevie Wonder, try to paint Vincent as almost fated to her ignominious end, and the shots of her last moments before death, as well as the whole pointless re-enactments of Hazmat crews going through her apartment, try to make a sad life and death into something resonant and full of meaning- but one that is simply not supported by the facts. Morley desperately was looking for some juicy tidbits to spice up her tale (such as a supposed stay in a domestic abuse shelter by Vincent in 2001, after she left her accounting job), found none, and settled on a TMZ like film lacking a subject even remotely compelling enough to care about. Dreams Of A Life thus fritters away its time, and leaves little enough of an impression to even care of the fritterance.
The last two films under review both deal with the Holocaust, and as bad and pointless as the first two films were, the latter two films are significantly worse, in every way. The first is a 2007 vanity documentary, a 94 minute long film called Steal A Pencil For Me, by director Michele Ohayon, about two nonagenarian Holocaust survivors who met and fell in love in Bergen-Belsen. If you expect anything of depth in this film, beyond the novelty of a death camp love story, well, shame on you. Don’t you realize dying Jews falling in love, then living six decades longer, is enough to carry a film?
Of course, it’s not, for the married couple, Jack Polak and Ina Soep, of Amsterdam, are rather average folks. They lack depth and insight, and the filmmakers, despite all attempts to make the viewer care about these rather vain and solipsistic people, simply fail to arouse care in these far too average people. And their love letters to each other- remarkably preserved and quoted from, are only marginally interesting, but not nearly at the level of the letters found in American Civil War correspondence, and their recitations seem to have been done with all the passion of a robot discovering the final digit in pi.. The film is utterly void of any depth, and the film’s talking heads seem to have had as much (really, little) insight into their ethnic group’s plight as the Native Americans interviewed in Reel Injun had in theirs. As example, did you know life in 1930s and 1940s Europe was, well, not peachy keen? Throw in the fact that Jack’s love for Ina was complicated by the fact that he was already married to a faithless wife, and well, sex and genocide- it should sell, right?
Naturally, these stalwart Jews are shown, in the film’s most groaningly predictable and noxious scene, lecturing to school children on how bad it is to kill people, as they describe assorted horrors that make the children weep and wince. Aside from the very redundance of the scene, there is a certain smugness, a privileged chic of suffering, that the characters and the film seem to glorify- especially in these passages. Add in a pathetic score, and the whole film is vomit inducing. This includes the requisite shots of old Jews visiting graves and monuments of people and families who were killed. The film even ends with a trite ‘what became of’ sequence that I saw coming from the film’s tenth minute or so. Steal A Pencil For Me is a bad, and simply redundantly pointless, film. Skip it.
2004’s Imaginary Witness: Hollywood And The Holocaust, remarkably, likely even undershoots the prior film reviewed, in being an almost exemplar of what NOT to do in both a documentary film, in general, and a Holocaust documentary film, specifically. Director Daniel Anker does his version of Reel Injun, in his 92 minute film, and not even as successfully as that film does its subject matter. It’s a much more slickly made and financed film- narrated by actor Gene Hackman, and having Hollywood directorial big names like Sidney Lumet and Steven Spielberg appear, but the best it can manage is oft seen clips from vintage newsreels and films on Nazi and Holocaust subject matter, from Judgment At Nuremberg, through The Holocaust tv miniseries, to Spielberg’s insipid Schindler’s List, which the film seems to posit as an unparalleled work of art, generally, and on the Holocaust, specifically.
The usual banalities, such as the Holocaust’s being ‘unique in human history’ (it’s not), ‘unparalleled evil’ (it has myriad parallels), and having such ‘unimaginable horrors’ (even though we constantly imagine and ‘see’ them) that to film it is ‘a desecration’ (utterly ludicrous nonsense), make one want to vomit at the belittling and condescending paternalism. We get the usual fingerpointing, such as at Hollywood’s Jewish movie moguls who chose German film profits over offending Hitler, and the film shows how the Hollywood Code of fairness in films helped Hollywood do nothing to counter Nazi propaganda, although Hollywood’s filmic arsenal dwarfed that of any nation of that time. Naturally, the film makes zero between the Hollywood Code’s ignorant inoffensiveness and current PC parallels.
Of course, this is because, despite its pretensions, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood And The Holocaust is NOT a documentary film, but an agitprop film worthy of Leni Riefenstahl. No ‘expert,’ such as the inane Annette Insdorf, dares to point out the manifest flaws in many of the films upheld as paradigms of good (as in ‘indignant’ and ‘moralistic’) cinema. Instead, the talking heads prattle on endlessly about death and suffering and Spielberg is the most cringeworthy, when he explains why he made his heavyhanded, and boneheadedly obvious, shot of a little girl in a red coat- the only color moment in Schindler’s List, as if it were not obvious and NOT a sophomoric filmic gimmick. Does any ‘expert’ take him to task? No.
He later says the Holocaust experience is ineffable, even though he, and scores of others, in this film and others, seem to NEVER run out of things to eff about the Holocaust- which the film admits, is a cash machine in America, whereas Europeans tend to be more circumspect in poring over it. All in all, a really bad film. Nay- a TERRIBLE film.
What can one say when dealing with such a bevy of bad films as Reel Injun, Dreams Of A Life, Steal A Pencil For Me, And Imaginary Witness: Hollywood And The Holocaust? Nothing, as it is ineffable and…. Ok, here’s what: fuck’em! If filmmakers care so little about the brains of their audience, they deserve no more.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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