Resolved: Jeffrey Imm is a moron, and so is anyone who wants to sanitize the power out of comedy.
Imm’s complaint is that Mel Brooks’ The Producers makes fun of Nazis, and therefore doesn’t pay proper respect to the horrors of the Holocaust. As Walter Hudson points out in PJ Media, “The irony of protesting fascism with a blanket declaration of what can’t be laughed at appears to be lost on Mr. Imm.”
It’s not really worth arguing beyond that. If you’re a soldier, you use a gun to fight evil. If you’re a writer, you use words. If you’re a comedian, you use jokes — especially if you’re a Jew. That’s how it works.
Imm, in his own flaky fashion, is onto something. It’s not that those topics aren’t funny.
It’s that Mel Brooks isn’t funny.
This aggression will not stand, man.
I agree that Spaceballs, Men in Tights, and Dracula are unwatchable. The problem with these movies is that Brooks tried to skewer genres that he didn’t especially care about; whereas his love and devotion for his targets (including in High Anxiety —inexcusably missing from Shaidle’s list of Brooks hits) are the heart and soul of his funniest movies. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love.
Excuse me while I get a bit emotional about this, but this is why Mel Brooks is so great: he’s an optimist, and his exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.
Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.
Brooks always counters anti-Producers critics (no, Imm isn’t the first) by pointing out the obvious: that he was making fun of Hitler.
But what’s brave about that? Hitler managed to look pretty stupid without much help, and when it mattered, neither The Great Dictator nor (the far superior) That Nazty Nuisance accomplished sweet eff-all.
Well, he wasn’t just “making fun of Hitler” (and I don’t believe that Brooks considered himself “brave” for making The Producers, anyway). At the risk of overanalyzing humor, which is the worst thing that anyone can do ever, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler. He subsumes him.
This is obvious in The Producers, as Brooks deftly works the play-within-a-play angle, telling the world: this is how you do it. When you are a comedian, you make people laugh, and that is how you win. People gotta do what they gotta do, and that’s why Max Bialystock won’t ever learn.
I don’t mean to crap things up by getting too analytical, but it’s hard to ignore: we’reall producers, and the worst mistake we can make is not to realize what kind of show we’re putting on. In Brooks’ best films, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s producing, and his glorious openness is what makes them so disarming. It’s what makes us laugh at things we don’t want to laugh at; and laughing at those things is what saves us from succumbing to them.
An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers (they’re “world famous in Poland”) who bumble into a plot to rescue a bunch of Jews from occupied Poland.
The movie is not great, but one scene makes up for everything else: The audience is full of Nazis, and the only way to shepherd the crowd of Jews out of town is (work with me here) to dress them up as clowns and parade them out of the theater right under the enemy’s noses. Against all odds, it’s actually working, and the Nazis are deceived — until one poor old babushka, her face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. It’s too much for her: so many swastikas, so many guns. She can’t make herself do it, she’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.
They’re just about to uncover the whole plot, when the quick-thinking leader looks the Nazis straight in the eye, and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on her chest, takes out a clown gun, and shoots her in the head. POW.
And that’s what saves her. That’s what saves them all. The crowd roars with laughter and keeps their seats while the whole company flees. Juden 1, Hitler 0.
The same thing happened to me. Again, work with me, here!
Depression and despair have been my companions ever since I can remember. Most of the time, if I keep busy and healthy, I have the upper hand; but one day, several years ago, I did not. The only thing that seemed reasonable was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. Too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. Part of the reason for that is because, of all things, I suddenly thought of that scene in Brooks’ 1970 film The Twelve Chairs. I barely remember this movie — we try not to have a lot of Dom DeLuise in our house, out of respect for my husband — but the plot was some ridiculous, convoluted story of someone trying to do some simple thing, and things getting worse and worse. At one point, everything has come crashing down around the hero’s ears, and there is no hope.
So what does he do? He responds by running around in circles on the beach and screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LIVE. I DON’T WANNA LIVE.” And that’s the line that popped into my head.
So guess what? I laughed. Just a little giggle, but it helped. It was a little shaft of light, and it helped. I still had to pass through the dark room full of the enemy who wanted me dead, but someone who was on my side had slapped a Star of David on my chest, made me a target — and once I was explicitly made into a target, I could survive. It was all a joke. It was a circus, and I knew I would survive.
Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, and I was going to make it out of that dark room. I don’t know how else to explain it beyond that. Mel Brooks saved my life, fart jokes and all. That’s what kind of movies he makes.
Have you taught your children that, while Christmas is very important, it’s really Easter that’s the greatest feast of the year? Do they buy it?
When I was little, this point of doctrine was obvious: All during Holy Week, my father could be heard practicing the Exsultet to chant at the Easter vigil, as my mother fried and ground up liver and onions in preparation for the Passover seder. The fragrant schmaltzy steam of the chicken soup, the palm leaves, bags of jelly beans for Easter Sunday and the boxes of jellied fruit slices for the seder—these were all equally essential for Holy Week. We drooled over the growing heaps of luscious Passover food as we suffered the final pangs of Lenten sacrifices. My mother covered her head to bless the candles at the start of the seder, and then a few hours later, hovered over us in the pew to save us from singeing our hair on the Easter candles. I can’t imagine eating leftover gefilte fish without a chocolate bunny on the side; and I can’t imagine hearing “Christ our light!” without echoes of “Dayenu!” – “It would have been enough!” still lingering, both exultant prayers of thanksgiving to the God who always gives more than we deserve.
You might be pardoned for imagining some kind of schizophrenic clash of cultures in my house, but that’s not how it was. My parents did struggle to synthesize the incongruities between Catholicism and Judaism (and for a hilarious read, check out my mother’s account of interfaith communications). My parents were raised secular Jews, and went through a long and strange exodus through the desert together, and eventually converted to Christianity—and then, when I was about 4, to Catholicism.
But for us kids, there was no incongruity: Growing up Hebrew Catholics just meant having much more FUN on Easter than anyone else. My Christian friends wore straw hats, ate jelly beans, and maybe dyed eggs if their mothers could abide the mess. We, on the other hand, whooped it up for an entire weekend as we prepared for and celebrated the Passover seder, the ceremonial feast which Jesus ate with his disciples at the Last Supper. At our seder, which we held on Holy Saturday, there was chanting and clapping, giggling over the mysterious and grisly ceremonial roasted egg and horseradish root, glass after glass of terrible, irresistible sweet wine,
special silver and china that only saw the light of day once a year, pillows for the chairs so we could “recline,” and the almost unbearable sweetness as the youngest child asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
It was different because, every single year on that night, there were laughter and tears. The laughter was always more: I waited with bated breath for my father, after drinking his third or fourth ceremonial glass of wine, to trip over the Psalm and say, “What ails thee, o mountains, that you skip like rams? And o ye hills, like lung yams?” And then there are the tears, when we remember the slaying of the first born, and a drop of wine slips from our fingertips onto the plate.
Most Catholics are familiar with the idea that Moses prefigured Christ: Baby Moses was spared from Pharaoh’s infanticide, as baby Jesus was spared from Herod’s; Moses rescued his people from slavery, as Christ rescues us all from sin and death; the angel of death passed over the houses whose doors were marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, just as death passes over the souls of those marked with the sign of baptism. Moses brought the Jews on a generation-long journey through the desert, during which God showed constant mercy and forgiveness, and the people demonstrated constant faithlessness and ingratitude—a journey which is mirrored in the lives of everyone. And Moses eventually brought the people within sight of the promised land of Canaan, as Christ has promised He will lead us to the gates of Heaven.
I will always remember my father pausing in the middle of the ceremony, and holding up the broken afikomen matzoh to the light of the candles. When he had the attention of all the children he would ask, “Do you see the light, shining through the holes? Do you see it?
It is pierced, just like Jesus’ hands, feet and sides were pierced. And do you see the stripes? Just like Jesus was striped by the whip of the Romans.” And then we would replace the matzoh in the middle compartment of a silken pouch. This special pouch held three sheets of matzoh (a Trinity?)—and the middle one would be hidden away (as if in a tomb?). Until it was taken out and consumed, we couldn’t have dessert. All the sweets that were waiting in the other room—the chocolate and honey sponge cake, the fruit slices, the nuts and blonde raisins, the halvah and the macaroons—all of these had to wait until that middle piece was found and found (resurrected?) again.
But what always stopped me in my tracks is something my father discovered one year. Imagine, he told us, the Hebrews in their homes, painting their doorpost and lintel with the blood of the lamb as the Lord commanded. They would raise their arm to brush the blood on the top of the door, and then down again to dip again into the blood; and then up to the left, to mark the post on one side, and then to the right … does this sound familiar?
Act it out: up, down, left, right. It’s very possible that, thousands of years before Calvary, the children of God were already making the sign of the cross.
Make of it what you will. At our house, what we made of it was that God loves us, has always loved us, and always will love us. “I have been young, and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous man forsaken or his children wanting for bread” (Ps 37:25). We are all the chosen people, and God speaks to us each in our own language, through our own traditions.
And I believe that he laughs and weeps along with us when we say with a mixture of bitterness and hope at the end of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
[This post originally ran in Register in 2011 – re-posted at the request of several readers]
Trick-or-treaters might be coming around with UNICEF donation boxes. Don’t give ‘em a dime — UNICEF pushes for abortion and sterilization as part of its efforts to improve the lives of women and children. Beyond the immediate irony of that idea, it’s not even good policy. According to CatholicCulture.org (emphasis mine):
Pro-family UN watchers are concerned that [UNICEF’S] disproportionate focus on unsafe abortion, based upon questionable maternal mortality figures, detracts from addressing the major health risks to pregnant women in the developing world. Experts say these are severe bleeding, eclampsia, and obstructed labor. By UNFPA’s own admission in a 2004 report, the most important means of reducing maternal mortality is not access to contraceptives and legal abortion but the presence of skilled birth attendants and access to emergency obstetric care.
Imagine: those backward, third-world women would rather survive childbirth than get help killing their children. Savages.
Abortion proponents often link unsafe abortion and maternal mortality to push for legal, “safe” abortion. Critics of this argument are quick to point out that in Poland, when abortion was severely restricted in 1993, the country showed a sharp decline in the abortion rate and a decline in maternal deaths. In Ireland, where abortion remains illegal, the country reports one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world. By contrast, while the United States has had abortion on demand since 1973, this year the US reported a rise in maternal deaths.
Oh, and look at this! I was searching for an image for this post, and turned up this ad:
It’s an ad placed by the Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation, and shows an axe hacking into the Star of David. And looky! There’s the UNICEF sponsorship logo, down at the bottom left. (Image source and more information here.)
(Wait, let me save the very vocal minority here a little trouble: Israel has committed atrocities! They are the true criminals here! Ms. Fisher’s blind, jingoistic support of Israel is what’s wrong with the Church and the world in general! Aieeeeee, boogie boogie boogie, somebody said something about the Jooooooos!
Hokey doke. Let’s just think about this for a second. What is UNICEF for, again? According to their website, it “works for children’s rights, their survival, development and protection.”
You know, with an axe.)
I’m not in favor of burdening young children with more bad news than they need to know. If mini Buzz Lightyear shows up on your porch with a UNICEF donation box, just say, “No thanks, but here’s your fun size Snickers.” But if your kid is being pressured by his school to use these collection boxes, you can tell him what I just said to my daughter: UNICEF does some good things, but they also do a lot of bad things, and we don’t want to help them hurt people. There are other charities that do a better job of helping poor people, so we give our money to them instead.
Here is our favorite charity, run by the Church with an incredibly low overhead: Save a Family Plan. Among other programs, you can choose a plan in which your family sponsors a desperate family in India, helping them to become educated and self-sufficient within a few years. Boy, they get the job done. And somehow they manage to do it without killing anyone.
“In a statement dated March 23, UNICEF president, Caryl M. Stern, denounced the “incorrect use of the UNICEF logo” and stated that “UNICEF was not consulted by PYALARA about the use of its logo in a poster announcing a youth broadcast and it condemns the use of its logo to imply endorsement of political opinions. Neither the poster nor the television program it advertises reflect UNICEF’s policies or its views.” Ms. Stern added that “UNICEF’s partnership agreement with PYALARA ended in January 2010” and that “UNICEF will be carefully reviewing any proposed future partnerships with PYALARA.”
Glad to hear it. UNICEF still stinks, but at least this time, it turns out I was the one going “Aieee, the Joooos.” Sorry about that!
Here are a few more links with more information about this story
From the Anti Defamation League:
She lists her five favorite Catholic devotions, and she wants to know what mine (and yours) are.
Now, I’m in kind of a spot here.
On one hand, the last six months or so have seen me practicing Catholic devotions in the same way as my three-year-old has been practicing personal hygiene: whining and screaming and making things so miserable for everyone that, more often than not, we just skip it and walk away disgusted.
On the other hand, whatever Lizzie wants, Lizzie gets.
Just to make things harder on myself, I’m going to list seven, not five, so I can do Seven Quick Takes. Maybe the extra two will count as doing mortification. That’s a devotional, right?
Seven Favorite Catholic Devotions
I think of novenas as spritual interventions — not “We pray for divine intervention,” but like: “Well, do you think it might help if we held an intervention?” A nine-step program, if you will. You don’t set these things up for everyday problems. Nobody enjoys it, and we’d all rather be somewhere else, but if this doesn’t work, then nothing will. I kind of imagine the Holy Spirit slumping resignedly in a folding chair, drinking tepid coffee and willing at least to hear us out.
It’s been a long, long time. I’ve made dozens of resolves to sign up again, but I keep putting it off. But when we were going, my husband and I signed up as a couple, and each went on alternate weeks. Just two hours a month each, but it Made A Difference.
Sometimes when you go into the chapel, you feel wonderful. You feel like you’re coming home from a long and miserable trip, when everyone missed you terribly and is so glad to see you.
And sometimes you feel like a bored, itchy hypocrite who has no business taking up space in this weird, demanding religion. But I heard someone compare Adoration to standing in the sun: you may not notice it happening, but it will surely change you.
This is not so much a favorite devotion as an inescapable one. It’s kind of like taking your vitamins: it’s so easy, and it couldn’t hurt, so you might as well just do it every night. Gulp.
My kids enjoy it (we only do one decade a night) because eventually they will get to lead us in praying The Ascension. The little rats read “‘Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’” and then they deliberately pausebefore continuing with “Hail Mary . . .” so they can make one or two inattentive people think we’re up to the Glory Be already. They also like to trap house guests that way. Isn’t that nice? They’re wonderful children.
The Chaplet of Transition in Labor
When I’m in labor, I offer up the pain for people who suffer infertility. That sounds a lot more pious than it really is. Really, the only good thing about delivering babies is that, for once, you have something truly horrible to offer up–but, unlike other sacrifices, such as fasting or doing good works, you can’t get out of it. So you might as well try and get something out of it (besides the baby, I mean). Also “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world” is nice and rhythmic, and helps you breathe steadily.
ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, שהכל נהיה בדברו.
Ha ha, got you there! When I was little, we used to say the Hebrew blessing before meals (later, I found out it was Hebrew with a Brooklyn accent), and then we’d say it in English: “Blessed art Thou, o Lord our God, King of the universe, by Whose word all things exist.” It has such a wonderful rhythm of certainty at the end: “By Whose word All. Things. Exist.” I don’t know how to read Hebrew (although I did once advise someone on whether or not her mezuzah was upside down, so I know that much), but here is a transliteration of the prayer: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha‑olam, she‑hakol nih’ye bidvaro; and here is someone saying it.
There are actually several different prayers before meals, depending on what kind of food you will be eating. This may very well be technically the wrong prayer to use every day, but, you know, there’s a New Covenant and all. You’re covered.
Palming it Off On Someone Else
largely because I feel inept as an intercessory pray-er, and so had a hope that maybe somebody out there in the audience might have the charism I lack when it comes to having a clue how to pray. I thought I was being very clever fobbing this off on others; but, of course, what I stupidly failed to foresee was that this would inevitably result in lots more prayer requests for everything under the sun. I continue to post them, along with my fumbling two cents in the courts of the Almighty, advising Him on how to proceed. I haven’t the slightest clue whether my prayers do a lick of good for the person making the prayer request. But I figure that if I mix my prayers in with others who are closer to the Throne, then maybe they’ll get lost in the pack and I will look like I know what I’m doing.
I’m lazy enough to pass along a prayer request before actually praying about it myself, but scrupulous enough to feel bad about it; so generally, the act of making it public is enough to help me to remember to say at least a quickie prayer myself. Whereas if I only realize I should be praying for something, I’m all too prone to mistaking “I should pray about this” for actually praying. Maybe God, in his generosity, accepts even good intentions as prayer, but I’m not counting on it.
Act of Contrition
I love the Church so much. She knows that we’re so lame, so stupid, so weak and lazy that not only do we have to be required to go to confession once a year, but we need help figuring out how to say “I’m sorry.” Isn’t it great to have those words? They say it all — everything you’re thinking, and everything you ought to be thinking — and it feels so good to say them.
O my god, I am truly sorry for having offended Thee. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.
Whew. I mean, Amen.
Oh, wait! Here’s a bonus one.
A Strange Child’s Prayer
When my oldest daughter was about four, she wrote a prayer of her own. She understood the gerneral lingo, if nothing else. I wish I could find the baby book for this General Act of Praying, but the ended with: “Holy, holy, holy. Isn’t it holy?”
And don’t forget to check out Conversion Diary for other Seven Quick Takes, and link up if you’re doing your own!
I’ll admit it, I felt great watching the first half of Inglourious Basterds. We saw it a few weeks ago, and it was exactly the palate cleanser I thought I needed after that appalling gorgon Helen Thomas gave tongue to her revolting little swan song. It wasn’t Thomas herself who gave me concentration camp nightmares. What really made my flesh crawl were the throngs of little cockroach voices cheering her on in comboxes everywhere. (They feel safe to come out when it’s dark, you know). I know that people are at their worst when anonymously reacting to a news story, but I was horrified by the sheer numbers of those who felt comfortable shrieking out in fury against the Jews. Things have changed. You don’t have to be paranoid to realize that antisemitism is creeping back into style.
So I enjoyed this movie, at first. Who wouldn’t want to see pure evil get some payback for a change? The story was fascinating, and each scene was, of course, gorgeously shot. I laughed and laughed at the funny scenes, and in the tense scenes, I nearly chewed through the arm of the couch. Even though I covered my eyes while the avenging basterds carved up helpless Nazis by the dozen, I enjoyed it. On the whole, it was an entertaining, wildly original movie. But I felt sick and guilty by the end.
Not because of its incredibly brutal and graphic violence, which was, according to the Tarantino tradition, lovingly caressed by the camera so that not a single splat of brain tissue was left behind or forgotten. I think his ultraviolent genre is tiresome, but I can work around it and enjoy a movie, as long as my husband tells me when it’s safe to look.
The movie annoyed me because I don’t know what it was for. I guess it was, in part, supposed to be an indulgent revenge fantasy which makes reparations for the Holocaust, using the only means a movie maker has: by redoing it all on screen. This is the way things should have happened, right? It scratched that anti-evil itch. And as I said, I enjoyed it at first.
I don’t mind a movie that isn’t for or about anything, as long as it’s entertaining . . . unless it’s this one. Why? Because every time the Jews won, I was reminded of how, in real life, they didn’t. The revenge was so complete, so over-the-top, it stopped working for me. Hitler wasn’t merely gunned down at close range — his killer went back and sprayed more bullets, and more and more and more bullets, back and forth across his dead face. The sheer boundless triumph of the victory was answered, in my mind, by a persistent echo which said, louder and louder as the movie went on, “The opposite happened.” I’m sorry, I know this is terribly melodramatic, but the piles of dead children in my recent nightmares didn’t get much satisfaction from this film.
I had other problems with it, too. Why were there no Jews in it? I know there were supposed to be — but why did those characters not appear Jewish in any way? Okay, some of the actors had big brown eyes, but aside from that, there was not a speck of Jewish culture or sensibility to be found. That would have made the revenge more satisfying, if some of the avengers had been identifiable as Jews in anything but their thirst for vengeance.
There’s another big problem: vengeance isn’t actually an especially Jewish trait. Oh, in personal matters, maybe (just ask my husband). But in large matters, Jews thinktoo much to be able to carry out a plot so simple as utterly blotting out the enemy. Jews are never single-minded, but in this movie, all they had to say was “YAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!” as they gouged out larynxes with their bare hands, or whatever. No argument, no analysis, no guilt, and no jokes? Come on.
There was no sadness in the movie, either, only rage. That struck me as unforgivably lacking in a movie about Jews. Jews are always sad, even when they’re enjoying themselves.
I know you can argue that this wasn’t really a movie about the Holocaust, or about Jews, or about the war. I get that: it was about revenge in general. My husband thinks that, if the movie was saying anything at all, it was saying that revenge is hollow. It certainly felt that way by the end, with the distorted image of the giant face laughing maniacally as everything went up in flames — an image so tawdry and overblown that it had to be deliberately clichéd, right? So it wasn’t just a regular cliché, but an ironic cliché? Meant to show you that . . . what?
It was also clearly supposed to be a movie about movies. Everything happens within a theater, either literally (at the end, when all the biggest Nazis die) or figuratively (when the “German Sergeant York” is rewarded for killing Allies by starring as himself in a movie about killing Allies). References and homages to other films abound. Okay, so it’s about movies. But . . . what about movies?
Tarantino is so childish, but he frames scenes like a god, so it’s hard to stay away. He keeps hinting at gargantuan talent, but he’s so darn lazy: his movies are set up to be meaningful, but rarely deliver. Once again in this film, Tarantino is under the impression that he is actually saying something, when he merely sets the stage, and then rolls the credits.
I wouldn’t say “don’t watch this movie.” I would just caution you that you will feel agitated and unhappy inside after you do (and not only because of the nearly illegible yellow subtitles) . Quentin Tarantino is not going to grow up, so I just wish he would would hire a partner who could take his original ideas, his brilliant comic inspirations, his wild pairings of image and sound, and turn them into a movie that knows what it’s about.
What do you think? Am I missing something here? I was fully prepared to enjoy this movie, but it didn’t happen.