Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Reading

A Comedy About Tragedy — Norman L. Eisen on how The Grand Budapest Hotel pays tribute to the Holocaust.

Like so many others, I spent last month’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in remembrance of the Holocaust. I quietly contemplated the past, thought about family members who had survived, and those who had perished, attended a commemorative ceremony, said Kaddish, and shed some tears. And then I watched a comedy—Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is nominated for nine Academy Awards at this Sunday’s ceremony.

How can comedy ever be appropriate when it comes to remembering such solemn events? I first asked that question about the film three years ago, before it was even made. At the time I was the U.S. Ambassador in Prague, and the filmmakers reached out to say that they were researching a movie set in the fictional land of Zubrowka (a stand in for the Czech lands) during the 1930s, concluding in 1938 and told in flashback from 1968 (two very bleak years in Czech history, marking the Nazi and the Soviet invasions). Would I help?

As the child of a Czech survivor of Auschwitz who later fled the Communists, I was dubious. But when I sat with the director, Wes Anderson, and heard his vision, I immediately went from skeptic to champion for the same reason I turned to the film again last month: It’s one of the smartest and most sophisticated movies ever made about both the causes of the Holocaust and its consequences.

First, its characters are a warm tribute to the three main populations targeted by the Nazis. M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hero of the film and the head concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, is openly bisexual (thousands of men arrested after being condemned as homosexuals were estimated to have died in concentration camps). His sidekick, the young lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), is a refugee whose family was slaughtered in their village, standing in for the Roma and other “non-Aryan” ethnic minorities the Holocaust also targeted. The two men are aided throughout by a Jewish lawyer, Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum).

Second, the film focuses on the Nazis’ motivations, a poisonous cocktail of bias, greed, and disdain for law. Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the leader of an SS-like organization (the “ZZ”) engages in a madcap pursuit of the heroes all over Zubrowka, attempting to seize a valuable painting from them illegally, assaulting the rule of law and, eventually, Kovacs.

Third and most important, the film’s use of comedy turns out to offer a fresh way to talk about the run-up to World War II and the Communist era that followed. So much has already been said about those eras, and properly so. But with the passing of the generation of the eyewitnesses, and the advent of new generations with their own sensibilities, how do we continue the conversation? The film succeeded at doing that through a comic lens—the very thing that initially troubled me.

Talking about the most serious subjects with the help of comedy is a long European tradition running from Aristophanes to Voltaire to Jonathan Swift to Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose works were a principal influence of the film. That tradition was particularly strong in the real-life Zubrowka, Czechoslovakia, where Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik sent up militarism, Franz Kafka’s novels and stories mocked bureaucracy, and Havel’s comic plays helped bring down Communism.

These artists recognized that profound issues deserve to be looked at through every single human lens, and no issue is perhaps more profound than the Holocaust, its causes and consequences. The Grand Budapest Hotel also joins a film tradition that tackles this era through humor, including Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1941, nominated for five Oscars), Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942, one Oscar nomination), and Life Is Beautiful (1997-98, four Oscars, eight nominations). There have also been some spectacular failures in this regard, including Robin Williams’ Jakob the Liar, set in a ghetto, and most notoriously, Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, a film that was apparently so bad it was never released.

Wisely, Anderson avoided the war itself and its mass murder, setting his film in the period before and after instead. Which is decent: There are places that comedy, as important as it is, should hesitate to tread, and the inside of a concentration camp is surely first among them. (Life Is Beautiful being the exception that proves the rule.) That approach is not only fitting, but also opens a door for viewers who might otherwise hesitate to encounter that whole painful era. To be sure, the period also needs to continue to be addressed head on. But hundreds of thousands of people who might otherwise shy away saw this movie, and took away its important lessons about tolerance, governance, and the rule of law. That matters.

Marriage Equality Navajo Style — Julie Turkewitz reports that the Navajo nation is considering repealing the ban on same-sex marriage.

TOHATCHI, N.M. — Tradition reigns here on the Navajo reservation, where the words of elders are treated as gospel and many people still live or pray in circular dwellings called hogans.

The national debate over gay marriage, however, is prompting some Navajos to re-examine a 2005 tribal law called the Dine Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex unions on the reservation. Among the tribal politicians who have said they are amenable to repealing the law is Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, who has said he will go along with a repeal if the Navajo Nation Council votes in favor of it.

And at least one Navajo presidential aspirant — Joe Shirley Jr., a former president who is running again — favors legalizing same-sex marriage. “Our culture dictates acceptance,” Mr. Shirley, 67, said of gay Navajos in a slow, grandfatherly tone during an interview. “They are part of our family, they are our children, and we don’t need to be partial.”

A second presidential contender, Chris Deschene, 43, who was disqualified from running but might be able to get back into the race, said he was “most likely” to support gay marriage.

To Navajo traditionalists, however, the rapid redefinition of marriage in states around the country has made the 2005 tribal law more important than ever.

“It’s not for us,” Otto Tso, a Navajo legislator and medicine man from the western edge of the reservation, said of gay marriage. “We have to look at our culture, our society, where we come from, talk to our elders.”

“I do respect gay people,” he continued, but as far as permitting same-sex unions, “I would definitely wait on that.”

The United States Supreme Court is expected to decide this year whether states can prohibit same-sex marriages, a move with the potential to lead to the legalization of gay unions in all 50 states. But the ruling would not apply to the Navajo Nation, because the country’s 556 tribes are sovereign entities.

Leading the charge for gay marriage here is Alray Nelson, 29, a top aide to Mr. Shirley, the presidential contender. Mr. Nelson, who would like to marry his partner, Brennen Yonnie, has pushed for years to repeal the Dine Marriage Act and has a small coalition of core supporters — about 15 of them, he said. But some gay Navajos, he said, have not joined the coalition for fear they will be ostracized.

Other gay tribal citizens say they support same-sex marriage but do not consider marriage rights a priority, pointing out that many gay Navajos suffer from drug abuse and debilitating depression.

Fixing these ills, said Jeremy Yazzie, 33, who counsels gay and transgender Navajos, is far more important. “Everyone is worried about repealing the gay marriage act,” Mr. Yazzie said. “That’s far from my work. How can we love somebody else if we can’t even love ourselves?”

Mr. Nelson and Mr. Yonnie, 29, a caseworker for the tribal welfare agency, could marry in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the states that border the reservation, if they wanted. “These states surrounding the Navajo Nation are taking big steps forward — steps for equality,” Mr. Nelson said. “The Navajo Nation is not.”

The GOP’s Ugly Side — Elias Isquith in Salon says that Rudy Giuliani says what a lot of the Republicans are thinking.

The thoroughly odious Giuliani’s whole political career has been built on an edifice of thinly-veiled racism and ferocious demagoguery, so it wasn’t a surprise to see him channel such toxic undercurrents. (And it is similarly unsurprising to see him defend himself by cribbing the “Obama is anti-colonial” argument from Dinesh D’Souza, a far-right provocateur and convicted felon who recently called the president a “boy” from the “ghetto.”) But Giuliani’s incendiary drivel was firmly in step with much of the conservative movement right now, which has begun to nurture a Captain Ahab-like obsession with what it sees as a telltale sign of Obama’s foreign nature — namely, his refusal to describe ISIS as Islamic, and his insistence that extremism, rather than Islamic extremism, is a danger to the globe.

The right’s been banging this drum for years now, of course. But the rumble has predictably begun to sound more like rolling thunder as the medieval sadism of ISIS has become regular front-page news. For example, when the administration held a three-day global conference earlier this week about thwarting violent extremism, leading voices in the right-wing media — like the New York Post, Fox News and Matt Drudge — saw reason to spend untold amounts of time and energy slamming the president for refusing to use those two magic words. The “theory” proffered by talking heads on Fox and pundits at National Review held that Obama’s stubbornness was a result of political correctness. On a more underground level, though, it was easier to see the subtext: He’s a secret Muslim! (The actual reason has gone totally unmentioned.)

If you’re the kind of conservative who likes to think of yourself as more William F. Buckley than Michael Savage, this must all be at least slightly embarrassing. But the problem for the Republican establishment and its sympathizers is that the GOP base’s resurgent Christian ethno-nationalism isn’t merely gauche; it’s politically dangerous. The Giuliani example offers a case in point. Because while most of the folks who were there to hear “America’s Mayor” were generic GOP fat cats, one of the men present was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the current lead challenger to the front-running Jeb Bush. And if I were one of the establishment kingmakers Walker’s trying to seduce, I would have found his handling of the Giuliani contretemps very disconcerting.

Instead of going with the usual soft-touch scolding we expect of a presidential candidate responding to nastiness from one of their own, Walker tried to avoid expressing any opinion at all. He told the folks at CNBC that Giuliani “can speak for himself” and that he was “not going to comment” on whether he agreed that the president of the United States of America hates the United States of America. When he was pressed to state whether he found Giuliani’s remarks offensive, Walker merely answered with some “aw, shucks” cornpone bullshit: “I’m in New York. I’m used to people saying things that are aggressive.”

Needless to say, playing footsie with this kind of bomb-throwing is not going to cost Walker much in the Iowa plains or in the rolling hills of South Carolina. And Walker, who’s no dummy or slouch, seems well aware that he can only win the nomination if he’s as viable in the rarefied air of the Republican establishment as he is among the Tea Party masses. Which means there’s no upside to taking a bat to Giuliani for saying what many, many conservatives — including those at ostensibly respectable outlets — believed already. But that’s exactly the problem that confronts the adults in the GOP: If the economy is good enough to reduce the appeal of a “pragmatic” candidate like Bush, the party rank-and-file will want more Giuliani-style lizard-brained tribalism instead.

Doonesbury — Go figure.