Vin Diesel, the Holocaust, and the Confusing Moral Perspective of Art From 'Other' Cultures
(WITH A FEW EXAMPLES, Ranked IN ORDER OF, I DON’T KNOW, INTELLECTUAL RIGOR. OR HOW MUCH THEY OFFEND MY MIDDLE CLASS MORALITY. OR HOW ABOUT IN REVERSE ORDER OF HOW MUCH MONEY THEY MADE. YOU KNOW WHAT? IT’S ALL THE SAME)
Narrative art tends to be better when it comes from a morally and emotionally complex place. That said, we tend to know who we’re rooting for. Generally, it’s the character we spend the most time with. Sometimes there are pretty obvious cues of who the bad guy is, like when it’s a Nazi, or a woman who cheats on her boyfriend Luke Wilson because he refuses to satisfy her sexual needs. And when we are living in a world of maximal moral uncertainty, the artist tends to emphasize that by, like, titling the movie “Doubt.”
There is art from a certain moral perspective, and art from an uncertain moral perspective. And then there is the occasional piece of narrative art that has a seemingly stable, certain moral perspective that is completely baffling.
I don’t mean “wrong.” I find the moral perspective of Ayn Rand’s works wrong, because I’m not a fascist. I and pretty much everyone else within 100 miles of the Atlantic Ocean find the moral perspective of Green Book wrong, because its view of racial reconciliation is so simplistic that it enables millions of people to convince themselves they aren’t racist simply because they voted for that movie with Viggo Mortenson. I find the moral perspective of Oldboy wrong because, among the artistic crimes of men when it comes to women, there is nothing that boils my blood like a woman character who chooses to die rather than hurt a man’s feelings. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. (Spoiler alert, I guess. That’s the genesis for the whole revenge plot in the movie Oldboy. You find it out in the end. Fuck that movie. Also The Age of Doubt by Andrea Camilleri, a book I’m sure you have not read and would have no reason to because it’s a middling entry in an Italian detective novel series that hasn’t made much impact in America, but still, fuck that book, don’t read it.) But in all those cases I at least understand the impulse, if I can’t respect it.
No, there is a special class of art that comes from a moral perspective that is simply baffling. That leaves you thinking “What? Was I supposed to like that person all along? Why is this even a story? What world does this exist in?”
The answer, in just about every case, is that the story exists in a different culture, and I’m talking about one of the fundamental aspects of foreignness--the idea that someone else would think things about what it means to live a good life that you simply don’t understand because you don’t know the place it comes from.
And yet...these are all works that were published in American mainstream media, which means that someone along the way paid a bunch of money because they thought the art would be good and make money. Movies are expensive to make; books less so, but it’s sure not easy to get published. So if you manage to get that art into the world, you must have a lot going for you; the product generally needs to meet a minimum standard of quality. To get that far, only for the work to have such a strange problem, well, it’s baffling all over again. And so you end up with art that, in the context presented, is bad, but in a really, really fascinating way.
Of the three works of art discussed below, two were damned with faint praise and I doubt many people remember them. The third, Slumdog Millionaire, won the Academy Award for Best Picture and made a lot of money, but like most feel-good mainstream love stories with sufficiently broad appeal to win a Best Picture award, it was forgotten pretty quickly. (The Academy Award for Best Picture: the east-coast intellectual’s version of damning with faint praise without offending old school racists such as the rest of the country. “Oh, give it Best Picture. He may be an archetypal white savior, but he seemed nice to the brown folks and at least he didn’t offend the British.” Oops.) It all goes to show, educated white people who live close to the North Atlantic have correct taste. Now that’s a moral perspective that would feed an army.
3. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
2008 British drama about a poor Indian boy who wins the prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Because the questions and answers dovetail with his life experiences in interesting ways. It won the Academy Award for best picture, among others.
It has not aged well, among other reasons because who gives a shit about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Anymore. That show was soooo popular for a few years and literally all of mainstream white America knew the rules so well that they were flattered by a random movie about brown people that are, hey look, they’re doing that thing we like!
Jamal is the game-show contestant. He has an older brother, Selim. Selim has been screwing Jamal over for Jamal’s entire life, including by kidnapping and perhaps enslaving Selim’s best friend/love interest Latika. When Jamal begins to succeed on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Selim has a change of heart and “frees” Latika (from sexual slavery I think? Not totally clear) so she can go be with Jamal.
Then Selim climbs into a bathtub full of money and whips out his gun. His crimelord boss’s goons figure out that he’s freed Latika and they run in and all die in a shootout.
The movie ends with Jamal and Latika meeting in a train station and kissing. There is a Bollywood-style musical number. The words “it is written” appear onscreen, implying that the confluence of bizarrely specific life events that provided Jamal with correct answers to trivia questions so he could win a million dollars and his dream girl were a matter of predestination.
It is confusing and offputting because:
First of all, I have a hard time with any work of art premised on predestination. “It is written”? Dude, there are characters in this movie that are purposefully blinded as children--with burning spoons, no less--to make them better beggars who will make more money for the crime lord. Was that written?
There are two possibilities. One is that we live in a world where some things are “written” and others are not, in which case the world may as well be arbitrary and meaningless, because we don’t know what is written or not, so we are obligated to act in our self-interest. The other possibility is that we live in a world where both true love and blinding children with spoons are “written,” in which case the world may as well be arbitrary and meaningless because some unknown writer is doing that shit to us and we can’t control it, so we might as well act in our own self-interest to the extent we delude ourselves that we have a choice. Either way...even those of us who pretend they know what’s “written” and what isn’t are clearly wrong, so who cares.
This is especially problematic when it comes to Selim. Selim appears to enslave people and is extremely self-interested. Unlike Jamal and Latika, Selim aggressively chooses his path in the world. He even chooses the extremely dramatic setting and style of his own death.
I want to stress this: Selim knows the goons are after him, and he’s probably going to die. Does he come up with an elaborate defense plan or something? No. He climbs into a bathtub full of money and goes down with his guns firing. It is so, so cool.
So on the one hand, the movie is saying that hooray, true love, yadda yadda, “it is written.” That is the obvious, top-level messaging. On the other hand, the movie is saying “check out this cool motherfucker who does whatever he wants because life is arbitrary and violent but you have a choice in how you die, so you might as well die the way you want to.”
The latter perspective is way, way more compelling, and more convincing and true to life. It is baffling to me that the movie seems to disagree.
Should you watch it: I’d consider it a waste of time.
2. Find Me Guilty (2006)
2006 comedy-drama starring America’s favorite Street Shark salesman Vin Diesel. It was produced by Diesel’s own company along with another random indie producer.
Peter Dinklage also appears, as a defense attorney whose dwarfism is irrelevant to the plot. That seems like the right call, generally--to this day, it’s not all that common for a movie to have non-white, non-heteronormative, non-able bodied (etc.) characters in mainstream movies who have gravitas and a plot arc independent from their Otherness. Frankly, it was a bit weird that this movie chose to distinguish itself in this way in 2006. But hey, good job!
Vin Diesel plays Jackie DiNorscio, a real-life mobster who not only refused to rat out his buddies, but also decided to represent himself pro se during a criminal trial against two dozen mobsters. The other mobsters (represented by defense attorney Dinklage) are unhappy with him because he refuses their offer of legal representation. But he is so charming, and makes such a charismatic speech about the other mobsters, that he gets them all off scot-free.
Vin Diesel gained a bunch of weight for this role. I think I watched him on a daytime talk show about it, explaining how hard it was for him to sit around all day eating ice cream and not weightlifting.
It is confusing and offputting because:
The movie makes it pretty damn clear that the other mobsters are all guilty of “racketeering,” and also murder, extortion, drug peddling, etc. It celebrates DiNorscio for (a) refusing to be a rat, and (b) making an impassioned plea to the jury to “find me guilty” but to let these men go home to their families. And he succeeds! Cool. But...he just kept a bunch of murderous thugs on the streets? Where they may have resumed murdering people?
It’s like if you imagine The Godfather, with middling production values, and you don’t see any of the mob violence or cool crime stuff, you just see a bunch of assholes convincing a jury they shouldn’t go to jail for the crimes they clearly committed. And also, the hero is the guy who, unlike his buddy who stabbed him, refuses to talk to the cops.
The prosecutors and cops, the whole white establishment government side of the movie here, are a bunch of clowns. You aren’t meant to think that the individual attorneys and cops are worthy of winning here--and I’m fine with that. Verisimilitude, baby. But the movie’s perspective is that in the broader sense, “justice” lies on the side of the Italian mobsters who refuse to rat on their friends.
In other words, the only way this movie’s moral perspective makes any sense is if you think that (a) the worst thing you can be in life is an informant, (b) the government is the enemy, (c) Italian mobsters are the greatest, and (d) FAMILY, BABY!
On reflection, this is sort of a motif in Vin Diesel’s career. He is a muscle-y action star who also believes in the importance of “family,” in the extended, bro-y meaning of the word, no homo. This movie is Vin Diesel in a nutshell, minus Vin Diesel’s muscles and propensity to violence, plus a lot of talking. WHY.
My best guess: because the movie was funded by the mafia. I have no factual evidence for that. It’s just that the movie only makes sense coming from mafia culture. (I guess you could argue that it’s a-moral, that it’s just a farce about the human condition, and the fact that Sidney Lumet directed lends credence to that view, but the courtroom scenes are too earnest for me to believe it.) As much as we like mob movies, I think most Americans don’t actually believe that violent criminals should go free because they believe family is important.
Should you watch it: Sure, why not.
1. Bernhard Schlink, Homecoming (2006, Trans. Michael Henry Heim, 2008).
(and, to some extent, The Reader (1995, Trans. Carol Brown Janeway, 1997).
Bernhard Schlink is an interesting guy. His father was a renowned Lutheran theologian, and I have no idea what to do with that information, except to note that Homecoming is a story about a guy who seems facially somewhat like Bernhard Schlink and the character’s father is a prominent academic and also a Nazi. (I have not found anything to suggest Edmund Schlink was a Nazi, he seems to have been pretty opposed to Nazism, but did he do enough? Do any of us? This book asks some interesting questions, but not those.)
More importantly, Schlink is German and was a successful attorney, law professor, and judge when he started writing crime novels in his mid-40s. In 1995, he published The Reader, which is a good book--a pretty compassionate and morally complex novel about the post-war German reckoning with the holocaust. The movie version of it is pretty good. More on that below!
Homecoming was a followup of sorts to The Reader in that it was another take on the post-war German reckoning with the holocaust. A copy was given to me while I was backpacking in the Czech Republic; I think my host had a connection to the publisher. It’s not the kind of thing I would ordinarily read and I doubt many people have heard of this book. I’m sure I only read it because I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was a person of Jewish descent traveling through Central Europe, so, you know, feelings.
A German man born during the war grows up never knowing his father, but he’s obsessed with this novel he finds at his grandparents’ house. The novel is a sort of modern retelling of The Odyssey, featuring a German soldier’s attempts to return from the war. Turns out, the book is written by, and about, the protagonist’s father. (Spoiler alert! Come on. When I first read the book, I glazed over the scene where the protagonist is hanging at his grandparents’ house and finds a random book, because it seemed boring. Then, hundreds of pages later, the character was still really focused on that book, and I had to go back to it. On second glance, when you have a character going (1) hey, I wonder what happened to my dad who didn’t come back from the war, and then (2) whoa, a cool and mysterious book about a guy who took a long time to come back from the war to his family…you get it.)
It turns out the father is very much alive, and he’s a sort of famous public intellectual literary type who has charmed his way through life despite evidently committing Nazi war crimes.
Towards the end of the book, the father’s Nazi past becomes public. He goes on an American tv show--I think it either is, or is modeled on, the Dick Cavett show--and explains that certain literary critical theory about The Odyssey excuses his affiliation with Nazism. The public accepts this explanation and nobody seems interested in prosecuting him for his war crimes. Then the book ends.
I’m not kidding or exaggerating. Literally, the end of the book is a Nazi goes on tv and is like, “the Homeric epic The Odyssey tells us important things about life, and for that reason it is ok to be a Nazi.” The end.
It is confusing and offputting because:
Re-read those last couple of paragraphs. WHAT THE FUCK.
The TV show South Park invented the “Chewbacca Defense” as a sort of spoof on the attorney Johnnie Cochran, the obvious joke being that Cochran distracted a jury with the “Glove don’t fit you must acquit” defense and allowed O.J. Simpson to get away with murder:
Not just the father’s final speech, but the whole of Homecoming is basically the Chewbacca Defense. Both the main characters and the novel itself get very wrapped up in The Odyssey, to the point that the author himself seems to be saying that The Odyssey is more important than the holocaust. Unlike South Park, Homecoming does not ground its Chewbacca Defense with any sort of commentary on the absurdity of the resulting verdict. Instead, it ends.
Should you read it:
I kind of want more people to read this book and validate my reaction to it, so, yes.
More importantly, I definitely think anyone who read The Reader should read Homecoming. Although it’s a good book about many things, the crux of The Reader is the question of the guilt (or not) of a poor, illiterate woman who got a job as a Nazi guard, and she was guarding a bunch of Jews who were in a barn when it caught fire, and she locked the doors on them, because what was she going to do, let them all escape and run around and shit? So they all die.
If I (and others) had one complaint about The Reader, it was that it--meaning both the book and its characters--seemed to let the woman off a bit easy for essentially murdering hundreds of people. But you know, Schlink made it very believable and sympathetic, and you hurt for the woman. (Then again, the woman was a fully realized character, and the Jews were just an anecdote, and that’s the danger of storytelling.) So I gave Schlink the benefit of the doubt on it. And frankly, it was very cathartic to see a German man of that generation struggling so deeply with guilt over the holocaust. After reading Homecoming, I start to wonder if he didn’t struggle enough. But I really appreciate Schlink for struggling at all. For every Bernhard Schlink out there, wondering how much we should feel guilty for the genocides of times past, there are literally a million people who don’t give a shit, and probably a good five thousand neo-Nazis.
Schlink is writing about what it’s like to be a German, now, and deal with the guilt and the history. He’s not primarily engaged in a holocaust apology, nor is he obligated to so engage. In a sense, this falls into a broader category of works by and about non-Jewish people in Central Europe during the war, that American Jews have a hard time with because we’re screaming inside that what the fuck are you doing, don’t you know what’s going on, you have to stop it, if you try to ignore it you are complicit. (See also: I Served the King of England, the movie version, which certainly condemns its protagonist as a Nazi collaborator but then seems to imply that his obsession with material wealth was his real problem, such that when he settles down to a quiet life of spiritual contemplation he’s really absolved himself for, you know, helping the Nazis.) While there’s some validity to those feelings, if American Jews really feel that way about the relationship between humanitarian atrocities and art, they should stop writing about their dicks and head to the Southern Border.
As bad as the holocaust was, it is one among many holocausts, and arguably not even the worst holocaust of the past century. People have to keep living their lives, and I guess they have to think weird things about those lives, and even about their holocausts. (How often do I think about the Native American genocide? Not often!) I don’t see the world the way Schlink does in Homecoming, or even The Reader, and I’m not sure it’s even logically defensible, but it’s at least a pretty interesting view and represents an argument that the struggle to understand and atone for the sins of the past is a crucial element of modern intellectual life. It’s something!