Sunday, March 31, 2024

An Irish Movie and a Lesson for Poles

Happy Easter. 

On March 15, 2024, the New York Times published an article. 

Back in 1927, MGM released "The Callahans and the Murphys," a comedy that relied for humor on negative stereotypes of Irish people. 

According to the NYT article, Irish people protested AND THE MOVIE DISAPPEARED FOREVER. 

You can read the full Times article here.

The lesson for Poles is obvious. If you don't like how media depicts you, unite, organize, and change things. 

At least partly because Poles have not done that effectively, negative stereotypes persist.  

Below is an excerpt from the article. 

Several Irish American organizations lodged complaints about the depiction of Irish life as one long, intoxicated slugfest. MGM blithely defended the film as good-natured fun, only to realize that an intractable Hibernian grudge was taking hold, as this internal studio telegram  reflects:


Worried about its investment, MGM made several cuts and changes to stem the growing outrage among the country’s Irish Catholics — who, it should be noted, already felt under attack by a resurgent and powerful Ku Klux Klan that mocked their faith and questioned their patriotism.


Friday, March 29, 2024

Jon Stewart's Daily Show Polish Joke Was Not Anti-Polish


In February, 2024, Jon Stewart, after returning to the Daily Show, told a Polish joke.
Some, not many, Polish people protested.


Their protest is wrongheaded.


Jon Stewart is a comedian. One does not take at face value what comedians telling jokes say.


In the same show, Stewart said he would welcome tutoring in how to be a successful media figure from Tucker Carlson. He calls Carlson "sensei" and "master." Stewart hates Tucker Carlson. He is saying one thing. He means something else. That kind of communication is typical for comedy.


Stewart is in fact identifying Tucker Carlson as a menace. He criticizes Carlson for not resisting Vladimir Putin saying that "World War II was Poland's fault because they forced Nazi Germany to invade."


Clearly, Stewart is horrified by Carlson's refusal to take on an evil man who is threatening Poland and currently attacking Ukraine.


Putin, interviewed by Carlson, says, "Hitler asked for Gdansk amicably but they refused." Carlson nods and says, "Of course."


Carlson's position is grotesque. THAT is what Jon Stewart is criticizing.


Stewart insists that it is absurd to say that Poland started World War II. "Poland's navy had submarines with screen doors." That is a Polish joke. It is ridiculous and passé. Stewart is saying that Carlson's agreeing with Putin's statement is as ridiculous as an outdated and not very funny Polish joke. Stewart is not endorsing the Polish joke.


In case there are some who don't understand what Stewart is doing, he breaks from his normal delivery and provides historical context to the history of Polish jokes. He is making clear that he is not endorsing Polish jokes. He is mocking Tucker Carlson's absurdity.


"Poles are as smart as anyone and did not deserve to be invaded by the Germans," he explains.


Minutes later, Stewart makes an Italian joke. He's not endorsing Italian jokes. He's continuing his criticism of Tucker Carlson's absurdities, as Carlson praises a Moscow subway station and a supermarket, two sites that do not in any way reflect the lives of average Russians, many of whom don't even have indoor plumbing.


By the way, some Poles protesting against Jon Stewart's performance make sure to identify him by his birth name, "Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz." They do this to emphasize that Jon Stewart is Jewish. In this instance, that emphasis is antisemitic. It doesn't matter what ethnicity someone is in this circumstance. Stewart was not being anti-Polish in his February Daily Show performance. Many of us got that, and most Polish people did not protest.

"Moving Past Pierogi: The New Face of Polish Cuisine" Saveur

Saveur published "Moving Past Pierogi: The New Face of Polish Cuisine" on March 22, 2024. 

Saveur reports, 

"When someone says 'Polish food,' what dishes come to mind? If you’ve conjured up images of hearty gołąbki, kiełbasa, and bigos, you’re not alone—as proven by one look at the 71,000-strong Facebook group I Love My Polish Heritage. But back in Poland, people’s eating habits are changing rapidly, and today those traditional dishes are more the exception than the rule. 'Polish people don’t eat pierogi with farmer’s cheese and potatoes, or cabbage rolls, or schabowy much anymore. These dishes do appear on our plates but don’t dominate our diets,' says Michał Korkosz, author of Fresh from Poland: New Vegetarian Cooking from the Old Country, and Polish’d: Modern Vegetarian Cooking from Global Poland. What’s more, meat-and-potatoes is certainly not what’s currently being served in Warsaw’s top restaurants, where a quiet revolution is taking place."

This interesting article includes a bit of history of Polish cuisine along with commentary on how Polish cuisine has changed in recent years. 

Thank you to Piotr for sending this in. 😀

La Presse, a Montreal Daily, Publishes Antisemitic Cartoon of Netanyahu


La Presse, a Montreal daily, published the above antisemitic cartoon of Benjamin Netanyahu. I wonder if they have ever published a comparable cartoon of a Muslim terrorist mass murderer? 

La Presse depicted a Jew as a vampire. Vampires drink blood. The blood libel has been used as an excuse to kill Jews for hundreds of years. La Presse is shameful. 

Reports are that La Presse has removed the cartoon. 

Candace Owens, Antisemitism, and American Conservatism


My book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype shows that one cannot understand antisemitism in Poland or Eastern Europe without also understanding antisemitism anywhere else. Singling Poles or other Eastern Europeans out as "the world's worst anti-Semites" distorts rather than clarifies. It is morally corrupt, and it is cowardly. Demonizing Eastern Europeans harms, not helps, any efforts to address antisemitism. If we want to resist antisemitism, we must begin in our own backyards, and then address the rest of the world. Antisemites worldwide tend to have more in common than not.


The Candace Owens antisemitism scandal highlights a problem on the American right. Under Trump, the right abandoned traditional values like intact families, personal responsibility, and lower taxes. The right embraced a convicted rapist, business cheat, and foul-mouthed bully. In its support for a demagogue, the right opened the door to horrors, including misogyny, xenophobia, and antisemitism. Of course there is antisemitism on the left, but under Trump, antisemitism on the right is becoming more prominent. Candace Owens is just one manifestation of that.

One Life and Nicky's Family: Two Films Dramatize WW II Rescue of Refugees from Prague


One Life and Nicky's Family
Two films depict the rescue of over six hundred children from Nazis


The 2023 biopic One Life concludes with a very moving scene. An elderly man is surprised by a televised celebration of heroic deeds he performed when he was young. I could not resist the scene's power. I cried. I made sniffling sounds. I didn't even try to apply the emotional brakes.


If only the rest of the movie were as good as that final scene.


One Life dramatizes the life of Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE. When he was 29 years old, Winton participated in an effort to save Jewish children from oncoming Nazis. His heroism warrants an uplifting, inspirational, unforgettable film. I was worried when I saw that One Life would be released in the US on March 15. Early March is part of the "dump months" when movies that haven't tested well are released.


One Life is not a bad movie. It's just not good enough. I'd give it a six out of ten, but, given that the subject matter is so important and so appealing, I will nudge that up to a seven. Nicky Winton deserves an eleven out of ten.


As I left the theater, I asked, "Who was Nicholas Winton? Why did he perform these heroic acts? How did he perform them?" One Life didn't answer those questions for me. I spent hours reading about Winton. I stumbled across a movie I'd never heard of before. Nicky's Family is a 2011, English language, Czech and Slovak documentary. It is currently streaming for free. Nicky's Family moved me deeply, answered my questions, and worked for me.

Friday, March 8, 2024

The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest: Three Terrific New Films

 The Peasants is the single most beautiful film I've ever seen. The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust film. Both were shot, at least in part, in Poland. The Boys in the Boat tells a World War II story. 

The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest:
Three great films best seen in a theater


Friend, I beg of you. Go to a theater and see three great movies sometime soon: The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest.  


Leopold Staff, a Polish poet who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, said that "Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all." Movies are democratic. They are accessible and they are communal. It's fashionable to declare one's superiority by sneering at popular culture. It's harder to sneer when you remember that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fearless counter-jihadi, was inspired by Nancy Drew novels, and that Top Gun and Saving Private Ryan drove military recruitment. Politics is downstream from culture. The culture we support with our ticket-buying dollars is as important as the candidates we support with our votes.


We get something from publicly watching a movie together with our fellow citizens. The Major and the Minor is a 1942 screwball comedy. I'd watched it a couple of times at home, alone, on a small TV screen before seeing it for the first time in a jam-packed, Greenwich Village art house theater. In that crowd of rollicking laughter, I suddenly realized what a very naughty movie The Major and the Minor is. Its double entendres had flown right over my head. While watching Gone with the Wind, a loud and spontaneous sigh erupted when the camera zoomed in on Rhett Butler's handsome face (see here). Gathering in the ladies room after a movie like that is a genre of psychotherapy. While washing your hands you ask complete strangers, "Do you think Scarlett and Rhett ever got back together?" You comfort and enlighten each other and the world is warmer, more connected, less lonely and tense. Mel Gibson's The Passion depicts Christ's torture, crucifixion, and death in grisly detail. Three Muslim guys took seats directly behind me. They were joking sarcastically. Clearly, they were in the theater to mock. After the film ended, I turned around to check on them. One was doubled over, distraught. His companions were rubbing his back and speaking softly to him.


The loss of public movie-going erodes not just community, but also art. Ali's well is a famous, eight-minute scene in Lawrence of Arabia. Most of what we see is a completely flat, lifeless, tan desert landscape against a blue sky unbroken by any cloud. Two men draw water from a desert well. A tiny dot appears on the horizon. Slowly we realize that that dot is a man approaching on a camel. He shoots one of the men to death. As we wait, and wait, and wait for the approaching man  to arrive, we experience a fraction of the desert: the emptiness, the boredom, the terror, the sudden and irrational violence, the value system so very different from our own. That scene could never move us in the same way on a small screen. And, when we are watching alone on a small screen, we can fast forward through the parts we don't like, like, say, the grim depictions of the Holocaust in Schindler's List.


My students, trained on media that rushes and delivers jolts of violence and sex aimed at the lizard brain's reward-squirting mechanisms, lack the ability to sit through a scene like Ali's well. They also have trouble sitting through a complex lecture on current events, or a long story of personal struggle told by a friend. Movies, like all art, have the potential to train us to be our best selves.


The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest are three very different films, but they are all innovative, in different ways. Peasants is so innovative another movie like it may never be made again. Zone rewrote how the Holocaust will be treated in film, and how it will be understood. Boys is rebellious, counter-cultural filmmaking in ways I'll detail below. All three films have much to say about our current politico-cultural landscape. Each addresses community. Each, given their visual and auditory artistry and impact, should be seen in a theater.