It’s probably impossible to count the number of film reviews that attack kitschy takes on the Holocaust like this: “an impossible movie that has no reason for being other than as another pop-culture palliative for a trauma it can’t bear to face.”
Or like this: “This is how kitsch works. It exploits familiar images, be they puppies or babies …and tries to make us feel good, even virtuous, simply about feeling.”
The thing is, these lines don’t come from a review about a Holocaust film. They’re from a review of the new film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” about Sept. 11. The review in discussion is Manohla Dargis’ in today’s New York Times. And as the reviews for the film, which opens in select theaters on Christmas Day, start to trickle in, you’ll read many more like them.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling novel, from 2005. And it doesn’t seem to have shaken the same criticism leveled against the book a half-decade ago.
Namely, it’s the issue of how to render a tragedy like 9/11 through art. Dargis’ beef is that while, yes, the film made her bawl like a baby, it was still cruelly manipulative. The tears came at the cost of truly grappling with the specificity and horror of the attacks, and instead went for trite, easy treacle: the film, like the book, revolves around a precious young boy who loses his father (Tom Hanks).
That it happened to come against the backdrop of the attacks is almost a side-point, she argues. And when the twin towers do come in the picture, the images refurbished are so frontally aggressive—the falling man; recycled images from newscasts that day—that it seems as if the filmmakers (Stephen Daldry, the director; Eric Roth, the screenwriter) didn’t even try to look deeper.
When Foer’s novel came out, many critics had the same reaction: he was exploiting the tragedy. But what’s remarkable is not that now, a decade removed, critics still are any less suspended in grief. What’s astonishing, for me at least, is how much the critical response mirrors past responses to the Holocaust represented in art. Adorno’s now exhausted notion of there being no poetry after Auschwitz seems to have gotten a second wind since Sept. 11.
What I fear is not that there haven’t been great works of art, be they in film, fiction or photography, that have failed to accomplished the difficult task of remaining sensitive to a historical tragedy, while still using it as a vehicle for art. It’s that we, as Americans, are simply not prepared to even broach the subject.