muccamukk: Milady with her chin on her hand, looking pensive. (Musketeers: Thinking)
[personal profile] muccamukk
I'd been avoiding this one because the plot (Gregory Peck pretends to be Jewish in order to write a magazine series on anti-Semitism) sounded unbelievably cheesy and liable to trigger my embarrassment squick so hard that I would be forced to fling myself into the bay. Having been assured that it's "Not totally cringeworthy" and also been lured in by Dean Stockwell (who also played Peck's son in Valley of Decision for 2.5 scenes, but wasn't credited, and I didn't recognise him), plus it being in the middle of Peck's wounded gazelle phase, Nenya and I decided to give it a go.

It wasn't totally cringeworthy. Though I did watch the first part while slightly high, which may have helped. (Peck: I even know the title, "I was Jewish for six months!" Me: I am not NEARLY high enough for this.)

I've been thinking a lot about what it was trying to do, what it managed to do, and what all that looked like seventy years later.

What it was trying to do: Show that microaggressions and polite blacklisting is in its own way as harmful as outright bigotry of the style of the KKK. And further more that unless you actively stand up against those things, that it's more or less irrelevant what you personally think of Jews. If you're not actively opposing anti-Semitism, then you're supporting it, regardless of your own beliefs. It was targetted at an upper-middleclass/upperclass audience, and it mostly did what it said on the tin. There was certainly a flavour of "Oh wow, it sucks to be in an oppressed group! Who knew!?" but it wasn't as bad as it could have been, and was blunted by having an actual Jewish character talk about his experiences. It also manages to be classist as hell, but that's no surprise.

Unfortunately, the love interest who was a sweet but somewhat vapid school teacher got to be the exemplar of "Good intentioned but will throw friends under bus to avoid making waves," which made me really want Peck to dump her and go off with his brassy co-worker. (Nenya: It's supposed to be motivational, stop being anti-Semitic, and you'll get to sleep with Gregory Peck!) Plus it was one of those 15 seconds to engagement plots, and we couldn't really see why they were into each other (other than the obvious) so it was pretty hard to root for the canon romance. However, Peck and the Jewish friend where slashier than I've ever seen him in a movie that also has women in it. Their life goal was to live together and raise their families together. There was a lot of manly shoulder clapping and exclamations of joy on seeing each other (fair as friend had been overseas, but STILL).

The Jewish friend treats Peck's project with the gentle bemusement of someone who's seen his BFF head off on any number of Quests for Truth and Justice, and is at most mildly charmed that this one is on his behalf. He's more worried about finding a house in post-war NYC, with a side order of worrying that his friend is going to hurt himself. Anti-Semitism in America is not really what he's focusing his energy on in the moment, because frankly if he lets himself get wound up about it, he's going to burn out, and he has a family to feed. (Though we do see him willing to punch someone who calls him a slur to his face. This movie is not afraid to use brutal bigoted language, that's for sure.)

There are three other Jewish characters, no mentions of Jewish culture or history. No mention of the Holocaust whatsoever, though it may be implied to have happened in one scene. Jewish character #1 works on the same magazine, and doesn't want to do this essay because it will "Stir up trouble." (He's almost certainly a stand in for the Jewish studio bosses in Hollywood who told Zanuk the exact same thing when he wanted to make this movie.) He later teases Peck when he finds out he is Christian, in the fine school of making fun of him for over-earnestness. Character#2 is Peck's secretary, who has changed her name to get the job, and doesn't want to have an open hire policy because then the company might hire more "[slur]y Jews" and cause trouble for the ones that are passing. She's pretty much the definition of self-hating minority, and is treated to a lecture and a good deal of disdain, which was pretty hard to take. Character #3 is an Einstein stand in, who gets a monologue about how as an atheist he doesn't really see the point in calling himself Jewish, since atheist Christians don't identify as Christian, but upon reflection if everyone's going to continue to be a dick to the Jews, then he supposes he'll have to stick it out out of pride. (Then he hits on Peck's love interest.) It's the closest to a Holocaust reference we get. Which is an interesting choice for a move made in 1946/47. ("Some people hate Catholics. Some people hate Jews," Peck explains to Dean Stockwell. He does not add, "And a few years ago some people tried to wipe every single Jew off the face of the Earth, and our government did fuck all about it when it started, so it's probably time to reconsider society's choices in this regard." But he is talking to an eleven year old. To his mother, he talks about how she had to explain this to him, and he doesn't want his son have to explain it.)

What it ends up being, though possibly not intentionally, it an indictment of the idea of respectability politics. All the characters who identify as Jewish (except maybe the Einstein stand in) are young, attractive and white, who could (and sometimes do) pass as Christian. The best friend has a Jewish last name, but is also armoured in a US Army captain's uniform. Peck's character is of course literally a Christian who calls himself Jewish and changes nothing else about himself (for which I am grateful, as that's probably what saved me from having to throw myself in the bay). They all still get shit. There's literally no way to win the game of "But if I'm one of the good ones." And the societal pressure for ethnic minorities to integrate is completely pointless because they will never be "good enough" to not get shit for it. Society is what's fucked up, not the members of the out group. And I wonder if that was the point of making such a culturally stripped version of Judaism, or if it was squeamishness on the part of the censors. It certainly makes a movie that's supposed to be about prejudice against a culture a little hollow to... not really have that culture. ("The moral is," an industry insider said at the time, "be nice to Jews because they might turn out to be Christians in disguise.")

On a shallow level, Peck is in full pillow lip sulky mode, ala The Great Sinner, and Dean Stockwell is very cute.

I think Nenya had a whole other set of thoughts. In the end, for me, it was not a movie that hadn't aged well, so much as a movie that had been a bit of an oddball from the start.

Date: 2017-05-04 07:47 pm (UTC)
misbegotten: Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, from Holiday (Movies Hepburn & Grant)
From: [personal profile] misbegotten
I've been enjoying your Gregory Peck festival. I haven't seen this one (cringe factor!), but enjoyed reading your thoughts.

it being in the middle of Peck's wounded gazelle phase

LOL!

Date: 2017-05-04 07:48 pm (UTC)
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
From: [personal profile] sovay
(Peck: I even know the title, "I was Jewish for six months!" Me: I am not NEARLY high enough for this.)

Legit!

I had mostly negative reactions to Gentleman's Agreement when I saw it. I recognize that it was doing something important and I don't judge it for not having been translated from the future; I was just so much not the target audience for obvious reasons.

And I wonder if that was the point of making such a culturally stripped version of Judaism, or if it was squeamishness on the part of the censors.

I'm inclined to think it was squeamishness—let's not present them as too alien, it'll ruin the empathy—but unintentionally ended up at least gesturing toward the point you identify. No matter how assimilated you seem, even if your Jewishness is nothing more than a last name, you're still not one of us.

Date: 2017-05-04 09:20 pm (UTC)
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
From: [personal profile] sovay
The movie would have been improved by being high to the "fire bad, Gregory Peck pretty" point, but alas I was not there.

(Which movies with Gregory Peck have required that?)

I AM the target audience as a middle-class Christian, and most of the main point I spent going "Oh, sweetie, no."

Heee. That's a useful data point.
Edited (I edited this comment like three times, I'm sorry) Date: 2017-05-04 09:24 pm (UTC)

Date: 2017-05-04 08:35 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
True story: there was a pre-Black Like Me book by Ray Sprigle, who "disguised himself as a black man and travelled in the Deep South" and wrote a series of articles titled "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days," later published as In the Land of Jim Crow. http://old.post-gazette.com/sprigle/Sprigleintroduction.asp

Date: 2017-05-04 08:41 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
OH MY GOD I HAD TO SEE THE OLIVIER OTHELLO ONCE FOR A CLASS AND I THOUGHT I WOULD DIE BY THE END OF IT. ahem.

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Date: 2017-05-04 08:29 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
This was all really interesting.

I think this movie is like Black Like Me, which also doesn't get talked about much nowadays other than to cringe at, and maybe Philadelphia -- it's really well-meaning, and it's like sovay said in her review: it's about the conduit, the assumed "us" is the well-meaning white person, not the Other. (Altho in Philadelphia it's complicated by the lawyer being black.) I always remember an article a gay reviewer did on seeing Philadelphia with a very hip, sophisticated gay crowd in one theatre (much heckling), and then seeing it again for reviewing purposes in a crowded suburban theatre that took it very seriously, and that made him judge his own judgement of the film. The problem with these kinds of stories is they wind up being about how awful the conduit feels at being exposed to such social stigma, rather than how awful it is to be the constant target of racism, but I think it's kind of a necessary step? Like how in anthropology, you get the white field recorder going "Here are the stories of the native peoples (heavily edited and changed)," and then later on, critiques of how that was done, and still later on, OH HEY how about the 'Native Peoples' getting to tell their own stories in their own way. If enough of them have survived by that point who remember the stories, or can make up new ones.

That's interesting about the erasure of the Holocaust and Judaism -- I don't know much about the history of Holocaust in media in the US post-war, but my impression is it was really really Not Talked About. But that's probably wrong.

Date: 2017-05-04 09:09 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
I think we clearly need a movie made from the friend's viewpoint about this well-meaning person who's Earnest about Going Undercover. Has there ever been one?

Yeah, I think what I meant was not just the difficulty of getting information post-war or whatever (although there were reliable reports from very early on, from what I understand) but that people couldn't process it, and/or didn't want to deal with it, and if they didn't have to, they didn't. I do remember there was a lot of "Had we but known" and "No you DID know, you could have known" dialogue later on. -- Butyeah, I think you and sovay are right and that the whitewashing inadvertently makes the point that even if "all that changes is the name," that's "enough," in the minds of bigots.

(Luke Cage had some interesting things to say about respectability politics. I think it finally came down against them at the end, altho there was some thoughtful stuff.)

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Date: 2017-05-04 09:35 pm (UTC)
sovay: (Rotwang)
From: [personal profile] sovay
I don't know much about the history of Holocaust in media in the US post-war, but my impression is it was really really Not Talked About. But that's probably wrong.

While trying to recover from Mr. Skeffington (1944), I tried to pin down the earliest representation of the Holocaust on film in America, but I didn't look specifically at the post-war period. Agreed that Welles' The Stranger (1946) was the first feature film to show footage from the camps. There's a film by Fred Zinneman called The Search (1948) that I've been interested in since hearing about it because it is explicitly about Auchwitz survivors trying to find family or what happened to them in Germany after the war, but I have not yet seen it myself. After that I just remember stuff like The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and there's got to be something else between them.

[edit] Well, this looks fascinating.
Edited (found one) Date: 2017-05-04 09:38 pm (UTC)

Date: 2017-05-04 09:40 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
Oh, thank you! -- wow that does look fascinating.

Date: 2017-05-04 09:48 pm (UTC)
sovay: (Rotwang)
From: [personal profile] sovay
I always remember an article a gay reviewer did on seeing Philadelphia with a very hip, sophisticated gay crowd in one theatre (much heckling), and then seeing it again for reviewing purposes in a crowded suburban theatre that took it very seriously, and that made him judge his own judgement of the film.

If you ever dig that up again, I'd like to read it. I am a firm believer in not being a dick to people because they find useful things that I think are elementary or unnecessary (I just don't have to agree that the things are the Best Thing Ever because they are new and thought-provoking to other people. See also: the use of common tropes of science fiction inside and outside the field).

Date: 2017-05-04 09:53 pm (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
I've been trying to find it for years. //rueful I thought it might have been Anthony Lane, but apparently not.

Date: 2017-05-04 09:47 pm (UTC)
nenya_kanadka: quality content: Gregory Peck with his shirt off (@ Gregory Peck shirtless)
From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka
It was a LOT more nuanced than I expected! I definitely went into it with the same expectations of cringe as you, and came out slightly charmed despite its flaws.

I agree about its treatment of respectibility politics (intentional or otherwise!) and how the lack of actual Jewish culture of any kind left a hole I kept expecting them to fill and they didn't. I think it was trying to do a very specific thing--force "nice" Christian viewers to face up to the existence of prejudice within their own circles by inviting them to have the experience Peck's character does. Of dumping them into it as themselves, no prep, no "well, imagine I was someone different who *was* Jewish..." Just hey, people are treating you awful. Think about that. Which obviously is not the only or necessarily the best way but I think it did probably change some people's minds and give them that epiphany Kathy has at the end.

Like I really appreciated that it was the story of what happens to a guy who tries this--not only how people who think he's Jewish treat him, but the conversations among people who know he's *not*, and how they treat it and how *that* reflects other layers of bigotry. That was more interesting to me in a sense because it's all these people (well, largely Kathy I guess) who don't mean to be or want to be prejudiced, and yet.

I did wonder about the ethics of doing something that gets your kid harassed, and how that stacks up against an attempt to stop the same thing happening to other people's kids. (Felt less bad about dragging the fiancee into it, because she's an adult and can deal or not deal.) Would also have appreciated more sympathy for the Jewish secretary, who didn't deserve to get preached at by a Christian guy pretending to be Jewish even if he was technically right about the use of slurs or whatever. You don't know her life, Gregory Peck, or the pressures that have led her to knuckle under in those ways.

Mostly just generally impressed at how many of the tiny interactions and daily aggressions and bits of semi-deniable conversation could have happened last week. Like the way I've seen people talk about other minorities in real life. "You're Muslim? Yeah it got around the office pretty fast," or "Don't worry about those jerks calling you a fag, honey, *you* know you're straight," or "But you're not *really* asexual, right?" or "It would just make a...*thing* if you talked about it, you know?" I guess on some level I hadn't realized people Way Back Then were dicks in the exact same way as now! :P

And I liked the subtle way Dave's story was told, in that he was shown to have a different perspective than the Christian guy who just discovered all this last week, and that the quiet blacklisting when he's trying to find housing for his family would have had serious life-changing consequences far beyond anything Phil had happen in his eight weeks undercover. And he's the one who gets to deliver the final speach to Kathy about how you can't just have good intentions, you have to speak up and DO something. ("You felt uncomfortable and guilty, so you.....called your minority friend to get him to make you feel better?" was fucking great too.)

He was SO slashy though! He grabs the front of Dave's shirt in his excitement, like he's going to drag him bodily across the room, and I swear they were about six inches from kissing. It was hot.

(Also all the faceplanting into his bed and shower scenes with soap, mmhmm. Flip side of "be less bigoted and you can sleep with Gregory Peck" is "come for the Gregory Peck, get hit with a social justice message" I guess!)

Was also impressed by the male-female friendships--Phil going for drinks with Anne from work, and later going over to her house to mope on her couch. Alone! And Dave (married to the unseen Carol) and Anne going out on the town by themselves. I didn't know you were allowed to do that in 1947. Huh. Cool.

Also also: Anne Revere (the mom) was hotter than either possible lady love interest. Sigh~ Though I did like the coworker better than the actual gf. Thought they should've hooked up.

Date: 2017-05-04 11:48 pm (UTC)
nenya_kanadka: Wonder Woman poster (kneeling with sword) (Default)
From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka
I was going to wait and write it on my laptop, but then I thought, no, then I'll keep meaning to write it for three days and never get to it! So I typed it all out with my thumbs. Even though it took an hour. LOL.

The same for the last 70 years. Christ, that's depressing.

It is, but at the same time it's weirdly humanizing of people from the past? To me anyway. Like, oh. Still humans. Probably been doing this shit for the last 7,000 years, really, just to whichever group. Which--depressing. But sometimes it gets better? We hate new and different people? IDK man.

Dave was the best. I totally see why Phil loves him so much. And lol yeah between the way he talks to women and how into his BFF he is, I am totally down for the big poly household once he and his wife move into Kathy's place. <3

I was surprised that Phil was so surprised, especially if he'd walked a mile in other people's shoes before. Maybe that's bad writing, or maybe it's just different emotionally when it's your girlfriend and your coworkers instead of random people on the road or the bosses of the coal miners, who you don't actually know from Adam.

Was torn between wanting Anne to be a friend (and only a friend) 100% of the time (because platonic m/f), and wishing he'd get with her. At the very end I almost thought he actually would take her up on the offer. Because she had a point about their worldviews meshing a lot better, and they really did like each other in ways the movie hadn't shown him and Kathy clicking. But I guess not. (Or maybe after the end of the movie, he and Kathy will break up for other reasons, and he'll get with Anne.)

Date: 2017-05-04 11:55 pm (UTC)
nenya_kanadka: Wonder Woman poster (kneeling with sword) (Default)
From: [personal profile] nenya_kanadka
ETA: I appreciated the wounded "Did you just??!" faces because it upped the woobie pillowlips quotient. Even though it probably weakened the story overall. *hands*

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Date: 2017-05-05 08:28 pm (UTC)
navaan: (Default)
From: [personal profile] navaan
Interesting write up, as I've heard of this movie, but had never actually gotten around to seeing it and wasn't sure it was worth seeing. (Still not sure I'm going to see it now, haha.)

I think Nenya had a whole other set of thoughts. In the end, for me, it was not a movie that hadn't aged well, so much as a movie that had been a bit of an oddball from the start.

Sounds like it.
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