Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time once again for a brief round-up of writing I’ve done elsewhere on the internet recently, not that I don’t love the blogging for free but someone’s got to keep the cats in cat food…

Bird of the Year is one of New Zealand’s biggest social media events, with everyone weighing in on their fave avian, whether it’s the humble kiwi, the plucky penguin or the rocking ruru. I wrote a story over at Radio New Zealand about the contest and specifically about how we can help birds year-round by doing things like volunteering for Bird Rescue:

Bird of the Year competition: Keeping the good vibe flying high

Meanwhile, back in my home state of California, everything’s on fire, which sucks, and thousands of people have been forced to have their power shut off, which sucks even more. I wrote a little about that from my perspective way the hell down here in Aotearoa for The New Zealand Herald (story paywalled):

California’s fires and why New Zealand should worry too

Lastly, we just went through a Rugby World Cup, and while NZ lost and we are a traumatised nation, it was a big event for streaming services which hosted the tournament for the first time. Here’s a story over at Stuff about it:

Spark’s first big test: How did it fare?

Movies I Have Never Seen #4: Shock Treatment

What is it: Like most people who’ve found themselves somewhat against the grain in life, I dig The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s pretty much the definition of a cult classic, still playing in midnight shows around the world 44 years after its 1975 release. Seeing it in a vintage theatre in high school was one of my great cultural awakenings, and fittingly, I saw it again in a theatre just this past Halloween in a terrific benefit showing here in Auckland, complete with New Zealander creator, writer and co-star Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien in attendance. I don’t do the costumes – nobody wants to see me in fishnets – but there’s something truly wonderful about a Rocky Horror screening, with everyone flying their own personal freak flag and screaming crazy stuff at the screen for a bizarre little film that somehow sticks with you.

And then there’s Shock Treatment. Shock Treatment is the little-known 1981 quasi-sequel to Rocky Horror, again written by O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman. It’s loosely the tale of Brad and Janet (recast, woefully) taking part in a surreal TV game show experience and being “reinvented” into superstars. But in execution, it’s kind of a mess.

Why I never saw it: Even today, Shock Treatment is pretty obscure. My main vague memory of it was the cool, eye-catching poster design (above). You can find it with a bit of searching on YouTube, though. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Disappointingly, yes. Shock Treatment is a film that isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to say. You can’t really create a cult hit when you’re trying so hard to. Shock Treatment is a muddle of early ‘80s glam-pop, a satire of reality TV, and a tale of empowerment. Unfortunately, it’s a little too similar to Rocky Horror in that it’s again a tale of Brad and Janet finding their bliss. Unlike Rocky Horror’s smooth, straightforward plot, a mish-mash of horror movie cliches, Shock Treatment is maddeningly hard to follow.

A charismatic foil like Tim Curry is badly missed here, although O’Brien’s creepy Dr. Cosmo is one of the better things about the movie, but he’s not in it enough. Rocky Horror stars Patricia Quinn, Charles ‘No Neck’ Gray and Little Nell also show up in small roles. Recasting Brad and Janet was a bad idea (bizarrely, the events of Rocky Horror are never mentioned, leading you to wonder if it’s a reboot or a prequel or what). Jessica Harper is a very stiff Janet who only comes to life in the movie’s final act, while Cliff De Young’s Brad Majors is awful – his entire performance is lacking the wit and insight Barry Bostwick’s Brad brought to a single line in Rocky Horror: “It’s beyond me / Help me mommy.” 

All in all, Shock Treatment feels too much like hard work. Many of the songs are pretty enjoyable, but like most of the movie, they’re overproduced and chaotic. Rocky Horror is a strange beast of a film too, but it’s consistent and genuinely warm at times. Shock Treatment never invites you in, and you never feel like you want to shout back at the screen. 

How’s it different than I thought: While it’s wacky and strange, Shock Treatment is never as transgressive as Rocky Horror. It mocks lots of things, like Reagan’s America and TV game shows, but it never really bares its fangs. 

Worth seeing? If you’re a die-hard Rocky Horror fan, it’s worth checking out. Once. But nobody’s going to be throwing rice at the screen for this one. 

Jojo Rabbit: So, are we allowed to laugh at Nazis?

Can Nazis be funny? It’s not a question you expect to ask yourself when sitting down to watch a movie by New Zealand’s biggest name in Hollywood, but Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit forces you to ask it. 

Jojo Rabbit seemed a pretty oddball project for Waititi to take on after the hits of Boy, Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, but it’s part of a long lineage of stories that mock the Nazis to make a point. It took in nearly $1.2 million at the New Zealand box office over Labour Weekend. But is a movie that imagines Hitler as a kind of cuddly imaginary friend for a young German boy during World War II in good taste or bad? 

It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but critics are more mixed on it – The Chicago Sun-Times called it “irreverent, edgy, provocative envelope-pushing satire,” but the Los Angeles Times thought that “its so-called audacity smacks of calculation and emotional cowardice.” 

So, are we allowed to make Nazis funny or not? Here’s the case for and against: 

1. Hitler was kind of funny. Most dictator/authoritarian types are. Look at Kim Jong-un, with his beady stare and tossed-salad haircut, or that guy in the White House. Waititi – who’s of both Māori and Jewish descent – plays Hitler himself in Jojo Rabbit. To modern eyes, the preening, sweating moustached dictator can seem like a living cartoon character. 

Mocking the Nazis goes all the way back to when Hitler was alive and ranting, with Charlie Chaplin’s send-up in The Great Dictator back in 1940 still one of the best attacks on the führer. Mel Brooks debuted The Producers more than 50 years ago, with its whole plot revolving around a tasteless satire of the Nazis that turns into an unexpected hit. Director Billy Wilder even made a POW camp funny in Stalag-17, which in turn inspired TV’s long-running Hogan’s Heroes

The problem is that if you make Hitler too satirical, you run the risk of downplaying the very real carnage and horror committed in his name. Taika’s Hitler in Jojo Rabbit never feels truly authentic, peppering his talk with modern-day slang and gestures, but there’s a moment or two when he ramps up the ranting rage and you can see what people were afraid of. 

Because he’s an imaginary friend in a broadly romantic fantasy of a movie, Jojo’s Hitler is kind of goofily cuddly, charming and supportive of Jojo’s ambitions – as long as Jojo sticks to the Nazi party line, of course. Jojo Rabbit ultimately portrays its title character’s interest in Nazis as a boy really just wanting to belong. “You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club,” Jojo is told at one point. 

Jerry Lewis in the legendary lost movie “The Day The Clown Cried.”

2. However, the Holocaust really isn’t funny. Jojo Rabbit skirts around the edges of the Holocaust without going too deep. The movie doesn’t stint on showing the human cost of the Nazi regime to Jewish people, but it also doesn’t take us to Auschwitz. 

There have been a few movies that have tried to find the funny in genocide. The late Jerry Lewis directed a movie in 1972 called The Day The Clown Cried about a clown entertaining children in the death camps which was so legendarily misconceived that it was never released, locked away in a vault somewhere and only seen by a few hardy souls. 

That didn’t stop others with similar stories, like Robin Williams at his most mawkish in 2002’s flop Jakob the Liar, or Roberto Benigni inexplicably winning an Oscar for best actor for 1997’s Life Is Beautiful, one of those films which just gets more cloying and baffling with time. Holocaust movies can start off with black humour, but they always have to end with tragedy. 

An entire documentary, The Last Laugh, was made a few years back about whether the Holocaust could ever be funny. In it, director/actor Rob Reiner notes, “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But, survival, and what it takes to survive – there can be humour in that.” 

3. Then again, New Zealanders are pretty funny. There’s something that just works about dropping the deadpan, laconic kiwi sense of humour into unusual situations. Whether it’s Jemaine and Bret struggling in New York City in Flight of the Conchords or Taika himself as a laid-back giant rock dude in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s funny as when that chur, bro accent pops up in an unusual place. 

A lot of kiwi humour is about subtly undermining expectations, and taking a look at the world from unexpected angles. Combining that sensibility with a satire of Nazism is a gamble, and whether or not it works in Jojo Rabbit comes down a lot to personal preference. Archie Yates as Jojo’s bumbling childhood mate Yorki is that vaguely absurdist kiwi voice in Jojo Rabbit, with lines like “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”

Can we make fun of the Nazis? Sure, but you’re not guaranteed that everybody will laugh at it. You can make fun of the Nazis, but for many people even doing so undercuts their very real evil. You laugh at Waititi’s intentionally broad Hitler, but you might feel a bit cringe doing so. That might just be the point. 

You don’t have to go far on the internet to find outrage boiling away these days. Satire can defuse outrage, but in a world where the far right is on the rise, it doesn’t always feel like hip internet memes are doing much to dispel their allure for some people. 

Yet the alternative to satire is either rage or silence. Satire can’t always knock down walls. But it can knock a few holes in them. Jojo Rabbit is a movie you’re meant to wrestle over. A quote by the poet Rilke appears at a pivotal moment in Jojo Rabbit, perhaps guiding us on how to navigate humour and evil – “Just keep going. No feeling is final.”