Posted by: Abhay Khosla on November 10, 2010
CAUTIONARY NOTE: First of all, for those of you reading this on the 11th of November, Happy Veteran’s Day, and thanks to our nation’s veterans for the sacrifices they’ve made. This essay… wasn’t written with Veteran’s Day in mind– it just happened that I got this done this evening. It’s not really ABOUT the sacrifices veterans have made but World War II does come up in a fashion, so… If you’re especially sensitive about veteran’s issues today, you know– put this one away for a day, and come back to it later. I apologize at the outset if anyone who’s served finds this in bad taste. But enjoy your day and sincerely, we all thank you again for your service.
MOVING PICTURES by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen was published by Top Shelf earlier this year and has been nagging at me since I read it back when. That book is a starting point for, you know, some chit-chat which you can find under the jump.
*1: The “Review”*
Initially released as a webcomic, MOVING PICTURES is a slim novel about a Canadian woman in Nazi occupied Paris, being interrogated by a Nazi officer with whom she is having a sexual relationship in order to survive. The interrogation, in part, touches upon the true story of efforts to hide significant art from the Nazis, who intended to loot Paris of its artistic treasures. The story is about gradually understanding the motivations of this woman and her struggle to remain emotionally alive in the midst of this historic turbulence. The characters are depicted with hard angular lines, anything soft about them having been scraped away by historical events, leaving dot eyes, ruler-straight noses; bleak backgrounds are frequently rendered in silhouette, a Paris so drained of life that all artistic detail has been stripped away.
It’s a pleasant enough book, if you haven’t read it. I don’t know if I’d go much beyond pleasant. It’s a classy book, is what it is, classy enough to like, but maybe too classy to actually love…? It’s more character study, than drama, more focused on Betrayal and People Using One Another, than in explaining any details of the war or the occupation– it may be the case that I just tend to be more interested in the latter. Also, by design, the frigid main character doesn’t make it easy for the reader to make a real emotional connection with the material– though I will say that it was a much more interesting book after a re-read, once I’d understood the character’s motivations, if that helps, if you’re the sort of reader inclined to re-read.
An argument could be made, though, that its “classiness” betrays the subject matter. Other than heavy blacks on a few of the drawings, the occupied Paris depicted in MOVING PICTURES … It doesn’t seem an especially rough place to live. The main character references a missing man– “Things just seem to dissappear. Even the man I used to buy bread from every morning. Just gone.“– but… That’s it? I suppose I always imagined the Holocaust being a terrible experience for more reasons other than it making it difficult to obtain a decent quantity of gluten in my diet. Shit: I need to cut down on my carbs. I’m trying to diet. Fewer carbs? Sign me up for Nazi Occupied Paris. As long as there are almonds. I’m on the Miss Eating Shitty Food and Pretend To Not Miss It by Eating Almonds like a Goddamned Nitwit diet. It’s fantastic. Loving life.
Who knows, though? There was a famous, somewhat controversial photography exhibit a few years ago of the good times the French had in occupied France– women in bikinis, shopping customers, crowded nightclubs. I doubt that’s any more “true” than any relentlessly bleak portrayal either, but…
For those more interested in the visceral pleasures of genre, there’s not much here to derange the senses. With the story being presented in a stripped down cinematic style (i.e. all anyone is doing right now!!!), the book occasionally does resemble a movie you’d stumble across on TCM– but the TCM version would have had some rewarding thrill to it somewhere. Did you ever see GREEN FOR DANGER? It’s a British thriller set during the V-1 bombing attack on Britain, made in 1946– pretty much with the war still as a fresh wound, and yet that movie had comedy, mystery, romance, this terrific jump scare. I don’t know. There’s a sort of Romantacizing of Tragedy that the privileged sometimes indulge in, the relentless bleak depiction of poverty being a classic example– “We were too poor to purchase senses of humor.” That can be kind of its own dishonest flattery of the upper class audiences that tend to patronize that sort of entertainment, maybe. Maybe.
All that being said, MOVING PICTURES is still an entirely pleasant book– a sincere effort at adult work by comic creators usually working on much less interesting mainstream books. I enjoyed how the book doles out information, bit by bit, how story information unravels as the main character’s composure unravels. And it’s slim enough that it does manage to maintain some suspense for its entire duration. I actually think it’s a book that will end up being kind of a reference point for me in the future in a very unhealthy way, for arguments about webcomic release formats, or “Why can’t other mainstream creators work in a book like MOVING PICTURES every couple years, in the middle of their non-stop onslaughts of mediocrity?” That sort of thing. Gasoline for arguments I shouldn’t be making, but will anyways on account of being an ass. Merry Christmas to me.
*2: War– What Is It Good For?*
But gosh: World War II. You know? World War II and comic books.
As early as 1941, Captain America is punching out Hitler…
The Joe Kubert collection– “The Unknown Soldier is not dead– He is one of us!”
Jack Kirby and Sgt. Fury; Kirby and the Losers. Wikipedia: “Kirby recalled that a lieutenant, learning that comics artist Kirby was in his command, made him a scout who would advance into towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures.” Jack Kirby comics killed fascists.
Into the 60’s– Warren’s BLAZING COMBAT, say. And on and on from there.
British comics, too. COMMANDO, say…
Factor in movies. Factor in video games.
Factor in Republican Party cosplayers.
Factor all of that in, and then reconsider MOVING PICTURES, a serious character drama… but one set during a war that’s been turned into a cartoon.
Just think about Hitler. Hitler went from being one of history’s all-time crappiest guys to, per Godwin’s Law, a Bogeyman of Conversations on the Internet. “Hitler basically murdered the entire gypsy population of Eastern Europe, plus also, he’s a good sign that the Television Without Pity thread for the latest episode of BLEEP MY DAD SAYS is headed South…?” STRIKE TWO, HITLER!
I’ve killed roughly 5.2 zillion videogame Nazis over the years. I’ve seen Nazis stabbed with knives and flags, exploded by grenades, rockets, and mortars, shot by pistols, machine guns, and tanks, melted by Arks of the Covenant. I’ve watched Jim Brown pour gasoline and grenades onto Nazis while Telly Savalas butchered Nazi hookers. If you include Illinois Nazis, I’ve also seen Nazis get into some pretty damn hilarious car accidents.
How much of my reaction to MOVING PICTURES was tainted by that? Can I still have a reasonable reaction to a serious drama with Nazis in it? Can I take those characters as characters, instead of just signifiers of Ultimate Evil?
Dress someone up in one of those fancy-schmancy costumes and can you want anything for them but death?
There’s a quote in that Greil Marcus book LIPSTICK TRACES, if you want to go there– a quote from Michael Ventura:
“Entertainment isn’t a suspension of belief, but a suspension of values. It may even be said that this is the meaning of ‘entertainment’ as it is practiced among us: the relief of suspending values with which we are tired of living and frightened of living without.”
It’s a little disconcerting, the World War II thrill-power, if you stop to think that people actually died or whatever. But that particular war, particularly World War II, is just so effective as this guilt-free playground for our own fantasies of violence. Regular fantasies of violence aren’t really a relief, or at least we would normatively say that they shouldn’t be. But violence against the Nazis? That does seem somehow more legitimate. Who’s rooting for Nazis to live? Oh, there may be some that would say, “Well, dehumanizing anybody tends to be bad news, and that’s sort of one of the big lessons you really should try to take away from that particular conflict.” But I think mainstream thought is quite justifiably closer to: Fuck Nazis. I think that’s honestly where I come out. Consider the words of Albert Einstein: “I loathe all armies and any kind of violence; yet I’m firmly convinced that at present these hateful weapons offer the only effective protection.” Or Mike Tyson: “I want to kill people. I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children.”
I don’t know, though. Does it interfere with your ability to appreciate what war actually is? Compare our entertainment that concerns WWII to entertainment that concerns the prequel, WWI. Think for a second about Jacques Tardi’s IT WAS THE WAR OF THE TRENCHES. Now, let’s note from the outset what an unfair comparison this is– IT WAS THE WAR OF THE TRENCHES is a long-recognized masterpiece, just this year translated and released in Fantagraphics lavish hardcover Tardi line. And it lives up to the hype– even setting aside it’s strengths as a story, man, the mud in that book: Has mud ever looked quite so muddy in comics? But setting all that aside, any sort of qualitative judgments, the presentation of war in TRENCHES is unmistakable: Tardi’s World War I is an indefensible crime, a cruel waste, the worst insanity of man regardless of which side of the conflict you were born on.
How do you wrap your arms around that? War is war is war, but one remains horrifying while the other is the setting for HOGAN’S HEROES. How did that happen, exactly?
If WWI were The War to End All Wars, is World War II the War That Guarantees War for the Rest of Human Life? Maybe more than any other, that was the war with BAD GUYS, which … This being Veteran’s Day, let’s not get too political, so… That’s maybe not always the case. And so, games, movies, comics– sure, of course, we want to never forget the sacrifices that were made, but… At least one way of looking at any depiction of World War II in those media is that they’re arguably inherently good news for those interested in persuading future generations to risk life and limb for causes where it’s much, much harder to understand the right and wrong, and where the causes advanced may not be quite as worthy of the great sacrifice which is being asked.
*3: The Creepy Part*
But MOVING PICTURES is not a violent comic– there’s not a drop of violence in the piece to be seen. So “World War II as playground for violence fantasies“– you might argue maybe that discussion isn’t germane to MOVING PICTURES. Okay, fine. But if not violence, is there some other fantasy whose existence we might want to note in connection with this book?
The main character is a graceful woman with earnest goals forced into a sexual relationship with a Nazi.
I mean– look, I don’t invent other people’s fetishes, but… That kind-of is one for people out there. And Nazi sex fantasies do kind-of seem to have a place in pop culture. I didn’t see it, but that Kate Winslet Nazi-Titty movie THE READER, that was nominated for an Oscar, what, two-three years ago? Was that good? I didn’t see it but I saw that movie PRIVATE LESSONS once, which sounded similar, and hell, PRIVATE LESSONS was bad enough WITHOUT throwing the Holocaust in there, anywhere so….
Of course, for the more exploitative-minded, there are the nazi sexploitation epics, the Il Sadiconazista movies, which…
There was SALON KITTY, also known as MADAME KITTY: “Tinto Brass’ opulent epic film about a Nazi commander who overtakes the famous Salon Kitty brothel and packs it with new girls of good Aryan stock and impeccable National Socialist credentials. Their mission is to spy on their military officer clients and report back to their controllers about anyone who seems to be wavering from the Party line. The pubic-hair eating mutant from SS HELL CAMP also makes a surprise appearance in this film. […] This was the second most successful of the Nazi Sexploitation films.”
Or there’s FRAULEINS IN UNIFORM, also conveniently known under the title FRAULEIN WITHOUT A UNIFORM, for audiences unappreciative of any subtlety in the titling of their Nazi smut: “Swiss master of erotica, Erwin C. Deitrich presented this exploiter … about women being recruited for “special assignment” by the Gestapo. … [This] one goes light on the violence, but delivers plenty of naked chicks running around in battlefields as live shells explode around them. This bizarre flick is more offensive than other genre entries because the happy young recruits don’t really get punished, and the Nazis aren’t portrayed as bad guys! They just love sex and their Fuhrer!”
For more literate audiences, Taschen released a book of covers for post-war men’s adventure fiction, MEN’S ADVENTURE MAGAZINES— men’s pulps mostly from the 50’s and 60’s. Here are just a small selection of the cover-blurbs from the magazines featured:
- “HELPLESS MAIDENS OF THE NAZIS’ TIMELESS CASTLES OF MADNESS AND HORROR”
- “TORTURED BEAUTIES OF HITLER’S PRINCE OF PAIN”
- “HELPLESS VIRGINS IN THE NAZIS’ HARNESS OF TERROR”
- “A CRYPT IN HELL FOR HITLER’S PASSION SLAVES”
- “I DISCOVERED HITLER’S SECRET SIN GIRL CASTLE”
- “SOFT NUDES FOR HITLER’S DOCTOR HORROR”
- “STRIPPED VIRGINS FOR THE NAZIS’ TORCH OF TORMENT”
- “TORTURED BEAUTIES FOR THE NAZI BLOOD CULT”
- “SOFT BODIES FOR THE NAZIS’ HALL OF THE LIVING DEAD”
- “FETTERED NUDES FOR THE MONSTER’S COLLAR OF AGONY”
- “DAMNED BEAUTIES FOR THE NAZI HORROR MUSEUM”
- “SOFT FLESH FOR THE NAZIS’ FANGED DOOM”
- “HITLER’S HIDEOUS HAREM OF AGONY”
- “THE TEENAGE NAZI SHE-WOLVES OF BERLIN”
- “YVONNE’S ORDEAL UNDER THE S.S. FLESH”
- “THE BELGIAN BEAUTIES IN THE NAZI MAD DOG PIT OF TERROR”
- “HOW THE NAZIS FED TANYA SEX DRUGS”
Those are only from a couple pages of this book, which is hundreds of pages long. Who was reading these stories? The book suggests Ex-GIs, which is difficult to fathom. But if not them, who– their kids? “What was it like for dad in the war? I know– I’ll read I DISCOVERED HITLER’S SECRET SIN GIRL CASTLE, and find out. BEVERLY HILLS 90210 was right about you, library card!”
Oh, and of course, more recently, there was reality television star Jesse James, and the hysteria that ensued concerning (apparently false) rumors that he had, among his various well-publicized extra-curricular activities, made a dozen sex tapes with a “Nazi theme.” Which sort of rhymes in a George Lucas kind of way with HOGAN’S HEROES star Bob Crane and his whole AUTOFOCUS party thing, those sex parties he filmed. There was a time in this country when being the funniest guy in a concentration camp on television was a one-way ticket to Skank City. That’s just historical fact.
Personally, I suppose that I don’t really get that connection, between Nazis and sex. Who looks at an S.S. uniform and thinks, “Oh that reminds me… OF MY DICK“–? Or I guess the more pertinent question it raises: are there people fucking in Franco-Prussian War uniforms? Why World War II and not any of the other conflicts in recorded history? Vietnam, say: Have you ever heard of pasty GOP dudes dressing up like Viet Cong? Why have I never heard of Man in Black Pajamas erotic Republican cosplay parties?
But I guess it’s just the usual character failing on my part. I always want an explanation for other people’s fetishes, even when the only explanation for my own weird shit is WHY WOULDN’T YOU LIKE THAT?? “Girl, dressed up like Huckleberry Hound, rolling around in spaghetti– she knees me in the groin, cue me touching myself in a gentle but erotically insistent way. Who wouldn’t be super into that? It’s self-explanatory And I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free, and I’d gladly STAND UP–” Oh, Lee Greenwood– you understand that boners are truly organs of mystery as much as organs of romance. Only you and Angela Lansbury walk between those two worlds.
*4: The Grand Finale!*
A final thing, perhaps worth noting… again, at some risk– welcome to my all flop sweat essay!… is how MOVING PICTURES feels sort of timely for geeks at the moment. There is an aspect to MOVING PICTURES which is that… How much of the horror in MOVING PICTURES is the horror of woman forced to put up with sexual interest from a man she is not interested in? As mentioned above, the horror of that situation is expressed in MOVING PICTURES perhaps to a greater degree even than the horror of being in Nazi-occupied Paris. It’s as palpable if not moreso a presence than the Holocaust.
And that horror feels sort of right now, sort of this year.
In comics, there was a recent flap where a webcomic creator politely expressed a distaste for creepy dudes telling her they wanted to put their creep-babies inside of her after one of her comics is released. That itself echoed an earlier controversy this year in the videogame space, triggered by early reactions to the HEY BABY videogame, a third-person shooter that allowed women to murder men who cat-called to them on the street. In each case the reaction of a particular sort of gentleman has been angrily flipping out so hard that multiple comment sections discussing the topics have had to be closed.
It’s a very peculiar, kind of sad anger– I guess because it always seems so wildly disproportionate to what actually is being said. But it’s also a very specific anger, and one I do have some sympathy to, one I’d suggest we’re all probably equally susceptible to. That anger the world is somehow lying by not conforming to our personal truth…? The anger when our fantasies of reality are shown to be untrue bullshit. Whether it’s a false understanding of reality based upon male privilege, or based upon some other fantasy– Captain America punching Hitler, romantic love doomed by Nazi lust, that one about the pubic-hair eating monster (???), I suppose it is angering. Sure, it is. What an awful thing it is to wake up in a world where women identify you as a creep, Hitler went tragically un-punched, and where our great romantic loves as often as not reveal themselves to be … uh, pubic-hair eating monsters (???). And maybe that same anger lies, at least in some small part, at the root of any of the great conflicts worth talking about, whether wars between nations, class wars, wars of the sexes, or wars on carbs, all the endless wars that will always be fought and will never be won.