Paper ClipsReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 10/27/05 16:34:55
This is tricky business. “Paper Clips” is quite possibly the worst documentary I have ever seen that has any connection to the Holocaust - but due to the subject matter, in telling of how embarrassingly lousy the film is, one runs the risk of seeming cheaply cynical at best, grossly insensitive at worst. I promise that I am being neither.I am, instead, merely pointing out that this movie is both inept and self-serving to head-shaking extremes. It begins with a cute human interest news story, but, through clumsy, ham-fisted filmmaking and a cast of characters that don’t realize how idiotic they’re coming off on film, it snowballs into something that actually gets you to question its authenticity, as if you’re watching a Christopher Guest comedy. Who knew a movie that seeks to remind us of one of the greatest horrors in human history could be so unintentionally hilarious?
The cute human interest story is this: in the small town of Whitwell, Tennessee, teachers at the junior high decided that the best way to teach about the Holocaust, the best way to get the kids to understand the scope of the horror, would be to collect six million paper clips, one for each Jew killed. (Paper clips were worn during the war by Norwegians as silent symbols against Hitler.) Unable to collect so many on their own, they would write to politicians, celebrities, religious organizations, and community groups around the country. When word of the project got out, paper clips came pouring in to the school, which eventually wound up collecting over four times their goal.
It’s the kind of heartwarming tale they throw on at the end of the nightly news, one uplifting story wedged in between sports and a last look at tomorrow’s weather forecast. And there’s not much to tell, really; all you need to know is in that single paragraph. Toss in a few stock shots of the piles and piles of clips, add in a sound bite from the principal, and you’re done. Now let’s check on the weather.
And yet the simplicity of the story is completely lost on rookie filmmakers Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab, who don’t even realize that they wrap everything up by the twenty minute mark, leaving us a cool hour for mind-numbing padding before the closing credits.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film starts out pleasantly enough, provided that you ignore the cloying music (Charlie Barnett’s score is so unyielding in its syrupy sounds that instead of complimenting the story, the music tells - commands, in fact - the viewer how to react). We’re introduced to Whitwell, population 1,600. Two traffic lights. Hundreds of kids in school, only five of them black, one Hispanic. Teaching diversity in a town so lily white is going to be an issue.
So begins the explanation of the Paper Clip Project, which is created in the hopes of reaching these children, explaining to them the dangers of hate and prejudice. But wait a sec… did that student, in the middle of praising the project, tell us that the teachers didn’t really know anything about the Holocaust at first, and that the adults were learning at the same time as the kids? Huh. Come to think of it, while the film is all too vague on the issue, the presentation of the facts suggest that this is the first time that the Holocaust was being taught in Whitwell. Hopefully this is not the case, but hey, you never know. If it is, the school district’s in need of much more than just some busy work involving office supplies.
(Oh, and one school official’s comments to the kids don’t bode well for the state of the Whitwell school district. In one scene, the name of Anne Frank comes up, and the teacher reminds the students that “you may have seen or read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’” Consider the phrase “seen or read,” as opposed to just “read.” Perhaps I’m reading way, way, way too deeply here, perhaps this was just a poorly worded phrase caught on tape. But me, I interpreted that as saying that to the folks at Whitwell, watching a movie instead of reading the book is close enough, especially if it means a day or two of showing them the film in class and not having to teach the kids anything. Having met too many teachers in my time who rush to fill time with classroom videos, or figure a movie adaptation is “close enough” to reading, this statement got under my skin good and deep. But I digress.)
Now, allow me to pinpoint the exact moment when the film lost me completely. Here we are, a mere nine minutes in, and we’ve got a pretty good grasp of the concept at play here. One student is busy explaining how they got replies from everyone from Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to Tom Hanks and Bill Cosby. Impressive names. And now, to hammer it home, the filmmakers haul in one such celebrity to read the letter he wrote to the school. Who will it be? Which big time familiar face was so taken with this project that he devoted his time for this movie?
Answer: Tom Bosley.
I repeat: Tom Bosley. Mr. Cunningham. Father Dowling. Tom Frickin’ Bosley.
I’m sorry. I know that Mr. Bosley has good intentions here, and the filmmakers, working on a low budget, got the biggest name they could afford. But still. After all that build up, former presidents, Oscar winners, legendary names, all we get is Tom Bosley, sitting in his favorite chair, talking about how celebrities usually don’t read all their fan mail and how he was glad he read the letter the school sent. Talk about anticlimax.
Anyway. It’s not too long before the film hits the end of the main story, so now what? Well, the filmmakers scramble for anything they can get. And so we watch as the town, bubbling with success, co-opts the Holocaust as part of their identity. Interviewees are downright giddy with success, constantly talking about how they’ve done such an awe-inspiring, significant thing, oblivious to the fact that all they really did was (finally) make modern history a part of the school curriculum. The last section of the film follows the principal and two German reporters who have taken to the town as they work to restore an old Nazi railcar, one that was once used to take Jews to the concentration camps; the car is turned into a mini Holocaust museum. And the principal, insisting that she can feel the souls of every victim in the clips (each clip carrying one soul), tells us, with as much conviction as humanly possible: “If we have accomplished nothing else, we have helped these people find a resting place for something that was important to them.”
Seriously. What began as a visual aid to help preteens fathom the vastness of the number six million had, over a few short years, evolved into what many locals feel to be the official point of closure for the war. These people walk around with a “we saved their souls” glow about them, and it’s downright embarrassing.
Not, however, as embarrassing as some other comments made. While their efforts to confront prejudice and bigotry are distressingly shallow and (perhaps intentionally) simple (all minorities are made out to be nothing but victims; the Jews that visit the town are treated like sideshows, despite the locals’ claims to be learning all about other cultures; the addition of the other minorities killed in the Holocaust comes off as an afterthought, with the townsfolk opting to learn all about Jews and nothing about anyone else; the overall message is that focusing on symbolism is easier than actually studying something in great depth), the efforts among most to confront their own racism is admirable. These are, after all, an isolated bunch trying their best to learn of tolerance. Still, being admirable does not trump being head-slapping stupid, with idiocy found in such moments as the one in which the assistant principal wonders, in retrospect, if his free-flowing use of all-in-good-fun racial slurs might have hurt his black roommate’s feelings back in college. Ya think?
The townsfolk here make it a major issue not to be tagged as rednecks - some even going so far as to internalize the Holocaust, saying that they, too, are victims of prejudice, as outsiders stereotype them as yokels. It’s a point of pride for the interviewees not to be seen as hicks, and the filmmakers oblige by trying their best to deify them. And yet their ignorance is neverending here, their naïveté second only to their unconscious narcissism. The more they try to tell us they’re not rednecks, the more they come across as rednecks.
I should mention the scenes in which Berlin and Fab record visiting speakers, which seem to come to Whitwell every few minutes, eager to discuss their wartime experiences. Again, it’s admirable, and the stories are indeed touching. But the filmmakers cheapen these moments, using these speeches as a gimmick, an easy way to jerk tears. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are caught on tape using these visitors as part of some group therapy; the locals always make sure to discuss how much the speeches helped themselves, how much they cried, how touched they were. You know, “enough about me, let’s talk about you. What did you think of me?”
Surely nobody could be this self-involved, this obtuse, this ridiculous. By film’s end, the main characters have taken on a sense of caricature, helped along, of course, by the complete incompetence of Berlin and Fab. This is hilariously amateurish filmmaking combined with a sense that what they’re doing is downright brilliant storytelling. Ignore the clumsy editing, the obnoxious music, and the hilarious cast of characters, and go straight to the final scene, in which the directors opt to plug in a voice-over, supposedly of a frail old German lady writing to the school. The voice is actually of a crew member, quite American, doing her best community theater to imitate the voice of a dying frau, the result being a sound you might hear on “Saturday Night Live.” Funny, funny stuff.The thing is, a documentary about the Holocaust probably wasn’t meant to be funny, funny stuff. “Paper Clips” is what happens when you take filmmakers who don’t know what they’re doing and ask them to film idiots who don’t know what they’re doing, and everyone involved is convinced that what everybody’s doing is the greatest thing ever. It’s a cinematic debacle that must be seen to believed. Christopher Guest, I hope you’re taking notes.
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