Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ...
Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits
This page features links to reviews of movies, documentaries and exhibits with a historical theme. Listings are in reverse chronological order. Descriptions are taken directly from the linked publication. If you have articles you think should be listed on the Pop Culture page, please send them to the editor email@example.com.
SOURCE: WSJ (3-6-13)
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
March 9 through April 28
When Thomas Jefferson was in need of guidance he turned, as many statesmen did, to that handbook of political subtleties, Machiavelli's "The Prince." But arguably more important to the third U.S. president was a biography by the Greek historian Xenophon called "Cyropedia." In fact, he seems to have admired the book so much he owned two copies. With many an imaginative flourish, it told the story of King Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, whose realm stretched from the Mediterranean to eastern Iran and from the Black Sea to the borders of Arabia in the south.
Xenophon, who lived between 430 and 355 B.C., described how Cyrus owed his triumphs to "the sheer terror of his personality," but what made him attractive to Jefferson was not his military prowess but his enlightened approach to government....
On Saturday, the Cyrus Cylinder is embarking on a nine-month tour of the U.S., starting with the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, where it will inevitably provoke comparisons with the Bill of Rights. As British Museum Director Neil MacGregor said in a recent lecture: "It bears comparison with the American Constitution, in spite of the centuries that divide them, as an historic statement of how a disparate polity may be humanely governed."...
SOURCE: AP (2-27-13)
The unnerving clicks of dosimeters are constant as people wearing white protective gear quickly visit the radiated no-go zones of decayed farms and empty storefronts. Evacuees huddle on blankets on gymnasium floors, waiting futilely for word of compensation and relocation.
Such scenes fill the flurry of independent films inspired by Japan's March 2011 catastrophe that tell stories of regular people who became overnight victims - stories the creators feel are being ignored by mainstream media and often silenced by the authorities.
Nearly two years after the quake and tsunami disaster, the films are an attempt by the creative minds of Japan's movie industry not only to confront the horrors of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, but also to empower and serve as a legacy for the victims by telling their stories for international audiences.
The impact these films have on the global and Japanese audiences could perhaps even help change Japan, the directors say...
SOURCE: AP (2-27-13)
The world's largest museum complex is bracing for a $40 million cut in funding due to the budget stalemate in Congress, but the Smithsonian Institution vows to keep the doors open at its museums and National Zoo.
Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas says the attractions will maintain normal visiting hours.
Instead, the Smithsonian is preparing to absorb the funding cut in other ways. Maintenance and new construction will be delayed. Hiring will be frozen. Use of outside contractors will be reduced, as well as training, research and travel...
SOURCE: AP (2-22-13)
For decades, Nelson Mandela's name has been synonymous with political reform and the struggle against South African apartheid.
Now with the launch of House of Mandela Wines, his daughter and granddaughter hope to add fine wine to the list of associations.
It's a sign of just how far both the wine industry and the country have come since 1994, when apartheid was dismantled and Mandela was elected the nation's first black president...
SOURCE: AP (2-21-13)
Robert Caro has won yet another literary prize, this one worth $50,000.
The New-York Historical Society announced Thursday that Caro had won its American History Book Prize for the fourth volume of his Lyndon Johnson series, "The Passage of Power."...
SOURCE: BBC News (2-15-13)
He's best known as a great tyrant. King Herod is said to have killed his wife and sons as well as all the baby boys of Bethlehem.
But the first major exhibition on the Biblical ruler at the Israel Museum sets out to prove that he also had positive qualities that make him more deserving of the title "Herod the Great".
"We tried to show that he was not only the cruel person described by [the Jewish historian] Josephus and the New Testament but he was also a ruler who managed to keep this country in peace for 33 years," says curator Silvia Rosenburg.
"It was probably very difficult being a local ruler caught between the Roman Empire and the different exigencies of Judaism, but he did it very well. In his time there was prosperity and work for everyone."
A main reason why there was mass employment was because of the ambitious building projects ordered by Herod when he ruled between 37 and 4 BC...
...Palestinian officials say they will make a formal complaint to the museum for removing relics from the West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of a future state.
"This is against international law," says Rula Maayah, the Palestinian tourism and antiquities minister.
"Herodium is on land that was occupied in 1967. This is Palestinian land and the Israelis have no right for excavations there. They don't have any right or authority there in Herodium and they don't have the right to take any antiquities."
Ms Maayah says Israeli authorities did not consult her department about the exhibition even though it involves joint cultural heritage. "Actually we only heard about it from the media," she says...
SOURCE: NYT (2-4-13)
One of the curiosities of the current Academy Award season is that Australia was competing in the best foreign-language film category with a German-language film. Cate Shortland’s “Lore,” a drama about the waning days of World War II, did not pick up a nomination, but it has created a stir everywhere it’s been shown, winning audience awards at festivals on its way to opening in New York on Friday.
“Lore,” based on one of the novellas in Rachel Seiffert’s three-part “The Dark Room,” is the story of five young brothers and sisters forced to make their way alone across 500 miles of war-scarred territory to their grandmother’s house after their parents, staunch Nazis, are arrested by Allied troops. During that journey, the title character, a 15-year-old girl, and her siblings meet a young concentration camp survivor, also in flight, who both protects and exploits them....
SOURCE: AP (2-5-13)
The art world loves hype. Works are touted as the biggest, the rarest, the most expensive.
Even in an age of superlatives, the British Museum has something special - the oldest known figurative art in the world.
The artworks on display in the new exhibition "Ice Age Art" are so old that many are carved from the tusks of woolly mammoths.
But it's not just their age that may surprise visitors. It's their artistry.
These are artworks, not just prehistoric artifacts. Some of the sophisticated carvings, sculptures and drawings of people and animals look like something Pablo Picasso or Henry Moore might have created...
SOURCE: The Nation (1-31-13)
Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America.
The best thing about “The Americans,” the new spy show on FX cable TV, is that the Soviet spies are not Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They are a different married couple--Russians, sent by the KGB from Moscow to Washington DC. The show begins shortly after Reagan takes office....
If Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin of “Homeland” had been assigned to this case, they would have caught Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, the stars of “The Americans,” in episode one.
Ron Radosh, David Horowitz & Co. will be unhappy with this show (of course they are unhappy about so many things) because the spies in question are not American communists. They do have a point there – the most successful Soviet spies in the US were not Russians. I’m not talking here about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Historians today pretty much agree that Julius was a spy but he didn’t give the Soviets the secret of the A-bomb; Ethel was innocent but was framed by her brother, David Greenglass, because the FBI threatened to indict his own wife....
SOURCE: NYT (1-29-13)
Ford is the only one of the three who left a company with his name. Carnegie and Rockefeller are better known for philanthropic foundations, although Ford also created a foundation with his name on it.
If there’s a lesson from Ford for today’s entrepreneurs it is this: Don’t stay in charge of the company too long.
SOURCE: WSJ (1-25-13)
The posters for “Spartacus: War of the Damned” promise that the newest batch of episodes will take viewers to the bitter end. But at last night’s premiere for the final season of the series, “Spartacus” creator Steven S. DeKnight was already thinking about the future.
DeKnight told Speakeasy that some preliminary talks are already underway to possibly spinoff a series focusing on Gaius Julius Caesar, who in “Spartacus” is played by Australian actor Todd Lasance. “It’s in the early conversations of a possibility. Rob Tapert, my producing partner and I, we love this world we’ve created together, and we would love to spin it off in some direction with the same style and the same feel as the show. Caesar is definitely a strong possibility.”...
SOURCE: NYT (1-20-13)
There’s a moment toward the end of “Koch,” a soon-to-be released documentary by Neil Barsky on the extended political career of the city’s 105th mayor, in which Edward I. Koch, eternally single, is asked to address questions surrounding the longstanding interest in his sexuality. He responds as he has done for a long time now, declaring that it is no one’s business. He argues that his engagement with the issue would set a precedent for gross intrusions into the personal lives of political candidates, a bit of narcissistic posturing that seems to ignore the extent to which that field has already been trampled by mad dogs and wild horses.
In the past, Mr. Koch, who is 88, handled the question by joking at the absurdity of any fascination with the sex life of an old man — presumably he has not kept up with the boundless tabloid interest in Hugh Hefner’s late-life erotic shenanigans or with Cialis ads. Certainly Mr. Koch has maintained a more vigilant security apparatus around his intimate life than most contemporary public figures one can think of.
By Koch-ian standards of nondisclosure, Jodie Foster emerges as if she were Joan Rivers. This is not mentioned in the film, but in the late 1990s, asked by New York magazine to produce a personal ad for himself, Mr. Koch, long out of office, provided the following evasion: “White Male, 70-something former C.E.O. and practicing attorney,” he wrote. “Have belatedly concluded that everyone, straight or gay, needs a partner in life. How’m I doing?”...
SOURCE: NYT (1-18-13)
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was a great poet but not a great photographer. So while “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” at the Grey Art Gallery is an interesting exhibition, it is in certain ways disappointing. The best you can say about the pictures Ginsberg took during two periods in which he dabbled in the medium — the ’50s and early ’60s and the ’80s and ’90s — is that they are the works of a competent amateur. The bigger disappointment, however, is that much of the history that Ginsberg lived through and did so much to alter as a countercultural activist is missing.
The exhibition was organized by Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art, where it had its debut in 2010.
From the early 1950s to about 1964, Ginsberg regularly used a cheap camera to take snapshots of his now famous pals, including the writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, as well as Neal Cassady, their logorrheic muse. Knowing that these young bucks were reanimating American literature and sowing the seeds of a broader cultural revolution makes them riveting to look at. But considering the incendiary stuff they were writing — “Howl,” “On the Road,” “Junkie” — and their bohemian lifestyles dedicated to the pursuit of sex, drugs and jazz, the photographs are remarkably tame....
SOURCE: Pursuit Magazine (1-13-13)
The mysterious femme fatale. The tough private eye who seeks justice at any cost. The rare object worth killing for. Dashiell Hammett coined all of these classic elements of noir fiction with his 1930 breakthrough novel The Maltese Falcon. But how did Hammett dream up this dark, new world of literature? By writing from experience.
In the 1920s, American fiction desperately needed its own private detective. It was overrun with Sherlock Holmes imitators–erudite puzzle solvers who refused to get their hands dirty. Enter Dashiell Hammett, a former private investigator turned writer. In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett took the detective out of the drawing room, dumped him in a dark alley and created an American classic in the process.
Lauded upon publication for its lean prose and how it captured the sex and violence of urban America, The Maltese Falcon has soared to greater critical heights with each passing decade. Hammett’s descendant Raymond Chandler praised the book for “scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” And Ross McDonald called it “the greatest mystery novel ever.”
Why did The Maltese Falcon seem so raw and genuine compared to other mystery novels of the time? Because Dashiell Hammett really was a detective. Born in 1894, Hammett quit school at age 14 to help earn money for his family. After a string of low-paying jobs, he became an operative with San Francisco’s Pinkerton Detective Agency. There he adopted the code that deeply influenced his life: Create a barrier between yourself and the rest of the world....
SOURCE: NYT (1-11-13)
WASHINGTON — In the pursuit of justice, what is unjustified? Are there limits to what may be done in service to a righteous cause? Abstract philosophical questions, perhaps, but also political ones. And in thinking about the Civil War, the answers affect our understanding of that bloody conflict.
This is one reason the Library of Congress exhibition “The Civil War in America,” which opened late last year in honor of the war’s sesquicentennial, is so fascinating. It doesn’t explicitly ask questions about means and ends, but we can’t help thinking about them as the letters, diaries, documents and images accumulate....
We may like our heroes unchained, prepared to transcend ordinary restrictions, but history is another matter. What were the ends sought? How were they pursued? And what effects did that have? The Library of Congress exhibition tries to see the conflict from different perspectives. Its displays of over 200 items, we are told, “attest to the valor, sacrifices, emotions and accomplishments of those in both the North and South whose lives were affected by the bitter conflict of 1861-65.”
The war, it explains, “unfolds between two opposing ideologies,” with the Union opposed by a “confederacy of slaveholding states true to their own interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.” It is as if this show, presented by a national institution in the nation’s capital (with Cheryl Regan as exhibition director), wants to avoid — even after 150 years — any hint of partisanship....
“The Civil War in America” runs through June 1, and the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation will be on view through Feb. 18 at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington; (202) 707-8000; myloc.gov.
SOURCE: NYT (1-12-13)
ROME — “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,” Edward Gibbon wrote in “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”....
At first glance, by its very title “The Age of Equilibrium, 98-180 A.D.: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius,” the third in a series of exhibitions on art and society in ancient Rome at the Capitoline Museums, seems to be endorsing this traditional historical assessment that stretches from Pliny the Younger through Machiavelli and Gibbon into modern times.
But a strength of this latest show, curated by Eugenio La Rocca and Claudio Parisi Presicce with Annalisa Monaco, and especially of its catalog, is that, while achievements are recognized, darker aspects are not whitewashed and the dominant role played by propaganda in public art of the era is highlighted....
The Age of Equilibrium, 98-180 A.D. Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius. Capitoline Museums, Rome. Through May 5.
SOURCE: The Root (1-9-13)
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.
(The Root) -- Not many films keep me thinking for days on end. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, about a slave-turned-bounty hunter in the antebellum South, accomplished this and then some. As a result, I have to classify it as a great film. A truly great film should stay with you, and Django certainly does....
Django is the most cinematically and culturally important film dealing with race since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). For too long American cinema has presented -- and American audiences have accepted, digested and largely tacitly embraced -- a hopelessly sanitized version of slavery in the South.
The defining image, of course, is that of Scarlett O'Hara and family enjoying the "good life" before "the War." Slavery has been often rendered just a benign backdrop to the beauty, elegance and, indeed, virtue of the plantation elite. That is why this movie sticks with me. It literally blows to pieces this ridiculously inaccurate "collective memory."...
What the film does do, and what stands out for me as its lasting import, is to give us an unforgettable cinematic expression of the brutality, inescapable violence and absolutely thorough moral degradation of American slavery. In doing so, Tarantino powerfully flips a script that has for too long dominated our collective imaginations. For years I have complained that anyone offering a generous word about the film Gone With the Wind should be compelled to have a viewing of Spartacus, since the latter was the only American film I knew of that comes close to capturing the inherent savagery of a slave regime....
SOURCE: The Nation (12-25-12)
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine.
Two films about American slavery in the Civil War era are currently playing in theaters.
Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln begins with a black soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address.
Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained begins with a black slave being recruited to kill two white murderers.
In Spielberg’s film, the leading black female character is a humble seamstress in the White House whose eyes fill with tears of gratitude when Congress votes to abolish slavery.
In Tarantino’s film, the leading black female character (Kerry Washington) is a defiant slave who has been branded on the face as a punishment for running away, and is forced—by Leonardo di Caprio—to work as a prostitute.
In Spielberg’s film, all the black people are good.
Tarantino’s film features “the biggest, nastiest ‘Uncle Tom’ ever”—played by Samuel Jackson—who is insanely loyal to his evil white master, and savage in his treatment of fellow slaves.
In Spielberg’s film, old white men make history, and black people thank them for giving them their freedom.
In Tarantino’s, a black gunslinger goes after the white slavemaster with homicidal vengeance....
SOURCE: The New Yorker (12-17-12)
Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor and staff writer for The New Yorker. His work is collected in two books, “Politics” and “Obámanos.”
...The great bulk of the movie industry’s evocations of the American past have been Westerns—that is, escapist adventure stories set in a vague time more or less identifiable as the eighteen-seventies or eighties, a vague semi-desert or mountainous region somewhere between the Mississippi and the Rockies, and a vague economy based on cattle-raising, saloon-keeping, and banditry. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But Westerns lack context—political, social, historical. There’s conflict aplenty, but it’s between cowboys and Indians, cattlemen and sheepherders, outlaws and sheriffs, not between armies or nations or ideas. Even when the conflict is a little broader—say, between doomed nomads on horseback on one side (be they aboriginal tribesmen or Eastwood-style individualist paladins) and, on the other side, agents of encroaching modernization (like railroad barons or the U.S. Cavalry)—the stakes are fuzzy, a lot less than world-historical.
American history is so much richer, so much bigger than those wide-open, mostly empty spaces! Yet there are no great movies, as far as I know, about, for example, the American Revolution, and not even many lousy ones. (Ismael Merchant and James Ivory’s 1995 “Jefferson in Paris” isn’t bad, though it’s hobbled by the casting of the rough, gruff Nick Nolte as the delicate, cultivated Thomas Jefferson.) The grandest, greatest drama of American history, of course, is the Civil War, and it has fared a little better. “Gone With The Wind” (1939) may be a whitewash, but it is anything but a bad movie. Edward Zwick’s “Glory” (1989) is glorious. Beyond those, though, not much.
The grandest, greatest protagonist in that grandest, greatest drama is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has been portrayed in twenty-five or so movies, beginning with D. W. Griffith’s brilliant atrocity “Birth of a Nation” (1915). But it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that until Spielberg came along no one had even tried to do it with any degree of seriousness within living memory. John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), starring Henry Fonda, and “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940), with Raymond Massey in the title role and a script by the playwright (and F.D.R. speechwriter) Robert E. Sherwood, were brought forth more than three score and some-odd years ago. And neither of those dared to show Lincoln as President.
I was, therefore, delighted to learn, more than a decade ago, that Spielberg had decided to take up the challenge. With the possible exception of the still unmade adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” I’ve never looked forward to a movie more eagerly, more hopefully, and for such a long time as I looked forward to “Lincoln.”...
SOURCE: AP (12-19-12)
The New York Public Library is moving forward with a $300 million renovation of its landmark Fifth Avenue building that will more than double its public space and fireproof the majestic main reading room, the library president said Wednesday.
But the plans he presented at a news conference have drawn withering criticism from some respected architecture experts, including Ada Louise Huxtable, who says the grand Beaux Art edifice is embarking on "its own destruction."
Library President Tony Marx has a different vision for the building completed in 1911.
"The driver of this project is to create the single greatest circulating and research library in the most beloved building here in the crossroads of New York," he said...