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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: NYT (4-24-11)
The contents of the exhibition, “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,” were mined by a commercial treasure hunter and not according to academic methods, a practice that many archaeologists deplore, equating it with modern-day piracy.
In an April 5 letter to the top official at the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, a group of archaeologists and anthropologists from the National Academy of Sciences — including Robert McCormick Adams, a former leader of the Smithsonian — wrote that proceeding with the exhibition would “severely damage the stature and reputation” of the institution.
The members of the National Academy of Sciences are not alone. In recent weeks organizations including the Society for American Archaeology, the Council of American Maritime Museums and the International Committee for Underwater Cultural Heritage, as well as groups within the Smithsonian, including the members of the anthropology department and the Senate of Scientists at its National Museum of Natural History, have urged Mr. Clough to reconsider.
SOURCE: Dissent Magazine (4-21-11)
Albert Auster and Leonard Quart are the authors of American Film and Society since 1945. This article is adapted from that book’s fourth edition, which will be published by Praeger this summer.
IN TIM O’Brien’s National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato, a GI says of the Vietnam War, “Honest it was such a swell war they should make it a movie.” The sarcasm in that statement applies just as well to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—wars that have seen few triumphs, and that elicited public protest and political criticism. Hollywood, which never had a problem depicting America’s past wars, especially the First and Second World Wars, has had difficulty representing our most recent military struggles.
In our 1988 book How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam, we pointed out that there were no fiction films made during the war that dealt directly with it, except for John Wayne’s patriotic homage to the elite counterinsurgency unit, The Green Berets (1968). It wasn’t until the war and the profoundly divisive passions it aroused cooled that Hollywood began to produce good, low-budget films like Go Tell the Spartans (1978) and big-budget, artistically ambitious films—openly critical films—such as Coming Home (1978), The Deerhunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979). In the eighties major films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) used realistic detail to present the war as a self-destructive march into a kind of purgatory, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) depicted a military training camp as an institution that relentlessly bred killers. Both were flawed but fascinating films that powerfully encapsulated aspects of the Vietnam abattoir.
The Iraq War has presented a somewhat different pattern. Early on, the film industry was reluctant to produce films about the war altogether. (And when they were made, the audience displayed an aversion to them. For example, In the Valley of Elah (2007) only grossed $6.5 million in U.S. theatrical rentals. Even the most critically acclaimed film about the war, the 2009 Academy Award–winning The Hurt Locker, which was produced for a paltry (by Hollywood standards) $15 million, grossed just $49 million worldwide. Only $17 million of that box office came from domestic sources.)...
SOURCE: Lee P. Ruddin (4-4-11)
Woodrow Wilson was the first American leader to travel to the UK as a guest of the Royal Family, in December 1918, and took much more in than just the capital; he boarded the royal train from London to visit his mother's birthplace and grandfather's church up in Carlisle. Dwight Eisenhower ventured even further north, visiting Ayrshire in 1959; after spending time at Chequers (the prime minister's residence in Buckinghamshire) and at Balmoral (the Queen's retreat in Aberdeenshire), the 34th President of the United States stayed at Culzean Castle in Scotland. More recent presidents have also opted to sample northern life: Jimmy Carter took a trip to Newcastle in 1977 for charity purposes while George W. Bush enjoyed a pub lunch in Tony Blair's constituency of Sedgefield in 2003.
There is no reason why, then, the Obamas' cannot experience what Liverpool has to offer during their planned state visit in May. Granted, a visit to Birmingham – dubbed Britain's second city – would be more apt given the Midlands city is twinned with Barack's adopted hometown of Chicago. Yet, a tour around what used to be the second city of empire is more appropriate as we consider the outbreak of the American Civil War 150 years on.
It is pretty incontrovertible to say today, as indeed many commentators do, that the U.S./UK relationship is no longer 'special': cold controversies (such as the Obama Administration openly questioning David Cameron’s strategy toward Libya) together with calm controversies (such as the President and First Lady not being invited to Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding), undergird such thinking. A private viewing of the 'Liverpool and the American Civil War archive display' or a tour around the International Slavery Museum, however, would surely make for warmer relations.
This display of archive material, which can be found outside the Maritime Archives and Library on the second floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, is part of the museum's commemorations for the sesquicentennial. The 'Letterbook of Charles Prioleau, 1862-1865', containing as it does letters to Confederates in regards blockade running, is simply invaluable. The same could be said for the '"Alabama" discharge certificate'; the CSS Alabama caused mayhem, let us not forget, attacking most things Union on the high seas. (Captain Raphael Semmes' 1864 letter, also on display, documents this fact.) As impressive as Thomas Hennesey Lynam's 1861 letter to his brother in Ireland about fighting in the Confederate Army is, though, a letter by the hand of, say, Andrew Tucker Squarey would be far more fascinating. The same goes for the copy of a portrait of George A. Cobham Junior; as interesting a figure as the Liverpool-born, Union soldier is, a print of a photograph of A.T. Squarey would be far more valuable.
Mr. Squarey was a Salisbury-born, Liverpool based lawyer who was on the right side of history when it came to confining the war to the New World, but is all-but forgotten by it – relegated to the endnotes section. Squarey worked tirelessly for Thomas Haines Dudley, President Abraham Lincoln's consul at Liverpool, and compiled the damning affidavits which illuminated British complicity in the construction of the Alabama. Despite his failure to prevent her escape from its Mersey shipyard in 1862, Squarey laid the groundwork for the British enforcement of its Foreign Enlistment Act against the Laird Rams (CSS North Carolina and CSS Mississippi). What is more, though, his evidence played a key role in the Geneva Arbitration a decade later.
As an admirer of the 16th President, Barack Obama is sure to be interested in Lincoln's man's man in Liverpool. A legal man himself, President 44 would appreciate Squarey's role in the politico-legal battle and the fact that America received $15 million in damages from the British Government. The Huntington Library in California is home to the Thomas H. Dudley collection and, contained therein, is a relatively small but hugely significant group of letters from Squarey to Dudley. Any letter from the 19 held would have been a scoop and turned what is a pleasant display into a must-see collection. Whilst this omission is forgiveable, however, omitting an enlarged print of a photograph of Mr. Squarey is unforgiveable considering that the 1893 book he features in – Liverpool's Legion of Honour – is held in numerous libraries across Merseyside.
Given the limited amount of archival material on display, it might be an idea for Mr and Mrs Obama to follow the trail around the Merseyside Maritime Museum and International Slavery museum to see a larger quantity of exhibits relating to Liverpool’s role in the American Civil War.
In the Life at Sea gallery on the first floor, there is the story of the Emily St. Pierre, a Liverpool ship captured by the Union, and objects relating to its recapture by William Wilson. Assisted only by his cook and steward, Captain Wilson retook the ship back into Confederate hands and sailed her up the River Mersey. On display are a razor box and silver medal presented to Wilson and his steward, Matthew Montgomery.
On the second floor, in the Builders of Great Ships gallery, there is a large model of the Alabama and a small model of a Trotman patent anchor; the latter of which was purportedly constructed by A.H. Smith out of brass from the engine room of the Alabama in 1881. On display on the right-hand wall, in the Art and the Sea gallery, meanwhile, is a painting of blockade runner USS Banshee, and nearby are three ship models: two of side-wheel steamers (Colonel Lamb and Banshee); one of a small schooner (Hope).
As interesting as the above artefacts undoubtedly are, though, the President and First Lady will no doubt be eager to get to the third floor and the International Slavery Museum. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the city in 2006 but was only able to view the modest scale Transatlantic Slavery gallery; the Obamas’, on the other hand, will be able to view the bigger picture across an entire floor. The Hunted Slaves, by Richard Ansdell, for instance, is a powerful indictment of the savage treatment which Black slaves suffered, and is well worth viewing. Yet it is the back-story of Ansdell’s 1861 work, and his donating it to the Lancashire Cotton Relief Committee (who raised £700 through a lottery and helped to relieve the suffering of mill workers), which makes a visit to the Legacies section almost obligatory.
If none of this tickles their fancy, there is much more to keep the Obamas’ occupied. The King’s dream was something of a nightmare for Liverpool tourist officials recently, granted, but Barry and Michelle may still want to visit, say, the city’s Philharmonic Hall. Since, let us not forget, while Martin Luther King did not write his 1963 speech on Adelphi Hotel notepaper, Brooklyn pastor Henry Ward Beecher did visit the Hope Street venue a century earlier and helped turn the diplomatic tide toward the North during the American Civil War.
SOURCE: WaPo (4-9-11)
Desperate to keep the viewer’s attention and set itself apart from 95 percent of PBS programming about the men whose faces grace our folding money, filmmaker Michael Pack and writer Richard Brookhiser’s “Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton” (airing Monday night on WETA) employs everything from clips of HBO’s “The Wire,” to tuneful meandering through the streets of Hamilton’s Caribbean boyhood, to the sight of engineers lifting his house and moving it a few New York City blocks to preserve history.
“Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton” is the documentary equivalent of the hybrid car: It has academic imprimatur in the expected forms of such well-known history writers as Sean Wilentz and Ron Chernow (it even drags out Gore Vidal once more), but it also has publisher Larry Flynt, Rupert Murdoch and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson. And, of course, columnist David Brooks....
SOURCE: NYT (4-8-11)
Given that Mr. Ricketts, the 69-year-old founder and former chief executive of TD Ameritrade, built a fortune getting people to change an established habit and trade stocks online at a discount, it certainly doesn’t seem as if he is asking for the moon. And given that the other activities and business investments filling his semi-retirement have objectives that include ending congressional earmarks, getting Americans to eat bison meat and bringing a World Series trophy to the fans of the Chicago Cubs (he’s the new owner), this movie deal seems as if it should already be signed, sealed and delivered.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Mr. Ricketts isn’t envisioning making films that include superheroes or animated animals or other elements that augur box office success around the world, a market more important than ever to the bottom lines of studios and filmmakers. Mr. Ricketts started the American Film Company to make movies from the rather narrower category of stories from American history. The company’s $25 million debut film, opening Friday nationwide, is Robert Redford’s “Conspirator,” a courtroom drama matched with an emotional relationship story. But the film also scrupulously retells a not very well-known moment in American life, to make pointed comments about some of the most gut-wrenching issues in the post-9/11 era....
SOURCE: NYT (4-8-11)
But in some crucial respects Vertov was also at odds with his environment: a propagandist who sometimes drifted off message, a stubborn individualist within a vast bureaucratic system, a tireless innovator of film form at a time when “formalism” was an all-purpose term of censure.
The subject of a career-spanning retrospective that begins Friday at the Museum of Modern Art and continues through June 4, Vertov is at once a central and an elusive figure in film history. His 1929 masterpiece, “Man With a Movie Camera,” a dizzying city symphony that evokes the cycles of urban existence and human life, is a bravura feat of editing and camera trickery that routinely turns up on all-time-best lists and film-school syllabuses. But the density and intricacy of his work call for close attention, and many of his films have long gone unseen....
SOURCE: NYT (4-6-11)
Not only is such a sale by an old family unusual, those experts say, but the size of the collection and the variety of items provide a window on the life and times of both outsize and ordinary Americans in pivotal centuries.
Part of the collection, the Bushrod Washington Family papers, includes correspondence, legal documents, land deeds and other items, among them letters from and about the widow of Alexander Hamilton, inventories of slaves, and a recipe for cement sent to Washington at Mount Vernon. In a family that included a Supreme Court justice (Bushrod) as well as the first president, there are letters from George Wythe (who signed the Declaration of Independence) and Richard Peters, Washington’s secretary of war. They are being offered by Heritage Auction Galleries in two sales, with books being auctioned in New York on Thursday and other items being sold in Dallas on May 21.
SOURCE: NYT (4-3-11)
Steinbeck’s book-length account of his journey, “Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” published in 1962, was generally well reviewed and became a best-seller. It remains in print, regarded by some as a classic of American travel writing. Almost from the beginning, though, a few readers pointed out that many of the conversations in the book had a stagey, wooden quality, not unlike the dialogue in Steinbeck’s fiction....
In the current issue of the libertarian monthly Reason, Bill Steigerwald, a former journalist for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writes that not only is the meeting with [an] actor made up, but on the evening in question, Oct. 12, Steinbeck wasn’t anywhere near Alice. He was in Beach, N.D., more than 300 miles to the west, staying not in the camper but in a motel.
According to Mr. Steigerwald, Steinbeck stayed in motels a lot — when he wasn’t at luxury hotels. On a night when he supposedly camped out on a farm near Lancaster, N.H., Steinbeck was actually at the Spalding Inn, a hotel so fancy that he had to borrow a coat and tie to eat in the dining room.
SOURCE: ABC News (3-31-11)
In January, History Channel dropped the $25 million production it had optioned two years earlier, saying in a statement, "After viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand."...
Much like John F. Kennedy's assassination, conspiracy theories abound for why the series was dropped by History, whose parent company A&E is owned in part by ABC's parent company, Disney. But criticism about its historical accuracy hounded the project long before filming began.
Among the critics is liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who led a campaign called "Stop Kennedy Smears" with several prominent historians and JFK adviser Theodore C. Sorensen.
Before his death in October, Sorensen, who saw a version of the screenplay in 2010, said, "Every single conversation with the president in the Oval Office or elsewhere in which I, according to the script, participated, never happened."...
SOURCE: NYT (3-28-11)
Mr. Cohen is a writer and director who was in the news when his sister, the publicist Ronni Chasen, was murdered last year, and whose film “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” was released in 1977 with Broderick Crawford in the lead. He has now compiled a lengthy critique of the new Hoover film, based on his reading of a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for “Milk.”
Mr. Cohen’s biggest gripe is what he describes as the film’s portrayal of Hoover, the longtime director of the F.B.I., “as a closeted gay man.”
SOURCE: Culture Kiosque (3-28-11)
HOUSTON, TEXAS, 28 MARCH 2011 — What happens when an artist gets old? It is a question that we’re bound to hear more often, as each generation of artists lives longer than the next. If so, Herbert Siguenza’s A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, now having its premiere courtesy of the New Play Initiative at the Alley Theater in Houston, is a good shot across the bow. It gives us Picasso at the age of 77, comfortably ensconced in his villa on the Côte d’Azur, enjoying wine, baguettes and his own fame. It is an age at which one might be forgiven for wanting to retire; indeed, according to Picasso lore, it is an age at which the master might have been considered retired, churning out canvases and sketches for wealthy collectors. And Picasso could have been forgiven for wanting to retire, having begun his artistic training and output at the age of 7, lived through two world wars, the Catalan Independence movement, Franco’s fascism, two wives, and an astonishing number of mistresses — not to mention at least five distinct periods of artistic creation. One would think that he might need a rest.
But of course Picasso did not rest. His late period was one of his most prolific, experimenting with style and color, responding to the master artists he had known during his life, reaching toward new styles and new ways of making art, and even creating like the 50-foot tall creature in downtown Chicago that is still one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.
It is no doubt this energy that attracted Siguenza. As a 30-year veteran of the theater scene, who, with his partners Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas, pioneered the use of sketch comedy to illuminate the complex ethnic relationships of America’s cities, Siguenza has reached the capstone of his career. He writes, teaches and directs theater at the University of California at Irvine and serves as a mayor-appointed Commissioner to the City of Los Angeles. Recently he has started one-man portrayals of famous Latinos, starting with the Mexican film star Cantinflas. He seems to be thinking about how an artist that has already made his mark can take his art to the next level....
SOURCE: NYT (3-29-11)
Arriving on television shortly after an Oscars race between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network,” movies that put their own spin on real-life events, “The Kennedys” employs many of the same narrative devices. In chronicling the presidency of John F. Kennedy, it compresses time, consolidates characters and invents dialogue for moments never recorded by history’s pen.
It also dwells on the sexual appetites of the Kennedy men, the use of prescription drugs by the president and his wife, and Joseph P. Kennedy’s interactions with the Mafia, in ways that, depending on your point of view, expose the flaws of historical figures or besmirch the legacy of an American hero.
That would be complicated enough, even without two additional factors. The producer of “The Kennedys,” Joel Surnow, a co-creator of the Fox action series “24,” is an outspoken conservative. (He says that despite his personal politics, the mini-series depicts the family “in an honest yet really reverential and patriotic light.”)...
SOURCE: NYT (3-21-11)
Their ambivalence about their country’s standing, nearly two decades after Communism’s fall, is at the heart of “My Perestroika,” a new documentary that burrows into the lives of five Muscovites who came of age in the twilight of the Soviet Union.
Russian history has long been dominated by big personalities — Mr. Putin, the prime minister and former president, is just the latest — but this film largely shuns them, choosing instead to examine how ordinary people have endured the turmoil of recent decades. “My Perestroika,” which opens Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York before a national release, offers a chance to eavesdrop on kitchen table conversations as Russians ponder what has become of their world.
Interviews with the five subjects are twinned with images from home movies, newsreels and party propaganda, an arresting visual scrapbook of the Soviet period....
SOURCE: NYT (3-12-11)
“Esteban Vicente: Portrait of the Artist,” at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, starts with one artist, but quickly — and thankfully — opens up into one of these broader, more inclusive chapters. Vicente (1903-2001), a Spanish-born artist who lived most of his life in New York, was best known for his collages, and a big red abstract-floral one greets visitors at the entrance. A watercolor by his contemporary Philip Pavia, “Freefall No. 2” from 1959, hangs nearby, however, turning the installation immediately into a dialogue.
The first room focuses not just on collectivity, but also on what a wall label calls “connectivity”: artists gathering casually in the 1940s at a cafeteria in Greenwich Village and eventually forming the Club, which met for both social purposes and panel discussions centered on philosophy, music, poetry, literature and film....
SOURCE: WaPo (3-9-11)
"We wanted to break it down just like a movie. There's the conspiracy. There's the attacks. There's the arrests," said Stone, standing by the product of his venture into static exhibitions. He quickly sails to a display case. "Here's the exact replica of the .44-caliber derringer Booth used. There's even the pineapple emblem on the side," said Stone, the producer of "The Negotiator" and "Gone in 60 Seconds."
Not a detail went unresearched for Stone's new movie, "The Conspirator," an action look at the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. How Hollywood treated those events is now part of a museum attraction. The National Museum of Crime and Punishment recently opened a small show about the movie and one of the story's most fascinating characters, Mary Surratt....
SOURCE: AP (3-7-11)
Yet it happened nearly a century before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, on Black Tom Island, a munitions depot in New York Harbor sabotaged by German agents and American collaborators in 1916.
This and other examples of domestic terrorism are part of a new exhibition at the National Constitution Center, tracing the evolution of revolution and exploring how panic and prejudice can disrupt the balance between safeguarding civil liberties and protecting the public.
"Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America" opened Friday and runs through May 30. Created by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., it examines acts of revolution, sabotage, protest, subversion and extremism by foreign-born and home-grown militants, activists and spies from the Revolutionary War to the post-9/11 present....
SOURCE: OurNixon.com (3-9-11)
For the first time, OUR NIXON presents those home movies to the public – to tell a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective. You might be surprised by how much the story changes in the telling.
Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Chapin, and Higby were nuts about home movies. They filmed big events: White House performances by Bob Hope, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Cash and Raquel Welch; hordes of anti-war protestors on the National Mall; legions of adoring fans on the campaign trail; visits from heads of state like Haile Selassie, Nicolae Ceausescu and Indira Gandhi; their historic trip to China; and Tricia Nixon’s Rose Garden wedding.
But they also filmed each other: Chapin goofing around with his camera; Ehrlichman clowning with Kissinger on the beach; and Haldeman filming Higby filming Haldeman at the Great Wall of China. Ehrlichman filmed birds. He was especially fond of hummingbirds. The home movies record every aspect of their experience of the Nixon White House, from the prosaic to the profound. These four men carefully documented their time with Nixon because they believed that Nixon would transform America. And in a way, they were right.
Today, when we think of Nixon, we think first of Watergate. But OUR NIXON isn’t a film about Watergate. It’s a film about four of Nixon's men and the story they thought they were a part of – before Watergate changed everything.
OUR NIXON is currently in production with an expected release date of early 2012.
SOURCE: NYT (3-7-11)
“The Desert of Forbidden Art,” an American-made documentary, will try to draw international attention to Mr. Savitsky’s life’s work: a museum in the parched hinterland of Uzbekistan that is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Russian avant-garde art. Until now the museum has been known chiefly to journalists and art lovers who returned from the remote city of Nukus with a dazed look and a remarkable tale, as if they had stumbled into Ali Baba’s cave.
It would not seem the time for an official crackdown.
But late last year Uzbek officials abruptly gave the Nukus Museum 48 hours to evacuate one of its two exhibition buildings, so staff members ended up stacking hundreds of fragile canvases and paper works on the floor of the other space. The building has since stood empty, its fate unknown, and more than 2,000 works are no longer on view at the museum, more formally known as the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. The museum’s director, Marinika M. Babanazarova, who has fiercely guarded the collection for 27 years, was not permitted to travel to the United States for a trip that was to include a screening of the documentary at the National Gallery of Art in Washington....
SOURCE: Kansas City Star (3-7-11)
"A Film Unfinished," which generated considerable critical acclaim when it was released in movie theaters last year, as well as controversy over its "R" rating, comes out on DVD this week (Oscilloscope Laboratories, $29.99, rated R). It is a painful film to watch, but an important one.
The basis for "A Film Unfinished" was the discovery in 1954 of a single movie reel entitled "Das Ghetto" ("The Ghetto"). Inside was an unfinished one-hour Nazi-made film about the Warsaw Ghetto, a film without titles, credits or narration. The footage was shot in May 1942, just a few months before a majority of the 450,000 Jewish inhabitants forced to live in an area less than three square miles were deported to the Treblinka death camp....
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (2-28-11)
The royal film in the news is The King's Speech, and so – as ever the first with film – I have been catching up with the 2008 version of the novel The Other Boleyn Girl. Tom Hooper's award-winner has been accused of playing fast and loose with historical fact. But the earlier film, starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, manages to virtually edit out a rather large historical fact: the Reformation....
I was surprised that critics were so hard on the supposed inaccuracy of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. It plays around with the legend of the green man of the forest – which never was a true story – and garbles the story of King John and Magna Carta: but so what? Ridley Scott loves the colours and textures of other times and places. In all his history epics he goes out of his way to recreate not so much the narrative details as the look and heft of history: the design of a medieval siege engine, the rituals of a particular moment. In Robin Hood, there is a shot of London that features a loving reconstruction of the old gothic St Paul's – burnt in the great fire of London – at the heart of what by present-day standards is just a town surrounded by forest. Whatever its faults, it makes you realise that medieval England was a far greener country, with far fewer people, living in a world still dominated by natural cycles and seasons.
For me, that is the kind of insight that history should be about. History is an act of imagination. It is about trying to get inside other people's skins, about seeing the world from remote perspectives. Historical cinema can do this brilliantly, and it does not have to be pedantic to create a sense of time travel. You can read a dozen books about Roman society, but it took Scott's film Gladiator to put audiences into the stone seats of the Colosseum, to share the passions of the raging crowd – to feel, for a moment, the emotions of a Roman.