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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOURCE: Commentary (1-26-11)
Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like The King’s Speech. Not because of its cinematic qualities, which he appreciates, but because of its political ones. According to him, the movie is a “a gross falsification of history” because it shows Churchill as “generally in favor of a statesmanlike solution to the crisis of the abdication” and because it neglects to portray Edward VIII as “a firm admirer of the Third Reich” and George VI as an appeaser and anti-Churchill.
When I first read Hitchens’s piece, my mind flashed back to an article Hitchens contributed to the Atlantic in July/August 2002, an article that, as the subtitle puts it, “takes the Great Man down a peg or two.” It occasioned a characteristically understated and effective response from my adviser Paul Kennedy, who pointed out the “misinformation” that Hitchens appeared to be circulating. Not at all abashed, Hitchens continues to regret that “it seems we shall never reach a time when the Churchill cult is open for honest inspection.”
It’s curious that Hitchens both criticizes the “Churchill cult” for supporting the Great Man, and George VI for supposedly failing to do so. But Hitchens is shooting at several targets simultaneously: Churchill for being a monarchist, and the monarchy for existing. When coupled with his opposition to appeasement, the result is not always convincing....
SOURCE: NYT (1-21-11)
This particular journal, on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in a compelling exhibition that opened on Friday, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives,” has such a modest goal — chronicling Steinbeck’s work on “The Grapes of Wrath” — that it probably does not bend the truth too much. But spend some time with these diaries, intelligently culled from the Morgan’s archives by Christine Nelson, the museum’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, and you see how fervently the keepers of journals labor to shape accounts of themselves.
These diaries span more than the three centuries of the exhibition’s subtitle. They are the chronicles of the famous (Nathaniel Hawthorne) and obscure (Adèle Hugo, Victor’s daughter); royalty (Queen Victoria recounting her journeys in the Highlands) and pirates (Bartholomew Sharpe, who preyed on the Spanish in the 17th century); and child writers (J. P. Morgan as a 9-year-old) and writers for children (E. B. White, who used his own diaries as a sometime source). Bob Dylan’s 1973-74 travel journal of his tour with the Band is opened to his sketch of a view from a Memphis hotel room; Einstein’s 1922 travel diary is open to calculations related to electromagnetism and general relativity, written on the page’s flip side....
SOURCE: Slate (1-24-11)
The King's Speech is an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter filmgoer and the latent Anglophile. But it perpetrates a gross falsification of history. One of the very few miscast actors—Timothy Spall as a woefully thin pastiche of Winston Churchill—is the exemplar of this bizarre rewriting. He is shown as a consistent friend of the stuttering prince and his loyal princess and as a man generally in favor of a statesmanlike solution to the crisis of the abdication.
In point of fact, Churchill was—for as long as he dared—a consistent friend of conceited, spoiled, Hitler-sympathizing Edward VIII. And he allowed his romantic attachment to this gargoyle to do great damage to the very dearly bought coalition of forces that was evolving to oppose Nazism and appeasement. Churchill probably has no more hagiographic chronicler than William Manchester, but if you look up the relevant pages of The Last Lion, you will find that the historian virtually gives up on his hero for an entire chapter.
By dint of swallowing his differences with some senior left and liberal politicians, Churchill had helped build a lobby, with strong grass-roots support, against Neville Chamberlain's collusion with European fascism. The group had the resonant name of Arms and the Covenant. Yet, as the crisis deepened in 1936, Churchill diverted himself from this essential work—to the horror of his colleagues—in order to involve himself in keeping a pro-Nazi playboy on the throne. He threw away his political capital in handfuls by turning up at the House of Commons—almost certainly heavily intoxicated, according to Manchester—and making an incoherent speech in defense of "loyalty" to a man who did not understand the concept. In one speech—not cited by Manchester—he spluttered that Edward VIII would "shine in history as the bravest and best-loved of all sovereigns who have worn the island crown." (You can see there how empty and bombastic Churchill's style can sound when he's barking up the wrong tree; never forget that he once described himself as the lone voice warning the British people against the twin menaces of Hitler and Gandhi!)...
SOURCE: NYT (1-23-11)
MAKING movies in Hollywood has never been easy, though maybe it should have been for the Austrian genius with a monocle screwed into his right eye and a dark, forbidding Weltanschauung lodged deep in his head. But life is cruel and filmmaking can be nearly as brutal, and so it was for Fritz Lang (1890-1976). “I always fought very hard in Hollywood,” he said in 1970, sounding like the embattled veteran he became. Late in life he said that the main theme in all his movies was the “fight against destiny, against fate,” and it’s hard not to wonder if he was thinking about his own fortunes as a Hollywood director
By the time Lang landed in the United States in 1934 he was a legend in Germany, his adopted homeland, where he had directed films like “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler,” “Metropolis” and “M.” He left Germany in 1933 after his film “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” was banned there as a threat to law and order and public safety. He liked to say that he fled Germany in one frantic evening after Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, asked Lang to run its film division. He did leave, but several months after his alleged meeting with Goebbels. But then a pulse-pounding flight to freedom, as incredible as any manufactured on a back lot, certainly sounded better, sexier, more mythological than a calculated departure.
Was Lang thinking of his own fantastical escape when he shot “Cloak and Dagger,” a 1946 thriller that ends with Gary Cooper — as Alvah, an American scientist turned spy — fleeing Fascist Italy on a small plane, a busty young resistance fighter in a tight sweater, Gina (Lilli Palmer), weeping ciao in the nearby grass? One biographical nugget did enter Lang’s conversation about that film in an interview he did with Peter Bogdanovich. Describing a nail-biter of a fight between Alvah and a Nazi, Lang mentioned that he had wanted to join the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the C.I.A. “I couldn’t get in because of my eyes,” Lang said. Really? Whatever the truth, it makes another good story for an artful dissembler....
SOURCE: NYT (1-17-11)
But concerns about the accuracy of the story presented in “The Kennedys” led to a decision by History not to show it. That decision seemed like a sudden reversal, but it came after an unsuccessful yearlong effort to bring the mini-series in line with the historical record. That effort raised questions about the boundaries between dramatic license and documented fact, a particularly fraught issue given enduring sensitivities about the Kennedy legacy.
The announcement by History in December 2009 that it was planning to show “The Kennedys” was a major step for it into scripted programming. It came at a time when History, a cable channel owned by A&E Television Networks, was shedding its reputation for musty war documentaries in favor of red-blooded reality shows like “Ax Men” and “Ice Road Truckers.” The move was meant to bring History prestige, as well as to establish a connection to the “Kennedys” producer Joel Surnow, an Emmy Award-winning co-creator of the Fox series “24” and outspoken political conservative....
SOURCE: NYT (1-10-11)
Shaw Media, a division of the Canadian conglomerate Shaw Communications, said that it will still show “The Kennedys” on an as-yet undetermined television channel in the spring.
Barbara Williams, Shaw Media’s senior vice president for content, said in a statement that the company “is committed to the production of ‘The Kennedys’ and will broadcast the production in Canada as planned, in Spring 2011.” The statement continued: “We are awaiting confirmation from our Canadian producers regarding U.S. distribution plans and further broadcast details.”...
SOURCE: Hollywood Reporter (1-7-10)
“Upon completion of the production of The Kennedys, History has decided not to air the 8-part miniseries on the network,” a rep for the network tells The Hollywood Reporter in a statement. “While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”
The multi-million dollar project—History and Lifetime president and general manager Nancy Dubuc's first scripted miniseries at the network and its most expensive program ever—has been embroiled in controversy since it was announced in December 2009.
Developed by Joel Surnow, the conservative co-creator of 24, along with production companies Asylum Entertainment and Muse Entertainment and writer Stephen Kronish, the project drew fire from the political left and some Kennedy historians. Even before cameras rolled, a front-page New York Times story last February included a sharp attack from former John F. Kennedy adviser Theodore Sorensen, who called an early version of the script “vindictive” and “malicious.”
SOURCE: NYT (1-4-11)
Even before Ochs discovered folk music and left-wing politics through Jim Glover, his fellow student at Ohio State University, he was in the thrall of larger-than-life cultural symbols, from Elvis Presley to western movie stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, who embodied the concept of a world-saving hero. Not coincidentally, the folk music movement in its early days had the same messianic sense of its own importance.
The Dylan-Ochs connection, however friendly, had its tormenting underside. While Ochs worshipped Mr. Dylan (who is not interviewed in the film), his idol refused to pay him much respect. Ochs’s typical songs were specific topical commentaries gleaned from poring over newspapers and magazines. Even when Mr. Dylan was addressing current events, he remained suspicious of politics as a songwriting platform and soon moved on to become the superstar that Ochs wanted desperately to be....
SOURCE: CHE (1-2-11)
"True grit"—once known as "sand" and not to be confused with cojones—is terse praise for the bedrock quality desired in the American male. Stoic, hard-edged, and laconic, the gruff embodiment of Hemingway's "grace under pressure" and Tom Wolfe's "the right stuff"; skilled in firearms, steady astride a horse or jockeying an F-16, he coolly performs the work at hand, usually a task involving the swift application of lethal force. No need to tell him to "man up."
For generations of American men, and women, the incarnation of that masculine ideal was John Wayne, who, in a fortuitous merging of on-screen persona and off-screen personality, won an Oscar playing a version of his own myth in True Grit (1969). This classic Hollywood western, maybe the last of the classic Hollywood westerns, was remade, or rather re-imagined, for this holiday season by the Coen brothers, with Jeff Bridges starring in the Wayne role. Since the Coens are Hollywood's most gifted genre-twisters, one might expect a sardonic spin on the western and its manly hero. But some conventions are resistant to revision. A faith in true gritness must come with the territory.
To understand why, and how, the genre trumps the brothers, let's take the measure of the Wayne myth. Before he became a punch line, a synonym for Ur-macho bluster (and an epithet for blundering America foreign policy), Wayne was an actor of some repute; by some reckoning, he was the most popular Hollywood star ever. He had "the longest and most successful career of any actor in film history," decreed Variety upon his death, in 1979, after it tallied the box-office profits from his 120-plus feature films.
Like most larger-than-life American archetypes, Wayne grew out of a conscious act of self-invention. Born in 1907, the son of an Iowa druggist who went bust as a California rancher, he dropped his androgynous birth name (Marion Morrison), borrowed his nickname from the family dog (Duke), and practiced his trademark say-that-again-pard'ner-and-you're-dead look in front of a mirror. Wayne knocked around for years in B-level horse operas until director John Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). Ford highlighted the entrance of the actor who became his surrogate son with one of the great star-is-born moments in Hollywood history: At the crack of a rifle and a pull-in close-up, Wayne rose true and strong out of the frontier landscape, another monolith against the sky in Monument Valley....
SOURCE: NY Daily News (1-2-11)
The diary of William Steinway is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The exhibit is part of a more than 20-year-long transcription project that resulted in an online archive of the 2,500-page diary, spanning from 1861 to 1896.
"It's an American immigrant story that I think a lot of people can relate to," said Anna Karvellas, the managing editor of the William Steinway Diary Project....
SOURCE: NYT (1-3-11)
On Monday the PBS series “American Experience” offers its take on Lee, and the account is serviceable enough. But an earlier “American Experience” on Grant’s war years, scheduled for rebroadcast next Monday, is better.
There’s not much new to be learned about either of these men, of course, so the contest largely comes down to a matter of presentation. The Lee program favors lingering shots of fountain pens and drafting tools and, somewhat inexplicably, flowers in bloom, along with the usual still photographs of Lee, his family and his troops. The Grant program at least sprung for some live actors....
And here, in this city where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed; where a $300 million Independence National Historical Park has been created, leading from the National Constitution Center to Independence Hall; and where the Liberty Bell, as a symbol of the nation’s ideals, draws well over a million visitors a year, a great opportunity existed to explore these primal tensions more closely on a site adjacent to the Liberty Bell Center in Independence park. Unfortunately, those opportunities have been squandered in “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation” which opens on Wednesday.
It is almost painful, given the importance of this site, to point out that the result is more a monument to these unresolved tensions than a commemoration of anything else. After $10.5 million and more than eight years; after tugs of war between the city and the National Park Service and black community organizations; after the establishment of a contentious oversight committee and street demonstrations, overturned conceptions and racial debates, it bears all the scars of its creation, lacking both intellectual coherence and emotional power. On Wednesday the Park Service takes over the site with its work cut out for it, since rangers will have to weave the competing strands together....
SOURCE: CultureKiosque (12-12-10)
The French capital provided unique access to courageous art dealers who bought and dared to show the work of the avant-garde painters and sculptors, and interviews with such delightful artists as Marc Chagall are interspersed with throw-away comments, informing the viewer that Juan Gris was a draft dodger in Spain. On a more serious level, Miller has dealt intelligently with both the Dada and the Cubist movement, the former being a rebellious upsurge of rage against the war, born in a Swiss cabaret, which few of us actually understand. It was, it is pointed out, the "absurdity of an imbecilic war" which gave people like Francis Picabia and Max Ernst the right to break all rules and to attack all art, past and present.
The Cubist movement is dealt with more gently, with "Mr. Braque, a daring young man, reducing everything to little cubes…. and hammering out cubism in an upstairs room with Picasso"....
SOURCE: NYRB (12-15-10)
Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, opening this month in New York twenty-five years after its original release, is one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. As it begins, Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who was one of two survivors of Chełmno, returns to the death facility at Lanzmann’s request, and sings a song of his boyhood—about a white house, a house that is no longer—in the language of a country that was his homeland as it was of millions of Jews for centuries, a Poland made wretched by war. Mordechai Podchlebnik, the other survivor of Chełmno, in another conversation with Lanzmann, remembers human smoke against blue skies. The work of the stationary gas chambers began in German-occupied Poland on December 8, 1941. Here is the beginning of Lanzmann’s nine-hour reconstruction of the Holocaust, and in commencing with the faces and voices of Chełmno’s survivors, he has chosen well. Using no historical footage, Lanzmann instead elicits the detailed horror of mass death by asphyxiation at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz from his own conversations with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders.
A quarter century ago, the Holocaust was not as widely recognized as it is today as an unprecedented evil. Lanzmann did much to change that. In his expansive “fiction of the real,” as he calls it, he is like a French realist novelist of the nineteenth century, addressing an injustice by painstaking research: a decade of reading; hundreds of risky conversations with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders; thousands of hours of unused film. This is “J’accuse” six million times over. Lanzmann is quite visible in the film, and heroically so. In his conversations with Jews and Germans and Poles, he is the perfect image of a French intellectual seeker of truth, doing what the existentialists spoke about but rarely did: imposing his mind and his will on a great emptiness, forcing it to take shape, and so leaving a trace of himself in history....
And for that reason alone, “Paris the Luminous Years” is as illuminating about the state of public television as it is about Paris at the dawn of modernism. This film, which has its premiere on PBS on Wednesday, looks at the city that seduced the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Apollinaire, Diaghilev and of course, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. It pays homage, though, not in the seditious, inventive spirit of the avant-garde that Paris once nurtured, but in the time-tested, didactic and dutiful tone of a typical PBS documentary.
Paris is still a wonderful city, but it no longer draws the world’s most innovative artists and thinkers. PBS is still a serious, responsible institution that shows good work, but creativity and élan have migrated to other networks and cable channels....
SOURCE: NYT (12-14-10)
Vasari declared the bronzes “the most perfect and harmonious by a modern master” and nothing to rival them was made in Florence until the arrival in the city of Giambologna nearly half a century later. Rustici’s “Preaching of St. John the Baptist,” hoisted into position over the Baptistery’s north door in 1511, was reputed to be the result of some form of collaboration with Leonardo, the exact nature of which remains uncertain.
Rustici was one of the great Renaissance sculptors in his own right, but his reputation has been obscured by his small output, now widely scattered. After being in place for nearly 500 years except for a brief period during World War II, his statues over the north door were removed in 2006 to rescue them from the effects of weather and air pollution.
After a painstaking program of cleaning and conservation, the statues now form the centerpiece of a revelatory exhibition at the Bargello Museum: “The Great Bronzes of the Baptistery: Giovanfrancesco Rustici and Leonardo,” curated by Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, director of the museum, Tommaso Mozzati and Philippe Sénéchal. The nearly 40 pieces in bronze, terra cotta, marble, maiolica and on panel and paper come from 19 collections in Europe and the United States....
SOURCE: NYT (12-11-10)
Given their unusual subjects, a casual observer might draw the natural conclusion that these ambitious productions were too dark or civics-lessonish to suit the glitz-riddled precincts around Times Square, where flashy musicals merchandising nostalgia tend to thrive.
The harsh suffering of the African-Americans falsely accused of rape in Alabama in the 1930s does not, after all, seem a surefire subject for a musical entertainment. Ditto the ambiguous legacy of Andrew Jackson, the American president whose enforced relocation of the Indians is viewed by many as a major blot on the nation’s moral escutcheon. Mr. Guare’s chosen chapter from the United States history books is similarly no flag-waving Fourth of July picnic, depicting as it does the maneuvering among statesmen preceding the grand Louisiana Purchase and the treaty’s grim consequences for the country’s black population....
SOURCE: Tablet (12-10-10)
When Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, was released in 1985, it was immediately lauded by critics as pathbreaking, epic, and a sheer masterpiece. Simone de Beauvoir, in her introduction to the published text of the film, called it a “funeral cantata.” Holocaust scholars and film specialists, speaking with almost one voice, hailed it as not only one of the best Holocaust films ever made but as fundamentally different from all other films on the topic. In the ensuing 25 years, despite the release of numerous Holocaust films, this assessment has not been challenged. What gives this film its iconic status?
One obvious factor is, of course, its length. It is 564 minutes—approximately nine and a half hours—long. Presented in two parts, Lanzmann’s preference was that it be viewed in one day or, at the least, in two subsequent days. Sitting through it can be an exhausting, almost grueling, experience.
Ultimately, however, the power of this documentary is rooted not in what Lanzmann has done but in what he does not do. The film does not contain one moment of archival footage. There is no visual horror in Shoah: no scenes of Jews being loaded onto trains, marched out of ghettoes, or shot by Einsatzgruppen. There are no cadavers being bulldozed by the Allies into mass graves in the immediate aftermath of the “liberation” of the camps. Instead Lanzmann weaves together an intricate web of interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders. Because there is no representation of the horror, the viewer must imagine what happened, and, as Leah Wolfson of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has put it, “we hear the witnesses in an entirely different way.”...
SOURCE: NYT (12-7-10)
Then again, Mr. Lanzmann also argues that “Shoah” is not really a documentary, and that “Holocaust” is “a completely improper name” to describe the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews during World War II. He complains that, in contrast to Europe, where “Shoah” has “never stopped being shown in movie theaters and on TV,” his film has “disappeared from the American scene,” elbowed aside by more palatable fare and thus allowing mistaken notions to propagate.
“This was by no means a holocaust,” he said during a recent visit to New York, noting that the literal meaning of the word refers to a burnt offering to a god. “To reach God 1.5 million Jewish children have been offered? The name is important, and one doesn’t say ‘Holocaust’ in Europe. This was a catastrophe, a disaster, and in Hebrew that is shoah.”...