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: Salon (7-7-11)
If your cultural memory goes back to the 1970s, here's what you already know, or think you know, about the subject of James Marsh's film "Project Nim": An infant chimpanzee called Nim -- or Nim Chimpsky, in joking homage to linguist Noam Chomsky -- was raised entirely by humans and taught elements of American Sign Language, as part of an experiment that aimed to determine whether an ape could acquire language the same way we do. (If one could, that might disprove Chomsky's contention that humans are uniquely hard-wired for language.) The results of the experiment were controversial at the time and remain so today. Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University psychologist who designed the project, ultimately decided that Nim hadn't gotten anywhere near a syntactical understanding of human language and used his vocabulary of 125 or so signs merely as a primitive code to achieve short-term goals, such as a piece of fruit or a play session.
As he did in his Oscar-winning "Man on Wire," Marsh takes a much-mythologized, media-friendly event of yesteryear and gradually fills in the background and context via a meticulous blend of archival footage, talking-head interviews and artful reconstructions. (This film is based on Elizabeth Hess' 2008 book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.") As with Philippe Petit's 1974 wire-walk between the Twin Towers, the Nim experiment looks a whole lot different in retrospect. "Project Nim" is a darkly hilarious social portrait of the bizarre alternate universe of 1970s academia and an extraordinary biography of a non-human individual, on whom all sorts of human desires and ideologies were projected. Marsh is far too scrupulous, or too canny, to take sides in the dispute between Terrace and his many detractors, but he doesn't have to. Basically, the more the guy opens his mouth, the more he looks like a massive sleazebag, and the more you learn about his so-called experiment, the more it looks like a misbegotten and sloppily executed disaster that says more about human arrogance than it does about chimps and language.
"Project Nim" also belongs on the ever-lengthening list of movies designed to convince younger people that however much the '70s may sound like a paranoid fantasy out of a Philip K. Dick novel, they actually happened. (See also: "Carlos," "Munich" and "The Baader Meinhof Complex," not to mention "Man on Wire.") I mean, you couldn't make this stuff up. Terrace's supposedly scientific exercise involved shooting Nim's mother with a tranquilizer gun, seizing her 2-week-old infant and entrusting it to Stephanie LaFarge, a former graduate student (and former lover) of Terrace's who knew nothing about chimpanzees. She did, however, have a large blended family, in which numerous children lived in a state of unsupervised Manhattan chaos; evidently the idea was that one more who wasn't quite human wouldn't make much difference....
SOURCE: Huffington Post (7-7-11)
Nominated 13 times for the Academy Award for Best Actress, more than anyone else in history, Meryl Streep is taking her penchant for standout performances as strong, decisive women to new heights -- and, if all goes according to plan, a 14th nod from the Academy.
Streep plays former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming film, "The Iron Lady." Directed by "Mama Mia!" helmer Phyllida Lloyd, the film follows Thatcher's rise to power in the late seventies to become the first and only woman Prime Minister in Britain's history. An arch conservative Tory, her reign was a divisive one, drawing protests from the left and accolades from the right....
SOURCE: Reuters (7-6-11)
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap) - The History cable channel is making nice with the Kennedys.
The folks who almost brought you the dark side of the would-be dynasty in "The Kennedys" miniseries is taking an altogether more positive look at America's royal family, "The Lost Kennedy Home Movies."
Assembled from four decades of private film shot mostly by the family and its friends, the documentary, which premieres at 9 on Wednesday night, ignores stuff like John F. Kennedy's womanizing and allegations that father Joe engineered the theft of the 1960 presidential election.
Instead, we get the Kennedys at play: tanned, debonair, carefree and privileged, letting their guard down in footage rarely if ever seen publicly....
SOURCE: NYT (7-4-11)
Few students of popular culture, amateur or professional, consider the 1960s a period when creativity flourished on American television. Westerns of the kind that did not threaten to obscure the legacy of John Ford prevailed, speaking to the pastoral fantasies of millions of Americans who had vacated decaying cities for the tempered pleasures of suburban life. The same demographic realities could be held accountable for the absurdist escapism of something like “Green Acres.” Between 1950 and 1960, the United States population swelled by about 28 million; two-thirds of that growth occurred in suburbia. Television had come to occupy a place in 44 million homes....
The new atmosphere created a great opportunity for independent producers, among them David L. Wolper, who brought American viewers enduring works like specials from the National Geographic Society and the series “Biography” (and later, the mini-series “Roots”). Beginning in 1963, he also delivered a trio of documentaries based on the classic texts of political reporting by the journalist Theodore H. White: “The Making of the President, 1960,” “The Making of the President, 1964” and “The Making of the President, 1968.” Wolper Productions distilled these exhaustively detailed books into 80-minute films, which have become available on DVD for the first time (from Athena, in a boxed set, “The Making of the President: The 1960s”).
The films capture the books’ broad scope, covering successive presidential campaigns — John F. Kennedy versus Richard M. Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson versus Barry M. Goldwater, and Nixon versus Hubert H. Humphrey and George C. Wallace — in a kind of minute-to-minute chronology from the primary battles through the general elections. The stories are told from the perspective of a shifting social landscape and through the lens of backroom factionalism that beset both major parties throughout the decade....
SOURCE: WaPo (6-27-11)
The faded patchwork coat and pants once belonged to an accused counterrevolutionary named Liu Zhuanghuan, who spent a decade at a forced labor camp during China’s brutal Cultural Revolution.
His son was confined to the same camp but never allowed to see his father. One exception was made: He was allowed to identify his father’s body and collect his belongings after Zhuanghuan committed suicide in 1973.
Zhuanghuan’s tattered clothing — and the human suffering it represents — are now part of a collection of artifacts, photos, videos, books and government documents on display at the recently expanded Laogai Museum in Northwest Washington.
The Dupont Circle museum is intended to showcase human rights abuses in China, particularly the Communist regime’s use of prisons to punish dissenters. It was created by Harry Wu, 74, a human rights activist who spent 19 years in forced labor camps....
SOURCE: NYT (6-21-11)
FISHERS, Ind. — The drama unfolding here on the outskirts of Indianapolis involves a dashing, Kentucky-born guerrilla fighter, ruthless in plunder and genteel in manners. There’s a pioneer fur trader, too, a man who negotiated with the Lenape Indians to move them out of central Indiana and lost his Lenape Indian wife and children in the bargain. And let’s not forget the 20th-century philanthropist who envisioned a living museum that would reflect the history of his state; his gift of that museum to a nearby college that had other priorities led to 21st-century courtroom battles and, ultimately, to the museum’s recent independence. Now teams of “interpreters” and “facilitators” and costumed Indianians lure more than 220,000 visitors a year to this endearingly strange place.
Here at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, on 850 acres of prairie land that mainly belonged, in the 1820s, to one William Conner (that fur trader and negotiator with the Indians), all of these elements come together, creating a hybrid of historical society, amusement park, 19th-century village and high-tech theater. Its history inspires it to try to tell history in a different way: not as fact but as experience.
Its most ambitious undertaking yet is “1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana,” a $4.3 million interactive show that received its premiere on June 4. The drama is staged in buildings meant to represent the town of Dupont, Ind. During the Civil War Dupont was attacked by thousands of Confederates led by John Hunt Morgan; they had been riding on horseback through Indiana, plundering and pillaging, wrecking rail lines and cutting telegraph wires. “Morgan’s Raids” are the only Civil War battles that took place in Indiana....
SOURCE: NYT (6-12-11)
BRINGING vintage cars to the parks, estates and golf course fairways where they can flaunt their beauty and compete for honors in the summer’s many concours d’élégance events is a well-rehearsed process.
But as museums have assembled more exhibitions that showcase the artistry and historical significance of automobiles, the task of putting vehicles into public spaces — often in the center of a busy city — has become infinitely more complex. Cars, especially prewar classics, can be huge. And while museums are accustomed to dealing with large artworks, the vehicles present challenges on another scale entirely.
Placing 16 cars inside the Portland Art Museum for the “Allure of the Automobile” exhibition, which opens this weekend, has been the job of Donald Urquhart, director of collections management for the museum....
SOURCE: NYT (6-8-11)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a guest columnist for the NYT.
Last weekend, like seemingly half the country, I took my son to see “X-Men: First Class,” the latest, and best, big-screen incarnation of the popular comic book franchise....
In print, the X-Men are an elite team culled from a superpowered species of human. The mutants, as they are dubbed, are generally handled roughly by the rest of humanity and singled out for everything from enslavement to internment camps to genocide. As if to ram the allegory home, the X-Men, for much of their history, have hailed from across the spectrum of human existence. Over the decades, there have been gay X-Men, patrician X-Men, Jewish X-Men, Aboriginal X-Men, black X-Men with silver mohawks, X-Men hailing from Russia, Kentucky coal country, orphanages and a nightmarish future.
But as “First Class” roars to its final climatic scene, it appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield. Thus, “First Class” proves itself not merely an incredible film, but an incredible work of American historical fiction. Here is a period piece for our postracial times — in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes....
SOURCE: LA Times (6-3-11)
Never before seen on U.S. screens, the documentary "Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today" compels us as much because of its complicated and fascinating history as for what it has to show, which is a lot.
Written and directed in 1948 by Stuart Schulberg and meticulously brought back to life by his daughter Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky, "Nuremberg" was commissioned by the U.S. War Department to answer a very specific need.
Once the November 1945 to October 1946 Nuremberg trial of top Nazi leaders, including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer, was concluded, the Allies wanted a film that would both show what had happened in the courtroom and demonstrate why such an unprecedented trial for, among other things, "crimes against humanity" had been necessary.
Shown extensively in Germany, where it was a key component of the Allies' de-Nazification campaign, "Nuremberg" was supposed to be shown in the U.S. as well, but a change in the political climate apparently doomed that. Though no hard proof exists, most experts theorize that by 1948, with the Cold War gearing up, the powers that be in Washington decided that showing a film that made the Soviet Union look good and cast a dark light on our newly minted ally West Germany was simply not politically expedient....
SOURCE: National Review (6-2-11)
David Pryce-Jones writes a column for the National Review.
There is a journalist in London, quite a well-known figure and author of several books, who once began an article in a leading magazine with the sentence, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the destruction of Israel.” This is exactly what the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad likes to repeat whenever he gets the chance. At a literary occasion this week, I happened to run into this English journalist, and the very next day, by coincidence, I was invited to a press showing of La Rafle, or The Round Up, a French feature film dramatizing the German campaign to destroy the Jews in wartime France....
For a long time the French have been unable or unwilling to face their collaboration with the occupying Nazis. Marcel Ophuls’ pioneering film Le Chagrin et la Pitié was for years virtually boycotted. The films Au revoir les Enfants and Lucien Lacombe broke the taboo, and French historians at last began to research occupation and collaboration. The Round Up is based on the reality of the first mass arrest of Jews in Paris in July 1942. The Germans did not have the manpower or the desk-work intelligence for this, but relied on the French authorities, the police and the transport systems, to do it for them. The Vichy politicians, Marshal Pétain and Prime Minister Laval, are depicted in this film as the deliberate accomplices in crime that they were. Jean Leguay was a civil servant who organized the eventual deportations to Auschwitz, and he too is portrayed here truthfully. He’s the sole Frenchman ever accused of crimes against humanity, but he managed to escape justice. When I interviewed him for my book Paris in the Third Reich he was still trying to excuse and justify himself....
SOURCE: NYT (5-31-11)
MORE than 80 years before “Got Milk?” there was “Eat the Carp!”
The slogan was dreamed up by the United States Department of Fisheries in 1911 as part of an effort to push the uncomely fish into the American kitchen, just one of scores of ways the federal government has tried over the last two centuries to direct how Americans eat through promotional campaigns, nutritional admonitions, factory regulations and gardening tips.
Many of these are engagingly documented in a new exhibition, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” which opens later this month at the National Archives here.
Through documents, food labels, film footage, photographs and other artifacts from the Revolutionary War to the 1980s, the show offers a fascinating and at times quirky reminder of the vast and perpetual role that the federal government has played in all things edible, with goals both laudable and perverse....
SOURCE: NYT (5-28-11)
THE big names — Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, Lee, Grant — are getting much of the focus during television’s Civil War spring and summer, as they always do when this pivotal conflict comes up. But to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, the programming that resumes with a burst this weekend and continues over the next several months also has much smaller things on its mind: a child’s doll, an aging tintype, a faded letter. And it is those things, 19th-century artifacts elevated to new prominence by a 21st-century television trend, that provide some of the clearest reminders of what the war was really about and how it remains with us today.
Finding new ways to look at the war is, of course, a sort of Ken Burns effect — an effort to clear the bar that Mr. Burns set so high in 1990 with his mini-series “The Civil War.” Mr. Burns, for one, doesn’t think the form is dead.
“I think there are still stories to be told,” he said. “The Civil War is such a watershed moment, the watershed moment in the childhood of our country.” Yes, there are limits on such documentaries — there’s only so much you can do with still photographs and diaries — but that doesn’t mean there can’t be innovation. “It just forces us into new relationships with photographs, new relationships with voice, new relationships with narrative,” Mr. Burns said....
SOURCE: Cinema Blend (5-24-11)
The History Channel is partnering with Kevin Costner for a special miniseries chronicling the most talked about family feud of all-time. For nearly thirty years, the Hatfield's and the McCoy's shot, stabbed and burned each other alive with reckless zeal, culminating in a threatened standoff between Kentucky and West Virginia's militias. Seeing as how often the back-and-forth is referenced today, it's crazy to think the Hatfield's and the McCoy's battled it out almost one hundred and fifty years ago. Then again, seeing as how vicious, violent and lawless the whole thing was, it's crazy to think the most celebrated family feud in the history of the United States occurred less than one hundred and fifty years ago.
For most, the details have grown fuzzy over the years and the specifics have boiled down to a couple of families who hated each other's guts, but The History Channel is ready to fill in the details. The network will begin shooting The Hatfields & The McCoys immediately with an aim toward airing the miniseries next year to correspond with the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kevin Costner will play Devil Anse Hatfield, and the remaining roles will be cast shortly.
The closest comparison we have today would likely be a mafia war, but even in la Cosa Nostra conflicts, the two sides typically hold fast to certain honor codes. No killing women, no killing children, no involving the state. Both the Hatfield's and the McCoy's violated these maxims repeatedly. It all started when Asa Harmon McCoy decided to fight in the Civil War for the Union Army. He lived a short distance from West Virginia in Kentucky, technically a border state, but many in the area were fiercely loyal to the Confederacy. His decision was widely seen as treason, and several members of the Hatfield family hunted him down and executed him upon his return. No one was every charged, and the matter was dropped until a disagreement over pigs led to a mutual relative's murder and one of Deveil Anse Hatfield's sons knocked up one of the McCoy girls. Then all hell broke loose....
SOURCE: The Root (5-22-11)
People of African descent have long been involved in "classical music" -- as creators, interpreters, performers and entrepreneurs. A number of well-known black singers -- from William Warfield to Jessye Norman -- have made their mark in the rarefied world of opera. So it's no surprise that even in the age of hip-hop, young African Americans are a growing presence on opera stages around the world.
In the 1700s, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges made his fortune in the court of Louis XV. Born to a slave mother and a French noble father in the Caribbean, Saint-Georges was educated in France. As a military man -- he was an accomplished swordsman -- he commanded a regiment in the French Revolution and held the rank of colonel.
A contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, he conducted their work and composed and wrote symphonies, chamber music and operas. A onetime candidate to head the Paris Opera, he was thwarted by performers who protested that they would have to take orders from a "mulatto." Today his music has been rediscovered and is played throughout the world. The young conductor Marlon Daniel launched the International Festival de Saint-Georges this year in Guadeloupe, the land of Saint-Georges' birth.
In 1873, an enterprising group of African Americans performed the opera The Doctor of Alcantara by Julius Eichberg in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. They formed the first opera company in the nation's capital and raised $75,000 (approximately $1.5 million in today's dollars) from their performances for the church-building fund. The company was organized, staffed and directed through a black Roman Catholic Church, now known as St. Augustine.
The latter part of the 19th century saw the rise of soprano Sissiereta Jones. Jones, who toured the United States and Europe, was adored by the public and feted by kings and heads of state. She was the first African-American woman to appear at Carnegie Hall, singing popular songs and arias from La Traviata by Verdi, and was one of the first American concert singers to achieve international acclaim and success. She eventually founded her own touring company.
Jones was called the "Black Patti" after the famous singer of the day, Adelina Patti -- not unlike opera singer Shirley Verrett, who, at the height of her career in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, was called "the Black Callas" after famed soprano Maria Callas....
SOURCE: NYT (5-17-11)
“One of the five greatest public libraries in the world” is the boast made at a new exhibition celebrating the centennial of the New York Public Library’s august building on Fifth Avenue. And if we are inclined to question the claim, it is only because the institution’s distinctiveness is scarcely suggested by putting it in a class with the Library of Congress, the British Library, the National Library of France and the Russian State Library.
As we learn in this show, “Celebrating 100 Years,” the New York Public Library is the only one of this group that was not established by a national government. Unlike many Old World museums, it is also not an “imperial” institution, many of whose holdings were gathered through plunder and conquest. In addition, it was not established, as many such libraries were, to reflect the character of a nation; it was actually intended to help shape that country’s character.
Moreover, that public mission gained its force from private visions. The Public Library was built on distinguished collections assembled by individuals of great wealth, discernment or passion. The Astor and Lenox libraries formed the core of this new library in 1895; artifacts gathered by Arthur Alfonso Schomburg in the 20th century’s early decades form the core of the library’s invaluable Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And many of its other research collections have similar origins....
SOURCE: CBS (5-15-11)
Atlanta artist Brian Dettmer creates memorable works of art by slicing, whittling and tearing into books. Mark Strassmann reports on Dettmer's vision for a vanishing form of art.
SOURCE: NYT (5-13-11)
FOR some people, filmmaking is a lifelong dream. For Stanley Nelson, it began as more of a situational thing, a response to time and place. The time was the late 1960s and early ’70s, the place to be avoided was Vietnam, the refuge was film school at the City University of New York. “It was kind of my motive to stay in school no matter what, you know what I’m saying?”
In some ways Mr. Nelson, whose graying hair is the only thing that betrays his 59 years, has been in school ever since. An accomplished director and producer of documentaries, primarily for television — his latest film, “Freedom Riders,” makes its debut on Monday night as part of the PBS series “American Experience” — he has spent his career exploring the byways of black history and culture, and passing along the stories he finds.
“I feel like I’m trying to tell African-American audiences something they haven’t heard,” he said, “because I feel like if I tell African-American audiences something new about their history, then it’s definitely going to be new for white folks too.
“In some ways,” he continued, “I’m trying not to be that guy in ‘Tarzan’ who interprets the drums for Tarzan. I don’t want to be that person.”
SOURCE: NYT (5-9-11)
EDGARD, La. — Mary Todd Lincoln, in shimmering evening wear, calls to her husband. They are late. A gaunt, black-clad president strides to join her in a horse-drawn carriage bound for Ford’s Theater.
The rest is history. But not the usual kind.
As the Lincolns depart, a vampire stares from his perch on the South Portico of the White House.
This is a film set, at the 179-year-old Evergreen Plantation here, and the cast and crew of the movie, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” are scrambling to deliver a summer blockbuster. It is set for release, in 3-D, by 20th Century Fox in June of next year.
The filmmakers are also creating one of the more startling historical revisions in movie memory. Their Lincoln, you see, is a devoted slayer of the undead.
SOURCE: NYT (http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/movies/city-of-life-and-death-from-lu-chuan-review.html)
Two terrible faces stare out from “City of Life and Death,” a fictionalized telling of the Rape of Nanjing, a pair of indelible bookends for this anguished film. The first belongs to Lu (Liu Ye), who, with hundreds of other soldiers, has been rounded up by invading Japanese troops amid a frenzy of violence. The close-up of Lu’s impassive face locked in unspoken emotion floods the screen. Much later, after innumerable deaths and acts of barbarism and heroism, the face of a woman will similarly fill the screen in close-up, her frantic eyes stretched wide, as if they had been permanently shocked open by what they have seen.
These faces are mirrors of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians tortured and killed during the mass butchery also known as theNanjing (formerly Nanking) massacre and recounted with reverberant melancholy in “City of Life and Death.” Some 70 years after it made world news, the story of Nanjing has begun to re-emerge in fiction and nonfiction books and films, including Iris Chang’s 1997 “Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” the first full-length history in English. Written and directed by Lu Chuan, “City of Life and Death” hews close to the account that Ms. Chang (an American whose grandparents fled Nanjing before the siege) culled from survivors and other sources.
History weighs hard and steady on “City of Life and Death” without encumbering it. Mr. Lu provides little background and context for the massacre, which occurred nearly half a year after the start of the second Sino-Japanese war (1937), doubtless because his Chinese audience needed no such instruction. Instead, after briefly setting the scene through a series of handwritten postcards, he opens with Japanese troops breaching the monumental wall that once circled Nanjing. Restlessly and with increasingly clear narrative purpose, he begins cutting between the Chinese surging to escape and the advancing Japanese soldiers who refuse to let them pass, a tactic that sets the film’s insistent contrasts — the immense and the intimate, the mass and the individual, the cruelties and the kindnesses — immediately into dynamic, dramatic play.
SOURCE: NYT (4-29-11)
LOS ANGELES — Before you are submerged within the museum’s theatrically darkened central galleries, before you learn how the cafes and intellectual life of the Weimar Republic gradually gave way to the annihilationist racial fantasies Hitler outlined in “Mein Kampf” — before, that is, you experience a variation of the Holocaust narrative with its wrenching genocidal climax — there are other trials a visitor to the Museum of Tolerance here must pass through.
You must first choose a door. One is invitingly labeled “Unprejudiced”; the other, illuminated in red, screams “Prejudiced.” No contest. But one door doesn’t open; the other does. Here, evidently, we must admit we are all prejudiced, not just the guards at Auschwitz.
As proof, below a streaming news ticker (“Gay Basher Gets 12 Years”) are panels about “Confronting Hate in America”: Two Latinos are beaten on Long Island; a white supremacist shoots Jews in Los Angeles; a Sikh is murdered in a post-9/11 “hate crime”; a homosexual student is brutally murdered in Wyoming. On one panel is a description of the Oklahoma City bombing; on another, the attacks of 9/11.
Walk a little farther and you come to a mock 1950s-style diner, where a television monitor broadcasts a staged news video about a drunken driver injuring his date on prom night. We are asked to record our votes about who is most responsible: the liquor store owner who illegally sold the booze, the parents of the drunk driver, the teenager himself?
A case of cyber-bullying also solicits our careful assessments. “Think,” we are urged by the signs: “Assume responsibility,” “Ask questions,” “Speak up.”
Similar prescriptions are implied throughout this 80,000-square-foot museum, which opened in 1993 as “the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center,” the international organization associated with that famed Holocaust survivor and “Nazi hunter” who died in 2005. The museum’s central exhibition about the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews is preceded by this “Tolerancenter,” as it is called, which strains to tie together slavery, genocides, prejudice, discrimination and hate crimes, while showing even elementary school students (as the museum literature says) “the connection between these large-scale events and the epidemic of bullying in today’s schools.”