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  • Originally published 08/13/2013

    Jerry Lewis holocaust film footage surfaces

    Even Jerry Lewis admits his unreleased 1970s Holocaust movie is “bad, bad, bad” — no minor fact because the 87-year-old comedian directed, wrote and starred in the film. Now, thanks to some leaked video, people can see how Lewis might have been right.A seven-minute report from a 1972 Danish television show about the making of “The Day the Clown Cried” surfaced recently, and based on that, the movie looks hammy and self-important at the same time.Shot more than 40 years ago, the movie stars Lewis, in one of his first serious turns as an actor, as a circus performer arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into a concentration camp. Once there, he starts performing for Jewish children, and reportedly travels with some of them to Auschwitz....

  • Originally published 08/13/2013

    In ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler,’ history told through a black lens

    NEW YORK — History in the movies has often been seen through white eyes: civil rights-era tales with white protagonists reacting to a changing world.“I’ve been in some of those movies,” says David Oyelowo, a star in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” ‘’I was in the ‘The Help.’”The viewpoint of “The Butler,” though, is refreshingly colorful. In it, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a man born to sharecroppers who’s turned into a domestic servant. After fleeing north, he rises to serve as a butler in the White House for seven successive presidents, spanning from Eisenhower to Reagan, from Jim Crow to Barack Obama....

  • Originally published 07/29/2013

    Five Hundred Years of Food in Theater and Movies

    Most of us go to the theater and the movies to see drama, action, sturdy heroes and despicable villains. Francine Segan goes for the food.Segan, a former school psychologist, is the author of six cookbooks, all connected to history, theater and opera and delivers talks on food and theater and movies around the country. I caught up with her recently at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, where she gives a half dozen talks each year on food in the movies and theater (she will be there again August 12 to talk about food and Shakespearean England).Segan, a delightful speaker with an easy charm and a walking encyclopedia of dining, discovered food on stage and in film years ago when she was watching a Shakespeare play.“I was fascinated by all the eating that went on in the plays,” the thin, black-haired speaker said at the gorgeous old Mahaiwe theater. “I thought about other plays and realized the same thing. Then I thought about movies. In movies, there is even more eating. Everybody thinks like I do. We all get intrigued by all the eating on film.”

  • Originally published 07/11/2013

    Alfred Hitchcock joins UNESCO register

    Alfred Hitchcock's nine surviving silent films will join artefacts such as the Domesday Book in representing the cultural heritage of the UK.Hitchcock's films - the British director's earliest works - premiered at the British Film Institute last summer following extensive restoration.They have now been added to the Unesco UK Memory of the World Register.The register "reflects the richness of UK culture and history, from medieval manuscripts to ground-breaking cinema"....

  • Originally published 06/24/2013

    The "Man of Steel" Rusts

    Credit: Flickr.Superman is back in Man of Steel, the latest version of the story about the powerful hero from the planet Krypton who came to Earth to uphold truth, justice and the American way.The movie, starring unknown Henry Cavill as the man who can leap tall buildings with a single bound, opened last week and earned an amazing $113 million in its first weekend, to the astonishment of show business experts.Lord knows why.This latest Superman saga sinks faster than a ton of steel. It is dreary, tedious and lacks any humor, heroism or camaraderie. Superman should fly back to his galaxy and leave crime fighting and planet saving to Batman.

  • Originally published 05/27/2013

    "The Great Gatsby's" Historical Razzle-Dazzle

    F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is a wafer thin book about the 1920s Jazz Age, long lost love and the intrepid chase of the American dream. It is considered the best novel ever written by an American not because of what it says, but because of what it implies. A hundred stories drift lazily between the pages, and over the water from Gatsby’s swimming pool to the green light on Daisy’s dock.In Baz Luhrmann’s new movie The Great Gatsby, the sixth film retelling of Fitzgerald’s tale, the story is inflated and expanded, as if it were based on a 700 page Herman Melville work. Everything you wondered about the story and characters is spelled out and everything you wanted said is spoken. Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pearce left no stone unturned, and no glass of champagne from one of Gatsby’s wild parties unfinished in the new Roaring Twenties epic.

  • Originally published 04/25/2013

    Historian Frank Couvares on the Hollywood-China connection

    [Hollywood studios are increasingly editing their movies to cater to the Chinese market.]...Frank Couvares, a professor of history and American Studies at Massachusetts’ Amherst College, said that rather than something new, Hollywood’s readiness to cater to Chinese demands on content reflects business practices the American film industry has had in place for more than seven decades.“If back in the 1930s or ‘40s the French objected to portraying the Foreign Legion as being overly harsh on Africans, or the British were unhappy that they were being shown as too colonialistic, then Hollywood would make the edits it needed to market its product,” he said.Still, the scope of this latest iteration seems to dwarf that of its predecessors, not only because China’s economic and political clout is so immense — successive years of GDP growth rates around 8- 10 percent have made its economy the second largest in the world — but also because the country’s communist masters seem obsessed by the way Beijing is perceived abroad.

  • Originally published 03/07/2013

    'Emperor' stirs deep emotions in Japan and U.S.

    Emotions have been running high at screenings of the historical drama "Emperor."The Japanese American coproduction, which opens Friday, revolves around the dilemma Gen. Douglas MacArthur faced as he tried to restore order in post-World War II Japan: Should the country's divine leader, Emperor Hirohito, stand trial and face certain death on war crimes charges?When the producers screened "Emperor" recently in Japan, producer Gary Foster said, many men were in tears as they left the theater."It was almost a cathartic moment," he said....

  • Originally published 03/07/2013

    King Kong, screaming along 80 years later

    Fay Wray's beauty and a sortie of biplanes felled King Kong on-screen, but not even the Depression could stop the success of 1933 film."The premiere was the day before Roosevelt's inauguration and the week of the bank holiday," said Film Forum repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein. Despite the national cash freeze, "King Kong" was a smash. "No Money! Yet New York dug up $89,931 in 4 days to see 'King Kong'" crowed a full-page ad taken in Variety by the film's producers.Sunday, 80 years to the day after the film had its premiere, a packed house gathered at Film Forum for a matinee birthday celebration of "Kong." The screening was followed by a Fay Wray scream-alike contest honoring the late star of the film and Forum member's repartee with her famed co-star."Fay Wray's screaming in the original film is so memorable," said Tony Timpone, one of seven judges empaneled to select a winner from 37 contestants and the editor emeritus of Fangoria magazine, a publication devoted to the horror genre. "She's pretty much the original scream queen. She must have been hoarse for years."...

  • Originally published 02/26/2013

    Iranians: 'Argo' "anti-Iran"

    ...That perception was re-enforced by the surprise presenter of the award, Michelle Obama. Fars News, Iran’s main hardline outlet, wasted no time in questioning her role, writing, “In a rare occasion in Oscar history, the First Lady announced the winner for Best Picture for the anti-Iran Film ‘Argo,’ which is produced by the Zionist company Warner Bros.”...

  • Originally published 02/12/2013

    Rep. Joe Courtney gets lesson in Oscar politics in debate over ‘Lincoln’ accuracy

    Rep. Joe Courtney says he had no idea he was wading into controversy when he questioned the accuracy of a key scene in “Lincoln.”After all, he knows Washington politics, not Hollywood politics.Last week, the Connecticut Democrat called on Steven Spielberg to “correct an historical inaccuracy” in the Oscar-nominated box-office hit — a scene, at the film’s climax, suggesting that two of his state’s three representatives voted against outlawing slavery in 1865.

  • Originally published 02/11/2013

    The 10 Best Lincoln Moments in Film History

    "Lincoln does not have the phallus; he is the phallus," proclaimed the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1970, in a group-written polemic on the ideological superstructure of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), John Ford's moody paean to the salad days of the Great Emancipator. The piece is a doozy of a performance, a high-wire act exemplifying the airy delights of the high renaissance of French-accented film theory. Alternately enlightening and maddening, the essay ends on a declaration that few Americans could ever abide: that in Ford's film, Lincoln emerges finally as a figure of “monstrous dimensions.” A monster? Not Abe, never Abe -- he is our guardian angel, secular saint, and -- virtually since the birth of American cinema -- celluloid hero.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Revolutions On Screen: Then and Now

    I spent a good deal of the summer writing about how the Haitian Revolution and Caribbean slavery have been depicted in film. Many films depicting these subjects are disappointing, which inspired me to read some of the foundational scholarship on film and history, such as Robert Rosenstone’s. As Rosenstone has argued, historians are almost inevitably disappointed when they watch the events that they study depicted on screen. Scripts call for narrative structure that real history does not present.Fiction films on revolutions illustrate Rosenstone’s principle well. Real revolutions proceed haphazardly, with more monotony than viewing audiences will tolerate. Moreover, there are often so many actors involved in a real revolution that simplifications become necessary. Filmic revolutions often present characters who are composites, so that viewers will have only a few characters to follow (see Fiction and Film for French Historians [link at http://h-france.net/fffh/tag/french-revolution/ ] for recent scholarly analyses of films on the French Revolution).I do have one favorite revolution movie – not necessarily for the accuracy of its portrayal, but because it is great fun: Sherman Edwards’ and Peter Hunt’s 1776 (made in 1972). The music is catchy, and the script is filled with witty gems. The film appeals to all age groups (I watched it this summer with an enthralled group ranging from small children to septuagenarians).Of course, many details in the movie could not pass the scrutiny of American Revolution specialists. The film papers over the subject of slavery, portraying it as a Southern issue while implying that northerners were all abolitionists. The film also oversimplifies Abigail Adams’ political interests, turning her correspondence with John into one chiefly concerned with love and sewing. One would also not know from the film that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were close friends (“You’re obnoxious and disliked; that cannot be denied/…Mr. Adams, you are driving me to homicide!” Jefferson sings in “But, Mr. Adams!”).Despite these simplifications, 1776 offers many useful lessons on revolutions. One is how hard it is for people in real time to decide to raise arms against their government. Often today, the public imagines the American Revolution as clear-cut or even inevitable: “we” (Americans) decided to oppose “them” (the British) because they were being unfair. And yet….it was a wrenching decision for the Britons of North America to opt to wage war against their own countrymen, including their crowned King. “Sit Down, John” - in which members of the Continental Congress shout at Adams as he exhorts them to “vote for independency!” - is a fantastic song in this regard. In addition to sharing vivid truths about summer in Philadelphia (it is “hot as hell” and there are often “too many flies!”), the song illustrates how uncomfortable many delegates were with a radical notion like independence.The film also shows the critical roles of contingency and human factors in revolutions. Delegates sometimes had to leave the Congress for illness or family reasons, and votes could have gone in different directions depending on who was present on a given day and how they felt inspired to vote based on others’ decisions.Watching social movements explode on TV today reminds me, however, of one great shortcoming of 1776: it leaves out the violence that accompanies almost all revolutions. Soldiers in the film sing about the battle dead in Washington’s army, but such losses are off screen and bloodless. Moreover, when we hear about the physical harm inflicted by pro-independence forces against loyalists in 1776, it is as a joke. The stalwart advocate of independence Benjamin Franklin is delighted to hear that his son William (the loyalist governor of New Jersey) has been captured and ill-treated because of his pro-British beliefs.Today, fiction films are not our only option for watching revolutions unfold on screen. Journalists capture live footage on stations like CNN and Al-Jazeera, and participants can upload their own videos and pictures to sites like YouTube and Twitter. Even though they are not scripted like fiction films, we cannot forget that these glimpses of revolution are mediated in their own way; journalists are still making choices of where to go and what to film, and participants show only their own vantage point at any given moment. Perhaps violence is overemphasized in how we understand revolutions today, since the more boring parts of revolutions are less exciting to film (and also may take place in private spaces rather than public squares). With new media will come new ways of understanding revolutions, which in turn will offer us fresh perspectives on revolutions of the past. Nevertheless, it is critical to remind our students – and others - that whenever we see a revolution on screen, we are getting only a partial glimpse into revolutionary reality.

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