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Results 1 - 25 of 48
1. “The Mouth that roared”: Peter Benchley’s Jaws at 40

By Kirk Curnutt


The novel that scared a generation out of the ocean and inspired everything from Shark Week to Sharknado recently turned forty. Commemorations of Peter Benchley’s Jaws have been as rare as megalodon sightings, however. Ballantine has released a new paperback edition featuring an amusing list of the author’s potential titles (The Grinning Fish, Pisces Redux), and in February an LA fundraiser for Shark Savers/Wildaid performed excerpts promising “an evening of relentless terror (and really awkward sex).” Otherwise, silence.

The reason is obvious. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation is so totemic that the novel is considered glorified source material, despite selling twenty-million copies. Rare is the commentator who doesn’t harp on its faults, and rarer still the fan who defends it. Critics dismiss the book as “airport literature,” while genre lovers complain it lacks “virtually every single thing that makes the movie great.” Negative perceptions arguably begin with Spielberg himself. Amid the legendary production problems that plagued the making of the movie—pneumatic sharks that didn’t work, uncooperative ocean conditions that tripled the shooting schedule—the director managed to suggest that his biggest obstacle was Benchley’s original narrative: “If we don’t succeed in making this picture better than the book,” he said, “we’re in real trouble.”

Jaws by Peter Benchley, first edition paperback, 1975.

Jaws by Peter Benchley, first edition paperback, 1975.

It’s unfortunate that Benchley gets so little love. In the mid-seventies book-Jaws didn’t simply inspire a movie but was integral to the overall phenomenon. My mother brought home the hardback months before Spielberg even began filming. As the pre-release hype roiled throughout spring 1975, her ten-year old cobbled together $1.95 for his very own paperback, which featured Roger Kastel’s iconic illustration of a massive beast with a mouthful of stalactites and stalagmites speeding toward a naked woman. (The hardback’s cover was toothless, both literally and figuratively; the shark looks like an index finger with a paper cut aiming to tickle its prey). Shortly after seeing Jaws I owned the soundtrack with John Williams’s ominous dun-dun theme; co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log, which detailed the torturous filming; and a Jaws beach towel, which made me the envy of the pool, if only briefly.

Obsessed, I collected newspaper and magazine clippings on sharks. Following the loony lead of Mad, Cracked, and Sick, I drew goofy, pun-laden parodies (Paws) and became a connoisseur of gory rip-offs (Grizzly, Orca). My paperback was essential to feeding my frenzy. I managed only three matinees before the movie left town. That was as many times per hour as I probably pored over Benchley’s bloodier passages. The urge to revisit scenes would today send a young fan to YouTube for clips or to Google for GIFs and memes. For a pre-Internet, pre-computer kid, however, rereading was the original refresh and replay. I knew Jaws so inside out I could cite the page number where the legs of the boy my age “were severed at the hips” and “sank, spinning slowly,” and I could flip straight to the bizarre moment when the shark hunter Quint insults his quarry’s penis.

I also detailed differences between the book and movie in my journal. (I was an only child; I had free time). The first change beguiled the beginning writer in me: “[Benchley] didn’t like any of his characters,” Spielberg declared, “so none of them were very likable. He put them in a situation where you were rooting for the shark to eat the people—in alphabetical order.”

The director flattened Benchley’s characters into eminently relatable archetypes: the everyman-cop with a near-fatal fear of water, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider); Quint, the aged fisherman (Robert Shaw); and the cocky scientist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Their counterparts on the page admittedly lack both their comic relief (Scheider’s famous deadpan “You’re going to need a bigger boat” upon first seeing the shark) and their riveting monologues (especially Quint’s tale of surviving the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, brilliantly if soddenly delivered by Shaw). Benchley preferred his people perturbing, not heroic. His insecure, snockered Brody belligerently spoils his wife’s dinner party; Hooper beds Mrs. Brody; and for bait Quint uses a dolphin fetus he brags of carving from its mother’s womb.

Despite its armrest-gripping terror, Spielberg’s movie is cathartic because man ultimately conquers nature. Like most audiences, I fist-pumped and cheered when Brody blew the shark to smithereens by exploding an oxygen tank. The book’s battle is less intense and yet more primal. Benchley’s captain hurls his harpoons as Queequeg or Tashtego would instead of firing them from a gun, while Quint’s and Hooper’s deaths are cruelly ironic. Maybe it’s because my friends and I had great fun sneaking ketchup packets into the pool to reenact it, but Shaw’s blood-belching final close-up never haunted me as much as the novel’s Ahab-inspired image of Quint dragged to a watery grave snared in his own harpoon line. Hooper’s fate is even more macabre. As the ichthyologist is turned into a human toothpick Brody attempts an ill-conceived rescue by strafing the water with rifle fire. He manages to miss the shark completely yet land a bullet in Hooper’s neck. Long before reading Melville, I intuited that this was how a naturalistic universe mocked humanity.

Jaws remains a very seventies-novel. I rather like that quality, much as, by contrast, I like that Spielberg’s movie hasn’t aged a day. (Thanks to Deep Blue Sea and Sharknado, we know how un-scary CGI sharks are compared to life-size pneumatic ones). Benchley’s book feels the way the first half of its decade did: amorphous and off-center, dubious of heroes, titillated by dirty talk.

Perhaps I might feel differently if I hadn’t read it on the cusp of adolescence, but Jaws reminds me of how novels attuned me to adult frailties. It’s going overboard to say it exposed me to the sharkish side of humanity, but I could recognize Brody’s resentments, Quint’s unapologetic violence, and Hooper’s sense of sexual entitlement in men I knew. A year after I outgrew my obsession I was berated for entering a community-theater dressing room and discovering a very Mrs. Brody-like friend of my family’s kissing a man I knew wasn’t her husband.

Benchley’s novel certainly made me afraid of the water, but unlike the movie, it did nothing to convince me I was any safer on dry land.

Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery, Alabama, campus, where Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in 1918. His publications include A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald (2004), the novels Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009), and Brian Wilson (2012). He is currently at work on a reader’s guide to Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

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2. The American Noah: neolithic superhero

By William D. Romanowski


Reports suggest that Hollywood’s sudden interest in Bible movies is driven by economics. Comic book superheroes may be losing their luster and the studios can mine the Bible’s “action-packed material” without having to pay licensing fees to Marvel Entertainment. Maybe this explains why director Darren Aronofsky’s pitch to studio executives was not based on religious precursors, but the fact that Noah’s ark might be “the only boat more famous than the Titanic.” Did Paramount executives picture Titanic meets The Passion of the Christ?

Noah, first and foremost, follows the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster. The studio is targeting not just churchgoers, but more importantly, the most frequent moviegoers (the under-25 crowd), and foreign audiences.

To heighten the film’s universal appeal, Aronofsky tried to meld the “fantastical world à la Middle-earth” for nonbelievers with a treatment that would please those “who take this very, very seriously as gospel.” The scorched earth magically sprouts a lush forest—lumber for ark-building—with Noah and his family helped by the Watchers, powerful earth-encrusted angels resembling Transformers. For the religiously devout, well, the movie “contains just enough spiritual pretention to make you wonder afterward if you have missed something important,” as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson observes.

The film is “inspired by the story of Noah” with the Book of Genesis providing characters and setting. Noah is however more centrally shaped by American mythology, which is of course laced with Biblical motifs. In his classic study, R. W. B. Lewis describes the archetypal American as an Adamic figure, his innocence restored by virtue of having shed the baggage of history and ancestry. He is “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”

Transplant this mythic character into Genesis and voilà! There you have it. The American Noah: Neolithic Superhero. Indeed, as Aronofsky said, “You’re going to see Russell Crowe as a superhero, a guy who has this incredibly difficult challenge put in front of him and has to overcome it.” Like the usual action-adventure lead (think of Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator), Noah is stoic, fearless, determined, and not only capable of violence, but adroit in combat. Faith serves as Noah’s superpower with God providing some “magical outside assistance” that makes for amazing special effects (Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America). Forget the forty days and nights; in an SFX instant geysers erupt and the skies unleash a torrent of rainfall submerging the earth in the apocalyptic flood. Wow!

Logan Lerman and Russell Crowe in Noah. Source: noahmovie.com.

Logan Lerman and Russell Crowe in Noah. Source: noahmovie.com.

As expected, characterizations are stark and simplified. Conflict results from the different positions that characters embrace on two important Biblical themes.

The Biblical creation account is referred to variously in several scenes. The Creator of all that exists invests His image bearers with the care and cultivation of human life and the creation: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). Noah understands the Creator’s charge to have “dominion” in terms of creational caretaking. In contrast, his archenemy, the wicked Tubal-Cain, employs it as a divine license for exploitation of people and the creation.

There is much dialogue about whether human nature is basically good or evil. Noah’s wife Naameh stresses goodness as a counterbalance to Noah’s mounting pessimism. He believes he is chosen only because he would complete a task that is “much greater than our own desires.” Noah is convinced there is “wickedness in all of us” and that he and his family will eventually perish “like everyone else.” However, early on, one of the Watchers perceives “a glimmer of Adam” in Noah. This is more than a wistful allusion to pre-Fall innocence and foreshadows the anticipated payoff in the climax.

True to the blockbuster formula, the conflict peaks with a face-to face confrontation between Noah and his evil nemesis, but with a crosscutting twist that puts the fate of humankind in Noah’s hands (like all apocalyptic movies). The scene recalls Abraham’s test with his son Isaac (Genesis 22). At the decisive moment in Noah, however, it is not God’s intervention, but Noah’s “good” and better judgment that ultimately prevails. Such is the film’s deference to American self-reliance and the blockbuster formula that the ending is never in doubt. But let’s consider possible meanings of this crucial, if ambiguous scene.

Perhaps Noah is to be likened to the Creator, who punishes sin and remains faithful by preserving a remnant of humanity. Or maybe it’s just that Noah has seen enough devastation, which appears to have driven him (temporarily) mad, and now refuses to complete what he believes is his “mission.” The story is flawed here with Noah’s apparent—though plausible—confusion seeming contrived. The real effect of the scene is to elicit viewer empathy and admiration for the tried and true hero whose commendable faith turned dangerous. But Noah explains that when it came down to it he has “only love in his heart.” It’s a disappointing and obtuse cliché that I suppose is meant to be a comment by the narrator on both the divine and human nature. More than theological reflection, the line serves a thematic purpose: the American Noah’s autonomy and own integrity trump his trust in God.

Then again, this is an American-made blockbuster designed to attract the largest global audience possible. Among the trailers for Noah was Paramount’s next scheduled release, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner), Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life, and Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. Read his previous blog posts.

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3. Shirley Temple Black: not a personality to be bunked

By Gaylyn Studlar


How does one talk about a child star without lapsing into clichés? Shirley Temple was “the biggest little star,” the “kid who saved the studio,” and as she was called in the 1930s, “the baby who conquered the world.” Temple, who died 10 February 2014, at the age of eighty-five, was not Hollywood’s first child star and she was by no means the last, but she was inarguably the most important and certainly the most iconic. Temple became a cultural phenomenon as well as a movie star. Reported to be the most frequently photographed person of the world in the 1930s, she eclipsed the success of all previous child actors. Number-one box-office draw in the United States for four years in the mid-1930s, she was ranked within the top-ten list of box-office attractions for a record seven years by the Motion Picture Herald exhibitors’ poll. Temple was popular with audiences wherever Hollywood feature films were shown—with the notable exception of France, which never took to her. Her appeal was not just to children, and it was widely asserted that it was the adult public that made her a star.

Temple in costume THE LITTLE COLONEL 1

Mrs. Gertrude Temple, a Santa Monica housewife, groomed her only daughter for stardom. She put three-year old Shirley in a dance school famous as a conduit into the film industry and styled the child’s blonde hair into the famous 55 sausage curls. After a brief stint in Poverty Row shorts, Shirley Temple rose to stardom in 1934, at age six (published age five) after drawing attention for her role in a major feature film, Fox’s Stand Up and Cheer! (1934). In 1934, Hollywood needed a visible renewal of innocence on screen in the wake of threats of a nationwide boycott of the movies by the Catholic Legion of Decency, but Fox Film Corporation was initially not sure what to do with her. The studio loaned her out to Paramount for what would be her first big hit, Little Miss Marker (1934), a Damon Runyon tale in which she plays an orphan reluctantly adopted by a misanthropic bookie (Adolphe Menjou).

Temple quickly went from featured player to “the name above the title” in musical comedies shaped for her. Temple’s profitability to the Fox Film Corporation, reorganized in 1935 as Twentieth Century-Fox, was tremendous. Her almost two-dozen star vehicles made for the studio usually cost less than $300,000 each to produce but were reputed to have grossed from $1 million to $1.5 million on first-run showings alone.

Her popularity may seem strange now, but watching child performers was nothing new. Temple was part of a tradition. Theatrical entertainments highlighting the spectacle of children were very popular in the late 19th century in the United States and Britain, and in the 1910s, Hollywood was filled with child actors, mainly in supporting roles. Temple’s films at Fox have been dismissed as sentimental goo, but there was also something about her — an exciting quality shared with many other mega-stars over the years, an unsettling of boundaries instead of just a confirming of comfortable truths, whether about gender, sexuality, race, class, or age. Other stars had it too: Greta Garbo, in her androgynous beauty; John Wayne, in his occasional display of almost feminine gentleness. Temple was a charismatic musical star, a beautiful little white girl who was an eager acolyte to black tap dance artist Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a fearless, daring tom boy, but also a cuddly daddy’s girl.

Temple & Kibbee CAPTAIN JANUARY 1

While audiences of the 1930s were fascinated with her energy and humor, 21st century cultural commentators, including many feminist film critics, find Temple’s films redolent of pedophilia, as did British novelist and film critic Graham Greene, who was sued by Fox in 1938 for his published comments on her (he lost). Adult desire and its imposition on children is real but so too is the complexity and range of meaning and pleasures located by audiences in the performances of movie stars, including Temple. While Greene thought Temple a fleshy coquette who aroused old men unaware of their own desires, theater critic Gilbert Seldes thought that Temple communicated a refusal to be fooled, to be “bunked,” sparking men’s admiration for and identification with her as a personality. Temple was a symbol of cheerful resilience and America’s most powerfully persuasive common values. In her films she energetically embodied the promise of a more perfect future.

But love cannot last forever, and little girls grow up. In the late 1930s, the luster of both Temple’s curls and her box-office power dimmed. Temple’s contract with Fox was abrogated in 1940. She made one film Kathleen (1941) at MGM, and a feature for B-picture producer Edward S. Small, Miss Annie Rooney (1942). Both were flops, and she “retired” to finish high school. David O. Selznick offered her a lucrative contract based on his confidence in George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute: their polling suggested Temple was beloved, possessing more drawing power than many of the top female attractions in the film industry. With Selznick, Temple had a brief resurgence, including two films in which she played America’s most famous fictional teenager, Corliss Archer. Temple longed to be in more films like Since You Went Away (1944), which marked her successful return to the screen, but her boss could not mount his personal productions quickly enough to satisfy the balance sheet on her salary, and loaning her out often made him a large profit.

Temple in KISS AND TELL 1

By the late 1940s, a young mother entering her twenties, Temple found herself type cast in the role of the teenage bobbysoxer. In 1949, she divorced John Agar, whom she had wed as a seventeen-year-old. She met Charles Black, ex-Naval officer and scion of one of California’s most socially prominent families. As recounted in her best-selling 1988 autobiography, Child Star, she was determined not to be fooled again by a man’s good looks. he had Charles Black investigated by her friends in the FBI before she walked down the aisle with him in December of 1950. They would be married until his death in 2005.

Shirley Temple reveled in her role of wife and mother (of three), but took a plunge into politics with an unsuccessful run for a congressional seat in 1967. She had a longtime interest in international affairs, first demonstrated when she asked Selznick to let her go to a world youth conference in the United Kingdom at the height of World War II (he refused). She was appointed in 1969 to the United Nations delegation by Richard Nixon and later served as ambassador to Ghana and then Czechoslovakia. In spite of skepticism, she succeeded in these and other important diplomatic assignments, winning praise from Henry Kissinger as “very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined.” Here was a woman, like the child, who was not a personality to be “bunked.”

Gaylyn Studlar is David May Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema (2013, University of California Press), which features a chapter on Temple, “Cosseting the Nation; or, How to Conquer Fear Itself with Shirley Temple.” She is a contributor to Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies.

Developed cooperatively with scholars worldwide, Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies offers exclusive, authoritative research guides. Combining the best features of an annotated bibliography and a high-level encyclopedia, this cutting-edge resource guides researchers to the best available scholarship across the field of Cinema and Media Studies.

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All images courtesy of Gaylyn Studlar.

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4. Grand Piano: the key to virtuosity

by Ivan Raykoff


“Play one wrong note and you die!” The recently-released feature film Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira and starring Elijah Wood, is an artsy and rather convoluted thriller about classical music and murder. Wood plays a concert pianist plagued by an overwhelming case of stage fright; it doesn’t help that there’s a sniper in the audience threatening to assassinate both him and his glamorous wife if he misses a single note in the “unplayable” composition that has proven to be his undoing before. Looking past the silly plot, however, it’s revealing to see how this movie plays into a number of persistent popular culture tropes around Romantic pianism. It’s even possible to read the story as a parable about the pressures of a performing career in the world of classical music today.

First consider the grand piano itself as portrayed in the film’s evocative opening credits. The camera takes us deep into this menacing mechanical contraption of piano keys, metal strings, tuning pins, and tiny gears turning like clockwork while the accompanying music thuds, slithers, and slashes with ominous import. Wait, grand pianos don’t have tiny gears turning inside. This must be quite an unusual piano, as the first scene of the film clarifies.

press_Grand Piano

Grand Piano stars Elijah Wood as a concert pianist contending with both stage fright and a sniper in the audience. Image: Elijah Wood in Grand Piano, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures via Magnet Releasing.

We see moving guys in a creepy old mansion rolling this instrument out of storage while the thunder rumbles overhead on a blustery overcast day. There’s always been something mysterious about grand pianos, since the large black coffin-like case hides the mechanics inside from the listener’s view as the pianist plays on one side of it. There’s some kind of ghost in the machine of the Romantic pianist’s intriguing instrument.

There’s also the ghost of the pianist’s deceased mentor, Godureaux, the eccentric teacher who had composed that unplayable composition and designed that mysterious instrument. He stares out from large posters in the lobby looking like a cross between Rachmaninoff and Rasputin. “La Cinquette” is the title of his notoriously difficult and “terrifying” piece that has something especially problematic about its last four bars. Maybe the title refers to the fact that it is Godureaux’s op. 5, or that it requires “five little” fingers of each hand to play it to perfection. (The film’s closing credits scroll over an unexpected delight: the song “Ten Happy Little Fingers” from the 1953 film musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, written by Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. Displeasure over wrong notes begins quite early in the young pianist’s career.) Fortunately our hero-virtuoso is equipped with “the fastest, most agile fingers of any pianist alive,” indeed there are only “a few people who can play it, who can move their fingers that fast and spread them that wide.”

Fingers take on symbolic meanings around the male virtuoso pianist; these appendages have frequently been represented in popular culture as signifiers of a muscular technique and masculinity. “You need to ease up!” the sniper instructs our hero as he begins to play that challenging piece. “You’re going to tire out your fingers!” Indeed, this performance is framed as our hero’s opportunity not only to redeem his career, but his identity as well: “I’m offering you the chance to become your own man again.” Elijah Wood’s wide-eyed stare easily conveys the crisis of masculinity implied by the pianist’s uncertainty over his playing technique, while his body language conveys a nervousness and an impotence (see his scared-stiff kiss with his wife at intermission) that also reflect these familiar tropes.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Wood has spoken publicly about the off-screen technical challenges of making this film. At a discussion session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he described his own skills on the instrument remembered from piano lessons when he was young, but also how he worked with pianist Mariam Nazarian in Los Angeles for three weeks to learn to make it look like he knew how to play; in Barcelona he worked with the hand double for this film (the credits list Toni Costa as hand double, and John Lenehan as the soundtrack recording pianist). Wood recalls practicing first on a real piano (“the sound helped me to know if I was on the right track”) and then filming to the recording on a dummy piano, which made it possible to act out his gestures without worrying if he were hitting all the correct notes. It was also useful for Wood to watch a video of the real pianist’s hands from the pianist’s point-of-view, then to imitate what he saw as he watched his own hands on the keyboard. Some critics have noted the impressive “hand-synching” in this film production (see Eric Snider’s write-up) and the actor’s learning curve with this playback technique (see Clark Collis’ interview). One of the movie’s selling points, in fact, is our persistent fascination with virtuoso technique (see Harleigh Foutch’s interview): “So the main thing I walked away from this movie thinking was how damn difficult this part must have been for you.”

Serious pianists and pianophiles will probably roll their eyes over the inane plot and the unrealistic playing scenes in this movie. Which concertos have tutti sections so long that the pianist can run off-stage so often for urgent business? Why wouldn’t the professional pianist play from memory? Perhaps there ought to be a law against texting while playing! The moral of the story might be about that perfectionism we’ve come to expect in this era of note-perfect recordings. “I want you to play the most flawless concert of your life,” the sniper exhorts the virtuoso. “Just consider me the voice in your head telling you that good is not good enough tonight.” The conductor tries to comfort the anxious pianist by saying about the audience, “If you’re going to play music this dense, you’re going to hit a wrong note, and they won’t know. They never do.” The critics-as-snipers might notice and mark down your technique, but the real crisis is the Romantic pianist’s musical reproducibility. As the conductor points out, “you make your living playing stuff other people write.” The concert virtuoso has become “a genius puppet,” as he puts it, a technological wonder that stays close enough to the notes of the score and just far enough from the great recordings to sound like a unique epitome of a time-honored tradition. “Do you really want to be the thousandth guy to give me a respectable Bach,” the conductor asks, “‘cause you can keep that. I don’t need respectable.” This pianist saves his life by literally changing the score.

Ivan Raykoff is Associate Professor of Music in the interdisciplinary arts program at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts in New York. He is author of Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist.

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5. Reflections on Son of God

By William D. Romanowski


2014 is being heralded Hollywood’s “Year of the Bible.” The first film to reach theaters is Son of God, a remix of material by the same producers of the History Channel’s successful miniseries, The Bible.

Still from Son of God

Still from Son of God via sonofgodmovie.com

It seems hardly a coincidence that Son of God opened on Ash Wednesday, ten years to the day after Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released. The promotional campaigns for both movies relied less on broad market advertising in favor of creating grassroots awareness in religious circles. Reportedly, over half-a-million advance tickets were sold across the nation.

After a strong opening weekend of over $20 million however, box office fell by more than 50 percent, then dropped to just over $5 million in its third week of release. Unlike The Passion, which earned over $370 million domestically, Son of God looks destined for humbler commercial prospects.

A perennial problem for evangelical moviemakers is that their efforts to mass-market the Gospel have to please the palette of born-again moviegoers who, despite the movie’s evangelistic purpose, remain critical to the film’s commercial prospects. What distinguishes evangelical art from its secular counterpart is what I call its confessional character; to qualify as “Christian” a movie has to contain a clear presentation of the gospel message. Son of God certainly meets this criteria. The result however, is that movie ends up preaching to the proverbial choir.

What I find interesting is the way Son of God caters to the Christian faithful while also attempting to make the Messiah’s story appealing to nonbelievers. Movies have to rely on a common cultural cache—ideals, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions—in order to connect with audiences. But the communicativeness of Son of God depends to a surprising extent on viewers having ample knowledge of the Christian Gospels.

The Son of God narrative lacks coherence and clumsily advances like a checklist of “the Messiah’s greatest hits,” as a Washington Post critic put it. Scenes are underdeveloped, but contain enough information to serve as prompts for those familiar with the Gospel accounts.

Consider Peter’s initial encounter with Jesus. As the scene unfolds, the lack of verisimilitude raises questions. Why would Peter, apparently an experienced fisherman, readily obey a complete stranger, set out, and cast his fishing nets again? And even after the astonishing catch, would Peter have not as much as a moment of hesitation when invited by the stranger to follow him? “What are we going to do?” he asks. “We are going to change the world,” Jesus replies. The cost of Christian discipleship is that simple.

However cryptic this encounter, there is just enough narrative information presented for a Christian viewer to “get” the significance of the scene by filling in any gaps with a mental flashforward: Peter, of course, is the rock upon which Jesus will build His church. Without such prior knowledge however, an uninformed viewer could easily find the scene contrived, puzzling, and even unbelievable.

Part of the power of this narrative viewpoint is that it shores up communal identity among the initiated who are aware that others won’t “get” these hidden meanings by virtue of being outsiders. To use a Biblical metaphor, the effect is akin to separating the sheep from the goats. The approach works as an extended metaphor with characters, like uniformed viewers, missing meanings to which only the faithful are privy.

During Pilate’s interrogation outside a prison cell, Jesus tells him, “My kingdom is not of this world.” On that line of dialogue, the Messiah’s head drops back and is engulfed in a ray of bright white light streaming down from above; the use of cinematography to make an all-too-obvious reference to Jesus’s “heavenly” kingdom. Before leaving, Pilate, looking perplexed, glances upwards at the light. The gesture is intended, I assume, to signify that the Roman prefect doesn’t “get” Jesus’s meaning (even if it looks more like he is wondering, as I was, about the mysterious light source in the otherwise dark dungeon). That Christian spectators do understand makes for a cinematic moment of solidarity.

Wrestling with the messianic character has been the raison d’etre of Jesus movies. The ascetic depiction of Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) leans on the divine side; Jesus being tormented with fear, doubt, and sexual fantasies in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) emphasizes the Messiah’s humanity. It is fair to expect any retelling of the Christ story to justify itself by offering a new perspective. The Son of God however, provides a straightforward, simplistic, and rather unimaginative version of the Christ story, representing Jesus as entirely free of any fear, temptation, reluctance, or uncertainty. In short, there is nothing thought-provoking about this movie’s treatment of God-become-flesh. (Although I do wonder why even the most reverent efforts ignore the prophet Isaiah’s description of the coming Messiah as having “no beauty that we should desire him” (53:2).)

Son of God is not meant to be great cinematic art. Apparently, the producers’ single-minded purpose is to provide a clear and unambiguous cinematic statement so that moviegoers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20: 31). Unfortunately, this approach leaves much to be desired aesthetically and religiously. As the Washington Post critic observes, “Son of God is nothing if not sincere, its earnest retelling of Jesus’s life story resembling a gentle, pop-up book version of the New Testament, its text reenacted for maximum reassurance and intellectual ease.” Even a reviewer for the evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today admits that “watching Son of God was not a dreadful experience, but it wasn’t a particularly inspirational or entertaining one, either.”

Others trace the film’s lack of originality to the merchandizing of The Bible miniseries, which is available on DVD now along with other inspired products. For that reason, Variety dubbed this theatrical spinoff “a cynical cash grab” and one religious reviewer took it to be more a “marketing ploy” than a movie.

Nevertheless, to the extent that Son of God was crafted as a matinee affirmation of the Christian faith, its success in that regard might well come at the expense of welcoming the uninitiated.

William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner), Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life, and Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. Read his previous blog posts.

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6. Discussing Josephine Baker with Anne Cheng

By Tim Allen


Josephine Baker, the mid-20th century performance artist, provocatrix, and muse, led a fascinating transatlantic life. I recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Anne A. Cheng, Professor of English and African American Literature at Princeton University and author of the book Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface, about her research into Baker’s life, work, influence, and legacy.

Josephine Baker, as photographed by Carl Von Vechten in 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Josephine Baker, as photographed by Carl Von Vechten in 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Baker made her career in Europe and notably inspired a number of European artists and architects, including Picasso and Le Corbusier. What was it about Baker that spoke to Europeans? What did she represent for them?

It has been traditionally understood that Baker represents a “primitive” figure for male European artists and architects who found in Baker an example of black animality and regressiveness; that is, she was their primitive muse. Yet this view cannot account for why many famous female artists were also fascinated by her, nor does it explain why Baker in particular would come to be the figure of so much profound artistic investment. I would argue that it is in fact Baker’s “modernity” (itself understood as an expression of hybrid and borrowed art forms) rather than her “primitiveness” that made her such a magnetic figure.  In short, the modernists did not go to her to watch a projection of an alienating blackness; rather, they were held in thrall by a reflection of their own art’s racially complex roots. This is another way of saying that, when someone like Picasso looked at a tribal African mask or a figure like Baker who mimics Western ideas of Africa, what he saw was not just radical otherness but a much more ambivalent mirror of the West’s own complicity in constructing and imagining that “otherness.”

Baker was present at the March on Washington in August 1963 and stood with Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave his “I have a dream” speech. What did Baker contribute to the struggle for civil rights? How was her success in foreign countries understood within the African American community?

These are well-known facts about Baker’s biography: in the latter part of her life, Baker became a very public figure for the causes of social justice and equality. During World War II, she served as an intelligence liaison and an ambulance driver for the French Resistance and was awarded the Medal of the Resistance and the Legion of Honor. Soon after the war, Baker toured the United States again and won respect and praise from African Americans for her support of the civil rights movement. In 1951, she refused to play to segregated audiences and, as a result, the NAACP named her its Most Outstanding Woman of the Year. She gave a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall for the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality in 1963.

What is fascinating as well, however, is the complication that Baker represents to and for the African American community. Prior to the war and her more public engagement with the civil rights movement, she was not always a welcome figure either in the African American community or for the larger mainstream American public. Her sensational fame abroad was not duplicated in the states, and her association with primitivism made her at times an embarrassment for the African American community. A couple of times before the war, Baker returned to perform in the United States and was not well received, much to her grief. I would suggest that Baker should be celebrated not only for her more recognizable civil rights activism, but also for her art: performances which far exceed the simplistic labels that have been placed on them and which few have actually examined as art. These performances, when looked at more closely, embody and generate powerful and intricate political meditations about what it means to be a black female body on stage.

Did your research into Baker’s life uncover any surprising or unexpected bits of information? What was the greatest challenge you experienced in carrying out your research?

I was repeatedly stunned by how much writing has been generated about her life (from facts to gossip) but how little attention has been paid to really analyzing her work, be it on stage or in film. The work itself is so idiosyncratic and layered and complex that this critical oversight is really a testament to how much we have been blinded by our received image of her. I was also surprised to learn how insecure she was about her singing voice when it is in fact a very unique voice with great adaptability. Baker’s voice can be deep and sonorous or high and pitchy, depending on the context of each performance. In the film Zou Zou, for example, Baker is shown dressed in feathers, singing while swinging inside a giant gilded bird cage. Many reviewers criticized her performance as jittery and staccato. But I suggest that her voice was actually mimicking the sounds that would be made, not by a real bird, but by a mechanical bird and, in doing so, reminding us that we are not seeing naturalized primitive animality at all, but its mechanical reconstruction.

For me, the challenge of writing the story of Baker rests in learning how to delineate a material history of race that forgoes the facticity of race. The very visible figure of Baker has taught me a counterintuitive lesson: that the history of race, while being very material and with very material impacts, is nonetheless crucially a history of the unseen and the ineffable. The other great challenge is the question of style. I wanted to write a book about Baker that imitates or at least acknowledges the fluidity that is Baker. This is why, in these essays, Baker appears, disappears, and reappears to allow into view the enigmas of the visual experience that I think Baker offers.

Baker’s naked skin famously scandalized audiences in Paris, and your book is, in many respects, an extended analysis of the significance of Baker’s skin. Why study Josephine Baker and her skin today? What does she represent for the study of art, race, and American history? Did your interest in studying Baker develop gradually, or were you immediately intrigued by her?

I started out writing a book about the politics of race and beauty. Then, as part of this larger research, I forced myself to watch Josephine Baker’s films. I say “forced” because I was dreading seeing exactly the kind of racist images and performances that I have heard so much about.  But what I saw stunned, puzzled, and haunted me. Could this strange, moving, and coated figure of skin, clothes, feathers, dirt, gold, oil, and synthetic sheen be the simple “black animal” that everyone says she is? I started writing about her, essay after essay, until a dear friend pointed out that I was in fact writing a book about Baker.

Tim Allen is an Assistant Editor for the Oxford African American Studies Center. You can follow him on Twitter @timDallen.

The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture.

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7. Levin’s proposal

True love in opposition: Levin and Kitty’s match set against the triangle of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky. How can Tolstoy’s crushing rejection scene (drawn from his own life) be portrayed on screen? The film adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightly and directed by Joe Wright, is contending for four Oscars tonight (Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Original Score). Let’s see how they do compared to the Oxford World Classic edition before the cinematic contest this evening.

DURING the interval between dinner and the beginning of the evening party, Kitty experienced something resembling a young man’s feelings before a battle. Her heart was beating violently and she could not fix her thoughts on anything.

She felt that this evening, when those two men were to meet for the first time, would decide her fate; and she kept picturing them to herself, now individually and now together. When she thought of the past, she dwelt with pleasure and tenderness on her former relations with Levin. Memories of childhood and of Levin’s friendship with her dead brother lent a peculiar poetic charm to her relations with him. His love for her, of which she felt sure, flattered and rejoiced her, and she could think of him with a light heart. With her thought of Vronsky was mingled some uneasiness, though he was an extremely well-bred and quiet-mannered man; a sense of something false, not in him, for he was very simple and kindly, but in herself; whereas in relation to Levin she felt herself quite simple and clear. On the other hand when she pictured to herself a future with Vronsky a brilliant vision of happiness rose up before her, while a future with Levin appeared wrapped in mist.

On going upstairs to dress for the evening and looking in the glass, she noticed with pleasure that this was one of her best days, and that she was in full possession of all her forces, which would be so much wanted for what lay before her. She was conscious of external calmness and of freedom and grace in her movements.

At half-past seven, as soon as she had come down into the drawing-room, the footman announced ‘Constantine Dmitrich Levin!’ The Princess was still in her bedroom, nor had the Prince yet come down.

‘So it’s to be!’ thought Kitty and the blood rushed to her heart. Glancing at the mirror she was horrified at her pallor.

She felt sure that he had come so early on purpose to see her alone and to propose to her. And now for the first time the matter presented itself to her in a different and entirely new light. Only now did she realize that this matter (with whom she would be happy, who was the man she loved) did not concern herself alone, but that in a moment she would have to wound a man she cared for, and to wound him cruelly…. Why? Because the dear fellow was in love with her. But it could not be helped, it was necessary and had to be done.

‘Oh God, must I tell him so myself?’ she thought. ‘Must I really tell him that I don’t care for him? That would not be true. What then shall I say? Shall I say that I love another? No, that’s impossible! I’ll go away. Yes, I will.’

She was already approaching the door when she heard his step. ‘No, it would be dishonest! What have I to fear? I have done nothing wrong. I’ll tell the truth, come what may! Besides, it’s impossible to feel awkward with him. Here he is!’ she thought, as she saw his powerful diffident figure before her and his shining eyes gazing at her. She looked straight into his face as if entreating him to spare her, and gave him her hand.

Click here to view the embedded video.

‘I don’t think I’ve come at the right time, I’m too early,’ he said gazing round the empty drawing-room. When he saw that his expectation was fulfilled and that nothing prevented his speaking to her, his face clouded over.

‘Not at all,’ said Kitty and sat down at the table.

‘But all I wanted was to find you alone,’ he began, still standing and avoiding her face so as not to lose courage.

‘Mama will be down in a minute. She was so tired yesterday …’ She spoke without knowing what she was saying, her eyes fixed on him with a caressing look full of entreaty.

He glanced at her; she blushed and was silent.

‘I told you that I did not know how long I should stay … that it depends on you.’

Her head dropped lower and lower, knowing the answer she would give to what was coming.

‘That it would depend on you,’ he repeated. ‘I want to say … I want to say … I came on purpose … that … to be my wife !’ he uttered hardly knowing what he said; but feeling that the worst was out he stopped and looked at her.

She was breathing heavily and not looking at him. She was filled with rapture. Her soul was overflowing with happiness. She had not at all expected that his declaration of love would make so strong an impression on her. But that lasted only for an instant. She remembered Vronsky, lifted her clear, truthful eyes to Levin’s face, and noticing his despair she replied quickly:

‘It cannot be … forgive me.’

How near to him she had been a minute ago, how important in his life! And how estranged and distant she seemed now!

‘Nothing else was possible,’ he said, without looking at her, and bowing he turned to go …

One of the greatest novels ever written, Anna Karenina illuminates the questions that face humanity. A classic of Russian literature, this new edition of Anna Karenina uses the acclaimed Louise and Alymer Maude translation, and offers a new introduction and notes which provide completely up-to-date perspectives on Tolstoy’s classic work.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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8. Do the Oscars snub films without redemptive messages?

By Elijah Siegler


Last night at the Oscars, the Academy awarded a golden statuette to a film about a flawed hero who we the audience empathize with, who departs their normal life, enters a strange world, but returns triumphantly. Did I just describe Best Picture Winner Argo?

Yes, but also best animated short winner, Paperman, best animated feature winner, Brave, and best live action short winner, Curfew.

So whether the hero is a CIA operative, an besotted office worker, an Scottish princess or a suicidal man, and whether the journey is to revolutionary Iran, to a world of sentient paper airplanes, to a dark forest, or to a magical bowling alley, these films, and it’s safe to say, most of their fellow nominees, have spiritually uplifting themes, and generally follow a pattern of a mythic journey to redemption. (Indeed as my colleague’s S. Brent Plate pointed out, religion permeates all nine best picture nominees and the ceremonies themselves.)

Academy members, and audiences in general, like and expect movies to be heroic journeys of redemption. One 2012 film, Cosmopolis, is about a journey that’s anything but heroic and redemptive. Indeed, the film, based on a short novel by Don DeLillo, charts a billionaire’s limo ride across Manhattan to get a haircut as ironic, pointless and even destructive. Unsurprisingly, Cosmopolis received precisely zero Oscar nominations. Now, I’m not here to argue that this film was better than any of the nine nominated films.

One reason that the film’s director and screenwriter, David Cronenberg, despite being widely regarded as one of the world’s best living filmmakers, has never been nominated for, let alone won, an Academy Award, is because all his films explicitly reject themes of “redemption” and “spiritual uplift.”

Cronenberg is known not only an originator of the body horror subgenre (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), and for adapting difficult works of literature (Naked Lunch, Crash, Cosmopolis), but for being one of the few filmmakers who explicitly identifies as atheist, and whose work ignores all religious themes. Cronenberg’s public atheism is all the more notable considering his association with horror, a genre often analyzed as fundamentally religious. Think about all the horror films that include one of more of the following: the dead displaced, satanic cults, covens, possession, exorcism, ghosts, and curses. Or think how often religious symbols a church or a crucifix, become sites of terror. So it is significant that none of Cronenberg’s films have any religious or supernatural elements. And this is not coincidence, but his conscious choice. More succinctly, he told me when I interviewed him at his home in Toronto, he does not “want to promote supernatural thinking.”

More significantly, both his earlier horror films and his later more literary films eschew the thematic underpinning virtually every Hollywood film ever: the battle between good and evil. Cronenberg’s films do not provide the visual and aural clues that conventional Hollywood cinema uses to denote good and evil. His heroes are not particularly altruistic or, indeed, heroic. The protagonists of several of his films [SPOILER ALERT], including Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers die—but their deaths are neither redemptive nor sacrificial, nor do they result in any kind of triumphant return, symbolic or otherwise.

Many of his films do not have traditional villains. Even his seemingly conventional antagonists, from the sex parasites in Shivers to the multinational corporation Spectacular Optical in Videodrome to Naked Lunch’s Dr. Benway, are sinister and scary, but function as necessary agents of change.

When Cronenberg does use religious imagery to suggest evil, it is neither supernatural nor transcendent. Rather, his religious imagery evokes authoritarian institutions. Dead Ringers, based on a true story of twin gynecologists’ descent into madness and addiction, includes examination scenes set in the Mantle Clinic, their medical practice. The clinic functions as a kind of quasi-religious institution and the scenes are terrifying (even though this is not at all a traditional horror film), inasmuch as they show the power that doctors have over patients, and that men have over women (see Image).

In both his personal philosophy and his films, David Cronenberg sees no need for transcendence, or for the fulfillment of the hero’s quest, or for cosmic reward and punishment. And yet his films wrestle with the same questions of meaning that our favorite “religious” films do (questions of sex and death, power and desire, family and society, identity and transformation) but that do so in a uniquely nonreligious way. The Oscars may never give Cronenberg his due, but anyone interested in religion, film and their relationship, needs to.

Elijah Siegler is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston. His article “David Cronenberg: The secular auteur as critic of religion” was recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

The Journal of the American Academy of Religion is generally considered to be the top academic journal in the field of religious studies. This international quarterly journal publishes top scholarly articles that cover the full range of world religious traditions together with provocative studies of the methodologies by which these traditions are explored.

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9. Ford Madox Ford and unfilmable Modernism

By Max Saunders


One definition of a classic book is a work which inspires repeated metamorphoses. Romeo and Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Great Gatsby don’t just wait in their original forms to be watched or read, but continually migrate from one medium to another: painting, opera, melodrama, dramatization, film, comic-strip. New technologies inspire further reincarnations. Sometimes it’s a matter of transferring a version from one medium to another — audio recordings to digital files, say. More often, different technologies and different markets encourage new realisations: Hitchcock’s Psycho re-shot in colour; French or German films remade for American audiences; widescreen or 3D remakes of classic movies or stories.

Cinema is notoriously hungry for adaptations of literary works. The adaptation that’s been preoccupying me lately is the BBC/HBO version of Parade’s End, the series of four novels about the Edwardian era and the First World War, written by Ford Madox Ford. Ford was British, but an unusually cosmopolitan and bohemian kind of Brit. His father was a German émigré, a musicologist who ended up as music critic for the London Times. His mother was an artist, the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Ford was educated trilingually, in French and German as well as English. When he was introduced to Joseph Conrad at the turn of the century, they decided to collaborate on a novel, and went on over a decade to produce three collaborative books. He also got to know Henry James and Stephen Crane at this time — the two Americans were also living nearby, on the Southeast coast of England. Americans were to prove increasingly important in Ford’s life. He moved to London in 1907, and soon set up the literary magazine that helped define pre-war modernism: the English Review. He had a gift for discovering new talent, and was soon publishing D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis alongside James and Conrad. But it was Ezra Pound, who he also met and published at this time, who was to become his most important literary friend after Conrad.

Ford served in the First World War, getting injured and suffering from shell shock in the Battle of the Somme. He moved to France after the war, where he soon joined forces with Pound again, to form another influential modernist magazine, the transatlantic review, which published Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Rhys. Ford took on another young American, Ernest Hemingway, as his sub-editor. Ford held regular soirees, either in a working class dance-hall with a bar that he’d commandeered, or in the studio he lived in with his partner, the Australian painter Stella Bowen. He found himself at the centre of the (largely American) expatriate artist community in the Paris of the 20s. And it was there, and in Provence in the winters, and partly in New York, that he wrote the four novels of Parade’s End, that made him a celebrity in the US. He spent an increasing amount of time in the US through the 20s and 30s, based on Fifth Avenue in New York, becoming a writer in residence in the small liberal arts Olivet College in Michigan, spending time with writer-friends like Theodore Dreiser and William Carlos Williams, and among the younger generation, Robert Lowell and e. e. cummings.

Parade’s End (1924-28) has been dramatized for TV by Sir Tom Stoppard. It has to be one of the most challenging books to film; but Stoppard has the theatrical ingenuity, and experience, to bring it off. It’s a classic work of Modernism: with a non-linear time-scheme that can jump around in disconcerting ways; dense experimental writing that plays with styles and techniques. Though it includes some of the most brilliant conversations in the British novel, and its characters have a strong dramatic presence, much of it is inherently un-dramatic and, you might have thought, unfilmable: long interior monologues, descriptions of what characters see and feel; and — perhaps hardest of all to convey in drama — moments when they don’t say what they feel, or do what we might expect of them. Imagine T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, populated by Chekhovian characters, but set on the Western Front.

I’ve worked on Ford for some years, yet still find him engaging, tantalising, often incomprehensibly rewarding, so I was watching Parade’s End with fascination. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

Click here to view the embedded video.

Stoppard and the director, Susanna White, have done an extraordinary job in transforming this rich and complex text into a dramatic line that is at once lucid and moving. Sometimes where Ford just mentions an event in passing, the adaptation dramatizes the scene for us. The protagonist is Christopher Tietjens, a man of high-Tory principle — a paradoxical mix of extreme formality and unconventional intelligence – is played outstandingly by Benedict Cumberbatch, with a rare gift to convey thought behind Tietjens’ taciturn exterior. In the novel’s backstory, Christopher has been seduced in a railway carriage by Sylvia, who thinks she’s pregnant by another man. The TV version adds a conversation as they meet in the train; then cuts rapidly to a sex scene. It’s more than just a hook for viewers unconcerned about textual fidelity, though. What it establishes is what Ford only hints at through the novel, and what would be missed without Tietjen’s brooding thoughts about Sylvia: that her outrageousness turns him on as much as it torments him. In another example, where the novelist can describe the gossip circulating like wildfire in this select upper-class social world, the dramatist needs to give it a location; so Stoppard invents a scene at an Eton cricket match for several of the characters to meet, and insult Valentine Wannop, while she and Tietjens are trying not to have the affair that everyone assumes they are already having. Valentine is an ardent suffragette. In the novel, she and Tietjens argue about women and politics and education. Stoppard introduces a real historical event from the period — a Suffragette slashing Velasquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ in the National Gallery — as a way of saying it visually; and then complicating it beautifully with another intensely visual interpolated moment. In the book Ford has Valentine unconcsciously rearranging the cushions on her sofa as she waits to see Tietjens the evening before he’s posted back to the war. When she becomes aware that she’s fiddling with the cushions because she’s anticipating a love-scene with him, the adaptation disconcertingly places Valentine nude on her sofa in the same position as the ‘Rokeby Venus’ — in a flash both sexualizing her politics and politicizing her sexuality.

Such changes cause a double-take in viewers who know the novels. But they’re never gratuitous, and always respond to something genuine in the writing.

Perhaps the most striking transformation comes during one of the most amazing moments in the second volume, No More Parades. Tietjens is back in France, stationed at a Base Camp in Rouen, struggling against the military bureaucracy to get drafts of troops ready to be sent to the Front Line. Sylvia, who can’t help loving Tietjens though he drives her mad, has somehow managed to get across the Channel and pursue him to his Regiment. She has been unfaithful, and he is determined not to sleep with her; but because his principles won’t let a man divorce a woman, he feels obliged to share her hotel room so as not to humiliate her publicly. She is determined to seduce him once more; but has been flirting with other officers in the hotel, two of whom also end up in their bedroom in a drunken brawl. It’s an extraordinary moment of frustration, hysteria, terror (there has been a bombardment that evening), confusion, and farce. In the book we sense Sylvia’s seductive power, and that Tietjens isn’t immune to it, even though by then in love with Valentine. He resists. But in the film version, they kiss passionately before being interrupted.

Valentine and Christopher. Adelaide Clemens and Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End. (c) BBC/HBO.

The scene may have been changed to emphasize the power she still has over Tietjens: as if, paradoxically, he needs to be seen to succumb for a moment to make his resistance to her the more heroic. The change that’s going to exercise enthusiasts of the novels, though, is the way three of the five episodes were devoted to the first novel, Some Do Not…; and roughly one each to the second and third; with very little of the fourth volume, Last Post, being included at all. The third volume, A Man Could Stand Up — ends where the adaptation does, with Christopher and Valentine finally being united on Armistice night, a suitably dramatic and symbolic as well as romantic climax. Last Post is set in the 1920s and deals with post-war reconstruction. One can see why it would have been the hardest to film: much of it is interior monologue, and though Tietjens is often the subject of it he is absent for most of the book. Some crucial scenes from the action of the earlier books is only supplied as characters remember them in Last Post, such as when Syliva turns up after the Armistice night party lying to Christopher and Valentine that  she has cancer in an attempt to frustrate their union. Stoppard incorporates this into the last episode, but he writes new dialogue for it to give it a kind of closure the novels studiedly resist. Valentine challenges her as a liar, and from Tietjens’ reaction, Sylvia appears to recognize the reality of his love for her and gives her their blessing.

Rebecca Hall, playing Sylvia, has been so brilliantly and scathingly sarcastic all the way through that this change of heart — moving though it is — might seem out of character: even the character the film gives her, which is arguably more sympathetic than the one most readers find in the novel. Yet her reversal is in Last Post. But what triggers it there, much later on, is when she confronts Valentine but finds her pregnant. Even the genius of Tom Stoppard couldn’t make that happen before Valentine and Christopher have been able to make love. But there are two other factors, which he was able to shift from the post-war time of Last Post into the war’s endgame of the last episode. One is that Sylvia has focused her plotting on a new object. Refusing the role of the abandoned wife of Tietjens, she has now set her sights on General Campion, and begun scheming to get him made Viceroy of India. The other is that she feels she has already dealt Tietjens a devastating blow, in getting the ‘Great Tree’ at his ancestral stately home of Groby cut down. In the book she does this after the war by encouraging the American who’s leasing it to get it felled. In the film she’s done it before the Armistice; she’s at Groby; Tietjens visits there; has a Stoppard scene with Sylvia arranged in her bed like a Pre-Raphaelite vision in a last attempt to re-seduce him, which fails partly because of his anger over the tree. In the books the Great Tree represents the Tietjens family, continuity, even history itself. Ford writes a sentence about how the villagers “would ask permission to hang rags and things from the boughs,” but Stoppard and White make that image of the tree, all decorated with trinkets and charms, a much more prominent motif, returning to it throughout the series, and turning it into a symbol of superstition and magic. But then Stoppard characteristically plays on the motif, and has Christopher take a couple of blocks of wood from the felled tree back to London. One he gives to his brother, in a wonderfully tangible and taciturn gesture of renouncing the whole estate and the history it stands for. The other he uses in his flat, throwing whisky over it in the fireplace to light a fire to keep himself and Valentine warm. That gesture shows how it isn’t just Sylvia who is saying ‘Goodbye to All That’, but all the major characters are anticipating the life that, though the series doesn’t show it, Ford presents in the beautifully elegiac Last Post.

Max Saunders is author of Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (OUP, 1996/2012), and editor of Some Do Not . . ., the first volume of Ford’s Parade’s End (Manchester: Carcanet, 2010) and Ford’s The Good Soldier (Oxford: OUP, 2012). He was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the Culture Show’s ‘Who on Earth was Ford Madox Ford’ (BBC 2; 1 September 2012), and his blog on Ford’s life and work can be read on the OUPblog and New Statesman.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image credits: (1) Portrait of Ford Madox Ford (Source: Wikimedia Commons); (2) Still from BBC2 adaption of Parade’s End. (Source: bbc.co.uk).

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10. Art and industry in film

With the Oscars round the corner, we’re delving into Film: A Very Short Introduction. Here’s an extract from Chapter 3 of Michael Wood’s book. In this extract he looks at the industry and the role of the moviegoer.

Film began as a very small business, a dramatic invention but a tiny piece of the world of entertainment. It was an act among others in a variety show. Very soon, though, there were shows composed only of films, and there were special places for their showing. A cinema called the Nickleodeon opened in Pittsburgh in 1905, and by 1907 there were 4,000 such places in the United States. Something resembling an industry developed in France, Italy, England, and Germany too, and audiences grew and grew across the world. Studios were born. Pathé and Gaumont in France; UFA in Germany; Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount in the USA. Hollywood itself, a small Californian town surrounded by orange groves, became a movie settlement because of its steady weather (and because California was thought to be far enough away from the lawsuits that rained down on experimenters and investors in New York). Something like the contours of later patterns of film-making began to form. Stars began to glitter. And above all, money began to gleam.

A whole support system blossomed: publicity machinery, fan magazines, prizes, record-kepping. Box-office results became the equivalent of sporting scores, or world championship boxing.

Avatar (2009) is the largest grossing picture ever made, unless we adjust for inflation, in which case the title goes to Gone with the Wind (1939), and Avatar moves to fourteenth place. The American Academy of Moton Pictures awarded its first Oscars in 1929, and has awarded them every year since. Programmes developed from sets of short films to single feature films plus supporting entries; and from there to the two film diet that was standard fare for so long. By 1929, 90 million cinema tickets were sold each week in America, with figures proportionally similar elsewhere. There were ups and downs during the Depression and the Second World War, but the figure had reached one hundred million by 1946. By 1955, however, the number was down to 46 million, not a whole lot more than the 40 million or so of 1922. Movie-houses, of which a little more later, rose and fell, naturally enough, to the same rhythm: there were 20,000 in America in 1947 and 11,000 in 1959.

Programmes often changed midweek, and shows were continuous, so you could come in at the middle of a film and stay till you got the middle again. Hence the now almost unintelligible phrase “This is where we came in”. There is a remarkable piece by the humorist Robert Benchley about a game he liked to play. Arriving, say, twenty minutes into a film, he would give himself five minutes to reconstruct the plot so far. Then he would interpret everything that followed in the light of his reconstruction. He would stay on to see how close he was – or pretend to see. He claimed many movies were improved by his method.

Theories of the Seventh Art arose, as well as plenty of attacks of the mindlessness of moviegoers. It was in reaction to one such attack that Walter Benjamin devloped an important piece of the argument of his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (various versions between 1935 and 1939). The French novelist George Duhamel had included an onslaught on cinema in his witty and gloomy book on America, Scénes de la vie future (1930). The relevant chapter is titled ‘cinematographic interlude or the entertainment of the free citizen’, and within the text, the cinema is called, in the same mode of a grand irony, a sanctury, a temple, an abyss of forgetfulness, and the cave of the monster. Duhamel says that film ‘requires no kind of effort’ and ‘presupposes no capacity for consecutive thought’, ‘aucune suite dans les idées.’ Benjamin agrees that film audiences are distracted but claims that there are forms of distraction that may function as localized, medium-specific attention. ‘Even the distracted person’ he says, thinking of the moviegoer, ‘can form habits. ‘The audience’ he adds, ‘is an examiner, but a distracted one’.

Michael Wood is Charles Barnwell Start Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and the author of Film: A Very Short Introduction. You can see Michael talking about film.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday! Subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via emailor RSS.

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Image credit: By Coyau. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0. via Wikimedia Commons

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11. Best Original Score: Who will win (and who should!)

By Kathryn Kalinak


This year’s slate of contenders includes established pros (John Williams, Thomas Newman, Alexandre Desplat) along with some newcomers (William Butler and Owen Pallett, Steven Price). This used to be a category where you had to pay your dues, but no longer. The last three winners had never been nominated before. So the real surprise winner in this category would be Williams.

William Butler and Owen Pallett: Her

Click here to view the embedded video.

Butler and Pallett already have a pocketful of awards and this is just the kind of “outsider” score (Butler and Pallett’s first nomination) that Academy voters love: remember Reznor and Ross winning for The Social Network? A win for Butler and Pallett makes the Academy seem hip and edgy and cool, not unimportant to an aging votership. Gravity is the favorite to win here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the statuette goes to Her. Its use of acoustic instruments (that piano!) brings coziness to the sterile interiors and even the electronic instruments radiate warmth. The score is crucial in helping us to understand the characters in the film and feel for them. This wouldn’t be the same film without the score.

Alexandre Desplat: Philomena

Click here to view the embedded video.

Desplat has done some remarkable work in the last few years (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The King’s Speech, The Queen, Harry Potter, Fantastic Mr. Fox—a personal favorite) and he’s the go-to composer for films about England and now Ireland. But he’s perennially overlooked by Academy voters (he’s lost five times in the last seven years and for some amazing work—come on, Academy)! I don’t think this is his year. Philomena doesn’t have a high enough profile in the Oscar race. I would LOVE to be wrong about this. Desplat deserves an Oscar for something and why not for Philomena—it’s a heartfelt film with an equally heartfelt score.

Thomas Newman: Saving Mr. Banks

Click here to view the embedded video.

Newman has twelve nominations and no wins but I don’t think this year is going to change that. Saving Mr. Banks was almost completely overlooked by the Academy (this is its only nomination) and Newman’s style of big symphonic scoring hasn’t found favor in recent years with Academy voters. (See John Williams below).

Steven Price: Gravity
*clip from film includes “Debris” from the soundtrack

Click here to view the embedded video.

Gravity is the front runner here. The trailer’s tag line reads “At 372 miles above the earth, there is nothing to carry sound.” Except the soundtrack…which is filled with the score. Big, noticeable, dare I say it—intrusive, this is the kind of score you can’t fail to notice…even if you try. John Williams meets Hans Zimmer.

John Williams: The Book Thief

Click here to view the embedded video.

This is Williams’ forty-ninth nomination—but The Book Thief doesn’t have the visibility of other films in this category and Academy voters of late have failed to embrace the kind of big symphonic scores, like this one, that routinely won Oscars back in the twentieth century. Lush, melodic, memorable—vintage Williams. Like Newman for Saving Mr. Banks, Williams would be an upset.

Will win: Steven Price for Gravity

Should win: William Butler and Owen Pallett for Her

Kathryn Kalinak is Professor of English and Film Studies at Rhode Island College. Her extensive writing on film music includes numerous articles as well as the books Settling the Score: Music in the Classical Hollywood Film and How the West was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford. She is author of Film Music: A Very Short Introduction.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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12. Steve McQueen’s low-tech triumph: Looking at this year’s Oscar winners

By James Tweedie


The annual Academy Awards ceremony draws weeks of media attention, hours of live television coverage beginning with stars strolling down the red carpet, and around 40 million viewers nationwide on Oscar night. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences relegates the awards for technical achievement to a separate ceremony a couple of weeks before, a sedate affair in a hotel ballroom rather the spectacular setting of the Dolby Theater. While this division between the arts and sciences is clear in awards season, that boundary has almost disappeared in the movies themselves, as computer-generated imagery and digital 3-D now occupy a prominent position in most major studio productions.

oscar

Academy Award for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Photo by Loren Javier. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

For almost a century popular American cinema has been primarily a storytelling medium, with the motion picture sciences playing a more secondary role, but the distinction between the popular arts of Hollywood and the engineering of Silicon Valley is blurring. The movie business is being incorporated into a TED world where technology and design are the cornerstones of most big-budget entertainment.

For the first three hours of Sunday’s broadcast, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity seemed to be soaring toward a Best Picture Oscar, a victory that would have marked a new stage in this transformation of the American movie industry. A tour de force of technological innovation, Gravity won a total of seven Academy Awards, including the bellwether prizes for Best Editing and Best Director, and the voters appeared on the verge of bestowing their top honor on one of the first films to utilize the full potential of 3-D, a film that creates an almost visceral, stomach-dropping sensation of weightlessness as the camera and bodies appear to bob and drift through space. At other times the camera hurtles forward and the storyline rushes us from one space vehicle to another, propelled by an accidental explosion or the blast of a strategically deployed fire extinguisher. In those moments the weakness of Gravity is as unmistakable as its technical prowess: its virtuoso, gravity-defying feats are accompanied by an almost absurdly insubstantial and implausible plot, even by the standards of Hollywood, where happy endings have been arriving on cue for decades and most cars seem to have a magical sixth gear that allows them to fly over rising drawbridges. The narrative seems almost like an afterthought in Gravity, a pretext to link together one floating space platform and the next and to celebrate cinematic technology in itself, untethering it from earthly concerns like the plot.

Vertigomovie_restoration

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But the Academy voters obviously had a different narrative in mind when they submitted their ballots, and in keeping with a long tradition of last-minute plot twists, they managed to compose a far more heartening conclusion to the year in film. In your average year, the Academy Awards are, to borrow the title of one of this year’s Best Picture contenders, an “American hustle.” Every March, we anticipate the canonization of a new Citizen Kane or Vertigo, half-forgetting that these films, among the most revered American movies ever made, won a grand total of one Oscar (Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, for the screenplay for Citizen Kane). Kane was nominated in nine categories and lost eight of them, and Hitchcock and the other makers of Vertigo left the Pantages Theater empty-handed in 1959.

The list of regrettable Academy Award decisions and omissions (for example, Hitchcock’s career-long snub in the Best Director category or the single statuette given to Stanley Kubrick in his lifetime, for visual effects in 2001) is at least as long as Oscar’s triumphs. While viewers tune in for the glitz, glamor, comedy, fashion, and, on occasion, a genuinely moving acceptance speech (or a train wreck taking place at the podium), the ceremony also promises to provide an annual assessment of the state of American cinema. The opulent spectacle arrives each year without fail, but the Academy almost habitually overlooks the truly vibrant pictures and artists working in the film industry in the United States. What does Oscar reward instead?

The recipients of the major awards are usually not the most lucrative blockbusters (which have already received their rewards at the box office) nor are they the type of formally innovative and idiosyncratic pictures that enter the canon retrospectively. The films that tend to be overrated by the Academy are well-meaning films that appear to address an important social issue, while discovering some heroes and reasons for hope in an otherwise trying situation (Slumdog Millionaire, Crash, and Million Dollar Baby, to name three of the last eight Best Picture winners). Films by recognized American auteurs like Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, or Kathryn Bigelow have also fared well (see, for example, The Departed in 2006, No Country for Old Men in the following year, and The Hurt Locker in 2009), as have historical films that depict a triumph over hardship, with the formula for contemporary cinema—adversity, heroism, survival, and even a measure of vindication—retooled for use in the past. (See The King’s Speech in 2010 for the most recent example, but note also the run of five consecutive awards beginning in 1993 for Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The English Patient, and Titanic, which together established the historical film as a one of the surest paths to the podium.) What matters at Oscar time is the appearance of importance and a willingness to return to historical tragedies or to glance at contemporary social ills.

Viewed in retrospect, the Academy Awards perform something of a bait and switch, as instead of recognizing the best films created in the previous year they provide a barometer of the social and historical problems that continue to haunt us, including (to focus on this year’s nominees) political corruption, the excesses of Wall Street, uneven development, slavery and racism, the AIDS crisis, and the persistence of homophobia. This year’s Best Picture nominees have been justly scrutinized precisely because they seem so intimately linked with the problems they address. Four of the nine nominees are based on actual events drawn from the very recent past, another (Philomena) recounts a true story spanning a 50-year period from the middle of the twentieth century to the present, and 12 Years a Slave retells the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free African-American from New York who was kidnapped and sold into bondage in Louisiana. Add Gravity to this strong group of films, and oddsmakers were predicting the tightest contest in recent memory, with these many returns to history pitted against an immersive, high-tech cinematic experience of the future.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, a real-life financial scam artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio, finds himself unable to drive home after an overdose of Quaaludes that leaves him prostrate on the front steps of his country club. Summoning all his strength, he manages to slither across the driveway, hoist himself into his gull-winged sports car, and steer through a series of obstacles unscathed. Or at least that’s how the events unfold the first time, in what appears to be Jordan’s experience of reality. Immediately after that sequence, we see the police arrive and Scorsese presents us with a revisionist version, with a wreckage of cars and signposts left flattened in his wake. Hollywood’s approach to the past often resembles the first, more delusional of these scenes, with the heroic figure emerging triumphant from history.

In 12 Years a Slave the historical devastation caused by slavery is more frightening because the damage is all pervasive, because nothing is left uncorrupted by the system that frames every interaction through the lens of property. Screenwriter John Ridley and director McQueen had the courage to let Solomon Northup’s story remain largely unchanged from the original autobiography and to frame the most searing images in the simplest, most direct way, as in the agonizingly long take where a near lynching unfolds almost in slow motion. And in the best tradition of classical Hollywood cinema, McQueen manages to combine a compelling narrative with a series of subtle character portraits, as Northup travels through a looking glass from his prior existence as an accomplished musician and family man in New York to what seems like an alternative universe, where survival depends on the stripping away of those markers of identity and humanity. Rather than present slavery as an incomprehensible evil from another time, the film also chronicles the everyday rationalizations that allow the master to accept depravity as a way of life and the foundation of an economic order.

In most years the Oscars ceremony performs a bait and switch, as we await the announcement of the year’s best films and hear the name of a soon-to-be-forgotten film. But the Academy Awards also remind us why we continue to care about movies and ascribe to them a social significance and power all out of proportion with the relatively modest ambitions of even the Best Picture nominees, let alone the more standard studio fare. The Oscars are an advertisement for the potential of cinema to engage with traumatic historical and contemporary realities, even if we usually have to look elsewhere for the films that address those issues in all of their complexity. 12 Years a Slave, one of the few masterpieces also to win the award for Best Picture, reminds us that sometimes those films can come straight from Hollywood.

James Tweedie is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and a member of the Cinema Studies faculty at the University of Washington. He is the author of The Age of New Waves: Art Cinema and the Staging of Globalization.

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13. Beyond Ed Sullivan: The Beatles on American television

By Ron Rodman


Sunday, 9 February 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the American television broadcast of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. For many writers on pop music, the appearance on the Sullivan show not only marked the debut of the Beatles in the United States, but also launched their career as international pop music superstars. The mass exposure to millions of television viewers rocketed the Fab Four to national prominence in the United States, and created a chain reaction for stardom in the entire world.

The Beatles, 1963

The Beatles, Stockholm, 1963

While the charisma and quality of the Beatles’ music drew great popularity in 1964, the group’s success was assisted by the entrepreneurial skills of American television, notably by the expertise of Ed Sullivan. However, several other television broadcasts predated the Sullivan show appearance, and laid the groundwork for the Beatles’ stardom in the United States. In particular, two news stories about the Beatles were aired in November 1963, four full months before the Sullivan appearance. This, plus another taped appearance by the group by another entrepreneur, NBC’s Jack Paar, paved the way for the Beatles’ stardom in the United States.

The Ed Sullivan Show

Ed Sullivan began his career as a journalist throughout the 1920s and worked his way into the position as theater columnist for the New York Daily News when Walter Winchell left the paper in the early 1930s. Sullivan was also a host for Vaudeville theaters, serving as master of ceremonies for a number of shows during World War II. He broke into television as host of telecasts of New York’s Harvest Moon Ball on CBS, and was asked to host a weekly variety show called Toast of the Town in 1948. The show would be renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955.

With his journalistic experience, Sullivan was able to use his contacts to attract a wide range of celebrities on the show. He attracted comedians such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Broadway stars like Julie Andrews, jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, and even opera singers like Maria Callas and Robert Merrill. However, Sullivan may be best known for bringing rock‘n’roll to the small screen. He had Elvis Presley on the show on 6 January 1957, and many rockers such as Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and many others thereafter.

Sullivan’s embrace (or at least tolerance) for rock music paved the way for the Beatles. Sullivan reportedly heard (or heard of) the Beatles during a trip to London and decided to put them on his show. He offered the band $10,000 to appear, a figure that, adjusted for inflation, would be a somewhat modest $75,000 in today’s dollars.

As the show opened on that historic night in 1964, Sullivan reported that Elvis Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had sent a telegram to the Beatles wishing them luck. In his introduction, Sullivan also used the increased viewership to plug some of his other acts on previous shows, notably Topo Gigio (the Italian/Spanish mouse puppet created by Maria Perego), Van Heflin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr. But the tension to hear the Beatles was palpable, and he segued into a commercial quickly, promising the Beatles after the break.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The appearance by the Beatles almost didn’t happen. George Harrison reportedly had a sore throat the week before, but by broadcast, was better. So, the Beatles went live with their full line-up, performing five songs that night: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

News stories

While the Ed Sullivan appearance marked the first live US TV appearance of the Beatles, the groundwork had already been laid to introduce the band to the United States a few months earlier. NBC News did a four-minute story on the Beatles that was broadcast on The Huntley-Brinkley Report on 16 November 1963, three full months before the Sullivan show. The feature was narrated by reporter Edwin Newman, who would later anchor the NBC News.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Not to be “scooped” by NBC, CBS News also produced a five-minute piece on the Fab Four, which aired on 21 November, the eve of the fateful day on which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Alexander Kendrick, CBS’s London Bureau Chief taped the story, which showed footage of the Beatles performing in England, and the story ended with Kendrick ruminating on the social significance of the group, representing England’s youth, or at least England’s youth as they “wanted to be.”

The Jack Paar Program

Also predating the Sullivan Show, the first prime time film footage of the Beatles actually aired on 3 January 1964. The person responsible was another entrepreneur—NBC’s Jack Paar. Like Ed Sullivan, Paar was not a TV celebrity “natural” and came to television as a master of ceremonies. After World War II, Paar made some appearances in a few low-budget films, and made his way to television as a game show host. He was chosen as the regular replacement for Steve Allen as the host of NBC’s Tonight Show in 1957. Paar did not have Allen’s musical talent, nor his talent for sketch comedy or practical jokes, but was able to surround himself with unusual talent to market his show. While not as “wooden” on stage as Sullivan, Paar tended to be low-key and conversational, rather than charismatic and presentational. Like Sullivan, Paar also had a flair for discovering unique talent and is often credited for discovering, or at least popularizing, such off-beat characters as comedians Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, and Bob Newhart. Paar left the Tonight Show (ushering in the Johnny Carson era) in 1962, but went on to host a weekly variety show called The Jack Paar Program, that aired on Friday nights on NBC. It was on this program that he introduced the Beatles to the United States.

Like Sullivan, Paar had heard of the Beatles while in London and decided to show some film footage of the band as a joke. “I thought it was funny,” he quipped later on a television retrospective. He admitted that he had no idea that the band would change the course of music history. On the 1963 broadcast, after showing the footage, he quipped: “Nice to know that England has risen to our [American] cultural level.”

The episode with the footage was taped on 16 November 1963, the same date as the NBC news story (undoubtedly the story was fed to Paar from the network news bureau), but was not aired until 3 January 1964, undoubtedly delayed by the Kennedy assassination. Paar’s film clip still predates the Sullivan appearance by more than a month.

Would the Beatles have made it as superstars without the entrepreneurial efforts of Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar to give them TV coverage? The answer is undoubtedly yes. But the mass exposure they receive through American TV broadcasts by Sullivan and Paar (as well as NBC and CBS news) laid the groundwork for the Beatles success by presenting the group to millions of television viewers in the United States, and the world.

Ron Rodman is Professor of Music at Carleton College, where he teaches courses in the music and cinema and media studies departments. He has published numerous articles on tonal music theory, film music, and music in new media. He is author of Tuning In: American Narrative Television Music.

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Image: The Beatles i Hötorgscity 1963, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. Five things 300: Rise of an Empire gets wrong

By Paul Cartledge


Let’s be clear of one thing right from the word go: this is not in any useful sense a historical movie. It references a couple of major historical events but is not interested in ‘getting them right’. It uses historical characters but abuses them for its own dramatic, largely techno-visual ends. It wilfully commits the grossest historical blunders. This is in fact a historical fantasy-fiction movie and should be viewed and judged only as such. But in case any classroom teachers of Classical civilization or Classical history should be tempted to use it as a teaching aid: caveant magistri — let the teachers beware! Here are just five ways in which the movie is at best un-historical, at worst anti-historical.

(1) Error sets in with the very title: the ’300′ bit is a nod to Zack Snyder’s infinitely more successful 2006 movie to which this is a kind of sequel, and there is not just allusion to but bodily lifting of a couple of scenes from the predecessor. But which Empire is supposed to be on the rise here? I suppose that it’s meant to be, distantly, the ‘Athenian Empire’, but that didn’t even begin to rise until at least two years after the events the movie focuses on: the sea-battles of Artemisium and Salamis that both took place in 480 BCE.

300_Facebook_fight

(2) The movie gets underway with a wondrously unhistorical javelin-throw — cast by Athenian hero Themistokles (note the pseudo-authentic spelling of his name with a Greek ‘k’) on the battlefield of Marathon near Athens in 490 BCE, a cast which kills none other than Persian Great King Darius I, next to whom is standing his son and future successor Xerxes. Actually, though Darius had indeed launched the Persian expedition that came to grief at Marathon, he was not himself present there, nor was Xerxes.

Themistocles, on the other hand, was indeed present, but rather than carrying and throwing a javelin he was fighting in a dense phalanx formation and wielding a long, heavy pike armed with a fearsome iron tip made for thrusting into the Persian enemy hand-to-hand.

(3) From the Persians’ Marathon defeat, which (historically) accounts for their return revenge expedition under Xerxes, the scene shifts to the Persians’ fleet — in fact, a whole decade later. Connoisseurs of 300 will have been prepared for the digitally-enhanced, multiply-pierced and bangled Rodrigo Santo reprising his role of ‘god-king’ Xerxes. (Actually Persian king-emperors were not regarded or worshipped as gods.) Even they, though, will not necessarily have expected the Persian fleet to be under the command of a woman, and a Greek woman at that: Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), who is represented (in the exceedingly fetching person of Eva Green) as the equal if not superior of Xerxes himself, with her own court of fawning and thuggish male attendants, all hunks of beefcake.

Here the filmmakers are indeed drawing on a properly historical well of evidence: Artemisia — so we learn from Herodotus, her contemporary, fellow-countryman, and historian of the Graeco-Persian Wars — was indeed a Greek queen, who did fight for Xerxes and the Persians at Salamis. She did allegedly earn high praise from Xerxes as well as from Herodotus for the ‘manly’ quality of her personal bravery and her sage tactical and strategic advice.

But she was far from being admiral-in-chief of the entire Persian navy. She contributed a mere handful of warships out of the total of 600 or so, and those ships of hers could have made no decisive difference to the outcome of Salamis one way or the other.

(4) For some reason — perhaps because they were conscious of the extreme sameness of most of their material, a relentless succession of ultra-gory, stylised slayings, to the accompaniment of equally relentless drum’n'bass background thrummings — the filmmakers of this movie, unlike of 300, have felt the desire or even the need to include one rather prolonged and really quite explicit heterosexual sex-encounter. Understandably, perhaps, this is not between say Themistokles and his wife (or a slave-girl), or between Xerxes and a member of his (in historical fact, extensive) harem.

But — utterly and completely fantastically — it is between Themistokles and Artemisia in the interim between the battles of Artemisium (presented as a Greek defeat; actually it was a draw) and Salamis. Cue the baring of Eva Green’s considerable pectoral assets, cue some exceptionally violent and degrading verbal sparring, and cue virtual rape — encouraged by Artemisia at the time but later thrown back by her in Themistocles’s face as having been inadequate on the virility front.

300_Facebook_artemisia_2

(5) The crowning, climactic historical absurdity, however, is not the deeply unpleasant coupling between Themistokles and Artemisia, but the notion that in order for Themistocles and his Athenians to defeat the Persian fleet at Salamis they absolutely required the critical assistance of the massive Spartan navy which — echoes here of the US cavalry in countless westerns — turned up just in the nick of time, commanded by another Greek woman and indeed queen, Gorgo (widow of Leonidas, the hero of 300), again played by Lena Headey.

Actually, Sparta contributed a mere 16 warships to the united Greek fleet of some 400 ships at Salamis, and like Artemisia’s they made absolutely no difference to the outcome, which was resoundingly and incontestably an Athenian victory. The truly Spartan contribution to the overall defeat of the Persian invasion was made in very different circumstances, on land and by the heavy-infantry Spartan hoplites, at the battle of Plataea in the following summer of 479. But that is quite another story, one in which the un- or anti-historical filmmakers show not even a particle or scintilla of interest.

Paul Cartledge is the A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge and the author of After Thermopylae: the Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars (OUP, 2013). He hastens to make clear that he was not in any way a consultant on ’300: Rise of an Empire’, as he had been, in a minor way, on ’300′.

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Image credit: 300: Rise of An Empire. (c) Warner Bros. via 300themovie.com

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15. The women of Les Miz

By Stacy Wolf


On Christmas Day, the eagerly-awaited movie musical Les Misérables — “A Musical Phenomenon” the advertisement promises — opens across the United States. If it makes half the splash that its Broadway source did in 1987, we’re in for a long ride. The musical ran for 6680 performances, and won Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. It closed and then re-opened for another 463-performance run in 2006. It continues to tour the US.

Extensive production gossip on the movie has focused on Anne Hathaway’s brave hair-shaving, braver weight loss of twenty-five pounds, and bravest willingness to sing live during filming. Director Tom Hooper has repeatedly noted the incomparable intimacy achieved by actors singing live on film. Barbra Streisand, at age 25, knew the same thing when she insisted on singing live for the film of Funny Girl in 1968 (she shared the Best Actress Oscar with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter).

The 60 million people who have seen the stage version of the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil musical will no doubt compare the movie to their memories of a dark and shadowy stage, the crowd of actors marching in step during the thrilling Act One finale of “One Day More,” the huge rotating barricade littered with fifty bloody bodies of the revolutionary students, and a breathtaking theatrical moment when the evil Javert jumps to his death off the upstage catwalk bridge.

Given Hathaway’s stardom, movie goers might also compare the film’s portrayal of the tragic Fantine with her stage character, played by Patti LuPone, Ruthie Henshall, Lea Salonga, and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Film critic A.O. Scott recently commented on the number of strong women in 2012’s movies. What will Les Miz bring us?

If it’s anything like the stage musical, don’t get excited, fellow feminists. For all of its theatrical heft, musical power, and romantic reputation, Les Miz leaves women in the lurch.

Women in the musical play small and insignificant roles. First, they appear late: Fantine’s first song halfway through Act One is a woman’s first solo, well after the male characters have been introduced and have sung and the story is well on its way.

Second, the three featured female characters — Fantine, Cosette, and Eponine — are delineated from the other minor female characters and ensemble players by their spiritual purity, a narrow female stereotype. Third, the women only exist to set off the complex decisions, ethical struggles, and brave actions of the men. Finally, the women only sing about men (though, according to the Bechdel test that Scott cites, there are more than two women in the show and they do have names: a hopeful sign, perhaps?).

The central story of Les Miz has nothing whatsoever to do with women, but rather follows the battle between Valjean and Javert. Dramaturgically, the women only function to strengthen the men’s characterizations. Fantine’s sole purpose, for example, is to show Valjean’s extraordinary generosity when he agrees to raise her soon-to-be-orphaned daughter, Cosette, as his own. Cosette serves as Marius’s love interest so that he can choose her over a political career. (Unlike the musicals of the 1950s where the individual lovers each signified political differences that the musical eventually resolved through their union, in Les Miz, the lovers are a mere diversion from the real plot, which is “political” and decidedly homoerotic.) And Eponine exists so that she can pine for Marius and die for his cause. During the stage musical’s production process, in fact, codirectors Trevor Nunn and John Caird worked with the composers to eliminate the women characters’ back stories and reduce their stage time.

Equally important for this stage production was the amazing sceneography, designed by Royal Shakespeare Company veteran John Napier. The musical’s Act Two climax, when two giant towers, weighing three tons and driven by computer, glide, merge, and interlock to form a stage-filling structure on which the bodies of dead rebel students lay signals how Les Miz sceneographically values men and their world. In his review of the Broadway production, Frank Rich in the New York Times described how “in a dazzling transition, the towers tilt to form an enormous barricade.” The male characters interact with the set from this barricade to the tower to the tavern. Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris, evoked by fog and dim grey lighting, and even the villain Javert kills himself by jumping off a high bridge upstage, a moment that invariably elicits gasps from the audience when the actor disappears below the stage floor.

The musical’s principal women, on the other hand, are excluded from the impressive, visually engaging scenes. Each female character’s song is staged with her alone, almost as if in concert, apart from the story, performing in a single pool of light. Now there’s nothing wrong with an actor being onstage in a single spotlight: that’s what stars are made of. But according to the visual codes that tell an audience what’s important here, the women are shut out. Fantine sings both of her two songs in Act One alone, one before she succumbs to prostitution and the other — her big death song — on a cot; Cosette’s key number is staged in front of the gates of her house.

Eponine does a bit better: her showstopping “On My Own” begins with the actor walking on a slowly revolving platform, but by the second verse, the turntable stops and she stands still for the number’s climax.

Eponine does get one opportunity to interact with the musical’s remarkable scenery — in her death scene. Although her involvement with the students’ rebellion is not because she is political, but because she wants to be on the barricade to be near Marius, she gets caught in the crossfire. Marius takes her into his arms, soothing her and kissing her gently, and they sing, “A Little Fall of Rain,” leaning against by the barricade, and she dies. The message is clear in this touching moment: the women only get to be on Les Miz’s big set when they die.

In front of the barricade in Les Misérables (opened on Broadway in 1987), Eponine (Frances Ruffelle) dies in the arms of Marius (Michael Bell), her love for him still unrequited.  Enjolras (David Burt) stands by. Photograph by Michael Le Poer Trench © Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. Used with permission.

This account of women’s sad situation in Les Miz relies on the languages of the stage. It may be that the film adaptation will give women more to do. Or maybe the tools of film will alter the architecture of this musical. Or maybe Hathaway — thin, bald, and singing “live” — will deliver a performance that will vindicate the women in Les Miz.

Stacy Wolf is Professor in the Program in Theater and the Director of the Princeton Atelier in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. She is the author of A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, and co-editor of the forthcoming paperback release of The Oxford Handbook of The American Musical.

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16. Love and appetite in Anna Karenina

A timely reminder to act while you still can for New Year’s Eve… A new film adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightly and directed by Joe Wright, has opened worldwide, so we wanted to put it to the test. How faithful is the script to the novel? We’ve paired a scene from the film with an excerpt of the work below. One of the greatest novels ever written, Anna Karenina sets the impossible and destructive triangle of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky against the marriage of Levin and Kitty, thus illuminating the most important questions that face humanity.

LEVIN emptied his glass and they were silent for a while.

‘There is one thing more that I must tell you,’ began Oblonsky. ‘You know Vronsky?’

‘No, I don’t. Why do you ask?’

‘Another bottle,’ said Oblonsky, turning to the Tartar, who was filling their glasses and hovering round them just when he was not wanted.

‘The reason you ought to know Vronsky is this: he is one of your rivals.’

‘What is he?’ asked Levin, the expression of childlike rapture which Oblonsky had been admiring suddenly changing into an angry and unpleasant one.

‘Vronsky is one of Count Ivanovich Vronsky’s sons, and a very fine sample of the gilded youth of Petersburg. I met him in Tver when I was in the Service there and he came on conscription duty. Awfully rich, handsome, with influential connections, an aide-decamp to the Emperor, and at the same time very good-natured — a first-rate fellow. And he’s even more than a first-rate fellow. As I have got to know him now, he turns out to be both educated and very clever — a man who will go far.’

Levin frowned and was silent.

‘Well, so he came here soon after you left, and as far as I can make out is head over ears in love with Kitty; and you understand that her mother …’

‘Pardon me, but I understand nothing,’ said Levin, dismally knitting his brows. And at once he thought of his brother Nicholas and how mean he was to forget him.

‘You just wait a bit, wait !’ said Oblonsky, smiling and touching Levin’s arm. ‘I have told you what I know, and I repeat that, as far as anyone can judge in so delicate and subtle a matter, I believe the chances are all on your side.’

Levin leant back in his chair. His face was pale.

‘But I should advise you to settle the question as soon as possible,’ Oblonsky continued, filling Levin’s glass.

‘No, thanks! I can’t drink any more,’ said Levin pushing his glass aside, ‘or I shall be tipsy…. Well, and how are you getting on?’ he continued, evidently wishing to change the subject.

‘One word more! In any case, I advise you to decide the question quickly, but I shouldn’t speak to-day,’ said Oblonsky. ‘Go to-morrow morning and propose in the classic manner, and may heaven bless you!’

‘You have so often promised to come and shoot with me — why not come this spring?’ said Levin.

He now repented with his whole heart of having begun this conversation with Oblonsky. His personal feelings had been desecrated by the mention of some Petersburg officer as his rival, and by Oblonsky’s conjectures and advice.

Oblonsky smiled. He understood what was going on in Levin’s soul.

Click here to view the embedded video.

‘I’ll come some day,’ he said. ‘Ah, old chap, women are the pivot on which everything turns! Things are in a bad way with me too, very bad and all on account of women. Tell me quite frankly …’

He took out a cigar, and with one hand on his glass he continued:

‘Give me some advice.’

‘Why? What is the matter?’

‘Well, it’s this. Supposing you were married and loved your wife, but had been fascinated by another woman …’

‘Excuse me, but really I … it’s quite incomprehensible to me. It’s as if … just as incomprehensible as if I, after eating my fill here, went into a baker’s shop and stole a roll.’

Oblonsky’s eyes glittered more than usual.

‘Why not? Rolls sometimes smell so that one can’t resist them!’

‘Himmlisch ist’s, wenn ich bezwungen
Meine irdische Begier;
Aber doch wenn’s nicht gelungen
Hatt’ ich auch recht hübsch Plaisir!’

Oblonsky repeated these lines with a subtle smile and Levin himself could not help smiling.

‘No, but joking apart,’ continued Oblonsky, ‘just consider. A woman, a dear, gentle, affectionate creature, poor and lonely, sacrifices everything. Now when the thing is done … just consider, should one forsake her? Granted that one ought to part with her so as not to destroy one’s family life, but oughtn’t one to pity her and provide for her and make things easier?’

‘As to that, you must pardon me. You know that for me there are two kinds of women … or rather, no! There are women, and there are … I have never seen any charming fallen creatures, and never shall see any; and people like that painted Frenchwoman with her curls out there by the counter, are an abomination to me, and all these fallen ones are like her.’

‘And the one in the Gospels?’

‘Oh, don’t! Christ would never have spoken those words, had he known how they would be misused! They are the only words in the Gospels that seem to be remembered. However, I am not saying what I think, but what I feel. I have a horror of fallen women. You are repelled by spiders and I by those creatures. Probably you never studied spiders and know nothing of their morals; and it’s the same in my case!’

‘It’s all very well for you to talk like that—it’s like that gentleman in Dickens who with his left hand threw all difficult questions over his right shoulder. But denying a fact is no answer. What am I to do? Tell me, what am I to do? My wife is getting old, and I am full of vitality. A man hardly has time to turn round, before he feels that he can no longer love his wife in that way, whatever his regard for her may be. And then all of a sudden love crosses your path, and you’re lost, lost,’ said Oblonsky with despair.

Levin smiled.

‘Yes, I am lost,’ continued Oblonsky. ‘But what am I to do?

‘Don’t steal rolls.’

Oblonsky burst out laughing.

‘Oh, you moralist! But just consider, here are two women: one insists only on her rights, and her rights are your love, which you cannot give her; and the other sacrifices herself and demands nothing. What are you to do? How are you to act? It is a terrible tragedy.’

‘If you want me to say what I think of it, I can only tell you that I don’t believe in the tragedy. And the reason is this: I think love, both kinds of love, which you remember Plato defines in his “Symposium” — both kinds of love serve as a touchstone for men. Some men understand only the one, some only the other. Those who understand only the non-platonic love need not speak of tragedy. For such love there can be no tragedy. “Thank you kindly for the pleasure, good-bye,” and that’s the whole tragedy. And for the platonic love there can be no tragedy either, because there everything is clear and pure, because …’ Here Levin recollecting his own sins and the inner struggle he had lived through added unexpectedly, ‘However, maybe you are right. It may very well be. But I don’t know, I really don’t know.’

‘Well, you see you are very consistent,’ said Oblonsky. ‘It is both a virtue and a fault in you. You have a consistent character yourself and you wish all the facts of life to be consistent, but they never are. For instance you despise public service because you want work always to correspond to its aims, and that never happens. You also want the activity of each separate man to have an aim, and love and family life always to coincide — and that doesn’t happen either. All the variety, charm and beauty of life are made up of light and shade.’

Levin sighed and did not answer. He was thinking of his own affairs and not listening to Oblonsky.

And suddenly both felt that though they were friends, and had dined and drunk wine together which should have drawn them yet closer, yet each was thinking only of his own affairs and was not concerned with the other.

Oblonsky had more than once experienced this kind of acute estrangement instead of union following a dinner with a friend, and knew what to do in such a case.

‘The bill!’ he shouted and went out into the dining-hall, where he immediately saw an aide-de-camp of his acquaintance, and entered into conversation with him about an actress and her protector. And immediately in conversation with the aide-de-camp Oblonsky felt relief and rest after the talk with Levin, who always demanded of him too great a mental and spiritual strain.

When the Tartar returned with a bill for twenty-six roubles odd, Levin, quite unconcernedly paid his share, which with the tip came to fourteen roubles, a sum that usually would have horrified his rustic conscience, and went home to dress and go on to the Shcherbatskys’ where his fate was to be decided.

‘It is heavenly when I have mastered my earthly desires; but even when I have not succeeded, I have also had right good pleasure!’

A classic of Russian literature, this new edition of Anna Karenina uses the acclaimed Louise and Alymer Maude translation, and offers a new introduction and notes which provide completely up-to-date perspectives on Tolstoy’s classic work.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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17. HFR and The Hobbit: There and Back Again

By Arthur P. Shimamura


Is it the sense of experiencing reality that makes movies so compelling? Technological advances in film, such as sound, color, widescreen, 3-D, and now high frame rate (HFR), have offered ever increasing semblances of realism on the screen. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we are introduced to the world of 48 frames per second (fps), which presents much sharper moving images than what we’ve seen in movies produced at the standard 24 fps. Yet many viewers, including myself, have come away with a less-than-satisfying experience as the sharp rendering of the characters portrayed is reminiscent of either old videotaped TV programs (soap operas, BBC productions) or recent CGI video games. What features of HFR create this new sensory experience and why does it appear so unsettlingly similar to the experience of watching a low budget TV program?

One factor that can be ruled out is the potential difference in flicker rate. Moving images are of course created by the rapid succession of still frames, and thus the flicker or on-and-off rate must be fast enough so that we do not perceive any change in illumination between frames. With early silent films, the flicker rate was less than 16 fps, and a noticeable flashing or flickering was apparent (hence the term “flicks” to refer to these early movies). Since the advent of sound, the standard has been 24 fps, though the flicker rate is increased with the use of a propeller-like shutter that spins rapidly in a movie projector so that a movie running at 24 fps actually presents each frame two or three times, thereby increasing the flicker rate to 48 or 72 fps. Thus, with respect to flicker rate we have always watched movies at HFR.

A still from The Hobbit film. (c) Warner Bros.

Two factors have motivated the current interest in HFR. The obvious one is that actions recorded at more rapid frame rates, such as a car chase shot at 48 fps vs 24 fps, would reduce by half the distance objects move across successive frames. With HFR we are presented shorter increments of movement, and our brains need not work as hard to extrapolate apparent motion across frames, which may result in a smoother sense of motion. I, however, do not think that it is this between-frame difference that is driving our sensory experience as we watch The Hobbit. A second, less known factor, is that the movie was shot at a faster shutter speed than movies shot at 24 fps. Filmmakers have a rule that states that the shutter speed at which each frame is shot should be half as long as the frame duration. Thus, most movies we’ve seen have been shot at 24 fps with a shutter speed of 1/48 sec for each frame. Those of you who have played with photography know that this shutter speed would produce rather blurry images when the camera is hand held. On a tripod, a movie filmed with this shutter speed would show fast moving objects (e.g., cars) with a noticeable blur. When movies filmed at 24 fps are shot with a faster shutter speed and less motion blur, actions appear jerky and unnatural.

The Hobbit was filmed with a shutter speed of 1/64 sec, which produced less motion blur and thus sharper images compared to movies shot at 24 fps. At the faster frame rate, the jerkiness associated with presenting sharp images at 24 fps is largely reduced, though I did notice that on some occasions large camera movements and fast movements of actors appeared stilted and unnatural. A psychological study by Kuroki and colleagues showed that in order to perceive naturalistic movements with sharp moving images (i.e., no motion blur) it is necessary to use frame rates of 250 fps or faster. Interestingly, the shutter speed used for The Hobbit closely matches that used for old videotaped TV programs, which were filmed at 30 fps with a shutter speed of 1/60 sec. I suspect that it is this close match in shutter speed (and thus similarity in image sharpness) that creates the impression of viewing a soap opera when we watch Bilbo Baggins and company.

In the future, after years of experiencing HFR movies, will we be able to appreciate the more realistic renderings garnered by this new technology? Will a younger generation without prior associations to videotaped TV programs be enamored by the sharper images? Time will tell, though I’m skeptical. HFR does offer a more realistic rendering than what we’ve previously encountered at the movies, and further advances may help to refine its use. Yet do we really want to have an entirely realistic portrayal? In most cases that would mean having the experience of sitting next to the director watching actors on a sound stage with artificial lighting, which is exactly the impression I had while watching Bilbo backlit by what was supposed to be moonlight. Instead, we may end up preferring a softer image which maintains the illusion of being engaged in an adventure with our favorite fictional characters and partaking in a wonderfully unexpected journey.

Arthur P. Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is co-editor of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Shimamura & Palmer, ed., OUP, 2012), editor of the forthcoming Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies (ed., OUP, March 2013), and author of the forthcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (May 2013). Further musings can be found on his blog, http://psychocinematics.blogspot.com.

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18. The Subject is Jazz

By Ron Rodman


The New Year is a time of looking forward to the future and back to the past. Looking back, last year witnessed the death of Dave Brubeck, one of the all time great jazz musicians. Brubeck became famous through his live performances and his recordings, especially the seminal Time Out album released in 1958. But he also became famous through his many appearances on American and international television, beginning with The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955, and appearing on variety shows such as The Steve Allen Plymouth Show (1958), The Timex All-Star Jazz Show (1957), and The Ed Sullivan Show (1955, 1960, 1962). As his fame grew, Brubeck also became the subject of several TV documentaries, including prestigious programs like The Twentieth Century (1961) and The Bell Telephone Hour (1968). He was also an honored guest in the few exclusively jazz programs that aired in the 1960s. He appeared on Jazz 625 in 1964 and made several appearances on Jazz Casual, an occasional series that ran on the National Educational Network from 1961-68.

Here’s the Brubeck Quartet performing for a broadcast of Jazz Casual in 1961.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Brubeck made many more TV appearances throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s, many of which can be seen on YouTube.

As important as Brubeck’s TV appearances were, perhaps no one furthered the cause of jazz on television more than Billy Taylor, who also died recently in 2010. After graduating college in 1942, Taylor got his professional start with Ben Webster’s Quartet on New York’s famed 52nd Street. He then served as the house pianist at the legendary club Birdland, where he performed with such celebrated masters as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. He went on to receive a masters and doctor’s degree in music education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and served as Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale. He divided his career as performer, writer, jazz advocate, and educator for the remainder of his life.

Taylor’s contributions to television music were manifold. He was the music director and band leader for The David Frost Show from 1969-72, becoming the first African American musician to hold that position on a TV talk show. He served as “Jazz and Modern Music Correspondent” for CBS News Sunday Morning from 1981-2002. He also was a contributor to many jazz documentaries, notably for Louis Armstrong (1971) and Duke Ellington (1981, 2000).

Taylor made his TV debut on the Steve Allen’s Tonight! show in 1956. Next, he appeared on Jazz Party in 1958. That year proved pivotal, as Taylor was asked to be music director for a new TV series, The Subject is Jazz, produced by NBC.

Before his death, Dr. Taylor was interviewed for an upcoming book of his memoirs written by Teresa Reed, The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor (Indiana University Press). Taylor had this to say about the program:

“A second opportunity in 1958 came by way of Marshall Stearns. By that time, his deep interest in jazz had turned to television, and in collaboration with Leonard Feather, he came up with the idea to do a series of thirteen shows as part of a program called The Subject is Jazz. Although jazz had been on radio for decades, The Subject is Jazz would be the very first program of its type to come to television. Stearns and Feather were both writers, however, and neither knew a thing about the practical aspects of musical direction or doing a television show. So it was for this purpose that they hired me. Having experienced rejection from MENC, it was crucial to me that The Subject is Jazz develop into a high-quality, educational show. The Subject is Jazz was distributed through NBC network facilities to educational TV stations. Although a variety of different musicians performed on the show, my basic combo included Osie Johnson on drums, Eddie Safranski on bass, Mundell Lowe on guitar, Tony Scott on clarinet, Jimmy Cleveland on trombone, and Carl (later known as “Doc”) Severinsen on trumpet.

“The show featured some great music and stimulating conversations with people like Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, all of whom were serious connoisseurs of jazz. But a major flaw was the show’s dry, stoic, and overly academic presentation. There were lots of people who knew and loved the music, people who would have made excellent commentators for the show… Rather than get some known radio personality, the producer hired Gilbert Seldes, a Harvard-trained cultural critic who read to the television audience from his stack of handheld notes. I knew that the audience for The Subject is Jazz was vastly different from the audience I typically encountered while I was performing in clubs. Gilbert Seldes was a conservative, grandfatherly type in his mid-sixties who sported a professorial bowtie and spoke in a sort of scholarly monotone, using carefully measured language as one does while delivering a lecture. He was an intellectual speaking to a Saturday-afternoon television audience of intellectuals who wanted to understand the music with their minds as much as they enjoyed it with their ears and hearts. Working in this context, it was my job to combine clear, articulate answers to Seldes’s questions with musical demonstrations of whatever I was explaining.

“By today’s more sophisticated, high-tech standards, The Subject is Jazz may seem like a very primitive and ‘square’ attempt at using mass media to educate the public about the music. Yet, in some ways, the show was quite ahead of its time. During the thirteen-week run of The Subject is Jazz I also had an opportunity to perform some of my own compositions… The last episode featured a composition that was my tribute to Charlie Parker, titled “Early Bird.”” (Teresa Reed, The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor, p.137-38)

Here is a video of that last episode:

Click here to view the embedded video.

Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts on music and television. His thanks to Dr. Teresa Reed, Professor of Music at the University of Tulsa, for this “sneak peek” at her upcoming book, The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor. Look for it on bookshelves soon!

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19. How ardently I admire and love you…

On 28 January 1813, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was published. Originally titled ‘First Impressions’, Austen was forced to re-title it with a phrase from Frances Burney’s Cecilia after the publication of Margaret Holford’s First Impressions. We’ve paired an extract from the book with a scene from the most recent dramatization to see how Austen’s words have survived the centuries.

While settling this point, she was suddenly roused by the sound of the door bell, and her spirits were a little fluttered by the idea of its being Colonel Fitzwilliam himself, who had once before called late in the evening, and might now come to enquire particularly after her.

Click here to view the embedded video.

But this idea was soon banished, and her spirits were very differently affected, when, to her utter amazement, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In an hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began,

‘In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority––of its being a degradation––of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience, when he should have done. He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther, and when he ceased, the colour rose into her cheeks, and she said,

‘In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot––I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to any one. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.’

Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantle-piece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips, till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful. At length, in a voice of forced calmness, he said,

‘And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.’

‘I might as well enquire,’ replied she, ‘why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my own feelings decided against you, had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?’

As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued.

‘I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other, of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.’

She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.

‘Can you deny that you have done it?’ she repeated.

With assumed tranquillity he then replied, ‘I have no wish of denying that I did every thing in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.’

Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate her.

‘But it is not merely this affair,’ she continued, ‘on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place, my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation, can you here impose upon others?’

‘You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,’ said Darcy in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.

‘Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?’

‘His misfortunes!’ repeated Darcy contemptuously, ‘yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.’

‘And of your infliction,’ cried Elizabeth with energy. ‘You have reduced him to his present state of poverty, comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages, which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life, of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortunes with contempt and ridicule.’

‘And this,’ cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, ‘is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps,’ added he, stopping in his walk, and turning towards her, ‘these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I with greater policy concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by every thing. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?’

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said,

‘You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing, and she continued, ‘You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.’

Again his astonishment was obvious; and he looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and mortification. She went on.

‘From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.’

‘You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.’

And with these words he hastily left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house. The tumult of her mind was now painfully great. She knew not how to support herself, and from actual weakness sat down and cried for half an hour. Her astonishment, as she reflected on what had passed, was increased by every review of it. That she should receive an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy! that he should have been in love with her for so many months! so much in love as to wish to marry her in spite of all the objections which had made him prevent his friend’s marrying her sister, and which must appear at least with equal force in his own case, was almost incredible! it was gratifying to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection. But his pride, his abominable pride, his shameless avowal of what he had done with respect to Jane, his unpardonable assurance in acknowledging, though he could not justify it, and the unfeeling manner in which he had mentioned Mr. Wickham, his cruelty towards whom he had not attempted to deny, soon overcame the pity which the consideration of his attachment had for a moment excited…

Pride and Prejudice has delighted generations of readers with its unforgettable cast of characters, carefully choreographed plot, and a hugely entertaining view of the world and its absurdities. With the arrival of eligible young men in their neighborhood, the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters are turned inside out and upside down. Pride encounters prejudice, upward-mobility confronts social disdain, and quick-wittedness challenges sagacity, as misconceptions and hasty judgements lead to heartache and scandal, but eventually to true understanding, self-knowledge, and love. In this supremely satisfying story, Jane Austen balances comedy with seriousness, and witty observation with profound insight.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics onTwitter and Facebook.

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20. A Very Short Film competition

The Very Short Film competition was launched in partnership with The Guardian in October 2012. The longlisted entries are now available for the public vote which will produce four finalists. After a live final in March, the winner will receive £9000 towards their university education.

By Chloe Foster


After more than three months of students carefully planning and creating their entries, the Very Short Film competition has closed and the longlisted submissions have been announced.

The competition asked entrants to create a short film which would inform and inspire us. Students were free to base their entry on any subject they were passionate about. There was just one rule: films could be no longer than 60 seconds in length.

We certainly had many who managed to do this. The standard of films was impressive. How were we to whittle down the entries and choose just 12 for the longlist?

We received a real range of films from a variety of ages, characters and subjects — everything from scuba diving to the economic state of the housing market. It was great to see a mixture of academic subjects and topics of personal interest.

It must be said that the quality of the filmmaking itself was very high in some entries. However not all of these could be put through to the longlist; although artistic and clever, they didn’t inform us in the way our criteria specified.

When choosing the longlisted entries, judges looked for students who were clearly on top of their subject. We were most impressed by films that conveyed a topic’s key information in a concise way, were delivered with passion and verve, and left us wanting to find out more. By the end of our selection process, we felt that each of the films had taught us something new or made us think about a subject in a way we hadn’t before.

The sheer amount of information filmmakers managed to convey was astounding. As the Very Short Introductions editor Andrea Keegan says: “I thought condensing a large topic into 35,000 words, as we do in the Very Short Introductions books was difficult enough, but I think that this challenge was even harder. I was very impressed with the quality and variety of videos which were submitted.

“Ranging from artistic to zany, I learned a lot, and had lots of fun watching them. The longlist represents both a wide range of subjects — from the history of film to quantum locking — and a huge range in the approaches taken to get the subjects across in just one minute.”

We hope the entrants enjoyed thinking about and creating their films as much as we enjoyed watching them. We asked a few of the longlisted students what they made of the experience. Mahshad Torkan, studying at the London School of Film, tackled the political power of film: “I am very thankful for this amazing opportunity that has allowed me to reflect my values and beliefs and share my dreams with other people.  I believe that the future is not something we enter, the future is something we create.”

Maia Krall Fry is reading geology at St Andrews: “It seemed highly important to discuss a topic that has really captured my curiosity and sense of adventure. I strongly believe that knowledge of the history of the earth should be accessible to everyone.”

Matt Burnett, who is studying for an MSc in biological and bioprocess engineering at Sheffield, used his film to explore the challenges of creating cost-effective therapeutic drugs: “I felt that in a minute it would be very hard to explain my research in enough detail just using speech, and it would be difficult to demonstrate or act out. I simplify difficult concepts for myself by drawing diagrams, often spending a lot of time on them. For me it is the most enjoyable part of learning, and so I thought it would be fun to draw an animated video. If I get the chance to do it again I think I’d use lots of colours.”

So, what are you waiting for? Take a look at the 12 films and pick your favourite of these amazingly creative and intelligent entries.

Chloe Foster is from the Very Short Introductions team at Oxford University Press. This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk.

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21. Growing up going to bed with The Tonight Show

By Krin Gabbard


If you remember a time when there was no Tonight Show, then you probably remember a time when there was no American television industry. In 1954, NBC took Steve Allen’s local New York TV show, broadcast it nationally five days a week, and called it Tonight. The show did not become an institution until Johnny Carson became its host exactly fifty years ago in October 2012. But it all began with Steve Allen, whose breed is now extinct. He was a true television intellectual, capable of writing pop tunes like “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” and jazz tunes with inimitable titles like “The Gravy Waltz.” He wasn’t a bad jazz pianist either. Lenny Bruce, who made several appearances on Allen’s show, said that Allen was one of the most “hip” comedians as well as one of the most “moral.”

After watching Allen build Tonight for three years, NBC decided to move him to early Sunday evenings in hopes that he could compete with Ed Sullivan. I was too young to watch Allen on Tonight, but I once watched the kinescope of an amazing episode in which Allen took live TV cameras down the steps of the jazz club Birdland, where the Count Basie band was in full cry.

I vividly remember those rare occasions when my parents let me stay up and watch Jack Paar, that great feline of a man who purred Americans through the last minutes of their evenings between 1957 until 1962. If you want to know how far we’ve come since the early 1960s, consider the joke that the NBC censors would not let Paar deliver on air. It was based on the confusion between two meanings of the term WC, “water closet” and “wayside chapel.” That was all there was to it, but Paar, who always seemed so affable, actually walked off the show for several days in protest.

Johnny Carson, who took over in 1962, has always been an enigma. Like many stand-up comedians of his generation, Carson emerged from a vaudeville aesthetic. In spite of a dapper demeanor that suggested refinement and wit, his humor was mostly of the pie-in-the-face variety. Nevertheless, he prided himself on bringing the occasional public intellectual or politician onto the show. Of course, anyone with anything serious to say was confined to the last minutes of the program. As an adolescent, I was extremely impressed one night during the waning moments of the show when the anthropologist Ashley Montagu told Carson that the American family was an institution devoted primarily to fostering the neuroses of its members.

At some point during his second decade as host, Carson became sick of The Tonight Show. He surely would have quit had not NBC kept on raising his salary and giving him more and more time off. He was undoubtedly the first host of any TV program to have “permanent” guest-hosts. One of the reasons Carson spent less and less time actually appearing on his show was his contempt for his audience. (His disdain for second-banana Ed McMahon was palpable.) Carson would tell a joke that he knew wasn’t very good — he surely held his joke-writers in contempt as well — and then take on a look of veiled disappointment when the audience laughed heartily. Perhaps because he imagined himself above it all, Carson was known to many as “The Prince.” And it may have been that edge that made him so intriguing and so watchable for all those years.

With Jay Leno, now in his twentieth year as host of The Tonight Show, NBC has gone straight down the middle with a dependably safe comedian who carries just the right amount of working-class charm. Leno now regularly wins the ratings war with David Letterman, the only television host to build up a serious, long-term challenge to The Tonight Show’s hegemony. (Remember the shows hosted by David Brenner, Alan Thicke, and Les Crane? I can recall them, but very vaguely.) Nevertheless, I do not know anyone who watches Leno. Conservatives can watch the hysterics on Fox News, lefties have rebroadcasts of The Rachel Maddow Show, and ironists have Steven Colbert. And those are just a few of the choices available to people who do not have DVRs. The Tonight Show will surely go on presenting conventional humor and high-profile guests. But the time when it, or any other television program, could occupy the central role in American life that Carson’s Tonight Show once sustained, has definitively come and gone.

Krin Gabbard is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies and Professor of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Stony Brook University. In addition to four single-authored books, he has published three edited books and a large collection of articles. He has served on the Executive Council of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and has lectured nationally and internationally on cinema and related subjects.

Developed cooperatively with scholars and librarians worldwide, Oxford Bibliographies offers exclusive, authoritative research guides. Combining the best features of an annotated bibliography and a high-level encyclopedia, this cutting-edge resource guides researchers to the best available scholarship across a wide variety of subjects.

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22. Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies

By Arthur P. Shimamura


This year’s academy award nominations of Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, attest to our fascination of watching “true stories” depicted on the screen. We adopt a special set of expectations when we believe a movie is based on actual events, a sentiment the Coen Brothers parodied when they stated at the beginning of Fargo that “this is a true story,” even though it wasn’t. In the science fiction spoof, Galaxy Quest, aliens have intercepted a Star Trek-like TV show and believe the program to be a documentary of actual human warfare. As a result, they come to Earth to enlist Cmdr. Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen), star of the TV show, to help fight the evil warlord Sarris (named after the film critic, Andrew Sarris), as they believe Taggart to be a true war hero rather than merely playing one on TV.

Ben Affleck in Argo. (c) 2012 Warner Bros.

Movies that are “based on a true story” blur the boundary between documentary and make-believe. We, much like the aliens in Galaxy Quest, expect such movies to depict an authentic portrayal of actual events. The story of Argo — about a CIA agent who helps individuals escape from Iran by having them pose as a film crew — would almost have to be based on actual events, otherwise no one would buy into such a preposterous plot! Interestingly, the climatic chase scene on the airport runway is completely fictional, though I think we forgive the filmmakers for some poetic license, particularly as the scene is so exciting. We are much less forgiving in the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, to the point where producer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have been reprimanded by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain for suggesting that torture was effective in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Yet even documentaries distort the “truth” by slanting history through biased portrayals. Should movies “based on a true story” be viewed as completely accurate documents of history?

One psychological point is clear: our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real. Studies by Richard Lazarus and others have shown that physiological markers of emotion, such as skin conductance (i.e. sweaty palms), increase when subjects believe a film to depict an actual event. In one study, subjects watched a film clip depicting an industrial accident involving a power saw. Those who were told that they were watching footage of an actual accident (rather than actors re-enacting the event) exhibited heightened emotional responses. Thus, people watching the same movie may engage themselves differently depending on the degree to which they construe the events as realistic portrayals.

Even when we know we are watching a re-enactment, as with Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, I suspect we become more emotionally attached when we believe we are witnessing actual events. We more readily empathize with characters and buy into the story. Of course, the authenticity of a movie depends not only on us having prior knowledge that a movie is based on actual events but also on how realistic the characters appear in their actions and predicaments. As wonderfully realistic and engaging as Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were, in my opinion the most “realistic” movie among this year’s Academy Award nominees is the entirely fictitious Amour, in which the elderly Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) must care for his wife (Emmanuelle Riva), whose mental abilities are deteriorating from strokes. The superb acting and unusual editing (e.g. exceedingly long takes) amplify emotions and engage us as if we are watching a true and heart-wrenching story.

Arthur P. Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is co-editor of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Shimamura & Palmer, ed., OUP, 2012), editor of the forthcoming Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies(ed., OUP, March 2013), and author of the forthcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (May 2013). Further musings can be found on his blog, Psychocinematics: Cognition at the Movies.

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23. The strange career of Birth of a Nation

By Jim Cullen


Today represents a red letter day — and a black mark – for US cultural history. Exactly 98 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered in Los Angeles. American cinema has been decisively shaped, and shadowed, by the massive legacy of this film.

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) was one of the more contradictory artists the United States has produced. Deeply Victorian in his social outlook, he was nevertheless on the leading edge of modernity in his aesthetics. A committed moralist in his cinematic ideology, he was also a shameless huckster in promoting his movies. And a self-avowed pacifist, he produced a piece of work that incited violence and celebrated the most damaging insurrection in American history.

The source material for Birth of a Nation came from two novels, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), both written by Griffith’s Johns Hopkins classmate, Thomas Dixon. Dixon drew on the common-sense version of history he imbibed from his unreconstructed Confederate forebears. According to this master narrative, the Civil War was as a gallant but failed bid for independence, followed by vindictive Yankee occupation and eventual redemption secured with the help of organizations like the Klan.

But Dixon’s fiction, and the subsequent screenplay (by Griffith and Frank E. Woods), was a literal and figurative romance of reconciliation. The movie dramatizes the relationships between two (related) families, the Camerons of South Carolina and the Stonemans of Pennsylvania. The evil patriarch of the latter is Austin Stoneman, a Congressman with a limp very obviously patterned on the real-life Thaddeus Stevens. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Stevens comes, Carpetbagger-style, and uses a brutish black minion, Silas Lynch(!), whose horrifying sexual machinations focused, ironically and naturally, on Stoneman’s own daughter are only arrested by at the last minute, thanks to the arrival of the Klan in a dramatic finale that has lost none of its excitement even in an age of computer-generated imagery.

Historians agree that Griffith, a former actor who directed hundreds of short films in the years preceding Birth of a Nation, was not a cinematic pioneer along the lines of Edwin S. Porter, whose 1903 proto-Western The Great Train Robbery virtually invented modern visual grammar. Instead, Griffith’s genius was three-fold. First, he absorbed and codified a series of techniques, among them close-ups, fadeouts, and long shots, into a distinctive visual signature. Second, he boldly made Birth of a Nation on an unprecedented scale in terms of length, the size of the production, and his ambition to re-create past events (“history with lightning,” in the words of another classmate, Woodrow Wilson, who screened the film at the White House). Finally, in the way the movie was financed, released and promoted, Griffith transformed what had been a disreputable working-class medium and staked its power as a source of genuine artistic achievement. Even now, it’s hard not to be awed by the intensity of Griffith’s recreation of Civil War battles or his re-enactments of events like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

But Birth of a Nation was a source of instant controversy. Griffith may have thought he was simply projecting common sense, but a broad national audience, some of which had lived through the Civil War, did not necessarily agree. The film’s release also coincided with the beginnings of African American political mobilization. As Melvyn Stokes shows in his elegant 2009 book D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the film’s promoters and its critics alike found the controversy surrounding it curiously symbiotic, as moviegoers flocked to see what the fuss was about and the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used the film’s notoriety to build its membership ranks.

Birth of a Nation never escaped from the original shadows that clouded its reception. Later films like Gone with the Wind (1939), which shared much of its political outlook, nevertheless went to great lengths to sidestep controversy. (The Klan is only alluded to as “a political meeting” rather than depicted the way it was in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel.) Today Birth is largely an academic curio, typically viewed in settings where its racism looms over any aesthetic or other assessment.

In a number of respects, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a repudiation of Griffith. In Birth, Lincoln is a martyr whose gentle approach to his adversaries is tragically severed with his death. But in Lincoln he’s the determined champion of emancipation, willing to prosecute the war fully until freedom is secure. The Stevens character of Lincoln, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is not quite the hero. But his radical abolitionism is at least respected, and the very thing that tarred him in Birth — having a secret black mistress — here becomes a badge of honor. Rarely do the rhythms of history oscillate so sharply. Griffith would no doubt be bemused. But he could take such satisfaction in the way his work has reverberated across time.

For Jim Cullen’s selection of films all history and film buffs should see, watch his video syllabus.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of  Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions (December 2012), The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network. Read his previous OUPblog posts.

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Image credit: Birth of a Nation film poster, 1915, public domain in Wikimedia Commons.

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24. Anna Karenina’s happiness

It’s Valentine’s Day on Thursday, so let us celebrate the happiness of brief, all-encompassing love. We’ve paired a scene from the recent film adaptation of Anna Karenina, currently nominated for fours Oscars, with an excerpt of the novel below. In it, Anna and Vronsky discuss the happiness of their newfound love.

IT was already past five, and in order not to be late and not to use his own horses, which were known to everybody, Vronsky took Yashvin’s hired carriage and told the coachman to drive as fast as possible. The old four-seated hired vehicle was very roomy; he sat down in a corner, put his legs on the opposite seat, and began to think. A vague sense of the accomplished cleaning up of his affairs, a vague memory of Serpukhovskoy’s friendship for him, and the flattering thought that the latter considered him a necessary man, and above all the anticipation of the coming meeting, merged into one general feeling of joyful vitality. This feeling was so strong that he could not help smiling. He put down his legs, threw one of them over the other, and placing his arm across it felt its firm calf, where he had hurt it in the fall the day before, and then, throwing himself back, sighed deeply several times.

‘Delightful! O delightful!’ he thought. He had often before been joyfully conscious of his body, but had never loved himself, his own body, as he did now. It gave him pleasure to feel the slight pain in his strong leg, to be conscious of the muscles of his chest moving as he breathed. That clear, cool August day which made Anna feel so hopeless seemed exhilarating and invigorating to him and refreshed his face and neck, which were glowing after their washing and rubbing. The scent of brilliantine given off by his moustache seemed peculiarly pleasant in the fresh air. All that he saw from the carriage window through the cold pure air in the pale light of the evening sky seemed as fresh, bright and vigorous as he was himself. The roofs of the houses glittered in the evening sun; the sharp outlines of the fences and the corners of buildings, the figures of people and vehicles they occasionally met, the motionless verdure of the grass and trees, the fields of potatoes with their clear-cut ridges, the slanting shadows of the houses and trees, the bushes and even the potato ridges—it was all pleasant and like a landscape newly painted and varnished.

‘Get on, get on!’ he shouted to the coachman, thrusting himself out of the window; and taking a three-rouble note from his pocket he put it into the man’s hand as the latter turned round. The coachman felt something in his hand, the whip cracked, and the carriage rolled quickly along the smooth macadamized high road.

‘I want nothing, nothing but that happiness,’ he thought, staring at the ivory knob of the bell between the front windows of the carriage, his mind full of Anna as he had last seen her.

‘And the longer it continues the more I love her! And here is the garden of Vrede’s country house. Where is she? Where? Why? Why has she given me an appointment here, in a letter from Betsy?’ he thought; but there was no longer any time for thinking. Before reaching the avenue he ordered the coachman to stop, opened the carriage door, jumped out while the carriage was still moving, and went up the avenue leading to the house. There was no one in the avenue, but turning to the right he saw her. Her face was veiled, but his joyous glance took in that special manner of walking peculiar to her alone: the droop of her shoulders, the poise of her head; and immediately a thrill passed like an electric current through his body, and with renewed force he became conscious of himself from the elastic movement of his firm legs to the motion of his lungs as he breathed, and of something tickling his lips. On reaching him she clasped his hand firmly.

‘You are not angry that I told you to come? It was absolutely necessary for me to see you,’ she said; and at sight of the serious and severe expression of her mouth under her veil his mood changed at once.

‘I angry? But how did you get here?’

‘Never mind!’ she said, putting her hand on his arm. ‘Come, I must speak to you.’

He felt that something had happened, and that this interview would not be a happy one. In her presence he had no will of his own: without knowing the cause of her agitation he became infected by it.

‘What is it? What?’ he asked, pressing her hand against his side with his elbow and trying to read her face.

She took a few steps in silence to gather courage, and then suddenly stopped.

‘I did not tell you last night,’ she began, breathing quickly and heavily, ‘that on my way back with Alexis Alexandrovich I told him everything … said I could not be his wife, and … I told him all.’

He listened, involuntarily leaning forward with his whole body as if trying to ease her burden. But as soon as she had spoken he straightened himself and his face assumed a proud and stern expression.

‘Yes, yes, that is better! A thousand times better! I understand how hard it must have been for you’ he said, but she was not listening to his words—only trying to read his thoughts from his face. She could not guess that it expressed the first idea that had entered Vronsky’s mind: the thought of an inevitable duel; therefore she explained that momentary look of severity in another way. After reading her husband’s letter she knew in the depths of her heart that all would remain as it was, that she would not have the courage to disregard her position and give up her son in order to be united with her lover. The afternoon spent at the Princess Tverskaya’s house had confirmed that thought. Yet this interview was still of extreme importance to her. She hoped that the meeting might bring about a change in her position and save her. If at this news he would firmly, passionately, and without a moment’s hesitation say to her: ‘Give up everything and fly with me!’ she would abandon her son and go with him. But the news had not the effect on him that she had desired: he only looked as if he had been offended by something. ‘It was not at all hard for me — it all came about of itself,’ she said, irritably. ‘And here …’ she pulled her husband’s note from under her glove.

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‘I understand, I understand,’ he interrupted, taking the note but not reading it, and trying to soothe her. ‘I only want one thing, I only ask for one thing: to destroy this situation in order to devote my life to your happiness.’

‘Why do you tell me this?’ she said. ‘Do you think I could doubt it? If I doubted it …’

‘Who’s that coming?’ said Vronsky, pointing to two ladies who were coming toward them. ‘They may know us!’ and he moved quickly in the direction of a sidewalk, drawing her along with him.

‘Oh, I don’t care!’ she said. Her lips trembled and her eyes seemed to him to be looking at him with strange malevolence from under the veil. ‘As I was saying, that’s not the point! I cannot doubt that, but see what he writes to me. Read—’ she stopped again.

Again, as at the first moment when he heard the news of her having spoken to her husband, Vronsky yielded to the natural feeling produced by the thoughts of his relation to the injured husband. Now that he held his letter he could not help imagining to himself the challenge that he would no doubt find waiting for him that evening or next day, and the duel, when he would be standing with the same cold proud look as his face bore that moment, and having fired into the air would be awaiting the shot from the injured husband. And at that instant the thought of what Serpukhovskoy had just been saying to him and of what had occurred to him that morning (that it was better not to bind himself) flashed through his mind, and he knew that he could not pass on the thought to her.

After he had read the letter he looked up at her, but his look was not firm. She understood at once that he had already considered this by himself, knew that whatever he might say he would not tell her all that he was thinking, and knew that her last hopes had been deceived. This was not what she had expected.

‘You see what a man he is!’ she said in a trembling voice. ‘He …’

‘Forgive, me, but I am glad of it!’ Vronsky interrupted. ‘For God’s sake hear me out!’ he added, with an air of entreaty that she would let him explain his words. ‘I am glad because I know that it is impossible, quite impossible for things to remain as they are, as he imagines.’

‘Why impossible?’ said Anna, forcing back her tears and clearly no longer attaching any importance to what he would say. She felt that her fate was decided.

Vronsky wanted to say that after what he considered to be the inevitable duel it could not continue; but he said something else.

‘It cannot continue. I hope that you will now leave him. I hope …’ he became confused and blushed, ‘that you will allow me to arrange, and to think out a life for ourselves. To-morrow …’ he began, but she did not let him finish.

‘And my son?’ she exclaimed. ‘You see what he writes? I must leave him, and I cannot do that and do not want to.’

‘But for heaven’s sake, which is better? To leave your son, or to continue in this degrading situation?’

‘Degrading for whom?’

‘For everybody, and especially for you.’

‘You call it degrading! do not call it that; such words have no meaning for me,’ she replied tremulously. She did not wish him to tell untruths now. She had only his love left, and she wanted to love him. ‘Try to understand that since I loved you everything has changed for me. There is only one single thing in the world for me: your love ! If I have it, I feel so high and firm that nothing can be degrading for me. I am proud of my position because … proud of … proud …’ she could not say what she was proud of. Tears of shame and despair choked her. She stopped and burst into sobs. He also felt something rising in his throat, and for the first time in his life he felt ready to cry. He could not explain what it was that had so moved him; he was sorry for her and felt that he could not help her, because he knew that he was the cause of her trouble, that he had done wrong.

‘Would divorce be impossible?’ he asked weakly. She silently shook her head. ‘Would it not be possible to take your son away with you and go away all the same?’

‘Yes, but all that depends on him. Now I go back to him,’ she said dryly. Her foreboding that everything would remain as it was had not deceived her.

‘On Tuesday I shall go back to Petersburg and everything will be decided. Yes,’ she said, ‘but don’t let us talk about it.’

Anna’s carriage, which she had sent away and ordered to return to the gate of the Vrede Garden, drove up. Anna took leave of Vronsky and went home.

A classic of Russian literature, this new edition of Anna Karenina uses the acclaimed Louise and Alymer Maude translation, and offers a new introduction and notes which provide completely up-to-date perspectives on Tolstoy’s classic work.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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25. ‘And the Oscar went to …’

In his acceptance speech at the 1981 Oscars (best original screenplay, Chariots of Fire), Colin Welland offered the now famous prediction that ‘The British are coming!’ There have since been some notable British Oscar successes: Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy (1989); director Anthony Minghella for The English Patient (1996); Helen Mirren (in The Queen, 2006); and — maintaining the royal theme — awards for best director, actor, and film for The King’s Speech in 2011.

But looking at all British Oscar winners — since the first Academy Awards in 1929 — presents a different story. Less the ‘British are coming!’, more the ‘British have been!’ A full list of Oscar winners with entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (currently 79 individuals) lists 70 recipients between 1929 (Charlie Chaplin, The Circus) and 1980 (Alec Guinness, honorary award), and just 9 winners since Colin Welland’s rousing prediction. The Oxford DNB’s selection criteria — that all people included are deceased in or before 2009 — means this imbalance isn’t really a revelation, nor should it come as a surprise. Quite simply, and happily, most post-1981 British winners remain in good, creative health.

But the ODNB’s Oscar list is nonetheless an interesting reminder of outstanding talent, and outstanding films, from the history of British cinema. Here, of course, you’ll find the great names: Vivien Leigh (twice best actress for Gone with the Wind, 1940, and A Street Car Named Desire, 1952), Laurence Olivier (special award for Henry V, 1947 and best actor, Hamlet, 1949), or the lovely Audrey Hepburn (best actress, Roman Holiday, 1954). Also notable is that some of the most successful figures in British cinema have worked behind the camera, including the directors Carol Reed and David Lean who were both double winners.

The Oxford DNB’s list also reminds us of the perhaps forgotten successes: Jack Clayton whose The Bespoke Overcoat won ‘best short (two-reel) film’ in 1957 or Elizabeth Haffenden, winner, in 1960, of the best costume (colour) Oscar for the often scantily-clad Ben-Hur. Then there are the surprises: did you know that George Bernard Shaw won a statuette in 1939 for his adapted screenplay of Pygmalion, or that the dramatist John Osborne collected the same award for Tom Jones in 1964?

Finally, there are the ones who almost got away. It seems extraordinary that Stanley Kubrick (he lived in Britain, so he’s in the ODNB) won only once — and this for ‘best special effects’ in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or that Cary Grant (born in Bristol) had to make do with an ‘honorary award’ in 1970. Perhaps most surprising is that the giant of twentieth-century film, both in the UK and US, only reached the stage once, to receive the Irving G. Thalberg memorial award in 1968. He, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock whose life is recreated in an eponymous film out this month — and possibly on next year’s Oscar shortlist.

In addition to the Oxford DNB biographies above, the life stories of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant are also available as episodes in the ODNB’s free biography podcast.

Now, from podcast to a pop quiz from Who’s Who, we’ll test you not only on what you know about the BAFTAs and Oscars, but who you know.

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The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century. In addition to 58,500 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcastwith over 175 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @odnb on Twitter for people in the news. The Oxford DNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day.

Who’s Who is the essential directory of the noteworthy and influential in every area of public life, published worldwide, and written by the entrants themselves. Who’s Who 2013  includes autobiographical information on over 33,000 influential people from all walks of life. The 165th edition includes a foreword by Arianna Huffington on ways technology is rapidly transforming the media.

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Image credit: CHICAGO – JANUARY 23: Oscar statuettes are displayed during an unveiling of the 50 Oscar statuettes to be awarded at the 76th Academy Awards ceremony January 23, 2004 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. The statuettes are made in Chicago by R.S. Owens and Company. (Photo by Tim Boyle) EdStock via iStockphoto.

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