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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: TV & Film, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 62
1. Roll over, Rimbaud: P. F. Kluge, Walt Whitman, and Eddie and the Cruisers

By Kirk Curnutt

Ask folks who came of age in the 1980s what they remember about the movie Eddie and the Cruisers and one of the following responses is likely:

  1. It spawned the great rock-radio staple “On the Dark Side” and briefly made MTV stars of the improbably named John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
  2. It was such a shameless Bruce Springsteen rip-off that Boss fans considered it as sacrilegious as devout Christians do Jesus Christ Superstar.
  3. It had a whiplash-inducing twist ending that Roger Ebert called “so frustrating, so dumb, so unsatisfactory that it gives a bad reputation to the whole movie.”
  4. It was a box-office flop that thirty years ago this month shocked Hollywood by becoming a surprise HBO hit.
  5. It was a movie you rented repeatedly during the decade’s video boom because it fit perfectly VHS’s promise of cheap home entertainment: undemanding, toe-tapping, and eminently re-watchable, it was an ideal 99-cent diversion that helped you forget VCRs cost $500 and were as boxy as Samsonite suitcases.

What you’re less likely to hear, unfortunately: it was based on one of the best, most criminally underappreciated rock ‘n’ roll novels ever.

In a preface to Overlook Press’s 2008 reissue (the book’s first widely available trade paperback), no less than Sherman Alexie admits he never knew Eddie was originally a novel by P. F. Kluge until deep into his own career, long after “obsessing” over the movie as a high-schooler. It’s indicative of how the film overshadows its source material that Kluge’s Eddie doesn’t even make this supposedly comprehensive list of rock novels published since the 1950s.

The novel’s relative obscurity is a shame, for as Alexie notes, it has literary “ambitions and secrets and qualities” that far surpass the movie’s “mainstream” pleasures. Director Martin Davidson, who co-wrote the script with his wife, Arlene, made several changes to Kluge’s tale of a Jersey rock star who may or may not be haunting former bandmates twenty years after his supposed death. The most significant is seemingly the most cosmetic. Whereas Kluge conceived hero Eddie Wilson as a Dion-esque doo-wop rocker, Davidson turned him into an awkward splice of Springsteen and Jim Morrison. In so doing, the filmmaker altered the literary inspiration that in Kluge gives the musician a model for imagining rock ‘n’ roll as an art form instead of mere entertainment. The change is decisive to how differently each version of Eddie depicts the purpose of popular music.


Une saison en enfer, Arthur Rimbaud, Bruxelles, Alliance typographique, 1873. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the movie, college dropout Frank “Wordman” Ridgeway, the story’s Nick Carraway, introduces Eddie to the 19th-century French symboliste Arthur Rimbaud. Literature spurs the hunky frontman to make “serious” music instead of cranking out bar-band favorites for Jersey beachgoers: “I want songs that echo,” Eddie insists. “The [music] we’re doing now is like bed sheets. Spread ’em, soil ’em, ship ’em out to laundry. Our songs — I like to fold ourselves up in them forever.” Soon enough, Eddie pens a concept album called A Season in Hell, after Rimbaud’s most famous work. His slimy record-company owner refuses to release it, however, because the music sounds “like a bunch of jerkoffs making weird sounds.” The rejection sends Eddie squealing away in his ’57 Chevy, which hurtles off the Raritan Bridge, either an accident or a suicide. The Cruisers are forgotten for two decades later until an Entertainment Tonight-type reporter begins hyping Hell as an ominous foreshadowing of the late sixties, “a new age, an age of confusion, an age of passion, of commitment!” Suddenly, someone claiming to be the dead rock star is stalking the surviving Cruisers, intent on finally releasing the missing opus so the public can recognize Eddie’s brilliance.

Serious scholarly papers have drawn parallels between Eddie and Rimbaud, but the script’s invocation of the poet never really rises above literary window dressing. Davidson mainly uses Rimbaud to allude to Morrison, who idolized the literary libertine and who, according to a farcical urban legend, faked his 1971 death to escape the rock biz (much as Rimbaud abandoned literature before he was twenty). The movie asks us to believe that the Beatlemania-era Eddie predicted the Dionysian extremes of the Doors’ “The End” or (God help us) “Horse Latitudes,” but the song that’s supposed to illustrate his visionary genius, “Fire,” hardly qualifies as “weird sounds”. It’s merely an arthritic gloss on Springsteen’s “Adam Raised a Cain” with none of the Boss’s blistering vitality.

Walt Whitman by George C. Cox (1851–1903, photo) Adam Cuerden (1979-, restoration). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Walt Whitman. Photo by George C. Cox, restoration by Adam Cuerden. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For Kluge’s Eddie, by contrast, the spirit father isn’t Rimbaud but Walt Whitman, and Eddie’s magnum opus is Leaves of Grass. Having seen Leaves appropriated to do everything from woo interns to expose unlikely meth kingpins, I’ll be the first to say that the Good Gray Poet’s popularity as the Go-To Lit Reference sometimes leaves me craving a Longfellow revival. Yet his role in Kluge isn’t gratuitous. Whitman inspires Eddie to reimagine rock ‘n’ roll as the vox populi, a medium not for becoming famous but for creating the true song of democracy. To produce his rock version of Leaves, Eddie recruits black and white greats from Elvis to Sam Cooke to Buddy Holly (the novel is set in 1957-58, a half-decade earlier than the film). Their mission is to snip the American barbed wire of segregation through a series of secret jam sessions designed to “to bring off the impossible, some fantastic union of black and white music.” What breakthroughs Eddie achieved before his supposed death is as compelling a page-turner as the mystery of who’s harassing the surviving Cruisers. (Spoiler alert: Eddie does not predict “Ebony and Ivory”).

In ditching Whitman for Rimbaud, Davidson’s film became a story not about the Gordian knot of race in American music but about rock-star greatness and fame. That point is bashed home like a gong by the movie’s trick ending, which reveals Eddie is indeed alive but indifferent to the hullaballoo the media creates when his masterwork is finally released. Despite the adaptation’s defects, Kluge speaks appreciatively of it, and rightly so: as a cult favorite, the movie kept the novel’s name alive during the decades the book was out of print. Besides, when the other movie based on your writing is Dog Day Afternoon, you can afford to be generous.

Nevertheless, the lack of attention Book Eddie receives feels like a missed opportunity for rock novels in general. The genre is a diverse, unruly one. Some of its entries are romans à clef that do little more than pencil fictional names into legends rock fans already know by heart (Paul Quarrington’s Brian Wilson-retelling Whale Music). Many others are coming-of-age novels in which that form’s traditional theme of lost innocence plays out like a Behind the Music episode, all downward-spiral cocaine and coitus. Still others are less about music-making than about the grotesquery of fame and fan worship (Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street). What rock novels aren’t nearly as often about is race — or, at least, the alchemies of ethnic interchange explored in such great nonfiction music histories as Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986). A handful of exceptions do come to mind, Alexie’s own Reservation Blues (1995) most notably. Yet for the most part storylines about ahead-of-their-time geniuses predominate, and frankly, the plot of making personal art instead of appeasing a hits-happy public is as tired as the playlist at my local oldies station.

The idea of rock ‘n’ roll as both the promise and impasse of a racially egalitarian barbaric yawp, on the other hand… That’s a song in fiction we still don’t hear nearly enough.

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. Read his previous OUPblog posts.

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2. OK Go: Is the Writing on the Wall?

By Siu-Lan Tan

When I saw OK Go’s ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ video a few days ago, I was stunned. If you aren’t one of the over eight million people that has seen this viral music video yet, you’re in for a visual treat.

OK Go is known for creative videos, but this is the band’s richest musical collage of optical illusions so far. The most amazing part is that it was done … in one take!

Click here to view the embedded video.

Over 7.5 million viewers saw this extraordinary video in the first week it was posted.

And just newly released, OK Go uploaded this equally splendid video that gives us a ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ look.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Just a lucky coincidence?

OK Go posted ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ on 17 June 2014. I wonder if they knew this is a significant date for Gestalt psychology? Important enough to be in the APA’s historical database for 17 June:

“June 17, 1924. Robert M. Ogden of Cornell University wrote to German psychologist Kurt Koffka, inviting him to become a visiting lecturer. This was the first step… that brought Gestaltists Koffka, Köhler, Wertheimer, and Lewin to America” (Street, 2007)

Wertheimer, Koffka, and Köhler are key figures in Gestalt psychology who laid the groundwork for what we know about perception, especially how we organize visual elements into meaningful wholes. Central to their work is the idea of ‘figure’ versus ‘ground’ – or how we distinguish the main focus (or figure) from the background or landscape in which it is set (ground).

They were also interested in perceptual illusions, influenced by psychologist Edgar Rubin who created many figure/ground illusions such as the Rubin vase, which now appears in every introductory psychology book.

Here’s a modern version: Are these columns or five tall standing figures with bowed heads? That depends on what you take to be figure vs. ground.


OK Go’s ‘The Writing on the Wall’ plays with figure/ground relations. Many illusions in this brilliant music video ambiguate, and then disambiguate, what is foreground versus background.

This is especially well illustrated in the illusion that “the writing’s on the wall” — as it never really is. In every appearance of the written word == in the title, the blurbs in the middle, and the amazing reveal at the end — the writing’s never on the wall.

Instead, the words blend figure and ground into single alignment. The illusion works — and then is dismantled before our eyes — as the movement of objects or camera disentangle what is foreground and background.

Figure and ground seem to dissolve into each other as the musicians emerge from the red, blue, yellow shapes.

Ambiguity of where figure and ground separate is pushed even further with single images that blend foreground with distant surfaces (floors, walls): blue spots, a network of cubes, a ladder, green checkered tiles, and a row of people that appear to stand together. It’s brilliantly captured at 02:47, in the aerial image of a multi-layered apparatus that “flattens out” into a representation of drummer Tim Nordwind’s bearded face (screenshot below).


The walkthrough also takes us through the development of art: from basic shapes, to patterns (dots, stripes), to 3D (or not) cubes, geometric sculptures, and finally to representations of the human face and full body figures.

The music is not just an accompaniment to the collage of optical illusions and paradoxes, but an integral part of the work. The song is about miscommunication that can go on in a relationship. (Or is the idea of two people really ‘getting each other’ merely an illusion?)

The result is wonderfully perplexing, a delicious trick of the senses. And a fitting tribute to the 17 June landmark in Gestalt psychology.

Siu-Lan Tan is Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA. She is primary editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press 2013), the first book consolidating the research on the role of music in film, television, video games, and computers. A version of this article also appears on Psychology Today. Siu-Lan Tan also has her own blog, What Shapes Film? Read her previous blog posts.

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Image Credit: Optical illusion. Image by Sha Sha Chu. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via shashachu Flickr.

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3. Hannah Arendt and crimes against humanity

Film is a powerful tool for teaching international criminal law and increasing public awareness and sensitivity about the underlying crimes. Roberta Seret, President and Founder of the NGO at the United Nations, International Cinema Education, has identified four films relevant to the broader purposes and values of international criminal justice and over the coming weeks she will write a short piece explaining the connections as part of a mini-series. This is the second one, , following The Act of Killing.

hannah arendt film

By Roberta Seret

The powerful biographical film, Hannah Arendt, focuses on Arendt’s historical coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961 and the genocide of six million Jews. But sharing center stage is Arendt’s philosophical concept: what is thinking?

German director, Margarethe von Trotta, begins her riveting film with a short silent scene — Mossad’s abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, the ex-Nazi chief of the Gestapo section for Jewish Affairs. Eichmann was in charge of deportation of Jews from all European countries to concentration camps.

Margarethe von Trotta’s and Pam Katz’s brilliant screen script is written in a literary style that covers a four-year “slice of life” in Hannah Arendt’s world. The director invites us into this stage by introducing us to Arendt (played by award-winning actress Barbara Sukova), her friends, her husband, colleagues, and students.

As we listen to their conversations, we realize that we will bear witness not only to Eichmann’s trial, but to Hannah Arendt’s controversial words and thoughts. We get multiple points of view about the international polemic she has caused in her coverage of Eichmann. And we are asked to judge as she formulates her political and philosophical theories.

Director von Trotta continues her literary approach to cinema by using flashbacks that take us to the beginning of Arendt’s university days in Marburg, Germany. She is a Philosophy major, studying with Professor Martin Heidegger. He is the famous Father of Existentialism. Hannah Arendt becomes his ardent student and lover. In the first flashback, we see a young Arendt, at first shy and then assertive, as she approaches the famous philosopher. “Please, teach me to think.” He answers, “Thinking is a lonely business.” His smile asks her if she is strong enough for such a journey.

“Learn not what to think, but how to think,” wrote Plato, and Arendt learns quickly. “Thinking is a conversation between me and myself,” she espouses.

Arendt learned to be an Existentialist. She proposed herself to become Heidegger’s private student just as she solicited herself to cover the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. Every flashback in the film is weaved into a precise place, as if the director is Ariadne and at the center of the web is Heidegger and Arendt. From flashback to flashback, we witness the exertion Heidegger has on his student. As a father figure, Heidegger forms her; he teaches her the passion of thinking, a journey that lasts her entire life.

Throughout the film, in the trial room, in the pressroom, in Arendt’s Riverside Drive apartment, we see her thinking and smoking. The director has taken the intangible process of thinking and made it tangible. The cigarette becomes the reed for Arendt’s thoughts. After several scenes, we the spectator, begin to think with the protagonist and we want to follow her thought process despite the smoke screen.

When Arendt studies Eichmann in his glass cell in the courtroom, she studies him obsessively as if she were a scientist staring through a microscope at a lethal cancer cell on a glass slide. She is struck by what she sees in front of her – an ordinary man who is not intelligent, who cannot think for himself. He is merely the instrument of a horrific society. She must have been thinking of what Heidegger taught her – we create ourselves. We define ourselves by our actions. Eichmann’s actions as Nazi chief created him; his actions created crimes against humanity.

The director shows us many sides of Arendt’s character: curious, courageous, brilliant, seductive, and wary, but above all, she is a Philosopher. Eichmann’s trial became inspiration for her philosophical legacy, the Banality of Evil: All men have within them the power to be evil. Man’s absence of common sense, his absence of thinking, can result in barbarous acts. She concludes at the end of the film in a form of summation speech, “This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before.”

And Eichmann, his summation defense? It is presented to us by Willem Sassen, Dutch Fascist and former member of the SS, who had a second career in Argentina as a journalist. In 1956 he asked Eichmann if he was sorry for what he had done as part of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

Eichmann responded, “Yes, I am sorry for one thing, and that is I was not hard enough, that I did not fight those damned interventionists enough, and now you see the result: the creation of the state of Israel and the re-emergence of the Jewish people there.”

The horrific acts of the Nazis speak for themselves. Director von Trotta in this masterpiece film has stimulated us to think again about genocide and crimes against humanity, their place in history as well as in today’s world.

Roberta Seret is the President and Founder of International Cinema Education, an NGO based at the United Nations. Roberta is the Director of Professional English at the United Nations with the United Nations Hospitality Committee where she teaches English language, literature and business to diplomats. In the Journal of International Criminal Justice

, Roberta has written a longer ‘roadmap’ to Margarethe von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt. To learn more about this new subsection for reviewers or literature, film, art projects or installations, read her extension at the end of this editorial.

The Journal of International Criminal Justice aims to promote a profound collective reflection on the new problems facing international law. Established by a group of distinguished criminal lawyers and international lawyers, the journal addresses the major problems of justice from the angle of law, jurisprudence, criminology, penal philosophy, and the history of international judicial institutions.

Oxford University Press is a leading publisher in international law, including the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, latest titles from thought leaders in the field, and a wide range of law journals and online products. We publish original works across key areas of study, from humanitarian to international economic to environmental law, developing outstanding resources to support students, scholars, and practitioners worldwide. For the latest news, commentary, and insights follow the International Law team on Twitter @OUPIntLaw.

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4. Scoring independent film music

Ever wondered what goes into scoring film music? Is the music written during filming? Or is it all added after the film is finished? Regular OUPblog contributor Scott Huntington recently spoke with film composer Joe Kraemer about his compositional process, providing an inside look at what it’s like to score music for an independent film.

Scott Huntington: What’s your process of creation like?

Joe Kraemer: Ideally, I see the movie without any temp score, but these days, that is rare. [Director] Chris McQuarrie doesn’t like temp scores, so the two films I’ve done with him (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher) we skipped the temp process and I was able to work with a clean slate, so to speak.

I look at a scene, and based either on the cutting, the dialogue, or the rhythm of the scene, I find the spot where I believe music should come in. Then I roll on down until I think music should go out. I don’t use any hard and fast rules. A lot of it is based on feel.

Once I’ve decided where the music will start, I try and find the right tempo for the music, fast or slow. Next I consider the color of the music, light or dark, major or minor, brassy or strings, and so on. I continue on this path of binary decision-making until I reach a solution. If that solution doesn’t work, I work my way back and try something else, such as a faster tempo, a different color or a different instrumentation. Sometimes, I make decisions that don’t really have a logical explanation, but they just feel right. I like to refer to the scene in “Star Wars” where Ben Kenobi is cut down by Darth Vader, and John Williams scores the sequence with a sweeping version of Princess Leia’s Theme, because that theme has great sweep and scope, and Ben’s theme was more somber. His decision seems nonsensical from a logical point of view, but it’s right-on from an emotional point of view.

Scott Huntington: Have you seen changes in technology impact the way you score movies?

Joe Kraemer: Well, the AVID editing system has opened up the audio side of things for film editors completely. As a result, films are built with really well-edited temp scores right from the get-go. In the old days, a Moviola or a flat-bed had one or two tracks of sound, so the temp score was something that was laid in very bluntly, just to create a feeling or atmosphere, without it needing to be a definitive presentation. Now, the ability to edit the temp score to match the picture in minute detail has resulted in everyone accepting it as the baseline standard for the film. The editor cuts the scene to the temp, the director looks at the cut with the temp, right away the temp is now the point of comparison for the rest of the process. Even if the composer never sees the temp, he or she is competing with it. The composer’s music is evaluated as much for whether it matches the temp as whether it works for the scene in the first place.

What you end up with is the picture-editor making a lot of the decisions about the music before the composer even has a shot at bringing something of himself (or herself) to the table. That isn’t inherently bad, picture editors usually have great taste in music, but as a composer it can feel restrictive. Also, you end up with a lot of films sounding the same, because all the editors fall in love with the same piece of music at the same time. Case in point, for about 10 years after “American Beauty” came out, all I heard in temp scores was Tom Newman’s score for that movie. There are only so many ways one can reinvent piano chords over sustained string beds.

As far as the composing work itself, for me the computer-based paradigm has been a life-saver. From adjusting tempos to catch cuts, to mixing electronic sounds with acoustic sounds, computer-based composing has made it possible for me to make a living as a composer, even when films have had skimpy music budgets, because I can do all of the work myself. I don’t use an assistant; I don’t have a team of ghost-writers. I put all my time and effort into making the score as good as possible myself, within the means at my disposal. Technology makes that possible.

Favor-Poster (2)Scott Huntington: Describe the process of writing the music for Favor.

Joe Kraemer: The process starts as soon as the movie is over the first time I see it. I immediately begin thinking about different aspects of the score: what will the instrumentation be? What will the mood be? The tone?

Next comes a period of living with the film. If possible, I get a copy and watch it on repeat for a day or two in my studio while I update my software and do busy work, etc. Once I’ve seen the film a dozen times or so, it’s time to start composing in earnest.

At some point between seeing Favor the first time and getting my own copy to work from, I was swimming in the pool and doodling melodies in my head and I came up with a nice little tune I though would sound pretty on the cello. I made a mental note of it and filed it away in my noggin for some later use.

Some time later, as I sat down to begin writing the cues for Favor, I remembered that melody and found that on a piano, it had a cold sound that contrasted nicely with the beauty of the tune. This seemed to be appropriate for my needs, as I was writing a theme for a character that, rarely seen, hangs over the film like a specter. This contrast of cold and beauty felt right.

Next, I decided I needed some kind of musical “sound effect” to help with certain story elements I wanted the score to reinforce. This was the impetus behind what [director] Paul [Osborne] and I began to call the “Abby Stab”. It’s a sound of a hammer hitting an anvil that has been tweaked with a bunch of plugins. I used it whenever I wanted to audience to think of Abby, to be reminded of her fate, to keep her present in a scene even when she wasn’t there.

After that, it was mostly a task of assembling the music to match what Paul laid out in his temp score. Paul cuts his own films and I know from working with him the past that he is very particular about the way his temp interacts with the editing of the film, so I worked very hard to stay faithful to the way he would crescendo to a cut. That being said, there were major sequences where Paul had no temp score, but I added music because I thought it was an effective spot.

 is a percussionist specializing in marimba. He’s also a writer, reporter and blogger. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son and does Internet marketing for WebpageFX in Harrisburg. Scott strives to play music whenever and wherever possible. Read his previous blog posts and follow him on Twitter at @SMHuntington.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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5. The Lady: One woman against a military dictatorship

Film is a powerful tool for teaching international criminal law and increasing public awareness and sensitivity about the underlying crimes. Roberta Seret, President and Founder of the NGO at the United Nations, International Cinema Education, has identified four films relevant to the broader purposes and values of international criminal justice and over the coming weeks she will write a short piece explaining the connections as part of a mini-series. This is the third one, following The Act of Killing and Hannah Arendt.


By Roberta Seret

When Luc Besson finished filming The Lady in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from being under house arrest since 1989. He visited her at her home in Yagoon with a DVD of his film as a gift. She smiled and thanked him, responding, “I have shown courage in my life, but I do not have enough courage to watch a film about myself.”

The recurring tenet of the inspiring biographical film, The Lady, is exactly that: one woman’s courage against a military dictatorial regime. Each scene reinforces her relentless fight to overcome the inequities of totalitarianism.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born the third child of General Aung San, leader of Burma during World War ll and Father of Independence from British rule. He was assassinated in 1947 before he saw his country’s sovereignty in 1948. His daughter has dedicated her life to continue his legacy – to bring democracy to the Burmese people.

The film, The Lady, begins in Oxford 1988 where she is a housewife and mother of two sons. After setting the stage of happy domesticity, she receives a phone call from her mother’s caretaker in Burma that the older woman is dying. And so begins the action.

After 41 years, Suu Kyi returns home to a different world than she remembers. The country’s name is changed from Burma to Myanmar, Ragoon has become Yagoon, and a new capital, Naypidaw, has been carved out of a jungle. Students are demonstrating and being killed in the streets of Yagoon while General Ne Winn rules with an iron fist. Suu Kyi is soon asked by a group of professors and students to form a new party, the National League for Democracy. She campaigns to become their leader.

French director, Luc Besson, was not allowed to film in Myanmar. Instead, he chose Thailand at the Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand merge in a beautiful mountainous landscape. Most of his interior scenes, however, take place at the Lady’s house on Inya Lake in Yagoon, which Luc Besson recreated with help from Google Earth and computers. The Chinese actress, Michelle Yeoh, plays Suu Kyi, with perfectly nuanced facial and body expressions that are balanced with a subtle combination of emotion and control. But the Burmese, who were initially not allowed by the government to see the film, resented a Chinese actress portraying their icon. Even the police chased Ms. Yeoh from Myanmar when she tried to pay her respects to the Lady.

The film adheres closely to history and biography, which are inherently compelling. The director did not need to borrow from fiction to enhance his portrait of a brave, self-sacrificing woman. Luc Besson is a master filmmaker, and we see in the characters of his strong women, like Nikita (1990) and The Lady, the power of will and determination that go beyond limits to become personality cults.

The film depicts how Suu Kyi wins 59% of the votes in the general election of 1990, but instead of leading Parliament as Prime Minister, she has already been forced and silenced under house arrest by the Military where she stays for more than 15 years and three times in prison until 2010.

The Lady is a heart-breaking story of a woman’s personal sacrifice to free her people from the Military’s crimes against humanity. In 2012, once free and allowed to campaign, she won 43 seats in Parliament for her party, but this is only 7% of seats. She will campaign again in 2015 despite the Military’s opposition and a Constitution that has already been amended to block her from winning.

In Luc Besson’s film, we see a beautiful woman of courage and heart, a personage deserving the adulation of her people. “She is our hope,” they all agree. “Hope for Freedom.”

Roberta Seret is the President and Founder of International Cinema Education, an NGO based at the United Nations. Roberta is the Director of Professional English at the United Nations with the United Nations Hospitality Committee where she teaches English language, literature and business to diplomats. In the Journal of International Criminal Justice, Roberta has written a longer ‘roadmap’ to Margarethe von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt. To learn more about this new subsection for reviewers or literature, film, art projects or installations, read her extension at the end of this editorial.

The Journal of International Criminal Justice aims to promote a profound collective reflection on the new problems facing international law. Established by a group of distinguished criminal lawyers and international lawyers, the journal addresses the major problems of justice from the angle of law, jurisprudence, criminology, penal philosophy, and the history of international judicial institutions.

Oxford University Press is a leading publisher in international law, including the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, latest titles from thought leaders in the field, and a wide range of law journals and online products. We publish original works across key areas of study, from humanitarian to international economic to environmental law, developing outstanding resources to support students, scholars, and practitioners worldwide. For the latest news, commentary, and insights follow the International Law team on Twitter @OUPIntLaw.

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6. Poetic justice in The German Doctor

Film is a powerful tool for teaching international criminal law and increasing public awareness and sensitivity about the underlying crimes. Roberta Seret, President and Founder of the NGO at the United Nations, International Cinema Education, has identified four films relevant to the broader purposes and values of international criminal justice and over the coming weeks she will write a short piece explaining the connections as part of a mini-series. This is the final one, following The Act of Killing, Hannah Arendt, and The Lady.

the german doctor

By Roberta Seret

One can say that Dr. Josef Mengele was the first survivor of Auschwitz, for he slipped away undetected in the middle of the night on 17 January 1945, several days before the concentration camp was liberated. Weeks later, he continued his escape despite being detained in two different Prisoner of War detention camps.

He made his way to Rome, a sanctuary for Nazi war criminals, where he obtained a new passport from Vatican officials. Continuing to Genoa with the help of the International Red Cross and a Fascist network, he embarked on the North King ship in 1949 to Buenos Aires under the alias of Helmut Gregor.

President Juan Peron had 10,000 blank Argentine passports for the highest Nazi bidders. Buenos Aires became their home; there Mengele lived, respected and comfortable, until 1960 when Eichmann was kidnapped by the Mossad just streets away. Afraid he’d be next, Mengele decided it would be safer for him in Paraguay with the support of the pro-Nazi dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. He stayed in Asunción for one year.

The Argentine film, The German Doctor (2014), takes us in media res to 1960 Patagonia and Bariloche, a beautiful mountain oasis in the Andes that reminds Mengele of “home.” This fictional addition to his biography, serves as a six-month stopover before he escapes to Paraguay.

Lucia Puenzo, Argentine filmmaker, has adapted her own novel, Wakolda, for the screen. She adroitly mixes fiction with history and truth with imagination in a tight, tense-filled interpretation that keeps us mesmerized. Yet, as we watch the scenes unfold, we wonder which ones are based on fact and how far should poetic justice substitute for historical accuracy.

The director takes advantage of our “collective conscience” of morality and memory regarding the identity of Dr. Mengele. Despite not once hearing his name, we know who he is, although the characters do not. The director uses our associating him with evil to enhance tension and catapult plot – a clever device that works well.

What is biographically accurate in the film is that Mengele continues his experiments on human beings in order to create the perfect race. The director uses this premise, then extrapolates to fiction and sets the stage with a family that Mengele befriends. The doctor sees an opportunity to experiment with charming Lilith, the under-developed twelve-year-old and injects into her stomach growth hormones that work for cattle. He also gives “vitamins” to the girl’s pregnant mother, Eva, once he realizes she is carrying twins. When the babies are born, he continues his experiments by putting sugar in the formula for the weaker of the two. As the infant cries dying and Mengele studies the reaction, we shudder that the Angel of Death has once again achieved Evil.

The experiments on people that Mengele is obsessed with in the film, is a continuation of his sadistic work at Auschwitz with pregnant women, twins, and genetics. His lab experiment on a mother who had just given birth was notorious. He taped her lactating breasts while taking notes on how long the infant would cry without receiving her milk. When he left for dinner, the distraught mother desperately found morphine for her dying baby.

Mengele was also known to inject dye into the iris of prisoners’ eyes (without anesthesia) to see if he could change the brown to an Aryan blue. He documented his results by pinning each eyeball to a wooden board.

And there were more experiments on thousands of human beings.

Josef Mengele, from 1943-45, appeared each day at Auschwitz’s train station for Selektion. Wearing white gloves, polished high black boots, and carrying a stick, his evil hand pointed Left and Right to order more than 400,000 souls to leave this world through chimneys as ashes. His crimes against humanity can never be forgotten.

After living more than 30 years undetected in South America, Mengele died in 1979 of a heart attack while swimming in the warm waters near São Paulo. This peaceful death for such a monster reinforces his ultimate crime. Film director, Lucia Puenzo, would have been well-inspired to have finished The German Doctor with this horrific and true scene.

Roberta Seret is the President and Founder of International Cinema Education, an NGO based at the United Nations. Roberta is the Director of Professional English at the United Nations with the United Nations Hospitality Committee where she teaches English language, literature and business to diplomats. In the Journal of International Criminal Justice, Roberta has written a longer ‘roadmap’ to Margarethe von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt. To learn more about this new subsection for reviewers or literature, film, art projects or installations, read her extension at the end of this editorial.

The Journal of International Criminal Justice aims to promote a profound collective reflection on the new problems facing international law. Established by a group of distinguished criminal lawyers and international lawyers, the journal addresses the major problems of justice from the angle of law, jurisprudence, criminology, penal philosophy, and the history of international judicial institutions.

Oxford University Press is a leading publisher in international law, including the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, latest titles from thought leaders in the field, and a wide range of law journals and online products. We publish original works across key areas of study, from humanitarian to international economic to environmental law, developing outstanding resources to support students, scholars, and practitioners worldwide. For the latest news, commentary, and insights follow the International Law team on Twitter @OUPIntLaw.

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7. Shakespeare and the music of William Walton

By Bethan Greenaway

On 23 April 2014 we celebrate the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Nearly 400 years after his death he is still a source of inspiration for countless authors, composers, and artists all over the world. His plays are performed again and again in hundreds of languages, and have been the inspiration for numerous operas, ballets, and films. The most well-known and highly acclaimed Shakespeare films are the trilogy made in the 1940s and 50s, starring Sir Laurence Olivier and featuring music written by a famous William of the twentieth century — William Walton.

Walton and Olivier had met in 1936 on the set of As You Like It (another Shakespearean film featuring music by Walton) and again at a BBC recording of Christopher Columbus. By 1944, when he was approached to write the film score for Henry V, Walton had already made a name for himself with his ceremonial and dramatic music (including Crown Imperial March for the coronation of George IV in 1937), and music to accompany various patriotic films during World War II. Olivier and Walton were to work together on three films: Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955), and their most successful partnership, Henry V (1944).

All three film scores where highly acclaimed in their day, Henry V and Hamlet attracting Oscar nominations. What made them so very successful was Walton’s unerring ability to reflect the nature of each play in his music; he knew exactly how and when to heighten emotions, create tension, and provide moments of light relief. The scores for both Richard III and Henry V rely heavily on pastiches of “Shakespearean-style” music, including folk songs (at the suggestion of another OUP composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams), brass-heavy battle fanfares, and the use of the harpsichord, whilst Hamlet has a darker, motif-led, more brooding score, again reflecting the mood of the play.

Hamlet, by William Walton

Click here to view the embedded video.

Henry V, by William Walton

Click here to view the embedded video.

Richard III, by William Walton

Click here to view the embedded video.

The original film score of Henry V was arranged into two suites; in 1945 by Malcolm Sargent and again in 1963 by Muir Mathieson (the conductor on the original film soundtrack). Henry V remains not only Walton’s most well-known film score but also one of his most popular orchestral works. In fact, in an interview given to the BBC in 1977, Laurence Olivier himself remarked that the film would have been “terribly dull” without the music. High praise indeed.

In March 2014 Oxford University Press published the final volume in its magnificent William Walton Edition. Walton’s entire output, including his film music, is now available to scholars and performers in a definitive and fully practical edition.

Bethan Greenaway is Production Controller for Printed Music at Oxford University Press.

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8. Unknown facts about five great Hollywood directors

Today, 11 May, marks the anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. It wouldn’t be until 1928 until the award selection and nomination process was established, but this elite group of actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers were leaders in the early film industry.

As a throwback to old Hollywood, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite American classic film directors from the American National Biography who have been recognized by the Academy as iconic. Whose style is your favorite?

Billy Wilder

Described as: “Witty, with a devilish sense of humor.” It has been said of Wilder films that audiences are never allowed to believe that all will be well ever after; they are presented with flawed people who will continue to struggle.

Best known for: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960)

Most underrated movie: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) a suspense thriller that pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock

You may be surprised to learn that: “In his 20s, Wilder wrote numerous scenarios for Berlin’s silent-film industry, and his skill at dancing landed him a stint as a hired dance partner for older women. Wilder made the most of his years in Berlin, seeking out the company of prominent writers and artists like Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz, Fritz Lang, Hermann Hesse, and Erich Maria Remarque, whom he saw daily at a celebrated bohemian hangout, the Romanisches Café.”

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 8

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 2

Studio publicity photo of Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson, circa 1950. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Studio publicity photo of Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson, circa 1950. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

John Ford

Described as: An artist. As John Wayne said “When he pointed that camera, he was painting with it.” Ford’s films were characterized by a strong artistic vision and frequently contained panoramas of magnificent outdoor settings that rendered the human actors almost insignificant.

Best known for: Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956)

Most underrated movie: They Were Expendable (1945)

You may be surprised to learn that: “Throughout his career Ford tended to work with the same group of people again and again, as actors, writers, stagehands, and cameramen. He was known for his non-ostentatious dress, and he frequently had both a drink and a cigar with him on the set. He wore a black patch over one eye, which had been injured in an accident during the 1940s.”

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 5

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 4

Director John Ford, who was also a Rear Admiral in the Navy Reserve, 1952. US Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Director John Ford, who was also a Rear Admiral in the Navy Reserve, 1952. US Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Frank Capra

Described as: “Hollywood’s most sought-after director of the 1930s.” He is cited as establishing the screwball comedy as a genre, though his subsequent films, focused on more serious social or historical issues, and revolved around a formula: “an honest and idealistic hero encounters problems from corrupt men and institutions but ultimately prevails.”

Best known for: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)

Most underrated movie: Meet John Doe (1941)—produced with an independent filmmaker, after a dispute with the Hollywood studios about directors having artistic control over their work

You may be surprised to learn that: The Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s personal favorite, although it was initially unpopular with both critics and the public.

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 6

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 3

Frank Capra cuts Army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II, circa 1943. US Army. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Frank Capra cuts Army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II, circa 1943. US Army. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

William Wyler

Described as: “Having a sympathetic approach to performance and an ability to create focused, dramatic moments.” He was praised for his careful handling of potentially incendiary themes and characters.

Best known for: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959) Funny Girl (1968)

Most underrated movie: The Children’s Hour (1961)

You may be surprised to learn that: With the United States in WWII in 1942, Wyler volunteered to make films for the armed forces. As an army major (later, lieutenant colonel), he produced two 16mm color films under combat conditions, serving as one of his own cinematographers (he ended the war permanently deaf in one ear as a result). The more notable of the two, Memphis Belle (1944), documented a B-17 bomber’s twenty-fifth and final mission over Germany

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 12

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 3

Movie poster for The Heiress (1949). CC BY 2.0 via Nesster Flickr.

Movie poster for The Heiress (1949). CC BY 2.0 via Nesster Flickr.

Robert Altman

Described as: “Idiosyncratic” and “iconoclastic”. His directorial style is known for its episodic storytelling, overlapping dialogue, and frequent improvisation.

Best known for: M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975) and, more recently, The Player (1992)

Most underrated movie: Gosford Park (2001)

You may be surprised to learn that: The mellowness of A Prairie Home Companion may have reflected Altman’s recognition and final acceptance of mortality. Already suffering from cancer at the time of its release, he had been in precarious health since undergoing a heart transplant a decade earlier

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 5

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 0 (But M*A*S*H was recognized for best screenplay)

Publicity photo of Robert Altman, AP News, 1983. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Publicity photo of Robert Altman, AP News, 1983. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Discover the lives of more than 18,700 men and women – from all eras and walks of life – who have influenced American history and culture in the acclaimed American National Biography Online. To supplement the thousands of biographies, many of which feature an image or illustration, Oxford is proud to announce a partnership with the Smithsonian that makes nearly 100 portraits from the National Portrait Gallery available to ANB users.

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9. “There Is Hope for Europe” – The ESC 2014 and the return to Europe

By Philip V. Bohlman

4–10 May 2014. The annual Eurovision week offers Europeans a chance to put aside their differences and celebrate, nation against nation, the many ways in which music unites them. Each nation has the same opportunity—a “Eurosong” of exactly three minutes, performed by no more than six musicians or dancers, in the language of their choice, national or international—to represent Europe for a year. Since its founding in 1956, one of the deepest moments of the Cold War, as Soviet tanks prepared to enter Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) has provided a counterpoint to European politics, providing a moment when Europeans witnessed claims to a common Europeanness.

In early spring 2014, however, as the Ukraine crisis unfolded, the ESC seemed deaf to the deterioration of European politics. A few songs expressed soft nationalism; hardly any made more than a mild gesture toward human rights. Granted, the competitive run of most national entries—through local, regional, and then national competitions—began before the Ukraine crisis, before the occupation of the Maidan in Kyiv, the Russian annexation of the Crimea, and the violent turn of separatism in Eastern Ukraine. The Eurovision Song Contest, nonetheless, had lost its moral compass. It was veering dangerously close to irrelevance for a Europe in crisis.

The Trophy of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. Photo by Thomas Hanses (EBU). 10 May 2014 . © European Broadcasting Union.

The Trophy of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. Photo by Thomas Hanses (EBU). 10 May 2014 . © European Broadcasting Union.

All that changed during Eurovision week. Though Austria’s Conchita Wurst, the female persona of 25-year-old singer Tom Neuwirth, had captured the attention of many with her sincere flamboyance, she was favored by few and shunned by many, particularly the countries of Eastern Europe. As the evening of the Grand Finale arrived, however, few doubted that Conchita Wurst would emerge victorious, and many realized that their worst fears were about to be realized. Europe had found Conchita’s voice, and she truly did “Rise Like a Phoenix” from the stage of the Copenhagen Eurovision stage.

As I write this blogpost in the immediate wake of the Grand Finale, the explanations and evaluations of Conchita Wurst’s victory at the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest spread across the European media and beyond. Standing on stage in a gown bathed in golden glitter, the bearded Conchita sang powerfully and with full conviction that there was more at stake than finding the right formula for the winning song. “This night is dedicated to all who believe in peace and freedom,” she proclaimed upon receiving the trophy. Supporters and detractors alike saw the moment as evidence that the queering of the ESC had finally and fully come of age. Eurovision historian, Jan Feddersen, had predicted as much in the Berlin liberal newspaper, tageszeitung, the day before. The queering of the ESC had given common meaning to Europe. Feddersen writes: “One communicates throughout the year. What could be a greater cultural flow of Europeanness, even independent of the borders of the European Union” (taz.europa, 9 May 2014, p. 9).

The political and aesthetic trajectory of queering, of course, is precisely not to come of age, rather to engender and regender critical questions of identity and ideology. It is this moving with and beyond queering that Conchita Wurst’s victory signals. The winning song, “Rise Like a Phoenix,” provides, thus, an anthem of a Europe of post-queerness. The Eurosong and the tens of millions who embrace it as their own enter a European space opened by diversity.

Click here to view the embedded video.

In the months and years before Conchita Wurst’s victory on Saturday night, there were probably few grounds that would lead one to predict a winning song for Austria. The self-styled “Land of Music,” Austria simply could not figure out the Eurovision Song Contest. In recent years, it had sent wacky folk-like music and banal power ballads, only occasionally passing beyond the semi-final competitions. For much of the 2010s, Austria sent no entry at all. If Austria was perplexed about its musical presence in the ESC, Conchita Wurst was not. Born in Styria, Tom Neuwirth dedicated himself to a music of difference, a music that provoked, and a music that did political work. As the drag queen, Conchita Wurst (most readers will recognize “Wurst” as the German word for sausage, but in Austria, it is also commonly used in the phrase, “es ist mir wurst,” meaning “it’s all the same to me”), performs songs of action, directed against prejudice and mustered for diversity. There is no contradiction when queerness and nationalism occupy common ground, all the more in an Austria that provides shelter to a higher percentage of refugees than any other European nation. When Conchita remarked upon qualifying after the second semi-final on May 8, announcing proudly that “I’m going to do all I can for my country,” there was no irony.

The Eurovision Song Contest 2014 had found its voice. The ESC had returned to Europe. At a critical moment of struggle in Ukraine, when right-wing European political parties on the eve of European parliamentary elections are calling for their nations to retreat from Europe, the ESC has reclaimed its relevance, and it has done so by recognizing its historical foundations. In many ways, Conchita Wurst, performing as a transvestite, offers a less provocative stage presence than the transsexual Dana International, who won for Israel in 1998 and competed again in 2011. ESC queerness begins to demonstrate the attributes of a historical longue durée, and it is for these reasons that it elevates a music competition to a European level on which it is one of the most visible targets for official Russian homophobia and the violation of human rights elsewhere in Europe. It is a return to that history that “Rise Like a Phoenix” so powerfully signifies.

On Saturday night, there were other entries that took their place in the more diverse, post-queer Europe given new and different meaning by Conchita Wurst. Political meaning accrued to songs in which it had previously remained neutral (e.g., Pollapönk’s “No Prejudice” for Iceland, and Molly’s “Children of the Universe” for the United Kingdom). Several quite outstanding songs came to envoice a fragile Europe in need of change (e.g., Elaiza’s mixture of cabaret and klezmer in “Is It Right” for Germany, and András Kállay-Saunders’s “Running” for Hungary). Kállay-Saunders transformed the narrative of an abused child to a call for action in European human rights. The son of Pharaoh Saunders, Kállay-Saunders is a stunning presence on stage, an African American Hungarian, calling attention to the violation of human rights while representing a nation sliding to the right, so much so that many Hungarian artists, musicians, and intellectuals (e.g., András Schiff) will not enter their homeland.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

On Sunday morning, 11 May, the Berlin tageszeitung opened its lead article on the Eurovision Song Contest with the celebratory claim, “there is hope for Europe.” It is perhaps too early to claim that we are witnessing music and nationalism in a new key. From early April until the Grand Finale, I gave a regular series of newspaper, radio, and television interviews in Germany, where I currently teach as Franz Rosenzweig Professor at the University of Kassel, and I realize only now that my own observations about nationalism and the ESC underwent radical change, all the more as Conchita Wurst brought a new Europe into focus (see, e.g., the interview with the Austrian-German-Swiss network, 3sat, just before the Grand Finale). The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) itself had predicted 120 million viewers, but estimates the day after the Grand Finale raised the number to 180 million, a fifty-percent increase. Nationalisms proliferate often; rarely do they subside. In the Ukraine crisis, each side accuses the other of being nationalistic, laying claim to their own right to be nationalistic. These are the nationalisms in the old key, collapsing in upon themselves. In contrast it may be a quality of a post-queer Eurovision Song Contest that it can foster a nationalism of tolerance and diversity, and that its song for Europe truly rises like a phoenix, enjoining the many rather than the few to join the chorus.

Philip V. Bohlman is Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago. Currently, he serves as Franz Rosenzweig Professor at the University of Kassel, and on the editorial board of Grove Music Online. He writes widely on music and nationalism, most recently Focus: Music, Nationalism, and the Making of the New Europe (Routledge 2011). He is writing the book, Music after Nationalism, for Oxford University Press, a project for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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10. A different Noah, but the same God

By Y. S. Chen

Aronofsky’s Noah movie has aroused many criticisms for the ways it has rewritten the biblical story of the Flood. It is observed that not only has the movie added extra materials to, as well as removed original elements from, the biblical account, but more seriously it has also modified and darkened the character of Noah and even of God.

The degree by which the movie has adapted the biblical story and the characterisations of the characters has offended the religious and theological sensibilities of many who have watched the movie that others who haven’t watched it are reluctant or refuse to watch it.

In analyzing the rewriting of the biblical account, one can point out several factors involved: interpretation, elaboration, engagement with contemporary issues, exploration of certain biblical and theological issues, and dramatic representations.

The movie has faithfully followed the Bible by interpreting the Flood from a moralistic perspective. It has highlighted the violence of Cain’s descendents, especially in their brutal killing and devouring of animals.

By contrast, Noah’s family is depicted as herbivore, which is evidently based on the fact that the permission to eat animals was only given by God after the Flood in the biblical account. The emphasis the movie gives to this issue suggests that the producer intends to engage viewers on relevant issues such as food production and consumption in modern society.

Click here to view the embedded video.

There are a number of instances where the movie has creatively interpreted the Bible to make the Flood story more coherent, believable, or dramatic. For example, to connect the Flood with the creation, the movie has portrayed Noah dropping the magic seed (presumably brought from the Garden of Eden) in the barren soil. This instantly brought out an Eden-like eco-system, from which Noah drew resources to build his ark.

The movie also portrays six stone colossi–the Watchers (possibly based on the Nephilims in the Book of Genesis)–helping Noah and his family build the ark and defend them from the hostile people. Without such superhuman assistance, it would be difficult, in the view of the movie maker, to fathom how they could have achieved the task and have done so without interruption from the hostile people. Furthermore, the animals in the ark were put in hibernation mode under the effect of the herbal medicine in order to ensure that they would stay still and don’t have to devour each other.

The most salient divergence between the Bible and the movie is how Noah is characterised in relation to God and his family. This divergence starts to unfold in the movie when Noah obeyed God and only chose to take his three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth), his wife, and their adopted daughter (Ila) into the ark (whereas in the biblical account, God commanded Noah to take his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, which Noah did).

This act of obedience leads to the following conflict between Noah and his family. Though Shem and Ila were in love, Ila was barren. As far as Noah could see, despite the family was spared from the Flood, without the ability to reproduce it (and the entire human race) would not be able to carry on. Ham, seized by the fear of not being able to have a spouse and children, approached Noah for solutions. Noah responded by saying that he trusted that God would provide. But facing reality, he acquiesced when Ham decided to go out to search for a wife.

NoahThough the search seemed successful at first, the girl whom Ham planned to bring on board was caught in an animal trap and had to be abandoned in order for Noah and Ham to flee from the approaching crowd who tried to kill them. The resentment Ham harboured against Noah eventually led him to allow Tubal-Cain to remain hiding in the ark and even to conspire with the latter to kill his father as an act of revenge for abandoning his prospective wife. Clearly, this episode is a creative rewriting of the Flood story in an attempt to explain the obscure tension between Noah and Ham and his son Canaan, as in the Genesis.

As Ila’s barrenness was healed through the blessing of Noah’s grandfather Methuselahand she became pregnant through Shem, the movie shows another clash between Noah and his family. For Noah, having the offspring went against God’s will which seems to terminate the human race. As an act of obedience to God’s command, he tried to kill his two granddaughters Ila gave birth to, regardless of the bitter petition and opposition of the rest of the family. It was only in the last moment when he raised the knife over his granddaughters that his mind changed because his heart was suddenly full of love for them.

Some reviewers argue that Noah misinterpreted God’s will in the movie and became a cold-blooded monster and a religious fanatic. But those who are versed in the Book of Genesis would recognise that the movie is trying to explore a crucial theme in biblical religion: obedience by transporting the story of testing of Abraham into the story of Noah (though this merging has created some problem with the coherence of the movie).

Notice the parallel between Sarah and Ila who were barren at first and then were given the ability to conceive. And just like Isaac to Abraham, the two granddaughters were provided by God, presumably as prospective wives for Ham and Japheth, to extend the family line of Noah and the rest of humanity. As in God’s testing of Abraham, in the movie it seems that God’s testing of Noah’s obedience only concluded when Noah was just about to kill his granddaughters. Similar to the biblical account of the offering of Isaac, the movie tries to explore the extent by which one has to be willing to sacrifice in order to obey God’s will.

Fujishima Takeji - Sunrise over the Eastern Sea - Google Art ProjectThe fact that, unlike the biblical story of Abraham, there was no apparent divine voice to guide or command Noah makes the testing more real and acute. Though Noah didn’t end up killing his granddaughters, his relationship with his family was seriously damaged (a consequence which is not addressed in the biblical story of Abraham).

As a result of his alienation from his family, he resorted to alcoholism—a creative interpretation of the episode of Noah’s drunkenness after the Flood in the Book of Genesis. All of these prove the price or cost Noah was willing to, and indeed did pay for his radical obedience to God.

The innovative ways the Noah movie has rewritten the biblical Flood story may be new, and even disturbing, to many modern viewers. But for those who are acquainted with post-biblical traditions and interpretations, such style of rewriting biblical stories was common, especially during the Second Temple period (516 BC–AD 70), see James Kugel, Traditions of the Bible (1998). For example, in the Testament of Abraham (Recension A) , the biblical figure of Abraham was recharacterised in the light of Moses, Elijah and Elisha to address the theological issues of divine justice and mercy. The ways the Noah movie has adapted the Bible may be unfamiliar to the modern audience, but the central issue it addresses is fundamentally biblical (see also the teaching of Jesus on the cost of discipleship).

If the Noah in the movie is no longer the same Noah as found in the Bible it is because in the latter half of the movie he began to behave like Abraham; the God in the movie, however, remains the same.

This is the God who abhors sin and wickedness, who would purge corruption by drastic measures in order to preserve his creation and his chosen people, and who is ready to test the limits of the obedience of his followers in order, ultimately, not to harm, but to give them hope and a future.

Y. S. Chen is Research Fellow in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His recent research focuses on the conceptual, literary and socio-political processes and mechanisms through which ancient Mesopotamian and biblical traditions related to the origins of the world and early world history developed. His monograph The Primeval Flood Catastrophe: Origins and Early Development in Mesopotamian Traditions was published through Oxford University Press (2013).

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Image credit: Noah’s Ark By Sakotch. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) By FUJISHIMA Takeji (1867 – 1943). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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11. The Normal Heart and the resilience of the AIDS generation

By Perry N. Halkitis

On 25 May 2014 and nearly 30 years after first appearing on the stage, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart will be aired as a film on HBO. This project, which has evolved over the course of the last three decades, documents those first few harrowing years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. The Normal Heart debuts at a time when much attention is being cast upon the early days of AIDS and the lives of gay men, who survived the physical and emotional onslaught of this disease in a society that often shunned us because we were gay and because we were afflicted with this disease.

Now a generation of gay men, my generation—the AIDS Generation—stands proudly as testament to our individual and collective resilience which has brought us all into middle age. Certainly there have been huge hurdles along the way—too many deaths to enumerate, the havoc that the complications of this disease wreaked on our bodies, the lack of support. Even today, darkness and disrespect lurks in every corner, and no one is immune. For some in our society, identifying what is wrong with us as gay men comes to easily. We are reminded of it daily as right wing zealots fight against marriage equality, as young boys take their lives. Despite these conditions, despite the inaction of our national and local politicians, and despite a large yet ever-shrinking segment of our society that continues to view us as weak and sick, we stand together as a testament to the fortitude of our bodies, minds, and spirits.

The theme of resistance or resilience permeates the words, the thoughts, and the actions of the protagonists in The Normal Heart and many depictions of the AIDS epidemic.

Taylor Kitsch as GMHC President President Burce Niles in HBO's The Normal Heart. (c) HBO via thenormalheart.hbo.com

Taylor Kitsch as GMHC President President Burce Niles in HBO’s The Normal Heart. (c) HBO via thenormalheart.hbo.com

Behavioral and psychological literature has attempted to delineate sources of resilience. Dr. Gail Wagnild posits that social supports in the form of families and communities foster resilience in individuals. I also adhere to this idea. Although the sources of resilience are still debated in the literature, there is general agreement that resilience is a means of maintaining or regaining mental health in response to adversity the ability to respond to and/or cope with stressful situations such as trauma, conditions that characterize the life of the men of the AIDS Generation.

For many of the men of the AIDs Generation, grappling with their sexuality was closely tied to the development of their resilience. In other words, resilience developed in their childhoods as young men grappling with their sexuality as stated by Christopher: “I also think that wrestling with my own sexuality and trying to navigate through that in my teenage years taught me how to just ‘keep pushing’ and to do what needed to be done.” Some, including myself, found support among our families. Even if parents were loving and supportive, this did not ameliorate the burdens experienced being raised in a heteronormative and often-discriminatory world in which men were portrayed as weak, effeminate, and sickly.

As we watch The Normal Heart, we will be reminded of those dark, confusing early days of the epidemic. And while we must celebrate the resilience of a generation of gay men to fight this disease, we must also be reminded of our obligation to create a better world for a new generation of gay men, who despite our social and medical advances, need the love and support of their community of elders as the navigate the course of their lives.

Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH is Professor of Applied Psychology and Public Health (Steinhardt School), and Population Health (Langone School of Medicine), Director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies, and Associate Dean (Global Institute of Public Health) at New York University. Dr. Halkitis’ program of research examines the intersection between the HIV epidemic, drug abuse, and mental health burden in LGBT populations, and he is well known as one of the nation’s leading experts on substance use and HIV behavioral research. He is the author of The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. Follow him on Twitter @DrPNHalkitis.

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12. Why we watch the Tony Awards

By Liz Wollman

Awards season bring out everyone’s inner analyst. The moment that nominations are announced, everyone starts trying to figure out what the list of nominees says about the state of whatever medium is being lauded. During the Grammy, Emmy, Academy, and Tony Awards seasons, critics use the nominees to analyze the state of the art, fans align themselves in solidarity behind performers both honored and snubbed, and everyone rushes to hear or see whatever they have missed.

Then, during the awards shows, journalists, bloggers, scholars and fans take to their couches, and break the Internet with rapid-fire opinions about every damn thing on the screen. The next morning, talk centers on who wore what and who said what and who deserved what. People dish in the office and on the phone and on the web. And then, by midweek, no one cares anymore and we’ve all moved on.

While the Tonys (airing this year on Sunday, 8 June at 8 p.m. on CBS) are never watched by as many people as are the Academy Awards, the Emmys, or the Grammys (or even the Country Music Awards, which attracted nearly double the audience of the Tonys in 2013), the same rules apply. This year, Tony talk is particularly fevered because the nominations seem so random. Since late April, journalists, bloggers, and — ahem — scholars have weighed in on what this strange roster says about the sanity of the nominating committee, the implications of the current season for the future of the industry, and, of course, what it means for the State of Commercial Theater in New York.

I’ve seen many of the shows that were nominated this year, along with quite a few that were not, and I can assert — with scholarly authority — that I have absolutely no idea who is going to win anything, or what this year’s nominations say about the State of Commercial Theater in New York or, indeed, on Earth. Don’t believe anyone who claims they do.

Some background: Last year, many nominations went to a relative handful of commercially and critically successful shows like Matilda, Kinky Boots, and Pippin. This year’s list features no clear frontrunners and does not cluster around a handful of top-grossing productions or clear standout performances.

Maybe that is because this year has been comparatively disappointing, at least as far as monster-hit musicals go. The most anticipated spectacles — Rocky, If/Then, and The Bridges of Madison County — failed to connect solidly with critics or audiences. (To be fair, Rocky seems to have connected with people who enjoy watching half-naked guys belt out tunes while punching meat and other half-naked guys. I suppose that counts for something?) As a result, nominations in the Best Musical category went to shows that were reasonably well-received—like Beautiful and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder—if not critically or commercially ecstatic or particularly aesthetically groundbreaking.

The cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, nominated for Best Musical, photo by Joan Marcus, via BeautifulonBroadway.com

The cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, nominated for Best Musical, photo by Joan Marcus, via BeautifulonBroadway.com

As for plays, while one was completely shut out (Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses), most have gotten at least a few nods, if not for best play or revival, then for actress, actor, or supporting roles. The biggest surprise to some is the clutch of nominations that went to the Shakespeare’s Globe all-male Twelfth Night, a big hit this past fall. This is particularly big news to people who presume that (a) Broadway audiences are morons, (b) Tony voters are morons, or (c) Shakespeare was a moron.

The other big surprise was the omission of Denzel Washington and Daniel Radcliffe from the Best Leading Actor in a Play category. This might have more to do with the large number of prominent male roles on offer this year than anything else, though New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley gamely suggested recently that Radcliffe and Washington were passed over because they are so very, very good in their roles. Sure, Ben, whatever.

Here’s the thing: While I am sure Radcliffe and Washington were irked by the oversight — along with the producers of If/Then and Rocky and Bridges of Madison County and the rest of the snubbed — the Tonys don’t matter. At least not in the way that people seem to want them to matter.

The awards themselves say nothing, in the long run, about the State of Commercial Theater in New York or, indeed, on Earth. The awards ceremony is meaningful. The actual winning and losing? Not so much. What makes any awards ceremony important is the care and love people put into it. For better or worse, we Americans are world-famous for our commercial entertainment, and in honoring it, we celebrate ourselves.

Tonys are particularly sweet because they give us a break from endless laments about how the theater is dead or dying, too expensive, too inaccessible. For a few weeks in the late spring, we get to celebrate the very fact that Broadway continues to matter at all, regardless of what kind of season it’s been or who walks away with laurels.

So instead of offering a list of predictions, I will tell you what I am hoping to see and celebrate during the festivities on 8 June 2014:

(1)  Audra McDonald

The ludicrously talented McDonald could become the first performer to win six Tonys for acting. Also, since Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is being considered as a play and not a musical, McDonald could also become the first person to win a Tony in each of the four acting categories (she’s won in the past for Best Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, and Best Featured Actress in a Play). This would be great to see, it’s certainly well deserved, and as an added extra, I bet some lucky contractor will be hired to expand her mantelpiece, yet another way that commercial theater boosting the city’s economy! When Audra wins, everybody wins. And if she doesn’t win this year, you can bet she’ll still perform during the broadcast and be typically thrilling, so no one will suffer overmuch one way or the other.

(2) Kelli O’Hara

Like McDonald, O’Hara has been astounding us for quite a while. I would pay to watch her knit a scarf. She even managed to convince me that The Bridges of Madison County — a loathsome novel made into an even more loathsome movie — actually has a right to exist. But unlike McDonald, O’Hara has yet to take home a Tony, which is absolutely unacceptable. O’Hara has been nominated for Best Actress in Musical five times. If she doesn’t win this time around, I can’t promise I won’t fly into an uncontrollable rage and take out my frustration on some poor, unsuspecting soul, probably Robert James Waller.

(3)  Mark Rylance

Rylance is nominated for Best Actor (Richard III) and Best Actor in a Featured Role (Twelfth Night). Both times he won in the past, he recited verses by the Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins in lieu of a formal acceptance speech. The poems are irreverent and sweet and often hilarious, and so is Rylance. I hope we get to hear another. Again, though, if he doesn’t win this time, we’ll all survive.

Mark Rylance (left) and Stephen Fry (right) appear in the Shakespeare's Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, via Shakespeare Broadway.

Samuel Barnett (left) and Liam Brennan (right) appear in the Shakespeare’s Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, via Shakespeare Broadway.

(4) Actors Who Got the Shaft

Last year, Alan Cumming (Macbeth) and Scarlett Johansson (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) weren’t nominated, but they showed up for the awards ceremony anyway; so did Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane when they were passed over for their work in The Addams Family in 2010. They joked about their respective slights before graciously reading the nominations and handing out trophies. Their grace and aplomb remind us that theater is as often a collaborative art form that depends on trust and sharing as it is a vicious snake-pit of betrayal and recrimination. I hope that Denzel Washington, Daniel Radcliffe, Ian McKellan, and Patrick Stewart all get invited to hand out hardware, and agree to do so, setting aside any ego for the night. Bonus points if Captain Picard and Gandalf appear in their bowler hats, holding hands.

(5)  Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman

If these two men took over the world and repopulated it entirely with their love-children, no one would mind. I hope they hold a fabulous throw-down, judged by the equally awesome and beloved Lin-Manuel Miranda.

In sum: this year’s scattershot nominations make predicting winners tough, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Tony ceremony is going to be on the TV, and I’ll be watching (and snarking, and snacking, and tweeting) with a couple million other people. That strikes me as cause enough for celebration.

Liz Wollman is Assistant Professor of Music at Baruch College in New York City, and author of The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City.

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Image credits: Poster for Twelfth Night and Richard III from Shakespeare Broadway. Photo of cast of Beautiful by Joan Marcus, via BeautifulonBroadway.com.

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13. Behind-the-scenes tour of film musical history

As Richard Barrios sees it, movie musicals can go one way or the other — some of them end up as cultural touchstones, and others as train wrecks. In his book Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter, Barrios goes behind-the-scenes to uncover the backstories of these fabulous hits and problematic (if not exactly forgettable) flops. In the slideshow below, take a tour through some of the great movie musicals — and some insight into life on set.

  • Can't Stop the Music



    Can’t or won’t? The wonder that is Can’t Stop the Music, with the Village People, Valerie Perrine, Bruce Jenner, Steve Guttenberg, and way too much badly used supporting talent. In an awful way, however, it sort of was the movie music of the ’80s. Film poster for Can't Stop the Music, Associated Film Distribution.

  • The Sound of Music cast



    An informal portrait of the Von Trapp family, in the persons of Kym Karath, Debbie Turner, Angela Cartwright, Duane Chase, Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond, Charmian Carr, and proud sort-of-parents Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Yes, it’s as relentless as it is cheery—and, for many, resistance will be futile. Publicity photo for The Sound of Music, Twentieth Century Fox.

  • “It’s Gershwin! It’s Glorious!”



    So said the ads for Porgy and Bess—even as this stiff and rather stagy shot of Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier reveals the other part of the equation. The tin roof and peeling plaster look way calculated, everything’s spotless, and the camera isn’t willing to get too close. Screen still of Porgy and Bess, Samuel Goldwyn Films.

  • Hello, Dolly!



    Not all of the massive quantity of the marathon “When the Parade Passes By” sequence in Hello, Dolly! lay in its cost. Nor in the number of people, of which only a tiny fraction is seen here. It also came musically, with Barbara Streisand singing (or syncing) what the publicity department calling the “the longest note of any movie musical.” Anybody got a stopwatch? Screen shot from Hello, Dolly!, Twentieth Century Fox.

  • The Four Stars of Guys and Dolls



    On the screen and in the photo studio, the four leads frequently seemed like they had all been compartmentalized in some fashion. Brando seemed a tad offhand, Simmons gorgeous and radiant, Sinatra disjunct, Blaine working it. So they are seen here, and so they are through the film. Screen shot from Guys and Dolls, Samuel Goldwyn Films.

  • Astaire and Crawford in Dancing Lady



    In Dancing Lady, Fred Astaire spends a fair amount of his first film working hard to be a proper partner to Joan Crawford. Here, in “Heigh-Ho the Gang’s All Here,” the strain almost shows. Screen shot from Dancing Lady, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

  • Gene Kelly in Cover Girl



    Gene Kelly, as dogged by Gene Kelly, performs the “Alter Ego” sequence in Cover Girl. This is a photographically tricked-up evocation, yet it still shows the scene for what it is—one of the most striking moments in 1940s musical cinema. Screen shot from Cover Girl, Sony Pictures Entertainment.

  • My Fair Lady



    The singularly formal stylization of My Fair Lady on film is adored by some and irksome to others. Here, an on-the-set shot of Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison gives a good representation of many of Fair Lady’s components—the style, the stiffness, the wit, the calculation. Publicity photo from My Fair Lady, Warner Brothers.

    Richard Barrios worked in the music and film industries before turning to film history with the award-winning A Song in the Dark and his recent book on the history of movie musicals Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter. He lectures extensively and appears frequently on television and in film and DVD documentaries. Born in the swamps of south Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York City, he now lives in bucolic suburban Philadelphia.

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  • 14. Psychodrama, cinema, and Indonesia’s untold genocide

    Film is a powerful tool for teaching international criminal law and increasing public awareness and sensitivity about the underlying crimes. Roberta Seret, President and Founder of the NGO at the United Nations, International Cinema Education, has identified four films relevant to the broader purposes and values of international criminal justice and over the coming weeks she will write a short piece explaining the connections as part of a mini-series. This is the first one.


    By Roberta Seret

    American director, Joshua Oppenheimer, has merged theatre, psychology, and film in his innovative documentary, The Act of Killing, Jagal in Indonesian, meaning Butcher. (BAFTA Award for Best Documentary of 2013.)

    We are taken to Indonesia 1965 when more than 500,000 citizens and thousands of Chinese residents were massacred because they were communists or communist sympathizers or born Chinese.

    By 1965, there were 3 million communists in Indonesia and they had the strongest communist party outside the Soviet Union and China. During this time, the political and economic situation throughout the Archipelago was unstable with an annual inflation of 600% and impoverished living conditions. General Soeharto overthrew Soekarno, took control of the army and government, and led a ruthless anti-communist purge.

    For eight years (2003-2011), director Joshua Oppenheimer, lived in Indonesia, learned the language, and set himself to expose in cinema this untold genocide.

    The Act of Killing recreates scenes of mass execution in Indonesia from 1965-66. The main actor, Anwar Congo, and his auxiliary protagonist, Adi Zulkadry, are perpetrators from the past who re-enact their crimes. In reality, during 1965, they were both gangsters who were promoted from selling black market movies to leading death squads in North Sumatra. Anwar, before the camera, boasts that he killed approximately 1,000 people by strangling them with wire. “Less blood that way. Less smell,” he reminisces with a smile.

    The initial question for the director is what structure to choose for his documentary? How to recreate this history 47 years later on the screen to viewers who will learn about these horrors for the first time?

    Oppenheimer has been influenced by Luigi Pirandello’s structure as found in the play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Pirandello’s theatre of a play within a play merges drama and psychology (psychodrama/ group therapy). And Oppenheimer, a true master, takes this form to cinema. He becomes the leader, director of the action, and asks questions to his actors so they can re-enact the history. In turn, the actors use props and improvisation to respond. Scenes unfold in unpredictable ways and the actors, without realizing it, are taken back to the past. This structure of psychodrama is the director’s secret vehicle to open up the subconscious of his characters and free their suppressed memory.

    For Oppenheimer, as for Pirandello almost 100 years before, it is Art that becomes a conduit for Truth. It is Art that reveals the Reality between the Self and the outside world. Oppenheimer has achieved this on a stage while filming his actors. He uses Pirandello’s role playing and re-experiencing to expose the truth to the actors and to the world about Indonesia’s horrific genocide and impunity for such crimes.

    After Anwar and his co-actors voyage deep into their past, we see them as they see themselves – criminals with blood on their hands, monsters overwhelmed with fear that the ghosts of the past will curse them.

    At the end of the journey, Anwar becomes victim. The act of filming the act of killing has made him realize the 1,000 deaths he had committed. The line between acting and reality becomes blurred and there is only one Truth that emerges.

    Anwar’s last scene is his response to this intense journey. He gives us a guilt-ridden soliloquy reminiscent of Shakespeare and a scene of vomiting where he tries to purge himself of his victims’ blood. Oppenheimer does not rush this scene. He lets the power of film take over as the camera documents for history the criminal’s realization that he is a Butcher of Humanity.

    Roberta Seret is the President and Founder of International Cinema Education, an NGO based at the United Nations. Roberta is the Director of Professional English at the United Nations with the United Nations Hospitality Committee where she teaches English language, literature and business to diplomats. In the Journal of International Criminal Justice, Roberta has written a longer ‘roadmap’ to Margarethe von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt. To learn more about this new subsection for reviewers or literature, film, art projects or installations, read her extension at the end of this editorial.

    The Journal of International Criminal Justice aims to promote a profound collective reflection on the new problems facing international law. Established by a group of distinguished criminal lawyers and international lawyers, the journal addresses the major problems of justice from the angle of law, jurisprudence, criminology, penal philosophy, and the history of international judicial institutions.

    Oxford University Press is a leading publisher in international law, including the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, latest titles from thought leaders in the field, and a wide range of law journals and online products. We publish original works across key areas of study, from humanitarian to international economic to environmental law, developing outstanding resources to support students, scholars, and practitioners worldwide. For the latest news, commentary, and insights follow the International Law team on Twitter @OUPIntLaw.

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    15. 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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    16. 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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    17. 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.


    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.


    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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    18. 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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    19. 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.


    (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.


    (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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    20. 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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    21. 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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    22. 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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    23. 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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    24. 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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    25. “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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