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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: TV & Film, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Cinematic tragedies for the intractable issues of our times

Tragedies certainly aren’t the most popular types of performances these days. When you hear a film is a tragedy, you might think “outdated Ancient Greek genre, no thanks!” Back in those times, Athenians thought it their civic duty to attend tragic performances of dramas like Antigone or Agammemnon. Were they on to something that we have lost in contemporary Western society? That there is something specifically valuable in a tragic performance that a spectator doesn’t get from other types or performances, such as those of our modern genres of comedy, farce, and melodrama?

Since films reach a greater audience in our culture than plays, after updating Aristotle’s Poetics for the twenty-first century, we analyzed what we call “cinematic tragedies”: films that demonstrate the key components of Aristotelian tragedy. We conclude that a tragedy must consist in the representation of an action that is: (1) complete; (2) serious; (3) probable; (4) has universal significance; (5) involves a reversal of fortune (from good to bad); (6) includes recognition (a change in epistemic state from ignorance to knowledge); (7) includes a specific kind of irrevocable suffering (in the form of death, agony or a terrible wound); (8) has a protagonist who is capable of arousing compassion; and (9) is performed by actors. The effects of the tragedy must include: (10) the arousal in the spectator of pity and fear; and (11) a resolution of pity and fear that is internal to the experience of the drama.

Unlike melodrama (which we hold is the most common film genre), tragedy calls on spectators to ponder thorny moral issues and to navigate them with their own moral compass. One such cinematic tragedy — Into The Wild, 2007, directed by Sean Penn — thematizes the preciousness and precariousness of human life alongside environmental problems, raising questions about human beings’ apparent inability to live on earth without despoiling the beauty and integrity of the biosphere. Other cinematic tragedies deal with a variety of problems with which our modern societies must grapple.

One such topic is illegal immigration, a highly politicized issue that is far more complex than national governments seem equipped to handle, especially beyond the powers of the two parties in the American system. Cinematic tragedies that deal with this issue have been produced over several decades involving immigration into various Western countries, especially the United States; these include Black Girl (France, 1966), El norte (US/UK, 1983), and Sin nombre (Mexico, 2009), the last of which we will expand on here.

Paulina Gaitan (left) and Edgar Flores (right) star in writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga's epic dramatic thriller Sin Nombre, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Cary Joji Fukunaga via Focus Features
Paulina Gaitan (left) and Edgar Flores (right) star in writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s epic dramatic thriller Sin Nombre, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Cary Joji Fukunaga via Focus Features

In US director Cary Fukunaga’s Sin nombre (which means “Nameless” but which was released in the United States under the Spanish title), Hondurans escaping from their harsh political and economic realities risk their lives in order to make it to the United States, through Mexico, on the tops of rail cars. They travel in this manner since, as we all know, there would be no other legal way for most of these foreign citizens to come to the United States. Over the course of the journey, the immigrants endure terrible suffering or die at the hands of gang members who rob, rape, and even kill some of them.

The film focuses on just a few of the multitudes atop the trains: on a teenage Honduran girl, Sayra, migrating with her father and uncle; and on a few of the gang members. One of them, Casper, has had a change of heart and is no longer loyal to the gang, after its leader killed Casper’s girlfriend after trying to rape her. Casper and other gang members are atop the train robbing the migrants, but he defends Sayra by killing the leader when he tries to rape her. Ultimately, Sayra will arrive in the United States. However, she realizes that the cost has been too great—her father has died falling off of the train; she has lost Casper who is, ironically, shot to death by the pre-pubescent boy whom he himself had trained in the ways of the gang in the opening scenes of the film.

The tremendous losses, and the scenes of suffering, rape, and murder, make unlikely the possibility that the spectator will feel that Sayra’s arrival constitutes a happy ending. In some other aesthetic treatment, Casper’s ultimate death might have been melodramatized as redemptive selflessness for the sake of his new girlfriend. But in Fukunaga’s film, the juxtaposed images imply a continuing cycle of despair and death: Casper’s young killer in Mexico is promoted up the ranks of the gang with a new tattoo, while Sayra’s uncle, back in Honduras after being deported from Mexico, starts the voyage to the United States all over again. Sayra too may face deportation in the future. Following the scene of the reinvigoration of the criminal gang system, as its new young leader gets his first tattoo, the viewer sees Sayra outside a shopping mall in the American southwest. The teenage girl has arrived in the United States and may aspire to participate in advanced consumer capitalism, yet she has lost so much and suffered so undeservingly.

This aesthetic juxtaposition prompts the spectator to attend to the failure of Western political leaders to create a humane system of immigration for the twenty-first century, one which cannot be reached with the entrenched politicized views of the “two sides of the aisle” who miss the human story of immigrants’ plight. This film—like all tragedies—promotes the spectator’s active pondering, that is, it challenges them to respond in some way.

In the tradition of philosophers as various as Aristotle, Seneca, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Martha Nussbaum, and Bernard Williams, we find that tragedies bring to conscious awareness the most significant moral, social, political, and existential problems of the human condition. A film such as Sin nombre, through its tragic performance, points to one of these terrible necessities with which our contemporary Western culture must grapple. While it doesn’t offer an answer, this cinematic tragedy prompts us to recognize and deal with a seemingly intractable problem that needs to move beyond the current impasse of political debate, as we in the industrialized nations continue to shop for and watch movies in the comfort of our malls.

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2. Celebrating Julie Andrews

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Disney’s beloved film Mary Poppins, starring the legendary Julie Andrews. Although Andrews was only twenty-nine at the time of the film’s release, she had already established herself as a formidable star with numerous credits to her name and performances opposite Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, and other leading actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Mary Poppins would earn Andrews an Academy Award for Best Actress and serve as a milestone in a career that continues today. Herewith are some of our favorite songs from Andrew’s illustrious career.

Mary-Poppins_Movie-Poster

“I Could Have Danced All Night”
Andrews belted out this song in the 1956 Broadway performance of My Fair Lady. Andrews proved her singing capabilities playing Eliza Doolittle opposite Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins, although she was replaced in the film version (with Audrey Hepburn acting and Marni Nixon dubbing).

“Camelot”
Andrews performed the play’s title track during its 1960 performance on Broadway. The actress played Queen Guenevere – a title she was apparently comfortable with, later playing Queen Renaldi in Disney’s Princess Diaries – opposite Richard Burton as King Arthur.

“Impossible; It’s Possible”
Starring in another royal role, Andrews played the title character in CBS’ 1957 production of Cinderella, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”
People are still reciting this tongue twister performed by Andrews in Disney’s 1964 hit film Mary Poppins. In addition to earning her an Oscar, Andrews’ role as the angelic English Nanny cemented her name in silver screen history.

“My Favorite Things”
Hot on the heels of her success from Mary Poppins, Andrews starred as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, expanding her international fame and branding herself as a singer to be reckoned with in Hollywood and on Broadway.

Headline image credit: Mary Poppins Movie Poster via Panhandle Post.

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3. Barry, Bond, and music on film

Twenty-seven years ago, on 31 July 1987, James Bond returned to the screen in The Living Daylights, with Timothy Dalton as the new Bond. The film has a notable departure in the style of music, as composer John Barry decided that the film needed a new sound to match this reinvented Bond, and his love interest — a musician with dangerous ties. To celebrate the anniversary, here is a brief extract from The Music of James Bond by John Burlingame.

In the script, Bond is caught up in a complex plot involving high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) who is supposedly defecting to the West. Koskov’s girlfriend, Czech cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), is duped into helping him escape his KGB guards. A Greek terrorist named Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) then supervises his “abduction” from England and transport to the Tangiers estate of an American arms dealer (Joe Don Baker). Eventually Bond and Kara find themselves at a Soviet airbase in Afghanistan, where they meet a Mujahidin leader (Art Malik) who helps 007 thwart the plot.

Because the early portions of the story take place in Czechoslovakia and Austria, The Living Daylights crew shot for two weeks in Vienna, including all of the scenes where Kara is performing on her cello. Director John Glen recalled conferring with Barry about the classical music that would be heard in the film. “We listened to various pieces before we chose what we were going to use,” Glen said. “Obviously we needed something where the cello was featured strongly.” (They ended up with Mozart, Borodin, Strauss, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky.) They recorded the classical selections with Gert Meditz conducting the Austrian Youth Orchestra and then filmed the ensemble, using the prerecorded music as playback on the set.

Maryam d’Abo was filmed “playing” the cello during several of these scenes. “I started taking private lessons a month prior to the film,” she recalled. “I just learned the movements. They basically soaped the bow so there wasn’t any sound [from the instrument]. It was hard work; I could have done with a couple more weeks of lessons. They demanded a lot of strength. No wonder cellists start when they are eight years old.” The solo parts heard in the film were played by Austrian cellist Stefan Kropfitsch.

The Living Daylights Film Poster (c) MGM

The Living Daylights Film Poster (c) MGM

The actress, as Kara, “performs” with the orchestra in several scenes, notably at the end of the film when Barry himself is seen conducting Tchaikovsky’s 1877 Variations on a Rococo Theme and Kara is the soloist. It was filmed on October 15, 1986, at Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace. Recalled Glen: “It was very unusual for John—unlike a lot of other people who liked to appear in movies, John had never asked before—but on that film, he asked if he could appear. At the time, it struck me as a bit strange. It was almost a premonition that this was going to be his last Bond. I was happy to accommodate him, and he was eminently qualified to do it.”

In fact, Barry had done this once before, appearing on-screen as the conductor of a Madrid orchestra in Bryan Forbes’s Deadfall (1968). On that occasion, he was conducting his own music (a single-movement guitar concerto that was ingeniously written to double as dramatic music for a jewel robbery occurring simultaneously with the concert). This time, he was supposed to be conducting the “Lenin’s People’s Conservatoire Orchestra.”

D’Abo socialized with Barry in London, when the unit was shooting at Pinewood. (She later realized that she had already appeared in two Barry films: Until September and Out of Africa.) “John was there, working on the music,” she said. “He was just a joy to be around. I remember seeing him and having dinner with him and [his wife] Laurie, and John being so excited about writing the music. He was so adorable, saying ‘Your love scenes inspire me to write this romantic music.’ John was such a charmer with women.”

Jon Burlingame is the author of The Music of James Bond, now out in paperback with a new chapter on Skyfall. He is one of the nation’s leading writers on the subject of music for film and television. He writes regularly for Daily Variety and teaches film-music history at the University of Southern California. His other work has included three previous books on film and TV music; articles for other publications including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Premiere and Emmy magazines; and producing radio specials for Los Angeles classical station KUSC.

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4. Why you can’t take a pigeon to the movies

By Siu-Lan Tan


Films trick our senses in many ways. Most fundamentally, there’s the illusion of motion as “moving pictures” don’t really move at all. Static images shown at a rate of 24 frames per second can give the semblance of motion. Slower frame rates tend to make movements appear choppy or jittery. But film advancing at about 24 frames per second gives us a sufficient impression of fluid motion.

However, birds–such as pigeons–have a much higher threshold for detecting movement. A bird’s visual system is keenly sensitive to moving stimuli as this is essential to their survival. Whether swooping down to snatch live prey, fleeing from a predator, or zeroing in on a nest for a precise landing, birds must rely on their fine-tuned ability to hone in on moving targets. So the frame rate at which most of our films are shown is far too slow for birds to perceive continuous motion. Their threshold of visual processing exceeds the standard frame rate, allowing them to see component frames … and the illusion of motion pictures would be broken.

If a pigeon had been roosting in the theater where 19th century crowds first gaped at the Lumière Brothers’ steam train looming towards them, it may have been less than impressed — especially as early silent films were often played at only 16 frames per second.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Even a film shown at today’s industry standard of 24 frames per second would most likely look like a series of flashing slides to a pigeon. We’re mesmerized by Marilyn Monroe’s white skirts billowing over the subway grate in The Seven-Year Itch, but a pigeon may see something more like a slide show of the skirt in frozen increments.

Further, most humans cannot distinguish individual lights flashed at 60 cycles per second, perceiving instead a single continuous beam of light. This gives an impression of constant light while watching a film (despite the shutter actually shutting out light several times per frame). But birds have much higher critical flicker-fusion frequency, such as 90-100 cycles per second or higher (e.g., Lisney et al., 2011). So while humans do not perceive the flicker in a movie, a pigeon may see flashes like strobelights along with the jumpy frames of Marilyn’s airborne skirt.

One of the creepiest scenes in Hitchcock’s The Birds shows Melanie (Tippi Hedren) smoking on a bench in a school playground while birds are flocking on a jungle gym behind her. She finally spots a lone bird flying overhead and turns around to discover every rung of the jungle gym crowded with large black birds. Actually, Hitchcock used cardboard cut-outs for most of the “birds” on the jungle gym, figuring that most people would not notice these stationary objects if interspersed with live birds.

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Birds in a school playground in Hitchcock’s (1964) The Birds

Indeed, the illusion works on most of us. We are also often tricked by illusory “crowds” in films–made of real people and dummies, or multiple images of the same people patched together to make a “crowd”. However birds are especially observant of the movement of other birds–and combined with the much faster ‘refresh rate’ of the avian visual system (as their visual information is “updated” more frequently than humans)–the jungle gym scene would not likely fool any birds.

Studies suggest that birds do perceive some information via video images (using video at 30 frames per second). For instance, a video of wild chickens feeding elicits feeding in birds of the same species (McQuoid & Galef, 1993); videos showing a hawk or raccoon elicit aerial and ground alarm calls respectively in roosters (Evans, Evans, and Marler, 1993); and video images of female pigeons elicit courtship displays in male pigeons (Shimizu, 1998).

So birds seem to pick up some information from video images, at a somewhat higher frame rate and screen-refresh rate than film–though color may be distorted (Wright & Cumming, 1971), and gaps in movement and flicker are likely perceived (Lea & Dittrich, 1999). These discrepancies would be much more pronounced for moving images on cinematic film.

A fine-tuned visual system gives birds of prey an advantage when pursuing a fast-moving target. And it allows pigeons those few extra seconds to peck at grubs and seeds–and flap away at the last moment possible when your car approaches.

Feral Rock Dove. Photograph by Andrew D. Wilson. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Feral Rock Dove. Photograph by Andrew D. Wilson. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Nut their super-efficient processing of moving stimuli would make the cinematic experience as we know it less than spellbinding for the birds.

In conclusion: it’s interesting to note that film relies on certain limitations or imperfections of the human perceptual system for its magic to work!

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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5. The real story of allied nursing during the First World War

The anniversaries of conflicts seem to be more likely to capture the public’s attention than any other significant commemorations. When I first began researching the nurses of the First World War in 2004, I was vaguely aware of an increase in media attention: now, ten years on, as my third book leaves the press, I find myself astonished by the level of interest in the subject. The Centenary of the First World War is becoming a significant cultural event. This time, though, much of the attention is focussed on the role of women, and, in particular, of nurses. The recent publication of several nurses’ diaries has increased the public’s fascination for the subject. A number of television programmes have already been aired. Most of these trace journeys of discovery by celebrity presenters, and are, therefore, somewhat quirky – if not rather random – in their content. The BBC’s project, World War One at Home, has aired numerous stories. I have been involved in some of these – as I have, also, in local projects, such as the impressive recreation of the ‘Stamford Military Hospital’ at Dunham Massey Hall, Cheshire. Many local radio stories have brought to light the work of individuals whose extraordinary experiences and contributions would otherwise have remained hidden – women such as Kate Luard, sister-in-charge of a casualty clearing station during the Battle of Passchendaele; Margaret Maule, who nursed German prisoners-of-war in Dartford; and Elsie Knocker, a fully-trained nurse who established an aid post on the Belgian front lines. One radio story is particularly poignant: that of Clementina Addison, a British nurse, who served with the French Flag Nursing Corps – a unit of fully trained professionals working in French military field hospitals. Clementina cared for hundreds of wounded French ‘poilus’, and died of an unnamed infectious disease as a direct result of her work.

The BBC drama, The Crimson Field was just one of a number of television programmes designed to capture the interest of viewers. I was one of the historical advisers to the series. I came ‘on board’ quite late in the process, and discovered just how difficult it is to transform real, historical events into engaging drama. Most of my work took place in the safety of my own office, where I commented on scripts. But I did spend one highly memorable – and pretty terrifying – week in a field in Wiltshire working with the team producing the first two episodes. Providing ‘authentic background detail’, while, at the same time, creating atmosphere and constructing characters who are both credible and interesting is fraught with difficulty for producers and directors. Since its release this spring, The Crimson Field has become quite controversial, because whilst many people appear to have loved it, others complained vociferously about its lack of authentic detail. Of course, it is hard to reconcile the realities of history with the demands of popular drama.

Crimson Field
The Crimson Field poster, with permission from the BBC.

I give talks about the nurses of the First World War, and often people come up to me to ask about The Crimson Field. Surprisingly often, their one objection is to the fact that the hospital and the nurses were ‘just too clean’. This makes me smile. In these days of contract-cleaners and hospital-acquired infection, we have forgotten the meticulous attention to detail the nurses of the past gave to the cleanliness of their wards. The depiction of cleanliness in the drama was, in fact one of its authentic details.

One of the events I remember most clearly about my work on set with The Crimson Field is the remarkable commitment of director, David Evans, and leading actor, Hermione Norris, in recreating a scene in which Matron Grace Carter enters a ward which is in chaos because a patient has become psychotic and is attacking a padre. The matron takes a sedative injection from a nurse, checks the medication and administers the drug with impeccable professionalism – and this all happens in the space of about three minutes. I remember the intensity of the discussions about how this scene would work, and how many times it was ‘shot’ on the day of filming. But I also remember with some chagrin how, the night after filming, I realised that the injection technique had not been performed entirely correctly. I had to tell David Evans that I had watched the whole sequence six times without noticing that a mistake had been made. Some historical adviser! The entire scene had to be re-filmed. The end result, though, is an impressive piece of hospital drama. Norris looks as though she has been giving intramuscular injections all her life. I shall never forget the professionalism of the director and actors on that set – nor their patience with the absent-minded-professor who was their adviser for the week.

In a centenary year, it can be difficult to distinguish between myths and realities. We all want to know the ‘facts’ or the ‘truths’ about the First World War, but we also want to hear good stories – and it is all the better if those elide facts and enhance the drama of events – because, as human beings, we want to be entertained as well. The important thing, for me, is to fully realise what it is we are commemorating: the significance of the contributions and the enormity of the sacrifices made by our ancestors. Being honest to their memories is the only thing that really matters –the thing that makes all centenary commemoration projects worthwhile.

Image credit: Ministry of Information First World War Collection, from Imperial War Museum Archive. IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia Commons.

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6. An Oxford Companion to being the Doctor

If you share my jealousy of Peter Capaldi and his new guise as the Doctor, then read on to discover how you could become the next Time Lord with a fondness for Earth. However, be warned: you can’t just pick up Matt Smith’s bow-tie from the floor, don Tom Baker’s scarf, and expect to save planet Earth every Saturday at peak viewing time. You’re going to need training. This is where Oxford’s online products can help you. Think of us as your very own Companion guiding you through the dimensions of time, only with a bit more sass. So jump aboard (yes it’s bigger on the inside), press that button over there, pull that lever thingy, and let’s journey through the five things you need to know to become the Doctor.

(1) Regeneration

Being called two-faced may not initially appeal to you. How about twelve-faced? No wait, don’t leave, come back! Part of the appeal of the Doctor is his ability to regenerate and assume many faces. Perhaps the most striking example of regeneration we have on our planet is the Hydra fish which is able to completely re-grow a severed head. Even more striking is its ability to grow more than one head if a small incision is made on its body. I don’t think it’s likely the BBC will commission a Doctor with two heads though so best to not go down that route. Another example of an animal capable of regeneration is Porifera, the sponges commonly seen on rocks under water. These sponge-type creatures are able to regenerate an entire limb which is certainly impressive but are not quite as attractive as The David Tenants or Matt Smiths of this world.

Sea sponges, by dimsis. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Sea sponges, by Dimitris Siskopoulos. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

(2) Fighting aliens

Although alien invasion narratives only crossed over to mainstream fiction after World War II, the Doctor has been fighting off alien invasions since the Dalek War and the subsequent destruction of Gallifrey. Alien invasion narratives are tied together by one salient issue: conquer or be conquered. Whether you are battling Weeping Angels or Cybermen, you must first make sure what you are battling is indeed an alien. Yes, that lady you meet every day at the bus-stop with the strange smell may appear to be from another dimension but it’s always better to be sure before you whip out your sonic screwdriver.

(3) Visiting unknown galaxies

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field telescope captures a patch of sky that represents one thirteen-millionth of the area of the whole sky we see from Earth, and this tiny patch of the Universe contains over 10,000 galaxies. One thirteen-millionth of the sky is the equivalent to holding a grain of sand at arm’s length whilst looking up at the sky. When we look at a galaxy ten billion light years away, we are actually only seeing it by the light that left it ten billion years ago. Therefore, telescopes are akin to time machines.

The sheer vastness and mystery of the universe has baffled us for centuries. Doctor Who acts as a gatekeeper to the unknown, helping us imagine fantastical creatures such as the Daleks, all from the comfort of our living rooms.

Tardis, © davidmartyn, via iStock Photo.
Tardis, © davidmartyn, via iStock Photo.

(4) Operating the T.A.R.D.I.S.

The majority of time-travel narratives avoid the use of a physical time-machine. However, the Tardis, a blue police telephone box, journeys through time dimensions and is as important to the plot of Doctor Who as upgrades are to Cybermen. Although it looks like a plain old police telephone box, it has been known to withstand meteorite bombardment, shield itself from laser gun fire and traverse the time vortex all in one episode. The Tardis’s most striking characteristic, that it is “much bigger on the inside”, is explained by the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, by using the analogy of the tesseract.

(5) Looking good

It’s all very well saving the Universe every week but what use is that without a signature look? Tom Baker had the scarf, Peter Davison had the pin-stripes, John Hurt even had the brooding frown, so what will your dress-sense say about you? Perhaps you could be the Doctor with a cravat or the time-traveller with a toupee? Whatever your choice, I’m sure you’ll pull it off, you handsome devil you.

Don’t forget a good sense of humour to compliment your dashing visage. When Doctor Who was created by Donald Wilson and C.E. Webber in November 1963, the target audience of the show was eight-to-thirteen-year-olds watching as part of a family group on Saturday afternoons. In 2014, it has a worldwide general audience of all ages, claiming over 77 million viewers in the UK, Australia, and the United States. This is largely due to the Doctor’s quick quips and mix of adult and childish humour.

You’ve done it! You’ve conquered the cybermen, exterminated the daleks, and saved Earth (we’re eternally grateful of course). Why not take the Tardis for another spin and adventure through more of Oxford’s online products?

Image credit: Doctor Who poster, by Doctor Who Spoilers. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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7. 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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8. 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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9. 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.

thelady

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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10. 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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11. 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.

153733-157359

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).

153733-157370

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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12. 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_-_01

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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13. How I created the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones

By David J. Peterson


My name is David Peterson, and I’m a conlanger. “What’s a conlanger,” you may ask? Thanks to the recent addition of the word “conlang” to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I can now say, “Look it up!” But to save you the trouble, a conlanger is a constructed language (or conlang) maker — i.e. one who creates languages.

Language creation has been around since at least the 12th century, when the German abbess Hildegard von Bingen created her Lingua Ignota — Latin for “hidden language” — an invented vocabulary she used for writing hymns. In the centuries that followed, philosophers like Leibniz and John Wilkins would create languages that were intended to serve as grand classification systems, and idealists like L. L. Zamenhof would create languages intended to simplify international communication. All these systems focused on the basic utility of language — its ability to encode and convey meaning. That would change in the 20th century.

Tolkien: the father of modern conlanging

Before crafting the tales of Middle-Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien was a conlanger. Unlike the many known to history who came before him, though, Tolkien created languages for the pure joy of it. Professionally, he became a philologist, but he continued to work on his own languages, eventually creating his famous Lord of the Rings series as an extension of the linguistic legendarium he’d been crafting for many years. Though his written works would become more famous than his linguistic creations, his conlangs, in particular Sindarin and Quenya, would go on to inspire new generations of conlangers throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Due to the general obscurity of the practice, many conlangers remained unknown to each other until the early 1990s, when home internet use started to become more and more common. The first dedicated meeting place for conlangers, virtual or otherwise, was the Conlang Listserv (an online mailing list). Some list members came out of interest in Tolkien’s languages, as well as other large projects, like Esperanto or Lojban, but the majority came to discuss their own work, and to meet and learn from others who also created languages.

Since the founding of the original Conlang Listserv, many other meeting places have sprung up online, and through a couple of decades of regular conlanger interaction, the practice of conlanging has evolved.

Game of Thrones dragon

Conlang typology

Conlangs have been separated into different types since at least the 19th century. First came the philosophical languages, as discussed, then the auxiliary languages like Esperanto (also known as auxlangs), but with Tolkien emerged a new type of language: the artistic language, or artlang. At its most basic, an artlang is a conlang created for artistic purposes, but that broad definition includes many wildly divergent languages (compare Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik to Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen). Finer-grained distinctions became necessary as the community grew, and so emerged the naturalistic conlang.

This is where the languages of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Syfy’s Defiance come in. The languages I’ve created for the shows I work on come out of the naturalist tradition. The goal with a naturalistic conlang is to create a language that’s as realistic as possible. The realism of a language is grounded in the reality (fictional or otherwise) of its speakers. If the speakers are more or less human (or humanoid) and are intended to be portrayed in a realistic fashion, then their language should be as similar as possible to a natural language (i.e. a language that exists here on Earth, like Spanish, Tagalog, or Cham).

The natural languages we speak are large, but also redundant and imperfect in a uniquely human way. Conlangers have gotten pretty good at emulating them over the years, usually employing one of two different approaches. The first, which I call the façade method, is to create a language that looks like a modern natural language by replicating the various features of a modern natural language. Thus, if English has irregular plurals, such as mouse~mice, then the conlang will have irregular plurals, too, by targeting certain nouns and making their plurals irregular in some way.

The historical method: making sense of irregular plurals in Valyrian

Game of Thrones DaenerysA contrasting approach is the method that Tolkien pioneered called the historical method. With the historical method, an ancestor language called a proto-language is created, and the desired language is evolved from it, via simulated linguistic evolution. The process takes a lot longer, but in some ways it’s simpler, since irregularities will naturally emerge, rather than having to be created by hand. For example, in Game of Thrones, the High Valyrian language Daenerys speaks differs from the Low Valyrian the residents of Slaver’s Bay speak. In fact, the latter evolved from the former. As the language evolved, it produced some natural irregularities. Consider the following nouns and their plurals from the Valyrian spoken in Slaver’s Bay:

hubre “goat” hubres “goats”
dare “queen” dari “queens”
aeske “master” aeske “masters”

Given that the singular forms all end in ‘e’, one has to say at least two of the plurals presented are irregular. But why the arbitrary differences in the plural forms? It turns out it’s because the three nouns with identical singular terminations used to have very different forms in the older language, High Valyrian, as shown below:

hobres “goat” hobresse “goats”
dāria “queen” dārī “queens”
āeksio “master” āeksia “masters”

Each of these alternations is quite regular in High Valyrian. In the simulated history, a series of sound changes which simplified the ends of words produced identical terminations for each of the three words in the singular, leaving later speakers having to memorize which have irregular plurals and which regular.

Conceptualizing time

Simulated evolution applies to both grammar and the lexicon, as well. For example, natural languages often derive terminology for abstract concepts metaphorically from terminology for concrete concepts. Time, for instance, is an abstract concept that is frequently discussed using spatial terminology. How it’s done differs from language to language. In English, events that occur later in time occur after the present (where “after” derives from “aft,” a word meaning “behind”), and events that occur earlier in time occur before the present. Thus, time is conceptualized as a being standing in the present, facing the past, with the future behind them.

In Irathient, a language I created for Syfy’s Defiance, time is conceptualized vertically, rather than horizontally. The word for “after”, in temporal terms, is shei, which derives from a word meaning “above”; “before”, on the other hand, is ur, which also means “below” or “underneath”. The general metaphor that the future is up and the past is down bears out throughout the rest of the language, where if one wanted to say “Go back to what you were saying before”, the literal Irathient translation would be “Go down to what you were saying underneath”.

Ultimately, what one hears on screen sounds and feels like a natural language, regardless of whether or not one knows the work that went on behind the scenes. Since the prop used on screen is a language, though, rather than a costume or a piece of the set, the words can be recorded and analyzed at any time. Consequently, a conlang needs to be real in a way that a throne or a 700 foot wall of ice does not.

It’s still extraordinary to me that in less than 25 years, we came from a time when many conlangers were not aware that there were other conlangers to a time where our work is able to add to the authenticity of some of the best productions the big and small screen have to offer. The addition of the word “conlang” to the OED is a fitting capper to an unbelievable quarter century.

David J. Peterson is a language creator who works on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Syfy’s Defiance, and Syfy’s Dominion. You can find him on Twitter at @Dedalvs or on Tumblr.

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Images: Game of Thrones Season 3 – Dragon Shadow Wallpaper and Game of Thrones Season 3 - Daenerys Wallpaper. ©2014 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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14. How much do you know about early Hollywood’s leading ladies?

By Sarah Rahman


Clara Bow, whose birthday falls on 29 July, was the “it” girl of her time, making fifty-two films between 1922 and 1930. “Of all the lovely young ladies I’ve met in Hollywood, Clara Bow has ‘It,’” noted novelist Elinor Glyn. According to her entry in American National Biography, “With Cupid’s bow lips, a hoydenish red bob, and nervous, speedy movement, Bow became a national rage, America’s flapper. At the end of 1927 she was making $250,000 a year.”

Clara_Bow_1920

Clara Bow by Paramount Photos. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In recognition of the numerous leading ladies of the early days of Hollywood, the American National Biography team has put together a quiz to test your knowledge of early Hollywood and its stars. Film buff or not, the experiences of these iconic actresses may surprise you.

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

Sarah Rahman is a Digital Product Marketing Intern at Oxford University Press. She is currently a rising junior pursuing a degree in English literature at Hamilton College.

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15. 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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16. 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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17. “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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18. 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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19. 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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20. “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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21. 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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22. 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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23. 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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24. 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.

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  • Can't Stop the Music

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide8-CantStop.jpg

    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

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide7-SoundOfMusic.jpg

    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!”

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide6-PorgyBess.jpg

    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!

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide5-HelloDolly.jpg

    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

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide4-GuysDolls.jpg

    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

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide3-DancingLady.jpg

    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

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide2-CoverGirl.jpg

    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

     

    http://blog.oup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Slide1-MyFairLady.jpg

    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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  • 25. 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.

    the-act-of-killing

    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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