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The Edge of Film

Great American Director Tony Scott Ends His Life

August 20th 2012

Man on Fire

Authorities in Los Angeles say movie director Tony Scott, director of such Hollywood blockbusters as Top Gun, Days of Thunder and Beverly Hills Cop II, has died after jumping from a Los Angeles County Bridge. An officer with the Los Angeles County Coroner's office said the 68-year-old Scott's death Sunday is being investigated as a suicide. Police say several people called emergency services shortly after midday Sunday to report that someone had jumped from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles. A dive team with Los Angeles Port Police pulled the body from the murky water several hours later, Nordquist said. Scott's body was taken to a dock in Wilmington and turned over to the county coroner's office.

The British-born Scott was producer and director Ridley Scott's brother. Ridley Scott's Prometheus was a summer blockbuster. Scott frequently worked with Denzel Washington, most recently on the runaway train drama Unstoppable.  
Scott and Washington collaborated on four other films: Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123, and the visually stunning and evocative Man on Fire. Other Scott films include True Romance and Crimson Tide. Scott was married to actress Donna Scott. They have twin sons.

Motion picture aficionado Edwin Black commented: "Cult-like followings have surrounded some of Scott's films. Among them, Man on Fire has sparked recent fascination. The enduring soundtrack music ends with a haunting collage of ethnic and visceral themes." You can hear the penetrating track here.

Film Review

The Dark Knight Rises: But Does Batman Really Rise to the Occasion?

August 19th 2012

dark knight

The Dark Knight Rises. Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Christopher Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman. Length: 165 mins.

When I last reviewed one, I wrote that a film critic reviewing a James Bond movie inevitably feels like a food critic reviewing a McDonald’s Restaurant. In both cases there is really nothing to review, as the effort expended by the authors has not been to produce something new that, in their judgment, will please us but merely something that is as close as possible to what we already know pleases us. Thank you for not surprising!

Even if it doesn’t please, the point is the same: to follow a formula in order to reproduce an experience that the same formula has produced in the past, whether we like the result or not, since the audience that likes it is a large and loyal one that keeps coming back for more of the same whatever those who don’t like it may do. And from the point of view of the franchisees, one of the advantages of ownership is that it short-circuits the critical process by reducing it to irrelevance. Every review will amount to this: for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like. Everybody already knows that anyway.

I think much the same is true of superhero movies. As someone who has been criticizing them for years after a long period of regarding them as a harmless indulgence and irony practice for the largely irony-free American film industry, I have now arrived at the point where the criticism seems as automatic as the movie formulae themselves. For one thing: no more irony. Criticism, I find, is dumbfounded by those who take such stuff seriously — as, hitherto, only children have been able to do. You have only my word to go on that each time I force myself to go to another one of these dire productions — and I don’t go to many anymore — I really do try to find something to like about it, something that can be taken seriously.

But each time I find that the fantastical element, which is of the very essence of the superhero genre, so overwhelms anything that might in its absence have been a good idea that my optimistic impulses are crushed. The need to stick to the formula makes anything new or interesting extremely difficult, if not impossible. This loss — and I do feel it as a loss — is the more to be regretted because it puts me at odds with the legion of younger critics who have grown up with these movies and seem to like them all the better for not treating their camp heroes as jokes anymore. What more natural than that they should think my not liking them merely a result of being old and out of touch, stuck in an era when, admittedly, almost nothing was taken seriously? Perhaps they are right. Read more ..

Book Review

A Call to Conscience: Comrades Challenging the Contra War

August 18th 2012

a call to conscience

A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign. Roger Peace. University of Massachusetts Press. 2012. 207pp.

What Roger Peace, adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College, does very well in A Call to Conscience is remind Americans about a largely forgotten past when antiwar religious and secular groups, despite their many differences, dared challenge the Reagan administration’s proxy war in Nicaragua aimed at defeating a left-wing government.

The disparate American anti-Contra groups were fortunate to have many sympathetic Democrats and moderate Republicans eager to see an end to the constant flow of money and weapons to the Contras. They lobbied, wrote, spoke, and demonstrated, even raising the unwarranted fear the U.S. was planning to send in ground troops. “No single group or organization directed this decentralized campaign,” writes a clearly sympathetic Peace, whose detailed account, while hardly nuanced, carefully examines how domestic opponents tried to stop the war. Not all the antiwar groups agreed with one another about every aspect of Nicaraguan Sandinista policies, but all were united by the memory of America’s historic economic and military domination south of the border and its habitual support of repressive and brutal, regimes.

The U.S. occupied Nicaragua from 1912-1933 (save for one year) to prop up the rule of wealthy Nicaraguans and American bankers. From 1927-33, U.S. marines fought forces led by Augusto Sandino before quitting the country. Three years later the Somoza clan emerged and for the next forty-three years they, together with Dominican, El Salvadoran , Guatemalan, and Cuban dictators, formed a U.S. sphere of influence where Dollar Diplomacy ruled. But once Fidel Castro threw out Fulgencio Batista in 1959 the situation became quite troublesome to American presidents from Dwight Eisenhower on. Read more ..

Film Review

The Campaign: Politics as Hollywood Understands It

August 18th 2012


The Campaign. Director: Jay Roach. Starring: Will Ferrell, Dan Akroyd, John Lithgow, Zach Galfianakis. Length: 90 mins.

Hollywood doesn’t do politics — at least not politics as it is practised in the real world. That muddled and muddy system of alternating compromise and confrontation, posturing and horse-trading, simply wouldn’t show up on the silver screen — and, even if it did, presumably nobody would care to watch it. So instead the movies invent their own political reality: an imaginary world in which larger-than-life figures engage in vast conspiracies, monumental betrayals, outrageous scandals and unbelievable conversions.

These last are often based on the even more unbelievable dream of a world without politics, in which our public men — I suspect the thing wouldn’t work even as well as it does, which is not well at all, if you substituted women — act only from principle and with regard to nothing but the common weal. Such impossible goodness thus becomes the excuse for the impossible badness that precedes it in the well-worn character arc of the movie politician, which is repeated yet again in Jay Roach’s supposed satire, The Campaign.

Mr Roach’s Game Change, the TV movie about John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, showed the extent to which his imagination is limited to media commonplaces about the political world that is otherwise beyond his ken. In Game Change it was the already well-established media trope of Mrs Palin’s supposed stupidity, which Game Change helped to establish even more firmly. In The Campaign it is the supposed wickedness of the Koch brothers, as well as the iniquity, devoutly affirmed by every lefty, of the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court which has supposedly conferred on billionaires in general and the Kochs in particular enormous and illegitimate powers to influence elections.

The name of the brothers here, as played by John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd, is transformed from Koch (pronounced Coke) to Motch, and their evil plan is to "insource" Chinese workers — or at least Chinese working conditions and wages — to the bucolic North Carolina congressional district represented by their creature, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell).  Read more ..

Film Review

Queen of Versailles: Obscene Wealth before the Crash of 2008

August 16th 2012

queen of versailes

Queen of Versailles. Director: Lauren Greenfield. Length: 90 mins.

"That’s it baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!" So says Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1968). The sentiment, though not unprecedented, was not characteristic of the rich in America theretofore. Old money here was nowhere near so old as old money in Europe, but it had something of the same disdain for vulgar ostentation. Like so many other traditional beliefs and attitudes, that one was on its way out by the end of the go-go Sixties when The Producers was made, but this has never prevented artists, writers and film-makers from affecting a similar attitude of cultural superiority to those they characterize as the latter-day nouveau riche, often for political reasons.

I take it that some such impulse lay behind Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles, a documentary about a Florida billionaire named David Siegel and his trophy wife, Jackie, who were building what was to be, at 90,000 square feet, the largest private home in America before the crash of 2008 more or less wiped out Mr Siegel’s time-share empire.

But in the course of patronizing and making fun of this couple and their brood of spoiled children, Ms Greenfield must have been surprised to discover that the precipitous decline in their fortunes had made her subjects almost sympathetic — and her movie is all the better for it. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, they say, and Mr Siegel’s misfortune at least had the benefit of making Queen of Versailles into something more interesting than it would have been as the mere act of humorous condescension that the footage shot before the good times ended suggests it was intended to be. Read more ..

The Edge of Art

Exhibit Gives Rare Glimpse of Mughal Art

August 13th 2012

Portrait of Abul Hasan from Gulshan Album

The Mughal Emperor Akbar—who is recorded as saying, “There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike,” would probably be pleased with the curators at Washington’s Sackler Gallery. The exhibit “Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” shows the gallery’s love of painting, particularly the finely-detailed works commissioned by Akbar, his son Jahangir, and his grandson Shah Jahan—the builder of the Taj Mahal.

The Mughals—who reigned from 1526 to 1857—were direct descendants from Genghis Khan through Chagatai Khan and Timur (also known as Tamarlane). Eventually they controlled most of modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. As the Empire expanded, the Mughals imported the finest artists and crafstmen into their court - including from neighboring Persia.

The Mughals were avid readers and collectors—with Emperor Akbar reported to have 24,000 volumes in his library. Akbar’s son Jahangir is thought of as the greatest of the Mughal patrons—with the best books, the best artists, and the best craftsmen available in his court. The Mughal’s artistic tastes embraced many styles, from Persian and Indian painting to European Renaissance styles. Read more ..

America on Edge

Vidal the Conservative?

August 13th 2012

Gore Vidal
Credit: David Shankbone

What do you call a person who loathed -- and was loathed by -- William F. Buckley Jr.; who despised the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as monotheism; who believed 9/11 was a setup; who wrote regularly for -- and was warmly received by -- the New York Review of Books, The Nation, and other left-wing flagship publications; who endorsed Dennis Kucinich for president; who ran for Congress from New York as a Democrat with the endorsement of Paul Newman and Eleanor Roosevelt and, later, ran for the Senate, also as a Democrat, from California; who criticized the Democratic party from the left throughout the Vietnam War and beyond; who described himself as an "anti-anti-Communist" at the height of the Cold War; and who, upon his death, was eulogized warmly by nearly the entire liberal and leftist establishments, here and abroad, as a national treasure? Why, a conservative, of course. So argues David Greenberg, the in-house historian at Slate magazine. Read more ..

Book Review

The Betrayal of the American Dream, and The Party is Over: Two Books on How We Got into this Mess

August 12th 2012


The Betrayal of the American Dream, by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, 2012, PublicAffairs, 320 pp. The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, by Mike Lofgren, 2012, Viking, 240 pp.

Donald L. Bartlett, James B. Steele, and Mike Lofgren, in their two respective new books, look at the current condition of our country and find it wanting, and deeply so. If they are to be believed, we may be on the road to becoming a plutocracy governed by an oligarchy, administered largely by too many amoral politicians and selfish interests whose ambitions and avarice are fueled by an endless stream of corporate billions which end up abandoning the middle class (and the poor, too); a conclusion, of course, disparaged by those championing a strikingly different set of ideas and conclusions.

Are things so grim and beyond repair? Arthur Schlesinger once wrote of the cyclical nature of American political life. Every thirty years, he prophesied, the pendulum would swing between liberals and conservatives. It once sounded like an optimistic and smart possibility, but now it seems Pollyannaish.

As we know, large American businesses have outsourced a massive number of jobs, our manufacturing sector has been disappearing for years, millions have lost their homes and private and public pensions are on the brink of extinction, and already feeble unions are under assault. Meanwhile, the persistent challenge of fevered global competition has led corporations to search for ever more armies of cheap labor abroad.

This isn’t especially original, but what Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele's The Betrayal of the American Dream (PublicAffairs) accomplishes is to allow them to express their rage as “in the forty years that we have been researching and writing about issues that affect all of us, we have never been so concerned for the future of our country. The forces that are dismantling the American middle class are relentless.” Read more ..

After the Holocaust

“Jews Screamed Like Geese” While Being Shot

August 12th 2012


Jonas Pukas, a suspected Nazi war criminal, was interrogated by New Zealand officials in 1992 at age 78. He was a member of the 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion, and was accused of participating in the squad’s mobile killings of European Jews during World War II. The chilling interview will be aired tomorrow on New Zealand’s TV3 in the world premier of the television documentary “Nazi Hunter.”

Before the Holocaust, approximately 220,000 Jews lived in Lithuania. Only months after the Germans invaded in 1941, only 8,000 survived.

Pukas, who immigrated to Auckland, New Zealand after the war and died in 1994 two years after the interview was conducted, laughed as he described the murders of Lithuanian Jews that the battalion rounded them up to be executed by so-called “pit killing,” shooting the victims at the edge of mass graves in the forest.

“The Jews of Minsk screamed like geese,” Pukas is recorded saying about the killings in the documentary’s transcript provided by TV3. “‘Some of the Jews used to scream like that, like the geese.”

Pukas can also be heard laughing when he mimicked the sounds of the birds, adding that the Jews would “fly in air” as they were shot. Despite his cruel apathy, Pukas denies involvement in the massacres. “I only heard the people dying. I did not see it” Pukas said, denying responsibility for the killings. etective Wayne Stringer, now 56, is the subject of the film directed by Alexander Behse and produced by John Keir. He interrogated Pukas as well as other suspects on a list of 47 suspected Nazi war criminals provided by the Simon Weisenthal Center. The 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion, one of history’s most infamous units in war crimes investigation, had  numerous members who fled to New Zealand, including Pukas. Read more ..

Movie Review

Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Rousseau-esque Faith in Man's Natural Goodness

August 8th 2012

beasts of the southern wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Director: Benh Zeitlin. Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry. Length: 90 mins.

If you liked Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — or, for that matter, any of his films since Badlands (1973) — you will probably also like Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin. I didn’t and don’t, but that doesn’t mean I think Beasts is as bad as Mr. Malick’s absurdly pretentious productions — which I have written about here, here and, most recently, here. In fact, I liked some of the more spirited parts of Mr. Zeitlin’s movie, or at least more parts of it than I can find to like in Mr Malick’s. What it has in common with them, however, is pretentiousness — though it is not so much of the absurd kind. M.r Zeitlin’s pretentiousness rather takes the form of intermittent bolts of politically correct propaganda about global warming (and other things) together with a Rousseau-esque faith in the natural goodness of man — or, in this case, of little girl — in the state of Nature.

The little girl in question is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives with her daddy, named Wink (Dwight Henry), on a low-lying island called the Bathtub off the Louisiana coast near New Orleans. As the Bathtub sits outside the levees to which the city owes most of the dry ground on which it is built, we know it will not take a Katrina-style breaching of these defenses to swamp Hushpuppy and Wink and their joyously uncivilized community, but almost any sort of storm — which no doubt accounts for the strictly improvisatory sort of housing and economic life they and the other residents of the Bathtub are used to.

Sure enough, a storm comes along and swamps them, though their spirits remain undampened. What’s worse from their point of view is that they are forced to go, though briefly, "up in the dry world" where they regard the people as being of effete stock. "Daddy says that on the other side of the levee they’s scared of the water like a bunch of babies," as Hushpuppy tells us in one of her endearing voiceovers. Read more ..

The Edge of TV

The Auto Channel Speeds from Web Phenom to Television Competitor

August 7th 2012

Television Array

The Auto Channel LLC, in conjunction with WHDT World Television Service, has just launched The Auto Channel  broadcast television network (TACH-TV) . TACH-TV features television and video programming produced over the years by The Auto Channel, along with select video content produced by independent producers and studios. The television programming is presented in a traditional linear format but utilizes The Auto Channel’s enormous automotive website, TheAutoChannel.com, to provide on-demand, random access to supportive content.

The national broadcast network rollout begins today in Florida and can be seen on WHDT's family of television station outlets that cover most of Southern Florida, including Miami, Naples, Ft. Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Palm Beach, Jupiter, Stuart, Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce and Vero Beach. Viewers should check local television listings for channel assignments and detailed program information. Read more ..

Book Review

Empires and Barbarians: A Gateway to Understanding the Birth of Europe

August 6th 2012

empires and barbarians

Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Oxford University Press. 2012.

This book was supposed to be summertime leisure reading. I make no pretense toward familiarity with the historiography Roman Empire, whether early or late (I know more a little more about the republic than either). Actually, the subtitle of the book -- "the Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe" -- is misleading; as the author says explicitly, the former is only peripherally in his purview. What we really get here is a survey of what used to be called "the Dark Ages." It's a deeply suggestive one, not only an explanation of 500 years of history, but a model for thinking about the demographic dynamics of peoples much closer to home.

Seven hundred pages and two decades in the making, Empires and Barbarians has the heft of a generational statement. (First published by Macmillan in Britain in 2009, it has just been issued in paperback in the U.S. by Oxford.) As such, it can be considered a piece of counter-revisionism. Once upon a time, the story goes, the Roman Empire was destroyed when its ability to repel wave upon wave of barbarian hordes was finally worn down. After hundreds of years of trying, the marauders finally broke through in the fifth century CE, and, like drunken party guests, wrecked a civilization. In recent decades, however, this invasion hypothesis has been deconstructed.

"Barbarians," after all, is a loaded term that reflected the ethnocentrism of Mediterraneans; what we were really seeing was an encounter between peoples. And they weren't hordes, either -- they were small groups of people, and very often what happened was not so much a violent overthrow of "civilization" (another loaded term) as a transfer of power from one elite to another. The old story said more about the nationalist preoccupations of the twentieth century (and the curious nationalism of Soviet bloc Marxists, who poured impressive resources into archeology) than the realities of the ancient world. Read more ..

Film Review

Take this Waltz: A Parable of Unspeakable Passions

August 3rd 2012

Take this waltz

Take this Waltz. Director: Sarah Polley. Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen. Length: 90 mins.

As an actress, the young Canadian Sarah Polley is always interesting, always watchable — for example, in The Sweet Hereafter or Go (1999) — and the same was true of her as the director of her first feature, Away From Her (2006), in which she got a magnificent performance out of Julie Christie as an Alzheimer’s patient who forgets she’s married.

In her new film, Take This Waltz, another fine actress, Michelle Williams, proves worthy of Miss Christie’s example as Margot, a much younger wife who also forgets she’s married, but without the excuse of clinically certifiable dementia. Her amour fou for Daniel (Luke Kirby), the rickshaw-pulling hippie artist across the Toronto street from her comes across, nevertheless, as a not dissimilar form of mental disturbance — though perhaps it is only a temporary one. At least the movie allows us to think of it in that way without quite medicalizing her passion as a form of the currently-fashionable malady of "sex-addiction."

As a result, Miss Polley, who also wrote the screenplay, at least keeps the moral mess in which adultery involves people at the center of attention. She even pulls back from the clinical realm, to some extent, other, more firmly established sorts of addiction. Margot’s sister-in-law, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), in particular, is a recovering alcoholic who delivers the film’s key line: "Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t try to fill it like a lunatic." You know at once that this is hard-won wisdom from someone who has experienced and profited by the therapeutic approach to moral problems from the inside. In the words of the late Mitch Hedberg, who expired from his own addiction to heroin at age 37, alcoholism is a disease, but it’s a disease people can get mad at you for having. Read more ..

Book Review

Go-Go Live: Music that Accompanied the Death of a Chocolate City

August 3rd 2012

go-go live

Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Natalie Hopkinson. Duke University Press. 2012.

When I felt a deep rumbling and heard muffled shouts from a microphone, I guessed it was a political rally. Recently arrived in Washington D.C., I was wandering the U Street neighborhood, taking in the city’s distinct rowhouses and sweating in the intense mid-Atlantic heat. But as I approached the intersection of 7th and T Streets, the crowd came into focus: it was hundreds of people, almost all black men and women, dancing in the street.

When I arrived in Washington for an internship this summer, I knew very little about the city. Like a lot of folks, I had seen the Washington Monument and the Capitol on an eighth grade school trip. And of course, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House stand tall and gleaming white in our collective national conscious. The city of Washington D.C., though, is very different than what most outsiders imagine, a distinction Natalie Hopkinson draws in Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, a chronicle of black Washington’s dynamic indigenous music, go-go:

“Beyond the federal capital, Washington, lies a very black city, D.C.: Black families milling around on the streets, waiting at bus stops, driving cars. Black schools taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black superintendants. Black restaurants, black recreation centers. Black universities. Black hospitals run by black doctors and staff. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. For much of the past half century, it was entirely possible to live and work in the District of Columbia and not interact with a white person for months.” (ix-x) Read more ..

Book Review

Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, and the Left

August 1st 2012

From ambivalence

Robert S. Wistrich. From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel. University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 648 pages.

One of the most remarkable reversals in American culture in my lifetime has been the transformation of anti-Semitism into a predominantly left-wing phenomenon. Historian Robert S. Wistrich has just published From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, a very substantial work that puts this development in the context of global leftism and the history of its leading thinkers and politicians, and makes it clear that Left anti-Semitism in itself is hardly new. The later chapters cast interesting light on how the Left, in its current self-described stance of “anti-Zionism,” is actually abandoning some of its older, and better, principles. Writes Wistrich:

The Zionist movement, far from being oriented to the ideology of “race,” arose as a direct response to the racist anti-Semitism created by reactionary forces in European, and later in Middle Eastern societies. It was external anti-Semitic pressure, analogous to foreign domination over other oppressed peoples, which became a major factor in obliging Jews to seek their own path towards auto-emancipation. . . . Moreover, [Zionism became] the first successful anti-colonial liberation struggle in the Middle East. . . .

The Zionist movement between 1945 and 1948 had to fight against the full might of the British Empire. . . . Contrary to the prevailing left-wing mythology about Israel’s creation being a Western Zionist-imperialist conspiracy, official American support for Israel was comparatively lukewarm. . . . For the crucial first 20 years of its existence, the United States scarcely considered Israel as an important ally and its material interests in the Arab world were infinitely greater. Read more ..

The Historical Edge

Remote Fort Helped Elevate National Anthem

August 1st 2012

Ft Meade, SD, ca 1888
Fort Meade, SD ca 1888 (LoC)

“The Star Spangled Banner” plays when an American wins at the Olympics, is a favorite at Gospel concerts, and is routinely played at the start of every American baseball game. Historically, “The Star Spangled Banner” is associated with Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, where the 1814 British bombardment of the fort prompted Francis Scott Key to write the song's lyrics.

What many don't know is that a remote outpost in the American West played a key role in elevating the patriotic song into the country's national anthem. It was at another fort, in the Great Plains state of South Dakota, where the song was first played at official occasions.

Fort Meade was built in 1878 to protect settlements in the northern Black Hills, especially the gold-mining town of Deadwood. During its early years, the fort was garrisoned by various U.S. Army units, including the 8th Cavalry. In 1892, a new commander was assigned to the post and, according to Fort Meade Museum director Randy Bender, Col. Caleb Carlton arrived with a personal mission. Read more ..

The Edge of Theater

Theater Provides ”Touching” Show for the Visually-impaired

July 24th 2012

Blind theater-goers
Blind theater-goers get a “look” at props at Everyman Theater
(credit: VOA)

The men and women who settle into their seats for a performance at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore aren’t here for a traditional performance. “We are here to take you on an experience through ‘You Can’t Take It With You,’” says Marcus Kidd, the company’s education director.

Today’s visitors are all visually impaired. These days, many theater companies reach out to the blind with special performances that provide description of the action with a radio earpiece only they can hear. Everyman Theatre goes one step further, allowing its guests to experience theater in a different way.

“We don’t believe that just because they can’t see a play they can’t enjoy a play,” Kidd says. Those who can’t see go on the stage and become familiar with the set and props. Not every play gets a touch tour, but “You Can’t Take It With You,” a 1930s comedy with a cast of eccentric characters, was a natural. “The great thing about the play is almost everything in the play that has to be on stage ends up affecting the story,” says Kidd. “From the minute you open the script you get the description of the typewriter, the skull that is holding jellybeans.” Read more ..

Book Essay

The Iraqi Pogrom of 1941: New Results

July 23rd 2012

Farhud book

Following the Farhud—the pogrom of 1941 in Baghdad—and following the sack of Basra on 7–8 May 1941, many formerly Iraqi Jewish scholars tried in vain to keep the event alive in Jewish collective memory. The Jewish Holocaust is generally believed to have been confined to European Jewry, and has overshadowed all the other WWII calamities.

I was shocked to discover during a 1986 visit that the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles made no mention of the Farhud, in which 137 Iraqi Jews were murdered. I wrote a letter to the Director of the Museum, but to this day, I have received no answer. The Arab world and the media, even in Israel, have maintained a conspiracy of silence. But with the recent publication of two important books on the Farhud, perceptions are changing.

In the Arab world, mainly in Iraq, a conspiracy of silence has been carefully maintained against concerning the successive massacres committed against Jews since the Farhud of 1941 and the Arab defeat in 1948 war. In Iraq, the cover-up started even before the blood of the innocent victims dried. Army and police officers still roved the streets of Baghdad, warning the Jews not to testify against the murderers and looters. Even the official report on the massacre was not published until 1958 by the Iraqi historian ’Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani in Saida in Lebanon.

Later on, a few articles were published in Hebrew and English by well known historians such as Dr. Haim Cohen of the Hebrew University, in 1966, and Prof. Elie Kedourie of LSE, London University, in 1970. These researches drew the attention of few scholars and Orientalists, especially British and German. The situation did not change appreciably even when a collection of articles and documents was published in book form: Hatred of Jews and the Farhud in Iraq, edited by Zvi Yehuda and me.

This strange indifference towards the Farhud continued even in Israel, where it is rare that an official or MK attends the annual memorial ceremony of the Farhud held every year at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. Read more ..

The Festival Edge

Boston Symphony Makes Music in Mountains

July 18th 2012

Tanglewood concert hall
Wikipedia Commons: created by Matt Wade

Open-air classical music concerts are now a summer tradition in the United States. However, that wasn't the case 75 years ago, when the Boston Symphony first performed on a former estate called Tanglewood in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. Since then, Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

When Serge Koussevitzy, the Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, opened Tanglewood in 1937, he chose an all-Beethoven program, including the Pastorale Symphony. When conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi opened the 75th anniversary season in early July 2012, he recreated it. Beethoven’s musical tribute to nature, complete with bird calls, seems a perfect companion to the charms of Tanglewood. Read more ..

Book Review

The Thirty Years' War

July 17th 2012

The Twilight War

David Crist. The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran. Penguin, 2012. 656 pages.

As American diplomats and their international partners prepared to sit down with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad last May to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the State Department was aflutter. In conference calls and background briefs, senior diplomats and Obama administration officials suggested Tehran was on the verge of grasping Obama’s outstretched hand and might agree to deal seriously to end years of crisis.

That the talks would go nowhere was predictable. When Iranian negotiators proposed to hold discussions on May 23, Obama’s team agreed immediately; the White House cared little why the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had picked that date or venue. Iranian history informs, however: May 23 marked the 30th anniversary of Iran’s liberation of Khorramshahr, its key victory during the Iran–Iraq War. “The pioneering Iranian nation will continue its movement towards greater progress and justice,” Khamenei promised at a victory speech, adding, “The front of tyranny, arrogance, and bullying is moving towards weakness and destruction.”

The nuclear talks were the Islamic Republic’s latest but not its last parry in its battle with the United States. While almost every U.S. administration has sought reconciliation with Tehran, first revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then Khamenei have conceived of themselves as at war with “the Great Satan.”

Against this backdrop, David Crist’s The Twilight War is valuable. Crist, a historian at the Pentagon and a Marine reserve officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, pens the history of the more-than-three-decade “secret war” between the United States and Iran. Read more ..

Book Review

College: Yesterday and Today

July 15th 2012

College What it Was

Andrew Delbanco. College What it Was, is, and Should Be. Princeton University Press, 2012. 240 pages.

Andrew Delbanco, an award-winning humanities scholar at Columbia University, is the latest in a long, distinguished, and, alas, largely unsuccessful line of writers who for over a century have opposed the relentless march toward utility at the expense of liberal education on American campuses.  His book is intended for “anyone concerned with what it means, and what it takes, to educate citizens in our republic.”

Delbanco knows how hard it is to communicate liberal education’s “value to anyone…who has not personally experienced it.”  And while he says he doesn’t want to write a jeremiad, an elegy, or a call to arms, he admits that he’s probably produced “a messy mixture of them all.”  But it’s no polemic -- more a reasoned cri de coeur.

Readers seeking an overview of the history and current status of American higher education will find a clear, concise one here. But whether they will be persuaded that liberal education is vital to both personal development and American democracy depends on how willing they are to be counter-cultural.

Delbanco is pushing against the zeitgeist. Even at elite colleges that still claim to emphasize the liberal arts, the students, painfully aware of the price tag on their educations, almost inevitably think of “college” in instrumental terms, as primarily a customs house for stamping passports to an economically viable future. How, in an age that commodifies everything, could they think otherwise? Meanwhile, faculty and administrators alike pursue lucrative grants from government, foundations, and private donors like hounds obsessively sniffing after truffles. Teaching, to put it gently, is secondary. Read more ..

Book Review

The FBI, Hollywood, and the Red Scare

July 14th 2012

Hoover Goes to the Movies

John Sbardellati. J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War. Cornell University Press, 2012. 264 pages.

One of the big questions in the history of Hollywood is: what difference did the blacklist make? Did the purging by the studios of hundreds of suspected Communists in the 1950s change the character of American film? Or was Tinsel Town’s drift toward vacuous entertainment the inevitable product of America’s post-war prosperity, of consumerism, suburban tract housing, automobile culture, drive-ins, and teenage demographics?

Historian John Sbardellati approaches this question through the movie theater’s back door, opened, so to speak, by an unwelcome member of the audience, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who obsessed about the political messages he believed were creeping across the silver screen. Hoover became preoccupied with the “injection” of left-wing propaganda into film first in the early 1920s and then again at the beginning of WWII, as the federal Office of War Information (OWI) encouraged Hollywood to present a favorable image of the Soviet Union, our ally as of December 1941. Once the United States entered the war in full force in 1942, Hoover ordered the Bureau to conduct surveillance of films and filmmakers deemed overly enthusiastic about the Soviet experiment.

Thus began a troubled relationship with the movies that lasted until the end of the 1950s. As we know from other histories of FBI surveillance, from several recent Hoover biographies, and from the ongoing release of previously classified documents (many available on-line), the FBI director’s paranoia about Communist and other left-wing “infiltration” into American politics and culture knew no bounds. Such was the case with his interest in Hollywood.

At first, the Bureau focused on films that indeed emerged out of the Popular Front, the coalition of left-wing, Communist, and liberal activism that led American reform movements during the Great Depression. Few American films promoted a substantially socialist perspective, even in the depths of the Depression in the mid-1930s when the American left enjoyed great popularity. Instead, the broadly left-liberal “cultural front” of that period shifted American cinema toward a “democratic modernism” that built screen stories and characters around realistic portrayals of ordinary Americans. Read more ..

Film Review

The Intouchables: Illustrating the Gulf between Critical Opinion and Popular Taste

July 13th 2012


The Intouchables. Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. Starring François Cluzet andOmar Sy. Length: 90 mins.

The Intouchables — a French film with a not-quite-English title — by the team of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (Those Happy Days) turns out to be a rather good illustration of the gulf between critical opinion and popular taste. Both A.O. Scott of The New York Times and David Denby of The New Yorker call the movie "an embarrassment," while Jay Weissberg of Variety goes even further and calls it "offensive." Et pourquoi? Because of the dreaded "stereotype" of a happy, vital, life-loving but criminal black servant and the impotent, stiff and hidebound white master who must learn from his supposed inferior how to live. This amounts, in the words of Mr. Weissberg to "the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens."

Gosh! I guess there’s at least one way in which we can consider ourselves as being more enlightened than the French. But the idea seems to me an entirely silly one. Call the movie’s set-up a cliché if you like, but Uncle Tom racism? What does that even mean? Is any black man who takes a job working for a rich white guy automatically an Uncle Tom and therefore complicit in an oppressive system analogous to slavery?

Or is anyone who creates a character in any way similar to a racial stereotype himself a racist, ipso facto? Clearly, most people don’t think so, unless you suppose (as some people like to do) that most people are racist. The Intouchables was enormously popular in France, and, for a foreign-language film only showing on a few screens, it is also very popular in here in the US. It’s almost as if ordinary people don’t care if the characters are stereotypes. Read more ..

Book Review

The Presidency and the Process of War

July 12th 2012

Drift Unmooring Military

Rachel Maddow. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Crown, 2012. 288 pages.

Though we are at war, most of us do not see its reality. As a nation, we are more and more distant from the suffering of the men and women who do our fighting and less and less able to influence our leaders, who squander billions of dollars on national security to the detriment of the domestic economy and our democratic institutions—without making us safer.

These are the tenets of Rachel Maddow's new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, which introduces the modern national security state and explains how it imperils America's democratic values, sacrificing real humans, often for unclear or questionable aims.

Maddow is best known as the host of her witty MSNBC political talk program, The Rachel Maddow Show, but her accolades go far beyond her broadcasting accomplishments. She is a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in political science from Oxford, which no doubt contributes to her ability to deftly explain the intricacies of foreign policy and constitutional law for a broad audience—with acerbic wit. As the daughter of an Air Force captain, she also grew up with a concern for military matters.

Drift explains, in compelling and clear prose, how the military's role changed as presidential power in foreign policy expanded and Congress ceded its constitutional authority to declare war. It is a change Maddow traces back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who ignored Congress as he expanded the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam.

Since Johnson, each successive administration has expanded the president's power on national security and eliminated its responsibility to Congress or public objections. Richard Nixon famously claimed that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. Read more ..

Theatre Review

South Africans Remake 'Porgy And Bess' Musical

July 11th 2012

Porgy and Bess South Africa

South Africa’s Cape Town Opera Company is showing that the story of oppression translates across borders and time. The 1930s American musical Porgy and Bess tells the story of oppressed black Americans struggling with the pains of poverty in the 1930s. George Gerswhin wrote the work as an American Folk Opera. But producers at the Cape Town Opera company couldn’t help but hear familiar themes in the piece.

“I think Porgy and Bess has unique characteristics in its musical score which really speak to our singers lives,” explained Michael Williams, the director of the Cape Town Opera company. “And so the singers on the stage can identify with a) the community that Porgy and Bess is about b) the issues between Sportin Life [a dope-peddling character in the musical] and his community with regards to the drugs that are put in the community - that is a major problem in South African townships," he added. "And also I think the violence that Crown [a tough stevedore character] personifies in terms of the way he treats women. Is something that perhaps we are bit ashamed of that statistic in South Africa, the male/female violence in S.A. So the cast members really grasp those issues. In the same breadth Piece is also filled with great joy.” Read more ..

Books on Edge

E-books Catch on at Public Library

July 10th 2012

Complete the following sentence:

“You go to the library to check out . . . . .?"

The obvious answer is “books.” But a harder question might be, “What do we mean by ‘book’?” Electronic books or “e-books,” have established a firm foothold in American society. The big online bookseller Amazon, for instance, recently announced that less than four years after introducing them to its catalog, it's now selling more electronic versions of its book titles than printed ones. And this past April, Encyclopedia Britannica, the world’s oldest and largest maker of encyclopedias - a staple at any library - announced it would no longer publish a print edition. Last week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a survey about the use of e-books by library patrons. It found that 12 percent of Americans age 16 and older who read e-books say they had borrowed at least one from a library within the past year. Read more ..

Book Review

Perspectives on the Presidents and the Presidency

July 9th 2012

Where They Stand

Robert W. Merry. Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 320 pages.

It seems that every few years there’s a high-profile survey among experts that ranks the presidents, which usually provides cheap content for newspaper stories and radio broadcasts, as well as a source of cocktail party fodder. In this shrewdly conceived and elegantly written short book, Robert W. Merry surveys the surveys and assesses expert as well as voter sagacity in the presidential sweepstakes.

Merry is a quintessential Washington insider, evident in the white collar and cufflinks in his jacket photo. In addition to White House stints at the Wall Street Journal, he has also logged time at Congressional Quarterly and in the right-leaning foreign policy journal The National Interest, where he is now editor. But if Merry wears his political convictions on his sleeve (you won’t be surprised to hear he likes Ronald Reagan more than Bill Clinton), he wears them lightly with the mild skepticism that’s the hallmark of the classical conservative (he emphasizes that it’s too soon to come to any firm conclusions on such a comparison). As such, he’s good company.

Merry’s lodestar is the electorate, which, if not infallible, seem to provide a long-term mean upon which historical/political science/journalistic opinion eventually comes to rest. His gold standard is a president who wins two terms and then hands off power to a successor in the same party. By that standard George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt rank as great. Yet this litmus test isn’t absolute; William McKinley meets it, but has never really made it to the pantheon. Bill Clinton met it (if you count the popular vote, anyway), but is unlikely to get there. And Jackson, even two centuries later, remains a remarkably polarizing figure whose edges do not seem to have been sanded by time. Read more ..

Book Review

Women on the Right

July 7th 2012

Mothers of Conservatism

Michelle Nickerson. Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right. Princeton, 2012. 248 pages.

Pundits may not be able to agree on whether there is a “War on Women” in Washington, but the current election cycle has made it abundantly clear that women, gender, and family remain fraught topics in national political rhetoric in this country. Women’s voices are audible in these debates among the liberal supporters of President Obama’s proposed “birth control mandate,” and within the ranks of a conservative movement that advocates premarital abstinence and a return to “traditional” gender roles.

Yet if the reactions to Michele Bachmann’s belief in wifely submission or Sarah Palin’s identification as a “conservative feminist” are any indication, conservative women are still confounding to many political observers. Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism offers vital historical insight into conservative women and their political significance in the twentieth-century United States.

Building on a growing body of literature that traces the origins of modern conservatism to the postwar Sunbelt, Nickerson focuses her study on Los Angeles County in the 1940s and 1950s. Conservatism did not emerge as a self-conscious movement until the 1960s, she argues, but in the preceding decades women helped lay the groundwork for, and shape the rhetoric of, what would become a significant political force. Conservative women’s activism in the first half of the twentieth century established an evolving idea that Nickerson labels “housewife populism,” which presented white, middle-class housewives as ideal conservative activists: selfless political outsiders concerned with maintaining the sanctity of family and community against an imposing federal government and the menace of communism. She traces this idea to women’s isolationist and anticommunist activism in the context of the First Red Scare, but argues that it came to fruition after the Second World War “when the American housewife became iconic” and “conservative discourse affirming simplicity, ordinariness and pious humility as patriotic values gained currency” in the broader culture (34). Read more ..

Book Essay

Evil and Id

July 5th 2012

Holocaust survivors

In Freud's Last Session, Mark St. Germain's superlative play about a hypothetical encounter between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, there is a telling moment when the founder of psychoanalysis admits that he was slow to grasp the boundless evil of Nazism: "It took near tragedy for me to see Hitler for the monster he is."

The revelation came, he explains to Lewis, when the ‘‘brownshirts’’ of the SA stormed his Vienna apartment and departed with his beloved daughter, Anna, in their custody, leaving Freud to agonize over his daughter’s fate for twelve hours. He concluded that the Nazis would mercilessly crush anyone who stood in their way.

Still, Freud was able to contribute to the anti-Nazi campaign, if only vicariously.  As Daniel Pick describes in his fascinating Pursuit of the Nazi Mind, the unexpected arrival in Britain in May 1941 of Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, provided a prodigious opportunity for Freud’s disciples, who were charged by the Allies with diagnosing the Nazi mentality.


Book Review

Standing up for Liberalism

July 3rd 2012

The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism

Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson. The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism, from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Viking, 2012. 576 pages.

For decades, conservatives have equated liberalism with weakness in domestic and foreign policy, big government, and heavy taxation. Eric Alterman. a frequent spokesman for American liberalism, argues that identification with it should be a source of pride rather than embarrassment. In collaboration with historian Kevin Mattson, Alterman combines the skills of a historian with those of a journalist to dispute conservative views. He demonstrates that during the past eight decades liberals have done much about which to be proud despite the incessant onslaught from the Right. Yet his book is less a history of liberal ideology than of the liberals themselves from the 1930s to the present.

Alterman begins with Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose “enduring legacy was the modern American welfare state, and with it the foundation of American liberalism.” The “values and institutions” of FDR’s “New Deal order ... outlived the president and his policies,” with regard to foreign as well as domestic policy,” with liberals emerging from the Second World War “with a hope and a belief in the importance of international cooperation.” On the other hand, it was Roosevelt was who fully understood “that the United States could not police the world, and that its people had no interest in doing so.”

FDR’s successors disconcertingly demonstrated the difficulty of adhering to his legacy. Henry Wallace, the New Deal’s presumptive intellectual heir, was so temperamentally and politically estranged from Harry Truman that he challenged the latter in the 1948 presidential election, a “bizarre” affair with three Democrats, including segregationist J. Strom Thurmond, in the mix. As evidenced by Truman’s “Fair Deal,” liberals were concerned about the less fortunate, but suffered from “political paralysis” which accompanied the red-baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy and an unwinnable war in Korea. Read more ..

Book Review

Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Catnip for Political Junkies

July 1st 2012

do not ask what good we do

Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives. Robert Draper. Free Press. 2012.

Texan Robert Draper is a journalist's journalist. A former reporter for the highly esteemed Texas Monthly, in recent years he's worked as a reporter for GQ and wrote a good history of Rolling Stone magazine that I read on a summer vacation some 20 years ago. Draper hit the bestseller list five years ago for his account of the Bush presidency, Dead Certain. In his latest book, he shifts his gaze to the legislative branch in the Age of Obama.

Though it has some important differences – among them a more systematic approach to documenting its sources – this is a book in the vein of Bob Woodward instant, insider history. Do Not Ask What Good We Do (the title comes from a plaintive remark of Founding Father Fisher Ames, lamenting an era of partisanship and obstructionism that seems mild by comparison) is an account of a year in the life of the House of Representatives.

The premise, as Draper explains in the acknowledgments, is that 2011 was not just any year – it marked the arrival of the Tea Party to the House in the aftermath of a 2010 midterm election that put the Republican Party back in the majority. “My intuition was that as the Republicans’ point of the spear against the administration of Barack Obama, the House was sure to be relevant, and at the risk of sounding crass, highly entertaining."

Draper is certainly not crass – he’s an empathic observer who tried to be fair to all sides as he conducted hundreds of interviews with dozens of members of Congress to write the book – but he’s not exactly entertaining, either. To a great degree, that’s because he doesn’t have much of a narrative arc to work with. The House is a process-driven institution, and while there’s an element of novelty in the arrival of a bloc of 87 newcomers, not all that much happened in 2011. In large measure, that’s exactly Draper’s point: to depict a government institution hopelessly gridlocked by factions, even those in the same party, talking past each other. Read more ..

Film Review

Your Sister's Sister: A Tale by Moral and Intellectual Cripples

June 29th 2012

Your sisters sister

Your Sister's Sister. Director: Lynn Shelton. Starring: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass. Length: 90 mins.

The word that echoes through Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister is "weird." Here, for instance, is Sister A talking to Sister B. "I know you like him, but do you like him like him?"

Sister B replies, "Yeah, I think I'm in love with him. Do you think that's weird? Because of Tom, I think it might be weird."

What Sister B or Iris (Emily Blunt) doesn't know, however, is that Sister A, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), ostensibly a lesbian, has already slept with the gentleman in question, who's called Jack (Mark Duplass). He's the brother of Tom, Iris's ex-, now deceased, which is why Iris thinks her feelings for him "weird." Needless to say, when, Hannah's awful secret is revealed, her sleeping with Jack is also said to be weird - although, since she had just broken up with her long-term girlfriend and both she and Jack were pie-eyed drunk at the time, it might not seem all that weird to those of us looking on. We are soon to learn that Hannah has another motive which makes it even less weird.

But "weird" has a special meaning in this movie, as I suspect it does in much of the popular culture. It's not so much "strange" or "paranormal" (or even just "abnormal") but more like what a previous age might have termed "unseemly." Iris and Hannah and Jack, too, are all groping in their stumbling and inarticulate way towards the concept of decorum and, beyond it, something like decency, but the culture out of which they and so many of their generation have emerged regards such concepts as outmoded and, they suspect, vaguely indecent themselves.

Any normative principle applied to sex in particular, whether of morality or good taste, is automatically dubious, if not forbidden in the post-"liberation" era, and that leaves "weird" to do the work of a whole spectrum of terms now regarded as overly "judgmental" - terms ranging from immoral to indecent to tasteless to disgusting to, well, weird. Read more ..

Film Review

To Rome with Love: Woody Allen Continues his European Tour

June 26th 2012

To rome with love

To Rome with Love. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Roberto Benigni. Length: 102 mins.

Most Woody Allen films are set in New York but, in the past few years, the writer-director has branched out to London, Barcelona, Paris and now Rome. Allen's latest comedy, "To Rome With Love," is a collection of separate stories. The film begins with the camera moving past ancient ruins, classic fountains and modern skyscrapers while the 1950's hit, "Volare," plays in the background. A Roman policeman directing the notorious traffic turns to greet the audience.

Then, Allen presents tourists and locals falling in love, a business executive who becomes a celebrity, and an opera-singing undertaker, each in separate vignettes.

"A terrible title, incidentally," Allen says. "My original title was "The Bop Decameron" and nobody knew what "The Decameron" was, not even in Rome. Even the Italians didn't know."

"The Decameron" is a 14th century Italian novel which consists of 100 tales.

The script for Allen's 43rd film partly grew out of random ideas he'd squirreled away on his desk. "There will be a little note written on a matchbook or on a piece of paper that says, for example, 'A man who can only sing in the shower,'" Allen says. "It will occur to me at the time that this could make a funny story."

Another vignette features newlywed Antonio, whose honeymoon is interrupted by Anna, a voluptuous prostitute who mistakes him for a client she was paid to entertain. "She is a character that has no filter in her brain and says everything the way that she feels," says actress Penelope Cruz, who portrays the prostitute. "It is so liberating and refreshing to be able to play somebody like that." Read more ..

Book Review

Endowed by Our Creator: 275 Years of the American Controversy over Religion and Government

June 23rd 2012


Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America. Michael I. Meyerson. Yale University Press, 2012. 384 pages.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the ongoing controversy regarding the relationship between governmental and religious institutions in the United States is the fact it is ongoing. From the age of Paine to the Age of Aquarius, rising tides of religious skepticism have been apparent to champion and critic alike. Conversely, periodic Great Awakenings in the last 275 years have made faith ascendant. Each in its moment seemed to have unstoppable momentum. Yet here we are in the 21st century with arguments as heated as they've ever been. Inevitably, partisans invoke the Founding Fathers to bolster their respective claims. As University of Baltimore School of Law professor Michael I. Meyerson shows in this impressively researched book, each side of the sacred vs. secular camp can find ammunition to support its respective point of view. But he regards such partisan exercises as misleading at best and dangerous at worst. That's not because the Founders lacked a clear vision, he says, but rather because that vision was cast in terms of a union in which church and state -- but not God and state, or religion and state -- would be separate.

One of the mistakes contemporary Americans make is their assumption that the Founders' views were static. Actually, Meyerson's narrative, which stretches from the late colonial era to the presidency of James Madison, shows they lived in a world in which the state of faith was highly fluid. It varied between colonies, across time, and among the Founders themselves, who in the face of political exigencies sometimes took positions that were philosophically inconsistent. In fact, the very term "religious freedom" was subject to multiple meanings.

For the Puritans, freedom meant liberation from having to tolerate the self-evident corruptions of the crypto-papist Church of England. For others, it could mean simply the right to worship without expulsion. Or a that mandatory taxes would be siphoned toward a church of a believer's choosing. It did not necessarily mean a right to vote or hold office. Even the word "Christian" could be ambiguous (Catholic membership in this category was widely regarded as suspect.) Some colonies, like those of New England, were marked by a high degree of (Congregationalist) homogeneity. Others, particularly the middle colonies, were highly diverse. Though many colonists were aware of the religious terrain beyond their borders, they nevertheless remained worlds of their own, even decades after the Revolution. Read more ..

Film Review

Global Warming, Family Chaos in Film 'Future Weather'

June 20th 2012

mexico drought

Family upheaval and environmental destruction mirror each other in the film Future Weather, a drama about three generations of women, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now screening at other film festivals.

Set in a rural Midwestern community, the film tells the story of 13-year-old Lauduree, a young science student played by Perla Haney-Jardine. When her negligent mother abandons her, Lauduree tries to live on her own, but is forced to move in with her grandmother, Greta, leaving behind the plant experiments she’s been nurturing.

“What is so bad about coming to live with me?” asks Greta, played by Amy Madigan.

“I can’t leave my research,” Lauduree says.

“Lauduree, you are not a scientist! You are a minor, without a mother!” Greta responds impatiently. Greta, an earthy, tough-minded woman who works as a nurse, is planning to move to Florida with a new suitor, and Lauduree doesn’t want to go. Read more ..

Film Review

Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' does Not Reach the Standard set by 'Alien'

June 18th 2012


Prometheus. Director: Ridley Scott. Starring: Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Logan Marshal-Green. Length: 124 minutes.

Thirty three years ago, the film Alien defined the science fiction horror genre. For the first time movie goers watched a horrific monster hatching from humans. Throughout the years, the Alien or Xenomorph as it is called, appeared over and over in the Alien movies that followed, on TV shows, and even in comedy. Now, Director Ridley Scott returns to the genre with the prequel Prometheus. Despite the similarities between the Alien films and Prometheus, Scott deviates from the original.

In the late 70s, Ridley Scott created two iconic characters: The Alien and Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley was the first female character to tackle a monster on the large screen. The role continued in the 80s and the 90s.

In James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, she saves a little girl from the Alien’s jaws. Ripley's maternal instincts match those of the Alien queen protecting her eggs. It’s a fight to the end. In Alien 3, Ripley dies as she is about to spawn an Alien baby through her rib cage. She kills herself, taking her monstrous offspring along.

The trilogy was groundbreaking. From then on, women in film no longer cowered before physically superior adversaries.

But although Ridley Scott’s female survivalist is no longer novel, she still holds power over audiences, says Noomi Rapace who plays Elizabeth Shaw, the main character in Prometheus. “She becomes a survivor, and she changes into a trooper and a warrior, a typical Ridley heroine,” Rapace said. Read more ..

The Edge of History

Biographer Caro Indulges in Myths of the Kennedy Cuban Missile Crisis

June 18th 2012

The Cuban missile crisis

The editor-in-chief of HNN, Rick Shenkman, asked me recently if I would write a critique of the account of the Cuban missile crisis in Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, Volume 4 of his authoritative biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Shenkman felt that Caro had utilized “myths that you debunked years ago on HNN” -- and, unfortunately, he was right. Caro, whose interpretive skill, compelling writing, and command of detail (for example, his brilliant rendering of how LBJ brought electricity to the Texas hill country) has dazzled readers for decades, somehow dropped the ball on the Cuban missile crisis.

My latest book, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality, to be published in September, deals explicitly with the issue of what really happened in the White House in October 1962. Also, Fred Kaplan has written an excellent article on Slate detailing Caro’s distorted and misleading account of the missile crisis.

There are, however, several key points that deserve additional attention:

Robert Kennedy and Moral Diplomacy

Caro claims (p. 210) that early in the first week of the crisis “the tone of ExComm’s discussions changed -- and the catalyst for that change was Robert Kennedy.” He likewise declares (p. 239) that RFK revealed himself to be “a master of compromise [and] of diplomacy with a moral element, of diplomacy that was, in fact, in some ways grounded in ‘the moral question’” that a sneak attack was not in the American tradition. Caro, unfortunately, seems to have taken his cue from Thirteen Days: “We spent more time,” Bobby Kennedy claimed, “on this moral question [whether a powerful nation like the U.S. should attack a small nation like Cuba without warning] during the first five days than on any other single matter.” However, the ExComm tapes demonstrate conclusively that RFK’s claim that the moral argument dominated the first week’s discussions is absolutely false -- it was not even one of the dominant themes in the discussions. And, in any case, this moral stand was the exception, not the rule, for RFK -- indeed, it was the only significant case in which he backed away from supporting military force in Cuba and a hard line against the Soviet Union. Read more ..

North Korea and Norway

N. Korea Finds Cultural Ally in Norwegian Artist

June 16th 2012


North Korea doesn’t have many friends in the international community.  But in far away Norway, artist/director Morten Traavik has become a one-man cultural diplomat bent on changing that.

While North Korea is berated for its totalitarian regime, its isolationistic policies and terrible human rights record, Traavik says he has no reservations about cooperating with the government to further his objectives.

“I see no reason not to work with those forces within the system because if you want to work with countries like North Korea, you have to work with the state, the state is everything.”

After years of cajoling, Traavik earlier this year won Pyongyang's permission to bring 11 North Korean musicians and artists to Norway for the Barents Spektakel, an arts and culture festival in Kirkenes, near the Russian border. ​​​​​​Last month, North Korea returned the favor by hosting its First Norwegian Festival. “The suggestion to organize a Norwegian cultural festival on May 17th, the Norwegian national holiday, actually came from the North Korean side… so who was I to decline?" said Traavik. Read more ..

The Edge of Art

Christie's to Sell Edvard Munch's 'Hagen i Åsgårdstrand'

June 16th 2012

Hagen i Åsgårdstrand by Edvard Munch

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted Hagen i Åsgårdstrand in 1904-1905, eleven years after his most famous painting, The Scream. It depicts the garden at Åsgårdstrand, south of Oslo, where Munch first visited in 1899. He rented a small cabin there and later bought it. The post-impressionist landscape in this painting is the subject, unlike most of his previous work at this point in time.

During 1904-05, Munch was painting vibrant landscapes with swirling lines and heavy, saturated colors. The lines give some insight into the troubled state of his mind during this period. Like many painters at the time, Munch was fascinated by Japanese prints, with their flat composition.

In the painting to be sold by Christie's auction house at the end of June, the composition is flat yet the paint is textured and contains a highly keyed palette Read more ..

The Edge of Fashion

African Fashion Finds a Home in Dakar

June 15th 2012

fashion show

Dakar Fashion Week celebrates its 10th year with the biggest lineup yet. The organizers of the international event aim to reach the heights of fashion weeks in Paris and New York, while remaining distinctly African.

High fashion is nothing new in Africa. And Senegalese designer Adama Ndiaye says it has its own special quality.

"We do one piece, one by one. We're not sending it to the factory because we don't have a big factory," Ndiaye said. "It's something we've been doing forever." But the industry, like many on the continent, is developing.

To help it along, Ndiaye started Dakar Fashion Week.  Ten years on, the event is drawing the attention of industry notables from all over Africa and the world. Originally from Cameroon, Marcial Tapolo came from Paris to participate for the second time. "It's like a high-class show that she's trying to do. Very sophisticated, which is rare in Africa, as a fashion show," he said. Despite the international presence, most of the talent is local, in a deliberate effort to showcase Senegalese designers and models. Arame Sarr has been to fashion weeks in New York and Paris, but she says Dakar is special. Read more ..

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