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Film Review

W./E.: Wallis Simpson was Not As Dreadful as Madonna's Film Treatment of Her life

January 28th 2012

Film - W./E.

W./E. Director: Madonna. Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle. Length: 119 mins.

The Wikipedia entry for Madonna lists no fewer than ten professions to describe her ‘occupation’. Well, here is number 11: self-appointed Promoter of the Cause for the Canonization of St. Wallis of Baltimore. 

W./E. is not a film about Wallis Simpson; rather it is a film by a woman obsessed with Wallis about a woman obsessed with Wallis. In 1998, New Yorker, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) escapes her own marital difficulties by imagining a friendship with her namesake, played by Andrea Riseborough. An auction of the Collection of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at Sotheby’s acts as a tenuous portal between the supposedly parallel lives of the two women.

Just in case the viewer struggles to spot immediately the similarities (names aside) between these two very different women, Madonna paints the picture for us, but it is more of a paint-by-numbers job than a masterpiece. The two women are both defined by their marriages (Wally, at an event to celebrate her husband’s extremely successful career in psychiatry, is referred to as ‘Married Lady’; Wallis’ three weddings are all highlighted). Both are victims of domestic violence, and brutal it is too. Read more ..

Film Reviews

The Artist: A Story of Love and Yearning for Articulacy and Understanding

January 27th 2012

Film - the Artist

The Artist. Director: Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman. Length: 90 mins.

The Artist, by the French director Michel Hazanavicius, begins with the noise of an old-fashioned projector and a black screen. Music then comes up, a jazzy tune reminiscent of the 1920s without being quite of the period. The titles which then appear are entirely of the period, known to us now as "the silent era" — as is what we are soon seeing on the screen, which is a lurid adventure yarn in living black-and-white. Called "A Russian Affair," the movie has reached a peak of excitement as the hero, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), is being tortured with an electrical current through his head, administered by a couple of sinister-looking Russians. "I won’t talk!" he cries to his torturers by means of a dialogue title printed on the screen. "I won’t say a word" — a promise which the film allows him to keep in spite of the word he has just supposedly spoken. "Speak!" the Russians command him, also by inter-title. But he remains silent — then and throughout both that film and the one we are watching.

It is a good joke and one that Mr. Hazanavicius returns to several times, as when he shows Valentin gathered with his fellow stars on the other side of the screen, awaiting their cue to appear for a curtain call at the film’s premiere under a sign reading "Please be silent behind the screen." Later, his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) ominously says — again in print, of course — to Valentin: "We have to talk, George." Alas, George has already told Al Zimmer (John Goodman), the studio boss of Kinograph pictures what he told the sinister Russians, namely that he’s not talking. Shown his first talkie, George tells Al via another dialogue title, "If that’s the future, you can have it." Well, Al does and he doesn’t. Sticking with silence, he takes a bath with a self-produced film in which we see his character sinking into quicksand at the end. Virtually overnight, he’s all washed up. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

New Short Film/Video, Rainbow in the Night, Expresses Triumph and Hope in Time for the U.N. Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 26th 2012

Jewish Topics - Ranbow in the Night
On set in Majdanek

January 27, 2012 marks the 7th Annual UN Holocaust Remembrance Day. It's purpose is to honor the victims of the Holocaust and establish ways for younger and future generations to learn about and remember the tragedies that occured.  The hope is that through learning from our history, we can prevent the darkest points from ever occurring again.

In honor of the U.N. Holocaust Rememberance Day, film producer and director Daniel Finkelman recently completed a scripted and reenacted music video, depicting the era of the Holocaust entitled, “Rainbow in the Night”.  The video offers viewers an emotional and visual outlook into life in Poland, 1939.


Edge of Film

'Hugo' Leads Oscar Race With 11 Nominations

January 25th 2012

Film - hugo

The Academy Award nominations were announced this morning in Hollywood. Martin Scorsese's 3D adventure movie "Hugo," a fantasy tribute to French film pioneer George Melies, leads the list with 11 nominations, including one for Best Director, numerous technical categories and the most coveted of all, Best Picture of the Year. Actress and previous Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence announced the top category. "The films selected as best picture nominees for 2011 are  "War Horse," "The Artist," "Moneyball," "The Descendants," "The Tree of Life," "Midnight in Paris," "The Help," "Hugo" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

The silent film, "The Artist," is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor and best supporting actress. "The Artist," a French-made black-and-white silent film about old-time Hollywood, has 10 nominations, including writing and directing for Michel Hazanavicius, Best Actor for its star Jean DuJardin and Best Supporting Actress for co-star Berenice Bejo, who expresses the sentiment heard most often. "Just being nominated is already an honor and already unbelievable," she said. Read more ..

Book Reviews

The Sense of an Ending: Low-Key Suspense and Deft Spacing in a Novella

January 24th 2012

Book Covers - sense of an ending

The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes. Alfred Knopf Publishers. 2011. 160 pages.

This novella tells an extraordinary story about a very ordinary man. The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for any number of literary reasons. But one of its most distinctive attributes is its power as a meditation on the way memory is a form of personal historiography. Our master narratives of ourselves change in light our changing circumstances -- and, every once in a while, when previously unknown information about the past prompts (sometimes painful) revisionism.

Tony Webster is a late middle-aged man: recently retired, not-so recently divorced, with a grown daughter and young grandchildren. In measured prose, he tells the reader the story of his life. Most of his tale is dominated by his youth as schoolboy with a group of three other chums in postwar England and in chronicling his first serious romance. These two strands intertwine briefly in early adulthood. That chapter of his life ends unhappily, but he gets on with it and decades later looks back with satisfaction on a career as an arts administrator and an ex-wife with whom he remains on friendly terms.

Then, most unexpectedly, he is informed of a small bequest and the existence of a document that he is apparently meant to see but which is also being withheld from him. Disoriented by this set of events, Webster re-opens old relationships that shake loose the cobwebs of his memory. It's hard to be more specific than this without ruining the distinctly low-key but undeniable suspense of the story. Read more ..

Film Reviews

Iron Lady is a Film not so much about Politics as it is about Pity

January 24th 2012

Film - iron lady

All the review of The Iron Lady that you really need is to be found in the headline to a recent article in The Times of London by Daniel Finkelstein: "Thatcher was not just strong. She was right." Unless this be granted, the case goes by default that the former British prime minister was the monster of left-wing caricature. The difficulty for the film-makers - Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) directed, Abi Morgan (Shame) wrote the screenplay - is that they don't want the caricature but they don't want her to be right either.

To get around this difficulty they have made a political movie from which the politics has been extracted as a taxidermist draws out the brain of an animal he is stuffing through its nose. If there were any politics in it, they would have had to pick a side and portray Margaret Thatcher as essentially right or essentially wrong, so offending a significant portion of their potential audience who are, more than 30 years later, still passionately committed to one view or the other. But there are two senses in which the Thatcher premiership was historic.

One is the political sense that the film avoids; the other, chosen by the Misses Lloyd and Morgan, is the merely journalistic sense of "historic" - that is, because she was the first woman to hold the office of the Queen's first minister. In other words she was strong; on the question of whether she was right or not, the film mostly tries to remain agnostic - and uncontroversial. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Putin's List: 100 Books For Russian Readers

January 24th 2012

Art Topics - Tolstoy

In his latest campaign article, published in the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" daily, Russian Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Vladimir Putin takes Russia's national question and breaks it in two. How do we deal with outsiders? he asks. And what does it mean to be an insider? Accordingly, Putin uses his piece to call for several hard-nosed policies for dealing with the "outsiders" -- the nation's growing immigrant population. But at the same time, he proposes a literary gateway for those who wish to become "insiders" -- a cultural canon of 100 books to serve as required reading for all students in Russia's schools.

Speaking on January 23 in the southern city of Kislovodsk, Putin acknowledged Russia's rich legacy as a multiethnic state, but said its inhabitants had much to gain from embracing a unified Russian identity. "No one who lives in our country should forget about their religion or ethnicity," Putin said. "But everyone should be, first and foremost, a citizen of the great country of Russia." Putin noted in his article that "every self-respecting" student at leading American universities has dutifully read their way through similar lists, such as the 51-volume Harvard Classics world-lit anthology or the works included in American educator Mortimer Adler's "Great Books of the Western World." Russia, Putin implied in his article, was not to be outdone. "Our nation has always been a reading nation," he wrote, and called on the country's leading cultural authorities to get cracking with a list of their own. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin regards a book about himself during a visit to Penza in April 2011.xPrime Minister Vladimir Putin regards a book about himself during a visit to Penza in April 2011.

Edge of Film

New Documentary Illustrates Plague of Leftover Landmines

January 24th 2012

Art Topics - surviving the peace doc

Remnants of war, including unexploded ordnance and landmines, are still found in many countries around the world - even decades after conflicts have ended. Those dangers often devastate the lives of local inhabitants, who might not be aware they live in the middle of a minefield. An international organization that helps clear and destroy weapons left behind in war zones recently screened a documentary called Surviving the Peace, which shows how remnants of a conflict affect people’s lives, even after their country has emerged from war. In many regions of the globe, surviving a war is followed by surviving the peace. From Laos, where this new documentary was filmed, to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and many other countries, local inhabitants live in daily fear of stepping on a landmine or unexploded ordnance left after a recent conflict.

Surviving the Peace, filmed in Laos in May 2011, reflects a situation found in many countries. It features a young father who is blinded when a bomb left over from the Vietnam War explodes in the fire he is making at his home. The guy had most of his face deformed and we were this close [to him]. They allowed us in and we were complete strangers. It felt like we were given a gift from these people to be allowed into their lives,” said filmmaker and cinematographer Rick Gershon. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Life Itself: Movie Critic Robert Ebert's Unselfconscious Memoir

January 22nd 2012

Book Covers - Life itself

Life Itself: A Memoir. Roger Ebert. Grand Central. 2011. 448 pages.

At one point in this memoir, longtime film critic Roger Ebert describes taking an undergraduate class at University of Illinois on the fiction of Willa Cather and being arrested by Cather's prose, which he describes "as clear as running water." Yes, I said aloud: that captures exactly what I've always so liked about Ebert. There's an artlessness to his criticism that could only be honed by decades of newspaper work. I admired Pauline Kael for her inimitable voice -- not that she's lacked imitators -- and the way I found her taste unpredictable. (I'd often try and guess in advance whether she was going to like a movie before I read her review, and as often as not was wrong.)

I'm less interested in trying to guess with Ebert than just to hear what he has to say in that sensible, fair voice of his. I think of his plain-spoken sensibility as quintessentially Midwestern by way of Chicago, land of Royko, Terkel and Eppie Lederer, a.k.a. Ann Landers, three of many Windy City scribes who make appearances on these pages. (There are some amusing Ann Landers stories here, including one about Ebert, a recovering alcoholic, trying to take her to an AA meeting and being rebuffed by the participants. Ebert also used her as a prop in trying to pick up the woman who became his wife.)

As regular readers of his work are aware, Ebert has been struggling with various forms of cancer for a decade now, and has undergone surgery that has left him unable to eat, drink, or speak. But, he explains, this involuntary silence seems to have triggered a flood of memory, leading him to start an autobiographical blog that resulted in this book. It does indeed read like an untrammeled river of prose; as an affectionate but frank Maureen Dowd complained in her review, "The effervescent Ebert doesn’t realize ... that for an autobiography, he doesn’t need to include the names of every childhood friend, parish priest, funeral attendee, and even his phone number when he was a boy." Read more ..

Edge on Books

Edwin Black Exposes War-Stained Oil History of British Petroleum on C-SPAN's Book-TV with 'British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement'

January 21st 2012

Book Covers - redline agreement

British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement--The West’s Secret Pact to Get Mideast Oil. Edwin Black. 277 pages. 2011. Buy it here.

Bestselling historian author and investigative journalist Edwin Black appears in three broadcasts on Book-TV over the January 21-22 weekend and January 23. Black will speak on his book British Petroleum and the Redline AgreementThe West’s Secret Pact to Get Mideast Oil. His main themes will be the fraud, deception, and decades of war machinations of the company now known as BP, and how it shaped the Mideast as we now know it and helped addict the world to oil.

His dynamic presentations were made before an international audience assembled at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement is only the latest of his several volumes on the geopolitics and diplomatic machinations that led to the carving up of the Mideast the creation of oil states following the fall of the Ottoman Empire nearly one hundred years ago-- and eventually to the two costly wars the United States fought in Iraq. Black is said to be the man who coined the term "petropolitics."

Some of his other widely-cited books on the topic, which have been well received by historians and analysts, are The Farhud, Banking on Baghdad, The Plan and Internal Combustion. These cover the intricate and deadly connections between backroom dealings by global powers such as British Petroleum and General Motors, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, as well as and their interveined relationship with America’s wars and oil addiction. Black is best known for his prize-winning volume, IBM and the Holocaust.

British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement has brought Black accolades from analysts who watch the Mideast and the current devolution of decades-old oil-sponsored dictatorships in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and the possible rise of Islamist regimes. His work provides historical context to the troubles of the so-called Arab Spring that have led to the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Singing the Blues isn't Easy in the Land of Mariachis, Cumbia, and Narco-Corridos

January 19th 2012

Mexican Topics - Roberto Fernandez

Roberto Fernandez concedes that it's sometimes lonely being a bluesman in Culiacan. The capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Culiacan is best known for the banda or grupera sounds that also provide the drum beat to the narco-culture and violence that's enveloped the region. "There's no blues scene," Fernandez chuckles. "We are the only ones." The frontman for the Malverde Blues Experience, Fernandez is a big man with a voice to match. His stage projection recalls in some ways Leslie West of the old US rock group Mountain, and Fernandez's band mates lay out a thundering sound with slices of heavy-metal, soul and the Texas boogie of ZZ Top.

As for the name of the group, Fernandez offers two explanations, both of them riddled with Mexican experiences of immigration, contraband smuggling, banditry and myth-making. The name "Malverde" (literally "Bad Green"), says the lead singer, is taken from an Indiana friend's bummer high on marijuana that could be considered a "blues experience." Pressed further, Fernandez accepts that Malverde, of course, is also the patron saint of Sinaloa's narcos and poor people who revere the outlaw figure outside the formal rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. "The name seemed perfect to me because it situates us in that mythic context, which in the final analysis is the basis of all societies," Fernandez muses. The music of Malverde Blues Experience, he adds, not only speaks to the realities of a violent hometown but to "universal situations that happen anywhere." Read more ..

Book Reviews

Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists and Their Family's Trial of Faith and Socialism

January 18th 2012

Book Covers - Conscience

Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family - A Test of Will and Faith in World War I. Louisa Thomas. Penguin Press. 2011. 336 pages.

“Socialism” has been redefined, praised and denigrated by free marketeers, assorted liberals and conservatives, pandering politicians and Obama-haters.  But in the end, it never took hold in this country because of governmental persecution, corporate opposition, recurring internal divisions, the New Deal, and perhaps above all the “American Dream,” which led American workers to support capitalism.

Was it possible to reconcile socialism with capitalism?  In socialism’s heyday, Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate, received 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 election running against the Republican William Howard Taft, the pugnacious Bull Mooser Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Eight years later, in the 1920 election, while Debs was still imprisoned in Atlanta penitentiary for opposing World War I and the draft, he received one million votes.  It’s hard to remember that today’s consistently Republican/conservative Oklahoma once contained the nation’s second-largest socialist party.  The nadir of socialism’s national electoral popularity was when Norman Thomas, the party’s perennial candidate, won 140,000 votes in his final run in 1948, next to Harry Truman’s 24 million and Thomas Dewey’s 22 million.  In that last fruitless presidential campaign he railed against communism, Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, and the bellicose foreign policies of both Democrats and Republicans.

Neither Debs, nor Thomas, nor for that matter once-prominent socialists Daniel DeLeon, Morris Hillquit, and even Helen Keller, are remembered today.  Nor are socialism’s historical ancestors:  Brook Farm, the Amana and Oneida communities, Robert Owen’s New Harmony colony, and Edward Bellamy’s late nineteenth-century Looking Backward, a hugely popular novel about a socialist and utopian America. Read more ..

Book Review

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Cold Comfort for America's Religious Right

January 15th 2012

Book Covers - roger williams 3

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty. John M. Barry. Viking Press. 2012. 441 pages.

John Barry has written one of the best and clearest books about Roger Williams that I have ever read, a book about the ideas of Roger Williams and their context. It is not a biography in the usual sense, but it tells what ideas, forces, and events shaped Williams’ thinking. Barry concludes that Williams was truly revolutionary and was the source of one of two major versions in the American “soul.” He was the fountain of the stream of religious freedom, separation of church and state, and political liberty. The other stream was represented by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. Winthrop presented America as a Christian “city on a hill” whose continued success required the state to be a “nurturing father” to the church. The government and the church had to be partners in curbing the human wickedness and preserving their covenant with God. If they failed, God would surely make an example of their city, treating it as if it were Sodom or Gomorrah. Williams, on the other hand, said that the state had absolutely no role to play in religion.

Barry devotes about a third of the book to the British context of Williams’ development, especially stressing the impact of Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon. The greater influence was Coke, who plucked the boy Williams from obscurity, made him his amanuensis, and saw that he received the finest formal education available at Charterhouse School and Cambridge University. Williams accompanied Coke to Parliament, the Court of Star Chamber, Court of Common Pleas, the Privy Council, conferences with the King, and other high-level meetings. Williams learned about the law, government, and justice first hand at the elbow of England’s greatest jurist and legal thinker. Read more ..

Edge on Film

A Separation: An Iranian Film and Contender for Golden Globes Award

January 14th 2012

Film - A Separation still

The much-acclaimed Iranian film, "A Separation," headlined Prague’s inaugural Iranian Film Festival this week, in a showcase event highlighting the best of Iran’s distinguished film industry. Ashgar Farhadi’s film has received plaudits in Iran as well as in the international film community after being the first Iranian film to win the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival and being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards in the United States. The Golden Globes will be held on January 15.

"A Separation" explores the complex issue of migration and poses an uncomfortable question that has confronted a generation of Iranians living in Iran and abroad: to stay in Iran and be slowly strangled by the rigors of Iranian society or flee to the West and become irrelevant? The film tells the story of the strained relationship between a middle-class couple, Nader and Simin. Nader is driven by his duty to stay in Iran and take care of his ageing and ill father. Simin, meanwhile, is driven by a need for escape and longs to leave Iran, especially for the sake of their young daughter, Termeh. A series of heated arguments follow between the couple and a climax is reached when Simin leaves home and demands a divorce from Nader, which instigates a series of unforeseen and tragic events. Read more ..

Wine and Food

Michigan Sees Great Future in Ancient Italian Dessert Wines

January 14th 2012

Food / Wine - sabattini viticulturist
Michigan viticulturist Paolo Sabbatini

A Michigan State University researcher is working with vintners to introduce passito, an age-old Italian wine to the United States. Passito, traced to 800 B.C. in Italy, is also known as straw wine. The grapes for passito are typically hand-picked and allowed to dry on cellar racks or, more traditionally, on mats of straw. Many industry experts believe ice wine – dessert wine pressed from frozen grapes at the peak of ripeness and can sell around $90 per bottle – could be the signature wine for the northern United States. Passito, however, could be just as distinct but also a lower-risk option for wine producers, says Paolo Sabbatini, MSU viticulturist and native Italian.

“No one is making passito commercially in America, and this old Italian technique can be pivotal in cool-cold climate viticulture,” Sabbatini said. “It can save unripe grapes from being wasted in a challenging year as well as produce a high-quality, high-value product, distinctive to the northern U.S.” Typically, growers of ice-wine grapes need the perfect winter storm – the arrival of temperatures in the teens to freeze ripe grapes while they are on the vine. This year’s fickle winter, however, has put the entire North American ice wine crop on hold. In the last two months, weather has been up and down, switching from snow to rain and not delivering the successive string of cold days needed to harvest frozen grapes, according to an industry publication. Read more ..

Film Review

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A Film of World-Weary Self Satisfaction

January 13th 2012

Film - tinker tailor soldier spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Director: Tomas Alfredson. Starring: Gary Oldman. Length: 92 mins.

Although I didn’t much care for Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I should begin by giving it its due. The movie does a fantastic job of conveying what Britain looked, sounded and even smelled like in 1973, which was the year I arrived there for what turned out to be a nearly 15-year stay spanning the transition from the Britain of the post-war era to the threshold of the post-Cool Britannia of today. The clothes, the cars, the general dinginess and shabbiness of everything is captured perfectly, so far as I can see, in spite of the odd false note like having George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and an associate dining in a Wimpy Bar. Obviously, the Wimpy Bar has to be there in order to give us the full flavor of the period, but men of their class wouldn’t have been caught dead in one. Movies these days are generally pretty good at re-creating the material past, but this one is a reminder of the importance of also getting the moral and intellectual and spiritual past right as well, for it cannot be understood apart from that cultural context.

In its case, that means the John Le Carré novel of 1974 and the 1979 BBC television adaptation of it starring Alec Guinness as well as the history of the Cold War on which both purport to be a distinctive gloss. Unlike Mr. Alfredson’s previous film, Let the Right One In, which was a completely original take on the vampire legend, Tinker Tailor places itself squarely in the middle of the now well-established tradition of cultural customs and concepts with which it deals — partly, perhaps, in order to suggest a continuity between that tradition and current political realities with which it would otherwise seem to have little in common. In other words, now not only Cold War spies but spies in general are seen as inhabiting that famously "twilit" world invented by Mr. Le Carré to express his own conviction of moral ambiguity and, in consequence, a near moral equivalence between Communist slave states and what used to be called "the West." Read more ..

Book Reviews

Taft: A Novel that Comes in the Nick of Time

January 12th 2012

Book Covers - Taft

Taft: A Novel. Jason Heller. Quirk. 2012. 320 pages.

The wacky premise of this novel merits a look. On March 4, 1913, on the final day of a presidency wedged between the more commanding Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the outgoing president William Howard Taft -- all 300+ pounds of him -- somehow slips through a time portal and reappears on the White House grounds in late 2011. Shot by a secret service agent terrified by the muddy beast, Taft, he of stuck-in-the-bathtub lore, is nursed back to health and introduced to the 21st century, where there's a lot more affection for the 27th president than there ever was a century ago.

There's some entertainment to be had in this fish-out-of-water story. "Good God, man. Is this all truly necessary? I must look like a cut-rate Manila harlot," the one-time administrator of the Philippines says. He wonders what ever happened to good old tap water, and expresses surprise that cell phones didn't come along sooner.

First-time novelist Heller, a music journalist and writer of genre fiction, renders Taft as colorful cartoon, which is mildly amusing, though all the attention to his gargantuan appetite and handlebar mustache becomes a bit tiresome after a while. (Other characters are a good deal less compelling.) We watch Taft as he visits familiar places, gets drunk, gets laid, and passively finds himself drawn into presidential politics (just as he was the first time around). Heller augments his traditional storyline with a series of mock documents -- television talk show transcripts; Secret Service memos; twitter feeds, polling data -- that contextualize the story. Read more ..

Film News

CIA, DOD Probing Whether Bin Laden Secrets were Leaked

January 10th 2012

Terrorism - Osama bin Laden

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) says the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency are investigating whether classified information was released to filmmakers on how Osama bin Laden was killed. King received confirmation of the investigation in letters from Defense and the CIA that he made public on Thursday.

"Following a shockingly dismissive response to my request from White House press secretary Jay Carney, I am pleased that the inspectors general at DOD and the CIA agree with me that potential leaks to filmmakers are something worth investigating and taking action to address," King said. "The leaks that followed the successful bin Laden mission led to the arrests of Pakistanis and put in danger the mission’s heroes and their families," he said. "Privately, individuals in the intelligence and special operations communities expressed support for my request for a probe. I look forward to an update on the investigation and actions taken thus far." Read more ..

Movie Madness

'The Devil Inside' makes Lots of Filthy Lucre for a Hollywood Possessed by Catholic Themes

January 9th 2012

Film - the devil inside

Audience response to a Hollywood faux documentary, The Devil Inside, has belied the critics who have panned the flick. Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday January 6-8 at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com, showed that The Devil Inside took in  $34.5 million, surpassing the glitzy Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – starring the nimble Tom Cruise – which brought in $20.5 million. Following in third place was Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, starring Iron Man's Robert Downey Jr, at $14.1 million in domestic receipts, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starring Daniel Craig of 007 fame, at $14.1 million in fourth place. See trailer here.

A surprise hit for Paramount Pictures, the horror film surpassed industry expectations as freak flick fans went to theatres to see a low-budget film about exorcists who try to liberate a woman possessed by demons. With the results from The Devil Inside, Hollywood’s business made for a bright first week of the new year, following a sluggish Christmas season at the box office despite some otherwise excellent films such as Tintin and Hugo.  Overall domestic revenues totaled $144 million, up 29 percent from the same weekend last year, when True Grit led with $14.6 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Miranda Lambert Delivers Whole New Flair With 'Four The Record'

January 8th 2012

Music - Miranda Lambert1

Miranda Lambert says her new album, “Four The Record,” “pushes the limits” and builds on her previous releases with “a whole new flair.” The Country star kept a high profile throughout the past year by winning her first Grammy Award, taking home her second consecutive Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year Award, and marrying fellow Country star Blake Shelton.  And, she’s poised to have another stellar year in 2012. Miranda’s new album, “Four The Record,” debuted at Number One.  She becomes the only artist in the Country Album chart’s history to enter in the top spot with each of her first four releases. 

Last year, Miranda recorded a side project with singer-songwriter friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley as Pistol Annies.  The trio’s “Hell On Heels” album also opened at Number One on the Country list. Since the 2005 release of her major label debut album “Kerosene,” Miranda has charted her own musical course.  Her fans have understood her personality from the beginning, but Miranda’s feisty attitude stood in the way of radio success early in her career. 

She finally developed a relationship with Country radio with the release of her 2009 album, “Revolution,” which produced two Number One hits. After spending some time at home for the holidays, Miranda is back at work to promote her new album.  “Four The Record” features many guests, including Steve Winwood, Josh Kelley, Patty Loveless and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman.  Miranda also invited her husband to duet with her on this track, called “Better In The Long Run.” Read more ..

Edge of Music

In New Orleans, Even the Walls Sing

January 8th 2012

Music - Music Box Louisiana

It's called the Music Box, but it is not a box at all. It's a tiny village. A collection of tiny wooden huts sits on a quiet street in New Orleans, making music all day and all night.

Built into the wall of a small wooden shack is a computer that records sounds ready to be played back. Artist Taylor Lee Shepherd explains his creation.

"What I was playing you earlier is just my voice and then looped over and then you can go back and play it through," said Shepherd.  "It's very versatile. You can put anything into that mixer and sample whatever you want. My idea is that it's kind of a choir and you're summoning the voices behind your walls."

Shepherd's instrument is housed in a tiny shantytown built on a residential street in New Orleans. An 18th-century cottage once stood on the land. When that cottage fell apart artists moved in to make use of the old wood. In its place now stands a collection of small shacks that are either musical instruments or contain musical instruments. Hundreds of visitors from the city and beyond have visited the Music Box and played the instruments. In one hut, visitors play household items such as plastic bags and paint buckets, which double as a drum set. Read more ..

Book Reviews

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to the Mean Years of Jim Morrison

January 7th 2012

Book Covers - doors

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. Greil Marcus. Public Affairs. 2011

Greil Marcus is the Ernest Hemingway of cultural criticism. I don't mean that in terms of style -- Hemingway's laconic prose is light years away from that of the effusive, endlessly analogizing Marcus -- but rather that Marcus, in a manner perhaps only paralleled by Pauline Kael, has inspired a generation of bad imitators. Myself among them.

I discovered Marcus somewhat belatedly, at the time of the second (1982) edition of his classic 1975 study Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Roll Music. I read the book multiple times in ensuing iterations, enchanted by its intoxicating prose, despite the fact that it would be years before I heard much of the music on which it was based. I was thrilled by the idea that popular music could be a subject of serious fun. It's hard to imagine that I would have ever received a Ph.D. in American Civilization, specializing in the history of popular culture, had I not encountered that book at a formative period in my life.

Though he has been a consistently productive magazine journalist, Marcus's output as a writer of books was relatively modest in the twenty years following Mystery Train, notwithstanding that his 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century has had the heft and durability of a major study. But in the last two decades -- and in the last five years or so in particular -- his pace as a writer, editor and collaborator has picked up. He's taken to writing quick, impressionistic books on subjects like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years represents relatively fresh territory, not only because the band has not really been a long-term fixture of his writing, but also because the group has always had a mixed critical reputation. Conventional critical wisdom holds that while the Doors produced a few deeply suggestive songs that have had a remarkably durable life on FM radio, lead singer Jim Morrison in particular was, in the main, undisciplined at best and boorishly pretentious at worst. Though his overall stance toward the band is positive, Marcus does not fundamentally challenge this view, instead focusing on what he considers the band's best work in its brief life in the second half of the 1960s. Read more ..

Film Review

War Horse: As Good or Better than the Play

January 4th 2012

Film - war horse 2

War Horse. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irvine. Length: 146 minutes.

Is a story better in a play or on the silver screen?  Which format tells history better?  Which is more memorable?

People have been arguing that question since films were invented and history first probed in cinema.  Does the power of the live theater, with actors just a few feet away, carry you away as completely as the power of film and its ability to bring you extraordinary close-ups and sweeping panoramic landscapes, all set to stirring music?  Does your imagination soar farther listening to someone describe something on stage or watching it in a movie?

Which makes you shout for joy louder or weep longer?  Which better evokes the story of the past?

The latest stage-to-screen story to sweep America is Steven Spielberg’s epic World War I drama War Horse, based on the prize-winning play now at Lincoln Center in New York and the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo.  It is the story of a British teenager whose horse, Joey, is sold to the English army for use in World War I. Read more ..

The Literary Edge

Another View of “On The Road”

January 3rd 2012

Book Covers - one and only

In his latest book, Gerald Nicosia has unlocked the dynamic of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and not a moment too soon. Nicosia, the author of Memory Babe, the definitive Jack Kerouac book, was an advisor to the “On The Road” movie due to be premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival. On The Road, published in 1957, was of course, the book that made Kerouac famous. It was inspired by Jack London’s famed book The Road, published in 1907.

Nicosia’s new book is One And Only: The Untold Story of On The Road. Its genesis was on the set of “On The Road,” when he was hired to teach the actors what beatnik life was all about.

Nicosia had thirty years previously interviewed Lu Anne Henderson, known as Marylou in “On The Road,” for Memory Babe. Cassady famously wrote to Lu Anne, “We’ll be together, you are my one and only wife.” And through all the wives and husbands and boyfriends and girlfriends, they were each other’s lovers to the end of time.

Kerouac and Cassady had a sometimes homoerotic relationship but Nicosia says it was Lu Anne who brought them together, and encouraged them to love each other in a way that defined the beat movement.

Up until now, most of what people know about Cassady and Kerouac comes from Carolyn Cassady, Cassady’s second wife. Her memoirs shaped the 1980 film “Heart Beat,” starring Nick Nolte as Cassady and Sissy Spacek as Carolyn.

The new film is more from the viewpoint of Lu Anne, Cassady’s first wife. That is because Nicosia, as the preeminent Kerouac scholar, was hired as an advisor for “On The Road.” When he played the tapes for actress Kristin Stewart, both he and the actress had some major revelations. Read more ..

Book Reviews

The Swerve: Award-Winning Look at How the Modern World came to be

January 2nd 2012

Book Covers - the swerve

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Stephen Greenblatt. Norton Publishers. 2011. 352 pages.

It's always a surprising pleasure to find an English professor able to write about literature in comprehensible English. It's even more surprising when that professor can write narrative history better than most historians do. What's stunning is an English professor who writes good history that spans about 1800 years and who manages to ground his story in a set of richly contextualized moments that he stitches together with notable deftness. But then, this shouldn't really be all that surprising: we're talking about Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt here. This New Historicist extraordinaire -- author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare -- has just won the National Book Award for his latest book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

The point of departure for The Swerve is the year 1417, when an obscure former papal scribe named Poggio Bracchiolini enters a German monastery.  Greenblatt manages to capture both the way in which Poggio is a figure of his time even as he explains the novelty, even strangeness, of this bibliophile's quest to discover ancient works and the practical difficulties involved for a man of his station to do so. He then describes how Poggio encounters On the Nature of Things, a poem by the Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius, written in the first century BCE. Lucretius was deeply influenced by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). In the context of its pre-Renaissance recovery, the poem represented a radical challenge to the common sense of its time in its emphasis on pleasure as an end unto itself, as well as its de-emphasis on the role of the divine in human aspiration and fate.. Read more ..

Book Reviews

George Washington's Westchester Gamble: Bitter Fighting Turned Near-Defeat into Victory

January 2nd 2012

Book Covers - westchester gamble

George Washington's Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson and the Trapping of Cornwallis. Richard Borkow. The History Press. 2011. 192 pages.

New Yorkers—and many other people—are likely to find this brief briskly written book a fascinating read.  It combines the story of Westchester County in the Revolution and its climax—General Washington’s decision to march south from his encampment at Dobbs Ferry and nearby towns to trap Charles, Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown.

The author does an excellent job of describing the war in Westchester, including the crucial Battle of Stony Point.  But he naturally focuses most of the book on the fighting that accompanied the creation of an encampment for the French and American armies in 1781 as they debated whether to attack British occupied New York.

Not a few people will be surprised by how much gunfire echoed around Dobbs Ferry when the British sent a fleet of warships up the Hudson to destroy American boats that were ferrying supplies to both armies. The allies had set up a redoubt at Dobbs Ferry, equipped with numerous cannon, and they blasted the British ships coming and going. One, HMS Savage, took a direct hit on a powder box that exploded, terrifying twenty sailors into jumping overboard. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Cold War Films Reflected Shifting US Attitudes

December 28th 2011

Film - Hunt for Red October

In 1946 speech, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the physical and symbolic wall separating East and West across Europe. Churchill's speech signaled the beginning of the Cold War.

It ended 20 years ago, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, during the Cold War, American films reflected the changing mood of the United States towards the USSR.

Few movies have captured the history of early Communist Russia as well as David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago.” The film was an epic love story between Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the wife of a communist leader. But it was also a bleak treatise on communist Russia.

Peter Rollberg, professor of film studies at George Washington University, says David Lean’s human treatment of Russians in "Doctor Zhivago" was the exception rather than the rule in Cold War films. “The Cold War created a field of tension that made for well-motivated good stories."

Some of these films, such as “The Manchurian Candidate,” explored the Communist threat on American soil. In the film, war hero Raymond Shaw is brainwashed into assassinating the president of the United States. Read more ..

Movie Reviews

A Dangerous Method: Whatever Turns You On

December 26th 2011

Film - A dangerous method

A Dangerous Method. Director: David Cronenberg. Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley. Length: 99 mins.

Here’s what I liked about David Cronenberg’s new movie, A Dangerous Method, loosely based on the early history of psychoanalysis—as filtered through the work of psychologist cum historian John Kerr (A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein) and playwright Christopher Hampton (The Talking Cure)—in spite of its having reduced that history to little more than a celebrity soap opera. He sets out four different theories about the job of what used to be called the "alienist" or, as P.G. Wodehouse would put it, "the loony doctor" which are still held today. The watchword of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is the injunction: "Whatever you do, give up any idea of trying to cure them."

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Freud’s younger disciple, fitfully accepts this view of his profession but is too much the enthusiast to accept it for long: "It’s no good showing the patient his illness squatting like a toad in the corner … We must teach him to reinvent himself," he says. Jung also has some sympathy for the view of another renegade Freudian, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who anticipates some of the radical psychiatry of the 1960s by commanding: "Never repress anything"—and by living his own life by that creed with predictably disastrous results. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Hollywood Left and Right: Where Movies Got Politics Right and Wrong

December 26th 2011

Book Covers - hollywood

Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. Steven J. Ross. Oxford. 2011. 512 pages.

I didn't really want to read this book. I'm finishing one on a related topic, and have reached that point in the process where I just want to be done with it already. But my editor sent Hollywood Left and Right along to me, as good editors do, as a way of nudging me a little bit farther. I'm glad he did. It's a good piece of scholarship. And, I'm happy to report, an entertaining one.

A seasoned film historian, what Steven J. Ross offers here is a set of ten biographies that function as case studies in the way movies stars and impresarios -- sometimes the same person -- have used their cinematic careers for the purposes of political activism. With a sense of judiciousness and empathy toward all his subjects, he renders  five careers on the left (Charlie Chaplin, Edmund G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty) and five on the right (Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwartzenegger). That said, Ross gently suggests that while we tend to think of Hollywood as a liberal bastion, it has had a series of prominent conservative champions, who on balance have been more successful than liberals in actually realizing their political goals. To that extent, at least, the book has a revisionist air.

Ross does a lot of things well. Each of his chapters offer skillfully limned portraits (Murphy and Reagan, whose careers coincided and interests overlapped, are treated as a pair). In some cases their stories are familiar, but Ross is able to season them with an eye for relevant, sometimes first-hand, observations. He managed to get on interviews with many of his principals, among them reclusive subjects like Beatty, as well as their associates like George McGovern and Gary Hart. Read more ..

Film News

Asian-American Actors Change Face of Hollywood

December 20th 2011

Film - New Hawaii Five-O

For many years, actors whose ancestors came from Asia and the Pacific Islands landed few major roles in Hollywood. And when they did appear, they were often typecast. But recently, the face of Asian Pacific Islanders in film and TV has been changing.

In a recent documentary, “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey,” actress Nancy Kwan looks back on her life. Ka Shen is her Chinese name. She was born in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and English-Scottish mother.

Kwan made her acting debut in 1960, in "The World of Suzie Wong." She was one of the first Asian actors to star in a Hollywood film.

"When I started out, it was really just the beginning of producers realizing, 'Hey, we’d better use an Asian to play an Asian role,'" Kwan says. "Because in the old days, Asians were played by Caucasians, Caucasian actors." Read more ..

The Edge of Arts

Kenyan Artwork Growing in International Popularity

December 19th 2011

Kenya Topics - Peterson Kamwathi
Peterson Kamwathi (Credit: Megumi Matsubara, Another Africa)

Long overlooked on the international arts scene, Kenya is finally gaining prestige on the world stage. Some artists can now make their living entirely from artwork and collectors are coming from around the world to buy it.

Works by Kenyan artists are exhibited around the globe. World-class galleries cater to foreigners and other Kenyans. And the collectors are paying attention. Born in Kenya, Amyn Abdula now lives in Vancouver. He has been collecting African art for more than 25 years and has more than 150 pieces. The majority are from Kenya. “The more I saw, the more it appealed to me,” said Abdula. “And I think it was actually, because I had left Africa, and that Africa was still in my heart. And when I went to North America, or Europe, or wherever, and whenever I saw some African stuff, it sort of appealed to me.” Collectors anticipate that Kenyan art will soon become as popular as art from west and South Africa. Read more ..

Art on Edge

Dances with Buffaloes

December 18th 2011

Art Topics - Hall of wonders

If there were a truth-in-advertising regulation for exhibitions, this latest at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum would be in trouble. The exhibition is not in a hall, nor is it about wonders, nor really about art. What it is, sadly, is yet another example of how tone deaf this national museum is to the taxpayers who subsidize it, as well as an emblem of the sorry state of contemporary humanities scholarship.

As with so much of this scholarship, "The Great American Hall of Wonders" advances an activist social agenda. The introductory wall text, amplified by the exhibition's catalogue ($45 for the paperback), makes some big claims. It tells us, without proof, "that nineteenth-century Americans considered ingenuity to be their most important asset"; that the exhibition aims "to catch Americans making selections about what was possible and what was not in the land of liberty"; and that "their choices parceled out opportunities in varying measures to the nation's multifold communities and reconfigured its ecological systems in profound and irreversible ways" - whatever that may mean. The wall text ends with this exhortation: "Today's urgent social and environmental challenges call for a great national brainstorm, a collaborative imagining of enduring solutions."

So maybe this exhibition can fire up that "national brainstorm" and "collaborative imagining" thing. But don't count on it. Art is X-rayed throughout, and the viewer, with the urging of the exhibition curator, Claire Perry, must look beyond mere surface images, beyond the artist's intent, beyond the aesthetic impact, beyond the materiality of the paint, stone, or plaster. And what's beyond the fringe? More sophisticated (or should that be sophistical?), "deeper," and usually ominous implications about America's myriad shortcomings in the 19th century. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Design Your Life, Change the World: The Social Entrepreneurial Lifestyle

December 14th 2011

Book Covers - Design your life

Design Your Life, Change the World: Your Path as a Social Entrepreneur. Michael Gordon. 2011.

A new e-book written by a University of Michigan business professor for individuals and companies looking to make the world a better place is available at no cost on the Internet. "Design Your Life, Change the World: Your Path as a Social Entrepreneur," written by Michael Gordon, can be downloaded free of charge here.  
"I hope to show readers, as I hope to show my students each day, that you don't have to make a choice between making a living and making the world a better place. The same applies to organizations and business," said Gordon, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Business Information Technology at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. According to a release, Gordon explained, "In recent months the discontent with the financial crisis and business as usual has caused students to question the meaning and validity of a traditional business education. This ties in with my work over the past decade, where I've thought about two questions."

According to Gordon, those questions are: 1) How can organizations best address important societal problems such as poverty, inadequate health care, subpar education and an unhealthy planet? and 2) What's the best advice for students who want to address these issues and lead lives of relative comfort?

"This book tries to answer these questions," Gordon said. "Remarkable organizations are pretty closely linked to remarkable people—people whose clear vision, passion and skills at getting things done give life to ideas that truly make a difference." Read more ..

The Musical Edge

Music Is The World

December 13th 2011

Jewish Topics - Klezmer (credit: Mitaskim)
credit: Mistakim

While I’m mostly inclined to listen to what is called “classical music,” upon occasion other musical genres have proven enticing and powerful. I grew up with classical music, but along the way, a few musicians not necessarily in that category have impinged their way onto my consciousness. I will humbly offer up a few of their names to make my point that what makes music great is not necessarily its genre.

Foremost among them was Giora Feidman, the greatest of the Klezmer musicians. The first time I heard him was in a small synagogue as the result of an invitation by an old friend, Marshall Levy, an amateur clarinetist and magician who said I just had to hear Giora.

As we sat on small uncomfortable wooden chairs, and I was intent on the stage, from behind me came this most haunting song being played on a clarinet.

Then this almost Charlie Chaplain-like figure strolled down the aisle, and my neck craned as he sauntered past me, clarinet in his mouth, and his arms holding the rest of the instrument on high. As he mounted the stage, he was playing Dixieland and Gershwin. Then he switched to “Jewish” music—you could hear those ancient tunes from Safed as if you were there. He also played Jazz, even cool Jazz. He was much better than Benny Goodman, who was his obvious inspiration. I didn’t know the clarinet was capable of such grand music. Read more ..

Film News

Angelina Jolie Makes Directorial Debut with 'In The Land of Blood and Honey'

December 13th 2011

Film - Angelina Jolie

American movie star Angelina Jolie is making her directorial debut with a film set during Bosnia's civil war in the 1990s. In an exclusive interview with VOA's Bosnian service, Jolie says the message of the film, titled In the Land of Blood and Honey, is one of tolerance and understanding.

Angelina Jolie is used to being in front of the camera. But for her latest project, the Academy Award-winning actress stepped behind it... and into the brutality of wartime Bosnia.

"The more I learned about it and the more I read about it, the more angry I got about the lack of intervention," Jolie says,  "the more emotional I was about the violence against women. And I wanted to do a film that would help to look into the relationships between not just a couple, but also sisters, and fathers and sons, and mothers and children."

Jolie wrote as well as directed In the Land of Blood and Honey. It is a love story between a Muslim woman and a Serb man during Bosnia-Herzogovina's bloody, three-year ethnic conflict. Jolie says she hopes the film sparks discussion about the war and Bosnia's continued struggle since the 1995 peace agreement.

"I want people to remember Bosnia, and I want them to remember what happened, and I want them to pay respect to all of the people who survived, and today, to remember that this country still has so much healing to do,” she explains.

As a United Nations goodwill ambassador, the mother of six and partner to Brad Pitt often brings her influence as an actress to global issues. But this time is different. "This film is the first time that these worlds have collided for me," Jolie says, "so this film means more to me than any film I’ve ever made." Read more ..

Book Review

Leningrad: The Epic Seige that broke Hitler's Back

December 13th 2011

Book Covers - Leningrad epic

Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944. Anna Reid. Walker & Co. 2011. 512 pages.

Not since Harrison Salisbury’s book The 900 Days appeared in 1969, has an English-language book devoted to the German siege of Leningrad (now renamed back to St. Petersburg) appeared. The longest blockade in recorded history, it consumed 1.5 million people, half of them civilians, many of them children. In merciless, unvarnished detail, Anna Reid’s Leningrad is filled with searing images of starvation, cannibalism, corruption and death in that most Westernized and striking of Russia’s cities.

The siege has essentially been overlooked in the West.  But then, too, we’ve ignored the enormous sacrifices of the Russian people and its military forces in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies.

Reid is a onetime Ukraine correspondent for The Economist and Daily Telegraph, and a journalist who holds an advanced degree in Russian studies.  The heart of her book is the memoirs, archives, letters and diaries of people who lived through the siege.  Her heartbreaking and angry version does not spare the vicious German invaders, though she rightly excoriates the Communist regime for waging a reign of terror against the city’s imaginary dissenters.

Trapped Leningraders would in time turn livid at the sight of well-fed Party bureaucrats while the rest were starving,  Reid is on target in wondering why sufficient food supplies were not stocked before the Germans invaded and surrounded the city.  She also faults Party officials for failing to order a general evacuation until it was far too late.  While admittedly difficult to measure public opinion, Reid’s reading of the diaries and memoirs “show Leningraders raging as much against the incompetence, callousness, hypocrisy and dishonesty of their own officials as against the distant, impersonal enemy.”

Yet Stalin’s purges and punishments never ceased. The NKVD and two of Stalin’s closest henchmen, Andrei Zhdanov (who once denigrated the great Leningrad poet Anna Akhmatova as “a cross between a nun and whore”) and Georgi Malenkov (who would become one of Stalin’s successors after the dictator’s death in March 1953 and then just as abruptly would be removed and sent, or so it is said, to Siberia for an alleged offense) carried out a reign of fear aimed at domestic “enemies.” Read more ..

Book Reviews

Pearl Harbor: FDR goes to War through Fire and Fog after a Day of Infamy

December 12th 2011

Book Covers - Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor: FDR leads the Nation into War. Steven M. Gillon. Basic Books. 2011. 248 pages.

One of the most difficult tasks when “thinking historically” is to avoid presentism and instead see the world as it looked at the time through the eyes of participants who acted on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information and couldn’t know for sure how their decisions would turn out. Steven Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and author of (among other books) The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After, is up to it. He vividly recreates and interprets President Franklin Roosevelt’s activities in the 24 hours after the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, famously designated by FDR as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Taking the long view, Gillon asserts that “Pearl Harbor was the defining event of the twentieth century” because “it changed the global balance of power, set the stage for the Cold War, and allowed the United States to emerge as a global superpower.” But no one could know that then. At the time, FDR needed to find out quickly what had happened (at a time when “intelligence was scarce and difficult to obtain”), then decide how to set America on the right path for its next step. The President, Gillon says, “was forced to make every major decision based on instinct and his own strategic sense of right and wrong. There were no instant surveys to guide his actions, no twenty-four-hour television coverage offering him a glimpse into the national mood. Making matters worse, the president’s advisors were anxious and divided.”

Compared to news of the Kennedy assassination or the 9/11 attacks, “news about Pearl Harbor spread slowly, trickling out over the radio in the afternoon.” The White House press corps included only about a dozen reporters, all of whom were off duty on that Sunday afternoon when the first word came through. FDR himself initially heard about it at 1:47 p.m. Thus began “perhaps the most well-documented day of the Roosevelt presidency,” written about by the people around Roosevelt and subsequently by several government investigations into how the disaster could have happened. Roosevelt retreated to his Oval Study (his private office, far more informal than the Oval Office), where, surrounded by the clutter of his books, stamp collection, ship models, and other miscellanea, he met with advisors, pieced together the shards of information that came in, and crafted the brief, 500-word war message that he would deliver the next day. Read more ..

Book Review

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz

December 8th 2011

Blue Notes in B/W

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. Benjamin Cawthra. University of Chicago Press. 2011. 392 pages.

If you surf the Internet for articles about jazz and photography, you might find a few. But a recently-released book compiles accounts and rare expressive photos of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday and others.

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz, by Benjamin Cawthra, charts the development of jazz photography from the swing era of the 1930s to the rise of Black Nationalism and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It also introduces the readers to some great jazz photographers, including Herb Snitzer, Francis Wolff, Roy DeCarava, William Claxton, Gjon Mili, William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and others.

I talked with the author, Benjamin Cawthra, who is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton, and Associate Director at the Center for Oral and Public History. He told me he worked on the book for more than 10 years to offer an account of the partnership between two of the 20th century’s innovative art forms: photography and jazz.

It all started when Cawthra was working at a museum at St. Louis, Missouri and had the brainstorm of doing an exhibition on jazz great Miles Davis, a native son of St. Louis area.

“It seemed that he’d never taken a bad picture, and so many photographers had taken his pictures,” noted Cawthra who was struck by some extraordinary images that were part of the exhibition. “So, when I went to do my dissertation at Washington University at St. Louis I was just thinking: where did these really great photographs come from? Why would they taken? What impact, if any, did they have at the time they were taken? And how they become such classic, iconic images and photographs of jazz musicians?”

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz recounts more racism stories related to jazz greats, including Davis. Miles Davis was performing at a club in New York. He was taking a break to escort a “pretty white girl named Judy” to a taxicab between sets. A white police officer told him to move along — to keep the sidewalk clear. Davis, who was famous at the time, explained to the situation to the officer, but it tuned into a scuffle.

Film Review

Blistering Barnacles! Tintin is coming to America

December 6th 2011

Film - Tintin

Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg is taking a chance but may work some magic with his new film, The Adventures of Tintin, as he introduces a European icon to American audiences on December 21. And he is stirring a little controversy as well. See video here.

The Adventures of Tintin, also known as The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn, is based on a series of comics created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi in the 1920s. The Tintin character is the intrepid boy reporter in the strips that for fifty years entertained first Belgium and France through the Great Depression and into World War 2, and then in translation entertained many more in other languages. The Tintin strips are timeless stories of adventures that satirized Fascists and other bullies of the day with slapstick humor borrowed from Charlie Chaplin. But somehow, Tintin has never been a hit with Americans. But that could change: even soccer can be adopted and adapted by Americans. And director Spielberg is hoping that the success of the film in Europe, which premiered on October 22, will advance by word of mouth to the U.S.

Spielberg has chosen three stories written during the war years as the basis for his new film. Many Tintin fans think these three classics: The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, were the best that ever emerged from the series. It was in these that Hergé, which is how Georges Remi signed his works – mastered his drawing and storytelling, while also creating Tintin’s immortal companions Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, as well as the Thompson Twins. Tintin's reach is worldwide. His adventures have been translated into more than 70 languages and appeared in more than 230 million books sold since 1930. Read more ..

Edge on Theatre

White Christmas is as Memorable on Stage as it is on Film

December 6th 2011

Film - White Christmas show girls

White Christmas: Producers: Paper Mill Playhouse (the play is based upon the Paramount Pictures 1954 film), Milburn N.J. Sets: Anna Louizos, Costumes: Carrie Robbins, Lighting Design: Ken Billington, Sound: Randy Hansen. Choreography; Randy Skinner. Directed by Marc Bruni.

The 1954 film White Christmas, starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, has been a staple of the holiday season on television for years. In the film, Bing sings the title song on a 1944 European battlefield. Ten years go by for him and his buddy, Danny Kaye, and then true love finds them both as they stage a Christmas show to save their beloved wartime general’s New England hotel from bankruptcy. All’s well that ends well on Christmas Eve. There are trips to Florida, train rides, television appearances, hotel scenes, offices scenes and, of course, a lot of scenes set in Vermont.

How do you turn such a complicated 57-year-old movie into a stage play? How does anybody replace Bing Crosby?

So it was with a substantial amount of holiday trepidation that I went to see the new musical, White Christmas, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a restored theater that sits alongside a lovely babbling brook in New Jersey. Their version of White Christmas featured a ridiculous plot, did not have Bing and was loaded with sleighs full of schmaltz.

In other words, it was just wonderful.

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