Movie Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)


Title: The Passion of Joan of Arc
Release Date: April 21, 1928
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company:  Société Générale des Films
Summary/Review:

This is a movie about faces. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, in her only film role, stars as the French heroine of the Hundred Years War who thinks she’s 19.  This is a silent film, for her eyes express her fear, wonder, and faith. Meanwhile, her judges’ faces are often shot from below, appearing grotesque, deceitful, and cruel.

The movie begins in an archives showing the actual trial records of Joan of Arc that the movie is based upon.  Joan is interrogated, tortured, deceived, and ultimately put to death by an ecclesiastical court of French clergy loyal to the English invaders.  Joan of Arc is notably burned at the stake, and that is shockingly depicted on film, but outside that gratuitous detail this is a personal, intimate depiction of the great woman’s final hours.

By the way, I only just learned a fascinating historical tidbit: Joan of Arc was only canonized as a saint in 1920, just a few years before this movie was made.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge


Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 
Summary/Review:

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)


Title: Young Mr. Lincoln
Release Date: May 30, 1939
Director: John Ford
Production Company:  Cosmopolitan Productions
Summary/Review:

Set in the 1830s, Young Mr. Lincoln is a very loosely historical drama about Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) as a young lawyer and aspiring politician in New Salem, Illinois, as well as some of his early courtship of Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver).  The heart of the film is a courtroom drama where Lincoln defends two brothers accused of murder that is based on a real-life event, in 1858, when Lincoln proved a witness testimony to be false by using an almanac.  The gist of the movie is to show Lincoln as a many with folksy charm and a good sense of humor, which may not be 100% historically accurate, but does make for some good comfort food viewing.

I believe that Fonda put a lot of himself into this performance, so while it may not accurately Lincoln, it does feel real.  One of the standout scenes is when an angry mob tries to break into the jail in order to lynch the accused brothers (a scene that takes on new connotations after the recent white supremacist insurrection at the US Capitol).  Lincoln talks them down using a mix of self-deprecation and humor, eventually guilting the crowd into dispersing.  This movie is no doubt corny and hokey but Fonda’s performance and Ford’s direction give it enough oomph to make it an enjoyable film to view.

Rating: ***

Book Review: George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones


Author: Brian Jay Jones
Title: George Lucas: A Life
Narrator: Jay Snyder
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2016)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jim Henson: The Biography 
Summary/Review:

This is a straightforward biography that traces the life of filmmaker George Lucas through his childhood, education, and various creative endeavors.  As a child of a strict father in Modesto, California, Lucas took an interest in old movie serials, comic books, and fast cars. When he went to University of Southern California he chose to study cinematography because he wanted to do something in the arts and it sounded like something his father wouldn’t immediately dismiss. Young Lucas showed a talent for experimental filmmaking, especially editing, that made him stand out in his class.  

After graduation, Lucas befriended other up and coming young directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. Jones does a good job of explicating the creative process Lucas went through in creating his most famous films including THX-1138, American Graffiti, Willow, Red Tails, and of course the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. There’s also considerable detail on Lucas developing  LucasFilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and The Skywalker Ranch, all enabling the type of creativity and independence he sought out of reach of the Hollywood moguls.

Qualities of Lucas such as perfectionism and weak interpersonal skills are shown to be both his strengths and weaknesses in film making. His workaholic nature proved too much for his troubled first marriage with the skilled film editor Marcia Griffin, but later in life he would have a more successful relationship with business woman Mellody Hobson.

Jones does a good job of getting inside the life and influences of a private and complex person without being gossipy about it. Lucas’ contributions to movies and the world of entertainment are uncontestable, even if people – including his director friends – believe he was capable of much more. Lucas for his part remains confident in his choices and accepts that audiences may not always be pleased with his vision. 

Recommended books:

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt


Author: Nathalia Holt
Title: The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
Publication Info: Hachette Book Group, 2019
Other Books Read By the Same Author: Rise of the Rocket Girls
Summary/Review:

Walt Disney’s animation studio was famed for making feature films about the lives of princesses and fairies, but especially in its early decades it was an all-boys club. The hiring practices at Disney were not at all subtle about not wanting to hire women, and the few women who did work at the studio met with great resentment from their male colleagues. Nathalia Holt sets the record straight on five women who left their mark on the Disney’s style and success, even if there names were not always credited: Bianca Majolie, Grace Huntington, Sylvia Holland, Retta Scott, and Mary Blair.

Blair is probably the most well-known of these artists with her concept art significantly influencing the style of Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, and her work on it’s a small world and the mural at Walt Disney’s World’s Contemporary Resort still persisting. Her personal life is marred by an abusive husband (also a Disney artist) and alcoholism that is the antithesis of her sunny art work. Majolie was the first storyboard artist and developed the stories for Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Peter Pan. She also discovered a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite – virtually unknown in the US at the time – and used it is a basis for a segment of Fantasia and thus popularizing the music and the ballet.

Grace Huntington was the second women to work as a story artist, but fascinatingly she was also an experienced aviator who set solo altitude records despite test piloting also being a restricted career for women. Holland, another storyboard artist with a musical background, used her experience to inform “The Pastoral Symphony” segment of Fantasia, the “Little April Shower” sequence of Bambi, and “Two Silhouettes” in Make Mine Music. Scott was the first woman to be promoted from ink and paint (a laborious task where most women at the studio worked) to a full animator, and contributed her art to Bambi, Fantasia, and Dumbo.

The book offers great insight into animation and Hollywood culture in the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the doors that were opened to women during that time and those that remained close. Holt does bring the story fully up-to-date with Jennifer Lee rising to the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation after the success of Frozen, and the much broader representation of women on-screen and behind the scenes at Disney in the present day. But the book is best and richest in detail on the early decades telling the fascinating stories of these pioneering women and their enduring legacies.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybcynski


Author: Witold Rybcynski
Title: A Clearing in the Distance
Publication Info: Scribner, 1999

Summary/Review:

This biography of Frederick Law Olmsted remains one of my favorite books of all time. Olmsted is a fascinating person and Rybcynski does a great job of balancing a lot of research with creating a flowing narrative of his life.

Most people know Olmsted as the designer (along with his partner Calvert Vaux) of New York’s Central Park and an originator of the field of landscape architecture (although Olmsted disliked the term). Oddly, the great majority of parks attributed to Olmsted were designed by the Olmsted firm when his sons took it over. But Olmsted’s own designs remain the most inspired and influential. These include the Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Montreal’s Mont Royal, the US Capitol grounds, Buffalo parks system, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Belle Isle Park in Detroit, and my very own Emerald Necklace in Boston.

Interestingly, Olmsted was a bit of a late bloomer, well into his adulthood before beginning a career in landscape architecture. He was a many of many talents who had success in other careers before and during the time of his landscape firm. In the 1850s, Olmsted was a journalist, most significantly travelling through the Southern states and writing dispatches of the Southern people and culture from his perspective as an antislavery advocate. During the Civil War, he served as Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. In the middle of the war, Olmsted left the Sanitary Commission to manage a gold mining company in California near Yosemite (the mine failed, but the landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountains inspired Olmsted). Olmsted also participated in founding The Nation magazine in 1865.

This is a great book about a great life and I enjoyed re-reading it.

Favorite Passages:

Olmsted was one of the first people to recognize the necessity for planning in a large, industrializing country—whether in peace or war. This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood.

It was the future that concerned him, and he had the rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead. I think that was one of the things that finally attracted him to landscape architecture. It is a field where a long time—sometimes generations—is required for the full realization of the designer’s goal.

Part of Olmsted’s problem was of his own making: he was overdoing it. “He works like a dog all day and sits up nearly all night,” Strong noted in his diary, “doesn’t go home to his family (now established in Washington) for five days and nights together, works with steady, feverish intensity till four in the morning, sleeps on a sofa in his clothes, and breakfasts on strong coffee and pickles!!!” No wonder he was short-tempered and picked quarrels with the Executive Committee.

Willa Cather would later make a distinction between wilderness and landscape. The American West, she wrote, is “a country still waiting to be made into a landscape.” The unique and affecting charm of Yosemite, as Olmsted perceptively noted, is that it is both wilderness and landscape. The craggy vastness of the chasm is older than any human presence, yet the valley floor appears comfortably domesticated. Olmsted appreciated this curious contrast; he and Vaux had created precisely this effect in Central Park, where the wilderness of the Ramble was side by side with pastoral meadows.

For Olmsted, recreation—or rather, re-creation—was paramount. When he discussed the recuperative power of natural scenery, he literally meant healing. He believed that the contemplation of nature, fresh air, and the change of everyday habits improved people’s health and intellectual vigor.

Olmsted agreed that what they had done in Central Park—and what he himself was doing in California—was much more than horticulture. It was art. It was, however, a particular kind of art. At one point he referred to it as “sylvan art.” “The art is not gardening nor is it architecture,” he wrote. It was certainly not “landscape architecture.” “If you are bound to establish this new art,” he wrote Vaux, “you don’t want an old name for it.”

More was involved here than landscaping; the park and promenade were conceived on the scale of an entire city. The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space. Even Yeoman’s first foray into journalism, which was an attempt to understand an entire region, was a useful preparation for Olmsted’s adopted role of city planner.

The subtle adjustments to the current policy of continuing the Manhattan grid produced a very different urbanism. The new parts of Morrisania had long blocks oriented north-south instead of east-west, so that all houses got some sun. West Farms consisted of a patchwork of grids whose slightly shifting orientation created variety, the same kind of variety that makes such cities as New Orleans and San Francisco interesting. The picturesque suburban layouts were derived from earlier projects, but what makes the Bronx plan unusual is that Olmsted showed how areas of low, medium, and high density could be combined into a seamless whole that would be “the plan of a Metropolis; adapted to serve, and serve well, every legitimate interest of the wide world; not of ordinary commerce only, but of humanity, religion, art, science, and scholarship.”

The fair was Olmsted’s creation, and not merely because he had contributed so much to the design. “Make no little plans,” Burnham is supposed to have said. Thinking big was something he and his generation had learned from Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted was frustrated by people’s unwillingness to recognize landscape architecture as an art. Olmsted thought that this was chiefly because they confused it with what he called decorative gardening. According to him, landscape architecture involved composition and perspective in which details were subordinate to the whole, contrary to decorative gardening, which treated “roses as roses, not as flecks of white or red modifying masses of green.” He considered landscape architecture akin to landscape painting, except that the landscape architect used natural materials instead of pigments. That, of course, was the root of the problem. Since the medium—as well as the subject—was nature itself, the public often failed to discriminate between the two. No one would think of altering a landscape on canvas, but a garden was different.

That was the chief difference between Olmsted and the architects. They wanted to create order out of chaos. He wanted to accommodate order and chaos.


Recommended books:

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 7


60-Second Science :: Science Sound (E)scapes

Three podcasts provide soundscapes of the Amazon: Amazon Pink River Dolphins, American Frog Choruses at Night, Head Banging and Howling in the Amazon.

99% Invisible :: The Lost Cities of Geo

A podcast near and dear to my heart because it is about web archiving, particularly the effort to save the first great iteration of the world wide web: Geocities.

Futility Closet :: Peace Pilgrim

The life and mission of a woman who dedicated her life to walking across the continent sharing her message of peace

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Book Review: Jim Henson: the Biography by Brian Jay Jones


Author: Brian Jay Jones
Title: Jim Henson
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

Brian Jay Jones writes a straightforward account of the life and work of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, and one of the most beloved figures in entertainment in the second-half of the 20th century.  I won’t go into a full summary, but here are five interesting things I learned from reading this biography:

  • Jim Henson’s career started when he was only 18 years old in 1954 when he had a show featuring puppet characters on local Washington, DC television called Sam and Friends, which aired for five minutes, twice per day.
  • Henson never considered himself as primarily a puppeteer and worked on projects such as experimental film, animation, and even an attempt to open a psychedelic nightclub.
  • Similarly, Henson fought against the perception of him being a children’s entertainer and his work for Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show, and movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were all made to entertain all ages.
  • Henson’s wife Jane Nebel worked as a puppeteer on Sam and Friends but stepped down for a more domestic role when they had children.  Jim and Jane’s marriage was very strained by Jim’s dedication to his work and they were separated late in his life.  They never divorced and remained close friends despite the failure of the marriage.
  • Henson wanted to cast Sting in Labyrinth but his kids convinced him (correctly) that David Bowie would have more staying power.

This is an enjoyable and entertaining work of biography and worth reading if you love The Muppets and Henson’s other creations.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Synopsis:

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

Classic Movie Review: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1963)


Title: The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Release Date: October 2, 1964
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Production Company: Arco Film | Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Summary/Review:

Director Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist, homosexual, and Marxist, but took seriously Pope John XXIII’s invitation to dialogue with non-Catholic artists.  And after all, despite many Christians acting otherwise, the gospels (especially Matthew) tell a story of someone not unlike a Socialist revolutionary.  Pasolini used the techniques of Italian neorealism and cinema verite to film his retelling of the gospel.  And he cast ordinary farmers and working people, and even his own mother to star in the movie.  Jesus is played by Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish economics student and communist organizer.  With olive skin, dark hair, and an impressive unibrow, this is not the the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of Hollywood biblical epics.

The dialogue in the film is almost entirely taken directly from the gospel of Matthew.  It was filmed on location in southern Italy, with minimal effort towards creating sets and costumes of the Roman province of Judea 2000 years earlier.  In fact, I think the poverty and decrepitude of 1960s rural Italy is very effective for telling the story of Jesus.

This is a long movie, but is artfully done with amazing composition in every shot.  I ended up watching it in bits and pieces over several days which worked fine since the gospel is episodic by nature.  But I’m sure this movie could also be enjoyed in a single setting.  Either way it’s more of a movie to let wash over you and to feel a familiar story in a new way. It’s also interesting that this is clearly a modernist take on telling the Christ story on film, but so very different from Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell which were a decade away (maybe they’re postmodern?).

Rating: ****