Posts Tagged ‘films’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Like so many others, I am absolutely psyched for December 18th, 2015.  If you need to ask why, then you probably are not going to understand my excitement. On that day, the new Star Wars is released, and like many within my generation, I will be star-wars-episode-7-the-force-awakens-trailers-poster-640x330lined up at a local theater with bated breath waiting to experience the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. However, I will NOT be dressing up. I’m not that crazy.

I’ll tell you who is crazy though…

Last week after the third and final trailer for Episode VII was released, a strange Twitter trend began.  Evidently, a small group of fools have decided that they should boycott this new Star Wars film because it is ‘promoting a multi-cultural agenda’ and, hence is evidently ‘anti-white.’  A few extremist internet trolls have even argued that the film supports ‘white genocide’.  White genocide…….white genocide.  Lord.

When I first read this my immediate thought was, ‘what is wrong with people?’  Perhaps it was simply a ridiculous hoax? Nope. No such luck. There are obviously people out there who truly believe this garbage.

But, when I started to look into this ridiculous story, I grasped a larger more worrying trend.  As movies begin to slowly get more diverse (far too slowly for the most part), racist responses to film casting are becoming more common.  Star Wars is just the latest, and most extreme example.  In 2012, the first Hunger Games film faced a similar racially charged response.

Amandla Stenberg is 'Rue' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

Amandla Stenberg is ‘Rue’ in THE HUNGER GAMES.

The futuristic, dystopian film had many white fans upset that a character who they assumed was white was played by an African-American actress.  Similar online anger was spewed in 2014 because of the remake of Annie.

So, what to take from this? Why does this bother so many people? I believe the Twitter reactions in these cases point to the heart of modern racism, and why it is still a huge problem within our society.

On an individual level, racism is a system of thought that breeds dehumanization of whatever group is identified as the Other.  Of course, we can look at innumerable examples of racism in American history for illustrations of such beliefs and practices. But perhaps the most obvious example, and most extreme example of dehumanization of the racial Other took place in Nazi Germany.  Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state based upon the ideology of ‘Aryan’ supremacy.  For the Nazi state, this supremacy was constantly attacked by the supposed racial degeneracy of the Aryan’s immortal enemy,

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

the Jew.  Ad nauseum, Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jew not only as dirty, slovenly and treacherous, but also as a dangerous, even deadly, non-human.  Jews were vermin, they were bugs, they were bacterium. The ‘bacillus of Judaism’ was to be destroyed.

Such dehumanization attempts to destroy humanity’s natural desire to empathize.  All humans empathize with others. We can literally feel the physical and emotional pain of others by putting ourselves in their situation,  It doesn’t even need to be a loved one. Humans can empathize with any random stranger.  It comes absolutely naturally.

Empathy helps explain why we love film as much as we do.  Most people want films with action, adventure and a great story.  Those things are great, but without the human element, without characters we can empathize with, action and adventure falls on it’s face. If you want proof, just think about how people responded to the prequel trilogy of Star Wars (Episodes I, II, III). George Lucas’ telling of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side, and eventually, into Darth Vadar. These unbelievably anticipated films should have been classics. Instead, they were critical and popular flops. Why?  Many felt that Lucas depended upon ‘cool’ computer graphics too much, ruining the magic feel of the original trilogy. That had something to do with it. But, what ruined those films was the fact that the human beings in the

We should care, but we don't.

We should care, but we don’t.

audience were not able to care about any of the characters.  We couldn’t empathize with them.  Bad acting, bad story development and bad scripts ruined the films.  When Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala dies in childbirth, most of the audience yawned. When Anakin/Vadar finds out about the death of his wife (Portman), and reacts with a guttural bellow of pain, the audience laughed. There was absolutely no empathy, and it was understandable.

The twit tweeters who want to boycott the new Star Wars, or who were angry at the Hunger Games or disturbed by the new Annie illustrate their lack of empathy.  However, this lack of empathy does not come from bad acting, or a trite script. This lack of empathy is a sign of the pernicious horror of racism. For those who complain when a character is ‘not white’, or not the correct race, they are truly illustrating that they can’t, or they consciously don’t want to see these characters as human.  For the twitter trolls, the actor and the character he or she plays can only ever be a racial category: An Other.   Finn, Poe Dameron, Rue or Annie become only ‘black’ or ‘Hispanic’.

This is the heart of racism, and why we should take such Twitter trolls seriously.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day, I made a commitment. Since I will be teaching a Civil War history course in the Fall, I wanted to take a look at the over 4 hour, seriously mini-series-esqe 1939 Hollywood classic Gone With Wind. Yep. Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, gone_with_the_wind_smTara Plantation and all that jazz.  It may seem strange, but I had never seen the film.  Since Gone With Wind is probably the most famous, and most watched Civil War film ever made, I figured I better spend some time viewing it to see what all the fuss is about, and to see if the movie had any classroom usage.

I must admit, I came into this experience with some prejudices.  Though I had never seen it, I knew that Gone falls between the poles of beloved pop-culture icon, and disturbing Hollywood racism.  On the icon side, lines such as ‘Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn,’ and ‘As God as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again’ are part of movie lore.  However, you can only romanticize so much. Gone is now famous, or perhaps infamous is a better term, for it’s racism. Racial caricatures are central to the film.

I knew this going in. Coming out the other side, I was even more disturbed than I thought I might be.

First, I want to say that I am no movie critic.  However, I thought the film was really

pretty atrocious.  I have watched films from ‘Hollywood’s Golden Age’ and I would have to say Gone is not one that really holds up well to the modern viewer. I will be honest, I got through about 3 hours, and I had had enough.

But, perhaps the early turn off had to do with the level of offensiveness in the film? Even though I realized the film was racially insensitive, I had no idea just how obscene it really was.

Obscenity may seem like a strange word to use when talking about Gone. The word itself is usually still regarded as a descriptive term of sex or smut, and Gone is lacking in those regards. However, as French historian Joan DeJean pointed out in 2002, the word ‘obscene’ has begun to take on a different connotation in our society.

Of late, obscene seems to be moving beyond the meaning it slowly acquired in early modern French — ‘immodest’, ‘indecent’ — and to be taking on two new meanings: first, any subject that we find hard to look at and therefore do not want to see represented….; second, as a semantic catchall for actions we consider morally indecent.’

And, just like all words, ‘swear words’ change over time.  As Melissa Mohr illustrated in her extremely interesting book, Holygone-with-the-wind-shouldnt-be-romanticized Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, the most taboo words in our society are no longer words to describe sexual acts, or bodily functions. Instead, over the last twenty years, racial epitaphs have become the unholy of unholies. Racialized attack language has the power to disgust, anger and enrage. It has the ability to destroy friendships, get people fired, or ruin political careers. The obscene of today is open outspoken racism.

By this definition, Gone With the Wind is incredibly obscene.  As mentioned, caricatures of African-Americans abound in the film. Black men and women are depicted as fools, cowards and buffoons. Related, and just as disturbing is the historical mythology the film furthers using such stereotypes. The bold-faced lie that African-Americans were happy-go-lucky simpletons who stayed with their masters gladly after emancipation, or gullible tools of aggressive white northerners has a long sordid history. Gone reinforced these harmful, hateful myths for American film goers in the 1930’s. Even more disturbingly, many historically illiterate Americans still undoubtedly accept the film’s depictions of race-relations as truth. With this in mind, you can understand why Chuck D would sing ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’.

And, if it’s obscene racism is not enough, the outright sexism in the film is nearly as disturbing.  The women in Gone are depicted as foolish children who need to be told what to do. They sit at home waiting for their men to come home from war, twiddling their thumbs and crying into their pillows. Once their men return, all life has meaning again. Of course, if they get too uppity, such as Scarlett, they need to be knocked down. Rhett will take care of that.

As I watched this horror-show, all I could think was, ‘my goodness, I don’t want to let my girls see this.’  My daughters are 8 and 6 respectively, and this is the type of obscenity I want them to avoid until they are older.  But, oh, the irony!  Gone With The Wind is a ‘classic’. It’s not late night TV for mature audiences only.  Heck, I am sure a great deal of Americans would think the film wholesome.

But, it is not. Not at all. It is marked with an obscenity that I don’t want my children to see.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I love great books. I love great movies. But, isn’t it strange that great books rarely get made into great movies?  Take a look at The Guardian’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Forget for one second the ridiculous  pro-British slant of the list. Just look at some of these titles: Don Quixote, Brothers Karamazov, Song of Solomon. Many of the books on the list have never been made into movies.  For those on the list that have been made into a movie, the film version is often highly forgettable. I mean, come on….William Shatner playing Alyosha Karamazov?  Sacrilege!

Perhaps just as strange is the fact that books that make great movies often aren’t considered to be very good books. Have a glance at AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies. These films are often not based upon any great book.  Yeah, I know The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird fit the bill as great movie/great book. But, such works are overshadowed by the vast number of forgettable books that have been made into classic films. Think Peter Bletchley’s Jaws or Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see Groom being mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy. And, if that is not enough, glance through the list of Oscar winner/nominees for  ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’.  Most of the books adapted for films are not just ordinary, they are paradoxically mediocre.

Why is so? The most straightforward answer seems to be that great novels can rarely be captured in a 2 hour film. Add another hour, and you still can’t make a viable retelling of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Add 5 extra hours, and you still won’t capture Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  This point brings us to problem number 2. You obviously need more time to retell a great story, and there is a limit to how long an audience will willfully sit in a darkened theater.

But, I believe this paradox may be now be solved. Movie lovers, and book lovers lament no more!

TV has taken over where movies dare not, or cannot, tread.  The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, etc. In the last decade or two, all of these shows are as good as, if not better than, what has appeared on the big screenWith bigger budgets, better actors, original writers, groundbreaking directors, and more artistic freedom, television (and online streaming services) now can weave a complex, multilayer story over 10, 20, 30, or 100 hours.  Make each episode about 45 minutes, allow people to binge watch, and voila: The next big commercial, critical and artistic success!

les-miserables

Oh Please.

The format would be perfect for adapting great books. An example: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. This novel is 1232 pages. It is exciting, romantic, historical, epic.  Now, I know many will say that this has already been made into a movie with the musical adaptation from a couple years ago.  But I am sorry; a two hour musical canNOT capture this story.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, via Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe does not do justice to Jean Valjean, Cosette or Marius.  Perhaps even more disappointing was Hollywood’s attempt 15 years ago to make a dramatic depiction of Hugo’s masterpiece. The film starring Liam Neeson, Claire Danes and Geoffrey Rush wasn’t horrible, but again, it wasn’t really Les Miserables. This winding tale will not be crammed into the parameters of a 180 minute movie.

But….

What about a Netflix season series? 10 episodes each season, 3 seasons, and 30 hours in total?  Computer graphics, violence, sex, depth of character, history? These are all things that could be put on the small screen, if some visionary would be so inclined. Can you imagine?

I can, and I love the idea.  Please, someone get on it.

While I wait, I guess I will just need to pick up Hugo’s novel again.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time in years. I think it is fair to say that Steven Spielberg is America’s most famous, if not most popular director. This is a bit surprising since  Spielberg’s oeuvre the last couple decades provides evidence that he is obsessed with history, a subject American’s are notoriously NOT obsessed with.  Since 1993, he has released films such as Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, War Horse, and Lincoln. Surprisingly, each has been commercially successful.

Indiana_Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark: What Spielberg does well.

As a history teacher, I definitely understand Spielberg’s love of history, and I appreciate that he utilizes his considerable influence to create and produce films about historical events.  That being said, I need to make an unlikely request. He should stop making historical films, and  stick with his true calling:  Fantasies, adventures, and feel good dramas.  His films like Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Catch Me If You Can and Jurassic Park are great fun, and I, like most people, enjoy them. The issue I have is that the methodology Spielberg uses for such lighthearted fare is the same he uses for his serious historical films.   He directs films about the Holocaust or the Atlantic Slave Trade in an oddly similar fashion to his films about dinosaurs and aliens.  In adventure/fantasy films, his methods work splendidly.  In historical dramas, they are overbearing, saccharine and misplaced.  Here are three examples:

  • Too Much Mood Music: Perhaps Spielberg’s repeated use of overly-emotional music is not that surprising, considering some of his early successes.  Just try to think of a shark at this point without humming the song from Jaws.  The heroic tune for Indiana Jones is almost as iconic.  Of course, in those movies such music works; but in a historical film, music must be carefully selected since it can create quick, and intense emotional reactions that can cloud the complexity of history.  Spielberg evidently can’t help but use soaring, emotive scores for his films, which has the tendency to transform Abe Lincoln into Indiana Jones, or Oscar Schindler into ET.  Spielberg’s music is so sentimental, and ubiquitous, that it becomes overbearing. This is most notable in his 1997 film Amistad, during which the emotional music was almost constantly played during the 2 1/2 hour film.  Each scene of that film had harmonies that pushed your feelings into the director’s desired corridor.  Scene on the slave ship: Ominous music.  Scene in the Supreme Court: Uplifting music.  Such easy emotional ploys simplify the human complexity of the past, creating good and bad guys by use of a melody. (See Lincoln Preview below for a taste of Spielberg’s methods)
  • Misplaced Humor: Spielberg can be a master of understated humor.  In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s sarcastic zingers are worth the price of admission alone.  However, in historical films, Spielberg’s understated, sometimes goofy humor falls flat.  You can see this most clearly in Spielberg’s most critically acclaimed, and serious film, Schindler’s List.  On the whole, the director avoided such moments in his 1993 masterpiece, except for one instance of strange, awkward levity.  Early in Schindler’s List, we see a large number of Jews being forced into the ghetto, while Polish children yell at, and women spit on, them as they pass. One rich Jewish family grabs our attention, since they are so obviously shocked by the hatred they face.  In the next scene, the rich couple settle down in their enforced apartment, and the wife says the housing situation could be worse. The husband screams in reply, “How could it possibly be worse!?!”  At precisely that moment, five or so Hasidim men and women walk into the apartment, each saying hello to the couple one at a time with bows and raised hats.  Up until this moment, the audience had been focusing on this couple’s loss of privacy, freedom and dignity.  After this goofy representation of cultures clashing (rich/poor; non-practicing/Orthodox; Western/Eastern), the audience is transported into a dour ‘Laurel and Hardy’ sketch.
  • Monologue Speeches:  Last November, I saw Spielberg’s Lincoln in the theater. The movie felt like three hours of monologues.  Most characters in the film had at least one emotional, individual speech, while Abe Lincoln had too many to count.   When Lincoln pontificated about slavery or the war, every character in the room went silent, and listened to the wise sage.  No one argued. No one moved. The camera came in close, and the audience was made to listen and learn. Immediately after I walked out of the theater, I just assumed Spielberg had done what so many others had done before: Transformed Lincoln into a brilliant martyr who evidently understood the future of humanity. Part politician, part cherub. But, after watching Private Ryan, I realized Spielberg imparts monologues in most of his serious films.  In Ryan, there were two to three scenes that were blatant examples that had me rolling my eyes. For instance, in the scene linked below, George C. Marshall reassures some of his doubting underlings that American troops must be sacrificed in order to rescue Private Ryan.  Marshall waxes poetic by reading a letter by none other than Abe Lincoln to prove the necessity of a rescue operation.  The music swells, the camera zooms, and we now have our moral lesson.   How predictable. How ridiculous.

So, Mr. Spielberg, I plead with you, focus exclusively on aliens, spaceships, dinosaurs and comic-book archaeologists.

What’s that?  You have plans for an Indiana Jones 5?  Excellent.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

So much has changed in my life since I became the father of two girls.  Though it is definitely not the most radical, or life-changing transformation, one of the most notably obvious is my lack of control when it comes to entertainment. My television is no longer my own. Instead of Mad Men, I am forced to watch Wild Kratts.  Instead of The Sopranos, I must listen to Curious George.  Instead of Powerpuff Girls….well, okay, we both enjoy the Powerpuff Girls.

Like TV programs, the film choices for our family movie nights are always made by the two girls. Luckily, as the girls age, movie night is becoming more tolerable. Now we get to watch The Muppets, or Hugo, or the first three Harry Potter films.  I enjoy these flix, but even well-made children’s films are still children’s films.

During the last six years,  the world of film has passed me by, but I think I am finally ready, willing and able to do something about it. So, this summer, I have begun to watch some of the critically and commercially acclaimed films of the last couple years. But, to my surprise, I have found big blockbusters  such as The Avengers, or Skyfall, or Avatar generally disappointing.  Before children, I was able to lose myself in such films. It is not as easy now. I think the problem is that I get an overabundance of simplistic scripts, prat falls, and predictable plot twists from most of the movies my daughters watch.  Many Hollywood movies are similar to these children’s films, with the exception of the “ intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking” that marks serious cinema.

I’m looking for a little something more.

Thus, several weeks ago I began to explore those famous, sometimes infamous, always influential films that ‘everyone should see at least once.’  I am talking about the classics. The problem is, I am not sure what I should watch.  Maybe you, dear reader, can help.  Here is what I have viewed so far:

Canalblog_Livres_Mishima_Film

Scene from ‘Mishima’

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) – an artistic, highly stylized biopic of the great Japanese writer who committed seppuku at the age of 45.  Incredible film.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Sergio Leone’s epic tale of Jewish-American gangsters living, fighting, and dying in 20th century New York.  Honestly, I felt this film has not held up over the years. It seemed dated.

Seven Samarai (1954) – One of the most influential films by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.  I found the plot strangely familiar, and then I realized it was because there have been roughly 200 movies since Kurasawa’s film that have copied it.

The Seventh Seal (1957) – Probably Ingmar Bergman’s most famous film, largely because of the scenes of a Medieval knight playing chess against a personified death. I was very pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable this seventh-seal-chessclassic was.  The film is interesting, funny, intelligent and full of life.

Gary Cooper in 'High Noon'

Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’life. A must see!

High Noon (1952) – This American Western is not your average shoot-em up cowboy flick. The movie deals with a sheriff’s inevitable upcoming gun battle with a psychotic criminal, and the sheriff’s attempt to answer why he is not running away from likely death. I really wished the film ended before the gunfight began, since I felt the cerebral nature of the first 9/10th of the film was much better than the ‘climatic’ show-down.

This is what I have seen so far, but I have a couple films in my queue for the next week.  Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita are on the docket.  But, what then? What are some other films that everyone should see at least once?  Let me know what you think.

by Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

I spent the weekend watching movies. I watched The Muppets (the new one), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Princess Bride, and Derrida (a documentary about the French deconstructionist). Let’s just say that I have eclectic tastes and the weather was dreary. Derrida suited my mood. Documentaries appear unbound, going seemingly in any direction. Derrida leaves the viewer with more questions and fewer answers, a reasonable result considering the subject.

The director’s agenda must be to unsettle the viewer, or Jacques Derrida himself does, and she follows his lead. Crucial interchanges persist in their uncertainty. The philosopher and his wife are seated on a high-backed loveseat. The director asks how and when they met. Derrida divulges the answers, but warns that he will only provide the facts, nothing more. “Why only the facts?” the director wants to know. He resists, and he and his wife stay silent for a moment. The exchange is uncomfortable; it exposes the artificiality of the conversation. He watches it later with some satisfaction. Derrida is particularly pleased that he and his wife both remained quiet, relating nothing more than the where and the when of their lives together. The director shows the clip of him watching the clip.

Still curious, the director poses a less personal, but still intimate, question to Derrida. She inquires, “Can you speak about love?” He demurs. This is not a good question, or a question at all. He cannot answer something so vague. Why does she ask such an ill-formed question?  From that moment on, I distrust her. She returns to the clip of him watching the clip of himself and his wife. This time it is removed a third time. He is watching himself, watching himself, watching himself. In her attempts to capture Derrida’s point of view, she offers the audience little insight.

Later in the film, a question is posed to Derrida from a man off-camera. The audience knows he must be part of the production team, but nothing else. His question is infinitely more interesting, both to Derrida and to me. Derrida finds the question so intriguing, he contemplates it for a full three minutes, saying every once in a while that it is “a good question”.  The man asks, “What philosopher would you wish to have been your mother?” Once the complexity of answers is understood, only keen questions can compel an answer. Derrida takes the opportunity to attack the patriarchal and phallocentric nature of philosophy while (inadvertently?) accomplishing some rather clever self-aggrandizement. He concludes that only a woman coming after him could be his mother, so his granddaughter could be the philosopher-mother he might choose. Instantly, the mind of a philosopher is revealed, and the world spirals out of control once more.