In the Google Talk above, from 2016, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff talks about her new book, “The Witches: Salem, 1692, A History”, which I recently finished. As she says in the clip, this is her attempt to “grapple” with what happened in Salem and Boston in 1692. This was when the most infamous witch trials in history took place, resulting in mass hysteria and the executions of 20 innocent women and men; an additional five died in prison.
The book takes us to that time and place in meticulous fashion. Schiff makes us understand how people lived in those times, what their dark, forbidding surroundings looked like and what they believed in. The question of whether witches even existed never came up; no one had any reason to dispute that. She explains the power structure and the isolation of Massachusetts and the other British colonies in their relationship with London. As a Swede, I found it particularly interesting that one of the leading Boston authorities at the time, Cotton Mather, was inspired by tales of witchcraft from Sweden, even if Satan worked in different ways.
The book is a very interesting read, especially when it deals with the real people and historical facts of the time. It gets less fascinating however when Schiff vividly throws herself into the fantastical visions and testimonies of the girls and women who caused the outbreak of hysteria. Since these are all lies, one loses interest after a while, but Schiff loves going through these testimonies in great detail. Still, it’s an amazing story and relevant far beyond the 17th century, which has been illustrated in books, plays and movies through the years.
The most famous fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials is Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” (1952). As this is primarily a TV and movie blog, I was curious to see how the actual trials have been covered in those fields. The simple answer is that there has yet to be made a prominent film on the events. Most Salem-themed movies have borrowed inspiration in one way or another; a horror movie like Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (2013) imagines a coven of witches still existing in modern-day Salem. Another type of Salem-inspired film is the comedy-fantasy I Married a Witch (1942), starring Veronica Lake as a witch who was burned (in real life, no one was burned in Salem, they were hanged) and comes back from the dead in modern times; watch the trailer above. The romantic drama Maid of Salem (1937), starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, took place during the trials, with several characters based on real-life Salem inhabitants.
No masterpieces there. To sum it up, the 1692 trials never were about “real” witches, but the best movies that deal with Salem in one way or another are usually straight-forward horror movies about witches or allegorical tales about witch-hunting or misogyny, in the vein of “The Crucible”.
Halloween is coming, and the dead shall rise from their graves. At least on a TV screen near you. We are awash in lists of the greatest horror movies ever made, and everybody’s trying to come up with a twist of their own. Well, I decided to just list my 12 favorites, a bunch of movies that are scary but also all-around superior entertainment.
1980-U.S. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd.
What I wrote: “Ten years ago, a friend of mine and I had a nerdy contest where we decided to crown the greatest horror movie ever made. After plenty of heartbreaking comparisons and heated discussions, we agreed on one candidate that we both could accept as the scariest film ever made.”
1979-Britain-U.S. Directed by Ridley Scott. Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt.
What I wrote: “What should we primarily remember from this film? Perhaps just the intense feeling of terror. There’s a monster that we don’t quite know how to explain, there’s a lot of running away from it in dark corridors. Nightmares are fascinating and Alien is just as absurd, scary and repetitious as anything invented by a sleeping mind.”
1973-U.S. Directed by William Friedkin. Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair.
What I wrote: “It was so convincing to many in the audience that even the famous evangelist Billy Graham believed that Satan was responsible for its success. William Friedkin’s work remains potent, not least because of the raw, cold atmosphere that cinematographer Owen Roizman has created.”
1976-U.S. Directed by Richard Donner. Cast: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Harvey Stephens.
What I wrote: “The Omen does owe a lot to its famous predecessor, but thanks to the talent involved it manages to stand on its own and has in turn spawned many other more or less worthless imitations. There’s a lot to be said for a film so perversely clever it makes its audience root for a father who tries to kill his son.”
1978-U.S. Directed by John Carpenter. Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis.
What I wrote: “Simple – but never cheap. When the filmmakers found a Star Trek mask of Captain Kirk in a store, they realized that all they had to do to make it horrifying was change its hair, eyes and spray-paint the face white. Ingenious. It’s the small things that count.”
1999-U.S. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment.
What I wrote: “The film begins with a woman fetching a bottle of wine from a dark cellar and suddenly shuddering as if a cold wind hits her. We have all experienced it, as well as the sense of fear that accompanies it. With this film, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan shows us that there is every reason to be afraid in those moments.”
1982-U.S. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight.
What I wrote: “This movie frightened me as a kid. Its effect may have diminished over the years, due among other things to aging special effects, but it was a pretty spectacular thrill-ride in its day. Most previous ghost movies had been more discreet in their use of effects, but this one went all in with help from Hollywood’s very best, including the masterful Richard Edlund.”
1960-U.S. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles.
What I wrote: “The shower sequence is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history; meticulously designed, shot and edited, it features a quick series of cuts, nudity, brute force, the horrifying illusion of someone being attacked with a knife, and Bernard Herrmann’s ingenious, screeching score accompanying it.”
1986-U.S. Directed by James Cameron. Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn.
What I wrote: “When I first heard about this film, I was 11 or 12 years old and pretty much a novice when it came to movies. Judging from what some of my classmates were talking about, I understood that Aliens was a dark, scary and very exciting film, a special experience indeed. When I finally got to see it a few years later, it blew my mind.”
1975-U.S. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss.
What I wrote: “It takes time before the monster appears, a technique that was to be employed in many other films. It is easy to fear something we can only imagine (and we’re good at conjuring up gruesome images in our heads).”
1922-Germany. Directed by F.W. Murnau. Cast: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Gustav von Wangenheim.
What I wrote: “If you’re looking to create a good tagline for this classic horror movie, it would have to be “Banned in Sweden for 50 years!”. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1972 when audiences had already seen much worse in theaters over the years. Nosferatu won’t seem as horrifying to modern audiences, but this is nevertheless a landmark achievement.”
One year ago, I spent two months in the Big Apple attending the New York Film Academy‘s eight-week class in filmmaking, together with a very diverse group of people. All in all, there were 16 students in my class, very few of them Americans. An international atmosphere dominates the whole school; many of our teachers were Brits, Germans, Italians, etc. The clip above is a flashy little introduction to the New York Film Academy, which is located right next to Battery Park in downtown Manhattan. I rented a small but very nice apartment in Chelsea, right next to the High Line.
The eight-week filmmaking workshop is a very hands-on introduction to the craft, with classes in directing, cinematography, editing, producing, directing actors, screenwriting and sound. The idea is not to produce a filmmaker who’s learned every trick there is to learn in just two months… but someone who’s, ideally, ready to learn more and start making movies. In my case, I’d been a critic for years, not only writing for my own site but also for a newspaper. I was handed an opportunity through my job to do this workshop and get first-hand experience from actual filmmaking. Would I want to change my career? Here’s what I learned.
It’s not for the lazy
If I had to choose one lesson from my time at the New York Film Academy, this is the one. Filmmaking is damn hard work and nothing gets done if you’re not committed. When I see an awful movie I know how much work lies behind, and that realization is almost painful. We had eight short weeks at the academy and we were supposed to make five short movies; before each project we learned something new that we were supposed to illustrate in different ways. That meant long days at school: lectures and practical exercises. Filming was essentially supposed to be done in our spare time.
At the same time, we were strictly advised to immediately start planning for the last and most ambitious of our little films, a five-minute short, because we would inevitably run out of time. The teachers knew what they were talking about; some even emphasized how the school curriculum worked against us. That was true; we needed more free time to work on our projects, but state laws apparently made it mandatory to spend a certain time in class.
I basically gave up life outside of school during these eight weeks. I got up early, went to school and came home around 8PM every night. Weekends were often spent working on my projects. I even developed a nasty rash because of stress (don’t ask)… but I still loved doing something completely different and challenging.
The technology of filmmaking is infuriating and intriguing
I’m not a handy person. What I feared the most about attending this workshop was the technical aspect of filmmaking, and it was certainly a mountain to climb. Our cinematography teacher introduced us to a classic 16mm camera before focusing on digital cameras. We learned how to load film; we learned the basic functions of the digital camera. I learned how to set up a tripod and attach the camera. We had lighting classes, which is where I truly learned the value of working with first-rate technicians. Of course, a skilled team would not be at our disposal; we had to make due with what we picked up in class and the equipment we borrowed from school. When we were shooting, it was up to us to haul the camera, tripod and lighting equipment all over town. I can still feel the weight of the tripod slung over my shoulder as I walked home from the subway.
When we weren’t shooting, we had to learn the technology of editing, using Avid, and how the sound equipment worked. It was overwhelming. There were things I never really got the hang of, but that was true of everyone – if you were better at something in your crew, you took care of that. Maybe one of the others would be better at something else, and help you with that. I never really fell in love with the technical aspects of filmmaking. I knew that I would be better as a director, not a great cinematographer or sound editor.
But trying all of that, forcing oneself to try all of it? A humbling, incredibly educational experience. I constantly felt clumsy, but I could also see the magic the technology conjured.
Filmmaking is a social endeavor
You can learn all there is to know about using a camera and still fail at filmmaking if you don’t use your social skills and work together with your crew. Part of the challenge of the workshop was getting to know your classmates and learn to trust each other. We’re all humans, have different priorities and things were never as smooth as you’d wish – but you also realized how well things could work in an actual filmmaking situation where you work with pros who know what they’re doing and are getting paid to be there. Classes we took in directing, learning how to work with actors and communicating, were invaluable – and so was the producing class, which really taught us how to make practical things happen. You want to shoot in a specific store? You need to know how to make that happen, what the law says and how things are usually handled, insurance-wise, for instance. You need to make deals with people you’ll encounter.
Contacting actual actors to put in your movies was a nerve-wracking (but very enjoyable) part of it. They were patient and understanding with us filmmaking students, but since you weren’t paying them there was always a risk they might bail on you, for a paying gig… or because they just didn’t feel like showing up. I was very fortunate in dealing with the cast, though.
Planning is everything…
I mentioned earlier that if I ever were to become a filmmaker, directing is what I should do. One reason for that is a talent for planning. Our great directing teacher couldn’t emphasize enough how important it is to plan meticulously and well ahead of your project. I did my best, fully knowing that you can’t plan for everything. But creating storyboards and a shot list forced me to think about how to use the camera to achieve what I envisioned in my head; our producing teacher also showed us how to plan for all the practical stuff (budget? permits? catering? transportation?).
In spite of all this, I really struggled to follow my schedule during the two full days we had planned for my last movie. Other classmates simply couldn’t get organized enough during their days as director, resulting in chaotic shoots.
… but so is knowing your role
Collaborating was key during these eight weeks. If you could help in any way, you helped. We were all learning. But I often thought to myself during a shoot that in a genuinely professional atmosphere a movie is likely best made if everybody involved is good at what they’re hired to do. If something failed with the camera at school, you put down the boom and see if you could help. But on a real set, you need the gaffer, or cinematographer, or focus puller or whatever to do what they do. No one should be running around all over the place. There should be discipline (planning) and confidence (knowing your role).
Take time off
A filmmaking student works under a punishing schedule (well, we did anyway), but you have to take a break, not only to rest but try to get new impressions. Your brain needs fuel. Some of my classmates spent nights out partying, but that’s not me. I tried to find times to watch a few movies; after all, it was interesting to look at them from a technical standpoint now that you were learning. I spent time with my brother and sister who visited on separate occasions, and also a former boyfriend who was in town for other reasons. I made sure to go running, at least around Chelsea Park right across from my apartment. I went to a book store in Brooklyn one day to see Oliver Stone get interviewed by Matt Zoller Seitz. I strolled around Central Park. I read, watched TV, had a few beers or wine at times, slept a lot…
Simple, but all very rewarding. I came up with the idea for one of the shorts simply by walking around Battery Park and running into a homeless man who put me in a tricky situation that I realized could be a film.
Filmmaking is not for me – but that’s not bad news
So, would I want to change my career after those eight weeks? The simple answer is no. I’m not going to be a filmmaker. That was never my intention and I realized early on that going back to writing about movies will be just fine when this is all over. Not only does it put money in my wallet, but I love what I’m doing. The workshop gave me knowledge and taught me about the hard realities of filmmaking. It didn’t turn me into an insufferable bore who can only watch movies from a technical or academic standpoint. I’m still me when I watch a movie, I just know a little bit more about the work behind what’s on the screen. I notice the focus pulling a little more now, the shifting of lenses…
Obviously, the five short movies I made are still there for me to watch now and then. Their poor quality and many mistakes are embarrassing. But they’re also an irreplaceable source of memories.
During my vacation, I read Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, the best-selling biography he released last year. At about the same time, there was also an accompanying documentary, Bruce Springsteen: In His Own Words, and an album, “Chapter and Verse”. The Boss may have grown up in New Jersey more or less poor, but he sure knows how to make money now. And he deserves it – this is still one hell of a performer. The book is a must for fans, chronicling Springsteen’s early days in New Jersey, how he became an artist and how he handled the subsequent fame. We learn about his bouts with depression, how he figured out the best way to manage his bands (there’s a reason why he’s called The Boss) and how he learned to be a better husband and father. Whole chapters are devoted to some albums where he writes about the process behind them; at other times, some of his albums are barely mentioned, a clear sign of dissatisfaction. One thing I really enjoyed was his command of the language; this is a person who gives a lot of thought to how he should express himself and it really serves the book well, especially in the beginning when he writes about his recollections of being a kid.
As I was reading the book, I started listening through Springsteen’s albums in the order of their release. So now I thought, why not share a few clips of how I experienced this great artist’s journey through his career?
Bruce Springsteen’s first album was “Greetings from Asbury Park” (1973) and in this early clip from a live performance, he and his band perform “Spirit in the Night”, the second single from the album and still a staple of The Boss’s live concerts. That’s Clarence Clemons on saxophone, the beginning of a long, beautiful friendship.
“Born to Run” (1975) became Springsteen’s great breakthrough. This clip is a powerful performance from a concert in Pennsylvania in 1976. Ironically, Springsteen had severe doubts about the album and was practically pushed into releasing what is now considered a masterpiece. But it made him famous and put him on the cover of prominent magazines, no small feat for a rock artist in those days.
In 1978, Springsteen released “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. In the book, he points out how many of the songs on the album are still featured in his live concerts. Indeed, this is one hit-packed album; “The Promised Land” is one of the best. And just look at Clemons and how he dominates the scene with his sax; this is a wonderful example of how dynamic The Boss was together with his E Street Band at this time.
Then came the 1980s, the decade when Springsteen started making serious money and became an increasingly international phenomenon. In 1980, “The River” was released, a mighty double album. “Hungry Heart” became a huge hit, but I selected a quieter number, “Drive All Night”. When I heard this song live, it was a revelation.
After a more low-key album, “Nebraska”, Springsteen delivered “Born in the USA” in 1984. This performance in Paris the following year shows two things. First of all, it’s a sign of how popular The Boss was becoming. Worldwide tours were now a familiar thing for Springsteen and his band. Secondly, Springsteen was learning how to master huge arenas as he moved away from smaller venues and clubs. Another thing of course is how dated parts of this performance has become; the style was firmly grounded in the 1980s and Springsteen wondered if some of the PR photos made him look gay.
“Tunnel of Love” (1987) had several great songs; “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” (1992) were more forgettable. Springsteen stopped working with the E Street Band; after marrying Patti Scialfa, a singer who had become a part of the band, he became a dad. In 1994, he won an Oscar for “Streets of Philadelphia”, the song he wrote for Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993). I love this song, one of my favorites, and there’s an amusing moment in the book when Springsteen shows his father the Oscar and the old man (who didn’t like his son’s career choice) decides that this is the moment when he’s finally learned not to give anyone advice what to do with their lives.
In 1999, Springsteen ran into trouble with the police because of his song “American Skin”. Written after the shooting of an immigrant in New York City, the song is actually fair to both the victim and cops, but this nuance was lost on some people on the right, including cops who simply refused to understand the lyrics. This performance is from 2000; boos frequently met The Boss when he was doing this song at that time.
“The Rising” (2002) was sort of a comeback for Springsteen. Reunited with the E Street Band on an album for the first time in 18 years, “The Rising” was written in the shadow of the September 11th attacks. A moving and powerful experience, with “My City of Ruins” as the climax. This clip shows The Boss and his band performing at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York in 2002.
In 2006, Springsteen released “We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions”, an album packed with folk music made popular by Seeger. Together with a phenomenal band, this is an incredibly engaging example of how The Boss has the capacity to blow life into any kind of material that’s more or less forgotten. Audiences and critics ate it up; the clip is from a 2007 concert in Indianapolis where “Old Dan Tucker” is performed.
In 2009, Springsteen and the E Street Band entertained America with a halftime show during Super Bowl; here’s the whole thing in one clip (the sound isn’t great though). In the book, Springsteen devotes a chapter to the experience and how complicated it was technically, with a very slippery stage. That moment when he hits the camera wasn’t exactly planned… All in all though, a knock-out concert.
In 2008, the E Street Band lost Danny Federici and in 2011 Clarence Clemons; especially the latter’s death was painful for Springsteen. In 2012, he released “Wrecking Ball”, another successful album. One of my favorites is the song that opens it, “We Take Care of Our Own”, which became a signature theme of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. I have to say I like Springsteen’s cocky feelings about the album in the book; he recognizes the fact that it was a hit, but still complains that it should have garnered better reviews and become the kind of phenomenon that “Born in the USA” was. He considers this to be one of his very best albums.
Obviously, there are many other great moments and interesting details from the book, but I’ll leave that up to you, readers, to discover.
We’re one week away from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (ignore the dreary semifinals leading up to it) and I feel as conflicted as ever. The shows are simultaneously ridiculous and glorious. The quality is often shoddy, production-wise and musically, and the shows always go on too long. The obvious answer would be to cap the number of participating countries to 20, at the most, but that would make the contest (even) less relevant in a lot of European countries. We’ve also now reached a stage where Australia is a participant, not because the continent has somehow become European, but because of Australians’ inexplicable obsession with this silly spectacle.
This year, Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Kiev, Ukraine. This cheesy clip is exactly what we expect from the show. For a tune called “Celebrate Diversity”, the clip is however surprisingly void of that – everybody’s white and where are the gays? This is after all the gayest event on Earth after Pride…
Here’s my take on a few spectacularly campy acts from years past:
Dschinghis Khan: “Dschinghis Khan” (Germany, 1979, 4th place) – Not many pop songs celebrate medieval warlords, but this amazing tribute to the man who founded the Mongol Empire in the 1100s is nevertheless one of Eurovision’s most classic tunes.
Lordi: “Hard Rock Hallelujah” (Finland, 2006, 1st place) – There was a time when this sort of entertainment, a masked metal act, couldn’t possibly win Eurovision. But Lordi shocked (and apparently charmed) the crowds with a performance that truly stood out compared to the rest.
Conchita Wurst: “Rise Like a Phoenix” (Austria, 2014, 1st place) – Not a favorite of mine, this overbaked James Bond anthem still had the benefit of a “bearded lady”, dragshow performer Conchita Wurst, helping define Eurovision as particularly important to LGBT audiences.
Verka Serduchka: “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” (Ukraine, 2007, 2nd place) – Eurovision at its most ridiculous, the song was nevertheless a hit (especially at gay bars). I had forgotten all about the comedian who performed it until suddenly he made an appearance in the Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy (2015).
Buranovskiye Babushki: “Party for Everybody” (Russia, 2012, 2nd place) – Belongs in the same category as the last song. A group of elderly Russian women perform ethno-pop that is just the right kind of annoying. The women are adorable, all from the village of Buranovo. They’ve also recorded covers of several classic pop songs, including “Hotel California”.
Cezar: “It’s My Life” (Romania, 2013, 13th place) – Not the No Doubt hit (although it could be inspired by it), this godawful tune is operatic in the worst way possible with a singer who tries to channel his inner Dracula.
Pirates of the Sea: “Wolves of the Sea” (Latvia, 2008, 12th place) – Maybe Latvia thought that if Germany could send a Genghis Khan group to compete back in the ’70s, why not a band of pirates? Horrible song, made even worse by the inept singer and the embarrassing fact that the song is credited to four Swedes, my countrymen.. Should have walked the plank.
Dustin the Turkey: “Irelande Douze Points” (Ireland, 2008, failed to move past its semifinal) – And if Germany and Latvia could send… and so on. This was the year when Ireland, which had won several Eurovision Song Contests in the past, decided that enough is enough and just sent a Muppet reject to represent them.
LT United: “We Are the Winners” (Lithuania, 2006, 6th place) – They really set themselves up for failure with that title, didn’t they? This boy band consisting of what looks like middle-aged men delivered a horrible song that somehow ended up sixth. I can understand the appeal of some of the jaw-dropping tunes above, but this one is just mystifying.
Let’s hope the contest next Saturday have a few tunes that deserve to be on this list. And a few good ones as well.
On January 20th, President Barack Obama will hand over the White House to the most undignified, undeserving person we could ever imagine. Before we take the leap into the horrifying era of Trump, the time has come to remember Obama’s presidency. This is primarily a movie blog, so let’s do it in clips.
This is not an attempt to capture his full presidency. There were many other serious speeches, lighthearted moments, embarrassments and weighty policy issues that are not reflected here. There were positive things like the Cuba thaw, Paris agreement and the Iran deal, but also negative things like Libya, Snowden and drone wars. But these are the visuals I remember from the last eight years.
The night when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, my brother and I were in Times Square; there was commotion and joy, cops trying to direct traffic and CNN broadcasting on a giant TV screen. Fast-forward to January 20th, 2009 and we could see a visibly nervous president-elect screw up the oath… at least that’s what we first saw until we realized that it was actually Chief Justice John Roberts stumbling over the words.
One of Obama’s first “crises” has to be when he appeared at a baseball game in 2009 wearing what was labeled “dad jeans”, or even “mom jeans”. Still, he would not back down, but defended them.
Vice President Joe Biden and Obama became close friends over the years, and Biden was his usually blunt self after one of Obama’s biggest legislative victories, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. As Biden told Obama in this 2010 clip, it was a “big fucking deal”. Seems almost quaint now these days when Trump has made sure that politicians can say or do anything and still get elected.
In 2011, President Obama told the world that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader who was responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. A major accomplishment, and the image we won’t forget is the one from the Situation Room where Obama and his top advisers and officials sat glued to a TV screen, watching footage from the raid on bin Laden’s compound.
The White House Correspondents Dinner was always a highlight, especially since the President became increasingly better at delivering jokes. This clip from 2011 has Obama roasting Donald Trump at a time when no one could anticipate the looming disaster five years later…
Obama started out not believing in gay marriage, but his views “evolved”. After getting rid of the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2010, the President was ready to tell the world in May 2012 that he now believed in gay marriage. Three years later, it became the law of the land thanks to a Supreme Court ruling.
In 2012, Obama was challenged by Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president. The first of their debates was a shock to Obama supporters; Romney was much more on his toes, while the President seemed tired and off his game. He was better in subsequent debates.
The President made slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon part of his campaign.
A month after being reelected, Obama faced one of many gun-related crises during his presidency. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was particularly painful because the victims were young children. The press conference became one of the President’s most emotional. Still, no meaningful gun legislation was passed because of the almighty bond between the NRA and Republican politicians.
The President’s best State of the Union quip came in January 2015 when Republican congressmen easily fell for a rhetorical trap. This was at a time when the relationship between Obama and Congress was at its most hostile.
The most powerful moment of any Obama speech is this one, from the Charleston funeral of Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people Dylann Roof murdered in a church in June 2015. Can you imagine any other president (with the possible exception of Bill Clinton) actually singing “Amazing Grace” like this?
Part of the president’s job is to pardon turkeys come Thanksgiving. In 2015, his dad jokes both amused and embarrassed his teenage daughters Sasha and Malia.
In 2015, Obama also stopped by Jimmy Kimmel to read mean tweets about himself.
And earlier this year, the President got surprisingly emotional during his last White House Correspondents dinner, ending a very funny barrage of jokes with a touching mic drop.
Barack Obama is leaving the White House with a high approval rating. Over time, he will likely be considered by historians as a very successful president in the ranking game, because he won two terms, made a number of domestic and international achievements and remained popular throughout. America owe him a lot.
400 years have passed since William Shakespeare died on April 23rd, 1616. I recently finished Stephen Greenblatt’s amazing 2004 book “Will in the World”, which vividly brings the Bard to life in a way that feels down to earth. By using the historical facts and records of Shakespeare’s life that we have, and tying them to the sonnets and plays that he wrote, Greenblatt brings us as close to the times and sentiments of the Bard’s life as is possible. A revealing read for me, and so was a visit I made to Stratford a few years ago. There’s something very surreal about standing next to William Shakespeare’s grave.
As expected from a movie blog, I’ve thought about the multitude of Shakespeare adaptations that we have, and tried to come up with the best. The playwright’s work was typically divided into three genres, tragedies, comedies and histories, so let’s take advantage of that:
Histories: The historical plays were among the first recorded in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Cinematically, there is no doubt which king should be crowned the winner – in 1944 and 1989, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh both turned “Henry V” into masterful vehicles for their own burgeoning careers. In the former case, Henry V was also meant to be a morale booster for British audiences during World War II. In the clip above, Branagh delivers the famous “band of brothers” speech from the 1989 version.
Tragedies: Laurence Olivier’s most famous Shakespeare adaptation is likely his 1948 take on “Hamlet”; Kenneth Branagh failed to match him in 1996 with his four-hour version, even though it is a beautiful, extravagant experience. Roman Polanski made a colorful, bloody movie out of “Macbeth” in 1971, one that fit the director and his style like a glove (watch the opening with the three witches above). Not the most faithful version, but stands on its own as a majestic film. And then there is “Romeo and Juliet”, which always has had a special allure to teenagers for obvious reasons; this was true in 1968 when Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey played the leads, and in 1996 when it was time for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Those who want their Shakespeare tragedies served with a culturally different context should take a look at Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985), his versions of “Macbeth” and “King Lear”.
Comedies: Shakespeare’s comedies have been given an eclectic treatment on screen. There is no obvious candidate for which one is the best, even if Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is quite exuberant and one of the most commercially successful Shakespeare adaptations. It was obviously hard to ignore The Taming of the Shrew in 1967, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; directed by Franco Zeffirelli, it was just as lushly photographed as his Romeo and Juliet the following year. In the clip above, Taylor lets her father (Michael Hordern) have it from her balcony. Of course, we should also mention “The Merchant of Venice”, one of the Bard’s most challenging comedies for modern audiences; not only is this play more memorable for its dramatic ingredients, but its perceived anti-Semitism is hard to take. The film adaptation from 2004, starring Al Pacino, walked a fine line.
On a dark and stormy night 200 years ago, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. Traveling through Europe, visiting among other places Frankenstein Castle near Darmstadt, Germany, together with her future husband Percy, Lord Byron and the writer John Polidori, Shelley came up with the idea of a scientist who finds a way to reanimate a corpse. When visiting Lake Geneva in mid-June 1816, she was challenged by her company to create a good horror story. A very dramatic dream helped Shelley shape the tale that was published two years later as “Frankenstein”.
The now-classic story may be two centuries old, but is still very much alive. Let’s take a look at how movies and TV have kept the monster vibrant ever since the early 1900s:
The silent version: This 1910 film, 12 minutes long, is the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story. The monster itself is thoroughly unimpressive. But watch the creation of it three minutes in; visual effects put flesh on a skeleton in a cool, creepy way.
The classic: Frankenstein became cinema history with James Whale’s two pictures, Frankenstein (1931) and the masterful Bride of Frankenstein (1935). So much of it was iconic; Colin Clive as the mad genius, the look of his laboratory, Boris Karloff as the ultimate movie monster (even more influential than Bela Lugosi as Dracula) and Elsa Lanchester as the Bride who hisses at her mate. The horror was evident, but the tragedy of the story was equally forceful.
The Hammer version: Perhaps not the greatest chapter of the 1950s Hammer reinvention of the Frankenstein tale, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) nevertheless introduced Peter Cushing as the scientist and was popular enough to spawn many sequels. Notable in the way focus lies on Frankenstein as the star, not the creature itself.
The black monster: Say hello to the 1970s. Say hello to blaxploitation. Say hello to Blackenstein (1973).
The funny monster: Mel Brooks’s definitive masterpiece is Young Frankenstein (1974), his spoof of the Shelley story, starring Gene Wilder as the scientist, Peter Boyle as the Monster and Marty Feldman as Igor the assistant. One of the funniest movies ever made, it was also kind of a reinvention as this new generation of Frankenstein was so reluctant to embrace his family’s past that he started calling himself “Fronkonsteen”.
The De Niro monster: Director Kenneth Branagh wanted to create a majestic, Victorian horror movie that was close to Shelley’s original. Robert De Niro was hired to play the monster. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was worth a look, but the monster became too much of an odd, De Niro-esque creature.
The animated monster: Kids have appreciated the comic antics of Kevin James as the monster (or rather, simply, “Frank”) in the Hotel Transylvaniamovies.
The new monster: Aaron Eckhart played the creature in I, Frankenstein (2014), a failed 3D reinvention. However, there’s still hope. Universal is launching a series of horror movies, a reboot of sorts. We’ll see what they end up doing with Frankenstein’s monster.
The TV monster: The triumphant return of Victorian horror came in the shape of a TV series, Penny Dreadful. The series, created and written by John Logan, came to an end yesterday. One of its greatest aspects was the touching creature played by Rory Kinnear, who had one of the most memorable introductions on a TV show in recent years. His first, hate-filled, line to the scientist: “Your firstborn has returned… father”.
I recently finished Scott Eyman’s book “The Speed of Sound”, a chronicle of how sound transformed Hollywood in the late 1920s. This may all seem very stodgy since talkies have been around now for close to 90 years… but Eyman makes us understand not only how big a change this was, but how fast it happened. Going through the technical challenges of making movies with sound in the first decades of the 20th century, how innovators competed with each other, and which studios were the first to catch on to this revolution (Fox and Warners), Eyman paints an often vivid portrait of Hollywood in those days. There are times when he loses his way a little as he introduces us to a lot of people and gets bogged down in the technical differences between competing sound systems… but if you’re interested in old Hollywood, it’s a worthwhile read.
The clip above shows Al Jolson singing in The Jazz Singer (1927). It’s been called the first talkie, but here’s a few reservations: There were several earlier films that experimented with sound, but they were clumsy and rejected by audiences. The Jazz Singer was in fact largely silent, but had a few sound scenes that featured new technology and wowed audiences. The film was a smash hit and changed the history of cinema forever. After hearing Jolson sing, audiences would not go back to silents.
The most famous victim of the sound era was John Gilbert. One of the most popular stars of silent films, Gilbert became known as one of the silver screen’s greatest lovers, but his voice didn’t live up to what audiences expected. As you can hear in his speech above, from the film Redemption (1930), there’s nothing wrong with his voice… but it still isn’t what audiences expected, and there were many other examples of stars whose sound performances failed to match the silent version.
In Gilbert’s case, the star’s fortunes also sank due to the inferior quality of his sound pictures (including Redemption), cheesy dialogue that sounded better on title cards than articulated by actors, and the fact that MGM boss Louis B. Mayer hated him (at least according to Eyman) and wouldn’t let him make any good movies.
The transition to sound was difficult, and it has been depicted hilariously in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In the clip above, the director is going crazy because Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) can’t “talk into the bush”. That’s where the microphone is hidden, and that’s symbolic of the early days of talkies – mikes were stashed inside props and actors had to make sure their voices were caught. At the same time, films became more limited in the way that they had to be shot on a soundstage in order to eliminate noise. Studios were cloistered and padded with mattresses. Cameramen found themselves locked inside boxes because the sound of the cameras was too noisy. Actors learned that they no longer could rely on vocal advice from their directors. Filmmakers discovered that the opinion of professional soundmen mattered more than theirs on set.
Some of the silent-era stars, actors and directors, faded. But others benefited from the new focus on dialogue, especially Broadway talents from the east coast. As King Vidor and F.W. Murnau became icons of the past, the era of George Cukor and Joseph L. Mankiewicz began. 85 years later it looks natural, but it was obviously a huge change at the time, affecting every genre. Comedies may be the most obvious example, as Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers survived the transition, but Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made their masterpieces in the silent era. If you want some idea of how fast the transition happened, just take a look at Chaplin’s silent Modern Times (1936); made only a few years after the introduction of sound, it was a brilliant, but still quaint, relic.
The most depressing part of the book is how it ends, with art director Laurence Irving recalling how silents were made in an open atmosphere, but sound pictures closed sets. One day, Irving and Douglas Fairbanks, one of the greatest stars of the silent era, visited a soundstage being built for United Artists, the studio Fairbanks created together with Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. As they watched the consequences of sound (blankets covering walls, cables and wires all over the floor, microphones), Fairbanks said, “Laurence, the romance of motion picture making ends here”.
Now and then, I love watching a silent picture, especially the comedies. The best ones are examples of an era when filmmakers were one-hundred percent focused on the visual aspect of filmmaking, creating scenes that were pure art. The shoe-eating scene from The Gold Rush (1925) needs no spoken words.
One of the most entertaining books I’ve read recently is “The Friedkin Connection” by William Friedkin, the director behind The French Connection and The Exorcist. That’s how the book is sold, and those two movies take up a sizable portion here. No wonder, because they are masterful films that have defined Friedkin’s career, for better and worse, since nothing else he’s made comes close to them. It’s a very entertaining read, as Friedkin writes in a candid, passionate way, exposing his inner drive and fears, as well as a lingering disappointment of not having lived up to the initial success of his two classics. If you’re a fan of either film and looking for amusing anecdotes about the making of them, you’re in luck. One of my favorite stories is how Friedkin bribed a Transit Authority representative in order to get the subway scene he needed for French Connection.
If you’re looking for tips on how to make a movie, you’re in luck too. Friedkin goes into detail how he made several of his films, but not in an overly technical way; he takes us through the making of and particular challenges of his movies without losing our interest.
The clip above is a short documentary on the making of Cruising (1980), another Friedkin movie that was highly controversial at the time of its release because of how the New York City gay scene was portrayed. Indeed, Friedkin made other movies that may not have been nearly as good as The French Connection and The Exorcist, but they did create headlines. Sorcerer (1977) and Killer Joe (2012) are other examples, because of a troubled set or excessive violence. Most of Friedkin’s films have been tough and very masculine, although not necessarily macho. Cruisingis not a movie I like, for several reasons, and Friedkin writes about what he felt went wrong. That’s an interesting chapter as well, regardless of how you feel about the movie. So is the documentary.
In the book, Friedkin is very open about his craft, and some of his health issues, so when he merely mentions that he was married three times before his current marriage, without elaborating, I can’t help but think this must be a part of his life that he doesn’t have the courage or insight to talk about. No one would buy a book about William Friedkin to read about his marriages to Jeanne Moreau and Lesley-Anne Down. But they’re famous actresses and not even mentioning them in an otherwise honest book looks very strange.
I’ve just finished reading “Wilson”, A. Scott Berg’s biography of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. A life-long dream of Berg’s, the ambition was not to create a biography that ran several volumes, but a “page-turner”. I believe that he succeeded. After having read the 700-page tome, I feel somewhat exhausted but very enlightened. I got the impression of a man who was a complete nerd, always trying to bring order to the world by creating covenants (even as a child), who believed in liberal policies but was also a victim of his own times, unable to understand his own racist attitudes. Near the end of his life and presidency, Wilson was useless in the White House, isolated from the real world and failing to understand that his time was running out. He was a complex, intelligent and impressive man whose rise to the presidency seems almost quaint now in the age of Trump. Still, there were several times when I was reading the book that I thought of Obama, even though a century separates these two great men.
Let’s take a look at a few newsreel clips from a hundred years ago, when Wilson was president.
An fascinating, early look at Woodrow Wilson from 1913, when the newly elected president visited Mobile, Alabama.
A brief glimpse of Wilson campaigning for his reelection in 1916.
Surrounded by American flags, here’s Wilson’s second inauguration in Washington D.C. The President is brought to the Capitol in a horse-drawn carriage. There’s also a glimpse of the new First Lady, Edith, whom Wilson married in 1915. A lot of things change over the years, but the inauguration was obviously a huge deal then, as it is now.
This clip shows Wilson at work in the White House in 1917, the year when America entered World War I, one of the most difficult decisions of Wilson’s presidency. Notice the sheep grazing outside the Executive Mansion; not a sight we’d see now.
Wilson was the first U.S. president to visit Europe, which he did after World War I. Here he’s waving to the crowds from a Buckingham Palace balcony, together with King George V. The negotiations with Britain, Italy and France after the war are depicted as a tragicomical affair in the biography, ultimately a failure for everyone involved since a new world war followed only two decades later.
Also relevant for a movie blog to note is the fact that Wilson was very interested in motion pictures. He watched a lot of them and was the first president to do so at the White House, using a projector given to him by Douglas Fairbanks. Wilson is known for having seen The Birth of a Nation (1915) at the White House, but the quote attributed to him (“like writing history with lightning”) is likely false.
Woodrow Wilson hasn’t been played by many actors onscreen. The most famous movie is Wilson (1944), where Alexander Knox played the President. A box-office failure at the time, it still won five Oscars. The clip above shows Wilson at a game during his time as president of Princeton. Knox didn’t make that much of an impression though. I guess Wilson’s life wasn’t dramatic enough for the movies… but A. Scott Berg’s biography really transfers us to a different era, and few modern politicians impress us as much as Wilson.
The Oscars are on tonight, with Chris Rock as host. It’s the 88th annual event since the first Academy Awards were handed out in 1929. The “show” looked decidedly different then – it was in fact a dinner, the ceremony itself took 15 minutes and the awards had already been announced three weeks earlier. There were also far fewer categories. The first winner was Wings (1927), a film that is chiefly memorable for its aerial footage, not its story. The first host of the ceremony was Douglas Fairbanks, then also the first Academy president.
In the 1930s, new categories were added. It Happened One Night became the first film to win the five major awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), a feat that has been repeated only twice again. Bob Hope hosted the show for the first time in 1939 and would go on to do so again a record 18 times. In the 1940s, the sealed envelope became a fixture and foreign films began to receive special awards until a permanent category was created in 1956.
In 1953, the Oscars were televised for the first time, with Hope as host. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to suspense”, he deadpanned and went on to take a few cheap shots at television. Of course, the medium helped change the awards. The clip above shows the opening – and Hope really set the tone.
In 1964, Barbara Stanwyck presented Sidney Poitier with an Oscar for Best Actor (Lilies of the Field), the first time an African-American actor won the award.
The first Oscars to be televised in color took place in 1966. Bob Hope was once again host. “Tonight, we set aside old feuds, and start new ones”. The YouTube clip is sadly not embeddable, but you can view it here.
Due to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1968 Oscars were postponed and introduced in this somber way by then-Academy president Gregory Peck. Bob Hope made sure the laughters came after it.
In 1972, Charlie Chaplin made his touching comeback in Hollywood after having been hounded out of the country for his leftist views. The clip shows him receiving his honorary award. “You’re wonderful… sweet people.”
The year after saw Marlon Brando win Best Actor for The Godfather, but he wouldn’t accept the award. Instead, Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann faced Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache activist, as a protest against how Native Americans are treated by the film industry. Did not sit well with parts of the audience.
David Niven was subjected to a streaker in 1974, but had the ultimate, perfect comeback.
John Wayne was a true legend that ultimately succumbed to cancer. When a very frail-looking Duke appeared to hand out the Best Picture Oscar to The Deer Hunter in 1979, he received a standing ovation. The clip above also shows Francis Ford Coppola and Ali McGraw present Best Director to Michael Cimino.
In 1981, the show was postponed due to the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Host Johnny Carson begins by showing a pre-taped introduction by Reagan.
Robert Duvall gave Sally Field her Oscar for Places in the Heart in 1985, which was when the actress said “You like me!” to the Academy. Her speech has become part of Oscar history.
Fashion became an increasingly important part of Oscar night, and Cher took it to new heights with her extraordinary outfit in 1986. No one has topped it since, not even Björk and her 2001 swan costume.
The clip above shows Billy Crystal hosting the Oscars for the first time, in 1990. He would do so again another eight times. “Jack Nicholson is so rich Morgan Freeman drove him here tonight”.
The first woman to host the Oscars was Whoopi Goldberg in 1994. “There haven’t been so many showbiz executives sweating over one woman since Heidi Fleiss”. She would do it again three more times.
In 1999, Roberto Benigni became the happiest winner of an Oscar ever (for Life Is Beautiful), virtually climbing over seats and people to reach the stage. “I want to kiss everybody!!”
Michael Moore brought politics into the Academy Awards when he won an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine in 2003. He took the opportunity, along with his fellow nominees, to say “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!”, protesting the Iraq War. The audience reaction was deeply divided.
In 2010, Barbra Streisand, herself a director, had the honor of presenting a Best Director Oscar to a woman for the first time, Kathryn Bigelow (who also defeated her ex-husband, James Cameron).
Ellen DeGeneres assembled an amazing group of stars for a selfie that broke Twitter records, in 2014.
If you’ve never read anything by Erik Larson, it is high time. I recently finished his latest, “Dead Wake”, and was as thrilled by it as the other books by him that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The first, “The Devil in the White City” (film rights sold to Leonardo DiCaprio in 2010) followed the serial killer H.H. Holmes during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The second, “In the Garden of the Beasts” (film adaptation has been planned with Tom Hanks in the lead) depicted the U.S. Ambassador’s family in Berlin as they witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
I’m not the only huge fan of Larson’s work. In the clip above, Conan O’Brien has the author as a guest on his online show Serious Jibber-Jabber, the place where O’Brien can talk to people without feeling the need to “entertain” (meaning he doesn’t have to introduce a masturbating bear).
I mentioned those plans of film adaptations not only because this is a blog about movies and TV, but also because Larson has a knack for turning real-life stories from the past into incredibly exciting (and potentially cinematic) drama. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Dead Wake” also was scooped up by some Hollywood producer, although the budget for a film likely would have to be very high. Published earlier this year, the book follows the famed luxury ocean liner Lusitania on its last voyage across the Atlantic in 1915. Larson familiarizes us with many of the passengers and crew, while also introducing us to the men aboard U-20, the German submarine that would eventually sink the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing over a thousand people and contributing to America’s decision two years later to enter World War I.
In O’Brien’s interview with Larson, and in the book itself, there’s talk of a newsreel depicting Lusitania’s departure. In “Dead Wake”, Larson describes it in detail, which makes watching it in the YouTube clip above all the more intriguing. The quality is pretty good. We see passengers arrive, there’s Lusitania’s captain in one shot, and then we see the ship depart. Oddly fascinating, obviously because of what happened to the ship one week later.
The fate of the Lusitania has not really been depicted in movies, in spite of its place in history. Being overshadowed by the Titanic only three years earlier probably had something to do with it. However, the clip above shows all of The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), which is, amazingly, a partly animated silent short about the disaster. It’s the earliest surviving animated documentary. If you’ve read the book, the film is particularly fascinating. Also note that it was made at the time when people still thought that the ship was sunk by not one but two torpedoes.
It remains to be seen if we’ll ever see another movie about the sinking of the Lusitania.