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PS - title - in color

by Robert Hornak

It may be that Police Squad! has the fewest episodes of any on this list, vis-à-vis the number of episodes intended for a regular season of American television. There are only six. It may also be that the mere inclusion here of a product so silly, so bereft of broader social value beyond a few empty yuks, might cause some readers to question the validity of the list itself. Others may circle wagons ’round these half-dozen excursions into absurdity and defend them with volleys of nostalgia, protestations of good-old-fashioned fun, or, God help us all, arguments of its significance as an early paradigm of reflexive meta-entertainment. In any case, it’s on the list, it’s beloved by many, and it’s got a laugh-per-minute ratio, if you’re in the market for its brand of joke, that puts to shame almost anything else on television. The jokes are relentless, some good, some bad, some in poor taste, some so on the nose as to transport the entire operation into stock-in-trade Surrealism. There are puns verbal and visual, physical shtick, dunderheaded miscommunications, and, cinching it all up, an enveloping mock-love for thirty years worth of battered and bruised television conventions.    (more…)

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simon

by Patricia Perry

Historian Simon Schama had an idea for a documentary series he thought someone at the BBC should do – a series about art that would take the viewer out of the staid and stuffy confines of the art museum to immerse them in the moment of panic and conflict that inspired famous paintings and sculpture. He wished to give viewers an indelible sense of how the artists’ passions and inner demons – as well as the conflicts of the society in which they lived – drove and informed their work.

Eventually, of course, Schama himself (a frequent presence on British television) became the creator and host for the series. Launching on the BBC in 2006, Simon Schama’s Power of Art would eventually reach the U.S. on PBS and is readily available in its entirety on You Tube for those who missed it the first time around.

And an even better title for the series might have been The Drama of Art.

Because there is a dramatic arc in each installment in the series, often underscored by the use of actors and historical re-enactments. Schama begins with one seminal work from each of the eight profiled artists (Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko), using it both as an entry point into the artist’s life and work and a window into the society in which he lived. For Schama, the highlighted piece of art in each episode represents a turning point in the artist’s life or world view: a moment of redemption (Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa), a newly embraced political fervor (Picasso’s Guernica, Turner’s The Slave Ship), or a misunderstood failure in an otherwise illustrious career (Rembrandt’s mutilated masterwork, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis). The pairing of staged re-enactments with Schama’s scholarly-yet-cheeky commentary gives this series an unusual emotional resonance. We get an appreciation for each man’s art – what made his works great and why they still matter – but the lessons come with a heaping helping of sometimes pulpy drama, often comprising themes of lust, jealousy, betrayal, murder or madness.

The genius of this approach is that, true to Schama’s original ambitions, the profiled artworks become more meaningful and relevant – a vibrant outgrowth of their creator’s life and times rather than tasteful installations in a hushed, formal gallery. Schama connects with the art in a visceral manner as well as an academic one, and his chatty narration is smart but not intimidating.  He’s a welcoming and enthusiastic guide.

The dramatic recreations vary in effectiveness, though. In the initial episode, Paul Popplewell’s wild-eyed, sword-brandishing Caravaggio borders on cartoonish, reminiscent of nothing so much as cheesy, off-hours programming on the History Channel. (Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by a young, pre-stardom Andrew Garfield as Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit.) But the series finds it footing rather quickly, with its second episode on Bernini proving to be a compelling, classic tale of an acclaimed artist laid low by hubris and rage who redeems himself with a startling sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. (In it, St. Teresa of Avila is shown in the throes of a religious ecstasy just barely distinguishable from ecstasy of a more… umm..  physical nature. I’ve actually seen this sculpture in Rome; Schama more than does justice to both its aesthetic perfection and the surprisingly suggestive nature of the saint’s pose.)

By the final installment, Alan Cordruner’s haunted intensity as the visionary abstract painter Mark Rothko combines with an emotionally overwhelming musical score and Schama’s fevered narration to enhance and exalt the murals Rothko created for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, but never allowed to be hung there. The episode feels tragic in its scope, but for all the amplifying flourishes mentioned above, it never once seems manipulative. Equally powerful is the Van Gogh episode, featuring a volatile, vulnerable Andy Serkis as the tortured Impressionist genius. A scene in which he consumes an entire tube of sunflower-yellow paint (with a mad, desperate yearning that the actor makes completely comprehensible) is too astonishing and disturbing to look away from.

Where Schama eschews the dramatizations in favor of more conventionally intellectual analysis, the series suffers a little. The episodes dedicated to Rembrandt and Picasso, while certainly interesting enough  from an academic perspective, feel oddly toothless and cold in comparison with the rest of the series. The art speaks for itself, to a point, but there’s no strong sense of what creating it cost the artist, personally or professionally.

I knew very little of Schama and nothing about this series until it was recommended to me by a fellow tour member on a trip to Rome in 2015.  Watching it upon my return home gave me a fuller appreciation for the Caravaggio and Bernini masterpieces I’d seen in the Borghese Gallery, and then I couldn’t stop watching the rest.  If my internet search on Schama is any indication, he’s a bit controversial in the UK, occasionally ridiculed or satirized. His latest venture, a reboot of Kenneth Clark’s legendary Civilization series, for instance, has been criticized for its ‘political correctness’ and alleged devaluing of Western culture.

I can understand where Schama’s irreverence might rub some stuffy academics the wrong way (Here for example, Bernini is dubbed “Mr. Fabulous;” Rembrandt is “Mr. Clever Clogs” and his final work is “a B-Movie flop of a painting.”)  And his insertion of himself into the Rothko episode (with an actor playing the 22-year-old Schama at an exhibition of the famed murals) might be just a bit too much Schama for some viewers (this one included). But after seeing Power of Art – and some of its episodes two or three times now – I’m a fan of his approach . And I look forward to delving into Civilizations next.

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A still from SMUGGLING HENDRIX. ©AMP Filmworks.

by Sam Juliano

The Greatest Television Series countdown will resume tomorrow after an eleven day break for the just-completed 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.  It will break for a second time in late May to pave the way for the second annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival which so far has recruited over a dozen writers.

Lucille and I managed to watch thirty-three films in the festival and all things considered it was quality-wise the best I’m ever attended.  Later in the week I will post a comprehensive “Best of” presentation as per normal practice.  Brief capsules of the day-to-day activity engineered in the 23rd Street Cineopolis and SVA Theater are as follows:

Tribeca Day #1

Lucille and I saw two films on the annual Tribeca Film Festival’s opening night, an Australian zombie horror film “Cargo” and a real life bank heist narrative featuring Ethan Hawk, “Stockholm.” Neither film was particularly memorable, but we”ll be back tonight hoping for better success.

Stockhom **
Cargo ** 1/2

Tribeca Day #2

Lucille and I saw two feature films at the Tribeca Film Festival last night. One was an excellent comedy-drama and the other a disturbing but well-made death row drama:

Jellyfish **** 1/2

Dead Women Walking *** 1/2

Tribeca Day #3

The haunting documentary “Island of the Hungry Ghosts” highlighted yesterday’s four film all-day session at the Cineopolis on 23rd Street on Day #3 of the Tribeca Film Festival as WONDERS IN THE DARK correspondent. The ratings of the four films are as follows (one doc, three narrative features)

Island of the Hungry Ghosts *****
Slut in a Good Way ****
Daughter of Mine **
Duck Butter ***

 

Day #4 Tribeca Film Festival

Saw FOUR (4) films yesterday, including the masterful doscumentary HOUSE TWO about the US marines brought up charges for the murder of Iraqi women and children and a moving doc on the great Disney songwriter Howard Ashman who died of AIDS in the early 90’s.

Howard ****
House Two **** 1/2
Little Woods ***
O.G. ***

Saw FOUR (4) films yesterday, including the masterful doscumentary HOUSE TWO about the US marines brought up charges for the murder of Iraqi women and children and a deeply moving doc on the great Disney songwriter Howard Ashman who died of AIDS in the early 90’s.

Day #5 Tribeca Film Festival

If anyone would have told me that one of the masterworks of this year’s festival would turn out to be a flesh eating zombie film, I would have advised them to seek professional help. Yet here we are. The brooding, melancholic, metaphorical art house French movie “The Night Eats the World” (La nuit a dévoré le monde) joins “House Two” as one of the two five star Tribeca films so far. The choral score is magnificent and the superb Norwegian actor Anders Danielson Lie delivers one of the best performances of the festival. “Roll Red Roll” and “All About Nina” were solid entries making Monday’s three film attendance quite memorable.

The Night Eats the World (France) *****
All About Nina *** 1/2
Roll Red Roll (documentary) ****

Day #6 Tribeca Film Festival

Broadway Bob Eagleson and I saw two films at the festival last night. I found “We the Animals” narratively disjointed and emotionally distancing, but give high marks to the film’s visual style in an almost experimental mode, with special kudos to visual effects supervisor Dorian West, son-in-law of friend and Fairview teaching colleague Diane Basile. The lesbian conversion therapy coming-of-age drama “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” a huge Sundance hit, was an alternately harrowing and funny drama, fueled by impressive performances and perceptive writing in large measure.

We the Animals ***
The Miseducation of Cameron Post ****

Day #7 Tribeca Film Festival

The odds were long. All three films seen last night were documentaries and perhaps even more startling every one was of the absolute first-rank. One on the cultural phenomenon roller-skating, another on an iconic jazz record label, and the third on a musical marriage for the ages between a young Caucasian and a Harlem blues artist that redefined the term ‘chemistry.’ All three are among the best films this year at the festival!

United Skates **** 1/2
Blue Note Records ****
Adam and Satan **** 1/2

Day #8 Tribeca Film Festival

The documentary “The Gospel According to Andre” about flamboyant fashion expert Andre Talley is wholly irresistible and surely one of the highlights of the festival. Against all odds the French “The Elephant and the Butterfly” (Drole de Pere), which was produced by the Dardennes and Martin Scorsese, was slight and listless despite some pretty film making.

The Gospel According to Andre **** 1/2
The Elephant and the Butterfly (France) ***

Day #9 Tribeca Film Festival

An exceptional Friday at the 23rd Street Cineopolis yielded a narrative masterwork and one of the best docs of the festival. Faith and sexuality clash in a story of forbidden love (“Disobedience) between two women (Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams) in a London orthodox hamlet where some wrenching emotional scenes are played out when choice trumps long-held beliefs and tradition. A stirring lacrosse documentary about young students who respond to tutorial inspiration and an acute if disturbing Romanian immigration drama rounded out the impressive line-up:

Disobedience *****
Crossroads **** 1/2
Lemonade *** 1/2

Day #10 Tribeca Film Festival

We saw three films on the next-to-last-day of the Tribeca Film Festival with one of the three, “Jonathan” an impressive and riveting mind bender with a superb dual performance by Ansel Elgort the big winner. The Spanish narrative “Sunday’s Illness” and the romantic drama “Song of Back and Neck” rounded out the day’s schedule. TODAY (Sunday) we plan to see five including a few award winners on the final day of the fest.

Jonathan **** 1/2
Sunday’s Illness *** 1/2
Song of Back and Neck ***

Day #11 Tribeca Film Festival

The final day of the Tribeca Film Festival allowed us to watch five (5) features, bringing our final total to 33 for the eleven day Manhattan movie celebration. Our Sunday viewings with corresponding ratings. A comprehesive Best Of post is forthcoming at WONDERS IN THE DARK:

Smuggling Hendrix (Greek/Turkish/English) **** 1/2
To Dust ****
Diane ****
Mary Shelley **** 1/2 (seriously underrated)
Momentum Generation *** 1/2

 

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by Duane Porter

Art is art regardless of where you find it, in an art gallery or in the street, in a theater or on television. Art does not have to be didactic, edifying, decorative, or entertaining. As Marcel Duchamp demonstrated over a century ago, it doesn’t have to be anything at all. Embracing this uncertainty, it’s possible to think of art as research, inquiry into the unknown and perhaps the unknowable. It is also possible to think of looking at art as research. Looking can be an end in itself and a means to an end. Looking thus becomes a dynamic synthesis of perception and consciousness. Being aware of perception and conscious of consciousness, transcending the day-to-day habit of only seeing what we expect to see, an encounter with art can be an encounter with illumination. Illumination, an emergent property of the act of looking, serves self-knowledge enabling one to construct a more comprehensive worldview and with it, a more meaningful life.

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1. Twin Peaks: The Return directed by David Lynch

01_Twin Peaks

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is careening through the space-time continuum. A vertiginous freefall as depicted in Scotty’s nightmare in Vertigo (1958). Cooper’s face blurred and shaken fills the screen accompanied by a violent whooshing sound. The light from a myriad of stars streaks through the void. A roiling cloud forms amid violet-colored vapors. Cooper passes through and lands in a heap on the balcony of a massive metal structure rising out of a purple-tinted sea. Hearing the sound of the waves, feeling lost and confused, he stands and looks out over this never-ending otherworldly ocean. Looking around, there is a window he is able to enter. The inside vibrates with a dense electronic hum broken by random glitches, zszczch! A woman with no eyes (Nae Yuuki) wearing a red velvet dress is sitting on a couch in front of a fireplace. She turns toward him and nods. The room reverberates strangely as if time is stuttering, zszczch, zszczch! Everything seems to be moving forward and backward at the same time. He reaches out and takes the hand of the woman, he hears music and looks around the room. He asks, “Where is this? Where are we?” She pulls him down beside her, running her hands up his sleeves, she begins to feel his face. She tries to speak but is unable to form words. He is startled by a loud banging. She shushes him, putting a finger to her lips. The banging continues, the walls shake. She becomes frantic. The banging is deafening. She leads him away through a door to a small room with a ladder. They go up the ladder, pass through a trap door, and step onto the top of a metal box floating in space, stars twinkling all around them. He sees a bell-shaped structure there equipped with pressure guages and a lever. The banging continues. The woman tries to tell Cooper something but he is unable to understand her. Sidling close to the edge, she reaches for the lever and pulls it down. Electricity crackles and runs through her body. She is shaken and thrown into space. Cooper reaches for her but can only watch helplessly as she disappears. The banging has stopped. He goes back inside. Another woman (Phoebe Augustine) in a red dress sits before the fire. He begins to move toward the woman, she turns her head to look at him and then checks her watch. A lamp switches on next to an electric panel set in the wall. Moving closer to the panel he feels an electrical force field and hesitates. The woman tells him, “When you get there you will already be there.” The banging begins again. The woman says, “You’d better hurry, my mother’s coming.” The electric panel has a large outlet at it’s center. As Cooper moves closer, he appears to dematerialize and is drawn into the outlet, all except for his shoes which fall to the floor.

July 16, 1945, White Sands, New Mexico, 5:29 AM (MWT) a countdown begins, 10, 9 . . .3, 2, 1. The discordant strains of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) accompany a blindingly bright flash of light that obliterates the landscape. An ominous cloud shaped like a mushroom grows up from the desert floor. Great clouds of dust and debris ride the radiating shock-wave. The shrieking screaming of the Threnody builds as inside the growing mushroom swirling vapors of black and white intertwine. Fiery flashes give way to chaotic particles dancing in darkness. The Threnody becomes a droning as the particles begin to swarm like a plague of locusts. Momentarily resuming their dance, the particles increase to a frantic infinitude of bright dots and streaks resembling a film by Brakhage. As the Threnody reaches a crescendo billowing whorls of fire coalesce into explosians of color, red, green, blue, violet and yellow. Then, out of black and white clouds, appears a convenience store with two gas pumps out front. In the darkness, a steamy vapor rises amid sputtering dimensional glitches of static and bright flashes of light inside the store. A group of men converge in front of the store and seem to be pacing about in random patterns as the static and bright flashes continue. They gather inside as the flashes of light intensify and the store and the ground it sits on begin to disruptively shake. All grows dark and a calmness descends. A figure (Erica Eynon) in the darkness spews from its mouth a stream of foam and bubbles looking much like a latex sculpture by Eva Hesse. From within this gooey fecund mass a black bubble comes to the surface containing BOB (Frank Silva), the embodiment of evil let loose in the world by the deeds of men. The Threnody bursts forth again as a conflagration of fire and dark energy erupts with fiery explosions. From the heart of this inferno comes forth a golden seed, closer and closer, until it fills the entire screen. On the strains of the Threnody, a vision of hurtling through the space-time continuum recalls the stargate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), coming again to a vast purple sea, the sound of wind and waves all around, a modernist castle, like something out of the films of Fritz Lang, rests atop a towering pinnacle of rock. Inside, a woman named Dido (Joy Nash) sits listening to a gramophone. A very tall gaunt-looking man (Carel Struycken) slowly climbs a carpeted stairway and enters into a large auditorium that contains a movie screen but no seats. On the screen, he is shown the events that led up to the birth of BOB. With an expression of disquiet on his face, he floats toward the ceiling. Dido comes into the room and watches in wonder as a stream of golden particles issue from the top of his head forming a cloud out of which a golden orb floats down into Dido’s reaching hands. Looking into the orb, she sees the angelic face of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), she kisses it and sends it out into the world.

It’s nightfall as Agent Cooper and Carrie Page (Sheryl Lee) pull out of Odessa. The headlights probing into the darkness illuminate the white lines of the lost highway. Two lights appear in the rear window and seem to hover there. Sensing dread, Carrie turns her head and looks back. The lights continue to hover there. After a few long minutes, Carrie looks back again, anxiety showing in her face. Cooper glances in the rearview mirror but keeps his attention on the road ahead. Carrie looks back a third time and asks, “Is someone following us?” Cooper looks in the rearview mirror again but says nothing. Time passes slowly until, at last, the lights overtake them and a car passes and moves on ahead. Carrie, breathing a sigh of relief, leans back in her seat and closes her eyes. On and on they drive, the white lines flashing by in the dark induce a sense of interdimensional uncertainty. Crossing a bridge, they pull into Twin Peaks. It is late at night, everything is closed and no one is out on the street. Driving through town, Cooper looks over at Carrie and asks, “Do you recognize anything?” He parks across the street in front of the Palmer house and shuts off the engine. “Do you recognize that house?” She says, “no.” He takes her by the hand and leads her up to the front door. He asks for Sarah Palmer but the people living in the house know no one by that name. Cooper and Carrie walk slowly toward their car. Stopping in the middle of the street, they both turn around and look back at the house. Cooper, looking for a clue and straining to understand asks himself, “What year is this?” Carrie looks up at the house again, recognition gradually seeping into her consciousness, she faintly hears someone call out, “Laura!” Suddenly she is overcome by a shattering hysteria, erupting in shrieking anguish. The lights on the street glitch and splutter, zszczch! zszczch! and all goes dark.

A memory of something I once heard long ago comes into my head, “. . . the feeling of something half remembered . . . the face in the misty light, footsteps that you hear down the hall, the laugh that floats on a summer night . . . that was Laura but she’s only a dream.”

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David Lynch is in his studio working on a painting, the paint is thickly textured on the canvas. The image is dark, almost black. Putting his brush aside, he sits back in his chair, lights a cigarette, a cloud of smoke gathering above his head, and he looks at the painting. There is a suggestion of a figure in the darkness, blurry and indistinct, an organic body inhabiting a physical space, reminiscent of the distressed bodies in the paintings of Francis Bacon. Looking at the painting he begins to wonder what it might be like if the wind were blowing through it. Dreamlike the images on the canvas begin to move swaying to and fro reflecting the uncertainty of the physical world. Attempting to grasp an image rising from perceptions passing through the nervous system into consciousness, he picks up the brush and begins moving the paint, his gestural brushstrokes leave tracks on the thick impasto surface, pressing harder he uses his fingers to manipulate the textures and spaces, openly experimenting to see what happens, where it will go. Lynch explains, “The more you throw black into a colour, the more dreamy it gets. . . Black is depth. It’s like a little egress; you can go into it, and because it keeps on continuing to be dark, the mind kicks in, and a lot of things that are going on in there become manifest. And you start seeing what you’re afraid of. You start seeing what you love, and it becomes like a dream.” In the years since Inland Empire (2006), his paintings have admitted more color and light while continuing to look into a resolute darkness. His art is one of philosophical and personal inquiry using language, light, motion, sound, and texture to explore the ungraspable nature of reality. For years, he has practiced a systematic meditation seeking a sort of hyperconsciousness, working toward a connection with the universal consciousness of ultimate reality. In his view, it is for this that we exist.

During the late 1960s David Lynch was an art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. It was here, David Lynch: the Unified Field, 2014, the first major U.S. exhibition of his artworks was held. An extensive retrospective selection of paintings, assemblage, photography, and graphic works, as well as the multi-media Six Men Getting Sick (1967). Also included were several of his early short films that were made in Philadelphia. Less than two miles away from the Academy, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (1946-66) can be found. In a half-lit alcove there is a door made of ancient darkened rough-hewn wood set into an arched brick border, many visitors pass it by with only a cursory glance, but behind the door is a room-size diorama, a scene of pastoral eroticism rendered with a disturbingly provocative naturalism, a hole in a brick wall reveals the life-size figure of a nude woman lying on a bed of twigs holding in her upraised arm a gas lamp that illuminates a scenic landscape containing a running waterfall. Stepping up close to the door and pressing one’s eyes to a pair of peepholes, the disconcerted viewer has become the voyeur. The Philadelphia Museum holds the largest collection of Duchamp’s work to be found anywhere and the spirit of Dada and Surrealism pervades the cultural atmosphere of the city. Even though David Lynch claims to not have been much of a museum goer, he was much affected by the time he spent in Philadelphia. Twin Peaks: The Return can be seen as an extension of his greater body of work referencing the early films, The Grandmother (1970) and Eraserhead (1977), many of the paintings and drawings such as Woman with Screaming Head (1968), So This is Love (1992), and Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House (2009), as well as the feature films Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001). If the value of art, and I believe it is, is to alter consciousness, to allow us to see the world differently than we saw it before, then David Lynch is indeed one of the major artists of our time.

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2. On the Beach at Night Alone directed by Hong Sangsoo

02_On a Beach at Night Alone Kim Min-hee

Younghee (Kim Minhee) visiting her friend, Jeeyoung (Seo Younghwa), in Hamburg, sits on the living room sofa amusing herself with a small electric keyboard on her lap. Clear soft light from a window brightens a bouquet of purple flowers standing in a jar on a low table at her feet. Going out, Younghee and Jeeyoung walk under an overpass as a train goes by overhead. Looking up, a large leafless tree is silhouetted against the overcast sky. Walking side by side with hands in coatpockets through the green expanse of the city park, they pass others, a boy on a bicycle, a woman with a stroller, someone has a large black dog. A man in a dark coat and knit cap stops them to ask the time, they look at each other and don’t answer, he goes on. Across the park stands the Hamburg Planetarium with its domed rooftop symmetrically framed by a grove of trees to each side. Jeeyoung walks by with Younghee a few steps behind her, figures passing through the frame. Approaching a small footbridge with slightly arched mossy wood railings, Jeeyoung proceeds directly across but Younghee hesitates. She stops, Jeeyoung looks back at her but continues on across, stopping to look back again from the other side. As Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major fills the air, Younghee falls to her knees and bows down, her head nearly touching the ground. Jeeyoung stands and waits, turns away and looks at the ground. A few moments pass, Younghee rises and walks across the bridge. (more…)

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by Jared Dec and Trevor D. Nigg

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by Sam Juliano

The annual Tribeca Film Festival is set to launch mid-week and Lucille, some friends and I will be attending on Thursday onward through Sunday the 29th.  During this period the Greatest Television Series Countdown Part 2 will be temporarily suspended but will resume on Monday, April 30th.  Many thanks to all the writers (which a particular shout out to the tireless television specialist Adam Ferenz) who have again risen to the challenge with this project extension.

The second annual Allan Fish Online Festival will also be underway late in May, and we already have around a dozen volunteers including Adam, whose name was accidentally left off last week’s scroll.  Again we are expecting another inspired enterprise in tribute to our beloved film expert.

With the movie bonanza of 2018 facing us square on, we decided to rest up on the theatrical movie front this past week, though in any event it seems this was a release lull.

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Acclaimed author Jonah Winter discusses the difficulties—and necessities—of introducing picture-book readers to tough topics.

Jonah Winter’s career as a children’s author began with Diego, a 1991 picture-book biography of the famed Mexican painter. Since then, Winter’s penned more than 30 titles, including The Secret World of Hildegard (2007), Jazz Age Josephine (2012), and Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (2015).

There’s no doubt: with his signature style, sometimes spare, sometimes exuberant, Winter has a knack for converting challenging subjects into compulsively readable, eye-opening texts for young readers. We last spoke with Winter following the publication of Peaceful Heroes (2009), a tribute to peace activists around the world. Here Winter offers insight into his more recent works, particularly The Secret Project (2017), as well as the ever-changing landscape of kidlit.

SHEMROSKE:  The Manhattan Project—and the havoc it wreaked—is difficult enough for adults to grapple with. Yet, in   The Secret Project    (2017), you deftly translate the subject for children. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How do you decide which parts of a story to keep and which to leave out?
 
 WINTER: Your question gets to the heart of writing picture-book nonfiction. Due to the constraints of the genre, a nonfiction-picture-book author always has to pick and choose what elements to include and what to leave out. With the best subjects, there is an obvious story that is begging to be told.

I will admit that the story I chose to tell in The Secret Project is not what most authors would consider an obvious picture-book story. First of all, it doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, the ending is about as devastating as anything I can imagine. Second, it’s about what most people consider to be an incredibly complex topic—nuclear physics, and specifically, the invention of the atom bomb commissioned by the U.S. government during WWII.

I happen to believe that children can and do, constantly, handle a lot more than most adults give them credit for. They don’t need everything to be sugar-coated. They don’t need to be lied to. Sometimes they need to be challenged. Sometimes they need books that broach, head-on, their worst fears. They need adults to talk to them and treat them like the smart, brave, curious beings that they are. And so, I wrote a picture book about the atom bomb.

In terms of how I made decisions on what to keep and discard in this complex topic, the age level of my readers helped determine much of that. And the story I wanted to tell, after my visit to the Bradbury Science Museum, in Los Alamos, was essentially a very simple story. In fact, I immediately saw the picture-book format as the perfect format for the story I wanted to tell.

I’m not a nuclear scientist, and I’m not exactly what you would call a huge fan of the American government as reflected in American foreign policy. So: American government takes over boys’ school in an incredibly beautiful, peaceful part of the world—and then they hire some scientists to build, in total secret, the most evil, powerful weapon ever created. Then—kaboom—they blow it up.

“Brought a quick end to the war” is propaganda, and ever since I was a little kid, I never believed it. The “saved lives” argument has always struck me as even more ludicrous. My goal in writing this very simple story about a very complex topic was to remove the story from the usual context in which it is usually safely placed in American history books (one that promotes a positive image of America and presents the bomb as a necessary evil) and put it in the context that I believe is the real context: a beautiful world, full of life, art, peace, Katsina dolls. (more…)

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