Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Alan Lomax was one of the few non-musicians—perhaps the only one—whose influence on American music rivals that of the greatest artists.

He spent the whole of his life studying, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating traditional music, especially that of his own country. Great artists like Muddy Waters might never have gotten their big break if not for Lomax. Other artists, like Bob Dylan, might never have been exposed to formative influences.

Rivers of song flowed through this man, who was never rich, who never held an academic post, who often operated with no institutional backing, and who remains comparatively little known. This is not entirely the public’s fault. Lomax was a genius when it came to finding wellsprings of musical traditions, but he was not so adept at self-promotion. It took him decades, for example, to find a publisher for his writings on blues music, The Land Where the Blues Began—a book that was finally published in 1995, some forty years after the events it describes. (More unfortunately still, the book is ultimately disappointing and disorganized.)

As another pertinent example of Lomax’s troubles with finding backers, there is a gap of twelve years between the release of the pilot of his American Patchwork documentary series (1979) and the rest of the programs (1991). Yet whatever he lacked in persuasiveness, he made up for in perseverance. However long it took, Lomax did eventually complete his documentaries on American music, which are now free to stream on And they are a treasure.

The American Patchwork series consists of five episodes. The pilot, which shares its title with Lomax’s book, is about blues in the Mississippi Delta. The other episodes cover jazz parades in New Orleans, Cajun music (also in Louisiana), the folk music of Appalachia, and finally “Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old,” which explores how the elderly serve as the pillars of musical tradition. Each episode is about an hour, and each one is worthwhile. Lomax, as usual, created them on a shoestring budget, with just a single cameraman, and so the documentaries have an almost homemade and unprofessional feeling to them. There is no sophisticated editing, no stunning visuals (indeed the camera work and editing often seems sloppy), and Lomax himself does all of the voiceovers. But what they do have, in abundance, is great music.

Most striking of all, this music is not, for the most part, played by famous professionals. Lomax takes care to find living traditions, and to enter into the communities to record the music as it is enjoyed in its original setting—often played by volunteers and amateurs, or at most by semi-professionals. As a child of the suburbs, I find these sorts of traditions fascinating and even inspiring. This sort of music—local, nonspecialist, communal—is so different from the music of the modern world, written by professional songwriters, performed by groomed superstars, and consumed from headphones or a speaker.

This difference is exemplified most clearly in Lomax’s episode on the “Noble Old.” There, Lomax shows how this music—most of which is not written down—is passed down from generation to generation, through living repositories of song, who accumulate more and more knowledge with each passing year. This could not contrast more sharply with today, where even being in one’s thirties is enough to isolate oneself from the main currents of popular music. (I am speaking from experience!) When music must be transmitted that way, from mother to daughter, from mouth to mouth, then it takes on an entirely different quality. For nothing will survive long in a community’s collective memory if it is not, somehow, vital to the identity of the community, embodying its values and even a sort of wisdom.

Lomax was a champion of this music his entire life. And despite his tendency to make romantic and unconvincing generalizations about peoples and cultures, he ultimately does make a convincing case for the vitality and beauty of these traditions. Of course, there is a certain paradox in people like Lomax and, by extension, myself—people who have traveled widely, read widely, gone to college, live in cosmopolitan cities, and so on—pining for the traditions of those who live in relatively closed, isolated, and often poor communities. In the modern world, we do not know the songs of our elders (if they even have songs to share), but we know a great many other things. And as much as I loved the episode on Appalachia, I will not be moving there anytime soon.

Even so, I found myself moved halfway to tears by each one of these documentaries. Comparing this lovely, haunting music with the formulaic and soulless jingles of the modern world, it is difficult not to feel that we have, somehow, gone badly off course. Nevertheless, the banality of pop culture is probably an inevitable price to pay if you want to live in a cosmopolitan culture. After all, once a society becomes relatively unmoored from traditional values (which is one way to define cosmopolitanism), the only measure of cultural value is what attracts people’s attention, and pop music certainly does that. Ironically, however, this freedom from tradition is what allows us to appreciate the musical traditions of vastly different cultures—within the United States and beyond.

I do not think Alan Lomax ever squared the circle of how to reconcile local tradition with a broad and tolerant perspective—how to have a strong identity and yet appreciate people quite different from oneself. His most ambitious attempt was to create a world-wide database of traditional music, the global jukebox; but rather than create a universal schema that could incorporate all human art, it only showcased the incredible variety in the world. Even so, and even if his loftiest intellectual goals were never reached, Lomax changed American music forever. And he still has much to teach us.

Review: Get Back

Review: Get Back

One would think that, by the year 2021, we would have exhausted all the new material on the Beatles—probably the most thoroughly investigated band in history. I myself thought that, after listening repeatedly to every Beatles album, learning half their songs, performing some of them, and reading several books about them, I would have little left to learn. Yet this documentary shows that the Beatles are not done surprising us.

Here was the situation: It was 1969, and the Beatles were already under strain. They had stopped performing three years earlier—partly because the drowning wailing of screaming fans had made it pointless—and had devoted themselves to studio albums. Yet this shift had inadvertently weakened the group dynamic, as it allowed them to come into the studio and record their songs separately. Much of their previous album, The Beatles (otherwise known as the “White Album”) was recorded in just such a way.

McCartney, who was most eager to keep the group together, hit upon the idea of going back to their roots and doing a live album, hoping this would help to mend things. A film crew was brought in to document the process, directed by Michael Lindsey-Hogg. Sixty hours of film, and 150 hours of audio, were eventually recorded—but the vast majority of this sat unused and unseen, all these fifty years. Only little more than an hour of it was used in the Let It Be documentary, released in 1970.

Peter Jackson—of Lord of the Rings fame—was given access to this trove of material. And, true to his reputation for epic, in favor of doing a single feature-length film, he has edited this sixty hours of video into a (slightly) more manageable eight hours for this three-part documentary. Indeed, the sheer extent of this documentary has proven to be its most controversial aspect. Speaking as a rabid Beatles fan, I can attest that this film—as good as it is—is a slog. I have made my way through it twice now, and both times it took me weeks, and involved me fighting off sleep. If you are not a Beatles fan, or a masochist, I can virtually assure you that you will not enjoy this.

That being said, the footage is absolutely extraordinary. Lindsey-Hogg, a big Beatles fan himself, strove for a kind of fly-on-the-wall effect. He kept the cameras constantly rolling and even hid microphones all throughout the studio. Invasive, yes, but ultimately fascinating. Peter Jackson took this obsessive need to spy on their every action one step further, by developing digital tools to remove the sound of their instruments (which they would turn up when they did not want to be overheard), leaving only their isolated voices in conversation. Jackson also had the 1970s footage digitally cleaned up, so that everything looks as crisp as a modern television show. The result is a documentary that feels surprisingly intimate and authentic.

The documentary even has a kind of plot to it. Of course, you know, and I know, that the Beatles eventually performed their last concert (with a much-abbreviated setlist) on the roof of Apple Studios. But it was a long and winding road from the project’s inception to that impromptu finale. 

The Beatles begin with a ludicrously optimistic plan to write and rehearse enough material to do an entire live album two weeks after filming starts. (Ringo is scheduled to act in The Magic Christian, which puts a constraint on their schedule.) This plan is shown to be foolhardy almost immediately, as the four Beatles jam aimlessly in an enormous movie studio at Twickenham (rented for the documentary), rather desperately searching for new material. Meanwhile, they just as aimlessly try to figure out where to have their culminating concert. Lindsey-Hogg pushes for an old Roman theater in Libya, at one point even contemplating renting an ocean liner to take the band and their audience to this exotic venue. While this heady talk is going on, the rehearsals break down completely. George quits after about a week at Tickenham, derailing the whole plan. The project only recovers its footing when they move to Apple Studios and recruit Billy Preston, a brilliant keyboardist, where they really do manage to get an entire album’s worth of material done. The final concert is only delayed by one week.

Though it may surprise you after reading this summary, the documentary’s main takeaway for Beatles fans was how happy and functional the group was during this time. Lindsey-Hogg’s original 1970 documentary of these sessions, Let It Be, portrayed this time as a joyless slog of constant bickering. There certainly was conflict—after all, George really did quit the band—but the final impression is of four great friends doing what they do best. Indeed, it often seems as if they are having too much fun for their own good: so much time is occupied with unfocused jams and horsing around that the viewer often wonders how they managed to get anything finished at all.

Yet the documentary does have a sad tinge to it, as it becomes clear why the breakup is inevitable. While it would be deeply unfair to blame Yoko for the breakup of the Beatles, her constant presence in the recording sessions is an indication that John’s creative center is shifting away from the group and towards her. Already he is not fully present as a creative force, bringing in only a couple original songs. He and Paul no longer write together.

George, meanwhile, is understandably frustrated with his little-brother role in the group. He has written so many songs—many of them great—for which he has no outlet, as he is only allotted two songs per Beatles record. At one point, he even mentions to John the possibility of doing a solo album (John is supportive). George also comes across as temperamentally at odds with John, Paul, and Ringo—rather serious, somewhat dour, and even a tad joyless compared to the playful dynamic of the rest.

Ringo is revealed to be the rock of the group. He is always on time, always plays great (unlike the others, who can be sloppy), and always game for the next plan. Everyone loves him.

Paul, on the other hand, is starting to get on people’s nerves. After the 1967 death of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, Paul increasingly stepped into the role of unofficial band leader and taskmaster. Yet this is an awkward role for him. He often seems conflicted between his desire to push the group to be more professional, and his wish not to step on anybody’s toes and just to be one of the boys. Perhaps as a result of this tension, he often contradicts himself in the very same sentence—as if afraid to voice his own opinion—and is constantly heard bemoaning their bad work ethic while himself larking around. Yet it is easy to see why he might feel frustrated. Virtually every time he comes into the studio, he brings at least one new song—and a good one. In one of the documentary’s most amazing moments, we witness Paul sit down and come up with “Get Back,” finishing most of the song before John even shows up. With talent like that, he must have felt as if he was constantly either waiting for his bandmates to catch up or pushing them along.

Of course, this documentary is interesting beyond the light it sheds on the Beatles breakup. For example, you might think that the opportunity to spy on the Beatles as they create an album from scratch would have much to teach musicians and songwriters. Yet as a (very amateur) musician myself, I was surprised at how unenlightening it was to see these sessions. Paul McCartney does not have some special process for writing songs. He does what virtually every pop songwriter does, messing about with chords until something clicks, and then writing a melody over that. It just so happens that when Paul—or John, or George for that matter—follows this process, he writes hits; while when other people do that they mostly write crap. The Beatles rehearsal style also reminded me very much of my own band’s practice sessions—showing up late, jamming endlessly, playing sloppily, and only getting it together as the deadline approaches. Once again, the difference was not the process but the result—not a very encouraging moral for the aspiring musician, but there it is.

One thing that impressed me as I watched this documentary is the oddly everyman quality the four of them have. By that I mean that it is effortless to imagine myself in the room with them, even playing music with them; indeed, it is even possible to imagine being them. Of course, this is a trick of the mind. Many tens of thousands of people have tried to be the Beatles and only four have ever succeeded. Still, though each of them is quite charismatic, I would say (with the possible exception of Lennon, perhaps) their personalities fall within the range of the ordinary. I cannot, for example, imagine myself as Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, or helping to write “Paint it Black.” Those two figures—like many rockers—have personalities so outsized that I cannot even imagine being close friends with them. But Paul McCartney and George Harrison? No problem. And I think this ease in identifying with them is one reason why they are so beloved.

Yet, for me, this documentary, joyous as it is, strikes a strangely sad emotional chord. Probably I am just projecting. Being now at roughly the same age as the Beatles were when they broke up, I saw these recording sessions—the self-conscious attempt to get back to their beginnings—as a last stab at carefree youth. For the Beatles to really work, the four of them had to be absolutely committed to one another—to put the group above everything. Yet this kind of dedication to a group of friends may only be psychologically possible when one is young, without any other serious emotional pulls in one’s life. As the four of them got older, fell in love, got married, had kids—they could not always put the group first anymore. This is quite apparent in the documentary, as girlfriends and wives (and even one child, from Linda’s first marriage) are constantly going through the studio. I do not mean to say that getting hitched is a sad thing. But I cannot help but find it bittersweet that, as we get older, friendship is just not enough.

Be that as it may, friendship is a beautiful thing, as we can see in the best moments of this documentary. The four of them took obvious delight in playing with one another. In spite of everything—the paparazzi, the fame, the deadlines, the pressure of performing, the emotional baggage of the passing years, their evolving personal lives—the four of them were able to be silly, have fun, and make some incredible music. Fifty years later, it still sounds fresh.

Review: The French Dispatch

Review: The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is an artist whom you either take or leave in his entirety. More than any other filmmaker who comes to mind, the content of his movies is the style—his distinct, immediately recognizable, easy to parody, fussy, twee, manicured, zany, wistful, and marrionettish style—and that style will either be to your taste or not. When I first saw one of his movies (The Life Aquatic, back in high school) I decided, for good or ill, that I would take him. But all this makes it feel rather pointless to write a review. Yet for a movie such as The French Dispatch, one with such obvious literary preoccupations and aspirations, a review is called for. 

We are, at once, thrown into the imaginary French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (a name that is either clever or very, very silly—you decide), where Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the founding editor of the titular expatriate journal, has just expired. This is to be the final and ultimate edition of this magazine, whose dissolution is announced along with the obituary of the aforementioned editor (played by a characteristically tired-looking Bill Murray). The movie then goes through the remaining pages: a short description of the city by Herbsaint Sazarac (Owen Wilson), an account of a brilliant and insane artist by J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton), a piece on the student uprisings by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and a food-review-turned-police-chase by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright).

Let us explore these pages. First the obituary. Strangely, although Murray’s character is drawn from the famously neurotic Harold Ross, and although Murray is always wonderful, the character is not given enough room to really breathe in the movie. This is an artifact of Anderson’s conceit of making a movie-magazine, though it is an unfortunate one, as Howitzer is ideally positioned to be the heart of the film. His demise and the magazine’s dissolution thus do not emotionally register; perhaps Anderson took Howitzer’s motto (“No Crying”) a little bit too seriously. The movie bursts into life with Wilson’s tour of the city—a charming, lovely, tour-de-force of Anderson’s aesthetic—which I wish had been longer.

But the real meat of the film are the three long nonfiction pieces—“A Concrete Masterpiece,” “Revisions to a Manifesto,” and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” Each one is only about half an hour long, though Anderson manages to pack quite a lot into this time.

We first meet Tilda Swinton, who is giving us a lecture on the great, avant-garde artist, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Rosenthaler’s abstract artwork, made using prison materials, soon attracts the pecuniary interest of one Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), a character inspired by art dealer Lord Duveen. One might think that Anderson would use this as an opportunity for a portrait of his own artistic process, but the insane and tortured Rosenthaler—hopelessly in thrall to his muse and guard (Leá Seydoux)—bears little resemblance to the careful and meticulous director. Here, we see quite clearly how Anderson takes a story that could have been heavy and full of melodrama in other hands (insanity, prison, artistic creation) and turns it into a light and frivolous romp.

Next we enter the tumultuous world of a student uprising, based on the events of 1968, which we see through the dispassionate eyes of McDormand’s reporter. This story, it occurs to me, is the first time that I have been actively disappointed in Anderson’s work. Anderson based this story on Mavis Gallant’s diary of the event, published in The New Yorker. It is a wonderful document—riveting, incisive, and vivid. Yet somehow, none of these qualities make it into the movie version. The story instead concerns itself with a feeble love story between Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), with McDormand as the third corner of a vaguely triangular love-shape. The protests, meanwhile, are transformed from a thrilling historical event into just another whimsical backdrop. And all the great acting in the world (and the acting is quite fine) cannot breathe life into an aimless script.

Thankfully, the quality improves markedly with the next installment. Jeffrey Wright does a marvelous job bringing his character—an obvious James Baldwin impersonation, though with his passion for social justice replaced with a passion for eating—to life. The story is pure Anderson: start with an absurd premise (Wright is writing a review of the great master of “police cooking,” Lt. Nescaffier—a name silly under every circumstance), then transform it into an absurd story (a kidnapping-caper that eventually hinges on one’s liking for radishes) using absurd means (among other things, there is a circus acrobat). I have very little to say except for bravo all round.

So much for the film’s résumé. In order to round out this review, I must also dwell upon the deeper themes—the ideas, the undercurrents, the message—if I am to call myself a true critic. But here I draw a blank. Anderson has a habit of including a few touching or profound scenes in his films (I am thinking specifically of the final section of the final story), which can seem (in this case, quite literally) roughly shoved into an otherwise farcical story. One never knows how to take these apparently genuine moments of pathos, since so much of his aesthetic is devoted to showing how the potentially serious is constantly rendered ridiculous through the intrusion of trivialities. At his best, Anderson succeeds in showing how poignant feeling can eke out an existence within our very unromantic world, but at his worst one wonders if he values anything beyond prettiness and chuckles.

The standard line on this movie is that it is a “love letter to journalism.” Though I can see why this is said, it strikes me as highly inaccurate. The journalists in this film are not paragons of objectivity, or remarkable for their investigative skills, or even interested in telling truth to power. If this film is a love letter to anything, it is to story-telling—to unearthing captivating characters in unusual situations, and setting it out with flair and panache. His own artistic ideal is thus far closer to Tilda Swinton’s bubbly art journalist than to Benicio del Toro’s tortured painter. He will not rip open his heart, or yours, or solve the riddles of our destiny, or vivisect the viscera of the human soul. But he will give you a thoroughly delightful two hours. 

Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)

Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)
The Civil War: An Illustrated History

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I understand what military fame is: to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.

—William Tecumseh Sherman

This documentary was long overdue. Aside from the basic overview, my knowledge of the American Civil War was embarrassingly sketchy; and I had also never seen anything by Ken Burns. Virtually everyone I know who has seen this documentary speaks about it in reverential tones. It lives up to the reputation. The eleven hours are packed with maps, dates, quotes, and most of all—stories. This is a history that focuses on individuals.

A documentary about a war that happened a century and a half ago, beyond all living memory, could easily have become dry and distant. But Ken Burns and his team overcome this obstacle through the dual use of photographs and quotes. The Ken Burns Effect has already entered common parlance, and you can see it displayed to great effect with these old photographs: the slow pan and zoom recreating, somewhat, the feel of watching a film. Combined with quotes of the men and women involved—soldiers, statesmen, generals, diarists—brought to life using voice actors, the watcher enters a bewitchingly immersive experience.

The war becomes, not merely troop movements on the screen, but an enormous catastrophe that our protagonists must live through. This gives the series an emotional force rare in documentaries. The horrors of war are the same as ever: seeing comrades fall, leaving children and widows behind, disease, malnutrition, homesickness, ghastly wounds, and the ever-present drudgery punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Some of the most disturbing images are of Yankee prisoners-of-war, totally emaciated through lack of food. Combined with this are the horrors of slavery, so central to the conflict, and the upheaval of the lives of so many civilians.

Virtually everything is well-done. McCullough brings both seriousness and sadness to the narration. The voice actors are uniformly convincing and effective. The music, too, goes a long way in recreating the mood and atmosphere of the times. Most of the guests were, however, rather unremarkable, with the notable exception of Shelby Foote, who was an endless trove of amusing and touching anecdotes. I can see how the documentary catapulted him to fame.

The series is not above criticism, however. Burns focuses most of his attention on the battlefield. This has the double benefit of being exciting and of avoiding the war’s most controversial issues. But I think the series should have delved far deeper into the causes of the war. I would also have appreciated far more about civilian life during wartime, rather than hearing mainly from soldiers and generals. Even Abraham Lincoln, though he makes his due appearances, is given far less space than a private in the Union Army. Such a wider scope would have made the documentary longer, more controversial, and perhaps more superficially boring; but as it stands the war’s immense political and historical significance is difficult to fathom from the documentary alone.

We are left with a rosy picture of the elderly veterans embracing on Gettysburg, with the war as a bad dream or even a glorious affair. Indeed, our species has been struggling to reconcile the heroic and the barbaric aspects of war since Homer wrote The Iliad. And it seems we still have not been able to face the horrors without including some shades of the bravery, the camaraderie, the brilliant strategy, to brighten up the picture. But the truth is that every war is a moral collapse, and this one was compounded by the taint of slavery. It is an extremely depressing picture, which may get somewhat obscured by the folksiness of this documentary.

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Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Review: Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation

Civilisation:  A Personal ViewCivilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room

I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.

Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.

Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.

The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.

Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.

This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.

A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.

These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.

Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.

I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Review: Alistair Cooke’s America

Alistair Cooke's AmericaAlistair Cooke’s America by Alistair Cooke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. It says: ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’

(As in my reviews of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, this review focuses on the documentary, not the tie-in book.)

This documentary is a window into another time, when the public intellectual was a far more respected institution. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a popular program that contained long stretches of a man simply talking into a camera; nor it is easy to think of a contemporary program so fully dominated by the personality of one person. As the subtitle of this program indicates, this is “A Personal View,” not an attempt at impartiality or objectivity. Cooke is giving us America as he sees it, through the eyes of a highly-educated, well-traveled English immigrant.

The 13 episodes of the series follow a chronological scheme, beginning with the French and Spanish colonists and ending with the (then) present day. The exception to this is the first episode, the best in the series, in which Cooke tells his own story—coming to America as a young man during the Great Depression, and taking a road trip out west. As for the other episodes, there are few surprises in Cooke’s choice of subject: the English dissenters, the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, and so on, all the way up to the Cold War. We see Ellis Island and the Oregon Trail, New England foliage and the Hoover Dam, Hippie communes and Black Baptist churches—a panorama of American scenes.

In many ways this series falls short of the other two major BBC documentaries of the time, Clarke’s Civilisation and Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Cooke’s America has none of the gorgeous cinematography of the former nor the innovative editing of the latter. Indeed, the shooting style of the documentary is remarkably basic—which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case it imbued sections of the documentary with a soporific effect. Another difference in quality was due to the level of insight that the programs offer. Cooke, though no chump when it comes to American history, seems an amateur when his expertise is compared to Clarke’s grasp of art and Bronowski’s understanding of science. I was consistently interested, but I cannot say I came away from the program with any deep sense of insight into my vast homeland.

All this being said, there are some delightful sections in the program. Cooke has a great knack for finding fascinating props. He holds up a vial containing tea preserved from the Boston Tea Party, or he holds the manuscript of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in the Morgan Library, or he itemizes the typical equipment and supplies taken by families on the Oregon Trail. And if the information he presents is not exactly striking, his easy eloquence and gentle wit give his facts a pleasing ring. Cooke’s voice—with his faultless Transatlantic accent—was made for broadcasting, and transmits a sense of confident sophistication that is entirely rare today. Most valuable for us is Cooke’s convincing sense of being above partisan politics—an intelligent observer unbound by any tribe. Again, could any similar program exist today?

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Little Miss Sunshine & Donald Trump

Little Miss Sunshine & Donald Trump

“You know what? Fuck beauty pageants. Life is one beauty pageant after another. School, then college, then work… Fuck that.”

(Cover image taken from the trailer.)

I was 15 when Little Miss Sunshine was released in 2006. My family and I went to see it in theaters, and we liked it enough to buy the DVD. It was one of the few “artsy” movies that I liked at that age. For the most part, I was happy to watch silly comedies and dumb action movies; Little Miss Sunshine is neither, and yet I watched it consistently and enjoyed it, although I could hardly say why. I’ve had the pleasure to encounter the film again (we played it in English class the week before spring break), and realized, upon re-watching it, that Little Miss Sunshine is a far deeper movie that I could have guessed.

The premise is simple: An adorable girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), wins a local beauty contest (she was runner-up, but the first-place winner was disqualified for taking diet pills), which qualifies her to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pangent—her dream come true.

Meanwhile, Olive’s family is in disarray. Her grandfather (Alan Arkin), who coaches her, is a heroine addict who’s been kicked out of his nursing home. Her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is trying to market his nine-step program for turning “losers” into “winners”. Her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is the only person who has a job, and she works desperately to support the family while she gradually loses patience with her husband’s scheme. Olive’s older brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a moody adolescent who has taken a vow of silence until he goes to the Air Force Academy. And Olive’s uncle, Frank (Steve Carrell), was a leading Proust scholar until he was fired for inappropriate behavior; the film opens with him sitting in a hospital room, after he tried to kill himself.

The task is simple: get Olive to California to compete in the pageant. But circumstances come together—Richard isn’t working so they’re short of money, Grandpa is Olive’s coach so he has to go, Sheryl can’t drive a stick shift, Frank can’t be left by himself since he is suicidal, Dwayne is only fifteen so he can’t stay home alone either—which force the family to pile in an old Volkswagen bus, all together, mostly against their will, to drive all the way there. Thus the adventure begins, a classic road trip movie.

On the surface, there is much to commend the movie. The acting is generally excellent, especially Toni Collette’s performance as the harried and impatient mother. The long shots of the Volkswagen bus driving through the country’s innards are pure Americana. There are some great comedic moments (Alan Arkin is responsible for most of them, even when he’s dead). I especially love DeVotchka’s soundtrack to the movie—at times kitch, at times bubbly, and tender when it needs to me, with a hypnotic preponderance of the root chord to the mediant, an extremely weak harmonic contrast that sounds like a bittersweet sigh.

What I realize now is how thematically tight this movie is, despite the superficially meandering narrative. Little Miss Sunshine is, at bottom, an exploration of what it means to be a winner and a loser. Those two words come up again and again in the movie, in large part thanks to Richard’s nine-step program; and each character interacts with these two poles of success in different ways.

Specifically, each character is defined by what they value in life, what it means to be a “winner” (and, consequently, a “loser”). For Olive, it means winning the beauty pageant; for Dwayne, flight school; for Richard, getting a publishing deal; for grandpa, hedonistic pleasure; for Sheryl, having a normal, happy family; and for Frank, academic prestige. And during the course of the movie, each one of them has to confront the implosion of their dream. Olive is no beauty queen, Dwayne is color-blind, Richard doesn’t get his deal, Sheryl faces the prospect of divorce, grandpa’s hedonism gets himself killed, and Frank witnesses his rival lauded and himself forgotten.

All of them, in other words, face becoming that most dreaded of words, a “loser.” They all have to confront life stripped of their definition of success. This is terrifying, because it means giving up their definition of themselves. Who is Dwayne without flight school? Who is Frank without his professorship? A nobody? A loser?

All of the characters face this moment, a moment of despair, when their dreams are stripped from them. They face this moment of having their own sense of themselves collapse, and their first reaction is to categorize themselves as a failure. Frank is the most extreme case of this, having attempted suicide, but to a greater or lesser extent this happens to everyone, even Olive, who cries in the hotel the night before the pageant because she’s afraid that if she loses her father won’t love her.

This question—”What does it mean to be a loser?”—is brought up explicitly several times. Grandpa says that a loser is “someone who’s so afraid of losing he doesn’t even try.” Richard says that the difference between winners and losers is that “losers don’t give up.” Frank says that Proust was a “total loser,” and yet points out that Proust’s suffering helped him write. Yet all of these are, at best, partial answers. The film’s final message is this: A loser is somebody who cares whether people think he’s a loser.

This is why the film’s climax, when the family gets up and dances to Rick James’s “Superfreak,” is so joyfully cathartic. For it is at that moment when each character finally stops caring about seeming successful, normal, smart, beautiful, cool, or anything else; they stop caring about what the audience thinks. They can be seen as losers and still be happy, which is exactly what it means to be a winner.

Perhaps the most nefarious part of the fear of being seen as a “loser” is that is separates us from one another. All notions of winner and loser require some sort of evaluative framework—how we’re determining success. Each one of these frameworks creates a pecking order, people who are higher up or lower down the hierarchy, and it naturally creates a lot of anxiety around losing status. What’s more, as we can see from just this family, the world is full of many different conflicting value frameworks: academia, business, family, the military, hedonistic pleasure. Even if we’re a winner in one world we’re inevitably a loser in many other worlds. And since we’re inevitably a loser, we will be avoided and shunned by people anxious to lose status in their world.

Giving up your fear of being seen as a loser allows people to engage one another as equals, without status anxiety, without either deference or scorn. In other words, you need to give up this idea of being a loser to have simple, healthy relationships with others.

This notion is symbolized in the movie’s Volkswagen bus. Not long into their voyage, the transmission breaks. From then on, to get it started, everyone is needed: the van doesn’t move unless the whole family is pushing together. Later on, the horn breaks too, constantly producing a squawking wail, drawing every passerby’s attention to the van.

In the same way, the family begins as a fractured group of people concerned with winning and losing. Eventually, each of them realize that their little value systems are silly, and they can connect with each other simply as people. (Frank ironically notes that he’s the “pre-eminent Proust scholar in the US” every time they push the van, underscoring how totally irrelevant his old value-system is.) Soon enough, they discard their old notions of winning and losing so completely that they can be publically goofy, as symbolized by the car’s persistent horn. (I’m not normally a fan of symbolic analysis like this, but it seems very obvious in this case.)

All this brings me, inevitably, to Donald Trump. “Winner” and “loser” are two of the president’s favorite words. Calling someone a loser is, for him, the ultimate insult. In Donald’s world, to win is to have value, to lose to be worthless. This mentality is perfectly demonstrated by Trump’s previous ownership of the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. These pageants are such painfully obvious demonstrations of the way we gleefully use superficial standards to rank one another that they didn’t need someone like Trump to discredit them. The beauty pageant becomes one of the dominant symbols of this film, the archetype of every evaluative framework. And the point of the film is that it is far better to get yourself banned from beauty contests than to win them.

So it strikes me, now, that Little Miss Sunshine has only grown more relevant since its release. It both anticipates, analyzes, and rejects the entire worldview of the current president, showing how the beauty pageant, winner/loser view of life just leads to isolation and despair. And to help fight this sort of thinking, it seems we all need to get over our fear of being losers, limber up, let loose, and dance like a bunch of wild fools in public.

Review: Arrival (2016)

Review: Arrival (2016)

 Rating: A-

Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

(Cover image taken from the official trailer.)

I have never written a movie review before, so have some patience while I get my bearings. Also, I clearly can’t say much without spoilers, so be warned.

The premise of Arrival intrigued me as soon as I heard it: a science-fiction alien story centered, not on warfare, but on language. Instead of a soldier, the protagonist is a linguist; and instead of defeating aliens she needs to understand them.

After a touching yet cryptic opening sequence—whose relation to the story isn’t revealed until much later—the movie begins with another day in the life of Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics. She walks into a lecture hall, one of those stale and lifeless theaters of knowledge, in order to give a class on the Romance languages—specifically, on why Portuguese sounds so different from the other languages. (She never explains this, which is frustrating, since I genuinely want to know!)

Something is clearly wrong, however, as few students are in class, and their phones keep beeping. The aliens have just arrived, and everybody all the world over is in a panic. The confusion and alarm that would accompany the appearance of genuine UFOs was portrayed with subtlety and realism. People are rushing home (but why would home be any safer?), the military is scrambling jets (in a show of force?), and the newscasters are droning on incessantly in their foux-knowledgeable voices, filling up airtime with their lack of information.

We see snatches of Banks’s life here, which give us a taste of her personality. She is a loner, somewhat cold, very quiet. We see her lakeside house—angular, empty, tranquil, and almost sterile. It needn’t even be said that she is single and lives alone. Snatches of a phone call with her mom further characterize her—she is calm, detached, and impatient of folly.

Then, as in any hero’s journey, comes the call to adventure, this time in the form of Army Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker, who gives his colonel a strong Boston accent). The Colonel dramatically puts a device on the table, and plays a chilling recording; it is an unintelligible series of clicks, whooshes, and moans, obviously not human. Can she translate it?

The call to adventure is at first refused (she can’t translate from a recording), and then accepted (as it must be for the movie), and soon enough Banks is snatched away to begin her quest. Next we are shown our first vision of the UFO: it is an oblong black egg that hovers ominously over the landscape, as pitifully small fighter jets fly by. The soundtrack, written by Jóhann Jóhannson, really shines in this sequence. Unearthly wailing sounds, reminiscent of alien speech, swell in and out over a droning base as the helicopters approach the monolithic object.

We also meet the other protagonist, Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who will work with Banks. The two of them soon begin their task.

The alien spacecraft opens up a hatch every 18 hours, giving the humans a two-hour window to go inside and make contact. (The reason for this pattern is never explained.) I particularly liked the portrayal of the huge number of precautions that the military takes when going inside the UFO. Even though no form of radiation, bacteria, or anything else potentially hazardous is detected, they must receive numerous booster shots, wear hazmat suits with heavy air purifiers, and be decontaminated each time they return.

Finally they go inside. Watching Donnelly’s childlike joy at touching the spacecraft is moving; for all he knows, he’s in a highly dangerous situation, and yet he is like a seven-year old at a zoo. I think his character is at least partially inspired by Carl Sagan, the alien-obsessed physicist. Like Sagan, Donnelly wants to communicate with the aliens through math, supposedly the universal language; and yet he soon must play second-fiddle to the linguist.

The inside of the ship is a large empty black chamber, composed of perfectly right angles. On the far end of the chamber is a transparent screen flooded with white light, through which the aliens appear. At first it is difficult to see them, because their side of the chamber is full of black smoke (part of the atmosphere they breathe?), and their form is only revealed gradually. I can’t say I was totally impressed by the design of the aliens. They are called “heptopods,” due to their having seven appendages and seven digits on each appendage; but they basically look like big, black, lumpy squids.

Thus begins the quest to communicate with the heptopods, which is the main drama of the movie. The government needs to ask them why they arrived on earth; and this requires quite a bit of linguistic prep work, since not only do our heroes need to make the question intelligible, but enough vocabulary is needed to make the answer meaningful. As far as I know, putting translation in the center of an alien movie is unique. In Independence Day (1996), for example—which I watched obsessively as a kid—the attempt to communicate with the giant UFOs lasts about three seconds. (They fly a helicopter near the alien craft to flash lights as a way of making contact; a laser blast promptly destroys the helicopter.)

Banks quickly realizes that verbal communication is a non-starter, since human vocal chords can’t reproduce heptopod speech. So she opts for written communication, and soon discovers that the heptopods have their own written language. This language is quite different from our own. It does not correspond with what the heptopods “say”; it is not, in other words, a transcription of speech. This means that the meaning is not sequenced in time.

Like a sentence in any other language, an English sentence has a front end and a back end, and must be read in the correct order to make proper sense. When we speak, we obviously must start at some time and end later; and so do our written sentences. Not so the heptopod system, wherein meaning is encoded, as it were, directly, with reference purely to ideas. It has the same meaning forward and backwards; and its meaning can be understood at a glance, like a picture.

Its easy to see how simple nouns and verbs—lions, helicopters, walking, giving—could be represented this way; but it is difficult for me to imagine how complex logical relationships or temporal sequences could be transcribed so that the message is the same forwards and backwards. The movie does not get into the mechanics of the language, however, which is just as well.

While I’m at it, I also wonder if linguistic communication would be possible at all with creatures from another planet. Wittgenstein famously said “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”—meaning, I think, that our language is so tied up in our human experience of the world that it could never serve as a bridge across different species. Put another way, Wittgenstein thought that our language does not and cannot refer to pure ideas—notions that would be the same as understood by any creature.

Our experience of the world is so filtered through our senses, our biology, our specifically human brains, that it seems to me that an alien—from a planet with a vastly different ecosystem, breathing different atmosphere, with senses adapted to different conditions and a nervous systems built on entirely different principals—might conceptualize the world in such different terms that any real communication would be nearly impossible. All this is a massive digression, of course. But a movie that can prompt such ponderings is certainly worth watching.

Soon enough, Banks is coming to grips with the heptopod written language. The visual design of this language is excellent: it is written in inky smoke, and takes the form of a circular swirl with complex bulges and branches. Meanwhile, Banks is beginning to have strange visions, all featuring an unidentified little girl—the same girl from the opening sequence. It is clear that Banks is her mother; and these can’t be memories, since Banks has never had children. Is Banks cracking from sleep deprivation?

While Banks is working on the translation, the world situation is growing ever-more tense. There are twelve of these “shells” (as they’re called), and each country is taking a different approach to communicating with the heptopods. People everywhere are panicking. An image of one of the creatures is leaked and goes viral. China in particular is full of military bluster, and seems constantly on the verge of attacking their shell; and the longer the situation persists, the more people seem to think that the wise thing to do is take military action.

This brings us to one of the movie’s major themes: confronting the unknown. The only thing threatening about the shells is that they are mysterious. Who are the aliens? Where did they come from? What do they want? They don’t attack; they don’t cause any damage; they just hover above the landscape. And yet, the mere presence of unknown visitors causes riots, protests, looting, cult suicides—total panic. It almost seems as if people would prefer that the aliens demonstrated some malicious intent; at least then they’d know what to do. In this situation of total ambiguity, people’s fears fill up the vacuum of knowledge. Never mind that the aliens likely have technology far in advance of humans. We have the urge to attack, not because it’s wise, but to end this terrifying doubt.

What should you do when you confront the unknown? Understand it, or destroy it? This is the movie’s essential question. Banks represents the first solution. The main drama of the movie takes place in the shell’s chamber. There, the confrontation is given stark visual form: Banks stands and stares straight into the blinding light at the other end. The aliens are literally unreachable, separated by a partition. They communicate by imposing form onto nebulous clouds. Language is the tool through which Banks and the heptopods bridge the gap that separates them from one another.

Captain Marks, who works with Banks and Donnelly, represents the other solution. We see him listening to conservative talk radio—an obvious parody of Rush Limbaugh—whose host castigates the Army for not having enough guns, and recommends a “shot across the bow” as a demonstration of human military might. This is probably the movie’s wryest cultural comment, the tendency of the right to use blustering and macho rhetoric, even in highly delicate and complex situations. Captain Marks, spooked by this and also by his wife’s fears, decides to go rogue and attack the ships. His attack fails to accomplish anything, however, and only results in his own death (or imprisonment?) and makes Banks’s job that much more difficult.

Another major theme of the movie is our inability to work together, even in the direst of circumstances. Although it is obviously within each country’s best interest to share their data and collaborate—a “non-zero sum game,” to quote the movie—communication ultimately breaks down between nations as suspicion and paranoia take hold.

As Banks repeatedly shows, communication requires trust, which is exactly why she is so skilled at it. Instead of being scared of contamination and frightened of approaching the heptopods, she removes her protective suit and puts her hand on the glass. In other words, she chooses to trust the heptopods. Communication breaks down between the nations of the world precisely because of this lack of trust; they are afraid that the aliens are trying to get them to attack one another.

Full crisis mode ensues when Banks finally asks what the aliens are doing on earth, and gets the response “Offer Weapon.” Thus begins the dramatic final sequence, during which Banks has to rush to interpret this message before other nations of the world begin bombing their shells. After a final visit to the shell, the heptopods explain to Banks that the “weapon” is their own language, which, because it is the same forwards and backwards, allows you to see the future when you learn it. They are offering it to humanity because they will need humanity’s help in 3,000 years (which they know because they can see the future).

By the way, the idea that learning a non-temporal language could so fundamentally alter your perception of time, allowing you to see into the future, is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, otherwise known as linguistic relativity. This is a real theory, put forward in the 1950s, which argued that your language fundamentally shapes your perception of the world. The most famous (and also most infamously incorrect) example of this are supposedly huge number of words for “snow” among the Inuit, reportedly allowing them to see fine differences in different types of snow. Strong versions of this hypothesis—in which one’s language totally shapes your cognitive processes—have been ruled out; but it is true, I believe, that our language influences our thought in manifold subtle ways.

Banks, now aware of her new ability, looks into the future in order to see how she can prevent the impending catastrophe, and stop the Chinese from attacking their shell. Like all time travel, this presents some interesting paradoxes of causality. Can knowledge of the future, already determined by the present, influence the present? If the only reason that Banks could obtain the information she needed was because she had already used it, what causes what? This paradox is sort of glossed over, and that’s fine by me.

The crisis resolved, the heptopods mysteriously vanish—having accomplished their goal of uniting the peoples of the world and teaching humanity their language—and Banks is left to live her life. This leads, predictably, to a romantic entanglement with physicist Ian Donnelly. He is the man with whom Banks has her daughter, an adorable little girl who is fated to die from a “really rare disease” sometime in her adolescence.

This brings us to the movie’s second major theme: confronting the known. Because she can see the future, Banks is forced to live her life with full awareness of how everything will turn out. Her marriage to Donnelly will end in divorce, and her daughter will die young. Indeed, Donnelly wants a divorce precisely because he thinks they shouldn’t have had a daughter if Banks knew she would die.

The odd fact is that total knowledge is, in a way, far more terrifying than total mystery. It is one thing to try something when you’re not sure you’ll succeed, but it requires even more courage to try something even when you know you will fail. And yet, Banks embraces her fate, and lives her life anyway. This is the most literal illustration of Nietzsche’s amor fati, love of fate, that I’ve ever seen: instead of trying to change anything, Banks tries to appreciate each moment for what it is.

As far as acting goes, the standout performance is Amy Adams’s. Her portayal of Banks is subtle and sensitive. Banks is quiet without being timid, highly observant but fiercely independent, and incredibly strong without being overpowering. She speaks in a soft voice, nearly a whisper, and her face is usually deadpan calm. And yet this makes the emotional moments of the film that much more touching.

I am glad that such a thoughtful, tasteful movie is finding both commercial and critical success nowadays. While arguably somewhat derivative of Kubrick’s work—the visuals and sound-effects were polished and excellent, but hardly groundbreaking—Arrival manages to ask many deep questions within a gripping and accessible plot. All in all, a truly excellent film.


Directed by Denis Villenueve

Written by Eric Heisserer

Staring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker


Review: The World at War

Review: The World at War

The World At WarThe World At War by Mark Arnold-Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Consisting of 26 episodes, each about 50 minutes long, The World at War traces the history of the Second World War from its pre-War beginnings to its aftermath. The program is remarkable in scope, covering the relevant political history of the United States, England, Germany, and Japan; the war efforts in north Africa and southeast Asia; the Russian and the Western front, as well as the final push against Japan; the bombing campaigns and their effects on civilian life; the struggle of the Allied shipping fleet against the German U-boats; the final peace negotiations in Europe and Asia, and the concomitant haggling between the U.S.S.R. and the West; the horrors of the Holocaust; and much else.

But the series has depth as well as breadth. There are hours and hours of archival footage—of battles, bombings, bombardments, protests, speeches, life on the front line, civilian life, negotiations, military parades, invasions, celebrations, triumphs, massacres, tragedies—much of it never used before, unearthed by the program’s research team.

Even more impressively, there are hours of interview footage, from from Poles, Russians, French, Germans, English, Americans, Japanese. There are interviews of gunners, tank crew, infantrymen, sailors, pilots; interviews of housewives, firefighters, barmen, taxi drivers; as well as from politicians, advisors, generals, and even Hitler’s personal secretary and chauffeur. Considering that these interviews were made specifically for the series, from people directly involved in the action, this makes the raw footage (most of it unused) a valuable primary historical document. And this is not to mention the wonderful narration by Laurence Olivier, which is always tasteful, often moving, and sometimes chilling.

In short, the documentary is a masterpiece, bringing the drama of the war to life while also being supremely informative. If you want to watch any documentary about World War II, make it this one.

To speak personally, watching this documentary had a strange effect on me, because it made me realize how much my perspective has changed since I was a kid. Back then, I used to watch World War II documentaries because the war seemed like a comic book. It was a story with clear bad guys and good guys, and the good guys won in the end. It was a story of personal heroism and bravery, of self-sacrifice and honor, of hardships endured and battles fought for the greater good. I was even fascinated with the military technology, the tanks, war planes, battleships, and guns. I remember going to the military museum at West Point, and seeing replicas of the nuclear bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was something undeniably awe-inspiring about the ability to create so much destruction, to wield so much power.

This time around, I had a different reaction. The more I watched, the more I became overwhelmed with a sense of pointless loss, destruction, and violence. Millions of young men marching off to shoot other young men, and for what? Towns blown to pieces, cities burned to the ground, and, most of all, countless lives lost. People shot, stabbed, drowned, burned; people executed by firing squad, hanging, the gas chamber. Beaches filled with bloated bodies, corpses rotting in the road, the remains grandmothers and children buried under piles of rubble. And it just kept going, the planes kept dropping bombs, the men kept throwing grenades, the tanks kept rolling on. By the end of the series, every episode made me feel sick.

When you see the numbers of the dead, it’s easy to grow numb. The totals become mere, meaningless statistics. But when you realize that those millions were composed of individuals, people with their own favorite song to whistle, shade of blue, local restaurant, people with their own quirks of personality, their own flaws and virtues, people who were loved and who loved in return, people who might have done anything had they survived the war, the enormity of the tragedy dawns on you. No matter what the aggressors hoped to gain from the war, no matter how glorious it seemed, it could not have been worth it.

The documentary does not shy away from the horrors of war, but dwells on them, and for good reason. For if there is any lesson to be learned from World War II, it is simply this: We must do everything in our power to avoid repeating that catastrophe.

View all my reviews

Review: The Ascent of Man

Review: The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of ManThe Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.

I watched this series right after finishing Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, as I’d heard The Ascent of Man described as a companion piece. So like my review of Clark’s work, this review is about the documentary and not the book (though since the book is just a transcription of the series, I’m sure it applies to both).

The Ascent of Man is a remarkable program. I had doubts that anyone could produce a series to match Civilisation, but Bronowski made something that might even be better. Bronowski was a polymath: he did work in mathematics, biology, physics, history, and even poetry. In this program, his topic is the history of science. Yet for Bronowski, the word “science” not only refers to the modern scientific method, but rather encompasses all of humanity’s efforts to understand and manipulate the natural world.

We thus begin with Homo erectus, learning how to chip away stone to make tools. As Bronowski notes, this simple ability, to chip away at a stone until a cutting edge is left, is a remarkable indication of human uniqueness. Since the behavior is learned and is not an instinct, it requires a preconception of what the toolmaker wants to create, a certain amount of imagination is required to picture the goal before it is realized. What’s more, creating a stone tool requires a sense of the structural properties of the rock. (I’ve actually tried making stone tools with various types of rock, and let me tell you that it’s not so easy. Even with an archaeologist giving me advice, I was only able to create stone tools of the sophistication of an Australopithecus—randomly beating the stone until a sharp edge was created.) Thus both our creative drive and our knowledge are involved in this quintessentially human activity. “Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

This brings Bronowski to one of his main points, one of the themes of this series: that art and science are not fundamentally different; rather, they are two manifestations of the human spirit. What is this human spirit? It is a composite of many qualities, what Bronowski calls “a jigsaw of human faculties,” which include our wide behavioral flexibility, our capacity to play, our need to create, our curiosity about the natural world, our sense of adventure, our love of variety. Indeed, these can be pithily described by saying that humans retain many childlike characteristics throughout their lives. The name of the last episode is “The Long Childhood.”

One of my favorite sequences in this documentary is when Bronowski takes the viewer from the posts and lintels of the Greek temples, to the arches in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, to the somewhat prettier arches in the Mezquita in Cordoba, to the cathedral at Reims with its magnificent flying buttresses. Each of these structures, he explains, is a more sophisticated solution to this problem: how do you create a covered space out of stone? The lintel and post system used by the Greeks leads to a forest of columns, and the Mezquita, although less crowded, is still filled with arches. The Medieval Christians achieved a magnificent solution by placing the buttresses on the outside, thus leading to the towering, open interior of Reims.

We’re used to thinking of this development as an architectural triumph, but as Bronowski points out, it was also an intellectual triumph. This progression represents better and better understandings of the structural properties of stone, of the force of gravity, and of the distribution of weight. And when you see it play out in front of your eyes, it’s hard to shake the impression that these marvelous works are also progressively more elegant solutions to a mathematical puzzle. This is just one example of Bronowski’s talent: to see the artistic in the scientific and the scientific in the artistic; and he does this by seeing the human spirit in all of it.

Here’s another example. Bronowski wants to talk about how humanity has come to understand space, and how this understanding of space underpins our knowledge of structure. How does he do it? He goes to the Alhambra, and analyzes the symmetry in the tiles of the Moorish Palace. Then, he bends down and spreads a bunch of crystals on the ground, and begins to talk about the molecular symmetry that gave rise to them. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition. How many people would think to compare Moorish architecture with modern chemistry? But it’s so appropriate and so revealing that I couldn’t help but be awed.

As the title suggests, this series is not simply about science (or art), but about science through history. Bronowski aims to show how humanity, once freed from the constraints of instinct, used a combination of logic and imagination to achieve ever-deeper conceptions of our place in the universe. This is the Ascent of Man: a quest for self knowledge. It’s sometimes hard for us moderns to grasp this, but consider that we are living in one of the brief times in history that we can explain the formation of the earth, the origin of our species, and even the workings of our own brains. Imagine not knowing any of that. It’s hard to envy former ages when you consider that their sense of their place of the universe was based on myth supported by authority, or was simply a mystery. I’m sure (and I earnestly hope) that future generations will believe the same about us.

Bronowski’s final message is a plea to continue this ascent. This means spreading a understanding and an appreciation of science, as his programs tries to do. This strikes me as terribly important. I’ve met so many people who say things like “Science is a form of faith” or “Science can’t solve every problem” or “Science is dehumanizing and arrogant.” It’s sad to hear intelligent people say things like this, for it simply isn’t true. It’s an abuse of language to call science a faith; then what isn’t? And yes, of course science can’t solve every problem and can’t answer every question; but can anything? Science can solve some problems, and can do so very well. And science, as Bronowski points out, is the very opposite of dehumanizing and arrogant. Science is a most human form of knowledge, born of humility of our intellectual powers, based on repeated mistakes and guesses, always pressing forward into the unknown, always revising its opinions based on evidence. Atrocities are committed, not by people who are trained to question their own beliefs, but by ideologues who are convinced they are right.

This is Bronowski’s essential message. But like in any good story, the telling is half of it. As I’ve mentioned above, Bronowski and his team are brilliant at finding unexpected ways to illustrate abstract ideas. This series is full of wonderful and striking visual illustrations of Bronowski’s points. What’s more, the man is a natural storyteller, and effectively brings to life many of this series’ heroes: Newton, Galileo, Alfred Russell Wallace, Mendel. He’s also a poet; one of his books is a study of William Blake’s poetry. This not only gives him a knack for similes, but helps him to explain how science is fundamentally creative. One of my favorite scenes is when Bronowski compares abstract portraits of a man to the ways that various scientific instruments—radar, infrared, cameras, X-rays—detect the man’s face. As he explains, both the portrait and these readings are interpretations of their subjects.

The cinematography is also excellent. There are some sequences in this documentary that are still impressive, saturated as we are with CGI. There are even some quite psychedelic sections. One of my favorite of these was a sequence of microscopic shots of human cells with Pink Floyd (who contributed music) jamming chaotically in the background. Unlike in Clark’s Civilisation, which uses exclusively ‘classical’ music and is devoid of special effects, the style of this documentary is surprisingly modern and even edgy. Another thing Bronowski does that Clark doesn’t, is include some information on non-Western cultures, from Meso-America, Japan, China, and Easter Island.

Yes, there are some parts of this that are outdated. Most obviously, much of the scientific information is no longer accurate—particularly the information on human evolution in the first episode. This is unavoidable, and is in fact a tribute to the ideals Bronowski championed. More jarring is Bronowski’s somewhat negative assessments of the culture of Easter Island and the lifestyle of nomadic peoples. Less controversially, he also has some negative words to say about Hegel. (Did you know Hegel published an absurd thesis when he was young about how the distance of the orbits of the planets had to conform to a number series?) Another mark of this program’s age is that Bronowski several times shows nudity and even a human birth. This would never fly on television today, at least not in the States.

But these flaws are minor in such a tremendous program. The Ascent of Man is a landmark in the history of science education and of documentary making, and a stirring vision of the progress of humanity by an brilliant and sympathetic man. I hope you get a chance to watch it.

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