Tuesday, November 12, 2019

BBC Radio 4 Adaptation of Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman to air soon

From the BBC article:
Kenneth Branagh, Greta Scacchi, Mark Bonnar, Ann Mitchell, Doon Mackichan, Kenneth Cranham and more star in a dark and honest account of the epic battle of Stalingrad by celebrated war reporter and author, Vasily Grossman.

  • Two part drama based on war reporter Vasily Grossman’s account also stars Greta Scacchi and Mark Bonnar
  • Anton Lesser reads Grossman’s private journal - translated into English for the first time - in a Book Of The Week special
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Stalingrad is a prequel to Grossman’s novel Life And Fate which was adapted by Radio 4 in 2011 and featuring many of the same acclaimed cast.

...

To accompany the adaption Radio 4 also gives over Book Of The Week to Stalingrad: Destiny Of A Novel; featuring readings from Grossman's private journal, translated here for the first time ever, chronicling his novel's tortuous progress through Soviet censorship from 1950-53. A period when Stalin's last campaign of terror was unfolding against his own Jewish population. Written and presented by author and historian Catherine Merridale, with readings by Anton Lesser, the five-part series tells the dramatic backstory behind the novel and the beginnings of Grossman’s own journey towards Soviet heresy. He was canny enough to keep a personal diary of the process of submitting his manuscript, translated into English for the first time it reveals the beginnings of a maddening journey that became an epic battle of wills. Detailing the pressure of Soviet forces attempting to censor Grossman, and the changing tides of approval and disapproval he faced from his comrades.

If it works like the Life and Fate adaptation, the broadcast will be available to listen to (and maybe download) for a brief time after the air dates at the BBC Radio 4 site.

The Life and Fate adaptation was well done and I really enjoyed it, so I'm excited to see the Stalingrad adaptation. My biggest concern, though, is that it will be only four hours long. That is a lot of material to compress into such a short period of time, so obviously there will be cuts to the story. Regardless, congratulations once again to Robert and Elizabeth Chandler for their translation and making this available in print so the adaptation could be done.

The readings from Grossman's journal should be fascinating as well, although it will probably go through some of the same material covered in Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff. I'll be listening anyway. I'll try and remember to post on it again as the episodes air. Spread the word!

Transmission details
Stalingrad
Saturday 30 November, 2.45-4.45pm
Sunday 1 December, 3-5pm

Stalingrad: Destiny Of A Novel
Monday 2 December, 9.45-10am (1/5)

Update:
"Robert Chandler talks about Vasily Grossman and how he (Robert) and his wife Elizabeth went about translating the novel Stalingrad."



Update 2:
I've linked this elsewhere, but I want to include this here, too. For more on Grossman, see Yury Bit-Yunan and Robert Chandler's article Vasily Grossman: Myths and Counter-Myths on sorting out facts of Grossman's life from “Soviet intelligentsia folklore."

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger

The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger
London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1966
Hardcover, 210 pages

Lucy Scholes' article "Emeric Pressburger’s Lost Nazi Novel" at The Paris Review blog got my attention for several reasons. I've enjoyed several of the Powell and Pressburger movies and wanted to see how his talent from the screen would translate to the page. The 'twist,' finding out immediately that the main character is a Nazi war criminal, made me want to see what the focus of the book would be. Also, saying a well-written book "sadly remains largely unknown and unread" feels like a personal challenge for me to find and read it.

Scholes' article is a great introduction to the work as well as providing insight into Pressburger's life and its tie-in to the novel, so I highly recommend reading it. In addition, there are two online reviews I found (after I finished the book) that I also recommend since they add more angles to the story and tie-ins to Pressburger's life:

These three reviews/posts cover a lot about the book, so I will try to focus on different angles in the story as well as cover some of the same territory in case this is your introduction to the book. I know there will be a lot of overlap with those posts. I know I'm revealing much of the story, but the power of the book comes from the questions raised and the way Pressburger chooses to raise them.

The book begins early in June 1965 with the piano tuner Karl Braun moving into his new flat on Pimlico Road in London. We find out right away, through a flashback to earlier that year, that Braun is really a Nazi war criminal with the real name of Dr. Otto Reitmüller. In the four years he performed operations on concentration camp prisoners he removed parts of their brain and had them repeat stories, "vivid memories from their lives," in order to note discrepancies with previous narrations of those stories. He would repeat the process until the patient died, usually by the third brain operation.

While the focus of the book is on Braun, one of the recurring questions explored in the book is what it takes for a person to volunteer to be in such a medical trial. It's a difficult question that's hard to answer without being in that situation. As one of Braun's London neighbors puts it to a fellow boarder,

"If you'd been told...you've got the choice: either you join the others and proceed into the slaughter-house [gas chambers] now—or you could enter the hospital where there will be food, clean sheets, for as long as three to four months. Either you'll be exterminated like vermin tonight, or, I, the famous researcher working to solve the secrets of the human mind, will carry out some experiments on you. Which would you have chosen?" (204-5)

The flip side of that question is why Braun performed those experiments. His cold-blooded, analytical mind generates nightmares about being caught and tried for war crimes, but his subconscious comes up with reasons why he would be released. The courtroom should symbolize "the people's wish: to be judged by its own conscience and thus purify itself of the deeds of the past." (11) The defense counsel in his dream essentially gives the "just following orders" defense without using those words, and his nightmares resolve in his favor. The self-importance he feels in what he has contributed to science is monumental, since he "did all the spade-work to discover how memory was stored in the brain, who carried out his unique experiments using his advanced technique of surgery on the living human brain." (166) Which is, of course, precisely the problem. These patients weren't given a true choice.

Braun has been dating a divorcee, Helen Taylor, who keeps him at arm's length, at least physically. In response to Helen's repeated questioning of his past, Braun tells of being a press photographer. Helen provides one of the deepest insights into Braun and the "following orders" excuse, although ironically, since she is talking about his job as a photographer instead of a doctor.

Helen: "You're obstinate when you want to gain your end. I can imagine when you were still a press-photographer, you always got the pictures you were after. No matter whether it embarrassed your victim or not. You didn't care a damn about the suffering of your victims. Am I right?"

Braun: "What on earth are you talking about?"

Helen: "I know what I'm talking about. Don't press-photographers invade the privacy of people?"

Braun: "It's the duty of a press-photographer to photograph the news. It is his job. The readers expect nothing less from him."

Helen: "Alcoholics expect alcohol. Drug-addicts expect drugs. Sex-maniacs expect to rape little girls. I hate people to say that they do things because it's expected from them. It depends on you alone whether you do things or you don't. ..."

Braun: "If one reporter doesn't do it, another will."

Helen: "Let him. The first reporter could say, 'I haven't done it and I'm proud of it.'"
(156)

Despite claims that Pressburger makes Braun a sympathetic character, I felt the approach was closer to trying to understand and maybe even empathizing with someone who has made the choices Braun has made, as well as exploring what it takes for him to survive in a world where he is a fugitive. The reader follows Braun through his humdrum daily routine and to his nights at classical concerts. One of the ironies of the book lies in Braun having to hide his past, similar to how Jews had to live in Nazi German-occupied territory hiding their heritage in order to avoid the concentration camps. Braun, of course, has the advantage of being able to live in the open despite feeling like a prisoner, and his story of escaping Germany before the war started draws sympathy from other characters. Pressburger does allow one character to heavy-handedly and directly express the general opinion toward the experiments: "The kind of man you are describing [a "famous researcher working to solve the secrets of the human mind"] belongs to the most common and most dangerous kind of criminals. They are the scourge of the human race. Those who can explain everything. Who commit their crimes int he name of Science, the Fatherland, Religion, for the sake of Love, Culture, for Progress." (205)

There are several events that heighten Braun's paranoia and despair. A visit from a Nazi colleague earlier that year had made him aware of the statute of limitations for war crimes, which had been scheduled to expire in May 1965, would be extended five years. The colleague had begged Braun to return with him to Argentina and join a community of former Nazis living there, but the thought initially repulsed Braun. "He shuddered at the thought of spending the rest of his life among disgruntled sexagenarians who had one single purpose in life: to become octogenarians." (146) He realizes, though, that all he wants is peace and rest from having to continually hide from his past, so he plans to draw money from his secret war stash and travel to Buenos Ares. While the approach of the anniversary of the death of his wife and child in the bombing of Hamburg always unsettled him, this year is worse as many acquaintances try to include him in their activities on that day. To make matters worse for Braun, the trial of an assistant in the concentration camp hospital makes him aware that his research diary was in the hands of the authorities. All of these things together heightened Braun's paranoia, so when he believes someone is following him his baser "survive at any cost" instincts kick in and we find he is still capable of unbounded cruelty.

The question of memory repeatedly comes up in the book. I won't provide the spoiler here, but if you don't believe you'll read the book and want to know more, go to sovay's post. The paragraph that begins, "In the very last pages of the book" reveals a powerful twist to both the story and how part of it derives from Pressburger's life. In addition, the last quote in that paragraph is one of the last lines in the book and mentions that the patient Braun was experimenting on died "somewhere on page 183" of Braun's research diary. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Page 183 in The Glass Pearls is when Braun finds out that authorities have his research diary, changing the course of his plans and leads to his destruction.

There is so much more I could write about the book, but I need to close this post before it rambles on too long. Pressburger provides a haunting character study of a man similar to some of the most monstrous actors in World War II, one I won't forget soon. It's a powerful book, one I immensely enjoyed and recommend very highly.

Links:

  • Faber & Faber reprinted the book in 2015 with "two new introductions, by cinema scholar Caitlin McDonald and by Pressburger's grandson, the Oscar-winning film director Kevin MacDonald." I read the original 1966 release, but with a little searching I was able to find the new introductions online. According to Pressburger's Wikipedia page, "Kevin has written a biography of his grandfather, and a documentary about his life, The Making of an Englishman (1995)." In sovay's article linked above, McDonald's book Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (1994) is mentioned when listing some of the facts from the book that tie directly to Pressburger's life.

  • At the Powell & Pressburger Pages site is The Writing of Emetic Pressburger page.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Excerpt from The Glance of the Medusa by László F. Földényi

Földényi's The Glance of the Medusa: The Physiognomy of Mysticism is a book I have on my Christmas list, so I hope to read more of it soon. Hungarian Literature Online has an excerpt from the book's second chapter:
For this reason, the moment of love is not only about finding oneself but also about dispossession. While those in love are able to compress into someone else all the desire and longing that they have previously considered to be their own, and could not handle to a satisfactory extent, they also find that they ended up beyond themselves. They found their centre, yet this happens to be located outside the boundary of their selves. This does not mean that the existing centre has suddenly ‘shifted’ into another being, but, rather, that this centre has just come into being—sameness is the outcome of difference. In parallel with the ‘lightning glance’ and the ‘silver flash’, it becomes increasingly likely that the individual should lose itself at the very point when it supposedly found itself, because existence itself lacks a centre. Its alleged ‘basis’ is being, which permeates everything yet remains on the outside, so it becomes noticeable only in the lack inherent in things. Whenever one tries to ‘pull oneself together’, one cannot help finding oneself set into motion by a faith placed in some sort of a supposed centre. Beyond a certain point, however, it becomes obvious that this is impossible. The more existence ‘thickens’, the less one can find one’s way around, and ultimately all one is in a position to perceive is the fact of being at the mercy of the impossible.

In an earlier post, HLO included this from the bookflap:

In The Glance of the Medusa, Lászó F. Földényi offers a mesmerizing examination of the rich history of European culture through the lens of mythology and philosophy. Embracing the best traditions of essay writing, this volume invites readers on a spiritual and intellectual adventure. The seven essays bear testimony to Földényi’s encyclopedic knowledge and ask whether it is possible to overcome our fear of passing away. In doing so, they illuminate moments of mystical experience viewed in a historical perspective while inviting readers to engage with such moments in the present by immersing themselves into the process of reading and thinking.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Excerpt from The Russian Job by Douglas Smith

Found at Air Mail, an excerpt/adaptation from The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin, by Douglas Smith, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux today. An engrossing read (no pun intended).
The stories began to appear in the Soviet press in the autumn of 1921, each one more gruesome than the last. There was the woman who refused to let go of her dead husband’s body. “We won’t give him up,” she screamed when the authorities came to take it away. “We’ll eat him ourselves, he’s ours!” There was the cemetery where a gang of 12 ravenous men and women dug up the corpse of a recently deceased man and devoured his cold flesh on the spot. There was the man captured by the police after murdering his friend, chopping off his head, and selling the body at a street market to a local restaurant owner to be made into meatballs, cutlets, and hash. And then there was the desperate mother of four starving children, saved only by the death of their sister, aged 13, whom the woman cut up and fed to the family.

The stories seemed too horrific to believe. Few could imagine a hunger capable of driving people to such acts. One man went in search of the truth. Henry Wolfe, a high-school history teacher from Ohio, spent several weeks in the spring of 1922 traveling throughout Samara Province, in southeastern Russia, intent on finding physical evidence of cannibalism. In the district of Melekess, officials told him about a father who had killed and eaten his two little children. He confessed that their flesh had “tasted sweeter than pork.” Wolfe kept on searching, and eventually found the proof he had been looking for.

And:
Cynthia Haven has an article on PBS "American Experience" documentary The Great Famine (trailer can be found here), based on Stanford researcher Bertrand Patenaude's The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves

God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves
Edited by Clifton H. Johnson, with a new introduction by Albert J. Rabateau
The William Bradford Collection from The Pilgrim Press, 1993 (2nd edition)
Paperback, 204 pages

The reissue of a rare volume of ex-slave narratives is as timely now as it was when it first appeared in a mass-produced paperback edition in 1969. These autobiographical memories and recollections of conversion experiences of elderly African Americans, born under slavery, were culled from interviews conducted during the years 1927 to 1929 by Andrew Polk Watson, a graduate student in anthropology at Fisk University. Originally issued in limited circulation at Social Science Source Documents No. 2 by Fisk in 1945 in tandem with another volume of ex-slave narratives, The Unwritten History of Slavery (Social Science Source Documents No. 1), the value of these texts becomes all the more apparent when we realize that they were recorded just as the opportunity to listen to the testimony of living former slaves was rapidly disappearing. Under the guidance of anthropologist Paul Radin, then serving as a research professor at Fisk, Watson conducted extended interviews with a hundred elderly black people, asking them to recall life during slavery and to describe their religious conversion experiences. "The autobiographical narratives were then culled from long and rambling accounts, but in most cases the conversion experiences were repeated several times as here recorded, with little or no variation from one telling to the next."
- Albert J. Rabateau (xix)

The central focus in this book is the religious conversion experience, the sudden, dramatic change in an individual when realizing acceptance into the Christian faith. The book contains an introductory essay by Andrew P. Watson on "Negro Primitive Religious Services," thirty-one conversion stories, and six autobiographical sketches. In this edition's Introduction by Rabateau, he notes

the vividness of the imagery and its similarity from one account to the next. A common store of biblical sources, especially the Book of Revelations, helps to explain the frequency with which the same images appear. These were common cultural images, heard over and over again in hymns, prayers, and expounded upon in sermon after sermon. The accounts also betray a common narrative pattern due to the regular recitation of conversion experiences at revivals and "experience meetings" by the converted who were expected to talk about the inner working of the Spirit upon their hearts. Individual and unique as these conversion experiences were, they shared the common narrative construction and group norms associated with the tradition. Thus conversion was both a profoundly personal experience and an experience defined and validated within a community of church folk.
(xxiii)

Despite having many stories echo each other, the former slaves' conversion stories are interesting to read, in part because of the details of their differences but mainly from the joy you can tell the interviewee has in telling it. Common themes include individual and group visits to the woods or a particular tree, hearing voices or seeing a "little man," and sickness or loss of appetite, all leading up to a "death" experiences from which God brings them back to life reborn in faith. Their descriptions of God (and the easterly direction where he resides) sound similar, as does the joy expressed through singing and dancing, all hinting at some sort of cultural synchronicity. Without a doubt, though, the bliss expressed by the slaves feels authentic. Here's a conversion story from the "To Hell with a Prayer in My Mouth" chapter that covers a few of the common attributes:
[The] Lord would begin to work with me, saying each time, "You got to die and can't live!" I hadn't yet learnt anything about a spiritual death, so I thought he meant I would have to die a natural death. My husband and neighbors thought I had lost my mind, so they sent for my mother. She came and told me to pray. At that ver minute I was praying on the inside, "Lord, lave mercy on me. Lord, have mercy on me." After she came I picked out a way a little way from the house, in a thicket, and then I went daily to pray. But it seemed like the more I prayed, the worse I got. I felt like I had the burden of the world on my shoulders.

Finally one night I went out to a spot much farther from the house and fell on my knees. A voice spoke and said, "Lo, here is the way." I heard a noise like a rising storm, but I stayed there, and when the voice spoke I stretched out flat on the ground. God spoke to me and again said, "My little one, you got to die and can't live." I jumped up and went to the house and found my husband and children asleep. I got in bed, my heart still praying, "Lord have mercy on my soul." The voice spoke again, "You got to die and can't live." I began to die right there and was dying all night. My husband called in five doctors to me, and they gave me up and said that I would not live until twelve o'clock the next day.

About nine or ten the next day I began to see the wondrous works of God. I saw myself on the very brink of hell. I was on a little something that was swinging back and forth, and it looked as if I must surely fall at any minute. My jaws were locked and my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth, but on the inside I was still praying, "Lord have mercy! Lord, have mercy on my soul! If it be your will to send me to hell, send me with a prayer in my mouth." When I said this I took hope, for the Lord spoke to me and said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the very door to the Father. Follow me! Follow me!" (93-4)

This interviewee then tells of the wondrous things she sees, and also additional dreams/visions she has had. There are several preachers interviewed, too, and they share similar stories about how they rarely realize what they are saying during their sermon, the part that Watson calls "the coming of the spirit" in his essay. As I mentioned earlier, the repetitive nature can wear on the reader, but the differences, particularly their lives and circumstances, provide insight into the types of hardships slaves and former slaves had to deal with.

The most engaging sections of the book for me were the autobiographical chapters. Some of these are very short and don't supply more than sketches of what it was like to be a slave, but the few that are longer provide a more detailed picture on the lives of those former slaves. We see varied treatments of the slaves, from good and bad masters, and even from Union troops. There are dealings with paddy rollers, armed white patrollers making sure slaves don't escape. It's chilling to hear the former slaves recall being bought and sold, separated from family, and the decisions they had to make if they wanted to escape. These details help give the context needed to understand the joy they received from religion, one of the few areas where they had control, as well as giving them validation and acceptance. Despite some of the harrowing details, it's ultimately a book of joy and peace.

The final chapter, though, yields quite a different tone. The interviewee (apparently younger than others) says "they have not had all the varied experiences [regarding conversion] that most of the older people say they have had. ... I have seen nothing and heard nothing, but only feel the spirit in my soul, and I believe that will save me when I come to die." This is the one outlier in the interviews, and being younger than the others I have to wonder if that wasn't meant to signal a turning away from the evangelical tradition of conversion for later generations.

Because I liked the autobiographical chapters the most, I was interested in the mentioned The Unwritten History of Slavery, which I gather is sort of a "companion" to this book with oral histories of ex-slaves. While it was difficult to find at an affordable price (for me), I have placed an InterLibrary Loan on it and hope to post on it soon.

Links:

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Vladimir Bukovsky 1942-2019

Vladimir Bukovsky passed away this past weekend at the age of 76. Before he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1976, Bukovsky spent 12 years in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and labor camps. Vladimir Nabokov said of Bukovsky, "Bukovsky's heroic speech to the court in defense of freedom, and his five years of martyrdom in a despicable psychiatric jail will be remembered long after the torturers he defied have rotted away." Here is the obituary at the Vladimir Bukovsky site. And there's this from Juliana Geran Pilon's Monday Wall Street Journal column on Bukovsky (behind a paywall, unfortunately):
In 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Bukovsky was asked to return to Russia as an expert witness at a trial against President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had banned the Communist Party and seized its property. Bukovsky’s argument, which he had always believed, was that the party had been unconstitutional. To demonstrate it, Bukovsky requested access to the Central Committee archives. Using a laptop and hand-held scanner, he surreptitiously copied and smuggled out thousands of pages before being discovered.

His findings were captured in Judgment in Moscow, first published in 1995 in French, then in Russian and other European languages. It didn’t come out in English until this year. Its subtitle, “Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity,” gives a clue as to why. When Bukovsky first attempted to publish the book in English, in the 1990s, the American publisher had asked him to rewrite “the entire book from the point of view of a leftist liberal,” he wrote. Specifically, he was told to omit all mention of media companies that had entered agreements to publish articles and cover media events “under the direct editorial control of the Soviets.” He rejected the offer, and the publisher canceled the contract.

The documents cited in the book demonstrate, he wrote, the “treacherous role of the American left”—its complicity with Moscow during the 1930s and ’40s, infiltration of the U.S. government and assistance to the Soviets during the Cold War. They demonstrate also the Kremlin’s support for Middle Eastern terrorists, Mikhail Gorbachev’s sabotage of the European Community, and the pseudoliberalism of Mr. Gorbachev’s “perestroika.”

Judgment in Moscow didn't have an English translation until earlier this year when it was released by Ninth of November Press. For a starting point, I recommend 1978's To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter (see the Links section). The chilling note at the beginning of a recent edition of the book reads "Truly we were born to make Kafka live."

A few quick links to explore:

There is a lot more available online about Bukovsky and his work.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Out but not down

We're caught in this round of power outages in California. Posting will resume when we have power again.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Movie: Rosenwald (2015)

The documentary film Rosenwald tells the inspiring story of Julius Rosenwald, an immigrant’s son who became CEO of Sears, Roebuck & Company and used his wealth to support equal rights for African Americans during the Jim Crow era. His support of education, the arts, and housing for middle-class African Americans left a legacy that influenced the Civil Rights Movement and continues to resonate today. Rosenwald is told through archival film and photographs, feature film clips, and interviews with historians, museum curators, poets, Rosenwald family members, African American leaders, and Rosenwald school alumni.

- From the Rosenwald teaching guide

Rosenwald, by Aviva Kempner, is a documentary about how Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the son of an immigrant peddler who rose to head Sears, partnered with Booker T. Washington to build 5,400 Southern schools in African American communities in the early 1900s during the Jim Crow era. Rosenwald also built YMCAs and housing for African Americans to address the pressing needs of the Great Migration. The Rosenwald Fund supported great artists like Marian Anderson, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, and Jacob Lawrence. Among those interviewed are civil rights leaders Julian Bond, Ben Jealous and Congressman John Lewis, columnists Eugene Robinson and Clarence Page, Cokie Roberts, Rabbi David Saperstein, Rosenwald school alumni writer Maya Angelou and director George C. Wolfe and Rosenwald relatives.

- From the imdb.com page for Rosenwald

Growing up in the South I had heard the name of Julius Rosenwald and was familiar with some of his philanthropy, but never realized the scale of what he accomplished until I watched this documentary. The movie begins with Julius' life and how he rose from a clothier to an owner and officer of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Because of the company's meteoric growth, Rosenwald's wealth ballooned. Under the tutelage of Rabbi Emil Hirsch and later from the writings of Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald began to get involved in philanthropy, focusing largely on the lack of educational and social opportunities available to blacks. One area of focus was helping build YMCAs and YWCAs for blacks by donating a portion of the money needed. In order to build a sense of ownership and control for the communities, Rosenwald challenged those who it would benefit to raise the remainder of the funds.

This would be an approach he would use when Washington asked Rosenwald for help with Tuskegee Institute and other educational opportunities for blacks. For the schools, Rosenwald would contribute a percentage, usually a third of what was needed. Those that would benefit were asked to raise the rest as well as build and maintain the schools. I see numbers ranging from 5300 to 5500 schools built throughout the Southern U.S. on this Rosenwald model. Given the climate in the South at the time, the schools became targets for arson and vandalism, but the determination of the black community to provide educational opportunities not available in the alleged "separate but equal" framework insured most schools would succeed. At one point, it is estimated that one-third of black students in the South attended a Rosenwald school.

Rosenwald didn't limit his gifts only to schools. He commissioned and contributed to housing developments developed specifically for blacks and established the Rosenwald Fund. This fund awarded money to schools as well as setting up fellowships, grants, and other funding to blacks showing artistic promise. The Fund would benefit such recipients as Langston Hughs, James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Marian Anderson, and many others. Needless to say, Rosewald's influence stretched very far.

One of my favorite quotes from Rosenwald had to do with the esteem given to those with wealth, highlighting his own self-deprecation:

"Most people are of the opinion that because a man has made a fortune, that his opinions on any subject are valuable. Don't be fooled by believing because a man is rich that he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary."

Julius Rosenwald deserves to be featured and promoted, and I hope this movie goes a long way toward doing that. What he was able to achieve with the funding of his projects can still be seen and felt today.

If you are looking for the movie, be aware there are two versions and they may show differing dates of release. The initial release of Rosenwald was one disc, containing the movie and a few bonuses. A couple of years later a two-disc version was released, with the second disc containing commentary about and interviews with those associated with the movie or the fund/schools.

Rosenwald rambles at times, but still gets my highest recommendation.

Links:
The film's website and its teaching guide

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a searchable database of Rosenwald schools as well as a Preserving Rosenwald Schools booklet
"Of the 5,357 schools, shops, and teacher homes constructed between 1917 and 1932, only 10–12 percent are estimated to survive today."

Under the Kudzu is a movie that "traces the history of two Rosenwald schools in Pender County, NC. built during the segregation era. Alumni and former teachers share their experiences in this moving documentary about the African American sacrifice for education." I have not watched it yet, but plan to since it is currently streaming free for on Amazon Prime.

Alabama Heritage's article Rosenwald Schools: 100 Years of Pride, Progress, and Preservation goes into greater detail on the Rosenwald School program as well as restoration and preservation projects.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Movie: Sherman's March (1985)

In 1864 during the American Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman began his famous march to the sea. With an army of 60,000 men he swept into the South, destroying Atlanta, Georgia, Columbia, South Carolina, and dozens of smaller towns. His troops plundered homes, destroyed livestock, burned buildings, and left a path of destruction sixty miles wide and seven hundred miles long before finally forcing a Confederate surrender in North Carolina.

Sherman's campaign marked the first time in modern history that total warfare had been waged on a primarily civilian population, and traces of the scars he left on the South can still be found.

{break}

Two years ago, I was about to begin shooting a documentary film of the lingering effects of Sherman's march on the South. I'm from the South, and all through my childhood I heard stories about how Sherman had devastated the South. My aunt even keeps a sofa in her attic which is punctured by swords-holes put there by Sherman's soldiers as they searched for hidden valuables. She said she'll never run out of the holes to be sewn up.

Anyway, I had just gotten a grant to make my film, and I stopped off in New York from Boston, where I live, to stay for a few days with the woman I had been seeing. But when I arrived, she told me she'd just decided to go back to her former boyfriend. We argued, and then I left and went to stay alone in a friend's studio loft, which happened to be vacant at the time.
- (Opening lines to Sherman's March: A Meditation on the Possibility Of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation )
A friend handed me a collection of Ross McElwee movies while I was recuperating from health issues this summer. I started with Sherman's March, the movie I had heard the most about from film friends, and was easily drawn in to McElwee's slow, deliberate patter. It seemed like a great premise: follow something from history and see how it impacted life today. But what the viewer quickly finds is that the movie is less about what happened from Sherman's march through the south and more about McElwee's life. It's not always a pleasant trade-off.
For a long time, the consensus among my family members was that what I really need to do is find what they call a nice Southern girl and things will be fine.

This is the central point of the movie. His family and friends constantly criticize him, pointing out that they way he dresses, his lifestyle, his grooming, etc. are holding him back, and if he would only act the way he does with a camera when he doesn't have one he would meet and get to know more girls. Time after time we get McElwee's declaration of feelings for someone, only to have things go awry. We do get the occasional comments and insights on General Sherman and visits to historical sights, but even those moments include more information on his feelings and failures at finding a girlfriend. Early in the movie he confides that the movie is really "a meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South today."

One of the running jokes throughout the movie is the parallels McElwee has with Sherman, or at least he sees it. Both love the south, but feel alienated from it. Until the U.S. Civil War, Sherman was a failure, while until this movie...well, you get the idea. I vacillated between loving and hating the movie, suffering the tedious parts in order to find the gems. One such gem-like moment was his comments on finding Wini on an island off Savannah, Georgia. As they discuss referential opacity, counterpart theory, and other linguistic topics, Winni declares she loves linguistics and sex. To which McElwee deadpans, "My interest in linguistics continues to grow."

We meet blind dates set up for relationships and former girlfriends, only to watch none of them build to anything meaningful. Worse is when we meet Charlene, a former teacher who takes McElwee on as a project for matchmaking. It's funny when someone else is the project, but speaking from experience it's annoying as hell when you're the project, which is why I couldn't stand that part of the movie. Other themes in the movie have to do with his anxiety about nuclear war, his car constantly breaking down, and his so-called nemesis—Burt Reynolds. I guess it is some sort of irony that all of these anxieties are what seem to give meaning to his life.

I've come to the end of my journey with no car, no money, and only one roll of film. What's worse is that I don't seem to have a real life anymore. My real life has fallen in the crack of myself and my film.

McElwee returns to Boston, where he swears off dating and takes a course on music history. Of course he's attracted to the teacher, and the movie ends as he is asking her out on a date. While the movie was supposed to be a portrait of the south and Sherman's impact on it, it ends up being a portrait of the sad state of McElwee's life.

I'm not sure how to comment on the movie. I found it incredibly funny at parts, although I'm usually laughing *at* McElwee instead of with him. That's tempered by the obvious point that he knows that will be the viewer's reaction. My favorite parts are usually the comments from the women he is interviewing, often giving him clues/tips/pointers on what he needs to say to them in order to have a shot at a relationship with her. Which, of course, don't happen (or at least aren't shown in the movie). I recommend the movie as a look at McElwee's style, but I don't know that I can recommend watching all 2 ½ hours of it. You get the point early on in the movie, and it's driven home time and time again. Still, it has it's charm even if it wears thin. When the matchmaker berates him that "This isn't art, it's life!” you get the feeling that McElwee sees no difference between the two.

Having several other movies in the box set, I began watching the next movie and only made it 10 minutes in before quitting. I couldn't take his style any more. Maybe I was watching his movies too close together. Or maybe the quirkiness only goes so far. Your mileage may vary, so check it out if it feels like it might appeal to you. What works in Sherman's March is the timing and deadpan delivery of great lines in strange situations, but I found it wearing thin long before the end of the movie. It is one of those "I'm glad I saw it, but don't ever put me through that again" type of movies, if that's a category.

Links:
The director's page for the movie

The opening scene on YouTube

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Article: How My Book Became a Prop in Marvel’s Avengers Endgame

As I've noted in several posts, I love seeing books used as props in movies or shows, especially when it's clear some thought went into what book was going to be in the frame. Here's an interesting story on how an unpublished book was used as a prop in Avengers: Endgame.
When the man who made Thor’s hammer asks if you want your book to be in the next Avengers movie, you say yes, even if your book is not yet a book.

Yes. Yes you do.

(Picture from the Brevity post)