December 5, 2013
For some fans of popular Asian cinema, American remakes are automatically sacrilegious insults to intelligence and taste. I am not so doctrinaire. While it’s true that films like The Ring and The Grudge pale compared to the Japanese originals, Martin Scorsese managed, with The Departed, to create something new and compelling by reinterpreting the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs in his own style while retaining its clever core conceit. Spike Lee is the kind of director who may have been able to do the same with the 2003 Korean film Oldboy, but, as a longtime Spike Lee fan, it pains me to say this isn’t the case.
Like all the above mentioned films, the new Oldboy came to be thanks to the efforts of the Korean-American producer Roy Lee, whose company, Vertigo Entertainment, was founded on the perhaps cynical idea that Americans won’t go to see movies with subtitles. Vertigo buys the remake rights from Asian distributors, then pitches them to Hollywood studios as readymade scripts that are already proven hits in their home territories and only require a bit of tinkering to do the same in the US.
It is upon these twin assumptions—an untapped, subtitle-averse audience unfamiliar with the source material and the need to make changes to suit American tastes—that the new version of Oldboy falters. Park Chan-wook’s original film combines a lurid, neon lit visual palette with a charismatic, deadpan performance by Choi Min-sik as the protagonist Oh Dae-su. In keeping with its origins as a Japanese manga comic, the plot is lean and propulsive and ends with a shocking twist. Its meticulously choreographed violence, somehow both operatic and cartoonish, is best exemplified by a famous fight scene in which Dae-su dispatches a couple of dozen thugs in a hallway using only a hammer. Judging by reviews at the time, its discomfiting mix of violence, visual beauty and dark humor left critics feeling as impressed and battered as the those hammer-beaten thugs. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and spawned an enthusiastic worldwide cult audience. When the Freer|Sackler screened Oldboy earlier this year as part of a Park Chan-wook retrospective at the Korean Film Festival, one audience member proudly told me it was her sixth time seeing it.
In other words, Oldboy already has a following. Many people who normally wouldn’t see a foreign film have seen it, so there’s a lot riding on any remake of it.
Park’s film is designed to make you uncomfortable: he wants you to be repelled and fascinated at the same time, to laugh at things you know you shouldn’t. Spike Lee achieved a similar feat with Bamboozled, and, like Park, he’s an inventive stylist willing to take risks, so I can see why he might have been a good choice to direct the remake. The problem is that what draws fans to the original Oldboy is that it eschews convention. Park has no time for traditional character development, or even for making them sympathetic. All we know about Oh Dae-su is that he gets epically drunk one night, misses his daughter’s birthday, and wakes up in a locked room. When he emerges 15 years later, he is a creature of pure vengeance, so lacking in humanity that he tries to sexually assault Mi-do, the kind young woman who comes to his aid.
Although Lee claims he wasn’t thinking about altering Oldboy to suit American tastes, he doesn’t seem to be on the same page with his screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, who, in a Buzzfeed interview, discusses the necessity of doing exactly that.
For example: because sympathetic characters with clear backstories and motivations are considered essential, the new Oldboy begins with several scenes detailing just how much of an alcoholic jerk Josh Brolin’s Joe Doucett is before his imprisonment: he drinks on the job, curses out his ex-wife, and hits on a client’s wife during a business meeting. Once imprisoned, he follows the well-trodden Hollywood path to redemption by quitting drinking and writing letter after letter to his daughter promising to be a better man. He at first nobly spurns the tentative advances of Mi-do’s counterpart, Marie Sebastian, who in the new version has been transformed from a sushi chef to a social worker with, naturally, a history of addiction to explain her urge to help people like Joe.
This sort of Screenwriting 101 backstory replaces momentum with explanation and leaves little room for the black humor that saves Park’s original from becoming too bleak. In fact, one of the oddest failings of the new Oldboy is its complete lack of humor. Where Park acknowledges—indeed embraces—his film’s outlandishness, Lee presents it with a straight face, which, considering all the violence involved, makes for grim going.
Lee’s Oldboy did poorly with audiences and critics alike. Given the lack of fanfare or publicity surrounding its release, I suspect that both Lee and the studio knew they had a dud on their hands. I may be naïve, but a solution to a problem such as this might be for studios to simply release foreign language films with the marketing and promotion budget they deserve. They may discover that Americans aren’t so afraid of subtitles after all.
November 20, 2013
Elizabeth Mitchell’s The Sounding Joy, released by Smithsonian Folkways for this holiday season, features new recordings of traditional American carols rescued from obscurity by the late Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger’s stepmother) in her 1953 songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas. These simple devotionals evoke, as Ruth Seeger put it, the “old-time American Christmas. . .not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.”
“That’s what we did in our house,” says Ruth’s daughter, Peggy Seeger, who is featured on the album, along with Joan Osborne and Natalie Merchant. We spoke with Peggy about her contribution to the recording as well as her memories of her mother and Christmastime.
Which tracks did you record on The Sounding Joy?
I was asked to do “Christmas in the Morning,” and I chose to do “Mother’s Child” because it was one that I sing a lot in concerts and I absolutely love the tune. But I didn’t care for the original words, “a child of god,” so I [changed it to] “I’m a mother’s child,” which any religion can sing.
So it was important to you that these songs appeal to all faiths?
Oh, yes, absolutely, definitely.
How did it feel to return to these songs?
I love them. The collection is very interesting because my mother was the daughter of a Methodist minister, and she was pretty atheistic. My father was a combination of an agnostic and an atheist. And I’m very surprised that so many of the songs mention God and the Lord. These are terms that I kind of tried to avoid. Now that I live in England, which is very multicultural, I avoid them even more than I would in the United States.
My mother had a real ear for picking songs. She got an awful lot of these, most of them off of the Library of Congress recordings. She brought home these 16-inch aluminum records and listened to them with a thorn needle—I’m talking about the mid-1940s, early ’50s, and the only way you could listen to those records was with a thorn needle because a steel needle would ruin the tracks. It was our job, the children’s job, to keep the needle sharp using a sparkler. You’d put the needle into a little clamp and then you whizzed a wheel around it that put sandpaper on it, and that sharpened it again.
We heard these songs in the house as [Ruth] was transcribing them, from a very early age. Grew up with them. I know them all. I always loved [my mother's] accompaniments. They’re not easy to play, actually. To play and sing these songs with her accompaniments needs a lot of concentration. It’s not just ump-chump-chump-ump-chump-chump, and it’s not just chords with the left hand. There’s a lot of contrapuntal countermelody going on there.
Why are these songs still relevant? What can modern audiences gain from this recording?
They have choruses that a lot of people can sing. A lot of repeated words. And for many people now, religious or not religious, Christmas is a time to get together. Having some new songs to sing at Christmas is a very nice idea. . . . Many of [these] songs sprang out of people singing together. That’s why there’s so much repetition. Often you have to repeat it for people to learn it and catch up with it, and for them to be able to feel themselves singing together, feel the edges of the room, as it were.
Do you celebrate Christmas?
Not anymore. . . . I’ve kind of lost interest in Christmas, with the horrifying commercialization. I don’t want to go into the stores anymore at Christmastime. I don’t want to hear all of the Christmas songs which you hear over and over ’til you are sick of them. . . .
The best Christmas I ever had was when I was about 7. It was a sad time for some people because there was an epidemic of polio in Washington, D.C, so we didn’t go into town to get presents. We stayed home and made presents for each other in the house. My brother, who was 9, got a little carpentry set before Christmas so he could make little cradles for our dolls. My mother taught me how to crochet and I crocheted things for my sisters’ dolls. My mother loved Christmas. She adored it.
November 18, 2013
To Americans living in the late 19th century, yoga looked an awful lot like magic. The ancient discipline appeared to Western observers primarily in the form of ethnographic images of “fakirs”—a blanket term encompassing Sufi dervishes, Hindu ascetics and, most importantly, stage and street performers of death-defying stunts, such as the bed-of-nails and Indian rope tricks. In 1902, the “fakir-yogi” made his big screen debut in a “trick film” produced by Thomas Edison, Hindoo Fakir, one of three motion pictures in the Sackler Gallery’s pioneering exhibition, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”
Hindoo Fakir, said to be the first film ever made about India, depicts the stage act of an Indian magician who makes his assistant disappear and reappear, as a butterfly emerging from a flower. To a modern eye, the special effects may leave something to be desired. But Edison’s audiences, in nickelodeons and vaudeville houses, would have marveled at the magic on screen as well as the magic of the moving image itself. Cinema was still new at the time and dominated by “actuality films” of exotic destinations and “trick films,” like Hindoo Fakir, which featured dissolves, superimpositions and other seemingly magical techniques. Indeed, some of the most important early filmmakers were magicians, including George Melies and Dadasaheb Phalke, director of India’s first feature film. “The early days of cinema were about wonder and showing off this technology,” says Tom Vick, curator of film at the Freer and Sackler galleries.
Early cinema was certainly not about cultural sensitivity. The similarity between “fakir” and “faker” is no coincidence; these words became synonyms in the American imagination, as performers in circuses and magic shows invoked supernatural powers commonly attributed to the fakir-yogi. Howard Thurston, a stage magician from Ohio, appropriated the Indian rope trick for his popular 1920s traveling show. In the 1930s, the French magician Koringa, billed as the “only female fakir in the world,” baffled audiences with hypnosis and crocodile wrestling. Her assumed Indian identity was an “understandable idea by that time,” says Sita Reddy, a Smithsonian Folklife research associate and “Yoga” curator. “The fakir became something that didn’t have to be explained anew; it was already circulating.” Fakir was, if not a household name, a part of popular parlance—pervasive enough that in 1931, Winston Churchill used it as a slur against Gandhi.
Yet Western taste for fakir-style huckstering appears to have waned by 1941, when the musical You’re the One presented the yogi as an object of ridicule. In a big band number called “The Yogi Who Lost His Will Power,” the eponymous yogi runs through all of the typical “Indian” cliches, wearing the obligatory turban and robes, gazing into a crystal ball, lying on a bed of nails and more. But the lyrics by Johnny Mercer cast him as a hapless romantic who “couldn’t concentrate or lie on broken glass” after falling for the “Maharajah’s turtle dove”; for all his yogic powers, this yogi is powerless when it comes to love. Arriving at the tail end of the fakir phenomenon, You’re the One encouraged audiences to laugh, rather than marvel, at the stock character.
How did yoga make the leap from the circus ring to the American mainstream? Reddy traces yoga’s current popularity to the loosening of Indian immigration restrictions in 1965, which brought droves of yogis into the U.S.—and into the confidence of celebrities like the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. But the transformation began much earlier, she says, with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu spiritual leader whose 1896 book, Raja Yoga, inaugurated the modern era of yoga. Vivekananda denounced the conjurers and contortionists he felt had hijacked the practice and instead proposed a yoga of the mind that would serve as an “emblem of authentic Hinduism.” Vivekananda’s vision of rational spirituality contended with the fakir trope in the early decades of the 20th century, but after the 1940s, yoga was increasingly linked to medicine and fitness culture, gaining a new kind of cultural legitimacy in the West.
The physicality of yoga is revived in the third and final film of the exhibit, in which master practitioner T. Krishnamacharya demonstrates a series of linked asanas, or postures, which form the backbone of yoga practice today. This 1938 silent film introduced yoga to new audiences across the whole of India, expanding the practice beyond the traditionally private teacher-student relationship for the first time in history. Unlike Hindoo Fakir and You’re the One, the Krishnamacharya film was made by and for Indians. But like them, it affirms the power of the moving image to communicate the dynamism of yoga.
October 30, 2013
Andy Carvin is a man of many titles—“digital media anchor,” “real-time news DJ” and “online community organizer,” to name a few—but the one he is most comfortable with is “storyteller.” NPR‘s social media strategist, Carvin used Twitter during the Arab Spring to communicate with protesters in the Middle East and verify eyewitness accounts from the front lines, most of the time while he was on his iPhone in the United States. He recently published a book about his work, Distant Witness.
Carvin has donated his old phone to the American History Museum, which will include it in “American Enterprise,” a 2015 exhibition on the role of innovation in the nation’s emergence as a world power. “Engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was a story itself,” he says of his reporting in 2011. Carvin, who still tweets up to 16 hours a day, sees his work as a “form of real-time storytelling…sorting itself out, 140 characters at a time.”
See how the process works in this selection of tweets, and read on for our interview with Carvin on social media in journalism:
How did you use this phone during the Arab Spring?
My job at NPR is to be a journalistic test pilot: I experiment with new ways of conducting journalism and figure out what works and what doesn’t. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, I had contacts in Tunisia and other parts of the region who were talking about protests through Twitter and other social media. Initially I was simply retweeting what they were saying, but as the revolutions expanded from one country to another, I ended up using Twitter to create an online community of volunteers who served as sources, translators and researchers for me. We would all engage with each other mostly through my mobile phone, trying to sort out what was true and what wasn’t.
From 2011 to 2012, I was on Twitter upwards of 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, much of the time on that phone, and rarely in the places where these revolutions were taking place. I don’t have a background as a combat reporter, so this was very much an experiment in collaborative, virtual reporting, in which ultimately my iPhone and Twitter served as the focal points.
I was mostly in the U.S. while this was going on, but I made trips to Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and a number of other countries in the region. I discovered very quickly that when I would be in a place like Tahrir Square in Egypt, I found it really hard to get a big picture of what was going on, simply because when you’re surrounded by tear gas and people throwing rocks, you have a fairly limited field of view. Once I could get away from that scene and get back online, over my phone, I’d immediately have contact with dozens of sources across the field of battle who could help paint this picture for me and give me the type of situational awareness that I actually didn’t have when I was there in person.
A lot of your social media work was fact-checking or fact verification. Did you then funnel those facts to NPR or other journalists?
It varied. I was regularly in contact with our reporters on the ground, so as I discovered things that seemed relevant to our reporting on air and online, it would get incorporated into that work. But much of the time, the goal was to do a long-term experiment in social media and mobile journalism in which I wasn’t working under the assumption that my tweets would ultimately develop into some type of news product, like a blog post or a radio piece. Instead, engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was the story itself. It was the experience of being part of this real-time rollercoaster, with me essentially as a broadcast host trying to explain to people what was going on, what’s true, what’s not—but doing it through Twitter and pulling in people who are on the ground, using these same mobile technologies to share their experiences in real time.
[Social media] worked in parallel to our other reporting methods. It certainly wasn’t a replacement to our foreign correspondents being on the ground in all these places. If anything, it complemented that kind of journalism.
But Twitter can also amplify rumors and spread false reports very quickly. How do you answer that criticism?
All we have to do is look at the last year or two to see a vast array of egregious errors that journalists have made on cable television and broadcast news and online news in general. Whether it’s the Boston bombing mistakes or some of the reporting during the shooting in Newtown, the rumors that spread those days didn’t begin on social media; they began with incorrect reporting on air and online. Now, people immediately began talking about them through social media, so word of this reporting spread just as fast as it would have spread if the reporting had been accurate.
The problem is that news organizations often don’t see this social media space as their concern, except for promoting their work. If they report something incorrectly on air, they’ll correct it when they can—but ultimately the people online are going to have to sort it out themselves. I personally think that’s a big mistake. If anything, I think news organizations should have journalists active in these communities so we can slow down the conservation, ironically, because you think of Twitter as speeding up the news cycle.
You can slow it down by telling people: “This is what we know and what we don’t know. We have not been able to confirm what this other network is reporting, and we don’t have the evidence to back that up.” The types of things that you sometimes say on air but don’t always spell out. The average news consumer doesn’t know the difference between when a news anchor says, “We have confirmed,” versus “We have received reports,” or “Our news outlet has learned.” These all have very distinct meanings in journalism, and we never explain to anyone what they mean.
If you’re part of a conversation with the public on Twitter, you can say to them, just because this network said they’ve received reports that something has happened, that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near being confirmed. You can actually improve the media literacy of the public so they become more responsible and less apt to be part of that rumor cycle.
So generally speaking, yes, social media amplifies rumors. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. But I think we have to take a really hard look at ourselves in the media and ask, where are these rumors originating? And when they’re originating through our own reporting, what can we do to alleviate them online?
Twitter is also used by ordinary people, celebrities, comedians, etc. Do you see all those uses of Twitter as different silos, or are they all part of the same phenomenon?
They’re all part of the same ecosystem in the same way that life and culture overlap different ecosystems. If you think about what we do in our online worlds, we occasionally enjoy comedy, we talk to our friends about the crappy meal we had at a restaurant the night before or the bad customer service we got from some business. Other times we’ll talk about serious things, try to help friends online, maybe talk about the news. None of these are mutually exclusive. They’re all aspects of who we are and how we engage with our friends and family.
Twitter and social media in general just amplify those same concepts and put them in a space that makes it easier for people who would never normally meet to engage in conversations. So I’m perfectly proud to admit that I watch cat videos and read BuzzFeed and TMZ on a daily basis, while at the same time talking to sources in Syria and reading the latest essays coming out of Foreign Policy magazine. I don’t see that as contradictory because those are things that interest me offline as well.
I think a lot of the people who follow me for professional reasons follow me because I’m also a real human being on Twitter. I talk about my family, I talk about how things are going at work, the apple picking that I took my kids to a week ago or whatever. Social media gives you a chance to demonstrate to the world that you’re not just a talking head on a screen somewhere and that you actually are multidimensional. I think that adds to your authenticity in ways that make people more likely to trust you, to the point where they may want to share things with you as well. Being yourself on Twitter and social media is just a natural part of being a good citizen and cultivating sources online.
Is it possible to share too much information?
People overshare. There’s no doubt that happens. I’ve been guilty of doing it myself sometimes. But we’re all figuring this stuff out at the same time. There is really no precedent in history for this type of network that we’ve created. There’s an identity crisis when it comes to privacy right now, too. On the one hand we have a habit of oversharing, but on the other hand, people are very concerned about what the government is doing here or overseas. I don’t think anyone’s been able to sort this out yet. They know privacy when they see it, and they know oversharing when they see it. That’s just something that’s gonna have to sort itself out over time. I don’t think at the moment it’s necessarily going to stop those people who want to use social media in constructive ways from using them in constructive ways.
What phone do you have now?
I have an iPhone 5.
How do you feel about iOS 7?
I actually haven’t upgraded to it yet. It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a true early adopter of technologies in the sense that I don’t get new gadgets or tools in the first generation. I’d rather watch other people figure out whether they’re functional or not, and once they’re a bit more stable, then I like to tinker with them and figure out how they can be used in a broad sense.
I’d rather be on the cutting edge of figuring out what’s going on in the world than figuring out how to work my iPhone. I can always play catch-up on that as I need to.
October 29, 2013
“Times have changed,” reads a disclaimer at the Natural History Museum, “and so have the dates in many of our fossil displays.” This notice, accompanied by a revised geological timeline, is currently posted throughout the museum’s fossil halls. It’s a stopgap measure to update exhibitions that haven’t changed in 30 years—but it won’t be needed for much longer. The Natural History Museum is about to undergo a gut renovation that will not only update these exhibitions, but also transform their narrative of earth’s fossil record.
The “Deep Time” project is the largest and most complex renovation in the museum’s history. All of the current fossil exhibitions, including Life in the Ancient Seas, Dinosaurs and Ice Ages, will come down to make way for the Deep Time Hall, a thematic, rather than encyclopedic, timeline of life on Earth. This exhibition, slated to open in 2019, will illustrate the relevance of paleontology to modern life, portraying ancient plants and animals as interconnected parts of ecosystems and revealing a fossilized world just as complicated as ours.
“We study things like climate change and carbon dioxide in the past, extinction, things that are going on in the world today,” says Matt Carrano, lead curator of the Deep Time initiative. “It’s all of these big systems that work together. . . those are the systems that we are paying attention to in the present.”
The biggest change is chronological: the Deep Time story will run in reverse. Visitors entering the exhibition from the rotunda will start with the most recent past—the Ice Age, during which humans actually lived—and travel backward in time to the primordial Earth. In many museums, Carrano says, the prehistoric world feels like an “alien experience” and visitors “may as well be taking a spaceship to different planets.” Deep Time, on the other hand, will move from the familiar to the abstruse: “You have a house, you’ve taken it down and now you’re looking at the foundation—rather than you have a hole in the ground and you’re trying to tell people that there’ll be a house there later.”
The infrastructure of the gallery space will also receive its first makeover in more than a century. When the Natural History Museum first opened in 1910, the paleobiology wing consisted solely of the “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” little more than a trophy gallery for dinosaur fossils. Over the years, more and more exhibitions were tacked onto the space, resulting in the labyrinthine form of the fossil halls today. The renovation will remove the false walls subdividing the space and restore its original Beaux-Arts architecture. The new Deep Time Hall will be one cavernous, continuous gallery, with “display islands” that elaborate on specific themes.
Of course, no paleontology exhibit would be complete without a few dinosaurs, and the revamped space will display them to maximum effect. The fossil halls’ biggest draws, including the giant diplodocus on view and the Wankel T. rex on the way, will be placed in the center of the gallery so that visitors can see them all in one glance.
Other changes will be less noticeable, but more scientifically compelling. Carrano points to the current display of an allosaurus about to attack a stegosaurus: “What’s the point of showing that, besides the entertainment? We could talk about: What is it that predators do? What is it that herbivores do? Is that any different from today? Probably not. As dramatic as those animals are, they’re doing things that you can see happening out your window right now.” In the new exhibition, these creatures might represent predation or the relationship between species form and function. The work of the Deep Time team is as much about storytelling as it is about stage-setting for some of the Smithsonian’s best-loved fossils.
After the current fossil exhibitions go back into storage, a temporary gallery, focusing mainly on dinosaurs, will open on the second floor. Carrano puts it mildly: “We’re very conscious of the fact that you can’t just take the dinosaurs away for five years.”