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 25, 2013
It’s not the place you would expect to find the world’s third-oldest manuscript of the gospels. The jade-like walls of the Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room are beautifully rendered in rich detail work. Delicate spirals rim the panels and gold-painted shelves line the walls, housing dozens of works of Asian ceramics. On one end, a woman immortalized in portrait, robe falling from her shoulders, watches over the room. To her left, a row of closed shutters block the room’s access to the sunlight. Golden peacocks, their feathers and tails painted in intricate detail, cover the shutters. On the far wall, two more peacocks are poised in an angry standoff. One is dripping with golden coins. The creature is a caricature of the Peacock Room’s original owner, the wealthy Englishman Frederick R. Leyland. The other peacock represents the struggling, underpaid artist—James McNeill Whistler. Whistler, who fought with Leyland, his patron, dubbed the piece “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.”
The parchment pages of the late 4th to 6th century biblical manuscripts, recently placed on view in the middle of the room, were originally intended to be handled and turned gently, most likely, as a part of the liturgy, by the monks that owned and read them. In the seventh century, wooden covers painted with the figures of the four Evangelists were added, binding the manuscript tightly and making the pages much harder to turn. At that time, the bound books probably made the transition to a venerated object—but yet not a work of art.
The man who saw them as works of art was Charles Lang Freer, who purchased the manuscripts from an Egyptian antiques dealer in 1906 for the princely sum of 1,800 pounds, about $7,500 in today’s dollars. In 1912, after having purchased the Peacock Room in London and shipping it to his Detroit home, Freer set out the manuscripts in the room, displaying them for his guests, along with his collection of pottery and various Buddhist statues.
“Freer had this idea that even though all of the objects in his collection were quite diverse from all different times and places, they were linked together in a common narrative of beauty that reached back in time and came forward all the way to the present,” says curator Lee Glazer. “By putting the bibles in this setting which is a work of art in its own right, with all of these diverse ceramics, it was kind of a demonstration of this idea that all works of art go together, that there’s this kind of harmony that links past and present and East and West.”
The Freer Gallery chose to exhibit the manuscripts—their first public showing since 2006—much as the museum’s founder first did in 1912, focusing on their value as aesthetic objects and their juxtaposition against the opulence of the Peacock Room.
“This display of the bibles is less about the bibles as bibles than the surprising fact that he chose to exhibit them in the Peacock Room as aesthetic objects among other aesthetic objects,” explains Glazer.
The bibles are the first antique manuscripts that Freer bought, and while he purchased a few other rare texts in his lifetime, he never really threw himself into collecting them with the same fervor that he applied to his pottery collection. To Freer, the manuscripts were an important chapter to include in his collection at the Smithsonian—another chapter in the history of beauty throughout the ages.
Not everyone agreed with Freer’s presentation of the rare texts, however. “In one of the newspaper clippings, they accuse Freer of being too fastidious in the way that he’s treating the bibles,” Glazer says. “They suggested that they shouldn’t be considered works of art as objects, but as holy scripture.”
To Freer, the manuscripts represented an ancient chapter in the history of beauty, but he also understood their historical significance for biblical study. Upon his return to America, Freer underwrote $30,000 to support research conducted by the University of Michigan. In translating and studying the texts, the scholars found that one of the gospels contains a passage not found in any other biblical text. The segment, located at the end of the Gospel of Mark, includes a post-resurrection appearance of Christ before his disciples where he proclaims the reign of Satan to be over. For some, this revelation was more scandalous than Freer’s decision to showcase the manuscripts as aesthetic objects.
“It’s not found in any other known version of the gospels,” explains Glazer. “The fact that it said that the reign of Satan was over seemed really potentially outrageous. People were in a tizzy over it.”
The manuscripts, normally kept in the Freer Gallery archives due to their sensitivity to light, are some of the most sought after pieces in the gallery’s collection. The manuscripts will remain on display in the Peacock Room through February 2014.
November 19, 2013
A portrait of Winston Churchill photographed by Yousuf Karsh during the darkest days of World War II reveals a leader resolute in the face of crisis. The year was 1941; Churchill was visiting Canada, and the Nazi puppet government in France had just sworn to wring the neck of Britain like a chicken. Staring straight into Karsh’s camera, Churchill’s eyes are steely, almost obstinate. Moments prior, he had stood in the Canadian parliament, hands on hips, and announced passionately: “Some chicken! Some neck!”
When Karsh took the iconic photo—the one that would grace the cover of Life magazine and launch his international career—he was a young man, excited but nervous about photographing the historic figure. MacKenzie King, former prime minister of Canada, had first noticed Yousuf when he was photographing a meeting with FDR. King asked Karsh if he would photograph Churchill during the Canadian visit, and Karsh agreed.
To prepare, Karsh practiced with a subject similar in stature to Churchill from the waist down. He set up his equipment in the speaker’s chamber in the Canadian House of Parliament, a huge Tudor apartment that was used for the speaker to entertain guests. Wrangling hundreds of pounds of photography equipment, Karsh next waited patiently for the moment when Churchill would finish his speech and exit the House of Commons and enter the speaker’s chamber.
On the tail of his impassioned speech, Churchill came striding into the chamber, arms outstretch, hands open: in one, somebody placed a glass of brandy, in the other, a Havana cigar. It took a moment, but Churchill soon noticed the small, young photographer standing amid his mass of equipment.
“What’s this? What’s this?” Churchill demanded.
Karsh realized, suddenly, that no one had told Churchill that he was to have his picture taken. “Sir, I hope I will be worthy enough to make a photography equal to this historic moment.”
Churchill, reluctantly, acquiesced—sort of. “You may take one.”
One picture, one chance.
Churchill relinquished his glass to an assistant and began to sit for the photograph, still puffing on his cigar. Karsh readied the equipment but, just before taking the picture, he placed an ashtray in front of Churchill, asking that the prime minister remove the cigar from his mouth.
Churchill obstinately refused, and Karsh was perplexed: the smoke from the cigar would certainly obscure the image. He returned to the camera, ready to take the picture—but then with lightening speed, Karsh leaned over the camera and plucked the cigar from Churchill’s lips.
“He looked so belligerent, he could have devoured me,” Karsh would remember later, and it’s a belligerence that comes across in the famous photograph—a scowl over the pilfered cigar that came to represent, seemingly, a fierce glare as if confronting the enemy.
Karsh’s iconic Churchill portrait, as well as 26 other photographs, are on display at the National Portrait Gallery through April 27, 2014. The installation is made possible thanks to a large gift—more than 100 photographs—to the Portrait Gallery by Yousuf Karsh’s wife Estrellita Karsh.
“Yousuf was so thrilled when he came over as a poor Armenian immigrant boy in 1927 to be in this country. He always called it (Canada, America and the United States) the sunshine of freedom,” says Mrs. Karsh. “He would be thrilled that his photographs of Americans are here—and what better home than the Smithsonian, really, what better home.”
The 27 photographs span Karsh’s long career, from the oldest image (a 1936 black and white of FDR, ) to a color photograph of César Chávez, taken 11 years before Karsh’s death in 2002.
“In selecting the portraits to feature, I wanted to spotlight Karsh’s ability to create distinctive and evocative images of such a wide range of famous Americans—from Eleanor Roosevelt to Colonel Sanders to I.M. Pei,” Ann Shumard, curator of the exhibit, explains. “It is my hope that visitors to the exhibition will come away with a new appreciation for Karsh’s singular artistry as a portraitist.”
Spanning nearly six-decades, Karsh gained a reputation for photographing some of the most iconic and influential men and women in the world, from Fidel Castro to Queen Elizabeth. But behind the iconic faces lies a kind of radiant humanity that Karsh was so skilled at capturing: the person behind the mask of society.
“His honest, open approach, his great ability to have the viewer give the best in himself—that comes through,” Mrs. Karsh explains. “And this is what people see whether they’re going to see it in 1920, 1930, 2015 or 3000. That is the element that remains.”
The Churchill portrait is on view until November 2, 2014. From May 2, 2014 to November 2, 2014, the museum will display an ongoing rotation a selection of portraits from the Karsh collection. To see a selection of the portraits online, visit our photo collection.
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 18, 2013
Last night, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, celebrated innovators of design both large and small with an awards gala, held in New York City. The gala kicks off National Design Week, an educational initiative that recognizes achievement and innovation in American design and honors the impact of design in everyday life. The honorees—winners of the National Design Awards and the People’s Design Award—were presented with a trophy as unique as the celebration itself, handcrafted by the Corning Museum of Glass.
The honorees represent multiple aspects of the industry from architecture to commercial media ventures:
- The lifetime achievement award was presented to James Wine, founder and president of SITE, a New York-based architecture firm founded in the 1970s.
- Michael Sorkin, architect and urbanist, was awarded the Design Mind award. The award for architecture design was presented to Studio Gang Architects, a collective of architects based in Chicago.
- Graphic designer Paula Scher was awarded the National Design Award for Communication Design. Behnaz Sarafpour took home the award for fashion design.
- And Local Projects, a media design firm specializing in museums and public spaces, won the award for interaction design.
- In the realm of interior design, Aidlin Darling Design, a firm based out of San Francisco, was honored, while Margie Ruddick took home the award for landscape architecture.
- NewDealDesign was honored for product design, while the non-profit organization TED (of TED Talks fame) won the Corporate & Institutional Achievement award.
Winners of the National Design award were chosen through a submission process which began this fall, and included suggestions from leading designers, educators, journalists and design enthusiasts. The winners were selected from this pool via a jury, which chose the top nominees over a two-day period.
Here on Smithsonian.com, we invited the public to vote for a design of their choice—chosen from 20 nominees—to receive the People’s Design Award. Past winners of the People’s Design Award have included Marianne Cusato, designer of the Katrina Cottage, Toms Shoes, the Zōn Hearing Aid, the Trek Lime Bicycle, the Braille Alphabet Bracelet and Design Matters, a show about design and culture.
This year, the People’s Design Award was given to the PackH2O Water Backpack, a backpack that allows water to be easily transported from a source to wherever it may be needed. The backpack, easier to carry than jerry cans or buckets is often used in places with little access to clean water, and includes a removable liner that can be sanitized with sunlight.
“Cooper-Hewitt has long been a champion of socially responsible design, most notably for our ‘Design with the Other 90%’ exhibition series,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the museum. “I am truly delighted that the American public has chosen to recognize this design solution for the developing world. Millions of people around the world lack access to a reliable source of clean water, and the PackH2O demonstrates the power of design to address this critical problem.”