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.
August 22, 2013
August 22 is Chuck Brown Day in Washington, D.C., and tonight the American Art Museum fetes the late “godfather of go-go” in grand go-go style—with a party in the Kogod Courtyard. Brown, who died in July 2012, is credited with pioneering the genre of go-go music, a blend of funk, soul, jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that emerged in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers concerts featured call-and-response and high-energy beats that kept the crowd going nonstop and became the signature sound of go-go.
“Musically [go-go] really put Washington, D.C. on the map,” says Gail Lowe, an historian at the Anacostia Community Museum. The museum has hosted several programs on go-go in recent years, including “Evolution of the Go-Go Beat” in 2011 and “Citified,” part of the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Anacostia Community Museum is also a repository of Chuck Brown artifacts, holding photographs, signed concert posters and Brown’s famous blonde Gibson guitar.
Off stage, Chuck Brown was just as much of a fixture in the D.C. community. Brown, who was incarcerated in his 20s, inspired youth to pursue their dreams as he did. He mentored and sponsored young musicians throughout his career, often inviting them to open for him. According to Lowe, he was also notable for giving professional opportunities to female musicians, including Meshell Ndegeocello and Sweet Cherie Mitchell. “He always wanted to lift people up,” says Lowe.
Brown was something of a musical magpie. Although he made his name in funk, he was raised on Southern gospel, and his voice had a jazz timbre that comes through on albums like “The Other Side,” Brown’s soulful collaboration with local singer Eva Cassidy. “He brought all the musical genres to the table and said that even in music, we can all live together and make something beautiful out of it,” says Lowe. “He may not have been a major superstar in the United States, but practically everybody who knows music would know [his] name. . . . He transcended all sorts of boundaries.”
Go-go is the “only musical form indigenous to D.C.” as well as the “most geographically compact form of popular music,” according to the authors of The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.—but it also caught on internationally. Lowe says that at Brown’s concerts in Japan in the 1980s, “all the fans knew every single word in English.” Today, go-go is still performed in Washington, D.C.—along with a newer, younger incarnation called “bounce beat“—and its influence can be heard in the hip-hop and R&B music of artists including Nelly, Wale and Chrisette Michele.
Tonight’s birthday party in the Kogod Courtyard is free and open to the public. The local go-go band Vybe will perform, joined by one of Chuck Brown’s former bandmates.
August 21, 2013
The top movie at the U.S. box office last weekend was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama loosely based on the life of White House butler and maître d’ Eugene Allen. Allen, who died in 2010 at age 90, served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan during his 34-year tenure. The new film, which stars Forest Whitaker as the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, is not a biopic, rather a portrait of race relations through the eyes of one man.
It is also not the first time Allen’s story has appeared on film. In 1994, Smithsonian Folkways released the documentary “Workers at the White House,” featuring interviews with Eugene Allen and other residence staff in a range of occupations. The film was directed by Dr. Marjorie Hunt, curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and was produced in conjunction with the 1992 Folklife Festival.
The documentary can now be found on the Smithsonian Folkways DVD White House Workers: Traditions and Memories. In the following excerpts, Eugene Allen talks about his career, his friendship with President Jimmy Carter and his farewell dinner with the Reagans.