May 10, 2013
As someone who adores sequins and feathers, I am buzzing with anticipation over what the New York Times has dubbed “an eminently enjoyable movie,” Baz Lurhmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby. Will I like Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby? Will Jay-Z’s music convey the fancy-free spirit of High Flapperdom?
F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the phrase “The Jazz Age” in the title of his 1922 collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. He also became its effervescent chronicler in his early novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), along with another short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers (1920). Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was the quintessence of this period of his work, and evoked the romanticism and surface allure of his “Jazz Age”—years that began with the end of World War I, the advent of woman’s suffrage, and Prohibition, and collapsed with the Great Crash of 1929—years awash in bathtub gin and roars of generational rebellion. As Cole Porter wrote, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking,/But now God knows,/Anything Goes.” The Twenties’ beat was urban and staccato: out went genteel social dancing; in came the Charleston. Everything moved: cars, planes, even moving pictures. Hair was bobbed, and cigarettes were the new diet fad.
According to his biographer Arthur Mizener, Fitzgerald wrote his agent Maxwell Perkins in 1922: “I want to write something new. . .something extraordinary and beautiful and simple.” Like today, newness was fueled by innovation, and technology was transforming everyday life. Similar to the way social media and the iPhone shape our culture now, the Twenties burst with the revolutionary impact of silent movies, radio and recordings. New stars filled the mediascape, from Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, to Paul Whiteman and the Gershwins. Celebrity culture was flourishing, and glamour was in.
Accompanied in a champagne-life style by his wife Zelda, the embodiment of his ideal flapper, Fitzgerald was entranced by the era’s glitz and glamour. His story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he admitted, was designed “in the familiar mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury.” By the time he wrote Gatsby, his money revels were positively lyrical: when he describes Daisy’s charm, Gatsby says: “Her voice is full of money,” and the narrator Nick explains, “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jungle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.”
Fitzgerald acknowledges the presence of money’s dark side when Nick describes Tom and Daisy: “They were careless people—they smashed things up. . .and then retreated back into their money. . .and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” But his hero Gatsby is a romantic. He was a self-made man (his money came from bootlegging), and illusions were vital to his world view. Fitzgerald once described Gatsby’s ability to dream as “the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
Gatsby sees money as the means to fulfilling his “incorruptible dream.” When Nick tells him, “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby is incredulous: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” (Cue green light at the end of the dock: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into time.”) As critic David Denby recently wrote in his New Yorker review of the Luhrmann film: “Jay Gatsby ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,’ and his exuberant ambitions and his abrupt tragedy have merged with the story of America, in its self-creation and its failures.”
It was the American Dream on a spree. Fitzgerald ends Gatsby intoning his dreamlike vision of the Jazz Age: “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . .And one fine morning—”
April 16, 2013
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke major league baseball’s color barrier, the world was still 16 years away from the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement as just getting organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was eight years away and housing discrimination based on race would remain legal until 1968. In his first season with the MLB, Robinson would win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He was a perpetual All-Star. And in 1955, he helped his team secure the championship. Robinson’s success was, by no means, inevitable and in fact he earned it in a society that sought to make it altogether impossible.
Unsurprisingly, his story seemed bound for Hollywood and in 1950, still in the midst of his career, he starred as himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Now Robinson’s story returns to the screen in the new film “42,” this time played by Howard University graduate, Chadwick Boseman, who was at the American History Museum Monday evening for a special screening for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We caught up with him there.
Are you happy to be back in D.C.?
I’m excited, you know, this room got me a little hyped. It’s fun coming here after having been here a few weeks ago after meeting the First Lady and the President for the screening at the White House. I went to college here and you always think, oh, I’m never going to get to go in that building, I’m never going to get to do this or that so coming here and doing it, it’s like wow, it’s a whole new world.
You said you can’t remember ever not knowing who Jackie Robinson was, but that it was important not to play him as just a hero. How did you get all those details? Did speaking with his wife, Rachel Robinson, play a big part?
The first thing that I did was, I went to meet her at her office on Varick Street. She sat me down on a couch, just like this, she just talked to me very frankly and told me the reasons why she was attracted to him, what she thought of him before she met him, what attracted her once they actually started conversing, how they dated, how shy he was, everything you could possibly imagine. She just went through who they were.
I think she sort of just started me on the research process as well because at the foundation, they have all the books that have been written about him. It was just a matter of hearing that firsthand information.
Then I met her again with children and grandchildren and in that case, they were sort of examining me physically, prodding and poking and measuring and asking me questions: Are you married, why aren’t you married? You know, anything that you could imagine. Actually, before they ever spoke to me, they were prodding and poking and measuring me and I was like, who are these people? And they said, you’re playing my granddad, we gotta check you out. It was as much them investigating me as it was me investigating him.
So they gave you a seal of approval?
They did not give me a seal of approval, but they didn’t not give it. They were willing to gamble, I guess.
What were they looking for, what did they want to make sure you got right?
She was adamant about the fact that she didn’t want him to be portrayed as angry. That’s a stereotype that is often used, just untrue and one-dimensional with black characters and it was something that he had been accused of, of having a temper. In some senses, he did have a temper but it wasn’t in a negative sense.
I, on the other hand, after reading the script knew that it was necessary to not show him as being passive or a victim, which is another stereotype that’s often used in movies. I didn’t want him to be inactive, because if he’s passive, he’s inactive and you run the risk of doing another story that’s supposed to be about a black character, but there’s the white guy, there, who is the savior. There’s a point where you have to be active and you have to have this fire and passion. I view it more as competitive passion as Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns said to me today, that he had a competitive passion, competitive temper that any great athlete, whether it be Larry Bird or Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, they all have that passion. That’s what he brought to the table. . . .My grandmother probably would call it holy anger.
Was that dynamic something you were able to talk about with Harrison Ford, who plays the team executive Branch Rickey, and the writer?
First of all yes. But they already had really advanced and progressive points of view about it anyway and were very aware. Harrison was also very clear, even in our first conversations about it, that he was playing a character and I was playing the lead and that there are differences in the two.
There were instances where I might voice, this is what we need to do, and everybody listened to it and that’s definitely not always the case, definitely not always what you experience on the set. But I think everybody wanted to get it right. I can’t really think of a moment, I know that they came up where it was like, well I’m black so I understand this in a different way, but they do happen and everybody was very receptive to it.
Was there any story that Mrs. Robinson told you about him that stuck in the back of your head during the process?
She just talked about how he adapted after very difficult scenes where he was being abused verbally or threatened. She said he would go hit golf balls because he would never bring that into the house. The question that I asked that brought her to that was: Did he ever have moments where he secluded himself at home, or where he was depressed, or you saw it weighing on him? And she said: ‘No, when he came into our space, he did whatever he needed to do to get rid of it, so that our space could be a safe haven, and he could refuel, and could get back out into the world and be the man he had to be.’
And she’s going through it just as much as he is. She’s literally in the crowd. People are yelling right over, calling him names right over her or calling her names because they know who she is. That’s something people don’t really think about, that she was actually in the crowd. She has to hold that so she doesn’t bring that home to him and give him more to worry about and that’s a phenomenal thing to hold and to be strong. I love finding what those unspoken things were that are underneath what’s actually being said.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I hope they get a sense of who he really is. I think what’s interesting about it is that he played himself in that original 1949-1950 version. . .What I found is that him having to use the Hollywood script of that time does not allow him to tell his own story because he couldn’t really be Jackie Robinson in that version.
It wasn’t his exact story, if you look at the version it says all he ever wanted to do was play baseball and he didn’t. Baseball was his worst sport, he was a better football player, better basketball player, better at track and field. He had a tennis championship, he played golf, horse back riding, baseball was the worst thing he did. I’m not saying that he wasn’t good at it, I’m saying that it’s not the truth. He was a second lieutenant in the army, he was All-American, he led his conference in scoring in basketball and he could have been playing in the NFL, but he had to go to Hawaii and play instead.
So what is that? Why did he end up playing baseball? Because baseball was where he could actualize his greatness, it wasn’t the only thing that he was great at and so just that little untruth in the script skips all of the struggle that he had getting to the point of being in the minor leagues. He’s doing this because it’s one more thing that he’s trying to do in that United States at that time that maybe will allow him to be the man that he wants to be. He could have done any of those other things, it just wasn’t an avenue for him to actualize his full humanity, his full manhood and so that version doesn’t allow him to be Jackie Robinson.
When I look at this version, we live in a different time where you can tell the story more honestly. Ultimately I think that’s what you should take away from the film, I get to see who he is now because we’re more ready to see it.
April 2, 2013
Nearly 30 years ago, moviegoers got an unprecedented look into the lives of the space shuttle astronauts orbiting 280 miles above the Earth. And they witnessed it in extraordinary dimensions—on a five story-tall screen in booming surround sound.
The Dream Is Alive pulled back the curtain on NASA’s Space Shuttle program, giving the public an intimate glimpse into the previously unfamiliar lives of its members. Directed by IMAX co-inventor Graeme Ferguson and narrated by Walter Cronkite, the IMAX classic showed astronauts in full garb, practicing how to move in weightless conditions, using a water tank on land. Once in space, the film revealed the crew’s reactions to watching the world turn as the orbiter circled the Earth at 17,000 miles an hour. It followed the men and women as they worked, ate, exercised and even slept in zero gravity.
“Astronauts have said it’s the next best thing to being there,” says Valerie Neal, the space shuttle curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, of the film that was originally released in 1985. “The theater kind of dissolves and you feel like a part of the film. I had this sense that I was in space with them.”
Shot by 14 NASA astronauts during three shuttle missions, the film includes footage of Discovery‘s 1984 launch and landing, as well as the deployment of several satellites from the spacecraft. It features sweeping panoramas of the Earth, space walks and risky satellite repairs. It puts the audience in the driver’s seat with video filmed from the astronauts’ points of view while training on land—viewers feel as if they are parachuting to the ground, or lurching away from the shuttle in high-speed emergency baskets.
The film premiered during an optimistic time for space exploration—1984 saw nine shuttle missions, seven more than in the program’s first year in 1981. More than 100 missions would launch into space in the next three decades before the program folded in 2011. The Dream Is Alive represented the country’s drive to make space transportation routine. It also introduced the public to a new era of American astronauts, Neal says, one that included women and individuals from more diverse backgrounds.
“That was something of a revelation, and I think it probably played a role in widespread acceptance that this is the way spaceflight should be,” she says. “It shouldn’t be just the cream of the crop of the most elite military jet test pilots, but also people who are scientists and engineers who could be our next door neighbors.”
In the film viewers saw Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, hover in midair while working with her fellow Challenger crew members. Kathy Sullivan joins her, marking the first time two women flew together on a shuttle mission. We watch Sullivan become the first American woman to walk in space as she waves to the camera from outside the window, the white and blue of the Earth swirling behind her. We see Judith Resnik, the first Jewish woman in space, working in weightlessness. To date, more than 50 American women have become NASA astronauts.
The Dream Is Alive was still playing in theaters when Challenger exploded seconds after its 10th launch in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts onboard, including Resnik. The tragedy illuminated the very real dangers of space travel, an aspect of the shuttle program that The Dream hadn’t explored. But Neal says the United States soon saw a surge of public support for the program, suggesting the golden age of American space exploration was not yet over.
“The American public had a sense that the space program was valuable and shouldn’t be halted,” she says.
Now, another generation of space enthusiasts can experience the zenith of the shuttle program, this time on an 86-by-62 foot silver screen. The Dream Is Alive is now showing in the Airbus IMAX Theater in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Showtimes and ticket information is available here.
The film temporarily joins two of its stars at the Smithsonian. One of the cameras used in the film, which went on to document missions until 1998, arrived at the Institution last April and will soon be installed at the Air and Space Museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibition. The black camera, which weighs about 80 pounds, shot film with over-sized, 70mm frames, providing more than eight times the area of traditional 35mm film. Such capacity lent to never-seen-before, wide-angle views of the planet’s topography. The space shuttle Discovery landed at the museum shortly after. The famed spacecraft spent 365 days in space during its 27-year career. It flew 39 missions, several of which are chronicled in the film, before it was retired in 2011.
March 28, 2013
Ever wondered what New York City sounded like in the 1950s–from the point of view of a dog? So did Tony Schwartz, a sound recordist living in the city who sought to capture all the many sonic fragments that made up his every day experience. His piece, centered on his own dog, Tina, aired as part of a CBS radio workshop and eventually found its way to the Smithsonian Folkways label. Now Meredith Holmgren, who recently became editor of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, has highlighted the charming bit of audio in her first issue, “Sounds and Soundscapes.”
“We have a great collection of sounds and soundscapes that have not been highlighted,” says Holmgren. “In fact, Folkways is one of the earliest labels in history to start gathering these recordings; we have office sounds, train sounds, a whole science series.”
Organized around that idea, the Fall/Winter issue includes a feature on sound recordist Tony Schwartz, an opinion column about the idea of a common sound space and a piece about the first time museum content was paired with sound. There’s also an artist profile about Henry Jacobs, who Holmgren describes as, “one of the early pioneers in using technology to imitate sounds and to create synthetic rhythms and to work in ethnomusicological broadcasting.”
All of this comes from the riches of the Folkways collection, the gift that keeps on giving. Moses Asch first founded the label in 1948 in New York City with the mission to “record and document the entire world of sound.” His efforts, as well as those of his colleagues, helped create an invaluable database of recordings that continues to provide the raw material for new releases for the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C. , which acquired Folkways Records in 1987 after Asch’s death.
Established in 2009, Smithsonian Folkways Magazine is meant to bridge the space between academic journals and music journalism. Holmgren says, “Often scholarly music journals, you can’t actually listen to the music. You’ll read hundreds of pages about the music but you can’t hear it. It’s the same with music journalism, although music journalism tends to be a little more photo or image-friendly and so we thought that an online only multimedia publication was really the way to go.”
It also gives her a chance to publish unreleased material, including Schwartz’s Out My Window, a collection of sounds heard from his new York City apartment as he sits by his back window. “Looking at it in the present,” she says, “it’s a very unique documentation of cityscapes and human interaction only a few decades ago. He was documenting things that were underrepresented or neglected.”
Projects like his The World In My Mail Box looked beyond the city as well. Collecting sounds sent to him from all around the world, Schwartz became “the best pen pal ever,” says Holmgren. “He didn’t travel much because he had agoraphobia, which he spun in a way that became an advantage to him actually; looking in great detail to things that were around him,” she explains. “World In My Mailbox is this kind of interesting collection of sharing recordings with people and places where he knows he will never go.”
Avid sound collectors like Schwartz and Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, provide the perfect analogy for the magazine’s mission as well: to highlight the sonic diversity of the world we live in and share it with as many people as possible. Holmgren says, “I really hope that the magazine can contextualize our collection, talk a little bit about the history of the recordings, the context in which they were made, but also highlight new music that other people may not know about.”
March 27, 2013
A warm thought for a cold Spring Day. Aloha reigns in Washington, DC!
For decades thousands of Hawaiian transplants and local natives of the islands’ ancestry have transplanted their cultural roots into the city’s hard clay soil. The result has been a flowering of ethnic education, dance schools and music, cultural exhibitions and slack key guitar concerts that have now created the area’s first Slack Key Guitar Festival at the Birchmere, and the rise of troubadors like the Aloha Boys.
The Aloha Boys, Hawaiian transplants, met 20-years ago at Halau O’ Aulani, a Hawaiian cultural school in Arlington, VA., where their children were studying. The “dads” formed a group to provide much needed Hula music to the school. The rest, as they say, is history. DC cultural history.
Since then the Aloha Boys have performed everywhere from school functions and backyard picnics to the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum and its American History Museum, and the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. They have even represented Arlington County heritage events in Rheims, France. In May, they perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Guitarist Glen Hirabayashi, a founding member of the group, said the catalyst for the group’s founding was their wives. One wife was reared in Hawaii. Another is a native of McLean, VA. “My wife was a military brat who grew up most of her life in Arkansas,” Hirabayashi said. Yet each of the women held dear their cultural roots and insisted that their daughters, then two and three-years old, learn Hula. Hirabayashi says the children grew up enmeshed in Hawaiian culture and learned to seamlessly meld their East Coast identities with their Hawaiian enculturation.
“We go back (to Hawaii) once a year,” Hirabayashi said of his family. “And you couldn’t tell that they weren’t local kids. They do everything that everyone else does. It’s wonderful seeing my kids appreciate the things I kind of took for granted.”
His youngest daughter, Amy Melenani (her name means “beautiful song”) is now a junior at Virginia Tech and a notable Hula dancer. She will be a featured performer at the 2013 National Cherry Blossom Festival. His oldest daughter, Ashley Hokunani (her name means “beautfil star”) is married and relocated in North Carolina. Yet. she still talks about her favorite song, Koke’e, and “her best memories ever” being when the legendary Slack Key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi “played and sang that song in our basement.”
Hirabayashi says Hawaiian music has a solid following in the Washington area, with concerts at Wolf Trap and Birchmere, selling out. Ukelele music is experiencing a renaissance, he says, with the popularity of artists like jazz ukelele player Benny Chong, and music industry leaders like NAMM offering more than 50 ukelele exhibitors at its recent show.
But its Slack Key guitar and artists like Kamakahi that he would like to see more widely exposed, to preserve the music’s rich heritage and cowboy culture, Hawaiian style. According to history, King Kamehameha III imported Spanish and Mexican cowboys to the Big island of Hawaii in the 1830s to help control a cattle boom that had overpopulated the island and become a nuisance. The cowboys brought their guitars and played music with the Hawaiian locals, known as Paniolo. Eventually the Paniolo adopted the guitar for their own ancient chants and songs. Unfamiliar with or unlearned in how the Spanish tuned the guitar, the Hawaiian cowboys developed their own tuning style that became known as Slack Key.
Tuning styles became so secretive “That families have their own tunings,” said Hirabayashi. “It wasn’t until recently that it (tuning) was shared. Legend was that the Spanish cowboys didn’t teach Hawaiians how to tune them. So they (Hawaiians) came up with their own tuning.”