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.
December 4, 2013
It was business as usual Tuesday as visitors strolled around the gallery of the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall.
Then, a lone cellist strolled to the center of the room, sat down and began to play.
When the soft, sweet opening lines of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring floated from the belly of his cello, visitors stopped in their tracks to catch one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most famous songs. But the surprise wasn’t over yet. Soon, a bassist and conductor appeared; a woman took off her coat and began a violin accompaniment. Eventually, 120 musicians and vocalists crowded the first and second floors of the museum as the United States Air Force Band put on its first flash mob at the most visited museum in the country.
The performance was the first of nearly 30 holiday performances the band has scheduled around the National Mall and the greater Washington, DC, area.
If you weren’t lucky enough to catch the flash mob in person, we have you covered: watch the performance in the video above.
You can also catch more of the U.S. Air Force bands this weekend at the Smithsonian’s Holiday Festival at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History.
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 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 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.