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.
December 1, 2013
The votes are in—123,039—and today, December 1, 2013, marked the 100-day anniversary of the birth of the giant panda cub on August 23. This afternoon in a festive ceremony, attended by Ambassador Cui Tiankai from the People’s Republic of China, Kerri-Ann Jones of the U.S. State Department and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough, the female cub was given a name.
Bao Bao, meaning “precious or treasure” in English, was the name bestowed upon the much-celebrated new cub. It was one of the five Mandarin Chinese names, including Ling Hua (darling or delicate flower), Long Yun (long means dragon and yun is charming), Mulan (a legendary woman), Zhen Bao (treasure and valued) selected by a officials and voted on by the cub’s online fans.
“When this cub was born last summer, I was thrilled,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, according to official reports. “It was a great moment for the National Zoo. Bao Bao symbolizes 41 years of research and collaboration both at the National Zoo and in China. We’re grateful to everyone around the world who voted to name her and help us celebrate today.”
The ceremony also included special video messages from First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and First Lady of the People’s Republic of China, Peng Liyuan. After the naming ceremony, Chinese lion entertainers danced their way to the giant panda yard where Tian Tian, the father of the cub, was treated to a frozen concoction of specialty foods.
Zoo officials haven’t set an exact day yet when the cub will make its public debut, except to say “January 2014.”
November 27, 2013
In a rare coincidence of the calendar, this Thanksgiving is also the first day of Hanukkah, prompting Buzzfeed, among many others (including Manischewitz) to create a new portmanteau of a holiday: Thanksgivukkah. The next time this amalgam of the Jewish-American experience will occur? In 70,000 years.
The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah lamp in the National Museum of American History’s collections represents the vision of Manfred Anson, whose creation unites the spirits of gratitude and freedom evoked by both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
A native of Germany, Anson described his idyllic childhood coming to an abrupt end with the Nazi rise to power in 1933. As conditions for Jews worsened, 14-year-old Manfred was enrolled at an agricultural school in the hope that he could secure a visa to emigrate to Palestine. However, just prior to the start of World War II, another opportunity presented itself, and he was chosen as one of 20 boys rescued by the Jewish Welfare Guardian Society of Australia.
Anson’s family was later deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, where his mother and father survived. His younger brother Heinz was killed in Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, while his sister Sigrid survived in several camps before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in Germany. At the end of the war, while in a rehabilitation hospital in Sweden, and unaware that her parents were alive, Sigrid wrote a letter addressed to “Manfred Anson, Australia.” Amazingly, he received it, and the siblings were in touch once again.
In 1963, Anson immigrated to the United States to join his sister (by then, unfortunately, both of their parents had passed away). An avid collector, he began to acquire memorabilia of his new country, ultimately amassing several thousand souvenirs of the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and the U.S. Capitol. He designed his Hanukkah lamp for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 and donated the original to the Statue of Liberty National Monument, which subsequently acquired many objects from his collection. Over the next 25 years, Anson had a number of other Hanukkah lamps cast; the one at the American History Museum was one of the first and one that he had made for his family.
Anson gave souvenir figurines to a craftsman to cast the statuettes for the lamp, and the Statue of Liberty torch was transformed into a candle holder. According to the Hanukkah story, a single cruse of pure oil kindled the Holy Temple menorah (seven-branched candelabrum) for eight days—a miracle—which is why the holiday is celebrated as the Festival of Lights. To commemorate the holiday, Jews worldwide use a chanukiah, a nine-branched menorah. As such, a traditional seven-branched Polish menorah was reworked with an extra arm and a ninth candleholder for the shamash, a servitor used to light the other candles, affixed at the front. The lamp is surmounted by an American eagle, and the base of each statuette is inscribed with significant dates in Jewish history.
Manfred Anson was proud to be an American and proud of his Jewish heritage. He was deeply honored that his personal tribute to both cultures received public recognition, and his lamp serves as a poignant reminder of what we celebrate on Thanksgiving and during Hanukkah.
The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp is currently on view at the National Museum of American History. Grace Cohen Grossman was a senior curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles until 2012 and was recently a Goldman Sachs Fellow at the National Museum of American History.
This post originally appeared on O Say Can You See!, the blog for the National Museum of American History. For other posts like this, discover how Uncle Sam became a meme and find the message behind an iconic Civil War photograph.
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.