Rainy Sunday coffee

It is a rainy Sunday here in Brooklyn. My gosh, has it been a full seven days since the last post? It has been a busy week.

I noted with pleasure on Monday that Dan Carlin just released part v of Blueprint for Armageddon. I am listening to the fourth hour of the broadcast as I type this. If you have not heard Carlin’s series on the Great War, I can testify that this is an extraordinary work of interpretation. I stumbled upon the series when the centennial began last summer and listened to them over a weeks-long period going into the fall. I cannot imagine how much time it takes to put these together. It is extraordinarily thoughtful and shows what a passionate generalist can bring to a subject.

Though the United States has not yet entered the fray, the Americans play a larger role in Part v than they do in i-iv. There is an eloquent breakdown of Woodrow Wilson and his role in the leader-up to American involvement. Fittingly Carlin’s Wilson is inscrutable, neither saint nor scapegoat. Carlin understands that history is complicated.

Blueprint requires a significant time commitment–three to five hours apiece–but the reward is high. If you think of how much time you spend on other internet and television content though, it is not that much. One can find them on iTunes and elsewhere too. I usually listen in 30-45 minute chunks when I’m doing something else. As you are stuck inside this January-March, make Blueprint for Armageddon part of your winter.

The Great War week-by-week

Today is Thursday, which means there is a new posting from Indy Neidell and the crew at The Great War. In case you have not seen or heard of this, Neidell and his colleagues are chronicling the First World War week by week as it happened one hundred years earlier. The series began on 28 July and has been going ever since. Yours truly learned about it in mid-November and spent most of Thanksgiving weekend catching up. One thing I like about the series is that it is covering the war from a truly world wide perspective. There is especially a great deal of coverage of the war in Eastern Europe. Neidell has an interesting perspective; he is an American currently living in Sweden.

Mediakraft Networks, the production outfit behind the series, has a unique relationship with British Pathé to use the latter’s extensive library of moving imagery. The film clip up top is the introduction from this past July. One may or may not want to watch the entire series–and it is running through November 2018–but here is a link to the entire run so far. It is worth ten minutes a week.

What can one say in 2:00 minutes?

I am sorry about the lack of posts recently. I have been so busy on other projects that something had to give. I have been making strides these past few weeks on the manuscript of the book about Theodore Roosevelt Senior. He was was quite the man. It feels good to be making progress. I promise to share as I get farther along.

Here is something special. I first saw this add for a UK bread company years ago. Earlier today it popped up when I was searching for something else. My favorite part is when he comes across the 1953 coronation party for Queen Elizabeth, turns the corner and meets the Mod girls. The carload of blokes celebrating the 1966 World Cup victory is the icing on the cake.

I am assuming the fireworks toward the end are for 2000 New Year Celebration. Wow, that was a long time ago now. Enjoy.

Rod Serling’s Carousel

One of the most poignant moments in the entire series-run of The Twilight Zone is the scene from “Walking Distance” where middle-aged Martin Sloan meets the young boy he once was on the carousel at the local park. Adult Martin is next admonished by his father about the danger and futility of trying to live in the past. I loved the episode when I first saw it as a teenager all those years ago; now that I too am middle-aged, and so much of my own past is irretrievably gone, I grasp the poignancy in a way I previously had not.

Rod Serling spent most of his youth in Binghamton, NY and in many ways he never left. The town is infused in all of his writing. The carousel in the episode is not the one from Serling’s hometown but it is similar. The one in Binghamton was built in 1925, the year after Serling was born. A few years ago it received a facelift, which included paintings inspired by Serling and his television show. Now, a filmmaker named Jonathan Napolitano is making a film about that restoration.

Coming Soon: A Sam Rayburn doc

Here is something to look forward to in 2014. It appears a documentary of Sam Rayburn is in the works. Indeed it is not just in the works, judging by the trailer above production seems to be nearing completion. I cannot say how happy I am to see this. When I lived in North Texas I visited his home and museum in Bonham not once, but twice.

Last month a few of us at work got on a discussion of Rayburn when we were watching the JFK assassination footage. Rayburn was part of the post-Civil War migration from the South to the Midwest, and lived long enough to push the legislation through that made it possible for the astronauts to land on the moon. I do not know much more than what I have gleaned from the website. I hope the film gets a national release and the full treatment. Rayburn deserves a better place in our consciousness than he has now.

Crosby’s Christmas

Dreaming of vinyl . . .
Dreaming of vinyl . . .

Here is something you don’t hardly see anymore even though it was once ubiquitous in most American households: a 45 single of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Crosby’s rendition of the Irving Berlin standard has sold in excess of 50 million copies since its release in the early 1940s. My favorite “other” version is Pink Martini’s; unlike most groups they include the first, lesser known verse in their rendition. The disk above was donated for the book sale in the library where I work. Some lucky bloke will go home with this for all of one buck. This morning a few of us were passing it around as if it were the Rosetta Stone. Note what good condition it is in. It even comes in its own original paper sleeve. And yes, it was cool.

The humble VCR

Parenting PatchOne of my vivid memories of the 1980s was the airing of the final episode of MASH in February 1983. Incredible as it sounds, that was more than thirty years ago. For those under a certain age it would be difficult to understand the cultural significance of this event. There was once a time, young reader, when millions of Americans sat down each week, watched television shows such as this, and talked about them the next day around the water cooler or in the school cafeteria. That is difficult to imagine in the internet/satellite/200 channel cable universe we live in today. And yet it was not that long ago.

That winter night college students skipped their evening classes, parents cut the PTA meeting short, and folks hurried home to make sure they did not miss the 2 1/2 hour finale. The reason people were so intent on not missing it is because if you missed it, well, you missed it. I remember fifteen years ago, in 1998, a friend skipping the Seinfeld finale to play softball. Why bother?, he explained. One can tape it and watch later. In the early 80s a VCR was still prohibitively expensive–as in several thousand dollars–for most people. Still, that was changing quickly. Terry Teachout bought his first VCR around this time, and in a Wall Street Journal piece explains how the device changed his very perceptions of art and culture:

What changed my point of view? The VHS videocassette recorder, which was introduced to the U.S. by JVC in 1977. Like many other Americans, I bought my first VCR in 1983, six years later, right around the time that prices were coming down. “Citizen Kane” and “Grand Illusion” were the first “classic” films of which I owned VHS copies. I’d never seen either one before, and I’ll never forget how thrilling it was to be able to view them at will.

(image/Parent Patch)

Sunday morning coffee

It is early Sunday. I am having my coffee and enjoying the quiet before heading off to Governors Island in a little bit. It is going to be a beautiful day, mid 70s and bright skies. You can feel that fall is around the corner. It will be a great day to be outside.

I got a chance to see Good Ol Freda this week. I would recommend the documentary to those who like the Beatles and want to watch a film that captures the excitement of Beatlemania. Ironically, the traits that made Freda such an important part of the Beatles’s inner circle–her tact, her loyalty, and sense of discretion–are what keep the film from being better. She was, and is, so loyal, that you don’t come away with much more than you already knew. Still, because I suspected as much going in, I cannot say I was surprised or disappointed with the film. If anything, it makes me admire her that much more. It’s no wonder the Beatles trusted her so implicitly. It would have been so easy for her to air the dirty laundry, and you have to admire her for not doing so. Like the Beatles at their best, Frida Kelly appeals to your better nature. Go see it if you can.

In the meantime, we will wait for Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, which will be hitting bookstores in about six weeks. The pr machine is starting to kick into gear. I’ll let Mark Lewisohn explain. Enjoy your Sunday.

I read the news today, oh boy

Kennedy Airport, 1964
Kennedy Airport, 1964

I received the fab news that Magnolia Pictures has set the date of release for Good Ol’ Freda. The documentary about the former assistant to the Beatles will be released in New York City on September 6 and go wide shortly thereafter. I am pleasantly surprised because I somehow figured it would be later in the year. 2013 is shaping up to be a good year for Beatle historiography. Freda promises to be better than the pablum we usually get regarding the group from former “insiders.” It is no different with Elvis, Sinatra, or fill-in-the-blank with any other large and important musical figure. I guess that is the price we and they pay. Six weeks later, on October 29, is the release of volume one of Mark Lewisohn’s eventual three volume history of the group. I wish the significantly longer “author’s cut” was being released in the United States, but alas it is not. I am dying to see what happens when Tune In hits the stores.

(image/Library of Congress)

Moving Midway: An interview

Earlier this month I mentioned re-watching Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway. [Original review here.] Since then Mr. Cheshire kindly sat down to answer some questions:

The Strawfoot: The focus of the film is the physical relocation of your family’s ancestral home, Midway Plantation. Tell us about Midway and your cousin’s decision to move it.

Mary Hilliard Hinton (1869-1961), Midway Plantation matriarch, as she was in 1914
Mary Hilliard Hinton, 1869-1961: Midway  matriarch and family storyteller as she was in 1914

Godfrey Cheshire: Midway Plantation was built in 1848 on land in central North Carolina that my mother’s family, the Hintons, had occupied since getting a land grant from the British crown circa 1740. When I was a kid, it was this magical, ancient realm where I spent many weekends; it was also the center of our family’s memory and holiday gatherings. Flash forward to 2002, when my first cousin Charlie Silver and his wife Dena, who now own Midway, tell me they are thinking of moving all its buildings to a new location (if they can find one) in order to escape the urban sprawl that’s encroaching on the property and making it unpleasant to live there. At that point I began thinking of making a film that would not only document the family drama and logistical challenges of this project, but that would also look at the conflicted image of the Southern plantation in American history.

Who is Robert Hinton and what is his role in the story?

For me, Robert was a godsend. In early 2004 I shot some initial footage for the film at Midway. When I returned to New York, I saw a letter in the New York Times Book Review from a man named Robert Hinton who said he had grown up in Raleigh and was now a historian who taught African-American studies at NYU. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read that. I contacted him and he said his grandfather was born a slave at Midway, and it turns out he had done lots of research about the Hintons and their history. So he came aboard as the film’s Chief Historian and Associate Producer, and made innumerable contributions to it. He is on camera a lot in the film, which is great since he’s as witty and charismatic as he is knowledgeable.

Robert Hinton is not your blood relation. You discovered in making the film, however, that you have numerous African American relatives. What has that experience been like?

Well, the initial experience was quite stunning. I had grown up never suspecting that I had any African-American blood relations, but in the early stages of shooting, Charlie told me of having been visited by a black man who showed him evidence that we had a common mixed-race ancestor, a man named Ruffin Hinton, who was born in 1848, the product of a liaison between the builder of Midway and a slave. Charlie accepted this evidence, but soon afterwards the black man died and I was unable to locate his family. Then, in 2006, in the latter stage of shooting the film, Robert received an email from a middle-school teacher in Brooklyn named Al Hinton who said he was researching family history online and believed that he was kin to the Hintons of Midway. This was how we connected with the roughly 100 descendents of Ruffin Hinton, most of whom still live in North Carolina. They invited me to one of their family reunions and I was quite moved by the experience. Obviously the whole issue of slavery is a complex and painful one, but they were very warm and welcoming. I felt a real connection with them that came from this shared history. This was very important not just to the film but also to me personally; I felt like I was discovering a part of myself that I’d never known. I’ve kept in touch with some of these “new” cousins and I value these relationships greatly.

Midway in its new location, 2007
Midway in its new location, 2007

One of the film’s biggest strengths is the blending of the personal and the historical. How did the people depicted in the documentary react to the film?

For the most part, the reactions were very, very good. When we premiered the film at the 2007 Full Frame Documentary in Durham, N.C., members of the black and white sides of the family came for it, seemed to really enjoy the way the film explored the history and meaning of Midway, and met each other at the very celebratory party that was held afterwards. That’s been the general tenor of things since, too. However, I must note, rather sadly, that a few members of the white family seem to have been disaffected. They haven’t communicated with me, so I don’t know specifically what they’re upset about, but it’s too bad.

You are a film critic in your “day job.” In that capacity you were uniquely positioned to analyze the moonlight and magnolias interpretation of the Old South given to us in such films as Gone with the WInd. Was this Lost Cause narrative something you were always aware of, or did it become significant as the film project took off?

It was something I intended from the first, because I’ve always been interested in the image of the Southern plantation in popular culture, and I figured I couldn’t make a film about Midway without exploring the plantation’s meanings to Americans over the course of history. The “Lost Cause” mythology that you mention belongs to the late 19th/early 20th centuries and thus is only a part of the larger Plantation Myth, which started before the Civil War. When I began my research, I was surprised to find that the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture had a longer entry for “Plantation Myth” than it did for “Plantation,” suggesting that the imaginary plantation was even more important than the actual institution! In the film, I trace the evolution of the plantation’s image across several milestones of popular culture, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin through The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to Roots: an evolution that of course both mirrored and helped create a whole complex set of attitudes about race, politics and history.

Have different viewers–white/black; Northern/Southern; older/younger–responded differently to the film?

That’s a good question, because I was frankly more concerned about one side in each of those pairings you mention: that is, I was a bit nervous about the reactions of black people, non-Southerners, and young people. But in every case I was extremely pleased with the responses. I think this is because the film intends to be inclusive and to respect all the people and points of view it includes – even ones that we don’t necessarily like or agree with. In that way, it “depolarizes” issues that seem inherently polarizing. Black people like it I think because it recognizes their struggles and shows me and my black cousins trying to bridge our divided histories. Northerners appreciate that it presents Southerners black and white as real people rather than as abstractions connected to certain “issues.” But I must say I’ve been most gratified by the reactions of young people, who are often supposed not to be interested in history. I didn’t give a single thought to this while making the film, but teachers have told me that students love the film because it has colorful real-life characters and an engaging, even suspenseful story that brings to life issues that can seem dry and remote in textbooks. I tell people that the best Q&A I did was with a ninth grade class in Virginia. They “got” the film on every level and asked amazingly sophisticated and thoughtful questions. I would love other history teachers to discover and use the film as a classroom tool.

The plantation house, along with several outbuildings, have been in the new spot for a few years now. What has the experience been like in the new location?

When we shot the last scene in the film, Charlie and Dena had only been back in the house four days, and it was all so brand-new that it seemed like a stage set. But since then it has really come back to life, not only as a truly gorgeous restoration of a historic home, but as a place where people live, work and entertain. I love going out there now. It’s like Midway has been reborn.

(images/top, North Carolina Digital Collections; bottom, Preservation North Carolina)