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Annie and girl culture

The musical version of little orphan Annie – as distinct from her original, cartoon incarnation – was born a fully formed ten-year-old in 1977, and she quickly became an icon of girlhood. Since then, thousands of girls have performed songs like “Maybe” and “Tomorrow,” sometimes in service to a production of the musical, but more often in talent shows, music festivals, or pedagogical settings. The plucky orphan girl seems to combine just the right amount of softness and sass, and her musical language is beautifully suited to the female prepubescent voice. So what can Annie teach us about what girls are?

Annie (c) Sony Pictures 2014
Annie (c) Sony Pictures 2014

As with any role, the parts available to child performers are shaped by clichés and stereotypes, and these govern our thinking about what real children are like. For girls, the two most prominent archetypes have been the angelic, delicate, and wan girl who arouses our impulse to console and protect, and the feisty, spunky girl of the street who teaches us to know ourselves. These archetypes are often assigned to singing girls as “the little girl with the voice of an angel” and “the little girl with the great big voice.” A crucial aspect of Annie’s appeal is her blurring of this distinction through combining vulnerability with toughness.

These complementary characterizations of girls are invariably shaped by hegemonic understandings of race and class; and here, the figures of Topsy and Eva, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, serve as paradigms. In the novel, Eva St. Clare is presented as an ethereal golden child, deeply religious and kind, and her angelic virtue is contrasted with the wilful slave girl Topsy, whose wicked ways and rough language are eventually tamed at the deathbed of her young mistress Eva. In her life beyond the book, however, Topsy reverts to her impish and disruptive nature.

The character of Annie seems to combine the sweetness of Eva and the sass of Topsy in ways that evidently continue to appeal in 2014, and the new film version opening this weekend contributes a new aspirational model of girlhood to young fans.

It is thus of enormous significance that the film, produced by Jay Z and Will Smith, casts an African American girl in what is, arguably, the single most-coveted musical theatre role for girls. A 2008 study concludes that girls of colour are the children least likely to see themselves reflected in children’s media because 85.5% of characters in children’s films are white, and three out of four characters are male. The symbolic impact of Quvenzhané Wallis’s visibility and audibility in this role is potentially tremendous.

Unlike most of the young actresses who have played Annie, Wallis had no prior training as a singer. The film’s producers specifically said they did not want “Broadway kids” in the cast, preferring instead untutored singing that would give Annie greater sincerity and naturalness. This ideal of naturalness attaches itself to almost all child performers; we prefer to think of children’s performance as artless and uncalculated. As Carolyn Steedman observes in her book Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, “the child’s apparent spontaneity is part of what is purchased with the ticket.”

So it’s no coincidence that many child stars find it difficult to outgrow their most famous roles. Co-star Jamie Foxx gushes that Quvenzhané Wallis was “made to play the role,” an odd form of praise when we reflect that she is playing the part of a neglected, unloved child abandoned to a wretched foster home. In his book Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood, Joseph Zornado has observed that

“Annie’s story is a particularly pronounced version of how contemporary culture tells itself a story about the child in order to defend its treatment of the child. Annie’s emotional state — her unflagging high spirits, angelic voice, and distinctly American optimism — grows out of the adult-inspired ideology of the child’s ‘resiliency.’”

Of course, Annie is not Wallis’s first role, and much of our sense of her has already been shaped by her extraordinary, Oscar-nominated performance in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. If child stars are often believed to be just like the characters they play by fans who resist the idea that children can be artful performers, this seems particularly true in the case of African American girls, because they are so seldom depicted in media that they are invariably reduced to clichés. Wallis’s role in Beasts was a semi-feral child of nature, an old soul raising herself in a dystopic world; yet she is repeatedly asked in interviews if she is like Hushpuppy. How, then, will the iconic role of Annie change our understanding of Quvenzhané Wallis as an actor? Perhaps more importantly, how will her performance shape future possibilities for black girls on the stage and screen?

I suspect that the crucial song in this new film production of Annie is not one of Strouse’s original pieces, but rather “Opportunity,” in which Annie reflects on her luck in being temporarily rescued from neglect. Within the context of the film’s story, she makes up the song on the spot, pulling pitches out of the air in a rhythmically-fluid phrase with an improvisatory style. Musicians on the stage join in, but her melody eludes a clear sense of key almost until the start of the chorus:

And now look at me, and this opportunity
It’s standing right in front of me
But one thing I know
It’s only part luck and so
I’m putting on my best show
Under the spotlight
I’m starting my life
Big dreams becoming real tonight
So look at me and this opportunity
You’re witnessing my moment, you see?

This gorgeous song has also been recorded by its composer Sia, who imbues it with a more adult, contemplative character, in keeping with her singer/songwriter aesthetic. Even in this recording, though, the final verse is given over to Wallis and her closely-mic’ed, child-like (albeit auto-tuned) voice. The song is Wallis’s as much as it is Annie’s. It remains to be seen just how her opportunity will be extended to other girls.

Headline image credit: 8 mm Kodak film reel. Photo by Coyau. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Lifetime’s Women of the Bible and conservative Christian theology

On the surface, the Lifetime channel’s special Women of the Bible tells a very different story than The Red Tent. The two-hour program which aired just prior to the miniseries premiere claims to read with the Bible rather than against it, suggesting that the text itself depicts strong and faithful women—no retelling necessary. Moreover, while the miniseries adaptation of Anita Diamont’s novel valorizes goddess worship and condemns the patriarchal bias of the Bible, Women of the Bible recounts the story of selected biblical women from a decidedly conservative Christian perspective.

This perspective is clearly evident in the choice of the “experts” chosen to comment on the biblical narratives. Victoria Osteen, wife of evangelist Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meier, described on her website as a “charismatic Christian author,” appear alongside a woman designated as “Bible Teacher” and several female leaders of Christian ministries. Those outside this circle include a female rabbi and a female professor at Notre Dame, though their comments are integrated with rather than contrasted with the majority of conservative Christian voices.

Conservative Christian theology is also reflected in the choice of biblical women and the aspects of their stories eliciting commentary.

  • Eve. The program spends little time on Eve as a character. Instead, commentators use her story to discuss “the Fall,” a distinctively Christian understanding that Genesis 3 depicts a universal human fall from grace to which Jesus later provides a remedy.
  • Sarah. The two episodes selected from Sarah’s story are (1) her motherhood late in life and (2) her response to Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22). Although the Bible does not include Sarah in this latter story, commentators speculate on how she must have felt, and the visual reenactment depicts her running to find her son. This passage is far less relevant to understanding the Bible’s characterization of Sarah than it is to certain strands of Christianity theology. In Christianity, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son has traditionally been invoked as prefiguring God’s willingness to sacrifice his son Jesus on the cross. This linkage is clearly implied in the video footage. Although Genesis 22 indicates that God provided a ram as a substitute sacrifice, the program shows a lamb instead (in the gospels and later Christian tradition, Jesus is called the “lamb of God”).
  • Rahab. This brothel owner who saved the Israelite spies is praised for her willingness to protect her family. Commentators also expound upon the significance of the red cord she uses to mark her house for deliverance. Following traditional Christian interpretation, they connect Rahab’s red cord with Jesus’ blood shed on the cross to save humanity. They also explicitly trace Rahab’s genealogy to Jesus, following the gospel of Matthew.
  • Samson’s mother and his mistress Delilah. In the program, these two women are not explicitly linked with the Christian message. The commentators instead use their stories to advance important morals and teachings. Samson’s mother is explained as providing hope to “mothers who try to be good parents but the children stray,” and Delilah becomes a cautionary tale of being “tempted like Eve.”
  • The Marys. The majority of the program (close to one half) is devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is depicted as playing an important role in early Christianity, and yet most of the scenes depicting both women recounted the life and death of Jesus. Their stories offer windows into his story. In keeping with a particular understanding of the importance of Jesus shedding blood at his crucifixion, scenes graphically depict Jesus’ flogging and crucifixion (“he came to die”). The imagined feelings of the Marys become a means to reflect on the painfulness of Jesus’ sacrifice: “I would imagine they felt this way,” “They must have felt this way.” Although the program insists that the Magdalene was instrumental in the growth of Christianity, it provides no support for this claim.

As a biblical scholar devoted to gender critical work, I was amazed and disturbed that this program demonstrated no awareness of the important discussions conducted by feminist interpreters of the Bible over the past 40 years. Reassessments of Eve, Sarah, Mary Magdalene, and our traditions of reading are now old news, as is the recognition that standard ways of depicting Jesus as female-friendly have anti-Jewish dimensions. At least since the 1990s, Jewish feminists have insisted upon the inaccuracy and the danger of statements like those made in the program: “a Jewish rabbi wouldn’t talk to a woman,” “women were devalued in that culture.” The program leaves these statements to stand unchallenged and actually reinforce them in the costuming of the reenactments of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion: Jewish leaders wear the pointed hats used to designate Jews in Medieval anti-Jewish iconography.

I also was appalled that in the apparent attempt to include actors of color insufficient attention was paid to the ways in which casting might perpetuate racial stereotypes. Samson was depicted as a huge, violent man of African descent who could not control his passions. When his deadlocks were cut, he was bound in chains to a column. In the US context, this image too closely mirrors that of the slave on the auction block to pass for an attempt at “diversity.”

Neither the commentators nor the marketers of this program named the monolithic perspective that informed the presentation. Although the rhetoric of the program suggests that the commentators are simply reading the Bible, in reality the program recounted a particular Christian narrative about sin and Jesus’s role of overcoming it. Women were lauded as important to the degree that they were instrumental in advancing that narrative.

In turn, biblical texts that stray from this perspective are overlooked, such as:

  • Abraham’s willingness to give Sarah to another man—twice—to save himself.
  • The abuse suffered by Hagar.
  • The likelihood that the Israelite spies were visiting Rahab’s brothel rather than simply hiding.
  • Jesus’ statements that challenge the priority of family (Mark 10; Luke 14; Matthew 22). In this program, the distance between Jesus and his mother was described as a normal mother-son dynamic rather than part of Jesus’ message (Mark 3). The commentators stressed the ways in which Jesus provided for his mother from the cross, since “a son ought to love his mother and make sure she is looked after.”

Even though this program reflected a far more conservative religiosity than The Red Tent, similar ideologies of gender run through both productions. Women are valued primarily for being mothers, wives, and protectors of their families. Biblical women who do not fill these roles are passed in silence: Deborah, Huldah, Athalia, Miriam, and the women involved in ministry with Paul. (See an Index of Women in the Bible with relevant biblical passages.)

Responsible interpretation of the Bible requires a deep understanding of the ancient world reflected in its pages. Engagement with on-going biblical scholarship is crucial, since our knowledge of the past continues to grow through archaeological investigation, the discovery of new texts, and the development of research methodology. Responsible interpretation also requires a self-awareness of the lenses through which we read and the commitments that guide our choice of texts and our determination of their meaning.

Women of the Bible, sadly, reflects neither solid scholarship nor attentiveness to perspective. Based on the speculation of interpreters whose interests remain unnamed rather than on current research on gender in the ancient world, the Lifetime program perpetuates particular tropes for women rather than offering viewers fresh insight.

Featured image: Old Testament women. CC0 via Pixabay.

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Biblical women and Lifetime’s The Red Tent

The Red Tent was perfect for the Lifetime channel. The network’s four-hour miniseries closely followed Anita Diamont’s 1997 novel, which gave voice—and agency—to the biblical character of Dinah. In both the novel and the miniseries, Dinah the daughter of Jacob is characterized not as a victim (as in Genesis 34) but as a strong, assertive woman raised by a band of mothers who draw power from one another and from their worship of the Divine Mother rather than the patriarchal god of Jacob. And yet, as much as she delivers strong speeches against patriarchal ways, Dinah Redux does not stray from the traditional scripts for women. Her life is shaped by romances with muscled men and by motherhood.

Dinah is tenderly loved by two men. Her first husband Shalem, who in Genesis 34 is called Shechem and is described as seizing Dinah by force, becomes in The Red Tent Dinah’s consensual spouse. Refusing to request permission to marry from her father, she claims her union with Shalem as “my life, my future, my choice.” It is the men of her family who construe her choice as defilement, using it as a pretext for slaughtering Shalem and all the men of his village. Her second husband, created for the novel, overcomes her reluctance to marry again and, like her first husband, consummates their union in slow motion on a dimly-lit bed of mutual pleasure and tenderness. While criticizing patriarchal ideas in general and some men in particular (including Laban, who is depicted as a drunk, gambling, abusive tyrant), Dinah clearly loves her husbands as well as her brother Joseph.

From the beginning of her pregnancy with Shalem’s child, Dinah’s identity rests in her role as mother. When her son is claimed by Shalem’s Egyptian mother, Dinah is willing to live in a mice-infested cellar and be treated as a slave in order to remain in her son’s life. Childbearing as the essential essence of womanhood, indeed, runs throughout The Red Tent. Even as a child, Dinah learns from her mothers in the women’s-only space of the tent the power of menstrual blood and the ability to give birth; her later role as midwife allows her to continue to participate in this most female of activities.

In placing romance and the mother-child bond at the center of women’s lives, The Red Tent follows a very modern script. Like the heroines of romance novels, Dinah willingly surrenders to the attentions of attractive men and is passionately devoted to her son. Other modern tropes appear as well. She and her mothers attempt to protect Laban’s wife from domestic violence, treat slaves as their equals, and eventually manage their anger. While Dinah resists patriarchy as a system, she ultimately forgives the people (like her father) who embody that system. Dinah is strong and independent but still desirable to men, still a devoted mother, still kind in a self-sacrificing way.

The novel The Red Tent is so beloved by many women because it offers a relatable female biblical character, one whose loves, commitments, and challenges resonate in the modern world. Presented as the recovery of the lost voices of ancient women, it also plays well with a current climate of distrust in religious traditions and institutions. Like The Da Vinci Code, The Red Tent is fiction, but its claim that history has demeaned women’s stories rings true for many who are desperately seeking a usable past.

And yet, by making the past mirror the present, this retelling of the biblical story not only does disservice to the past but also reinscribes the very gender scripts it claims to resist.

My recent work as the editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies aims to work against such anachronistic assumptions. In the case of ancient Israel, our participating scholars explored topics such as the nature of goddess worship, marriage, gender roles, and the social significance of children. They argue that the worship of female deities was not limited to women and had little bearing on the well-being of human women; that children’s importance was as much economic as affectional; that “biblical marriage” required neither female consent, mutual vow making, nor romance; and that low life expectancies not only promoted the “marriage” of females by the age of 13 but also meant that few people would have ever known their grandparents. Johanna Stiebert, author of “Social Scientific Approaches,” contextualizes The Red Tent as one strategy of feminist appropriation of the ancient world, while Susanne Scholz (“Second Wave Feminism”) and Teresa J. Hornsby (“Heterosexism/Heteronormativity”) explain the perspectives of those who find the valorization of romance and motherhood as reflective of rather than resistant to patriarchy. Deborah W. Rooke (“Patriarchy/Kyriarchy”) traces the history of conversations about goddesses and women in the ancient world.

These and other entries suggest just how speculative, selective, and skewed many of The Red Tent’s portrayals of the ancient world are. In Diamant’s world, four women willingly share Jacob as husband and experience little competition within women’s space. In the red tent, they cooperate with one another, sharing stories and essential oils. Such portrayals downplay not only biblical stories of tensions between women but also the modern systems that pit women against one another.

By paying attention to the ways in which gender is constructed in the diverse texts, cultures, and readers that constitute “the world of the Bible,” gender-sensitive biblical scholarship seeks to move beyond such stereotypes of women. It suggests that women—and men and those whom societies place as “other”—operate within systems and structures that must be named and, when necessary, critiqued. Though giving Dinah agency within a world that limits women’s roles to romance and motherhood might seem liberating to some readers/viewers of The Red Tent, gender studies brings into focus the socially constructed nature of these limits of women’s worth.

Headline image credit: The Red Tent. Photo Joey L. © 2014 Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC

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Moses the liberator: Exodus politics from Eusebius to Martin Luther King Jr.

Moses and Pharaoh are returning to the big screen in Ridley Scott’s seasonal blockbuster, Exodus: Gods and Kings. With a $200m budget and Christian Bale in the leading role, the British director will hope to replicate the success of Gladiator (where he resurrected the sword and sandals genre) and surpass the shock and awe of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Even before its release, the movie sparked controversy. The casting of white actors as Egyptians provoked charges of racial discrimination; describing Moses as ‘barbaric’ and ‘schizophrenic’ did not endear the leading actor to traditional believers; and casting a truculent young boy as the voice of Yahweh was bound to raise eyebrows. In other respects, the storyline remains traditional. Indeed, the film follows a long tradition of interpretation by presenting the Exodus as a political saga of slavery and liberation. 600,000 slaves are delivered as an oppressive empire is overwhelmed by divine power.

This political reading of the biblical epic will be familiar to anyone who has studied its remarkable reception history. In Christian preaching, liturgy and hymnology, Exodus has been read as spiritual typology — Israel points forward to the Church, Pharaoh’s Egypt to enslavement by Satan, Moses to the Messiah, the Red Sea to salvation, the Wilderness Wanderings to earthly pilgrimage, the Promised Land to heavenly rest.

Yet there has been an almost equally potent tradition of reading Exodus politically. It originated with Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century, who hailed the Emperor Constantine as a Mosaic deliverer of the persecuted Church. It took on new intensity when the Protestant Reformation was promoted as liberation from ‘popish bondage’. As a vulnerable minority, European Calvinists identified with the oppressed children of Israel in Egypt and then celebrated national reformations in Britain and the Netherlands as a new exodus. The title page of the Geneva Bible (1560) pictured the Israelites pinned against the Red Sea by the chariots and horsemen of Pharaoh, the moment before their deliverance. Deliverance became a keyword in Anglophone political rhetoric, a term that fused Providence and Liberation.

Over the coming centuries, this Protestant reading of Exodus would go through some surprising twists. The Reformers had sought deliverance from the Papacy, but radical Puritans condemned intolerant Protestant clergy as ‘Egyptian taskmasters’. Rhetoric that had once been trained on ecclesiastical oppression was turned against ‘political slavery’, as revolutionaries in 1649, 1688 and 1776 co-opted biblical narrative. For Oliver Cromwell, Israel’s journey from Egypt through the Wilderness towards Canaan was ‘the only parallel’ to the course of English Revolution. For John Milton, tolerationist and republican, England’s Exodus led to ‘civil and religious liberty’, a phrase coined in Cromwellian England. The most startling development occurred during the American Revolution, when Patriots unleashed the language of slavery and deliverance against ‘the British Pharaoh’, George III. The contradiction between their libertarian rhetoric and American slaveholding galvanized the nascent anti-slavery movement on both sides of the Atlantic. Black Protestants now seized upon Exodus and the language of deliverance. ‘For the first time in history’, writes historian John Saillant, ‘slaves had a book on their side’.

African Americans inhabited the story like no other people before them. When they fled from slavery and segregation and migrated to the North, they consciously re-enacted the Exodus. In slave revolts and in the American Civil War they called on God for deliverance from Egyptian taskmasters. In the spiritual ‘Go Down Moses’, they re-imagined the United States as ‘Egyptland’, throwing into question the biblical construction of the nation as an ‘American Zion’. They sang of a deliverer who would tell old Pharaoh, ‘Let my People go’. They celebrated the abolition of the slave trade, West Indian emancipation, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by recalling the song of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea.

The black use of Exodus was not without its ironies. It owed more than has been recognized to the long tradition of Protestant Exodus politics, albeit reworked and subverted. African Americans took pride in the fact that Moses married an Ethiopian (Numbers 12:1), but they were embarrassed by the sanction given to slavery in the Mosaic Law, and by the Hebrews’ oppression at the hands of African Pharaohs. Yet Exodus spoke to African American experience like no other text. Like the Children of Israel, their Red Sea moment was followed by a long and bitter Wilderness experience. On the night before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr assured his black audience that he had ‘seen the Promised Land’. Barack Obama talked of ‘the Joshua Generation’ completing the work of King’s ‘Moses Generation’, but the land of milk and honey can still seem like a distant prospect.

Heading image: Dura Europos Synagogue wall painting showing the Hebrews leaving Egypt. Adaptation by Gill/Gillerman slides collection, Yale. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Top five Robert Altman films by sound

Director Robert Altman made more than thirty feature films and dozens of television episodes over the course of his career. The Altman retrospective currently showing at MoMA is a treasure trove for rediscovering Altman’s best known films (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park) as well as introducing unreleased shorts and his little-known early work as a writer.

Every Altman fan has her or his own list of favorite films. For me, Altman’s use of music is always so innovative, original, and unprecedented that a few key films stand out from the crowd based on their soundtracks. Here are my top five Altman films based on their soundtracks:

1.   Gosford Park (2001): The English heritage film meets an Agatha Christie murder mystery, combining an all-star ensemble cast and gorgeous location shooting with a tribute to Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Jeremy Northam plays the real-life British film star and composer Ivor Novello. Watch for the integration of Northam/Novello’s live performances of period songs with the central murder scene, in which the songs’ lyrics explain (in hindsight) who really committed the murder, and why.

2.   Nashville (1975): Altman’s brilliant critique of American society in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Nashville stands as an excellent example of “Altmanesque” filmmaking, in which several separate story strands merge in the climactic final scene. Many, although not all, of the songs were provided by the cast, which includes Henry Gibson as pompous country music star Haven Hamilton, and the Oscar-nominated Lily Tomlin as the mother of two deaf children drawn into a relationship with sleazy rock star Tom Frank (Keith Carradine, whose song “I’m Easy” won the film’s sole Academy Award).

3.   M*A*S*H (1970): Ok, I will admit it. It took me a long, long time to appreciate M*A*S*H. Growing up in 1970s Toronto, I couldn’t accept Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John — familiar characters from the weekly CBS TV series (but played by different actors). Looking back, I realize that M*A*S*H really did break all the rules of filmmaking in 1970, not least of which because it appealed to the anti-Vietnam generation. Like so many later Altman films, what appears to be a sloppy, improvised, slap-dash film is in fact sutured together through the brilliant, carefully edited use of Japanese-language jazz standards blared over the disembodied voice of the base’s loudspeaker.

MASHfilmposter

4.   McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971): Filmed outside of Vancouver, Altman’s reinvention of the Western genre stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. The film uses several of Leonard Cohen’s songs from his 1967 album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, allowing the songs to speak for often inarticulate characters. Watch for how the opening sequence, showing Beatty/McCabe riding into town, is closely choreographed to “The Stranger Song” as is Christie/Miller’s wordless monologue to “Winter Lady” later in the film — all to the breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked with Altman on Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973) as well.

5.   Aria (segment: “Les Boréades”) (1987): Made during Altman’s “exile” from Hollywood in the 1980s, this film combines short vignettes set to opera excerpts by veteran directors including Derek Jarman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Julien Temple. Altman’s contribution employs the music of 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The sequence was a revelation to me personally, since it contains the only feature film documentation of Altman’s significant contributions to the world of opera. One of the first film directors to work on the opera stage, Altman directed a revolutionary production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s: the work was restaged in France and used for the Aria Later, Altman collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize winning composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein to create new operas (McTeague, A Wedding) for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Rounding out the top ten would be Short Cuts (1993), Kansas City (1996), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Popeye (1980) — Robin Williams’ first film, and definitely an off-beat but entertaining musical.

Headline Image: Film. CC0 via Pixabay

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