Ang Lee, the two-time Academy Award-winning director, has noted that we should never underestimate the power of storytelling. Indeed, as a storyteller, Lee has shown through his films the potential of stories to connect people, to heal wounds, to drive ...

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The earnest faith of a storyteller

Ang Lee, the two-time Academy Award-winning director, has noted that we should never underestimate the power of storytelling. Indeed, as a storyteller, Lee has shown through his films the potential of stories to connect people, to heal wounds, to drive change, and to reveal more about ourselves and the world. In particular, Lee has harnessed new technology for storytelling in movies such as Life of Pi (2012) and his upcoming feature film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (to be released on 11 November, 2016). It is therefore not surprising that Lee received the International Honor for Excellence Award—the highest honor given by the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC)—during the IBC Awards ceremony in Amsterdam this September. According to IBC CEO Michael Crimp, the award “goes to an individual who has made a significant and valuable contribution to the movie industry, combining technology with creativity to achieve remarkable ends.” Previous winners of this honor include James Cameron, who directed Avatar, and Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings series and The Hobbit films.

Lee’s 3-D, high-frame rate (HFR) film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk premiered at the 2016 New York Film Festival and will be released by Sony in November. The film, adapted from Ben Fountain’s novel, is about an American war hero who embarks on a victory tour with his squad that includes a halftime show at a Thanksgiving Day football game. In this film, Lee and cinematographer John Toll used a 120-frame rate in an attempt to capture the soldier’s memories of his wartime experiences. The standard frame rate for movies is 24-frame rate per second or “FPS,” but directors sometimes depart from the standard for special purposes. However, this practice will change the nature of the image. For example, Peter Jackson previously experimented with a 48-frame rate, a technique known as “high frame rate,” in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012).

Nevertheless, critics such as Richard Corliss (Time magazine) and Scott Foundas (Village Voice) complained that the look of The Hobbit resembled that of video games or high-definition television. This dissatisfaction is mostly due to the fact that the sterile hyperrealism and deadly coldness of HFR’s high definition image disrupts the diegetic realism of normal cinematography. Although ultra-realism has aroused criticism among The Hobbit’s fans and critics, in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee appears to have delved deep into this technology in order to show the intensity of war and its emotional impact on his characters. As New York Film Festival Director, Kent Jones, said in a statement that, “Ang Lee has always gone deep into the nuances of the emotions between his characters, and that’s exactly what drove him to push cinema technology to new levels. It’s all about the faces, the smallest emotional shifts.”

The suspension of disbelief is often considered as an essential part of storytelling.

In this regard, one cannot help thinking of Lee’s earlier war film, Ride With The Devil (1999). By going beyond the dualisms associated with the American South, the film was an exception to the Civil War genre. This time, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk can be considered as another exception to customary procedure, as Lee uses digital technology to experiment and play with “suspension of disbelief” of his viewers. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will allow us to see whether Lee is able to successfully engage his audiences in the “suspension of disbelief” with this new technology. The suspension of disbelief is often considered as an essential part of storytelling. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and literary critic, described the implicit contract in storytelling and aesthetic illusion as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Like any creative endeavor, film is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension. It is part of an unspoken agreement between a filmmaker and his/her viewers. Over the course of time, however, the adoption of digital technology has somewhat destabilized the “indexical” faith that spectators invested in the credibility of the image in relation to an imagined referent.

By presenting in ultra-realistic ways the realities of war and peace through a war hero’s eyes, Lee has put the issue of “faith,” the implicit contract between filmmaker and viewers, into question. Lee is likely to continue to use technological developments to push the limits of viewers’ deep-rooted knowledge about photographic image as well as cinematic language for larger purposes. Will Lee use this ultra-realistic technology to endorse or question the type of nationalist belief and storytelling that a drama of courage and heroism generally entails?

The film will give us a unique platform to understand and evaluate Lee’s earnest faith in creativity and storytelling.

Featured image credit: Screenshot of a scene from Ang Lee’s ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’. Fair Use via Sony/Tristar.

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The development of urban nightlife, 1940s hipsters, & the rise of dating

Cities in the early days of the United States were mostly quiet at night. People who left the comfort of their own homes at night could often be found walking into puddles, tripping over uneven terrain, or colliding into posts because virtually no street lighting existed. Urban areas had established curfew times that “were signaled by the ringing of bells, the beating of drums, or the firing of cannons” at an early hour in the evening. With the advent of gas lighting, culture transformed in fascinating ways. Here are 12 interesting facts about urban nightlife from Peter C. Baldwin’s article for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, which shows how times have greatly changed and, remarkably, how some things have remained the same.

Before 1830

1. The Christmas season was an especially popular time for drunken rowdiness at night. Somewhat like 20th-century trick-or-treaters, young men in early 19th-century Philadelphia and New York knocked on doors demanding drinks or small gifts.

2. Plays were banned in New England cities, forcing traveling troupes to bill their performances as “moral dialogues.”

3. Theater audiences used to talk amongst themselves much of the time during performances. With the house lights kept up, audiences paid as much attention to socializing and people-watching as to the performance.


4. With the rise of industrialization, workers could no longer take unscheduled breaks, but had to work steadily. As a result, leisure activities like going for a round of drinks began to be pushed out of the day and into the night.

“9:30 P.M. A common case of ‘team work.’ Smaller boy (Joseph Bishop) goes into [one of the?] saloons and sells his last papers. Then comes out and his brother gives him more. Joseph said, ‘Drunks are me best customers.’ ‘I sell more’n me brudder does.’ ‘Dey buy me out so I kin go home.’ He sells every afternoon and night. Extra late Saturda[y. At] it again at 6 A.M. Sunday, Hartford, Conn.” by Lewis Hine. Public Domain via the Library of Congress.

5. With gas lights in commercial districts and professional police forces replacing poorly-trained and unmotivated night watchmen, growing safety was a key factor in encouraging evening street activity. Restaurants, ice cream parlors, and oyster saloons clustered in the well-lit commercial streets.


6. Hours of work and leisure grew less distinct in the late 19th century. The number of night workers greatly expanded, partly because of the adoption of new processes of continuous production in the iron, glass, paper, and petrochemical industries. These processes were facilitated by the availability of electric power after about 1880, and by the superiority of electric lighting. Better lighting also encouraged additional night work on the docks, and in the manufacturing of textiles and books.

7. A gradual decline in labor hours, slow increases in income, and dwindling moral opposition to commercial entertainment also contributed to the expansion of nightlife. Electric lighting further encouraged the growth of commercial nightlife. In the “bright-light districts” of Chicago, Minneapolis, and many smaller cities, brilliant illumination made downtown streets seem safer and more
exciting. Advertising signs, theater marquees, and glowing store windows added to the flood of light from arc and incandescent street lamps.

8. Nightlife at the very end of the 19th century began to shift decisively away from a male dominated scene. Alternative nightlife options to the all-male “homosocial”
saloons developed. Mixed-gender restaurants and increasingly lavish hotel dining rooms
opened for business, and vaudeville houses succeeded in attracting a mixed-gendered mass audience.

9. Changes in patterns of courtship encouraged mixed-gender nightlife as well. Instead of courting young women in private, men in the 20th century began taking them out on “dates” to public entertainment places such as restaurants, theaters, and dance halls. Dating freed young couples from parental supervision, a development assisted greatly by the advent of the automobile.


10. The invention of television decreased the number of people who went out in urban areas. Watching TV with one’s family became a popular alternative to going out at night. Total movie admissions plummeted from 4.1 billion in 1946 to 1.1 billion in 1962.

11. In the late 1940s and 1950s, bebop jazz performances flourished in smaller nightclubs filled with hipsters. Young hipsters at the time listened to bebop jazz, which offered innovative but less danceable music. They sneered at the conventionality of mainstream society, welcomed the sexuality that they associated with black culture, and, in many cases, supplemented their listening experience by using marijuana and heroin. As the dance culture of young whites came to focus on rock, bop fans preferred just to listen to this increasingly intellectualized art form.

12. Rock concerts in Boston were banned at one point. After a minor riot took place outside the Boston Arena on 3 May 1958, Boston police arrested concert promoter and disc jockey Alan Freed, and then Boston Mayor John B. Hynes briefly called off similar musical performances.

Featured image credit: “52nd Street, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1948” by William Gottlieb. Public Domain via The Library of Congress.

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Ben-Hur: tracing the iconic novel and films through history

The latest film adaptation of the story of fictional Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur is premiering in theaters today. You’ve probably seen the 1959 film version starring Charlton Heston, but do you know about the story’s rich history and impact over the last 136 years?

For instance, we bet you probably didn’t know that:

“Combined (and adjusted for inflation), the authorized and licensed adaptations of Ben-Hur along with independent Ben-Hur companies, businesses, brands, and products have amassed billions of dollars and perpetuated the Ben-Hur name and its chariot imagery throughout the popular culture” (Jon Solomon).

In celebration of the movie premiere, we’ve created a timeline highlighting key events in this iconic work’s history.

Featured image credit: “Provocation” by aka Tman. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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A curve in the road to a “Drug-Free America”

Tom Hedrick speaks with me in a sunlit suite of offices overlooking Park Avenue in Manhattan. A genial host, he recounts the early days of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), which he helped to found in the mid-1980s and where he still works. Wary of derailing the interview, I hesitate to ask about a controversy that, to some degree, still shadows the organization.

Virtually every American over 35 who had access to a television set in the waning years of the Reagan Administration is familiar with the PDFA’s handiwork. The frying pan with a sizzling egg stand-in for “your brain on drugs.” The stern, middle-aged father confronting his son over the boy’s pot stash, only to be told, “I learned it by watching you!

These memorable spots resulted from an effort by advertising executives, artists, and copywriters to “unsell” some of the country’s most popular, though illegal, consumer products.

“You have to remember the environment in 1984 and ’85,” remarks Hedrick. “It was a period like no other.” Crack was spawning addiction and violent crime among its users while lawmakers cast accusing fingers at Hollywood for treating illegal drug use as harmless, even alluring. “We in the media were partly responsible for what was going on. So why couldn’t we also not just show one side, or glamorize the issue?” he explains. After all, “many of us worked on teen or young adult products. There was a lot of good professional experience we could bring to bear.”

And thus the operating model of the Partnership was born. Ad agencies proposed public service announcements (PSAs) for TV, radio, and print. A panel at the PDFA screened them, rejected many, and then sent finished work to participating media, which ran them free of charge. The Partnership steered clear of attacks on legal drugs for at least one obvious reason. A television station that relied on advertising from breweries, for example, might prove reluctant to provide airtime for a hard-hitting PSA on alcohol abuse.

"I learned it by watching you!" public service announcement
Screenshot of the 1987 public service announcement “I Learned it by Watching You!” by Partnership for a Drug-Free America, used with permission.

With much of the campaign relying on voluntary contributions—even Federal Express offered its services pro bono—costs were relatively low. Still, the Partnership’s directors needed to cover operating expenses. To help make ends meet, they struck something of a Faustian bargain, one best kept under wraps. But because the organization functioned as a nonprofit, the story became a matter of public record. All it took was an enterprising reporter willing to do some digging.

In a spring 1992 exposé in the Nation, Cynthia Cotts revealed that the PDFA’s supporters included several pharmaceutical companies, the maker of Jim Beam whiskey, Anheuser-Busch, and Philip Morris. Most damningly, R.J. Reynolds had been backing its calls for a “drug-free America” even as public health advocates condemned the company for hooking youngsters on cigarettes with its kid-friendly cartoon mascot, Joe Camel.

Cotts pulled no punches: “The war on drugs is a war on illegal drugs, and the partnership’s benefactors have a large stake in keeping it that way. They know that when schoolchildren learn that marijuana and crack are evil, they’re also learning that alcohol, tobacco, and pills are as American as apple pie.” Others were even harsher, and their criticism stung all the more because the Partnership appeared to be making real progress in shifting popular attitudes about illicit drugs.

At the time, Hedrick was unrepentant, claiming that he would have “taken money from the devil” to combat the scourge of crack. That implied comparison hardly flattered the organization’s heretofore silent partners, and it appeared inevitable that they would go their separate ways. Soon the PDFA pledged not to take alcohol and tobacco money, a position it notes prominently on its website today, though it openly acknowledges continued pharmaceutical support. For other reasons, directors also expanded the Partnership’s mission from persuading young people to abstain from drugs to reaching out to parents of children at risk. Now renamed the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the group addresses the dangers of licit as well as illicit drugs, with a focus on abuse of prescription medications. Decades of work earned Hedrick recognition from the White House earlier this year.

When schoolchildren learn that marijuana and crack are evil, they’re also learning that alcohol, tobacco, and pills are as American as apple pie.

I finally broached the topic. Had the passage of time changed his perspective on the funding question? “Maybe from a public relations point of view that was a stupid thing to do. I can understand why there was so much criticism.”

Not quite an admission of error, but perhaps understandable in light of how charges by the Partnership’s most vociferous critics—who portrayed it as little more than a front for Big Tobacco out to brainwash unsuspecting young people—distorted the efforts of its professional, generally earnest staff.

The closest analogue to “unselling” drugs may be unselling candidates for office. And as leading scholars in political science have argued, attack ads are not especially useful for implanting negative perceptions where none exist; they work when they tap into pre-existing attitudes or beliefs and then amplify, exploit, or redirect them. That is why their creators spend so much time and money researching, and trying to intuit, the attitudes of their audience. The most compelling, or notorious, of such ads was Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy,” which featured a freckle-faced preschooler obliterated in a nuclear explosion. There was no need even to mention Barry Goldwater’s name because many viewers already had an impression that LBJ’s Republican opponent was trigger-happy.

Likewise, in the late 1980s, advertisers with the Partnership did not really convince viewers to divide, as it were, the sheep from the goats, culturally acceptable, legal drugs from apparently dangerous and illegal ones like cocaine. They did not conjure up ambivalence about employing chemicals to alter people’s moods or consciousness. They did not have to.

They learned that by watching us.

Featured image credit: Cigarette smoke by Ralf Kunze. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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From the archives: the top 5 movie scenes set in libraries

Paul Feig’s Ghostbuster’s remake has made waves on both sides of the Atlantic. As the original 1984 film set some significant action in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library, we couldn’t help but indulge in a rifle through the archives of cinematic tributes to libraries.

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, particularly its Rose Reading Room, is perhaps the most omnipresent library of the silver screen, having also starred in Philadelphia, Sex and the City: The Movie, and The Day After Tomorrow. Though we’re firm believers that libraries are the ultimate refuge, we can’t quite forgive the characters of the latter for burning some of the library’s precious books.

Films such as the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda necessitate several library scenes, as do legal dramas or investigative journalism procedurals (most recently Spotlight, which saw Mark Ruffalo make several fraught visits to public legal archives). There’s also a whole collection of films which not only feature libraries as places of reading and research, but create memorable set pieces or story arcs concerning libraries. These are highly entertaining while also representing and celebrating the diverse benefits provided by modern libraries. In short, there’s a film, and a library service, for everyone. Here are five of the best:

Love’s Labour’s Lost ­(2000)

Kenneth Branagh’s madcap reinvention of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost mashes up the Bard’s Renaissance men with a ‘20s style musical caper in the vein of Singin’ in the Rain. As you might expect from this genre-bending, the “scholars” spend as much time dancing in their beautiful round library as they do studying. One of the most memorable numbers is “I’d Rather Charleston”, in which the scholars declare and energetically demonstrate their preference for dance over reading. Thankfully, many public libraries now host dance classes so you don’t have to choose between the two.


The Breakfast Club (1985)

John Hughes’ biggest hit takes place almost entirely within the school library of its Shermer High School protagonists. Although the choice of the library as a setting for an all-day detention might suggest a negative attitude towards libraries, it’s in this space that the characters learn to empathise with one another, breaking down social barriers and learning about themselves and each other through a series of famed monologues. Despite the physical entrapment of the single setting the students conversely become more and more free as the film progresses, and this is most obviously manifested when they burst into dance like Branagh’s scholars before them. They do, however, exhibit some behaviour that is wholly inappropriate for the library (not to mention illegal), so we’re not saying you should follow their every example…

Nebraska (2013)

One of the most touching scenes in Alexander Payne’s lyrical contemplation on family and growing old takes place in a library of sorts. Protagonist David (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) visit Hawthorne, Nebraska, the town where Woody grew up, and David takes a trip to the town’s newspaper office. Surrounded by the paper’s archives David talks to the owner about a story she plans to run on Woody. Through hearing the perspective of this woman who knew a younger Woody, David begins to understand him as a man as well as a father. The literal local archives provide the ideal backdrop for a scene concerned with family history.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Books are a crucial part of the fabric of prison life in this well-loved adaptation of a short story by Stephen King, who is himself a supporter of libraries. There’s Brooks, the kindly prison librarian who delivers fresh reading material (and, inevitably, contraband) to the cells, and Andy’s (Tim Robbins) campaigning to improve the library’s stock. In the current climate, Andy’s persistent lobbying of the government is an inspiration, and it’s immensely satisfying to see it eventually pay off. More recently, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black has taken up the mantle of celebrating the comfort and empowerment a prison library can provide. Litchfield’s library is a relatively safe space where inmates connect with one another, escape through fiction, and conduct legal research to mount appeals.


Monsters University (2013)

The library battle in Monsters University is a cheeky set piece which dares to ask “what’s so scary about a little old librarian?”. The librarian character is lazily stereotyped, but she deserves to be applauded for her commitment to maintaining the sanctity of her quiet study hall as Mike, Sully et al compete in an increasingly disruptive game of capture the flag. Pixar’s animation aptly echoes the style of an ornate old-fashioned library, with heavy wooden furniture and those classic green lamps. Look out for the bespoke shelving strategies neatly dividing up books of different sizes.

Watching someone study in a library won’t make for a thrilling movie, so these filmmakers have found ways of integrating libraries into their stories in engaging and often flamboyant ways, while also commenting on the wonders of libraries we can all enjoy, even if you don’t happen to be a Ghostbuster.

Featured image: “New York Public Library” by Jeff Hitchcock, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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