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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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Songs of exile: a playlist for Psalm 137

Psalm 137 begins with one of the more lyrical lines in the Hebrew Bible: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” It ends eight lines later with one of the thorniest: “Happy shall he be, who taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Partly because it deals with music—another famous verse asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”—the psalm has been like poetic catnip, a siren song luring musicians, composers, and singers alike for more than two millennia. The first four verses have generated by far the most musical settings, from classical pieces (Bach, de Monte, Guerrero, Byrd, Dvořák, Verdi, Bloch, Alkan) to popular renditions sung by Don McLean and the cast of Godspell. But it was “Rivers of Babylon,” an earlier, Rasta-tinged rendition by the Jamaican group, the Melodians, that gave the psalm global exposure. For more versions of the musical psalm, listen to the clips provided below.

Al Naharot Babel
The first example is a traditional Hebrew rendition called “Al Naharot Babel.” This particular version was recorded in Iraq.

“An den Wassern zu Babel” by Heinrich Schütz  (1619)
Born in 1585, Heinrich Schütz was one of the great composers of the 17th century, generally considered the most important German composer before Bach.


“Al Naharot Babel” by Salomone Rossi (1622)
A supremely gifted violinist and composer, Salomone Rossi came to the attention of the powerful Gonzaga family of Mantua. He was so highly regarded that he was allowed to travel freely in and out of Mantua’s Jewish ghetto, a rare privilege. Rossi is best remembered for his pioneering work, Hashirim ásher lish’lomo (“The Songs of Solomon”), which included a setting of Psalm 137.



An Wasserflüssen Babylon” by J.S. Bach (c. 1720)
One of the best-known of all settings of the psalm, Bach is reported to have improvised on this tune for nearly half an hour in a 1720 concert at St. Catherine’s in Hamburg, as a tribute to the church’s regular organist.


Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi (1841)
Verdi’s first successful opera, Nabucco (1841), was based on the Babylonian Exile, and one of his most beloved choruses, “Va, pensiero”  features a chorus of Judean captives. Most Italians know this chorus by heart.


Ten Biblical Songs, op. 99” by Antonin Dvorak (1894)
This brief setting, composed while Dvorak lived in the United States, was famously performed  by Roland Hayes, the pioneering African American opera singer, and later adopted by Paul Robeson, a great admirer of Hayes.

Ten Biblical Songs by Paul Robeson (c. 1940)
“But history moves on: Hitler is gone; Prague lives and builds in a new people’s democracy—and now I, an American Negro, sing for her this ancient Hebrew song in the language of the people of Huss and Dvorak, Fuchik and Gottwald: Pri rekach babylonckych, Tam jsme sedavali a plakavali. ” -Paul Robeson


“Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians, “On the Willows” from Godspell by Stephen Schwartz, and “Babylon” by Don McLean
Three of the most popular recent musical renditions of the song appeared within two years of each other: one (“Rivers of Babylon”) from Jamaica, the other two from the United States.




“Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M. (1978)
By far the bestselling version of “Rivers of Babylon” was recorded by the German-based band, Boney M. Their 1978 cover, with voices soaring over an infectious disco back-beat, became the second biggest-selling single in U.K. chart history, and was the group’s only song to reach the top 40 in the United States.


“Wood Street” by Judy Hauff (1986)
Composed in 1986, Chicagoan Judy Hauff’s setting of Psalm 137 in the latest edition of The Sacred Harp (1991) is one of the most requested songs in that venerable collection. Most of the composers featured lived in the 19th century.


“By the Rivers Dark” by Leonard Cohen (2001)
Recorded in 2001, Leonard Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark” delivers somber and solitary riffs on the psalm.


Shanghai Dreams (2001)
Boney M’s cover turns up at an illicit dance held in a factory in China in Shanghai Dreams. In the film, families are “exiled” from Shanghai to the countryside, supporting the country’s industrial backbone in the event of World War III.


“Jerusalem” by Matisyahu (2006)
An inward-looking oath by the psalmist, the middle two verses have been of particular interest to political movements that invoke collective memory to mobilize social action. This one, by the self-styled Hasidic dancehall-reggae artist Matisyahu, carries a strong Zionist message.


Daniel Variations by Steve Reich (2006)
Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations, animated by the savage aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, features four movements alternating short, gnomic texts taken from the Book of Daniel with fragments of comments by Daniel Pearl, a young reporter who was captured by the Taliban and beheaded.


“Babylon” from Mad Men (2007)
In the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper and his girlfriend make their way to the Gaslight, a subterranean cabaret in Greenwich Village, where a folk trio plays a haunting, minor-key round setting of Psalm 137. The camera cuts to domestic vignettes suggesting Draper’s stream of consciousness: Manhattan as Babylon.


Tulpan (2008)
Boney M.’s ubiquitous cover version recurs again in world cinema, in a Kazhak film that deals with a young man’s return from military service and his poignant efforts to find a wife and establish a traditional life as a sheep-herder.


The Wandering Jew by Robert Saxton (2011)
This opera, The Wandering Jew, by British composer, Robert Saxton, begins and ends in a Nazi death camp. The first vocal music heard is a chorus of prisoners singing an angular melody, the opening verses of Psalm 137.

“By the Rivers of Babylon” by Jack Richard Hodkinson
New settings of Psalm 137 continue to be composed; this is likely the most recent, by an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, England.


Featured image: “Typography” by Benjamin Gray. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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Portraying Krishna in X-Men: Apocalypse

Another summer, another season of superhero movies. Big budgets, big muscles, big explosions: Each release only strengthens the genre’s domination of Hollywood—and the sense that comic-book franchises make up a contemporary mythology, and superheroes are its gods.

Among this year’s offerings is X-Men: Apocalypse, which opened the last week of May. Apocalypse is the name of the villain, who makes his own claim to divinity in no uncertain terms. One of the film’s trailers features this grandiose statement: “I have been called many things over many lifetimes: Ra, Krishna, Yahweh.” And as reported in Time magazine, the line caught the attention of Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest based in Reno, Nevada. “Lord Krishna was meant to be worshiped in temples or home shrines,” he protested, “not for pushing movies for the mercantile greed of filmmakers,” and pressed the director to have all Krishna references deleted from the film.

Zed is the president of an organization called the Universal Society of Hinduism, but—notwithstanding his own rather grandiose styling—it is unclear how many Hindus he actually speaks for. (Along with Time, some South Asian YouTube channels picked up the story, and comments can be found there echoing Zed’s sense of offense; mishearing “Ra” as Ram has added to the grievances of some.) There has been one notable occasion, however, on which Zed attained national visibility as the face of American Hinduism. In 2007 he opened a session of the United States Senate, the first Hindu guest chaplain in its history. Zed’s prayer was interrupted several times from the gallery; news of his invitation, by Harry Reid of Nevada, had been met with an e-mail protest circulated by Christian groups. One senses that American misunderstandings of Hinduism, and prejudice against it, are sources of familiar and enduring concern for Zed.

That being noted, the association of the X-Men’s blue-faced villain with Krishna would seem to owe little to any actual antecedent in Hindu tradition. Or to any Hindu antecedent, that is, that doesn’t already come filtered through layers of American popular culture, including another comic-book franchise. The Apocalypse character dates back to the X-Men stories published by Marvel Comics in the mid-1980s, and his origin story involves motifs borrowed not from Hindu, but Egyptian mythology (whence the Ra reference). But in the same period, perhaps not entirely by coincidence, another blue-complected character emerged at Marvel’s rival, DC—a figure that does show a clear debt to Krishna. The most powerful character in DC’s celebrated “alternative” comics series, Watchmen, is Dr. Manhattan, a philosophically inclined giant whose name and imagery were inspired by the Manhattan Project—and specifically by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s epiphany on viewing the first atomic detonation, as voiced in the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” Dr. Manhattan’s cinematic debut in 2009’s Watchmen was a memorable one. For comic-book fans and other serial viewers of superhero movies, his is surely the definitive combination, to date, of blue skin, portentous rhetoric, and apocalyptic power—the avatar (so to speak) to beat.

Part of Zed’s point has to do with appropriation. Perhaps the right of non-Hindu filmmakers to use imagery that derives its power and appeal from Hindu sources should be challenged. But his contention that Krishna is “meant” to be worshiped in temples, instead of viewed on the movie screen, relies on a too-simple dichotomy. Indian filmmakers have been working with Hindu imagery (and profiting handsomely off it) for over a century. Indeed, in its first decade Indian film production was entirely dominated by the so-called mythological genre. Famously, D. G. Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema,” cast his own daughter in the early classics Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) in the starring role—none other than that of Lord Krishna.

Over a hundred years of cinema history, the mythological genre has gone through its vicissitudes. One high point was 1961’s Sampoorna Ramayana, “The Complete Ramayana,” a three-hour Hindi-language spectacular featuring songs, stunts, special effects, and the popular wrestler-actor Dara Singh as the epic’s own action hero, the monkey god Hanuman. These days, in northern India, mythological films have largely ceded their place to mythological television, the catalyst having been the phenomenally successful broadcast of a Ramayana series in 1987–88 (Dara Singh—still going strong—again played Hanuman). But the mythological continues to enjoy prominence in the regional cinemas of South India, which have even fostered distinct subgenres centered on mother goddesses and snake deities. And from time and again the gods do still incarnate themselves in A-list Hindi movies. The 2012 Bollywood hit OMG cast the superstar Akshay Kumar as a suave and well-toned modern Krishna at large in Mumbai; when he races his motorcycle through CGI-enhanced nighttime streets, the scene could be mistaken for Gotham City or Metropolis.

And a final point: What goes for movies goes these days for comic books as well. For a long time starting in the 1960s, the Indian comics market had been dominated by the Amar Chitra Katha line of stories adapted from Sanskrit—a children’s series that served up the classics in an easy-to-digest format. But in recent years glossier comics about the gods and epic heroes—flashier graphics, fleshier physiques—have come muscling into the picture. I’ll give the last word here to the interlocutor who first brought home to me the affinity between Hindu gods and American-style superheroes. He was seven years old at the time, and we were speaking in Hindi. “I know all the mans,” he said to me proudly. “Spiderman… Superman… Hanuman!”

Featured image credit: Wooden Krishna at Bangalore Habba by Rajesh dangi. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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