Tag Archives: history

42’s Legacy

By the time Audrey Hepburn had made her Hollywood debut and won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953), Jackie Robinson had played major league baseball for six years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  When he was inducted into the Baseball of Fame on July 23, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was still alive, James Bond was a few months shy of being introduced to the public as a cinematic icon, and by the end of the year prisoners from the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba went back home to the US.

In case you haven’t guessed, I watched the sports biopic 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013).  It depicts key moments in Jackie Robinson’s life between 1945 and 1947, though the extent of historical accuracy in the sense of X actually happened in the manner presented is up for disclaimers.  Please see SBNation, History News Network, and ESPN.


The film opens with a historical context reel narrated by Wendell Smith (Andre Holland).  America might have saved the (modern) world from the horrible agendas of the Axis Powers but back home, a hero’s welcome is hard to come by…even harder if you aren’t white.  It is in this existentially fraught environment that Jackie Robinson (a terrific Chadwick Boseman) goes about doing what he was born to do: play baseball.

42 is a beautiful film; it’s wonderful to behold for its subtle humor and cinematography. The acting is excellent all around too (Nicole Beharie is especially impressive as Robinson’s fiancee, and it’s always good to see Christopher Meloni playing someone who isn’t doing detective work in a special victim’s unit).  The wardrobe department and set designers and decorators must have gone to great lengths to imbue the film with a historically authentic mise-en-scene.

Despite its visual splendor, it isn’t the tightest film.  When it ended, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more effective as a series of vignettes juxtaposed against conversations from scholars, journalists, historians, and any surviving friend or relative of Robinson’s.  (Shameless, unaffiliated plug for the documentary about Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon that airs April 11 and 12 9pm and 11pm EST on your local PBS station — check your local listings!).  

As a sports biopic, 42 is formulaic, psychologically powerful without being excessively tense, and eager to fill you with hope.  The contrast between two specific sequences produces an effect that both clobbers and heals the heart.  The first, ugly scene occurs when the Philadelphia Phillies are playing the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Phillies’ coach, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), hurls so many racist remarks at Robinson that one wonders if there will be any reprieve from or retribution for having witnessed it…as a film-goer.**

If you don’t come away from that scene feeling as though you’re ashamed to be in the same “room” as the Phillies coach and want to travel back in time to apologize to Jackie Robinson on behalf of a less bigoted future, then you have achieved satori and there’s nothin’ left to see here.  If, though, you do find it uncomfortable hearing those words and remembering that, “hey, are we any kinder to each other in 2016 than the people of 1947 were to one another?”  (Peut-etre un peu? Pas du tout?), then, you’re going to demand for some kind of pay-back.

As a much needed and pleasantly surprising challenge to that scene is the second, marvelous sequence when the Dodgers play in Cincinnati.  Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) puts his arm around Robinson.  The camera films in a high-angle medium shot as he smiles and you can hear the crowd gasp.***  That unassuming but profound gesture of Pee Wee walking up to Jackie and sharing in the human experience is what the 21st century needs to remember.  You see, isn’t your heart mending already?


And yet… what 42 and the Jesse Owens biopic Race have pushed me to consider is whether or not a person is worth a chance to be welcomed and accepted if a person doesn’t demonstrate a capacity for excellence in the performative, physiological, or intellectual achievements of being human.  Do the best and brightest have to take on the mantle of pathfinder before the lukewarm and decent can even have a place to get a better view?


*Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962), starring Sean Connery, was the first Bond film to be released.

**SB Nation has a good summary of this moment.  And, every time I see Alan Tudyk I think of Steven Weber.

*** Note: According to the Jackie Robinson documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, that gesture was a thing of myth-making; it probably never really happened.  If it did, the press would’ve reported it and surely there’d have been witnesses…still living witnesses.

Saturday matinee with Genghis Khan

Fernbank Museum of Natural History has an exhibit on Genghis Khan now through January 21, 2013.  If you’re into history, multicultural artifacts, or just something different from your Egyptian mummies, orchid houses, American still life, and pandas, then be sure to visit Fernbank.


Genghis Khan Monument: One of the monuments to Mongolia’s revered leader, the real bronze statue sits at the entrance to the parliament  building in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, looking down on the Sukhbaatar Square, the city center.

See a close-up of the face here and a side view here. Check out a shield and spears here.


Click here and here for an imperial sword.



See a high angle shot of the chess set.


Ger with furnishings: Wood and felt with replicas and modern Mongolian items.

The ger, or yurt, is a low cylindrical structure made of felt (matted and compressed wool) supported by a wooden accordion-like frame.  Doors and furniture are made of colorfully decorated wood. A hole in the room vents a stove in the center of the room.  One side of the dwelling belongs to the man of the house; his wife, elders, children–and sometimes pets–share the other side.  Today, about one third of the Mongolian population still lives in gers.


See the front and back of the shaman outfit.


See more blades here, bow and arrow set here, and a close-up of the daggers above here.


Helmets!  Horse saddles!


See a close-up of one of them.

See a side close-up of the figurine.


Trebuchet! Ancient text! More ancient text and with references to Buddhism! Trinkets! Even more ancient text!

Musical instruments, more musical instruments, man’s clothes, woman’s clothes and then some.

Marco Polo type sword! More tools for slicingCome to court. If this wall could talk.




Big drum



I decided not to get the hat; it wasn’t as practical as the sword-grip-handle-umbrella, which you can see on the right side of this photo.


Check out this National Geographic piece on a lost tomb and an earlier entry I wrote about the Khan.

A google search turned up an article on Genghis Khan the eco-friendly invader.

Andrew Zimmern went to Mongolia on an episode of Bizarre Foods.

Rewriting History encore

I had asked in a previous entry if you could learn the truth about a great mystery, prevent an event from happening, or simply prolong someone’s lifespan to see how the world would be different, how would you choose?  I’m wondering now if any of the following artists, historical figures, and fictitious characters had a blog, a Youtube channel, or a Twitter account, whom would you follow?  Why?

In random order:

Dorothy Parker
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henry David Thoreau
Jane Austen
Mark Twain
F Scott Fitzgerald
Lord Byron
Edgar Allan Poe


Teddy Roosevelt
Alexander the Great
Siddharta Gautama
Queen Elizabeth
Genghis Khan
Thomas Jefferson
Ben Franklin


Babe Ruth
Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Reggie Lewis
Ernie Davis
Bruce Lee
Lou Gehrig


Charlie Chaplin
Greta Garbo
Leonard da Vinci
Marvin Gaye
Jimi Hendrix
Gianni Versace


Ferris Bueller
Elizabet Bennett
Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
Sherlock Holmes
Perry Mason
Winnie the Pooh

Rewriting History

If I could turn back time, if I could find a way, I’d take back those words that’ve hurt you, and you’d stay.  Echoing Cher’s proposition, but adding a much more historically and culturally consequential dimension, if you could learn the truth about a great mystery, prevent an event from happening, or simply prolong someone’s lifespan to see how the world would be different, how would you choose?

If you could discover the answer to one of the following, you would pick:

– Who was responsible for JFK’s death?
– Who was responsible for Marilyn Monroe’s death?
– Who was Jack the Ripper?
– Who killed JonBenet Ramsey?
– What happened to Amelia Earhart? Or, what if Amelia Earhart never disappeared?

Whose extended life would have had the most significant impact on industry, and culture? Why?
Abraham Lincoln
James Dean
Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee
Kurt Cobain
Jeff Buckley
Lisa Left-Eye Lopes
Michael Hutchence
Sylvia Plath
Iris Chang
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Louis XVI

And now for subjunctive history, how would American and global politics and culture be different if…

– Michael Vick never had dog troubles (as in he was never involved in the venture).
Tom Brady didn’t injure his knee at the start of the 2008 season.
– The Titanic never sank.
New York City still had an intact skyline.
Prohibition never happened.
Columbine never happened.
OJ Simpson was convicted of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s deaths; Or, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman never met such a horrible end.
Will H. Hays never implemented the Production Code.
– The House on Un-American Activities Committee never carried out a communist witchhunt in Hollywood.
– Hurricane Katrina never happened.
Napoleon never existed.
– The Civil War never happened; Or, what if the Confederacy won.
Both Tupac and the Notorious BIG remained friends.

I believe that any what-ifs concerning Jack the Ripper’s identity and the OJ Simpson trial would have a tremendous domino effect on American culture, the legal system, and media.  The increased presence of forensic science in entertainment and news is due in part to the the interest in the Ripper murders as well as the media phenomenon of the OJ case.

Rebuilding with the Book of Days

Book of Days.  Book of History Lessons.  Always remember from where you came.  You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

The first theatrically released film I watched in 2010 was The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers), a desaturated, post-apocalyptic fable.  Eli, a lone wanderer, (Denzel Washington) has a single mission: go west, keep the Book safe, and do not stray from the path.  He kills anyone who stubbornly refuses to let him be on his way.  Carnegie (Gary Oldman), self-appointed sovereign of a shanty town, wants the Book.  Eli comes to this town to charge a battery and encounters other characters that feature substantially in the plot.  Carnegie finds out that Eli has the Book and we’re off to the races.

The identity of the Book is revealed very early.  It’s a King James edition of the Bible.  The Book of Eli doesn’t lay out the backstory to the doom.  Instead, it presents pieces in conversation that the audience must synthesize.  It would be very convenient to slap this film upside the noggin and call it coolly evangelical.  It’s not Left Behind but it’s not The Last Temptation of Christ either.  The film certainly promotes a theist view of existence, incorporating the issue of institutionalized religion vs. having faith, but it also frames holy texts as important parts of human civilization that should not be forgotten.

In order to continue this discussion, major spoilers aheadHighlight relevant words at your own discretion.  The Hughes Brothers’ films have a degree of humor no matter the subject matter.  The scene with the cannibalistic old-timers (performed superbly by Michael Gambon and  Frances de la Tour) is both frightening and hilarious.  I was both thrilled and disappointed towards the end of the film to see that Eli’s destination is Alcatraz and Malcolm MacDowell and his “followers” have been overseeing a rebuilding of books.  There’s a printing press that is nearly ready for use.  The viewer also learns that Eli has been blind through the whole film but has “read” the braille Bible of his so many times that he’s memorized it.  But, this particular “reveal” is cross-cut with Carnegie’s discovery that the Book is visually-impaired-friendly so that when Eli and Solara (Mila Kunis) show up at the rock, the viewer isn’t quite sure what will happen.  Of course, a couple sequences back, Eli tells Solara that he’s read the Book so many times and was so focused on protecting it that he had nearly forgotten about the golden rule.  If you’re astute, you’d more or less be able to guess what will happen in the end.

There’s also a great montage sequence at the end where Malcolm MacDowell puts the printed King James Bible between the Torah and the Koran.  Why was Eli’s Bible so special?  It was the only one  that survived a systematic search-and-destroy measure those in power took years back.  Apparently, the Bible (interpret as any holy text perhaps) was the reason people went to war. In other words, using religion as an excuse to antagonize other people.   The war, likely nuclear, made the sun go down and blinded people.  When food and water became scarce (and everything else), some chose to turn to cannibalism.  A side-effect was shaking hands.

I don’t believe the film is preaching the need to cower to unseen forces.  Taken somewhat cynically, I’d argue that on the one hand, people who forget their past are likely to make the same mistakes, but on the other hand, when enough time passes, people will continue to try to make fire and reinvent the wheel.

And what about the Book of Days?  The song’s lyrics reminded me of the story.

One day, one night, one moment,
my dreams could be, tomorrow.
One step, one fall, one falter,
east or west, over earth or by ocean.
One way to be my journey,
this way could be my Book of Days.

My four favorite parts of the film:

Tom Waits.

Gary Oldman tells Jennifer Beals about shampoo.

When Eli tells Solara, “Faith is when you know something but you don’t know something.”

And this scene:

The Book of Eli watches very much like a wandering samurai film.  Zatoichi meets the Yojimbo without the warring clans.


Product Placement and Branding: Motorola megaphone, KFC moist towelettes, early generation iPod, Oprah magazine, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, a Mussolini biography (Gary Oldman’s character reads it), and the Bee Gees (“How Can you Mend a Broken Heart”).

Audience demographics:  7pm showing at Regal Northpoint 70% filled to capacity; average age: 35; male to female ratio about even; I was possibly one among a dozen ethnic minorities.  I think I was the only Asian person in the audience.


See more movie stills here.