Thursday, July 9, 2015

Looking Back 100 Years

How do you like your news? Do you favor one specific section of an online newspaper? Or prefer regular updates from websites that feed you news that is:
When Nixon In China, received its world premiere from the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, audiences were stunned by the portrayal of Tricky Dick as a wistful world traveler obsessed with the idea of making news.

Nixon's 1972 mission to establish ties with Communist China was an important peace effort. However, it might surprise people to learn that (according to blogger Danios) America Has Been At War 93% of the Time – 222 Out of 239 Years – Since 1776 To put this in perspective:
  • Pick any year since 1776 and there is about a 91% chance that America was involved in some war during that calendar year.
  • No U.S. president truly qualifies as a peacetime president. Instead, all U.S. presidents can technically be considered “war presidents.”
  • The U.S. has never gone a decade without war.
  • The only time the U.S. went five years without war (1935-40) was during the isolationist period of the Great Depression.
Pope Francis recently made headlines with his controversial statements about war. Some of the points he made were:
  • The great powers had the pictures of the railway lines that brought the trains to the concentration camps like Auschwitz to kill Jews, Christians, homosexuals, everybody. Why didn't they bomb (the railway lines)?
  • Even today we raise our hand against our brother... We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal. We continue to sow destruction, pain, death. 
  • Violence and war lead only to death.
  • People who manufacture weapons or invest in weapons industries are hypocrites if they call themselves Christian.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of America's entry into World War I. For librarians, World War I also gave birth to the Library War Service (as Linton Weeks explains in his excellent article entitled When America's Librarians Went To War).

Poster art for the War Service Library

For most people, 2015 brings to mind the sinking of the Cunard steamship, RMS Lusitania, on May 7, 1915. Numerous books have been written about the tragedy, accompanied by several made-for-television movies and documentaries. As part of the illustrations he created for Lost Liners: From the Titanic to the Andrea Doria -- The Ocean Floor Reveals Its Greatest Ships, the great maritime artist, Ken Marschall, provided the following renderings of the Lusitania's last voyage. Note that the Cunard Line's traditional red-and-black funnels had been painted black because of the war threat.

Portrait of the RMS Lusitania at sea by Ken Marschall

Ken Marschall's illustration of the torpedo striking the RMS Lusitania

Ken Marschall's illustration showing the
RMS Lusitania going down fast by the bow

Ken Marschall's illustration showing the final
plunge of the Cunard steamship, RMS Lusitania

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The 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival devoted part of its annual program entitled Amazing Tales From The Archives to newsreels from 1915 reporting on the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that took place in San Francisco, the debut of Technicolor, and the sinking of the Lusitania. As a life-long fan of ocean liners and classic steamships (with one bedroom decorated entirely in images of ships from the past), I can't begin to describe what it was like to see the following image of the Lusitania blown up to the size of the giant screen in the Castro Theatre.

The Cunard Line's RMS Lusitania at sea

A little bit of late-night research on YouTube led to the following two clips:

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With live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, this year's San Francisco Silent Festival devoted its opening night program to a screening of Lewis Milestone's 1930 war epic, All Quiet on the Western Front. Because it was released as silent film was transitioning to talkies, this movie became notable for several curious distinctions:

As David Thomson explains in his program note:
"All Quiet on the Western Front was shot with two cameras, one for a sound film, and the other for a film that has music and sound effects, but no dialogue. That is the version the Silent Film Festival is showing -- played instead with live music. Isn’t this a film about quiet? There are other benefits. The silent version is a little longer. It has intertitles, like most silent films. But because the characters are without voices, it is easier to feel they are German, or supposed outcasts to our sympathy. Synchronized dialogue was a concession to naturalism."
"That thinking can work both ways. Step back from All Quiet being made on the cusp of the shift in technology and narrative approach. After all, a silent film festival need not stay in the past. There has been great reward and pleasure in rediscovering and restoring silent films, and that will go on some time yet before there are few gems left to be rescued. Moreover, the silent film is not just a measure of history or nostalgia. It is an authentic form, as natural and moving as black-and-white films. You may decide that the silent All Quiet is superior to the sound version, which actually ruled at the box office. [But] you must also remember that, in rural areas, the conversion of theaters for sound was gradual and sometimes reluctant (especially as it coincided with the years of crash and depression)."
Poster art for 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front

When I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school, I was much too young and naive to understand what the author was trying to say. Remarque's novel does not paint military grunts as heroes, nor does he make one side seem better than the other. What he does show is the tragic deterioration of a man's soul, the dehumanizing effects of war, and the unnecessary sacrifice of so many lives for seemingly ridiculous goals.

The scenes early in the movie wherein a schoolteacher eggs on 18-year-old Paul and his classmates (urging them to enlist for the honor of their homeland) offers a sharp contrast to the scene, several years later, when Paul returns to the classroom -- a disillusioned soldier who is utterly disgusted to see his former teacher still trying to sell his students on the glory of war with no idea of the living hell he will be creating for them.

From a cinematic standpoint, one can't help but be impressed by the war scenes (which were filmed without the help of computer generated imagery (CGI) because that technology simply didn't exist at the time). It makes one think of John Houseman's advertisements for Smith Barney ("They make money the old-fashioned way -- they earn it!").

At nearly 153 minutes in length, Milestone's film certainly qualifies as an epic. However, this is a very different genre of war film than more recent blockbusters (which have become a form of military porn). You can watch the entire 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front in the following clip. As you'll see, it's a story about wasted humanity rather than whose side is right in any given war.

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