Pop Culture Roundup: This Week

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Race for the White House:  New series on CNN

All bets are off when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon embark upon a bitter political battle in 1960. Narrated by Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, CNN Original Series "Race for the White House" explores America's most dramatic presidential elections. Premieres Sunday March 6 at 10p ET.

It doesn’t air for several weeks, but “Confirmation,” HBO’s much-anticipated movie about the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is already drawing criticism from some of the folks involved in the real-life drama. The movie, focused on the allegations of sexual harassment made by Thomas’s onetime colleague Anita Hill, debuts April 16. (Hill, who teaches at Brandeis, is played in the film by actress Kerry Washington.) In an interview with Politico, former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) called the script — at least the one he saw — “seriously distorted” and suggested legal action is a possibility. “I don’t know what I’ll do but it won’t be fun and games,” Simpson said. “I won’t just sit still. I’ll have a response, I always have. An attack unanswered is an attack believed.” He’s not alone. Mark Paoletta, a former White House lawyer who worked on Thomas’s confirmation, told Politico: “Based on the script I reviewed, it’s a dishonest film. . . . It’s a propaganda piece for Anita Hill and for Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House.” In response, Len Amato, president of HBO Films, said, “There’s no agenda. There’s no slanting of it. Basically, people are talking about something they haven’t seen and when you see the film, you’ll see it’s quite evenhanded.”

With covert support from the CIA, James Donovan, who is the central figure in the Oscar-nominated movie, “Bridge of Spies,“ conducted the first secret negotiations ever with Fidel Castro, according to White House and CIA records posted today by the National Security Archive--providing a little-known historical foundation for President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Cuba.

The documents show that in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, Donovan engaged Castro in discussions on improving U.S. relations with Cuba and predicted that, eventually, “an accommodation of views could be worked out.“

When Castro shared his interest in restoring relations with Washington and asked how it might come about, Donovan replied, “Now, do you know how porcupines make love?"

Art is often the subject of philosophy. But every now and then, a work of art — something other than a lecture or words on a page — can function as philosophy. “Son of Saul,” a film set in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Holocaust, is such a work of art. It engages with a profound set of problems that also occupied the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

Written and directed by the Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, “Son of Saul” won awards at Cannes, the Golden Globes and elsewhere before making its way to the Oscars to win the award for best foreign language film. It follows a day in the life of Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of mostly Jewish prisoners the Nazis forced to assist with herding people to the gas chambers, burning the bodies and collecting gold and valuables from the corpses. The film creates a direct, experiential and visceral engagement with these events by maintaining a relentless focus on the minute-to-minute unfolding of Saul’s world.

You already know the history told in “The Last Man on the Moon,” but this story just never grows old.

The film, a documentary, is about Capt. Eugene Cernan, who for almost 44 years has held the distinction of being the last human being to step on the moon. It was as part of the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, his third spaceflight, after Gemini IX in 1966 and Apollo 10 in 1969.

Captain Cernan, who turns 82 in March, is an eloquent guide to his own career, stretching back to his days as a Navy pilot. Mark Craig, the director, does a fine job of capturing the competitive camaraderie of the early Apollo days through Captain Cernan and interviews with other astronauts, their wives and NASA officials.

If goats have recently enjoyed an Internet-aided renaissance thanks to their uncanny ability to yell like humans, The Witch reminds us of the beasts’ Satanic true nature. Black Phillip, the goat who may be tormenting a family in 17th century New England, became an instant star after the film’s debut at Sundance, spooking up early trailers and earning his own Twitter account months before the movie’s release. For a while, it isn’t clear if Black Phillip is an unlucky creature born to a family of hysterics, an instrument of a witch deep in the woods, or perhaps even the devil incarnate. By the movie’s delicious final moments, there is very little doubt at all.

What about the traditions that inspired Black Phillip himself? Writer-director Robert Eggers closes The Witch by noting on screen that much of the film came “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records,” and his movie goes to extraordinary lengths to summon authentic 17th century wares and atmosphere. So are there actual accounts of insidious goats terrorizing North American settlers? Why are goats linked to the occult, anyway? Is Black Phillip real??

The answer to the first two questions, alas, is no. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there is nothing about goats in the Salem records or, that I can recall, in any American records of other witchcraft prosecutions,” the famous Cornell scholar Mary Beth Norton wrote to me. She hadn’t seen The Witch yet, but she said “there has been a considerable amount of email talk about this movie among certain Salem scholars.”

From 2017, ten-pound notes issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland will feature a new face; that of the great nineteenth-century science communicator Mary Somerville. Her book on mathematical astronomy, Mechanism of the Heavens – published in 1831, when she was fifty years old – was used as an advanced textbook at Cambridge for a hundred years. This is a phenomenal achievement for a woman who taught herself science and mathematics.

o LGBT people know their history? Here’s a case in point. The singer Sam Smith, it’s fair to say, has a troubled relationship with social media. Yes, social media can be a bit like that bear who wrestled with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant: unforgiving and relentless. But Smith hasn’t helped himself. When he appeared to discover racism for the first time after a friend was racially abused – and then seemed to make it all about himself, and how upset he was – Twitter was not happy.

His latest faux pas: using his Oscar acceptance speech to speculate that he was the first openly gay man to win (very wrong; it’s worth at least a quick Google before a speech in front of hundreds of millions of people). But it gets so much worse. When told that lyricist (and gay man) Howard Ashman was also an Oscar winner, Smith replied: “I should know him. We should date.” Ashman died of Aids in 1991.

It is one of the most famous pieces of American music — but for 70 years orchestras may have been playing one of its best-known effects wrong.

The work is George Gershwin’s jaunty, jazzy symphonic poem “An American in Paris,” and the effect involves a set of instruments that were decidedly not standard equipment when it was written in 1928: French taxi horns, which honk in several places as the music evokes the urban soundscape that a Yankee tourist experiences while exploring the City of Light.

The question is what notes should those taxi horns play. In something of a musicological bombshell, a coming critical edition of the works of George and Ira Gershwin being prepared at the University of Michigan will argue that the now-standard horn pitches — heard in the classic 1951 movie musical with Gene Kelly, in leading concert halls around the world, and eight times a week on Broadway in Christopher Wheeldon’s acclaimed stage adaptation — are not what Gershwin intended.

Folk rock hero Bob Dylan kept a secret stash of more that 6,000 items, which will be housed permanently at the University of Tulsa's Helmerich Center for American Research.

For the past quarter-century, the museums in Berlin’s genteel western suburb of Dahlem have been treated like a relic of the old days of the Cold War. Located on a side street near the campus of Free University in a series of modernist buildings designed by Jugendstil architect Bruno Paul, they housed masterpieces and artifacts from the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and Asia—a world-class collection far from the city’s once-divided center.

Despite the rebirth of Berlin as Germany’s brash and loud capital, this quiet idyll survived. As recently as mid-January, one could stand alone in a cave of swirling frescoes from the Silk Road oasis of Turfan, quietly contemplate great outriggers of the South Pacific, or watch the story of the Buddha’s life unfold in stone friezes from Gandhara. For refreshment, a university-style cafeteria in the basement served fifty-cent cups of tea from the samovar—refills gratis. Visitors came because they cared for the art, not because it was part of the Time Out grand tour.

These slow days are quickly ending. On January 11, parts of the museum closed, with the rest scheduled to follow in a year. In 2019, a very different version of the museum is supposed to reopen in the approximately $630 million Humboldt Forum—the wildly ambitious effort to rebuild a lost Prussian palace in the center of Berlin and fill it mostly with works from the Dahlem collections. While the move will likely bring these remarkable objects a far larger audience, it will also erase some of the qualities that have made the museum so special to generations of Berliners.

She may have risen to legendary status in American culture, but she was soft on Castro—and that was enough to convince nine House GOPers to vote against naming a post office after her.

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