Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Poisoners HandbookScience isn’t just esoteric stuff done in a distant lab by detached and isolated scientists, rather it has everyday and real-life implications for us all. And in the case of The Poisoner’s Handbook, real death implications as well. In a time of numerous CSI television programs we blithely imagine that a forensics expert glances around a crime scene, swirls something in a test tube, and twenty minutes later announces that the butler did it, who then confesses to being a serial killer. This makes good TV but real forensics is much slower, less certain and more work. Forensics is also a lot newer than you might imagine. A hundred years ago in New York, arguably the world’s premier city, the police and medical staff  often had very little idea of what was killing people. Accidental poisoning was common because poisons were easy to acquire and almost impossible to detect in a body. Cyanide was common in cleaning supplies and pest control, with unsurprisingly fatal results! Poison was also an excellent (or more accurately dreadful) way to murder people because it was very hard to prove what caused death.

The subtitle of this book: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York sounds glamorous, but the book paints a portrait of a scary world where ignorance ruled, followed closely by corruption and hubris. The corruption of New York during prohibition was ranged against the dedication of scientists and doctors, notably Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, the courageous and brilliant real-life heroes of our story.

Author Deborah Blum says she wanted to be a chemist until she set her hair on fire with a Bunsen burner. Her father was a scientist and mother had a collection of murder mysteries, so she wanted to combine them for a nonfiction scientific Agatha Christie and she succeeded remarkably well. Try The Poisoner’s Handbook for nonfiction with the characterization and suspense of a novel. It is a fascinating portrait of the historical intersection between science and society, likeThe Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Bear in mind, this is not for the squeamish, as forensics are described in detail and poisoning and its aftermath are painted as so common that it is surprising that anyone survived at all.

PBS recognized the dramatic potential in this great book and made a documentary that was released in February, 2014. It is a great companion to the book with historic photographs of New York as well as our heroes Norris and Gettler.

Check the WRL catalog for The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Check the WRL catalog for the new documentary based on the book The Poisoner’s Handbook.

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Room237Have you watched The Shining? Did you notice the placement of cans of Calumet Baking Powder in the hotel pantry? The disappearing chair, the impossible window, the reversal of the hexagonal carpet pattern? Danny’s hand-knit Apollo 11 sweater? If you’re like me, you were too busy recoiling from scenes of ax murders and blood gushing from elevators to pay attention to the carpeting.  But for some obsessed fans, every piece of set decoration, every line of dialogue, every camera shot in The Shining is a potential clue to the film’s hidden meaning.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic, adapted from the Stephen King novel, is ostensibly about a family isolated in a haunted mountain hotel while the father (played by Jack Nicholson) gradually becomes murderously insane. But Kubrick included so many weird scenes and omens not found in the book that an entire subculture grew up around analyzing and interpreting the film. Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts is a documentary narrated by five members of that subculture who are convinced that they have cracked Kubrick’s secret code.

Is the Calumet baking powder can a reference to the massacre of American Indians? Are a German typewriter (which changes color!) and the number 42 signs that the film is about the Jewish Holocaust? Do you have to run the film backwards to find its true meaning? Or perhaps the whole thing is a cloaked confession by Kubrick that he was involved in faking the video of the moon landing.

Room 237’s director, Rodney Ascher, found an unusual and rather brilliant way to tell his story. We never see the five narrators; we just hear their voices expounding their various theories. The visuals consist almost entirely of thousands of movie clips—from The Shining, naturally, but also from Kubrick’s other movies as well as a huge number of familiar Hollywood films.

While the theories may sound loony when I describe them, actually they’re not. Most of the signs and portents that the narrators see in The Shining really are there—although I’m pretty sure that the guy who insists you can see Kubrick’s face in the clouds above the hotel is making it up. It’s not crazy to believe that every detail of the movie exists for a reason, since Kubrick was a legendary control freak. So there are no bad edits, no continuity errors, and you’re off down the rabbit hole, trying to find out what it all means. Maybe Kubrick had a secret message, or maybe he was just messing with your mind. Trying to interpret The Shining is like entering the haunted Room 237 in the movie’s Overlook Hotel: go there, and you are marked for life. If you love movies and pop culture, watch Room 237, but take warning from its tagline:  “Many ways in, no way out.”

Check the WRL catalog for Room 237

Check the catalog for The Shining

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Saving Otter 501

saving otterOtters have got to be one of the cutest, most adorable animals in the world. They are also one of the most helpless animals when they are newborn. When a baby otter in distress is found near Monterey Bay, California, marine biologist Karl Mayer begins the long and difficult process of rehabilitating and educating this otter so that he can eventually be reintroduced back into the wild. This documentary is the story of this otter, nicknamed Otter 501 because he is the 501st otter to be rehabilitated by Mayer and other biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Fortunately for Otter 501, much has been learned about what works and what does not work in this type of rehab since the first otter was helped many years ago.  Otters who enter the program are assigned a number rather than a name, and staff wear special suits with large welding helmets that prevent the otters from recognizing them. The star of the program is Toola, a female otter who gave birth to a stillborn pup when she was in rehab herself, and now is used as a surrogate mother to pups like Otter 501.  It is quite moving to see some of the key moments in the relationship that develops between Toolah and Otter 501, which include the moment she first gains his confidence and when she shows him how to dive underwater in one of the main tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Prospects for Otter 501 to survive in the wild are not great, but Toola gives him a fighting chance.  I won’t give away the ending, but it is a bittersweet one — be sure to have the tissues nearby!

There is a wealth of information about otters presented here, much of it new to me.  Some of it is quite sobering. One of the most depressing facts is that this animal, once prevalent from Northern Russia into Alaska and all the way down the Pacific coast of the United States, was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century.  The 2000 or so that are left  (up from 50 at first count) are carefully monitored by marine biologists. The many fascinating behaviors of these endangered animals are sure to mesmerize you. My favorite one was watching them crack open clam shells with a stone on their tummies while they float on their backs in the water.

There is a lot to like about this documentary. The cinematography is excellent: the views of Monterey Bay were gorgeous and the many close-ups of otters were exceptional.  I plan on watching other fine programs in the Nature Series put out by PBS; WRL has over 30 of these programs.

There is nothing like seeing these creatures live and up close. The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, VA has an otter exhibit that I enjoyed seeing a few years ago.  A little further away in Atlanta is the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium and one of my favorite places I have visited.  It has several exhibits that feature otters, it has  a special Sea Otter Encounter Program, and it is actively involved with otter rehabilitation like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This is a great documentary, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in animals and animal rescue operations.  To further entice you to see this, you can see a short video clip and nine incredibly cute pictures of Otter 501 here.

Check the WRL catalog for Saving Otter 501


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Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin.  Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”

The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers.  When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.

Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status.  Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of  many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America.   Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.

If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book.  Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.

Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land

I read the title in the e-book version.

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Hot CoffeeEveryone knows about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in the mid-90s. Or at least, they think they know. Hot Coffee, a recent HBO documentary, strives to tell the truth about this case, and other civil lawsuits, that have been deemed “frivolous” and the impact of tort reform on the United States’ civil justice system. Sound kinda boring? I thought so too – at first.

It analyzes and discusses four cases and how each one relates to “tort reform.” It begins with the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case in 1994, which has practically entered into urban legend. I certainly thought I knew the details of the case, but I only knew the inaccuracies and the game of Chinese whispers I had heard in the media. In truth, Ms. Liebeck was a 79-year old lady, sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car, who, while trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee, pulled off the lid and spilled the cup of coffee on her lap. Coffee that, in keeping with McDonald’s franchise instructions, had been kept at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. And indeed, Ms. Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns in her pelvic area, and the documentary does not skimp on the photographic evidence – the burns are appalling. Nor was Ms. Liebeck the first to suffer terrible burns because of their coffee – there had been over 700 prior complaints. (And these are just the individuals who made the effort to lodge a formal complaint.)

As well Ms. Liebeck’s case, the documentary goes on to discuss Colin Gourley’s malpractice lawsuit and caps on damages; the prosecution of Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz and the buying of judicial elections; Jamie Leigh Jones v. Halliburton Co. and the growing pervasiveness of mandatory arbitration.

The documentary concludes by examining how the plague of mandatory arbitration is swiftly erasing many individuals’ ability to take complaints to the courts. Own a credit card? Cell phone? Well, if you do, it’s almost certain you have signed away your right to a civil trial in your contract and if you ever have a serious complaint and feel entitled to claiming damages, you will be forced into secret mandatory arbitration with an arbitrator who – wait for it – has been chosen by the corporation itself!

Hot Coffee is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping documentary that exposes how corporations have spent millions on a propaganda campaign to distort the average American’s view of these civil lawsuits. This documentary will forever change what you think you know about “frivolous lawsuits” – in reality, what you’ve been told by corporations and doctors afraid of being sued.

The way that the individual’s rights have been infringed upon by mandatory arbitration, caps on damages, and corporate campaign contributions is unacceptable. Hot Coffee shows how access to the courts has been blocked by greed, corruption, and the power of special interests and how the U.S. civil justice system has been changed – maybe forever.

Check the WRL catalog for Hot Coffee.

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MiraclePlanetI imagined it differently. I pictured a warm shallow pool under a friendly blue sky, overseen by a kindly shining sun and gently stirred by a breeze. And in the pool, my far distant slime-mold ancestors were busily evolving into my grandfather. Miracle Planet shows a past that is far more savage and chaotic than my imaginings.

Miracle Planet is a five-part documentary made by a joint Canadian and Japanese team. The first two parts, “The Violent Past” and “Snowball Earth” assert that in the far distant past the entire earth was frozen solid two miles deep all the way to the equator, probably twice. The friendly blue sky that I imagined was, at some points, actually red from the high concentration of methane and then dark from debris from massive volcanic eruptions. And a meteor hit the earth millions of years before the well-known one causing the dinosaur extinction and made the planet so hot that the rocks boiled and melted miles deep. The documentary explains the timing of these events, which were millions of years apart, but I find geologic time hard to keep track of, since the time spans are so unimaginably huge.

But the most amazing part of the documentary (and perhaps the most amazing thing ever) is that life persisted! Scientists used to think that the freezing and boiling catastrophes sterilized the earth and destroyed all life on earth. Then they thought life evolved again.  But now they think that bacteria could have survived, because they know bacteria survive miles deep in diamond mines in South Africa.

I learned many other things such as the greatest volcanic eruption ever in the history of the earth occurred in what is now Siberia and made ninety-five percent of the existing species extinct. Also that dinosaurs were very bird-like, in that they were better at oxygen exchange than the early mammals because they had air sacs. The series moves up in time to early humans.

I came across this series when I created a display on “The End of the World” and it will fascinate buffs of apocalyptic scenarios. Even if I can accept my personal mortality (and less readily the mortality of my loved ones), the extinction of our species is still horrible to contemplate, let alone the extinction of all life on earth.

Miracle Planet has wonderful images and graphics and I also recommend it for those interested in science. The library owns a lot of great science documentaries and I love them because, at their best, they bring an immediacy to a subject that a book can lack, because sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Check the WRL catalog for Miracle Planet.

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One of the most celebrated dancers of the 20th century, Gene Kelly, was born in 1912 (one hundred years ago!). He is still revered among film and dance enthusiasts for his innovative work in film musicals, his charming personality on screen, and most of all, for his remarkable skill as a dancer.

WRL recently purchased Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer, part of the “American Masters” series. This nonfeature DVD is narrated by actor Stanley Tucci and gives terrific insight into Kelly’s career.

I enjoyed watching the film clips of Kelly in motion. The documentary spends a lot of time talking about his “common man” style of dancing. Where Fred Astaire may have made dancing look effortless, Kelly’s physical style showed the athleticism of dance.

I didn’t know that On the Town, the musical Kelly performed with Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, and Ann Miller was the first musical to be shot on location (New York City, to be exact). It’s very common now, but apparently before Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen insisted, going on site to film a dance sequence wasn’t considered by studio moguls.

The show also had lots of tidbits about my favorite, Singin’ in the Rain. I didn’t know that Kelly had to change suits during the iconic rain sequence because the first one shrunk up after getting wet. And it never occurred to me that all that water pouring on his head would affect the ability of the neighborhoods surrounding the studio to water their lawns!

I was enchanted by the insights into his personal life. Kelly was a good athlete and apparently very competitive. He had to drop out of filming Easter Parade, a role he recommended that Fred Astaire fill, because he broke his ankle after stamping his foot in frustration over a volleyball game!

The DVD is only a little over an hour long. But there’s a lot of information and entertainment packed into the show.

Check the WRL catalog for Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer.

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Slavery by Another Name doesn’t masquerade as a novel but the story is well-told and the characters drawn from history help us consider the realities of a black person’s fearful existence in the era of post-emancipation neoslavery.

“Where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans.”

In Slavery by Another Name, Doug Blackmon chronicles the shocking details of a turn-of-the-century secret service investigation into post-emancipation slavery that led to large-scale indictments of white southern convict leaseholders and their conspirators and the judicial decisions that amounted to little more than slaps on the wrist and enabled atrocities to continue into the 1940s.  Notorious and powerful perpetrators were acquitted or merely fined (at affordable costs that their profitable industries made back using forced labor), despite almost ritual abuse of men, women, and children held in slavery on dubious, trumped-up criminal charges or in debt peonage, which had been made a federal crime in the late 1860s. Many southern lawyers succeeded at arguing that slavery had not actually been made a crime since no statutes had yet been made despite the emancipation proclamation and the thirteenth amendment.

Indeed, where federal investigators initially stirred near panic among slaveholding farmers when they first arrived in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the impotence of the investigations was becoming richly obvious.

Blackmon’s research reveals the incomprehensible, that a federal grand jury (made up of mostly white but a also a few black jurors) and a federal judge, hoping to deter others and who convicted some of the slaveholders in 1903, actually failed to champion the cause of protecting Americans from being enslaved, laying a merely symbolic sentence on the men who went right out and did their dirty work again up until World War II!  President Teddy Roosevelt, his administration, and many northern critics even dropped the cause as it eventually became overwelmingly difficult to pursue, especially considering the intimidation factor brought on by prominent white citizens threatening anyone who spoke up, accusing them of being “nigger lovers.”  There were a few heroes that Blackmon depicts, such as Alabama’s U.S. Attorney Warren S. Reese, who seemed to stick with the project longer than most despite severe backlash from his southern peers.

Admittedly, I was inclined to believe that pre-war slaveholders treated slaves in a manner that guarded their health and strength as a valuable investment. After emancipation, however, this book depicts a different mindset; gone was the sense of preserving a valuable possession that provides a lifetime of hard work, replaced by the expendable convict that any white man could produce simply by nabbing another black man off the street and falsely accusing him of a petty crime.

Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U.S. society–its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end–can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.

This Pulitzer-prizewinning book reveals facts that should be incorporated into every American child’s history curriculum.  Many of us were never made aware of slavery that went on after the Civil War and halfway through the 20th century.  Regardless of our collective moral conscience, those in positions of political or fiscal power over human beings, regardless of either’s race or ethnicity, have always and will continue to exploit humans for forced labor. According to news stories in National Geographic, NPRand Time, slavery is by no means an artifact of the past; it’s alive and well in the 21st century, in democracies such as our nation and throughout the world.

Check the WRL catalog for Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

A PBS documentary film based upon the book and Blackmon’s research was aired in February, 2012, and has been made available for streaming from pbs.org.


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This is an exceptional historical drama about the Big Three leaders of  the Allied front—Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt—and how they worked together to fight and overcome Hitler’s Nazi war machine in World War 2.  It offers a fascinating and unique “behind the scenes” look at the negotiations and decisions made by these three men. This insider view is enhanced by the fact that David Rintels, who wrote the screenplay, based most of the dialogue on transcripts, reports and memoirs of that time,  which lends an air of authenticity and significance to the dialogue, even when minute and mundane matters are discussed.

This three-hour film covers all of the major events of this great war from beginning to end. This includes many of the major conflicts like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Stalingrad and the D-Day invasion. Newsreel footage from each of these major events adds realism to the movie and significance to the diplomacy of the Big Three leaders.  Several meetings between the leaders are featured prominently,  including the important and well-known conferences in Tehran in 1943 and in Yalta in 1945.  Many of these meetings  involved a good deal of discord and wrangling: Churchill, for instance, was vehemently opposed to the spread of communism and was especially concerned about the fate of Poland when the war ended, while Stalin pushed long and loud for a second front in the West to help relieve his armies in Russia, and often accused the other two leaders of not doing enough.

The acting is first-rate: Bob Hoskins as Churchill, John Lithgow as Roosevelt, and Michael Caine as Stalin do a fine job with their very demanding roles. I especially liked Michael Caine, who had his part down pat; with his height, make-up and accent he made for an often chilling Stalin, so it is no surprise to me that he was nominated for an Emmy for his performance.  I also liked Ed Begley Jr. as Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins and Jan Triska as Stalin’s aide Vyacheslav Molotov; both are very believable as top assistants carrying out the plans of their respective leaders.

I would recommend this movie, which won one Emmy award and was nominated for five others, to anyone interested in the history of World War 2. Because of its comprehensive coverage, it could be a good way for students to learn about this war,  and would also be a good movie to watch on Memorial Day.  I showed it to my 81-year-old Dad, who has seen every WW2 movie at least a dozen times and who was not interested in watching any of them for a thirteenth time.  But he paid this movie the biggest compliment when he thanked me at least three times over the next day or so for getting and watching this movie with him.

Check the WRL catalog for World War II: When Lions Roared


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Would you believe that a handful of artistic and scientific geniuses have actually turned their backs on traditional science and math careers to spend the majority of their time folding paper in super-advanced forms of Origami?

“What are the limits, the physical limits of this artform?”

I was once fascinated by artists such as Paul Gauguin, who shed his respectable life (including his wife and children) and escaped to exotic Tahiti to paint with wild abandon. This documentary includes interviews with various scientific wizards from around the world who have abandoned their ordinary lives and even lucrative jobs to pursue their Origami passions to an extreme.

They’re using their amazing brains to meld science, math, music, and engineering with art, advancing Origami theory further than ever dreamed, beyond Origami pioneers such as the great Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005), who is credited with moving traditional Origami into its more sculptural era using wet-folding. He also designed the step-by-step notational diagramming system so common in the instruction books used today. This made it possible for nearly anyone, even without natural artistic ability, to create beautiful and adorably cute objects out of Origami paper. Utilizing the compilation of previous knowledge, Origami scholars are using complex mathematical algorithms that elevate art to scientific awesomeness and seeking ways that Origami can significantly contribute practical solutions such as in curing diseases. When thinking of Alzheimer’s, for example, may we someday be able to unfold or refold our lost memories?

Do not watch this DVD with the expectation that you will learn how to make some cool new Origami creations. This movie will just awe you with such unbelievable designs in Origami that only its top geniuses can master. Many of their works took hours, even hundreds of hours, to design, fold, and sculpt into phenomenal art!

“Any square paper can be folded into any shape!”

Between the Folds is a visual feast, well worth your time. I was most awed by Chris Palmer’s gorgeous folded-paper interpretations of light patterns and movement inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. There are some very interesting, short interview excerpts (“outtakes”) in the special features that provide additional detail on a number of subjects briefly featured in the film. Some of the interviews allow some delightfully quirky personalities to shine and may elicit a few giggles. My teens and I were mesmerized by this video; they wanted to shuck their homework and get out the box of folding papers, but I reminded them that the geniuses in this film got their degrees first and then they advanced the art of Origami! I did concede that there were examples of students whose math and science skills improved through the use of Origami in the classroom.

Check the WRL catalog for Between the Folds.


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Lisa of Circulation Services provides today’s review:

The History Channel has, at times, strained the bounds of what can be considered historical topics in the shows they air. A portion of the shows put on, however, are worth watching, and luckily, many of these shows are released on DVD.

In 2005, the network aired a documentary, The French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, which examined events leading up to and during the French Revolution. The documentary can be broken into two sections; the first illustrates the causes of the French Revolution, while the second discusses the events of the Revolution.

Narrated by Edward Herrmann, this documentary illustrates the influence of the Enlightenment on the Revolution, notably the concept that people could improve their lot in life, something that had not previously been an option for the majority of the population. And while this wave of change brought new ideas and people to the forefront of French politics, it also brought the Terror.

Historians throughout the film explain the role of the French Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many revolutions in the Western hemisphere in the 1810s and 1820s were sparked by the same flame that swept France a few decades earlier. The ideals of 1789 also also gave rise to movements that would pave the way for revolutions elsewhere into the 20th century.

A few criticisms of the film include the failure to adequately transition into the period of Napoleon. While the focus understandably remains on the Revolution and its immediate aftermath, a bit more should have been included to illustrate how the country shifted from a surge of democracy and republicanism into rule by an emperor. The Napoleonic era requires another documentary altogether, but a transition to demonstrate how the events of the French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon would have been instructive.

Additionally, the failure to mention the newly formed United States gives an incomplete global view of the French Revolution. While the American Revolution was in a class of its own, it did help to influence the way in which events in France would gain momentum in the inevitable landslide toward revolution. The assistance which France provided to the United States during the American Revolution contributed to the already destitute socioeconomic situation in France. The American point of view also demonstrates the mixed feelings that the Revolution evoked. The newly formed country stood divided in its view of the French Revolution, particularly once the Reign of Terror began. Some Americans felt that France deserved complete support, while others were reluctant to support what they considered to be a bloodbath as the 1790s progressed—an intriguing perspective coming from a new nation emerging from a revolution against a monarchy. The film does not pay these topics much, if any, lip service, but would benefit from their inclusion.

The documentary, taken as a whole, definitely merits viewing. It gives a thoughtful presentation of the French Revolution without getting too bogged down in minute details, which can drag a film down (and should probably be saved for historical monographs).   At 100 minutes, the film would be an alternative for the classroom, or just an informative film for those who find themselves enjoying the delights that a night of documentary-watching and monograph-reading can offer.

Check the WRL catalog for The French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité


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There are some stereotypes that cannot die out, and one of them is “the lunchlady”.  She is a large woman dressed in a greasy uniform, with a hairnet and a perpetual expression that suggests she’d like nothing better than to throw you in next week’s Mystery Meat as the main ingredient.  I went to enough schools to understand the source of that stereotype, but since my own kids have been in school, I’ve come to see the reality – these ladies (and I’ve only ever seen women in the cafeterias) love being around children.  If lunchladies today seem harried and harrassed, perhaps it’s because their roles have changed over the years.  That change is one small part of the school lunch scandal that Sarah Wu reports on.

Wu, a Chicago elementary school teacher, forgot her lunch one day.  Thinking she’d make do with the cafeteria offering that day, she picked up a tray of “food” – a bagel dog, Jell-O, six Tater Tots, and chocolate milk.  The experience of eating bland unappealing food of questionable nutritious value appalled her.  After debating with herself and trying to work out the work and family ethics of the experiment, Wu started to anonymously observe cafeteria food for one year.  Each day, she would purchase lunch, photograph it during her free period, and write about the meal when she got home that night.  Her blog attracted attention from advocates for nutrition, green schools, the locavore movement, and student cooking, even as she struggled to maintain her alter-ego, “Mrs. Q”.

That first day’s meal was a revelation, but by no means was it an exception.  The above meal was packaged for efficient shipping, not for genuine nutritional value.  The hot dog was wrapped in a bread-like substance and sealed in plastic.  The tater tots, which count as the vegetable, were microwaveable.  The chunks suspended in the plastic Jell-O cup masqueraded as the fruit.  And of course, the chocolate milk was the dairy.  Not exactly the Food Pyramid that kids learn about in that same school, is it?  Strangely enough, the US Department of Agriculture, which created the food pyramid, also represents corporate farming operations and multi-national food service companies, and treats school lunch programs as a profitable outlet for their clients.

So teachers get children who’ve been hopped up on processed sugar then sent back into the classroom.  Students get unappetizing food served without input from real cooks.  Parents get the illusion that their children are eating healthy and filling meals.  The community gets immense amounts of waste from individual packages, utensils, and wasted food.   Food service contractors get the profit from turning food into a disposable commodity served almost literally on the run.  (In many school systems, students have less than 30 minutes to make their way to the cafeteria, stand in line to be served, eat, and still have some form of relaxation time. )

Thankfully Wu’s book not only details the failure of the school lunch program, but identifies people and organizations creating ideas for better school nutrition.  She also talks about how parents can get involved in transforming the culture of bottom-line bottomfeeding into a system that replaces the current foodlike substances with nutritious and attractive alternatives.  And she writes about school systems that are leading the way back towards affordable and healthy school lunches centered on the needs of growing children.  The most important partner parents can call on? Lunch ladies.

Check the WRL catalog for Fed Up With Lunch


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Anyone with an interest in classical music must see this amazing travelogue, which explores some of Europe’s most beautiful cities and the composers whose lives and music had such a great impact upon them.  It includes 13 episodes (5 ½ hours total time) with over 14 major destinations, including my favorites, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, and Venice. It features many well-known composers, like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Vivaldi as well as some lesser-known composers, like Sibelius and Shostakovich.

Classical Destinations takes you on a grand tour of the places and the music that made these composers famous. The places include many of the famous buildings and landmarks of Europe where these composers lived and worked, including St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, and the Old Town of Prague. You are also taken on a tour of some of the most beautiful landscapes of Europe, like the fjords in Norway and the Moldau River in the Czech Republic that inspired composers like Grieg and Smetana to compose some of their greatest music.

The music, of course, is glorious, and it is infused throughout the tour. When you visit St. Mark’s Square, you are treated to an excerpt of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine and Vivaldi’s “La Primavera:” Concerto for Violin and Strings in E Major. When you tour Vienna, which was the music and cultural capital of the world for hundreds of years, you will get to hear music from several great composers who made Vienna their home, like Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, and Mahler.

Classical Destinations is narrated by the actor Simon Callow, with help from Matt Wills and Niki Vasilakis. Niki plays the violin part in the wonderful Classical Destinations theme tune and also plays her violin at many of the destinations. The series was filmed in HD (high-definition) quality video, so the picture and the sound are top quality.

I loved this travelogue and I hope you will take the time to watch, listen, and experience these classical destinations. My only regret is that it did not cover more of the great destinations of Europe, particularly Paris, where many of the great French composers like Berlioz and Saint-Saens lived and worked. Hopefully there will be a Classical Destinations 2 sometime in the near future. But this one is an excellent introduction to the world of classical music. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Classical Destinations.


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This week’s posts are from WRL Development Officer Benjamin Goldberg.

Anyone who is familiar with British comedy shows likely knows of Stephen Fry. He is an accomplished comedian, writer, and actor. For more than two decades he has played characters in British and American television and cinema. Although born in London, England as a child Fry learned he was almost born in New Jersey (his father declined a teaching position at Princeton). Since then Fry’s fascination with the United States has been unyielding. Stephen Fry in America is his videographic effort to explore his nearly adoptive country, visiting both well known and obscure locations along the way (for anyone interested, there is a companion book also). Accompanied by a small film crew and driving a black London cab for most of the way, Fry motors through all 50 states, stopping in each one long enough to visit at least one notable location and offer commentary on his experiences.

Fry starts in the Northeast making his way from Maine to Washington D.C. He travels south from Virginia to Alabama, and then turns north again to follow the Mississippi River all the way to its source. The fourth episode focuses on the Great Plains and the fifth explores the American Southwest. Fry ends his travels going up the west coast, across to Alaska and resting finally in Hawaii.

By turns, his experiences are inspiring, poignant, disturbing, and hilarious. This series has elements that are similar to other travel videos, but Fry focuses less on America’s tourist destinations and more on the citizens he visits with throughout his journey. He examines race, homelessness, family, sports, religion, sex, music, hunting, food, death, charity, transportation, crime, holidays, education, and more. While the topics might seem divergent, through the series Fry emphasizes the humanity he finds that bind them together.

Along the way we learn important facts like he hates to dance, has a valid fear of horses, loves talking with people of all walks of life, and isn’t above sampling several different Kentucky bourbons just to be sure they are worth drinking. I had the impression he enjoyed them all.

Stephen Fry in America offers a view of the United States that is fun both because of its familiarity and because of the narrator’s outsider’s perspective. Fry praises the people he meets as generous and welcoming, while sometimes a bit quirky. He admits feeling awed by the beautiful and majestic landscapes and concludes that Americans are best understood in our own habitat. How can we disagree?

Check the WRL catalog for Stephen Fry in America


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This made for TV HBO docudrama explores the little known early life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, before he became President of the United States and led his country through the Great Depression and the Second World War. In 1923, in the prime of his early life, Roosevelt is struck with infantile paralysis, or polio, after visiting a group of boy scouts at their summer camp for a photo opportunity.

The movie is about his struggle with the disease, which leaves him crippled from the waist down.  Determined to get help any way he can, Franklin visits Warm Springs, a dilapidated spa in rural Georgia. Though he is appalled at how run-down the place is, he is determined to try out the warm spring waters for which the place is named. From his first encounter, he realizes how therapeutic the water is, and, feeling rejuvenated (though not completely well), he decides to stay for an extended period of time. Word of his adventures gets out, and soon other people with polio make the effort, some at great sacrifice, to get to Warm Springs and also experience the healing properties of its warm mineral water.

There are several issues that FDR faces as he attempts to deal with the  trauma and limitations of his disability in Warm Springs. One of these is discrimination. Roosevelt is told at one point that his frequent use of the springs is driving away the local clientele, who won’t go near him or others with polio, shriveling up an already dwindling business. FDR finds a young man very sick with polio in the back of a train, where he had been forced to travel alone for days without food or water. Another issue he deals with is the skepticism of those in the local medical profession that the waters could do any good for someone with polio. Roosevelt handles these and other issues with courage and daring, making a positive impact on not only his own life but on those around him as well.  Warm Springs still carries on his legacy as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center.

What makes this movie really shine are the exceptional actors, especially  Kenneth Branagh, the fine English actor, as a young Franklin Roosevelt, Cynthia Nixon as a shy Eleanor Roosevelt, Tim Blake Nelson as Tom Loyless, the ailing manager of Warm Springs, and Kathy Bates as the physical therapist Helena Mahoney.  These actors add a tremendous amount of realism and color to the story and make the movie all the more memorable to watch.

Warm Springs has made a lasting impression on me since I have a quadriplegic father who I have helped for the past couple of years, so I can identify with many of the themes of this movie. If you know someone who faces physical challenges you will certainly want to see this movie. It will make you more sensitive to the needs of others as well as give you a new and better appreciation of the man who was our 32nd president. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Warm Springs


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It Might Get Loud

What happens when you put Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Jack White of the White Stripes, and The Edge of U2 in the same room with tons of guitar equipment? It Might Get Loud! These three famous guitarists have personal and musical styles that are quite different, but they get together to share their experiences in this rock and roll documentary. While each musician’s band hails from a different era of rock music, each brought a unique, distinguishing sound to his band that made it stand out from others of the time.

It’s fascinating to watch these three rock gods talk plainly with each other. They may all be famous, and as such, easily able to get away with holier-than-thou personas, but this film shows the genuine person under the flashing lights of stardom. When Jimmy Page breaks out “Whole Lotta Love,” The Edge and Jack White try to play it cool, but I could tell by their smiling faces and shining eyes that they were in absolute awe. The film demonstrates how The Edge works his magic on the guitar with new technology and electrical equipment, in contrast to Jack White, who plays on a thrift-store guitar that looks like it’s been through hell, while making it sound like heaven. They have such different styles, but they all have one thing in common: passion for the music itself.

If you have an interest in any of these musicians or the bands they play with, I highly recommend checking out this DVD. I’m a huge White Stripes fan and have followed Jack White through his other projects, so when I checked out this movie I knew I’d like it just because he was in it. However, I’m so glad I watched it because I gained a whole new respect for the artists as individuals who have struggled and put in the hard work required to make it to where they are today. This film shows the amazing things that can be accomplished by those who find their passion, realize that’s what they’re meant to do with their lives, and live their dream!

Check the WRL catalog for It Might Get Loud


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Yesterday I wrote about Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, in which many disparate events converge around Philippe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center towers. It wasn’t until I read McCann’s novel that I stopped to think. “Oh. My. God. How could anyone have possibly walked on a wire between the two towers?”

I found answers in a book Petit wrote about his experience, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers, and in a documentary based on the book, Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh.

Both movie and book give a sense of how nearly impossible the feat was, but how, incredibly, Petit and his friends pulled it off. Even though you know they succeed, the suspense is great as Petit and his friends sneak 440 pounds of cable and other equipment into the building and up 104 flights while encountering guards they’re sure will catch them and keep Petit from reaching his dream.

There is no footage of Petit actually walking between the towers. One of his friends was supposed to film the walk, but the friend was arrested before he could get the camera working. However, incredible still shots of Petit are included throughout the film and in the book and give a good sense of the unbelievable feat Petit accomplished: walking back and forth on a wire ¾ of an inch in diameter, kneeling, laying down and nearly dancing, a quarter mile in the sky.

In a beautiful, first person voice, Petit relays the poetry of wire-walking.

The wire waits.
The unknown, the infinite, the joyous reaper stretches out its arms and hides its face. Its arms of thousands, tens of thousands, of tons of concrete, glass, steel, and threat. A gaping mouth 110 stories deep, more than 400 meters tall.
An inner howl assails me, the wild longing to flee.
But it is too late.
The wire is ready.
My heart is so forcibly pressed against that wire, each beat echoes, echoes and casts each approaching thought into the netherworld.
Decisively, my other foot sets itself onto the cable.”

Wire-walking for Petit is not a mere stunt. It is artistry.

On the DVD, there is footage of Petit performing between other structures. In the years before his WTC walk, he put a cable between two towers of a cathedral near his Parisian boyhood home, and stopped traffic for an hour while he walked between the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. There is also footage of his training for the WTC walk, with his friends pulling on the cavalettis (guy wires) holding the main wire in place, trying to simulate the possible undulations that wind might create at so high an elevation.

The DVD includes interviews with Petit and his friends, now grown older and estranged, who helped him train and rig the wire between the buildings. The Special Features section should not be overlooked, especially the interview with Petit, now in his fifties and living in upstate New York, as he discusses his life and his many walks throughout the years.

Read the book for a few more technical details and for Petit’s own poetic recollections of the walk. Watch the DVD to see this incredible man in action.

Check the WRL catalog for Man on Wire and To Reach the Clouds


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I enjoy watching the Food Network to learn about various types of food. I also enjoy eating and like to think of myself as an enlightened consumer.  So I was naturally interested in this Oscar-nominated documentary produced by and featuring Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) that provides a broad and in-depth look at some of the problems and challenges facing the food industry in the United States.

They first look at the problems of the food industry and how these can harm and even prove fatal to the public. The move to mass-production of food over the last 50 years has led to a consolidation of companies that want to produce the most amount of food on the least amount of land for the cheapest price. That in and of itself is not a bad thing: later on you will see organic food companies mass producing their healthy products like yogurt. The problem comes about when companies insist on feeding corn to their livestock, which makes the animals get bigger and fatter more quickly.  Corn is also engineered to make synthetic products like high fructose corn syrup and ascorbic acid that add a considerable amount of fat to many of the products we eat, including peanut butter, ketchup, and Sweet N’ Low. When livestock are fed a high fat diet rather than grass, and are forced to live in very tight spaces,  bacteria like E-coli spread and can pose a serious threat to humans. Many companies use chemically treated meat filler that is now put in most of the hamburger in fast food restaurants. One of the “treats” of the documentary is to see how the filler is made in a factory, where it is run through an ammonia chamber and then packaged and sent to meat processing plants.  The problem is compounded by many of the big companies in the food industry. They resist all efforts to change, they lobby Congress and have been successful in getting their own people to run agencies like the FDA that are supposed to regulate their industry.

There is also the profound impact on people.  E-coli has sickened thousands of people and even led to the deaths of young children.  Diabetes 2 has become a widespread problem for both children and adults.  In one scene in the film, “The Dollar Menu” a poor family comes to terms with their reliance on fast food,  which is cheaper than healthier food they find in the grocery, but is more expensive in the long run when they consider the high cost of medications to control high blood pressure.

The challenges and opportunities of the organic food market are also examined. Though many organic farmers provide healthier products, many of them, like the comical farmer from Virginia interviewed while he “processes” a soon dead chicken,  have no means or desire to grow to meet demand. If people want to buy their food, then they have to either be lucky enough to live nearby or have the means to drive a considerable distance to buy food onsite. There are organic companies who have used mass production to become highly successful, like Stonyfield Farms. Their CEO, Gary Hirschberg, has the best quote when he states that organic food businesses, when going up against the big food industry corporations, needs to fight not as David going against Goliath, but as Goliath going up against Goliath – in other words, they need to get big enough to compete with the corporations.  And no company was better for them than Walmart, an unlikely ally which is a great outlet for their products able to sell millions of dollars of food every year. The fact that  Walmart does this for financial rather than ethical reasons does diminish this a little, but their willingness to consider organic products is an important first step, making them the only big company in the documentary to look at least somewhat good.

This is a thought-provoking documentary about the food industry that I recommend to anyone interested in where their food comes from. It concludes with 10 Things You Can Do To Change Our Food System that includes eat at home,  have meatless Mondays, and buy organic food made with little or no pesticides. Some of the images are disturbing but not overly graphic. Many of these images, however, will stay with you and make you think twice about eating fast food hamburgers or chicken nuggets. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Food, Inc.


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