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Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

good bookIn a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God.  However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)

Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors,  begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?

One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen?  Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.

It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)

The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years.  But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.

Check the catalog for Good Book

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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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