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Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

EdwardianFarmDownton Abbey is all well and good, but what about the folk who weren’t living (or working) in the big manor house? This captivating series from the BBC documents one year in the life of an Edwardian farm, as recreated by historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Alex Langlands.

The team has a ready-made backdrop for their endeavour, which is filmed in the historic port of Morwellham Quay, on the Tamar River, in the county of Devon, UK. Its mild climate in southwest England and natural resources made it a center for fisheries, copper mining, and market gardening of crops like daffodils and strawberries as well as crop farming. Each episode covers a month of the year, beginning with fall’s preparations for winter and carrying on through all stages of planting a cereal crop, raising livestock, and celebrating the turnings of the year.

The crew pull this project off with infectious enthusiasm, making the audience part of their successes and failures and reminding viewers that their experiments with, for instance, building a hayrick to keep the cattle feed dry, could make or break a farmer’s livelihood. Ruth Goodman is illegally cheerful even when getting up in the pre-dawn dark to lace her Edwardian corset and scrub the stone floors, and given her share of chores—stewing the sheep’s head, mucking out the pig, lime-washing the privy—it’s no wonder she’s practically giddy when she gets to escape on a bicycle to film another segment on something like the old cottage industry of Honiton lace. Meanwhile, the archaeologists can be found chasing livestock about, fossicking for copper left behind in the mines, or firing up a lime kiln to prepare ten tons of fertilizer. Even the usually taciturn Peter Ginn is adorably beside himself when his handmade trout hatchery, against all odds, yields three tiny trout.

It’s an interesting time period, 1901-1910, horse-drawn plows and steam railways working side by side until traditional ways give way to steam-powered machines like the newly-invented tractor. For those traditional crafts, Goodman, Ginn, and Langlands learn from a parade of experts: coopers and farriers, miners and horse whisperers, lacemakers and hazel wattle hurdle makers. Other supporting “characters” include the beautiful Devon landscape and a variety of native livestock including Red Ruby cattle, beautiful Dartmoor ponies and Shire draft horses, and assorted chickens and pigs.

Edwardian Farm is one of a series of recreations including Victorian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, and Wartime Farm. Sadly, none of the others have been released yet in the United States. Even if it doesn’t inspire you to get out there and lay a hedgerow, it will certainly renew your appreciation for hot running water.

Check the WRL catalog for Edwardian Farm.

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marchCongressman John Lewis has spent almost the entirety of his life fighting for justice and civil rights in America. March is a trilogy that brings to life his experiences and struggles in a deeply personal account that is both inspiring and riveting. The first volume was published in August 2013, and the second was just released in January 2015.

The story bounces back and forth in time between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and Congressman Lewis’ own history, starting when he was a young child in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper. This serves as an effective juxtaposition between how far African-Americans have come and where they were just a short lifetime ago. Congressman Lewis weaves his narrative adroitly, using stories like his experience being in charge of his family’s chicken coop to build a foundation for his ongoing dedication to non-violence. His eagerness for education sometimes chafed against the needs of his family’s farm, but Lewis pressed on in his quest for learning. Along the way, he also got an education on the social injustice that tried to keep the worlds of blacks and whites separate.

Early on, his path crossed with the older, more established Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The reader knows what the young John Lewis does not: that this initial meeting is between two men who will become icons. This part is intentionally quiet; the reader silently follows Lewis on the journey to King’s church for the meeting, feeling their nerves get tighter and tighter in anticipation along with the narrator’s. It is an exceptionally well-executed scene.

Lewis eventually joins a local pacifist group committed to non-violence in their quest for desegregation. A larger group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, had published a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story which helped serve as guidance and inspiration for their work. Although this item is no longer available in print, it is obtainable in full-text online through Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. As an avid reader of graphic novels, this was a fascinating piece of literary history.

Nate Powell is a talented illustrator and took up the daunting challenge of depicting major historical figures with particular sensitivity. He is a previous winner of the Eisner Award for his book Swallow Me Whole and his work is always worth a look just on its own merits. March, was named a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2014 for co-authors John Lewis and Andrew Aydin.

Recommended for readers of American history, social justice, African-American history, and biography.

Check the WRL catalog for March, Book One.

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MegaDisasters

If an asteroid hit the earth it would be bad news for all of us; that much is obvious. But what exactly would happen? Mega Disasters features ten episodes describing unimaginable catastrophes such as an F5 tornado hitting Chicago, a major eruption of Mt. Rainier onto Seattle or a huge earthquake hitting Los Angeles. It uses evidence from past cataclysms and tells the story with real disaster film footage. Expect lots of experts predicting doom and tons of (slightly cheesy) computer graphics.

Sometimes I feel like being completely awed by nature. This week I have talked about some of the smallest things (Molecules), some of the Oldest Living Things, and some of the cutest birds (Penguins and Chickens). But sometimes to fully appreciate these lovely things I have to imagine the most catastrophic. Many of this week’s science books are much more useful and appealing because they are visual. To get the full effect of a volcanic eruption (and not actually stand on an active geologic zone and risk pyroclastic flows and lava), I don’t think you can beat sound and action. Boom! Crash! Sizzle! Whoosh! Grab your popcorn, it’s time for a disaster movie!

Some of these mega disasters have happened before, such as the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago, or a Yellowstone eruption that buried the entire Midwest in feet of ash, but these happened long before humans or human civilization were around. The effects on us today would be enormous and perhaps not predictable, but in true History Channel style, Mega Disasters tries to predict. It shows the familiar high-rise buildings of Chicago and then shows computer-animated effects of wrenching winds with flying glass and debris. The creators of the series based their predictions on current expertise and up-to-date knowledge. They interviewed many geologists, meteorologists, astronomers and other scientists. Most of the scientists appear to be unflappable people, so when they dryly state things like, “This entire area would be devastated with nothing left alive,” you know it’s time to sit up and take notice.

My favorite episode is Yellowstone Eruption, because I am spellbound by supervolcanoes that could potentially kill most life on earth, as ably described in the teen novel Ashfall by Mike Mullin. Other good book tie-ins include nonfiction on the worldwide effects of a much smaller eruption, like Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

Mega Disasters will also interest viewers who like fictional disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. And if you think this is a silly topic and you are ever feeling too complacent, just remember this quote attributed to Will Durant, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

Check the WRL catalog for Mega Disasters.

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These intriguing disaster films are reviewed by Bud:Mayday_Air_Land_and_Sea_Disasters0506

Aviation disasters have been much in the news this past year with the most prominent stories being the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 over the Gulf of Thailand and the loss of Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine. The media made much of these tragic events and the public avidly followed the articles because, despite their grievous nature, stories of airplane accidents are inherently gripping. Air disasters occur rarely but when they do the destruction is usually so large scale and dreadful that our attention is just drawn to them.

The non-fiction DVD series, Mayday! Air Disasters shows just how riveting these occurrences can be. This documentary program, which also aired under the title, Air Emergency, profiles twenty-nine different disasters, most, but not all, aviation accidents. Some of the events covered are:

Unlocking Disaster During United Flight 811 from Honolulu to New Zealand, the door to the cargo hold spontaneously opened tearing off a piece of the fuselage in the process and sucking several passengers out of the plane. The parents of one of the lost passengers worked tirelessly to identify the cause of the accident and hold the aviation industry responsible.

Hanging By A Thread Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was flying 24,000 feet over the Hawaiian Islands when suddenly thirty-five feet of the plane’s upper fuselage peeled off, completely exposing the first five rows of passengers to the open sky. Can a passenger jet remain airborne with this much damage?

Out of Control Twelve minutes into a flight from Tokyo to Osaka Japan, JAL Flight 123 mysteriously malfunctions and for over thirty agonizing minutes plunges up and down as the anguished crew fight to regain control of the plane.

Fight For Your Life A suicidal company employee hitches a ride on FedEx Flight 705. Mid-flight he attacks the crew with hammers and a spear gun. The badly injured pilot looks for a place to land while his co-pilot, also seriously wounded, engages in desperate fisticuffs with their crazed passenger.

Falling From the Sky While flying from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, Australia, British Airlines Flight 009 begins experiencing very unusual phenomena. A strange haze drifts into the passenger compartment. A “brilliant, white shimmering light” appears to be clinging to the plane and 20-foot long flames start shooting from the engines which then proceed to shut down one by one.

Ghost Plane En route over Greece, tourist flight Helios 522 with 100 passengers on board cannot be contacted by anyone on the ground. Army jets sent to check on it find something very strange. The plane is flying normally but no one on board is moving. The plane’s occupants all appear to be unconscious or dead. What is going on?

These are just a few of the many intriguing stories covered in a series that totals 12 discs. The first part of each episode uses film footage of the actual incidents, interviews with the people involved and recreations to show what happened. The second part explains why it happened. The accident investigation process is fascinating as scientists and aviation experts try to determine exactly what went wrong.

You learn a lot about avionics, the airline industry and human behavior under extreme conditions. You also pick up some memorable, if occasionally creepy, factoids. Did you know that if you are unfortunate enough to somehow exit an airplane at 23,000 feet it will take you approximately four minutes to hit the ground?

This show proved to be compulsively watchable. It’s the best kind of reality TV because it’s both educational and entertaining and despite the potential for being lurid, is not exploitative or overtly gory. However, if you have a fear of flying, you may find it disquieting.

I’d recommend it for anyone with an interest in aviation, science or human drama.

Check the WRL catalog for Mayday! Air, Land and Sea Disasters and Mayday!:Air Disasters

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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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