Berlin Cabaret

Peter Jelavich. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Berlin CabaretIn Berlin Cabaret, Peter Jelavich traces the evolution of Berlin cabaret from its early stages in 1900 through its death at the hands of National Socialism in the 1930s and ‘40s. The book is both a narrative account of the history of the art form and a synthesis of the many themes (aesthetic, sexual, racial, fashion, and political) that were present in cabaret. In short, it is an examination of the triumphs and failures of popular entertainment in the modern city.

Despite the popular conception of cabaret as little more than a strip show, established by the film starring Liza Minelli and the career of Marlene Dietrich, Jelavich views cabaret as an “ephemeral art” that stood between sleazy nightclubs and vaudeville on the one hand and the higher art of opera on the other. Cabaret is, in its ideal type, a series of short numbers of differing genres on topical issues such as sex, fashion, fads, and politics performed intimately on a small stage in front of a small audience. While Jelavich acknowledges this “ideal type” was rare and short-lived, anything else was not cabaret proper.

The structure of the book is not in keeping with cabaret, which would have a series of disconnected numbers, but rather Jelavich follows revue, with central themes loosely woven into the various chapters. Satire, whether looking at politics, sex, fashion, or race, is the central theme of the book; its goal was “to shock, or to amuse, or to make someone or something look ridiculous,” (50). This satire, and the entire program of cabaret, would function as a safety-valve, allowing political and social pressures to be released in a theater and not in the streets.

The book’s structure follows a chronological order. The first chapter focuses on the environment of the subject: Berlin. A modern, or “world”, city, Berlin was in need of a new form of entertainment, one that stood between mindless variety shows and cryptic avant-garde art.

The subsequent three chapters examine pre-war cabaret. Wolzogen’s Motley Theater, the first Berlin cabaret, sought the “ennoblement” of vaudeville. Wolzogen, an artistic elitist, stressed the refinement of popular entertainment and the exclusivity of cabaret. Ultimately, however, his cabaret would fail, simply not being good enough for the public at large he catered to. Max Reinhardt’s Sound and Smoke took a different approach, opting instead for exuberant play. Over time, Reinhardt would abandon cabaret, looking more like a standard theater of classical and modernist productions. Finally, the pre-war years saw different types of cabaret, from the pub-cabarets modeled after Paris to Rudolph Nelson’s upper-class and Claire Waldoff’s lower-class cabarets.

Chapter five discusses cabaret during World War I and the early Weimar years. As censorship came under military control, most forms of entertainment turned nationalistic; cabaret was no exception. Left-leaning writers such as Kurt Tucholsky and Walter Mehring toned down their lyrics, opting for a more ambiguous political tone.

Chapter six explores the most popular form of entertainment in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, the revue. Unconcerned with most forms of censorship, revue revealed much about sexual and racial assumptions. For the first time, nude dancing was allowed onstage, although eventually there would be some restrictions. At the same time, jazz became popular in Berlin, its spontaneity and primitive qualities being praised, but its performers patronized at best and horribly mistreated at worst. Another form of Americanization, the kickline of “Girls,” was praised, but lead to many debates over gender, military, and industrial questions.

Chapters seven and eight describe the end of cabaret in Berlin. While politics had always been a part of cabaret, it was not a primary focus. The movement failed to see the dangers of National Socialism, and Hitler himself, choosing to simply make fun of him. In the end, most cabaretists would flee the country, practice a form acceptable to, and even supportive of, the Nazis, or face labor camps where they would perform for Jewish captives.

Berlin Cabaret, in the end, is an important study of a movement that swept through Germany for a brief time, had a few triumphs, but ultimately failed to live up to its promise. Cabaret never achieved a high level of social satire, whether politically, sexually, or racially; it usually ended up looking like other forms of popular entertainment. The book is a good study, one that well proves its thesis, using the best available primary and secondary sources. The only difficulties are the inherent problems in translating German humor into English and the lack of a cohesive movement, none of which are the author’s faults.

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Review: Prince Caspian (part 2)

So, if Prince Caspian suceeds as a movie, it surely must follow that it is a good and faithful adaptation of Lewis, right?  Well, no actually.  In fact, Prince Caspian is a fairly poor adaptation of the novel.  There are times, as Douglas Wilson says, when the only common thread between the two are the names of the characters.

To begin, let’s look at some minor points of contention that some might call nitpicking.  These, in my opinion, don’t affect the overall message of the novel, but they do go against what Lewis was trying to say in some small way.

First, the romance between Caspian and Susan.  Until the end, this amounted to nothing more than flirting and seems like a nice addition to the movie.  You need that kind of stuff in a movie, even just at the periphery, to make the world seem more real.  I mean, would you believe that Caspian wouldn’t be at least somewhat interested in Susan?  He is a young man after all.  It does admittedly get a bit silly at the end when Susan kisses him before leaving Narnia for good.

Second, Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin is considerably different from the novel, but not annoyingly so.  Trumpkin the film character is great, but he’s not the book character.  Trumpkin in the movie is, in the words of Greydanus, “written and played with a phlegmatic rather than a sanguine humor, introverted rather than extroverted.”  He just doesn’t seem right, and one wonders whether that will mess up the next movie.

Finally, the addition of scenes in Miraz’ court are actually good.  The nitpicker will say they aren’t in the book, so they shouldn’t be in the movie, but I think they serve their purpose and do something to help create the world.  The character of Miraz, on the other hand, is underused; we really don’t know why he’s evil except that the other characters tell us he is.

In between serious flaws and minor nitpicks sits the character of Reepicheep.  While I thought he was a good movie character, he is not the Reepicheep of the books.  My daughter almost leapt in joy upon seeing him, but I was less excited.  The filmed Reepicheep was sarcastic, prideful, and anything but honorable.  He seems to act the way he does because of some chip on his shoulder, not because he is an virtuous knight of Narnia.  I wonder whether this is going to carry over into the next film.

Now, onto the things that I believe seriously mar the adaptation.  First, the fact that Aslan acts essentially as a deus ex machina.  They try to convince us the characters are acting and reacting because of Aslan’s absence, but he really only comes in at the end to kick some butt.  Imagine reading Revelation having heard very little of this Christ character; it wouldn’t make much sense.

Second, following from that, neither Peter nor Caspian seem at all sorry that they nearly gave in to the White Witch’s temptation.  They kind of stare at the icon of Aslan, almost giving you the feeling that maybe, in between scenes, they repented, but you don’t see anything of it.  With Caspian you can understand this, he’s never met the Lion, but with Peter that makes no sense.  Is he really that mad at Aslan for having to live in our world for a year?

This leads to one of the biggest problems in adapting Prince Caspian: the action scenes.  Following the Lord of the Rings films, the narrative flow of the novels is displaced by constant action.  Character arcs and understanding motives are less interesting visually than, say, a decapitation.  This is perfectly seen in the added scene of the raid on the Telmarine castle.  It was not in the book and essentially added nothing to the film.  That time could have easily be spent forwarding the characters and the non-action plot elements.

Hollywood insists on constant conflict and action.  Perhaps audiences won’t accept a fantasy film without a lot of battle scenes, or at least they think we’re that stupid.  As much as I love Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy, in many ways he does not understand the source material.  He took what was not the major theme of the books, battle, and turned it into what defines the series.  (To see how Tolkien views war, take a look at the Battle of the Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit, then question how Jackson/del Toro are going to handle it.)  

It is the same with Prince Caspian; the filmmakers assume there has to be some kind of armed conflict every ten minutes or the audience will grow bored.  Characterization and actual story are sacrificed at the altar of war.  Again, it’s sad that Hollywood thinks this is part and parcel of fantasy, as there are so many great stories that don’t rely heavily on this at all.  (Harry Potter, in my view, is a good example of this.)

While Prince Caspian the movie is pretty good, it doesn’t do the book any justice.  I’m sure this is the refrain of any geek whose favorite book gets made into a movie, but when you’re actively changing the themes of the book, then it seems legitimate.  Perhaps modern audiences, and the ever so popular family demographic, won’t be interested in reading the book (“What? Susan doesn’t even use her bow?), but that doesn’t mean Prince Caspian is anything but a somewhat faithful adaptation.  And by that I mean the skeleton remains the same, but the heart is missing.

Review: Prince Caspian (part 1)

There are two ways one could approach a movie like Prince Caspian: as a fantasy movie or as a fantasy movie based on a beloved classic novel.  I’m going to try to take both of these views into account as I review this movie, but my default position will be the latter.  In this post, I’ll review the film itself and in the next, I’ll look at how it compares to the book.

My general feeling is that if a book is pretty good, with great characters and plot, then you don’t need to change things around too much in order to make a movie.  Sure, the filmmakers will have to cut things out in order to make a watchable movie (the Harry Potter series), but if a book is already pretty good, then it’s not too much of a leap to expect the movie to be both similar and good.  (Good books being made into bad movies is a post all on its own; see Jumper, The Dark is Rising, The Spiderwick Chronicles, or The Golden Compass.)

As a movie, Prince Caspian does fairly well.  No doubt, it will be compared to Return of the King, which is a bad thing; a very, very bad thing.  There is no way a movie based on a children’s book and aimed toward a family friendly audience will be able to stand up against the genius that is Peter Jackson’s LotR.  The battle scenes will always be tame (even if there is a PG beheading), which is what the modern audience considers the bread and butter of a fantasy film.  If you take that comparison off the table and think of Prince Caspian more in terms of other family friendly fantasy films (alliteration!), like Eragon (which I pointedly left off my good book/bad movie list), then it becomes a very good movie.

The story is somewhat tight, although the first act is rushed, seemingly to get to the action.  Caspian is rushed out of the castle and into the woods before we have a feel for the world.  We’re not given any reason to care for the young prince and his imminent murder.  The sequence of the four Pevensies meeting the titular prince is also confusing, making me feel like something was missing, perhaps cut for time purposes.

The biggest complaint I have about the story is the absence of Aslan, who drove the previous film.  I understand what the story was trying to say, that people have given up hope in Aslan. There is an important theological point there: whatever Peter does by himself, in his own power if you will, is ultimately doomed to failure.  Similarly, Caspian is willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, even accepting the help of the White Witch.  But the writers take away anything they had stored up by not having Peter and Caspian be even remotely sorry for giving into temptation.  It’s as if there are no consequences to fairly serious actions.  When Aslan finally shows up he really doesn’t do anything except act as a deus ex machina, which I suppose you could say he literally is.

The characters are better developed than the previous movie, but they still lack something.  It’s obvious Peter is struggling since his return to our world, but we don’t really feel this; he seems more like the teenaged Anakin Skywalker, a comparison you never want to make.  Caspian is good, which kind of works against the movie.  He actually looks and acts like a prince and has a good amount of charisma on the screen, dwarfing Peter by comparison.

That said, the actors are good.  Although I’ll contradict myself later, Eddie Izzard is great as Reepicheep and Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin is excellent.  The Pevensies have become better actors and Ben Barnes’ Caspian is good.  The one misstep in casting is the criminal misuse of Pierfrancesco Favino (Glozelle) and Sergio Castellitto (Miraz), who are underused.

The filmmaking is better than the first installment, adding many layers to what could have been a one-dimensional film.  If The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a flat, clean, soulless movie, then Prince Caspian is a dirty, real, three-dimensional story.  Narnia feels real, not just a magical world, but a real land with real people living real lives.  You feel the history of the past 1,000 years, knowing that countless people have lived and died waiting for Aslan to return.  This is something the first movie largely fails to accomplish.

As a whole, Prince Caspian, being what it is, is a pretty good movie.  If I had to rate it, it would be in the B/B+ range.  It’s not the best fantasy movie ever, nor is it the worst; it stands well above the films listed above and does well in comparison to the later Harry Potter films.  It is well worth spending $8 to see it in the theater, which is perhaps the highest praise I could give a movie.  (And remember, this is without taking the book into account.)

Review: Billy the Kid: the Endless Ride by Michael Wallis

Michael Wallis, Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride (W.W. Norton, 2007) 288 pp.

Although he has been dead for over 100 years Billy the Kid is still a popular subject in all forms of popular culture. From films to books to plays, he continues to be an object of myth and legend.

Billy the Kid: the Endless Ride by Michael Wallis provides a fresh look at the life and legend of Henry William Antrim. While the book is fairly traditional in its approach, Wallis does engage in some revisionism when attempting to prove the heroism of the Kid.

Most of what we think we know about Billy the Kid is only legend rooted in half-truth. In many ways, he has become important, not because of the things he did, but because of a varying memories of him. He looms on the edge of our modern society, a man whose violence appalls, yet also appeals to us. We are at once disgusted by his (alleged) murderous ways, yet we cheer his roughish independence. To a certain extent, Billy the Kid embodies what America has become these past one hundred years.

There is no consensus regarding much of Billy’s life. Where was he born? Who was his father? How many men did he actually kill? All of these questions, and more, are so shrouded in legend that it is almost impossible to root out the truth. He was the son of Irish kings; no, his father was an officer in the Union army. He killed a hundred men; no, he only killed two. He was killed by Pat Garret; no, he escaped to live in Mexico. Wallis attempts to answer these questions by tracing the sources as far back as he can go in order to reconstruct the Kid’s life. Often, the reader is left with varying accounts and the divergent memories of those who were present. The reader is left to decide who to believe.

Wallis proposes a new understanding of the Kid. He does not sugarcoat him, or make him out to be what he is not; rather, Wallis attempts to prove the Kid was never who we thought him to be.

There is a popular misconception that Billy the Kid was a wild bandit who killed at every turn. Wallis proves that only two murders can be pinned directly to him, and even those could be justified in the rugged environment he lived in.

This is where Wallis excels, in illuminating the rough and often violent life in the late 19th century west. The streets come alive in the pages, the dust almost making the reader cough as Billy’s family moves from Kansas to the Southwest. Mere facts and first-hand accounts don’t litter these pages; Wallis opens up a world that a has been plagued by sensational journalism since the beginning. The reader understands that world, understands the motivations behind the violence, while never approving of it.

This is not to say, however, that the book is without flaws. Certainly, Wallis tends to be over poetic at times and often sacrifices internal coherence for the sake of drama. He paints the world of Dodge City, where Billy’s mother worked as a laundress, as an idyllic American dream, only to contradict himself later when describing the woman’s terrible fight with tuberculosis. He also brings up the idea of exploring the Kid as a legendary figure among Hispanics, but does nothing beyond bringing it up. This is an idea worth exploring, perhaps more so than another anglo-centric biography.

Taken as a whole, Billy the Kid: the Endless Ride is a good book, well worth reading by any fan of western American history. It may not be the definitive biography, mainly because it is written at the popular and not academic level, but it is perhaps the most well written book on Henry Antrim. Wallis writes with clarity, avoiding any offensive bias, and admirably achieves his goal of writing a revisionist biography. I highly recommend it.

Quick Review: The Golden Compass

I’ll do this quick review in list fashion (as an homage to Deadpool):

  1. If you haven’t read the book this movie will be almost incomprehensible.
  2. If you have the read the book, this movie will piss you off.
  3. If you are a Christian, don’t worry about the author’s atheism, see point 1.
  4. If you are an atheist, then get mad, see point 1.
  5. One redeeming quality: fighting bears.

Review: Gospel of Disunion by Mitchell Snay

Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion; Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 265 pp.

Gospel of Disunion by Mitchell Snay provides an analysis of Southern religion, identifying it as a key factor in Confederate nationalism and eventual secession.  Snay is a good writer and researcher who does an excellent job in wading through all of the sources in order to come to the conclusion that religion and secession go hand in hand.
 
The importance of religion in the antebellum South, as well as the whole of the country, cannot be overstated.  Religion played a significant role in virtually everyone’s life, even those who were not religious themselves were affected by Christianity.  The prominence of religion in law, politics, and culture transformed the sectional conflict into a moral conflict with nothing less than orthodoxy being at stake.
 
According to Snay, religion is essential “in order to understand the origins and nature of Southern separatism” (Snay, 3).  The work seeks to “Foster a better understanding of the intellectual origins of Southern nationalism, the coming of the Civil War, and the dynamic relationship between religion and politics in American history,” (i).
 
Proving his case, the author points to three lines of evidence which show the importance of religion in understanding the secessionist movement.  First, that religion was central to the culture and society of the pre-war South.  Second, that the sectional controversy had a “strongly religious character” (4).  The attacks of the North against the South were not merely theological disputes amongst academics, but rather assaults against the moral and religious fiber of Southern society.  Finally, “religion played a major role in the formation of Southern national identity” (5).  To the Southerner, being Southern was synonymous with being Christian, a very particular brand of Christian at that.  Similar to how the early republic was formed by religion, so was the South, especially in opposition to what they viewed as the creeping Northern liberalism and unitarianism.

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Review: This Mighty Scourge by James McPherson

James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge; Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 260pp.

James McPherson’s This Mighty Scourge is a set of sixteen essays dealing with the origins and repercussions of the Civil War.  It is an ambitious work that seeks to give the reader an understanding of why the country went to war, how the Union won and what the ramifications were of such massive bloodshed.  McPherson is widely regarded as the premiere Civil War historian of the time and this book proves why.  Not only does the work capture the big picture issues of the war, but it does so in an engaging way that will be appreciated by academics and non-academics.
 
McPherson’s aims in this book are as broad as the Civil War itself.  What started the war?  What did each side want?  What were their respective strategies?  How did the leadership hinder or help?  Was the war worth the tremendous sacrifice?  What impact did the war produce, both nationally and sectionally?  How will subsequent generations remember this conflict?  He attempts to not only answer these questions, but to force the readers to answer for themselves. 
 
The book is part social history, military history, political history and biography.  Since the largest and seemingly most important questions deal with the causes and repercussions of the war, the social history method tends to overwhelm the others.  The heart of the book is not an account of dates, battles and great generals, although he does deal with the latter two.  The “Great Man” method is only occasionally used; rather, McPherson uses what could be termed the “Common Man” method.  More space is devoted to Jesse James, Harriet Tubman, the Brahmins of Boston and the common soldier than most other subjects.  Through these historical characters the larger picture of the war is shown.

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