The shameful story of “Empire,” British style

A-EmpireThe Shameful Story of the British Empire

A thoroughly jaundiced view of the history of the British Empire can be found on the Athena Learning DVD tersely titled “Empire.”  Written and hosted by Jeremy Paxman, it tells the shameful story of how Britain decided it was in charge of the world—or at least those parts of it not already inhabited by whites—and destined to make those parts thoroughly British.

There are five hour-long episodes in this 2-disc set, each looking at the subject from different points of view. “A Taste for Power” discusses the taking over of (mostly) India by diplomacy and broken promises and by military troops. “Making Ourselves at Home” shows how the families of the governors and soldiers took over acres of land and built British-style homes and clubs.

“Playing the Game” connects the goal of the “public” schools to make no-nonsense hard playing Christians out of the boys who would carry these ideas when they went to rule countries of which they knew or understood nothing. (This is where Michael Palin of Monty Python appears briefly to heighten the absurdity of that mindset.)

David Livingstone

“Making a Fortune” is the most shameful of all: the slave trade, forcing opium on the Chinese, and other indications of what being religious meant to them back then. Finally, “Doing Good” starts with the sincere attempts of Dr. Livingston to spread his religion to the Africans (he succeeded, we are told, in making a single conversion!) and goes on to the otherwise motivated British such as Cecil Rhodes, who wanted power.

The feeling of history repeating itself (this is being written two days after the attack on Paris by ISIS) comes from the story of how the Mau Maus decided that Kenya was for the Kenyans and did something about it by decapitating the most prominent of the British governors. The British reaction, as always, was even crueler; but that is all part of believing that one’s way is the right way.

The greatest irony of all is today’s white Brits complaining of all the commonwealth people in their cities. Of course, they had no part in the original crimes against humanity done by the past regimes; but they are reaping the whirlwind. Will other governments around the world ever learn what it is to consider their culture superior and therefore to have the “right” to advise other nations how to act?

This should be required viewing for those in power who can so easily abuse it…and then wonder why nobody likes them.



The Girls in the Band

A-Girls in the Band           GIRLS IN THE BAND   How many of these names do you recognize? Marian McPartland, Esperanza Spalding, Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, Ina Ray Hutton? Possibly the last one. They are only a few of the many female jazz musicians that struggled to be heard in a country that was sexist even more than racist, while men like Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington made the headlines.

Virgil Films has brought to DVD a wonderful documentary titled “The Girls in the Band,” directed by Judy Chaikin, that tells in 88 minutes the story of these women whose love for jazz made them face all the obstacles that the male domination and racial bigotry could put in their way.

The most interesting story is that of a white woman playing in an all-Black women’s band, who had to hide as much as possible when they did a gig down south. How much have things changed since then, one might wonder.

The format gives each artist time to have her own story told through vintage films, stills, and interviews. There are several bonus features, the best of which is an ironic recreation of a photo taken decades ago in Harlem in which dozens of male jazz artists posed along with only three women. See for yourself how this wrong was righted!

I personally do not like jazz, but I do admire the artistry of those highlighted in this film.


Art of the Heist

A-Art of the HeistDocumentary Shows Art Heists as an Art

It might be argued that the theft of great art is the worst theft imaginable because it takes from the world a thing of great beauty. (I think stealing from the poor is worse, but let that go for the sake of this review.) A series called “Art of the Heist” and subtitled “Inside the art world’s biggest thefts” is now available in a set of 4 DVDs from Athena Learning and makes a strong case for that opening thesis.

There are 14 cases of art thefts included in this miniseries, starting with the heist of several works of art from a Stockholm museum and ending with a single man taking and holding for ransom the famous Cellini Salt Cellar by simply climbing up a scaffolding to the 7th floor of a Viennese museum under renovation and down again with the object.

In most cases, art thefts from museums have been facilitated by shamefully inadequate security measures, as in the case of the Gardner Museum in Boston and even the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in which the curator of all the art not on public display simply took about 200 items home in her bag.

imagesOf course, we have the defilers of tombs in Egypt (as in many a Mummy film) and of churches that housed mosaics and icons of great artistic value. The case of the Nazis’ taking a Klimt portrait of a lady was recently made into a film and is told more briefly here. Ironically, the original title was changed by the thieves to “The Lady in Gold” because the Lady in question was Jewish. Probably the most famous case is the taking of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.

Some of the cases seem clones of others, some are quite unique. The almost comical actions of the Cellini thief could have made a good episode of “Lovejoy.” Among the other artists mentioned are Rubens, Cezanne, and Munch.

The most shameful is the looting of a museum in Buenos Aires, almost certainly by the Junta that was keeping the country under a reign of terror and needed a source of money to pay for armaments.

The stories are told by interviews with both crooks and cops and reenactments of the crimes and the investigations that followed. Most of it is quite riveting, some merely interesting. But it certainly is worth seeing.


The Story of Women and Power


Back in 1974, Masterpiece Theatre telecast a dramatization of the struggle in England for women’s suffrage titled “Shoulder to Shoulder.” Now Athena has a 3-part series that goes over the same material, but it starts centuries earlier. “The Story of Women and Power” is narrated, sometimes a little too passionately, by historian Amanda Vickery.

It is all quite fascinating and even the most devoted misogynist should sicken at the examples of how half the British population suffered under the male domination of husband, government, and church. For example, did you know “rule of thumb” refers to the law that kept husbands from beating their wives with a rod thicker than a thumb?

Actually the dramatization of 1974 was much more impressive, because the actions spoke for themselves. In this newer program, being told about it, no matter how bitterly, and seeing newspaper sketches of (say) women prisoners being force-fed is less personal. Notice that a film is about to be released about the British suffrage movement with Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, which is doubtless the inspiration for the release of this 2015 documentary.

But the older series and “Women and Power” are– and the upcoming film doubtless will be–worth the watching.


The Wild West

A-Wild WestA Fascinating Study of Geography and the Western Movement

Athena Learning has come up with another winner, “The Wild West,” subtitled “A Wild Ride into America’s Historic Frontier.” Actually, both titles are a bit misleading. With British wild-west enthusiast Ray Mears as author and guide, the eight episodes in this 2-DVD set show how the geography of this country intermeshed with the lives of those who lived in the different sections of the continent and with the pioneers who traversed it to find better lives, to get rich quick, or to prey on the others.

Through a series of interviews and panoramic shots of the terrain, we see in some detail how people coped with the environment and weather to survive. The names of the chapters speak for themselves: “The First Settlers” [in the Appalachians], “Furs and the Mountain Men” [the Rockies], “The Wagon Trains,” “Homesteaders and Cowboys,” “Plains Indians and the Buffalo,” “Gold and the Boomtowns,” “Bandits and Lawlessness,” and “The Desert Indians.”

The word “cowboys,” by the way, referred to the troublemakers and the outlaws, while the decent cattlemen were called “ranchers.”

Navajo weaver and spinner

The funniest anecdote is that of the man who found the first gold nuggets at Sutter’s Mill and told a companion not to mention it to anyone! The saddest story is in the last chapter in which our treatment of the Navajo tribe is told in bitter detail.The story of the Apaches fighting to keep their way of life is told briefly and in a way to make us root for Geronimo, who fought until his tribe was down to 34 souls and finally had to surrender. We were not very good at keeping treaties.

Equally shameful is the railroads’ advertising that passengers could amuse themselves on the great plains by shooting buffalo from the cars. No wonder the Native Americans thought the white man was crazy. The former killed for need, the latter for profit or just plain fun.

Go west and get rich

In between all this are the demonstrations by descendants of those who went or were there before of how they used the environment to eke out an existence, even to the extent of using the surrounding mud to build their homes. All in all, a fascinating look at man’s relationship to nature and how it built a nation.

Each chapter is 25 minutes long and there are subtitles. As always, a most informative booklet is provided.


Two Stars Prepare “Waiting for Godot” at the Haymarket


IMG_20150605_0001_NEWTwo Stars Prepare “Waiting for Godot” at the Haymarket

Recently, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” made a smash on Broadway, not so much because of the play, but because of its stars, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. My son saw it and gave me glowing reports, and I can only wish the production will show up on a DVD.

But Athena Learning has supplied the next best thing in a 2-DVD set titled “Theatreland.” It tells the tale of a season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in eight parts, the first six of which show rehearsals, bits of performances, and all sorts of related aspects from many points of view that surrounded and were central to “Waiting for Godot.” Anyone just liking Theatre or having seen many plays or (better still) having been in the cast or crews of any plays will be fascinated by the goings on in a noted West End theatre.

Samuel Beckett

Not only do we get to meet the stars (Stewart, McKellen, Ronald Pickup, and Simon Callow), but also the director, the stage manager, the man who tells the audience to be seated, the scenery designer and movers, and even the young lady who grouts the tiles in the restrooms. And let us not forget the understudy who once in the nearly 200 performances got his chance to take over for Stewart when the latter’s voice finally went. (They were doing eight performances a week, you know!)

There is even an episode devoted to the ghost of the Haymarket—all British theatres have one—and I do believe Stewart when he claims to have seen it during a performance. What the mind believes, as the saying goes.

I am not too sure I share the view that “Waiting for Godot” is a masterpiece. But when put in the hands of four superb actors, it does seem like one.

By way of contrast, the last two episodes show the beginnings of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” using the script based Truman Capote’s story. The titanic sets and the several changes are compared with the single set of “Godot,” and the moods of the two plays are poles apart. The contrast is obvious and I really would like to have seen more of the “Godot” performances. But I am grateful to Athena for what there is.

As always the booklet is most helpful and I still rely quite a bit on subtitles as time goes by along with my hearing.


Cyber-Seniors Find That It’s Never Too Late to Conquer the Internet

Cyber-A-Cyber-SeniorsSeniors Find That It’s Never Too Late to Conquer the Internet! 

   In a 74-minute documentary titled “Cyber-Seniors,” directed by Saffron Cassaday, an elderly (if I might use this adjective) woman complains that her friends and family are annoyed that they have to phone her because she does not have e-mail. A man of about the same age longs to see his granddaughter more often, especially since she is being treated for cancer.

In short, there is a large part of a generation to which the internet is a mystery. And so a group of young people decide to introduce several of them up in Toronto to the wonders of the cyber world. Another resident of the home in which they reside is proud of still having all her teeth. Yet another looks forward to using the new technology to find a man.

While this documentary from Virgil Films has a certain amateurish charm about it, the seniors are adorable. (Is that being patronizing?). They try hard to learn how to access things on the internet and wind up having a contest in which several create YouTube shows and then see which ones get the most viewers. In fact, this film is on YouTube even as I am writing this.

This is a most enjoyable effort from a novice director. And I urge that it be shown at senior centers and residences to spread the idea that learning to use what the internet has to offer is a very good choice for those who have passed it by up to now.


Four Plantagenet Kings, Four Ways to Ruin a Country

A-PlantagenetsFour Plantagenet Kings, Four Ways to Ruin a Country

   The Athena Learning DVD set titled “Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, The Plantagenets” is excellently done. However, of the twelve Plantagenet Kings of England, this series deals only with Henry II, Henry III, Edward II, and Richard II. Perhaps there will be a second series to pick up the other reigns; but what we have here is of great interest.

With a good narration by historian Dan Jones, the events are acted out by a cast that speaks only French (as did the English nobility at the time), and the insanity of the last three kings is shown perfectly in the actors’ faces.

The running theme is that personal power was more important than running the country. Henry II was not mad but acted so in his last years concerning which son would succeed him. Edward II and Richard II thought more of their friends/lovers than of running the country. Richard even passed a sort of Patriot Act, calling for the death penalty for anyone who contradicted him in any way!

All this makes fascinating viewing; and one can read up on the kings this series omits. Maybe the efficient kings did not provide such interesting stories as did the weak ones. Each of four episodes runs 47 minutes and there are subtitles.


“The Science of Measurement” Explains Why You can Trust Your Ruler and Clock

“The Science of Measurement” A-Measurement Explains Why You Can Trust Your Ruler and Clock

   How long is a foot? If you have a 12-inch ruler, how can you tell if it is actually and exactly 1 foot? What about a meter? And what about a cubit? And if you have 1 kilogram of something, where in the world is a standard by which your sample can be measured? And how long is an hour? (A lot shorter when making love than when sitting on a hot stove, as some wit once remarked.) Or the strength of a volt or an amp; or the brightness of a light? And so on.

170px-Grandfather_clock_q“The Science of Measurement” tackles these questions in a three-part series from Athena Learning. Here Marcus du Sautoy very nicely explains the earliest attempts at answering these seemingly unanswerable questions, then he discusses  more recent attempts, and finally he arrives at the attempts at establishing measuring standards by connecting them to unchanging forces of nature.

The first attempt to standardize the meter

For example, a “span” used to be the distance from the tip of a person’s thumb to the tip of his little finger when the hand is spread out. Different size hand, different size span. Not good. Centuries later, a bar was created to be the standard meter and kept under the most controlled of all possible conditions. Very good but not perfect. Today, certain wave lengths of light are used. Since they never change—an assumption, come to think of it, but what can we do?—we have a perfect measure of the meter.

At times, the technology might be a bit too much for many viewers, but all in all this is a really outstanding educational DVD. (If only they would stop showing speeded up traffic flow to suggest—I guess—the progress of human thought. And, please, stop with “And things were never the same”!)

Each episode is just short of an hour and the subtitles are as always most helpful. So is the booklet that Athena always includes.

Addendum. I lent my copy to an engineer and he went nuts over it. Not only getting a copy for himself, he bought several for several of his colleagues. This is quite a recommendation.


A Stimulating Look at Being Bored



A Stimulating Look at Being Bored

  The most boring thing to me is a graduation ceremony in which people I don’t know drone on forever, one after the other, saying things I have heard too many times before, to young people who couldn’t care less. Close to that is a guest who talks of nothing but himself and/or of some topic that is not of the least interest to me.

Of course, there are people and events that have interest for you, but you are getting tired of the same person or thing all the time. Here is a paradox of becoming bored with something that does interest you. I love seafood, shall we say…but not every night.

Well, “Boredom” is both the title and the subject of a fascinating DVD on the Disinformation label. Directed by Albert Nerenberg, it “suggests boredom is likely a state of stress… [that] may also be killing you” (from the back cover of the jewel case). The part that shook me up the most was how schools are specifically designed to bore students into inattention at the best and outright revolt at the worst.

It points out that children, naturally brimming with energy, are forced to sit quietly, pay close attention, and be punished for the slightest infraction of the rules. As a teacher, I was hit hard by seeing what I already knew and could only try in my classroom to make my lessons attention-grabbing. Alas!

Those who do well are rewarded with jobs that may be equally boring. Be it turning the same two nuts on an assembly line (as did Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times”) or sitting before a computer in a tiny cubicle to make the CEO even richer, the mind rebels and substitutes dreams of more money and what it will bring, killing the boss, or whatever brings mental relief.

Boredom, then, can be defined as being trapped in an event that has no meaning to you—or no longer has a meaning to you—and having your mind filled with substitute thoughts of escape. The film runs just over an hour and it is not boring at all, although the narrator acts silly every now and then. To ward off his boredom?

A strange bonus is given in which the entire film is shown in 48 minutes with no effect on the speaking voices! This DVD might not set the world aright, but at least it will show you that you are not alone.