If you tuned into NBC on Friday night to watch the Olympic opening ceremonies, you might have missed some important details about the spectacle. The early headlines about Sochi had focused entirely on the expensive cost of the games, on Vladimir Putin’s role in getting the games to Sochi, on the Russian president’s leadership today, on the extreme anti-gay laws recently passed in Russia, and on the toilets many journalists discovered when they arrived. The main narrative of the Sochi games, in other words, had already been established. When one of the five snowflakes failed to transform into an Olympic ring, the opening ceremonies seemingly confirmed all that had previously been figured out about Sochi. My Facebook feed exploded with numerous reports about the snowflake that was “too afraid to come out,” as a Twitter post put it. A satirical article published in the Daily Currant suggested the person responsible for the mishap had been found dead the next day and immediately went viral as a true story—it seemed so believable given what had already been reported about Sochi and given what is so widely believed about Putin’s Russia.
The little snowflake that could overshadowed a spectacular opening ceremony that captured important changes within Russia since communism’s collapse. The American coverage of the event certainly did not cover this story. NBC added David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Lenin’s Tomb, to their opening-night team. Remnick spent four years in Moscow as a Washington Post reporter, covering the USSR’s collapse. He has continued to write about Russia since he joined the New Yorker in 1992, but almost exclusively about high politics: his pieces before the games began were about Putin and Pussy Riot. Remnick’s commentary for NBC very much followed in this vein. The opening ceremony became a discussion about what type of leader Putin is, how the event was an attempt to prove Russia is a modern country, and how the ceremony “bobsledded through history” in order to gloss over troubling pasts. The color commentary, just like the opening journalistic salvos fired at Sochi, was really all about Putin. Yet the ceremony itself was not written, produced, or directed by the Russian president. While everyone who watched the London opening ceremony knew that Danny Boyle was behind it, just as NBC highlighted Zhang Yimou’s widely-praised direction in Beijing, no one watching NBC’s coverage learned that Sochi also had a director and that he too was involved with the film industry. American audiences did not learn about Konstantin Ernst’s vision.
Ernst is the head of First Channel, one of the state-owned television stations in Russia and the most-watched network in that country. He is, as Joshua Yaffa aptly described him in a recent New Yorker piece, “the premier visual stylist of the Putin era.” In addition to heading First Channel, Ernst is responsible for helping to turn around the Russian film industry in the 2000s. He has produced several of the highest-grossing films in Russian history, including Night Watch, the 2004 sci-fi/fantasy movie that brought Timur Bekmambetov to prominence: Bekmambetov would go on to helm Wanted and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Ernst has also brought out innovative and award-winning television serials, including an adaptation of Anatolii Rybakov’s glasnost-era bestseller about Stalinism, Children of the Arbat. The TV version starred Chulpan Khamatova, who helped to carry the Olympic flag in Ernst’s opening.
Ernst’s work on big and small screens developed in the wake of the 1998 ruble collapse, the second time the Russian economy bottomed out in the 1990s. Ernst took over the channel in September 1999—the very same month Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister—and announced that both Russian cinema and Russian television needed to be “reborn.” Ernst and other likeminded individuals, including the director Nikita Mikhalkov (who also carried the Olympic flag) turned to Hollywood for inspiration. They saw American audience-friendly blockbusters, which had saturated Russian screens after 1991, as a key for reviving the decrepit domestic film industry, but with a twist: Russian directors and film professionals needed to marry Hollywood-style scripts, star-driven productions, and special effects to “Russian” stories. As Ernst would later write, “we are eternally grateful to Hollywood because [their films] forced our lazy, fat Russian moviemakers to make films, to edit them, to make special effects, to talk in the language teenagers understand.” “We are grateful,” he concluded, “but now we will make our cinema ourselves.”
Ernst’s productions in the 2000s attempted to do just that. His work, as I wrote in my book on the Russian cinematic revival Blockbuster History in the New Russia, “retrofitted Soviet classics for post-Soviet audiences, explored the historical collapse of empires as tragic events, featured past and present-day detectives that could solve crimes, and explored Soviet history from Stalin to Brezhnev as ‘our national past’.” Ernst, as critics have charged, turned the past into a “popcorn spectacle” or even engaged in the “hamburgerization” of Russian culture in the 2000s. His defenders have countered that he has managed to turn out satisfying fare while also contributing to a new patriotic culture in Russia. His critics point to his close relationship with Putin as an indicator of the sinister side in his work, while others note that Ernst has carved out some autonomy for himself and created something special in a political system that has no real alternatives to Putin. Regardless of what your take on Ernst’s productions may be, what is undeniable is that he has helped to make Russian cinema successful again: starting with Night Watch, Russian blockbusters have frequently bested their American counterparts at the box office.
Ernst’s attributes were on display in the Sochi ceremony. He promised a spectacle that showcased Russian innovation and he delivered. He hired talented people, including the set designer George Tsypin, a Soviet émigré who now lives in Brooklyn and whose opera sets have garnered him worldwide acclaim (he also did the set for the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). The snowflake failure was the only glitch in a show that featured entire sets delivered across massive pulleys (the heaviest one, representing Kamchatka, weighed 4.8 tons) and high-tech cameras that projected images across the stadium floor. Most importantly, though, Ernst’s “Dreams of Russia” attempted to narrate Russian history over one thousand years through the eyes of Liubov (“Love”), a young girl who floats through this subjective reimagining. Ernst’s blockbuster-like history performance focused not on politics, though Peter the Great had a role, but on Russian culture. It found room for people and artistic movements that had not been acceptable in the Soviet era. The alphabet book Liubov reads at the beginning features luminaries such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, yet it also contained Nabokov, whose aristocratic family fled Russia in 1919, and Chagall, who fled the USSR in 1923. The show featured architecture, ballet, art, music, and writing that has defined Russian nationhood across time. The lengthy ballet “Natasha’s First Ball,” beautifully choreographed by the Belarussian Radu Poklitaru, captured the spirit of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the imperial-era culture that flourished in the 19th century. For the 20th century, with the help of Tsypin and American choreographer Daniel Ezralow, Ernst initially focused on the avant-garde, constructivist art of the first decade after 1917. The subsequent section on mass culture during the Stalin era featured the Western-loving stiliagi, or hipsters, who danced across Gorky Street. One of the most popular films of 2008, made in the style of a Hollywood musical, told their story. Its director, Valery Todorovsky, recently premiered his television adaptation of The Thaw, the 1954 Ilya Ehrenburg novel that lent its name to the cultural relaxation after Stalin’s death in 1953. The series, which garnered enormous press coverage in Russia that often compared it to Mad Men, appeared on—you guessed it—Ernst’s First Channel.
Ernst’s “Dreams of Russia” therefore captured these dynamic cultural trends that have transpired over the last 15 years. A patriotism centered on Russia’s cultural heritage, a reexamination of Russia’s recent pasts that allows space for some problematic eras, and an audience-friendly showcase full of technological innovations: all were on display at Sochi.
Stephen M. Norris is Professor of History at Miami University of Ohio. He is author of Blockbuster History in Russia: Movies, Memories, and Patriotism (IUP, 2012), A War of Images: Russian Popular Prints, Wartime Culture, and National Identity and editor (with Willard Sunderland) of Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present (IUP, 2012).
We're coming to get you, readers, with a zombie book that will feast upon your brains! In The Year's Work at the Zombie Research Center, editors Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe poke and prod the rotting corpus of zombie culture trying to make sense of cult classics and the unstoppable growth of new and even more disturbing work.
Just in time for Halloween, we're offering you an exclusive look at this book before publication. Download a free chapter here. We guarantee that your brain won't be the same after your read it. Hurry, offer expires 11/4/13!
Sienkiewicz told the Brookline Hub what to expect during his book talk: "I'll start with an entertaining intro about why SNL is a great way to talk about cultural studies. I'll show some clips. Everyone has his or her favorite moments from the show, so I want to encourage interaction. I'll be an expert moderator of the discussion."
During the 1990s, the major authorized presentations
of Anne's life and work were revamped: the Anne Frank-Fonds issued a new
version of the diary for the general reader, known as the Definitive Edition (first published in Dutch in 1991), and
authorized a revision of the diary's official dramatization (which premiered on
Broadway in 1997). In the mid-1990s, the Anne Frank House underwent an
extensive renovation that reconfigured visitors' encounter with the building.
These changes both reassert the authority of these officially sanctioned works
and institutions and respond, if tacitly, to new public attention to the
diary's regulation, including news reports of pages of the diary that had been
suppressed due to their sensitive content and major studies of Meyer Levin's
feud with Otto Frank over the dramatic rights to the diary.
the passage of time and the passing of the last living links to Anne has come a
new sense of urgency to keep her story alive. In 2010 Miep Gies—who, after
Otto Frank, was the most widely known living witness to Anne's years in
hiding—died at the age of 100. That same year saw the demise of the chestnut
tree that grew behind the Annex, which had become a powerful emblem of Anne's
remembrance, the subject of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's contribution to
this collection. At the same time that the official keepers of Anne Frank's
legacy continue to promote remembering her life and writing in new ways, there
has been a proliferation of works that have tested, evaded, or flouted the
proprietary rights and expectations of propriety that surround Anne and her
diary. These works include, on the one hand, a more liberal licensed use of the
diary text (e.g., its citation, with permission of the Anne Frank-Fonds, in Anne B. Real, a 2003 feature film about
a young female rapper living in East Harlem who is inspired by Anne's diary)
and, on the other hand, works that tell Anne's story without quoting directly
from the diary, thereby circumventing the issue of securing permissions (e.g., Melissa Müller's 1998 biography of Anne Frank and its 2001
dramatization for television).
Highly personal takes on Anne and the diary find their place in blog postings
and tribute videos, which, unlike print, film, or broadcasting, resist
traditional regulation. Digital media offer ripe opportunities for
mashups that copy, rework, and combine texts, images, and sound or video
recordings and that can go viral through social media. Within this culture of
open sharing of information and creative work, which has its own social
practices and its own ethics, Anne Frank and her diary are truly unbound, and
the very ethos ascribed to her life and work is rethought.
The ongoing debates
over how to engage Anne Frank “properly” take place in response to we call the
“Anne Frank phenomenon”—that is, the many different ways that people have
engaged with her life and work. The
essays in Anne Frank Unbound examine
this phenomenon as a subject in its own right, including thsee debates over the
many responses to Anne’s diary and life story:
This impulse to restrict or regulate
engagement with such a widely read text, though rooted in worthy concerns for
historical accuracy and moral rigor, discounts the significance of this
engagement by millions of readers. The fact that it takes many different forms,
is inconsistent in its sense of purpose, varies considerably in quality of
execution, and not infrequently proves to be disturbing for one reason or
another does not diminish its value. Rather, what makes the Anne Frank
phenomenon compelling is precisely its vast sprawl. Indeed, notwithstanding its
global character and use of a wide range of media, from works of fine art to
MP3 files, the Anne Frank phenomenon can be considered a kind of folk practice,
as it is largely the work of individuals or grassroots communities, inspired by
this widely available text to forge their own attachment to Anne's life and
Jeffrey Shandler is Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. He is author of Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture and While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, editor of Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust, and editor (with Hasia R. Diner and Beth S. Wenger) ofRemembering the Lower East Side (IUP, 2000).
For more information about Anne Frank Unbound, read an excerpt from the book, or listen to an IU Press podcast with Jeffrey Shandler:
"Anne Frank Unbound ... tell[s] us a great deal about the myriad uses to which one individual story has been and can be put. ... In addition to these ethical and political questions, the essays engage productively with the aesthetic choices made by writers, visual artists, filmmakers, performance artists, and comedians, who recast Anne Frank in a variety of media and situations. ... If Anne Frank Unbound is any indication, the diary will certainly continue ... to raise a set of persistent ethical, political, and aesthetic questions that have been with us since its first publication." —Women's Review of Books
The B Word author Maria San Filippo will take part in a Graduate Consortium of Women's Studies event at MIT from 7 to 9 p.m. May 1. A unique feature of the event is a "speed talk" given by San Filippo and other featured authors. Participants are required to discuss their books in two minutes or less (event organizers are even bringing timers!).
However, if two minutes isn't enough time to learn everything you wanted to know about The B Word, then check out this new review of the book by Next Magazine:
"In The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, Maria San Filippo turns her razor-sharp intellect on the representation of bisexuality in modern media, where it still remains somewhat unspoken, often overshadowed by the hard-won visibility of gays and lesbians. Placing bisexual desire center stage, San Filippo’s book is a much-needed addition to the field of queer media studies."
Author Katrina Daly-Thompson will discuss her book Zimbabwe's Cinematic Artsat the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center in Santa Barbara, CA, Friday, April 26 at noon (PT). In this lecture, she'll reflect on discourses of identity that pervade local talk and texts in Zimbabwe, a nation beset by political and economic crisis. For more information on the event, visit the center's website.
Often disguised in public discourse by terms like "gay," "homoerotic," "homosocial," or "queer," bisexuality is strangely absent from queer studies and virtually untreated in film and media criticism. On this episode of the IU Press podcast, Maria San Filippo discusses how her new bookThe B Wordhelps fill this gap in the study of bisexuality on screen.