The Hole Truth about Woodpeckers on PBS Nature

A baby Acorn Woodpecker has a birds-eye view from his hole in Carmel, CA. He’s one of several species of Woodies profiled in a new documentary on PBS NATURE.  Photo courtesy Russell Kaye and The WNET Group.

“They are architects, engineers, and consummate woodworkers.”

Woodpeckers don’t sing, but they have an unmistakable voice. They live on every continent except Antarctica and Australia and are surprisingly adaptive to extreme temperatures and climate change. Their lineage is ancient, their coloring and markings are distinctive, and some are among the largest birds on the planet.

Woodpeckers breed and feed in compact, finely chiseled holes that their hammerlike heads and sharp beaks drill in the trunks of dead or dying trees, cacti and clay hills. Their big feet, sharp claws and short legs assure their remarkable leverage on vertical terrain.  And after their baby chicks spread their wings and fly away, and mom and dad move on, they leave behind hospitable holes for their nesting and feeding wildlife cronies.  In short, woodpeckers are a boon to the ecosystem wherever they choose to settle and socialize.

A Downy Woodpecker has no trouble with the cold winter temps in Brooklin, Maine. Photo courtesy © Russell Kaye.

If you find these tidbits tantalizing, you won’t want to miss Woodpeckers: The Hole Story, a fascinating new episode of the award-winning PBS Nature series, debuting tonight, Wednesday, November 2, 2022, 8:00 – 9:00 pm/ET.  Check local listings for air dates in your region.  It will also stream simultaneously with broadcast (see below for details).

Wildlife filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum  (Super Hummingbirds) and her extraordinary team of nature and wildlife photographers pull out all the stops as they travel to many corners of the globe in search of some of the most enterprising and elusive woodpecker species.  There are 239 species of woodpeckers worldwide.

Among those featured by Prum and her crew are the dramatically coifed and suited Pileated Woodpecker; the large elusive Polish Black Woodpecker; the enterprising foodie Acorn Woodpecker; Lewis’s Woodpecker, named for its home in the region explored by Lewis and Clark; the Sonoran Desert Cacti-dwelling Gila Woodpecker; the super winterized Downy Woodpecker and, yes, even the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!  The latter shares its larder with Hummingbirds and bees. Who knew?

“Everybody thinks I’m crazy.  Yesiree, that’s me.  That’s what I’m cracked up to be.  I chop a hole in every tree. Knock on wood.”–Woody Woodpecker.

So if you thought that wacky Woody Woodpecker was the species’ last best hope, think again!  I encourage you to watch Woodpeckers: The Hole Story for a birds-eye view of the real thing, narrated with flair by one of my favorite actors, Paul (“John Adams”; “Billions”) Giamatti.  I, for one, intend to keep my eyes and ears open for these remarkable feathered “architects, engineers and woodworkers” should they pay a visit to my bird friendly garden and spa…aka birdbath!

Woodpeckers: The Hole Story, written by Janet Hess and executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a production of The WNET Group, Blue Ant Media and Coneflower Productions for Love Nature. The film premieres on the PBS Nature series tonight, Wednesday, November 2, 2022, 8:00 – 9:00 pm/ET.

Check local listings for air dates in your region.  It will also stream simultaneously with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including http://PBS.org , the PBS Video App and for PBS members via PBS Passport. Contact ShopPBS.org for DVDs.  Check streaming availability on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and via iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO.  Be sure not to miss it!!— Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Tree of Life Revisits the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting on HBO

“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must–at that moment–become the center of the universe.”Eli Wiesel.

The Memorial of Stars, a remembrance of the 11 congregants lost during the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, PA, on October 27, 2018. Photo courtesy HBO.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel (1928-2016) would no doubt applaud filmmaker Trish Adlesic’s mission to return to the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil.  Her latest film, A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, revisits the massacre that shocked the world and devastated Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill spiritual community on October 27, 2018.  Eleven elderly congregants were killed during Saturday morning services at the Tree of Life synagogue that day by a 46-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 style assault rifle, multiple hand guns and a virulent anti-Semitic social media footprint.  Six other victims, including four police officers, were badly wounded as well.

Ms. Adlesic’s  80-minute documentary, A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, October 26, 2022, 9:00-10:20 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for repeat screenings in the days and weeks ahead, and HBO Max for streaming.)

The alleged shooter, Robert D. Bowers, is not the focus here. The film’s Emmy® Award-winning director turns her camera instead on the shooter’s victims… the ones who lived and those who died and are sorely missed by family and friends.

“My brother walked into the building that day. That’s the last time I saw him alive,” recalls one Tree of Life congregant.

Sisters Michele and Diane Rosenthal, whose brothers David and Cecil Rosenthal were killed in the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Photo courtesy HBO.

Survivors continue to grapple with horrific memories of that day. They ask compelling questions that don’t seem to have definitive answers. Why did they survive, when their moms, brothers and best friends were fatally wounded in the seats next to them?  How do you make sense of someone who walks into a house of worship on the Sabbath–fueled by the slur “all the Jews must die”– and freely annihilates senior citizens in prayer with a weapon that belongs on a battlefield?

Two brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal, whose learning disabilities and childlike innocence did not deter them from active participation in worship services were lost that day. Their elderly parents and sisters poignantly recall the brothers’ joy and pride at being able to assist with services each week.

Coping with grief, PTSD, thoughts of retribution and revenge, justice and forgiveness not only impacted the Tree of Life survivors and their families.  Wasi Mohamed, the Pittsburgh Foundation’s Senior Policy Officer, reflects on the community’s interfaith responsibilities and efforts to help.  And those who suffered at the hands of homegrown terrorists throughout the U.S. also stepped up to the plate.

This Stronger than Hate sign in Pittsburgh reflects a community’s embrace after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Photo courtesy HBO.

The local Muslim community raised $250,000 to help defray the victims’ burial and medical costs.  Survivors of the Parkland and Charleston shootings counseled Tree of Life survivors and their families; and artwork from children representing the Parkland, Columbine and Newtown massacres helped to soften the pain.

The most pressing and frightening question raised by the film remains unanswered. As we mark the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting, why are the numbers of anti-Semitic incidents at an all-time high in this country?  What or who is driving this surge?

The film closes with these startling statistics:  “Since 2010, there have been 15,000 religious-based hate crimes in the U.S.  Over 50% have been against Jews.  In 2021, there were over 2,717 reported anti-Semitic incidents in the U. S.  Jews make up 3% of the U.S. population.”

If you haven’t already seen Ken Burns’, Lynn Novick’s and Sarah Botstein’s timely three-part PBS documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, I suggest you make sure not to miss it.  It brilliantly details the origins and shocking swell of anti-Semitism during the 20th century, with clear implications for today.  You can read my coverage of The U.S. and the Holocaust here in FrontRowCenter @ http://www.judithtrojan.com/2022/09/18/

I recommend piggybacking A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting with The U.S. and the Holocaust in high school and college classroom screenings, as well as in library and religious venues, to raise awareness of the explosion of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and to warn against their normalization.

A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting was executive produced by notable Pittsburgh natives, including Michael Keaton, Billy Porter and Mark Cuban, and features an original theme song, “The Tree of Life,” written and sung by Idina Menzel.

A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, October 26, 2022, 9:00-10:20 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for repeat screenings in the days and weeks ahead, and HBO Max for streaming.)  See my September 18, 2022 coverage of The U.S. and the Holocaust in FrontRowCenter for info on its availability.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, Religion, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The U.S. and the Holocaust Reexamined on PBS

“I feel a sense of urgency. We’re not trying to equate anything with The Holocaust. That would be a horrible, horrible thing to do.  We’re just saying: ‘Let’s not get there again as human beings, please, let’s not get there again.'”Ken Burns.

I was a child when I first met a Holocaust survivor.  It was innocent enough…a pleasant Sunday visit with my my dad’s brother, my aunt and cousins in Irvington, NJ, in the late Fifties.  As was often the case with those particular family gatherings, the living room buzzed with the arrival of other family members, as well as next door neighbors and friends of my aunt and uncle who would pop in, grab a plate of food and shoot the breeze.  It was often hard for a young kid like me to keep their connections to my dad and his family straight, but I kept my eyes and ears open.

At one such gathering, I remember meeting a friend of my aunt’s.  She was sitting quietly by herself and didn’t seem to fit in, but I was drawn to her.  Although I don’t remember her name and vaguely recall that she was dressed in black and had an accent, there was one thing about her that I’ll never forget.  She had a number tattooed on her forearm.  She tried to explain it away, but her heavy accent and my youth made it impossible for me to focus on anything but the number that would never wash away. The woman had been branded like an animal in a slaughterhouse.

A Nazi party political rally. The sign in back reads: “Kauft nicht bei Juden”–“Don’t buy from Jews.”  Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

I had to wait several decades until college and my Comparative Civilization class to find out that the woman’s “number” had nothing to do with “civilization.”  How do you make sense of the mindset of those who elevated an anti-Semitic, racist petty criminal to a position of leadership, and saluted as he ordered the systematic annihilation of Jews and others he deemed inferior?

A few years later, as a young journalist, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Washington, DC, that I believe was held at the Watergate Hotel of all places during Holocaust Remembrance week.  I attended a meeting aimed at re-educating journalists about how best to cover The Holocaust.  Unbelievably, I found myself, a Protestant of German and Czech descent, in a small room at a conference table surrounded by Jewish survivors and adult children of survivors.  All had painful memories to share, not the least of whom were the young adults who had been raised comfortably in postwar America by immigrant parents and grandparents who never spoke to them about the Nazi hell they endured.

My presence in that room and at that table, as the gentile granddaughter of Germans whose immigration status and U.S. citizenship was secure by the turn of the 20th century, was empowering.  I felt, then as I do now in retrospect, honored to have been welcomed at that table, and committed, as a journalist, film professional and magazine editor, to make sure that no one would forget The Holocaust and the stories survivors had to tell.

An immigrant family gazing at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor from Ellis Island, circa 1930.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1933, when Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party took control of Germany, there were nine million Jews in Europe.  Twelve years later in 1945, two of every three had been murdered. Why didn’t we, as Americans, provide a safe haven and easy passage for larger numbers of Western and Eastern European Jews attempting to flee Hitler’s depravity? True, some 200,000 Jews found refuge in the U.S., but couldn’t we have done better… and why didn’t we?

These questions fuel the brilliant new, three-part, six hour documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, premiering on PBS tonight, Sunday, September 18, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  The series is divided into three, two-hour episodes:  The Golden Door (Beginnings -1938); Yearning to Breathe Free (1938 -1942); and The Homeless, The Tempest-Tossed (1942-  ).  (See below for complete broadcast details and check local listings for air dates in your region.)

It took seven years for producer/directors Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Susan Botstein  and screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward to untangle the twisted threads of racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and isolationism that upended American immigration policy, making it more and more restrictive as the 20th century ushered in larger and larger numbers of Catholics, Jews and Asians escaping from poverty and persecution in their homelands.  The U.S. and the Holocaust was inspired in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition.

The U.S. and the Holocaust opens and closes with surprising revelations about the plight of the Otto Frank family as they transitioned from their beloved ancestral home in Germany to Amsterdam and attempted to acquire visas and safe passage to America.  Journalist Dorothy Thompson, who called out the Nazi threat early on, reported that “for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.” Despite having influential personal connections and their paperwork in order, immigrants like the Franks were blindsided at every turn.

A German policeman checks the identification papers of Jewish people in the Krakow ghetto, Poland, circa 1941.  Photo courtesy Krakow National Archives.

The Franks’ story serves as a springboard for first person testimony from several elderly witnesses who, as children in the 1930s, personally experienced horrific persecution.  Courage, resilience and luck played a large part in their survival and transport to America.  Their dramatic stories are masterfully integrated here.

“The witnesses share wrenching memories of the persecution, violence and flight that they and their families experienced as they escaped Nazi Europe and somehow made it to America,” said director Sarah Botstein, who lost family in the Holocaust.

Throughout this period, heroes on the homefront (Rabbi Stephen Wise, Dorothy Thompson, John W. Pehle, Benjamin B. Ferencz and Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt) seemed to be outnumbered by villains.  Rabid isolationists, Nazi sympathizers, Anti-semites and racists filled our hallowed halls of government (Asst. Secretary of State Breckinridge Long) and churches (Father Charles Coughlin).  They made history in the air (Charles Lindbergh) and on land (Henry Ford).  They encouraged Americans to fear and denigrate immigrants (especially Jews) as dirty, dumb and diseased…hardly assets to be welcomed into America’s white, Anglo Saxon neighborhoods or worth fighting and dying for in Europe.

Rabbi Stephen Wise addresses a crowd at a rally outside Madison Square Garden.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

As in all of Ken Burns’ films, The U.S. and the Holocaust is chockablock with extraordinary, carefully curated vintage film footage, period radio broadcasts, photos and ephemera, musings from letters and diaries and newspaper clips attesting to the Nazis’ growing depravity.  A few well chosen scholars and historians, including the exceptional Deborah Lipstadt and Daniel Mendelsohn, fill in the blanks, as does narrator Peter Coyote.

“History cannot be looked at in isolation,” concluded Ken Burns.  “While we rightly celebrate American ideals of democracy and our history as a nation of immigrants, we must also grapple with the fact that American institutions and policies, like segregation and the brutal treatment of indigenous populations, were influential in Hitler’s Germany.  And it cannot be denied that, although we accepted more refugees than any other sovereign nation, America could have done so much more to help the millions of desperate people fleeing Nazi persecution.”

This is not an easy story to tell… or watch for that matter.  Be aware that the visuals chronicling Nazi atrocities may be tough for some viewers.  The U.S. and the Holocaust is clearly one of the most important film projects that Ken Burns and his team have undertaken.  Given the crimes against humanity that we are witnessing in the Ukraine and the current mishandling of Venezuelan migrants as political pawns, the film series couldn’t be more timely.

The U.S. Capitol, January 6, 2021.

The U.S. and the Holocaust should be required viewing in high school and college classrooms dealing with U.S. and World History, The Holocaust, anti-Semitism and genocide; in churches and synagogues; and frankly by all Americans who think we have come a long way since the Thirties and Forties.–Judith Trojan

 Viewing The U.S. and the Holocaust 

Episode 1: The Golden Door (Beginnings-1938) premieres on PBS tonight, Sunday, September 18, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  An additional broadcast of Episode 1 is scheduled on Monday, September 19, 2022 @9:30 p.m. ET.

Episode 2: Yearning to Breathe Free (1938 -1942) debuts on PBS on Tuesday, September 20, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.

Episode 3: The Homeless, The Tempest-Tossed (1942-  ) premieres on PBS on Wednesday, September 21, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.

Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.  The three-part series will also be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App .  PBS station members can also view The U.S. and the Holocaust via PBS Passport, as part of a full collection of Ken Burns’ films. Educational materials highlighting recent research and perspectives will be available at the Ken Burns in the Classroom site.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Uvalde Massacre Tragically Mirrors Newtown School Shooting

“When an assault weapon is used in a mass shooting, it can lead to six times as many people shot than with other guns.”Everytownresearch.org

Nineteen children and two teachers were murdered in their classrooms in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022, by a troubled 18-year-old with a legally purchased AR-15 style rifle.  It was the deadliest shooting in an American school since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in 2012.  Photo: Marco Bello/Reuters.

Nineteen children and two teachers were murdered in their classrooms in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022, by a troubled 18-year-old with a legally purchased AR-15 style rifle.  It was the deadliest shooting in an American school since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in 2012.  Photo: Marco Bello/Reuters.

“Of the 26 dead, most are children,” reported NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt to a nation stunned by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.  Six educators and 20 six- and seven-year-old students were murdered that day in their classrooms by an emotionally disturbed young man armed with sophisticated handguns and a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle snatched from his mother’s exotic gun collection.  His mother, a psychiatrist and avid gun collector who should have had her own head examined, was also a casualty of her son’s rampage.

And so the carnage continues.  The slaughter of 10 predominantly Black patrons of a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, NY, by a racist 18-year-old suited up with body armour and an AR-15, was followed in 10 days by the deadliest shooting in an American school since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  Nineteen 9- and 10-year-olds in Uvalde, Texas, and two of their teachers were murdered in their Robb Elementary School classrooms by yet another disenfranchised 18-year-old who seemed to have no problem firing his legally purchased AR-15 style rifle into innocent children fresh from their Honor Roll assembly, eagerly awaiting dismissal for summer break.

Politicians and pundits continue to bicker over cause and effect as unstable young men armed with legally purchased military style semiautomatic weapons continue to massacre American civilians assembled peacefully in schools, shopping centers, churches and synagogues, movie theaters and concert venues.

Twenty-six funerals consumed the Newtown, CT, community with shock and grief after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Photo courtesy Jennifer Cox.

Twenty-six funerals consumed the Newtown, CT, community with shock and grief after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.  Photo courtesy Jennifer Cox.

The firearm chatter is confounding.  An 18-year-old can legally purchase and carry an AR-15 on the streets of Texas, but he’s still not old enough to buy a beer?  Our streets will be safe if we flag, cure or corral mentally unstable individuals? (Reality check:  The Newtown murderer’s mom was a mental health professional who enabled her troubled son by collecting and gifting him guns.)

Arm teachers and turn schools into impenetrable fortresses?  Really?  How often do school personnel innocently prop open exit doors “for a few minutes” to expedite deliveries or grab a breath of fresh air or a quick smoke.  And is it reasonable to believe that untrained marksmen and women, aka school teachers caught by surprise in the middle of a math lesson, can whip out their handguns from a purse, briefcase or desk drawer and outshoot a marauding maniac with an AR-15?

“You cannot trust us to pick out the books for your children to read or teach them American history, but you will trust us with a gun to protect them?” said veteran NYC middle school teacher Gordon Baldwin in the Op Ed section of The New York Times (6/2/22).

Nine times out of 10, authorities report that mass murderers have been able to obtain their weapons of choice–assault style rifles–legally.  How do we convince politicians beholden to the N.R.A. gun lobby to legislate for the well being of their constituency and stop facilitating easy access to firearms meant strictly for use on the battlefield?  A bipartisan assault weapons ban was passed in 1994 but was left to expire by the party in charge in 2004.  It is imperative that a nationwide ban on weapons of war (assault rifles and high-capacity magazines) be seriously debated and passed anew.

This Film Still Resonates…

Connecticut State Police led a line of children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, after the shooting at the school.  Photo Newtown Bee/AP.

Connecticut State Police led a line of children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, after the shooting at the school.  Photo Newtown Bee/AP.

The aftermath of the Newtown massacre and its continuing legacy are the engines that drove producer/director Kim A. Snyder and producer Maria Cuomo Cole’s feature-length documentary, Newtown.  I reviewed this powerful film here in FrontRowCenter on April 3, 2017, when it premiered nationally on the PBS series, Independent Lens.  The film has since been awarded a prestigious Peabody Award and remains, sad to say, more timely than ever.  I am revisiting it here to add my voice to the charge demanding immediate proactive gun control legislation.

Five years ago, Newtown joined the small and growing list of outstanding films,  Tower and Marathon (see my reviews on February 14, 2017 and November 21, 2016, respectively), that focus on mass murders perpetrated on American soil by disenfranchised young men. Unlike the former two films, however, Newtown features no interviews with physically wounded survivors because once shot, the shooter’s tiny victims had no chance of survival.

The film replays the traumatic timeline of that chilling day, from the frantic 911 calls and EMT and police reports to the gathering at the local firehouse, where anxious parents awaited news of their children’s well-being.

This is not an easy film to watch, especially in light of the recent school massacre in Uvalde, Texas.  Your tears will fall as parents, adolescent siblings, neighbors, a teacher and a local priest, and medical and law enforcement professionals recall their own and their community’s losses in deeply personal terms. You might even suffer a sudden wave of nausea, as I did, during a medical director’s painful recount of the number of bullets that shattered each child’s body.

Nicole Hockley, mother of Sandy Hook victim Dylan Hockley, with first responder Sgt. William Cario.  Photo courtesy of Derek Weisehahn.

Nicole Hockley, mother of Sandy Hook victim Dylan Hockley, with first responder Sgt. William Cario.  Photo courtesy of Derek Weisehahn.

Three parents–Mark BardenDavid Wheeler and Nicole Hockley–are especially articulate witnesses to the many stages of grief that they and their families have endured. They openly acknowledge their inability to forgive and forget. They cherish baby teeth and locks of hair, and are incapable of disposing of boxes of toys and clothing. They have become vocal social activists in the fight for stricter gun control laws and background checks.

Nicole Hockley remembers the grief that she and her husband overcame when their son, Dylan, was diagnosed with autism only to face his incomprehensible death in what was supposed to be a safe and nurturing environment.  Her only measure of comfort: Dylan died with his teacher’s arm around him, so he wasn’t alone. She is determined that his memory not be forgotten: “He has a legacy that I will fulfill for him,” she says.

Grieving dad David Wheeler explains the difficult decision to have another child, for the sake of his surviving son.  Musician dad Mark Barden, who continues to compensate for the storms of grief that envelop him, was compelled to revisit the school one last time before it was razed, so he could experience the site where his son, Daniel, lived his last moments.

The senselessness of this crime, in a picture perfect community where schools were thought to be safe havens, is a timely reminder that guns in the hands of unstable individuals remain the major killer of Americans on U.S. soil. According to statistics compiled by Sandy Hook Promise, the national non-profit founded and led by several family members who lost loved ones on December 14, 2012, “Most criminal gun violence is committed by individuals who lack mental wellness (coping skills, anger management and other social-emotional skills).”

Despite the fact that the toll of gun violence in urban and suburban communities across the country continues to rise, the debate surrounding gun control legislation remains more divisive than ever.  Hopefully, revisiting this film will encourage viewers to hold their state Senators and Congressmen and women accountable.  Either they do what they were elected to do…pass gun control legislation that will keep their constituents safe…or else they will be voted out of office.

Daniel Barden used to love racing his school bus. When he was 7, he was killed at his Sandy Hook Elementary School. His dad, Mark Barden, is featured in NEWTOWN, a Peabody Award-winning film directed by Kim A. Snyder for INDEPENDENT LENS. Photo courtesy Mark Barden.

Newtown  premiered on the PBS series, Independent Lens, in April 2017.  In light of the recent senseless massacres in Buffalo, Texas, Oklahoma and New York City, it continues to be one of the most important and timely documentaries that you can watch this year.  The film would best be screened in the company of family or friends, followed by hugs and quiet discussion.

Newtown is currently available for streaming via Amazon Prime Video; for screening at newtownfilm.com and on DVD from shopPBS.org   For further info, go to http://www.pbs.org/independentlens and restart the conversation at http://www.facebook.com/independentlens and on Twitter @IndependentLens.

For more information on how you can join the Sandy Hook community to lobby for stricter gun control laws and background checks, visit the Sandy Hook Promise Website at http://www.sandyhookpromise.org  –Judith Trojan

Posted in Education, Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ken Burns Celebrates Patriot Benjamin Franklin on PBS

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, circa 1777. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, circa 1777.  Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State.

Writer, printer, newspaper publisher, humorist, pundit, educator, scientist, inventor, postmaster, politician, diplomat, abolitionist, patriot.

The list of Benjamin Franklin’s accomplishments and aphorisms is long, storied and impossible to condense effectively in one short film, book or review. But Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has successfully managed to corral and explore many facets of this extraordinary American in his new, two-part, four hour PBS documentary, Benjamin Franklin.

Part 1, Benjamin Franklin: Join or Die (1706-1774), premieres tonight, Monday, April 4, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  Part 2, Benjamin Franklin: An American (1775-1790), debuts tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 5, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air dates in your region and below for complete details.)

Benjamin Franklin’s distinguished literary, scientific and political career spanned almost the entire 18th century.  His journey from Puritan youth to Enlightened adult and international celebrity was rich with color, humor and life experience that he relished and shared in his many published tomes.

“There are three things extremely hard–steel, a diamond, and to know thyself.”–Benjamin Franklin.

Ben Franklin's Bookshop in Philadelphia, circa 1745. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ryder.

Ben Franklin’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, circa 1745. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Ryder.

From beginning to end, his life was a work-in-progress.  He never lost his drive to master new skills, satisfy his intellectual and scientific curiosity and his quest to improve the daily lives of others.  He launched the public library and a voluntary fire company, founded a college that would become the University of Pennsylvania, invented the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses and an ingenious musical instrument called the armonica.  He harnessed lightening and defined its electrical properties… and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Franklin was also a man of many contradictions.  He was a slave owner who came late to Abolition.  His beloved wife, children and brother bore the emotional scars of his wanderlust, spurred by his insatiable entrepreneurial spirit, thirst for educational and scientific pursuits, and seduction by the old world charm and the ladies of London and Paris.

“He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.”–Benjamin Franklin.

By the time he reached old age, he had studied, written, invented and absorbed enough to change the face of the American colonies for the better.  And when he realized that colonial life under the thumb of the English monarchy was untenable, Franklin was reborn an American patriot.

A view of the town of Concord, Mass., by Amos Doolittle, 1775. Photo courtesy The New York Public Library.

A view of the town of Concord, Mass., by Amos Doolittle, 1775. Photo courtesy The New York Public Library.

His shrewd diplomatic skills turned the tide during our war for independence,  assuring the success of our troops–who were outnumbered, lacked sufficient uniforms and weaponry–by successfully negotiating French intervention and monetary support.  He laid the groundwork for our final break from the British Empire, helped draft and sign off on the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, thereby solidifying “our more perfect union” and our democracy.

Director Ken Burns and screenwriter Dayton Duncan pull familiar tools from Burns’ toolbox to bring Franklin’s complex history to life.  Trademark voice-over narration by actor Peter Coyote sets the tone.  Actor Mandy (“Homeland”) Patinkin voices Ben Franklin from young adulthood to old age; and actors Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas and Liam Neeson, among others, voice key political figures and Franklin family members.  Buddy Squires‘ camerawork smartly zeroes in on period woodcuts, maps, paintings and prints, and Philadelphia and Boston neighborhoods pivotal to Franklin’s back story.  A line-up of astute historians and biographers provide critical context for Franklin’s every move.

Some of Franklin's drawings from his "Experiments and Observations on Electricity," circa 1751. Photo courtesy the John Carter Brown Library.

Some of Franklin’s drawings from his “Experiments and Observations on Electricity,” circa 1751. Photo courtesy the John Carter Brown Library.

On the surface, Benjamin Franklin fits the bill as a content rich Ken Burns documentary about an extraordinary American from a bygone era whose writings, inventions, scientific discoveries and visionary talent as a nation builder played a major role in the creation of life as we now know it in the USA.  But it is much more than that.

Burns has never made lazy choices.  Now, more than ever, they are driven by his passion to illuminate and inspire the better angels of our nature and nation.  It is time to revisit the American Revolution, and how clever to do it from the perspective of a key player. 

In the current national and international political climate, clouded by Trump and Putin, the film reminds us that the freedoms we take for granted were not easily won and the Constitution that defines our democracy was not easily sealed. The parallels with the brave Ukrainian patriots’ fight to save their independence and democracy are crystal clear.

During an interlude following the U.S. Constitution’s adoption, Franklin’s neighbor Elizabeth Willing Powel reportedly asked, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic,” Franklin responded. “If you can keep it.”

Let Ben Franklin then and the Ukrainians now inspire us to continue to defend and protect our most valuable asset: our U.S. Constitution.

Part 1, Benjamin Franklin: Join or Die (1706-1774), premieres tonight, Monday, April 4, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  Part 2, Benjamin Franklin: An American (1775-1790), debuts on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.   Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.  The two-part film will also be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO.  PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport, as part of a full collection of Ken Burns’ films.–Judith Trojan

Posted in Books, Film, Journalism, Newspapers, Publishing, Science, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin Debuts on PBS

“They will not break us.”–Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kviv, Ukraine, reaches out to the President of the European Council on 2/25/22.  Photo: Ukrainian President's Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service/Shutterstock.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kviv, Ukraine, reaches out to the President of the European Council on 2/25/22.  Photo: Ukrainian President’s Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service/Shutterstock.

If, like me, you’ve been anxious to find out more about the courageous Ukrainian president who, in just a few short weeks, has touched the hearts and minds of freedom lovers the world over, Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin is a great place to start.  The new half-hour documentary debuting on PBS tonight, March 18, 2022, 10:30 – 11:00 p.m./ET is just the ticket. (Check local listings for air dates in your region and below for complete details.)

Produced and directed by Daniel Smith and Laura Stevens for ITN Productions, Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin charts Zelenskyy’s meteoric rise from zany comic and sitcom star to bold wartime leader.  Born into a Jewish Russian-speaking family whose relatives survived the Holocaust, Zelenskyy completed a law degree but was drawn instead to showbiz.

From improv comedy star, winner of Dancing with the Stars and voice of Paddington Bear to his prescient sitcom starring role in Servant of the People (he played a history teacher who became the unlikely president of Ukraine!), Zelenskyy went on to tackle a more impressive role on the largest stage of all.  He ran for that office in real life.

The film explores Zelenskyy’s game-changing use of social media and television to win the election in a landslide and captivate the freedom-loving world with his country’s determination to fight the good fight.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets soldiers in frontline positions. Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets soldiers in frontline positions.  Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock.

As we watch the horrific war crimes unfolding daily in Ukraine and relish the defiant response of a country under siege, it’s especially inspiring and even  comforting to witness the rise of a remarkable and unlikely leader at a time when his countrymen and women need him most.  Like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Churchill before him, Zelenskky seems destined to change the course of history for the better.

What motivates Zelenskyy?  And how did he transform from a TV personality to become a major figure on the international stage?  No doubt, longer documentaries will be filmed and books will be written to answer those questions more fully.  But Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin, with its concise biographic and geopolitical introduction to Zelenskyy and Ukraine, respectively, ably contextualized by a handful of articulate historians and scholars, provides a worthy starting point to begin the discussion.

Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin premieres on PBS tonight, Friday, March 18, 2022, 10:30-11:00 p.m./ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and its availability on PBS.org and streaming via the PBS Video App.  Episodes of Servant of the People are, at this writing, streaming on Netflix. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, Politics, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Actress Evan Rachel Wood Outs Her Abuser in HBO’s Phoenix Rising

“What is this feeling?  It’s the feeling of being believed!”— actress Evan Rachel Wood.

It’s clear that even as a young teen, actress Evan Rachel Wood had affinity for edgy dramas.  But, as it turns out, her film roles were tame compared to the drama that played out in her real life.

A victim of shocking domestic violence and sexual assault, Wood was lucky to survive.  In the new two-part HBO documentary, Phoenix Rising, Wood counters the massive misinformation campaign surrounding her much publicized relationship and break-up with Brian Warner, aka shock rocker Marilyn Manson.

Phoenix Rising: Don’t Fall debuts at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO tonight, Tuesday, March 15, 2022.  Part 2, Phoenix Rising: Stand Up, debuts on HBO, Wednesday, March 16, 2022, 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. Both stream on HBO Max. (See below for complete details.)

A successful child actress raised in a family of actors fractured by parental discord and divorce, Evan Rachel Wood garnered serious attention and a Golden Globe nomination for her breakout role at 12 in Thirteen (2003).  She played a young teenage honor student whose relationship with her single mom (Holly Hunter) is frayed when she follows a new girlfriend down a rabbit hole littered with drugs, sex and petty theft.  The powers that be in Hollywood took notice, and Wood’s bold performance in the role led to a spate of film offers that exploited her youth in suggestive adult dramas.

At 18, Wood was approached by Brian Warner, ostensibly to assist him with a screenplay in a strictly mentoring capacity.  Married and twice Wood’s age, the 37-year-old who performed as Marilyn Manson began what would become a calculated process of grooming the young film star:  earning her trust, exposing her vulnerabilities and exploiting them in an abusive four-year May-December love affair.  It was, as she later found out, an M.O. that he had perfected and would continue with other vulnerable young women.

Phoenix Rising, produced and directed by Amy Berg, provides Wood with a credible platform from which to explore her youthful susceptibility to her abuser’s allure, the pathology that drove her abuser, and the long-term ramifications of her victimization.

Aptly titled Phoenix Rising, the two-part documentary is a warts and all #metoo exposé… and it isn’t pretty.  Wood addresses the horrors she faced at the hands of her abuser and his soul crushing ritualistic behavior that derailed her self esteem and core values, leading to an abortion, suicide attempt, substance abuse, and a starring role in a “music video” that took a shocking turn.  She details her abuser’s cavalier use of gaslighting, sleep deprivation, drugs, branding, rape, physical restraint and beatings to disable her, isolate her from her family and friends, and fuel his escalating physical and sexual brutality.

Actress Evan Rachel Wood and her mom, Sara, repaired their mother-daughter bond that had been shattered during her abusive relationship with Brian Warner/Marilyn Manson.  Photo courtesy HBO.

Actress Evan Rachel Wood and her mom, Sara, repaired their mother-daughter bond that had been shattered during her abusive relationship with Brian Warner/Marilyn Manson.  Photo courtesy HBO.

“I really thought I was the only one.”

Wood faced many psychological roadblocks and threats of reprisal as she tried to extricate herself from a man who had the power and resources to destroy her if she fought back.  Perhaps one of the most difficult chapters in Wood’s recovery was the realization that she was not her abuser’s only victim.  After the relationship ended, a handful of Warner/Manson’s other young female victims and staffers finally admitted to witnessing or personally experiencing his depravity.

In 2019, after being stymied by the short window of time allotted to domestic violence and sexual assault victims to report their abuse, Wood co-authored and successfully lobbied for passage of The Phoenix Act, legislation that extends the statute of limitations for domestic violence cases in California from three to five years.  The win for fellow survivors going forward is documented here and is an emotionally charged highlight of the film.

Evan Rachel Wood (seated) and Kate Winslet were nominated for Emmys for their performances as Veda and Mildred Pierce, respectively, in Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries, MILDRED PIERCE (2011). Kate won.

Evan Rachel Wood (seated) and Kate Winslet were nominated for Emmys for their performances as Veda and Mildred Pierce, respectively, in Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, MILDRED PIERCE (2011). Kate won.

Evan Rachel Wood’s transition from silent victim to vocal advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault reached a tipping point on February 1, 2021, when she publicly named Brian Warner aka Marilyn Manson as her abuser.  However, with lawsuit in hand, he has denied the accusations against him, claiming they were consensual.  His longtime manager quit him, but he has yet to be prosecuted.  This is troubling.

Hopefully, Evan Rachel Wood’s case will gain momentum with this film.  HBO plans to utilize the film to build “a robust national impact campaign to amplify key issues that are central to the commentary” by partnering with like-minded nonprofits.

Phoenix Rising and the pattern of victimization that it details (grooming, gaslighting, shame, isolation, etc.) will have evergreen potential as a discussion catalyst, an educational tool and therapeutic asset with victims’ groups and in one-on-one counseling and trauma therapy (female and male) in high school, college or community venues.

The two-part documentary will premiere on back-to-back nights.  Phoenix Rising: Don’t Fall debuts on HBO tonight, Tuesday, March 15, 2022, 9:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT.  Phoenix Rising: Stand Up follows on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT.  The films will stream via HBO Max beginning March 15, 2022.  Check for repeat HBO air dates in the weeks ahead and HBO On Demand for continued availability. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Director Anna Lee Strachan Unzips the History of Jeans in Riveted on PBS

“You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?  Nothing!”–actress Brooke Shields.

Ms. Shields’ seductive pose and vampish delivery in that controversial 1980 TV commercial shocked the nation.  She was only 15 at the time, but her fetching gaze most assuredly earned Calvin Klein a boatload of cash.

Where would we be without our jeans, and how did they become the iconic garment that none of us, no matter what our age, race, socio-economic level, sexual orientation or BMI, can do without?

To answer those questions, filmmakers Anna Lee Strachan and Michael Bicks crafted a solidly researched script, recorded articulate commentary from notable cultural historians and fashion pros, and unearthed a fascinating collection of vintage photos, film footage and artifacts for their latest film project, Riveted: The History of Jeans.  To say that you are almost certain to be riveted by Riveted is an understatement.  At the very least, you will never look at a simple pair of blue jeans the same way again.

As it turns out, blue jeans played a surprising role in the history of race, work, gender equity, and class in America, from colonial era slavery through the Hip-Hop culture of the late 20th century.  Although fashionistas may not find exactly what they are looking for in the film, Riveted: The History of Jeans will have a long shelf life in high school and college classrooms and library and museum programs. The film makes its timely debut during Black History Month on the PBS American Experience series tonight, Monday, February 7, 2021, 9:00 pm/ET; 8:00 pm/C.  Check local listings in your region.  It will also stream simultaneously with broadcast (see below for details).

Anna Lee Strachan wrote, directed and produced RIVETED: THE HISTORY OF JEANS with Michael Bicks for the PBS series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Anna Lee Strachan wrote, directed and produced RIVETED: THE HISTORY OF JEANS with Michael Bicks for the PBS series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

In my Q&A with Riveted writer, director, producer Anna Lee Strachan that follows (conducted via email), we explore how and why the provenance of a single garment, a staple in our 21st century lives, unlocks pivotal, untold narratives in American history.

Judith Trojan:  You have an impressive background in science… a degree in Neuroscience from Harvard, a M.S. in science writing from MIT, and a career writing and producing science-related projects for NASA, NPR and the PBS NOVA series.  Yet, with your production partner Michael Bicks, you wrote, produced and directed Riveted, a film about the history of jeans for American Experience!  That’s quite a stretch!  How did that theme spark your interest and gel with your background in science?

Anna Lee Strachan:  Why in the world is a science producer making a film about fashion history?  What can I say… the pandemic brought out a new angle in all of us!  I suspect the root motivation behind this film and my career producing science are the same—to provide people with tools to deal with an increasingly complex world.

Hollywood's romanticized version of the American cowboy in blue jeans began in silent films with Tom Mix, here seen hamming it up during a photo shoot, circa 1919.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Hollywood’s romanticized version of the American cowboy in blue jeans began in silent films with Tom Mix, here seen hamming it up during a photo shoot, circa 1919.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Growing up, I was deeply frustrated by racism, prejudice and ignorance.  I became convinced that one way to fight it was by revealing the beauty of science and evidence-based thinking.  If I could only get people to be curious enough to consider the evidence for their beliefs, perhaps we can stand a chance against human nature’s worst impulses.

So, for me, a documentary about an iconic object we hold dear is not that different from a documentary about artificial intelligence.  We all bring preconceived notions of such things to the table, and both history and science are evidence-based quests for truth.

What I hope viewers take away from this film is that even a humble pair of pants might force us to reconsider the ways we tell stories and build our identities.  If we can take a more inclusive view of history, it builds a far richer picture to better engage with each other.

Trojan:  Riveted is quite a revelation!  Most viewers will tune in expecting a film about cowboys, hippies and the fashion industry.  Instead, you not only touch on jeans fashion and pop culture through the decades but, more importantly, connect the dots to little known but pivotal aspects of race, gender equity and class in America.  Of the three, which do you feel was the most transformative in the history of jeans?

Strachan:  That’s a tough one.  All three were certainly pivotal.  If I had to pick one for simplicity’s sake, I’d go with gender equity.  How denim went from work wear to fashion is nothing short of transformational.  Women really took the lead here….for how, check out the film!!

Denim-clad women welders en route to their job to help the war effort, circa 1943.  Photo: Stocktrek Images, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo.

Denim-clad women welders en route to their job to help the war effort, circa 1943.  Photo: Stocktrek Images, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo.

Trojan:  The history of race in America permeates the entire history of jeans, from colonial era slavery through the Hip-Hop culture of the late 20th century.  It’s clear from the film that blue jeans predated Levi Strauss because print announcements tracking runaway slaves described their garments, which included ‘blue jeans.’  Were you aware from the outset how important African Americans were to the history of blue jeans in America?

Strachan:  Not nearly to the extent that we discovered.  From the outset we knew two missing pieces of the story were cotton and Indigo, the two key ingredients for making denim.  What we didn’t know was just how much these stories owed to enslaved peoples, not to mention the discovery of ‘slave cloth’ or ‘negro cloth,’ a precursor to denim used to clothe the same captive people who grew the raw material and shared their generational expertise about how to dye cloth this amazing shade of blue.

Trojan:  The history of Indigo growing, processing and dyeing demanded a special skillset that West Africans carried with them to American shores where they were enslaved.  Can you explain why that particular dye, given how complicated it was to produce, became the definitive color of garments worn by hard laborers in the fields, forests, factories, coal mines and building trades?  Why blue?  Why Indigo?

Strachan:  We never found a single answer for that in our research, but experts led us to suspect two possible reasons: 1) Indigo was just an amazing dye stuff for centuries—it was fast (meaning it didn’t fade over time like most dyes did), affordable, and it was incredibly good at hiding dirt.  2) People just like the color blue!  It’s hard to find a culture on Earth that doesn’t associate blue with the heavens and goodness.

The history of race in America, from colonial era slavery through the Hip Hop culture of the late 20th century, permeated the entire history of blue jeans.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The history of race in America, from colonial era slavery through the Hip-Hop culture of the late 20th century, permeated the entire history of blue jeans.  Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Trojan:   Eliza Lucas is relevant not only as a trailblazing female entrepreneur, but also as an example of how class and race played a key role in the success of the Indigo trade.  How did she, a woman and a colonial governor’s daughter, manage to spearhead the successful planting and production of Indigo and tap into and exploit the acumen of West African slaves?  How important was her reach and for how long?

Strachan:  The story of Eliza Lucas is a good one.  Here we have a story of a female entrepreneur credited for starting the Indigo economy in colonial America.  It’s a story told in textbooks and commemorated in museums.  Indeed she was a botanist in her own right, distributed Indigo seed across South Carolina, and figured out how to make the crop profitable in the region.  But what is left out of the narrative is the intellectual contribution of her West African enslaved people, who almost certainly shared their generational expertise of growing Indigo, making the dye (an extremely difficult process that at the time took years of apprenticeship), and then dyeing the cloth.

Trojan:  Nevada tailor Jacob Davis and California dry goods salesman Levi Strauss joined forces to create a better jean.  Why is it that we know the name Levi Strauss and not Jacob Davis, when Davis brought a crucial new element–the seam strengthening copper rivet–to the partnership and the garment?

Loggers needed heavy, reinforced work pants and, once they were riveted, blue jeans fit the bill.  Photo: Dorothea Lange.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Loggers needed heavy, reinforced work pants and, once they were riveted, blue jeans fit the bill.  Photo: Dorothea Lange.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Strachan:  Davis went to Levi Strauss because he did not have the resources to afford the patent, let alone mass produce the garment.  Since Davis later went to work for Strauss as his factory manager, it would seem he accepted from the start that Levi Strauss’s name would be out front.  (As a side note, we learned that it’s often the case with invention that the name that gets associated with it is the one with funds and wherewithal to support its production, if it’s not the inventor himself or herself.)

Trojan:  Throughout the film, you incorporate wonderful archival photos and film footage, vintage period illustrations and newspaper clips.  Where did you do your research?  Any roadblocks?

Strachan:  A project like this is a huge collaborative endeavor, and I certainly couldn’t have done it without my longtime producing partner, Michael Bicks, or our brilliant editor, Brian Funck.  This was our first historical film. We were very lucky to have worked with Melissa Pollard, a seasoned Archival Producer who found all of the images used in the film.  There were roadblocks, in particular, finding the rights holders let alone getting their permission for many of the images and especially the music.

Trojan:  How long did this project take you to complete?

Strachan:  About 10 months, not counting the month to develop the pitch. We are freelancers after all, so it’s hard not to work for free at least part of the time!

He's got jeans!   President Obama practices throwing out the first pitch before the MLB All-Star Game. Photo: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza.

He’s got jeans!   President Obama practices throwing out the first pitch before the MLB All-Star Game. Photo: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza.

Trojan:  Who or what period would you say was the most transformative in the history of jeans in America and their transition from quintessential workers’ garments to garments worn 24/7 by all races, ages, sexes and cultures in America?

Strachan:  I would say the real democratization of fashion—in part led by jeans—really took off in the 1970s.  This is really the decade where, for the first time, you could find any man, woman or child wearing denim at nearly any time or place.

Trojan:  Is there a timely take-away from Riveted?

Strachan:  Certainly!  I can’t put it better than one of our participants, fashion historian Emma McClendon:  ‘Denim and its history is a perfect metaphor for where we find ourselves as a culture right now.  Becoming much more aware of the silences, of those groups that have been pushed to the side.  Exposing and celebrating these narratives that haven’t made it into that typical telling of jeans is part of the work to change our understanding of American history.’ Ω

Riveted: The History of Jeans debuts on the PBS American Experience series tonight, Monday, February 7, 2021, 9:00 pm/ET; 8:00 pm/C.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.  The film will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ , the PBS Video App and, for members, on PBS Passport. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Fashion, Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Octopus Is People Pleaser on PBS Nature and in Oscar-winning Documentary

They may have been miscast in the movies, but, in real life, they're smart, social and sassy! See why in OCTOPUS: MAKING CONTACT on PBS NATURE and MY OCTOPUS TEACHER on Netflix. Photo ©Minden Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo.

They may have been miscast in the movies, but, in real life, they’re smart, social and sassy! See why in OCTOPUS: MAKING CONTACT on PBS NATURE and MY OCTOPUS TEACHER on Netflix. Photo ©Minden Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo.

“What would I find out if I invited an octopus into my home?”Professor David Scheel, Alaska Pacific University.

Dr. David Scheel asked himself that question after spending more than two decades studying rare octopus species in remote regions around the world.  So the marine biologist decided that the time was right to move his work to a more hospitable environment closer to home… his living room.

Dr. Scheel’s unorthodox plan to observe an octopus up close and personal is documented in Octopus: Making Contact, a fascinating 2019 film set for rebroadcast on PBS NATURE tonight, Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region; and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming info; and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.

If, like me, you’ve been known to grimace or cringe at the sight of an octopus and its eight suckered tentacles in aquariums or at fine dining establishments, I encourage you to give the creature a second chance.  I guarantee that after viewing Octopus: Making Contact and the Academy Award®-winning feature-length documentary, My Octopus Teacher, also covered in this review, you’ll never regard octopuses with a cringe or a grimace again… or, it turns out, you may hurt their feelings!

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel observes Heidi, the day octopus, in his living room aquarium in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel observes Heidi, the day octopus, in his living room aquarium in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Octopus: Making Contact, directed by Emmy® Award-winner Anna Fitch, has a lot to say about the sea animal’s built-in wow factor.  With the blessing of his 16-year-old daughter, Laurel, Dr. Scheel introduced a female day octopus into a large salt water tank situated in their Anchorage, Alaska, living room.  The Scheels named their new “pet,” Heidi, because she, like all octopuses, was a talented escape artist that could disappear into the tiniest cracks and crevices or creative camouflage at whim.

Heidi proved to be a quick study and a surprisingly social addition to the Scheel household.  Heidi engaged physically and emotionally with the Scheels as they fed and played with her.  She was clearly excited to see them come through the front door, which was visible from the tank as was the family’s TV, which Heidi watched over Laurel’s shoulder.

Laurel Scheel and Heidi, the octopus, bonding in her family living room in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

Laurel Scheel and Heidi, the octopus, bonding in her family living room in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo ©Passion Planet.

There was little that Heidi didn’t miss or respond to.  Heidi’s curiosity and lack of shyness when it came to interacting with the Scheels enabled them to experience her transformative physical beauty and agility, extraordinary intelligence and problem-solving and social skills firsthand from a front row seat in their living room.

“Octopuses followed a different evolutionary path than other intelligent animals on this planet,” said Dr. Scheel in retrospect. “I’m less intrigued by the differences and more interested in our similarities.  It’s been a privilege to have a relationship with such a strange and wonderful creature.”

Once you’ve been charmed by the film’s offbeat premise and outstanding cinematography, the latter a refreshing trademark of films produced for the PBS NATURE series, I highly recommend that you follow Octopus: Making Contact with a screening of the 2021 Oscar®-winning Best Feature Documentary, My Octopus Teacher, now available for streaming via its co-producer Netflix.  But be forewarned:  Keep a box of Kleenex handy!

My Octopus Teacher

With its breathtaking cinematography, evocative music and insightful narration by the film’s human protagonist, filmmaker Craig Foster, My Octopus Teacher is worth every film award, critical accolade and audience huzzah it generated during its original theatrical release in late 2020.  It’s an exploration of one man’s remarkable relationship with a young octopus in her own turf… a mystical kelp forest along the Cape Town coastline in South Africa.

The 85-minute chronicle of Craig Foster’s life-altering return to the kelp forest that he enjoyed exploring as a youngster was stunningly filmed by avid divers Pippa Ehrlich, Roger Horrocks and Foster himself.  Numbed by career burnout and malaise, his restorative daily dives would soon center on one solitary female octopus whose life story literally played out in front of his eyes, ears and camera lens.

“Unknowingly, I had met the greatest teacher of my life, a young female common octopus, Octopus vulgaris,” recalled Craig Foster. “I visited her den every day for weeks.  After a few months, she gradually realized that I posed no threat, and she began to trust me.  I was allowed into her wild inner world and felt as though an ancient door to nature had been opened to me.”

As Foster’s year-long journey to enlightenment unfolds in the Great African Seaforest, we are witness to the blossoming bond that develops between Foster and his resilient, brave, inquisitive, tender and, above all, super intelligent octopus pal. The film documents her savvy ability to trap her prey, dodge predators, cope with fear and physical trauma, mate, and creatively contort and camouflage her boneless body and change the color and texture of her skin to match her surroundings.

Craig Foster’s octopus pal shows him around her neighborhood in MY OCTOPUS TEACHER. Photo courtesy Netflix.

Craig Foster’s octopus pal shows him around her neighborhood in MY OCTOPUS TEACHER. Photo courtesy Netflix.

“I started to wonder how octopuses experience time,” said Foster.  “Their time is not like ours; one of her months is equivalent to almost five years of my life.  Each moment spent with her as she guided me around our forest was deeply precious to me.”

My Octopus Teacher is chockablock with awe-inspiring beauty, drama, suspense and heart-tugging emotion.  I can’t imagine anyone not being moved when the octopus reaches out to connect with Foster, at first with a tentative tentacle, then a playful snatch of his camera, and finally with a full body hug.  Her magnificence changed Foster’s life forever.

“She was teaching me to become sensitized to the other, especially wild creatures,” reflected Foster.  “That connection with an animal is absolutely mind blowing.  The boundaries seemed to dissolve.”

My Octopus Teacher is a must-see film about one of my favorite topics… our connection to every living being on this planet, and our responsibility to respect and treasure their singular attributes and protect their habitats, even if they live and look differently than we do.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER was filmed in the Great African Seaforest, a giant underwater forest that fringes the shores of Cape Town. Photo courtesy The Sea Change Project.

MY OCTOPUS TEACHER was filmed in the Great African Seaforest, a giant underwater forest that fringes the shores of Cape Town. Photo courtesy The Sea Change Project.

“I think what’s powerful about the film is that there’s this big South African guy who is telling a deeply intimate story about an animal that is essentially a modified snail,” said co-director Pippa Ehrlich. “He takes us into this fragile creature’s world, and she transforms from an underwater alien into a protagonist that we can really relate to and care about.”

My Octopus Teacher is available for streaming from Netflix, which also offers subscribers the opportunity to host educational community screenings free-of-cost.  Check out the the Sea Change Project Website @ http://www.seachangeproject.com to find out more about the Netflix offer and the film’s supplemental discussion guide. The Sea Change Project was co-founded by the team responsible for My Octopus Teacher and is a collective of filmmakers, journalists, and scientists working to protect the Great African Seaforest and study and film the lives of kelp forest animals. –Judith Trojan

Posted in Film, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street Bows on HBO

“We don’t play down to kids.  We just have a very short audience.”Joe Raposo, Sesame Street composer.

There are few more pleasurable strolls than the one kids take every day down Sesame Street.  Since its debut on public TV on November 10, 1969, Sesame Street immediately put a new face on preschool education. Under the auspices of the nonprofit educational organization, Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop), its staff of visionary educators, programmers, writers, performers, puppeteers, filmmakers, designers and composers were encouraged from the start to experiment and redefine the scope of educational TV.

Thanks to director Marilyn Agrelo’s delightful new feature-length documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, we get a chance to travel back in time to witness the show’s seminal first two decades, meet its tireless creative team (flesh and felt) and bask in the sheer joy of their journey.

On the heels of its popular festival and theatrical release earlier this year, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT. (See below for complete screening and streaming info.)

Joan Ganz Cooney and her SESAME STREET pals. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Joan Ganz Cooney and her SESAME STREET pals. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Inspired by Michael Davis’s New York Times best seller, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, the film deftly incorporates vintage behind-the-scenes clips, interviews filmed specifically for this project and those culled from archival footage to introduce the players who tackled major roles in this wildly innovative experiment, from concept development through production.

Key to this story are Children’s Television Workshop co-founders: documentary film producer Joan Ganz Cooney and psychologist Lloyd Morrisett.  Ms. Ganz Cooney quickly became the public face and driving force behind the project.

Joan Ganz Cooney recalls the early skepticism she encountered as she challenged tired, old-school perceptions of children’s TV.  As a woman dodging sexism in the male-dominated field of broadcasting in the late 1960’s, she jokes that she couldn’t be sidelined because she carried the project’s entire concept in her head.  She’s featured here at length, as are the pivotal contributions of the show’s dedicated producer/director Jon Stone and Muppets’ creator/puppeteer Jim Henson.

Others instrumental in originating the cast of characters and ambiance on the street were the actors and actresses, who discuss the importance of their racially and culturally diverse roles, as well as such prominent creatives as composer Joe Raposo, writer/composer Christopher Cerf, and puppeteer Caroll (Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch) Spinney.

“We all felt lucky to be a part of the exciting new adventure,” recalled Bob McGrath, the multi-talented performer who originated the beloved character of Bob on the show.

Master puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz had a ball with best buds Ernie and Bert on SESAME STREET.  Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Master puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz had a ball with best buds Ernie and Bert on SESAME STREET.  Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop.

Originally earmarked for inner city preschoolers, ages 3-5, most especially children of color, Sesame Street had immediate cross-over appeal.  Through the artful use of puppets, animation and live-action sequences, the show blurred ethnic, racial, gender and income barriers to encourage all children, no matter what their backgrounds, to develop the skills and attitudes they needed to live happy, productive lives.

Far exceeding anyone’s expectations, Sesame Street quickly set a new standard for children’s TV programming.  Three months into its first season, studies determined that regular viewers were already testing higher than non-viewers, especially those who watched the show with their parents.  Apparently, preschoolers were learning their letters and numbers and, consequently, how to read at younger ages due, in large part, to the innovative programming they enjoyed on Sesame Street.

According to master puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who originated the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the show and played them for 49 years until his retirement in 2018, Sesame Street‘s appeal to parents was also key to its success from the start.

“I think that part of the genius of the creation of the show was that it was important that grown-ups enjoy it, too,” said Spinney.  “Because if they liked it, it was more apt that the show was going to be turned on and not tuned to some other station.”

Oscar the Grouch and his right hand man, master puppeteer Caroll Spinney. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop/HBO.

Oscar the Grouch and his right hand man, master puppeteer Caroll Spinney. Photo courtesy Sesame Workshop/HBO.

If you’re as big a fan of Kermit and the Muppets as I am, you’ll relish the chronicle of Kermit’s evolution and you’ll enjoy the hilarious repartee, on and off script, between Frank Oz and Jim Henson’s dynamic duo, Bert and Ernie.  Sweet interludes between nonpro kids and the Muppets will touch your heart, as will Joe Raposo’s charming recollection of composing Kermit’s signature song, “Being Green.”

And you might want to keep a box of Kleenex handy as the film revisits “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” the 1983 Thanksgiving Day episode when Big Bird, age 6, learned of Mr. Hooper’s death, and seven years later when Big Bird sang a poignant rendition of “Being Green” during Jim Henson’s funeral.

From its initial broadcast on some 170 stations, Sesame Street has expanded its reach worldwide, now airing in more than 150 countries and embracing an ever-growing line of ancillary curriculum-based materials produced to educate, entertain and support the content of the show.  Sesame Street‘s Website http://www.sesamestreet.org  provides child and parent friendly activities, videos and games that extend the show’s shelf-life by engaging kids interactively.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.  I encourage you not to miss it! –Judith Trojan

Posted in Books, Cable, Education, Film, Puppetry, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment