In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11

Stuyvesant High School students were a mere 4 or 5 blocks away in their classrooms, as two jet planes decimated the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their memories of that day and the aftermath are powerful reminders of the tragedy and the collateral damage that haunts all Americans to this day. Photo: Ethan Moses, Stuyvesant HS Class of '02. Courtesy of HBO. "This felt personal. This is New York. This is home." The documentary may be only 35 minutes long, but I challenge you to find a more powerful film about 9/11 than In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11. The film debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates and availability on HBO

Stuyvesant High School students were a mere 4 or 5 blocks away in their classrooms, as two jet planes decimated the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their memories of that day and the aftermath are powerful reminders of the tragedy and the collateral damage that haunts all Americans to this day. Photo: Ethan Moses, Stuyvesant HS Class of ’02. Courtesy of HBO.

“This felt personal. This is New York. This is home.”

The documentary may be only 35 minutes long, but I challenge you to find a more powerful film about 9/11 than In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11.

The film debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Producer/director Amy Schatz, a seven-time Emmy® Award winner, revisits September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, via eye witness accounts from former students of New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Eight articulate young men and woman–American and foreign born sons and daughters of immigrants–recall in painful detail what it was like to hear, see and feel the impact of planes hitting the Twin Towers from their school building mere blocks away.

Students at Stuyvesant HS witnessed the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center from their classroom windows. Photo: Gary He, courtesy HBO.

Students at Stuyvesant HS witnessed the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center from their classroom windows. Photo: Gary He, courtesy HBO.

Several witnessed the point of impact from their classroom windows and recall their shock and disbelief when they realized that human beings were falling from World Trade Center windows. Warning: The accompanying film footage here is graphic.

As Stuyvesant High School lost its footing and power, students, with only Fire Drill experience under their belts, filed out of school en masse and then ran for their lives as huge clouds of detritus from the two falling Towers licked their backs.

“People don’t really talk about the fact that there were kids there,” says Himanshu Suri.

And those kids–now lawyers, medical professionals and parents–pull no punches, nor do the film clips and photos Ms. Schatz chooses to illuminate their up close and personal recollections of that day.

“Absolutely everything changed that day,” admits Ilya Feldsherov, who was 15 at the time.

Stuyvesant HS student Liz O'Callahan was interviewed in a 9/11/01 news clip. She is also one of the eight alumni featured in IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS. Photo courtesy HBO.

Stuyvesant HS student Liz O’Callahan was interviewed in a 9/11/01 news clip. She is also one of the eight alumni featured in IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS. Photo courtesy HBO.

They were academically gifted students of various nationalities, cultures and religions and, most especially, proud New Yorkers who gladly weathered long daily commutes from the outer boroughs just to study at this highly competitive school. They were comfortable in an environment that welcomed diversity, and energized by the promise of what life going forward would be for them in America as immigrants or the children of immigrants…or simply as Americans.  The sky was the limit…until the sky became a conduit for mass destruction.

This film will force you to remember and reflect upon the long-term affects of hate, bigotry and fear on children. This film will move you to tears. And that’s a good thing.

In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT.

Photo courtesy HBO.

In association with the 9-11 Tribute Museum, Amy Schatz also produced and directed What Happened on September 11.   The 30-minute film, specifically geared for children, debuts on HBO Family tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 6:00 – 6:30 p.m. ET/PT.

If you miss tonight’s debuts of In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 and What Happened on September 11, check listings for their additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.–Judith Trojan

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The Hatfields and McCoys Face Off in The Feud on PBS

“Bloody war in Pike County.  The McCoys and Hatfields Doing Their Utmost to Exterminate Each Other.”The New York Times, January 8, 1888.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud has been called “the most famous family conflict in American history.” Yet most of what we think we know about that Appalachian family fracas comes from vintage films and TV shows, featuring dentally and mentally-challenged Appalachian hillbillies plugging each other with buckshot.

Filmmaker Randall MacLowry sets the record straight in his latest documentary, produced for WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series. The Feud debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

The Hatfields and McCoys were among the earliest settlers in pre-Civil War Tug Fork River Valley, a mountainous remote region in Central Appalachia bordering the states of Kentucky and Virginia (what would become West Virginia).  Peace and tranquility in the Valley came to a screeching halt during the Civil War and its aftermath when Eastern industrialists and entrepreneurs set their sights on the region’s extensive coal and timber resources.

"No part of the country has suffered more from crude stereotypes than Appalachia."--Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo from HILLBILLY HARE, circa 1950, Warner Bros.

“No part of the country has suffered more from crude stereotypes than Appalachia.”–Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo from HILLBILLY HARE, circa 1950, Warner Bros.

Caught in this postwar influx of opportunists were the Hatfields, led by savvy patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, who initially jumped on the logging bandwagon, and the McCoys, whose patriarch, Randolph McCoy, continued to struggle to make ends meet as a subsistence farmer. Inter-family jealousies soon triggered revenge-fueled encounters, culminating in a horrific 1888 New Year’s Day bloodbath. The escalating Hatfield-McCoy family drama would become a sensationalized attention-grabber in the national media of the day.

Intrigued by this long forgotten chapter in American history, I was anxious to connect with filmmaker Randall MacLowry to explore in more detail the feud and the film’s backstory.  My Q&A with Randall MacLowry (conducted via email) is reprinted below.

Judith Trojan: During the opening moments of The Feud, you include a clip of the vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hillbilly Hare. An individual, who I assumed to be you because he was not identified at that point in my press screener, recalled briefly his childhood memory of that cartoon’s unsettling depiction of feuding hillbillies.  Did that cartoon actually trigger your fascination with the Hatfield-McCoy family feud and Appalachian culture? Did you grow up in Appalachia?

Randall MacLowry, director/writer/producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo: Eric Levin.

Randall MacLowry, director/writer/producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo: Eric Levin.

Randall MacLowry:  I am sure I saw that cartoon at some point growing up, but the anecdote recounted in the film is not mine. The story is from Chuck Keeney, a historian from West Virginia. When we first talked about the project, Chuck told me this memory of his, and I thought that it could be a great way to get into the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. As for myself, I did not grow up in Appalachia, but I spent a good amount of time in West Virginia working as the editor of a series on the history of the state, as well as producing and editing several other programs while I lived in West Virginia.

Trojan:  This is more than a story about two warring families. Why did you think the time was right to focus on the Hatfield-McCoy feud and, in the process, pinpoint the press’s role in mythologizing and stereotyping Appalachians? The press’s bad behavior in the late 19th century–a practice that soon thereafter became known as ‘yellow journalism’–seems timely given the abundance of character assassinating Tweets and rants of ‘Fake News’ that we have become accustomed to of late.

MacLowry:  I agree that the story is timely, but the timing of the film was not an outgrowth of any current events. I was familiar with the story of the feud having worked on the aforementioned film about the history of West Virginia about 25 years ago. When I was approached by American Experience to do a more in-depth exploration of the story, I was excited by the opportunity to revisit this iconic piece of American history. The story takes place during a period of rapid urbanization in the nation, and this shift to a more urban and industrial society gave rise to a sharp distinction between the rural and the urban in America. The feud played a pivotal role in the creation of the negative stereotypes of Appalachia that still have repercussions today.

Hatfield family patriarch William Anderson Hatfield, aka "Devil Anse," sitting cross-legged with his rifle across his lap, enjoyed a photo op with members of his family and local workers, circa 1880-1890's. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Hatfield family patriarch William Anderson Hatfield, aka “Devil Anse,” sitting cross-legged with his rifle across his lap, enjoyed a photo op with members of his family and local workers, circa 1880-1890’s. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Trojan:  I found myself wondering about the backstories of the two families. They apparently lived harmoniously for years as neighbors in the Tug Fork Valley region, pre-Civil War, and even intermarried.  Where did their forebears originate?

MacLowry:  The Hatfields were of English descent, and the McCoys were of Scots-Irish roots. Both families were in America several generations prior to their moving to the Tug Fork Valley, bordering Kentucky and Virginia (later West Virginia), where they joined German settlers, some French Huguenot refugees and others in the area.

Trojan:  It was clear to me from your film that the fires of animosity in the region were not only sparked by the Civil War itself, but fanned by postwar industrialization. Allegiances to the Confederacy and the Union caused rifts between families in the Valley but also fractured them from within. Urban entrepreneurs and investors, in turn, saw dollar signs when they laid eyes and capital on the region’s rich coal and lumber resources.

MacLowry:  I wouldn’t describe the Civil War as the straw that broke the camel’s back as that implies there were growing tensions between the families that were exacerbated by the Civil War. But the atrocities that occurred in that borderland region were very disruptive to the tight-knit agrarian community that had been living there since the early 1800’s.

John CC Mayo (center) and his colleagues consolidating ownership of natural resources in the Tug Fork Valley in the late 1800's. Photo courtesy of University of Pikeville, Frank M. Allara Library Special Collections, Mayo Collection.

John CC Mayo (center) and his colleagues consolidating ownership of natural resources in the Tug Fork Valley in the late 1800’s. Photo courtesy of University of Pikeville, Frank M. Allara Library Special Collections, Mayo Collection.

Trojan:  Families like the Hatfields and McCoys who, prior to the war, lived off the land soon faced No Trespassing signs on turf they once owned. Parallels to current EPA rollbacks favoring business interests over the health and well-being of our nature preserves and environment come to mind.

MacLowry:  The tension between capitalism and exploitation of the environment has a long history in our country. Mountain families lost their land and their livelihoods in the face of this enormous pressure.

Trojan:  Your narrative is straight out of the Ken Burns playbook.  Who do you credit with inspiring the focus and narrative approach of your work?

MacLowry:  Ken Burns is a major figure in the creation of historical documentaries and has brought many powerful stories to life.  But early in my career, I had the good fortune to work with Academy Award®-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim.  I trace much of my inspiration in this field to him and numerous other important and generous mentors that have helped guide me along the way.

Rifle ready William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield stands in the snow outside a cabin, circa 1890's. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Rifle ready William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield stands in the snow outside a cabin, circa 1890’s. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Trojan:  Kimberly McCoy is the sole Hatfield-McCoy descendant featured in the film. Who is she descended from?  Why not include additional Hatfield-McCoy descendants?

MacLowry:  We contacted many descendants of the Hatfield and McCoy families as we researched the film, and I appreciate all of the time and insights they shared with us. Kim grew up along the Tug Fork and still lives in the area. She has been involved with preserving the history of the area for many years–not just the story of the feud but also the rich history of the coal mine wars that took place in the first two decades of the 20th century in southern West Virginia as miners fought to unionize the coal mines.

She is actually related to both the Hatfields and McCoys. She is a direct descendant of William Anderson Hatfield’s older brother, Valentine Hatfield, and she is married to a direct descendant–Randolph McCoy’s younger brother, Asa Harmon McCoy.

Trojan:  You thread a wonderful selection of photos, artwork, and vintage newspaper and film clips throughout The Feud. The clips from silent dramatic films and more contemporary TV favorites like “The Beverly Hillbillies” underscore how popular culture throughout the 20th century was saturated with negative Appalachian stereotypes.

MacLowry:   I feel we were very successful in finding images to provide a picture of the people and the place, which in the end is what our story is really about. It is about the massive transformation of the region brought about by rapid industrialization, which upended the agrarian subsistence economy in the area and led to widespread displacement of the local people.

Hatfield Family Portrait, circa 1897. Bearded patriarch William Anderson "Devil Anse," seated next to his wife, Levisa "Levicy" Hatfield, surrounded by their family and assorted weaponry. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Hatfield Family Portrait, circa 1897. Bearded patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, seated next to his wife, Levisa “Levicy” Hatfield, surrounded by their family and assorted weaponry. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

We got almost all of our imagery in the film from archives. There are some images that we had heard about that at one time were with family members, but we were unable to track them down. We were excited that we were able to locate a good number of images of Anderson Hatfield and his family from archives — many that I had not seen when we did the history of West Virginia film a couple decades ago. Unfortunately, we found only one image of Randolph McCoy, and very few of his family from the time of the feud. We had hoped to unearth others, but none surfaced.

Trojan:  For me, your film is a timely wake-up call about the long-term consequences of stereotyping and what incites individuals to violence when they fear that their everyday lives and traditions are being upended by the ‘new kids on the block’—whether they are rogue family members; politically, racially or ethnically diverse neighbors; immigrants; or big business interests.

MacLowry:  I think the importance of the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud is that it became part of how Americans, and even the world, looked at Appalachia. Mountaineers became viewed as violent, backward savages who needed to be reformed and civilized. And that negative ‘hillbilly’ stereotype still remains today.

But what happened was not unique. These attitudes towards Appalachia were happening at the same time, for instance, as efforts at spreading imperialism in Africa and fighting Native Americans in the Indian wars of the West. Mountain folk become marginalized as a group, and this is similar with the representation of non-whites throughout the country and the world. Fighting against the marginalizing and otherizing of people is an important issue that we still grapple with as a nation. Ω

American Experience: The Feud, written, directed and produced by Randall MacLowry and executive produced by Mark Samels, debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region  and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) –Judith Trojan

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I Love Lucy Lollapalooza Hits Theaters on Lucy’s Birthday

Legendary comedienne Lucille Ball (1911-1989) captured our hearts as Lucy Ricardo and never let go. Here’s Lucy in the newly colorized I LOVE LUCY episode, THE MILLION DOLLAR IDEA. Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

“We froze her, we starched her, we flew her from wires, we crushed raw eggs in her blouse, we covered her head with chocolate sauce, custard pie, feathers, salad dressing, a loving cup, cement and squashed grapes, and she never complained.”comedy writers Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. 

Beloved comedienne Lucille Ball would have turned 108 today, August 6, 2019. Let’s face it, in these distressing times, we all could use a hearty dose of I Love Lucy to remind us how to laugh again. To celebrate the comedy legend’s birthday, Fathom Events and CBS Home Entertainment have piggybacked five colorized, classic episodes from her 1950’s I Love Lucy CBS-TV series into a special, one-night only release in more than 600 movie theaters across the country.

I Love Lucy: A Colorized Celebration debuts in select theaters nationwide tonight, Tuesday, August 6, 2019, at 7:00 p.m. local time. For a complete list of participating theaters (AMC and Regal Cinemas, among other popular chains, are part of the mix), check the Fathom Events website http://www.FathomEvents.com or your local movie theater listings.  See below for DVD availability.

“Almost everyone has seen and been captivated by I Love Lucy,” said Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt. “But even the biggest Lucy fan has rarely had the experience of seeing Lucy on the big screen and laughing alongside fellow fans in a movie theater.”

The beloved I LOVE LUCY "family," from left: William Frawley (Fred Mertz), Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), Richard Keith (Little Ricky Ricardo), Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo), and Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo).

The beloved I LOVE LUCY “family,” from left: William Frawley (Fred Mertz), Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), Richard Keith (Little Ricky Ricardo), Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo), and Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo).

loved Lucy. Unlike Mama, Harriet Nelson and Margaret Anderson, wife to the father who always knew best, Lucy Ricardo never tied her apron strings. As a housewife, she was rarely content or a success in the traditional sense of the term.  She did try.  But her efficient, “happy homemaker” schemes invariably tested husband Ricky’s Latin patience, and havoc ensued.

Lucy’s societal aspirations, part-time “jobs” and relentless quest for her own show business career drove a wedge between the couple, generating unforgettable comic shtick. Her bond with fellow housewife Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) was possible only because Ethel was a seasoned vaudevillian and, like Lucy, had nerve to burn.

Too much yeast? Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) have their hands full of dough in the newly colorized 1952 I LOVE LUCY episode, PIONEER WOMEN. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Too much yeast? Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) have their hands full of dough in the newly colorized 1952 I LOVE LUCY episode, PIONEER WOMEN. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Though I never doubted Lucy’s love for Ricky, Little Ricky, and her surrogate family–Fred and Ethel Mertz–I knew that Lucy would never rest until she tried (and she tried everything!) to make a break from her everyday routine.

Nowhere were Lucy’s aspirations more evident than in Pioneer Women, a memorable I Love Lucy episode that originally debuted in black and white on CBS over half a century ago on March 31, 1952.  Pioneer Women tops the list of five classic, colorized I Love Lucy episodes featured in the one-night 0nly theatrical event on August 6.

When Lucy and Ethel beg their husbands to buy them dishwashers (Lucy calculates she’s washed 219,000 dishes in 10 years of marriage, and her hands have had enough!), Ricky and Fred’s cheapskate solution (rubber gloves!) falls on deaf ears. And so begins a fifty-buck bet and battle of the sexes over who best can live without modern conveniences. You can almost smell the aroma of fresh-baked bread and home-churned butter as Lucy and Ethel tackle baking and churning the old-fashioned way in Pioneer Women… well, maybe not.

As the competitive foursome don the garb and accoutrements of yore, they are snafued by two snooty members of the Society Matrons’ League, who must approve Lucy and Ethel for coveted membership. Lucy takes the high road, but not before making a monumental misstep in the kitchen.  I prefer to think of her six-foot-long loaf of home-baked bread as an over-achievement rather than a colossal misuse of yeast.

It’s so tasty, too! Showbiz hopeful Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) tackles a 23% proof TV commercial gig in the now colorized classic episode, LUCY DOES A TV COMMERCIAL. Photo ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

As every Lucy fan knows, Lucy Ricardo was a relentless showbiz wannabe. Never one to sit idly by while her husband, singer/bandleader Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), got the gigs, Lucy relentlessly wangled her way into his shows. Her schemes to sing, act or pirouette her way into Ricky’s spotlight (often aided and abetted by best friend Ethel Mertz) triggered hilarious comedy escapades.

This is especially true in Lucy Does a TV Commercial, which originally debuted in black and white on CBS on May 5, 1952.  Once again, Lucy ignores Ricky’s orders to steer clear of his show; this time, however, it’s Ricky’s TV variety show debut and there’s an opening for a TV commercial pitch woman.  Multiple run-throughs forcing Lucy to swig a 23% proof tonic called “Vitameatavegamin” quickly turn her snappy sales spiel into riotous tongue-tied drivel. Inebriated and disheveled, she manages to deep-six the commercial and Ricky’s opening number.

Lucille Ball’s comic genius is truly in evidence in this classic Lucy episode. Ranked the “No. 2 television episode of all time” by TV Guide, Lucy Does a TV Commercial is a comedy gem.

In Job Switching (also fondly remembered as the Chocolate Factory episode), Lucy raises Ricky’s hackles when she overdraws her checkbook.  In one of her most uproarious efforts to prove to Ricky that she can make a living, Lucy drags Ethel to an employment agency where they nab a gig at a chocolate factory.  After several failed attempts to master their assignments, they land on the assembly line where they’re faced with a boss and conveyor belt from Hell.

Too many chocolates, too little time. Lucy and Ethel aim to prove to their husbands that they can make a living in JOB SWITCHING. Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Meanwhile, as Lucy and Ethel corral the chocolates, their husbands–Ricky and Fred–take a stab at the housework. Their disastrous attempts to vacuum, iron, bake a cake and prepare a dinner of chicken and rice are equally side-splitting.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Lucy and Ethel’s futile effort to keep up with that speedy chocolate factory conveyor belt was selected in 2013 by the Paley Center for Media (in their “TV’s Funniest of the Funniest” poll) as the funniest TV moment of all time.

The Job Switching episode originally aired in black and white on CBS on September 15, 1952.  Now, 67 years later, Lucy’s hair is red, her crisp factory uniform is pink, the chocolates are brown and the Ricardos’ kitchen is a Mid-century Modern riot of color; and Lucy, Ethel, Ricky and Fred will still make you laugh out loud.

I’m generally not a fan of colorized versions of vintage black and white TV shows and movies. The faux colors tend to look garish and cheesy and flatten the rich contrast found in their original black and white counterparts. That said, I have since warmed to the process and team who continue to colorize “Lucy.” They’ve managed to impart a fresh, timeless look to I Love Lucy by sticking with muted, natural tones and not overplaying their hand. This sensible use of color injects a pleasing, modern-day quality to the original black and white episodes without sacrificing the show’s vintage provenance.

Starstruck Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) is no match for her movie star prey (William Holden) in L.A. AT LAST! Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Two additional episodes round out the Colorized Celebration theatrical release. Hilarious L.A. at Last! (Feb. 7, 1955) jump-starts my favorite I Love Lucy arc tracking Lucy and Ethel’s fan-fueled misadventures in Hollywood.  In L.A. at Last!, movie star William Holden turns the iconic Brown Derby tables on persistent gawker Lucy and melts more than her smitten heart. And in The Million Dollar Idea (Jan. 11, 1954), Lucy and Ethel are forced to botch a batch of promising sales when Ricky puts the brakes on their homemade salad dressing business.

I Love Lucy: A Colorized Celebration debuts in select theaters nationwide tonight, Tuesday, August 6, 2019, at 7:00 p.m. local time. For a complete list of the more than 600 participating theaters (AMC and Regal Cinemas, among other popular chains, are part of the mix), check the Fathom Events website http://www.FathomEvents.com or your local theater movie listings.

But don’t fret if you can’t get to the theater on time!  I Love Lucy: A Colorized Celebration is scheduled for DVD release on August 13, 2019.  So slap on a smile, pass the popcorn and remember to wish Lucy a happy birthday! –Judith Trojan

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Gloria Vanderbilt Documentary to be Rebroadcast on HBO

 

Photo courtesy HBO.

“She was always the youngest one in the room,” recalls CNN anchor Anderson Cooper of his mom, Gloria Vanderbilt

Fashion designer … artist … author … heiress … and mom Gloria Vanderbilt passed away this week (6/17/19) at the age of 95.  Just in case you missed the poignant, feature-length documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper, produced and directed by Liz Garbus, when it debuted on HBO and CNN in April 2016, you can catch an encore performance tonight, Thursday, June 20, 2019, at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

A public figure since childhood and muse of many legendary photographers, heiress, fashion designer and artist Gloria Vanderbilt (1924-2019) weathered high family drama and personal tragedies throughout her life but remained undaunted. Photo courtesy HBO.

I can’t encourage you enough to revisit this marvelous film after you reread my original review  (Ms. Vanderbilt was a vibrant, exquisite 91 in the film!) and my commentary about Gloria Vanderbilt’s extraordinary life in FrontRowCenter, on April 9, 2016

As I detailed in that review and continue to assert, Nothing Left Unsaid is one of the most moving, psychologically smart and information-rich film bios I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely on par with another similarly-themed favorite of mine:  Listen To Me Marlon (reviewed in FrontRowCenter on 11/14/15).

Anderson Cooper and his mom, Gloria Vanderbilt, as they appear in NOTHING LEFT UNSAID. Photo courtesy HBO.

The moral of Ms. Vanderbilt’s life story (and Marlon’s despite his having grown up on the other side of the tracks) — that fame and fortune don’t buy happiness — is obvious, of course. But, as with Brando, Gloria’s ongoing creative attempts to work through the detritus of her childhood and surmount tragic losses are lessons we all, rich or poor, can learn from. –Judith Trojan

Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper will be rebroadcast on HBO tonight, Thursday, June 20, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.)

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Remembering D-Day, Band of Brothers, The War, and The Cold Blue

Nine surviving Eighth Air Force veterans recall the realities facing them on the ground and in the cockpits of their B-17 bombers as they headed out in formation to drop and dodge bombs and machine gun fire over Germany, circa 1943. From THE COLD BLUE, Erik Nelson’s frame-by-frame restoration of William Wyler’s classic WWII documentary, THE MEMPHIS BELLE (1944). Photo courtesy HBO.

Today, June 6, 2019, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“It plays like the stuff of military myth or legend, but it’s remarkably true: A disparate group of American recruits transformed into an elite rifle company, parachuted into France on June 6, 1944, and made history. The men of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army, began their mission on D-Day and fought their way across France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. They survived the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden.” —Judith Trojan

I wrote those words in an introduction to a series of interviews I conducted with the author and filmmakers responsible for the powerful, 10-part HBO dramatic miniseries, Band of Brothers (2001). The series was adapted from historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s award-winning nonfiction best seller of the same name by executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and an outstanding creative team.

Band of Brothers is an achievement that I, in my capacity as Director of the Christopher Awards, will always be proud to have honored with a Christopher Award. It continues to be one of the most important war films, standalone or series, that has ever been produced for TV/cable.  I literally wept, alone in our screening room, for 10 minutes after I finished watching the final episode…moved by its focus on the elderly veterans whose lives on the beach and battlefield were dramatized in the prior nine episodes.

The Allied liberation of Western Europe was orchestrated as a brilliant stealth operation that commenced on June 6, 1944, when some 156,00 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of France’s heavily fortified Normandy coastline. By late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, and by the following spring the Allies had defeated the Germans. The Normandy landings, that began on D-Day, have been called “the beginning of the end of war in Europe.”

It is more important than ever to remember and celebrate those who fought the good fight during World War II in Europe and the Pacific, achieving hard won victories that would change the course of history and secure the freedoms and opportunities that we continue to cherish today.

Photo courtesy Florentine Films.

Filmmaker Ken Burns had already redefined and elevated the documentary landscape with his groundbreaking nine-part PBS miniseries, The Civil War (1990), when he felt compelled to turn his attention to yet another war that would involve a much broader playing field.

“Towards the end of the Nineties, I had learned two awful facts, ” Ken Burns recalled in one of several interviews I conducted with him over the years.  “One is that we were losing a thousand veterans a day from the Second World War. And that many graduating high school students thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War.  I was appalled and felt, for the reason that we were losing our soldiers and our historical compass, that I had to dive back into the subject of war.”

Ken Burns’ seven-part documentary miniseries, The War, debuted on PBS in 2007.  It explored in human terms the lasting impact of WWII on average Americans from four different regions of the country.

A member of director William Wyler’s crew filming from the cockpit of a B-17 during an actual WWII combat mission over Germany, circa 1943. Photo courtesy HBO.

New to this mix of timely WWII films is The Cold Blue, an 82-minute documentary restoration and augmentation of three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler’s 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Wyler put his filmmaking chops to good use when, in 1943, he and his crew filmed Eighth Air Force bomber pilots, on land and from the cockpits of their B-17s during actual combat missions over Germany.

“My father was trying to make a documentary that would help the war effort,” remembered Wyler’s daughter, Catherine. “He was born in Europe, he was Jewish, and he had relatives he wanted to save.  He had a lot of trouble getting into the Air Force because he was 40 years old, but he wanted to show the people at home the courage of these men and their crews flying the bombers.”

Eighth Air Force Bombers in formation en route to Germany. Footage shot by William Wyler and his crew, circa 1943, now seen in Erik Nelson’s THE COLD BLUE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Seven decades later, while searching for random color footage of World War II aviation, filmmaker Erik Nelson was alerted to the fact that 34 reels of outtakes–raw color footage shot by William Wyler in 1943 over land and sea for The Memphis Belle–was being stored in the vaults of the National Archives.

Nelson and his team revisited The Memphis Belle, frame-by-frame, incorporating digitally restored color footage and updated sound design, as well as interviews with surviving WWII Air Force veterans, all in their nineties. The months-long process was complex, but it refreshed Wyler’s original film in a theatrically viable way.

“Every one of the original prints had faded, in some cases beyond recognition,” said Erik Nelson.  “There seemed to be no possibility of restoration.  We decided to take a chance by hoping that our 34 reels constituted the entirety of The Memphis Belle, and decided to place over 500 individual shots over The Memphis Belle’s existing soundtrack.  This heralds a new kind of restoration–where a film is literally recut from scratch with all of the original elements, yet preserves exactly the same content of the original.”

The result is a riveting, birds-eye look at what it was like for very young American airmen to endure more than 25 missions over Germany, deemed the most deadly target of the war.  Aside from the remarkable aerial combat footage, the film zeroes in on the rituals and camaraderie that cushioned the loss of comrades, the all-consuming fear of bodily harm or death, and the trauma of killing another human being, albeit an enemy airman, and bombing the civilian German landscape below to smithereens.

Footage shot by William Wyler and his crew during an actual bombing raid over Germany, circa 1943, from THE COLD BLUE. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Cold Blue, a production of Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions and Creative Differences, debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, June 6, 2019, 8:00 – 9:15 p.m. ET/PT, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD. Band of Brothers (HBO) and Ken Burns’ The War (PBS) are readily available via streaming services and on DVD.–Judith Trojan

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Foster Debuts on HBO During National Foster Care Month

Social service professionals and foster moms like Mrs. Earcylene Beavers (pictured here with eight-year-old Casi) as seen in the feature-documentary, FOSTER, are making a positive difference in the lives of abused, neglected, and abandoned kids in Los Angeles County. Photo courtesy HBO.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”Nelson Mandela.

It’s hard to argue with Mr. Mandela, except I would add “and the elderly” to his quote. The children who find themselves, through no fault of their own, abused, neglected and abandoned in Los Angeles County, California, and the social workers, legal and lay advocates who try to make their young clients’ lives worth living are the focus of Foster, the new feature-length documentary by filmmakers Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris.

Academy Award® winners for another fine film that celebrates those who courageously moved children out of harm’s way (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport), Oppenheimer and Harris now set their sights on the kids, foster parents and professionals who currently populate the largest child protection agency in the United States. There are no flesh and blood villains profiled in Foster, only their collateral damage… the battered souls and haunted memories of the kids left behind by their biological parents to navigate the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

A tribute to the incredible resilience of these kids and their advocates, several of whom are profiled in the film, Foster debuts on HBO during National Foster Care Month tonight on National Foster Care Day, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.

FOSTER zeroes in on the challenges and successes, big and small, faced by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Photo courtesy HBO.

The statistics are chilling: “One in eight American children suffer abuse or neglect by age 18” and there are “more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S.”  But as depressing as those stats sound, the filmmakers focus instead not on the losses but on the wins, the baby steps that have given these kids a second chance at life.

After years of being shuffled through the revolving door of foster and group homes and juvenile detention centers, the kids–ranging in age from eight through preteen and teenage, college and young adulthood–are remarkably articulate and personable.  All have stories to tell about their tortuous past lives with biological and foster parents and years in the foster care system. Fortunately, those recollections are kept to a minimum.

By the time the filmmakers chose to tell their stories, the youngsters’ lives had taken a more promising turn.  Several had found a welcoming home with compassionate foster parents or a safe haven under the supportive jurisdiction of caring social service and legal professionals, some of whom had even survived the system themselves as children.

Former foster child, Jessica, now advocates as a professional for foster children in Los Angeles County. Photo courtesy HBO.

Former foster child Jessica overcame horrific odds to continue her education and receive her Master’s degree, raise two healthy sons and build a professional career as an advocate and role model for foster kids who feel invisible without hope of ever building a productive life outside  the foster care system.

Unable to have more than one biological child of her own, Mrs. Earcylene Beavers dreamed of having a large family and has welcomed more than 100 foster children into her home over the years.  Some have remained with Mrs. Beavers permanently, a wish expressed and happily realized by members of her current brood, who include autistic Casi, and preteens Sydney and Denyshia.

As teenage Dasani struggles to give voice to the memory of watching his dad murder his mom, he also takes positive steps to redeem himself after making some bad moves in his group home and landing on probation.

Until Raenne worked to resolve her substance abuse problems, she lost custody of her newborn to the child’s father. Photo courtesy HBO.

The responsibilities of first time parents Chris and Raenne are scrutinized when their newborn daughter is thought to have been neurologically damaged by Raenne’s cocaine addiction. Chris steps up to the plate as the child’s full-time caregiver when Raenne is removed from their home and encouraged in her rehab efforts.

Having aged out of the traditional foster care system, beautiful 18-year-old Mary grapples with the demons that undermine her ability to remain in college.  However, her dream of becoming an actress and her move into an modern, adult apartment with her biological sister provide the impetus for her to stick with college and commit to live a better tomorrow.  “You can’t always write the beginning to your story,” stresses Mary, “but you can definitely write the end.”

At 18, Mary has transitioned out of the L.A. County Foster Care system and into college and an apartment with her biological sister. Photo courtesy HBO.

Participant Media, the film’s co-producer with HBO Documentary Films and Emerson Collective, is launching a social impact campaign linked to the debut of Foster on HBO, including a ten-state screening tour of the film. Their goal is “to bring individuals, organizations, corporations and government agencies together to change perceptions of foster youth … and to accelerate solutions aimed at helping children and families thrive.”

Going forward, Foster will be an asset in college and university programs focusing on social work, juvenile justice and school psychology. The film also has evergreen potential as a discussion catalyst in foster care group therapy programs with young people and the professionals who serve them.

For more information on foster care and Foster Care Month, check out http://www.hbo.com/foster  and www.childwelfare.gov/fostercaremonth/

Foster debuts on HBO during National Foster Care Month tonight on National Foster Care Day, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD. –Judith Trojan

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Gentleman Jack Proves She Ain’t No Gentleman on HBO

“She was a real player.  She was very good at sex. It was high on her agenda of what was important.”–writer/director Sally Wainwright.

There was nothing ordinary about Anne Lister (1791-1840). Wealthy Yorkshire landowner, businesswoman, diarist and international gadabout Anne Lister was an unconventional force to reckon with in Regency England during the first half of the 19th century.

Her intellectual pursuits (anatomy, forensics, geology) defied female convention.  And at a time when women were festooned with ruffles and flourishes and relied upon men for marriage, Lister favored heavy black overcoats, top hats… and women who, according to Lister’s explicit, cleverly coded diaries, were more often than not willing to share her bed.

Anne Lister’s moniker, Gentleman Jack, is an apt title for the new, eight-episode dramatic miniseries, created, written and co-directed by Sally Wainwright for HBO/BBC.  Episode One “I was just passing”– debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, April 22, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Episodes 2-8, follow on successive Mondays in May and June.)

Anne Lister’s remarkably bold lifestyle has been the subject of various literary and Brit TV efforts, but was first documented by Lister herself in voluminous daily diary entries (with her sexual exploits detailed in code).  The diaries (and her lesbian romances) date from her teenage years.

Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) defiantly asserts her role as manager of her estate’s tenant farmers and rich coal mines in the HBO/BBC miniseries, GENTLEMAN JACK. Photo: Matt Squire/HBO.

Gentleman Jack jumps feet first into Lister’s life story, circa 1832, as she returns to Shipden Hall, her ancestral home in Halifax, Yorkshire, bent but unbroken by yet another female lover’s decision to marry a man. Actress Suranne Jones tears up the screen as bold, charismatic Anne Lister.  With a wink and nod to the camera, she lets nothing stand in her way as she throws her family (sister, elderly aunt and father) and servants, tenant farmers and neighbors into a tailspin when she sets various progressive protocols in motion as Shipden’s headstrong heir.

She threatens to modernize stuffy Shipden Hall, adding fanciful outbuildings and lush, park-inspired landscapes to the estate grounds. She demands overdue rent from lax tenant farmers, and haggles smartly with local coal magnates over title to her estate’s rich coal deposits.  All this, she hopes, will set the stage for a new, more permanent local romantic conquest… the seduction and, yes, a hoped for church sanctified union with the shy, sheltered young heiress, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), next door.

Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) works her magic on shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) in GENTLEMAN JACK on HBO. Photo: Matt Squire/HBO.

Anne Lister was determined to buck the status quo and live true to her God-given nature, which she apparently paraded confidently in public and enjoyed in the bedroom. She would never consider marrying a man, not even under societal pressure for convenience or financial gain.  Instead, she set her romantic and financial sights on women like young heiress Ann Walker.

There’s no question that Gentleman Jack is a fascinating departure from run-of-the mill historical dramas.  Series creator Sally Wainwright hits the ground running as she introduces 21st century viewers to a real-life, ballsy, unconventional Regency-era heroine who, as it turns out, has gained notoriety not only for her historical relevance as a swashbuckling, marriage-minded lesbian but also as an acclaimed diarist.

Anne (Suranne Jones) Lister’s young French maid, Eugénie (Albane Courtois), has a time-sensitive secret in GENTLEMAN JACK on HBO. Photo: Matt Squire/HBO.

The series should definitely encourage further research and discussion about Anne Lister’s milieu, life and lifestyle. But although Anne’s gender-bending persona, as inhabited with fearsome energy by brilliant actress Suranne Jones, sets each episode afire, the nervously compliant object of her affection, young Ann Walker (lovely Sophie Rundle), initially grows tiresome and hardly worthy of Lister’s ardor.

There are also a host of colorful marginal characters with great potential here:  her fussy spinster sister, Marian; her supportive elderly aunt and no-nonsense dad; as well as comical servants, faithful and fearsome tenant farmers; and sleazy Trumpian coal magnates.  All have their moments, and they do much to enliven the saga of Lister’s pursuit of conflicted Miss Walker.

It’s not long before Lister and Walker’s growing passion and love for each other are tested by touching missteps and life-altering crises.  But, in the end, as Lister’s bravado and Walker’s insecurities fall away, Gentleman Jack turns into an incredibly moving, true romance of the highest order… all of it driven by Anne Lister’s actual diary entries.

It should be noted that the intimate scenes between the two women are exquisitely choreographed and acted:  simultaneously tender and powerful, they are not in any way gratuitous.

Anne Lister (1791-1840).

Anne Lister (1791-1840).

Episode One of Gentleman Jack– “I was just passing”– debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, April 22, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Episodes 2-8, follow on successive Mondays in May and June.)

Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD.

Gentleman Jack was scheduled to premiere concurrently on the BBC on April 22, 2019. And, one month later, on May 23, 2019, HBO and BBC announced that they are renewing the series for a second season. This is definitely welcome news!–Judith Trojan

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