Pop Culture Roundup: This Week

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How do you make an entire movie about a one-day visit to the White House by an aging rock n' roll icon where he meets the Commander-In-Chief of the U.S.? Well, that's what filmmaker Liza Johnson tries to pull off in "Elvis & Nixon," the true story of the morning of December 21, 1970, when The King, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon), turned up at the White House and demanded to be sworn in as a Federal Agent to join in the fight against drugs and communism by then POTUS Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey).

'The Hateful Eight' and 'The Revenant' may be set in the past — but they're stories about today

We live in a country where there are officially more guns than there are people, where gun violence seems nearly as prevalent in movie theaters as it is on movie screens, and where a significant portion of the populace is subject to so much acquitted violence that a national movement is required just to reinforce the fact that their lives matter. Life is tenuous, and death is a closed circuit of ritualized forgetting. In a Leone film, a saloon shooting would be followed by a short hush before a sharp look from the proprietor would urge the piano player to resume hammering away at the keys. Today, we wait for the news to churn through 24-hour cable networks and be regurgitated through the "thoughts and prayers" of Presidential candidates.

In searching for a narrative through-line to connect our nation's recent spate of violent tragedies (i.e. the murder of Michael Brown, the assault on the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, etc.) and the political sideshow that provokes and perpetuates them in equal measure, there's only one thing that more fundamentally binds them together than guns: genre.

It's 2015, and the United States of America is more of a Western than ever.

Here’s How the First Oscar Nominations Worked (They weren't even made public)

The announcement of the year’s Oscar nominees may not generate the hullabaloo of the actual ceremony, but the news—which will be delivered Thursday—has become an event unto itself. But that has not always been the case.

As explained by Robert Osborne in his official history of the awards, 85 Years of the Oscar, what was then called the Awards of Merit were pretty much an afterthought when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927. Seven people were on the committee dedicated to giving the awards, eventually deciding by mid-1928 to give 12 prizes. As they are today, the members of the Academy—a couple hundred people at that point—were given a list of eligible movies from which to make nominations.

 “The Finest Hours,” which opens Jan. 29, is very closely based on a real-life rescue that took place at sea in February 1952, when, during a nor’easter at least as fierce as the one immortalized in “The Perfect Storm,” not one but two oil tankers broke apart off the coast of Cape Cod. They were T2’s, ships hastily built of inferior metal during World War II and sometimes known as “serial sinkers” for their tendency to snap in half during cold weather.

One of the broken ships, the Pendleton, drifted perilously close to the shoals off Chatham, Mass. The captain and seven others in the bow section were lost, but the 33 sailors trapped aft maintained electric power for a while and were even able to navigate after a fashion until the hull began flooding and drifted so close to shore that people could glimpse it from the beach.

More than 20 years after some 107 million people watched a Los Angeles jury announce that it had found O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, are television viewers ready to see it all again?

From the discovery of the murder scene at Ms. Simpson’s Brentwood home; to the nationwide broadcast of Mr. Simpson’s slow-speed highway flight in a white Ford Bronco; to a monthslong criminal trial, meticulously chronicled and analyzed on TV, these vividly remembered, not-too-distant events are re-enacted in a 10-episode FX mini-series, “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which has its debut on Feb. 2.

Evan Thomas, the best-selling biographer of Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower and the author of a half-dozen other books, has seen those books reviewed over the years by The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. But with the recent publication of his latest work, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” he experienced for the first time a new phenomenon: the Bill Gates bump.

Just before Christmas, Mr. Thomas learned that his book had been favorably reviewed by Mr. Gates on his blog, Gates Notes.

“I’m surprised by the number of biographies I read that paint their subjects in black-and-white terms,” Mr. Gates wrote. “A classic example is former U.S. president Richard Nixon, who is too often portrayed as little more than a crook and a warmonger. So it was refreshing to see a more balanced account in ‘Being Nixon,’ by author and journalist Evan Thomas.” The review was illustrated by a photograph of the book on a desk adorned with objects from the Nixon era, like a rotary phone.

On cue [this Thanksgiving] arrives The Pilgrims from Ric Burns, which premiered Thanksgiving week on PBS’s American Experience. The film’s promotional materials promise that it will “tell the true story of the Pilgrims, a small group of religious radicals whose determination to establish a separatist religious community planted the seeds for America’s founding.” Burns relies heavily on two recent popular histories, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower(2007) and Nick Bunker’s Make Haste from Babylon (2011). This is “a story universally familiar in broad outline, but almost entirely unfamiliar to a general audience in its rich and compelling historical actuality.”

There is an obvious ambivalence at the heart of this film. Burns wants to expose the reality of the Pilgrims’ experience, which is decidedly not the American origin story, even while he capitalizes on its outsize place in American history. Jill Lepore of Harvard University gives away the game early on in the film when she notes that what is astonishing about the Plymouth story is the way that centering the account of this small group of “religious nutters” (so termed by Pauline Croft of Royal Holloway, University of London) for so long marginalized other histories, including those of Native Americans and the more than 10 million enslaved Africans. Responding to the historical construction of the Pilgrims is at least as important as recounting the history of their colonial venture. The Pilgrims doesn’t do this, however. The film is really telling three stories. First, it is an account of a small separatist congregation from the English village of Scrooby, an even smaller group of which migrated first to Holland and then to a colony on Cape Cod. Secondly and more briefly, The Pilgrims is the tale of their often but not always violent encounters with the native people of New England. Third and most profoundly, it is the history of a single text, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which frames the film.

In 2016, Britain takes the cake celebrating the births of several famous writers, and the death of one illustrious playwright; in the American West, an icon of contemporary bohemia approaches middle age; victory and defeat are commemorated on French battlefields; and the struggle for independence is cause for celebration in Central America.

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