Pop Culture Roundup: This Week

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On the morning of April 6, 2015, visitors to Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park spotted an unexpected update to a monument erected in 1908. Atop one of the pillars of the long-neglected memorial to Revolutionary War patriots appeared a monumental bust of Edward Snowden.

The four-foot-tall sculpture was expertly wrought in a material that resembled antique bronze, but it didn’t last long. Shortly after dawn, police covered the bust with a tarp and took it to the local precinct, where it remained in custody until it was reclaimed by a couple local artists. (The NYPD fined them fifty dollars for being in the park after hours.)

Next month the bust returns to Brooklyn under less furtive circumstances. The sculpture of Snowden – which was conceived by Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider and fabricated by Doyle Trankina – will be included in the second installment of a three-part exhibition of political art at the Brooklyn Art Museum.

The show includes both historical and contemporary examples of what the curators describe as “art projects devoted to social change”. Works range from early-Soviet agitprop by Alexander Rodchenko to Tina Modotti’s ’30s photographs of laborers in Mexico to recent initiatives by Futurefarmers and the Yes Men. Within this broad range can be seen the diversity of political art, and also the challenge of grouping it as such: Political art has become so nebulous as a genre that preserving the category is becoming counterproductive.

Back in November when NPR asked people What Do We Do Now In America The Same Way We Did It 100 Years Ago? the number and range of the responses were overwhelming. More than 600 people from around the country sent in star-spangled ideas of American history in action. Several hundred more commented on Facebook.

As the crowd of sources points out in this crowdsourced story, a fair number of our present-day neighbors in the United States dwell in the past — hunting or gathering or going through days (or parts of days) as their ancestors did. They dress up in vintage clothes, speak in distant syntax, use their hands and brains like citizens of yore. Teachers and interpreters demonstrate and explain antiquated activities. Growers adhere to time-honored methods. Makers shape things using the tools and materials of years past. Sellers hawk products today that were available 100 years ago and more. Companies continue to create centuries-old wares.

 In 1924, the murder of a 14-year-old boy by two wealthy college students shocked the nation. But more horrifying than the brutal killing — the boy was bludgeoned to death — was the motive. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb admitted they planned to abduct and kill a child at random simply for the thrill of it. Legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow summoned experts to show that the murderers had been shaped by childhood trauma and that it was society and its barbaric death penalty that deserved to be put on trial. Set in 1920s Chicago — a city of gin joints, gangsters, and political corruption — The Perfect Crime tells a story that set off a national debate about morality, individual responsibility, and capital punishment. Executive produced by Mark Samels and directed by Cathleen O’Connell, The Perfect Crime premieres on American Experience on Tuesday, February 9, 2016, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

For a guy with such a fragile name, Hugh Glass must have seemed unbreakable.

Shot twice and mauled by a grizzly bear, the mountain man made famous in the book and acclaimed movie “The Revenant” grew to mythological proportions in his era. Yet after cheating death so many times, and under such unusual circumstances, in real life his adventures were ended on the Yellowstone River, just east of Billings, in 1833.

"He was quite a character," said Jay Buckley, an associate professor of History at Brigham Young University, who is familiar with Glass' story. "We don't know a ton about that era, but we wouldn't know anything about Hugh Glass if he hadn't been attacked by a bear."

Paterson Joseph’s thrilling one-man show, “Sancho: An Act of Remembrance,” reintroduces the eighteenth-century British writer to public consciousness.

“Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren,” Ignatius Sancho wrote in a letter to the novelist Laurence Sterne, “excepting yourself . . . . I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour’s attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.” The letter, sent in 1766, illustrates—by its eloquence, moral clarity, and deep involvement with the issues of the day; and by a certain understated brashness on the part of its author—why Sancho was considered an “exceptional” specimen of his race, ultimately becoming the first black citizen to cast a ballot in the United Kingdom. Born in 1729, Sancho was separated from his parents at an early age, then bartered into servitude to three sisters, who named him after Don Quixote’s comic sidekick, Sancho Panza. Thanks to a chance encounter, he was eventually enlisted into the service of the Duke of Montague, who encouraged his love of letters and, especially, of the theatre.

We've seen superhero movies set in the present, the future, the ’70s, World War II, and even the Days of Future Past, but we haven't seen many that are set during World War I. Luckily, Chris Pine, America's wokest leading man, is on the case. In an interview with the Toronto Sun, the Wonder Woman second lead (not a dig; Pine's happy to take the backseat) revealed that the upcoming film is set during the First World War. And just like any self-respecting Great War period drama, the Patty Jenkins–directed film isn't skimping on production value. "Our costume design is incredible," the actor said. "We have scenes with, like, 500 extras all in period dress."

Obama would do well to remember ... that what history remembers about a presidency is often unpredictable — and almost certainly beyond his control.  Just ask Andrew Johnson, America’s first post-Civil War president and, as the first President to be impeached, almost certainly one of its worst. His legacy, in recent years, has unexpectedly come to include his pet mice. The subject of a growing body of commentary, Johnson’s relationship with White House rodents — whom he wooed with flour and water during the dark days of his impeachment — is now part of his presidential lore. One writer has even suggested, no doubt tongue-in-cheek, that the president’s pet mice might figure prominently in an Andrew Johnson animated biopic.

The heart of this story imagines a response to the Soviet leader’s final acts of anti-Semitism in 1953.

Paul Goldberg’s provocatively titled first novel, “The Yid,” is set in the Soviet Union and begins in late February 1953, just as staggering change is about to occur. Only a small part of what the book describes is a matter of record: Joseph Stalin died on March 5 at his dacha just outside Moscow. He spent enough of his final hours unattended to give a vindictive alternative historian some wiggle room.

So Mr. Goldberg has written a book that revolves about Stalin’s final blow against the country’s remaining Jews. There is evidence for this, but “The Yid” is a novel, not a heavily researched historical document. More important, Mr. Goldberg comes up with a team of Yiddish-speaking jokester-superheroes who are at the heart of his story, and who make it their mission to avenge countless acts of anti-Semitism, both real and anticipated.

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