Hello, New Zealand radio listeners.

I don’t know if any clips are available online, but if any of my readers are in New Zealand, you might have heard me on Outrageous Life with Laurel McCulloch earlier today, talking about The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — which apparently hasn’t opened over there yet, despite the fact that director Andrew Adamson hails from there and the film was partly shot there.

It was a fun chat, though I wondered if I explained C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on paganism, Christianity and modernity well enough; there’s a lot there to pack into a few minutes of soundbite, and if you’re not careful you can weird some people out, and I didn’t have the luxury of revising and tweaking my thoughts for clarity etc., like I did when I wrote my review. Thankfully, Laurel did refer her audience to my actual review, so hopefully that will help.

What do smiles, or photos, really tell us?

We’ve all seen those films in which someone goes undercover and does what it takes to blend in with a group, and then they get caught or arrested and the very things they did to “blend in” become evidence that is used against them. Did something like that happen to at least one of the “bad apples” at Abu Ghraib? Errol Morris, director of the recent Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure (my review), seems to think so.

To wit, in his newest blog post, he asks what reaction people have had, and what reaction people should have had, to the photo below, which depicts Sabrina Harman giving the thumbs-up and smiling for the camera while standing over the body of a man, Manadel al-Jamadi, who died during an interrogation:

What do we really learn, just by looking at the photo? Anything? What about the other photos that were taken that night? What about the letters that Harman wrote home to her “wife” around that time, describing her relationship to the other soldiers? Does context matter here? And what do we do with the smile on Harman’s face? Morris gets into all sorts of interesting material here, even speaking to a psychologist who specializes on how to distinguish genuine smiles of enjoyment from polite, faked smiles:

PAUL EKMAN: Well, here’s what I think happens when the typical viewer looks at this picture. One, you’re horrified by the sight of this dead person. Most of us haven’t seen a dead person. Certainly not in that state. If you’ve seen a dead person, you’ve seen them in an open casket where they’re made to look like they’re alive. Do you know how “horror” is defined?


PAUL EKMAN: “Horror,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the combination of disgust and terror. So I think “horror” is the right word. It’s a horrible sight, and it instills horror. And then you see, right next to that, someone having a good time. Most people will not realize that’s a “say cheese” smile. They’ll think, because of the broadness of the smile and the thumbs-up gesture, they’re having a good time. That’s what makes this a damning picture to the typical viewer.

I’ll add one more thing. When we see someone smile, it is almost irresistible that we smile back at them. Advertisers know that. That’s why they link products to smiling faces. And when we smile back, we begin to actually experience some enjoyment. So this photograph makes us complicit in enjoying the horrible. And that’s revolting to us.

So why it is such an upsetting photograph is not just because we see someone smiling in the context of the horrible, but that when we look at her, we begin to have to resist smiling ourselves. So it’s a terrible, terrible picture for that reason alone.

Morris sums up Ekman’s argument, and builds on it:

Here is Ekman’s mechanism: Harman is smiling. We see her smile and can’t help smiling ourselves. Smile and the whole world smiles with you. Smiling is contagious. But when we see the dead man, we recoil in horror. Our “almost irresistible” need to smile makes us feel complicit in the man’s death. We “transfer” those feelings to Harman. We think her smile makes her complicit. . . .

Ironically, when the army was looking for a scapegoat for its crimes, it was precisely this “false image” that they chose to exploit to their advantage. In a sense, Harman was deliberately falsifying the evidence of her own photographs to seem more at home than she was. Then the military turned her strategy on its head, saying that her “exceptional” depravity was deplorable, and something that they needed to weed out and punish. And thus Sabrina Harman’s photographs became part of the evidence used against her in military court.

The whole blog post is well worth reading, whatever you make of Morris’s film, or his argument that knee-jerk reactions to this photo “aided and abetted a terrible miscarriage of justice.”

Newsbites: The historical epics edition!

Let’s tackle these in historical-chronological order!

1. The Associated Press says some of the late Charlton Heston‘s movie memorabilia will be auctioned off this summer, including a titular set of “faux granite tablets” from The Ten Commandments (1956).

2. Variety reports that Danish director Asger Leth has signed on to direct Olympia, a love story “set against the backdrop of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece as war waged between Athens and Sparta.” The script has gone through drafts by Robert Rodat (1998’s Saving Private Ryan) and Gavin Hood (2005’s Tsotsi).

3. Variety reports that Kevin MacDonald, director of The Last King of Scotland (2006), is attached to direct The Eagle of the Ninth, an “epic Roman adventure” based on “Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel about a young Roman centurion who travels to Blighty in 135 A.D. to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rome’s Ninth Legion in Scotland 15 years earlier.”

4. Variety reports that Focus Features has picked up international rights — which covers all territories except for North America and Spain — to Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora, which takes place in 4th-century Alexandria. The premise of the film is summed up here as: “Trapped in the Library of Alexandria as religious riots flare on the city’s streets, [the astrologer-philosopher] Hypatia battles to save the collected wisdom of the ancient world.”

5. Variety reports that Gale Ann Hurd will produce and Mikael Salomon will direct Mortal Armour: The Legend of Galahad, a “period romance” about “young Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail.” Salomon is a Danish cinematographer who was Oscar-nominated for his work on The Abyss (1989) and Backdraft (1991) and then became a director, working mostly in TV; his only theatrical films to date are A Far Off Place (1993) and Hard Rain (1998).

6. Variety and the Hollywood Reporter report that Johanna Wokalek has replaced Franka Potente as the title character in Pope Joan, “which recounts the ninth-century legend of a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to educate herself and ultimately ascends the papal throne”.

7. Variety reports that Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and producer Bela Tarr are developing “a film about the 15th century sodomy trial of Italian genius Leonardo Da Vinci.” Naturally, we all wonder what sort of double-bill it will make with Wilde (1997).

8. Variety reports that Percy Adlon, the German director perhaps best known for Out of Rosenheim AKA Bagdad Cafe (1987), is developing Mahler auf der Couch, “a psychological drama about the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s life” that will deal with “the composer’s tumultuous marital life with Alma and his ambivalent relationship with Sigmund Freud.”

The Variety article mentions that this story has been told at least once before, in Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974) — where the composer was played by Robert Powell, three years before he starred in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and Alma was played by Georgina Hale. It was also covered a few years ago in Bruce Beresford’s Bride of the Wind (2001), which was mainly about Alma and her lovers; Alma was played by Sarah Wynter, and Gustav, who dies fairly early in the film, was played by Jonathan Pryce.

My sister is a huge, huge fan of Gustav Mahler, so I have to keep tabs on this sort of thing.

Expelled — copyright lawsuit update

More evidence that Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed may be coming to Canada on June 6: The date apparently came up in court yesterday, as lawyers defended the film against Yoko Ono’s accusation that they had violated her copyright by including a few seconds of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on the soundtrack, and the judge in that case has promised a “fast decision” because of the Canadian release date and other time-sensitive matters.

To quote the Associated Press:

U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein said he will rule quickly in the case after both sides described the issues surrounding the song and movie in harsh terms during arguments on Monday.

Lawyer Anthony T. Falzone said the movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” was set to open in Canada on June 6 and DVD rights needed to be finalized by the end of May for distribution in October. The movie is currently being shown in about 200 theatres in the United States.

He said an adverse ruling by Stein would mean “you have muzzled the speech of my clients” because they would have to replace the song with other images, losing the chance to make the issue important enough that it could even influence the U.S. presidential campaign.

“If you issue that injunction, you trample on these free speech rights and you put a muzzle on them and you do it in a way that stops them from speaking on this political issue leading up to the election,” Falzone said.

Uh, wait a minute … the election? Does anybody seriously think that the battle between Darwinian science and so-called Intelligent Design theory is really going to be a factor in the showdown between Barack Obama and John McCain? Really?

Besides, I repeat what I have said before: Shouldn’t this movie be about the science, and not about partisan politics?

Meanwhile, here is what Yoko’s lawyer said:

Ono has accused the movie’s producers of infringing the song’s copyrights by using portions of it without her permission, giving the impression that the Lennon family had authorized it.

Dorothy M. Weber, a lawyer for Ono, Sean Lennon, Julian Lennon and EMI Blackwood Music Inc., said the makers of the movie “took away their right to stay no.”

She said the defendants – Premise Media Corp. of Dallas, Rampant Films of Sherman Oaks, Calif., and Rocky Mountain Pictures Inc. of Salt Lake City – had obtained authorization for the other songs used in the movie, a point the judge noted himself. . . .

About 20 to 30 seconds of the song are played in the movie.

Falzone said the portion of the song – “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” – was central to the movie.

“What they are criticizing here, your honour, is they’re saying that happy, naive feeling you get when you hear the song and think about peace and children and play is dangerous, dangerously naive.”

Falzone said the movie suggests “that this absence of religion paves the way for fascism, totalitarianism, Nazism.”

“Really, what the film is doing is, it’s asking if John Lennon was right and it’s concluding he was wrong,” the lawyer said.

He said the movie makers did not believe they needed to ask Ono’s permission to use a portion of the song because it was not the entire song or enough of it to infringe on the copyright.

“Why would you ask somebody for permission to criticize their work?” he asked. “It’s not likely it’s going to be granted.”

Indeed. In general, I would take the filmmakers’ side on this one, to the extent that I think people should be free to comment on songs and films like this. But I also think the movie’s discussion of religion, and the accompanying attempt to portray atheists as fascist nihilists, is a huge, huge red herring in a movie that is supposed to be about competing scientific theories.

The Greek gods go, the warrior women stay.

From USA Today‘s story on the “tightrope” that the makers of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian have walked, between satisfying Christian fans of the book and broadening the movie’s appeal:

He also had to leave out some beloved scenes and characters. Goodbye to Greek God Bacchus and his wild girls who in the book accompany Aslan on a joyful romp; writer Stephen McFeely said the Greek gods are no longer an easily recognizable cultural reference.

Um, isn’t that kind of the point of the story? That the culture — both Narnian and English — has lost touch with its mythic, imaginative roots, etc.? Certainly one of the things I always liked about the Narnia books — and movies like Fantasia (1940), pictured above, which also depicts Bacchus — was the way they introduced me to stuff like this when I was a kid.

I do like the Gresham anecdote that comes near the end of this other bit from the USA Today story, though:

Adamson also updated the movie for 21st century mores. To make it more inclusive, he added female dwarves, child-aged fawns and an “Afro-centaur” (Cornell John) as Glenstorm, the noble half-man, half-horse. In addition, the Pevensie sisters, Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), join the battle, which they avoid in the book.

For Adamson, it was an obvious choice to allow women an active role in the fight. Referring to the gift of bow and arrow that Susan received in the first movie, Adamson laughs, “If she’s just going to make sandwiches, then give her a plate and a knife.”

Adamson made his case for the changes to Gresham by arguing that Lewis’ female characters become stronger as the book series progresses — something he attributes to Lewis’ real-life romance with Gresham’s mother, Joy Davidman. Gresham agreed. As evidence, he recounted an encounter he witnessed between Lewis, Davidman and a longbow-wielding trespasser on their property. Davidman carried a small “garden gun.” When the man aimed a drawn arrow at the pair, Lewis chivalrously stepped in front of Davidman to shield her. He remained for a moment until Davidman, a Bronx native, commanded, “Goddamn, Jack, get out of my line of fire.”

“That whole kind of experience of my mother’s determination and personality I think changed Jack’s ideas towards women,” says Gresham.

I have heard variations of that anecdote before, and I do like it, even if I am somewhat dubious about the way Adamson invokes it here — or the broader characterization of Gresham’s mother — to turn Susan into another generic “girl power” killing machine.

Canadian box-office stats — May 18

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

The American Trap — CDN $113,597 — N.AM $113,597 — 100%
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay — CDN $6,470,000 — N.AM $34,098,389 — 19.0%

The Forbidden Kingdom — CDN $5,210,000 — N.AM $50,368,985 — 10.3%
Made of Honor — CDN $3,280,000 — N.AM $33,903,519 — 9.7%
Forgetting Sarah Marshall — CDN $5,310,000 — N.AM $55,313,405 — 9.6%
What Happens in Vegas — CDN $3,790,000 — N.AM $40,341,516 — 9.4%

Iron Man — CDN $18,590,000 — N.AM $223,124,385 — 8.3%
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — CDN $4,110,000 — N.AM $55,034,805 — 7.5%
Baby Mama — CDN $2,620,000 — N.AM $47,343,255 — 5.5%
Speed Racer — CDN $1,460,000 — N.AM $30,284,073 — 4.8%

A couple of discrepancies: The American Trap was #10 on the Canadian chart (it does not appear on the North American chart at all), while The Visitor was #10 on the North American chart (it was #11 in Canada).