PBS shows us 30 viewpoints on what it means to be ‘American’

Taos Pueblo in New Mexico

Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, built in the 1400s.

REVIEW by DAVID CRUMM
Editor of www.ReadTheSpirit.com

Had your fill of those British-made video tours of grand estates inspired by Downton Abbey? As spring unfolds and Americans think of our summer travel plans, why not feast your eyes on 30 intriguing corners of the United States that made our nation what it is today?

Check your local PBS listings, because on Tuesday (April 5, 2016) the public TV network nationwide will air the first of three parts in a series called 10 That Changed America. Don’t confuse this with the 2013 series 10 Buildings That Changed America, although WTTW-Chicago was behind both projects.

This is TV you definitely want to watch, record for viewing later—or, if you can’t find it on your local PBS schedule, seek it out online later. Planning to travel a bit this summer? You’ll find 30 destinations you might want to add to your list.

Tenement Museum East Side of New York

The WTTW and PBS three-part series “10 That Changed America” makes one of its 30 stops at the Tenement Museum in New York City.

More importantly, this large-scale documentary series is part of the effort to tell “our” national story as Americans without neglecting the frequently ignored millions in communities ranging from Native Americans to the urban poor to waves of immigrants from many lands.

As a veteran journalist who is invited to speak to groups about the future of media, I often tell community leaders that America needs a new generation of men and women like Jacob Riis and Nellie Bly. Her life still is famous enough, including her daring work that exposed abuse of the mentally ill, that Nellie’s work was described in a recent episode of the Madam Secretary TV series. But Riis? He’s not as well known. Reporting in the 1880s from the worst tenements in New York City, Riis was among the first American photographers to use a European style of “flash photography” to document the life-threatening conditions in those teeming New York neighborhoods. He took his readers right into dingy apartments, packed with people and often no light or indoor plumbing. Both Bly and Riis sparked major changes in public health.

So, I was thrilled to discover the first of the three parts in this new series—the episode called 10 Homes that Changed America—introduces Riis and the importance of his work in forcing tenement owners to bring at least a few very basic amenities to these families.

When hearing about this new series, does the subject of tenements surprise you? You’ll discover that this series is not a typical made-for-TV tour of the playgrounds of the rich and famous.

The series opens with the significance of the 600-year-old Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Two Native American spokesmen show us around the pueblo and talk about the powerful cultural legacy of living in a safe and healthy community that was designed while Europeans were still emerging from the dark ages.

Yes, this series also includes some opulence to make viewers smile and pencil favorite locations into summer-time travel plans. Across the three programs (April 5, 12 and 19), our 30 stops include Thomas Jefferson’s amazing “essay in architecture” Monticello, the Hudson River castle Lyndhurst, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, San Antonio’s colorful River Walk, and even Salt Lake City and its soaring temple as an example of how faith shapes urban design.

As we tour these locations, we get intriguing commentary both from residents and experts in the history of design and American culture.

Planning ahead for your travels this summer? For now, make 10 That Changed America your destination for TV viewing in April.

 

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Categories: Movies and TVUncategorized

St. Walt Disney: ‘There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow …’

Walt Disney from the US Postal Service stampWe made a spiritual pilgrimage to Disney World.

Three generations of us, led by our matriarch who was determined to visit Orlando one last time with her family. Her late husband, a Midwest dairy farmer, hated leaving the farm for any vacation except—the fantasy lands where he could truly relax and laugh with characters he loved!

We’re certainly not alone in feeling this way. GodSigns author Suzy Farbman also writes, this week, about her family’s love of Walt’s inspiration. And here’s a fun challenge for you: Suzy shares her favorite quotes from Disney characters—and asks you to share your favorites, too. Add comments to these columns. Or, on Twitter, mention #ReadTheSpirit, or just email us: ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

‘A PILGRIMAGE’ …. REALLY?

You might call our family’s trip—just a typical American “vacation.” As you read my story here and Suzy’s too, you’ll probably recall your own vacation to a Disney park. After all, Walt’s worlds far outshine any other chain of amusement parks with more than 130 million men, women and children walking through Walt’s gates every year. Major League Baseball has been called a kind of American religion, but all teams combined last year drew an attendance that was half of Walt’s crowd. Or, you might ask: What about the size of the world’s bona fide religious pilgrimages? Mecca hosts 2 million Muslims a year; tens of millions of Hindus bathe in sacred waters during Kumbh Mela; but only the total Chinese homecoming migration at the Lunar New Year tops the vast tide of humanity flowing in and out of Walt’s worlds.

But, did our family really make a spiritual pilgrimage?

The Gospel According to Disney by Mark PinskyThat’s the question Mark Pinsky asks on the opening page of the defining book on Disney and spirituality, The Gospel According to Disney. Researched and written while Mark was the religion writer for the Orlando newspaper, he wrote:

Mickey Mouse and faith? The world’s most famous rodent and his animated friends say more about faith and values than you might think—they’re not just postage stamps. Peter Pan taught us that “faith, trust, and pixie dust” can help you leave your cares behind. Jiminy Cricket showed Pinocchio—and millions of moviegoers—that “when you wish upon a star” dreams come true. Bambi stimulated baby boomer support for gun control and environmentalism. Cinderella became a syndrome. The Little Mermaid illustrated the challenges of intermarriage. The Lion King hinted at Hindu tradition in the Circle of Life. Walt Disney wanted his theme parks to be a “source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” Some have compared them to shrines to which American families make obligatory pilgrimages, parents reconnecting with their own childhoods while helping their kids experience a cartoon fantasy Mecca. Even Disney’s detractors see tremendous symbolic value in his cartoon characters.

Mark wasn’t kidding! I saw proof of Walt’s inspiration first hand as our matriarch—Joan Weil—led me and my wife (her daughter Amy) and her grandchildren (our daughter and son in law, the Revs. Megan and Joel Walther, and our son Benjamin) on this five-day pilgrimage: a day to arrive, a day to return and then one day each at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Sure, we missed Animal Kingdom—but this was a journey to revisit places where our late patriarch and founder of the family dairy farm, Leo Weil, had grinned broadly, often breaking out into laughter and later reminding us, “Now, that was good!”

Since our matriarch was “Grandma” to three of us, for this trip, she was Grandma to all of us.

PILGRIM BADGES & WRIST BANDS

Shell symbols the Way of St John Mickey wristbands Disney World

ABOVE: Some of the old and newer scallop-shell symbols along the medieval Way of St. John pilgrimage route in Europe. BELOW: The latest Mickey wrist bands and the way they light up special brass milestones around Walt’s realm.

Before we boarded our flight, a special box arrived with our high-tech equivalent of medieval pilgrim badges.

No, a traveler’s symbol wasn’t one of Walt Disney’s many innovations. Pilgrim badges were mass produced across most of the last millennium in Europe. To this day, more than 200,000 Christian pilgrims annually look for centuries-old, scallop-shaped symbols to guide them to the shrines along the vast Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. John) across Europe.

Here in our American home, we snapped on our chip-equipped Mickey-shaped wrist-bands and headed to our own version of beloved family shrines: It’s a Small World After All, the Hall of Presidents, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Carousel of Progress, plus Spaceship Earth at Epcot and the Wizard of Oz realms recreated inside the Hollywood Studios ride.

Not spiritual? Then you haven’t stopped to ponder the cultural connections within these rides.

ST. WALT THE CONNECTOR

Our first stop was the often-maligned It’s a Small World After All, a multi-media ride originally designed by Disney for the UNESCO pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. The Orlando version of the show obviously has been updated in many ways—the figurines are squeaky clean and the sets look freshly painted for the most part. And before you deride that song—you know the one you can’t get out of your head—consider this:

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I snapped a photo of Grandma looking fondly at the colorful children singing in the show—then I posted that snapshot to social media and I got 24 likes right away. (So there, detractors!)

The notes included University of Michigan campus minister Bob Roth, who told us all that “riding this at Disneyland in California in the 1960s sparked in me some kind of global perspective early on.” The veteran leader of spiritual retreats Dee Chapell called it “one of my favorite rides.” Free Press senior writer Patricia Montemurri added a triumphant: “After all!” The comments kept rolling toward me across the Internet for days—in many forms.

Walt knew how to inspire. Walt also knew how to connect.

Everyone we met inside Walt’s worlds was happy to share inspirational moments: A family from Louisiana holds its reunion in Orlando every year and, this year, 16 men, women and children were in the parks for a week. “When I think of our children growing up and our parents growing older—I think of them here,” a Mom in that family told us, becoming quite emotional as she described their many pilgrimages.

Gutenberg looks over a proof

Gutenberg snapshot I Tweeted from Epcot.

Want to talk more about this? Come follow me on Twitter. I have devoted my adult life to exploring the cutting edge of media that lets us connect our diverse cultures to build healthier communities.

Every year, I give talks to groups with titles like, “500 Years after Gutenberg—Still Revolutionizing Media.” So, as we started our day at Epcot, I snapped a photo of the animatronic Gutenberg checking over a proof page from his famous Bible, produced with the world’s first moveable type five centuries ago. I Tweeted it out with this message: “Epcot’s Spaceship Earth shows us Gutenberg starting our modern cycle of innovation, which we’re part of right now.”

Tarcher-Penguin Editor in Chief Mitch Horowitz immediately made that Tweet a “favorite” and I returned my appreciation: “Thanks Mitch! It really is true: We are Gutenberg’s grandchildren and need to dream big.”

And so it went. Our pilgrimage connected with a national conversation.

THE FINAL SHRINES

After their long journeys across Europe, the strongest and luckiest of pilgrims along the Way of St. James reach the thousand-year-old shrine of St. James the Great in northwest Spain. Our little band of pilgrims reached two final shrines—and watched our matriarch visibly light up at both.

Carousel of Progress in the 1920s kitchen

The 1920s kitchen and in Disney’s Carousel of Progress at Disney World.

One was the Carousel of Progress—the other exhibition Disney helped design for the 1964 World’s Fair. An animatronic American history lesson, the Carousel of Progress also has a catchy theme song written by the Sherman brothers—the same guys who wrote the Small World tune and music for Mary Poppins, the Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well. The brothers knew Walt very well and described their Carousel song as “Walt’s theme song, because he was very positive about the future. He really felt that there was a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.” Other Disney associates called it simply, “Walt’s anthem.”

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day.
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away.

The Carousel theater moves in a circle around four animatronic panoramas of everyday family life in a typical American home in 1904, on July 4 in the 1920s, Halloween in the 1940s and, in the current rendition of the Carousel, Christmas around the year 2000.

Grandma’s face glowed. She grinned. This was a time machine, whisking her back, back, back. As we toured the 1940s, she exclaimed: “That refrigerator! That’s the same refrigerator my mother ordered for us from an ad in the newspaper when they first became available. That was the first time we ever had an electric refrigerator.” That exhibit and its jaunty music was like a tonic, connecting her with a whole circle of lives now long gone from our visible world.

Overall at 88, Grandma is in good health, but her increasing fragility is obvious. She still can walk, but usually she waivers, needs a cane and only walks short distances. In Disney World, we pushed her in a wheelchair.

She planned for this journey as a last big, daring adventure—and a reconnection with her fondest family memories. As we took our journey through Disney realms and family heritage, we wheeled her into every shrine she had hoped to revisit.

Only one eluded us for a couple of days. She kept saying, “I do hope we see Mickey.” And the elusive Mickey never was within our grasp.

But good always triumphs in the Disney cosmos if we only wish steadfastly enough—and she certainly did! Late on our last afternoon, we learned that Mickey was appearing in a kind of Oz-like throne room, minus an actual throne. He simply was standing there, wearing his blue hat from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, grinning and waving at a long line of families queued up to greet him.

My adult children simply pushed their Grandma’s wheelchair into the throng, taking a place at the end of the ropes. At first, Grandma didn’t realize what was happening, but finally she caught on that this throng was patiently awaiting an audience with Mickey.

“Oh, I don’t need to be here,” she said. She looked at other parents and grandparents, most of them with children in strollers or in hand. “Let’s leave. Can we? I’m going to take up someone else’s time. I shouldn’t do that.”

Then, someone else’s Mom leaned across the ropes and touched her shoulder. “You stay put. You belong here. Take as much time as you want.”

Meeting Mickey Mouse as Sorcerer Apprentice at Disney WorldBefore long, she was rolled toward Mickey in his sorcerer’s robes. And then, she confidently rose out of her wheelchair, walked without her cane to stand proudly beside Mickey.

I could argue that she had a kind of healing in Orlando. With family around her for five straight days, more well-balanced meals than she normally makes herself at home, exercise in the sun and of course Walt’s relentless inspiration—it was a healing.

Then, after our return flight landed and we decided to have one last meal together at a nearby restaurant before driving to our separate homes—this woman who previously would totter as she walked slowly across a room suddenly stood up. She strode confidently along a sidewalk, strolled into the restaurant and ordered another great big wonderful dinner!

Tomorrow? It’s going to be beautiful.

Thanks, Walt.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Children and FamiliesMovies and TVUncategorized

The Greg Garrett Interview on our love of angels and demons

Entertaining Judgment by Greg Garrett

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

We love our angels and demons!

Pew’s massive study of American religious life shows nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in our world. We’re also certain about cosmic realms from which these creatures emerge. More than 7 in 10 Americans believe in Heaven with our collective belief in Hell lagging a bit behind that.

Now, an intrepid explorer of the connections between popular culture and the spiritual realms invites us to travel with him as Dante did with his guide Virgil 700 years ago into Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso—a classic tale that we know as The Divine Comedy. Our new guide already is familiar to thousands of readers nationwide: Greg Garrett, a noted scholar at Baylor University and author of 20 previous books. He calls his book, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination.

Greg is well equipped to serve as our guide after decades of exploring religious themes in comic books, movies, music and American literature. As we set off with him on this great cosmic journey, he says: “This book really is the culmination of years of research. I hope readers will have fun with it.”

Note that this book is published by Oxford University Press so the standard of research is high and Greg lays out an extensive series of notes at the end of his book if readers dare to dive deeper into some of the strange corners they will discover in this adventure.

We can highly recommend the book both for individual reading, for any teachers or preachers who like to touch upon these issues and especially for small-group discussion in religious or secular settings. You’ll have lots of fun in your small group, bringing in video and audio clips to touch off discussion on the chapters in Greg’s book.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH GREG GARRETT ON
‘ENTERTAINING JUDGMENT’

DAVID: Wow! Talk about a whirlwind tour! The entire cosmos from Heaven to Hell—including visits with angels and demons, comic book super heroes, TV stars, great authors and even strange characters in video games—all in 200 pages!

Greg Garrett author of Entertaining Judgment

Greg Garrett, the 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University.

GREG: Well, for many years as a journalist, you’ve been covering the same kinds of connections I’ve been covering—and this book really does bring a lot of things together in one place.

DAVID: How did you cast the net for this book? Every page drops another intriguing character into the mix. How did you amass this cast of characters?

GREG: I had all of my own research over the years, then I asked people to recommend stories about the afterlife—stories of the undead, angels and demons—and I got a ton of recommendations! A lot of my clergy friends had powerful stories they had used in their preaching. My literary and cultural friends told me about a lot of things they were researching. And I also crowdsourced this. I asked people questions like: What’s your favorite angel story? Then, I’ve consumed so much popular culture throughout my lifetime that I had tons of things to draw on—perhaps with the exception of video games but I even played my way through Diablo for this book.

DAVID: Many of our readers love to make these kinds of connections. Our online magazine hosts Ken Chitwood’s FaithGoesPop series and, every week, we’re exploring similar links between faith and popular culture.

In fact, I’m going to do a shout-out to our readers: What’s your favorite angel story? Go into Facebook or Twitter and tell us. Add the hashtag #FaithGoesPop so that we spot it easily.

GREG: If they want to add another hashtag that I’m starting to use for the book, they can mark their ideas #EntertainingJudgment and I’ll take a look, too.

IS ‘LOST’ REALLY PURGATORY?

LOST tv seriesDAVID: Let’s use this interview to showcase some of the very intriguing connections you make in this book. There are far too many to list them all in our conversation, but we can hit some highlights. So, let’s start with that mysterious middle-realm: Purgatory. You point out in the book that the word “Purgatory” never appears in the Bible and the vast majority of American Protestants think of Purgatory as a Catholic belief.

However, Greg, you argue that—in effect—millions of Americans are attracted to the idea of Purgatory through books, songs, movies and TV shows like Lost.

GREG: That’s a good place to start because Purgatory really was the starting point for this book. For a number of years, I had been talking about doing a book with my editor at Oxford, Cynthia Read, and then one day she asked me: “Why is it that most American Protestants think that Purgatory is ridiculous theologically but they believe that people do undergo hardship and transform their lives?”

And I told her: “You’re right. We have an operational belief in Purgatory even if Protestants think it doesn’t make sense theologically.”

That question opened up the whole book for me. One of the most primal stories we share is that people can go through Hell and emerge with a transformed life at the end of it.

DAVID: When I was reading that section of your book, I immediately thought of Dr. Wayne Baker’s research in United America. When you talk about this “operational belief in Purgatory” that rings the bells of several core American values that Dr. Baker has documented.

GREG: A perfect example of this is 12 Years a Slave—it’s a story of Purgatory, which in this case essentially means going through Hell with an expiration date when our hero emerges with a transformed life. In fact, it’s hard to watch some of the things you see in the film, unless you can keep reminding yourself: Hey, it’s only 12 years. He will emerge from this.

Or for a Purgatory comedy, think about Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Over and over again, he is tried and tested with the hope of emerging as a new and improved being.

Purgatory was built into the DNA of Lost. From the very first season, there was this whole debate among fans about whether the island itself was Purgatory. And the creators of Lost said no it wasn’t. But this led to the idea of creating, later in the series, a “sideways” world—a world in which the Lostees never crash landed on the island and are presented with challenges they failed in their first time around. Even Dr. Linus, the show’s biggest villain, gets an opportunity to redo an awful choice he made and get it right.

BATMAN, BURNE-JONES AND STAINED GLASS

DAVID: There are dozens of other movie and TV references in this book from It’s a Wonderful Life to the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. But let’s jump to very different forms of media: comic books, paintings and stained glass. You connect all those dots, too!

Batman the dark nightAnd that starts with Batman, who makes appearances throughout your book. The story of the “dark knight” is back on prime-time TV in the hit series Gotham. This new series takes us back to Batman’s boyhood as Bruce Wayne, which starts with this little boy’s absolutely terrifying experience of witnessing the cold-blooded murders of his parents. From that kind of trauma, other characters in Gotham become blood-thirsty criminals, but Bruce Wayne emerges as a heroic figure who wants to use his powers to do good.

While Superman may be America’s oldest super hero, Batman has far more fans keeping his legend alive and his fans continually morph Batman into new forms of this angel-demon figure. I think he’ll be a connection point in your book for lots of readers and, of course, there are a lot lessons that can be drawn from comics. ReadTheSpirit has even established our own comic section called Bullying Is No Laughing Matter. So, I was very pleased to find Batman, in particular, showing up as a recurring character in your new book.

GREG: Batman is one of our most pervasive cultural stories. When I wrote about Batman and Superman back in my book Holy Superheroes, I did not realize that those two archetypal stories would continue to follow me around.

In the story of Batman, we think of Gotham as this Hell on Earth and we can think of Batman as a demon—a fierce creature of the night who, instead of using his powers for evil, chooses to use them for good. So, we’re tracing a character who was born in Hell and chose to rise above it. He casts aside everything he ought to be after those early experiences—and instead chooses to devote his life to doing good or others.

That’s the central element of the Batman story: A person can rise above a tragic setting and prove to be a hero for the ages. The question about Batman is: Demon or angel? And we could say he’s both—a devil who chooses to be an angel.

DAVID: Well, I was also pleasantly surprised to find in your book a lot about Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and designer whose images are still splashed across Christmas cards, church windows and lots of other decorative arts. You point out that Burne-Jones was influential in rescuing the idea of an “angel” from the Italian artists who wanted to turn them into cute little babies with wings. Burne-Jones gave us angels with real super-hero size and shape.

Dark knight in Edward Burne-Jones The Briar WoodIn fact, I was just comparing some of the popular images of Batman—the dark knight overlooking a sleeping city—to Burne Jones’s famous painting The Briar Wood, part of a cycle of paintings that he did in collaboration with his friend William Morris. Basically, a dark enchantment has made nearly everyone fall down in a deep sleep. And in The Briar Wood, which was painted in 1890, we see a very Batman-like dark knight overlooking this sleeping town.

GREG: Burne-Jones is really interesting because he did help to restore some gravity to these narratives about angels. As angel imagery had evolved, it looked as though the basic story was going to run off the rails into sentimentality. Throughout scriptures—whether we’re talking about the Hebrew or Christian testaments or the Muslim holy scriptures—angels are described as imposing, frightening, powerful. But, by the time of Burne-Jones, artists had turned angels into these cutesy little babies with wings. In paintings and stained glass and in other images, Burne-Jones restored the powerful nature of angels.

DAVID: And this is not just a matter of aesthetics or interior design. This transformation of angels into super heroes speaks to the terrible nature of the global challenges we faced in the 20th century and face again today. If our spiritual imagination is going to keep up with the world’s terrors, then we need super heroes, right?

GREG: Flying babies don’t do the job for us when we need a really serious pipeline to the Divine. I think that whenever our culture threatens to turn angels into cute little domesticated figures, then we’ve lost the main story about angels.

DAVID: We could go on and on—but I want to urge readers to actually order your book to continue the adventure. Let me close by asking you to sum up how you hope readers will respond to your book.

GREG: There were two things at the heart of my desire to write this book.

First, I wanted to spotlight how important stories of the afterlife continue to be in our lives. A vast majority of Americans continue to believe in Heaven and Hell and in manifestations of angels and demons. And that’s more than just a casual belief. My colleagues in research at Baylor report that a majority of Americans believe they’ve been helped by a guardian angel. So, the first thing I wanted to say is: These are very important beliefs in our lives today.

Then, second, I wanted readers to think about this: We’re consuming so many of these stories very uncritically. I want to invite people into a thoughtful consideration about this. What do we believe about the afterlife? What do we believe about the way the afterlife shapes our everyday life in pursuing faith and justice?

CARE TO READ MORE GREG GARRETT?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsMovies and TV

Let PBS’s ‘Edison’ ignite your creative spark!

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Edison American ExperienceTHERE is no more iconic American pioneer than Thomas Alva Edison—although his bright light may have been eclipsed in recent decades by other celebrated American innovators: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or perhaps in the realm of spiritual innovation Americans might name Oprah or Rob Bell or Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

In Edison’s prime, one poll of schoolkids found that Edison surpassed everyone else in America as the person they hoped to be like someday. Certainly, Edison was popular for his heroic rise to fame, his long series of startling inventions, not to mention the fortune he amassed. But the reason ReadTheSpirit magazine is highly recommending this two-hour PBS American Experience documentary about Edison is also the key to his worldwide celebrity as “the Wizard of Menlo Mark.”

Thomas Edison transformed our world.

Read the previous sentence again, because that kind of claim seems commonplace today, doesn’t it? Every day, headlines trumpet yet another “transformation” by Apple or the latest App developer with some new service that might range from finding a taxi to monitoring of our body’s vital signs.

What this PBS documentary shows us is that, by comparison with Edison’s milestones, most of these current “transformations” are trivial. And therein lies the deep spiritual and cultural questions raised by this fascinating video version of Edison’s life.

As an aside to our readers, in this review I want to properly credit writer and director Michelle Ferrari, who certainly has emerged as one of the most thought-provoking documentary filmmakers in America today. She also worked on two other documentaries that ReadTheSpirit highly recommended: The Poisoner’s Handbook and War of the Worlds. Bravo Michelle Ferrari for this intriguing body of work!

What Ferrari tries to convey to us in her story of Edison’s life is the earthquake-like changes he ushered into American life. Consider …

When he introduced the first device to permanently record sound—Edison took something that had been ephemeral throughout human history and, in one stroke, began the accumulation of audio in our worldwide cultural storehouse. Before Edison, music vanished as it was performed, great orations disappeared as soon as the speaker stepped away from the podium, and a host of historic events remain silent in our collective memories.

Think of the way our daily lives are surrounded by recorded sound in myriad forms! Before Edison, life’s soundtrack was limited to what happened within earshot.

When Edison introduced his light-bulb, Americans had been trying to claim useful hours after sunset through candles, oil lamps, gas jets and a handful of cities had tried using powerful outdoor arc lights. Edison safely tamed a permanent source of night-time illumination for our homes—and began the massive project of electrifying America—one city block at a time. Just imagine life before electrical outlets in every building!

Edison’s introduction of his first effective motion-picture camera was a turning point in global culture. Just as his audio recorder had suddenly allowed us to capture and preserve sounds—his camera let the world preserve motion! Before Edison, the world’s great dancers vanished with their last performance. Motion was ephemeral for thousands of years; now millions of movies surround every aspect of our lives.

If these Edison milestones intrigue you, then don’t miss Edison on PBS—or consider ordering a DVD of Edison from Amazon.

Care to see more from PBS?

This PBS American Experience website provides more background on Edison and includes a convenient option to find local broadcast times in your region.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Movies and TV

Wake Up! Massimo Vignelli helped us see our world in new ways

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

Review by DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Design Is One Lella and Massimo Vignelli DVD cover

Click the DVD cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.

As 2014 ended, the New York Times devoted an entire page to remembering Massimo Vignelli, the designer who was born in 1931 and died in May. You may not know his name, but you’ve seen his work a million times in countless forms.

In a dozen photos and a brief profile of Vignelli, The Times explains how this one Italian-American immigrant and his wife Lella shaped contemporary America, calling Massimo “a modern-design missionary. His signature simplicity cut away the clutter found in much commercial design.”

That’s why the release of Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli by documentary filmmakers Kathy Brew and Roberto Guera is such an eye-opening experience. Close your eyes for a moment and envision the “look” of American Airlines, Ford, IBM, Xerox, Gillette, JCPenney, Bloomingdales and Saks. Chances are your mind’s eye holds snapshots of Vignelli logos, products, signs, shopping bags and more. You’ve already got image after image of the Vignellis’ work stored away; seeing this film will unlock new insights into how those images connect.

Why are we reviewing this documentary in ReadTheSpirit—an online magazine widely read by people who care about spirituality and cultural diversity? Because this film is a terrific discussion-starter for small groups. You’ll find a host of associations with themes of faith and the goal of building healthy, diverse communities. In the film, the Vignellis say that their proudest accomplishment is the design of St. Peter’s Church in New York City, where they both planned to be interred and, of course, Massimo arrived in 2014.

As we tour this church in the film, Massimo points to the St. Peter’s columbarium and says, “That’s our permanent residence. It makes me so happy to know that we will be here forever.” If you discuss this film with friends, you’ll have an evening of spirited conversation on the St. Peter’s sequence, alone.

And, as the filmmakers show us in the course of the documentary, the Vignellis were interfaith pioneers, also designing a number of gorgeous pieces for Jewish families, especially focusing on silver candle-holders in various forms.

Stepping back from the specifically religious content of the film, the Vignellis spare modernist approach to design had the overall mission of encouraging healthy communities by bringing greater clarity to the treasures that can unite us as a body of diverse people. One of Massimo Vignelli’s most enduring projects was a redesign of the “look” of our National Parks.

Even the National Parks Conservation Association says that the graphical “look” of National Parks publications and maps was “an idiosyncratic hodgepodge” before Vignelli arrived in 1977 with the goal of popping Americans’ eyes open to the wonders awaiting us in our parks. Because of federal-government bureaucracy before that time, National Parks publications were printed in black and white in a crazy quilt of designs. Vignelli (with support from National Parks publications chief Vincent Gleason) designed maps and brochures and paperback books that featured gorgeous color photographs, simplified maps and a standardized design that welcomed visitors to any of the hundreds of nationally administered parks.

In the film, we hear Lella and Massimo repeatedly explain that their lives were dedicated to helping millions of Americans understand our country in clear and inviting ways. From home furnishings to subway maps, from chairs to books, from jewelry to magazines, from watches to calendars—this couple’s hands made our world more hospitable. As they accomplished their goal through a remarkably long career, they made America a more welcoming place for the growing diversity of our people.

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Review: ‘Cold War Road Show’ will make you feel safer now

REVIEW BY DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine

PBS American Experience Cold War Road Show DVD documentaryHere’s something to feel truly thankful for this year! Watch The Cold War Roadshow on PBS’s American Experience this week and you will feel safer about our world in just 1 hour.

Global warming? Ebola? The ruthless armies of ISIS? Sure, they’re all critical global concerns we must address as concerned humans. But half a century ago, American life was transformed by the first visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. As a population, “we” lined the streets to see his entourage pass through our nation. What is most remarkable about this? We stood along his motorcade route in stunned silence.

As the documentary about this world-changing 1959 visit explains: Americans were so terrified by the power of this man to touch off a global nuclear war that we didn’t know how to respond.

Khrushchev intended this visit to serve as a full-scale public relations campaign to win over American public opinion. He grinned almost constantly. He showed off his own family and warmly hugged any American children who came within arm’s reach. But his short temper often trumped his charm offensive.

When the mayor of Los Angeles insulted him at a public banquet, Khrushchev exploded. He roared back that Soviet factories were pumping out missiles like sausages and, if Americans wanted to go toe to toe with the USSR, they’d find themselves in a war to end all wars! The film footage from that day shows the mayor’s face going from a confident grin to a jaw-dropping expression of fear at what he had touched off.

One of the best things about this fascinating documentary is the decision by filmmakers Robert Stone and Tim B. Toidze to include interviews with two adults who were children on the front row of this first visit by a Soviet leader to American soil. Susan Eisenhower is Ike’s daughter and now is a highly respected consultant on international commerce. Sergei Khrushchev is the son of the former Soviet leader and an author and consultant as well. These two “kids” provide revealing commentary on what was taking place in that often shocking tour.

One insight? Khrushchev’s son admits that his father had a very short fuse when confronted with insults. At the infamous Los Angeles banquet, when he began boasting about turning out missiles like sausages, the Soviet leader was flat out lying. It was just angry bluster, the son tells us. In fact, the Soviets had produced very few missiles at that point. Of course, that angry exchange left Americans quaking in our boots—and led to increased spying and a dramatic escalation of Cold War confrontations into the early 1960s.

Any American who was a child in that era remembers the “duck and cover” drills we all learned in public schools. This documentary shows a brief clip of the way we did it: Boys and girls all dropping to the floor of our classrooms, crouching under our desks and covering our heads with our hands. Today, the idea seems like the darkest of comedy.

But then, when it comes to global issues right now, Pew reports “Americans don’t care.” Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans told Pew pollsters this year that they want our leaders to focus on domestic issues and stop worrying about global concerns. However, national security remains an almost universal concern and 3 out of 4 Americans told Pew that “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” should be a top national priority. However we may balance those two attitudes—Pew reporting does show that Americans are no longer worried about a worldwide nuclear war ending life as we know it. And that certainly wasn’t the case when Khrushchev flew back to Moscow in 1959!

Watching this hour-long snapshot of America’s nuclear anxiety half a century ago is certain to make you feel more thankful this month!

WANT TO SEE THE FILM?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Review: ‘The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden’

Cover Zeitgeist DVD The Galapagos Affair Satan Came to Eden

Click the cover to visit the DVD’s Amazon page. (The documentary also is available via Netflix.)

By DAVID CRUMM

This film might have been titled: The Perils of Pursuing Paradise.

Ever since the late 1800s when Jules Verne began publishing his international best-sellers, the world has been fascinated by the idea of dramatically escaping from civilization. Flash forward to 2014 and a dozen popular TV series are fueled by that same desire. In late September, the National Geographic Channel will debut another one: Live Free or Die, a series that looks at Americans trying to survive in remote woods and swamps.

Now, Zeitgeist Films brings us one of the strangest true stories of escaping adventurers. This mixed bag of misfits converged on a remote island in the Galapagos chain between the two World Wars. Their tale is so wild that a writer for the Smithsonian Institution, reporting on the Smithsonian’s extensive archives about this strange adventure, described the story as “a screwball farce peopled by eccentrics” that “abruptly turned to tragedy.”

During the heyday of this Galapagos experiment, lurid magazines around the world published fanciful dispatches from this little colony with headlines that included: “The Nudist Empress of the Galapagos” and “Mad Empress in the Garden of Eden” and “The Insatiable Baroness who Created Her Own Paradise.”

As it turns out, the real pioneer in this “paradise” was a German doctor with a grandiose vision of his role as a philosopher and naturalist. He apparently was a very effective wilderness pioneer, building many hand-made devices to make his island home a pleasurable place to live. But he also was motivated by a selfishness that amounted to loathing other people. When an odd-ball mix of other adventurers showed up on this doctor’s remote island, trouble was all but certain.

The adventurer who was chiefly responsible for the island’s global acclaim was a woman with even more grandiose visions than the doctor. She called herself a baroness (even though she wasn’t) and very publicly set up a household with a rotating series of male lovers. She even began production on a silent film with herself starring as a savage, scantily clad pirate! Some footage of this bizarre movie is included in the documentary.

No wonder the Smithsonian columnist wound up publishing a long, four-part summary of this strange tale as the saga is “told” through the Washington D.C. archives. (Here are the four parts: One, Two, Three and Four.)

Much more dramatic than this Smithsonian Internet series is the two-hour documentary by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, the folks who brought us the acclaimed documentary, Ballet Russes, which also dipped back into this pre-World War II era to give us a vivid portrait of the world-famous Russian troupe.

Why is ReadTheSpirit magazine reviewing this film? Because dreams of finding a remote paradise run throughout the long and tangled history of the world’s great religious movements, from some of the founding communities in what is now the United States (Remember the Pilgrims, the Puritans and the Shakers?) to tragic cults like Jim Jones’ Jonestown in Guyana where more than 900 people died in 1978.

Perhaps most fascinating about this cautionary tale from the Galapagos is that the German doctor’s master work of philosophy was ultimately of no interest to publishers in the civilized world and, instead, in 1935 his lover Dore Strauch published her own version of the island experiment, Satan Came to Eden: A Survivor’s Account of the Galapagos Affair.

This definitely is a mesmerizing two hours! It’s also a good choice for sparking conversation in any small group that enjoys discussing either new films or global issues.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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