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As a young man I had good vocal cords and dreamed of becoming a famous singer. Considering my teenage background in the church choir and in Gilbert and Sullivan high school productions, the drama teacher suggested that singing my way into the opera world seemed a possible choice. However, there was one problem. The music teacher told me that operatic heroes shouldn’t be shorter than the soprano they are wooing.

I stand 5’4” in my stocking feet.

True some opera singers, like renowned tenor Joseph Schmidt, coming in at just under five feet and considered too short for live performances in the opera house, reached fame doing recordings.

But I craved the stage, the audience. If opera was out, I’d find another musical forum. So, I plowed on with my dream. More… “These Boots Weren’t Made for Walking”

Thomas Laver is a former singer and teacher. He was a writer for the education division of TVO, the Public Television Network of the Province of Ontario, Canada. His writing has also appeared in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Heart Insight Magazine, Canadian Teacher Magazine, and Our Canada, a Reader’s Digest publication.

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In the movies, makeovers are the answer to everything. Before, she is identifiable only by her big, bulky glasses and untamable, frizzy hair. She has no fashion sense, no boy sense, no social sense. No one notices her, no one pays attention. No one cares.

Then, something happens. It doesn’t really matter what or how — someone notices her, she becomes a princess, or a part of a bet — it just matters that now, things are different. Now, she must change. So, with the help of a friend or a makeup team, she goes from ugly and unknown to pretty and popular. Someone forces a flat iron to her hair, foundation to her face, heels on her feet. In an hour and a half, two tops, the grand transformation has occurred.

Suddenly, she’s wanted. The mean girls want to be her friend and the popular boy asks her to the dance. She stands taller, speaks louder, sounds smarter, her clear skin and cleavage making her more confident. More… “The Banal and the Beautiful”

Camille DiBenedetto is a staff writer for The Smart Set and an English major at Drexel University. In her free time, you can find her watching romantic comedies, listening to slam poetry, or rereading The Summer I Turned Pretty for the 27th time.

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Rafael Casal is a poet, rapper, producer, writer, and actor. Over the last ten years, he and his longtime friend and collaborator, Daveed Diggs, wrote, produced, and starred in their first film, Blindspotting. The story revolves around best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) during the last three days of Collin’s probation. As the days progress, their friendship is strained by Oakland’s gentrification and the community’s perception of Collin after his conviction for a violent crime. Throughout the film, heightened verse is infused to showcase Oakland, the city’s natural facility for language, and Casal and Digg’s background in poetry and music. I had the opportunity to speak with Casal about comedy as a vehicle to tell stories about trauma, toxic masculinity, unconscious bias, and the stories missing from Hollywood’s mainstream. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “In Plain Sight”

Byshera Williams is a Junior English Major at Drexel University and the current Associate Editor for The Smart Set.

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From spearheads to skeletons, mummies to mastodons, caskets to ritual masks, the North’s soil has yielded thousands of clues to bygone lives. But only once have motile shadows returned from this underground realm. In 1978, during construction of a new rec center in the town of Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon, a backhoe unearthed 533 newsreels and feature films dating from 1903 to 1929, many of them thought to have been lost to time’s ravages, others previously unknown. Stored initially in the town library’s basement, they had been interred in an old gym pool that double-functioned as an ice rink. There they rested like Snow White in her crystal coffin. The pool site was part of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association’s building, which opened in 1902 and soon after began screening films. Some of the cache’s contents played again in the rebuilt Palace Grand Theatre 15 months after their discovery, almost 50 years after their disappearance. More… “Moving Pictures from the Permafrost”

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. Now living in Fairbanks, Alaska and working as a wilderness guide in the Arctic, he appreciates urban culture, such as art house movie theaters.

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It’s a bit specialized, admittedly. Nonetheless, Ben Davis’s Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960-1994 delivers exactly what the title promises. If you were ever dying to know what sort of programming choices distinguished the Carnegie Hall Cinema from the Bleecker Street Cinema in the 1970s, this is the book for you. But it might also be the book for you if you ever fell in love with movies and had a favorite theater or two, whether in New York or any small city or college town, to nourish that love. When I moved to New York in 1978, I fell so hard for movies that Davis’s book (hereafter RMTNYC) reads more like a lost diary from my youth than the erudite, exhaustively researched study that it is. Accordingly, what follows is less a review of the book than of my life. How can I talk about the Thalia without mentioning the movie-mad debates I had with the girl I loved and my best friend on our way to and from the screenings there? At the time, we were all grad students at Columbia, but the real education we got was in the theaters and the streets. More… Singin’ in the Rain for the 68th Time”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?

Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”

Paul X. Rutz is an artist and freelance writer. His exhibitions include solo shows at Ford Gallery, the Oregon Military Museum, and a forthcoming residency at Purdue University, as well as group shows at Mark Woolley Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution. A former reporter for the Pentagon’s Press Service, he has contributed to HuffPost, Modern Fiction Studies, and Cincinnati Review, among others, and he is a feature writer for Military History and Vietnam magazines.

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Arguably America’s favorite film, as measured by various polls over the years, Casablanca turned 75 in November. Special screenings have been held across the country. Encomiums have appeared in periodicals. But perhaps it’s time to take stock of this fan favorite.

Its appeal is well earned. The plot is full of surprising twists and tense moments. The story is uplifting: a cynical, bitter American expatriate running a nightclub (called “Rick’s Café Americain”) in Vichy-controlled Casablanca is inspired by the reignited love of a woman to take incredibly brave steps, including renunciation of future bliss with his lover, to help a great resistance leader escape his Nazi pursuers. Its leads, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, have two of the most cinematic faces in the history of the medium. Claude Rains, perhaps a more skillful actor than both of them, has a strong secondary role. The cast includes the great character actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and lesser-known but excellent ones such as John Qualen and S.Z Sakall. The director, Michael Curtiz, knew how to use the camera to underscore emotions. There are some great laughs. The film’s setting is exotic, reeking with promise of intrigue and adventure. In essence, it is a film about moral redemption, regained love, courage, and personal sacrifice for the greater good. What’s not to like?
More… “Taking a Hard Look at You, Kid”

D.B. Jones is a retired Drexel professor of film and the author of three books on Canadian documentary film.

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John Ford’s The Searchers is a Western about party of white settlers pursuing a Comanche band that has slaughtered a homesteading family’s males and adults and kidnapped the family’s two daughters. The film presents a question that has puzzled me for years: How is it that a film so glaringly flawed can be so powerful, so great? And it is great. In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the best Western ever made. The same year, Cahiers du Cinéma ranked the film the tenth best film ever made. In 2012, a Sight & Sound survey of international film critics ranked it the seventh best film of all time. Its influence has been noticed in and/or acknowledged by directors as different from one another as David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Jean-Luc Godard, Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, and Paul Schrader. It has been an object of intense analysis by numerous scholars. (Anyone interested in reading in-depth work on the film would do well by starting with Edward Buscombe’s monograph in the excellent British Film Institute series of slim but comprehensive, well-researched, and annotated volumes on individual films.) More… “Flawed Greatness”

D.B. Jones is a retired Drexel professor of film and the author of three books on Canadian documentary film.

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A hotel is a living organism, a microcosm with a strict hierarchy, an orchestrated timetable of actions and events that unfold according to a particular dramaturgy. Some hotels have even reached the status of living myths — they have succeeded in forming an identity of their own. And in many cases, their status is owed to the writers and actors that have stayed in them. Agatha Christie stayed in room 411 of Istanbul’s neo-Rococo-style Pera Palace Hotel and is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express there. The Park Hyatt Tokyo certainly owes some of its appeal for foreign visitors to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who filmed substantial parts of Lost in Translation there.

More… “If Walls Could Talk”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

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Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is an astute observation, a reflection, and commentary that contemplates our contemporary urban islands. The film’s most consistent motif is inversion, a collapsing of the boundaries between the internal and the external, a conflation of self and society featuring a kinetic and nearly constant obsession with the surface vs. substance quandary that has confounded philosophers, artists, and poets for millennia. As I mused in the afterglow of the film, I found myself wondering why, in his recent transition away from the historical and towards the contemporary, Malick selected Los Angeles as his cosmopolis of choice. It took some thinking, but I realized that the last picture to capture L.A. and inscribe it this perfectly was released in 1969, and it wasn’t a film, it wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t an essay: it was an album, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds.

More… “Terrence and Joni Redeem L.A.”

Sean Hooks is originally from New Jersey and presently lives in Los Angeles. He teaches English and Writing at the University of California, Riverside and Fullerton College. Recent publications include Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Lights Film Journal, Akashic Books, The Manhattanville Review, and Pif Magazine.

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