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My first real memory may very well be the opening scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, in which, after the floating text tells us the world is at war, Darth Vader and his stormtroopers seize Princess Leia’s ship. While rebel soldiers line the hallways, stormtroopers blast open the air-locked door and begin firing lasers. A moment later, Vader comes through with his black mask and heavy breath, cape sweeping the ground behind him, and sometime after that we see lightsabers and landspeeders, X-wing and Tie-fighters, the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star, and I’ll say now “ignite” is too weak a word to apply to what that movie did to my imagination.

Suddenly we were all looking at the stars, wondering what went on above our heads. Or we were arguing if lightsabers were real, if we could learn to use the force to move things with our minds or convince our mothers to take us swimming if she said no the first time. I still wonder, occasionally, when I’ve left a light on after climbing into bed, if I couldn’t just turn it off with the wave of a hand. More… “Watching the Skies”

Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press in spring 2019. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Oxford American, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others. @PaulCrenstorm

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Busy, busy, busy. So much to do, so many traitors to be shot. You’d think a victorious tyrant would have his hands plenty full in the aftermath of Spain’s murderous 1936-39 civil war. It turns out, though, that Generalissimo Francisco Franco had long nursed a secret desire, one he was uniquely in a position to satisfy at the outset of his nearly four decades in power. But where in the world did he find the time to write the screenplay for a feature-length film? Never mind that the end product is as artistically shoddy and morally repugnant as anything that ever defiled celluloid, it still gives a fascinating peek through the thick velvet curtains that lead to the lobby of a dictator’s mind.

Film-buff Franco didn’t often go to the movies. The movies came to him. On engagement-free Saturday evenings a projectionist would be admitted to the head of state’s residence on the outskirts of Madrid where a screening room had been installed. Ministers on urgent business would be roped into attendance. It went on like that until old age began gnawing at his attention span, decades down the road. Hitler, too, was acutely conscious of the cinema’s potential for manipulating the masses, but left the hands-on part to his deputy, Goebbels. And Mussolini certainly praised the carbon-arc projector as “the world’s most effective weapon.” But his movie producer son, Vittorio, revealed that Il Duce could scarcely make it through 15 minutes of virtually any film you could think of without dozing off. More… “General Franco Jumps the Shark”

Robert Latona is a journalist based in Madrid, Spain.

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If you ask me, there were quite a few cringe-worthy moments in the movie La La Land but one moment especially hit home. Early in the story, Emma Stone’s character, Mia, apprehensively confesses to Ryan Gosling’s idealistic jazz pianist that she “hates” jazz. It’s probably intended to show Mia’s relatability for the audience, but this viewer at least winced with recognition. The fact that Mia eventually discovers that she likes jazz after all is less about digging the music than about giving the viewer the Hollywood ending they want. She’s not alone in her defensiveness when it comes to America’s music — believe me, plenty of people tend to give us jazz fans the side-eye whenever the topic comes up.

The sad truth is that all too often jazz suffers the same kind of casual dismissal that hip-hop, country, and EDM used to get before they took over the mainstream. Granted, this might be something only a jazz lover would notice but since at least the ’70s, jazz has become something of a niche market, to put it mildly. In terms of yearly record sales, jazz usually sells as much as classical music does, one of the many things the two genres have in common. Far too often jazz comes off as dated or quaint; it’s your granddad’s make out music. Worse, there’s an implied snobbishness often projected onto loving jazz — it’s a little like explaining that you prefer to spend your Saturday nights translating Hegel or making artisanal cheese. More… “Giant Steps”

Matt Hanson lives in Western Mass and writes for The Arts Fuse,  Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine.  His work has also appeared in The Baffler, The Millions, and 3 Quarks Daily, and other places.  He can usually be found in the nearest available used bookstore.

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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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Cactus Rose
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Several great or powerful American films have yielded signature lines of dialogue to remember them by: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn;” “We’ll always have Paris;” “I coulda been a contender;” “Go ahead, make my day.” Of all John Ford Westerns, several of them truly great, only one of them produced a signature line: John Ford’s  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, remembered for “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This line is remembered superficially, and most viewers don’t perceive the raw emotions and brutal reality that the statement embraces. And it has meanings and contradictions that resonate today, perhaps the most interesting of which have to do with contemporary notions of masculinity. More… “What Hallie Knew”

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

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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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So the royal wedding has come and gone and I saw enough to give me fodder for a few musings. Yes, I am a sucker for the spectacle and back story, but even I was surfeited. At some point, as Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters blathered on with help from Tina Brown (who was taking a break from saving Newsweek), I became a bit weary of it all — though, no doubt, I will return soon enough to drink from what promises to be a very deep well.

What struck me in watching this event was less the event than its coverage — a swaddling of commentary so dense as to practically smother the spectacle we all tuned in to see.  This was owing in large part to the plethora of close-ups. I do not recall as many close-ups of dresses, hats, and, most importantly, faces in any previous royal… More…

From the perspective of a movie theater owner, all those lethargic explosions in Inception were just very expensive commercials for giant boxes of Goobers and Raisinets. Likewise, Colin Firth’s carefully modulated anguish in The King’s Speech. The Regal Entertainment Group — America’s largest movie theater chain with 548 theaters in 39 states — reports that its average patron spent $3.09 at the concession stand in 2009. That may be chocolate-covered peanuts compared to the revenues theaters generate from admissions at a time when tickets typically go for $7.95. But theater owners don’t have to split concession sales with distributors, and the mark-ups on salty tubs of popcorn and watery vats of Coke are huge. According to Smart Money, approximately 85 cents of each dollar spent at the theater candy counter is pure profit.

 

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You might think a 2,300-year-old sex scandal would eventually lose some of its bite. But when it comes to paragons of masculinity such as world conqueror Alexander the Great, it doesn’t. With his 2004 film Alexander, writer-director Oliver Stone outraged stiff-necked military types with his depiction of the macho Macedonian king, history’s most brilliant warrior, flirting with his boyfriends up and down the Khyber Pass. In between gore-splattered battles, Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) flounces about in makeup at drunken Babylonian banquets, shoots suggestive glances to his male entourage, and indulges in a passionate kiss with one of his officers — all the sort of behavior that would be frowned upon in the U.S. military today, for example. But according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Classics at Cambridge University, the film is actually very coy about Alexander’s busy homoerotic life: There is no real doubt that he took a young… More…