Rebels with a Cause

As Dr. Henry Powell notes in “Irish Women of Resilience,” until the late 20th century the history of Ireland is a sad one. The Emerald Isle had the great misfortune of proximity to an aggressively expansionist, colonialist power that went on to dominate ad exploit the Irish people for nearly 700 years. That period was further scarred by famine, failed rebellions, civil war, and religious repression.

In response to the Irish people’s yearning for solace and preservation of cultural identity, the aisling (ASH-ling) was developed in the late 17th and 18th centuries as a uniquely Irish poetic genre. Aisling means “dream” or “vision,” and in the verses Ireland appears to the poet as a woman, frequently young and beautiful but occasionally old and haggard, who laments the current state of affairs in Éireann and predicts a revival, a resurgence of the Gaelic nation. Often this revival is linked to the return of the House of Stuart to the British and Irish thrones. Powell explains that women have long held a special place in Gaelic culture and literature, especially poetry, and the aisling is emblematic of that revered status.

“She is a girl and would not be afraid to walk the whole world with herself.”
– Lady August Gregory, poet

After establishing the importance of women in the collective Irish consciousness Powell turns his attention to women who have had a profound impact on Irish society in more recent times, including Hazel Martin (Lady Lavery) , an early Irish nationalist; the renowned ”Rebel Countess” Constance Markievicz, who advised women preparing for insurrection to “Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver;” popular novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who cast a sharp eye on social mores; Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, artists and lifelong companions who rocked the art establishment by introducing cubism to Ireland; the first female President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and her immediate successor Mary MacAleese; crusading journalist Nell McCafferty, who pursued the most powerful judicial figures in the country; and Mary Raftery, who exposed and documented decades of systemic abuse of children in State-funded, Church-run institutions.

This list is, of course, only a sampling of women who have influenced Irish society in virtually all respects. Powell notes that while each of these women has a unique story, their commonality is a fierce devotion to justice and a disdain for societal conventions meant to control, hinder, and demean women. Ireland is ending its first century of independence with increased prosperity and a forward-thinking, modern outlook, and that is due in no small part to resilient – some might say stubborn, but admiringly – Irish women.

Watch Irish Women of Resilience with Henry Powell – Osher Online Lecture Series.

Between Cultures

“Despite the current attempts to whitewash U.S. history, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity is the predominant feature of the U.S. experience.” – Charles Musser

Almost from their inception, motion pictures have dealt with the question of cultural assimilation. This was certainly true in America where many of the country’s film industry founders were themselves either immigrants or the children of immigrants, in particular Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews.

In “Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties” Yale University’s renowned film historian and documentarian Charles Musser examines this issue by comparing and contrasting two related films: “The Ancient Law” (1923, Germany) and “The Jazz Singer” (1927, USA). While “The Ancient Law” is largely forgotten by today’s audiences, “The Jazz Singer” achieved lasting fame for being the first (partially) talking picture and lasting notoriety for star Al Jolson’s performance in blackface, deemed racist by modern sensibilities.

In E. A. Dupont’s “The Ancient Law,” the Orthodox Jew Baruch Mayer leaves a shtetl in Galicia for Vienna. Mayer pursues a career as a stage actor, much to the consternation of his conservative parents. Released four years later, Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer” was based in part on a hit play but was also a loose adaptation of the earlier film. Baruch Mayer becomes Al Jolson’s Jakie Rabinowitz, who runs away from his strict cantor father to pursue a career as a cabaret singer after changing his name to Jack Robin. “The Jazz Singer” was an immediate hit and made Jolson a star overnight. Musser’s research refutes the commonly-held notion that Jolson was himself a racist, citing his and the film’s popularity with African American audiences at the time. Jolson was considered a friend by the African American community who advocated hiring black actors for stage roles, and his blackface performances were seen as positive portrayals by the very people we assume were offended.

Further, Musser argues that the depictions of the assimilation process in both films were essentially optimistic. In each case the protagonist is able to maintain or reclaim their cultural identity in spite of prevailing attitudes, and to cross the line between two uneasily co-existing cultures without the necessity of fully assimilating into either. Both films are also idealistic in the sense that they downplay the toxicity of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Nevertheless, they (sadly) retain their relevance in the modern world.

Watch — Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties: From The Ancient Law to The Jazz Singer with Charles Musser – Holocaust Living History Workshop

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History

Kishinev, the rampage that broke out in late-Tsarist Russia, has been described as foreshadowing the Holocaust itself. In April 1903, 49 Jews were killed, 600 raped or wounded, and more than 1,000 Jewish-owned houses and stores were ransacked and destroyed during three days of violence in the Eastern European city.

Steven Zipperstein, Stanford University, discusses how the attacks seized the imagination of an international public, quickly becoming the prototype of what would become known as a pogrom and providing the impetus for efforts such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and the NAACP.

Zipperstein brings historical insight and clarity to a much-misunderstood event that would do so much to transform twentieth-century Jewish life and beyond. The pogrom was well documented but mythology played a key role in the aftermath of the event. Kishinev came to seem as the prelude to the Holocaust with its state-directed mob violence. Zipperstein explains why he is skeptical of this determinism and explores some of the distortions.

Watch — Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History with Steven Zipperstein

The Truth 24 Times Per Second

The Carsey-Wolf Center’s Spring 2019 screening series at UC Santa Barbara explores the international legacies of cinematic New Waves, including films from France, Cuba, China, Italy, and Iran. Whatever their disparate eras or sources, these selections share an emphasis on stylistic and narrative experimentation, a rejection of traditional film conventions, a sympathetic response to youth culture, an insistence on emotional verisimilitude, and a critical examination of contemporary social and political issues.

Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (France-Japan/1959), written by novelist Marguerite Duras, uses the post-war affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect as the basis for a poignant meditation on memory and forgetfulness. The two struggle with their differing perceptions of the Hiroshima bombing and its lingering effects, both societal and personal (one of which is the end of their affair). Resnais, a former editor, employs a dense, elliptical narrative structure that includes documentary footage and brief flashbacks to the lovers’ previous lives, among other innovations. Resnais was a generation older than Truffaut, Godard, and other French New Wave filmmakers, but his innovations proved influential on their work.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (Cuba/1968) is a complex character study set in Havana during a period of social turmoil, between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis. The protagonist, Sergio, is a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer who elects to remain in Cuba after his wife and friends flee to Miami. Living a rootless existence in an atmosphere of anomie, Sergio is soon caught up in the social and political Cold War forces engulfing Cuba, and the post-revolution economic upheavals that are causing his privileged class to disappear. As in Renais’ film the narrative which unfolds is fragmented and highly subjective, in a style meant to evoke the process of memory and that requires active participation from the spectator.

Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (China, 1987), based on the novel by Nobel laureate Mo Yan, chronicles life in a rural Chinese village during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Though seemingly more conventional in style and narrative structure than other New Wave films, Red Sorghum shares its determination to challenge Hollywood conventions, eschewing ersatz sophistication and easy sentimentality in favor of simplicity and emotional directness, expressed in unromanticized depictions of poverty, sexual abuse, and sudden violence. The overall effect at times approaches a state not unlike magic realism. The film was also distinctive for its time and place in centering its story on a young girl, an emphasis which abetted a critique of Chinese society’s traditional sexual mores and treatment of women.

Though diverse in their blending of themes and techniques, what emerges from viewings of these and other New Wave films is a renewed sense of the cinema’s potential as a narrative art form, one illuminating aspects of the human condition far surpassing the boundaries of Hollywood storytelling.

Browse more programs in Carsey-Wolf Center.

The Filmmaking Process

8232New programs from the Carsey-Wolf Center at UC Santa Barbara go behind the scenes with filmmakers, directors, screenwriters and others involved in the film industry. From blockbuster, oscar-nominated films to independent foreign gems, enjoy fascinating stories and insights into the filmmaking process.

82327 Islands & a Metro with Director Madhusree Dutta
Director Madhusree Dutta and UCSB Department of Film and Media Studies Professor Bhaskar Sarkar discuss the film 7 Islands and a Metro, a fascinating documentary on Bom Bahia / Bombay / Mumbai.

8232Arrival with Screenwriter Eric Heisserer
Arrival screenwriter and executive producer Eric Heisserer talks about adapting the the award-winning short story by Ted Chiang to the big screen.

8232Hidden Figures with Theodore Melfi and Kevin Costner
Writer/producer/director Theodore Melfi, actor Kevin Costner and president of Fox 2000 Pictures, Elizabeth Gabler discuss the Oscar-nominated film based on the true story about three brilliant African-American women working on John Glenn’s launch into orbit at NASA.

8232The Last Aristocrats with Kenneth Pai and Michael Berry
The Last Aristocrats is a film based on a short story by Kenneth Pai, UCSB Professor Emeritus. It follows four young Chinese women from elite Shanghai families who become stranded in the US when the communists take over Shanghai in 1948.

Browse more Carsey-Wolf programs