Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America and World War II

I enjoyed “Captain America;” it was a fun movie that shows how summer movies can be a nice diversion.  Unlike “X-Men: First Class,” it did not, however, hold up much when it came to historical scrutiny.  While I know it is only a Hollywood film, I found it annoying that the movie shows black, white, and Japanese American soldiers serving together in World War II.  We fought World War II with a segregated army with blacks and Japanese Americans fighting in separate units.  The all-Japanese 442nd combat division was one of the most decorated units in the conflict.  President Truman did not issue an order integrating the army until 1948, three years after the end of World War II.  In reality, the military did not fight a war as an integrated force until the Vietnam War in the 1960s. While some have commented that the inclusion of minorities highlights their contributions, I don’t think it is helpful for Hollywood to sanitize our past.
A couple of other interesting items.  The German √©migr√© scientist, Dr. Erskine, who develops the formula that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America, seems to represent the German intellectuals who fled the Nazis in the 1930s.  Most of them were Jewish, though the film never makes it explicit that Erskine is Jewish.  In the comic book, the character’s name is Reinstein, which is likely a reference to Albert Einstein.
Another interesting nod is the appearance of Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) father, Howard Stark, in this film.  The use of the name “Howard” seems to be a nod to Howard Hughes, whom some have theorized was the original inspiration for the Tony Stark character when the Iron Man comic premiered in the early 1960s.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter and Diversity

In recent years, the United States has experienced a huge wave of immigration which has transformed the nation’s demography.  At the same time, many European countries have undergone a similar transformation, including Great Britain.  Western Europe experienced a significant labor shortage after World War II and welcomed “guest workers” from North Africa and Asia.  Many people from India, Pakistan, and other former British colonies emigrated to Great Britain.  These “guests” and their families stayed and have become part of the fabric of these countries.   I have been to London twice in the last ten years and it feels a lot like New York City with a tremendous diversity of cultures.
The “Potter” books and films reflect this phenomenon.  Though none of the main characters come from minority groups, a number of supporting characters do.  Perhaps the most important was Cho Chan, Harry’s first crush.  Ron and Harry went to a school dance in Goblet of Fire with the Patel twins.
Other British sci-fi products have reflected this change.  For instance, the new “Doctor Who”, which has featured a couple of black cast members, has had a much more diverse feel than the original program, which aired from the 1960s-1980s. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Harry Potter and the Suburbs

Another interesting element of the Harry Potter series is its depiction of the suburbs.  Through the Dursleys, Harry’s Aunt and Uncle, suburbanites are portrayed as completely narrow-minded, conformist, and career-obsessed.  This echoes the criticism that many American observers have made of suburbs since the 1950s.  After the emergence of the post-WW2 Levittowns, intellectuals like David Riesman, Betty Friedan, and others have attacked the suburbs as repressive centers of boredom and homogenous thinking.   
For a half-century, films like “American Beauty” and numerous others have echoed and reinforced this criticism.  For instance, it has been a subtle theme throughout the films of Steven Spielberg.  Think of the shot of Eliot’s suburb in “E.T.” which shows a sea of look-alike houses.  Spielberg’s critique of the suburbs reached its peak in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” when a nuclear test destroys a model suburban community in Nevada. The Potter series reveal that at least some British observers feel the same way about their suburbs.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Harry Potter and the Historical Interpretation

With the Harry Potter films ending this week, it is an appropriate time to analyze the series, which is now the highest grossing in the history of Hollywood.  First, I’d like to examine the historical roots of some of J.K. Rowling’s ideas.  A re-watching of Deathly Hallows, part 1 and parts of some of the other films this weekend reinforces my view that Voldemort and his allies are partially modeled on the Nazis.  For instance, Voldemort is obsessed with a desire for “pure-blood” wizardry and wants to purge the magical community of “mudbloods” (wizards with Muggle, non-magical parents).  This is eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ views toward the Jews.  Furthermore, in Deathly Hallows, Part 1, Voldemort expresses his fear of mating between Muggles and pure-blood magicians, another typical concern of the Nazis and others who have promoted ideologies of racial superiority. Also, the Ministry of Magic’s architecture in the film version of Deathly Hallows, pt. 1 bears a strong resemblance to Albert Speer’s Nazi style.  Finally, Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) paints “mudblood” on Hermione’s forearm and it looks almost like a concentration camp tattoo.
Rowling and the filmmakers did not simply draw upon the Nazis as an inspiration for the villains.  Voldemort’s fear of “race-mixing” also laid at the root of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South.  Similarly, the description of the Death Eaters in the attack on the Quidditch Cup in Goblet of Fire bears a strong similarity to the Ku Klux Klan.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The End of the Shuttle Program and Popular Culture

The end of the space shuttle program symbolizes a sea change in American popular culture.  For years, the space program helped to promote and legitimize science fiction as the space race of the 1960s and the moon landing advanced an idea of the future where man traveled through the stars. It is no coincidence that the original “Star Trek” aired during the peak years of the Apollo program (1966-69).  Similarly, sci-fi franchises like “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica” emerged in the 1970s when the moon landing was still more than just a distant memory.
As the space program’s popularity declined in the 1990s and early 21st century, sci-fi movies made a move toward a dystopian earth-bound future (The “Matrix” and “Terminator” films).  Furthermore, fantasy seemed to supersede science fiction as the dominant theme of blockbuster films.   It’s no coincidence that fantasy franchises like “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” were the dominant film series of the first decade of the 21st century.