Trying to understand the business of movies?

I enjoy reading books on the making of movies. Like potato chips, the books come out, are read on the sofa, and you go on to the next.

Every now and then, a book will stick in your mind. When you are reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or The Wrap, some tidbit comes back. I’ve seen that name before…

So when I was given Ben Fritz’s The Big PictureThe Fight for the Future of Movies, I expected just another potato chip.

Oh, no, in no way is The Big Picture, a simple nacho. It’s a timely book on the business of movies as the old ways are being overwhelmed, subsumed and replaced by the new such as franchises from Disney such Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Think The Avengers and Iron Man. He covers the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime’s original films.

Fritz, now the West Coast editor for The Wall Street Journal, covered the entertainment industry for years. He has done copious research and interviews to give an insightful view of today’s motion picture industry. He also admits in his introduction that he used stolen emails from the Sony hacking of 2014 to get insight.

Ever wonder why some of those small films are ever made? The decision might be launched two years before before the industry changed to wanting a franchise “tentpole” film for the summer. Often it’s not a matter of art, but connections that got it made.

The Big Picture puts human faces on the business decisions that land  films in your theater. It speaks the importance of merchandising, of toys and Halloween costumes, and the need to always have something in the pipeline, though I doubt Lucasfilm/Disney suspected the immense consumer demand for the birdlike #Porgs when they created Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The Big Picture is a book that I will keep on my shelf along with three others: Disneywar by James B. Stewart, Indecent Proposal: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street by David McClintock, and Rebels on the Backlot by Sharon Waxman, which covered the rise of Quentin Tarentino and others. These four books cover the last thirty years of the film industry in Hollywood and now, worldwide.

The latest, The Big Picture, takes us into the future.


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Even the saga of Middle-Earth comes to an end (maybe)

The Lord of the Rings saga written by noted fantasy writer, and Oxford Professor, the late J.R. R. Tolkien finally comes to an end in The Fall of Gondolin published by his son Christopher, now 94.

J.R.R.Tolkien taught Anglo-Saxon and Old English at the University of Oxford for decades. In his spare time he created the world of Middle Earth, stemming out of interest in creating new languages.

Basically he created a new mythology in fantasy literature.

At his death, in 1973, he left various drafts of many of his stories. Avid fans craved these works.

His son, Christopher, took over his father’s voluminous papers and set about publishing them.

Tolkien considered the crown jewel of his fictional universe The Silmarillion, which covered the history of Middle-Earth, from its creation up to the Third Age which The Lord of the Rings is set in.

In 1977, Christopher edited and published The Silmarillion. The dense fascinating work was just the start of the publishing of the papers. Over the next 41 years, many volumes dealing with the background of Middle Earth were published.

There were three great tales in “The Silmarillion.” The love story of “Beren and Luthien,” the tragedy of “The Children of Hurin,” and “The Fall of Gondolin,” the hidden city.

The Fall of Gondolin deals with the destruction of the last great elven City by the forces of evil, led by the terrible Morgoth. Christopher Tolkien basically pulled together various drafts of the story found in his father’s papers, and put them all in one book for easy comparisons. The earliest version was started in 1916 when the elder Tolkien was recovering from the Battle of the Somme. A version was written in 1926, then endlessly noodled on in Tolkien’s notes.

For those not versed in Tolkien’s work, this book may be hard to understand beyond the visually stunning first version. Like many histories and first drafts, it is replete with details that appear nowhere else.

“High up (the tower) they could descry the form of the king, but about the base a serpent of iron spouting flame lashed and rowed with his tail, and Balrogs were round him.” To quote Tolkien, a Balrog is a “demon with whips of flame and claws of steel.”

Readers and viewers of The Lord of the Rings will find familiar names in unfamiliar places. Balrogs, the elven warrior Glorfindel, and Legolas Greenleaf. It’s likely that the names were repurposed in the decades of between The Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings.

For those of us who are fascinated by the way a myth is created, this is bittersweet being potentially the last volume of Middle Earth.

Bu those looking for war, dragons, high fantasy and a saga will enjoy dipping in The Fall of Godolin. 

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At the Freer Gallery, a seminar on looting of cultural heritage

If you think museums are just homes for great art, think again. The art, academic and museum worlds have combined forces into activism against theft. They have to since the illegal sale of cultural heritages has become endemic. It is also immensely profitable.

At the seminar at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. were Acting Director of the Freer Gallery, Dr. Richard Kurin and Brigadier Gen. Fabrizio Parrulli of the Italian Carabinieri.

“Museums have become proactive,” Kurin said, “in conservation and cultural heritage.”

Much of the discussion concerned the recovery of stolen art, either after a natural disaster (think the Haitian earthquake) or war (think Iraq and Syria.) During and after the Iraq war, and in particular, with the advent of ISIS, which is adept at selling items stolen from the lands they held, antiquities have flowed into the market. New York’s Manhattan District Attorney‘s office has a new office devoted to it.

The international coalition seems mostly to be Western: US, France, UK, and more. Unesco has the “Blue Helmets for Culture” group. Parrulli mentioned that they spend time with some of the Special Forces groups going into war zones to make them aware of antiquities they might encounter. (Uh, good luck, antiquities.)

There is also now an Internet app, iTPC Carabinieri, if you run across something you think is suspicious on your summer holiday in Europe.

In international efforts, a 2016 conference in Abu Dhabi where there was an effort to create a $100 million fund for “protection of cultural heritage.” Also in 2016 President Obama signed legislation leading to the “Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee.” This committee lies in the purview of the Department of State along with the Cultural antiquities Task Force, the International Council of Museums’ “Red Lists of Cultural Objects at Risk.”

The Q&A included Deborah Lehr, founder of the Antiquities Coalition, a very accomplished woman.

What I came away with is the belief that there’s a lot of action on the cultural heritage field nowadays, happening under the cover of disinterest.

There were two amusing bits. Kurin mentioned that actor Ben Stiller (star of the Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian) was now supporting conservation efforts.

The last question, a young man asked Parrulli about the men arrested for art trafficking photographs. What he was asking was the younger generation as prolific in theft as the photographed men, who he referred to as being “in their fifties and sixties, getting elderly…” His question was drowned in laughter.

The average age of the audience was over 50.

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Don’t blink or you’ll miss ‘Artes de Cuba’ at the Kennedy Center

Cuba Celia Ledon

On a trip to pick up tickets at the Kennedy Center, I discovered the Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World.

For those unfamiliar with the Kennedy Center, the theater along the Potomac River is one of several arts meccas in the Washington D.C. area. It’s usually know by its plays (‘Hamilton’, I’m looking at you) in June and musical offerings, but right now it has sculptures on the main floor, and an extended video and costume exhibit on the terrace level, next to the restaurant.

The outer room has a 15 minute video of Cuba’s vibrant buildings from Emilio Perez, but the most stunning part in the inner room are costumes by Cuban artist Celia Ledon.

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‘The Shining’ is made from pop-top rings crocheted together and tied with strips of lycra.

Her intricate costumes come from “discarded videotapes, pop-top rings and tires”. According to the wall information, she is “obsessed by trash.” With unusual articulated mannequins, her work looks like it comes from science fiction films. In fact, her work has appeared feature films and fashion. At this moment she’s working with the Teatro el Publico Teatro el Publico and Ludi Teatro, whose U.S. premiere was canceled in October 2017 after visa difficulties.

The exhibit is lit with blue light and neon. I converted one of the pictures to black and white so the detail can be seen.

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“Photo Sensitive” by Celia Ledon. The photo was converted to black and white so detail could be seen.


The Artes de Cuba runs until May 20, 2018. A pop-up store on the main level of the Center sells bright, Caribbean-patterned scarves and wraps.

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A crocheted gas mask tops “Loose Ends” from Celia Ledon. It’s made of raw canvas.


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Top shopping at the Smithsonian Craft Show

Smithsonian Craft Show

I have seldom walked through a craft show and had my jaw drop at virtually every booth. The outstanding quality and imagination sets the 2018 Smithsonian Craft show at the National Building Museum apart from so many others. It is a stunning show of artistry.

While this year’s theme is Asian Influence / American Design, the work for sale comes from around the world.

(I’ll be linking to websites for the exhibitors since they preferred no photography in the show.) It runs from April 26-29, 2018.

Selected from over a 1,000 applicants, the 120 artists were chosen by a trio of judges,  Bruce Helander, art critic, Jane Milosch of the Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative and Shoji Satake from the West Virginia University.

In immaculate booths,  ceramics, glass, jewelry, lamps, woodworking and more are displayed. It may sound like a conventional craft show, but there is nothing conventional here. While pricy, what you see and can buy is often one-of-a kind work of art of stunning quality.

Out of  Wilson, Wyoming came stunning hand-blown glass platters and bowls from Thal Glass Studio in vibrant purple and oranges. With steampunk-influenced lanterns, California artist Evan Chambers evokes Jules Verne’s’ Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in an octopus lamp.

From Peru, Nicario Jimenez invoked the Day out of the Dead in his wall sculptures. Colorful and fascinating. He also won Best of Show.

Jennifer McCurdy’s ceramics may have started life on a potter’s wheel but their porcelain swirling lines, woven texture, and spiky leaves remind you more of wind-sculpted rock or, in one case, magnolia flowers. She’s from Massachusetts.

Zippers as art? Check out Kate Cusack‘s necklaces and pins. She’s one of the many jewelry artists.

If you want handmade unique shoes suitable for the office, try the Cordwainer shop.

Several of the fabric artists channeled the Show’s team of Asian influence. One used Chinese dragons in brilliant red and gold for a swing coat. Susan Bradley out of Minneapolis, Minn. does works with silk and kimono fabrics.  Cathayana from Troy, Michigan has multi-colored accordion-folded scarves.

There seemed an unusual number of ‘decorative fabric artists’ a.k.a. wearable art (think swing coats or filmy hand-painted scarves.)

Sarmite Wearable Art out of New Jersey, has stunningly designed coats. (I have provided a link to a Pininterest page because going to the Sarmite site, I get a list of pills for sale. If you search for them in Google, you probably can reach them through their phone number).

Many of the Show’s artists have donated items for an online auction that runs through May 1, 2018. The proceeds go to grants that the Smithsonian Women’s Committee (SWC) hands out supporting Smithsonian programs, education and research.

The latest set of 17 grants were national and international in scope. Among them, the National Museum of American History got a grant aimed at their digital and video efforts. The Smithsonian Libraries grant went to helping students from DC, MD and VA to help shape “programing” aimed at their peers. The National Zoo got two grants, one for “counting mammal species” in Kenya and the other for a study of the “release of golden frogs from captive care” in Panama.


Kudos to the Smithsonian Volunteers, including Tia Duer, who worked hard to keep things running the day I went. They were unfailingly helpful.

The Smithsonian Craft Show runs for four days, April 26-29, 2018 at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. The online auction runs until May 1st.

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A to-be-read book, ‘Darjeeling,’ turns out to be so worth it

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An afternoon cup of tea

Too often books languish in a pile named, “I’ll get to it soon.”

That’s what happened to Jeff Koehler’s “Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea” which has been gathering dust for roughly three years. Yet every time I thought of giving it away, I’d flip it open and fall in love with the writing all over again.

Jeff Koehler, noted food author whose writing has appeared in Food and Wine, the Washington Post, and many others, has written a love song, to the delicately flavored India tea, Darjeeling.

It’s more than a song, it’s an opera. Spending at least a year, and a growing season in Darjeeling, India, Koehler tells the story of how the tea leaves are grown, shipped, and end up in your morning brew. That’s only a fragment of the book though. The rest is a world history of tea, how it came to India,  the influence of the British on colonial India (think Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills or Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet); and how things changed – or didn’t – in the tea industry when India’s independence came.

No one can tell a great story like a great writer. In just few words, Koehler can evoke the experience of a taste of an expensive hand-rolled tea, the 2013 Green (tea) Pearls. “He smiled and plucked a couple of rolled pearls the size of earrings from a jar. Once steeped, the liquor shines a pale gold, a shade closer to champagne than hay. In the mouth, it’s plummy in a fulsome and rounded way…”

He goes into the modern marketplace behind the small tea bags that you find in the local grocery or tea shop. By the end of the chapters on picking, rolling and tasting, you might want to know exactly when your tea was picked so you know you are getting the best of that season’s leaves.

Koehler also goes into the problems facing the modern Indian tea industry such as manpower demands, and the vagaries of Mother Nature in regards to rainfall and soil content. The  extensive bibliography at the end can be a jumping off place for more reading.


Label from the bottom of a container of Darjeeling Tea from India

Being a food writer, he includes some recipes at the end such as how to brew the perfect cup of Darjeeling, Masala and Tibetan Tea with Salt and Butter. If you’re in a Victorian or “British Raj” mood, you might try Timeless Cucumber Sandwiches or Chicken-and-Fresh-Mint Hamper Sandwiches. Or, maybe local favorites such as Momos, Thunkpa or onion Pakoras.

Koehler’s latest book published in 2017, “Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup,” which looks to do the same thorough research for the other morning staple for millions.

Tea has a history that spans millennia. Koehler’s “Darjeeling” is a good place to start reading about its past.

I recommend having a full steaming teapot and cup at your elbow, along with some scones with clotted cream, or some tea-marbled deviled eggs, as you begin your journey.


Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea Bloomsbury Books, $26.00

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Ikats! Ubiquitous but unknown

Ikats from “To Dye For” at the Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

The next time you hit Crate and Barrel, or Target, take note of the ikat designs everywhere.

If you don’t know what ikats are, go down to Washington’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art for the new exhibit, “To Dye For: Ikats from Central Asia.” It displays antique robes alongside the work of a Western fashion designer who discovered and popularized the design – Oscar de la Renta.

The word ‘Ikat” is actually a Malaysian-Indonesian word that means “to tie” bundles of thread. It has become a generic term for the designs, said Chief Curator Massumeh Farad, of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “In Central Asia the term  used is ‘Cloud Binding’.” Ikats are produced in India, Indonesian and Japan, but the Central Asian ikats are known for their “incredible color and palette and bold designs.”

The Sackler Gallery had an ikat exhibition in 1998 drawn from the collection of Dr. Guido Goldman. Later he donated 70 textiles to the museum. The museum has drawn from the donation for this exhibit.

Ikat from Central Asia at “To Dye For.”

Farad said that tiny fragments of ikats have been found as early as the 8th century from Yemen but they really flourished in Central Asia from the early 19th century. The ancient “Silk Road” cities of Bukhara and Samarqand became hubs of the textile industry. After Uzbekistan’s independence in the 1990s, there has been a revival of ikat production.

Ikat coats were expensive luxuries usually created for royalty or the rich. In nomadic cultures the vibrant lined coats were one form of wealth. Velvet ikats are “top of the line,” said Farad, since they are so complicated to make. “Ikat velvets are the absolute finest.”

Ikat robe from Central Asia, silk velvet, 1850-75

The process of making an ikat is laborious. The designs, with pomegranates, jugs and others, are created long before the actual weaving is begun. The threads are dyed from light to dark, usually starting from yellow to the red to indigo. At George Washington’s The Textile Museum, which also has a ikat exhibit, “Binding the Clouds: the Art of Central Asian Ikat,”  The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, has constructed several examples of looms strung with dyed yarn which shows the complications of the weaving.

The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, looms

At the Sackler, Farad explained that the dying and weaving were done by different guilds. The indigo was done by the Jewish community; the Uzbeks “would be weaving the pieces together.”  The hangings were used to separate spaces in a house or to cover things like blankets. When you look at a large hanging, it is easy to find the seams where the shorter ikats were sewn together to make a large one. When they wore out, then fragments could be used as patching materials.

In the late 1990s, Dominican-American designer Oscar de la Renta went to Uzbekistan and was “stunned by the colors and designs,” said Farad. He introduced ikat designs into his clothing in the late 1990s and up to 2013. A dress and several of de la Renta’s ikat-patterned coats are on display alongside with the antique ikats.


Fall 2013 Oscar de la Renta dress made from silk and wool jacquard using ikat designs.

On April 14, the Textile Museum is holding a “Shop Event: Ikat by the Yard” offering three new custom-designed and handmade velvet ikats from Uzbekistan.


“To Dye For” runs until July 29, 2018 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.
“Binding the Clouds: The Art of Central Asian Ikat” at The Textile Museum runs through July 9, 2018.

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