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Charles R. Larson on African literature

By Alicia Dietrich

Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Tonight, Charles R. Larson of American University speaks about his collection of African, African American, and Native American literature, acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in 2009. Bernth Lindfors, University of Texas at Austin emeritus professor of English, hosts the conversation, which will be webcast live. Here Larson shares how he became interested in African literature and began collecting.

This collection of books and manuscripts would not exist if I had not gone to Nigeria in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Prior to my departure, I had earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in American literature and written my thesis on William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I fully intended to return to the United States and pursue a Ph.D. in American literature. Fortunately, the summer before my departure for Nigeria, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education. Not only did I begin reading emerging works by African writers, but I realized that in the many American literature courses that I had taken, I had never read a work by a minority writer. I began ordering books from the United States and reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and other African American writers. How ironic that the man who directed my M.A. thesis and taught the American literature survey course I took never mentioned a single African American writer, yet he was an African American. After I returned to the United States, I discovered that he had one of the most extensive private collections of African American literature, but he obviously never felt comfortable enough to assign any of those writers in his own courses.

How fortunate that the school where I taught English in Eastern Nigeria was a scant few miles from Ogidi, the village where Achebe grew up and the setting of his celebrated novel. I was aware of Ogidi’s proximity to my own village and was even told that Achebe visited his family there from time to time, but I made no attempt to meet him until several years later. Equally important, however, was Onitsha, the Igbo center of business and culture, a dozen miles from where I lived. It was there that I purchased many of the original titles by the Onitsha pamphleteers and had my first true sense of what was already becoming a major school of African writing. In Onitsha at the CMS Bookstore, I also purchased Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, soon after it was published.

Nigeria changed my scholarly life. When I returned home I was determined to see that works by African writers were reprinted in American editions, and in the spring of the 1965 academic year, I taught my first course in African literature. The rest is history.

View slideshow of images from "Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace"

By Alicia Dietrich

Video of the program “Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace” will be posted on the Ransom Center’s website once it is transcribed and captioned to comply with ADA guidelines.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Making Movies: "Casino"

By Alicia Dietrich

Costume worn by Robert De Niro in 'Casino.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Costume worn by Robert De Niro in 'Casino.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

A story of greed, violence, deception, money, and power, Casino is set amid the world of gangsters in 1970s Las Vegas. It is the eighth film of a remarkable series of collaborations between actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese.

A film based on true events, Casino stars De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a character based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a sports handicapper from Chicago who earned the attention of the mob due to his genius with numbers. His friend Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, was based on Tony Spilotro, a violent mob enforcer who protected the “skim,” or illegal casino profits. Ace’s wife, Ginger McKenna, based on Rosenthal’s real life spouse, Geri McGee, a Las Vegas call girl, is played by Sharon Stone.

The costumes worn in Casino are as flashy and gaudy as the city in which the film is set. Nearly all of the costumes in Casino were custom made and reference vintage clothing from the 1970s and 1980s to emphasize and enhance the larger-than-life characters of the film. The costumes had to be both grounded in the fashion of the time and in tune with the characters and plot turns of the film.

As Ace Rothstein, Robert De Niro wears this costume at the beginning of Casino when a bomb planted in Ace’s car explodes. Ace survives with only burns on his arm. Multiple copies of this costume were made for the necessary additional takes.

Rita Ryack and John Dunn designed the costumes in Casino. Ryack’s work can be also seen in such films as Cape Fear, Apollo 13, Wag the Dog, and Hairspray. Dunn designed costumes for Basquiat, The Notorious Betty Page, and I’m Not There, among many others.

Making Movies: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

By Alicia Dietrich

Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962 and gained notoriety for its profanity and sexual themes. It was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but the trustees of Columbia University overruled the advisory committee and awarded no prize for drama that year. Despite the controversy, Warner Brothers acquired the film rights to the play in 1964 and recruited Hollywood’s top screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, to write and produce the movie.

Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The usual procedure for adapting a play is to “open it up,” adding characters and locations to make the film more visually appealing. Lehman worked his way through several drafts of the script but eventually returned to the original play, making only a few minor changes. He was able to cast, against type, “the world’s most famous couple,” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and he hired Mike Nichols for his first film directing job.

In spite of the scrutiny surrounding the film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became one of the highest grossing films of 1966 and earned every eligible Academy Award nomination. Yet the film’s impact reached far beyond its artistic and financial success. Despite fierce opposition, Lehman and Nichols prevailed in their fight to keep the original language of the play intact. The movie was directly responsible for the Motion Picture Association of America abandoning the old system of self-censorship and adopting the film rating system that is still in use today.

Shown here are Ernest Lehman’s notes about his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on November 19, 1964, to discuss their roles in the film.

Making Movies Film Series: "Detour"

By Alicia Dietrich

Publicity poster for 'Detour'
Publicity poster for 'Detour'

The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour

(1945), starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Savage’s archive is housed at the Ransom Center.

Kent Adamson, who has written a biography on Ann Savage, writes about Savage’s connections to Texas and why Detour is still loved by critics.

Since its original release in 1945, Detour has become possibly the most famous and critically examined B-film of all time. In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas called Detour “one of the most relentlessly intense psychological thrillers anyone has ever filmed.” Roger Ebert in his “Great Films” series says, “It lives on, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.” In 1992, Detour was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

In a recent article by Time magazine critic Richard Corliss listing the “Top 10 Greatest Villains,” Ann Savage was one of only two women named, honored for her role as Vera. Detour was also chosen as one of Time magazine’s all-time 100 best movies.

In the public domain, Detour persists based on its own powerful strengths. That it is now considered a noir classic is due to the hard work of many people, including director Edgar G. Ulmer, co-star Tom Neal, and in large part to the fearless, unnerving performance of Ann Savage.

Ann Savage’s character, Vera, is like a dark goddess set free in the blazing California desert, the sexiest and scariest succubus ever filmed. Noir author Christa Faust describes Savage’s performance of Vera: “She was less of a constructed, conniving femme fatale than an unstoppable force of nature. Savage imbued that character with a raw, aggressive and almost masculine power that evokes the same kind of dangerous, unpredictable animal magnetism exhibited by Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill.”

Detour was shot in 28 days at the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) studio in Hollywood over the summer of 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close. Shooting began after the death of Hitler and defeat of Germany in the spring and was concluded before the surrender of Japan.

Well into her 80s, Ann Savage toured regularly to make public appearances with Detour, including an engagement at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin. Savage had spent the bulk of her early childhood in Dallas, where her parents ran a jewelry store. As a lifelong film lover, she remembered going with her parents to the movie palaces on Elm Street in Dallas. The first film she remembered attending was Valentino’s silent masterpiece, The Son of the Sheik, in 1926.

“One of my earliest memories is being taken to a gigantic palace to meet a very important king,” said Savage in 2006. “I realized years later, when I asked my mother about it, that we had gone to an ornate movie theater to see Valentino.

“The movies were silent then, and the theater was filled with beautiful music. I wanted to get up and dance for the king. When we got home from a night at the movies, I would cheer my parents up by play-acting scenes from the films.”

Making Movies: "North by Northwest"

By Alicia Dietrich

Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Psycho. At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest, a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina and The King and I, wrote the screenplay, his only original one and now widely regarded as his best.

The film follows Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, in a journey that travels “in a northwesterly direction” through New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and eventually Alaska. The plot emerged through Hitchcock and Lehman’s usual process of batting around ideas and imagining their character into impossible situations, then figuring out ways to extract him.

This brochure from Mount Rushmore National Memorial shows notes made on the cover by Lehman during his research trip. You can view a slideshow of more photos that Lehman took during this trip to the national monument.

Making Movies: "Black Narcissus"

By Alicia Dietrich

Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), starring Deborah Kerr and David Farrar. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Arguably Britain’s greatest production designer, Alfred Junge was born in Germany and spent his teenage years working as an apprentice to a painter. At 18 he was “kissed by the muse” and began working in the theater, painting sets, designing costumes, and operating special effects. In the late 1920s he began working with British International Pictures and later Gaumont British, where he gained a reputation not only for his brilliant designs but also for his organizational skills in running a large staff of art directors and craftsmen.

Alfred Junge’s best known film work is on Black Narcissus, the story of emotional tensions among a group of Anglican nuns who try to establish a convent in the remote reaches of the Himalayas. Director Michael Powell gave Junge unusual freedom in terms of color, composition, and technique, and Junge received the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the film in 1947. Audiences are still surprised to learn that the film was not shot on location in the Himalayas but on sound stages in England.

The notes shown here, written and drawn on a letter from Junge’s son, are believed to be the earliest notes on the design of the film. Note the comments about the colors of the costumes and the dramatic effect of the bell tower.

You can also view a previous blog post that shows a scene design that Junge created for this film. Also, view a trailer for the film.

Making Movies Film Series: Duel in the Sun

By Alicia Dietrich

'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. Click image to enlarge.
'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946), starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

This matte painting from the David O. Selznick collection was used for the opening shot in Duel in the Sun. The camera starts at the top of the painting and tilts down while zooming in on the cactus at the bottom. This perspective accounts for the stair-step configuration at the bottom of the painting.

A conversation with playwright Kenneth Brown

By Alicia Dietrich

Kenneth Brown
Kenneth Brown
Playwright Kenneth Brown, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, introduces a screening of the documentary film Another Glorious Day tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The film explores the history, context, and performances of the Living Theatre’s European tour of his play, The Brig (1963). A question and answer session follows.

The film is centered around a 2008 revival of The Brig, the inflammatory play that exposed the harsh realities inside a U.S. Marine prison. This documentary by Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies puts former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s drama into historical perspective—and makes a case for its ongoing relevance—through powerful scenes from the recent production in Berlin and illuminating interviews with directors of the play past and present, revival cast members, and the playwright himself.

The Cultural Compass had a conversation with Brown in which he discussed The Brig, its ongoing relevance, and his archive at the Ransom Center.

Brown discusses how The Brig changed the Living Theatre’s approach to productions.

The Living Theatre’s been in existence over 40 years, and it was in existence about 15 years before The Brig was done. And before The Brig was done, they were doing Brecht and various standard radical theatrical events. They did Paul Goodman and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Brecht.

But once The Brig was done, the play, which the movie demonstrates, created the acting style and the approach to material by the company that has existed from 1963 to the present day. The whole direction of the company was re-directed by their doing The Brig. The reason being, that in order for the play to work onstage, you have 17 Marines—those are all the characters in the play—you have to make them Marines. So we had to conduct a boot camp, which went on for six weeks. By the time it was over, these guys were running ten miles and doing 60 push-ups and sit-ups, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to double-time, they knew how to half-step. They were Marines!

And that made the play absolutely riveting because it was like looking at the real thing, rather than looking at something being enacted. Because the one thing the actors said to me was, “There’s no audience in the brig. And there’s no acting in the brig because if you have to make a bed, you really have to make a bed.” There’s no making belief you’re making the bed. If some guy punches you in the stomach, he’s not really punching you, but your reaction has to be so real that it’s almost as bad as if he really punched you.

So by the time they did the play, it created this whole style and approach to material in the theater that was responsible for everything the Living Theatre did afterward. They did everything in that style and still do to this day.

Brown discusses how it feels to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.

I’m 74 years old. A few years ago—and I’m in relatively good health—I said to myself, “Well, I’m over 70, got a nice little apartment in Brooklyn overlooking the bridge, a beautiful neighborhood with the store where I did my shopping.” I had really kind of retired from life. And it was fine. I hadn’t stopped writing. I never stopped writing. I’d been writing since I was 6 years old. But I had settled on “this is it.”

And then, in 2007, Judith Molina [co-founder of The Living Theatre], who’s now 83 years old, called me and said, “We’re reviving The Brig.” I went, “I don’t believe it.”

And then it opened in 2007, and it was a bigger hit than it was the first time. And in The New York Times, we had a two-page review with pictures. Two pages! Not a column. Two pages with pictures! And then in 2008 it went on the European tour, and then Tom Staley bought the archive, and all of a sudden, I turned around, and I had been thrown back in the pool again. And that’s kind of what my feeling of my archive, of the whole process, is.

It has enlivened interest in a lot of other stuff of mine.

Brown discusses why The Brig is still relevant to today’s audiences.

The Brig has always been relevant, which is kind of amazing to me. But I guess as long as there’s war and as long as there’s a military and especially as long as one questions the ethical right to wage war and in this ridiculous nonsense in Afghanistan and Iraq—when you do a play that studies the psychology of what it is to be a Marine, how more relevant can you get? It’s going to stay relevant forever. Until there’s peace throughout the world. Then the play’s not relevant anymore because then there’s no military threat. If there’s no military threat, then the play ceases to be relevant.

Writer Angella Nazarian discusses her memoir

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Tonight, writer Angella Nazarian reads from Life as a Visitor, her account of fleeing Iran with her family and life as an immigrant caught between two cultures. This event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, will be webcast live. She shares the story of her memoir.

In writing my book, Life as a Visitor, I wanted to talk about the psychological and personal issues that take over the life of an 11-year-old Iranian girl when she finds herself in a new country without her parents. This book was a deeply personal tale of my journey. But an interviewer raised an interesting question last week: “Your book is a personal tale, but isn’t the personal also always political?” Anything that is related to Iran and one’s experience in the country seems to have political overtones. Many Iranian Jews did as my family did at the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979—they fled the country, leaving their belongings and loved ones behind in a matter of days or at the most a couple of months. So tales of displacement, loss, and revolution, as personal as they may be, are embedded in the larger arena of world politics. Now once again, I see images of uprisings, protests, and violence coming out of Iran, and I am reminded of what I witnessed as a child. But this time instead of fear, I am feeling a renewed sense of hope.