Under Construction: Milwaukee Streetcar Rails from MSOE’s “Bridge”

The orange barrels looked so striking in the evening sunlight as I walked across the “Bridge” between the Science and Library buildings (yes, they do have more official names; see the campus map here 🙂 ) that I had to pause and take some pictures.

I don’t know how I managed to get the photo above to have such a long, skinny shape. I didn’t do anything special; it just came out that way. I’m glad (and lucky), so let’s just pretend I planned it and then used all my skills to capture this exact image 🙂

Once construction is complete, there will be a stop right here at MSOE, basically immediately below where I’m standing. In fact, that square of orange barrels around the rectangular hole in the ground looks to me like it might end up being the exact location eventually.

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The Birth of a Nation: Lighting and (mostly “non”) camera movement, racism, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination reenacted a mere 50 years after

I’m teaching my film studies course this quarter, and this post was actually prompted by the utilitarian need to have a couple of neatly-cut film clips for efficient class use. But because it might also be interesting for people outside my class to see, I’m going to publish it as a post.

So tonight we’re doing some film history, and I want to show (and share with you 🙂 ) a few quick things about The Birth of a Nation.

First of all, it was the first feature film; that is, it was the first film to  resemble what we think of today as a “movie.” There were no “movie theaters” as we think of them today because there also was no real film industry yet. Prior to this point, films were short and had for a decade or so begun containing any sort of story narrative (like a person being rescued from a house fire or a kid playing a prank  by standing on a hose and then stepping off again as soon as the hapless gardener holds the nozzle up to his face to see why no water is coming out). More commonly movies just documented interesting things like a train moving toward the viewer or people walking along a street or a woman performing a dance. The film industry was only slowly becoming aware of what movies could be.

The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of  the end of the American Civil War. Although the film was widely distributed to cities all over the United States, it did not show in “movie theaters” per se. Instead it showed at whatever venues a community had available: civic centers, auditoriums, and theaters. People attending communal remembrances at cemeteries and marking long-deceased relatives’ graves with flowers also assembled at to watch this epic tale of America’s struggle between North and South and their ultimate union in a newly (re)constituted United States (i.e., the “birth” of a new “nation”).

Interesting fact number two: the Ku Klux Klan was largely a phenomenon confined to the American south prior to the release of The Birth of a Nation. However, following the heroic portrayal Klan’s supposed origins in the film, Klan membership numbers across the country soared. You may be aware that this film has received extensive criticism for its  racism, from its stereotyped portrayals of African-Americans ( see the clip below)  to its use of white actors in blackface to play many of the black characters.

Aside, however: “black face” was not uncommon during this era, and The Birth of a Nation merely reflected this fact of American culture. The “minstrel show” was a common form of entertainment  in America throughout the 1800s and well into the 20th century. See here, for example, Al Jolson singing his signature tune, “Mammy,” in The Jazz Singer, his 1927 smash hit famous for being the first “talkie” (the first motion picture with synchronized sound).

The main reason I show clips from The Birth of a Nation, though, is to demonstrate two things.

First, I want students to see how stationary the camera was and how tied to live theater cinema as an art form still was.

The second is to show how Hollywood used natural sunlight (with film sets open to the sky above) to take advantage of Los Angeles’ Mediterranean climate (lots of sunshine, very little rain) and become the center of the film industry worldwide. Here are some clips in which you can see clear visual evidence of this.

In the first, look at the top of dancers’ heads, especially the couple in the foreground. Can you see that rim of bright light crowning their hair?

Here’s another example. Again you can see the rims of sunlight atop the actors’ heads. Watch the floor of the stage as the curtain rises. Bright sunlight floods the set and casts dark shadows from directly overhead. Also, wait a few more seconds for the clip to show a “spotlight” simulation that appears to be a resourceful additional use of that bright overhead sun. Doesn’t it look as though they’ve rigged up a mirror to throw a reflection onto the stage in mimicry of a spotlight’s circle?

I also find this clip interesting for its recreation of Lincoln’s assassination. Just think, at only fifty years after it happened, there were people still alive who would have remembered reading about it in the newspapers and maybe even standing alongside the tracks as Lincoln’s funeral train rolled past. Seeing Lincoln’s assassination in the movie makes me realize of how much living memory the scene must have encompassed at the time it was filmed and first viewed.

Here’s something that I find a little disturbing: these excerpts from a book by Woodrow Wilson, who had previously been the president of Princeton University and was, in fact, the sitting President of the United States at the time of this movie’s release.

I’m still not sure of exactly what I think about this quote in terms of its accuracy and its original context, but I do think that having it in this film—following very closely the scene of Lincoln’s assassination—gave the approval of the U.S. Presidency to racist messages embedded in a movie that pretty blatantly (and melodramatically) attributed all the troubles of Reconstruction to scheming bad guys in the North and newly-freed African-Americans in the South.

No wonder the Klu Klux Klan, which re-founded itself in 1915 after having largely died out decades earlier, grew so rapidly in the years following The Birth of a Nation‘s release that by the mid-1920s its members numbered around 85,000.

Posted in History, Life, Movies and film, Political Analysis, Popular culture, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Fun with light and shadow

Just some random photos of light/shadow that caught my eye today.

First this one, of a parking garage, that I saw on my way back from a mid-morning Starbucks run.

Then this one (actually two slightly different photos in quick succession, just in case 🙂 ) on my way out of the building for class late this afternoon, which is sort of a variation on one I took several weeks ago (same subject, different light). The light comes in through the atrium and glass elevator shaft, so I had about two seconds to grab the shot(s) before the elevator arrived and blocked the light.

And finally this one of criss-crossed stripes of light and shadow that I noticed on the way back to my office in MSOE’s Grohmann Museum from the other side of campus at the end of the day.

If you wanted to get philosophical, it’s interesting to think about how the concept of yin and yang intersects with the vernal equinox this week marking an end to winter’s darkness and the coming of summer’s light 🙂

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Sign of Spring

Workers hosed out the remaining ice yesterday, and today the rink at Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park looks like its summer self. It still feels like winter, even if sunny and mid-March mild, but here is a hint of warmer days to come.

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Red Arrow in bright sunlight

Days like this I wish I had a better camera. Or maybe I should say: I wish I had a better phone, because I actually do have a better(ish) camera at home that is never handy for spur-of-the-moment shots. Here I really liked the high contrast between shadow and brightness on the Red Arrow granite memorial. I tried to capture those dark and light surfaces today but didn’t quite succeed.

It was so sunny that I couldn’t even really see what my pictures looked like on my phone until I got inside and could view them out of the direct sunlight. Although disappointed that the image I’d been trying to create eluded me, I did like the rays of sunshine that showed up in my final attempt.


Also, check out the bystander’s reflection in the photo below.

To me that reflection suggests a murder-mystery scenario similar to Blow-Up, where a photographer takes a picture and accidentally records what may have been a murder. Have you seen that film? Or the John Travolta movie called Blow Out with the same general premise except that he’s a sound guy working on a low-budget film who accidentally captures audio evidence of an assassination? The trailers for both movies are below, along with the “blow up” scene from Blow-Up, because you’d never guess from the trailer’s scenes of swinging “mod” London that Blow-Up‘s title has anything to do with photo enlargement   🙂



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Rothko, Rothko Everywhere (glass-blowing video at the Grohmann Museum)

I was walking through the third floor of the Grohmann Museum today, when this section of a wall-mounted video display caught my eye.

My phone camera could not do justice to the video’s vibrant colors, but doesn’t it still remind you a little anyway of Mark Rothko’s Orange and Yellow? (which I was privileged to see in a Milwaukee Art Museum exhibit a couple of years ago; click here to read my post about the photo below 🙂 )

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Won’t you be my neighbor?

Fifty years ago today “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the most caring children’s television show ever, made its debut. You’ve probably seen this before, but it’s worth watching again: Fred Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969 in support of public television funding. As the self-described Senate “tough guy” gets “goosebumps” and is persuaded to approve the $20 million, you really do get a sense that LOVE is the answer. To everything. This hopeful glimpse of possibility is exactly what I need when the world and cable news and social media churn with anger.

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