I Love “My Neighbor Totoro,” and You Should Too

My name is Megan Nevels, and I am a self-proclaimed, undeniable My Neighbor Totoro enthusiast.  I am a collector of all things Totoro, and I love sharing the beauty of this film any time I get the chance. I watch it regularly and never grow tired of it. But why, you might ask, would an adult feel so strongly about an animated film that she would fill every room in her house and even her desk at work with Totoro-related objects? This question has plagued many people in my life, but it is only ever asked by those who haven’t had the chance to experience the film. A common answer I like to give is that Totoro reminds me that imagination is necessary for life at any age.

Here are just a few items from my collection, currently on view at my desk. I hope the movie inspires some of you to start a collection of your own! If you do, show me! Share you pics on social media with #meganlovestotoro.

Here are just a few items from my collection, currently on view at my desk. I hope the movie inspires some of you to start a collection of your own! If you do, show me! Share you pics on social media with #meganlovestotoro.

Screening at the Skirball on Sunday, December 27, My Neighbor Totoro is an animated storytelling masterpiece by Hayao Miyazaki. The film tells the story of two young sisters who move with their father to a new village in Japan in order to be closer to their sick mother. The youngest daughter, Mei, discovers a creature named Totoro who takes the girls on incredible adventures. One can argue that Totoro acts as a coping mechanism for the girls, or that he represents the excitement for life that adults sometimes lose as they grow up.  However you read into Totoro’s existence, he is always magical, kind, and supportive.

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) © 1988 Nibariki - G

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) © 1988 Nibariki – G

This is a film that asks you to open your eyes a little bit wider and see what you’ve been missing all along. It asks you to listen better, to say yes rather than no, Continue reading

David Broza: Building Cultural Bridges Through Music

SkirBlog_East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem - David Broza and kids pic

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life, bringing peace, abolishing strife.” Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza, who joins us at the Skirball for the L.A premiere of his documentary East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem on December 8, has always believed in the power of music to transform political and social realities. For nearly forty years, Broza has used his Spanish guitar and exceptional lyricism to challenge cultural and religious divides. He has carried his message of peace on tour throughout the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Now I do concede that singing about peace and actually brokering it can be two different things, yet with his latest project Mr. Broza has done both. Continue reading

Looking Back at D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968)

The Skirball’s Friday Night Rock Docs series continues this summer with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978) on July 31 and Hal Ashby’s Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982) on August 21. In order to get ready for these screenings of landmark rock docs, I decided to delve a little into the history of the genre—with particular focus on D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968), which kicked off the Skirball series on Friday, June 19.

A barrage of liquid light show images choreographed to the shrill screams and pulsating rhythms of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Combination of the Two” opens Monterey Pop. In this somewhat disorienting opening sequence, Pennebaker immediately sets the documentary—depicting events at the Monterey Pop Festival, which occurred Friday, June 16–Sunday, June 18, 1967—apart from its generic predecessors. This film is not just about the counterculture; Pennebaker employs a style that represents the counterculture’s subversive values both visually and aurally.

Watch Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, perform “Combination of the Two” live at the Monterey Pop Festival. A recording of the song plays over the opening credit sequence of D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop.

Prior to the release of Monterey Pop and his 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker was perhaps best known for his affiliation with the Drew Associates, a group of filmmakers including Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and David and Albert Maysles. Together, these filmmakers furthered a documentary style known as Direct Cinema, largely the product of the new lightweight camera and sound equipment developed in the 1950s. Unlike many conventional documentarians before them, champions of this new style did not use staged reenactments, voiceover narration, or extensive onscreen text to explain their subjects. Instead, they strove for objectivity and immediacy in their films, capturing events as they happened and allowing people to tell their own stories.

In many ways, Monterey Pop assumes the stylistic goals of Direct Cinema. Continue reading

Documentos de Fe: Exploring Life as a Jew in Latin America

The flyer from the first Latin Jewish Life in Film series at the Skirball. The Year My Parents Went on Vacation was not the first Skirball event I ever attended but it was the first I attended as an employee! Great memory.

The flyer from the first Latin Jewish Life in Film series at the Skirball. Pictured on the cover is a still from the Brazilian film The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, not the first Skirball event I ever attended, but it was the first I attended as an employee! Great memory.

In 2009, the year I started working at the Skirball, Jordan Peimer, Vice President of the Programs department, was trying something new—a film series based on Jewish life in Latin America. As someone who claims both of those cultural influences in my heritage, I found this series fascinating. I was excited to get a glimpse into what Jewish life looked like in places like Mexico, Argentina, Brazil… And I wasn’t alone—the series did very well and has returned every year since. This year’s series, “Mantener la Fe: Keep the Faith,” is one of the last programs we will present that Jordan helped to curate, since he has recently taken the position of Executive Director at ArtPower! at UC San Diego. Luckily he is only a phone call away, and I was happy to catch up with him to learn a little more about what went into choosing this year’s films.

This year’s theme focuses on the idea of keeping one’s faith, even in adverse circumstances. Why did you want to address this theme?
Each year, my hope has been that the Latin Jewish film series will serve to remind audiences of the long history of Jewish life in countries across Latin America. After all, the first Jews to the New World settled in Brazil, and Luis de Torres—who was of Jewish origin—was the first man in Columbus’s crew to land on Hispaniola. These films speak to the abiding connection that Latin American Jews feel towards their faith. All the films show how Jewish life continues to exist there, as it does here, despite all the conflicting demands of contemporary life in Latin America. But nowhere is that stronger than in the terrific documentary, The Longing.  Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Nov/Dec 2014

The Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958

A rare photograph of the extended Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958.

Memory is meaning. It is how we understand existence. It is how we locate ourselves in time. It is what we learn and how we learn. Amnesia is a tragedy, for in severing us from the past, it severs us from ourselves. Who are we without that frame of reference? How can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

The debut of the Skirball’s new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 prompts these reflections.

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Hollywood: The War Years

Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s potent anti-Nazi film Hangmen Also Die!, co-written with eminent playwright Bertolt Brecht, came out in 1943. After Jan-Christopher’s Horak’s illuminating lecture on German exile cinema, stick around to watch a screening of the film.

In anticipation of the opening of the new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, we asked Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak, UCLA Film & Television Archive Director and expert on German exile cinema, a few questions about how and why Europe’s exiled filmmakers (most of whom were fleeing Nazi persecution) made such an indelible impact on Hollywood’s history, throughout the war era and afterward. Arriving from their war-torn countries, filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch found American audiences to be a receptive market for their perspectives on the dangers of German Fascism. The unique styles they brought to the States, influenced by both the dark and light aspects of their experiences, directly affected the development of the film noir genre. The enduring effects of that genre are explored in the complementary exhibition The Noir Effect. 

Learn more about the relationship between Hollywood and European émigrés at Horak’s informative talk “Hollywood: The War Years,” on Thursday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. The talk is followed by a screening of Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943).

You are a veteran in anything concerning German exiles in Hollywood. Can you talk a bit about the notion of German exile cinema?
German exile cinema refers to films made by German-speaking—mostly Jewish—refugees who were blacklisted after 1933 in Germany by the Nazis and then moved abroad, producing work in France, England, Holland, Italy, Spain, and, of course, Hollywood. In Germany they lost everything, usually having to forfeit all their personal wealth, and often had to start from scratch in their new homes. Some, like Robert Siodmak, reestablished themselves in France, then had to flee again when World War II broke out.

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Remembering Paul Mazursky

George Segal (left) and Paul Mazursky (right) on the Skirball stage in April 2012 as they reminisced about the making of Mazurksy’s Blume in Love, which starred Segal as the title character.

George Segal (left) and Paul Mazursky (right) on the Skirball stage in April 2012 as they reminisced about the making of Mazurksy’s Blume in Love, which starred Segal as the title character.

We at the Skirball mourn the loss of Paul Mazursky, undeniably one of America’s great filmmakers. He was at the vanguard of a generation of American auteurs who took their cues from the history of American and foreign film and adapted it to contemporary filmmaking. Paul had an understanding of and an ability to create both comedy and drama that touched us all in so many ways. From Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, his first film, he made an instant mark upon the American psyche. The list of his classics is long and includes the extraordinary Harry and Tonto, the heartfelt Next Stop, Greenwich Village, the trailblazing An Unmarried Woman, and the madcap Down and Out in Beverly Hills. As an actor, too, Paul captivated audiences in important work, from Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire right through to episodes of The Twilight Zone and, more recently, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Paul gave generously of his time and participated in numerous programs with us at the Skirball. Most recently I was fortunate enough to work with him on a 2012 Skirball retrospective of his films, a series we entitled “Through a Glass Brightly.” Continue reading

Revolutionary Aquarians: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin

While putting together our classic film series highlighting the significance of the U.S. Constitution as a living document, I happened to notice that two “game changers” in history have the same birthday: on February 12, 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Coincidence or not? I am not usually one to read into horoscopes, but according to the Zodiac, Aquarians (Lincoln and Darwin’s sign) are considered to be forward-thinking leaders and revolutionaries. Undoubtedly, Lincoln’s and Darwin’s steadfast and unorthodox perspectives have changed the way we see our world, and both men have inspired Americans to utilize the Constitution as a living document.

The Lincoln Spotlight is on view now through February 17.

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was elected during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. He fought to unify the country throughout the Civil War and outlawed the institution of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. A lesser known fact about Lincoln, as highlighted in the Skirball’s current “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibition—on view in conjunction with Creating the United States—is that he also advocated for the rights of Jewish Americans. Leading up to and during the Civil War, as anti-Semitism ran rampant, Lincoln steadfastly asserted the rights of Jewish soldiers and citizens. The same month that he declared the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), he also renounced Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11 of 1862, which banned Jews from certain areas of the States and prohibited them from serving in the army alongside their fellow citizens. Furthermore, Lincoln made a point of appointing a number of Jewish generals to his Union forces. Again, an unpopular stance in the nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for other social and political revolutionaries to come.

Charles Darwin was a nineteenth-century British scientist best known for his theory of evolution. Continue reading

The Lolly Gag

Our free series of Alexander Mackendrick matinee screenings starts today with Whisky Galore (1949). Coming up on October 9, we screen The Ladykillers, which Entertainment Weekly has called “one of the greatest comedies ever made.”

In the mid 1970s, PBS in New York City ran a retrospective of Alec Guinness movies filmed at London’s famed Ealing Studios. It was my accidental introduction to a series of amazing British comedies, including not only The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) andKind Hearts and Coronets (1951) but also the work of American/Scottish filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick. He directed Guinness in both The Man in The White Suit (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), both of which are frequently cited as the pinnacle of Ealing films.

The Ladykillers, which we will screen on October 9, is an achingly funny tale of robbers who are almost able to pull off the perfect crime. As they scheme to rob an armored car, the gang pretends to be a string quintet, “rehearsing” (by playing record albums) in order to allay the suspicions of the little old lady from whom they are renting a room. When the landlady, Mrs. Wilberforce, accidentally uncovers their crimes, the miscreants decide they must kill her!

Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness are the most widely recognized members of the cast, but it is filled with faces like Jack Warner and Cecil Parker whom you will undoubtedly recognize from other British movies.

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Paper Mates: Phoebe and Henry Ephron

How can you not love seeing Kate Hepburn and her beloved Spencer Tracy together? Here they are in Desk Set, one of the best films by screenwriting duo Phoebe and Henry Ephron. © 20th Century Fox / Courtesy of Photofest.

How can you not love seeing Kate Hepburn and her beloved Spencer Tracy together? Here they are in Desk Set, one of the best films by screenwriting duo Phoebe and Henry Ephron. © 20th Century Fox / Courtesy of Photofest.

In thinking about the exhibition Jewish Homegrown History and the impact that Jewish individuals and communities have had on the fabric of Los Angeles, I immediately thought, “Hollywood!”

Most of us know the great Jewish men of Hollywood, like Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Danny Kaye, MGM Founders Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, and the four brothers of Warner Bros. We also know Jewish women who found fame on the silver screen, like Lauren Bacall, June Havoc, and Molly Picon, to name a few. But what’s less known are the behind-the-scenes contributions that Jewish women have made to the industry and to the culture of L.A. Perhaps this is because of a gender-bias in “the biz,” or an oversight by historians. Whatever the reason, I was happy that a quick search on the Jewish Women’s Archive led me to a plethora of information about the important and well-known films either written or co-written by Jewish women.

The Skirball’s new, upcoming film series The Write Stuff celebrates these hidden gems, the great films of the Golden Age of Hollywood penned by Jewish women screenwriters. In these early days, i.e. the 1930s to the 1950s, women were mostly relegated to acting roles. Thankfully, some were able to break through this glass ceiling to become not only great screenwriters, but also directors, producers, editors, etc.

Fannie Hurst wrote the novel <em>Humoresque</em>, for which Phoebe and Henry Ephron adapted the screenplay. This tragic film starring Joan Crawford is a tear-jerker. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy of Photofest.

Fannie Hurst wrote the novel Humoresque, for which Phoebe and Henry Ephron adapted the screenplay. This tragic film starring Joan Crawford is a tear-jerker. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy of Photofest.

Some of the women who won early renown as screenwriters were: Sonya Levien (Daddy Long Legs [1931], which was remade in 1955 by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, and Interrupted Melody [1955]); Fannie Hurst (Humoresque [1920] and Imitation of Life [1934]), and Betty Comden (Singin’ in the Rain [1952], The Band Wagon [1953], and The Barkleys of Broadway[1949]). These films went on to win prestigious awards for best screenplay and best writing, not only attesting to these writers’ achievements, but also paving the way for future generations of women screenwriters, many of whom remain on our “favorites” lists today.

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