Monthly Archives: March 2014

Monuments Men: A Charming Portrait

I work in heritage, and in my time I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and see some of its ancientry. I’ve visited some of Europe’s most famous museums and architectural marvels, for example.

And for that reason I was duly excited by two pieces of news over the past year: one, that there was to be a movie, Monuments Men, about efforts to preserve Europe’s art treasures against destruction in the Second World War; two, that the movie was based on real events to the same effect!


The book Monuments Men was written by Robert M. Edsel to document the exploits of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives preservation unit of the Allied forces in World War II.

As part of his ambitions of conquest and the building of a racially pure empire, Adolf Hitler and his senior minions engaged in seizure and wholesale theft of the art treasures of Europe and the destruction of those deemed of ‘impure’ pedigree.

At the same time, as Allied armies struck into Europe, the artistic luminaries of America were alarmed at the damage inflicted in the name of military expediency to several great monuments. This created the move toward the formation of a specialist unit in charge of ensuring the preservation of heritage structures and the recovery of looted art treasures, many of which are famous to this day.

The Monuments Men, operating with the blessing but little material support from Allied Supreme Command, follow the advancing armies, enlisting local aid to secure buildings against damage and retrieving stolen artworks.

In particular, two works of art form the main objects of the pursuit in Edsel’s narrative: the famous altarpiece of Ghent, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, resident in the cathedral of Bruges. Both items were removed from Belgium by the retreating Nazis.

George Clooney has taken it upon himself to render this tale to the big screen, assuming the lead role of an American curator in the army with this cause in mind, and enlisting a number of experts to join the forces to that end. Clooney recalled his old comrade Matt Damon, along with veterans (as it were) of Hollywood like Bill Murray and John Goodman, as well as Cate Blanchett and Downtown Abbey’s own Hugh Bonneville.

The account of the Monuments Mens’ personnel in Edsel’s book is a story that meanders against the current of military bureaucracy, interwoven with the better-known events of the war, and often behind the lines, away from the action, and while the work done was profoundly significant, it was carried out by a handful of men scattered around the war zone. That being the case, the story lacks much of the grand strategy and derring-do other aspects of military history might offer.

Clooney, naturally, endeavoured to lend events a greater narrative unity. Besides that, the movie lends the ragtag handful of characters an underdog comedy element. In the movie, the Monuments Men behave more like commandos or intelligence operatives than technical personnel. Hugh Bonneville’s character goes behind enemy lines at one point to avert the theft of the Bruges Madonna, albeit he’s repaid with failure and death.

By and large, the adaptation takes many of the events that are recounted in the book rendered in a narratively pleasing sequence: the Monuments Men did get a tip from a German dentist, and they did catch an incognito SS officer with stolen art, but the two events aren’t connected as the movie portrays. The first fatality occurs in a valiant attempt to prevent further looting early in the story, not, as in life, some way into matters in a freak artillery strike. They even had a perfect suspenseful ending ready-made as they had to race against time to retrieve the Madonna and the Altarpiece before a Soviet ‘trophy brigade’ got their hands on it.

The characters all have original names, but reading the book you can start to work out which member of the Monuments Men equals which actor in the movie, except for the French soldier, who I can’t connect to any of the actual Monuments Men.

By and large these liberties in the name of storytelling don’t detract from the virtue of the real-life Monuments Men. What I do find annoying is that only the non-American Men die in the movie. Admittedly, this is partly in line with history, but it still rubs me the wrong way.

That said, the European contribution, in particular Cate Blanchette’s character’s (and her real counterpart’s) role in the Resistance, her tribulations and risks while she collected intelligence on the art theft of the Nazis, her suspicion of Americans and determination to get the art back, is given its due, as in the book.

Having said all this, the movie lacks a certain spark. The humour is funny but not paralyzed-with-laughter funny; I feel like the value and preciousness of the art isn’t fully communicated. For me, it’s preaching to the choir, but I fear this wouldn’t sell non-culture-vultures on it. I suspect that it suffers from a case of trying to do too much all at once. It tries to be a classic war story, an ensemble comedy, a morality tale about heritage treasures, and a faithful and precise adaptation all at once. It does not of these badly, but it does a merely respectable job at all of them.

Still it’s pleasant and fun – it occurred to me that it’s basically Ocean’s Eleven in reverse, trying to un-steal things – but not profound. It tells an unknown story about a critical and underappreciated aspect of warfare and European history. It brings a lot of skilled actors and comics into the game, but fails to lend the subject a particular flair. Indeed, they had their work cut out for them, given the actual adventures of the Monuments Men unfolds with a certain grim monotony in Edsel’s narrative, not altogether helped by Edsel’s detailed and somewhat flat attempts at lighthearted writing.

Having said that, this is a major blank in popular history I’m immensely glad to see filled in. Having gritted my teeth in frustration as the heritage of Iraq and Afghanistan were crumbled during wartime in the last decade, the idea that military officers should stand up for the heritage of humankind is a most pleasing idea to be introduced in this cynical age, and to see it rendered into cinema by such a cadre of actors was a real joy.

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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Book, Movie


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Cosmos: the Journey Continues

A while back, I did a roundup of some of the great documentary programs. The greatest, for my money, was and remains Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos: a Personal Journey.

It represented a vast, scientifically accurate and humanistic and empowering vision of science, history and the Universe. It was presented by Carl Sagan with a kind of serene pleasure that was both childlike and oddly transcendent. As I said before, its scientific accuracy has held together incredibly well considering how old it is. Its visual effects have that old artistry I’ve always liked, with the talents of astronomy artists like Rick Sternbach and Adolf Schaller behind it, and the music of Vangelis and many Classical and Electronic artists besides.

I love the classics like this one, and so my first reaction to hearing there was to be a remake of the series was one of dread. I thought remaking Cosmos would be like remaking the Lord of the Rings or Forbidden Planet or Lawrence of Arabia: they pretty much nailed it the first time.

What made it even worse was that I learned that one of the motive forces behind this new Cosmos was Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, American Dad, and all-too-recently Academy Awards host – a man who combines juvenile vulgarity, shameless misogyny and a terminally boneheaded sense of humour into a toxic swill that always has me staggering away to throw up somewhere.

Admittedly, there was some good news: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of this new Cosmos, distinguished astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, is a well-respected public science educator, and advisor to presidents on scientific matters though one wonders as to the point when the president in question was George W. Bush. He is also a huge fan and – although I didn’t know this until I watched the new Cosmos‘ first episode – protege and friend of Big Carl himself. Tyson is well-known as articulate, passionate in a excited-little-kid kind of way, and shares Carl’s understated but unyielding adherence to science and disdain for superstition.

So, he’s a worthy successor to Sagan’s legacy. And as I sat down to watch the first episode at last, I was relieved to see that MacFarlane was credited as ‘executive producer,’ which could mean he could be kept at a safe distance. Equally, the fact that Anne Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and banner-carrier of his legacy also had the executive producer credit meant that the project had, at least, her blessing.

On with the show, then. It didn’t take long before my fears began to ease. The first episode of Cosmos II is much like the first episode of the original: a guided tour of the universe to put humankind and the Earth in their proper context in time and space. It revives two of the standbys of Cosmos I: the Cosmic Calendar – condensing the history of the Universe into one year to provide perspective – and the Ship of the Imagination, a framing device Carl used to allow the viewer to ‘visit’ various cosmic phenomena. The ship looks good. A bit underwhelming but sleek and understated.

And the CGI, in the Calendar and elsewhere looks…good. Cosmos I didn’t have the option, and used bluescreen backgrounds of models and matte paintings. I like that old style of practical effects, and Cosmos II uses high-quality CGI that looks real and rich and artistic, which is still altogether too rare for my taste. Dr. Tyson also does a better-than-average job of acting like he’s really there.

In addition, Cosmos II does something neat with regards to dramatizing historical events and characters. Cosmos I used live actors in small vignettes to introduce the viewers to characters like Kepler and Tycho Brahe. II’s first episode relates the tragedy of Giordano Bruno using clips of a stylized animation. It looks like the same style used to good effect in the History Channel series Ancients Behaving Badly and it looks nice – expressive and neat to watch.

It’s not perfect; being broadcast on network TV instead of PBS means the episodes are shorter than the original Cosmos, and there are moments where it seemed like they were trying to cram too much info into what was essentially a guided tour of the Universe – this also makes me suspect there are going to be fewer episodes. And what the point really was of using Bruno as the ‘martyr’ of early science instead of Galileo is unclear to me. Dr. Tyson therefore sometimes seems as if his monologue is getting digressive and too wordy. That said, you could have said something similar about the first episode of the original Cosmos. Carl spent a lot of it trying too hard to sound poetical.

The other thing I was worried about was that this was going to be a ‘fan’s’ version of Cosmos, the same way the new Star Trek or Doctor Who look beside their predecessors. But Tyson gets it right. His first episode begins and ends on the same seaside cliff where Carl Sagan began and ended Cosmos decades ago, and he doesn’t let you forget that the original Cosmos was great and important, and that Sagan himself was one of the giants of popular science. Tyson’s recollection of meeting Sagan actually made me tear up a little, as did the genuine love for science you can hear from him as he speaks. He also uses many of the same turns of phrase that Sagan used – the most classic being ‘we are all made of star stuff’ – and not trying to invent new ones for their own sake.

What we have here isn’t a remake so much as a successor to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the right host, and with Sagan’s widow Anne Druyan, Trek veteran Brannon Braga and composer Alan Silvestri behind him, this promises to be a wonderful new incarnation of that voyage. I was wary of the fact that this was going on network rather than public TV, but given the decline of educational network TV, it needs a shot in the arm, and it hasn’t compromised any of the convictions or principles of science or Sagan and Tyson’s views on the matter, as far as I can see. If anything Tyson’s a lot more clear about the dangers of superstition than Sagan was.

So, let’s go again, shall we?


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Posted by on March 14, 2014 in Television


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