Wednesday, January 23, 2013



An epic film, steeped in controversy and scorned by some, Cleopatra nonetheless represents Hollywood's classic view of the world. The film is the story of Cleopatra VII's reign as Pharaoh between 51 and 30 BC, and of her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She was the last pharaoh, and her life and loves can be considered valiant attempts to maintain Egypt in the face of growing Roman power.

While the film begins with Caesar's attempts to control the empire in Europe, it soon leads him to Egypt and the arms of Cleopatra. Love follows as Cleopatra hopes that her bearing of Caesar's child will contribute to the maintaining of Egyptian power. With Caesar's death at the hands of Brutus and others, this collapses. Beguiled by her in Rome, Antony eventually sails to her side in Egypt, a move that leads to their deaths.

The geography shown in the film is stunning. Spectacle is an undercurrent in films of Cleopatra's genre. There are several aspects to the geography in the film.

Rome and Alexandria. The film divides between two main sites. Starting in Rome, and some surrounding countryside in Europe, it comes later to focus on Alexandria, Egypt. The film shows a duality to both places in that the focus on the environs of the powerful is countered with some limited sojourns into the areas of average folk. The film draws little distinction between the environments of Rome and Egypt. Cultural differences seem significant, but physical differences are minimal.

Desert. The warmth and dryness of the desert is present from near the start to the end. While not the most clearly shown environment in the film, the desert is present in the important battle scenes. The sparseness is clear.

Color. So many of the often seen images of Egypt and Rome lack color. The historic record indicates that they lived in worlds of color, but age has robbed that color from view in favor of bare rock. The King Tut exhibit that toured the United States 25 years ago brought that color, particularly the gold, home to the Americans who had an opportunity to see it; but the usual views of the pyramids and the Roman ruins show bareness. If color exists it is in the form of chipped paint that is often compromised by darkness. Time has taken the color away, but film restores it to view. Cleopatra brushes that color back on the rock. The clothes sparkle. The curtains are resplendent.

Water. The Nile flows through numerous scenes. The classic shapes of the ships, the docks, and just the bright blue of the waters capture the camera's attention.

Interaction/Integration. The geographic activities of interaction bringing integration are illustrated in the film. The interaction of Rome and Egypt brought their integration as trade and political units. As the film takes place this is not new. Egyptian grain has long held a position in the Roman world.

I saw Cleopatra when it was new in 1963-64. I liked it. I am surprised by the fact that many thought it less than a great epic film. I was beginning my high school years. I was awe struck by the splendor, by the magnificence of it all. The press had built it up some so maybe I was ready for it, but it was special in any case. I think has a role to play in showing me the power of the media. After 50 years I still find the power of blue eye shadow on a woman irresistible, the same for single shoulder tops. Cleopatra had to be the source of these long held facets of my mind. Ah, the power of media.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: Cleopatra. Dakota Alliance XII(1): February 2002: 7.

Thursday, January 17, 2013



Cabaret is a cross-section of the poorer and seedier side of pre-Hitler Berlin. The cabaret was the Jay Leno monologue of its time. Leno has been identified as a major news source for many Americans. Patrons of cabaretcabarets were treated to a voyeuristic look at their society, just like Leno provides. The patrons of this cabaret get a look at the decadence and decay of a world that has lost its sense of morality and footings in the solid cement of historic culture. Its resemblance to current entertainment is scary. It is not just a slice of another culture, it is a full helping of a culture being harangued and battered by itself.

Cabaret, the film version, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972. It stars Michael York, Liza Minelli, and Joel Gray. The plot is fairly simple. It is the very early 1930s. Michael York's character has come to Berlin to study. On the side, he teaches English. His customers mostly are Jewish persons getting ready for some place else. Liza Minelli, as Sally Bowles, is a singer at the Cabaret. Finding each other at a rooming house occupied by people on the sidelines of society, they engage in a strange and convoluted romance. The real focus of the show is the cabaret acts, where even the "orchestra is beautiful."

The physical environment of Berlin is shown through its weather, buildings, and scenery. Cabaret presents a variety of details concerning the cultural-historical environment, too. Physically, we see parks, apartments, houses, trains, and clubs. Culturally we see the attitudes of the elite, sexual mores, tension over the growing NAZI presence, Jewish-related issues, violence against Jews and others, and clothes.

The decadence of German society is illustrated via sexuality, hinted nudity, homosexuality, transvestitism, greed, intolerance, and lack of seriousness over its own plight. Cabaret takes the world around it and makes a joke of it. For example, the song "Money Makes the World Go Round" makes its point, as does Joel Gray singing about why people do not like his gorilla girlfriend. He ends with the line "She doesn't look Jewish at all."

The geographic environment shown in the film helps drive these messages home. NAZI Party people are scattered here and there. The homes of the rich and the crowded spaces of the poor make vivid the social tension. The gates, manicured lawns, green of the parks, furniture, subdued lighting, and so forth show the world of the rich as distant from that of the poor. The poor live in crowded apartments where the lights are dim and the company is uncultured.

That it is a color presentation lends even greater reality to the period since it is likely many students see Hitler in black and white. Now I personally find black and white increases the horror of film. For example, Jimmy Stewart's twisted face in It's a Wonderful Life as he faces the reality of Pottersville is not the same in color. A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sims, is very different when you watch the colorized version. It loses its sense of human crisis. Of course, Steven Speilberg filmed Schindler's List in black and white. Postmodern youth may not perceive things this way. Black and white means "old." It is out.

In the end it is a sexually-charged streak through German life at a crucial point in history. On a deeper level, it is us. The geographic content is the setting for a message of gloom. For students wondering how history repeats itself, how Hitler's time period applies to us; Cabaret is filled with suggestive thoughts. Look past the sexual tones to the subcontext of societal stink. Students who see fascism only as Hitler need realize he was a front for the rich. Cabaret tries to make this point. Even Liza Minelli's green fingernail polish and hair style, and the wild eye makeup of the Cabaret girl's, suggest today's gothic look. The place varies, the social issues remain the same.

Geography as the setting for history, Cabaret has it.  One also notes the similarities of the Caberet to postmodern America.  Decency taking a nose dive as society slips into a fascist mode.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2001. Geography in Media: Cabaret. Dakota Alliance XI(1): January-February 2001: 7.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Mutiny on The Bounty


It was early in the 1960s when I received my first subscription to the National Geographic. Mutiny on the Bounty was being remade and the Geographic was covering the journey of the ship produced for the film to Tahiti. The ship and the island appeared spectacular. The island was lush and the ship spoke to a story that made an impression.

That story was of the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian against Captain William Bligh aboard the HMS Bounty. Pushed to obtain breadfruit plants from Tahiti for transplantation in the West Indies, where they would serve as a food supply for slave labor, Bligh encounters a delay due to his error in attempting to get to Tahiti via Cape Horn. He blames Christian and the crew rather than the inadequacy of the sailing technology. This results in further delay as they reach Tahiti during the dormant season for breadfruit. He has to wait months to merely dig up the plants. As the tension builds, in Bligh and the crew, the return trip results in the famous mutiny.

Hollywood has found the tale worth three major films, but I have found postmodern students getting a little distant from the story. There is a lot to learn and see in each of the films.

The more accessible films are 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty and 1984's Bounty. The former casts Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian. The latter casts Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. Both are excellent films. Both present the story in the changing terms of their production periods. The 1962 film is much more sympathetic to Bligh, but does allow its dandy Christian to develop into an honorable man. The 1984 version gives Bligh no measure while allowing Gibson to be the well-liked character he often plays in films.

From the geographic standpoint, both offer impressive views of the nature of the oceans, and the marvels of Tahiti and Pitcairn Island.

Oceans. In the 1789 the world map is mostly filled in, but the details are missing. As students think about ocean travel during the age of exploration, I am unconvinced that the time involved sinks in. I am not sure that the level of danger does either. The travel is slow, no jets. The travel conditions are poor, no pools and hot tubs. These men are undertaking a risky trip that will last for years under conditions where the boss has no human relations and safety rules to follow.

Islands. The displayed environments of Tahiti and Pitcairn are rich in detail. The famous openness of the people of Tahiti is made clear from the first. The society is organized. It has its sense of power and pride. All those playing Bligh respect the ability of the Tahitians to destroy them. They also show a massive sense of private disrespect for the "savages." The legendary sexual freedom of the Tahitians is clearly used as the sailors go wild. One gets a good view of culture, including clothing. The films do vary. The 1962 version uses carefully developed camera angles to cover the women, the 1984 version is more honest.

Pitcairn Island is shown in a very straightforward manner in both films. It is a very small [2 square miles] island. Its rugged coast and surface is an essential element of plot development. Of course, its geographic feature of greatest interest in education is that Christian is able to use it as a safe haven because its location has been mischarted on every British map. While latitude figures were long establishable, it was only after Cook's sailing in 1776 that longitude even began to have a level of accuracy. Mislocated, the mutineers could take a chance that no one would find it soon. It was too remote.

This is a story that offers great potential for discussions of leadership. Like Twelve O'Clock High, it offers leadership styles in very clear contrast. Is Bligh correct in his approach to controlling men?

The islands have very important positions in the mental life of many Americans. That push to escape the postmodern world's drive to work and consume is countered by the appeal of the simple lifestyle, one in touch with the environment. While environmental units usually stress fixing up what we have, the remote place of peace has more appeal for some people. Was, or is, that place really one of peace and communion with nature

Of course, the sad end of the Bounty, rebuilt for the 1962 film, came in 2012 when it sunk in the Atlantic while caught up in Hurricane Sandy.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2001. Geography in Media: Mutiny on the Bounty. Dakota Alliance XI(2): Summer 2001: 7.