Category Archives: Humanities

Big Tech Critic

With Amazon’s Alexa spying on her owners, a massive data breach masterminded by Cambridge Analytica, and evidence of election interference promulgated by Facebook, tech policy has never had more significant implications for our society and democracy. Goldman School of Public Policy Dean Henry Brady talks with Roger McNamee—noted tech venture capitalist, early mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, and Facebook investor—about how he came to realize the serious damage that Facebook and other social media giants are doing and how he has committed to try to stop them.

Roger McNamee spent a 34-year career investing in Silicon Valley, co-founding Integral Capital Partners, Silver Lake Partners, and Elevation Partners. He was an early investor in Facebook and an advisor to Mark Zuckerberg from 2006 to 2009. Since 2016, Roger has worked to reform the tech industry. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Zucked, Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.

Watch Facebook, Privacy, and Creating Better Tech Policy with Roger McNamee.

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The Future of Cinema

Since its inception in 1885 with the Lumiere Brothers’ public screening of La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon), cinema has been a collective experience, the modern equivalent of gathering around the campfire for storytelling. It continues to shape our perceptions, our attitudes, and the larger culture by providing a sort of shared mythology. However, the COVID-19 pandemic with its social restrictions has altered the ways in which films are delivered to the audience and how we process them, just as the 1918 influenza epidemic affected the nascent film industry of that era.

Scholars believe that there is much to learn by comparing and contrasting the effects of these and other outbreaks on cinema worldwide. In this roundtable discussion by six of those scholars, UC Santa Barbara professors Stephen Groening, Maggie Hennefeld, Brian Jacobson, and Jocelyn Szcepaniak-Gillece examine how the study of pandemics past – most especially the 1918 epidemic – sheds new light on how the current health crisis is reshaping the world of cinema, and whether or not those changes are likely to become permanent. Moderated by Patrice Petro, the conversation addresses such topics as questions of financial risk and exposure in the media industries as the balance of revenue sources shifts; the challenges to the movie theater’s traditional role as public space; and how reliance on streaming services has changed our fundamental understanding of cinema. The participants also explore how fears of viral infection are reshaping the literal and figurative “atmosphere” of moviegoing, since it remains to be seen if audiences (particularly older segments) will return to movie theaters in pre-pandemic numbers.

Finally, the panelists describe various strategies employed by the major studios and film distributors to adapt to changing circumstances. The consensus is that while there will always be a substantial audience of hardcore moviegoers who insist on seeing films on the big screen, the burgeoning popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus, and others will continue. A pattern has already developed whereby many new releases have a brief theatrical run, after which (and in some cases during the run) they appear on digital platforms. Though initially confined to independent films this release pattern has become increasingly the pandemic-induced norm, and may eventually be limited solely to big budget blockbuster titles as marketing and distribution costs continue to skyrocket.

The specifics of the long-term future of cinema are as yet undetermined, but a close study of historical antecedents may help us to discern its outlines.

Watch Roundtable 1920/2020 – How COVID-19 is Reshaping Cinema.

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Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II

In the midst of World War II ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky led a group of scholars who discovered songs written by Jewish Red Army soldiers, refugees, victims, and survivors of Ukrainian ghettos and camps. These were people whose voices are rarely heard in reconstructing history; none were professional writers, poets, or musicians, but nevertheless all were unwillingly at the center of the most important historical event of the 20th century and attempted to make sense of the horrors through music.

The researchers were arrested during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge following the war. The songs they’d collected were thought to be destroyed until discovered in unmarked boxes stored in the archives of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine in the 1990s. On a trip to Ukraine in the early 2000s Yiddish Professor Anna Shternshis first encountered these fragile documents and recognized them as some of the most poignant and historically significant documents of World War II. Many were first-hand, grassroots testimonies of Nazi atrocities against Jews, detailing brutal massacres at Babi Yar and others places in Ukraine. These raw emotional ballads convey pain, despair, hope, humor, courage, resistance, and revenge.

Artist Psoy Korolenko and Professor Shternshis subsequently undertook a remarkable collaboration that aimed to bring the songs to life for the first time in decades. Few of the archival documents had their melodies preserved; most were simply lyrics written on small scraps of paper. Korolenko engaged in “musical archaeology” by analyzing the scarce supplementary notes, contextualizing the lyrics, and employing his prodigious imagination to create or adapt music for the texts. In the UCSD-TV program Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, Korolenko performs several songs while Professor Shternshis describes the grim context in which they were created.

To help gain wider recognition for the songs a distinguished ensemble of soloists from the worlds of classical, folk and jazz joined with five vocalists and five conservatory-trained instrumentalists to record Korolenko’s adaptations. The result of this three-year long process was the album Yiddish Glory, released in 2018. The album is not just a remarkable musical achievement but also a work of historical and sociological importance. It is a time capsule that reveals how Jewish men, women, and children fought against fascism, strove against all odds to save their families, and in their final moments chose to reveal their hopes and dreams through music.

For the first time since the war the public could hear the voices of Soviet Jews who would otherwise have been lost to history, silenced by Hitler and Stalin.

Watch Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II with Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko.

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Where do we go from here?

The United States has seen nationwide protests for weeks over the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police, and the frustration that racism and racial inequality still persist throughout modern American life.

Leading scholars and #1 Best Sellers, Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility) and Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be An Anti-Racist) participated in a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery to discuss persistent racism in our society.

This wide-ranging conversation tackles important questions: How do we talk about race in a way that unites and strengthens us as a community? How do we get beyond our superficial differences and see ourselves as one and the same, with our multiple enriching individualities, with more in common than not, yet with our same basic needs and emotions and hopes and dreams?

This event is presented by the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC). Their mission is to help resolve conflicts at all levels of society.

Watch A Path Forward: Empowering People, Transforming Cultures.

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Genre-bending is Not for the Faint of Heart

Blending movie genres can be a tricky business, one often as not doomed to failure. Combining horror and comedy is especially fraught, since the two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive if not diametrically opposed in tone & subject matter. A few brave filmmakers have forged ahead regardless, including Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the screenwriters behind the sleeper hit Zombieland (2009).

Successful genre-bending is not something that can be tackled haphazardly. In conversation with UC Santa Barbara Pollock Theater Director Matt Ryan the duo discuss the many considerations that go into fashioning such a script, including finding the right horror/comedy balance while honoring the audience’s unavoidable genre expectations. As with any screenplay it’s a matter of making good decisions along the way; for example, Reese and Wernick determined at the outset that their zombies would be the fast-moving kind, a la 28 Days Later, and not the shambling variety popularized by Night of the Living Dead. They also elected to begin their tale with the zombie apocalypse well under way and almost taken for granted by our intrepid heroes. Subsequently there’s very little exposition about cause and scope to slow the pacing. As the writers note, it’s really not relevant to their story.

Reese and Wernick stress that having the right cast is absolutely vital to any film’s success, since if the actors are right for their roles they can boost the script to another level (and if not, it’s a train wreck). Fortunately the Zombieland cast includes such stalwarts as Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and the near-legendary Bill Murray, all experienced and adept at playing comedy and drama with equal aplomb. (And in case you were wondering, yes, Bill Murray is very much the same personality off-screen as on.) The scripters were able to do some re-writing as needed to suit the actors’ personas, which in their view made the director’s job a little easier and enhanced the final result.

Track down Zombieland, and then tune into this installment of Script to Screen. You’ll be entertained and hopefully better prepared for World War Z, if and when…

Watch Script to Screen: Zombieland.

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