Sister Wendy Beckett, the contemplative nun who talks about art for the BBC, did this 6-episode series on American museums. In each museum, she discusses perhaps 15 works, being pretty careful to get a representative sample. Each discussion is maybe 5 minutes or a little less. Because American museums are diverse, each individual discussion is self-contained, a separable unit.
A note especially for teachers: I find Sister Wendy's comments on painting and on other matters she knows about illuminating and helpful, and I have frequently used video of her programs in philosophy teaching. This American series is useful, I think, in a special way: it allows one to introduce a particular work of visual art into a philosophic discussion as an object of reflection and a resource for ideas, attitudes and feelings. Sister Wendy's discussion opens up the work for further discussion, introduces it, helps people pay attention to it. And five minutes of video is a safe amount in a class; one can use that much without worrying about students going passive.
For everybody else: These tapes are pure pleasure, either as introductions to museums one plans to visit or as booby prizes for those without money or leisure to travel.
Nazi enthusiast groups will celebrate Hitler's birthday April 20. Other people should at least remember it. I suggest two movies, with popcorn and conversation. The first is The Wannsee Conference, a magnificent depiction (based, I think, on historical sources) of the meeting at which SS commander Heydrich elegantly strong-armed senior German officiials into supporting -- and giving absolute priority to -- the destruction of the Jews in Europe. See this together with the first 40 minutes or so of Frederick Wiseman's documentary Missile, footage of an ethics class for air force personnel responsible for launching Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. After this class, the young officers sign a statement asserting that they have no reservations about inserting launch keys and launching weapons.
Watch these two together.
The Gilmore Girls have become our family treat. We watch one a night, two on Fridays, from the boxed set. It is the 50s family all over again, with popcorn, wine and tv dinners. But I don't think we could do this with current shows anywhere but on public television. The commercial interruptions are too jarring, too loud and unpleasnt, too much a reminder of everything we hate about the common culture and about the fundamental, underlying predatory motive in media.
There's a trend here worth watching. If other people are like us, then lots of folks are getting drama in 45-120 hour chunks -- perhaps the longest works of drama ever assembled. They make Wagner operas seem short. It may be very important for aesthetics to note that, in the 21st century, the age of the sound bite, drama in excess of 100 hours became well established as a cultural institution. There are all sorts of fine questions to ask: what new standards come into play, with drama of this length? How do the old rules apply to the new medium? Is it still reasonable to expect that 100 hour dramas have beginnings, middles, and ends?
I suppose that this development has already been prefigured, in soap operas. Perhaps that is right. I suspect though that soap operas aren't unities in quite the way some of these pieces are unities. The West Wing follows the Bartlett presidency through eight years. The Gilmore Girls track's Rory Gilmore's high school and college. These shows have at least a chance of coherence.
Perhaps it is not ultimately possible to make a 100 hour drama. But that's worth talking about.
Those who are tired of movies and television might try books. Some people read books best through their ears. There's a new library service in Minneapolis, and likely other places as well, that allows one to download audiobooks to one's computer and then to mp3 players (though, in Minneapolis, not Ipods). Anyhow, this is a small new option with huge possibilities, because audiobooks downloaded this way are available simultaneously to everyone who wants them. That solves a huge problem for bookclubs and "let's have the whole town read the same book" initiatives: how to get that many copies into people's hands, all at the same time. I'm hoping this innovation prompts the spread of bookclubs among audio people, and the spread of audio among readers.