"Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as "fantasy " and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life – it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life. "
– Martin Scorsese, 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities
Since June 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws filled theaters and cleared beaches, summer has been blockbuster movie season for audiences across the United States. Though the term "blockbuster " first entered the moviegoing public’s lexicon in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was in the 1970s that films like Jaws and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope changed the entertainment business and the American cultural landscape. Each summer, audiences gather to see big-budget movies hyped by weeks of promotion, following the successful formula Jaws established decades ago. As you prepare to watch heroes, dolls, aliens, princesses, and even American legends, on your local cinema screen, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) projects and resources are perfect primers for the year’s biggest movies.
When "blockbuster " first appeared in the pages of Time in 1942, it was describing highly destructive bombs used by Allied forces in Italy during World War II. But by 1943 it had evolved to describe the plot of the film Mission to Moscow, a usage that has carried on to today. This summer—fittingly— Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the epic biopic premiering July 21, which details the life of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, has claimed the title. Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s NEH-funded definitive biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer , winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Biography , the film explores the life and times of Oppenheimer and his journey from researcher to "father of the atomic bomb. " The book, hailed as "a riveting account of one of history’s most essential and paradoxical figures " by Nolan, took 25 years to write and an additional 18 years to reach theaters, as told in a July 10 profile in the New York Times .
Barbie also arrives in theaters on July 21, taking audiences on a journey from Barbie Land to the less colorful real world, led by Margot Robbie in the title role, and Ryan Gosling as Just Ken. In the Winter 2023 issue of Humanities, Steve Moyer reflected on the role of play and toys in U.S. history and culture in his feature story, "What Are Toys For? " , after a visit to the NEH-supported Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. In a recent interview with the Guardian , Barbie director Greta Gerwig took on similar themes in the film, which she co-wrote, noting the complex role of Barbie in American culture.
Home to the National Toy Hall of Fame and a 520,000 piece collection, including nearly 3,000 Barbie dolls and artifacts , the Strong Museum had its own premiere of sorts earlier this summer when it re-opened in June following a major NEH-supported expansion. Grants from NEH’s Office of Challenge Programs and Division of Public Programs supported the renovation of the museum’s central gallery exploring the cultural history of toys and the role of play in human development, and a 90,000-square-foot expansion to hold the museum’s new ESL Digital Worlds exhibition on the history of video games. Read about the opening of this new NEH-supported permanent exhibition in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Since it was first published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837 as part of a collection of children’s fairy tales, "The Little Mermaid " has been enchanting audiences for nearly 200 years. This classic tale has been reimagined in films, ballets, operas, and other forms of media, including one of the most well-known and beloved adaptations, Disney’s 1989 animated musical film of the same name, featuring a teenage mermaid princess named Ariel, her nemesis, the villainous sea witch Ursula, and Sebastian, a calypso-singing crab. In May 2023, Disney released a live action version starring Halle Bailey as Ariel, bringing the "under the sea story " to a new generation of children. After watching the film, parents and educators can use resources from EDSITEment for children in grades K-5. The Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales and Magical Creatures lesson plan pages features activities and additional resources for understanding "The Little Mermaid " and other classic stories. Older readers can explore the broader influence and history of European fairy tales with an EDSITEment interview discussing the adaptation of classic literature and the Humanities story, "How the Grimm Brothers Saved the Fairy Tale " , by Jack Zipes, scholar, author, and recipient of an NEH Fellowship.
It’s not a blockbuster summer without a few superheroes, and, in recent years, the characters of Marvel and DC comics have dominated movie screens. Comic book characters and heroes like those seen in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Blue Beetle— all summer 2023 releases—are important figures in American pop culture, both historical and contemporary, as highlighted by many NEH grant recipients. The NEH-supported documentary series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle charted the evolution of comic books from cheap, Depression-era graphic stories marketed to children to a modern multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. Watch a clip from the series or find the full 3-part program on PBS and video streaming services. In 2021 , NEH awarded funding to a new documentary exploring the history of comics in American culture, currently in production, and in 2022 awarded a Humanities Initiatives at Hispanic Institutions grant to San Diego State University to develop ten new courses and a certificate program in comic studies.
Your summer 2023 mission, should you choose to accept it, is to enhance a viewing of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One by learning more about the history of American espionage with NEH-supported books. Michael Todd Bennett received a Public Scholars award in 2018 to research and write Neither Confirm Nor Deny: How the Glomar Mission Shielded the CIA from Transparency , detailing the 1974 retrieval of a sunken Soviet submarine by the Hughes Glomar Explorer, an advanced vessel owned by Howard Hughes. For a fascinating look at World War II spy activities, check out Matthew Avery Sutton’s Public Scholars book, Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War , which tells the stories of religious activists and missionaries who served as spies in China, Germany, Italy, and North Africa, or Steven Joseph Ross’s Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America , the story of American Jewish resistance to Nazism and fascism in L.A. in the 1930s and 40s.
This summer, continue exploring the history and influence of movies in America with more NEH-funded projects. Browse the film production records of movie mogul Howard Hughes, which are now publicly accessible at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, thanks to an NEH grant to preserve and document the UNLV special collection of more than 400 linear feet of materials from Hughes’s film companies. Introduce younger audiences to the NEH-supported American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog of Feature Films with the EDSITEment lesson plan In Her Shoes, showcasing the work of Lois Weber and other early female filmmakers. Learn more about AFI’s NEH-funded Women They Talk About and Behind the Veil projects documenting the work of women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups in early cinema in this web feature. Or settle in with streaming documentaries like PBS’s American Masters episode "Mae West: I'm No Angel" and the short video profile Unladylike2020: Anna May Wong, or the upcoming book The Value Gap: Female-Driven Films from Pitch to Premiere by Courtney Brannon Donoghue, to be published in August 2023. Film buffs can contemplate the role of spaghetti westerns in disseminating the mythos of the American West at the new NEH-funded exhibition Imagined Wests at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, or explore the rich history of Black participation in American cinema from its beginnings to just beyond the civil rights movement in this online version of the NEH-funded Academy Museum exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898-1971. Or, revisit a time when the latest thing in blockbuster advertising was movie theater lobby cards with this Humanities magazine article on film publicity posters from the 1920s.