"Cinema Scope"
  • Cinema Scope

Cinema Scope

Before you buy your movie theater admission ticket, first read what the experts can tell you by way of backstory. Movies, after all, can be seen through many lenses. Our faculty and professionals tackle some possible blockbusters.

When the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pa. showed the existentialist film classic Run Lola Run, Ursinus faculty member Casey Schwarz explained the science depicted in the film—the chaos theory’s butterfly effect. It is the concept that small changes in one state can have large effects in a later state.

The movie house took part in the national Science on Screen series, which pairs classic, cult, science fiction, foreign and documentary films with presentations by scientists working in related—or even seemingly unrelated—fields. The 658-seat Colonial was one of nearly 30 theaters nationwide that participated in the national program on March 28. Science on Screen is an initiative of the Coolidge Corner Theatre (Brookline, Mass.) with major support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

An assistant professor of physics, Schwarz’s current research interests include 3D laser writing of novel materials, development and design of optical devices, and optical characterization. She also loves finding physics in films. “Some can be wildly and hilariously inaccurate, but a few get it right,” she says.

Schwarz’s full talk can be viewed here, courtesy of Science on Screen, Colonial Theater, Aranco Productions.

Which brings us to some of the movies opening this summer nationwide, and whether our campus professionals could find their expertise depicted in any way in the films. The following are a few (summaries from the New York Times summer movie guide):

Wonder Woman

“… this origin story … finds the superheroine leaving her life as an Amazon princess to fight in World War I.”

By Rebecca Evans, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations

2016 marked the 75th birthday of Wonder Woman, a character created in 1941 by William Marston, a psychologist and self-proclaimed feminist. In recognition of her cultural significance, Wonder Woman was named as honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls by the United Nations (UN). Yet critics immediately objected to the selection of “a large-breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee-high boots—the epitome of a pinup girl.” By December, Wonder Woman had been stripped of her UN role. With the June 2017 release of the eponymous film, it is worth considering the role of powerful women not only in popular culture but contemporary society.

On the one hand, women have made enormous gains since Wonder Woman made her debut. Whereas only 25 percent of women (and 15 percent of married women) worked outside the home in 1940, almost 60 percent of women engage in paid work today. Whereas less than 4 percent of American women had completed college in 1940, now some 30 percent of women in the United States have a college degree, slightly more than the percentage of men. Women earn 47 percent of law degrees and 48 percent of medical degrees and constitute 36 percent of students enrolled in MBA programs.

Nonetheless, full equality for women remains elusive. Women earned 82 percent of what men earned in 2016. Women—especially women of color—make up a disproportionate share of low-wage jobs that involve greater health and safety risks, unreliable scheduling and fewer benefits such as paid leave. In the political realm, although women vote in higher numbers than men, their share of seats in Congress is only 20 percent and their share of seats in state legislatures and statewide executive office is less than 25 percent.

Wonder Woman offers an ambivalent role model. She rescues others rather than needing to be rescued herself, going against the common stereotype that women—like children—are victims in need of protection. Unlike men, for whom violence is often considered natural or unsurprising, women who resort to violence are often seen as deviants, so the positive portrayal of a strong, independent woman who uses her powers for good further helps break down stereotypes. At the same time, however, Wonder Woman’s use of force conforms to gendered expectations that women will use their sexuality as a weapon.

Rather like Ginger Rogers, she does many of the same things that male superheroes do, but she does so in high-heeled boots. Wonder Woman may show that women are capable of using force on behalf of freedom and justice, but she remains an anomaly. The Justice League largely depends on male superheroes. Yet by exercising power with rather than over others, Wonder Woman may suggest a feminist approach to global politics that could benefit everyone.

Cars 3

“… the run-down Lightning McQueen sets out to prove he’s still got some gas in the old engine, with the assistance of a (younger) technician.”

By Catherine Chambliss, Professor of Psychology

Balancing our competitive and cooperative urges is one of life’s biggest challenges. Getting it right can enrich us and our relationships. Getting it wrong makes us less productive and seems to increase the risk of depression. Cars 3 provides some valuable lessons about how managing competitiveness and bridging the generational gap can lead to victory.

Connectedness and collaboration enhance lives, and intergenerational collaboration can be especially mutually beneficial. Investing in others, through parenting, teaching, and other supportive interactions, expands us. Nurturing aligns our interests with those who are younger, creating mutual, shared objectives. This multiplies our chances of winning. It has been shown that interpersonal investment did indeed predict vicarious joy; those who’d been most helpful ended up with the most to savor! So investing in those who are younger amplifies one’s opportunities for success. Whether you reviewed a manuscript, shared a recipe, or donated funds, their triumphs feel as good as your own.

Sometimes it is wisest to admit you are not so wise. Accepting help from younger colleagues is smart and often gets the job done much better. And it isn’t all selfish. Asking for help from younger colleagues conveys respect, helping their confidence to build and their adult identities to crystallize. Win-win!

We can disrupt our counterproductive competitive reactions by simply emphasizing interconnectedness and interdependence. Cars 3 nicely illustrates how we are stronger (and faster!) together.


“… epic-scale restaging of the 1940 military actions in Dunkirk, France …”

By Ross Doughty, Professor of History

On May 10, 1940, the Nazi Blitzkrieg descended on the Netherlands, Belgium and France. As the German Wehrmacht swept across the Low Countries, five armored Panzer divisions made their way through the densely forested Ardennes region of Belgium, crashed into the rear of the Allied forces, and drove northward to the English Channel, surrounding the British Expeditionary Force and thousands of French and Belgian soldiers, entrapping them near the port of Dunkirk.

For reasons still debated by historians, Hitler ordered his generals to halt their advance, providing an opportunity for the besieged Allied army to avoid capture or annihilation. Over the course of 10 days (May 26–June 4), and under constant air attack, over 338,000 British, Canadian, French and Belgian troops were evacuated safely across the channel to England by a hastily organized flotilla of 800 Royal Navy ships, fishing vessels, tugboats and pleasure craft. While they had to abandon all their artillery, tanks and other vehicles, the rescued troops survived to fight again. Although Winston Churchill cautioned that “wars are not won by evacuations,” the soldiers’ deliverance was hailed as a moral victory in the British press and Dunkirk has paradoxically been viewed as an early turning point of the Second World War.

Battle of the Sexes

“The true story of the 1973 tennis match between world Number One Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.”

By Laura Moliken, Director of Athletics

Is a game really just a game? Not in the case of the historic tennis match between Billie Jean King played by Emma Stone, and Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell. In Battle of the Sexes, the game was much more than just a game. The movie is based on the September 20, 1973 tennis match between tennis legends Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, in which King was seen as playing for all women. Because of her popularity and aided by Title IX (of 1972), the number of females involved in sports grew steadily after that.

During this pivotal moment in the world of athletics, when women and girls were demanding equal treatment, many people felt that a man competing against a woman would only prove that women didn’t deserve equal treatment. But, many also felt that if Billie Jean could win, the match would prove much more powerful than any sporting event in history. The match involved a lot of fanfare and dramatics. It gave us a glimpse of the spectator nature that television sports was to become. In the days of the Battle of Sexes, there were only a few channels, so millions of viewers were drawn to the TV set for this historic event.

The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ showed that a game can be more than just a game. The “game,” in this case, was about equal treatment and a willingness to break the glass ceiling for the many who will come after. Thank you Billie Jean King for leading the way for women and girls everywhere!


“… an ensemble procedural set during the Detroit riots of 1967.”

By Ed Onaci, Assistant Professor of History

The story begins with a well-known and rehearsed recipe for disaster: the Detroit police raided a “blind pig,” a non-licensed afterhours establishment, and began to arrest the patrons en masse. The witnesses to the arrests gathered and grew angry because, regardless of the validity of the police action, they associated it with the routine abuse they had experienced for years at the hands of the mostly-white officers. No one died—at least not at the beginning of this story—but the anger quickly turned into protest. Protest evolved as some angry Detroiters aimed projectiles at officers of the law. Broken windows and looting began. Both spread like the fires that followed.

From July 23 to July 27, 1967, black Detroiters (and some white) destroyed property that they did not own. Thousands lost their homes, and 43 lost their lives. More lost their freedom as they were carted off to local jails. The city of Detroit lost what was left of its mid-century vibrancy as residents (overwhelmingly white) and businesses fled, respectively, to the surrounding suburbs and other counties. The destruction of the rebellion placed racial and class tensions in full view.

For some, the story ends with a lesson for the nation. In the aftermath of urban unrest across the nation, President Lyndon Baines Johnson created a commission to study civil unrest. The Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders identified police abuse, racist housing policies, perpetual un- and underemployment, among other issues, as the main culprits of marginalized communities’ rage. It reported, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” For many others, this story has not ended. Instead, residents continue to write the story through their dedication to rebuilding their neighborhoods, their city, their dignity.

King Arthur

The director aims to show the “hipper side of King Arthur, a character whose last major reboot was in 2004 …”

By Kara McShane, Assistant Professor of English

It’s hard to know what of Arthur’s story is true, if anything: in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Arthur is described as unifying modern-day Britain and leading an army strong enough to challenge Rome’s imperial agenda. But even in the Middle Ages, Arthur was a legend: Caesarius of Heisterbach, a twelfth-century monk, describes a preacher who paused his sermon and said, “There once was a king called Arthur.” His audience immediately started paying attention, and he scolded them for preferring idle stories to God’s truth!

Most people today know the version of the King Arthur legend in Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, written in the fifteenth century. But Malory drew on earlier source, especially Welsh and French traditions along with English ones. Malory’s version inspired many later writers, notably Alfred Tennyson; T.H. White, who wrote the book Disney’s Sword in the Stoneis based on; and John Steinbeck, who began but never completed a novel based on the King Arthur legend.

Every historical moment recreates Arthur to suit their needs. To me, Arthur’s story is powerful because he combines nostalgia for an ideal, prosperous past and hope for the future. He might be flawed, but nonetheless, he’s a leader who inspires love and loyalty from those around him. (Plus the Knights of the Round Table make a dream ensemble cast.)