The 90s are back to stay, not only in Seinfeld Emojis, and not only in Portland, but also in the glossy trappings of mass media retrospectives. We can add to VH-1’s I Love the 90s the new National Geographic survey “The ‘90s: The Last Great Decade?,” seemingly made by people who experienced the period in a bunker, surrounded by TVs. This level of manufactured nostalgia is pretty off-putting, but I do have to face the facts: the music of my youth has turned classic rock.
Not that this bothers me any. For one thing, many of my favorite bands have returned with new albums, no worse for wear (see mbv, all of Robert Pollard’s output, or the coming new Half Japanese, for example). For another, the internet wayback machine means no trawling flea markets and auctions for memorabilia, hearing odd rumors of lost concert films, unreleased albums, and interviews. Nearly every piece of media, from nearly every historical decade, ends up online eventually. Wherever you come from in time, it can be like you never left. And for “classic rock” fans, it’s even easier, thanks to Music Vault, a YouTube subsidiary of “bootleg haven” Wolfgang’s Vault, featuring over 13,000 clips of live shows from the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and so on.
Like Springsteen? Check him out in his home state playing “Born to Run” with the E Street Band in 1979 (top). Lou Reed? See him play “Sweet Jane” in 1984 (middle). Talking Heads? See ‘em do “Life During Wartime” in 1981 above. All of this footage comes from The Capital Theater in Passaic, NJ, but there are hundreds of venues represented—like U2 at California Hall in ’81—and hundreds of artists. Fancy more modern fare? Paste magazine has its own channel, hosting live performances from Local Natives, Dr. Dog, and psych revivalists Black Angels. There’s also a Jazz Channel and Blues Channel, and while most of the videos are clips of individual songs, the archive has quite a few full concerts as well, such as The Band in ’76, Neil Young in ’89, and—for you refugees from the ‘90s, Wilco in ‘96, below. Enjoy revisiting the glory days and rest assured, they aren’t going away anytime soon. You can start surfing the Music Vault here.
War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich — many of us have felt the influence, to the good or the ill of our own reading and writing, of Leo Tolstoy. But whose influence did Leo Tolstoy feel the most? As luck would have it, we can give you chapter and verse on this, since the novelist drew up just such a list in 1891, which would have put him at age 63. A Russian publisher had asked 2,000 professors, scholars, artists, and men of letters, public figures, and other luminaries to name the books important to them, and Tolstoy responded with this list divided into five ages of man, with their actual degree of influence (“enormous,” “v. great,” or merely “great”) noted. It comes as something of a rarity, up to now only available transcribed in a post at Northampton, Massachusetts’ Valley Advocate:
WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION
Childhood to the age of 14 or so
The story of Joseph from the Bible - Enormous
Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman - Great
[Theodore] Parker. Discourse on religious subject – Great
[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons – Great
Feuerbach (I forget the title; work on Christianity) [“The Essence of Christianity”] – Great
Pascal’s Pensées - Enormous
Epictetus – Enormous
Confucius and Mencius – V. great
On the Buddha. Well-known Frenchman (I forget) [“Lalita Vistara”] – Enormous
Lao-Tzu. Julien [S. Julien, French translator] – Enormous
The writer at the Valley Advocate, a Tolstoy aficionado, came across the list by sheer happenstance. “On my way to work, I found something just for me in a box of cast-off books on a sidewalk,” they write: a biography of Tolstoy with “something cooler inside”: a “yellowed and fragile New York Times Book Review clipping” from 1978 containing the full list as Tolstoy wrote it. “Gold,” in other words, “for this wannabe Tolstoy scholar.” If you, too count yourself among the ranks of wannabe Tolstoy scholars — or indeed credentialed Tolstoy scholars — you’ll no doubt find more than a few intriguing selections here. And if you simply admire Tolstoy, well, get to reading: learn not how to make the same things your idols made, I often say, but to think how they thought. Not that any of us have time to write War and Peace these days anyway, though with luck, we do still have time to read it — along with The Thousand and One Nights, David Copperfield, The Odyssey, and so on. Many of these works you can find in our collection, 600 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.
Not too long ago, the CIA’s style guide, called the Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications, was posted online. “Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing,” writes Fran Moore, Director of Intelligence in the foreword. And considering the agency’s deftness with the written word, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s remarkably good. Some highlights:
The guide likes the Oxford or serial comma. “Most authorities on English usage recommend [the serial comma], and it is the rule for CIA publications.”
It favors using adjectives and adverbs sparingly. “Let nouns and verbs show their power.”
In all cases, it favors American over British spellings, even proper names. Thus, “Labor Party” not “Labour Party.” And for that matter, the guide isn’t terribly keen on using phrases like “apropos” and “faux pas.” “Foreign expressions should be avoided because they sound hackneyed.”
It wisely discourages writers, or anyone really, from ever using the word “enthused.”
And they caution against using exclamation points. “Because intelligence reports are expected to be dispassionate, this punctuation mark should rarely, if ever, be used.”
And then there are some rules that will remind you this guide is the product of a particularly shadowy arm of the U.S. Government.
The guide makes a point of defining “disinformation” as opposed to “misinformation.” “Disinformation refers to the deliberate planting of false reports. Misinformation equates in meaning but does not carry the same devious connotation.” Now you know.
Undeclared wars, like Vietnam, should be spelled with an uncapitalized “w.” Same goes for the “Korean war” and the “Falklands war.” It goes on to argue that the writer should “avoid ‘Yom Kippur war’ which is slangy.” Presumably, the CIA prefers the term “The 1973 Arab-Israeli war.”
The confusing split between China and Taiwan – each refuses to recognize the other — is represented confusingly here too. “For what was once called Nationalist China or the Republic of China, use only Taiwan, both as noun and as adjective. … Avoid Taiwanese as an adjective referring to the island’s administration or its officials (and do not use the term Taiwanese government.)”
It’s unclear whether or not the guide is being used for the CIA’s queasily flip, profoundly unfunny Twitter account.
Before he directed such mind-bending masterpieces as Time Bandits, Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, before he became short-hand for a filmmaker cursed with cosmically bad luck, before he became the sole American member of seminal British comedy group Monty Python, Terry Gilliam made a name for himself creating odd animated bits for the UK series Do Not Adjust Your Set. Gilliam preferred cut-out animation, which involved pushing bits of paper in front of a camera instead of photographing pre-drawn cels. The process allows for more spontaneity than traditional animation along with being comparatively cheaper and easier to do.
Gilliam also preferred to use old photographs and illustrations to create sketches that were surreal and hilarious. Think Max Ernst meets Mad Magazine. For Monty Python’s Flying Circus, he created some of the most memorable moments of a show chock full of memorable moments: A pram that devours old ladies, a massive cat that menaces London, and a mustached police officer who pulls open his shirt to reveal the chest of a shapely woman. He also created the show’s most iconic image, that giant foot during the title sequence.
On Bob Godfrey’s series Do It Yourself Film Animation Show, Gilliam delved into the nuts and bolts of his technique. You can watch it above. Along the way, he sums up his thoughts on the medium:
The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use. That’s why I use cut-out. It’s the easiest form of animation I know.
He also notes that the key to cut-out animation is to know its limitations. Graceful, elegant movement à la Walt Disney is damned near impossible. Swift, sudden movements, on the other hand, are much simpler. That’s why there are far more beheadings in his segments than ballroom dancing. Watch the whole clip. If you are a hardcore Python enthusiast, as I am, it is pleasure to watch him work. Below find one of his first animated movies, Storytime, which includes, among other things, the tale of Don the Cockroach. Also don’t miss, this video featuring All of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python Animations in a Row.
Maybe you knew about Marcel Duchamp’s passion for chess. But did you know about Marlon Brando’s passion for conga drums? Longtime fans may have first picked up on it in 1955, when the actor gave a microwave-link television tour of his Hollywood Hills home to Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person. Halfway through the segment (above), Brando gets into his history with the instrument, and even offers to “run downstairs and give you a lick or two” — and the always highly-prepared program had cameras in the conga room ready to capture this “impromptu” performance. While the interests actors keep on the side may tend to wane, Brando’s seems to have waxed, and later in life he even, writes Movieline‘s Jen Yamato, “enlisted the help of Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez while developing a new tuning system for conga drums.” We can behold the extent and seriousness of Brando’s pursuit of conga perfection with a look at one of those patents, filed in 2002, for an automatic “drumhead tensioning device and method.“
As The Atlantic‘s Rebecca Greenfield explains in a post on “Patents of the Rich and Famous,” “tightening a drum takes a lot of effort. Once the drum head loses its tension, there are typically six separate rods that need tightening. Far too many rods for Marlon. Brando explains that others have tried to develop mechanisms that would improve the drum tightening experience but none of them provided a simple or affordable solution.” Hence his motorized “simple and inexpensive drum tuning device that is also accurate and reliable and not subject to inadvertent adjustments.” And if you have no need for an automatic conga drum tuner, perhaps we can interest you in another of Brando’s achievements? “He had these shoes that you can wear in the pool, that would increase friction as you walk on the bottom of the pool to give you a better workout,” says patent attorney Kevin Costanza in an NPR story on Brando’s inventions. Or maybe you’d prefer to simply watch The Godfather again.
Sci-fi author B.C. Kowalski recently posted a short essay on why the advice to write every day is, for lack of a suitable euphemism, “bullshit.” Not that there’s anything wrong with it, Kowalski maintains. Only that it’s not the only way. It’s said Thackeray wrote every morning at dawn. Jack Kerouac wrote (and drank) in binges. Every writer finds some method in-between. The point is to “do what works for you” and to “experiment.” Kowalski might have added a third term: diversify. It’s worked for so many famous writers after all. James Joyce had his music, Sylvia Plath her art, Hemingway his machismo. Faulkner drew cartoons, as did his fellow Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, his equal, I’d say, in the art of the American grotesque. Through both writers ran a deep vein of pessimistic humor, oblique, but detectable, even in scenes of highest pathos.
O’Connor’s visual work, writes Kelly Gerald in The Paris Review, was a “way of seeing she described as part of the ‘habit of art’”—a way to train her fiction writer’s eye. Her cartoons hew closely to her authorial voice: a lone sardonic observer, supremely confident in her assessments of human weakness. Perhaps a better comparison than Faulkner is with British poet and doodler Stevie Smith, whose bleak vision and razor-sharp wit similarly cut through mountains of… shall we say, bullshit. In both pen & ink and linoleum cuts, O’Connor set deadpan one-liners against images of pretension, conformity, and the banality of college life. In the cartoon at the top, she seems to mock the pursuit of credentials as a refuge for the socially disaffected. Above, a campaigner for a low-level office deploys bombastic pseudo-Leninist rhetoric, and in the cartoon below, a cranky character escapes a horde of identically dressed drones.
O’Connor was an intensely visual writer with, Gerald writes, a “natural proclivity for capturing the humorous character of real people and concrete situations,” fully credible even at their most extreme (as in the increasingly horrific self-lacerations of Wise Blood’s Hazel Motes). She began drawing at five and produced small books and sketches as a child, eventually publishing cartoons in almost every issue of her high-school and college’s newspapers and yearbooks. Her alma mater Georgia College, then known as Georgia State College for Women, has published a book featuring her cartoons from her undergraduate years, 1942-45.
More recently, Gerald edited a collection called Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons for Fantagraphics. In his introduction, artist Barry Moser describes in detail the technique of her linoleum cuts, calling them “course in technical terms.” And yet, “her rudimentary handling of the medium notwithstanding, O’Connor’s prints offer glimpses into the work of the writer she would become” with their “little O’Connor petards aimed at the walls of pretentiousness, academics, student politics, and student committees.” Had O’Connor continued making cartoons into her publishing years, she might have, like B.C. Kowalski, aimed one of those petards at those who dispense dogmatic, cookie-cutter writing advice as well. See many more O’Connor cartoons here.
Maybe you’re a diehard Game of Thrones fan. Maybe you’re not. Either way, you’ll marvel at this behind-the-scenes video. The short clip was put together by Mackevision, one of the VFX (visual effects) studios that worked on Season 4 of the HBO series. As one commenter on Metafilter noted, “The obvious stuff, such as castles in the background, is expected. As is adding in extra troops. But adding the fog, bits of vines and changing the color of the grass are the little touches that enliven a scene. Love they’re making mountains just pop in the background to illustrate the VFX work.” Another commenter noted, “It feels like a modern-day Python animation.” All I can say is that we’ll have more on that later today.
With the old joke about every generation thinking they invented sex, Listverse brings us the papyrus above, the oldest depiction of sex on record. Painted sometime in the Ramesside Period(1292-1075 B.C.E.), the fragments above—called the “Turin Erotic Papyrus” because of their “discovery” in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy—only hint at the frank versions of ancient sex they depict (see a graphic partial reconstruction at the bottom of the post—probably NSFW). The number of sexual positions the papyrus illustrates—twelve in all—“fall somewhere between impressively acrobatic and unnervingly ambitious,” one even involving a chariot. Apart from its obvious fertility symbols, writes archaeology blog Ancient Peoples, the papyrus also has a “humorous and/or satirical” purpose, and probably a male audience—evidenced, perhaps, by its resemblance to 70’s porn: “the men are mostly unkept, unshaven, and balding […], whereas the women are the ideal of beauty in Egypt.”
In fact the erotic portion of the papyrus was only made public in the 1970’s. Egyptologists have known of the larger scroll, technically called “Papyrus Turin 55001” since the 1820s. On the right side of the papyrus (above) animals perform various human tasks as musicians, soldiers, and artisans. The artist meant this piece too as satire, Ancient Peoples alleges. Like ancient Roman and Greek satirical art, the animals may represent supposed archetypal aspects of the artists and tradesmen shown here. All very interesting, but of course the real interest in Papyrus Turin 55001 is of the prurient variety.
Egyptology student Caroline Seawright points us toward the rather lurid History Channel segment on the erotic papyrus above, which calls the pictures “full on pornography” and “one of the most shocking sets of images in the whole of antiquity.” Against a perception of ancient Egyptians as “buttoned-up and repressed,” the video, and Seawright, detail the ways in which the culture reveled in a stylized ritual sexuality quite different from our own limited mores.
Sacred temple prostitutes held a privileged position and mythological narratives incorporated unbiased descriptions of homosexuality and transgenderism. Ancient Egyptians even expected to have sex after death, attaching fabricated organs to their mummies. The above applies mainly to a certain class of Egyptian. As archaeologist David O’Connor points out, the Turin Erotic Papyrus’ high “artistic merit” marks it as within the provenance of “an elite owner and audience.” You can find more detailed images from a different reconstruction of the erotic papyrus here.
In 1963, the Pantone corporation began publishing a bi-yearly color guide, which divides and categorizes every color under the sun. The astonishingly ubiquitous guide is an essential tool for designers of every stripe, from a fashion guru figuring out what color to highlight in her fall line to the guy in charge of creating a color palette for the interior of a new Boeing-787. Twice a year, Pantone, along with a shadowy cabal of colorists from around the world, meet in a European city and, with the secrecy of the Vatican choosing a new pope, they select the color of the season. They are the reason why you painted your kitchen Wasabi Green a couple years ago and why, whether you want to or not, you’ll be wearing Radiant Orchid next year. Slate did a great write up about the whole confusing process a while back.
Over 250 years before the Color-Industrial Complex reared its head, a mysterious Dutch artist also detailed every color in the spectrum, only he did it all by hand. Known by the snicker-inducing name of A. Boogert, the author set out to demonstrate how to mix watercolor paint and how to manipulate the paint’s value by adding water. Yet he approached his task with a staggering level of detail and depth; the resulting book – Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau — is over 700 pages. It’s about as thorough a color guide as one could imagine in a world without color printers.
The book was largely forgotten, gathering dust at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France until Dutch art historian Erik Kwakkel, who translated the introduction, posted selections from the book on his blog. Herr Boogert apparently intended the book to be educational for aspiring artists. Unfortunately, only a few artists at the time ever got a chance to see the one-of-a-kind book.
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Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.