The Philosophy, Storytelling & Visual Creativity of Ghost in the Shell, the Acclaimed Anime Film, Explained in Video Essays

Ghost in the Shell is not in any sense an animated film for children,” wrote Roger Ebert twenty years ago. “Filled with sex, violence and nudity (although all rather stylized), it’s another example of anime, animation from Japan aimed at adults.” Now, when no critic any longer needs to explain the term anime to Western readers, we look back on Ghost in the Shell (1995) as one of the true masterpieces among Japanese animated feature films, mature not just in its content but in its form. Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, takes a look at how it expresses its philosophical themes through its still-striking cyberpunk setting in his video essay “Identity in Space.”

Puschak first highlights the presence (in the middle of this “sci-fi action thriller” about the hunt for a wanted hacker turned self-aware artificial intelligence) of an action-free interlude: a “three minute and twenty-ish second-long scene” consisting of nothing but “34 gorgeous, exquisitely detailed atmospheric shots of a future city in Japan that’s modeled after Hong Kong.” Its plot-suspending visual exploration of the film’s Blade Runner-esque urban space of “a chaotic multicultural future city dominated by the intersections of old and new structures, connected by roads, canals, and technology,” emphasizes that “spaces, like identities, are constructed. Though space often feels neutral or given, like we could move anywhere within it, our movements, our activities, our life, is always limited by the way space is produced.”

Just as all of Ghost in the Shell‘s characters exist in space, the main ones also exist in cybernetic bodies, regarding their identities as stored in their effectively transplantable brains all connected over a vast information network. The half-hour-long analysis from AnimeEveryday just above gets into the philosophical dilemma this presents to the film’s protagonist, the cyborg police officer Motoko Kusanagi, examining in depth several of the scenes that — through dialogue, imagery, symbolism, or subtle combinations of the three that viewers might not catch the first time around — illuminate the story’s central questions about the nature of man, the nature of machine, and the nature of what emerges when the two intersect.

Film Herald’s briefer explanation of Ghost in the Shell (which contains potentially NSFW images) points to three main themes: identity, Cartesian dualism, and evolution, all concepts that come into question — or at least demand a thorough revision — when the boundary between the natural and the synthetic blurs to the film’s imagined extent. “My intuition told me that this story about a futuristic world carried an immediate message for our present world,” said director Mamoru Oshii, and now, more than two decades later, Hollywood has even got around to remaking it in a live-action version starring Scarlett Johansson in the Kusanagi role. That does provides a chance to update some of the now-dated-looking technology seen in the animated original, but there’s no improving on its artistry.

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The Matrix: What Went Into The Mix

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover Ray Bradbury & Kurt Vonnegut’s 1990s TV Shows: The Ray Bradbury Theater and Welcome to the Monkey House

There has always been good television. Even Kurt Vonnegut, wittiest of curmudgeons, had to agree in 1991 when he was interviewed in The Cable Guide for his own contribution to the medium, an adaptation of his book of stories, Welcome to the Monkey House on Showtime. Vonnegut did not like television, and compared it to thalidomide. “We don’t know what the side effects are until it’s too late.” He could only go up from there, and did, praising, Cheers, M*A*S*H, and Hill Street Blues, and then saying, “I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written.”

I never know exactly when to take Vonnegut seriously. He also calls TV everybody’s “rotten teacher” and says “I’m sorry television exists,” but he had long been a TV writer in its “so-called golden days,” as John Goudas put it in a Los Angeles Times interview with Vonnegut in 1993, when his seven-episode run of Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House, hosted by himself, would soon come to a close. Vonnegut found himself very pleased by the results, remarking of his stories that “TV can do them very well,” and especially praising “More Stately Mansions,” above, starring an irrepressible Madeline Kahn, whom he called “a superb actress.”

Another very direct, witty speculative writer in the same year’s issue of The Cable Guide, Ray Bradbury, appeared with Vonnegut as part of two “dueling, short features,” notes Nick Greene at Mental Floss,
“under the auspices of promoting the authors’ upcoming cable specials,” Monkey House and The Ray Bradbury Theater. Bradbury was also an old media hand, having written for radio in the 50s, and seeing adaptations of his stories made since that decade, including one on Alfred Hitchcock’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Like Hitchcock, when it came time for his own show, The Ray Bradbury Theater in 1985, Bradbury introduced the episodes and became a public face for thousands of viewers.

He also wrote each episode, all 65 of them, from 1985-86 on HBO and 1988-92 on USA. In his Cable Guide interview, Bradbury calls television, “mostly trash,” then adds, “I’m full of trash… I’ve watched thousands of hours of TV. I’ve seen every movie ever made… everything’s the same.” What did he like to watch? Nova, unsurprisingly, and CNN, which he called “the most revolutionary thing in years.” In his interview (which you can read in a high resolution scan at Mental Floss), Bradbury credits television for “a lot of what happened in Europe”—referring to the fall of Communism, as well as Tiananmen Square, and the Gulf War. “Finally, the message got through,” he says, “and people revolted… CNN,” he concluded, “is very powerful television.” If he could see us now. See Bradbury’s very first episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, “Marionettes” from 1985, just above. And purchase the complete TV series online.

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How Ray Bradbury Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

School of Visual Arts Presents 99 Hours of Free Photography Lectures

FYI: Last week, photographer Dan Culberson flagged on Reddit a trove of free photography lectures available on School of Visual Arts‘ rich YouTube channel. Elaborating, the photography blog Petapixel writes:

Tons of hour-long lectures can be found on the channel’s Images, Ideas, Inspiration playlist, most of them photography related and all of them fascinating.

You’ll find something for everyone on this channel—from a lecture by gallery rep Margit Erb talking about her close personal and professional relationship with the great Saul Leiter, to a talk by Dancers Among Us photographer Jordan Matter, to Jack Hollingsworth’s fascinating talk titled “Small Camera Big Results.”

There are a total of 99 videos in that playlist alone—approximately 99 hours of education, inspiration, and ideas.

Above you can watch Jack Hollingsworth’s lecture, “Small Camera Big Results.” He has “traveled to over 20 countries and shot over 400,000 images with his iPhone,” and here he discusses his iPhone photography technique, and all the apps he uses. Find more lectures on this Images, Ideas, Inspiration playlist.

via Petapixel

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Stephen Hawking Auditions Celebrities to Provide His New Voice: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Liam Neeson, Anna Kendrick & Michael Caine

Stephen Hawking’s computer-synthesized voice is distinctive. You know it when you hear it. But, after so many years, it’s time for a change. That’s the premise of this short comic bit, created for Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. Above, watch A-list celebrities–everyone from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Liam Neeson, to Anna Kendrick and Bill Gates–audition to become the new voice of Prof. Hawking. You can see how it plays out.

Red Nose Day (just held on March 24th this year) is a fundraiser to help struggling people in countries around the world. You can donate to the cause here.

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If you’d like to help support Open Culture, please consider making a small monthly donation to our site. We would greatly appreciate it!

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Great Filmmakers Offer Advice to Young Directors: Tarantino, Herzog, Coppola, Scorsese, Anderson, Fellini & More

One-to-one relationships do not exist between the medieval European Guild system and contemporary labor unions or protectionist rackets…. Nevertheless, guilds were very much like both those things in some ways. They were also vocational schools, where young aspiring artisans could, with the right skills and connections, apprentice themselves to master craftsmen, hope to receive decent training, and look forward to becoming guild masters themselves should they persist.

Few organizations like that exist today. But there is perhaps one industry in which—with the right connections, skill, and persistence—a lucky and talented few rise through the ranks to mastery: the film industry, where a video store clerk, Quentin Tarantino, can achieve lasting fame and fortune, as can former part-time projectionist, Wes Anderson. Many directors who came of age in the sixties and seventies went the traditional route of film school, but one, Werner Herzog, took a bandit’s way into the craft, stealing a camera from the Munich Film School, feeling that he “had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with.”




Herzog has created his own guild system, of a sort, with the Rogue Film School, a rough, informal course, among other things, in “guerrilla filmmaking.” Stealing cameras is not ruled out. But you’ll have to learn the technical stuff on your own. What matters, most, Herzog says, is that filmmakers “read, read, read, read, read.” These are directors who have borrowed from other directors and films, and also from books, music, painting, etc., driven by an obsessive and persistent desire to learn. And you’ll find them all in the supercut above, in which Tarantino, Anderson, Herzog, and other “master filmmakers” like Scorsese, Coppola, Fellini, Welles, and more offer short, yet profound pieces of advice to aspirants.

We begin with Tarantino, who argues that passion is all you need to make a great film. “You don’t need to go to school” or know any of the technical stuff, but you do need to apprentice yourself, with pure devotion and tenacity, to cinema. You won’t hear this from many of the others, but Terry Gilliam also recommends a secondary trade, maybe as a plumber, another profession that involves apprentices and journeymen working their way up. It’s certainly a trade that involves great skill, but to hear these directorial guild masters tell it, no other profession asks for as much drive and passion as the movies, and apparently you don’t even need to know what you’re doing at first. See the complete list of interviewees below.

QUENTIN TARANTINO: 00:00
JERRY LEWIS: 00:40
TERRY GILLIAM: 01:15
JOHN CARPENTER: 01:40
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: 02:30
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: 03:54
FEDERICO FELLINI: 04:52
WERNER HERZOG: 05:56
WES ANDERSON: 07:22
SIDNEY LUMET: 07:50
JOHN LANDIS: 08:58
MARTIN SCORSESE: 10:15
GUILLERMO DEL TORO 11:38
ORSON WELLES 14:55

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Akira Kurosawa’s Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers: Write, Write, Write and Read

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hieronymus Bosch Figurines: Collect Surreal Characters from Bosch’s Paintings & Put Them on Your Bookshelf

Few painters have created as rich a world as Hieronymus Bosch did in The Garden of Earthly Delights. The late 15th- or early 16th-century triptych, which depicts the creation of man, the licentious frolicking of all creatures on a paradisiacal Earth, and the subsequent fall into damnation, draws a scrutiny — and causes an amusement — as intense as ever. As we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture, you can now take a virtual tour of the painting (there’s even an app for it), see it brought to life with modern animation, and hear the song tattooed on the posterior of one of the work’s many characters.

 

Bosch not only created a world with The Garden of Earthly Delights, he populated it thoroughly. And despite the human-centric story the work appears to take as its basis, the cast with which it retells it extends far beyond mere humanity: the panels feature not just wildlife of all shapes and sizes but a variety of mythical grotesques, from imps to chimeras to hybrids of man and animal to much more besides. He drew from the same surreal imaginative well to fill his other paintings, and you can now pull out a few of these colorful, menacing, preposterous, and darkly humorous characters yourself in collectible figurine form.

Though “not a big knickknack person,” Dangerous Minds’ Tara McGinley admits to digging this selection of “tiny objects” straight from the mind of Bosch, all “kinda cool-looking in their own obviously weird way” and none “too expensive. The figurines start at around $45, depending on quality, size and detail.” (You can find them on Amazon.) She highlights such issues as “Helmeted Bird Monster,” which according to manufacturers Parastone features a severed foot “swinging from the bird’s helmet referring to the horrible corporal punishments which could be expected in hell.”

“Devil on Night Chair,” one of the most recognizable denizens of The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ third panel, comes cast in his famous position, “eating a person on a chair where he will excrete the human remains.” The considerably less satisfied “Fat Belly with Dagger” comes from the third panel of a different triptych, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the dagger in his belly showing “the consequences of intemperance. His eyes look out at you in acknowledgment.” Its makers promise that “you will look at it in wonder as to how Bosch’s mind conceived of such an unusual little fellow.” Have a look at Dangerous Minds‘ original post and Amazon’s Bosch figurine page for more information on how to obtain them, whether for yourself or as gifts for friends and family. They certainly won’t look at them the same way they do Hummel figurines.

via Dangerous Minds

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Download 437 Issues of Soviet Photo Magazine, the Soviet Union’s Historic Photography Journal (1926-1991)

The early years of the Soviet Union roiled with internal tensions, intrigues, and ideological warfare, and the new empire’s art reflected its uneasy heterodoxy. Formalists, Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists, and other schools mingled, published journals, critiqued and reviewed each other’s work, and like modernists elsewhere in the world, experimented with every possible medium, including those just coming into their own at the beginning of the 20th century, like film and photography.

These two mediums, along with radio, also happened to serve as the primary means of propagandizing Soviet citizens and carrying the messages of the Party in ways everyone could understand. And like much of the rest of the world, photography engendered its own consumer culture.




Out of these competing impulses came Soviet Photo (Sovetskoe foto), a monthly photography magazine featuring, writes Ksenia Nouril at the Museum of Modern Art’s site, “editorials, letters, articles, and photographic essays alongside advertisements for photography, photographic processes, and photographic chemicals and equipment.”

Soviet Photo was not founded by artists, but by a photojournalist, Arkady Shaikhet, in 1926 (see the first issue’s cover at the top). Though its audience primarily consisted of a “Soviet amateur photographers and photo clubs,” its early years freely mixed documentary, didacticism, and experimental art. It published the “works of international and professional photographers” and that of avant-gardists like Constructivist painter and graphic designer Aleksander Rodchenko.

The aesthetic purges under Stalin—in which artists and writers one after another fell victim to charges of elitism and obscurantism—also played out in the pages of Soviet Photo. “Even before Socialist Realism was decreed to be the official style of the Soviet Union in 1934,” Nouril writes, “the works of avant-garde photographers,” including Rodchenko, “were denounced as formalist (implying that they reflected a foreign and elitist style).” Soviet Photo boycotted Rodchenko’s work in 1928 and “throughout the 1930s this state-sanctioned journal became increasingly conservative,” emphasizing “content over form.”

This does not mean that that the contents of the magazine were inelegant or pedestrian. Though it once briefly bore the name Proletarskoe foto (Proletariat Photography), and tended toward monumental and industrial subjects, war photography, and idealizations of Soviet life during the Stalinist years. After the 60s thaw, experimental photomontages returned, and more abstract compositions became commonplace. Soviet Photo also kept pace with many glossy magazines in the West, with stunning full-color photojournalism and, after glasnost and the fall of the Berlin wall, high fashion and advertising photography.

Fans of photography, Soviet history, or some measure of both, can follow Soviet Photo’s evolution in a huge archive featuring 437 digitized issues, published between 1926 and 1991. Expect to find a gap between 1942 and 1956, when publication ceased “due to World War II and the war’s aftereffects.” Aside from these years and a few other missing months, the archive contains nearly every issue of Soviet Photo, free to browse or download in various formats. “Dig deep enough,” writes photo blog PetaPixel, “and you’ll find some really interesting (and surprisingly familiar) things in there.” Enter the archive here.

 

via PetaPixel

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jim Henson’s Commercials for Wilkins Coffee: 15 Twisted Minutes of Muppet Coffee Ads (1957-1961)

Drink our coffee. Or else. That’s the message of these curiously sadistic TV commercials produced by Jim Henson between 1957 and 1961.

Henson made 179 ten-second spots for Wilkins Coffee, a regional company with distribution in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. market, according to the Muppets Wiki: “The local stations only had ten seconds for station identification, so the Muppet commercials had to be lightning-fast–essentially, eight seconds for the commercial pitch and a two-second shot of the product.”

Within those eight seconds, a coffee enthusiast named Wilkins (who bears a resemblance to Kermit the frog) manages to shoot, stab, bludgeon or otherwise do grave bodily harm to a coffee holdout named Wontkins. Henson provided the voices of both characters.




Up until that time, TV advertisers typically made a direct sales pitch. “We took a different approach,” said Henson in Christopher Finch’s Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show. “We tried to sell things by making people laugh.”

The campaign for Wilkins Coffee was a hit. “In terms of popularity of commercials in the Washington area,” said Henson in a 1982 interview with Judy Harris, “we were the number one, the most popular commercial.” Henson’s ad agency began marketing the idea to other regional coffee companies around the country. Henson re-shot the same spots with different brand names. “I bought my contract from that agency,” said Henson, “and then I was producing them–the same things around the country. And so we had up to about a dozen or so clients going at the same time. At the point, I was making a lot of money.”

If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch many of the Wilkins Coffee commercials above. And a word of advice: If someone ever asks you if you drink Wilkins Coffee, just say yes.

Note: This post first appeared on our site in 2012. We found a video featuring a much larger collection of Henson’s original commercials, so we’re bringing it back to the homepage.

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Watch 450 NPR Tiny Desk Concerts: Intimate Performances from The Pixies, Adele, Wilco, Yo-Yo Ma & Many More

In times past, happening upon just the right radio station, record store, or tape trading community were some of the few serendipitous ways of discovering new music. And in those days, one faithful curator of innovative new sounds, BBC DJ John Peel, never disappointed. Because of a law limiting the amount of recorded music radio could play, his name became synonymous with the hundreds of intimate performances punk, new wave, reggae, and other bands recorded live in his studio. While the “Peel Sessions” will forever live in legend (stream some here), the man himself passed away in 2004, and the musical landscape he helped create has changed irrevocably.

And yet, Peel’s animating spirit lives on, most especially in NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, live in-studio performances recorded “at the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen.” Since 2008, Boilen has invited established and up-and-coming artists alike to his desk, capturing loose, unguarded, stripped-down, performances that sound like they’re happening in your living room.




Guitarists unplug, drummers trade their sticks for brushes, and we not only get to listen to old and new favorites; we get to watch them—like the Pixies at the top—up close as well. This performance, from 2014, garnered “the largest crowd we’d ever assembled for a Tiny Desk Concert,” writes Boilen, and featured newest member Paz Lenchantin trading her bass for violin.

Where the Pixies usually fill arenas with their eerily-quiet-to-deafeningly-loud songs, the group further up, Dirty Dozen Band, can easily fill public squares, football fields, and parade routes without stacks of overdriven amps. Hearing them explode in Boilen’s office with their rambunctious funk is a real treat, as is the larger-than-life voice of Adele, above, scaled down to college coffeehouse levels of closeness.

Though Tiny Desk Concerts often showcase pop, hip-hop, folk, country, and indie stars—like Wilco, below—and even classical stars like Yo-Yo Ma, above, it just as often introduces us to musicians we’ve never heard, or seen, before, and gives us the chance to get to know them without the usual trappings of marketing and boilerplate PR, or loud, crowded clubs with bad acoustics and no visibility.

The current homepage features a handful of incredibly talented musicians you’re unlikely to run across in most major venues. At least for now. Had he lived to see Tiny Desk Concerts, and its preservation of a radio curatorial tradition, John Peel, I think, would have been proud. See more performances from The National, Susan Vega, Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens, Steve Earle, and many, many more—450 concerts in all—at NPR Music on Youtube.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Jimi Hendrix’s Virtuoso Guitar Performances in Isolated Tracks: “Fire,” “Purple Haze,” “Third Stone from the Sun” & More

A garden of musical curiosities—lush with rarities, outtakes, obscurities, and live performances spanning the globe—Youtube has fulfilled many a superfan’s dream of instant access to recorded musical history. One rarified bloom, the isolated track, can prove a divisive strain. Why, aesthetes and purists ask, rip a performance from its setting, place it before listeners in a way musicians never meant for it to be heard? Though at times expressed in ranty tones, the criticism has merit.

Thinking of the “isolated track” as pure solo virtuosity does great injustice to the processes that produce these performances. As musicians well know, whether live or recorded at separate times in the studio, most group performances result from countless hours of rehearsal, revision, sometimes numbing repetition, and deviations that become standard over time.




For any band that plays together regularly, parts emerge from the matrix of group dynamics or musical “chemistry.” Throw a different musician into the mix, and other individual performances change as well.

That’s not even to mention the role of producers, recording and mixing engineers, etc. on shaping and refining the sound. Many studio productions nowadays come from the layering of beats, sequences, and samples produced in isolation from each other. The results can sound sterile and inorganic. But in the 60s and 70s heyday of album-oriented rock, it was about the band, and almost no one put together bands that better complemented his playing than Jimi Hendrix. Conversely, no one played guitar like Hendrix, in any context.

I would offer this in defense of hearing isolated tracks from Hendrix, or from Freddie Mercury and David Bowie (who bucked the trend and wrote, arranged, rehearsed, and recorded “Under Pressure” in the same night), Paul McCartney, Grace Slick, or any other hugely talented performer: We know these songs well enough already. So many of us have internalized how their parts fit together into something greater than themselves. To have the individual tracks revealed only enhances our appreciation for the whole. When we return to the full arrangement we may hear nuances and quirks we’d never noticed before, and notice afresh how these moments call and respond to the other players.

The isolated Hendrix guitar tracks here are subjects of study and appreciation, for guitarists, musicologists, critics, and ordinary fans. They allow us to hear very clearly what Hendrix was doing in these songs under his captivating vocal delivery, Mitch Mitchell’s rolling fills, and Noel Redding’s traveling lines. We gain a new appreciation for his rhythm playing, his deft transitions, and how his cool underplaying in verses made space for his indelibly flashy leads and intros.

Is it artificial? Sure, but so is the recording process. And so is excerpting parts of, say, Citizen Kane or Vertigo to analyze their editing, camera work, or use of color. We don’t do it because we only want see part of the film, but because we want to better understand the technical intricacies of the work as a whole. Hear Hendrix’s isolated guitar takes above (with some faint bleed from other instruments) in “Fire,” “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Stone Free,” and, my personal favorite, “Third Stone from the Sun.”

You can listen to many more isolated Hendrix performances, and those from several other musicians, at the Daily Motion channel of Joh Phe. Then, by all means, return to the full recordings and see how little bits of color, shape, and texture that you hadn’t heard before now leap out at you.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness