“Everybody dreams. Everybody travels, sometimes into countries where strange beauty, wisdom, adventure, love expects him.” These words, a tad floaty and dreamlike themselves, open 1947′s Dreams That Money Can Buy. “This is a story of dreams mixed with reality,” the narrator intones. He can say that again. Directed by Hans Richter, painter, graphic artist, avant-gardist, “film-experimenter,” and energetic member of the Dada movement, the picture takes a storyline that seems mundanely realistic — impecunious poet finds apartment, then must figure out how to pay the rent — and bends it into all manner of surreal shapes. And I do, literally, mean surreal, since several of the scenes come from the minds of noted avant-garde and surrealist artists, including, besides Richter himself, painter and photographer Man Ray, conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, sculptor Alexander Calder, and painter-sculptor-filmmaker Fernand Léger.
Joe, the film’s protagonist, finds he has a sort of superpower: by looking into the eyes of another, he can see the contents of their mind. He promptly sets up a sort of consultation business where he examines the unconscious thoughts of a client: say, an unambitious banker whose wife lives “like a double-entry column: no virtues, no vices.” He then uses the abstract materials of their thoughts to come up with a self-contained, somewhat less abstract dream for them to dream: in the banker’s case, a dream called “Desire,“ which takes the form of a short film by Dadaist painter-sculptor-graphic artist-poet Max Ernst. For Joe’s other, differently neurotic customers, Richter, Man Ray, Duchamp, Calder, and Léger come up with suitable formally and aesthetically distinct dreams. While all these artists imbue Dreams That Money Can Buy with their own inimitable sensibilities (or nonsense abilities, as the case may be), I feel as though certain modern filmmakers would have the time of their lives remaking it. Michel Gondry comes to mind.
Remember that 1996 documentary The Cruise, chronicle of New City Tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who compressed encyclopedias full of references into a manic spitfire style? Well, “performance philosopher” Jason Silva’s monologues are a bit like Levitch’s, with a lot less Woody Allen and a lot more of Richard Linklater’s animated headtrip Waking Life.
Silva’s got a new webseries out called “Shots of Awe,” which he describes as “freestyle philosophy videos [that] celebrate existential jazz, big questions, technology and science.” These short videos are indeed “shots,” with each one coming in at under three minutes. The short above, “Awe,” defines the term as “an experience of such perpetual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it.”
While the English prof. in me winces at the use of “literally” here (“mental model” is a metaphor, after all), the video’s machine-gun editing and Silva’s “contrast between banality and wonder” have me convinced he’s onto something. Check out the series’ trailer here and see two additional episodes, “Singularity” (below) and “Mortality.” The series is hosted on Discovery’s TestTube network and follows up Silva’s Espresso video series.
In the fall of 1969 the Rolling Stones were in a Los Angeles recording studio, putting the final touches on their album Let it Bleed. It was a tumultuous time for the Stones. They had been struggling with the album for the better part of a year as they dealt with the personal disintegration of their founder and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, whose drug addiction and personality problems had reached a critical stage. Jones was fired from the band in June of that year. He died less than a month later. And although the Stones couldn’t have known it at the time, the year would end on another catastrophic note, as violence broke out at the notorious Altamont Free Concert just a day after after Let it Bleed was released.
It was also a grim time around the world. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring–all of these were recent memories. Not surprisingly, Let it Bleed was not the most cheerful of albums. As Stephen Davis writes in his book Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones, “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.” And no song on Let it Bleed articulates this dread with greater force than the apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter,” in which Mick Jagger sings of a fire “sweepin’ our very street today,” like a “Mad bull lost his way.”
Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away It’s just a shot away
In an interview last November with Melissa Block for the NPR program All Things Considered, Jagger talked about the those lyrics, and the late 1969 recording of the song:
One of the most striking moments in the interview is when Jagger describes the circumstances surrounding soul singer Merry Clayton’s powerful background vocals. “When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse,’ or chorus or whatever you want to call it,” said Jagger. “We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone–’Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’–but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”
The daughter of a Baptist minister, Merry Clayton grew up singing in her father’s church in New Orleans. She made her professional debut at age 14, recording a duet with Bobby Darin. She went on to work with The Supremes, Elvis Presley and many others, and was a member of Ray Charles’s group of backing singers, The Raelettes. She is one of the singers featured in the new documentary film, 20 Feet From Stardom. In an interview last week with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Clayton talked about the night she was asked to sing on “Gimme Shelter”:
Well, I’m at home at about 12–I’d say about 11:30, almost 12 o’clock at night. And I’m hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named Jack Nitzsche. Jack Nitzsche called and said you know, Merry, are you busy? I said No, I’m in bed. he says, well, you know, There are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it. Could you come? He said I really think this would be something good for you.
At that point, Clayton recalled, her husband took the phone out of her hand and said, “Man, what is going on? This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session? You know she’s pregnant.” Nitzsche explained the situation, and just as Clayton was drifting back to sleep her husband nudged her and said, “Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.” Clayton had no idea who the Rolling Stones were, but she went down to the studio. Keith Richards was there and explained what he wanted her to do.
I said, Well, play the track. It’s late. I’d love to get back home. So they play the track and tell me that I’m going to sing–this is what you’re going to sing: Oh, children, it’s just a shot away. It had the lyrics for me. I said, Well, that’s cool. So I did the first part, and we got down to the rape, murder part. And I said, Why am I singing rape, murder? …So they told me the gist of what the lyrics were, and I said Oh, okay, that’s cool. So then I had to sit on a stool because I was a little heavy in my belly. I mean, it was a sight to behold. And we got through it. And then we went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, Ooh, that’s really nice. They said, well, You want to do another? I said, well, I’ll do one more, I said and then I’m going to have to say thank you and good night. I did one more, and then I did one more. So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.
Clayton sang with such emotional force that her voice cracked. (“I was just grateful that the crack was in tune,” she told Gross.) In the isolated vocal track above, you can hear the others in the studio shouting in amazement. Despite giving what would become the most famous performance of her career, it turned out to be a tragic night for Clayton. Shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage. It has generally been assumed that the stress caused by the emotional intensity of her performance and the lateness of the hour caused the miscarriage. For many years she found the song too painful to hear, let alone sing. “That was a dark, dark period for me,” Clayton told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “but God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”
When you think of tulips, you think of Holland and likely the great tulip bubble of 1637. But the history of the tulip didn’t start there. It started in the Himalayas and then Turkey, where the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent first cultivated and obsessed over these flowers in the early sixteenth century. Like so many other things, the Ottomans eventually brought tulips to Europe. By the 1550s, they popped up in Vienna. Next Leiden University in the Netherlands. Fast forward a few more decades, and Holland found itself engulfed in tulip mania, the first recorded speculative bubble in history. Above, you can watch the history of the tulip unfold in a short animation. It was created by Stephane Kaas for the Tulip Museum in Amsterdam.
In 1969, Sesame Street debuted and introduced America’s children—growing up in the midst of intense disputes over integration—to its urban sensibilities and multicultural cast, all driven by the latest in childhood development research and Jim Henson wizardry. Despite the racially fractious times of its origin, the show was a success (although the state of Mississippi briefly banned it in 1970), and its list of celebrity guests from every conceivable domain reflected the diversity of its cast and hipness of its tone. With certain exceptions (particularly in later permutations), it’s always been a show that knew how to gauge the tenor of the times and appeal broadly to both children and their weary, captive guardians.
Being one of those weary captives, I can’t say enough how grateful I’ve been when a recognizable face interrupts Elmo’s babbling to sing a song or do a little comedy bit, winking at the parents all the while. These moments are fewer and farther between in the later ages of the show, but in the seventies, Sesame Street had musical routines worthy of Saturday Night Live. Take, for example, the 1973 appearance of Stevie Wonder on the show. While I was born too late to catch this when it aired, there’s no doubt that the child me would find Wonder and his band as funky as the grown-up parent does. Check them out above doing “Superstition.”
Like most musical artists who visit the show, Stevie also cooked something especially for the kids. In the clip above, watch him do a little number called “123 Sesame Street.” Wonder breaks out the talk box, a favorite gadget of his (he turned Frampton on to it). The band gets so into it, you’d think this was a cut off their latest album, and the kids (the show never used child actors) rock out like only seventies kids can. The show’s original theme song had its charm, but why the producers didn’t immediately change it to this is beyond me. I’d pay vintage vinyl prices to get it on record.
Finally, in our last clip from Stevie’s wonderful guest spot, he takes a break from full-on funk and roll to give Grover a little scat lesson and show off his pipes. The great Frank Oz as the voice of Grover is, as always, a perfect comic foil.
In October of 1933, Louis Armstrong and his “Harlem Hot Band” arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark for a series of eight shows at the Lyric Park theater. Thousands of fans mobbed the railway station, breaking through police barricades and climbing on top of train cars just to get a glimpse of the great jazz trumpeter as he stepped from his train.
Nowadays the Copenhagen visit is remembered because it was the first time Armstrong was ever filmed in concert. The Danish director Holger Madsen recruited Armstrong to appear in his feature film København, Kalundborg Og -?. Armstrong had made a cameo appearance in a 1931 film called Ex Flame, and on a sound stage the following year in two short films–a Paramount Pictures featurette and a Betty Boop cartoon–but the Copenhagen footage is the earliest of Armstrong playing live with his band.
The performance was filmed on October 21, 1933 at the Lyric Park. There was no audience in the theater during the filming. The shots of people applauding were made at a different time and spliced into the scene. Armstrong and his band play three songs: “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Dinah” and “Tiger Rag.” The nine-man band includes Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Charles D. Johnson on trumpet, Peter DuCongé on clarinet and alto saxophone, Henry Tyree on alto saxophone, Fletcher Allen on tenor saxophone, Lionel Guimarez on trombone, Justo Baretto on piano, German Arango on bass and Oliver Tines on drums.
Armstrong is brilliant in the film. His exuberant showmanship and virtuosity are striking, and his unmistakable genius for phrasing–the way his trumpet and voice sound like two sides of the same distinctive instrument–remind us of why many people still consider Armstrong the greatest jazz musician of all time.
First you set out to smash all institutions, but then you find the institutions have enshrined you. Isn’t that always the way? It certainly seems to have turned out that way for punk rock, in any case, which vowed in the seventies to tear it all up and start over again. Now, in the 2010s, we find tribute paid to not just the music but the aesthetics, lifestyles, and personalities of the punk movement by two separate, and separately well-respected, institutions. We recently featured the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Punk: Chaos to Couture. Today, you can start watching The Art of Punk, a series of documentaries from MOCAtv, the video channel of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. Its trailer, which appears at the top of the post, emphasizes its focus on, literally, the visual art of punk: its posters, its album art, its T-shirts, and even — un-punk as this may sound — its logos.
The series opens with the episode just above on Black Flag and Raymond Pettibon, designer of the band’s well-known four-bar icon. It catches up with not just him, but founding singer Keith Morris and bassist Chuck Dukowski, as well as Flea from the Red Hot Chili peppers, who grew up a fan of the greater Los Angeles punk scene from which Black Flag emerged. The episode concludes, needless to say, with Henry Rollins, who, though not an original member of the band and now primarily a spoken word performer, has come to embody their punk ethos in his own highly distinctive way. In the latest episode, just out today, The Art of Punk series takes you inside the world of Crass, the English punk band formed in 1977.
Burly Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has never lost his sense of humor, even when facing harsh repression from his government. But while the idea of 55-year old Ai recording a heavy metal record might seem like a stunt, the source material for his first single, “Dumbass” (above), is anything but funny. The furiously angry, expletive-filled song is inspired by Ai’s harsh treatment during his 81-day imprisonment in 2011. He’s calling the musical project “a kind of self-therapy” and will release six tracks on June 22—the second anniversary of his release—as an album called The Divine Comedy.
Ai sings (or howls, growls, and bellows) in Chinese. As you can see from the grim images in the video above—with the artist re-enacting and re-imagining his experiences in detention—the memories of his incarceration are still raw and painful. While he’s called his music “heavy metal,” The Guardian points out that “it’s not exactly Metallica” (unless you count that Lou Reed collaboration). Ai himself says of his sound:
After I said it would be heavy metal I ran back to check what heavy metal would be like. Then I thought, oh my god, it’s quite different…. So it’s Chinese heavy metal, or maybe Caochangdi [where his studio is based] heavy metal.
Call it what you want: Chinese heavy metal, practical joke, avant garde performance piece… it’s still likely to get Ai in even further trouble with Chinese authorities. As he explained to the New York Times, however, he “wanted to do something impossible…. I wanted to show young people here we can all sing…. It’s our voice.”
“Wireless Philosophy,” or Wiphi, is an online project of “open access philosophy” co-created by Yale and MIT that aims to make fundamental philosophical concepts accessible by “making videos that are freely available in a form that is entertaining” to people “with no background in the subject.” To accomplish this goal, they have contracted with an impressive range of professors of philosophy from prestigious universities across the country. Wiphi is still very much a work-in-progress, but they currently feature some interesting introductions to classical philosophical issues. Currently, the site divides into several basic categories like “Critical Thinking,” “Epistemology,” “Metaphysics,” “Ethics,” and “Political Philosophy.” Much of these are still unfinished, but the few videos on the site, such as those related to the problem of free will and the existence of God, provide viewers with much to chew on.
In the video above, MIT philosophy professor Richard Holton explains the basics of the problem of free will. He divides this into two distinct problems: the metaphysical and the epistemological. The first problem states that if the laws of nature are deterministic, everything that will happen is fixed, and there is in fact no free choice (no matter how we feel about it). Holton chooses to focus on the second problem, the problem of foreknowledge. Put simply, if things are determined, then if we know all of the conditions of reality, and have adequate resources, we should be able to predict everything that is going to happen.
Holton leaves aside enormously complicated developments in physics and opts to illustrate the problem with what he calls “a simple device.” In his illustration, one must predict whether a lightbulb will turn on by turning on another lightbulb, part of a system he calls a “frustrator.” In this scenario, even if we have all the knowledge and resources to make perfectly accurate predictions, the problem of “frustrators”—or faulty observers and feedback loops—complicates the situation irrevocably
In the video above, Professor Timothy Yenter describes the Cosmological argument for the existence of God, classically attributed to Aristotle, elaborated by Islamic philosophers and Thomas Aquinas, and taken up in the Enlightenment by Leibniz as the principle of sufficient reason. One of that argument’s premises, that the cosmos (everything that exists) must have a cause, assumes that the causal circumstances we observe within the system, the universe as a whole, must also apply outside of it. Professor Yenter describes this above in terms of the “fallacy of composition,” which occurs when one assumes that the whole has the same properties as its parts. (Such as arguing that since all of your body’s atoms are invisible to the naked eye, your whole body is invisible. Try heading to work naked tomorrow to test this out.)
This brings us to the problem of infinite regress. In the second part of his introduction to the Cosmological Argument—in which he discusses the so-called Modal Argument—Professor Yenter explains the key principle of Ex nihilo nihil fit, or “out of nothing, nothing comes.” This seems like a bedrock metaphysical principle, such that few question it, and it introduces a key distinction between necessary things—which must exist—and contingent things, which could be otherwise. The most important premise in the Modal Argument is that every contingent thing must be caused by something else. If all causes are contingent (which they seem to us to be) they must proceed from a necessary, self-existent thing. Whether that thing has all or any of the properties classically ascribed to the theistic God is another question all together, but Aquinas and the classical Islamic philosophers certainly thought so.
While there may be no philosophical nutcracker large enough to crack these problems, they remain perpetually interesting for many philosophers and scientists, and understanding the basic issues at stake is fundamental to any study of philosophy. In that sense, Wiphi provides a necessary service to those just beginning to wade out into the sea of The Big Questions.
Last month we told you about The Strange Day When Bugs Bunny Saved the Life of Mel Blanc. It’s a true tale about how, back in 1971, Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and other beloved Looney Tunes characters, got into a terrible car accident in Los Angeles and slipped into a coma. Blanc’s wife and son spent two long weeks in the hospital trying to revive him, but got no response. But then, one day, Blanc’s neurologist walked into the room and said to the patient: “Bugs Bunny, how are you doing today?” After a pause, a voice said, “Myeeeeh. What’s up doc?” You can get more on that story here. In the meantime, we’ll amuse you with another short story. Once upon a time, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist wanted to see how Mel Blanc (1908-1989) performed all of those Looney Tunes cartoon voices. So he took a fiber optic laryngoscope, stuck it down Blanc’s throat, and here’s what he saw. Watch above.
Get updates as soon as they go live, via RSS feed, email and now Twitter!
Follow on Twitter
Get the latest from our Twitter Stream.
Why can't we be friends?
Suggest a Link
Got a link we should post? Send it our way!
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.