Is There an Afterlife? Christopher Hitchens Speculates in an Animated Video

Ten months before his death -- a death he knew was coming -- Christopher Hitchens debated the question, “Is there an afterlife?”.  Sharing the stage with Sam Harris, and Rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hitchens lamented how “It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don’t know, but who are unbelievers, and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind [about the existence of God]?’ That is considered almost a polite question.” “It’s a religious falsification that people like myself scream for a priest at the end. Most of us go to our end with dignity.”

After spending years as an unapologetic atheist, Hitchens also wasn't going to start believing in an afterlife  -- or what he half jokingly called "The Never Ending Party." The video above takes some of Hitchens comments from the debate and turns them into a whimsical animation. It's classic Hitchens. Equal parts emphatic and funny.  Below, you can watch the original debate in its entirety.

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The City in Cinema Mini-Documentaries Reveal the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, Her, Drive, Repo Man, and More

What do movies like Blade Runner, Her, Drive, and Repo Man, separated by the years and even more so by their sensibilities, have in common? All come from auteur directors, all have accumulated considerable fan followings, and all have styles all their own. But to my mind, one important quality unites them more than any other: all take place in Los Angeles. What's more, all take place in a distinctive vision of Los Angeles, that most photographed but least understood city in the world. Every feature film that uses Los Angeles as something more than a backdrop, whether it tries to represent or reimagine it, also acts as an accidental documentary of the city: of its built environment, of its people, of the ever-shifting ideas we have of it.

On that premise, I created Los Angeles, the City in Cinema, a series of video essays meant to examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — just like the contradictory characteristics of the city itself. At the top of the post, you can watch my episode on Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's 1982 proto-cyberpunk future noir that remains, to this day, the popular idea of the Los Angeles of the future (as evidenced by the pejorative currency of the term "Blade Runner-ization" among NIMBYs): denser, darker, thoroughly Asianized, and taken back to a third-world industrial phase it never really passed through in the first place.

But more recently, a competing vision of Los Angeles' future emerged in the form of Her, Spike Jonze's tale of a mustachioed, ukulele-playing milquetoast who falls in love with a sentient computer operating system. He does so in the high-rises and high-speed trains of, by comparison to Blade Runner, a glossier, gentler, future Los Angeles not only free of killer android replicants but — even more surprisingly to many an Angeleno — free of cars. My video essay on Her compares and contrasts Scott and Jonze's ideas of what lies ahead for the city: would you rather live in the former's Los Angeles, hybridized with a grittier, less orderly Tokyo, or the latter's, hybridized with a sanitized Shanghai?

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive gave us a new take on the old tradition of European filmmakers examining Los Angeles with a kind of perplexed fascination, as previously exemplified by John Boorman's Point Blank, Jacques Deray's  The Outside Man, and Jacques Demy's Model ShopEnglish cult director Alex Cox added his own rough-edged volume to that shelf with 1984's sci-fi punk favorite Repo Man. In 2000, Cox's countryman Mike Figgis pulled off his real-time, four-screen experiment Timecode on the Sunset Strip, not far from the strip club where John Cassavetes set much of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie more than twenty years earlier. You can find video essays on these movies and others on the list of those I've produced so far:

New videos, including episodes on this year's solid Los Angeles pictures, Nightcrawler and the Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, will appear regularly. If you live anywhere near Portland, Oregon, note that I'll give a talk and screening there entitled "Los Angeles and Portland: The Cities in Cinema" at the Hollywood Theatre, featuring never-before-seen video essays on both Los Angeles and Portland films, on January 25, 2015. Keep an eye on their site for details.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Werner Herzog Plays Himself in Cartoon That Satirizes Obama’s 2008 Election & Race in America

The United States has two important cultural means of self-examination—the work of foreign observers and of domestic satirists. In the former category, we have the longstanding example of political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville and the much bleaker, contemporary vision of Werner Herzog. As for the latter, we have venerable literary heroes like Mark Twain and more populist, contemporary voices like Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, and cartoonist Aaron McGruder, creator of the comic strip-turned-animated series The Boondocks. In 2010, the Season 3 debut episode of the biting Adult Swim show brought these two traditions together, as McGruder took on the election of America’s first black president by imagining a German documentarian—Herzog—who examines the nation’s response through interviews with the show’s characters.

The clip above will give you an idea of the general tone. Herzog plays an exaggerated version of himself, complete with stereotypically German expressions of existential despair. The Freeman family, the show’s center, represents an also-exaggerated range of responses from black Americans to Obama’s election. Huey, the young black radical (“retired”), expresses a deep, cynical skepticism. His brother Riley has a total disregard for the social and political import of the election, confident instead that a black president will give him a license to do what he wants. And the brothers’ grandfather Robert, a Civil Rights veteran, displays an unqualified optimism and nostalgic pride for his activist days. The full episode also satirizes a certain ill-informed rapper with a character called Thugnificent and certain superficial white progressives (“Obama Guy” and “Obama Girl”). And, of course, belligerent reactionary Uncle Ruckus gets his say.

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By the time of its airing, the episode was already nearly two years late in its comment on the events, making it feel, wrote the A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff, “like an instant period piece.” Perhaps now it seems downright paleolithic in the timescale of political commentary. Making this kind of cultural critique seem relevant outside of the immediate moment is a challenge writers on The Daily Show confront, well, daily. But here, the content holds up, not only because Herzog has a way of making everything timeless, but also because “the episode takes us back to… the way [Barack Obama] managed to make almost every single one of his supporters believe that he was going to do what THEY most wanted him to do and not what he had actually promised to do.” In many ways, the country is still recovering from a brutal hangover after this post-2008 election high.

Whether the president is fully to blame for encouraging false hopes---and fears---is highly debatable. In any case, the characters’ outsized expectations or expressions of apathy or virulent outrage mirror many of the responses of both liberals and conservatives. But it seems that both the left and right shared at least one hope: that the election of the country’s first black president would put an end to its oldest, deepest, most persistent ill. “At the end of the episode,” writes VanDerWerff, “most of the characters seem disappointed that Obama didn’t completely rewrite the space-time continuum, that America still struggles with race.” An understatement perhaps even in 2010, the phrase “still struggles with race” is even more so today, for reasons both obvious and less so.

That the United States---despite the continued efforts of a great many activists and some few legislators---is still riven with deep racial divides, and that these represent the persistence of a historical legacy, should not be matters in much dispute. A multitude of academic analyses on "staggering disparities" in policing practices, imbalances in the justice system, and profound wealth inequality and discrimination in housing and employment bear out the claim. How we talk about these issues, who is authorized to do so, and what can be done about it, on the other hand, are matters of considerable, seemingly unending debate. It has always seemed particularly ironic that many comedians---from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock and Louis CK---have achieved much of their mainstream success by telling hard truths about the state of race in America, truths few people seem to want to hear. When those messages come from non-entertainers, for example, the backlash can be swift and vicious.

But this is nothing new. From the candor of Shakespeare’s jesters to Swift’s poison pen to, yes, The Boondocks, humor and satire have served as vehicles for what we would otherwise suppress or repress. (No need to be a Freudian to acknowledge the point). In this episode, the satirical target isn’t only Obama’s supporters and detractors at home—though they get their due. Herzog’s editorial intrusions also satirize some woefully naïve, ahistorical expectations of a global, or at least European, community. As the Herzog character puts it in his second question to Huey, “now that it looks like Obama is going to win, as a black African American Negro, are you merely excited, or are you extremely excited that everything is going to change forever.” VanDerWerff reads Huey’s apathetic response to such grandiosity as an expression of McGruder’s view that idealism is “both an unsustainable tragedy and the only rational response to a world that's hopelessly screwed.” But in the face of unbridled idealism, Huey’s hard-bitten realism is tonic: “Hope,” he says, “is irrational.” So also, perhaps, is despair.

Watch the full episode here and read a complete summary here.

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

Watch a Music Video & Hear Tracks From Maya Angelou’s Posthumous Hip-Hop Album, Caged Bird Songs

Before she died earlier this year, Maya Angelou was working on Caged Bird Songs, a musical collaboration that features Angelou reciting her poems and producers Shawn Rivera and RoccStarr blending them with modern day hip-hop. After her passing, Angelou's estate continued nudging the project along. Eventually the 13-song album was released in November, and now comes a music video. The video (above) centers around “Harlem Hopscotch,” a poem Angelou wrote in 1969. The text of the poem is available over at the Poetry Foundation. You can hear more tracks from the album below, or purchase the complete album here:

via Metafilter

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Kurt Vonnegut Reveals “Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist” in His Humanist of the Year Award Speech (1992)

Note: Vonnegut starts talking at around the 3:40 mark.

This is humanism, as explained by biochemist, science fiction author and former president of the American Humanist Association Isaac Asimov:

Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills.

There’s a widely disseminated Kurt Vonnegut quote that puts things even more succinctly:

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I'm dead.

It's a definition Vonnegut, Asimov’s honorary successor as AHA president, a scientist’s son, and, famously, a survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, embodied, though surely not the only one he coined.

In his 1992 acceptance speech for the association’s Humanist of the Year award, above, he recalls how a student pressed him for a definition. He chose to fob the kid off on better paid colleagues at the University of Iowa, but privately came up with another take:

…a humanist, perhaps, was somebody who was crazy about human beings, who, like Will Rogers, had never met one he didn't like. That certainly did not describe me. It did describe my dog, though.

As the title of Vonnegut’s speech implies ("Why My Dog is Not a Humanist"), Sandy, his undiscriminating Hungarian sheepdog, ultimately fell short of satisfying the criteria that would have labelled him a humanist. He lacked the capacity for rational thought of the highest order, and moreover, he regarded all humans - not just Vonnegut - as gods.

Ergo, your dog is probably not a humanist either.

Characteristically, Vonnegut ranged far and wide in his consideration of the matter, touching on a number of topics that remain germane, some 20 years after his remarks were made: race, excessive force, the treatment of prisoners…and Bill Cosby.

For introduction to humanism, please see:  Stephen Fry Explains Humanism in 4 Animated Videos: Happiness, Truth and the Meaning of Life & Death

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, Hoosier and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

David Lynch and Moby Talk Blues Guitar, Meditation, Quinoa & the Joy of Los Angeles

Electronic musician Moby and maker of disturbing films David Lynch might, at first, seem an odd conversational pair. What could the shaven-headed Generation Xer from New York who made the album Play have in common with the messily yet elaborately coiffed Baby Boomer from Montana who made the movie Blue Velvet? But as the recorded event from this year's International Music Summit demonstrates, they've got a lot to talk about. Enthusiasts of both creators may know that they actually do have professional connections: Lynch directed the music video for Moby's "Shot in the Back of the Head," Moby has made his music free to filmmakers, and Lynch has even recorded an album of his own, complete with troubling video.

They've even become friends, ones close enough that Lynch just calls Moby "Mo," and Moby once gave Lynch a slide guitar as a present. They've got such a rapport, in fact, that Moby can ask Lynch, leadingly and admittedly so, if Lynch considers that slide guitar the best present he ever received. He asks it, in fact, right up there onstage at the IMS, along with such other questions, pre-written on a sheet, as "Have you ever grown maggots?," "Is Inland Empire my favorite movie of the last ten years?," "What would your favorite birthday meal be, keeping in mind this is a conference about electronic music?," "Do we fear death?," and "Would you like to grow quinoa in your backyard?"

Though both Moby and Lynch love their quinoa, they make even more of a connection over their city of residence, Los Angeles. The former points out that three of the latter's pictures — Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire — star not any particular human actor, but Los Angeles itself. "Anything goes," Lynch explains about the city that inspires him (sometimes, no doubt, during the meditation sessions he also discusses here) with its light and its jasmine-scented air. "You're free to think and do things" — two pursuits that both of these guys have engaged in, unceasingly and fruitfully, over their entire careers.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How the “Paul McCartney is Dead” Hoax Started at an American College Newspaper and Went Viral (1969)

Next time you see the still-youthful and musically prolific Paul McCartney, take a good hard look and ask yourself, “is it really him?” Can you be sure? Because maybe, just maybe, the conspiracy theorists are right—maybe Paul did die in a car accident in 1966 and was replaced by a double who looks, sounds, acts, and writes almost exactly like him. Almost. It’s possible. Entirely implausible, wholly improbable, but within the realm of physical possibility.

In fact, the rumor of Paul’s death and replacement by some kind of pod person imposter cropped up not once, but twice during the sixties. First, in January, 1967, immediately after an accident involving McCartney’s Mini Cooper that month. The car, driven by Moroccan student Mohammad Hadjij, crashed on the M1 after leaving McCartney’s house en route to Keith Richard’s Sussex Mansion. Hadjij was hospitalized, but not killed, and Paul, riding in Mick Jagger’s car, arrived at the destination safely.

The following month, the Beatles Book Monthly magazine quashed rumors that Paul had been driving the Mini and had died, writing, “there was absolutely no truth in it at all, as the Beatles’ Press Officer found out when he telephoned Paul’s St. John’s Wood home and was answered by Paul himself who had been at home all day with his black Mini Cooper Safely locked up in the garage.” “The magazine,” writes the Beatles Bible, “downplayed the incident, and claimed the car was in McCartney’s possession.”

In 1969, rumors of Paul’s death and a conspiracy to cover it up began circulating again, this time with an impressive apparatus that included publications in college and local newspapers, discussions on several radio shows, a university research team, and enough esoteric clues to keep highly suspicious, stoned, and/or paranoid, minds guessing for decades afterward. The formless gossip first officially took shape in print in the article “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?” in Iowa’s Drake University student newspaper, the Times-Delphic. Cataloguing “an amazing series of photos and lyrics on the group’s albums” that pointed to “a distinct possibility that McCartney may indeed be insane, freaked out, even dead,” the piece dives headfirst into the kind of bizarre analysis of disparate symbols and tenuous coincidences worthy of the most dogged of today’s conspiracy-mongers.



Invoked are ephemera like “a mysterious hand” raised over Paul’s head on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover---"an ancient death symbol of either the Greeks or the American Indians"---and Paul's bass, lying "on the grave at the group’s feet.” The lyric “blew his mind out in a car” from “A Day in the Life” comes up, and more photographic evidence from the album’s back cover and centerfold photo. Evidence is produced from Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album. Of the latter, you’ve surely heard, or heard of, the voice seeming to intone, “Turn me on, dead man,” and “Cherish the dead,” when “Revolution No. 9” is played backwards. Only a college dorm room could have nurtured such a discovery.

The article reads like a parody---similar to the subversive, half-serious satirical weirdness common to the mid-sixties hippie scene. But whether or not its author, Tim Harper, meant to pull off a hoax, the Paul is dead meme went viral when it hit the airwaves the following month. First, a caller to Detroit radio station WKNR transmitted the theory to DJ Russ Gibb. Their hour-long conversation lead to a review of Abbey Road in The Michigan Daily titled “McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light.” With tongue in cheek, writer Fred LaBour called the death and replacement of Paul “the greatest hoax of our time and the subsequent founding of a new religion based upon Paul as Messiah.” In the mode of paranoid conspiracy theory so common to the time—a genre mastered by Thomas Pynchon as a literary art—LaBour invented even more clues, inadvertently feeding a public hungry for this kind of thing. “Although clearly intended as a joke,” writes the Beatles Bible, “it had an impact far wider than the writer and his editor expected.”

Part of the aftermath came in two more radio shows that October of 1969. First, in two parts at the top, New York City DJ Roby Yonge makes the case for McCartney’s death on radio station WABC-AM. Recycling many of the “clues” from the previous sources, he also contends that a research team of 30 students at Indiana University has been put on the case. Yonge plainly states that some of the clues only emerge “if you really get really, really high… on some, you know, like, mind-bending drug,” but this proviso doesn’t seem to undermine his confidence in the shaky web of connections.

Was Yonge’s broadcast just an attention grabbing act? Maybe. The next Paul is Dead radio show, just above, is most certainly an Orson Welles-like publicity stunt. Broadcast on Halloween night, 1969, on Buffalo, NY’s WKBW, the show employs several of the station’s DJs, who construct a detailed and dramatic narrative of Paul’s death. The broadcast indulges the same album-cover and lyric divination of the earlier Paul is Dead media, but by this time, it’s grown pretty hoary. But for a small contingent of die-hards, the rumor was mostly put to rest just a few days later when Life magazine published a cover photograph of Paul---who had been out of the public eye after the Beatles' breakup---with his wife Linda and their kids. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, McCartney famously remarked in the interview inside, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” and added, “If I was dead, I’m sure I’d be the last to know.”

In later interviews, the Beatles denied having anything to do with the hoax. Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970 that the idea of them intentionally planting obscure clues in their albums “was bullshit, the whole thing was made up.” The hoax did make for some interesting publicity—even featuring in the storyline of a Batman comics issue—but the band mostly found it baffling and annoying. Certain fans, however, refused to let it die, and there are those who still swear that Paul’s imposter, allegedly named Billy Shears and sometimes called “Faul,” still walks the earth. Paul is Dead websites proliferate on the internet---some more, some less convincing; all of them outlandish, and all offering a fascinating descent into the seemingly bottomless rabbit hole of conspiracy theory. If that's your kind of trip, you can easily get lost---as did pop culture briefly in 1969---in endless "Paul is Dead" speculation.

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

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