Watch the First Russian Science Fiction Film, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

Despite the Soviet Union's suppression of a great many writers and filmmakers, the communist state nonetheless produced some of the finest film and literature of the 20th century. We are lucky, for example, to have Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which was never published during the author's lifetime and was for many years thereafter censored or relegated to samizdat versions. A similar fate almost befell the first Russian science fiction film, Aelita: Queen of Mars, a silent from 1924 that inspired such indispensable classics as Flash Gordon and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The film—which tops a Guardian list of "Seven Soviet sci-fi films everyone should see"—contributed to a rich cinematic vocabulary without which it would be hard to imagine the aesthetics of much science fiction in general.

Directed by Yakov Protazanov in the theatrical, futuristic constructivist style that Fritz Lang borrowed, Aelita tells the story of Los, an Earth engineer who builds a spaceship and travels to Mars to meet and fall in love with its queen.

Further plot developments make clear that Lang may owe something to the film's story as well, involving a tyrannical Martian ruler, Aelita's father, who ruthlessly exploits his planet's proletariat. Allmovie describes Aelita as "the Marxist struggle reaches outer space" and indeed the film dramatizes an alien revolution very close to the one that took place back on Earth.


Part of the reason the film fell out of favor with the Soviet government in later decades—and irked critics at the time—is its ambivalence about revolutionary politics through its portrayal of Los as a disaffected intellectual. Alexei Tolstoy—author of the film's source novel—had fewer reservations. The so-called "Comrade Count" won three Stalin prizes after his return from a brief European exile. Unlike the dissident critic Bulgakov, Tolstoy—a distant relative of both Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev—has been described by his enemies as cynical, opportunistic and, later, totally in thrall to Stalin. His friends probably described him as a loyal party man. (He is also credited with being the first to ascertain the Nazi's use of gas vans.)

Aelita the film made a favorable impression on its first audiences (see an original poster above). One of the first full-length films about space travel, it enabled ordinary Russians to imagine what may have seemed to them like the near future of Soviet technology. And yet, writes Andrew Horton in a lengthy essay on Aelita, despite its reputation, the sci-fi classic is "neither science fiction nor a pro-revolutionary film." Contemporary critics and filmmakers felt that Protazanov's adaptation not only showed insufficient commitment to the revolution, but it also manifested "alleged continuity with the bourgeois cinema of the Tsarist age"—a serious charge in the age of socialist realism and disruptive cinematic experiments like those of Dziga Vertov.

In hindsight, however, Aelita turns out to have been a film before its time, and indeed a work of classic sci-fi, in its extremely imaginative use of technology, costuming, and set design. Without the fascination it has always held for film buffs, it might have disappeared, given its opposition to Party dogma: "The film praises domesticity and married life at a time when society was experimenting with the nature and meaning of relationships," Horton writes, "It is a film that looks to rebuilding, consolidation, progress and the future and rejects revolution as an unachievable Utopian ideal open to hijack." All of this context can seem a bit heavy, but we needn't work too hard to untangle Aelita's ideological strands. Simply enjoy the movie as an entertaining technical achievement from which we can draw a line to later sci-fi films like 1957's Road to the Stars (above) and, from there, to modern masterpieces like Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

Aelita will be added to our list of 101 Silent Films, a subset of our larger collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Ubuweb

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald Conjugates “to Cocktail,” the Ultimate Jazz-Age Verb (1928)

fitzgerald conguates cocktail

I regularly meet up with speaking partners who help me learn their languages in exchange for my helping them learn English. Even though they usually speak much better English already than I speak Korean, Spanish, Japanese, or what have you, I often feel like I've got the heavier end of the job. Why? Because the English language, for all its advantages — its global reach, the ease with which it incorporates foreign terms and neologisms, its wealth of descriptive possibility — has the major disadvantage of seldom making immediate sense.

From English's great flexibility flows great frustration: how many times have foreign friends put up a piece of text to me — often from respected, canonical works of English literature — and demanded an explanation? They've usually stumbled over some obscure usage that qualifies as at least unorthodox and perhaps downright ungrammatical, but nonetheless intuitively understandable — if only to a native speaker like me. Here we have one example of just such a linguistic invention refined by no less a respected, canonical writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald: the verb "to cocktail."

"As ‘cocktail,’ so I gather, has become a verb, it ought to be conjugated at least once," wrote the author of The Great Gatsby in a 1928 letter to Blanche Knopf, the wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Who better to first lay out its full conjugation than the man who, as the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center puts it, "gave the Jazz Age its name"? Given that his fame "was for many years based less on his work than his personality—the society playboy, the speakeasy alcoholic whose career had ended in 'crack-up,' the brilliant young writer whose early literary success seemed to make his life something of a romantic idyll," he found himself well placed to offer the language a new "taste of Roaring Twenties excess."

And so Fitzgerald breaks it down:

Present: I cocktail, thou cocktail, we cocktail, you cocktail, they cocktail.

Imperfect: I was cocktailing.

Perfect or past definite: I cocktailed.

Past perfect: I have cocktailed.

Conditional: I might have cocktailed.

Pluperfect: I had cocktailed.

Subjunctive: I would have cocktailed.

Voluntary subjunctive: I should have cocktailed.

Preterit: I did cocktail.

If you, too, decide to teach this advanced verb to your English-learning friends, why not supplement the lesson with the audio clip just above, a reading of the letter from the Ransom Center? Language-learning, no matter the language, inevitably gets to be a grind from time to time, but varying the types of instructional media can help alleviate the inevitable headaches. And when the day's studies end, of course, an actual cocktailing session couldn't hurt. After all, they always say you speak a foreign language better after a drink or two.

via the great Lists of Note book

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Climb Virtually Up “El Capitan,” Yosemite’s Iconic Rock Wall, With Google Street View

Google has used its Street View technology to let you take virtual tours of some far-flung places -- places like Shackleton’s Antarctic, Mt. Everest and other high mountain peaks, The Amazon River, and The Grand Canyon. Now you can add to the list, El Capitan, the iconic rock wall in the middle of Yosemite National Park.

Yesterday, Google's official blog declared, "Today we’re launching our first-ever vertical Street View collection, giving you the opportunity to climb 3,000 feet up the world’s most famous rock wall: Yosemite’s El Capitan. To bring you this new imagery, we partnered with legendary climbers Lynn Hill, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell." Above, you can see this trio in action, talking about what makes El Cap a mecca for rock climbers everywhere.

To create this Street View of El Capitan, Hill, Honnold and Caldwell worked with Google engineers to figure out how to haul a camera up this sheer rock face. And what you ultimately get are some amazing 360-degree panoramic images. According to Caldwell, these "are the closest thing I’ve ever witnessed to actually being thousands of feet up a vertical rock face—better than any video or photo." Which, hating heights, is good enough for me.

via Google Blog

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1.5 Million Slavery Era Documents Will Be Digitized, Helping African Americans to Learn About Their Lost Ancestors


The Freedmen’s Bureau Project -- a new initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- will make available online 1.5 million historical documents, finally allowing descendants of former African-American slaves to learn more about their family roots. Near the end of the US Civil War, The Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help newly-freed slaves find their footing in postbellum America.

The Bureau "opened schools to educate the illiterate, managed hospitals, rationed food and clothing for the destitute, and even solemnized marriages." And, along the way, the Bureau gathered handwritten records on roughly 4 million African Americans. Now, those documents are being digitized with the help of volunteers, and, by the end of 2016, they will be made available in a searchable database at

According to Hollis Gentry, a Smithsonian genealogist, this archive "will give African Americans the ability to explore some of the earliest records detailing people who were formerly enslaved," finally giving us a sense "of their voice, their dreams.”

You can learn more about the project by watching the video below, and you can volunteer your own services here.

via The Guardian

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Animated Introductions to Three Sociologists: Durkheim, Weber & Adorno

Is sociology an art or a science? Is it philosophy? Social psychology? Economics and political theory? Surveying the great sociologists since the mid-19th century, one would have to answer "yes" to all of these questions. Sociologists like Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno conducted serious scholarly and social-scientific analyses, and wrote highly speculative theory. Though it may seem like we're all sociologists now, making critical judgments about large groups of people, the sociologists who created and carried on the discipline generally did so with sound evidence and well-reasoned argument. Unlike so much current knee-jerk commentary, even when they're wrong they're still well worth reading.

Having already surveyed Marx in his series on Euro-American political philosophers, School of Life founder Alain de Botton now tackles the other three illustrious names on the list above, starting with Durkheim at the top, then Weber above, and Adorno below. The first two figures were contemporaries of Marx, the third a later interpreter. Like that bearded German scourge of capitalism, these three—in more measured or pessimistic ways—levied critiques against the dominant economic system. Durkheim took on the problem of suicide, Weber the anxious religious underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and Adorno the consumer culture of instant gratification.

That's so far, at least, as de Botton's very cursory introductions get us. As with his other series, this one more or less ropes the thinkers represented here into the School of Life's program of promoting a very particular, middle class view of happiness. And, as with the other series, the thinkers surveyed here all seem to more or less agree with de Botton's own views. Perhaps others who most certainly could have been included, like W.E.B. Dubois, Jane Addams, or Hannah Arendt, would offer some very different perspectives.

De Botton again makes his points with pithy generalizations, numbered lists, and quirky, cut-out animations, breezily reducing lifetimes of work to a few observations and moral lessons. I doubt Adorno would approach these less-than-rigorous methods charitably, but those new to the field of sociology or the work of its practitioners will find here some tantalizing ideas that will hopefully inspire them to dig deeper, and to perhaps improve their own sociological diagnoses.

Note: For those interested, Yale has a free open course on Sociology called "Foundations of Modern Social Theory," which covers most of the figures listed above. You can always find it in our collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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

Take a Visual Walking Tour of Franz Kafka’s Prague with Will Self (Then Read His Digital Essay, “Kafka’s Wound”)

"There is nothing intrinsically imaginative about the idea of ‘gold,’ nor the idea of ‘mountain,’" writes Will Self, citing an idea of the philosopher David Hume, "but join them together and you have a fantastically gleaming ‘gold mountain.’ And might not that gold mountain be the Laurenziberg in Prague? After all, it looms over contemporary Prague just as it loomed in the consciousness of Franz Kafka, whose earliest surviving narrative fragment, ‘Description of a Struggle,’ is in part an account of a phantasmagorical ascent of its slopes."

This association comes from "Kafka's Wound," Will Self's new essay in the London Review of Books — or rather, a new "digital essay" from the LRB on the BBC and Arts Council England's new site The Space, one which takes full advantage of the multimedia future, much enthused over back in the 1990s, in which we now find ourselves. For some readers, myself included, the association of the author of The Metamorphosis and The Trial with Hume, the author of so many volumes fictional, nonfictional, and psychogeographical (find some in our collection of Free Philosophy eBooks), constitutes reason enough to minimize all other windows and get reading.

But Self has taken on an even more ambitious project than that: the mind-mappish interface of "Kafka's Wound" offers a wealth of audio, video, and other textual material to supplement the experience of the main text, all of which connects in some way to the essay's subject: Will Self's "personal relationship to Kafka’s work through the lens of the short story 'A Country Doctor' (1919), and in particular through the aperture of the wound described in that story." Self's own site describes the essay as "'through composed' with Will’s own thoughts, as he works, being responded to by digital-content providers," with more of that content to come through July.

The environment internet, which facilitates our natural tendency to drift from subject to at least semi-related subject with an addictive vengeance, encourages associational thinking. But so do cities, as a psychogeographer like Will Self knows full well. And so part of this rich literary investigation takes the form of an hourlong documentary (click here or the image above to view), in which Self takes a walking tour of Kafka's Prague, seeking out the writer's "genius loci," the sites that gave settings to the milestones of his life and shape to his artistic and intellectual sensibilities. He also takes the opportunity to do a Kafka reading right there in Kafka's hometown. It's one thing to read Kafka with the Laurenziberg in mind, but still quite another to do it with the Laurenziberg in sight.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch an Animation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s New Story, “Love Is Blind and Deaf”

Briefly noted: Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything Is Illuminated) has a new short story, “Love Is Blind and Deaf,” in the Summer Fiction Issue of The New Yorker. And, by short, I mean short. His quirky Adam and Eve story runs 592 words.

You can read the story free online here (if you haven't exceeded the monthly quota of The New Yorker's paywall). Or, if you're more visual, you can watch an animated adaptation of the story above. Directed by Gur Bentwich and animated by Ofra Kobliner, the video was produced by Storyvid, a nonprofit production company that aspires to create “the literary equivalent of a music video.”

For more Foer, listen to him read Amos Oz's story, "The King of Oz," which otherwise appears in our collection of 630 Free Audio Books.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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