Orson Welles Reads From Moby-Dick: The Great American Director Takes on the Great American Novel

If you took a poll to determine in whose voice most readers would like to hear their audio books, I imagine Orson Welles would land pretty high on the list. And if you took a poll to determine which book most readers would rather approach in audio form than paper form, I imagine Herman Melville's weighty but undeniably important (and still literarily fascinating) Moby-Dick would land pretty high on the list. Unfortunately for us, Welles never sat down to get the entirety of Moby-Dick on tape, but he did give the book a few readings on film, rounded up today for your enjoyment.

Most famously, Welles appeared in John Huston's 1956 adaptation of the novel as Father Mapple, deliverer of the sermon on Jonah heard by the narrator Ishmael and his bunkmate Queequeg early on in the story, just before they sign on to the Pequod. Possessed of an interest of his own in Melville's masterwork, Welles used his paycheck from the cameo to bring Moby-Dick to the stage. But he also wanted to do something cinematic with the material, as evidenced by the other two videos here: readings he shot in 1971, during production of The Other Side of the Wind. In them, he speaks the novel's immortal opening line, "Call me Ishmael."

Though he may sound even more compelling in Ishmael's role than in Father Mapple's, these clips do make you wonder what, or which character, stoked Welles' fascination with Moby-Dick in the first place. Certainly we can draw obvious parallels between him and the Pequod's Captain Ahab in terms of their tendency toward grand, all-consuming, impossible-seeming projects. Then again, Ahab labors under the idea that man can, with sufficient will, directly perceive all truths, while Welles made F for Fake, so perhaps he was a questioning, skeptical Ishmael after all. Whomever he identified with, this pillar of American cinema must have had big plans for this pillar of American literature — which, alas, we can now only struggle to perceive, just as Ahab and Ishmael struggle to perceive the form of the whale deep in the water.

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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.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketches of Mind-Bending Chess Problems

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Most of us strive to achieve some kind of distinction—or competence—in one, often quite narrow, field. And for some of us, the path to success involves leaving behind many a path not taken. Childhood pursuits like ballet, for example, the high jump, the trumpet, acting, etc. become hazy memories of former selves as we grow older and busier. But if you have the formidable will and intellect of émigré Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, you see no need to abandon your beloved avocations simply because you are one of the 20th century's most celebrated writers—in both Russian and English. No indeed. You also go on to become a celebrated amateur lepidopterist (see his butterfly drawings here), earning distinction as curator of lepidoptera at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and originator of an evolutionary theory of butterfly migration. And as if that were not enough, you spend your spare time formulating complicated chess problems, earning such a reputation that you are invited in 1970 to join the American chess team to create problems for international competitions.

Nabokov Chess Problem

Nabokov was not easily impressed by other writers or scientists, but he held chess players in especially high regard. His "heroes include a chess grandmaster," writes Nabokov scholar Janet Gezari, "and a chess problem composer…; chess games occur in several of the novels; and chess and chess problem language and imagery regularly put his readers' chess knowledge to the test." His third novel, 1930's The Defense, centers on a chess master driven to despair by his genius, a character based on real grandmaster Curt von Bardeleben. For Nabokov, the skill and ingenuity required for composing chess problems paralleled that required for great writing: "The strain on the mind is formidable," he wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory, "the element of time drops out of one's consciousness." Puzzling out chess problems and solutions, he wrote, "demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity and splendid insincerity"—all qualities, we'd have to agree, of Nabokov's finely wrought fictions.

Nabokov Chess Game

In 1970, Nabokov published Poems and Problems, a collection of thirty-nine Russian poems, with English translations, fourteen English poems, and eighteen chess problems, with solutions. He had pursued this passion since his teens, and published nearly three dozen chess problems in his lifetime. At the top of the post, see one of them, "Mate in 2," sketched out in Nabokov's hand (try to solve it yourself here). Below it, see another of the author's chess problem sketches, and in the photo above, see Nabokov absorbed in a chess game with his wife.

Though it may seem that Nabokov had limitless energy and time to devote to his extra-literary pursuits, he also wrote with regret about the price he paid for his obsession: "the possessive haunting of my mind," as he called it, "with carved pieces or their intellectual counterparts swallowed up so much time during my most productive and fruitful years, time which I could have better spent on linguistic adventures." Like the lepidopterists still marveling over Nabokov's contributions to that field, the chess lovers who encounter his problems, and his ingenious use of the game in fiction, would hardly agree that his pursuit of chess was fruitless or unproductive.

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

An Animated Intro to G.W.F. Hegel, and Everything Else You Wanted to Know About the Daunting German Philosopher

There’s no way around it, German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is incredibly difficult to understand. And yet, his work, like few others since Plato, has been reduced over and over again to one idea—the “Hegelian dialectic” of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” As a 1996 beginner’s guide to Hegel phrases it, this “triadic structure” is the “organic, fractal form” of the effusive thinker’s logic. The formula is what most lay people learn of Hegel, and often no more. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Hegel himself never used these terms in this way. As Gustav E. Mueller has written of this “most vexing and devastating legend,” Hegel “does not use this ‘triad’ once” in all twenty volumes of his complete works, nor “does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth century.” So where does the idea come from?

From Hegel’s interpreters, who—baffled by his “obscurity” and “peculiar terminology and style”—have imposed all sorts of clarifying (or distorting) concepts on his work. In his animated School of Life video introduction above, Alain de Botton begins with the problem of Hegel’s famous difficulty. Hegel’s writing has generally been thought of as “horrible”—obscure, overstuffed, tangled, “confusing and complicated when it should be clear and direct.” I can’t speak to his German, but this certainly seems to be the case in English. Yet, whether anyone can say what a philosopher’s work “should be” seems like a matter of interpretive bias. How can we, after all, separate a thinker’s ideas from his or her prose, as though these things can exist independently of each other? De Botton continues with another should:

He tapped into a weakness of human nature: to be trustful of grave-sounding, incomprehensible prose. This has made philosophy much weaker in the world than it should be, and it’s made it much harder to hear the valuable things that Hegel has to say to us.

The video goes on to make a short list of “a small number of lessons” we can take from Hegel. I’ll leave it to you to find out what de Botton thinks those are. Some may find in his tidy summations a useful guide to Hegel’s thought, others a further oversimplification of a philosophy that deliberately resists easy reading. No doubt, whatever we make of Hegel, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that his thinking easily boils down to a “Hegelian dialectic.”

For those seeking to understand why his work has been so influential despite, or because of, its legendary difficulty, there are numerous resources online. One might start with “Hegel by Hypertext,” a huge compendium of introductory and biographical material, analysis, discussion, links, and Hegel’s own writing. Hegel.net collects excerpts and full texts of the philosopher’s work in both German and English, as well as “works of Hegel’s 19th century followers” on both the right and left. Hegel’s most famous interpreter was of course Karl Marx, and you will find in every archive a number of commentaries and critiques from Marx himself and several Marxist thinkers.

The Hegel Society of America also gives us articles on Hegel from a range of thinkers across the political spectrum. Finally, we should attempt, as best we can, to grapple with Hegel’s own words, and we can do so with all of his major work on line in translation at the University of Adelaide’s eBooks library. For two very different ways of reading Hegel, see professor Rick Roderick’s lecture on “Hegel and Modern Life” and Slavoj Žižek’s lecture on “The Limits of Hegel," above. And should you feel that any or all of these interpreters misrepresent the formidable German philosopher, have a listen to the lecture below by Dr. Justin Burke entitled, appropriately, “Everything You Know About Hegel is Wrong.”

Find courses on Hegel in our collection of 140 Free Online Philosophy Courses, and texts by the philosopher on our list of 135 Free Philosophy eBooks.

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

Hayao Miyazaki’s Universe Recreated in a Wonderful CGI Tribute

The exponential democratization of digital technology every year has led to a wealth of video essays and fan films from bedroom auteurs, the likes of which would have been unimaginable even five years ago  To wit: this beautiful tribute to the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s anime god, and his Studio Ghibli. A typical fan video would have edited together a “best of” clip show, using a song to link the scenes. But a Paris-based animator named "Dono" has gone one step further and created a tribute where scenes and characters from Miyazaki all frolic about a 3-D modeled world, where the bathhouse from Spirited Away is rendered in all of its glory, and Totoro’s catbus is only a few blocks away from Kiki’s Delivery Service, and next door to Porco Rosso's favorite hangout. Even Lupin III, not Miyazaki's original creation, but who starred in the director's first feature, gets a look in.

It’s very charming, and judging from Dono’s other work on his Vimeo channel, a huge step up and no doubt a labor of love. And here’s the other thing about this seamless work of fan art. In the past, the software and the computing power needed to make such a film would have been both prohibitively expensive and the domain of a design company. For this tribute, three of the four software programs named in its creation--Gimp, Blender, and Natron--are free and open-source, and run on a laptop. (The fourth, Octane, costs a little bit of money.)

via Vice

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Free: Hours of Jack Kerouac Reading Beat Poems & Verse

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Image by Tom Palumbo, via Wikimedia Commons

A high school friend who paid me a visit last weekend said she still doesn't know whether reading Jack Kerouac saved or ruined her life. I, for one, could think of no higher praise for a writer. I believe she entered that dissolute Beat's literary whirlwind through the portal of a second-hand copy of his America-crisscrossing novel On the Road, as many young people do, but since then the internet has made it much easier to get into Kerouac through a variety of other media as well.

Long-playing records, for instance: if you happen to use Spotify (and if you don't yet, you can download the free software to get onboard here), you already have access to a good deal of material delivered in Kerouac's own voice, sometimes against music. On 1959's Poetry for the Beat Generation (above), an album he put together with Steve Allen (on whose talk show he famously appeared), he reads his work while Allen accompanies him on the piano. That same year saw the release of Blues and Haikus, featuring that same Kerouac voice and sensibility, but backed this time by jazz saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

On 1960's Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation (bottom), his final spoken-word album, Kerouac goes without jazzmen entirely. But then, some of his die-hard fans might argue that he doesn't need them, that his use of the English language constitutes more than enough wild, improvisational, but somehow still disciplined music by itself. That may sound like a bit much, but Kerouac actually had a lot in common with his fellow American icons in the realm of jazz, not least a lifestyle that led him into an early grave and a legacy as a figure both tragic and inspiring in equal measure. Maybe you hear it in his prose; maybe you'll hear it in his voice.

 

As a final bonus, you can stream a fourth album, On the Beat Generation.

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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.

The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: What If The Bard Wrote The Big Lebowski?

We live in an age of mash ups. A few years ago some malcontent came up with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Our cities are teeming with food trucks hawking Korean tacos and ramen burgers. And chess boxing is apparently a thing. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that some evil genius would merge the most quotable movie of the past 20 years, The Big Lebowski, with William Shakespeare.

The resulting book, written by Adam Bertocci, is called Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, and it does a surprisingly good job of capturing the language of the Bard while staying true to the original movie. The author reportedly wrote the first draft of the book in a single sleepless weekend. An impressive feat that the author dismisses in an interview with CNN that you can see above.

“Anybody could, given the lack of a social life,” deadpans Bertocci, “take a weekend with a movie they admired and an author that they knew well and make a similarly lengthy mash up of it.”

In Bertocci’s fevered reworking (read the first 3 scenes for free here), the Dude is recast as The Knave. His belligerent best friend is Sir Walter of Poland. The hapless Donnie is Sir Donald of Greece. Knox Harrington, Mauve’s gratingly giggly conceptual artist friend, is in this version a tapestry artist. And of course, Da Fino, the PI, who shadows the Dude in the movie, is listed simply as Brother Seamus.

But where Bertocci really shines is in his clever appropriation of Shakespearean language. The film’s copious profanity has been replaced with more Bard-worthy epithets like “rash egg” or “varlet.” The word “verily” peppers the Knave’s dialogue as the word “like” peppers the Dude’s. And when Walter waxes poetic about the rules of bowling, he does so in iambic pentameter.

To get a sense of the differences, compare the clip above from the movie with the Bard-ofied text of the same scene below.

THE KNAVE’s house. Enter THE KNAVE, carrying parcels, and BLANCHE and WOO. They fight.

BLANCHE
Whither the money, Lebowski? Faith, we are as servants to Bonnie;
promised by the lady good that thou in turn were good for’t.

WOO
Bound in honour, we must have our bond; cursed be our tribe
if we forgive thee.

BLANCHE
Let us soak him in the chamber-pot, so as to turn his head.

WOO
Aye, and see what vapourises; then he will see what is foul.

They insert his head into the chamber-pot.

BLANCHE
What dreadful noise of waters in thine ears! Thou hast cool’d
thy head; think now upon drier matters.

WOO
Speak now on ducats else again we’ll thee duckest; whither the
money, Lebowski?

THE KNAVE
Faith, it awaits down there someplace; prithee let me glimpse
again.

WOO
What, thou rash egg! Thus will we drown thine exclamations.

They again insert his head into the chamber-pot.

BLANCHE
Trifle not with the fury of two desperate men. Long has thy
wife sealed a bond with Jaques Treehorn; as blood is to blood,
surely thou owest to Jaques Treehorn in recompense.

WOO
Rise, and speak wisely, man—but hark;
I see thy rug, as woven i’the Orient,
A treasure from abroad. I like it not.
I’ll stain it thus; to deadbeats ever thus.

He stains the rug.

THE KNAVE
Sir, prithee nay!

BLANCHE
Now thou seest what happens, Lebowski, when the agreements
of honourable business stand compromised. If thou wouldst
treat money as water, flowing as the gentle rain from heaven,
why, then thou knowest water begets water; it will be a watery
grave your rug, drown’d in the weeping brook. Pray remember,
Lebowski.

THE KNAVE
Thou err’st; no man calls me Lebowski. Hear rightly, man!—for
thou hast got the wrong man. I am the Knave, man; Knave in
nature as in name.

BLANCHE
Thy name is Lebowski. Thy wife is Bonnie.

THE KNAVE
Zounds, man. Look at these unworthiest hands; no gaudy gold
profanes my little hand. I have no honour to contain the ring. I
am a bachelor in a wilderness. Behold this place; are these the
towers where one may glimpse Geoffrey, the married man? Is
this a court where mistresses of common sense are hid? Not for
me to hang my bugle in an invisible baldric, sir; I am loath to
take a wife, or she to take me until men be made of some other
mettle than earth. Hark, the lid of my chamber-pot be lifted!

Personally, I’m hoping that the Globe Theatre stages a version of this.

While you are waiting for that to happen, you can see another scene from Two Gentlemen from Lebowski above where The Knave and Sir Walter commiserate about a rug, which was besmirched by a “most miserable tide.”

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

The 5 Best Noir Films in the Public Domain: From Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street to Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker

I try to catch the Noir City film festival whenever it comes through Los Angeles, not just because it uses the Egyptian, one of my favorite theaters in town, but because it comes curated by the experts. You'd have a hard time finding any group more knowledgeable about film noir than the Film Noir Foundation, who put Noir City on, and anyone in particular more knowledgeable than its founder and president, "noirchaeologist" Eddie Muller.




The talks he sometimes gives before screenings give a sense of the depth and scope of his knowledge of the genre; you can sample it in a video clip where he introduces Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (above) at last year's Noir City Seattle.

You may remember Muller's name from our post featuring his list of the 25 noir films that will stand the test of time. I do recommend Noir City as the finest context in which to watch any of them, but you don't have to wait until the festival comes to your town to see a few, such as Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street and Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour. (2nd and 3rd on this page.) They and various other important pieces of the film noir canon have fallen into the public domain, making them easily and legally viewable free online. Watch The Hitch-Hiker that way after you've seen Muller's introduction, and you can replicate a little of the Noir City experience in the comfort of your own home.

Other public-domain noirs of note include Orson Welles' The Stranger, a subject of controversy among Welles fans but one about which Noir of the Week says "you couldn't make a better choice if you're looking for a conventional, fantastic looking film noir thriller."

And as the name of the festival implies, when we talk about such a highly urban storytelling tradition as noir, we very often talk about the city as well. Rudolph Maté's D.O.A. includes as a particularly vivid depiction of 1940s Los Angeles and one of the more dramatic uses of the beloved Bradbury Building in cinema history. These five pictures should put you well on your way to a stronger grasp of film noir, and no doubt get you ready to explore our list of 60 free noir films online.

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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.

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