Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Life & Literature Introduced in a Monty Python-Style Animation

"You know how earlier we were talking about Dostoyevsky?" asks David Brent, Ricky Gervais' iconically insecure paper-company middle-manager central to the BBC's original The Office. "Oh, yeah?" replies Ricky, the junior employee who had earlier that day demonstrated a knowledge of the influential Russian novelist apparently intimidating to his boss. "Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky. Born 1821. Died 1881," recites Brent. "Just interested in him being exiled in Siberia for four years." Ricky admits to not knowing much about that period of the writer's life. "All it is is that he was a member of a secret political party," Brent continues, drawing upon research clearly performed moments previous, "and they put him in a Siberian labour camp for four years, so, you know..."

We here at Open Culture know that you wouldn't stoop to such tactics in an attempt to establish intellectual supremacy over your co-workers — nor would you feel any shame in not having yet plunged into the work of that same Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, born 1821, died 1881, and the author of such much-taught novels as Crime and PunishmentThe Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov (as well as a prolific doodler). "His first major work," in the posturing words of David Brent, "was Notes from the Underground, which he wrote in St Petersburg in 1859. Of course, my favorite is The Raw Youth. It's basically where Dostoyevsky goes on to explain how science can't really find answers for the deeper human need."

An intriguing position! To hear it explained with deeper comprehension (but just as entertainingly, and also in an English-accented voice), watch this 14-minute, Monty Python-style animated primer from Alain de Botton's School of Life and read the accompanying article from The Book of Life. Even apart from those years in Siberia, the man "had a very hard life, but he succeeded in conveying an idea which perhaps he understood more clearly than anyone: in a world that’s very keen on upbeat stories, we will always run up against our limitations as deeply flawed and profoundly muddled creatures," an attitude "needed more than ever in our naive and sentimental age that so fervently clings to the idea – which this great Russian loathed – that science can save us all and that we may yet be made perfect through technology."

After The School of Life gets you up to speed on Dostoyevsky, you'll no doubt find yourself able to more than hold your own in any water-cooler discussion of the man whom James Joyce credited with shattering the Victorian novel, "with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces," whom Virginia Woolf regarded as the most exciting writer other that Shakespeare, and whose work Hermann Hesse tantalizingly described as "a glimpse into the havoc." You may well also find yourself moved even to open one of Dostoyevsky's intimidatingly important books themselves, whose assessments of the human condition remain as devastatingly clear-eyed as, well, The Office's.

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The Digital Dostoevsky: Download Free eBooks & Audio Books of the Russian Novelist’s Major Works

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. 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.

R. Crumb Illustrates Genesis: A Faithful, Idiosyncratic Illustration of All 50 Chapters

It is widely accepted among scholars that the first few books of the Bible—including, of course, Genesis, with its creation myths and flood story—are a patchwork of several different sources, pieced together by so-called redactors. This “documentary hypothesis” identifies the literary characteristics of each source, and attempts to reconstruct their different theological and political contexts. Primarily refined by German scholars in the late nineteenth century, the theory is very persuasive, but can also seem pretty schematic and dry, robbing the original texts of much of their liveliness, rhetorical power, and ancient strangeness.

Another German scholar, Hermann Gunkel, approached Genesis a little differently. “Everyone knows”---write the editors of a scholarly collection on the foundational Biblical text---Gunkel’s “motto”: “Genesis ist eine Sammlung von Sagen”—“Genesis is a collection of popular tales.” Rather than reading the various stories contained within as historical narratives or theological treatises, Gunkel saw them as redacted legends, myths, and folk tales—as ancient literature. “Legends are not lies,” he writes in The Legends of Genesis, “on the contrary, they are a particular form of poetry.”

Such was the approach of cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb, who took on illustrating the entire book of Genesis, “a text so great and so strange," he says, "that it lends itself readily to graphic depictions.” In the short video above, Crumb describes the creation narrative in the ancient Hebrew book as “an archetypal story of our culture, such a strong story with all kinds of metaphorical meaning.” He also talks about his genuine respect and admiration for the stories of Genesis and their origins. “You study ancient Mesopotamian writings,” says Crumb, “and there’s all of these references in the oldest Sumerian legends about the tree of knowledge” and other elements that appear in Genesis, mixed up and redacted: “That’s how folk legends and all that shit evolve over centuries.”

The Biblical book first struck Crumb as “something to satirize,” and his initial approach leans on the irreverent, scatological tropes we know so well in his work. But he instead decided to produce a faithful visual interpretation of the text just as it is, illustrating each chapter, all 50, word for word. The result, writes Colin Smith at Sequart, is “idiosyncratic, tender-hearted and ultimately inspiring.” It is also a critical visual commentary on the text’s central character: Crumb’s God “is regularly, if not exclusively, portrayed as an unambiguously self-obsessed and bloodthirsty despot, terrifying in his demands, terrifying in his brutality.” Arguably, these traits emerge from the stories unaided, yet when we’re told, for example, that “The Lord regretted having made man on Earth and it grieved him in his heart,” Crumb “shows us nothing of regret and grief, but rather a furious old dictator apparently tottering on the edge of madness.”

“It’s not the evil of men that Crumb’s concerned with,” writes Smith, “so much as the psychology of a creature who’d slaughter an entire world.” In that interpretation, he echoes critics of the Bible’s theology since the Enlightenment, from Voltaire to Christopher Hitchens. But he doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of human brutality, either. Crumb’s move away from satire and decision to “do it straight,” as he told NPR, came from his sense that the sweeping, violent mythology and “soap opera” relationships already lend themselves “to lurid illustration”—his forté. Originally intending to do just the first couple chapters “as a comic story," he soon found he had a market for all 50 and “stupidly said, ‘okay, I’ll do it.’” The work---undertaken over four years---proved so exhausting, he says he “earned every penny.”

Does Crumb himself identify with the religious traditions in Genesis? Raised a Catholic, he left the church at 16: "I have my own little spiritual quest," Crumb says, "but I don't associate it with any particular traditional religion. I think that the traditional Western religions all are very problematic in my view." That said, like many nonreligious people who read and respect religious texts, he knows the Bible well---better, it turned out, than his editor, a self-described expert. "I just illustrate it as it's written," said Crumb, "and the contradictions stand."

When I first illustrated that part, the creation, where there's basically two different creation stories that do contradict each other, and I sent it to the editor at Norton, the publisher, who told me he was a Bible scholar. And he read it, and he said wait a minute, this doesn't make sense. This contradicts itself. Can we rewrite this so it makes sense? And I said that's the way it's written. He said, that's the way it's written? I said, yeah, you're a Bible scholar. Check it out. 

Crumb invites us all to "check it out"---this collection of archetypal legends that inform so much of our politics and culture, whether the bizarre and costly creation of a fundamentalist "Ark Park" ("dinosaurs and all"), or the Biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille or Darren Aronofsky, or the poetry of John Milton, or the interpretive illustrations of William Blake. Whether we think of it as history or myth or some patchwork quilt of both, we should read Genesis. R. Crumb's illustrated version is as good---or better---a way to do so as any other. See more of his illustrations at The Guardian and purchase his illustrated Genesis here.

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

Ayn Rand Issues 13 Commandments to Filmmakers for Making Good Capitalist Movies (1947)

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Fountainhead, The)_07

A couple Christmases ago, we featured the story of how Ayn Rand helped the FBI "identify" It's a Wonderful Life as a piece of communist propaganda, which does make one wonder: what kind of movie would she have America watch instead? We know exactly what kind, since, in 1947, the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, never one to shrink from the task of explaining her ideas, wrote the "Screen Guide for Americans," according to Paleofuture, a pamphlet meant for distribution to Hollywood producers in order to make them aware of what she saw as a communist push to poison the movies with anti-American ideology.

"The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood, Rand writes, "is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories — thus making people absorb the basic premises of Collectivism by indirection and implication." And so, to counteract the subtly propagandistic power of It's a Wonderful Life and its ilk, she proposes fighting fire with fire, issuing these thirteen corrective filmmaking commandments:

  1. Don't take politics lightly. "To hire Communists on the theory that 'they won't put over any politics on me' and then remain ignorant and indifferent to the subject of politics, while the Reds are trained propaganda experts — is an attitude for which there can be no excuse."
  2. Don't smear the free enterprise system. "Don’t preach or imply that all publicly-owned projects are noble, humanitarian undertakings by grace of the mere fact that they are publicly-owned—while preaching, at same time, that private property or the defense of private property rights is the expression of some sort of vicious greed, of anti-social selfishness or evil."
  3. Don't smear industrialists. "You, as a motion picture producer, are an industrialist. All of us are employees of an industry which gives us a good living. There is an old fable about a pig who filled his belly with acorns, then started digging to undermine the roots of the oak from which the acorns came. Don't let's allow that pig to become our symbol."
  4. Don't smear wealth. "If the villain in your story happens to be rich—don’t permit lines of dialogue suggesting that he is the typical representative of a whole social class, the symbol of all the rich. Keep it clear in your mind and in your script that his villainy is due to his own personal character—not to his wealth or class."
  5. Don't smear the profit motive. "Don't give to your characters — as a sign of villainy, as a damning characteristic, a desire to make money. Nobody wants to, or should, work without payment, and nobody does — except a slave."
  6. Don't smear success. "It is the Communists' intention to make people think that personal success is somehow achieved at the expense of others and that every successful man has hurt somebody by becoming successful. It is the Communists' aim to discourage all personal effort and to drive men into a hopeless, dispirited, gray herd of robots who have lost all personal ambition, who are easy to rule, willing to obey and willing to exist in selfless servitude to the State."
  7. Don't glorify failure. "While every man meets with failure somewhere in his life, the admirable thing is his courage in overcoming it — not the fact that he failed."
  8. Don't glorify depravity. "Don’t drool over weaklings as conditioned 'victims of circumstances' (or of 'background' or of 'society') who 'couldn’t help it.' You are actually providing an excuse and an alibi for the worst instincts in the weakest members of your audiences."
  9. Don't deify "the common man." "No self-respecting man in America is or thinks of himself as 'little,' no matter how poor he might be. That, precisely, is the difference between an American working man and a European serf."
  10. Don't glorify the collective. "If you preach that it is evil to be different — you teach every particular group of men to hate every other group, every minority, every person, for being different from them; thus you lay the foundation for race hatred."
  11. Don't smear an independent man. "Remember that America is the country of the pioneer, the non-conformist, the inventor, the originator, the innovator. Remember that all the great thinkers, artists, scientists were single, individual, independent men who stood alone, and discovered new directions of achievement — alone."
  12. Don't use current events carelessly. "It is a sad joke on Hollywood that while we shy away from all controversial subjects on the screen, in order not to antagonize anybody — we arouse more antagonism throughout the country and more resentment against ourselves by one cheap little smear line in the midst of some musical comedy than we ever would by a whole political treatise."
  13. Don't smear American political institutions. "It is true that there have been vicious Congressmen and judges, and politicians who have stolen elections, just as there are vicious men in any profession. But if you present them in a story, be sure to make it clear that you are criticizing particular men — not the system. The American system, as such, is the best ever devised in history. If some men do not live up to it — let us damn these men, not the system which they betray."

Have any real motion pictures passed Rand's pro-capitalist test? (Read her full pamphlet here.) The film adaptation of The Fountainhead came out in 1949, and Rand herself at first praised it as "more faithful to the novel than any other adaptation of a novel that Hollywood has ever produced." But later she turned against it, claiming to have "disliked the movie from beginning to end" and swearing never again to sell her novels without reserving the right to pick the director and screenwriter as well as to edit the film herself. She didn't live to exercise those rights on Atlas Shrugged the movie, which came out as a trilogy between 2011 and 2014, so we'll never know for sure if the movie met her stringent ideological standards — but with Metacritic scores of 28%, 26%, and 9%, we can safely assume they wouldn't meet her cinematic ones.

via Paleofuture

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. 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.

The Art Market Demystified in Four Short Documentaries

Spend an hour or two at MoMA, Tate Modern, or some other world class museum and inevitably you’’ll overhear some variation of “my seven-year-old could paint that.”

Mayhaps, Madam, but how much would it fetch at auction?

As a new documentary series, the Art Market (in Four Parts), makes clear, the monetary value of art is tricky to assign.

There are exceptions, of course, such as in the irresistible Picasso anecdote cited in the trailer, above.

Usually however, even the experts must resort to an educated guess, based on a number of factors, none of which can tell the whole story.

As journalist and former director of New York’s White Columns gallery, Josh Baer, points out in the series’ first episode below, even art market indices are an unreliable tool for assessing worth. A portrait of actress Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol failed to attract a single bid at auction, though artnet Price Database reported sales of between $27 million and $31.5 million for other “Liz” paintings by the same artist.

I’d have thought a signature as famous as Warhol’s would confer the same sort of insta-worth Picasso claimed his John Hancock did.

The unpredictability of final sales figures has led auction houses to issue guarantees in return for a split of the profits, a practice Sotheby’s North and South America chairman, Lisa Dennison, likens to an insurance policy for the seller.

With the exception of the ill-fated Warhol’s great big goose egg, the numbers batted around by the series’ influential talking heads are pretty staggering. Snappy editing also lends a sense of art world glamour, though gallerist Michele Maccarone betrays a certain weariness that may come closer to the true energy at the epicenter of the scene.

As for me, I couldn’t help thinking back to my days as a receptionist in a commercial gallery on Chicago’s tourist friendly Magnificent Mile. I was contemptuous of most of the stuff on our walls, which ran heavily to pastel garden parties and harlequins posed in front of recognizable landmarks. One day, a couple who’d wandered in on impulse dropped a ridiculous sum on a florid beach scene, complete with shimmering rainbows. Rich they may have been, but their utter lack of taste was appalling, at least until the wife excitedly confided that the painting's setting reminded them of their long ago Hawaiian honeymoon. That clarified a lot for me as to art’s true value. I hope that the couple is still alive and enjoying the most for their money’s worth, every single day.

The Art Market’s other three parts, "Galleries," "Patrons," and "Art Fairs," will be released weekly through mid-June. And we'll try to add them to this post, as they roll out.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She wrote about her brief stint as a gallery receptionist in her third book, Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Watch the Three Original Wizard of Oz Feature Films, Produced by L. Frank Baum Himself

As a film, The Wizard of Oz of 1939 is so iconic, so well known, that any sequel has been treated as an affront to American culture. Just see for example, the reviled Return to Oz and the mediocre response to Oz the Great and Powerful. However, spin-offs and recontextualized works, like The Wiz (the musical) and Wicked (the other musical, based on a novel), do really well as long as they remain tied to Victor Fleming’s film.

Even before the days of Judy Garland, the Oz stories made for popular cinema. We already told you about the 1910 silent short film version of The Wizard of Oz, which confusingly packs much of the original children’s book and the stage play adaptation (from 1902) into 13 crazed minutes, redolent of Georges Méliès’ sci-fi films and filled with beauties on parade and a very active mule character called Hank.

Meanwhile, the prolific author of the Oz series, L. Frank Baum, reeling from taking a loss on the stage play version of his story, decided to make some money in cinema. In 1914, he and some friends from the Los Angeles Athletic Club (who called themselves the Uplifters) started their own production house, Oz Film Manufacturing Company, based in Los Angeles. Baum thought he had plenty of material to work with, making good-natured children's films to compete with the more popular westerns.

All three of Baum's features are now available on YouTube, with Baum’s first film, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, from 1914, at the top of this page. Adapting his 1913 book, Baum changed plot devices, adding in vaudeville routines and stop-motion animation. A French acrobat called Pierre Couderc played the Patchwork Girl in the stunt sequences, and the film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd, who became such fast friends on the production that they went on to make their own films.

After that His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, was released in 1914, and retells the Wizard of Oz story in its own way, but gives the Scarecrow a new origin story. Hank the Mule returns, as do some more pantomime animals. This time, the movie was made as promotion for the upcoming book of a similar name, but did not help sales in the end.

The final film produced was The Magic Cloak of Oz, based on a non-Oz Baum book called Queen Zixi of Ix, but Baum knew that anything with Oz in the title could sell. Paramount didn’t however, and delayed release for two years. This surviving version is missing a reel, and British distributors divided it up into two separate films.

Shot all at the same time, Baum was hoping to quickly make his investors’ money back, but this didn’t happen and the Oz Film Manufacturing Company shuttered soon after, with Baum dying in 1919 at age 62, with no idea how influential his one book would become.

These original Oz films will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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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.

The Essential Elements of Film Noir Explained in One Grand Infographic


What makes film noir film noir? Like Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart making his famous pronouncement on obscenity, we can honestly claim to know it when we see it. But what elements, exactly, do we only see converge in the high, undisputed levels of the film noir canon? Designer Melanie Patrick and writer Adam Frost have, at the behest of the British Film Institute, come up with a handy infographic (click here to view it in a larger format) that explains and visualizes the particulars of the "shadowy world of one of classic Hollywood’s most beloved subgenres."

First, film noir needs the right cast of characters, including an investigator with "relative integrity" like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, a criminal ("usually a murderer"), one "bad, beautiful" woman, and another "good, bland" woman. These characters should come from a script based on a piece of American pulp fiction such as The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity, ideally adapted by a European émigré director like Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder and replete with heavy drinking and smoking, "stolen money or valuables," and obsessions with the past, all wrapped up in a bleak, convoluted story that plays out in an urban setting by night.

The heyday of film noir lasted from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, right in the middle of the tyranny of the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code, which, in limiting "the amount of sex and violence that could be shown on screen," forced filmmakers to get creative and convey dramatic tension primarily with lighting and composition. It also meant that the finest film noir made maximally effective use of its dialogue, producing such immortally snappy exchanges as the one in Murder My Sweet when Philip Marlowe shoots back to a woman who announces she finds men very attractive, "I imagine they meet you halfway." The infographic above also highlights the importance of a stylish poster and a startling tagline, ultimately arriving at the name of the sole film that possesses every element of film noir — and hence "the noiriest film ever."

All this comes as the fruit of research into "around 100 of the most highly regarded film noirs," and the infographic's creators have made some of their data available to view on a Google spreadsheet. Should you now feel like conducting a film-noir investigation of your own, we can offer you a few leads, including the five essential rules of film noir, Roger Ebert's ten essential characteristics of film noir, "noirchaeologist" Eddie Muller's list of 25 noir films that will stand the test of time, a collection of film noir's 100 greatest posters, and of course, our collection of 60 film noir movies free to watch online. But stay alert; if we've learned one thing from watching film noir, it's that investigations, no matter the relative integrity with which you conduct them, don't always go as planned.

Thanks to Melanie for letting us feature her work!

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. 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.

The Influence of Miles Davis Revealed with Data Visualization: For His 90th Birthday Today


Miles Davis would have celebrated his 90th birthday today. And though he's been gone for 25 years (hard to believe), he remains arguably the most influential figure in jazz. How influential? Glad you asked. A new website called "The Universe of Miles Davis" has tried to quantify and visualize Davis' influence by combing through Wikipedia, and finding every English-language Wikipedia page (2,452 in total ) that links to the main Miles Davis entry on Wikipedia. Turning those links into graphics, the site visualizes Miles' relationships and associations, revealing the far-reaching influence of Miles Davis in a novel way. You can enter "The Universe of Miles Davis" here.

This interactive site was produced by Polygraph, "an experimental publication devoted to complex topics and discourse."

via Forbes

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