Mark it on your calendars. Alex Winter’s new Zappa documentary will be released on November 23. To whet your appetite, here’s the official trailer for the film: “With unfettered access to the Zappa family trust and all archival footage, ZAPPA explores the private life behind the mammoth musical career that never shied away from the political turbulence of its time. Alex Winter’s assembly features appearances by Frank’s widow Gail Zappa and several of Frank’s musical collaborators including Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barres, Bunk Gardner, David Harrington, Scott Thunes, Ruth Underwood, Ray White and others.”
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We remember the bluesman Robert Johnson as the Jimi Hendrix of the 1930s, a guitarist of staggering skill who died before age thirty. Both found mainstream success, but Johnson’s came posthumously: in fact, his music and Hendrix’s first music hit it big in the same decade, the 1960s. King of the Delta Blues Singers, an album of Johnson’s songs released by Columbia Records in 1961, had a great influence on the likes of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, and Eric Clapton, who calls Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” How did this poor young Mississippian come by his formidable abilities? Why, he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, of course.
Or at least that’s what we all seem to have heard. And indeed, doesn’t the legend make the opening line of “Cross Road Blues,”King of the DeltaBlues‘ opening number, that much more evocative? “I went down to the crossroads,” he sings. “Fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above for mercy, ‘Take me, if you please.'” Well, it could’ve been the Lord, or it could have been the other one. But in fact we have precious little record of Johnson’s life, and no direct references at all to his bargain with Beelzebub (animations of which we previously featured here on Open Culture). Why has the legend stuck? Music Youtube series Polyphonic addresses that question in the video essay above.
An earlier episode covered deals with the devil throughout the history of music. This time, the subject is the crossroads itself, the setting of Johnsonian lore no one ever fails to mention. “Of all the marks that humans make on the earth, crossroads are among the simplest and most enduring,” says narrator Noah Lefevre. “As long as humans organize ourselves in towns and cities, crossroads will remain, and so will the legends of their dark powers and of the strange spirits who occupy them.” The mythology of the crossroads goes back at least to the Greek goddess Hecate, who rules over “liminal space, the transition from the known to the great unknown beyond.” In the Mississippi Delta, the mythology of the crossroads intersects, as it were, with the realm of Haitian voodoo.
“A religion that mixes Roman Catholic influences with West African spiritual traditions” — and the one that gave us zombies — voodoo has “one all-powerful god, but you can only speak to him through spirits known as loa.” And to talk to loa, you’ve got to go through Papa Legba, the loa of the crossroads. From the late 18th century, voodoo began making its way through the American South, the cradle of the blues. Out of this rich setting came Johnson’s predecessor Tommy Johnson (no relation), a singer and guitarist who based his persona on the claim of having sold his own soul to the devil. Even Robert Johnson’s mentor Ike Zimmerman was said to have practiced guitar in graveyards at midnight.
“Johnson is seen today as the grandfather of rock-and-roll,” says Lefevre. “That comes not just from his virtuoso playing, but also from his mythology.” (Consider this legacy in light of how often rock-and-roll was in decades past called “the devil’s music.”) Today, in songs like “Hellhound on My Trail,” we can hear both references to voodoo-inspired rituals and other forms of the occult as well as conditions of life in a South removed only a generation or two from slavery. This Polyphonic episode may convince you that “the myth of Johnson and the crossroads may have been birthed out of sheer accident,” but that’s no reason not to give King of the Delta Blues Singers a spin this Halloween — or any other day besides.
Sometimes describing a classic work of literature as “timeless” draws attention, when we revisit it, to how much it is bound up with the conventions of its time. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland emerged from a very specific time and place, the bank of the Thames in 1862 where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson first composed the tale for Alice Liddell and her sister. The future Lewis Carroll’s future bestseller became one of the most widely adapted and adopted works of literature in history. It never needs to be revived—Alice is always contemporary.
Those who have read the book to children know that Carroll’s nonsense story, though filled with archaic terms and outdated ideas about education, requires little additional explanation: indeed, it cannot be explained except by reference to the strange leaps of logic, rapid changes in scale and direction, and anthropomorphism familiar to everyone who has had a dream. Dodgson was a pretty weird character, and prim Victorian Alice is not exactly an everygirl, but every reader imagines themselves tumbling right down the rabbit hole after her.
As far as illustrators of Carroll’s timeless classic go, it’s hard to find one who is more universally beloved, and more Alice-like, than Tove Jansson, inventor of the Moomins, the Finnish series of children’s books and TV shows that is, in parts of the world, like a religion. How are her Alice illustrations not better known? It’s hard to say. Janssen’s Bohemian biography is as endearing as her characters, and she would make a wonderful subject for a children’s story herself. As James Williams tells it at Apollo Magazine:
The artist, Tove Jansson (1914–2001), was a great colourist who lived a richly plural life. Born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority to a Swedish mother and a Finnish father, both artists, she grew up on both sides of the Baltic. Jansson trained as a painter and illustrator in Stockholm and Paris, and made an early living through commissions and piecework. She was an acerbic and witty anti-fascist cartoonist during the Second World War, sending up Hitler and Stalin in covers for the Swedish-language periodical Garm. Descended on the one hand from a famous preacher, and on the other from a pioneer of the Girl Guide movement, she was raised on the Bible and on tales of adventure (Tarzan, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe). In her thirties she built a log cabin on an island and was a capable sailor. She lived visibly and courageously with her partner, the Finnish artist Tuulikki Pietilä, at a time when lesbian relationships did not enjoy public acceptance. She considered emigrating at various times to Tonga and Morocco but, despite travelling widely, remained rooted in Finland where she became (dread accolade) a ‘national treasure.’ She wrote a picture book for children about the imminent end of the world and spare, tender fiction for adults about love and family. She never stopped drawing and painting. She was Big in Japan.
We’ll find dream logic woven into all of Janssen’s work, from her early Moomin-like creature paintings from the 1930s to her illustrations for The Hobbit and Alice decades later. Her Alice, in Swedish, was first published in 1966, then released in an American edition in 1977. Sadly, her illustrations “did not receive such a great reception,” notes Moomin.com. “Readers already had their own imaginations in their minds about these classics.”
Blame Disney, I suppose, but there is never a bad time to re-imagine Alice’s journey, and the artist has left us with an excellent way to do so, “crafting a sublime fantasy experience,” Maria Popova writes, “that fuses Carroll’s Wonderland with Jansson’s Moomin Valley.” See more of Jansson’s timelessly weird drawings at Brain Pickings.
The late Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) definitely loved miniatures, and excelled at their creation, knitting socks on pins, hand rolling real tobacco into tiny cigarettes, and making sure the victims in her realistic murder scene dioramas exhibited the proper degree of rigor mortis and lividity.
Her preoccupation began with the Sherlock Holmes stories she read as a girl.
In the 1930s, the wealthy divorcee used part of a sizable inheritance to endow Harvard University with enough money for the creation of its Department of Legal Medicine.
Its first chairman was her friend, George Burgess Magrath, a medical examiner who had shared his distress that criminals were literally getting away with murder because coroners and police investigators lacked appropriate training for forensic analysis.
The library to which Lee donated a thousand books on the topic was named in his honor.
The homemade dioramas offered a more vivid experience than could be found in any book.
Each Nutshell Study required almost half a year’s work, and cost about the same as a house would have at the time. ($6000 in the 1940s.)
“Luckily, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Lee remarked. “It gives me the time and money to follow my hobby of scientific crime detection.”
Although Lee had been brought up in a luxurious 13 bedroom home (8 were for servants’ use), the domestic settings of the Nutshell Studies are more modest, reflective of the victims’ circumstances.
She drew inspiration from actual crimes, but had no interest in replicating their actual scenes. The crimes she authored for her little rooms were composites of the ones she had studied, with invented victims and in rooms decorated according to her imagination.
Her intent was to provide investigators with virgin crime scenes to meticulously examine, culling indirect evidence from the painstakingly detailed props she was a stickler for getting right.
Students were provided with a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and witness statements. Her attention to detail ensured that they would use the full ninety minutes they had been allotted analyzing the scene. Their goal was not to crack the case but to carefully document observations on which a case could be built.
The flawlessness of her 1:12 scale renderings also speaks to her determination to be taken seriously in what was then an exclusively male world. (Women now dominate the field of forensic science.)
Nothing was overlooked.
As she wrote to Dr. Alan Moritz, the Department of Legal Medicine’s second chair, in a letter reviewing proposed changes to some early scenes:
I found myself constantly tempted to add more clues and details and am afraid I may get them “gadgety” in the process. I hope you will watch over this and stop me when I go too far. Since you and I have perpetrated these crimes ourselves we are in the unique position of being able to give complete descriptions of them even if there were no witnesses—very much in the manner of the novelist who is able to tell the inmost thoughts of his characters.
It’s no accident that many of the Nutshell Studies’ little corpses are female.
Lee did not want officers to treat victims dismissively because of gender-related assumptions, whether the scenario involved a prostitute whose throat has been cut, or a housewife dead on the floor of her kitchen, the burners of her stove all switched to the on position.
Would you like to test your powers of observation?
Above are the remains of Maggie Wilson, discovered in the Dark Bathroom‘s tub by a fellow boarder, Lizzie Miller, who gave the following statement:
I roomed in the same house as Maggie Wilson, but knew her only from we met in the hall. I think she had ‘fits’ [seizures]. A couple of male friends came to see her fairly regularly. On Sunday night, the men were there and there was a lot of drinking going on. Some time after the men left, I heard the water running in the bathroom. I opened the door and found her as you see her.
Not nearly as grim as what you’ll find in the Parsonage or the Three-Room Dwelling belonging to shoe factory foreman Robert Judson, his wife, Kate, and their baby, Linda Mae.
The period-accurate mini furnishings and fashions may create a false impression that the Mother of Forensic Science’s Nutshell Studies should be relegated to a museum.
In truth, their abundance of detail remains so effective that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore continues to use 18 of them in training seminars to help homicide investigators “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”
Why do people enjoy being scared by films? How does what counts as frightening in a film actually connect with what scares us in real life, and how does this in turn relate to childhood fears? What’s the deal with “horror” movies that are good but not scary or that are terrible yet still scary in some way? Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by actor/special effects-guy Nathan Shelton (who runs the Frightmare Theatre Podcast) for a Halloween conversation where no one gets a rock.
We present our picks for what scared us as kids: Trilogy of Terror, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Copycat, and go on about Arachnophobia, The Blair Witch Project, Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Thing, and Nightmare on Elm Street. We also discussion horror aimed at women, body horror, tropophobia, horror movie music, and Stephen King. Finally, we consider the revival in art horror by the likes of Mike Flanagan (Dr. Sleep, Haunting of Bly Manor), Ari Aster (Midsommar, Hereditary), and Robert Eggers (The Witch).
Edward Gorey and Halloween go together as well as Dracula and Halloween. Bring the three together (well, it’s almost Halloween), and you’ve got a triumvirate of classic, wicked, scary fun. The alignment of these dark stars first occurred, Olivia Rutigliano writes at CrimeReads, when a Gorey-designed production of Dracula “premiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theater on October 20th, 1977, just in time for Halloween.” Starring Frank Langella in the title role, “the production was a smash,” and Gorey, who designed the sets, costumes, posters, playbills, and merchandise, won a Tony the following year.
To hear Gorey tell it, in Episode 4 of “Goreytelling,” an animated series of previously unheard recorded interviews with the reclusive writer/illustrator, he was “only too conscious of not being a real set designer or a real costume designer or a real anything…. I designed it the only way I could.” His seeming pain over the whole thing extends to the play itself. “I don’t know what anybody saw in it, exactly,” he says, “but it was a big hit.”
The play was first staged in 1973, and for years, Gorey says, each time a theater company decided to put it on, he was called up to consult. He dutifully turned up each time, scowling glumly and wondering why. When it finally hit Broadway, he saw two-thirds of a rehearsal and left “jaundiced.” The final product left an even more sour taste. It was, he says, “absurd,” but very lucrative. As for the Tony, he says ironically, the award turned out to be “the cross I had to bear,” an embarrassing accolade for costumes he deemed unworthy of the honor.
Rutigliano deems the set designs “gorgeous… three giant tableaux, in his familiar inky, meticulous style” and features a few photographs from a production in Houston. We would not expect otherwise from Gorey, who was always himself and always a professional. The sets have lived on in photos—some featuring Langella, some his successor, Raul Julia—in miniature models, and in the brief but sort-of compelling production of “Dracula: Starring Edward Gorey’s Toy Theatre,” just below. Gorey also created an illustrated edition of Dracula in 1996.
“It should be noted,” Goreyana writes, “that all the sets for Dracula were hand painted by talented scene shop artists. Every cross hatched line on the walls, furniture, and floor had to be recreated to size by hand.” This is indeed impressive, and Gorey is probably right: the sets, which he also seemed to loathe, were probably more deserving of the Tony than the costumes. “The overall aesthetic,” says Rutigliano, “matches the period of the original Broadway run, the 1920s.” (The production won another Tony for Most Innovative Revival.)
The original theater adaptation was commissioned by Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, “as part of her copyright crusade against F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.” It debuted in England in 1924, then premiered on Broadway in 1927 with a then-unknown Bela Lugosi. “This production would be adapted, in turn, by the director Tod Browning into the famous 1931 Dracula film.” Gorey himself may have hated it, but the play he so meticulously brought back to life in the 70s descended, in a way, in a long, venerable, undead line, from the original Dracula himself.
Attention, Goleman tells us, is under siege, not least by devices “devised to interrupt us, to seduce us, to draw our attention from this to that.” He quotes the famed economist, political scientist, and cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon’s observation that “information consumes attention. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” — but he doesn’t mention that Simon made it nearly fifty years ago, long before the invention of most of what besieges our attention today. (Then again, even medieval monks complained of constant distraction.) Most of us can feel, on some level, that to the extent we have trouble focusing, we also have trouble performing at the level we’d like to in our professional and social life.
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What can we do about it? After offering psychological explanations of what’s going on with our ability to focus (or lack thereof), Goleman suggests strategies we can use to master our “emotional distractors” and work out the “mental muscle” that is our attention. (This analogy with physical exercise would get no argument from Murakami, who runs as rigorously as he writes.) Though “mind-wandering is absolutely essential for creative insight,” as we’ve previously discussed here on Open Culture, the critical skill is to bring our mind back from its wandering at will. This we can practice through Buddhist-style breathing meditation, a subject to which Goleman has since devoted a good deal of research, and just one of the practices that can help us live our lives to the fullest by allowing us to see, hear, consider, and engage with what’s right in front of us.
As Goleman lays out a suite of attention-building techniques and their benefits, he touches on theories and findings from cognitive psychology that have by now been popularized into familiarity: the Stanford “marshmallow test,” for example, which appears to show that children who can delay gratification have better life outcomes than those who cannot. Such outcomes can be ours as well, he argues, if we make a habit of “lengthening the gap between impulse and action” in our own habits. “I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years,” as Murakami says. “I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.” As for the rest of us, couldn’t we all stand to become bigger kettles than we are?
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