What Made Studio Ghibli Animator Isao Takahata (RIP) a Master: Two Video Essays

Among the many acclaimed animated films of Studio Ghibli — and indeed among recent Japanese animated films in general — those directed by the outspoken, oft-retiring-and-returning Hayao Miyazaki tend to get the most attention. But even casual viewers overlook the work of the late Isao Takahata (1935-2018), the older animator formerly of Toei with whom Miyazaki founded the studio in 1985, at their peril. Though he most often played the role of producer at Ghibli, he also directed several of its films, first and most memorably 1988's Grave of the Fireflies, the story of an orphaned brother and sister's struggle for survival at the very end of the Second World War.

"Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation," wrote Roger Ebert in 2000, adding the picture to his "Great Movies" canon. "When anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously. [ ... ] Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made."

No Western critic would frame it quite the same way now, with the implicit disclaimer about the nature of Japanese animation, thanks in no small part to what animators like Takahata have done to show the entire world the true potential of their medium since.

The quarter-century after Grave of the Fireflies saw Takahata direct four more features, Only YesterdayPom PokoMy Neighbors the Yamadas, and his visually unconventional, long-in-the-making final work The Tale of Princess Kaguya. You can get a sense of Takahata's distinctive sensibilities and sensitivities as an animation director in the Royal Ocean Film Society video essay "Isao Takahata: The Other Master" at the top of the post. It gets into the questions of why Takahata chose to tell essentially realistic, drawn-from-life stories in a form most know for its way with the fantastical, and how the visual exaggerations in his films somehow imbue them with a more solid feel of reality.

Just above, "Isao Takahata Doesn't Get Enough Respect (A Retrospective)," by Youtuber Stevem, goes in other directions, exploring the director's technique as well as his career, life, and personality, drawing not just from his work with Ghibli but the considerable amount he did before the studio's foundation as well. Still, Grave of the Fireflies may well remain most filmgoers' gateway into his filmography for the foreseeable future, not least because of its still-refreshing "anti-Hollywood" qualities. "Hollywood will have you believe that heroes are needed when times are tough," says writer on Japanese culture Roland Kelts in a recent BBC piece on the movie. "Isao Takahata shows us the humble opposite, that when times are tough what you need most is humility, patience and self-restraint. That's how one survives."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

10 Great German Expressionist Films: From Nosferatu to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In 1913, Germany, flush with a new nation’s patriotic zeal, looked like it might become the dominant nation of Europe and a real rival to that global superpower Great Britain. Then it hit the buzzsaw of World War I. After the German government collapsed in 1918 from the economic and emotional toll of a half-decade of senseless carnage, the Allies forced it to accept draconian terms for surrender. The entire German culture was sent reeling, searching for answers to what happened and why.

German Expressionism came about to articulate these lacerating questions roiling in the nation’s collective unconscious. The first such film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), about a malevolent traveling magician who has his servant do his murderous bidding in the dark of the night. The storyline is all about the Freudian terror of hidden subconscious drives, but what really makes the movie memorable is its completely unhinged look. Marked by stylized acting, deep shadows painted onto the walls, and sets filled with twisted architectural impossibilities -- there might not be a single right angle in the film – Caligari’s look perfectly meshes with the narrator's demented state of mind.

Subsequent German Expressionist movies retreated from the extreme aesthetics of Caligari but were still filled with a mood of violence, frustration and unease. F. W. Murnau’s brilliantly depressing The Last Laugh (1924) is about a proud doorman at a high-end hotel who is unceremoniously stripped of his position and demoted to a lowly bathroom attendant. When he hands over his uniform, his posture collapses as if the jacket were his exoskeleton. You don’t need to be a semiologist to figure out that the doorman’s loss of status parallels Germany’s. Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a landmark of early sound film, is the first serial killer movie ever made. But what starts out as a police procedural turns into something even more unsettling when a gang of distinctly Nazi-like criminals decide to mete out some justice of their own.

German Expressionism ended in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. They weren’t interested in asking uncomfortable questions and viewed such dark tales of cinematic angst as unpatriotic. Instead, they preferred bright, cheerful tales of Aryan youths climbing mountains. By that time, the movement’s most talented directors -- Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau -- had fled to America. And it was in America where German Expressionism found its biggest impact. Its stark lighting, grotesque shadows and bleak worldview would go on on to profoundly influence film noir in the late 1940s after another horrific, disillusioning war. See our collection of Free Noir Films here.

You watch can 10 German Expressionist movies – including Caligari, Last Laugh and M -- for free below.

  • Nosferatu - Free - German Expressionist horror film directed by F. W. Murnau. An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. (1922)
  • The Student of Prague - Free - A classic of German expressionist film. German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers and Danish director Stellan Rye bring to life a 19th-century horror story. Some call it the first indie film. (1913)
  • Nerves - Free - Directed by Robert Reinert, Nerves tells of "the political disputes of an ultraconservative factory owner Herr Roloff and Teacher John, who feels a compulsive but secret love for Roloff's sister, a left-wing radical." (1919)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Free - This silent film directed by Robert Wiene is considered one of the most influential German Expressionist films and perhaps one of the greatest horror movies of all time. (1920)
  • Metropolis - Free - Fritz Lang’s fable of good and evil fighting it out in a futuristic urban dystopia. An important classic. An alternate version can be found here. (1927)
  • The Golem: How He Came Into the World - Free - A follow-up to Paul Wegener's earlier film, "The Golem," about a monstrous creature brought to life by a learned rabbi to protect the Jews from persecution in medieval Prague. Based on the classic folk tale, and co-directed by Carl Boese. (1920)
  • The Golem: How He Came Into the World - Free - The same film as the one listed immediately above, but this one has a score created by Pixies frontman Black Francis. (2008)
  • The Last Laugh Free - F.W. Murnau's classic chamber drama about a hotel doorman who falls on hard times. A masterpiece of the silent era, the story is told almost entirely in pictures. (1924)
  • Faust - Free - German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau directs a film version of Goethe's classic tale. This was Murnau's last German movie. (1926)
  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans - Free - Made by the German expressionist director F.W. Murnau. Voted in 2012, the 5th greatest film of all time. (1927)
  • M - Free - Classic film directed by Fritz Lang, with Peter Lorre. About the search for a child murderer in Berlin. (1931)

For more classic films, peruse our larger collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December, 2014.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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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 badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

When David Bowie Became Nikola Tesla: Watch His Electric Performance in The Prestige (2006)

Only two major actors have played inventor Nikola Tesla in pop culture: one is John C. Reilly and the other is David Bowie. As much as I love this episode of Drunk History, let’s talk about the Starman himself, who Christopher Nolan cast as Tesla in his 2006 film The Prestige.

By 2005, Bowie was in seclusion. As elucidated in the recent BBC doc, The Last Five Years, the singer was recuperating from a heart attack on his Reality tour, a tour that would turn out to be his last.

Nolan begged Bowie to take the role:

Tesla was this other-worldly, ahead-of-his-time figure, and at some point it occurred to me he was the original Man Who Fell to Earth. As someone who was the biggest Bowie fan in the world, once I made that connection, he seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part...It took me a while to convince him, though—he turned down the part the first time. It was the only time I can ever remember trying again with an actor who passed on me.

Bowie relented and above you can see his best moment in the film (or *the* best moment in the film)--where Tesla enters through a shower of electricity to greet Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alley (Andy Serkis). It’s a rock star entrance, for sure.

Nolan continues:

The experience of having him on set was wonderful. Daunting, at first. He had a level of charisma beyond what you normally experience, and everyone really responded to it. I’ve never seen a crew respond to any movie star that way, no matter how big. But he was very gracious and understood the effect he had on people. Everyone has fond memories of getting to spend time with him or speak to him for a little bit. I only worked with him briefly—four or five days—but I did manage to sneak a couple moments to chat with him, which are very treasured memories of mine. Normally when you meet stars, no matter how starry they are, when you see them as people, some of that mystique goes away. But not with David Bowie. I came away from the experience being able to say I was still his biggest fan, and a fan who had the very miraculous opportunity to work with him for a moment. I loved the fact that after having worked with him, I had just the same fascination with his talent and his charisma. I thought that was quite magical.

Despite a very brief role in a film called August and an appearance around the same year on Ricky Gervais’ Extras, this would be Bowie’s last major film role, and really his last filmed appearance until 2013, when he shot promos for The Next Day.

A look at the YouTube comments suggest that many viewers watched The Prestige and had no idea who was playing Tesla. And that might have just tickled the man, playing a magician in recluse high up in the mountains, more in communication with the invisible gods than the mortals.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Martin Scorsese Create a List of 38 Essential Films About American Democracy

Image by "Siebbi," Wikimedia Commons

So many of us, throughout so much of the 20th century, saw the nature of American-style democracy as more or less etched in stone. But the events of recent years, certainly on the national level but also on the global one, have thrown our assumptions about a political system that once looked destined for universality — indeed, the much-discussed "end" toward which history itself has been working — into question. Whatever our personal views, we've all had to remember that the United States, approaching a quarter-millennium of history, remains an experimental country, one more subject to re-evaluation and revision than we might have thought.

The same holds true for the art form that has done more than any other to spread visions of America: the movies. Martin Scorsese surely knows this, just as deeply as he knows that a full understanding of any society demands immersion into that society's dreams of itself. The fact that so many of America's dreams have taken cinematic form makes Scorsese well-placed to approach the subject, given that he's dreamed a fair few of them himself. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New YorkThe Wolf of Wall Street: most of his best-known films tell thoroughly American stories, rooted in not just his country's distinctive history but the equally distinctive politics, society, and culture that have resulted from it.

Now, along with his nonprofit The Film Foundation, Scorsese passes his understanding of America along to all of us with their curriculum, “Portraits of America: Democracy on Film.” It comes as part of their larger project "The Story of Film," described by its official site as "an interdisciplinary curriculum introducing students to classic cinema and the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film." Scorsese and The Film Foundation offer its materials free to schools, but students of all ages and nationalities can learn a great deal about American democracy from the pictures it includes, the sequence of which runs as follows:

Module 1: The Immigrant Experience
Introductory Lesson: From Penny Claptrap to Movie Palaces—the First Three Decades
Chapter 1: “The Immigrant” (1917, d. Charlie Chaplin)
Chapter 2: “The Godfather, Part II” (1974, d. Francis Ford Coppola)
Chapter 3: “America, America” (1963, d. Elia Kazan)
Chapter 4: “El Norte” (1983, d. Gregory Nava)
Chapter 5: “The Namesake” (2006, d. Mira Nair)

Module 2: The American Laborer
Introductory Lesson: The Common Good
Chapter 1: “Black Fury” (1935, d. Michael Curtiz)
Chapter 2: “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976, d. Barbara Kopple)
Chapter 3: “At the River I Stand” (1993, d. David Appleby, Allison Graham and Steven Ross)
Chapter 4: “Salt of the Earth” (1954, d. Herbert J. Biberman)
Chapter 5: “Norma Rae” (1979, d. Martin Ritt)

Module 3: Civil Rights
Introductory Lesson: The Camera as Witness
Chapter 1: King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970, conceived & created by
Ely Landau; guest appearances filmed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L.
Chapter 2: “Intruder in the Dust” (1949, d. Clarence Brown)
Chapter 3: “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984, d. Robert Epstein)
Chapter 4: “Smoke Signals” (1998, d. Chris Eyre)

Module 4: The American Woman
Introductory Lesson: Ways of Seeing Women
Chapter 1: Through a Woman’s Lens: Directors Lois Weber (focusing on “Suspense,” 1913 and
“Where Are My Children,” 1916) and Dorothy Arzner (“Dance, Girl, Dance,” 1940)
Chapter 2: “Imitation of Life” (1934, d. John M. Stahl)
Chapter 3: “Woman of the Year” (1942, d. George Stevens)
Chapter 4: “Alien” (1979, d. Ridley Scott)
Chapter 5: “The Age of Innocence” (1993, d. Martin Scorsese)

Module 5: Politicians and Demagogues
Introductory Lesson: Checks and Balances
Chapter 1: “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933, d. Gregory La Cava)
Chapter 2: “A Lion is in the Streets” (1953, d. Raoul Walsh)
Chapter 3: “Advise and Consent” (1962, d. Otto Preminger)
Chapter 4: “A Face in the Crowd” (1957, d. Elia Kazan)

Module 6: Soldiers and Patriots
Introductory Lesson: Movies and Homefront Morale
Chapter 1: “Sergeant York (1941, d. Howard Hawks)
Chapter 2: Private Snafu’s Private War—three Snafu Shorts from WWII
Chapter 3: “Three Came Home” (1950, d. Jean Negulesco)
Chapter 4: “Glory” (1989, Edward Zwick)
Chapter 5: “Saving Private Ryan” (1998, d. Steven Spielberg)

Module 7: The Press
Introductory Lesson: Degrees of Truth
Chapter 1: “Meet John Doe” (1941, d. Frank Capra)
Chapter 2: “All the President’s Men” (1976, d. Alan J. Pakula)
Chapter 3: “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, d. George Clooney)
Chapter 4: “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006, d. Davis Guggenheim)
Chapter 5: “Ace in the Hole” (1951, d. Billy Wilder)

Module 8: The Auteurs
Introductory Lesson: Film as an Art Form
Chapter 1: “Modern Times” (1936, Charlie Chaplin)
Chapter 2: “The Grapes of Wrath”(1940, d. John Ford)
Chapter 3: “Citizen Kane” (1941, d. Orson Welles)
Chapter 4: “An American in Paris” (1951, d. Vincente Minnelli)
Chapter 5: “The Aviator” (2004, d. Martin Scorsese)

"Division, conflict and anger seem to be defining this moment in culture," says Scorsese, quoted in Film Journal International article about the curriculum. "I learned a lot about citizenship and American ideals from the movies I saw. Movies that look squarely at the struggles, violent disagreements and the tragedies in history, not to mention hypocrisies, false promises. But they also embody the best in America, our great hopes and ideals." Few could watch all 38 of the films on his curriculum without feeling that the experiments of democracy and cinema are still on to something – and hold out the promise of more possibilities than we'd imagined before.

via Indiewire

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Spike Lee to Teach an Online Course on Filmmaking; Get Ready By Watching His List of 95 Essential Films

When Spike Lee makes a movie, people talk about it. People talked in 1986 when he made the black-and-white indie comedy She's Gotta Have It; they talked even more when he came out with Do the Right Thing a few years later; they talked, with sharply divided opinion, about his most recent picture, the crime-themed musical Chi-Raq; and they're already talking about his upcoming Black Klansman, and not just because of the title. Lee has managed to remain culturally and artistically relevant throughout a career of more than thirty years and counting, and his new online course at Masterclass just might let us in on how he's done it.

"When you're an independent filmmaker, and making films outside Hollywood, that's hard," says the long Brooklyn-based Lee in the trailer for the course above. "You have to pray on bended knee at the church of cinema." But even as an aspiring auteur with a pocket-change budget — Lee remembers well when he "was a caterer, the producer, the director, the screenwriter, acted in it, and I was the first AD" on his first feature — you already possess "tools that can help you tell a story": heightening dynamic camerawork to heighten the emotions, for instance, or writing characters with strong beliefs to intensify the conflicts of the story. He used such techniques when he started out, and he still uses them today.

Though Lee seems more than willing to talk about his methods, you can't fully understand any filmmaker unless you understand that filmmaker's influences. And so we offer you Lee's list of 95 essential movies every aspiring director should see, expanded from his original list of 87, drawn up to hand out to the graduate-school classes he's taught. Featuring multiple works from directors like Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, John Huston, and Stanley Kubrick, the first version of the list runs as follows:

Taken to task for that list's lack of female filmmakers, Lee came up with these additions:

  • The Piano - Jane Campion (1993)
  • Daughters of the Dust - Julie Dash (1991)
  • The Hurt Locker - Kathryn Bigelow (2008)
  • Sugar Cane Alley - Euzhan Palcy (1983)
  • The Seduction of Mimi - Lina Wertmuller (1972)
  • Love and Anarchy - Lina Wertmuller (1973)
  • Swept Away - Lina Wertmuller (1974)
  • Seven Beauties - Lina Wertmuller (1975)

Lee's Masterclass on filmmaking joins the site's other offerings on the same subject from auteurs no less distinctive than Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. Though all three became major filmmakers at different times and under different circumstances — and ended up with very different cinematic sensibilities — they all, as Lee might put it, pray at the same church.

And just as it takes the perspective of many theologists to get a sense of the ineffable essence of the divine, so it takes the perspective of many filmmakers to get an ineffable essence of cinema. You could take all three courses with Masterclass' $180 all-access pass, or you could pay $90 for just Lee's. (His course will be officially ready in summer, but you can pre-enroll now.) Either way, you'll learn how he made She's Gotta Have It for a then-dirt-cheap $175,000, but these days you could surely go out and shoot your own film afterward for not much more than the cost of the Masterclass itself. It's still hard out there for an indie filmmaker, mind you; just not quite as hard as it was.

Note: MasterClasss and Open Culture have a partnership. If you sign up for a MasterClass course, it benefits not just you and MasterClass. It benefits Open Culture too. So consider it win-win-win.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch a Marathon Streaming of All 856 Episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and the Moving Trailer for the New Documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The bombast, arrogance and bloviation--maybe you need a break from it all. You may need exactly the opposite--a little Fred Rogers. If so, we've got two things for you. First, head over to Twitch.TV where they're currently livestreaming all 856 episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood (for a limited time). It's a grand way of celebrating what would have been Fred's 90th birthday this week. And then, above, watch the brand new trailer for Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the upcoming documentary by Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom). Due out in June, the film "takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe, and into the heart of a creative genius who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination." As you watch the trailer, you'll be reminded that Rogers worked his magic during other periods of chaos and discontent, and how sorely his calming presence is missing today.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Watch “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on The 405,” the New Oscar-Winning Portrait of an Artist

A quick fyi: IndieWire has made available on its YouTube channel "Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on The 405," a 40-minute documentary directed by Frank Stiefel. A portrait of a brilliant 56 year old artist, the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the recent Academy Awards. Here's the gist of what it's about:

Mindy Alper is a tortured and brilliant 56 year old artist who is represented by one of Los Angeles' top galleries. Acute anxiety, mental disorder and devastating depression have caused her to be committed to mental institutions undergo electro shock therapy and survive a 10 year period without the ability to speak. Her hyper self awareness has allowed her to produce a lifelong body of work that expresses her emotional state with powerful psychological precision. Through interviews, reenactments, the building of an eight and a half foot papier-mache' bust of her beloved psychiatrist, and examining drawings made from the time she was a child, we learn how she has emerged from darkness and isolation to a life that includes love, trust and support.

You can watch the complete film online. It will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Watch Edith+Eddie, an Intense, Oscar-Nominated Short Film About America’s Oldest Interracial Newlyweds

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