The Evocativeness of Decomposing Film: Watch the 1926 Hollywood Movie The Bells Become the Experimental 2004 Short Film, Light Is Calling

We think of movies as lasting forever. And since we can pull up videos of films from 50, 80, even 100 years ago, why shouldn't we? But as everyone who dives deep into this history of cinema knows, the further back in time you go, the more movies are "lost," wholly or partially. In the case of the latter, bits and pieces remain of film — actual, physical film — but often they've been poorly preserved and thus have badly degraded. Still, they have value, and not just to cinema scholars. The thirty-year-long career of filmmaker Bill Morrison, for instance, demonstrates just how evocatively film at the end of its life can be put to artistic use.

"Created using a decomposing 35mm print of the crime drama The Bells (1926), the experimental short Light Is Calling (2004) depicts a dreamy encounter between a soldier and a mysterious woman," says Aeon. "With images that reveal themselves only to distort and disappear into the decaying amber-tinted nitrate," Morrison "invites viewers to meditate on the fleeting nature of all things physical and emotional, while a minimalistic violin score suffuses the century-old images with a wistful, haunting beauty." Light Is Calling would have one kind of poignancy if The Bells were a lost film, but since you can watch it in full just below — and with a decently kept-up image, by the standards of mid-1920s movies — it has quite another.

Like many pictures of the silent era, The Bells was adapted from a stage play, in this case Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann's Le Juif Polonais. Originally written in 1867, the play was turned into an opera before it was turned into a film — which first happened in 1911 in Australia, then in 1913 and 1918 in America, then in 1928 in a British-Belgian co-production. This 1926 Hollywood version, which features such big names of the day as Boris Karloff and Lionel Barrymore, came as Le Juif Polonais' fifth film adaptation, but not its last: two more, made in Britain and Australia, would follow in the 1930s. The material of the story, altered and altered again through generations of use, feels suitable indeed for Light Is Calling, whose thoroughly damaged images make us imagine the intentions of the original, each in our own way.

via Aeon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Nikola Tesla’s Grades from High School & University: A Fascinating Glimpse

In the history of science, few people got a rawer deal than Nikola Tesla. Cruelly cheated and overshadowed by Edison and Marconi (who patented the radio technology Tesla invented), the brilliant introvert didn’t stand a chance in the cutthroat business world in which his rivals moved with ease. Every biographer portrays Tesla as Edison’s perfect foil: the latter played the consummate showman and savvy patent hog, where Tesla was a reclusive mystic and, as one writer put it, “the world’s sorcerer.”

“Unlike Tesla,” writes biographer Michael Burgan, “Edison had barely gone to school: Tesla was amazed that a man with almost no formal education could invent so brilliantly.” (He would have a different opinion of Edison years later.)

Tesla began his own education, as you can learn in the survey of his high school and university grades above, with much promise, but he was forced to drop out after his third year in college when his father passed away and he was left without the means to continue. As PBS writes, Tesla showed precocious talent early on.

Passionate about mathematics and sciences, Tesla had his heart set on becoming an engineer but was “constantly oppressed” by his father’s insistence that he enter the priesthood. At age seventeen, Tesla contracted cholera and craftily exacted an important concession from his father: the older Tesla promised his son that if he survived, he would be allowed to attend the renowned Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz.

It was during his time at technical school that Tesla first devised the idea of alternating current, though he could not yet articulate a working design (he was told by a professor that the feat would be akin to building a perpetual motion machine). He solved the engineering challenge after leaving school and going to work for the Central Telephone Exchange in Budapest.

While walking through a city park with a friend, reciting Goethe’s Faust from memory, Tesla recounts in his autobiography, a passage inspired him “like a flash of lightening” and he “drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.” The story is one of many in which Tesla, a voracious reader and infinitely curious autodidact, draws on the extensive knowledge that he gathered through self-education.

His patent applications—Croatian scholar Danko Plevnik notes in the introduction to a series of essays on Tesla’s self-schooling—show “the erudition of a learned man, broad knowledge which by far surpassed the knowledge he could acquire through formal education only.” In his lectures, articles, and speeches, Tesla demonstrates a “familiarity with philosophy, science history and invention-related thought, methodology of science, as well as other areas of knowledge that were not included in the subjects and courses he attended through his schooling.”

Not only did he memorize entire books of poetry, but he could accurately foresee the future of technology, his keen insight honed both by his studies of the sciences and the humanities. Until fairly recently Plevnik writes, “Tesla’s education was referred to sporadically, as if it had not influenced his scientific reflection, experimenting and inventions.” That is in large part, many Tesla scholars now argue, because the best education Tesla received was the one he gave himself.

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

Breathtakingly-Detailed Tibetan Book Printed 40 Years Before the Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible went to press in the year 1454. We now see it as the first piece of mass media, printed as it was with the then-cutting-edge technology of metal movable type. But in the history of aesthetic achievements in book-printing, the Gutenberg Bible wasn't without its precedents. To find truly impressive examples requires looking in lands far from Europe: take, for instance, this "Sino-Tibetan concertina-folded book, printed in Beijing in 1410, containing Sanskrit dhāranīs and illustrations of protective mantra-diagrams and deities, woodblock-printed in bright red ink on heavy white paper," whose "breathtakingly detailed printing" predates Gutenberg by 40 years.

That description comes from a Twitter user called Incunabula (a term referring to early books), a self-described bibliophile and rare book collector who posts about "the history of writing, and of the book, from cave painting to cuneiform tablet to papyrus scroll to medieval codex to Kindle."

Incunabula's six-tweet thread on this early 15th-century Sino-Tibetan book includes both pictures and descriptions of this remarkable artifact's interior and exterior.

Its text, written in the Tibetan and Nepalese Rañjanā script, "is printed twice, once on each side of the paper, so that the book may be read in the Indo-Tibetan manner by turning the pages from right to left or in Chinese style by turning from left to right." The book's content is "a sequence of Tibetan Buddhist recitation texts," or chants, all "protected at front and back by thicker board-like wrappers," each "covered in fine pen-drawings in gold paint on black of 20 icons of the Tathāgatas."

Incunabula has also posted extensively about Buddhist texts from other times and lands: a Thai folding manuscript from the mid-19th century telling of a monk's journeys to heaven and hell; a Mongolian manuscript from the same period that translates the Čoyijod Dagini, "a popular Buddhist text about virtue, sin and the afterlife"; an example of "Japanese Buddhist printing 150 years before Gutenberg"; an "8th century Khotanese amuletic scroll from the Silk Road." The creators of these texts would have meant the words they were preserving to survive them — but our marveling at them hundreds, even more than a thousand years later, would surely have come as a surprise.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Hyperland: The “Fantasy Documentary” in Which Douglas Adams and Doctor Who‘s Tom Baker Imagine the World Wide Web (1990)

Thirty years ago, the internet we use today would have looked like science fiction. Now as then, we spend a great deal of time staring at streams of video, but the high-tech 21st century has endowed us with the ability to customize those streams as never before. No longer do we have to settle for traditional television and the tyranny of "what's on"; we can follow our curiosity wherever it leads through vast, ever-expanding realms of image, sound, and text. No less a science-fiction writer than Douglas Adams dreams of just such realms in Hyperland, a 1990 BBC "fantasy documentary" that opens to find him fast asleep amid the mindless sound and fury spouted unceasingly by his television set — so unceasingly, in fact, that it keeps on spouting even when Adams gets up and tosses it into a junkyard.

Amid the scrap heaps Adams meets a ghost of technology's future: his "agent," a digital figure played by Doctor Who star Tom Baker. "I have the honor to provide instant access to every piece of information stored digitally anywhere in the world," says Baker's Virgil to Adams' Dante. "Any picture or film, any sound, any book, any statistic, any fact — any connection between anything you care to think of."

Adams' fans know how much the notion must have appealed to him, unexpected connections between disparate aspects of reality being a running theme in his fiction. It became especially prominent in the Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency Series, whose wide range of references includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan — one of the many pieces of information Adams has his agent pull up in Hyperland.

Adams' journey along this proto-Information Superhighway also includes stops at Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Picasso's Guernica, and Kurt Vonnegut's theory of the shape of all stories. Such a pathway will feel familiar to anyone who regularly goes down "rabbit holes" on the internet today, a pursuit — or perhaps compulsion — enabled by hypertext. Already that term sounds old fashioned, but at the dawn of the 1990s actively following "links" from one piece of information, so common now as to require no introduction or explanation, struck many as a mind-bending novelty. Thus the program's segments on the history of the relevant technologies, beginning with U.S. government scientist Vannevar Bush and the theoretical "Memex" system he came up with at the end of World War II — and first described in an Atlantic Monthly article you can, thanks to hypertext, easily read right now.

Though to an extent required to stand for the contemporary viewer, Adams was hardly a technological neophyte. An ardent early adopter, he purchased the very first Apple Macintosh computer ever sold in Europe. "I happen to know you've written interactive fiction yourself," says Baker, referring to the adventure games Adams designed for Infocom, one of them based on his beloved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels. Though Adams' considerable tech savvy makes all this look amusingly prescient, he couldn't have known just then how connected everyone and everything was about to become. "While Douglas was creating Hyperland," says his official web site, "a student at CERN in Switzerland was working on a little hypertext project he called the World Wide Web." And despite his early death, the man who dreamed of an electronic "guidebook" containing and connecting all the knowledge in the universe lived long enough to see that such a thing would one day become a reality.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Take a Virtual Tour of the Mütter Museum and Its Many Anatomically Peculiar Exhibits

A few months before Philaelphia’s Mütter Museum, exercising now familiar COVID-19 precautions, closed its doors to the public, it co-sponsored a parade to honor the victims to the previous century’s Spanish Flu pandemic, as well as "those who keep us safe today.”

The event was part of a temporary exhibition, Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia.

Another temporary exhibition, Going Viral: Infection Through the Ages, opened in November, and now seems even stronger proof that the museum, whose 19th-century display cabinets are housed in the historic College of Physicians, is as concerned with the future as it is with the past.

For now, all tours must be undertaken virtually.

Above, curator Anna Dhody, a physical and forensic anthropologist and Director of the Mütter Research Institute, gives a brief introduction to some of the best known artifacts in the permanent collection.

The museum's many antique skulls and medical oddities may invite comparisons to a ghoulish sideshow attraction, an impression Dhody corrects with her warm, matter-of-fact delivery and respectful acknowledgment of the humans whose stories have been preserved along with their remains:

Mary Ashberry, an achondroplastic dwarf, died from complications of a Cesarean section, as doctors who had yet to learn the importance of sterilizing instruments and washing hands, attempted to help her deliver a baby who proved too big for her pelvis. (The baby’s head was crushed as well. Its skull is displayed next to its mother’s skeleton.)

Madame Dimanche is represented by a wax model of her face, instantly recognizable due to the 10-inch cutaneous horn that began growing from her forehead when she was in her 70s. (It was eventually removed in an early example of successful plastic surgery.)

Albert Einstein and the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker are among the household names gracing the museum’s collection.

One of the most recent additions is the skeleton of artist and disability awareness advocate Carol Orzel, who educated the public and incoming University of Pennsylvania medical students about fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), a rare disorder that turned her muscle and connective tissue to bone. She told her physician, Frederick Kaplan, below, that she wanted her skeleton to go to the Mütter, to join that of fellow FOP sufferer, Harry Eastlack… provided some of her prized costume jewelry could be displayed alongside. It is.

Get better acquainted with the Mütter Museum’s collection through this playlist.

The exhibit Spit Spreads Death is currently slated to stay up through 2024. While waiting to visit in person, you can watch an animation of the Spanish flu’s spread, and explore an interactive map showing the demographics of the infection.

h/t Tanya Elder

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Here latest project is a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Earliest Known Motion Picture, 1888’s Roundhay Garden Scene, Restored with Artificial Intelligence

No image is more closely associated with the birth of the motion picture than a train pulling into the French coastal town of La Ciotat. Captured by cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, the 50-second clip frightened the audience at its first screening in 1896, who thought a real locomotive was hurtling toward them — or so the legend goes. Those early viewers may simply have felt a technological astonishment we can no longer muster today, and certainly not in response to such a mundane sight. That goes double for the slightly shorter and older Lumière Brothers production La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière a Lyon. Though it depicts nothing more than workers leaving a factory at the end of the day, it has long been referred to as "the first real motion picture ever made."

That qualifier "real," of course, hints at the existence of a predecessor. Whereas La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière a Lyon premiered in 1895, Louis Le Prince's Roundhay Garden Scene dates to 1888. With its runtime under two seconds, this depiction of a moment in the life of four figures, a younger man and woman and an older man and woman, would even by the standards of the Lumière Brothers' day barely count as a movie at all.

Equally disqualifying is its low frame rate: just seven to twelve per second (which one it is has been a matter of some dispute), which strikes our eyes more as a rapid sequence of still photographs than as continuous motion. Even so, it must have been a thrill of a result for Le Prince, an England-based French artist-inventor who had been developing his motion-photography system in secrecy since early in the decade.

We now have a clearer sense of the action captured in Roundhay Garden Scene thanks to the efforts Youtube-based film restorationist Denis Shiryaev, who's used neural networks to bring the historic film more fully to life. Taking a scan of Le Prince's original paper film, Shiryaev "manually cut this scan into individual frames and centered each image in the frame," he says in the video at the top of the post. He then "added a stabilization algorithm and applied an aggressive face recognition neural network in order to add more details to the faces." There followed adjustments for consistency in brightness, damage repairs, and the work of "an ensemble of neural networks" to upscale the footage to as high a resolution as possible, interpolating as many frames as possible. We may feel startled by the lifelike quality of the result in much the same way as 19th-century viewers by the Lumière Brothers' train — which, as we've previously featured here on Open Culture, has also received the Shiryaev treatment.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

3D Interactive Globes Now Online: Spin Through an Archive of Globes from the 17th and 18th Century

Willem Janszoon Blaeu Celestial Globe 1602

No matter how accustomed we've grown over the centuries to flat maps of the world, they can never be perfectly accurate. Strictly speaking, no map can perfectly capture the territory it describes (an impossibility memorably fictionalized by Jorge Luis Borges in "On Exactitude in Science"), but there's a reason we also call the Earth "the globe": only a globe can represent not just the planet's true shape, but the true shape of the land masses on which we live. This is not to say that globes have always been accurate. Like the history of mapmaking, the history of globe-making is one of educated (or uneducated) guesses, free mixture of fact and legend, and labels like "terra incognita" or "here be dragons." You can see that for yourself in the British Library's new online historic globe archive — and not just through flat photographs and scans.

"The archive presents 3D models of 11 globes — a subset of the library’s historic maps collection — that can be rotated and zoomed into for greater detail at every angle," writes Hyperallergic's Sarah Rose Sharp. She points to one in particular, "stunning 1602 celestial globe by Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu, first produced in 1602. In addition to representing the constellations as their fantastic and mythological namesakes, it identifies a nova in the constellation of Cygnus which Blaeu had personally observed in 1600."

The British Library's digital collection boasts several such "celestial globes," which chart the sky rather than the Earth. However few of us have ever turned a celestial globe by hand, we can now do it virtually. If 1602 seems a bit too vintage, give a digital spin to the others from 1700, 1728, and 1783.

Back on land, these globes feature not just "fantastic creatures," Sharp writes, but "charming archaic conceptions of the oceans — the 'Atalantick Ocean' in the 1730 Richard Cushee terrestrial globe, or the 'Ethipoic Ocean' in the 1783 terrestrial globe by G. Wright and W. Bardin." In Chushee, Wright and Bardin's times, few globe-users, or indeed globe-makers, would have had the chance to see much of those vast bodies of water for themselves. Of course, with the current state of pandemic lockdown in so many countries, few of us are taking transoceanic journeys even today. If you're dreaming about the rest of the world, spend some time with the British Library's 3D-modeled globes on Sketchfab — where you'll also find the Rosetta Stone and Bust of Nefertiti among other artifacts previously featured here on Open Culture — and get your hands on an idea of how humanity imagined it in centuries past.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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