The Ruins of Chernobyl Captured in Three Haunting, Drone-Shot Videos

Voices of Chernobyl—Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the 1986 nuclear explosion in Belarus—brings together the harrowing testimonies of over 500 eyewitnesses to the accident: Firefighters, nurses, soldiers, former Soviet officials, engineers, nuclear scientists, and ordinary Soviet citizens (at the time), who saw, but could not understand, events that would cost tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of lives.

We will never know the exact toll, due to both internal cover-ups and the immeasurable long-term effect of over 50 million curies of radionuclides spread out over the Soviet Union, Europe, and the globe for over three decades. But Alexievich’s book eschews “the usual approach of trying to quantify a disaster in terms of losses and displacement,” notes Robert Matthews at the Journal of Nuclear Medicine. She opted instead to tell the stories “of individuals and how the disaster affected their lives.”

The inherently moving, dramatic stories of people like Lyudmilla Ignatenko—the wife of a doomed firefighter whose unforgettable journey opens the book—immediately draw us into the “psychologic and personal tragedy” of the disaster. For their vividness and sheer emotional impact, these stories have a cinematic effect, filling our imagination with images of grisly tragedy and a grim persistence we might not exactly call heroism but which certainly counts as a close cousin.

It’s no wonder, then, that parts of Alexievich’s deservedly-Nobel-winning history made such a brilliant transition to the screen in Craig Mazin’s HBO miniseries, which draws from stories like Lyudmilla’s in its portrait of the explosion and its containment. The series' psychological focus, and the need to create individual heroes and villains, creates “confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable” in reality, as Masha Gessen writes in her critique at The New Yorker. We cannot trust Chernobyl as history, though it is incredibly compelling as historical fiction.

Rather what the show gives viewers, writes Gessen, is a stunningly accurate visual portrayal of the time period, one that seems at times to have recreated historical footage shot-for-shot. The show’s total immersion in the bleak, bureaucratic world of mid-eighties Soviet Russia has so enthralled viewers that people have taken to posting Instagram photos of themselves inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Though it may seem like a foolish thing to do given the levels of radiation still present in much of the area, Chernobyl has in fact been slated for redevelopment since 2007. Tourists began visiting the area not long afterwards.

Since the zone became accessible, hours of footage from Chernobyl and nearby city of Pripyat, former home of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, have appeared in amateur video and and more professional productions like “Postcards from Pripyat” (top), shot by Danny Cooke for CBS, “The Fallout,” a demo reel shot by Aerobo Designs, and the drone footage in the Wall Street Journal video just above. These are stunning montages of decaying Soviet cities left behind in time. Even emptied of the individuals whose stories keep us compulsively reading eyewitness accounts like Alexievich’s and watching fictionalized dramas like Mazin’s, the videos still have a story to tell, a visual account of the remains of an empire brought low by corruption, fear, and lies.

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

Scenes from HBO’s Chernobyl v. Real Footage Shot in 1986: A Side-By-Side Comparison

Audiences today can't get enough of history, especially history presented as a podcast or a prestige television series. Best of all is the historical prestige television series accompanied by its own podcast, currently exemplified by Chernobyl, HBO's five-episode dramatization of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the titular Soviet nuclear disaster. "The material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film — or, for that matter, in Russian television or film," The New Yorker's Masha Gessen writes of the show. "Soviet-born Americans — and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians — have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced."

But along with all the praise for the accuracy on Chernobyl's surface has come criticism of its deeper conception of the time and place it takes as its setting: "its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power," as Gessen puts it, or to acknowledge that "resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of Chernobyl imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable."

Among the chilling truths of the real story of the Chernobyl disaster is how many people involved knew beforehand what could, and probably would, go wrong with the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986. But Chernobyl, adhering to "the outlines of a disaster movie," instead pits a lone truth-teller against a set of self-serving, malevolent higher-ups.

Chernobyl creator and writer Craig Mazin is not unaware of this, as anyone who has listened to the miniseries' companion podcast knows. On each episode, Mazin discusses (with Peter Sagal from Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, incidentally) the complications of bringing such a complex event, and one that involved so many people, to the screen three decades later, and the inherent tradeoffs involved between historical faithfulness and artistic license. The video essay from Thomas Flight above combines clips from the Chernobyl podcast with not just clips from Chernobyl itself but the real-life source footage that inspired the show. The six-minute viewing experience showcases the often-astonishing recreations Chernobyl accomplishes even as it casts doubt on the possibility of ever truly recreating history on the screen. But watching creators take on that increasingly daunting challenge is precisely what today's audiences can't get enough of.

via BoingBoing

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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.

The Psychological Dimensions of Game of Thrones: The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Explores the Fantasy Spectacle

The HBO TV show Game of Thrones, like its source books, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is classified as "fantasy," but that term as literary classification has become unmoored from its literal meaning. A person's fantasy is most typically a matter of wish fulfillment, which should put super-hero media at the center of the genre: We regular mortals wish to be powerful and strong, to save the day and be recognized as a hero. Certain elements of classical fantasy fall under this description: Frodo in Lord of the Rings gets to save the world while remaining more or less ordinary (well, yes, he can turn invisible with the ring, but that becomes problematic), and Harry Potter qualifies as a kid super-hero.

Another key element of fantasy is obviously the imagination, which can be deployed as in dreams and the psychedelic art that draws on dream experience to come up with ever-more-fantastical imagery, ever more amazing situations and powers one could fantasize about possessing. However, the imagination also seeks to expand the fantasized creation, to make its world wider and richer, to fill in the details, and almost inevitably to try to make the fantasy more "realistic." What would it actually be like to have super powers? Would you suffer emotional trauma from damaging all those villains? What about collateral damage? If you get to ride on a dragon, how do you take care of it? What (who) does it eat?

George R.R. Martin writes in the tradition popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien of "high fantasy," which involves not only characters of high stature engaged in epic struggles, but typically involves a very fleshed out alternative world with its own slightly different laws. The more spelled out these laws are, the more nuts and bolts of the workings of the world are specified, the more realism and hence suffering can be depicted. A Song of Ice and Fire describes its rotating cast of protagonists with such a degree of detail that readers are (as in much literature) able to identify with them, to see the world through their eyes, but they suffer so much that such alternate lives as these books offer readers would hardly be anyone's fantasy in the sense of wish fulfillment. A visual presentation like a TV show by necessity can't be as clear about whose eyes the viewer is supposed to see events through (we see through the camera instead), but nonetheless Game of Thrones invites us to live through (some of) its characters, to identify with them, through their exertions of power, through their reactions to loss and triumph. But such identifications will always be imperfect, given that these characters have been drawn as living in a world that is fundamentally foreign to us, not because there are zombies and dragons, but because HBO viewers are for the most part living comfortably in a peaceful country, not having been systematically and often personally exposed to horrible sufferings.

Hear Mark Linsenmayer and Wes Alwan, regular hosts of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, along with guest Sabrina Weiss, discuss the psychological and social aspects of the show, but in what is depicted on screen and how these play out in our society's relationship to this grand spectacle.

Read more about it on The Partially Examined Life website.

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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The Creative Life of Jim Henson Explored in a Six-Part Documentary Series

What is a Muppet? Homer Simpson once offered this explanation: "It's not quite a mop and it's not quite a puppet, but man..." — before cracking up with amusement. "So to answer your question, I don't know." That episode of The Simpsons aired in the mid-1990s, a somewhat fallow period for Jim Henson's puppet-like (though less so mop-like) creations, but the decades between now and then have shown them to be at least as culturally influential as Matt Groening's family of Springfieldians. What gives the Muppets, who made their television debut in 1955 and have now survived their creator by nearly thirty years, their power to endure?

Insight into that question is on offer right now in a new six-part documentary series on Jim Henson's life and work. It comes as a part of Defunctland, "a YouTube series discussing the history of extinct theme parks and themed entertainment experiences" that has recently expanded its cultural purview.

The first episode of Defunctland's Jim Henson explores "the history of Jim's beginnings and his first television show, Sam and Friends"; the second "the origins of Sesame Street, the Muppetland specials, and the failed Muppet pilots"; and the third the proper beginnings of The Muppet Show, whose creators didn't know they were "about to make the most popular show in the world." After you've caught up with the first three episodes of Jim Henson, the next three episodes will appear on the series' Youtube playlist.

As you'll know if you've seen the surreal early filmsexperimental animations, and violent coffee commercials made by Jim Henson previously featured here on Open Culture, the man behind the Muppets hardly sought to produce entertainment for children alone: one of the pilots of The Muppet Show, in fact, was titled "Sex and Violence." Defunctland's documentary series gets into that and all the other aspects of Henson's life and work, two concepts hardly separable for such a famously dedicated creator. There's much more to Henson's legacy than a childhood full of Sesame Street — now in its 50th year on the air — would suggest. As for how rigorous a definition of "Muppet" the series will leave us with, we'll have to wait until it concludes to find out.

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Watch Twin Beaks, Sesame Street’s Parody of David Lynch’s Iconic TV Show (1990)

Watch The Surreal 1960s Films and Commercials of Jim Henson

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.

When John Waters Appeared on The Simpsons and Changed America’s LGBTQ Views (1997)

On the week where Alabama Public Television banned an episode of the kids’ cartoon Arthur for showing a gay wedding (just after banning abortion the week before), let’s go back to a time when the entire country needed a little bit of an education on homosexuality and used The Simpsons and a guest appearance by director John Waters to make the point.

“Homer’s Phobia” premiered on February 16, 1997 in the show’s eighth season. Written by Ron Hauge, the episode casts Waters as John, the owner of Springfield’s antique and memorabilia store “Cockamamie’s”, who befriends the family. Bart and Lisa love the retro and campy objects on sale, Marge loves John’s compliments, but Homer freaks out when he realizes (and it takes some time) that John is gay. Panicking that Bart might become gay from John’s influence, he forces Bart to take a tour of the manliest thing he can think of, a steel mill, only to find that it doubles as a gay disco after work (“We work hard and we play hard,” says the foreman).

Homer doubles down, believing that hunting and killing a deer will make Bart a man. John saves the day of course, Homer learns a little lesson on acceptance, and only at the end does Bart understand what the whole panic has been about.

As comedy with a message, the episode still holds up. Homer’s cluelessness (when Marge says “He prefers the company of men,” Homer responds, “Who doesn't?”) and his homophobia (referring to the word “queer” he says “I resent you people using that word. That's our word for making fun of you! We need it!”) is both dopey and pointed, but never vicious. Also delightful is John’s visit to the Simpsons’ home, where he has a vintage collector’s swoon over the kitsch of the entire interior decoration, which as viewers we’ve never really considered. There’s plenty of visual gags, like a pink flamingo in John’s shop and the amazing Sha-Boom-Ka-Boom googie-architecture cafe.

According to Matt Baume’s recent video essay, this episode did more for awareness and exposing intolerance than any live action show at the time. John Waters, despite his filthy filmography, is fun, collected, and cool. He is neither a punchline nor a tragic figure. At this time in America, homosexuality was still a crime in many states. A head censor at Fox objected to nearly every line in the show (although not always from the right--there was also concern that gay people might be offended). Time solved the problem, however. By the time it came back from the animators that one censor had lost his job.

A few months later Ellen Degeneres came out on Oprah and the culture started to shift even a little more. But as this week proved, this episode’s insights still ring true today.

For Waters, it's been a weird legacy, with kids and families recognizing him from the episode and not from his more infamous work. He now has out a new book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.

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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.

Fleetwood Mac Unveils Their New Singer Stevie Nicks, and The World Takes Notice: Watch Bewitching Performances of “Rhiannon” (1975-1976)

Fleetwood Mac lost one lead singer and guitarist after another in the 70s, first to a mental health crisis, then a religious cult, then dramatic firings and relational breakdowns. They were in a bit of a shambles when new prospect Lindsay Buckingham arrived, bringing with him even more drama, as well as an unknown singer, Stevie Nicks. One year later, their breakup coincided with the dissolution of John and Christine McVie’s marriage, and drummer and namesake Mick Fleetwood's divorce, during the recording of the massive-selling Rumors album in 1976.

Somehow, the band kept on, making greater leaps forward with Tusk, surviving into the 90s intact and mounting several reunion tours afterward. How? Many a book and documentary have tackled the subject. But maybe the main reason is plain.

Despite enduring circumstances that would tear most bands apart, despite the cynical lures and traps of wealth and fame, Fleetwood Mac’s professional longevity came from the fact that they were musicians who loved playing together, who knew how good they were at what they did, and knew they were better when they did it together.

Not only did the new five-piece put aside huge personal conflicts and an already legendary history to make some of the greatest pop music ever written, both collaborating and letting individual songwriters take the lead, but they had the smarts to recognize the enormous talent they had in Nicks, who first joined the band at Buckingham’s insistence then quickly became its star frontwoman. Her magnetism was undeniable, her songwriting bewitching, her stage presence transformative.

Fans seeing Nicks onstage with the band after the release of 1975’s Fleetwood Mac have “no idea who Stevie Nicks is,” writes Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone. They have “heard ‘Rhiannon’ on the radio,” have maybe bought the record, but “they’ve never seen her rock.” Then they did—explaining the origins of “Rhiannon” on The Old Grey Whistle Test (top) before launching into the “song about a Welsh witch,” and going full-on new-age diva with super-feathered hair on The Midnight Special (above).

“She’s the new girl in a long-running band,” writes Sheffield, “but she’s here to blow all that history away. She keeps pushing the song harder, faster, as if she’s impatient to prove the new Mac is a real savage-like rock monster, now that she’s fully arrived.” Buckingham was the right guitarist at the right time in the band’s evolution, stepping into several huge pairs of shoes to help them recreate their sound. But Stevie Nicks provided the voice and electrifyingly weird energy they needed to become their best new selves.

Big, dramatic TV appearances were one thing, but the band’s transition from British blues rockers to pop radio superstars wasn’t a total eclipse of their past. While they may have been promoted as a Stevie Nicks-centric entity, Christine McVie still played a major singer/songwriter role, as did Buckingham. In one of their first live concerts with the two new members, at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey, above, McVie opens the set with “Get Like You Used to Be” and “Spare Me a Little of Your Love.”

Buckingham shows off his impeccable blues and country chops, and Nicks sits in on backing vocals, then takes the lead three songs in on “Rhiannon." Other new songs in the short setlist include “World Turning,” sung by McVie and Buckingham, and the Buckingham-led “Blue Letter” and “I’m So Afraid.” (They reach as far back in the back catalog as Peter Green’s “Green Manalishi.”) It’s clear at this point that the band doesn’t quite know what to do with Stevie Nicks. But once they debuted on television, she knew exactly how to sell herself to audiences.

FYI: If you happen to be an Audible member, you can download Rob Sheffield's audiobook, The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks, as a free additional book this month. (It's part of their Audible Originals program.) If you're not an Audible member, you can always sign up for a free 30-day trial here.

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

Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols Creates a Short Film for NASA to Recruit New Astronauts (1977)

Imagine growing up in the late 1960s, witnessing at an impressionable age the heyday of the original Star Trek followed by the real-life moon landing. (If you actually did grow up in the late 1960s, just remember your childhood.) How could you not have dreamed of working on something to do with outer space, or indeed in outer space itself? It seems that both the promoters of NASA and the creators of Star Trek know that both their projects draw from the same well of wonder about the world beyond our planet. As we've previously featured here on Open Culture, William Shatner has narrated a documentary on the space shuttle as well as a Mars landing video, and Leonard Nimoy narrated a short about NASA's spacecraft Dawn.

Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original series, also did her NASA-promoting bit — or perhaps more than her bit — by starring in the agency's 1977 recruitment film. In the years since the end of Star Trek, she had already been volunteering with NASA's push to recruit more women and minorities.

"I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don't choose one… everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it," she has since remembered telling NASA at the time. In the event, NASA chose more than a few, including astronauts like Sally Ride, Guion Bluford, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair.

"I still feel a little bit like Lieutenant Uhura on the starship Enterprise," Nichols says at the beginning of the film. "You know, now there's a 20th-century Enterprise, an actual space vehicle built by NASA and designed to put us in the business of space, and not merely space exploration." NASA's Enterprise, she explains, is "a space shuttle built to make regularly scheduled runs into space and back, just like a commercial airline," one that "may even be used to build a space station in orbit around the Earth, and this would require the services of people with a variety of skills and qualifications." At the very end, she emphasizes a different sense of variety: "I'm speaking to the whole family of humankind, minorities and women alike. If you qualify and would like to be an astronaut, now is the time. This is your NASA, a space agency embarked on a mission to improve the quality of life on planet Earth right now" — an even worthier mission, some might say, than boldly going where no man has gone before.

via Boing Boing

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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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