How TV Addles Kids’ Brains: A Short Film Directed by Godfrey Reggio (Maker of Koyaanisqatsi) & Scored by Philip Glass

On October 4, 1982, "more than 5,000 people filled the Radio City Music Hall to experience a remarkable event. That event was the world premiere of Koyaanisqatsi." So says the poster for the wide release of that film, an experimental documentary without spoken words on the natural and manmade environment that neither looked nor sounded — nor felt — like anything many of its viewers had ever experienced in a movie theater before.

Unable to muster any of their standard reactions, they had no choice but to sit and observe as, in slow motion and fast motion and every speed in between, waterfalls thundered, chasms yawned, skyscrapers soared, commuters scurried, and rockets launched before their eyes — all to the music of Philip Glass. You might say that Koyaanisqatsi (see trailer below), as well as its formally similar sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, puts its viewers in an altered state of mind.




The trilogy's director, a former monk-in-training named Godfrey Reggio, might say the same thing about television, whose flickering blueish presence emerges from time to time in his work, but he wouldn't mean it in a good way. In 1995, between Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, he made a short called Evidence which, in the words of koyaanisqatsi.org, "looks into the eyes of children watching television - in this case Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Though engaged in a daily routine, they appear drugged, retarded, like the patients of a mental hospital."

Accompanying and in a sense commenting on their glazed, often slack-jawed expressions, we once again, as in Reggio's transfixing feature documentaries, have a Glass-composed score. Unlike moviegoers in a theater, "television viewers become prey to the television’s own light impulses, they go into an altered state — a transfixed condition where the eyes, the mind, the breathing of the subject is clearly under the control of an outside force. In a poetic sense and without exaggerating one might say that the television technology is eating the subjects who sit before its gaze."

In the more than two decades since, this kind of criticism of television has given way to a more general criticism of electronic media, most of whose currently popular forms didn't exist in 1995; Reggio and Glass' most recent collaboration, 2013's Visitors, deals with "humanity's trancelike relationship with technology." You and your children may have escaped the "tractor beam that holds its subjects in total control" as Evidence depicts it, but in the 21st century the number of tractor beams has greatly multiplied. And so the question remains worth asking: which ones have you under their control?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, 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 Last Surviving Witness of the Lincoln Assassination Appears on the TV Game Show “I’ve Got a Secret” (1956)

Let's rewind the videotape to 1956, to Samuel James Seymour's appearance on the CBS television show, "I've Got a Secret." At 96 years of age, Seymour was the last surviving person present at Ford's Theater the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth (April 14, 1865).

Only five years old at the time, Mr. Seymour traveled with his father to Washington D.C. on a business trip, where they attended a performance of Our American Cousin. The youngster caught a quick glimpse of the president, the play began, and the rest is, well, history.

A quick footnote: Samuel Seymour died two months after his TV appearance. His longevity had something to do, I imagine, with declining those Winstons over the years.

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Note: This post originally appeared on our site in August, 2011.

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Marshall McLuhan Predicts That Electronic Media Will Displace the Book & Create Sweeping Changes in Our Everyday Lives (1960)

"The electronic media haven't wiped out the book: it's read, used, and wanted, perhaps more than ever. But the role of the book has changed. It's no longer alone. It no longer has sole charge of our outlook, nor of our sensibilities." As familiar as those words may sound, they don't come from one of the think pieces on the changing media landscape now published each and every day. They come from the mouth of midcentury CBC television host John O'Leary, introducing an interview with Marshall McLuhan more than half a century ago.

McLuhan, one of the most idiosyncratic and wide-ranging thinkers of the twentieth century, would go on to become world famous (to the point of making a cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall) as a prophetic media theorist. He saw clearer than many how the introduction of mass media like radio and television had changed us, and spoke with more confidence than most about how the media to come would change us. He understood what he understood about these processes in no small part because he'd learned their history, going all the way back to the development of writing itself.




Writing, in McLuhan's telling, changed the way we thought, which changed the way we organized our societies, which changed the way we perceived things, which changed the way we interact. All of that holds truer for the printing press, and even truer still for television. He told the story in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which he was working on at the time of this interview in May of 1960, and which would introduce the term "global village" to its readers, and which would crystallize much of what he talked about in this broadcast. Electronic media, in his view, "have made our world into a single unit."

With this "continually sounding tribal drum" in place, "everybody gets the message all the time: a princess gets married in England, and 'boom, boom, boom' go the drums. We all hear about it. An earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk, away go the drums again." The consequence? "We're re-tribalizing. Involuntarily, we're getting rid of individualism." Where "just as books and their private point of view are being replaced by the new media, so the concepts which underlie our actions, our social lives, are changing." No longer concerned with "finding our own individual way," we instead obsess over "what the group knows, feeling as it does, acting 'with it,' not apart from it."

Though McLuhan died in 1980, long before the appearance of the modern internet, many of his readers have seen recent technological developments validate his notion of the global village — and his view of its perils as well as its benefits — more and more with time. At this point in history, mankind can seem less united than ever than ever, possibly because technology now allows us to join any number of global "tribes." But don't we feel more pressure than ever to know just what those tribes know and feel just what they feel?

No wonder so many of those pieces that cross our news feeds today still reference McLuhan and his predictions. Just this past weekend, Quartz's Lila MacLellan did so in arguing that our media, "while global in reach, has come to be essentially controlled by businesses that use data and cognitive science to keep us spellbound and loyal based on our own tastes, fueling the relentless rise of hyper-personalization" as "deep-learning powered services promise to become even better custom-content tailors, limiting what individuals and groups are exposed to even as the universe of products and sources of information expands." Long live the individual, the individual is dead: step back, and it all looks like one of those contradictions McLuhan could have delivered as a resonant sound bite indeed.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, 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.

Watch Randy Newman’s Tour of Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard, and You’ll Love L.A. Too

"The longer I live here," a Los Angeles-based friend recently said, "the more 'I Love L.A.' sounds like an unironic tribute to this city." That hit single by Randy Newman, a singer-songwriter not known for his simple earnestness, has produced a multiplicity of interpretations since it came out in 1983, the year before Los Angeles presented a sunny, colorful, forward-looking image to the world as the host of the Summer Olympic Games. Listeners still wonder now what they wondered back then: when Newman sings the praises — literally — of the likes of Imperial Highway, a "big nasty redhead," Century Boulevard, the Santa Ana winds, and bums on their knees, does he mean it?

"I Love L.A."'s both smirking and enthusiastic music video offers a view of Newman's 1980s Los Angeles, but fifteen years later, he starred in an episode of the public television series Great Streets that presents a slightly more up-to-date, and much more nuanced, picture of the city. In it, the native Angeleno looks at his birthplace through the lens of the 27-mile Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles' most famous street — or, in his own words, "one of those places the movies would've had to invent, if it didn't already exist."




Historian Leonard Pitt (who appears alongside figures like filmmaker Allison Anders, artist Ed Ruscha, and Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek) describes Sunset as the one place along which you can see "every stratum of Los Angeles in the shortest period of time." Or as Newman puts it, "Like a lot of the people who live here, Sunset is humble and hard-working at the beginning," on its inland end. "Go further and it gets a little self-indulgent and outrageous" before it "straightens itself out and grows rich, fat, and respectable." At its coastal end "it gets real twisted, so there's nothing left to do but jump into the Pacific Ocean."

Newman's westward journey, made in an open-topped convertible (albeit not "I Love L.A."'s 1955 Buick) takes him from Union Station (America's last great railway terminal and the origin point of "L.A.'s long, long-anticipated subway system") to Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple, now-gentrified neighborhoods like Silver Lake then only in mid-gentrification, the humble studio where he laid tracks for some of his biggest records, the corner where D.W. Griffith built Intolerance's ancient Babylon set, the storied celebrity hideout of the Chateau Marmont, UCLA ("almost my alma mater"), the Lake Shrine Temple of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and finally to edge of the continent.

More recently, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne traveled the entirety of Sunset Boulevard again, but on foot and in the opposite direction. The east-to-west route, he writes, "offers a way to explore an intriguing notion: that the key to deciphering contemporary Los Angeles is to focus not on growth and expansion, those building blocks of 20th century Southern California, but instead on all the ways in which the city is doubling back on itself and getting denser." For so much of the city's history, "searching for a metaphor to define Sunset Boulevard, writers" — or musicians or filmmakers or any number of other creators besides — "have described it as a river running west and feeding into the Pacific. But the river flows the other direction now."

Los Angeles has indeed plunged into a thorough transformation since Newman first simultaneously celebrated and satirized it, but something of the distinctively breezy spirit into which he tapped will always remain. "There‘s some kind of ignorance L.A. has that I’m proud of. The open car and the redhead and the Beach Boys, the night just cooling off after a hot day, you got your arm around somebody," he said to the Los Angeles Weekly a few years after taping his Great Streets tour. ”That sounds really good to me. I can‘t think of anything a hell of a lot better than that."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, 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.

Andy Warhol Hosts Frank Zappa on His Cable TV Show, and Later Recalls, “I Hated Him More Than Ever” After the Show

Had Andy Warhol lived to see the internet--especially social networking--he would have loved it, though it may not have loved him. Though Warhol did see the very beginnings of the PC revolution, and made computer art near the end of his life on a Commodore Amiga 1000, he was mostly enamored, unsurprisingly, of TV. “I love television,” he once remarked, “It is the medium I’d most like to shine in. I’m really jealous of everybody who’s got their own show on television. I want a show of my own.”

Warhol realized his dream in 1979, though in a venue that may not have lived up to his fantasies: a New York public-access channel called Manhattan Cable, “which showed local sports matches and agreed to sell 30-minute slots to Warhol for around $75 a pop,” notes The Telegraph. Warhol made a total of 42 episodes of his odd interview show. The pop art impresario “wasn’t exactly a natural… when it came to the delicate art of chat-show hosting,” but “he didn’t let that stop him.” By 1983, one might have thought he’d have gotten the hang of it, yet he seems especially awkward when cranky prog genius Frank Zappa appeared on his show that year.




Luckily for Warhol, he is joined by Zappa fan Richard Berlin, who serves as a buffer between the two superstars. (Berlin is probably the son of William Randolph Hearst’s handpicked successor, whose daughter, Brigid, was one of Warhol’s film stars.) At least in the excerpt above, Berlin does all of the work while Warhol looks on, seemingly stupefied. But the truth is that Warhol hated Zappa, and after the interview, he wrote in his Diaries, “I hated Zappa even more than when it started.” Part of what the show’s ostensible host found so objectionable was Zappa’s egomaniacal personality. Though Warhol, like Zappa, controlled his own small independent empire, in temperament, the two couldn’t have been more different.

But there was also some personal history between them that goes back to the earliest days of the Velvet Underground. “I remember,” Warhol goes on, “when he was so mean to us when the Mothers of Invention played with the Velvet Underground—I think both at the trip, in L.A., and at the Fillmore in San Francisco. I hated him then and I still don’t like him.” Zappa wasn’t simply rude, however; at a 1967 show in New York, he turned his talent for ridicule into what Kaleidoscope magazine writer Chris Darrow called “one of the greatest pieces of rock’n roll theater that I have ever seen.”

The opening night was very crowded and Zappa and members of the Mothers of Invention showed up to show their support. (...) Nico's delivery of her material was very flat, deadpan, and expressionless, and she played as though all of her songs were dirges. She seemed as though she was trying to resurrect the ennui and decadence of Weimar, pre-Hitler Germany. Her icy, Nordic image also added to the detachment of her delivery. (...) The audience was on her side, as she was in her element and the Warhol contingent was very prominent that night. However, what happened next is what sticks in my mind the most from that night. In between sets, Frank Zappa got up from his seat and walked up on the stage and sat behind the keyboard of Nico's B-3 organ. He proceeded to place his hands indiscriminately on the keyboard in a total, atonal fashion and screamed at the top of his lungs, doing a caricature of Nico's set, the one he had just seen. The words to his impromptu song were the names of vegetables like broccolli, cabbage, asparagus... This "song" kept going for about a minute or so and then suddenly stopped. He walked off the stage and the show moved on.

What Warhol took personally may have just been the irrepressible outgrowth of Zappa’s disdain for virtually everything, which he expresses to Berlin in the interview. Original Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black speculated that he may have hated the Velvet Underground because “they were junkies and Frank just couldn’t tolerate any kind of drugs.” The two bands were also, briefly, competitors at MGM.

But perhaps Zappa just couldn’t tolerate anyone else taking the spotlight, especially a talented female performer. Warhol remembers Zappa's response to a compliment about his daughter, Moon. “Listen,” he supposedly told Warhol, “I created her. I invented her.... She's nothing. It's all me.” In contrast to the “peculiar” reply, Warhol writes “if it were my daughter I would be saying ‘Gee, she’s so smart,’ but he’s taking all the credit.” Zappa may have been a musical genius with a special entrepreneurial flair and incisive critical wit, but the “sexist autocrat… with a scabrous attitude,” as Carlo Wolff describes him, “was not a likeable man.” Certainly the mild-mannered Warhol didn’t think so.

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

Joni Mitchell Sings an Achingly Pretty Version of “Both Sides Now” on the Mama Cass TV Show (1969)

"Records can be a bad trip. The audience can play your mistakes over and over. In a television special they see you once and you work hard to make sure they're seeing you at your best." 

Mama Cass Elliot, The Argus

It’s hard to imagine anyone blessed with Mama Cass’ golden pipes being embarrassed by a recorded performance. A live gig, yes, though, celebrities of her era were subjected to far fewer witnesses.

The Internet was an undreamable little dream in 1969, when the sole episode of The Mama Cass Television Show aired. The former singer of the Mamas and the Papas died five years later, presumably unaware that future generations would have knowledge of, let alone access to, her failed pilot.




She may have described her variety show as “low key” to the Fremont, California Argus, but the guest list was padded with high wattage friends, including comedian Buddy Hackett, and singers Mary Travers and John Sebastian. Joni Mitchell, above, delivered an above-reproach performance of “Both Sides Now.”

Later, Mitchell and Travers joined their hostess for the heartfelt rendition of "I Shall Be Released” below, a performance that is only slightly marred by Elliot’s insane costume and an unnecessarily syrupy backing arrangement of strings and reeds.

Those who can’t live without seeing the complete show can purchase DVDs online.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City through June 26 in Paul David Young’s political satire, Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor of the Telephone and Popular TV Pitchman

Mr. Watson, come here! I want you to tell me why I keep showing up in television commercials. Is it because they think I invented the television?

- The ghost of Alexander Graham Bell

Not at all, my dear Mr. Bell. A second's worth of research reveals that a 21-year-old upstart named Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented television. By 1927, when he unveiled it to the public, you’d already been dead for five years.

You invented the telephone, a fact of which we’re all very aware.

Though you might want to look into intellectual property law.... Historic figures make popular pitchmen, especially if - like Lincoln, Copernicus, and a red hot Alexander Hamilton, they’ve been in the grave for over 100 years. (Hint - you’ve got five years to go.)




Or you could take it as a compliment! You’ve made an impression so lasting, the briefest of establishing shots is all we television audiences need to understand the advertiser's premise.

Thusly can you be co-opted into selling the American public on the apparently revolutionary concept of chicken for breakfast, above.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Mr. Watson gets a cameo in your 1975 ad for Carefree Gum. You definitely come off the better of the two.

You’re an obvious choice for a recent AT&T spot tracing a line from your revelatory moment to 20-something  hipsters wielding smartphones and sparklers on a Brooklyn rooftop. Their devices aren’t the only thing connecting you. It’s also the beards…

Apologies for the beardlessness of this 10 year old, low-budget spot for Able Computing in Papua New Guinea. Possibly the costumer thought Einstein invented the phone? Or maybe the creative director was counting on the local viewing audience not to sweat the small stuff. Your invention matters more than your facial hair.

Lego took a cue from the 80s Muppet Babies craze by sending you back to childhood. They also saddled you and your mom  with American accents, a regrettably common practice. I bet you would’ve liked Legos, though. They’re like blocks.

As for this one, your guess is as good as mine.

Readers, please share your favorite ads featuring historic figures in the comments below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3, an indictment of the Trump administration that adapts and mangles Goethe's Faust (Parts 1 and 2) and the Gospels in the King James translation, as well as bits of Yeats, Shakespeare, Christmas carols, Stephen Foster, John Donne, Heiner Müller, Julia Ward Howe, and Abel Meeropol. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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