Errol Morris Makes His Groundbreaking Series, First Person, Free to Watch Online: Binge Watch His Interviews with Geniuses, Eccentrics, Obsessives & Other Unusual Types

Who do we normally see interviewed on television? Actors, pop singers, politicians, and other famous figures, many of whom have undergone rigorous media training, few of whom have especially interesting personalties in the first place, and none of whom could stand up to Errol Morris' Interrotron. Essentially a teleprompter modified to display Morris' face on its screen, the Interrotron made a new kind of filmed interview possible: "For the first time," Morris has said, "I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. Now, there was no looking off slightly to the side. No more faux first person. This was the true first person."

Hence First Person, the Interrotron-centered television series Morris produced and directed in the early 2000s. By that time Morris had already become well known for his interview-based documentaries, which went deep into unusual subjects like the pet cemetery business (Gates of Heaven), a dubious murder trial in Texas (The Thin Blue Line), and the mind of Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time). In 1997's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control Morris invited into the Interrotron a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a roboticist and a hairless mole-rat expert, weaving the four interviews together into threads to do with themes of emergence and control. But what could tie together conversations with a true-crime author, a cryonics promoter, a lawyer to the mob, and an authority on giant squids?

Those are just four of First Person's seventeen subjects, each of whom has their uncommon knowledge, distinctive ability, harrowing experience, or dirty job — or some combination thereof — probed by Morris for an entire episode. Some of them, such as animal-behavior expert and autism spokeswoman Temple Grandin, have become much more well-known since appearing on the show. Others have been sentenced to serve 15 years in prison. And given the two decades that have passed since the show first aired, some of them have since shuffled off this mortal coil: Dennis Fitch, for instance, the pilot who assisted in the "impossible" crash-landing of United Airlines Flight 232 after its sudden and complete loss of control — and whose story is the most gripping hour in First Person's entire run.

Morris' fans will sense in First Person themes the director explored before and has explored further since. Take the nature of intelligence, at the forefront of First Person's two episodes on men with some of the highest IQ-test scores on record. Morris finds Chris Langan thinking his way toward something called a "Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe" and an intellectual priesthood meant to govern the world to come. Richard Rosner, despite his equally formidable brain, divides his time between nude modeling and obsessively re-litigating a failed Who Wants to Be a Millonaire? appearance. (At the time Morris got them into the Interrotron, both men also worked as bar bouncers.) You may well come away from these episodes wondering just what a high IQ gets a person. But if you watch the complete First Person, broken into playlists of its first and second season, on Errol Morris' Youtube channel, that will be just one of the fascinating and troubling questions running through your mind for years to come.

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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.

James Baldwin Talks About Racism in America & Civil Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

There are many reasons, some quite literal, that it can be painful to talk about racism in the U.S. For one thing, it often seems that writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, or James Baldwin, have already confronted questions of racial violence without hedging or equivocation. Yet each time racist violence happens, there seems to be a decorous need in politics and media to pretend to be surprised by what's right in front of us, to pretend to have discovered the place for the first time, and yet to already have a supply of readymade platitudes and denunciations at hand.

For example, just recently, a former white U.S. President just dismissed an important civil rights leader at the funeral of another civil rights leader, while the oppressive conditions both leaders fought against are amplified to military grade in cities around the country. Sports fans demand that elite Black athletes shut up and entertain them. The fans will be the ones to say what gestures are acceptable, like standing for the national anthem at a televised for-profit sporting event that has more to do with gambling than patriotism.




Maybe standing and kneeling are both spectacles, but they do not carry equal weight. When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees refused to support his teammates’ mild protest against murder, he tried to make it right by posting on social media a stock photo of a black hand and a white hand clasped together. In his N+1 essay “Such Things Have Done Harm,” a worthy application of Baldwin’s furious logic to the present, Blair McClendon writes:

The spectacle of reconciliation is irresistible. There may be a war in the streets, but from time to time there is a Christmas truce and we are to take those as visions of a better, calmer future. Here is the coming peace without all the grisly details that prevent us from getting there…. Holding up a picture of black and white people together intimately, in camaraderie, or even just mutual recognition and respect, as proof of something “possible” implies an otherwise brutal vision of the world “as it is”... We should be willing to demand more than fellow feeling.

The foreclosure of conflict, the bypassing of reality with sentimental fantasies of harmony, lies at the heart of the exceptionalism argument that seems to make so many people irrationally angry with Black athletes. You are highly paid, successful entertainers, and we consider that a sign of progress, therefore we judge this protest illegitimate. For Baldwin, as Ellen Gutoskey writes at Mental Floss, this standard measurement of progress “is only progress as defined by white people of privilege.”

When Dick Cavett voiced the question to Baldwin in 1969—citing those who point to the success of “the rising number of Black Americans in sports, politics, and entertainment”—Baldwin explained the real problem: No one has asked for this opinion, and certainly not at that time, as Gutoskey points out, "with the violence of 1968—Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, a riotous Democratic National Convention, countless civil rights protests, and so on—still very fresh in the public consciousness." Baldwin puts is plainly:

Insofar as the American public wants to think there has been progress, they overlook one very simple thing: I don’t want to be given anything by you. I just want you to leave me alone so I can do it myself. And it also overlooks another very important thing: Perhaps I don’t think that this republic is the summit of human civilization. Perhaps I don’t want to become like Ronald Reagan or like the president of General Motors. Perhaps I have another sense of life… Perhaps I don’t want what you think I want.

Repeatedly, the hallowed democratic notion of self-determination has been denied Black Americans—perhaps the single most enduring thread that runs through the country’s history. The denial of agency is complicated, however, by the necessity of assigning blame to people deemed not fully human: “I have nothing to say about the idea that people who are the descendants of property are bound to respect the property rights of Gucci or CVS beyond the desire to point out its obscenity,” Blair McClendon writes. “What was called violence and chaos in any other circumstance would be read as something much simpler: self-defense.”

Again and again, those who resist the most brutal conditions—including outright murder in the streets, in quiet homes at night, in cars, at playgrounds, by agents of the state—are called villains and insurrectionists. Cavett asks Baldwin to explain radical leaders like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, “who frighten us the most" (making the word “us” do a lot of work here). Baldwin responds, “[When] any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a Black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one….”

I doubt the irony of quoting Patrick Henry (also known for saying “If this be treason, make the most of it!”) was in any way lost on Baldwin. As one recent biographer puts it, Henry was the first American revolutionary “to call for independence, for revolution against Britain, for a bill of rights, and for as much freedom as possible from government—American as well as British." Patrick Henry was also a slaveowner, something he considered, in his own words, a “lamentable evil.”

Henry wrote, “I will not, I cannot justify [owning slaves],” but he was “not conflicted enough to actually set anyone free,” writes Michael Schaub at NPR. Declarations of high moral principles, while one openly commits, or ignores, what one admits is “evil,” still feature prominently in official stories of the moment. Baldwin, writes McClendon, “knew what a story was, he knew what a film was, he knew what a revolution was and he may have known forgiveness, too.”

Baldwin did not know willful forgetting, however, except to call it out when he saw it used as a weapon. Raoul Peck's excellent, aptly-titled film I Am Not Your Negro begins with the Cavett interview, then unravels a "radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America," writes YouTube Movies, who offers the film free to screen online, "using Baldwin's original words and a flood of rich archival material" to reconstruct his last unfinished book, Remember This House.

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

Rick and Morty as Absurdist Humor, Yet Legitimate Sci-Fi with Family Drama (Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #54)

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt address the 4-season 2013 Adult Swim show, which currently has a 94% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What kind of humor is it, and how are we supposed to take its sci-fi and family drama elements? While its concepts start as parody, with an anything-goes style of animation, they're creative and grounded enough to actually contribute to multiple genres. How smart is the show, exactly? And its fans? Is Rick a super hero, or maybe essentially Dr. Who? What might this very serialized sit-com look like in longevity?

We also touch on other adult cartoons like South Park, Solar Opposites, The Simpsons, Family Guy, plus Community, Scrubs, and more.

Hear the interview we refer to with the show's creators. Watch the video we mention about its directors. Visit the Rick and Morty wiki for episode descriptions and other things.

Some articles that we bring up or otherwise fueled our discussion include:

Also, do you want a Plumbus?

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Devo De-Evolves the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: See Their Groundbreaking Music Video and Saturday Night Live Performance (1978)

In 1978, the debut album by a forcefully idiosyncratic new wave band out of Akron, Ohio both asked and answered a question: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! When we look back on the still-active group's career more than 40 years later, we may still ask ourselves who, or what, Devo are. Given that they're a rock band — albeit only just recognizable as one at the time they hit it big — we could define them by their songs. Were Devo made Devo by their their first single, "Mongoloid"? Or was it "Whip It," their biggest hit and the Devo song we all know today?

There's also a case to be made that few of us would ever have heard of Devo if they hadn't recorded their cover of another band's defining song: the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Devo's "wicked deconstruction," writes Allmusic critic Steve Huey, "reworks the original's alienation into a spastic freak-out that's nearly unrecognizable." At The New Yorker, Ron Padgett tells the story of the recording and release of Devo's "Satisfaction," a process that began with a rhythm track co-founder Gerald Casale calls "some kind of mutated devolved reggae." Aesthetically, this tied neatly in with the band's central concept: "that instead of evolving, society was in fact regressing ('de-evolving') as humans embraced their baser instincts."




It was Casale, by day a catalog designer for a janitorial supply company, who discovered the baggy yellow waste-disposal suits Devo would wear in the "Satisfaction" music video — a daring enough medium to begin with, given the paucity of venues for such productions in the late 70s. But "when MTV launched, in 1981," writes Padgett, "very few bands had videos ready for the network to play. As a result, Devo’s 'Satisfaction' video earned endless rotations." But the big break came "when they performed the song on Saturday Night Live, wearing the suits and pitch-black sunglasses, and doing the same jerky robo-motions, as in the video."

You can see their SNL performance, introduced by the late Fred Willard, in the clip above.  Negotiated by the band's manager Elliot Roberts in exchange for bringing Neil Young on a later broadcast, the appearance exposed Devo to an audience that included no few viewers hungry for just the kind of subversiveness the band's music exuded. All this only happened because Mick Jagger himself had given Devo's spastic freakout his blessing — and, as recorded in the book Devo: Unmasked, somehow managed to dance to it as he did so. Later, as Casale remembers it, Roberts claimed to have suggested in advance to Jagger's people that he "just says he likes it, because it’s going to make him a lot of money." Or could that living embodiment of rock stardom be a closet subscriber to the theory of de-evolution?

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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.

How Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Lolita, “My Most Difficult Book”: A 1989 Documentary

How many of us could write a book with the impact of Lolita? The task, as revealed in the BBC Omnibus documentary above, lay almost beyond even the formidable literary powers of Vladimir Nabokov — almost, but obviously not quite. It did push him into new aesthetic, cultural, and compositional realms, as evidenced by his memories of drafting the novel on index cards in roadside motels (and when faced with especially noisy or drafty accommodations, in the backseat of the parked car) while road-tripping though the United States. The documentary's subject is the exiled aristocrat novelist's experience writing and publishing Lolita, the book that would make him world-famous — as well as the experience that brought him to the time and place that made such a cultural coup possible.

Aired in 1989, a dozen years after Nabokov's death, My Most Difficult Book features interviews with the novelist's Ferrari-driving son and translator Dmitri, his scholar-biographer Brian Boyd, and his younger admirer-colleagues including Martin Amis, A.S. Byatt, and Edmund White. That last describes Nabokov's novels as "great systems of meaning in which every element refers to every other one," and Lolita marked a new height in his achievement in that form.




But the book's popularity, or at least its initial wave of popularity, may be better explained by the controversy surrounding the elements of its by now well-known premise: the refined middle-aged European narrator, the coarse twelve-year-old stepdaughter whom he contrives to sexually possess — and succeeds in sexually possessing — as they drive across America, a vast land whose look, feel, and language Nabokov took pains to capture and repurpose.

"There are a lot of literalists out there," says Amis, "who will think that you can't write a novel like Lolita without being a secret slaver after young girls." That was as true in 1989 as it was in 1955, when the book was first published, and indeed as true as it is today. Well into middle age, we learn in the documentary, strangers would ask Dmitri what it was like to be the son of a "dirty old man," and in archive interview footage we see Nabokov address the public conflation of himself and Humbert Humbert, Lolita's pedophiliac narrator. A serious chess enthusiast, Nabokov describes himself as writing novels as he would solve chess problems he posed to himself. What could present a more rigorous challenge than to tell a story, at a high artistic level, from the perspective of a monster? But Nabokov, as he admitted to one interviewer, was indeed a monster, at least according to one definition offered by his much-consulted English dictionary: "A person of unnatural excellence."

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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.

Twilight Zone Morality Tales: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast Discussion (#52)

Something's strange... Is it a dream? If it's a morality tale with a twist ending, you're probably in the Twilight Zone. Your hosts Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer, plus guest Ken Gerber (Brian's brother) are in it this week, discussing the thrice revived TV series. Does the 1959-1963 show hold up? What makes for a good TZ episode, and does Jordan Peele's latest iteration capture the spirit? We talk about episodes new and old, the 1983 film, plus comparisons to Black Mirror and David Lynch.

The classic episodes we focus most on (and might spoil, so you should go watch them) are It's a Good Life, Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, What You Need, The Howling Man, Perchance to Dream, and Nick of Time. The others Ken recommended for us are The Obsolete Man and The Masks. Mark complains about Walking Distance.

In the new series, season 1, we do spoil Blurry Man and praise (but don't spoil) Replay. We don't spoil season two at all, but recommend Try, Try and Meet in the Middle and pan Ovation and 8.

Some articles we looked at include:

A good video on the background of the show is "American Masters Rod Serling: Submitted for your Approval," and you can find detailed discussions of many episodes on The Twilight Zone Podcast. Ken recommends The Twilight Zone Companion. Oh, and Chris Hardwick really likes TZ.

If you enjoyed this episodes, you might like our previous discussion with Ken on time travel.

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This week, we continue for more than half an hour, further discussing the Twilight Zone with Ken, which includes a look at the 1985-1989 series.

This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Salvador Dalí Explains Why He Was a “Bad Painter” and Contributed “Nothing” to Art (1986)

Not so very long ago, Salvador Dalí was the most famous living painter in the world. When the BBC's Arena came to shoot an episode about him in 1986, they asked him what that exalted state felt like. "I don't know if I am the most famous painter in the world," Dalí responds, "because lots of the people who ask for my autograph in the street don't know if I'm a singer, a film star, a madman, a writer — they don't know what I am." He was, in one sense or another, most of those things and others besides. But we can safely say, more than thirty years after his death, that Dalí will be remembered first for his visual art, with its vast seas and skies, its impossible beasts, its melting clocks. And what did Dalí himself believe he had contributed to art?

"Nothing," he says. "Absolutely nothing, because, as I've always said, I'm a very bad painter. Because I'm too intelligent to be a good painter. To be a good painter you've got to be a bit stupid, with the exception of Velázquez, who is a genius, whose talent surpasses the art of painting." In other words, when Dalí's ever-present detractors said he was no Velázquez, Dalí's wholeheartedly agreed.




Over the past few decades, appreciation of the distinctive combination of vision and technique on display in Dalí's paintings has won him more official respect (as well as a lavish new collection published in book form by Taschen), but the debate about to what extent he was a true artist and to what extent a calculatedly eccentric self-promoter will never fully simmer down.

Dalí also claimed to owe his life to painting badly. "The day Dalí paints a picture as good as Velázquez, Vermeer, or Raphael, or music like Mozart," he says, "the next week he'll die. So I prefer to paint bad pictures and live longer." That he had already entered his ninth decade by the time Arena came calling suggests that this strategy might have been effective, though he wasn't without his health troubles. In his first public appearance after having had a pacemaker implanted that same year, he declared that "When you are a genius, you do not have the right to die, because we are necessary for the progress of humanity." Dalí's kept his askew arrogance to the end, even through the controversial final years that saw him sign off on the large-scale production of shoddy lithographs of his paintings. About the people who made them and the people who bought them, Dalí had only this to say: "They deserve each other."

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When Salvador Dali Met Sigmund Freud, and Changed Freud’s Mind About Surrealism (1938)

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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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