Vintage Films Revisits Literary Scene of 1920s New York, with Clips of Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken & Other Icons

When young artists, be they writers, painters, or musicians, aim to strike it big, they invariably choose to move to New York. Brooklyn lofts, hopes of finding a likeminded smart set, and the promise of good times beckon countless young men and women to develop their creative careers in a city whose history teems with outsized aspirations and even larger personalities. New York has, after all, been a hub for artistic luminaries since the early 20th century.

In the 1961 documentary entitled New York In The Twenties, above, Walter Cronkite gives a snapshot of the talented crowd that was once drawn in by the city’s cultural riptide during the 1920s. The short video consists of interviews with the publisher Alfred KnopfNew York Herald Tribune editor Stanley Walker; and Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Green PasturesMarc Connelly. Walker plays the part of the consummate New York newspaperman, pining for the days when decent citizens weren't forced to rub shoulders with the boors now infesting the Westchester and Connecticut trains. Connelly, in more affable fashion, describes the fabled 1920s group of creative minds known as the Algonquin Round Table:

Alexander Woollcott was searing, acid, rude; I used to feel sometimes his only exercise was rancour. But, he was engaging, was compelling, and amusing… Edna Ferber, young, industrious, she used to scare us all to death by her habit of industry. George Kaufman was certainly one of the wittiest of that group. George’s wit… had the sharpness of a silver point etching… There was… Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker. There was speculation about Ross, his curious head of hair; it was very high, very thick. Somebody once said that that jungle picture Chang had been filmed in it. I think it was George Kaufmann that once said he looked like a dishonest Lincoln. 

A lot of people who knew nothing about the personal lives or the attitudes … of the people at the round table… thought that it was a mutual admiration society and a logrolling organization. It was anything but that because I promise you, the worst pannings ever received for our books or our plays came from the critical friends who were members of that group.

Alfred Knopf, in turn, discusses the glory days of publishers and writers, as well as the genius of H. L. Mencken, whom he describes as “the greatest editor… that I’ve ever known.”

Viewing the halcyon days of New York’s creative scene, with its jazz clubs and speakeasies, it’s no wonder that Knopf, Walker, and Connelly’s accounts leave one with an ineluctable sense of nostalgia. Of course, with its unceasing influx of artists, the city’s substance remains the same today. It's just that its Bloomberg-era sterility has led to a change in style.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

Musical Comedian Reggie Watts Reinvents Van Halen’s Classic, “Panama”

Jump back, what's that sound? Oh, it's just Reggie Watts covering Van Halen's 1984 cock rock anthem, Panama, in a crazy-ass golf sweater. Carry on.

On the invitation of The Onion's AV Club, the musical comedian procured an early demo from the band, and used it as the inspiration for this performance, an unrecognizable fugue of live looped vocals.

Um, it's still about a car, right?

The unlikely pairing came about as part of the AV Club's Undercover series, a delightful parlor game wherein each act to play in the tiny round office at Onion HQ gets to pick a tune from a dwindling annual list of 25. The last act to visit gets stuck with the cut nobody else wanted. (Reggie arrived close to the middle of this clambake, and was ranked a respectable 5th by readers who went on to award self-proclaimed sickest band in metal history GWAR top honors for their twist on Kansas' classic "Carry On Wayward Son.")

For comparison's sake, here's Panama in its original form:

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Ayun Halliday came of age surrounded by Van Halen concert t-shirts. Follow her @AyunHalliday

The History of Typography Told in Five Animated Minutes

Caslon, Baskerville, Helvetica... these names have graced many a pull down menu, but what do they signify, exactly?

Graphic designer Ben Barrett-Forrest spent 140 hours animating the 291 paper letters on display in the History of Typography, an introduction to the ways in which language has been expressed visually over time.

From Gutenberg's inky, monk-inspired Blacklister font to the ever-controversial Comic Sans, Barrett-Forrest employs stop motion to spell out the quantifiable reasons that certain serifs and stroke types are easy on the eye. Let's not tell the creators of Llama Font or Mr. Twiggy, but legibility is the mother of survival in this arena.

via @coudal

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Watch Them Watch Us: A History of Breaking the “Fourth Wall” in Film

Remember that scene in Nashville, when Keith Carradine sings "I'm Easy," and every woman in the club thinks he's speaking directly to her?

Breaking the fourth wall---also known as direct address---can have the same effect on a filmgoing audience. The compilation video above makes it clear that actors love it too. Breaking from convention can telegraph an unimpeachable cool, à la John Cusack in High Fidelity, or afford a veteran scenery chewer like Samuel L. Jackson the opportunity to turn the hog loose. It's most often deployed in the service of comedy, but a stone-cold killer can make the audience complicit with a wink.

Screenwriter and journalist Leigh Singer pulled footage from 54 films for this mash up, and freely admits that time constraints left some favorites on the cutting room floor. What would you add, if you happened to have Marshall McLuhan right here?

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Ayun Halliday is that rare Generation X-er who didn't see Ferris Bueller's Day Off until 2013. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Steel-Willed Hand Balancer Jaakko Tenhunen Explains Why Effort Brings the Most Satisfaction

Few of us possess the physical strength and even steelier will to follow in the handprints of professional balancer Jaakko Tenhunen, but most of us have other projects that could benefit from the sort of relentless determination he brings to his work. "Effort, not comfort, is what gives the most tangible sense of satisfaction," he remarks in the voiceover above, as the camera captures him supporting his entire body weight on a single palm, his face intense but not at all anguished. Reduce this elegant philosophy to the far punchier "just do it," and you stand to sell a lot of shoes.

As Tenhunen knows firsthand, this sort of effortful pursuit depends on discipline and daily practice. Patience is also key, as success is cumulative, and difficult to measure in the early stages.

The stripped down aesthetic of his performance does not necessarily make what he does look easy, so much as worthwhile. If you are a fledgling hand balancer, you may well find it discouraging, but for those of us striving to see other goals through to completion, Tehunen provides a bracing visual metaphor.

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Ayun Halliday will be at tabling at the Brooklyn Zinefest this Sunday. Immediately thereafter catch her performing the Complete History of her long running zine, the East Village Inky... in song, as part of Brooklyn Brain Frame.

100 Metropolitan Museum Curators Talk About 100 Works of Art That Changed How They See the World

Which best describes your museum-going experience? Inspiration and spiritual refreshment? Or a soul crushing attempt to fight your way past the hoards there for the latest blockbuster exhibit, with a too-heavy bag and a whining, foot sore companion in tow?

Wouldn't it be wonderful to lose yourself in contemplation of a single work? What about that giant one at the top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Grand Staircase? For every visitor who pauses to take it in, another thousand stream by with hardly a glance.

The above commentary by curator of Italian paintings, Xavier Salomon, may well turn Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's The Triumph of Marius into one of the Met's hottest attractions. It's often difficult for the average museum-goer to understand what the deal is in one of these densely populated, 19th century oils. Salomon supplies the needed historical context---general Gaius Marius parading captive Numidian king Jugurtha through the streets upon his triumphal return to Rome.

Things get even more interesting when he translates the Latin inscription at the top of the canvas: “The Roman people behold Jugurtha laden with chains.” In other words, you can forgo the hero worship of the title and concentrate on the bad guy. This, Salomon speculates, is what the artist had in mind when swathing Jugurtha in that eye-catching red cape. Jugurtha may be the loser, but his refusal to be humbled before the crowd is winsome.

As is 82nd and 5th, an online series that aims to celebrate 100 transformative works of art from the museum's collection before year's end. In addition to Salomon's compelling thoughts on The Triumph of Marius, some pleasures thus far include Melanie Holcomb, Associate Curator of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, geeking out over illustrated manuscript pages and fashion and costume curator Andrew Bolton recalling his first encounter with one of designer Alexander McQueen's most extreme garments. Each video is supplemented with a tab for further exploration. You can also find the talks collected on YouTube.

Brilliantly conceived and executed, these commentaries provide virtual museum-goers with a highly personal tour, and can only but enrich the experience of anyone lucky enough to visit in the flesh.

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Ayun Halliday  has her fingers crossed for some commentary on the Met's hunky Standing Hanuman.

Norwegian Musician Creates Ice Instruments with a Chain Saw and Sub-Zero Weather

Most professional musicians have a very special relationship with their instruments. Male guitarists treat their favorite guitars like girlfriends—maybe better in some cases. Traveling cellists buy airline tickets for instruments. It’s just too risky to put your livelihood in cargo.

Not so for Terje Insungset, a Norwegian musician who, among other things, carves instruments out of ice. His background is in jazz and traditional Scandinavian music, but he’s built a reputation as an artist who makes music on unconventional materials. Considering where he is from, it’s not surprising that he has turned his attention to ice and its musical potential.

Turns out the sound of an ice xylophone is lovely—soft, deep, tinkly. The ice horn sounds like a lonely beast calling out across the tundra. Insungset collaborates with vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll. Together they perform around the world, sometimes indoors and sometimes in the snow, with elaborate microphone cords draped around and beautiful lighting.

There’s even an ice guitar.

Insungset has also built instruments out of arctic birch, slate, cow bells and granite. His interest in ice as a material developed when he was commissioned to play music in a frozen waterfall at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Unlike most musicians, he has to build his instruments in situ, as he did for recent concerts in Canada where the temperature was 36 below zero with a light wind. Perfect weather for ice music.

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Visit her website, .

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