Maya Angelou Tells Studs Terkel How She Learned to Count Cards & Hustle in a New Animated Video

Blank on Blank returns with another one of their visually-distinctive animated videos. This one lets us time travel back to 1970 when Studs Terkel, the great American author, historian, and radio broadcaster, sat down with acclaimed poet Maya Angelou. The interview took place shortly after Angelou published her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the conversation turns, amusingly, to her childhood years, when she learned how to hustle and count cards from her step father, Daddy Clidell. I bet Bukowski is applauding wherever he is. Blank on Blank made this video in partnership with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which we featured on our site late last year.

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Watch Luis Buñuel’s Surreal Travel Documentary A Land Without Bread (1933)

You don’t get the warm fuzzies from a Luis Buñuel movie. The most famous moment from his first film — Un Chien andalou, co-directed with Salvador Dalí — is a woman getting her eye slashed with a straight razor. While on closer inspection the gutted eye is from a dead donkey, the image still has the power to shock 85 years later. Though the movie was a collaboration, you can discern Buñuel’s vision in this early work — shots of ants coming out of bodily orifices is pure Dalí; the caustic satire against the clergy is pure Buñuel. Dalí’s images are strange and beautiful. Buñuel’s are subversive.

Though Dalí and Buñuel worked together again on the scorchingly anti-Catholic L’Age d’or, their collaboration fell apart in pre-production. Dalí just wanted to tweak those in power. Buñuel, a committed leftist, wanted to undermine the whole bourgeoisie.

Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan) is Buñuel’s first movie without Dalí. Though lacking many of the overt surrealist flourishes of his earlier movies – no ocular mutilation here – this 1933 film is much more unsettling. Ostensibly a documentary about the Las Hurdes region located in a remote corner of Spain, the film is in fact a lacerating parody of travel documentaries. Novelist Graham Greene, in a review of the movie for Night and Day magazine, called it “an honest and hideous picture.” You can watch it above.

Las Hurdes is poor but not as comically awful as Buñuel depicts it. He paints the picture of unleavened wretchedness. Disease, deprivation and grinding despair are in just about every frame of the movie. And if the images weren’t miserable enough, Buñuel had no problem with creating a little of his own misery. In one notorious scene, a donkey is stung to death by a swarm of angry bees. Buñuel accomplished this by having the doomed beast slathered with honey and placed next to a couple of downed hives. Another scene sought to illustrate that the mountain passes in Las Hurdes were treacherous by showing a mountain goat tumbling off a craggy slope to certain death. Only the goat wasn’t clumsy, it was wounded. If you look closely at the lower right of the frame in that scene, you can see a puff of smoke from a crewmember’s gun. Buñuel, obviously, was not a member of PETA.

He juxtaposes these grim images with a monotone voice over that heaps disdain and condescension onto its subject. Yet the narration is so heightened, so preposterous, so cruel that you find yourself questioning its veracity. Below is a particularly infamous passage of the movie’s narration.

Dwarfs and morons are very common in the upper Hurdanos mountains. Their families employ them as goat herders if they’re not too dangerous. The terrible impoverishment of this race is due to the lack of hygiene, under nourishment and constant intermarriage. The smallest one of these creatures is 28 years old. Words cannot express the horror of their mirthless grins as they play a sort of hide and go seek.

All this places the viewer into a very uncomfortable position. Buñuel’s portrayal of the locals makes them seem so alien that empathy is all but impossible. All that you are left with is, aside from revulsion, an abstracted form of pity. It’s not all that different from the Oh Dearism you get from watching a news report on a particularly blighted corner of the Third World. The difference is that Buñuel, unlike the news, makes you acutely, uncomfortably aware of your privileged position in relation to the movie’s subject.

Land Without Bread will be added to our collection 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Free: Stream Songs from Bob Dylan’s Upcoming Release, The Basement Tapes Complete

basement tapes

As his loyal fans already know, Bob Dylan will release next week a six-CD collection called The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11, which features 139 songs recorded during the late 1960s, when, Dylan, recovering from a motorcycle accident, holed himself up in a basement in Saugerties, NY and began playing music casually with The Band. The story behind the making of The Basement Tapes gets nicely told by Sasha Frere-Jones in the latest edition of The New Yorker, and over at NPR you can now stream a selection of songs from the upcoming Basement Tapes release. Just thought you might want to know….

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The Fall of the House of Usher: Poe’s Classic Tale Turned Into 1928 Avant Garde Film, Scripted by e.e. cummings

Last week, in deference to the approach of Halloween, we featured the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe as Free eBooks and Free Audio Books. If you give them a read, a listen, or both, you’ll discover that few creators, using nothing more than the written word, can disturb quite so effectively as Poe. But his written words have also provided inspiration to frightening works in other media, including the previously featured 1953 British animation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and, today, the short-film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” That 1839 story perhaps most perfectly (and most viscerally) realizes such pet themes of Poe’s as illness, dread, and live burial, and as such has served as material to a great many filmmakers as defiantly lowbrow as Roger Corman and as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Jan Švankmajer. But here we offer you one of the most interesting cinematic “Usher”s ever made: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s 13-minute avant-garde adaptation, scripted in part by poet e.e. cummings.

“Despite their importance as leading figures in the film world,” writes Tara Travisano, “Watson and Webber’s work is often overlooked and not given sufficient credit.” Though they got their shooting script from the modernist-influenced cummings, the filmmakers, “not fans of modernism,” “preferred to have their films described as amateur.” Their Fall of the House of Usher, the best-known work they ever produced, “hardly follows a narrative, but is valued for its creative use of repetition and variation and for the film’s dramatic lighting.” And don’t worry if you haven’t read the original story in a while; according to Travisano, Watson and Webber chose to film it because they themselves hadn’t read it in a while, and thus “would be free of its influence.” But after experiencing the brief but unsettling cinematic dream they managed to make out of this half-remembered Poean material, you may want to seek out its influence by going back and reading it again — or listening to it, or trying to sleep and re-dream it for yourself.

You can find Fall of the House of Usher in our collection, 200 Free Documentaries Online.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

David Lynch’s Photographs of Old Factories

lynch factory 1

David Lynch’s break out movie, Eraserhead, is the sort of movie that will seep into your unconscious and stay with you for days or weeks – like a particularly unnerving nightmare. Shot in inky black and white, the film achieves its uncanny power in part because of its setting — a rotting industrial moonscape bereft of nature. Much of the film’s soundtrack is filled with the clanking of distant machines and the hissing of steam escaping pipes.

Lynch’s obsession with the remnants of the industrial revolution have punctuated much of his work since — from the grimy, claustrophobic Victorian streets in The Elephant Man to the opening titles of Twin Peaks to his 1990 avant-garde multimedia extravaganza Industrial Symphony No. 1.

“Well…if you said to me, ‘Okay, we’re either going down to Disneyland or we’re going to see this abandoned factory,’ there would be no choice,” said Lynch once in an interview. “I’d be down there at the factory. I don’t really know why. It just seems like such a great place to set a story.”

Earlier this year, Lynch exhibited at a London gallery a series of photographs he shot of, yes, rotting factories around New York, England and particularly Poland. The subjects of the photos are pretty mundane – a door, a window, a wall – but he imbues them with this odd tone of foreboding and menace. In other words, Lynch makes them seem Lynchian.

“It’s an incredible mood,” Lynch told Dazed Magazine. “I feel like I’m in a place that’s just magical, where nature is reclaiming these derelict factories. It’s very dreamy. Every place you turn, there’s something so sensational and surprising – it’s the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. All the cities are looking more and more the same. The real treasures are going away; the mood they create is going away.”

See more photos below and, if you’re so inclined, you can buy the book to the exhibit here.

A door in Lodz, Poland
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A window and a real estate opportunity in Lodz

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A factory. Lodz, Poland.

david lynch factory 4

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.


A Quick Introduction to Literary Theory: Watch Animated Videos from the Open University

Just what is an author? It might seem like a silly question, and an academic dissection of the term may seem like a needlessly pedantic exercise. But the very variability of the concept means it isn’t a stable, fixed idea at all, but a shifting set of associations we have with notions about creativity, the social role of art, and that elusive quality known as “genius.” Questions raised in the Open University video above—part of a series of very short animated entrées into literary criticism called “Outside the Book”—make it hard to ignore the problems we encounter when we try to define authorship in simple, straightforward ways. Most of the questions relate to the work of French poststructuralist Michel Foucault, whose critical essay “What is an Author?”—along with structuralist thinker Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”—disturbed many a literary critic’s comfortable assumptions about the creative locus behind any given work.

In the 18th century, at least in Europe, the author was a highly celebrated cultural figure, a status epitomized by Samuel Johnson’s reverential biography of John Dryden and edition of Shakespeare—and in turn Johnson’s own biography by his amanuensis Boswell. The 19th century began to see the author as a celebrity, with the hype and sometimes tawdry speculation that accompanies that designation. In the mid-twentieth century, even as the idea of the film director as auteur—a singular creative genius—gained ascendance, the inflated role of the literary author came in for a bruising. With Foucault, Barthes, and others like W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley—whose essay “The Intentional Fallacy” more or less ruled out biography as a tool of the critic—the author receded and the “text” gained primacy as, in Foucault’s words, a “discursive unit.”

This means that questions of authorship became inseparable from questions of readership, interpretation, and influence; from questions of historical classification and social construction (i.e. how do we know anything about “Byron” except through biographies, documentaries, etc., themselves cultural productions?); from questions of translation, pseudepigraphy, and pen names. Put in much plainer terms, we once came to think of the author not simply as the writer—a role previously delegated to lowly, usually anonymous “scribes” who simply copied the words of gods, heroes, and prophets. Instead, the author became a god, a hero, and a prophet, a godlike creator with a “literary stamp of approval” that grants his or her every utterance on the page a special status; “that makes even the note on Shakespeare’s fridge a work of profound genius.” But that idea is anything but simple, and the critical discussion around it anything but trivial.

Ditto much of the above when it comes to that other seemingly indivisible unit of literature, the book. In the even shorter video guide above, Open University rapidly challenges our commonplace ideas about book-hood and raises the now-commonplace question about the future of this “reading gizmo.” For more “Outside the Book,” see the remaining videos in the series: “Comedy,” “Tragedy,” and “Two Styles of Love.” And for a much more sustained and serious study of the art of literary criticism, delve into Professor Paul Fry’s Yale course below. It’s part of Open Culture’s collection, 1000 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Introduction to Theory of Literature – Free Online Video – Free iTunes Audio – Free iTunes Video – Course Materials – Paul H. Fry, Yale

h/t Catherine

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

Behold the Blistering Bass Solos of Cream Bassist and Singer, Jack Bruce (1943-2014)

I’ve written before that every band Eric Clapton’s been involved with could rightfully be called a supergroup. But for my money, there’s only one worthy of the name, and that’s Cream. Since forming a deep attachment to the psychedelic power trio from a young age, I’ve found it especially irksome to see them sometimes billed as “Eric Clapton and Cream.” Drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/singer Jack Bruce are at least as—if not more—talented and interesting as musicians. But though Baker has long been celebrated, though mostly from a safe distance, Bruce, in my opinion, is almost criminally underrated. That may change as tributes and reappraisals pour in after his passing of liver disease this past Saturday at age 71.

We’re likely to hear more Cream than usual, at least, which is never a bad thing. What you may not hear casually is Bruce’s playing in his later years. Like many rock stars of his era, including his Cream bandmates, he never really stopped. But unlike some musicians from the 60s, he only got better with age, adapting his jazz and blues chops to modern takes on the psych rock he helped invent. Not a flashy player, Bruce’s style is characterized by emotive power and a near perfect synthesis of the rhythmic and the melodic. Key to his style is the walking bassline like that on “White Room,” from Cream’s third record, 1968’s double album Wheels of Fire. He plays ‘em literally walking around, or rather strutting. In the video above, see Bruce pull out an amazing solo during a performance of “White Room” at an event called Hippie Fest in 2008.

The festival also featured legends Eric Burdon and the Animals and the Turtles but I can only imagine Bruce left the strongest impression on audience members who’d seen him in his prime and those who hadn’t. Watch him rip through another intense solo above in “Sunshine of Your Love,” followed by a blues number recorded earlier in the day at the same concert. Although most of Cream’s lyrics were written by poet and “unofficial fourth member” Pete Brown, the music was mostly Bruce. His range of influences was wide, and his willingness to follow them wherever they led, adventurous. David Fricke at Rolling Stone has a playlist of Bruce’s top ten “Deep Tracks,” including one from early 60s outfit The Graham Bond Organization—which also featured Ginger Baker and virtuoso jazz guitarist John McLaughlin—and several of Bruce’s solo tunes. “If you only know Cream,” writes Fricke in appreciation of Bruce’s versatility,” then stray far, every way you can—as he did.” It’s good advice.

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

David Bowie and Lou Reed Perform Live Together for the First and Last Time: 1972 and 1997

I discovered one of my favorite pieces of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia—a full page ad for the 1983 album from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust concert film—at a flea market. It’s a nice little piece of history, but a little bit misleading to consumers at the time, since it says, “featuring the single ‘White Light/White Heat.’” As everyone knows, “White Light/White Heat” is not a Bowie single, but a Lou Reed song, one of his many odes to heroin as lead singer of the Velvet Underground. But whatever the admen had in mind in promoting this track over Bowie’s many original hits, the star himself has never been shy about acknowledging his debts. When it comes to Ziggy, “the songwriter who most influenced” the glam rock alien is certainly Reed, as Bowie himself says in this 1977 interview.

Today, on the one-year anniversary of Reed’s death, we revisit their creative and personal relationship, a mutual admiration that spanned more than four decades. Not only did Bowie cover Reed’s songs and produce his 1972 solo album Transformer, but he wrote 1971’s “Queen Bitch” as a tribute to Reed and the Velvets. In 1997, Bowie and Reed took the stage together to perform the song. The occasion was Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden, and the all-star lineup that night included Frank Black, Dave Grohl, Sonic Youth, Robert Smith, and Billy Corgan (see the full setlist here). But Reed’s appearance was the most exciting, and in hindsight, most poignant. At the top of the post, see the two old friends play “Queen Bitch,” just above, they do “White Light/White Heat,” and below, Reed’s classic “Waiting for the Man” (they also played Reed’s 1989 “Dirty Boulevard” together).

At the time, Bowie was at “somewhat of a low point” in his career, writes Rolling Stone, though poised for a comeback with the upcoming single (and Trent Reznor-starring video) “I’m Afraid of Americans,” which he played with Sonic Youth that night. But the first time he and Reed shared the stage, in 1972, Bowie was riding high in all his Ziggy Stardust glory and regularly covering Velvet Underground songs on tour. That year, he brought Reed on stage in London for his “very, very first appearance on any stage in England.” Hear them do “White Light/White Heat” in somewhat muffled live audio below. They also played “Waiting for the Man” and “Sweet Jane” together, which you can hear at the bottom of the post.

While Bowie seems to have taken every opportunity to lavish praise on his idol, Reed was a bit more understated, though no less sincere, in his appreciation. In 2004, he told Rolling Stone, “We’re still friends after all these years. We go to the occasional art show and museum together, and I always like working with him […] I saw him play here in New York on his last tour, and it was one of the greatest rock shows I’ve ever seen. At least as far as white people go. Seriously.” Seriously, Lou Reed, you are sorely missed.

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

Edward Snowden Explains Why He Blew the Whistle on the NSA in Video Interview with Lawrence Lessig

Most likely everything you know about Edward Snowden’s unmasking of government surveillance programs has come through an indirect source — meaning, you haven’t had the chance to learn about Snowden’s motivations, thought processes, goals, etc. from Snowden himself. Here’s a chance to change that.

In the video interview recorded on October 20th at Harvard Law School, Lawrence Lessig spent an hour talking with Snowden on a Google Hangout. Lessig, a law professor with dual interests in keeping information open and limiting government corruption, was a natural choice to conduct the interview. However, I wouldn’t say that he gives Snowden a soft interview. He asks some good questions, which gives Snowden the chance to spell out his thinking — to explain the problem he observed while working in the NSA and how he went about addressing it.

One thing that comes across is that Snowden has thought things through. Snowden might not have the credentials of the Harvard Law students in the audience — he got a GED and took a few community college courses, after all — but you get the sense that he could teach a pretty good Introduction to American Government course, if not a thought-provoking seminar on constitutional law. Regardless of what position you take on Snowden, it’s worth watching this interview before you declare final judgement.

via BoingBoing

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On the Importance of the Creative Brief: Frank Gehry, Maira Kalman & Others Explain its Essential Role

Every project starts with a brief. 

From the layman’s perspective, the project above starts with a bit of self-mythologizing.

Bassett & Partners, the “award-winning, disruptive brand and design strategy firm” and maker of the video above, seems not to subscribe to TED-Ed’s practice of educating viewers from the get-go.

A couple of minutes in, I hit pause in order to do a little research on the word “brief.”

I’m familiar with male underpants (though technically those are plural, even if the garment is singular).

I have the average moviegoers handle on the meaning of legal briefs.

And now I know what the noted architects, illustrator, designer, and ad execs are talking about above! If only they’d referred to it as an elevator pitch, I’d have been on board from the start. Of course, why would they? Only those of us who want to sound all Hollywood call it that.

Whatever you call it, it’s a concise statement that gets right to the heart of what you—or your project—are about. No history. No campaign plans or citations. Just a whole lot of passion and truth tightly packed into a small vessel.

Architect David Rockwell defines a brief as a short-form communication tool from a client.

Art Director John Jay says its purpose is to inspire the creatives…

…without (as per ad exec John Boiler) dictating creative terms. Of all the interviewees, the trucker hatted Boiler exudes the schmooziest, most off-putting Hollywood vibe. I’d rather do lunch with Frank Gehry. Does this make me guilty of comparing apples to oranges, when director (and “disruptive brand and design” strategist) Tom Bassett leveled the playing field by giving them equal time?

Perhaps if Boiler had humbled himself by sharing an experience as heartbreaking as Gehry’s ill-fated Eisenhower Memorial. (Skip ahead to the 16:16 mark if you want to hear how outside opinion can pound context, research, poetry, and many months of thoughtful work to a heap of rubble.)

I love Maira Kalman, but remain unclear as to whether she’s fielding or submitting briefs. If the latter, how do those differ from book proposals?

What if the emotion, creativity, and enthusiastic research that went into Nike’s 1996 Olympics ads resulted in an equally fierce campaign to end hunger in a country with no Olympic teams?

What if the client’s problem was cancer? Could the brief demand a cure? That sounds simple.

Let us acknowledge that most grand scale visions require a fleet of underlings to come to fruition. I wonder what plumbers and electricians would make of seeing their contributions described in such poetic terms.  Never underestimate the power of a soundtrack.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday