The Student of Prague: The Very First Independent Film (1913)

When people talk about “independent cinema” today, they seem, as often as not, to talk about a sensibility — we all know, on some level, what someone means when they tell us they “like indie films.” But the term has its roots, of course, not necessarily in independence of spirit, but in independence from systems. Now that technology has granted all of us the ability, at least in theory, to make any movie we want, this distinction has lost some of its meaning, but between about twenty and eighty years ago, the commercial establishments controlling production, distribution, and screening enjoyed their greatest solidity (and indeed, impenetrability). During that time, making a film independently meant making a fairly specific, often anti-Hollywood statement. But what about before then, when the medium of cinema itself had yet to take its full shape?

Not only does 1913’s The Student of Prague offer an entertaining example of independent film from an era before even Hollywood had become Hollywood, it has a place in history as the first independent film ever released. German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers and Danish director Stellan Rye (not to mention star Paul Wegener, he of the Golem trilogy) collaborated to bring to early cinematic life this 19th-century horror story of the titular student, a down-at-the-heels bon vivant who, besotted with a countess and determined to win her by any means necessary, makes a deal with a devilish sorcerer that will fulfill his every desire. The catch? He summons the student’s reflection out of the mirror and into reality. So empowered, this doppelgänger goes around wreaking havoc. Hardly the ostensibly high-minded material of “indie film” — let alone “foreign film” — from the past half-century or so, but The Student of Prague treats it with respect, arriving at the kind of uncompromising ending that might surprise even modern audiences. If you don’t watch it today, keep it bookmarked for Halloween viewing.

You can find The Student of Prague added to our big film collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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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.

6 Hours of Mannequins Flying From Newark to San Francisco

Is there anything worse than flying from Newark to San Francisco? Maybe it’s watching mannequins taking this cross-country flight. Talk about tedium. And yet there’s something a little brilliant about this six hour advertisement from Virgin Airlines — which promises a more inspiring flight. I mean how many six hour advertisements have you seen, let alone ones that have “action” from start to finish? Somewhere, someone’s going to watch this thing all the way through. Maybe it’s you.

Professor Michael Stipe: R.E.M.’s Frontman Now Teaching Art Classes at NYU

 

stipe at nyu

Admirers of Michael Stipe will know that he before he became a famous rock star with R.E.M., he was an art student at the University of Georgia. He may have skipped the degree, but he never stopped making things, including the photography and design of the band’s album covers, the lighting and stage design of their live shows, and several of their videos. Now a rock star emeritus, Stipe makes things full time in an official capacity as the visiting artist and scholar in residence at the NYU Steinhardt Department of Art. He has recently curated an “evolving exhibition project” called NEW SIGHTS, NEW NOISE, writes Eric Alper, “produced collaboratively with Jonathan Berger” and including “contributions from special guests Douglas Coupland, Jefferson Hack, Peaches,” and others.

Appearing at NYU’s 80 WSE Gallery, the exhibition also includes work from Stipe’s students. That’s right, Michael Stipe is a “shiny happy” college professor, as this pun-happy Spin article tells us, and the show comes from his class assignments: “Each week, Stipe and a different special guest will give the class’ 18 students a prompt, and they’ll respond with ‘100 images and gifs, both found and made, all of which will be uploaded to a private class website.’” It’s all centered around themes Stipe has pursued for some time, as you can see from his Tumblr. He describes the project on R.E.M.’s website as referring to “the glut and onslaught of information made available by the internet, often without context or authorship; the disproportionate and impulsive reactions that it provokes, and the reckless cynicism of a 24 hour news cycle.” Read much more about the project at Alper’s blog, and see much more of Stipe’s work—with sculpture, painting, and film—at the Creator’s Project video above from 2011.

photo by David Shankbone.

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

Night on Bald Mountain: An Eery, Avant-Garde Pinscreen Animation Based on Mussorgsky’s Masterpiece (1933)

If you read Open Culture regularly, I imagine I can safely call Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker your favorite France-based, Russian-American husband-wife pinscreen animation team. Dare I presume to refer to them as your favorite pinscreen animators, period? We’ve previously featured two examples of their time- and labor-devouring but utterly distinctive animation technique: their eerie opening to Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, and their own dazzling adaptation of Gogol’s short story “The Nose.” Alexeieff and Parker’s trip to the Gogol well reflects their penchant for the imaginative creators of Alexeieff’s homeland. The film we present here draws its inspiration not from a Russian writer, but from the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, himself an enthusiastic incorporator of his country’s lore and traditions.

You certainly know at least one work of Mussorgsky’s: Night on Bald Mountain, which he wrote early in his career but which never saw a full orchestral debut until 1886, five years after his death. Over half a century after that, the piece found a much wider audience through its use in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. For many, that intersection of Mussorgsky and Mickey Mouse will remain the finest example of classical music united with animation, but have a look at how Alexeieff and Parker did it — in 1933, no less, seven years before Fantasia — and see what Cartoon Research’s Steve Stanchfield calls “one of the most unusual and unique looking animated films ever created.” It presents, he writes, “both delightful and at times horrifying imagery, a stream of consciousness barrage of images that challenge the viewer to comprehend both their meaning and the mystery of how they were created.”

To my four-year-old self, Fantasia seemed pretty scary too, but Alexeieff and Parker have, on their pinscreen, taken things to a whole other psychological level. Nearly forty years later, they would use the music of Musskorgy again to create 1972’s French-language Pictures at an Exhibition just above. They would make another, Trois Themes, in 1980, but it appears lost to time, at least for the moment. Have we made you into the kind of pinscreen animation enthusiast who might unearth it?

You can find Night on Bald Mountain on our list of Animated Films, part of our larger collection called 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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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.

Breaking Bad Illustrated by Gonzo Artist Ralph Steadman

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Sure, I suffered from Breaking Bad withdrawal syndrome after the show’s excellent fifth and final season. Symptoms included watching episodes of Metástasis, the Colombian telenovela-style, Spanish language remake; obsessively reading news about upcoming spin-off, Better Call Saul; and wishing the hoax about a Season 6 was true. The condition is widespread, shared by fans of other cult hits like Dexter and The Wire. Many take to the alternate universes of fan fiction and art, and who can blame them? We become as engrossed in the lives of television characters as we do members of our own family, though I feel for you if your family is as dysfunctional as Walter White’s.

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The unlikely drug kingpin from suburban Albuquerque appealed to us, I think, because he seemed so nondescript , so painfully ordinary—a domesticated everyman, until desperation and hubris turned him into the feared and respected Heisenberg. No small amount of wish fulfillment for audiences there. Breaking Bad’s world of hyperviolence and insanity resembles the dangerous real world of desperadoes, sleazy opportunists, and mercenaries that Hunter S. Thompson fearlessly documented, and so it makes perfect sense that Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman would be chosen to draw six covers for an upcoming release of all five seasons of the show on Blu-ray (the last season is broken in two, the way it was broadcast). At the top of the post, see Steadman’s glowering rendition of Walt/Heisenberg himself. Just above, see a dazed and confused Jesse Pinkman, and below, the blasted visage of their supplier turned arch-enemy, Gus Fring. (The complicated, and bafflingly much-despised Skyler does not get her own cover.)

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Steadman’s illustrations for Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, a “surreal drug-fueled road trip” of a book, prefigure the lawless liminal spaces of Breaking Bad’s surreal desert landscapes (remember the turtle?). His renderings of a crazed Thompson on his “savage journey to the heart of the American dream” perhaps even inspired the dangerously unhinged journey Walt and Jesse take together. Coming in February, the Steadman-illustrated Blu-ray collection is a limited edition and will, Dangerous Minds informs us, “be sold exclusively by Zavvi.com ($30 bucks each). Pre-order is going on now but be forewarned, the Gus “The Chicken Man” Fring edition for season four (as well as Mike Ehrmantraut’s season five and Hank Schrader’s show finale season) have already sold-out.” Lots of Breaking Bad addicts out there, desperate for a fix. If you’re one of them, act fast, though it’s likely Steadman will eventually offer prints for sale (and maybe mugs and t-shirts, too) on his website. See the other three covers over at Dangerous Minds.

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

Alice Guy-Blaché: The First Female Director & the Cinematic Trailblazer You Likely Never Heard Of

Alice Guy-Blaché  (1873 –1968) is the great trailblazer of early cinema you probably never heard of. She was film’s first female director. She made one of the first narrative movies ever at age 23. She wrote, directed and produced over 700 films. And she remains the only woman ever to build and run a movie studio. Even more remarkably, she did all of this before she had the legal right to vote, and when convention dictated that she wear a corset. Yet Alice Guy-Blaché‘s name doesn’t appear alongside other cinematic pioneers like George Méliès, Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith in film school history books. Somehow, she has fallen out of the canon of great early filmmakers.

Fortunately, there’s a movement to correct this grievous error. In 2009, the Whitney Museum of American Art programmed a rare screening of 80 of her works. After a long campaign, the Directors Guild of America awarded Guy-Blaché with a Lifetime Achievement Award. And most recently, filmmakers Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter for their upcoming documentary on Guy-Blaché called Be Natural, which is being executive produced by Robert Redford and narrated by Jodie Foster.

Born in 1873 in Paris to a bookseller, Alice Guy found work in 1894 as a secretary for Leon Gaumont, a still photographer who founded one of the first movie studios. Guy was immediately taken with the possibilities of film and asked her boss if she could experiment with their brand new movie camera. Her first film was The Cabbage Fairy (top), which shows a woman plucking infants from a cabbage patch in a single, unmoving shot. To a modern eye, The Cabbage Fairy might seem merely like a cute film that nicely captures Victorian whimsy. But this film was made in 1896, one year after the Lumière Brothers screened the first films ever made. In 1896, the Lumières were still making their Actualités – documentaries in their most basic form. Their most famous film was simply of a train roaring into the station. Guy’s film, by contrast, looks strikingly original.

Ten years later, she directed the big-budget film The Birth, Life and Death of Christ for Gaumont Studios. It was one of the first bible epics made for the silver screen, requiring over 300 extras. You can watch it above.

By 1907, Guy married cameraman Herbert Blaché and soon moved to New York. The filmmaker, now called Alice Guy-Blaché, founded The Solax Company with her husband in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There she continued to make groundbreaking movies. A Fool and his Money (1912), for instance, is the first movie ever with an all African-American cast. It was made three years before D. W. Griffith directed his cinematic landmark/racist embarrassment The Birth of a Nation.

True to film industry convention, her husband left her for an actress in the early 1920s.  Soon thereafter Solax folded and Guy-Blaché returned to France. She never made another movie. In 1953, she was awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government but, by then, most of her movies had been lost and her reputation as an early cinematic innovator was largely forgotten by the public.

Guy-Blaché’s films 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.

Stephen Colbert & Neil Young in a Comic Duet: “Who’s Gonna Stand Up? (and Save the Earth)”

Neil Young has a new book out — Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars — which means he’s doing a quick media blitz. Tuesday morning, Young paid a 90 minute visit to the Stern Show, where they talked about, well, everything: polio, the rift with David Crosby, how he writes his music, the time he spent with Charles Manson, what went wrong at Woodstock, what’s gone wrong with music (and how the PonoPlayer will fix it), and how we’re trashing the environment. Young takes the environment and politics seriously. No doubt. But he could also work it all into a good joke. Just witness his performance later that day with Stephen Colbert.

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Martin Scorsese Creates a List of 39 Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker

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Eight or so years ago, young filmmaker Colin Levy got an opportunity of a lifetime. He got a one-on-one meeting with Martin Scorsese. After spending much of his time in high school making a five-minute short, Levy won the national YoungArts award — and, with it, the chance to chat with the guy who directed Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

After getting a personal tour of Scorsese’s office and editing bays by none other than legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Levy met the man himself. “It was a defining moment in my path as a filmmaker,” he later wrote on his blog.

Martin Scorsese was intimidating, to say the least. But very jovial, very talkative, and he took me seriously. (Or convinced me, at least.) I pretty much kept my mouth shut. Every 30 seconds he would mention an actor, producer, director or film title I had never heard of before. I was stunned just to be in his presence. He liked my film, he said. “How did you do the little creatures?” I tried to explain how I figured out the basics of 3D animation. His eyes lit up and he started talking about the digital effects in The Aviator.

The juxtaposition of scales was overpowering. I felt like I was in a movie. Why he spent so much time with me I do not know, but it was amazing just to be in his presence. A few weeks afterwards I labored over a thank-you card, in which I expressed the overwhelming impression I had gotten that I don’t know enough about anything. I specially don’t know enough about film history and foreign cinema. I asked if he had any suggestions for where to start.

A couple weeks later, Scorsese’s assistant sent him a handful of books and 39 foreign movies personally picked by the filmmaker. “Mr. Scorsese asked that I send this your way,” his assistant wrote to Colin. “This should be a jump start to your film education!”

Scorsese’s selections – which you can see above – are a fascinating insight into what influenced the filmmaker. Several movies are perennial film school classics: Italian neorealist masterpieces like the Bicycle Thief and Umberto D pop up on the list along with groundbreaking French New Wave works like 400 Blows and Breathless. More unexpected is surprisingly strong showings of both Japanese post-war movies and New German cinema. Both Akira Kurosawa and Rainer Werner Fassbinder get three films each. And while there are some rather eccentric, unexpected inclusions in the list–Rocco and his Brothers? Il Sorpasso? Death by Hanging? – there are also some pretty striking omissions; big name art house figures like Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and most surprisingly Federico Fellini didn’t make the cut. In any case, as Scorsese’s assistant writes, this list is a great place to start for anyone looking to learn more about foreign film.

At least the first few films on the list you will find in our collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Huffington Post

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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.

Prof. Iggy Pop Delivers the BBC’s 2014 John Peel Lecture on “Free Music in a Capitalist Society”

Iggy Lecture

What Alan Freed did for rock ‘n ‘ roll in the ‘50s, DJ John Peel did for punk and new wave in the 70s and 80s, playing groundbreaking artists like Joy Division on his show and curating essential in-studio performances in his Peel Sessions. But long before he first played the Ramones on his BBC show in 1976, Peel played the 1969 debut album by the Stooges, the scrappy Detroit garage band whose frontman, Iggy Pop, would later be granted the title “godfather of punk.” He’s certainly lived up to it, consistently, writes Kris Needs at Clash, “dumping on rock ‘n’ roll’s previously set-in stone inhibitions.” Each new generation has given Pop a new set of restrictions to dump on, but many of them could, perhaps, boil down to the same thing, the very condition Peel so often diagnosed in pop culture: the packaging and selling of rock ‘n’ roll that compromises its raw power and diminishes its artists.

Who better then to deliver the 2014 John Peel Lecture for the BBC at the UK Radio Festival, despite the fact that Iggy Pop—who Rolling Stone describes as “a visiting professor from the School of Punk Rock Hard Knocks”—has never delivered a lecture before? But he has always been witty and wise, on albums and interviews, and he is now—as was Peel for over three decades—a BBC DJ, a role that grants him a certain amount of critical authority. It’s not his only side gig. During his lecture, Pop admits he’s had to begin “diversifying my income,” appearing, for example, in insurance ads for UK insurance company Swiftcover (England’s been good to him). “If I had to depend on what I actually get from sales,” says Pop, “I’d be tending bars between sets.” This is the situation he addresses—the plight of the artists, the labels, and the fans in today’s marketplace. The topic of his lecture: “free music in a capitalist society.”

Iggy is critical of the U2/Apple alliance and their intrusive and unpopular recent mass album release, but he praises Thom Yorke’s decision to release his latest solo album on peer-to-peer file sharing service BitTorrent for $6. Acknowledging that BitTorrent “is a pirate’s friend,” he claims nonetheless that “all pirates want to go legit, just like I wanted to be respectable.” This last remark may come as a surprise from the guy who wanted to be your dog, but although he defines capitalism as dominating and destructive, Pop isn’t anti-entrepreneurial—he’s simply a champion of the little guy. He denounces digital theft, calling it “bad for everything,” but he doesn’t want to see file-sharers jailed, which is “a lot like sending somebody to Australia a couple hundred years ago for poaching his lordship’s rabbit.”

The larger problem is the media conglomerates, including not only major labels, but also, and maybe more so, Apple and Google subsidiary YouTube, who are “trying to put the squeeze” on the indies, “the only place to go for new talent, outside of the Mickey Mouse Club.” Overall, the talk is a very sober and sobering look at the music industry from an old pro who has clearly paid careful attention to the trends. And although his glasses and stance behind a podium might make him look the part, Pop is a little less professorial than conversational, delivering some bad news with several doses of optimism and good humor, and exhibiting an unabashed willingness to mix tech, creativity, and commerce in a TED-like way.

The complete lecture was broadcast on BBC DJ Marc Riley’s show, and you can stream it here for the next four weeks (the talk begins at 37:00, but listen to the first thirty minutes of the show for some excellent music and an introduction to John Peel). And if you’re in a hurry, catch the highlights of Iggy’s lecture in The Guardian’s “Cliffsish Notes version” here.

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

Typed Portraits of Literary Legends: Kerouac, Saramago, Bukowski & More

Artists have used all sorts of odd media to create portraits, everything from guitar picks to dice to wooden eggs. Add to this list Brazilian type artist Álvaro Franca, who uses the typewriter. Instead of composing literary portraits of his heroes, Franca types out literal portraits. The principle of the pictures are the same grey-scale printing used in newspapers or, if you spent time in the computer lab in the 1990s, those dot matrix images that were such the rage among computer nerds. Using a computer, Franca breaks the image down into discrete pixels and adds one or more keystrokes to that pixel. ‘I’ and ‘O’ seem to work for lighter greys while visually dense letters like ‘x’and “m” are used for the darker end of the spectrum.

As he writes in on his website:

Typewritten Portraits is an experimental art project. During my exchange in the Cambridge School of Art, I developed a technique for imaging gray scale with the typewriter and, from there, I made portraits of five of my favorite authors in literature who worked on typewriters. The series is still ongoing and there are plans for five more pictures.

You can see a time-lapse video of Franca creating a portrait of beat icon Jack Kerouac above. And below you can see a few more pictures including Charles Bukowski and Jose Saramago here.

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saramago typed

via Boing Boing

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.

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