Asteroid Will Give Earth a Close Shave on February 15

Preppers, it’s almost the big day you’ve been waiting for — the apocalypse and armageddon all rolled into one. Almost, but not quite. According to NASA, “an asteroid about half the size of a football field will fly past Earth only 17,200 miles above our planet’s surface.” “This [will be] a record-setting close approach,” says Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at The Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Since regular sky surveys began in the 1990s, we’ve never seen an object this big get so close to Earth.” It’ll be a close call and that’s all. So, preppers, keep your compasses, iodine pills and dehydrated lentils packed and ready for another day. You’ll get your chance.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Casting of The Godfather with Coppola, Pacino, De Niro & Caan

I once heard a radio broadcast about a lady who watches The Godfather every single day. Impressive as that may sound, it probably doesn’t even count among the top hundred acts of cinematic faith performed in the name of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 Mario Puzo adaptation, featuring Marlon Brando. Though I myself more often go to the well of Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam-themed Joseph Conrad adaptation, featuring Marlon Brando, I understand why Godfather fans obsess. Roger Ebert, of course, understands even better. His “Great Movies” piece on the picture describes it as “a brilliant conjuring act, inviting us to consider the Mafia entirely on its own terms,” with a “subtly constructed” script that “follows no formulas except for the classic structure in which power passes between the generations,” populated by “remarkable faces” and captured with “rich, atmospheric, expressive” cinematography (by Gordon Willis), “celebrated for its darkness.” These qualities all do their part to make us hold up The Godfather as a paragon of American cinema, but lovers of American cinema tend to value one craft above all: acting. How, then, did Coppola and his collaborators arrange for such unforgettable performances?

These clips about the casting of The Godfather shed light on the process. Many of us grew familiar with what Ebert calls Brando’s “justly famous and often imitated” portrayal of Don Vito Corleone through cultural osmosis alone, before we’d ever seen the movie. At the top of the post, you can hear Coppola and James Caan talk about what a hard time studio executives had accepting Brando in the first place. “Every time [Coppola] mentioned Brando’s name,” Caan remembers, “one of the executives said, ‘If you mention his name again, you’re out!'” Coppola quotes the president of Paramount Pictures as simply declaring that “Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture,” but when the filmmaker pressed them, they offered a deal: “If he does a screen test and puts up a bond guaranteeing that none of his shenanigans will cause a delay, you can consider him.” It was in this screen test that Brando came up with the iconic bulldog-like look and manner of the all-powerful Sicilian paterfamilias. But that alone didn’t guarantee the film’s ascent into greatness; other cast members, like Caan and Al Pacino, also had to fall into place. Neither were yet box office-friendly stars, nor was Robert de Niro, who also auditioned. In the end, it all came together. Rotten Tomatoes summed up the critical consensus as follows: “The Godfather gets everything right.”

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

Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Surviving Recording of Woolf’s Voice

In the video above, poet, artist, National Book Award winner, and “godmother of punk” Patti Smith reads a selection from Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves, accompanied on piano and guitar by her daughter Jesse and son Jackson. The “reading” marked the opening of “Land 250,” a 2008 exhibition of Smith’s photography and artwork from 1965 to 2007, at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.

I put the word “reading” in quotes above because Smith only reads a very short passage from Woolf’s novel. The rest of the dramatic performance is Smith in her own voice, possibly improvising, possibly reciting her homage to Woolf—occasioned by the fact that the start of the exhibition fell on the 67th anniversary of Woolf’s death by suicide. Of Woolf’s death, Smith says, “I do not think of this as sad. I just think that it’s the day that Virginia Woolf decided to say goodbye. So we are not celebrating the day, we are simply acknowledging that this is the day. If I had a title to call tonight, I would call it ‘Wave.’ We are waving to Virginia.”

Smith’s choice of a title for the evening is significant. She titled her 1979 album Wave, her last record before she went into semi-retirement in the 80s. And her exhibition includes a set of beautiful photographs taken at Woolf’s Sussex retreat, Monk’s House. Her performance seems like an unusual confluence of voices, but Woolf might have enjoyed it, since so much of her work explored the uniting of separate minds, over the barriers of space and time. While Smith expresses her indebtedness to Woolf, one wonders what the upper-class Bloomsbury daughter of a well-connected and artistic family would have thought of the working-class punk-poet from the Lower East Side by way of Chicago? It’s impossible to say, of course, but somehow it’s fitting that they meet through Woolf’s The Waves.

Woolf’s novel (she called it a “playpoem”) blends the voices of six characters, but Woolf didn’t think of them as characters at all, but as aspects of a greater, ever-shifting whole. As she once wrote in a letter:

The six characters were supposed to be one. I’m getting old myself now—I shall be fifty next year; and I come to feel more and more how difficult it is to collect oneself into one Virginia; even though the special Virginia in whose body I live for the moment is violently susceptible to all sorts of separate feelings. Therefore I wanted to give the sense of continuity.

Speculation over Woolf’s mental health aside, her references to voices in her letters, diaries, and in her eloquent letter to Leonard Woolf before she died, were also statements of her craft—which embraced the inner voices of others, not letting any one voice be dominant. I like to think Woolf would have been delighted with the fierceness of Smith—in some ways, Virginia Woolf anticipated punk, and Patti Smith. In her own voice below, you can hear her describe the words of the English language as “irreclaimable vagabonds,” who “if you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English…. They are highly democratic.”

The recording below comes from an essay published in a collection—The Death of the Moth and Other Essays—the year after Woolf’s death. The talk was called “Craftsmanship,” part of a BBC radio broadcast from 1937, and it is the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice.

Related Content

Free Online Literature Courses

Patti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rimbaud to Susan Sontag

Patti Smith Reviews Haruki Murakami’s New Novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

 Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

James Taylor Performs Live in 1970, Thanks to a Little Help from His Friends, The Beatles

James Taylor Sings James Taylor, a BBC broadcast from November 1970, appears above. Though the nearly 40-minute solo performance showcases a player who has developed and mastered his distinctive musical persona, it also showcases one who has only reached a mere 22 years of age. But don’t let his aw-shucks youthfulness fool you; by this point, Taylor had already endured a lifetime’s worth of formative troubles. He’d fallen into deep depression while still in high school, spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital, taken up and quit heroin, bottomed out and spent six months in recovery, underwent vocal cord surgery, taken up methedrine, gone into methadone treatment, had an album flop, and broken his hands and feet in a motorcycle wreck. Fire and rain indeed. But he’d also found favor with the Beatles, becoming the first American signed on their Apple label and recruiting Paul McCartney and George Harrison to play on his “Carolina in My Mind.” At the end of the sixties, the world at large didn’t know the name James Taylor, but his fellow musicians knew it soon would.

“I just heard his voice and his guitar,” said McCartney, “and I thought he was great.” Earlier in 1970, many listeners surely felt the same thing after dropping the needle onto Taylor’s breakthrough second album Sweet Baby James. By the time James Taylor Sings James Taylor went to air, he’d accrued enough of an international reputation to guarantee appreciation from even non-Beatles on the other side of the pond. Knowing his audience, Taylor opens with a rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” The Beatles connections don’t stop there: Songfacts reports that Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves,” the first single from his pre-Sweet Baby James Apple debut, may have inspired George Harrison to write “Something.” What’s more, Taylor had originally titled his song “I Feel Fine,” before realizing that the Beatles had recorded a song by that name. Though more troubled times lay ahead for the humble (if already well on his way to wealth and fame) young singer-songwriter, this production captures Taylor just before superstardom kicked in.

Related content

James Taylor Gives Free Acoustic Guitar Lessons Online

‘The Needle and the Damage Done’: Neil Young Plays Two Songs on The Johnny Cash Show, 1971

Joni Mitchell: Singer, Songwriter, Artist, Smoking Grandma

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

A Look Back at Andy Kaufman: Absurd Comic Performance Artist and Endearing Weirdo

Andy Kaufman had too much personality for one person, so he split himself into several, and nobody seemed to know which one of them was Andy Kaufman. Andy Kaufman probably could have faked his death, then returned for the big ta-da twenty years later, but he didn’t (probably). Andy Kaufman, ladies and gentlemen, was a genius. I don’t mean that in the idiomatic sense of “he was really great,” no. I mean that he had a comic IQ of several hundred points. Which is why so many of his bits are so baffling and rib-crackingly funny at once: he played dolts, simpletons, and drooling, almost catatonic idiots so perfectly that you might swear that there was really something wrong with him. Except that during a performance, you might also swear you’d caught a wicked glint in his eye—for fraction of a second—as if you’d almost, maybe, but not quite seen a subliminal ad flash over the screen during a movie.

Then there were the Kaufman characters so unlikeable, so ruthlessly obnoxious and dangerously unhinged, you’d swear that there was something wrong with him, again. And maybe there was, but I’m convinced he was in full control of it. In the clip above, from The David Letterman Show in 1980, Kaufman sends Letterman into a fit of stammering “uh, oh… ums” and the audience into fits of laughter by looking like he’s just stumbled in from a psych ward and isn’t sure exactly where he is or why. When he finally opens his mouth to speak, at nearly two minutes into the interview, he seems lost, dazed, almost childlike. Which everyone thinks is hilarious, because, well, it’s Andy Kaufman. It must be performance art, right? No matter which Andy Kaufman appeared before an audience, they always had the sense there was another one, or several, underneath, whether they knew his act or not. But you could never know if you’d hit bedrock. Joaquin Phoenix—whose attempts to stunt the public a few years ago mostly provoked befuddlement and pity—never came close to this level of weird. If Charlie Sheen had been hoaxing, instead of just losing his mind… maybe.

One might say Andy Kaufman invented trolling, the art of riling people up by impersonating idiots, crazies, and abrasive jerks. And he got away with it for one simple reason; he was authentic—all of his characters had some kind of endearing vulnerability, even at their most deranged. This was certainly the case with the TV character that made him famous, Taxi’s Latka, an immigrant driver of indeterminate origin, whose naïve demeanor and unintelligible language never smacked of mere, broad parody of “the foreigner,” although in anyone else’s hands, that would have happened. But Kaufman brought to the character a subtlety that made Latka an instant individual. Watch the scene below, for example, in which Kaufman, as Latka, transforms into a swinging Playboy magazine aficionado, then back to Latka, all in under two minutes of Charlie Chaplin-worthy physical comedy.

Latka grew out of an earlier persona of Kaufman’s who claimed to be from a fictional island in the Caspian Sea called “Caspiar.” This character’s nervous ineptitude was charming enough, but the payoff, as you’ll see below, was when Kaufman broke out of character into his swaggering Elvis impersonation. It’s said that the real Elvis loved it, and it’s the bit that inspired the immortal lines in R.E.M.’s Kaufman tribute song, “Man on the Moon”: “Andy are you goofing on Elvis (hey baby) / Are you having fun?” Below, see Kaufman’s transformation into Elvis from an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1977. Tell me if you think he’s enjoying himself.

The darker side of Andy Kaufman comes out in such abusive characters as vitriolic lounge singer, Tony Clifton, sometimes played by Kaufman’s friend and partner, Bob Zmuda (watch Kaufman and Zmuda together on a kids show called Bananaz in 1979). Tony Clifton became Kaufman’s evil alter-ego, an alibi for his more destructive urges, and a character that outlived him, resurrected after his death by Zmuda, and later by comedian Ben Isaac. Below, see Kaufman’s first performance as Clifton in 1977.

Clifton, and Kaufman, got meaner and weirder over the years (or so it seemed). Anyone who’s seen Milos Forman’s biopic Man on the Moon is familiar with Kaufman’s obsessive pranking of professional wrestling: his feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler (who was in on the joke), his relentless taunting of the Southern Lawler and the mostly Southern audience as rednecks and rubes, and his turns in the ring with female wrestlers. This part of his career is truly bizarre, though surely no less a controlled demolition than anything he’d done before. And the weirder Kaufman got, the more he seemed to confirm something many people had always suspected. Whatever the stunt, the character, or impression, the joke was on everyone, and nobody knew what was happening but Andy. In 1989, five years after Kaufman’s death from cancer, his girlfriend Lynne Margulies and friend Joe Orr finished a documentary about his adventures in professional wrestling called I’m from Hollywood, after one of his sneering, faux-elitist insults of Lawler. It’s the last piece of Kaufman’s legacy, and it’s available in several parts on YouTube. Watch and try to imagine, if you can, what the wrestling fans ringside made of Andy Kaufman.

Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Watch a New Music Video Shot Entirely Within an MRI Machine

It’s not as poignant as The Love Competition, a short film that used an MRI machine to visualize the human brain in love. Nor is it quite as tantalizing as another clip documenting brain activity when people experience the highs of sexual intercourse and divine revelation. We’ll give you that. But, perhaps you’ll find it fascinating to watch British singer Sivu perform his song “Better Than He” through the prism of magnetic resonance imaging. Or, if you’ve ever spent time enveloped in an MRI machine, you’ll say the operative word is “anxiety-producing.” If the reports are true, Sivu spent three hours recording the three-minute song. Just imagine the amount of Ativan and commitment that got him through…

Learn to Build iPhone & iPad Apps with Stanford’s Free Course, Coding Together

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 1.01.26 PMJust a quick fyi. In the past week, Stanford has launched the latest version of Coding Together, the popular course that teaches Stanford students — and now students worldwide — how to build apps for the iPhone and iPad. Taught by Paul Hegarty, the latest version of the free course focuses on how to build apps in iOS 6, and the lectures will be gradually rolled onto iTunes from January 22 through March 28. Find the first lectures here.

This course, along with other top-flight coding courses, appears in the Computer Science section of our big collection of 650 Free Online Courses, where you’ll also find courses on Philosophy, History, Physics and other topics.

Looking for tutorials on building apps in Android? Find them here.

John Coltrane’s Naval Reserve Enlistment Mugshot (1945)


Do you ever have déjà vu? Last week we posted Jack Kerouac’s U.S. Naval Reserve enlistment mugshot from 1943 and the response was enthusiastic. Many of you were fascinated to see the great Beat writer at such a tender age and in such an atypical, unliberated context. Today we offer an eerily similar photo of another freewheeling icon of 20th century art: John Coltrane, when he was 18 years old.

Coltrane entered the Navy on the same day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and was assigned reserve status, as were many African-Americans at that time. According to Lewis Porter in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, only limited numbers of black men served as seaman after 1942. Prior to that, they were only allowed to work as kitchen help. The Navy was segregated, and Coltrane was sent to boot camp at the black section of Sampson Naval Training Center in upstate New York. By the time he finished training, World War II was over.

In late November of 1945, after a transitional month at Camp Shoemaker near San Francisco, seaman second class Coltrane was assigned to active duty in Hawaii. Stationed on the island of Oahu, Coltrane played clarinet and alto saxophone in a black Navy band called the Melody Masters. He made his first recordings with some of the musicians from the band in the summer of 1946. But all the while Coltrane was serving, the Navy was in the process of downsizing. With the war over, bands were no longer needed to boost morale. So on August 11, 1946–just over a year after his enlistment–Coltrane was discharged from the Navy and sent home.

Related content:

John Coltrane and His Great Quintet Play ‘My Favorite Things’

John Coltrane Plays Only Live Performance of A Love Supreme

John Coltrane: Three Great European Performances, 1969, 1961 and 1965

« Go BackMore in this category... »