As gearheads go, Brendan Chilcutt’s a pretty sentimental guy, and not just because he signs his correspondence with “love.” In January, 2012, he founded the Museum of Endangered Sounds to keep outmoded technology’s most iconic noises from vanishing from the collective memory. Click on any image in the museum’s online collection to be transported in the Proustian sense.
Some of the exhibits—a manual typewriter, a rotary phone—were already amply preserved, thanks to a proliferation of cinematic appearances in their heyday.
Others might well have slipped away unnoticed, if not for Chilcutt’s curatorial efforts. Remember that number you could call to have a recorded voice inform you of the correct time? How about the static of an analog TV tuned to an empty station? The hum of a malfunctioning Discman, the chirp of a Tamagotchi…wait, what’s that I hear? The disconcerting whoosh of time speeding up?
Drown it out by activating all thirty exhibits at once. Let them sound their barbaric yawps simultaneously as the kids try to figure out what that racket is.
Filmmaker Tim Sessler got a little bored on his flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, to Philadelphia. He says: “After reading through the in-flight magazine, the Sky Mall and the airplane security details from front to back, upside down and backwards, I felt it was the right moment to pull out my camera” and start taking aerial footage of the cross-country voyage. The camera? It’s a Canon 5d mk3 with a 24-105mm and Nikon 50mm 1.2 lens (Tim tells us). The challenge? To keep the camera stable, using his knee, the seat, the window, etc., “while avoiding any vibration that would create some nasty rolling-shutter-wobble.” A good deal more stabilization took place in post-production. When you’re done watching Drift, you can check out Sessler’s prior attempt at shooting aerial art here.
This week David Bowie released the second single from his upcoming album, The Next Day. It’s called “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” and the accompanying video (shown above) builds on Bowie’s lifelong exploration of androgyny.
Bowie is joined in the miniature film by actress Tilda Swinton, who plays his wife, and the models Andrej Pejic and Saskia De Brauw, who play a pair of young celebrities who mock and torment the aging couple. Swinton looks like Bowie, and Pejic and DeBrauw look like Bowie and Swinton.
The story “captures a twenty first century moment in its convergence of age, gender and the normal/celebrity divide,” according to a statement posted earlier this week on Bowie’s Facebook page. It was directed by the Italian-born filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, a prolific music video maker best known for her 2010 feature film, The Runaways.
One hundred years ago, America had only just begun talking about “avant garde” art. Before the famous “Armory Show,” no one was even using the term; after it, United States’ art-watchers had many reasons to. It’s what they saw on display at the exhibition, mounted by two dozen artists entirely without public funding. Properly called The International Exhibition of Modern Art, the show got its popular name by starting out in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York. It then moved to Chicago and Boston, provoking shock, dismissal, and sometimes even appreciation across the East Coast and Midwest. A little Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp can do that to you.
Or at least, they do that to you if you live in 1913 and have never seen such bold destruction and reinvention of visual art’s established forms. To mark the Armory Show’s centennial, the Art Institute of Chicago has recreated its viewing experience on the web. There you can explore the galleries as Chicagoans actually saw them a century ago, albeit in black-and-white. The site also provides much in the way of context, offering articles on the exhibition’s genesis, program notes, legacy, and more. You can learn more about the impact of the Armory Show in this recent NPR piece, which quotes Museum of Modern Art curator Leah Dickerman on the subject: “It’s this moment in time, 100 years ago, in which the foundations of cultural practice were totally reordered in as great a way as we have seen. And that this marks a reordering of the rules of art-making — it’s as big as we’ve seen since the Renaissance.”
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.
According to Freud, neurotics never know what they want, and so never know when they’ve got it. So it is with the seeker after fluent cultural literacy, who must always play catch-up to an impossible ideal. William Grimes points this out in his New York Times review of Peter Boxall’s obnoxious 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which “plays on every reader’s lingering sense of inadequacy. Page after page reveals a writer or a novel unread, and therefore a demerit on the great report card of one’s cultural life.” Then there are the less-ambitious periodical reminders of one’s literary insufficiency, such as The Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read,” The Guardian’s “The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list,” the Modern Library’s “Top 100,” and the occasional, pretentious Facebook quiz etc. based on the above.
Grimes’ reference to a report card is relevant, since what we’re discussing today is the instruction in grand themes and “great books” represented by W.H. Auden’s syllabus above for his English 135, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature.” Granted, this is not an intro lit class (although I imagine that his intro class may have been punishing as well), but a course for juniors, seniors, and graduate students. Taught during the 1941-42 school year when Auden was a professor at the University of Michigan, his syllabus required over 6,000 pages of reading in just a single semester (and for only two credits!). Find all of the books at the bottom of this post.
While a few days ago we posted a syllabus David Foster Wallace created around several seeming easy reads—mass market paperbacks and such—Auden asks his students to read in a semester the literary equivalent of what many undergraduate majors cover in all four years. Four Shakespeare plays and one Ben Jonson? That was my first college Shakespeare class. All of Moby Dick? I spent over half a semester with the whale in a Melville class. And then there’s all of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a text so dense with obscure fourteenth century Italian allusions that in some editions, footnotes can take up half a page. And that’s barely a quarter of the list, not to mention the opera libretti and recommended criticism.
Was Auden a sadistic teacher or so completely out of touch with his students that he asked of them the impossible? I do not know. But Professor Lisa Goldfarb of NYU, who is writing a series of essays on Auden, thinks the syllabus reflects as much on the poet’s own preoccupations as on his students’ needs. Goldfarb writes:
“What I find fascinating about the syllabus is how much it reflects Auden’s own overlapping interests in literature across genres – drama, lyric poetry, fiction – philosophy, and music…. He also includes so many of the figures he wrote about in his own prose and those to whom he refers in his poetry…
“By including such texts across disciplines – classical and modern literature, philosophy, music, anthropology, criticism – Auden seems to have aimed to educate his students deeply and broadly.”
Such a broad education seems out of reach for many people in a lifetime, much less a single semester. Now whether or not Auden actually expected students to read everything is another matter entirely. Part of being a serious student of literature also involves learning what to read, what to skim, and what to totally BS. Maybe another way to see this class is that since Auden knew these texts so well, his course gave students the chance to hear him lecture on his own journey through European literature, to hear a poet from a privileged class and bygone age when “reading English Literature at University” meant, well, reading all of it, and nearly everything else as well (usually in original languages).
If that’s the kind of erudition certain anxious readers aspire to, then they’re sunk. Increasingly few have the leisure, and the claims on our attention are too manifold. At one time in history being fully literate meant that one read both languages—Latin and Greek. Now it no longer even means mastering only “European literature,” but all the world’s cultural productions, an impossible task even for a reader like W.H. Auden. Who could retain it all? Instead of chasing vanishing cultural ideals, I console myself with a paraphrase from the dim memory of my last reading of Moby Dick: why read widely when you can read deeply?
Find all of the books on Auden’s syllabus listed below:
Here’s a flawed but fascinating little film about the life of Vladimir Nabokov, examined through the prism of his most famous book.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?first aired on British television in 2009. The host is Stephen Smith, a culture correspondent for BBC Newsnight. We don’t know the rest of Smith’s resume, but in watching the documentary we get the feeling he may have picked up a little of his journalistic sensibility from the British tabloids.
The problem referred to in the title is the sense–at least among Smith’s friends–that there is something “pervy” about Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, and that this raises certain questions about the author’s own sexual penchants. “Was it a morality play,” Smith asks at the outset, “or the fantasy of a dirty old man?”
It’s a contemptible point of departure. But How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita? manages to be worthwhile in spite of itself. It’s filled with interesting old footage of Nabokov talking about himself and his work, as well as contemporary footage of the writer’s old haunts in Russia, America and Switzerland. The film is a kind of travelogue. Watching it is like taking a one-hour tour through a fascinating landscape with an amiable but slightly annoying guide.
In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson was looking to become the new sheriff in town — the town being Aspen, Colorado. In a heated election, Thompson ran against a traditional, conservative candiate, Carrol Whitmire, on what he called the “freak power” platform, which mostly called for the legalization of marijuana and unconventional environmental protections.
As Thompson later explained in his essay “Freak Power in The Rockies,” hundreds of Haight-Ashbury refugees moved to Aspen after the ill-fated “Summer of Love” in 1967, and they became part of the general population. In the town, registered Republicans historically outweighed registered Democrats by a two-to-one margin.
But both camps were outweighed by independents, which included “a jangled mix of Left/Crazies and Birchers; cheap bigots, dope dealers, nazi ski instructors and spaced off ‘psychedelic farmers’ with no politics at all beyond self-preservation,” remembers Thompson. So, winning an election came down to registering indie voters and getting them to the polls — something that was easier said than done, it turns out.
In the short term, Hunter S. Thompson lost the “Battle of Aspen” by 300-500 votes, depending on whose accounts you read. In the long-term, he arguably won. 42 years after Thompson made the legalization of marijuana his central campaign promise, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Somewhere, the would-be gonzo politician is smiling.
After Jimi Hendrix’s discharge from the army, he earned his living as a traveling musician on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit—the circuit of venues throughout the segregated South that booked black musicians. Hendrix backed such giants of R&B, soul, and electric blues as Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke, and during those early years with his own band the King Casuals, the Nashville scene he’d settled into, and the circuit gigs, he perfected the stylistic quirks and stunts that would make him world famous just a few years later—playing right-handed guitars upside down as a lefty, playing solos with his teeth and behind his head—often to the irritation of his bandmates and employers. He wanted to do his own thing, but he paid his dues, jamming with and learning from some of the top acts in early rock & roll while Eric Clapton and Keith Richards were listening to those same groups on the radio, painstakingly copying their sound.
After nearly two years on the circuit, the restless and flamboyant young Hendrix, chafing under the direction of strict bandleaders, finally had enough of Tennessee and moved to Harlem to strike out on his own, but he still worked as a sideman: he recorded with the Isley Brothers, toured with Little Richard, and in 1965, he made his first ever TV appearance with a pair of Long Island singers named Buddy and Stacy on Nashville’s Channel 5 program Night Train, doing the Junior Walker & the All Stars top-ten hit “Shotgun.” In the video above you can see Hendrix (to the right of the drummer), grooving behind the foppishly-dressed vocal duo. Note how his moves are out of sync with the rest of the band, all right-handed players. Note how his pompadour is slightly unkempt. Note, if you watch closely, his right hand traveling up and down the neck of his guitar, pulling off some killer runs—in a song that stays on one note for the duration—even while stuck behind the action.
This performance marks one of the last times Hendrix would stand in the shadows of other bandleaders. After working steadily in the studio as a session player in 1966, he formed his own band, the Blue Flame (as Jimmy James), and took up residence at the historic Café Wha? in Greenwich Village (where my father saw him play, he tells me, and was floored, having no idea who the guy was). ’66 is the year Hendrix fully crossed over (some said sold out; some said sold his soul) from the soul/R&B circuit to mainstream rock & roll success. He wouldn’t crack the U.S. until his legendary appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, but after forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience in late ’66, he wowed audiences in Europe with his first single “Hey Joe,” and appeared on UK TV shows Ready Steady Go! and Top of the Pops. Three months before Monterey, the band appeared on popular German TV program Beat Club. Check out their performance above, doing “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze.” Hendrix doesn’t set any fires, but he does get in a solo with his teeth.
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