Charles & Ray Eames’ Short Film on the Mexican Day of the Dead (1957)

As much fun as Americans have on Halloween, we could learn a thing or two from the Mexicans. Their Día de los Muertos, the celebration of which spans October 31 to November 2, gets more elaborate, more serious, and somehow more jovial at the same time. The robust Mexican culture of Los Angeles, where I live, assures us a range of Día de los Muertos festivities each and every year, most impressively the well-known cross-cultural blow-out at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. But I passed my most memorable Día de los Muertos on the campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México where, the year I went, they’d put together an entire field of shrines to the dead, normal enough for the holiday, but that time around they’d decided to theme them all after Jorge Luis Borges stories. (An Argentine, yes, but this has become a Latin American holiday.) Every so often, the power went out — Mexico City, remember — plunging the thousands of us there amid the hundreds of representations of  “The Aleph,” “Funes the Memorious,” and, appropriately, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” into periodic darkness.

As much as I would recommend such an experience, maybe you wouldn’t want to make it your introduction to the Mexican Day of the Dead. Maybe you’d prefer this short film from famed designers (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Angelenos) Charles and Ray Eames, a film that paints a portrait of Día de los Muertos through its icons and artifacts just as their acclaimed Powers of Ten painted a portrait of Earth at every scale. “In Mexico,” explains its narrator, “an intimate acceptance of death extends far back into pre-Hispanic times. In the Aztec culture which preceded the coming of the Spaniards, death shows itself again and again — a familiar image. These ancient things of this land were joined over the centuries with the Spanish celebration of All Souls. Together they form a universal festival of many facets and many dimensions — the Day of the Dead.” Through its cempasúchitl flowers, its sugar skulls, and, yes, its angel-guiding rockets, The Day of the Dead examines just what this endlessly fascinating holiday has, over the centuries, come to mean.

The Day of the Dead  (1957) will be added to our big collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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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.

Happy Halloween! Louis Armstrong Performs Skeleton in the Closet (1936)

Should you happen to be in the vicinity of Corona, Queens this Halloween afternoon, the Louis Armstrong House Museum will be welcoming trick-or-treaters ’til 6pm. (Fun-sized Snickers be damned! Go anyway, just to see “To Jack Bradley, the ‘Greatest’ Photo Taker,” a collection of candid, private moments captured by the friend Satchmo described as his “white son.”)

If pre-existing engagements prevent you from haunting Corona today, virtual chills await you, above, with “The Skeleton In The Closet,” Armstrong’s show-stopping number from 1936’s Pennies From Heaven. (That masked man on the drums is frequent collaborator Lionel Hampton.)

The vintage Halloween content is a real treat. Gimme ghosts, goblins, and an “old deserted mansion on an old forgotten road” over psycho gore or depressed prefab sexiness any day, not just October 31.

Pennies From Heaven was Armstrong’s first major screen appearance. At the insistence of star Bing Crosby, his turn as a mathematically-challenged bandleader snagged him a main title credit, a first for an African-American actor appearing opposite whites.

The role itself is not a pillar of race advancement, but Ricky Riccardi, the Armstrong House’s Archivist notes that Armstrong remained fond of the work, reenacting an entire scene from memory when he and Crosby appeared as guests on the David Frost Show in 1971.

Riccardi subjects “The Skeleton in the Closet” to a close musical and performance analysis on his Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong blog, a major source of year round goodies for Armstrong fans.

Rattle your bones!

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

Springsteen’s Favorite Books & Reading List


Image by Michele Lucon, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruce Springsteen will make his debut as a children’s author next Tuesday, with the release of Outlaw Pete. In advance of that literary event, The New York Times interviewed Springsteen about the books on his reading list and his literary tastes. They ask:

What books are currently on your night stand?

I just finished “Moby-Dick,” which scared me off for a long time due to the hype of its difficulty. I found it to be a beautiful boy’s adventure story and not that difficult to read. Warning: You will learn more about whales than you have ever wished to know. On the other hand, I never wanted it to end. Also, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” by Gabriel García Márquez. It simply touched on so many aspects of human love.

Who is your favorite novelist of all time, and your favorite novelist writing today?

I like the Russians, the Chekhov short stories, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I never read any of them until the past four years, and found them to be thoroughly psychologically modern. Personal favorites: “The Brothers Karamazov” and, of course, “Anna Karenina.”

Current favorites: Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford. It’s hard to beat “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “Sabbath’s Theater.” Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” remains a watermark in my reading. It’s the combination of Faulkner and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns that gives the book its spark for me. I love the way Richard Ford writes about New Jersey. “The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land” are all set on my stomping grounds and, besides being poignant and hilarious, nail the Jersey Shore perfectly.

The rest of the interview touches on his favorite New Jersey writer (had to ask that); the writers who most inspired his songwriting (spoiler alert, Flannery O’Connor is one of them); his favorite book about music; the unexpected books on his shelves (hello Bertrand Russell’s “The History of Western Philosophy“); and much more. Read the interview in its entirety here, and also see today’s Times piece on the new, open-access, academic journal about Springsteen. It’s called Boss.

Note, you can find most of the classic books he mentions in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

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Vintage Photos of Veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, Taken Circa 1858

Monsieur Moret of the 2nd Regiment 1814/15

Historians have debated for centuries how Napoleon Bonaparte managed to turn the same men who once overthrew a king in the name of liberté, égalité  and fraternité into a formidable fighting force devoted to an emperor. But that’s precisely what he did. As he swept through Italy, Spain and Egypt, his army grew rapidly and not just with French troops. Polish, German, Dutch and Italian soldiers took up arms under Napoleon’s banner. In 1805, in a French village facing the English Channel, Napoleon christened his massive multinational army the Grande Armée.

Monsieur Ducel Mameluke de la Garde  1813-1815.

Originally, the diminutive despot from Corsica planned to use the force to invade Britain but that ultimately never happened. Instead, he directed his force to take out some of his continental rivals. The Grande Armée destroyed the Holy Roman Empire at Austerlitz. After it forced the Austrians into submission following the Battle of Wagram in 1809, the Grande Armée set out for Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia. As it marched towards Moscow in 1812, its ranks swelled to over a half million troops. As it retreated, it was reduced to less than 120,000.

Monsieur Vitry Departmental Guard

Napoleon and the Grande Armée were finally defeated in 1815 during the Battle of Waterloo. And though Napoleon was ignominiously exiled to Elba, he, and his army, continued to be revered by the French. On the anniversary of his death, May 5th, veterans of the Napoleonic wars would pay homage to the Emperor by marching in full uniform through Paris’ Place Vendôme.

Quartermaster Fabry 1st Hussars

In 1858, someone took portraits of the veterans using that newfangled technology called photography. The men were well into old age when the pictures were taken, and some were clearly struggling to stay still for the length of the camera’s exposure. But they all look impressive in their uniforms complete with epaulettes, medals, sashes and plumes. You can see some of the images above. Click on each to enlarge them.

The photographs, highlighted this week on Mashable, come from a website hosted by Brown University. There you can see more images from the collection.

via Mashable

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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.

44 Essential Movies for the Student of Philosophy

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “philosophical film”? The Matrix, most likely, an obvious example of a movie—or franchise—that explores timeless questions: Who are we? What is reality? Are our lives nothing more than elaborate simulations programmed by hyperintelligent supercomputers? Okay, that last one may be of more recent vintage, but it’s closely related to that ancient cave allegory of Plato’s that asks us to consider whether our experiences of the world are nothing more than illusions emanating from a “real” world that lies hidden from view. Another influence on The Matrix is Rene Descartes, whose dualistic separation of consciousness and body receives the maximum of dramatic treatment.

But The Matrix is only one film among a great many that concern themselves with classic problems of philosophy. In a 2010 post for Mubi, Matt Whitlock compiled a list of 44 “Essential Movies for a Student of Philosophy.” Along with The Matrix, other films of the past couple decades get mentions—Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, The Truman Show (“the true home of Plato’s Cave in modern movies”), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Being John Malkovich, Inception. Also appearing on the list are classics like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—which illustrates, Whitlock writes, “The Angst of The Absurd.” All of these films appear under the subheading “Famous thought experiments or discussion of a famous philosophical problem.”

Another category on the list is “Movies featuring a philosopher.” The media-savvy Slavoj Žižek gets two mentions, for 2006’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and 2005’s Žižek! (excerpt above). Since Whitlock compiled the list, Žižek has received yet another feature-length treatment—2012’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Astra Taylor, director of Žižek!, also included him in 2009’s The Examined Life, alongside Peter Singer, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, Sunaura Taylor, and Cornel West. After the documentaries, we have “Movies with philosopher as a character,” including Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein, with Clancy Chassay as the irascible logician, Roberto Rossellini’s 1958 Socrates, starring Jean Sylvere in the title role, and, of course, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, with Tony Steedman as “So-Crates.”

The final three subcategories in Whitlock’s list are “Movies featuring the ideas of particular philosophers,” “Movies based on Novels written by famous philosophers,” and “Other.” In the last basket, Whitlock places the PBS string-theory documentary The Elegant Universe and Finnish performance artist M.A. Numminen’s bizarre adaptation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Whitlock narrows the field by ruling out “movies that make you think deep crazy stuff” or those with “some new ‘existential twist’ on common topics.” Instead, he sticks to those films “that (seem to be) incarnations of classic philosophical thought experiments or movies that have a major philosophical problem as a main theme… that include topics that a serious student of philosophy needs to understand.”

Like most such lists, this one doesn’t claim to be definitive, and the four years since its compilation have produced several films that might warrant inclusion. Yet another reference from 2010—William G. Smith’s Socrates and Subtitles: A Philosopher’s Guide to 95 Thought-Provoking Movies from Around the World—casts a wider net. But Whitlock’s list seems to me a very useful starting point for thinking about the relationship between philosophy and film. Below, see the first ten films on the list:

Zizek! (2005)
Examined Life (2008)
Derrida (2002)
The Ister (2004)
The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2009)
Being In The World (2010)
Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (2001)
When Nietzsche Wept (2007)
The Last Days Of Immanuel Kant (1994)
The Alchemist Of Happiness (2004)

Take a look at his full list here, and by all means, offer your own suggestions for films that fit the criteria in the comments section below.

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


Did Bach’s Wife Compose Some of “His” Masterpieces? A New Documentary Says Yes

You may have heard of, or indeed read, Australian conductor Martin Jarvis’ 2011 book Written By Mrs. Bach, which investigates the question of whether Johann Sebastian Bach‘s “cello suites were composed by the German musician’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach.” Now, the book has become a documentary — adding the no doubt enriching element of sound to the proceedings — whose trailer you can watch above. In it, according to the Washington Post, “a professor of music, a composer and an American expert in document forensics advance the case.”

“Prof Jarvis said he aims to overturn the ‘sexist’ convention that recognised composers were always a ‘sole male creator,’ to finally reinstate Mrs Bach into the history books,” writes the Telegraph‘s Hannah Furness. “While Anna is known to have transcribed for Bach in his later years, researchers found the handwriting did not have the ‘slowness or heaviness’ usually attributed to someone who is merely copying, but was likely to have flowed from her own mind,” bolstered by “numerous corrections to scores written in her hand, signalling she is likely to have been composing it as she went along.” A terribly intriguing question, but as with the question of Shakespearean authorship, who held the pen now matters less than what came out of it.

The works under scrutiny here include “Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, of which there are six — the first of them popularized as the theme of the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World“; “the aria that begins and ends perhaps the most famous keyboard work of all time, The Goldberg Variations“; and “a portion of the two-book masterwork originally composed for the harpsichord known as the The Well-Tempered Clavier.” That information comes from the Post, who also offer clips of these pieces. We’ve embedded them here for you to enjoy — and, no matter who wrote them, you certainly will. How often in history, after all, do you encounter both man and wife who can compose for the ages?

via The Washington Post

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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.

Man Hauls a Piano Up a Mountain in Thailand and Plays Beethoven for Injured Elephants

If we’ve featured Jazz for Cows on Open Culture, then why not Classical Music for Elephants? Actually, they’re not just any elephants featured above. They’re old, injured, handicapped, sometimes blind elephants who live in the mountains of Thailand. And the gentleman playing a slow movement from Beethoven’s “Pathétique Sonata” is Paul Barton. On his Youtube channel, Barton mentions that he hauled his piano into the mountains, to Elephantstay – a refuge for the animals. And, emphatically, he tells us that the piano’s keys are made of plastic, not of ivory, seeing that the trade of ivory has caused elephants so much misery.

Barton has a playlist of 23 videos of elephants and his piano playing, the most viral of which was another clip where Barton plays a 12 bar blues on the piano with Peter the Elephant. Peter’s participation was entirely impromptu and completely of his own accord. You can see a photo gallery of Paul and the elephants here, and catch a radio interview with him here.

via Twisted Sifter

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Charlie Chaplin Does Cocaine and Saves the Day in Modern Times (1936)

When you think of drug movies, flicks like Easy Rider, Drugstore Cowboy and pretty much everything by Cheech and Chong might spring to mind. Add to this list Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times. In the movie, Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character does a whole lot of blow and ends up a better man for it. You can see a clip above.

After getting mistaken for a Communist demonstrator, the Tramp is thrown in the clink. In the prison mess hall, a hulking prisoner sitting next to him refuses to let him have any of the communal bread. Meanwhile, the shifty looking guy on the other side of him dumps a bunch of “nose powder” into a saltshaker before getting hauled away by the prison guards. Chaplin sprinkles liberal amounts of this “salt” on his meal and soon he starts showing all of the telltale symptoms of cocaine use – bugged out eyes, excessive energy and unshakeable self-confidence. He also shows some less common side effects like compulsive twirling and a propensity to jam food in his ear.

With his newfound chemical courage, Chaplin not only faces down this thuggish neighbor but he also single-handedly thwarts a prison break. The authorities are so pleased with Chaplin’s coke-addled heroics that they release him. So remember, kids, drugs can get you out of (and more likely back into) jail.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that Chaplin depicted drug use in his movies. In his classic short Easy Street, Chaplin’s love interest, a virginal pastor’s daughter, gets locked in a basement with a remarkably energetic heroin addict. You can watch it below. And if you’re jonesing for some more Chaplin, there are 65 Free Chaplin Movies you can watch right here.

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