Fritz Lang Invents the Video Phone in Metropolis (1927)

On Monday, we brought you evidence that Stanley Kubrick invented the tablet computer in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Today, we go back forty years further into cinematic history to ask whether Fritz Lang invented the video phone in 1927’s Metropolis. In the clip above, you can watch a scene set in the home of Joh Fredersen, stern master of the vast, futuristic, titular industrial city of 2026. In order to best rule all he surveys — and to complete the image of a 20th-century dystopia — he lives high above the infernal roil of Metropolis, safely ensconced in one of its vertiginous towers and equipped with the latest hulking, wall-mounted, inexplicably paper-spouting video phone technology.

Fredersen, writes Joe Malia in his notes on video phones in film, “appears to use four separate dials to arrive at the correct frequency for the call. Two assign the correct call location and two smaller ones provide fine video tuning. He then picks up a phone receiver with one hand and uses the other to tap a rhythm on a panel that is relayed to the other phone and displayed as flashes of light to attract attention.”

Not content to infer the mechanics of these imaginary devices, Malia would go on to create the supercut below, a survey of video phones throughout the history of film and television, from Metropolis onward, including a stop at 2001:

The supercut also includes a clip from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, whose (on the whole, astonishingly timeless) design I called out for using video phones in a video essay of my own. In reality, contrary to all these 20th-century visions of the far-flung future, video phone technology didn’t develop quite as rapidly as predicted, and when it did develop, it didn’t spread in quite the same way as predicted. Even the rich world of 2015 lacks bulky video phone boxes in every home and on every street corner, but with voice over internet protocol services like Skype, many in even the poorest parts of the world can effectively make better video phone calls than these grand-scale sci-fi productions dared imagine — then again, they do often make them on tablets more or less straight out of 2001.

H/T David Crowley

Related Content:

Metropolis: Watch a Restored Version of Fritz Lang’s Masterpiece (1927)

Did Stanley Kubrick Invent the iPad in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

The City in Cinema Mini-Documentaries Reveal the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, Her, Drive, Repo Man, and More

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch President Obama Sing “Amazing Grace” at the Funeral of Clementa Pinckney

It was quite a week for President Obama. On Monday, we all got to hear the revealing interview Obama recorded in the Los Angeles garage of comedian Marc Maron. Midweek, the Supreme Court rejected the latest legal challenge to the Affordable Healthcare Act, his signature piece of legislation. Now on Friday — the same day that Obama welcomed the court’s landmark decision on gay marriage — the President solemnly presided over the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine African-Americans murdered in a Charleston church last week.

You can watch his eulogy above in its entirety, but we’re fast forwarding to the end, when, rather unexpectedly, the president led the congregation in singing Amazing Grace, a Christian hymn written in 1779 by John Newton. In an ironic historic footnote, Newton was the captain of English slave ships and wrote the spiritual song when his ship, buffeted by a storm, nearly met its demise. This marked the beginning of a spiritual conversion for Newton, during which he remained active in the slave trade. Only years later did he repent and focus his energy on abolishing slavery. He would write ‘Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade,’ an influential tract that “described the horrors of the Slave Trade and his role in it.”

Like many things, the descendants of slaves took the good from “Amazing Grace” and made it their own.

Note: the singing starts at the 35:20 mark if you really need to move things along.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn and  share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox.

via Mother Jones

Related Content:

1.5 Million Slavery Era Documents Will Be Digitized, Helping African Americans to Learn About Their Lost Ancestors

President Obama Chats with David Simon About Drugs, The Wire & Omar

Visualizing Slavery: The Map Abraham Lincoln Spent Hours Studying During the Civil War

Free Online History Courses

Hear Johnny Cash Deliver Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago…

It goes on from there.

If you’re a bit rusty on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, listen to singer Johnny Cash recite the famously brief speech in its entirety, above, from his America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song album. (The acoustic guitar accompaniment is by long time Cash collaborator, Norman Blake.)

A little background for those in need of a refresher: Lincoln delivered the speech in November 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Four months earlier, roughly 10,000 Confederate and Union soldiers perished—and another 30,000 were wounded—during three days of fighting in the area. The Battle of Gettysburg ended in a major victory for the North, though Lincoln was frustrated that General George Meade failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s retreating forces. (Whether or not such a move could have shortened the war is a matter of some debate.)

Lincoln welcomed the invitation to the cemetery’s dedication as a chance to frame the significance of the war in terms of the Declaration of Independence. Slave owners frequently cited the constitutionality of their actions, for unlike the Declaration, the Constitution did not hold that all men were created equal.

The day’s other speaker, former Harvard President and Secretary of State Edward Everett, praised  the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of the president’s two minute speech, perhaps blushing a bit, given that he himself had held the podium for two hours.

A year and a half later, when Lincoln was assassinated, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts summed it up:

That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg…and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.” He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it.

(How sorry those gentleman would be to learn just how little most Americans today know of the  the Battle of Gettysburg. Fear not, though. A restored version of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary is coming to PBS this fall.)

Please note that Lincoln’s brief remarks were carefully prepared, and not scribbled on the back of an envelope during the train ride that took him to Gettysburg. As a nation, we love folksy origin stories, and depending on the size of one’s penmanship, it is indeed possible to fit 272 words on an envelope, but it’s a myth… no matter what Johnny Cash may say in his introduction.

PS – If you would like to commit the Gettysburg Address to memory, try singing it to the tune of “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. No doubt Professor Lynda Barry would approve.

Related Content:

The Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

Resurrecting the Sounds of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s New Biopic

Animated Video: Johnny Cash Explains Why Music Became a Religious Calling

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

Commuters Can Download Free eBooks of Russian Classics While Riding the Moscow Metro


Image by Zigurds Zakis

They say that Mussolini’s brand of fascism made Italy’s trains run on time. Meanwhile, it looks like Communists and Post-Communist autocrats made the morning subway ride in Russia something of a cultural experience.

As you can see below, the Soviets designed the Moscow subway stations as underground palaces, adorned withhigh ceilings, stained glass, mosaics and chandeliers.” (Check out a gallery of photos here.) In more recent times, city planners opened the Dostoyevskaya subway station, a more austere station where you can see black and white mosaics of scenes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels — Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. Somewhat controversially, the mosaics depict fairly violent scenes. On one wall, The Independent writes, “Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment brandishes an axe over the elderly pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna and her sister, his murder victims in the novel. Near by, a character from Demons holds a pistol to his temple.” Nothing like confronting murder and suicide on the morning commute.

If these gloomy scenes don’t sound familiar, don’t fret. Late last year, the Moscow subway system launched a pilot where Moscow subway commuters, carrying smartphones and tablets, can download over 100 classic Russian works, for free. As they shuttle from one station to another, riding on subway cars equipped with free wifi, straphangers can read texts by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Bulgakov, Lermontov, Gogol and more. Perhaps that takes the sting out of the soaring inflation.

Related Content:

The Digital Dostoevsky: Download Free eBooks & Audio Books of the Russian Novelist’s Major Works

The Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy Online: New Archive Will Present 90 Volumes for Free (in Russian)

Stephen Fry Profiles Six Russian Writers in the New Documentary Russia’s Open Book

How Leonard Cohen’s Stint As a Buddhist Monk Can Help You Live an Enlightened Life

There is a certain kind of thinking that the Buddha called “monkey mind,” a state in which our nervous habits become compulsions, hauling us around this way and that, forcing us to jump and shriek at every sound. It was exactly this neurotic state of mind that Leonard Cohen sought to quell when in 1994 he joined Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles and became a monk: “I was interested in surrendering to that kind of routine,” Cohen told The Guardian in 2001, “If you surrender to the schedule, and get used to its demands, it is a great luxury not to have to think about what you are doing next.”

There at Mt. Baldy the journalist and cosmopolitan raconteur Pico Iyer met Cohen, unaware at first that it was even him. In his short Baccalaureate speech above to the 2015 graduating class of the University of Southern California, Iyer describes the meeting: After showing him fond hospitality and settling him into the community, Iyer says, Cohen told him that “just sitting still, being unplugged, looking after his friends was… the real deep entertainment that the world had to offer.”

At the time, Iyer was disappointed. He had admired Cohen for exactly the opposite qualities—for traveling the world, being plugged into the culture, and living a rock star life of self-indulgence. It was this outward manifestation of Cohen that Iyer found alluring, but the poet and songwriter’s inward life, what Iyer calls the “invisible ledger on which we tabulate our lives,” was given to something else, something that eventually brought Cohen out of a lifelong depression. Iyer’s thesis, drawn from his encounter with Leonard Cohen, Zen monk, is that “it is really on the mind that our happiness depends.”

Iyer refers not to that perpetually wheeling monkey mind but what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind” or “big mind.” In such a meditatively absorbed state, we forget ourselves, “which to me,” Iyer says, “is almost the definition of happiness.” Cohen said as much of his own personal enlightenment: “When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you.” After his time at Mt. Baldy, he says, “there was just a certain sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself.” Iyer’s short speech, filled with example after example, gives us and his newly graduating audience several ways to think about how we might find that sense of repose—in the midst of busy, demanding lives—through little more than “just sitting still, being unplugged” and looking after each other.

Note: You can watch a European documentary on Cohen’s stint as a buddhist monk here.

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen: The Poet-Musician Featured in a 1965 Documentary

Young Leonard Cohen Reads His Poetry in 1966 (Before His Days as a Musician Began)

Leonard Cohen Narrates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Featuring the Dalai Lama (1994)

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

Hear John Malkovich Read From Breakfast of Champions, Then Hear Kurt Vonnegut Do the Same

In high school when I was trying to write surrealistic short stories in the vein of Richard Brautigan, despite not really understanding 90 percent of Richard Brautigan, my English teacher recommended I start reading Kurt Vonnegut, so later that day I went down to our city’s sci-fi book/comic book store and bought on her recommendation Breakfast of Champions. A comic novel, it was breezy and fun, and by gum, had cartoons in it! (One was of a cat’s butthole, the effect of which on a high schooler’s mind cannot be overstated.)

But, I admit, I haven’t read it since–the world and my tsundoku is too big for rereadings–and maybe you haven’t read it at all, or perhaps it’s your favorite book. It was the novel Vonnegut published four years after his best known work Slaughterhouse Five. When he graded his novels in his 1981 “Autobiographical Collage” Palm Sunday he gave Breakfast a C. It’s certainly one of his most rambling novels, where he brings back Slaughterhouse Five’s sci-fi author Kilgore Trout and pairs him with the delusional Dwayne Hoover, and unpacks all the dark parts of American history, from racism to capitalism to environmental degradation in passages both sober and bleakly comic.

John Malkovich doesn’t seem like the obvious choice to read Vonnegut for this audiobook, a short excerpt of which can be heard above. (Note: you can download the complete Malkovich reading for free via Audible’s Free Trial program.) But the passage is key in that it introduces the martini cocktail lounge origins of the book’s title, and Malkovich brings out the droll irony of Vonnegut’s writing, especially the way he rolls the word “schizophrenia” off his tongue. There’s a bit of the schizoid in every author, letting a world of characters speak through them like a medium.

For comparison, check out this earlier Open Culture post about Vonnegut reading a long section from Breakfast of Champions in 1970. The author chuckles at some of his more comic passages, and the audience roars along. The timing is that of a standup routine, but this opening—one assumes its the opening—would go on to be furiously rewritten, dropping the first person style. It’s an alternative universe Breakfast that can only leave one to wonder how the rest of the novel might have been handled.

h/t Ayun

Related content:

Richard Brautigan’s Story, ‘One Afternoon in 1939,’ Read From a Wooden Spool

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

22-Year-Old P.O.W. Kurt Vonnegut Writes Home from World War II: “I’ll Be Damned If It Was Worth It”

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Watch the First Russian Science Fiction Film, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

Despite the Soviet Union’s suppression of a great many writers and filmmakers, the communist state nonetheless produced some of the finest film and literature of the 20th century. We are lucky, for example, to have Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which was never published during the author’s lifetime and was for many years thereafter censored or relegated to samizdat versions. A similar fate almost befell the first Russian science fiction film, Aelita: Queen of Mars, a silent from 1924 that inspired such indispensable classics as Flash Gordon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The film—which tops a Guardian list of “Seven Soviet sci-fi films everyone should see“—contributed to a rich cinematic vocabulary without which it would be hard to imagine the aesthetics of much science fiction in general.

Directed by Yakov Protazanov in the theatrical, futuristic constructivist style that Fritz Lang borrowed, Aelita tells the story of Los, an Earth engineer who builds a spaceship and travels to Mars to meet and fall in love with its queen.

Further plot developments make clear that Lang may owe something to the film’s story as well, involving a tyrannical Martian ruler, Aelita’s father, who ruthlessly exploits his planet’s proletariat. Allmovie describes Aelita as “the Marxist struggle reaches outer space” and indeed the film dramatizes an alien revolution very close to the one that took place back on Earth.


Part of the reason the film fell out of favor with the Soviet government in later decades—and irked critics at the time—is its ambivalence about revolutionary politics through its portrayal of Los as a disaffected intellectual. Alexei Tolstoy—author of the film’s source novel—had fewer reservations. The so-called “Comrade Count” won three Stalin prizes after his return from a brief European exile. Unlike the dissident critic Bulgakov, Tolstoy—a distant relative of both Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev—has been described by his enemies as cynical, opportunistic and, later, totally in thrall to Stalin. His friends probably described him as a loyal party man. (He is also credited with being the first to ascertain the Nazi’s use of gas vans.)

Aelita the film made a favorable impression on its first audiences (see an original poster above). One of the first full-length films about space travel, it enabled ordinary Russians to imagine what may have seemed to them like the near future of Soviet technology. And yet, writes Andrew Horton in a lengthy essay on Aelita, despite its reputation, the sci-fi classic is “neither science fiction nor a pro-revolutionary film.” Contemporary critics and filmmakers felt that Protazanov’s adaptation not only showed insufficient commitment to the revolution, but it also manifested “alleged continuity with the bourgeois cinema of the Tsarist age”—a serious charge in the age of socialist realism and disruptive cinematic experiments like those of Dziga Vertov.

In hindsight, however, Aelita turns out to have been a film before its time, and indeed a work of classic sci-fi, in its extremely imaginative use of technology, costuming, and set design. Without the fascination it has always held for film buffs, it might have disappeared, given its opposition to Party dogma: “The film praises domesticity and married life at a time when society was experimenting with the nature and meaning of relationships,” Horton writes, “It is a film that looks to rebuilding, consolidation, progress and the future and rejects revolution as an unachievable Utopian ideal open to hijack.” All of this context can seem a bit heavy, but we needn’t work too hard to untangle Aelita‘s ideological strands. Simply enjoy the movie as an entertaining technical achievement from which we can draw a line to later sci-fi films like 1957’s Road to the Stars (above) and, from there, to modern masterpieces like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Aelita will be added to our list of 101 Silent Films, a subset of our larger collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Ubuweb

Related Content:

Metropolis: Watch a Restored Version of Fritz Lang’s Masterpiece (1927)

Eight Free Films by Dziga Vertov, Creator of Soviet Avant-Garde Documentaries

Soviet Animations of Ray Bradbury Stories: ‘Here There Be Tygers’ & ‘There Will Comes Soft Rain’

Soviet Artists Envision a Communist Utopia in Outer Space

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald Conjugates “to Cocktail,” the Ultimate Jazz-Age Verb (1928)

fitzgerald conguates cocktail

I regularly meet up with speaking partners who help me learn their languages in exchange for my helping them learn English. Even though they usually speak much better English already than I speak Korean, Spanish, Japanese, or what have you, I often feel like I’ve got the heavier end of the job. Why? Because the English language, for all its advantages — its global reach, the ease with which it incorporates foreign terms and neologisms, its wealth of descriptive possibility — has the major disadvantage of seldom making immediate sense.

From English’s great flexibility flows great frustration: how many times have foreign friends put up a piece of text to me — often from respected, canonical works of English literature — and demanded an explanation? They’ve usually stumbled over some obscure usage that qualifies as at least unorthodox and perhaps downright ungrammatical, but nonetheless intuitively understandable — if only to a native speaker like me. Here we have one example of just such a linguistic invention refined by no less a respected, canonical writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald: the verb “to cocktail.”

“As ‘cocktail,’ so I gather, has become a verb, it ought to be conjugated at least once,” wrote the author of The Great Gatsby in a 1928 letter to Blanche Knopf, the wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Who better to first lay out its full conjugation than the man who, as the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center puts it, “gave the Jazz Age its name”? Given that his fame “was for many years based less on his work than his personality—the society playboy, the speakeasy alcoholic whose career had ended in ‘crack-up,’ the brilliant young writer whose early literary success seemed to make his life something of a romantic idyll,” he found himself well placed to offer the language a new “taste of Roaring Twenties excess.”

And so Fitzgerald breaks it down:

Present: I cocktail, thou cocktail, we cocktail, you cocktail, they cocktail.

Imperfect: I was cocktailing.

Perfect or past definite: I cocktailed.

Past perfect: I have cocktailed.

Conditional: I might have cocktailed.

Pluperfect: I had cocktailed.

Subjunctive: I would have cocktailed.

Voluntary subjunctive: I should have cocktailed.

Preterit: I did cocktail.

If you, too, decide to teach this advanced verb to your English-learning friends, why not supplement the lesson with the audio clip just above, a reading of the letter from the Ransom Center? Language-learning, no matter the language, inevitably gets to be a grind from time to time, but varying the types of instructional media can help alleviate the inevitable headaches. And when the day’s studies end, of course, an actual cocktailing session couldn’t hurt. After all, they always say you speak a foreign language better after a drink or two.

via the great Lists of Note book

Related Content:

Drinking with William Faulkner: The Writer Had a Taste for The Mint Julep & Hot Toddy

Filmmaker Luis Buñuel Shows How to Make the Perfect Dry Martini

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 13 Preposterous Ideas for Your Leftover Turkey

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.