These days, I’m feeling pretty good about my last remaining vice. But, as always, too much of anything is not a good thing. And that includes coffee too. Just ask Honoré de Balzac, who, according to legend, met an untimely death by drinking 50 cups per day. Or ask the fellow featured in the French animation called Le café–or simply Coffee in English. Up top, you can find a subtitled version of the riotous film directed by Stephanie Marguerite and Emilie Tarascou. Beneath, we have a non-subtitled but higher resolution version. Enjoy, and remember to drink coffee responsibly.
Fitting, I suppose, that the only creative meeting of the minds between two of the twentieth century’s best-known film directors took place on a project about the problem of nonhuman intelligence and the dangerous excesses of human ingenuity. For both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, these were conflicts rich with inherent dramatic possibility. One of the many important differences between their approaches, however, is a stark one. As many critics of AI: Artificial Intelligence—the film Kubrick had in development since the 70s, then handed off to Spielberg before he died—have pointed out, Kubrick mined conflict for philosophical insights that can leave viewers intriguingly puzzled, if emotionally chilled; Spielberg pushes his drama for maximum emotional impact, which either warms audiences’ hearts or turns their stomachs, depending on their disposition.
In the latter camp, we can firmly place Monty Python alumnus and cult director Terry Gilliam. In the short clip at the top of the post, Gilliam explicates “the main difference” as he sees it between Spielberg and Kubrick. Spielberg’s films are “comforting,” they “give you answers, always, the films are… answers, and I don’t they’re very clever answers.” Kubrick’s movies, on the other hand, always leave us with unanswerable questions—riddles that linger indefinitely and that no one viewer can satisfactorily solve. So says Gilliam, an infamously quixotic director whose pursuit of a vision uniquely his own has always trumped any commercial appeal his work might have. Most successful films, he argues, “tie things up in neat little bows.” For Gilliam, this is a cardinal sin: “the Kubricks of this world, and the great filmmakers, make you go home and think about it.” Certainly every fan of Kubrick will admit as much—as will those who don’t like his films, often for the very same reasons.
To make his point, Gilliam quotes Kubrick himself, who issued an incisive critique of Spielberg’s Nazi drama Schindler’s List, saying that the movie “is about success. The Holocaust was about failure”—the “complete failure,” Gilliam adds, “of civilization.” Not a subject one can, or should, even attempt to spin positively, one would think. As an example of a Kubrick film that leaves us with an epistemological and emotional vortex, Gilliam cites the artificial intelligence picture the great director did finish, 2001: A Space Odyssey. To see in action how these two directors’ approaches greatly diverge, watch the endings of both Schindler’s List and 2001, above. Of course the genre and subject matter couldn’t be more different—but that aside, you’ll note that neither could Kubrick and Spielberg’s visual languages and cinematic attitudes, in any of their films.
Despite this vast divide—between Spielberg’s “neat little bows” and Kubrick’s headtrips—it might be argued that their one collaboration, albeit a posthumous one for Kubrick, shows them working more closely together than seems possible. Or so argues Noel Murray in a fascinating critical take on AI, a film that perhaps deserves greater appreciation as an “unnerving,” existentialist, and Kubrick-ian turn for Spielberg, that master of happy endings.
If you’re thirsty, a vending machine is usually close by. (Especially if you’re in Japan. You’re probably standing right next to one right now!) But what if you have time to kill and you’re thirsty for literature? Then the Short Édition vending machine might be for you. Choose one of three buttons—one minutes, three minutes, or five minutes—and the cylindrical machine, currently available in France, will print out an appropriately-long short story to read on a receipt-like piece of paper.
At the turn of the 20th century automation and vending machines looked to be the wave of the future, where everything would be done for us on command. And that has happened in a totally different way, through the microprocessor. It just didn’t happen through the vending machine, at least not in America, where they mostly dispense food, drink, and cigarettes. Like high speed rail, Japan has picked up the slack and made the world rethink the machine’s possibilities all over again. It now looks like France and Poland (where you can find Haruki Murakami novels being sold in vending machines) are catching on.
The Short Édition vending machines, currently only available in eight locations in Grenoble, France, draw from a database of 600 stories chosen by the community at Short Édition’s website, which counts 1,100 authors as members. Presumably, all these stories are in French.
While new, the machines have gathered enough media attention to attract inquiries from Italy and the United States. So look out, you might find one in your area soon.
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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
We recognize Stan Lee, of course, as an icon of American culture for his achievements in the field of comics: doing his part to create enduring characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men, fighting censorship from the Comics Code Authority, introducing the concept of coherent — or at least coherent-enough — fictional “universes,” and much more besides. But a decent portion of Lee’s fame also owes to his seemingly bottomless well of enthusiasm, from which he continues to draw, at the age of 92, for every public address to the “true believers,” and he doesn’t leave that enthusiasm behind when it comes time to interpret Edgar Allan Poe.
Having previously gone on the record in interviews naming Poe as one of his favorite authors in childhood (alongside other such high-, low-, and middle-browed literary immortals as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, O. Henry, and Shakespeare), he makes a certain kind of sense as a Raven-reader. (And hasn’t, say, Spider-Man’s origin story passed into American myth in much the same way as Poe’s tale of a lamenting lover tormented by a talking bird?) He also sets a high bar with his endearing performance itself, which should get you thinking: if you, too, one day become an icon of American culture, how will you approach your inevitable Raven-reading turn?
John Cleese, you say, a spokesman for the American Philosophical Association? Why would such a serious organization, whose stated mission is to foster the “broader presence of philosophy in public life,” choose a British comedian famous for such characters as the overbearing Basil Fawlty and ridiculous Minister of Silly Walks as one of their public faces?
They chose him, I imagine, because in his various roles—as a onetime prep school teacher and student of law at Cambridge, as a comedy writer and Monty Python star, and as a post-Python comedian, author, public speaker, and visiting professor at Cornell—Cleese has done more than his part to spread philosophy in public life. Monty Python, you’ll remember, aired a number of absurd philosophy sketches, notable for being as smart as they are funny.
Given these credentials, and his ability to apply his intelligence, wit, and comic timing to subjects not often seen as particularly exciting by the general public, Cleese seems like the perfect person for the job, even if he isn’t an American philosopher. The APA, founded in 1900, has recently hosted conferences on religious tolerance and “Cultivating Citizenship.” In 2000, as part of its centennial celebration, the organization had Cleese record 22 very short “Public Service Announcements” to introduce novices to the important work of philosophy. These range from the very general “What Philosophers Do” at the top of the post to the influence of philosophy on social and political reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Addams, and Simone de Beauvoir (above), showing philosophy’s “bearing on the real world.”
In this PSA, Cleese makes the controversial claim that “the 21st century may belong far more to philosophy than to psychology or even traditional religion.” “What a strange thought,” he goes on, then explains that philosophy “works against confusion”—certainly a hallmark of our age. There’s not much here to argue with—Cleese isn’t formulating a position, but giving his listeners provocative little nuts to crack on their own, should they find his PSAs intriguing enough to draw them into further study. They might as well begin where most of us do, with Socrates, whom Cleese introduces below.
“I started playing the guitar about 6 or 7, maybe 7 or 8 years ago. I was influenced by everything at the same time, that’s why I can’t get it together now.”
When you listen to Jimi Hendrix, one of the last things you’re ever likely to think is that he couldn’t “get it together” as a guitarist. Hendrix made the characteristically modest statement in 1968, in a free form discussion about his influences with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner and Baron Wolman. “I used to like Buddy Holly,” he said, “and Eddie Cochran and Muddy Waters and Elvin James… B.B. King and so forth.” But his great love was Albert King, who “plays completely and strictly in one way, just straight funk blues.”
Since Hendrix’s death and subsequent enshrinement in pop culture as the undisputed master of psychedelic rock guitar, a number of posthumous releases have performed a kind of revisionism that situates him not strictly in the context of the hippie scene but rather in the blues tradition he so admired and that, in a sense, he came of age within as a session and backing guitarist for dozens of blues and R&B artists in the early 60s.
In 1994 came the straightforwardly-titled compilation album Blues, which celebrated the fact that “more than a third of [Hendrix’s] recordings were blues-oriented,” writes Allmusic’s Richie Unterberger, whether originals like “Red House” and “Hear My Train a Comin’” or covers of his heroes Muddy Waters and Albert King. Martin Scorsese devoted a segment of his documentary series The Blues to Hendrix, and an ensuing 2003 album release featured even more Hendrix blues originals (with “pretty cool” liner notes about his blues record collecting habits). Prolific director Alex Gibney has a documentary forthcoming on Hendrix on the Blues.
It’s safe to say that Hendrix’s blues legacy is in safe hands, and it may be safe to say he would approve, or at least that he would have preferred to be linked to the blues, or classical music, than to what he called “freak-out psychedelic” music, as a Guardian review of Hendrix autobiography Starting at Zero quotes; “I don’t want anybody to stick a psychedelic label around my neck. Sooner Bach and Beethoven.” Or sooner, I’d imagine, blues legends like Albert King, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King, of whom Hendrix sat in awe. At the top of the post, you can see Hendrix flex his Delta blues muscles on a 12-string acoustic guitar. Then in the video below it from 1968, Hendrix gets the chance to jam with Buddy Guy, after watching Guy work his magic from the audience. (Hendrix joins Guy onstage to jam at 6:24.) Beneath, see Guy and King reminiscing a few years ago about those days of meeting and playing with Hendrix.
During their conversation, you’ll learn where Hendrix picked up one of his stage tricks, playing the guitar behind his head—and learn how little Guy knew about Hendrix the rock star, coming to know him instead as a great blues guitarist.
In ostensibly liberal democracies in the West, attitudes towards free speech vary widely given different historical contexts, and can shift dramatically over time. We’re living in the midst of a generational shift on the issue in the U.S.; a recent Pew survey found that 40 percent of millennials—18-34 year olds—favor government bans on offensive speech. The usual caveats apply when reading this data; New York magazine’s Science of Us blog breaks down the demographics and points out problems with definitions, particularly with that of the word “offensive.” They write, “plenty of folks freak out about anti-cop sentiments but are fine with racially loaded language—or insert your own examples.” As commentators note almost daily, various free speech advocates show all manner of partiality when it comes to whose speech they choose to defend and whose they, unwittingly perhaps, suppress.
We could add to all of these examples hundreds of others, from all over the world, but in addition to the statistics and the disturbing individual cases, it is worth asking broader, more philosophical questions about free speech as we draw our own conclusions about the issues. What exactly do we mean by “free speech”? Should all speech be protected, even that meant to libel individuals or whole groups or to deliberately incite violence? Should we tolerate a public discourse made up of lies, misinformation, prejudicial invective, and personal attacks? Should citizens and the press have the right to question official government narratives and to demand transparency?
To help us think through these politically and emotionally fraught discussions, we could listen to Free Speech Bites, a podcast sponsored by the Index on Censorship and hosted by freelance philosopher Nigel Warburton, who also hosts the popular podcast Philosophy Bites. The format is identical to that long-standing show, but instead of short conversations with philosophers, Warburton has brief, lively discussions with free speech advocates, including authors, artists, politicians, journalists, comedians, cartoonists, and academics. In the episode above, Warburton talks with DJ Taylor, biographer of the man considered almost a saint of free speech, George Orwell.
Of his subject, Taylor remarks, “I think it’s true to say that most of Orwell’s professional life, large amounts of the things that he wrote, are to do with the suppression of the individual voice.” At the same time, he points out that Orwell’s “view of free speech is by no means clear cut.” The “whole free speech issue became much more delicately shaded than it would otherwise have been” during the extraordinary times of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Taylor refers to the “classic liberal dilemma: how far do we tolerate something that, if tolerated, will cease to tolerate us…. If you are living in a democracy and somebody’s putting out fascist pamphlets encouraging the end of that democracy, how much rope do you give them?”
In another episode, Irshad Manji—feminist, self-described “Muslim refusenik,” and author of The Trouble with Islam Today—talks free speech and religion, and offers a very different perspective than what we’re used to hearing reported from Islamic thinkers. When Warburton says that Islam and free expression sound “like two incompatible things,” Manji counters that as a “person of faith” she believes “free expression is as much a religious obligation as it is a human right.” In her estimation, “no human being can legitimately behave as if he or she owns a monopoly on truth.” Anything less than a society that tolerates civil disagreement, she says, means that “we’re playing God with one another.” In her religious perspective, “devoting yourself to one god means that you must defend human liberty.” Manji sounds much more like Enlightenment Christian reformers like John Locke than she does many interpreters of Islam, and she is well aware of the unpopularity of her point of view in much of the Islamic world.
Addressing the question of why free speech matters, broadcaster and writer Jonathan Dimbleby—former chair of the Index on Censorship—inaugurated the podcast in 2012 with a more classically philosophical discussion of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and the liberal argument against censorship Mill and others articulated. For Dimbleby, “freedom of expression [is] not only a right but a defining characteristic of what it means to be a civilized individual.” It’s a view he holds “very strongly,” but he admits that the valid exceptions to the rule are “where the difficult territory starts.” Dimbleby points to “very obvious circumstances when you don’t have freedom of expression and should not have freedom of expression.” One of the exceptions involves “laws that say that if you express yourself freely, you are directly putting someone else’s life at risk.” This is not as clear-cut as it seems. The “dangerous territory,” he argues, begins with circumscribing language that incites anger or offense in others. We are back to the question of offense, and it is not a uncomplicated one. Although activists very often need to be uncivil to be heard at all, there’s also a necessary place for public discussions that are as thoughtful and careful as we can manage. And for that reason, I’m grateful for the intervention of Free Speech Bites and the international variety of views it represents.
Having moved to Korea a couple weeks ago, I won’t have the chance to partake this year in the beloved institution of American culture known as Thanksgiving. (Korea has its own Thanksgiving, but it happened two months ago.) Maybe you live in the United States and thus almost certainly have a Thanksgiving dinner of some kind, big or small, coming soon. Or maybe you, like me, live elsewhere in the world, and thus in a place without the same tradition. Either way, you can surely partake this Thanksgiving in the beloved institution of American culture known as the work of William S. Burroughs.
Here we have a short film of Burroughs, best known as the author of a body of controversial and experimental literature, including books like Junky and Naked Lunch, shot by Gus Van Sant, best known as the director of films like Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, and Drugstore Cowboy, the last of which includes a memorable appearance by Burroughs himself.
It captures Burroughs reading his poem “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986,” also known as his “Thanksgiving Prayer.” Van Sant shot it two Thanksgivings after that one, in 1988, the year before Drugstore Cowboy (and six years after adapting Burrough’s story “The Discipline of D.E.” into an early short film).
Burroughs, a lifelong critic of America, fills his prayer with bitterly sarcastic “thanks” for things like “a continent to despoil and poison,” “Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger,” “the KKK,” and “Prohibition and the war against drugs” (about which his character in Drugstore Cowboy had some particularly choice words). He ends by expressing ironic, Great Gatsby-quoting gratitude for “the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.”
Like him — like most everybody — I have my own, if less deep-seated, frustrations with our homeland, and perhaps in leaving I subconsciously emulated his stretches of expatriatism in Mexico, England, France, and Morocco. But I sincerely doubt that I’ve had my last Thanksgiving on U.S. soil; for all its failings, America remains too interesting to stay away from entirely. After all, what other country could possibly produce a writer, a personality, or a critic like William S. Burroughs?
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