The Philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism,” Or How to Find Purpose in a Meaningless Universe

In one account of human affairs, an all-pow­er­ful deity rules over every­thing. Noth­ing can occur with­out the knowl­edge and sanc­tion of the omnipo­tent cre­ator god. In a much more recent iter­a­tion, we inhab­it an unimag­in­ably com­plex com­put­er sim­u­la­tion, in which every thing—ourselves included—has been cre­at­ed by all-pow­er­ful pro­gram­mers. The first sce­nario gives mil­lions of peo­ple com­fort, the sec­ond… well, maybe only a hand­ful of cult-like Sil­i­con Val­ley techo-futur­ists. But in either case, the ques­tion inevitably aris­es: how is it pos­si­ble that there is any such thing as true free­dom? The idea that free will is an illu­sion has haunt­ed philo­soph­i­cal thought for at least a cou­ple thou­sand years.

But in the exis­ten­tial­ist view, the real fear is not that we may have too lit­tle free­dom, but that we may have too much—indeed that we may have the ulti­mate free­dom, that of con­scious beings who appeared in the uni­verse unbid­den and by chance, and who can only deter­mine for them­selves what form and direc­tion their being might take. This was the ear­ly view of Jean-Paul Sartre. “We are left alone, with­out excuse”—he famous­ly wrote in his 1946 essay “Exis­ten­tial­ism is a Human­ism”—“This is what I mean when I say that man is con­demned to be free.” Free­dom is a bur­den; with­out gods, dev­ils, or soft­ware engi­neers to fault for our actions, or any pre­de­ter­mined course of action we might take, each of us alone bears the full weight of respon­si­bil­i­ty for our lives and choic­es.

Emerg­ing from com­fort­ing visions of human­i­ty as the cen­ter of the universe—says the nar­ra­tor in the video above from philo­soph­i­cal ani­ma­tion chan­nel Kurzge­sagt—“we learned that the twin­kling lights are not shin­ing beau­ti­ful­ly for us, they just are. We learned that we are not at the cen­ter of what we now call the uni­verse, and that it is much, much old­er than we thought.” We learned that we are alone in the cos­mos, on a com­plete­ly insignif­i­cant speck of space dust, more or less. Even the con­cepts we use to explain this over­whelm­ing sit­u­a­tion are total­ly arbi­trary in the face of our pro­found igno­rance. Add to this the prob­lem of our infin­i­tes­i­mal­ly brief lifes­pans and inevitable death and you’ve got the per­fect recipe for exis­ten­tial dread.

For this con­di­tion, Kurzge­sagt rec­om­mends a rem­e­dy: “Opti­mistic Nihilism,” a phi­los­o­phy that posits ulti­mate free­dom in the midst of, and sole­ly enabled by, the utter mean­ing­less­ness of exis­tence: “If our life is the only thing we get to expe­ri­ence, then it’s the only thing that mat­ters. If the uni­verse has no prin­ci­ples, then the only prin­ci­ples rel­e­vant are the ones we decide on. If the uni­verse has no pur­pose, then we get to dic­tate what its pur­pose is.” This is more or less a para­phrase of Sartre, who made vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal claims in what he called his “athe­is­tic exis­ten­tial­ism,” but with the added force in his “doc­trine” that “there is no real­i­ty except in action… Man is noth­ing else but what he pur­pos­es, he exists only in so far as he real­izes him­self.” We not only get to deter­mine our pur­pose, he wrote, we have to do so, or we can­not be said to exist at all.

In the midst of this fright­en­ing­ly rad­i­cal free­dom, Sartre saw the ulti­mate oppor­tu­ni­ty: to make of our­selves what we will. But this dizzy­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty may send us run­ning back to com­fort­ing pre­fab illu­sions of mean­ing and pur­pose. How ter­ri­ble, to have to decide for your­self the pur­pose of the entire uni­verse, no? But the phi­los­o­phy of “Opti­mistic Nihilism” goes on to expound a the­sis sim­i­lar to that of the Zen pop­u­lar­iz­er, Alan Watts, who has soothed many a case of exis­ten­tial dread with his response to the idea that we are some­how sep­a­rate from the uni­verse, either hov­er­ing above it or crushed beneath it. Humans are not, as Watts col­or­ful­ly wrote, “iso­lat­ed ‘egos’ inside bags of skin.” Instead, as the video goes on, “We are as much the uni­verse as a neu­tron star, or a black hole, or a neb­u­la. Even bet­ter, actu­al­ly, we are its think­ing and feel­ing part, the sen­so­ry organs of the uni­verse.”

Nei­ther Sartre nor Watts, with their very dif­fer­ent approach­es to the same set of exis­ten­tial con­cerns, would like­ly endorse the tidy sum­ma­tion offered by the phi­los­o­phy of “Opti­mistic Nihilism.” But just as we would be fool­ish to expect a six-minute ani­mat­ed video to offer a com­plete phi­los­o­phy of life, we would be painful­ly naïve to think of free­dom as a con­di­tion of com­fort and ease, built on ratio­nal cer­tain­ties and absolute truths. For all of the dis­agree­ment about what we should do with rad­i­cal exis­ten­tial free­dom, every­one who rec­og­nizes it agrees that it entails rad­i­cal uncertainty—the ver­tig­i­nous sense of unknow­ing that is the source of our con­stant free-float­ing anx­i­ety.

If we are to act in the face of doubt, mys­tery, igno­rance, and the immen­si­ty of seem­ing­ly gra­tu­itous suf­fer­ing, we might heed John Keats’ pre­scrip­tion to devel­op “Neg­a­tive Capa­bil­i­ty,” the abil­i­ty to remain “con­tent with half-knowl­edge.” This was not, as Lionel Trilling writes in an intro­duc­tion to Keats’ let­ters, advice only for artists, but “a cer­tain way of deal­ing with life”—one in which, Keats wrote else­where, “the only means of strength­en­ing one’s intel­lect,” and thus a sense of iden­ti­ty, mean­ing, and pur­pose in life, “is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thor­ough­fare for all thoughts.”

Keats’ is a very Zen sen­ti­ment, a moody ver­sion of the “don’t-know mind” that rec­og­nizes empti­ness and suf­fer­ing as hall­marks of exis­tence, and finds in them not a rea­son for opti­mism but for the indef­i­nite sus­pen­sion of judge­ment. Still, the approach of Roman­tic poets and Bud­dhist monks is not for every­one, and even Sartre even­tu­al­ly turned to ortho­dox Marx­ism to impose a mean­ing upon exis­tence that claimed depen­dence on the hard facts of mate­r­i­al con­di­tions rather than the unbound­ed abstrac­tions of the intel­lect.

Per­haps we are are free, at least, to com­mit to an ide­ol­o­gy to assuage our exis­ten­tial dread. We are also free to adopt the trag­ic defi­ance of anoth­er Marx­ist, Anto­nio Gram­sci, who con­fessed to some­thing of an “Opti­mistic Nihilism” of his own. Only he referred to it as a “pes­simism of the intel­lect” and “opti­mism of the will”—an atti­tude that rec­og­nizes the severe social and mate­r­i­al lim­its imposed on us by our often painful, short, seem­ing­ly mean­ing­less exis­tence in a mate­r­i­al world, and that strives nonethe­less toward impos­si­ble ideals.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Alan Watts Explains the Mean­ing of the Tao, with the Help of the Great­est Nan­cy Pan­el Ever Drawn

Are We Liv­ing Inside a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: An Intro­duc­tion to the Mind-Bog­gling “Sim­u­la­tion Argu­ment”

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

A Free Trial Offer for The Great Courses Plus: A Special Deal for Open Culture Readers

We’ve told you about the Great Cours­es Plus (now called Won­dri­um)  before–a new video sub­scrip­tion ser­vice that lets you watch free cours­es (about 8,000 lec­tures in total) across a wide range of sub­jects, all taught by some of the best lec­tur­ers in the coun­try. The top­ics cov­er every­thing from His­to­ry, Phi­los­o­phy, Lit­er­a­ture, and Eco­nom­ics, to Math, Sci­ence, Pro­fes­sion­al Devel­op­ment, Cook­ing, and Pho­tog­ra­phy. And you can binge-watch entire col­lege cours­es in a mat­ter of days by watch­ing videos on your TV, tablet, lap­top and smart phone, with the help of apps designed for Apple, Google Play, Kin­dle Fire, and Roku.

Inter­est­ed in try­ing out this ser­vice? Right now, the Great Cours­es Plus/Won­dri­um is offer­ing a spe­cial deal for Open Cul­ture read­ers. If you click here, and sign up for a free tri­al, you can use this ser­vice for 30 days … for free. And then, if you would like, you can con­tin­ue to sub­scribe and pay their nor­mal prices. If you have time on your hands, this is a great way to keep your mind engaged and stream what PC Mag­a­zine has called “an excel­lent library of col­lege-lev­el lec­tures.”

Note: The Great Cours­es is a part­ner with Open Cul­ture. So if you sign up for a free tri­al, it ben­e­fits not just you and Great Cours­es Plus. It ben­e­fits Open Cul­ture too. So con­sid­er it win-win-win.

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Hear 15 Hours of Frank Zappa’s Legendary 1977 Halloween Performances at New York’s Palladium

What do you give the Zap­pa fan who has every­thing? Why, of course, the three-disc set, Frank Zap­pa Hal­loween 77—a doc­u­ment of Zap­pa per­for­mances at New York’s Pal­la­di­um in 1977 dur­ing a Hal­loween week­end stint—just released only a few days ago in an offi­cial form, as well as in a box set fea­tur­ing 158 tracks and a Zap­pa mask and cos­tume. Ah, it is too late! Too late! you say. The day is upon us! Tru­ly, it is, but a Zap­pa cos­tume nev­er goes out of style—it can be worn year-round with­out embar­rass­ment. And while you wait for the swag to arrive, light up your Hal­loween night with 15 hours of tracks from the four-night engage­ment in the Spo­ti­fy playlist below.

By the time of these record­ings, Zappa’s Hal­loween shows were “already the stuff of leg­ends,” we learn from the offi­cial source, “While the shows began in the late ‘60s, around 1972, these mon­u­men­tal per­for­mances would become annu­al events, ini­tial­ly in Pas­sa­ic, NJ and Chica­go IL before mov­ing to New York City in 1974, where they’d remain…. From Octo­ber 28–31, Zap­pa and his band played six his­toric shows at the 3,000 capac­i­ty Pal­la­di­um. All the per­for­mances were record­ed with four being filmed, result­ing in Zappa’s mam­moth film project, ‘Baby Snakes.’”

The 1979 film failed to find an audi­ence beyond Zappa’s rabid­ly loy­al cult fol­low­ing, or a dis­trib­u­tor beyond Zap­pa him­self. Many of the songs Zap­pa and his band played dur­ing the series of con­certs appeared that same year on Sheik Yer­bouti (say it out loud), an album that made sure to piss peo­ple off. The song “Bob­by Brown” was banned from the radio in the U.S.; The Anti-Defama­tion League demand­ed an apol­o­gy, which Zap­pa refused, for the song “Jew­ish Princess,” which was only per­formed once, dur­ing the ’77 Hal­loween shows; and the album’s major hit, “Dancin’ Fool,” made audi­ences dance to a song that made fun of them.

Zappa’s anti-social antics were not bugs but features—he main­tained a rabid fan­base no mat­ter what he did because he was a phe­nom­e­nal­ly tal­ent­ed, irre­press­ibly cre­ative musi­cian who attract­ed the best play­ers in the busi­ness. The 1977 Hal­loween show band—including mad­man drum­mer Ter­ry Bozzio and King Crim­son gui­tarist Adri­an Belew—could not have been in fin­er form. Zappa’s arro­gance may have rubbed non-fans of his music the wrong way, but to those who couldn’t get enough of his vir­tu­oso prog-rock car­ni­val, he had every rea­son to hold such peo­ple in con­tempt.

Zap­pa inspired so much devo­tion among fel­low musi­cians that a num­ber of them have agreed to tour with a holo­gram of the late gui­tarist-band­leader, to be pro­duced by Eye­l­lu­sion, “live music’s pre­mier holo­gram pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny,” explains the offi­cial Zap­pa site. The project has proven, in the words of Belew, who signed on then dropped out of the tour, “caus­tic and divi­sive.” It may also, whether you’re a fan of Zap­pa or not, seem more than a lit­tle spooky, and not in the fun trick-or-treat way. Maybe you, or your Zap­pa fan, would pre­fer to remem­ber him as he was, in the flesh, sneer­ing and shred­ding at the Pal­la­di­um on Hal­loween night, 1977.

via @jhoffman

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Frank Zappa’s Amaz­ing Final Con­certs: Prague and Budapest, 1991

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Frank Zap­pa Explains the Decline of the Music Busi­ness (1987)

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

Hear 14 Hours of Weird H.P. Lovecraft Stories on Halloween: “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror” & More

Image by Dominique Sig­noret, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

“The most mer­ci­ful thing in the world, I think, is the inabil­i­ty of the human mind to cor­re­late all its con­tents. We live on a placid island of igno­rance in the midst of black seas of infin­i­ty, and it was not meant that we should voy­age far.” So writes the nar­ra­tor of “The Call of Cthul­hu,” the best-known sto­ry by Howard Phillips Love­craft, who, before he burnt out and died young, spent his whole lit­er­ary career look­ing into that infin­i­ty and report­ing on the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of what he sensed lurk­ing there. What bet­ter writer to read on Hal­loween night, when — amid all the par­ty­ing and the can­dy — we all per­mit our­selves a glimpse into the abyss?

Indeed, what bet­ter writer to hear on Hal­loween night? Once it gets dark, con­sid­er fir­ing up this four­teen-hour Spo­ti­fy playlist of H.P. Love­craft audio­books, fea­tur­ing read­ings of not just “The Call of Cthul­hu” but The Shad­ow over Inns­mouth, “The Dun­wich Hor­ror,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and oth­er sto­ries besides. (If you don’t have Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, you can down­load it here.)

Though Love­craft has a much wider read­er­ship now than he ever accrued in his life­time, some of your guests might still nev­er have heard his work and thus strug­gle to pin it down: is it hor­ror? Is it sus­pense? Is it the macabre, the sort of thing per­fect­ed by Love­craft’s pre­de­ces­sor in fright­en­ing Amer­i­can let­ters Edgar Allan Poe?

The word they need is “weird,” not in the mod­ern sense of “some­what unusu­al,” but in the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry sense — the sense of Weird Tales, the pulp mag­a­zine that pub­lished Love­craft — of a heady blend of the super­nat­ur­al, the myth­i­cal, the sci­en­tif­ic, and the mun­dane. Joyce Car­ol Oates once wrote that Love­craft’s sto­ries, sel­dom sen­sa­tion­al, “devel­op by way of incre­men­tal detail, begin­ning with quite plau­si­ble sit­u­a­tions — an expe­di­tion to Antarc­ti­ca, a trip to an ancient sea­side town, an inves­ti­ga­tion of an aban­doned eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry house in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island, that still stood in Lovecraft’s time. One is drawn into Love­craft by the very air of plau­si­bil­i­ty and char­ac­ter­is­tic under­state­ment of the prose, the ques­tion being When will weird­ness strike?” An ide­al ques­tion to ask while float­ing along the black sea of Hal­loween night.

This playlist of Love­craft sto­ries will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

H.P. Lovecraft’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ries Free Online: Down­load Audio Books, eBooks & More

23 Hours of H.P. Love­craft Sto­ries: Hear Read­ings & Drama­ti­za­tions of “The Call of Cthul­hu,” “The Shad­ow Over Inns­mouth,” & Oth­er Weird Tales

Hear Drama­ti­za­tions of H.P. Lovecraft’s Sto­ries On His Birth­day: “The Call of Cthul­hu,” “The Dun­wich Hor­ror,” & More

H.P. Lovecraft’s Mon­ster Draw­ings: Cthul­hu & Oth­er Crea­tures from the “Bound­less and Hideous Unknown”

H.P. Love­craft Gives Five Tips for Writ­ing a Hor­ror Sto­ry, or Any Piece of “Weird Fic­tion”

Love­craft: Fear of the Unknown (Free Doc­u­men­tary)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

A New 2‑In‑1 Illustrated Edition of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? & A Scanner Darkly

FYI: Illus­tra­tors Chris Skin­ner and Andrew Archer present a new illus­trat­ed edi­tion of two Philip K. Dick­’s nov­els, Do Androids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep? & A Scan­ner Dark­ly. And it comes in a great for­mat. Read one nov­el, then flip the book upside down and enter the next altered real­i­ty.

The 2‑in‑1 book is only avail­able through the Folio Soci­ety web­site.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear VALIS, an Opera Based on Philip K. Dick’s Meta­phys­i­cal Nov­el

Philip K. Dick Takes You Inside His Life-Chang­ing Mys­ti­cal Expe­ri­ence

Hear 6 Clas­sic Philip K. Dick Sto­ries Adapt­ed as Vin­tage Radio Plays

Philip K. Dick Makes Off-the-Wall Pre­dic­tions for the Future: Mars Colonies, Alien Virus­es & More (1981)

The Penul­ti­mate Truth About Philip K. Dick: Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Mys­te­ri­ous Uni­verse of PKD

The Inksect: Award Winning Animation Envisions a Dystopian Future Without Books, Paying Homage to Kafka & Poe

“Where would we be with­out books?” That ques­tion, sung over and over again by Sparks in the theme song of the long-run­ning pub­lic-radio show Book­worm, gets a trou­bling answer in The Ink­sect, the ani­mat­ed film above by Mex­i­can Film­mak­er Pablo Calvil­lo. In the book­less dystopia it envi­sions, fos­sil fuels have run out — one premise it shares with many mod­ern works of its sub­genre — but the pow­ers that be found a way to delay the inevitable by burn­ing all of human­i­ty’s print­ed mat­ter for ener­gy instead. “Soon after,” announce the open­ing titles, “we, the human race, devolved into illit­er­ate cock­roach­es.”

But among those cock­roach­es, a few still remem­bered books, and not only did they remem­ber them, they “knew that their pow­ers could lib­er­ate our minds and help us evolve into human beings once again.”

Tak­ing place in a grim, gray, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly malev­o­lent, and elab­o­rate­ly ren­dered New York City, the sto­ry fol­lows the jour­ney of one such rel­a­tive­ly enlight­ened man-bug’s quest for not just a return to his pri­or form but to the rich­er, brighter world con­tained in and made pos­si­ble by books. He catch­es a glimpse of Edgar Allan Poe with the raven of his most famous poem perched atop his head, a sight that might look absurd to us but inspires the pro­tag­o­nist to put pen to paper and write a sin­gle word: lib­er­ty.

The Ink­sect’s lit­er­ary ref­er­ences don’t end with The Raven. Nor do they begin with it: you’ll no doubt have already made the con­nec­tions between the film’s notions of a book-burn­ing dystopia or men turn­ing into cock­roach­es and their prob­a­ble inspi­ra­tions. Even apart from the many visu­al­ly strik­ing qual­i­ties on its sur­face, Calvil­lo’s film illus­trates just how deeply works of lit­er­a­ture, from Ray Brad­bury and Franz Kaf­ka and many oth­er minds besides, lie buried in the foun­da­tion of our col­lec­tive cul­ture. Even a film so expres­sive of 21st-cen­tu­ry anx­i­eties has to under­stand and incor­po­rate the con­cerns that human­i­ty has always dealt with — and so often dealt with, in many dif­fer­ent areas and many dif­fer­ent ways, through books.

The Ink­sect, named the best exper­i­men­tal film at the Cannes Short Film Fes­ti­val in 2016, will be added to our list of Ani­ma­tions, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

via The Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Rec­og­nize a Dystopia: Watch an Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Dystopi­an Fic­tion

Hear Clas­sic Read­ings of Poe’s “The Raven” by Vin­cent Price, James Earl Jones, Christo­pher Walken, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee & More

Franz Kaf­ka Says the Insect in The Meta­mor­pho­sis Should Nev­er Be Drawn; Vladimir Nabokov Draws It Any­way

Ray Brad­bury Reveals the True Mean­ing of Fahren­heit 451: It’s Not About Cen­sor­ship, But Peo­ple “Being Turned Into Morons by TV”

Ray Brad­bury Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion (in Which Case We Need More Lit­er­a­ture!)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Watch a Step-by-Step Breakdown of La La Land’s Incredibly Complex, Off Ramp Opening Number

La La Land, writer and direc­tor Damien Chazelle’s award-win­ning Valen­tine to Hol­ly­wood musi­cals, attract­ed legions of fans upon its release last Decem­ber.

Their ardor is book­end­ed by the enmi­ty of Broad­way diehards under­whelmed by the stars’ singing and danc­ing chops and those who detest musi­cals on prin­ci­ple.

The above video may not lead the detrac­tors to swal­low Chazelle’s Kool-Aid col­ored vision, but lis­ten­ing to chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Mandy Moore’s behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow of the com­pli­cat­ed open­ing num­ber, “Anoth­er Day of Sun,” should inspire respect for the mas­sive feat of cin­e­mat­ic coor­di­na­tion below.

This may be the first time in his­to­ry that a chore­o­g­ra­ph­er has sin­gled out the Trans­port Depart­ment for pub­lic praise.

Remem­ber how your folks used to freak out about you dent­ing the hood when you capered atop the fam­i­ly Coun­try Squire? Turns out they were right.

One of the Trans­po’ crew’s cru­cial assign­ments was plac­ing vehi­cles with spe­cial­ly rein­forced hoods and roofs in the spots where dancers had been chore­o­graphed to bound on top of them. Get­ting it wrong ear­ly on would have wast­ed valu­able time on a two day shoot that shut down an exit ramp con­nect­ing the 110 and 105 free­ways.

The real La La Land con­jures fan­tasies of Ange­lyne clad in head-to-toe pink behind the wheel of her match­ing pink Corvette, but for this num­ber, the Cos­tume Depart­ment col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Trans­port Depart­ment to diver­si­fy the palette.

In oth­er words, the red-gowned fla­men­co dancer could emerge from a yel­low car, and the yel­low-shirt­ed krumper could emerge from a red car, but not vice ver­sa.

Mer­ci­ful­ly, the art depart­ment refrained from a total col­or-coor­di­na­tion black­out. That moment when a gust of wind catch­es the skirts of the blonde conductor’s yel­low dress plays like an inten­tion­al trib­ute to Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, when in fact it was a lucky acci­dent made all the more glo­ri­ous by the sun­ny draw­ers she was sport­ing under­neath.

Oth­er day-of acci­dents required on-the-fly inge­nu­ity, such as enlist­ing three burly crew mem­bers to pro­vide off screen help to a per­former strug­gling with a mal­func­tion­ing door to the truck con­ceal­ing a Latin band with­in. (With tem­per­a­tures soar­ing to 104°, they were hot in more ways than one.)

Moore was also off-cam­era, hid­ing under a chas­sis to cue the skate­board­er, who was unfa­mil­iar with the 8‑count the 30 main dancers were trained to respond to.

Oth­er “spe­cial skills” per­form­ers include a BMX bik­er, a Park­our traceur, the director’s hula hoop­ing sis­ter, and a stunt woman whose abil­i­ty to back­flip into the nar­row chan­nel between two parked cars  land­ed her the part… and kept her injury-free for over 40 takes.

Half of the fin­ished film’s grid­locked cel­e­brants are CGI gen­er­at­ed, but the live per­form­ers had to remain in synch with the pre-record­ed song by Justin Hur­witz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge giv­en the size of the out­door film­ing area. Exec­u­tive music pro­duc­er Mar­ius de Vries and engi­neer Nicholai Bax­ter solved that one by loop­ing the track into each car’s radio, plus a num­ber of hid­den speak­ers and two more on a mov­ing rig.

Moore was deter­mined to keep her care­ful­ly plot­ted moves from feel­ing too dance‑y—the only time the dancers per­form in uni­son is at the very end, right before they hop back down, reen­ter their vehi­cles, and slam their doors shut as one.

For a more nat­u­ral­is­tic vision, watch direc­tor Chazelle’s iPhone footage of the main dancers rehears­ing in a park­ing lot, pri­or to the shoot.

Fun­ny how, left to their own devices, these Ange­lenos seem to wear almost as much black and grey as their coun­ter­parts on the east coast….

The exu­ber­ance of the orig­i­nal has giv­en rise to numer­ous com­mu­ni­ty-based trib­utes and par­o­dies, with stand-outs com­ing from the Xia­men For­eign Lan­guage School in Chi­na, North Carolina’s Camp Mer­rie-Woode, Notre Dame High School in Chazelle’s home state of New Jer­sey, and a 17-year-old Ari­zona boy mak­ing a prompos­al to lead­ing lady Emma Stone.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rita Hay­worth, 1940s Hol­ly­wood Icon, Dances Dis­co to the Tune of The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive: A Mashup

1944 Instruc­tion­al Video Teach­es You the Lindy Hop, the Dance That Orig­i­nat­ed in 1920’s Harlem Ball­rooms

The Addams Fam­i­ly Dance to The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She is cur­rent­ly direct­ing The­ater of the Apes Sub-Adult Divi­sion in George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm, open­ing next week in New York City.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Provoking Reading of David’s Philosophical & Political Painting

When we think of polit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da, we do not typ­i­cal­ly think of French Neo­clas­si­cal painter Jacques-Louis David. There’s some­thing debased about the term—it stinks of insin­cer­i­ty, stagi­ness, emo­tion­al manip­u­la­tion, qual­i­ties that can­not pos­si­bly belong to great art. But let us put aside this prej­u­dice and con­sid­er David’s 1787 The Death of Socrates. Cre­at­ed two years before the start of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the paint­ing “gave expres­sion to the prin­ci­ple of resist­ing unjust author­i­ty,” and—like its source, Plato’s Phae­do—it makes a mar­tyr of its hero, who is the soul of rea­son and a thorn in the side of dog­ma and tra­di­tion.

Nonethe­less, as Evan Puschak, the Nerd­writer, shows us in the short video above, The Death of Socrates sit­u­ates itself firm­ly with­in the tra­di­tions of Euro­pean art, draw­ing heav­i­ly on clas­si­cal sculp­tures and friezes as well as the great­est works of the Renais­sance. There are echoes of da Vinci’s Last Sup­per in the num­ber of fig­ures and their place­ment, and a dis­tinct ref­er­ence of Raphael’s School of Athens in Socrates’ upward-point­ing fin­ger, which belongs to Pla­to in the ear­li­er paint­ing. Here, David has Pla­to, already an old man, seat­ed at the foot of the bed, the scene arranged behind him as if “explod­ing from the back of his head.”

Socrates, says Puschak, “has been dis­cussing at length the immor­tal­i­ty of the soul, and he doesn’t even seem to care that he’s about to take the imple­ment of his death in hand. On the con­trary, Socrates is defi­ant… David ide­al­izes him… he would have been 70 at the time and some­what less mus­cu­lar and beau­ti­ful than paint­ed here.” He is a “sym­bol of strength over pas­sion, of sto­ic com­mit­ment to an abstract ide­al,” a theme David artic­u­lat­ed with much less sub­tle­ty in an ear­li­er paint­ing, The Oath of the Hor­atii, with its Roman salutes and bun­dled swords—a “severe, moral­is­tic can­vas,” with which the artist “effec­tive­ly invent­ed the Neo­clas­si­cal style.”

In The Death of Socrates, David refines his moral­is­tic ten­den­cies, and Puschak ties the com­po­si­tion loose­ly to a sense of prophe­cy about the com­ing Ter­ror after the storm­ing of the Bastille. The Nerd­writer sum­ma­tion of the painting’s angles and influ­ences does help us see it anew. But Puschak’s vague his­tori­ciz­ing doesn’t quite do the artist jus­tice, fail­ing to men­tion David’s direct part in the wave of bloody exe­cu­tions under Robe­spierre.

David was an active sup­port­er of the Rev­o­lu­tion and designed “uni­forms, ban­ners, tri­umphal arch­es, and inspi­ra­tional props for the Jacobin Club’s pro­pa­gan­da,” notes a Boston Col­lege account. He was also “elect­ed a Deputy form the city of Paris, and vot­ed for the exe­cu­tion of Louis XVI.” His­to­ri­ans have iden­ti­fied over “300 vic­tims for whom David signed exe­cu­tion orders.” The sever­i­ty of his ear­li­er clas­si­cal scenes comes into greater focus in The Death of Socrates around the cen­tral fig­ure, a great man of his­to­ry, one whose hero­ic feats and trag­ic sac­ri­fices dri­ve the course of all events worth men­tion­ing.

Indeed, we can see David’s work as a visu­al pre­cur­sor to philoso­pher and his­to­ri­an Thomas Carlyle’s the­o­ries of “the hero­ic in his­to­ry.” (Car­lyle also hap­pened to write the 19th century’s defin­i­tive his­to­ry of the French Rev­o­lu­tion.) In 1793, David took his visu­al great man the­o­ry and Neo­clas­si­cal style and applied them for the first time to a con­tem­po­rary event, the mur­der of his friend Jean-Paul Marat, Swiss Jacobin jour­nal­ist, by the Girondist Char­lotte Cor­day. (Learn more in the Khan Acad­e­my video above.) This is one of three can­vas­es David made of “mar­tyrs of the Revolution”—the oth­er two are lost to his­to­ry. And it is here that we can see the evo­lu­tion of his polit­i­cal paint­ing from clas­si­cal alle­go­ry to con­tem­po­rary pro­pa­gan­da, in a can­vas wide­ly hailed, along with The Death of Socrates, as one of the great­est Euro­pean paint­ings of the age.

We can look to David for both for­mal mas­tery and didac­tic intent. But we should not look to him for polit­i­cal con­stan­cy. He was no John Mil­ton—the poet of the Eng­lish Rev­o­lu­tion who was still devot­ed to the cause even after the restora­tion of the monarch. David, on the oth­er hand, “could eas­i­ly be denounced as a bril­liant cyn­ic,” writes Michael Glover at The Inde­pen­dent. Once Napoleon came to pow­er and began his rapid ascen­sion to the self-appoint­ed role of Emper­or, David quick­ly became court painter, and cre­at­ed the two most famous por­traits of the ruler.

We’re quite famil­iar with The Emper­or Napoleon in His Study at the Tui­leries, in which the sub­ject stands in an awk­ward pose, his hand thrust into his waist­coat. And sure­ly know Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, above. Here, the fin­ger point­ing upward takes on an entire­ly new res­o­nance than it has in The Death of Socrates. It is the ges­ture not of a man nobly pre­pared to leave the world behind, but of one who plans to con­quer and sub­due it under his absolute rule.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Restor­ing a 400-Year-Old Paint­ing: A Five-Minute Primer

Gus­tav Klimt’s Haunt­ing Paint­ings Get Re-Cre­at­ed in Pho­tographs, Fea­tur­ing Live Mod­els, Ornate Props & Real Gold

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

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

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