What makes the novels of Haruki Murakami — originally written in Japanese and almost unfailingly filled with some odd but deeply characteristic mixture of cats, wells, parallel worlds, mysterious disappearing women with well-formed ears, and much else besides — so beloved around the world? A large part of it must have to do with Murakami’s cultural references, sometimes Japanese but most often western, and even more so when it comes to music. “Almost without exception,” writes The Week music critic Scott Meslow in an extensive piece on all the songs and artists name-checked in these novels, “Murakami’s musical references are confined to one of three genres: classical, jazz, and American pop.”
Even the very names of Murakami’s books, “including Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, and South of the Border, West of the Sun — derive their titles from songs, and his characters constantly reflect on the music they hear.”
Haruki Murakami begins with Brook Benton’s 1970 ballad “Rainy Night in Georgia,” the first song Murakami ever included in a novel. In fact, he included it in his very first novel, 1978’s Hear the Wind Sing, which he wrote in the wee hours at his kitchen table after closing up the Tokyo jazz bar he ran in those years before becoming a professional writer. He even created a radio DJ character, whose voice recurs throughout the novel, to announce it and other songs (though his techniques for including his favorite music in his writing have grown somewhat subtler since). “Okay, our first song of the evening,” the DJ says. “This one you can just sit back and enjoy. A great little number, and the best way to beat the heat” — or the cold, or whatever the weather in your part of the world. Wherever that is, it’s sure to have plenty of Murakami fans who want to listen in.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.
“It’s difficult to make predictions,” they say, “especially about the future.” The witticism has been variously attributed. If Yogi Berra said it, it’s adorable nonsense, if Mark Twain, dry plainspoken irony. If Niels Bohr, however, we have a statement that makes us wonder what exactly “the future” could mean in a radically uncertain universe.
If scientists can’t predict the future, who can? Science fiction writers, of course. They may be spectacularly wrong at times, but few professionals seem better equipped to imaginatively extrapolate from current conditions—cultural, technological, social, and political—and show us things to come. J.G. Ballard, Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut… all have foreseen many of the marvels and dystopian nightmares that have arrived since their time.
In 1964, Asimov used the occasion of the New York World’s Fair to offer his vision of fifty years hence. “What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?” he asked in The New York Times, the question itself containing an erroneous assumption about the durability of that event. As a scientist himself, his ideas are both technologically farseeing and conservative, containing advances we can imagine not far off in our future, and some that may seem quaint now, though reasonable by the standards of the time (“fission-power plants… supplying well over half the power needs of humanity”).
Nineteen years later, Asimov ventured again to predict the future—this time of 2019 for The Star. Assuming the world has not been destroyed by nuclear war, he sees every facet of human society transformed by computerization. This will, as in the Industrial Revolution, lead to massive job losses in “clerical and assembly-line jobs” as such fields are automated. “This means that a vast change in the nature of education must take place, and entire populations must be made ‘computer-literate’ and must be taught to deal with a ‘high-tech’ world,” he writes.
The transition to a computerized world will be difficult, he grants, but we should have things pretty much wrapped up by now.
By the year 2019, however, we should find that the transition is about over. Those who can be retrained and re-educated will have been: those who can’t be will have been put to work at something useful, or where ruling groups are less wise, will have been supported by some sort of grudging welfare arrangement.
In any case, the generation of the transition will be dying out, and there will be a new generation growing up who will have been educated into the new world. It is quite likely that society, then, will have entered a phase that may be more or less permanently improved over the situation as it now exists for a variety of reasons.
Asimov foresees the climate crisis, though he doesn’t phrase it that way. “The consequences of human irresponsibility in terms of waste and pollution will become more apparent and unbearable with time and again, attempts to deal with this will become more strenuous.” A “world effort” must be applied, necessitating “increasing co-operation among nations and among groups within nations” out of a “cold-blooded realization that anything less than that will mean destruction for all.”
He is confident, however, in such “negative advances” as the “defeat of overpopulation, pollution and militarism.” These will be accompanied by “positive advances” like improvements in education, such that “education will become fun because it will bubble up from within and not be forced in from without.” Likewise, technology will enable increased quality of life for many.
… more and more human beings will find themselves living a life rich in leisure.
This does not mean leisure to do nothing, but leisure to do something one wants to do; to be free to engage in scientific research. in literature and the arts, to pursue out-of-the-way interests and fascinating hobbies of all kinds.
If this seems “impossibly optimistic,” he writes, just wait until you hear his thoughts on space colonization and moon mining.
The Asimov of 1983 sounds as confident in his predictions as the Asimov of 1964, though he imagines a very different world each time. His future scenarios tell us as much or more about the time in which he wrote as they do about the time in which we live. Read his full essay at The Star and be the judge of how accurate his predictions are, and how likely any of his optimistic solutions for our seemingly intractable problems might be in the coming year.
While life lasts, let us live it, not pass through as zombies, and let us find in art a glorious passageway to a deeper understanding of our essential humanity.
– Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018)
Sister Wendy, a cloistered nun whose passion for art led her to wander out into the world, where she became a star of global proportions, entertained the television masses with her frank humanist assessments.
Unfazed by nudity, carnality, and other sensual excesses, she initially came across as a funny-looking, grandma-aged virgin in an old-fashioned habit, lisping rhapsodically about appendages and entanglements we expect most Brides of Christ to shy away from.
Having beaten the jokers to the punch, she took her rapt audience along for the ride, barnstorming across the continent, eager to encounter works she knew only from the reproductions Church higher ups gave her permission to study in the 1980s.
She was grateful to the artists—1000s of them—for providing her such an excellent lens with which to contemplate God’s creations. Eroticism, greed, physical love, horrific violence—Sister Wendy never flinched.
“Great art offers more than pleasure; it offers the pain of spiritual growth, drawing us into areas of ourselves that we may not wish to encounter. It will not leave us in our mental or moral laziness,” she wrote in the foreword to Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, her handpicked selection of the greatest paintings of Western art. (“A thousand sounded like so many until we got down to it and then began the anguish of choice,” she later opined.)
A lover of color and texture, she was unique in her ability to appreciate shades of grey, delving deeply into the psychological motivations of both the subjects and the artists themselves.
Here, he shows the pope, father of the Catholic Church, both enthroned and imprisoned by his position. Bacon’s relationship with his own father was a very stormy one, and perhaps he has used some of that fear and hatred to conjure up this ghostly vision of a screaming pope, his face frozen in a rictus of anguish.
On Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Clown Chau-u-Kao (1895):
Toulouse-Lautrec, as the last descendant of an ancient French family, must have been bitterly conscious of his own physical deformities and to many people he, too, was a figure of fun…He shows us Chau-U-Kao preparing for her act with dignity and serenity, the great swirl of her frill seems to bracket the clown so that we can truly look at her, see the pathos of that blowzy and sagging flesh, and move on to the nobility of the nose and the intense eyes. This is a degradation, but one that has been chosen by the performer and redeemed by intelligence and will power.
On Nicolas Lancret’s The Four Times of the Day: Morning (1739):
Morning is filled with witty observation – a delightful young woman (who is clearly no better than she should be) is entertaining a young cleric, seemingly unaware of the temptation offered by that casually exposed bosom. He holds out his cup, but his eyes are fied, alas, on that region of the feminine anatomy that his profession forbids him.
On François Clouet’s Diane De Poitiers (c. 1571)
The implication would seem to be that this shameless beauty with her prominent nipples and overflowing bowl of ripe fruit, is a woman of dubious morals. Yet one cannot but feel that the artist admires the natural freedom of his subject. Her children and her grinning wet-nurse are at her side, and, in the background, the maid prepares hot water. /surely this domestic scene is no more than a simple and endearing vignette.
Her generous takes on these and other artworks are irresistible. How wonderful it would be to approach every piece of art with such thought and compassion.
Fortunately, Sister Wendy, who passed away last week at the age of 88, left behind a how-to of sorts in the form of her 2005 essay, “The Art of Looking at Art,” from which we have extracted the following 10 rules.
Sister Wendy Beckett’s 10 Rules for Engaging with Art
They are the prime locus where the uniqueness of an artist’s work can be encountered.
Prioritize quality time over quantity of works viewed
Sociologists, lurking inconspicuously with stopwatches, have discovered the average time museum visitors spend looking at a work of art: it is roughly two seconds. We walk all too casually through museums, passing objects that will yield up their meaning and exert their power only if they are seriously contemplated in solitude.
If Sister Wendy could spend over four decades sequestered in a small mobile home on the grounds of Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, surely you can go alone. Do not complicate your contemplation by tethering yourself to a friend who cannot wait to exit through the gift shop.
Buy a postcard
…take it home for prolonged and (more or less) distractionless contemplation. If we do not have access to a museum, we can still experience reproductions—books, postcards, posters, television, film—in solitude, though the work lacks immediacy. We must, therefore, make an imaginative leap (visualizing texture and dimension) if reproduction is our only possible access to art. Whatever the way in which we come into contact with art, the crux, as in all serious matters, is how much we want the experience. The encounter with art is precious, and so it costs us in terms of time, effort, and focus.
Pull up a chair, whenever possible
It has been well said that the basic condition for art appreciation is a chair.
Don’t hate on yourself for being a philistine.
However inviolate our self-esteem, most of us have felt a sinking of the spirit before a work of art that, while highly praised by critics, to us seems meaningless. It is all too easy to conclude, perhaps subconsciously, that others have a necessary knowledge or acumen that we lack.
Take responsibility for educating yourself…
Art is created by specific artists living in and fashioned by a specific culture, and it helps to understand this culture if we are to understand and appreciate the totality of the work. This involves some preparation. Whether we choose to “see” a totem pole, a ceramic bowl, a painting, or a mask, we should come to it with an understanding of its iconography. We should know, for example, that a bat in Chinese art is a symbol for happiness and a jaguar in Mesoamerican art is an image of the supernatural. If need be, we should have read the artist’s biography: the ready response to the painting of Vincent van Gogh or Rembrandt, or of Caravaggio or Michelangelo, comes partly from viewers’ sympathy with the conditions, both historical and temperamental, from which these paintings came.
…but don’t be a prisoner to facts and expert opinions
A paradox: we need to do some research, and then we need to forget it…We have delimited a work if we judge it in advance. Faced with the work, we must try to dispel all the busy suggestions of the mind and simply contemplate the object in front of us. The mind and its facts come in later, but the first, though prepared, experience should be as undefended, as innocent, and as humble as we can make it.
Celebrate our common humanity
Art is our legacy, our means of sharing in the spiritual greatness of other men and women—those who are known, as with most of the great European painters and sculptors, and those who are unknown, as with many of the great carvers, potters, sculptors, and painters from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Art represents a continuum of human experience across all parts of the world and all periods of history.
Listen to others but see with your own eyes
We should listen to the appreciations of others, but then we should put them aside and advance toward a work of art in the loneliness of our own truth.
Sister Wendy’s television shows can be found on PBS, the BBC, and as DVDs. Her books are well represented in libraries and from booksellerslike Amazon. (We have learned so much in the year her dictionary-sized 1000 Paintings has been parked next to our commode…)
On Facebook this morning, President Obama wrote: “As 2018 draws to a close, I’m continuing a favorite tradition of mine and sharing my year-end lists. It gives me a moment to pause and reflect on the year through the books, movies, and music that I found most thought-provoking, inspiring, or just plain loved. It also gives me a chance to highlight talented authors, artists, and storytellers – some who are household names and others who you may not have heard of before. Here’s my best of 2018 list – I hope you enjoy reading, watching, and listening.” Note that you can hear all of the music on this Spotify playlist.
Annihilation Black Panther BlacKkKlansman Blindspotting Burning The Death of Stalin Eighth Grade If Beale Street Could Talk Leave No Trace Minding the Gap The Rider Roma Shoplifters Support the Girls Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Favorite Songs of 2018
Apes••t by The Carters
Bad Bad News by Leon Bridges
Could’ve Been by H.E.R. (feat. Bryson Tiller)
Disco Yes by Tom Misch (feat. Poppy Ajudha)
Ekombe by Jupiter & Okwess
Every Time I Hear That Song by Brandi Carlile
Girl Goin’ Nowhere by Ashley McBryde
Historia De Un Amor by Tonina (feat. Javier Limón and Tali Rubinstein)
I Like It by Cardi B (feat. Bad Bunny and J Balvin)
Kevin’s Heart by J. Cole
King For A Day by Anderson East
Love Lies by Khalid & Normani
Make Me Feel by Janelle Monáe
Mary Don’t You Weep (Piano & A Microphone 1983 Version) by Prince
My Own Thing by Chance the Rapper (feat. Joey Purp)
Need a Little Time by Courtney Barnett
Nina Cried Power by Hozier (feat. Mavis Staples)
Nterini by Fatoumata Diawara
One Trick Ponies by Kurt Vile
Turnin’ Me Up by BJ the Chicago Kid
Wait by the River by Lord Huron
Wow Freestyle by Jay Rock (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
And in honor of one of the great jazz singers of all time, who died this year, a classic album: The Great American Songbook by Nancy Wilson
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Not to diminish the nightmare of mortars and shrapnel, but as evidenced by Crow’s Eye Productions’ period accurate dressing video above, one of the greatest horrors of WWI was wet wool.
Decades before the invention of Gore-Tex, Polar Fleece and other high performance, all weather gear, British soldiers relied on their woolies from head to toe.
An army of female knitters sent gloves, scarves, balaclavas and other such “comforts” to the front, in addition to seamless socks designed to last their boys three whole marching days inside their ankle high leather boots.
Alas, no amount of waxing and oiling could keep the trenches’ freezing cold puddles from seeping through those boots.
Nothing’s worse than the scent of three layers of wet wool when you’re catching your death in sodden puttees.
Many of the upper class women swelling the volunteer nursing ranks were unaccustomed to dressing in such utilitarian fashion—cotton dresses, black flat rubber-soled shoes, aprons and sleeve protectors.
Their figures found comparative liberation, while their vanity found humbler outlets in dusting powder and the flattering army-style professional nursing veils they preferred to The Handmaid’s Tale-ish Sister Dora caps.
The greater physical freedom of the nurses’ uniforms extended to ordinary young women as well. Their underwear—a midriff baring chemise, knickers and petticoat—allowed for easier movement, as shorter skirts led to glamorous stockings and—gasp!—shaved legs!
Trendy cardigans, jumpers and waistcoats weren’t just cute, they helped make up for the lost warmth of those oh-so-restrictive corsets.
One might assume from a modern viewpoint that the hairstyles worn by monks arose to deal with male pattern baldness anxiety. As in the school uniform approach, you can’t single out one person’s baldness when everyone is bald. But this, again, would be a modern view, full of the vanity the tonsured—those with religiously shaven heads—ostensibly vowed to renounce. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the tonsure (from the Latin verb for “to shear”) began as a “badge of slavery” among Greeks and Romans. It was adopted “on this very account” by early monastic orders, to mark the total surrender of the will.
Would it surprise you, then, to learn that there were tonsure wars? Probably not if you know anything about church history. Every article of clothing and of faith has sparked some major controversy at one time or another. So too with the tonsure, of which—we learn in the Vox video above—there were three styles. The first, the coronal (or Roman or Petrine) tonsure, is the one we see in countless Medieval and Renaissance paintings: a bald pate at the crown surrounded by a fringe of hair, possibly meant to evoke the crown of thorns. Next is the Pauline, a fully shaved head, seen much less in Western art since it was “used more commonly in Eastern Orthodoxy.”
The third style of tonsure caused all the trouble. Or rather, it was this style that served as a visible sign of religious differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches in Britain and Ireland. “Celtic Catholicism was ‘out of sync’ with the Roman Catholic Church,” notes Vox. “Roman Catholics would use the differences between them to portray Celtic Catholicism as pagan, or even as an offshoot, celebrating the power-hungry magician, Simon Magus.” The Celtic tonsure fell under a cloud, but how exactly did it differ from the others? Since it disappeared in the early Middle Ages and few images seem to have survived, no one seems sure.
Daniel McCarthy, fellow emeritus at Trinity College, Dublin set out to solve the mystery. He speculates the Celtic tonsure, as you’ll see on a computer-simulated monk’s head, was a triangular shape, with the apex at the front. When the Roman Catholics took over Ireland, all of the vestments, dates, and haircuts were slowly brought into line with the dominant view. The practice of tonsure officially ended in 1972, and fell out of favor in English-speaking countries centuries earlier, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. But in any case, McCarthy sees the tonsure not as a spurning of fashion, but as a cult-like devotion to style. In that sense, we can see people who adopt similar haircuts around the world as still visually signaling their membership in some kind of order, religious or otherwise.
Just a little over fifty years ago, we didn’t know what Earth looked like from space. Or rather, we had a decent idea what it looked like, but no clear color images of the sight existed. 2001: A Space Odyssey presented a particularly striking vision of Earth from space in the spring of 1968, but it used visual effects and imagination (both to a still-impressive degree) to do so. Only on Christmas Eve of that year would Earth be genuinely photographed from that kind of distance, captured with a Hasselblad by Bill Anders, lunar module pilot of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission.
“Two days later, the film was processed,” writes The Washington Post‘s Christian Davenport, “and NASA released photo number 68-H-1401 to the public with a news release that said: “This view of the rising earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit insertion burn.”
The image, called Earthrise, went “as viral as anything could in 1968, a time that saw all sorts of photographs leave their mark on the national consciousness, most of them scars.” Life magazine ran it with lines from U.S. poet laureate James Dickey: “Behold/ The blue planet steeped in its dream/ Of reality.”
It’s often said of iconic photographs that they make their viewers see their subjects in a new way, an effect Earthrise must exemplify more clearly than any other picture. “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring,” said Apollo 8 command module pilot Jim Lovell at the time, “and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” At the recent celebration of the mission’s 50th anniversary at the Washington National Cathedral, Anders remembered, “As I looked down at the Earth, which is about the size of your fist at arm’s length, I’m thinking this is not a very big place. Why can’t we get along?”
You can download Earthrise from NASA’s web site and learn more about the taking of the photo from the video above, made for its 45th anniversary. Using all available data on the mission, including audio recordings of the astronauts themselves, the video precisely re-creates the circumstances under which Anders shot Earthrise, forever preserving a view made possible by a roll of the spacecraft executed by Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman. To what extent their photographic achievement has convinced us all to get along remains debatable, but has humanity, since the day after Christmas 1968, ever thought about its blue planet in quite the same way as before?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.
Director Guillermo del Toro, as one Twitter wag put it recently, is the kind of film friend we’d all love to have–a great conversationalist, a good listener, a fan at heart, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the form. And while it’s not rare to hear him praise Steven Spielberg, this recent Twitter post most people by surprise:
Catch Me If You Can is honestly a film I haven’t thought about since I watched it in the theaters. That’s not to say it was bad–it was an enjoyable romp with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks playing cat and mouse with each side appreciating the other side’s wiles, but apparently de Toro has watched it and thought about it often.
BenDavid Grabinski, the man who made the first volley in proclaiming Spielberg’s film underrated, is known for writing the Jackie Chan-Johnny Knoxville vehicle Skiptrace and working on the more recent Blindspotting.
“Probably Walken’s best performance after DEER HUNTER,” he adds, along with “Leonardo DiCaprio is so good you don’t judge Tom Hanks for falling for his shit.” and “There is nothing more entertaining than hearing Tom Hanks angrily yell. Better than the most expensive FX money can buy.”
(One of Grabinski’s followers mentions Amy Adams’ role, long before she hit it big. There’s also a nod to the John Williams’ score, which is light and jazzy unlike his blockbuster work.)
It’s more interesting who del Toro readily calls to mind as influences: Stanley Donen (Charade), William Wellman (The Public Enemy), Vincent Minnelli, Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), and William Wyler (Roman Holiday). These men were all workaday directors within the studio system, all skilled craftsman, but not so idiosyncratic as to stand out.
“People like Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz I identify with more [than the likes of Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles] because they didn’t have styles…They were chameleons and they could quickly adapt; they could go from a story about heaven and the afterlife to the Civil War. They could do a lot of different subjects and they could do them well because they were good craftsmen… but they didn’t impose who they were on what that was. And I always felt I was more in their game.”
Some may disagree, as Spielberg, especially in his blockbusters, has a style that others have easily copied (J.J. Abrams, I’m looking at you.) But right from the get-go, Spielberg has always made room for other genres, from romance to historical epics to horror and sci-fi.
del Toro is not that kind of filmmaker, though his best films are when he gets personal and nostalgic, like The Devil’s Backbone. The Shape of Water certainly had its Spielbergian moments, especially in its E.T.-style rescuing of the central creature.
Now that del Toro has weighed in, hopefully he might write a little bit more on the movie in the future. For us, we might need to watch the film again.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
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