When we imagine Charlie Chaplin, we imagine a man somehow existing in black-and-white. The obvious reason is that he became not just a movie star but a cultural icon in the 1910s and 20s, the era before sound came to the movies, let alone color. But to attain such success required skills tailored to the state of the medium at the time: that of making people laugh without saying a word, of course, but also of crafting an image instantly recognizable in monochrome. Thus we don’t always feel we’re seeing the “real” Charlie Chaplin in technically more realistic color photographs, or even colorized ones. But what would it feel like to watch one of his classic comedies in color?
You can find out by watching the colorized version of A Night in the Show above. Originally released in 1915, the 25-minute short was directed by and stars Chaplin, who plays the dual role of characters called Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy. Both attend the same music-hall performance, and though Mr. Pest is of the upper crust and Mr. Rowdy is a working man, both get equally inebriated, their disparate social classes producing different styles of mischief-making.
The English-born Chaplin had previously developed these characters on stage, having played the music-hall circuit himself since adolescence. Safe to say that, by the time Hollywood came calling, he’d seen far worse than Pest and Rowdy himself.
The quality of this colorization will perhaps not win the controversial process any new converts, but it does give us a sense of what an evening at an English music hall of the late 19th and early 20th century would actually have looked like, a valuable re-creation now that none of us have memories of this once-common experience. We can more easily imagine the kind of spectacles such establishments would have offered, including but not limited to snake-charming and bursts of fire, as well as its ramshackle exaggerations that Chaplin so energetically satirizes. We could also consider this his valediction to that environment: the previous year’s-introduced the Tramp, who would go on to become his most beloved character of all, ensured that he would soon be able to put the music hall behind him forever.
Are great artists born, or are they made? Probably a little of both, but I suspect that deep down, even if we don’t like to admit it, we know it’s probably a little more the former. We can become skilled at most anything with dedication and hard work. Talent is another matter—a mysterious combination of qualities we know when we hear but can’t always define. Ella Fitzgerald had it when she first stepped on stage on amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater as a teenager, intending to do a tap dance routine.
She’d only done the performance on a dare, had no formal training outside of singing in church, her bedroom, and the Harlem streets, and she only chose to sing that night because the act before her did a tap dance and stole her thunder.
She blew the audience away—a tough New York crowd not known for being forgiving—and rendered even the boisterous teenagers in the balcony speechless. “Three encores later,” she wrote, “the $25 prize was mine.” Fitzgerald’s golden, three-octave voice, impeccable timing, and improvisational brilliance are not exactly the kinds of things that can be taught.
She didn’t look the part of the typical female jazz singer, at least according to popular perception, writes Holly Gleason at NPR. “A large woman who’d grown up rough,” including time spent in a New York State reformatory, she was rejected by bandleaders even after that first, revelatory performance, and the press frequently referred to her in terms that disparaged her appearance. “Fitzgerald recognized she didn’t possess Billie Holiday’s torchy allure,” Holly Gleason writes, or “Eartha Kitt’s feral sensuality or Carmen McRae’s sex appeal. But that would not stop the woman who took her vocal cues from the horns, as well as from jazz singer Connee Boswell.”
It didn’t stop her from winning a Grammy in the Grammy’s first year, or having a record label, Verve, founded just to put out her music. Ella’s range and pitch-perfect ear meant she could imitate not only the horn section or her favorite singer Boswell but just about anyone else as well, from popular jazz singer Rose Murphy, with her high, cartoonish voice, “chee chee” affectations, and “brrrp” telephone sound effects, to the low, gravelly rasp of Fitzgerald’s longtime duet partner Louis Armstrong. See her do exactly that in the clip at the top, moving effortlessly in “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” from her own voice, to Murphy’s, to Armstrong’s in the space of just a few minutes.
Whatever obstacles Fitzgerald faced, her voice seemed to soar above it all. In becoming a global jazz star and “The First Lady of Song,” says jazz writer Will Friedwald, “she showed people that this is music Americans should be proud of.”
R.E.M. is one of those bands that just thinking about can send me into a reverie of memories of the rooms of friends with whom I listened to “Pretty Persuasion,” “Rockville,” and the poetry of “7 Chinese Bros.”—one of Michael Stipe’s early, incomprehensible songs, like “Swan Swan H,” whose cryptic lyrics one must seemingly take on faith. The song must mean something, after all, to Stipe. Maybe the mystery of who, exactly, the “seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean” were to him would be revealed someday in an interview or stray reference in a biography….
Now that we live in an age of instant information gratification, we can skip the years of wonder and find the answer right away: the song was partly inspired, we learn at Songfacts, by a 1938 children’s book called The Five Chinese Brothers, based on a traditional folk tale of young brothers with supernatural powers. (It’s also partly a tribute to photographer Carol Levy, a friend who died in a car crash before the recording of Reckoning.) Needing another syllable, maybe, Stipe changed the number to seven, an oddly prophetic move given that a new version of the story, published ten years later, also featured seven brothers.
The reference shows how many great songwriters work: picking at bits and pieces from their memories and whatever captivating text happens to be laying around…. And Stipe is one of those singers, like Elton John, who can sell any line, no matter how obscure or absurd.
In early songs, especially, he showed an uncanny ability to invest incantatory combinations of words with haunting pathos and urgency. He could sing from the phone book or the back of a cereal box and make it compelling. In fact, the story of “7 Chinese Bros.” involves an almost similar feat in the form of “Voice of Harold,” familiar to fans as the B-side to “So. Central Rain” and part of the 1987 odds and ends collection Dead Letter Office. What possible explanation could there be for these non sequitur gospel lyrics, sung to the tune of… “7 Chinese Bros.”?
Was Stipe a secret Evangelist, hoping to win converts by extolling “the pure tenor quality of the voice of Harold Montgomery”? More teasingly vague themes emerge, along with references to figures like the Reverend Bill Funderburk, Charles Surratt, John Barbee, and Rhonda Montgomery (“That’s Rhonda! An artist!”). Instead of “Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean,” the chorus introduces us to “The Revelaires, A must / The Revelaires / A must.” If you’re one of those who heard this song and thought, “What…?”, you can wonder no more.
The explanation comes to us from a 2009 interview producer Don Dixon gave to Uncut magazine. (For some reason, Dixon refers to “7 Chinese Bros.” as “7 Chinese Blues,” never a title of the song). The story begins with Stipe feeling down in the dumps in a stairwell outfitted as a lounge for him in the studio.
We were working on the vocal for “7 Chinese Blues,” but Michael just wasn’t into it. He was down in his stairwell. I hit the talk-back to let him know I was coming through to make an adjustment… This was just an excuse to take a look at him, see if I could loosen him up a little. While I was in the attic, I’d noticed a stack of old records that had been taken up there to die, local R&B and gospel stuff mostly. I grabbed the one off the top (a gospel record entitled The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires) and as I passed Michael on the way to the Control Room, I tossed it down to him. I thought he might be amused. When I fired up the tape a few seconds later, Michael was singing, but not the lyrics to “7 Chinese Blues.” He was singing the liner notes to the LP I’d tossed him. When Michael began to sing these liner notes, he was much louder than he’d been earlier and it took a few seconds for me to realise what was going on and adjust the levels. He made it all the way through the song, working in every word on the back of that album! I rewound the tape, we had a chuckle and proceeded to sing the beautiful one-take vocal of the real words that you hear on Reckoning. He seemed more confident after that day.
Stipe didn’t just sing the words from the back of the album, he improvised cut-ups as he went, re-arranging phrases to fit the meter of the original song. “Voice of Harold” became a fan favorite for much the same reason as “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Swan Swan H”—it seemed to hide a mystery in plain view, its impassioned delivery at odds with its nonsensical narrative. Released after Reckoning, it turns a spontaneous motivational tool during the making of the album into a creation all its own.
Jim Connelly explores the relationship between “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Voice of Harold” even further in a post at Medialoper, pointing to the firm conviction that’s so “chill-inducing” in the latter (and that comes through in the former recording, made immediately afterward). They may be found words, serendipitously picked up and put together on the spot, but in Stipe’s voice we can tell that “He’s real. He means it,” whatever the hell it is. See a video of “Voice of Harold” with lyrics, at the top, and follow along with the liner notes on the back of Revelaires’ gospel album The Joy of Knowing Jesus just above.
Is the new Mulan the equivalent for Asian-Americans what Black Panther was for African-Americans? The largest entertainment machine we have featured an all-Asian cast telling a traditional Chinese story aimed at the widest possible audience. Did it work?
Actor Michael Tow joins your hosts Erica Spyres, Mark Linsenmayer, and Brian Hirt to discuss the development, aesthetics, and political controversies surrounding the film. The vision of feminism changed between the original poem from ca. 550 C.E. (“When the two rabbits run side by side, how can you tell the female from the male?”) to the present, and the “just be you” ethic (with your magical chi!) is not the norm for China in any period. Was the project in its very conception doomed to fall short of some of its goals? Was the live-action an improvement over the 1998 animated version?
In the past two decades, the Latin American world has seen a tremendous resurgence of indigenous language study and literature. Some Mexican writers are “ditching Spanish,” Dora Ballew writes, for “Zapotec, Tzotzil, Mayan and other languages spoken long before Europeans washed up on the shores of what is now Mexico.” Large anthologies of such literature have been published since 2001. The move is not a recovery of lost languages and cultures, but an affirmation of “the number of people fluent in both an indigenous language and Spanish,” scholars and writers Earl and Sylvia Shorris explain.
“At least several million” indigenous language speakers in Mexico alone ensure that “literature has ample place in which to flourish.” Despite the incursions of both the Aztecs, then the Spanish, speakers of Mixtec, for example, survived and now “inhabit a vast territory of broad mountain ranges and small valleys that stretch across the modern-day states of Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca,” writes Dr. Manuel A. Hermann Lejarazu.
An expert on Mixtec codices, Lejarazu ties the contemporary culture of Mixtec speaking people back to the Postclassic past, “a period between the tenth and sixteenth centuries when political centres proliferated, filling the vacuum left after the collapse of large cities established in preceding centuries.”
Much of the little that is known of the indigenous Mixtec literary culture comes from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, one of only a handful of pre-Columbian manuscripts in existence. Made of deer skin, the codex “contains two narratives,” the British Museum notes. “One side of the document relates the history of important centres in the Mixtec region, while the other, starting at the opposite end, records the genealogy, marriages and political and military feats of the Mixtec ruler, Eight Deer Jaguar-Claw.”
Although finished around 1556, the pictographic folding manuscript “is considered to be of pre-Hispanic origin,” Lejarazu writes, “since it preserves a strong indigenous tradition in its pictographic techniques, with no demonstrable European influence.” The codex was first discovered in 1854 in a Dominican monastery in Florence. It’s unclear exactly how and when it arrived in Europe, but several such codices “reached the Old World as gifts or as part of the documents submitted to Spanish courts that handled legal matters in the Indies.”
Though severed from its origins, the Codex Zouche-Nuttall is now freely available online in a scanned 1902 facsimile edition at the British Museum and the Internet Archive. You can learn much more about these incredibly rare documents from Lejarazu’s article and Robert Lloyd Williams’ Complete Codex Zouche-Nutall, which explains how the pictographic record functions like a storyboard, or outline, for a complex narrative tradition that tied Mixtec rulers to the gods, to each other, and to the past and future.
When you’re making a film with complex shots or sequences of shots, it doesn’t hurt to have storyboards. Though professional storyboard artists do exist, they don’t come cheap, and in any case they constitute one more player in the game of telephone between those who’ve envisioned the final cinematic product and the collaborators essential to realizing it. It thus greatly behooves aspiring directors to develop their drawing skills, though you hardly need to be a full-fledged draftsman like Ridley Scott or even a proficient comic artist like Bong Joon-ho for your work to benefit from storyboarding.
You do, however, need to understand the language of storyboarding, essentially a means of translating the rich language of cinema into figures (stick figures if need be), rectangles, and arrows — lots of arrows. Drawing on examples from Star Wars and Jurassic Park to Taxi Driver and The Big Lebowski, the RocketJump Film School video above explains how storyboards work in less than ten minutes.
As storyboard artist Kevin Senzaki explains how these drawings visualize a film in advance of and as a guide for filmmaking process, we see a variety of storyboards ranging from crude sketches to nearly comic book-level detail, all compared to corresponding clips from the finished production.
These examples come from the work of such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Wes Anderson, and Christopher Nolan — all of whose films, you’ll notice, have no slight visual ambitions. When a shot or sequence requires serious visual effects work, or even when a camera has to make just the right move to advance the action, storyboards are practically essential. Not that every successful director uses them: no less an auteur than Werner Herzog has called storyboards “the instruments of the cowards,” those who can’t handle the spontaneity of either filmmaking or life itself. Rather, he tells aspiring directors to “read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read… read, read… read.” But then so did Akira Kurosawa, who didn’t just draw his movies in advance — he painted them.
Throughout the years, a number of iconic photographs have tapped into the collective unconscious, shaping our view of historic events, sometimes to a degree that leads to social change.
These images are not dependent on knowing the subjects’ identities, though it’s always interesting when more context leaks out, often as the result of some serious sleuthing by reporters, archivists, or other interested parties.
1932’s “Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam)” is one of the lighter-hearted photos to create such a lasting public impression.
Eleven workers are depicted enjoying their break, relaxing on a girder a dizzying 840-feet above New York City, unburdened by safety harnesses or other protective gear.
In the words of Rockefeller Center archivist Christina Roussel, who narrates the TIME Magazine 100 Photos episode above, they are the “unsung heroes of construction.”
The unusual designation may lead you to rack your brains for a sung hero of construction.
Grandpa’s cog-in-the-wheel contribution to the erection of an iconic landmark can be a source of anecdotal pride for families, but it rarely leads to greater renown.
Looming over this image is John D. Rockefeller, Jr, who masterminded a 22 acre complex of 14 commercial buildings in the Art Deco style. The project was a boost to the economy during the Great Depression, employing over 250,000 people—from truckers and quarrymen to glaziers and steelworkers and hundreds of other jobs in between. It created an enormous amount of goodwill and patriotic pride.
The Rockefeller organization capitalized on this positive reception, with a steady stream of staged publicity photos, including the daring eleven sharing a nosebleed seat on what was to become the 69th floor of the RCA Building (now known as 30 Rock.)
The popularity of the picture, which has been colorized, satirized, burlesqued with the Muppets and turned into a life-size sculpture by Sergio Furnari, is partly about the casual recklessness of its subjects: The beam on which they sit seems suspended over an urban abyss, with the vastness of Central Park spread out behind them and nothing, seemingly below. But in fact a finished floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza was probably just a few feet away.
The documentary helped confirm the identities of several of the men.
Irish immigrants Maddy O’Shaughnessy and Sonny Glynn hold down either end, as verified by their sons.
William Eckner, third from left, and Joe Curtis, third from right, were named in a similarly spirited annotated photo taken around the same time.
The photographer’s identity is also debatable. It’s most often credited to Charles C. Ebbets but Tom Kelley and William Leftwich were also on hand that day, leather satchels of glass plates slung across their backs, as they, too, defied gravity, documenting the completion of architect Raymond Hood’s master plan.
Mapping has always been contentious, no matter where you look in time. Maps preserve ideological assumptions on paper, rationalizing physical space as they render it in two dimensions. No matter how didactic, they can become political weapons. In the case of Charles Booth’s visually impressive Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, we have a series of maps whose own assumptions can sometimes seem at odds with their ostensible purpose: to improve the living conditions of London’s poor.
Booth’s “colourful poverty maps were created between 1886 and 1903,” Zoe Craig writes at Londonist, as part of a “ground-breaking study into the lives of ordinary Londoners.” A philanthropist born into wealth in the shipping trade, Booth took it upon himself to study poverty in London in order to initiate social reforms.
He succeeded. The study, conducted by Booth and a team of researchers, led to the creation of Old Age pensions, which Booth called “limited socialism,” as well as school meals for hungry children. He was clear about that fact that he saw such reforms as a bulwark against socialist revolution.
The study’s seventeen volumes are filled with picturesque accounts. “Picking through the tidbits of information from these people’s lives will make you feel a bit like a Victorian costume drama police detective,” Craig remarks. This reference to policing feels pointed, given the role of the police in maintaining class hierarchies in Victorian London. As an American, it can be hard to look at Booth’s map and not also see the 20th redlining practices in U.S. cities. Consider, for example, the categories Booth applied to London’s classes:
Called ‘Inquiry Into the Life and Labour of the People in London’, the epic work studied families and residents living across London, and coloured the streets according to their financial situation: between black for ‘lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal’ through pink for mixed ‘some comfortable, some poor’ to orange for ‘wealthy’.
Of course, the social and historical context differs markedly, but we might also consider Feargus O’Sullivan’s observations at Bloomberg CityLab. A new published edition of the map, he writes, “accompanied by compelling if bleak period photos, reveals a city that possesses echoes of London today. It depicts, after all, a densely-packed metropolis with a cosmopolitan population where immensely wealthy people lived just around the corner from neighbors who were struggling to make ends meet.”
Maps may not create the social conditions they describe, but they can help perpetuate them, rendering people visible in ways that allow for even more control over their lives. Criticisms of Booth’s study claimed that not only did the proposed reforms not go far enough but that the report described London’s class structure while offering little to no analysis of the causes of poverty. In language that sounded less objectionable to Victorian ears, the poor are mostly blamed for their own condition.
Hand-colored and based on the 1869 Ordnance Survey, the maps seemed “sufficiently important” to Booth to warrant “comprehensive revision.” Here, the police appear in person to guide the process. “Social investigators accompanied policemen on their beats across London,” the LSE writes, “and recorded their own impressions of each street and the comments of the policemen.” You can read the police notebooks from these surveys at the LSE and learn more about the 12 district maps and the demographic data they represent at Mapping London. The LSE printed a hardcover print edition of Booth’s work in 2019, complete with 500 illustrations. You can purchase a copy here. Or visit the interactive editionhere.
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