What Andrei Tarkovsky’s Most Notorious Scene Tells Us About Time During the Pandemic: A Video Essay

In his films, Andrei Tarkovsky shows us things no other auteur does: an unbroken eight-minute shot, for example, of a man slowly walking a lit candle across an empty pool, starting over again whenever the flame goes out. One of the best-known (or at least most often mentioned) sequences in the Russian master’s oeuvre, it comes from Nostalghia, a late picture made during his final, exiled years in Italy. Some cite it as an example of all that’s wrong with Tarkovsky’s cinema; others as an example of all that’s right with it. But both the criticism and the praise are rooted in the director’s heightened sensitivity to and deliberate use of time — a resource about which we’ve all come to feel differently after a year of global pandemic.

“Our sense of time during the pandemic was just as warped as our sense of space,” says Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in his new video essay above, a follow-up to his previous exploration of how lockdowns turned cities around the world into de Chirico paintings.

At first, “time felt simultaneously slow and fast: hours dragged on at a snail’s pace, but weeks flew by. 2020 seemed endless while it was happening, but in retrospect it feels brief, shorter than a normal year.” But even under “normal” conditions, it holds true that “the more attention we give to time, the slower it feels.” And when we think back to our past experiences, “the more we can remember in a given period expands our sense of its length.”

Watching Nostalghia‘s candle-in-the-pool scene, “you become aware of the odd encounter you’re having with time itself. You can feel the texture of it, its presence, as if time were not only a concept, but a substance, stretching out in front of you, expanding and contracting with every breath. It’s beyond interest, beyond boredom.” Unlike most filmmakers, Tarkovsky doesn’t manipulate time to keep us on a pre-laid emotional track, but to make us aware of our own movement through it. “It’ll be the same for the pandemic,” says Puschak. “There are some rhythms we’ll be eager to get back to, and others, now that we’ve experienced their absence, we’ll be eager to leave behind.” Right now, we’d do well to question the new forms of nostalgia that have beset us. Or we could use the time still on our hands to hold Tarkovsky retrospectives of our own.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Don’t Die Curious: An Animated Lyric Video

Chloe Jackson was asked to create a lyric video for Tom Rosenthal’s wonderful song, ‘Don’t Die Curious’. And she delivered. Enjoy…

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Behold the Elaborate Writing Desks of 18th Century Aristocrats

Sitting or standing before an esteemed writer’s desk can make us feel closer to their process. Virginia Woolf’s desks — plywood boards she held on her lap and sloped standing desks — show a kind of austere rigor in her posture. “Throughout her life as a writer,” James Barrett points out, Woolf “paid attention to the physical act of writing,” just as she paid attention to the creative act of walking. The bareness of her implements tells us a lot about her as an artist, but it tells us nothing about the state of writing desk technology available in her time.

20th century modernist Woolf preferred the 16th-century rustic simplicity of Monk’s house. Had she been an 18th century aristocrat and a follower of fashion, she might have availed herself of a desk designed by the Roentgens, the “principal cabinetmakers of the ancien régime,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“From about 1742 to its closing in the early 1800s, the Roentgens’ innovative designs were combined with intriguing mechanical devices to revolutionize traditional French and English furniture types.”

The German workshop was founded by Abraham Roentgen and continued by his son David, whose creations Goethe called “palaces in fairyland” and who took first place in a furniture making contest with his entry: “a desk with cabinet, decorated with chinoiserie figures in superb marquetry and featuring a clock with a carillon (musical mechanism) and a hidden clavichord.”

Roentgen writing desks were as functional as they were beautiful. But they were not made for just anyone. The Roentgens made the Berlin Secretary Cabinet, for example — which you can see demonstrated in the Met video at the top — for King Frederick William II of Prussia.

Other Roentgen desks may have been somewhat less outwardly ostentatious, but their inner workings were just as ingenious, as you can see in the rolltop desk further up and the mechanical desk above. Each of these magnificent creations features hidden drawers and compartments, a mainstay of luxury desk design throughout the 1700s, as the Rijksmuseum video below demonstrates. Called “Neuwied furniture,” this style was all the rage and anyone who was anyone, including, of course, Marie Antoinette, had the Roentgens or their competitors make elaborate cabinets, desks, and bureaus that concealed complex inner workings like wooden clocks.

“Roentgen’s perfectly executed inventions became a status symbol for princely interiors all over Germany and Central Europe,” writes the Met. Whether their meticulously engineered writing desks really solved the problem of office clutter or physically improved the experience of writing in any way, however, seems debatable at best.

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

Why Every World Map Is Wrong

The idea that the world maps are wrong — all of them — is hardly controversial. It’s a mathematical fact that turning a globe (or an oblate spheroid) into a two-dimensional object will result in unavoidable distortions. In the TED-Ed lesson above by Kayla Wolf, you’ll learn a brief history of world maps, starting all the way back with the Greek mathematician Ptolemy, who “systematically mapped the Earth on a grid” in 150 AD in order to create maps that had a consistent scale. His grid system is still in use today — 180 lines of latitude and 360 lines of longitude.

Most of the world maps we knew come from the Mercator Projection, “a cylindrical map projection presented by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569,” writes Steven J. Fletcher.

This map projection is practical for nautical applications due to its ability to represent lines of constant course, known as rhumb lines, as straight segments that conserve the angles with the meridians…. the Mercator projection distorts the size of objects as the latitude increases from the equator to the poles, where the scale becomes infinite. 

Mercator’s innovation allowed for the shipping routes that created the modern world (including those through the now-unblocked Suez Canal). But the projection has its problems: 14 Greenlands, for example, could fit inside the continent of Africa, says Wolf, but “you wouldn’t guess it from most maps of the world”  in which the two land masses are almost the same size.

“In 2010,” Adam Taylor notes at The Washington Post, “graphic artist Kai Krause made a map to illustrate just how big the African continent is. He found that he was able to fit the United States, India and much of Europe inside the outline of the African continent.”

Geographical misperceptions “shape our understanding of the world,” Nick Routley writes at Business Insider, “and in an increasingly interconnected and global economy, this geographic knowledge is more important than ever.” We are no longer primarily using maps, that is to say, to chart, trade with, or conquer formerly unknown regions of the world — from locations assumed to be the natural centers of commerce, culture, or religion.

Non-Mercator world maps have, over the last few decades especially, attempted to correct the errors of cylindrical projection by unfolding the globe like an orange peel or a series of interlocking triangles, as in Buckminster Fuller’s 1943 Dymaxion Map. These have proved nautical miles more accurate than previous versions but they are useless in navigating the world.

Why create new, more accurate world maps? Because the Mercator projection has given the impression of Euro-American geographical supremacy for almost 500 years now, Wolf’s lesson argues, simply by virtue of the location of its origin and its original purpose. But it is now not only inaccurate and outdated, it is also irrelevant. Maps play a vital role in education. The practical utility, however, of flat world maps these days is pretty much beside the point, since GPS technology has mostly eliminated the need for them altogether.

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

The History of Tattoos Gets Beautifully Documented in a New Book by Legendary Tattoo Artist Henk Schiffmacher (1730-1970)

I always think tattoos should communicate. If you see tattoos that don’t communicate, they’re worthless. —Henk Schiffmacher, tattoo artist

Tattooing is an ancient art whose grip on the American mainstream, and that of other Western cultures, is a comparatively recent development.

Long before he took upor went undera tattoo needle, legendary tattoo artist and self-described “very odd duck type of guy,” Henk Schiffmacher was a fledgling photographer and accidental collector of tattoo lore.

Inspired by the immersive approaches of Diane Arbus and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Schiffmacher, aka Hanky Panky, attended tattoo conventions, seeking out any subculture where inked skin might reveal itself in the early 70s.

As he shared with fellow tattooer Eric Perfect in a characteristically rollicking, profane interview, his instincts became honed to the point where he “could smell” a tattoo concealed beneath clothing:

The kind of tattoos you used to see in those days, you do not see anymore, that stuff made in jail, in the German jails, like, you’d like see a guy who’d tattooed himself as far as his right hand could reach and the whole right (side) would be empty…I always loved that stuff which was never meant to be art which is straight from the heart.

When tattoo artists would write to him, requesting prints of his photos, he would save the letters, telling Hero’s Eric Goodfellow:

I would get stuff from all over the world. The whole envelope would be decorated, and the letter as well. I have letters from the Leu Family and they’re complete pieces of art, they’re hand painted with all kinds of illustrations. Also people from jail would write letters, and they would take time to write in between the lines in a different colour. So very, very unique letters.

Such correspondence formed the earliest holdings in what is now one of the world’s biggest collections of contemporary and historical tattoo ephemera.

Schiffmacher (now the author of the new Taschen book, TATTOO. 1730s-1970s) realized that tattoos must be documented and preserved by someone with an open mind and vested interest, before they accompanied their recipients to the grave. Many families were ashamed of their loved ones’ interest in skin art, and apt to destroy any evidence of it.

On the other end of the spectrum is a portion of a 19th-century whaler’s arm, permanently emblazoned with Jesus and sweetheart, preserved in formaldehyde-filled jar. Schiffmacher acquired that, too, along with vintage tools, business cards, pages and pages of flash art, and some truly hair raising DIY ink recipes for those jailhouse stick and pokes. (He discusses the whaler’s tattoos in a 2014 TED Talk, below).

His collection also expanded to his own skin, his first canvas as a tattoo artist and proof of his dedication to a community that sees its share of tourists.

Schiffmacher’s command of global tattoo significance and history informs his preference for communicative tattoos, as opposed to obscure ice breakers requiring explanation.

When he first started conceiving of himself as an illustrated man, he imagined the delight any potential grandchildren would take in this graphic representation of his life’s adventures“like Pippi Longstocking’s father.”

While his Tattoo Museum in Amsterdam is no more, his collection is far from mothballed. Earlier this year, Taschen published TATTOO. 1730s-1970s. Henk Schiffmacher’s Private Collection, a whopping 440-pager the irrepressible 69-year-old artist hefts with pride. You can purchase the book directly from Taschen, or via Amazon.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker, the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and the human alter ego of L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear J.S. Bach’s Music Performed on the Lautenwerck, Bach’s Favorite Lost Baroque Instrument

If you want to hear the music of Johann Sebastian Bach played on the instruments that actually existed during the stretch of the 17th and 18th centuries in which he lived, there are ensembles specializing in just that. But a full musical revival isn’t quite as simple as that: while there are baroque cellos, oboes, and violas around, not every instrument that Bach knew, played, and composed for has survived. Take the lautenwerck, a category of “gut-stringed instruments that resemble the harpsichord and imitate the delicate soft timbre of the lute,” according to Baroquemusic.org. Of the “lute-harpsichord” craftsmen in 18th-century Germany remembered by history, one name stands out: Johann Nicolaus Bach.

A second cousin of Johann Sebastian, he “built several types of lute-harpsichord. The basic type closely resembled a small wing-shaped, one-manual harpsichord of the usual kind. It only had a single (gut-stringed) stop, but this sounded a pair of strings tuned an octave apart in the lower third of the compass and in unison in the middle third, to approximate as far as possible the impression given by a lute. The instrument had no metal strings at all.”

This gave the lautenwerck a distinctive sound, quite unlike the harpsichord as we know it today. You can hear it — or rather, a reconstructed example — played in the video above, a short performance of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat, BWV 998 by early-music specialist Dongsok Shin.

“If he owned two of them, they couldn’t have been that off the wall,” Shin says of the composer and his relationship to this now little-known instrument in a recent NPR segment. “The gut has a different kind of ring. It’s not as bright. The lautenwerck can pull certain heartstrings.” Just as the sound of each lautenwerck must have had its own distinctive characteristics in Bach’s day, so does each attempt to recreate it today. “The small handful of artisans currently making lautenwerks are basically forensic musicologists,” notes NPR correspondent Neda Ulaby, “reconstructing instruments based on research and what they think lautenwercks probably sounded like.” As for the one man we can be sure knew them intimately enough to tell the difference, he’d be turning 336 years old right about now.

via NPR

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 the Classic Silent Film The Ten Commandments (1923) with a New Score by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips) & Scott Amendola

For Passover 2021, the culture nonprofit Reboot has released “a modern day score to Cecil B. Demille’s 1923 classic silent film The Ten Commandments with Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips) and Scott Amendola.”

Reboot writes: “Berlin, Drozd and Amendola created a momentous new score for the Exodus tale, musically following Moses out of Egypt and into the Dessert where he receives the Ten Commandments. Cecil B. DeMille’s first attempt at telling the Ten Commandments story was in the Silent era year of 1923. The film [now in the public domain] is broken up into two stories: the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt and a thinly related ‘present day’ melodrama.”

Enjoy it all above.

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via BoingBoing

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How Bob Marley Came to Make Exodus, His Transcendent Album, After Surviving an Assassination Attempt in 1976

“The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?,” said Bob Marley after a 1976 assassination attempt at his home in Jamaica in which Marley, his wife Rita, manager Don Taylor, and employee Louis Griffiths were all shot and, incredibly, all survived. Which people, exactly, did he mean? Was it Edward Seaga’s Jamaican Labour Party, whose hired gunmen supposedly carried out the attack? Was it, as some even conspiratorially alleged, Michael Manley’s People’s National Party, attempting to turn Marley into a martyr?

Marley had, despite his efforts to the contrary, been closely identified with the PNP, and his performance at the Smile Jamaica Concert, scheduled for two days later, was widely seen as an endorsement of Manley’s politics. When he made his now-famously defiant statement from Island Records’ chief Chris Blackwell’s heavily guarded home, he had just decided to play the concert–this despite the continued risk of being gunned down in front of 80,000 people by the still-at-large killers, or someone else paid by the CIA, whom Taylor and Marley biographer Timothy White claim were ultimately behind the attack.

Marley doesn’t just show up at the concert, he “gives the performance of his lifetime,” notes a brief history of the event, and “closes the show by lifting his shirt, exposing his bandaged bullet wounds to the crowd.” Erroneously reported dead in the press after the shooting, Marley emerged Lazarus-like, a Rastafarian folk-hero. Then he left Jamaica to make his career statement, Exodus, in London — as much a fusion of his righteous political fury, religious devotion, erotic celebration, and peace, love & unity vibes as it is a fusion of blues, rock, soul, funk, and even punk.

It’s a very different album than what had come before in 1976’s Rastaman Vibrations, which was an album of “hard, direct politics” and righteous, “macho” anger, wrote Vivien Goldman, “with surprising specifics like ‘Rasta don’t work for no C.I.A.’” The apotheosis that was 1977’s Exodus begins, however, not with Marley’s previous album but with the Smile Jamaica concert. What was meant to be a brief, one-song, non-aligned appearance became after the shooting “a transcendental 90-minute set for a country being torn apart by internal strife and external meddling,” says Noah Lefevre in the Polyphonic video history at the top. “It was the last show Bob Marley would play in Jamaica for more than a year.”

See the full Smile Jamaica concert above and learn in the Polyphonic video how “six months to the day” later, on June 3, 1977, Marley left on his own exodus and came to record and release what Time magazine named the “album of the century” — the record that would “transform him from a national icon to a global prophet.” On Exodus, he achieves a synthesis of global sounds in a defining creative statement of his major themes. Marley was “really trying to give the African Diaspora a sense of its strength and… unity,” Goldman told NPR on the album’s 30th anniversary, while at the same time, “really embracing, you know, white people, to an extent; doing his best to make a multicultural world work.”

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

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