When The Sopranos drew to a close fourteen years ago, its ambiguous yet somehow definitive final scene hardly promised a continuation of the New Jersey mafia saga. Since then, fans have had to make do with reflections, histories, and exegeses, up to and including re-watch podcasts hosted by the actors themselves. As time has passed the show has only drawn higher and higher acclaim, which can’t be said about every product of the ongoing “golden age of television drama” The Sopranos got started. A return to the well was perhaps inevitable, and indeed has just been announced: The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel film co-written by David Chase, the creator credited with contributing to the original series a significant portion of its genius.
Onscreen, The Sopranos drew its power from one Soprano above all: local mob boss Tony Soprano, as portrayed by James Gandolfini in what has been ranked among the greatest screen acting achievements of all time. Whether or not Tony survived that final scene, Gandolfini died in 2013, and ever since it has been impossible to imagine any other actor portraying the character — or at least portraying the character in a modern-day setting.
Telling the story of a Tony Soprano in his youth, with a young actor necessarily playing him, has remained a viable proposition. Into that role, for the 1960s and 70s-set The Many Saints of Newark, has stepped Gandolfini’s real-life son Michael.
For the then-20-year-old Michael Gandolfini, taking over his father’s role had to be a daunting prospect, especially since he’d never seen The Sopranos before. At least one binge-watch of the series (among other rigorous forms of preparation) later, he delivered the performance of which you can take a first look in The Many Saints of Newark‘s new trailer above. “As rival gangs try to wrest control from the DiMeo crime family in the race-torn city of Newark,” Consequence Film’s Ben Kaye writes of its story, the young Anthony Soprano, a promising but indifferent student with an eye on college, “gets swept up in the violence and crime by his uncle Dickie Moltisanti.” As Sopranos fans know full well, “Anthony becomes the feared mob head Tony Soprano and treats Dickie’s son, Christopher, as his protégé.” Evidently, an antihero of Tony’s stature is made, not born.
How does one define a masterpiece? Is it personally subjective, or it is just another word we use for status symbols? In an essay on bass player Jaco Pastorius’ 1976 self-titled debut album, scholar Uri González offers an older definition: “in the old European guild system, the aspiring journeyman was expected to create a piece of handicraft of the highest quality in order to reach the status of ‘master.’ One was then officially allowed to join the guild and to take pupils under tutelage.”
Pastorius’ debut album certified him as a master musician; he leapt from “anonymity to jazz stardom, earning admiration both from the average musically uneducated concert-goer to the hippest jazz cat,” and he gained a following among an “ever growing number of adept students that, still today, study his solos, licks, compositions and arrangements.” Pastorius’ solo on his version of the Charlie Parker tune “Donna Lee,” especially, helped redefine the instrument by, first, inventing the electric bass solo.
The “Donna Lee” solo, Pat Metheny writes, is “one of the freshest looks at how to play on a well traveled set of chord changes in recent jazz history — not to mention that it’s just about the hippest start to a debut album in the history of recorded music.”
Whether you like Jaco Pastorius’ music or not, it’s beyond question that his playing changed musical history through a transformative approach to the instrument. In the video at the top, producer Rick Beato explains the importance of the “Donna Lee” solo, an interpretation of a jazz standard played on a fretless bass Pastorius made himself, and creating a sound no one had heard before.
Beato’s is a technical explanation for those with a background in music theory, and it highlights just how intimidating Pastorius’ playing can be for musicians and non-musicians alike. But technique, as Herbie Hancock noted in a blurb on Jaco Pastorius, means little without the musical sensibilities that move people to care, and Pastorius had it in abundance. “He had this wide, fat swath of a sound,” wrote one of his most famous collaborators, Joni Mitchell, in tribute. “He was an innovator…. He was changing the bottom end of the time, and he knew it.”
One of those changes, from “Donna Lee” to the end of Pastorius’ tumultuous life and career in 1987 involved moving the electric bass into a melodic role it had not played before. This not only meant leaving the lower root notes, but also crafting a bright, round, lively tone that for those upper registers. “In the Sixties and Seventies,” writes Mitchell, “you had this dead, distant bass sound. I didn’t care for it. And the other thing was, I had started to think, ‘Why couldn’t the bass leave the bottom sometimes and go up and play in the midrange and then return?’” She found the answer to her questions in Jaco.
Hear Pastorius’ original recording of “Donna Lee” further up, and see a live version from 1982 above to take in what Mitchell called his “joie de vivre.” The song, which already had a venerable jazz history, is now considered, González writes, “the quintessential bass players’ manifesto.” Or, as conga player Don Alias, the only accompanist during Pastorius’ famous solo, put it, “every bass player I know can now cut ‘Donna Lee’ thanks to Jaco.”
Georges Méliès directed, produced, edited, and starred in over 500 films between 1896 and 1913, most of them brimming with special effects the filmmaker himself invented. Before Méliès, such things as split screens, dissolves, and double exposures did not exist. After him, they were critical to cinema’s vocabulary, and the image of a rocket in the Moon’s eye became iconic. Méliès shocked, scared, and delighted popular audiences while also earning recognition from the avant garde. “The Surrealists would hail him as a great poet,” writes Darrah O’Donohue at Senses of Cinema, “in particular his erasure or subversion of boundaries.” Critics would later call him the first auteur.
Méliès originally set out to become a stage illusionist. He performed in — and purchased, in 1888 — famous magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin’s theater, where he became obsessed with film in 1895 at a private demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph. When they refused to sell him one, he hunted down another projector — Robert W. Paul’s animatograph — and modified it to work as a camera he called the “coffee grinder” and “machine gun.”
In an autobiographical sketch (ghostwritten in the third person for a journalist tasked with compiling a “dictionary of illustrious men”), Méliès describes himself “an engineer of great precision” and “ingenious by nature.” Modest, he was not, but the great showman was not wrong about his critical importance to early film. He describes the difficulties in detail, prefacing them with a statement about the mechanical heroism of the first filmmakers.
Those who today seek to make motion pictures will find all the required equipment available, complete and perfected: all they need is the necessary funds. They cannot begin to imagine the difficulties against which the creators of this industry had to struggle, at a time when no such material yet existed and when each innovator kept their work and research a closely guarded secret. Therefore Méliès, just like Pathé, Gaumont and others, was only able to progress by making numerous machines, subsequently abandoned and replaced by others which were themselves in due course replaced.
Celebrated as the ultimate fantasist in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Méliès now presides over one of cinema’s great ironies. As he helped invent cinema, he also invented the special effects-laden genre film — the sort of thing Scorsese has denied the status of cinematic art. Méliès directed the first horror film, The Haunted Castle (above) and first adaptation of Cinderella (top). He built the first film studio in Europe while making and starring in hundreds of fantasies, ranging from one minute to 40 minutes. While computers do most of the labor in the kinds of genre films we’re used to seeing now, it’s safe to say, for better or worse, that without Méliès, there would be noMarvel Universe.
But without Méliès, there would also be no Scorsese, as he says himself: “Méliès,” argues the director of such gritty neo-realist films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, “invented everything.” His technological innovations are only a small part of his influence. “The locked room, containing forbidden sights, darkened but illumined,” O’Donohue observes, “becomes the metaphor for Méliès’ cinema, a manifestation of private desires in a public or communal medium. The flat theatricality of the social world gives way to ‘effects,’ vision, dreams, nightmares, desires, fears, perversions — the releasing of the unconscious and the inner life.” Find films by Méliès in our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.
Although he’s dabbled in the abstractions that once graced the covers of psychology, philosophy, and science texts, his overarching attraction to the visual language of science fiction and illicit romance speak to the premium he places on narrative.
And with hundreds of “mid-century mashups” to his name, he’s become quite a master of bending existing narratives to his own purposes.
Recently, Alcott turned his attention to the creation of the Pulp Tarot deck he is funding on Kickstarter.
A self-described “clear-eyed skeptic as far as paranormal things” go, Alcott was drawn to the “simplicity and strangeness” of Pamela Colman Smith’s “bewitching” Tarot imagery:
Maybe because they were simply the first ones I saw, I don’t know, but there is something about the narrative thread that runs through them, the way they delineate the development of the soul, with all the choices and crises a soul encounters on its way to fulfillment, that really struck a chord with me. You lay out enough Tarot spreads and they eventually coalesce around a handful of cards that really seem to define you. I don’t know how it happens, but it does, every time: there are cards that come up for you so often that you think, “Yep, that’s me,” and then there are others that turn up so rarely that, when they do come up, you have to look them up in the little booklet because you’ve never seen them before.
One such card for Alcott is the Page of Swords. In the early 90s, curious to know what the Tarot would have to say about the young woman he’d started dating, he shuffled and cut his Rider-Waite-Smith deck “until something inside said “now” and he flipped over the Page of Swords:
I looked it up in the booklet, which said that the Page of Swords was a secret-keeper, like a spy. I thought about that for a moment; the woman I was seeing was nothing like a spy, and had no spy-like attributes. I shrugged and began the process again, shuffling and cutting and shuffling and cutting, until, again, something inside said “now,” and turned up the card again. It was the Page of Swords, again. My heart leaped, I put the deck back in its box and quietly freaked out for a while. The next day, I asked the young lady if the Page of Swords meant anything to her, and she said “Oh sure, when I was a kid, that was my card.” Anyway, I’m now married to her.
The Three of Pentacles is another favorite, one that presented a particular design challenge.
The Smith deck shows a stonemason, an architect and a church official, collaborating on building a cathedral. Now, there are no cathedrals in the pulp world, so I had to think, well, in the pulp world, pentacles represent money, so the obvious choice would be to show three criminals planning a heist. I couldn’t find an image anything close to the one in my head, so I had to build it: the room, the table, the map of the bank, the plan, the people involved, and then stitch it all together in Photoshop so it ended up looking like a cohesive illustration. That was a really joyful moment for me: there were the three conspirators, the Big Cheese, the Dame and The Goon, their roles clearly defined despite not seeing anyone’s face. It was a real breakthrough, seeing that I could put together a little narrative like that.
Smith imagined a medieval fantasy world when designing her Tarot deck. Alcott is drawing on 70 years of pop-culture ephemera to create a tribute to Smith’s vision that also works as a deck in their own right “with its own moral narrative universe, based on the attitudes and conventions of that world.”
Before drafting each of his 70 cards, Alcott studied Smith’s version, researching its meaning and design as he contemplates how he might translate it into the pulp vernacular. He has found that some of Smith’s work was deliberately exacting with regard to color, attitude, and costume, and other instances where specific details took a back seat to mood and emotional impact:
Once I understand what a card is about, I look through my library to find images that help get that across. It can get really complicated! A lot of times, the character’s body is in the right position but their face has the wrong expression, so I have to find a face that fits what the card is trying to say. Or their physical attitude is right, but I need them to be gripping or throwing something, so I have to find hands and arms that I can graft on, Frankenstein style. In some cases, there will be figures in the cards cobbled together from five or six different sources.
These cards are easily the most complex work I’ve ever done in that sense. The song pieces I do are a conversation between the piece and the song, but these cards are a conversation between me, Smith, the entire Tarot tradition, and the universe.
Some marble statues, even when stripped of their color by the sands of time since the heyday of Greece and Rome, look practically alive. But they began their “lives,” their appearance often makes us forget, as rough-hewn blocks of stone. Not that just any marble will do: following the example of Michelangelo, the discerning sculptor must make the journey to the Tuscan town of Carrara, “home of the world’s finest marble.” So claims the video above, a brief look at the process of Hungarian sculptor Márton Váró. That entire process, it appears, takes place in the open air: mostly in his outdoor studio space, but first at the Carrara quarry (see bottom video) where he picks just the right block from which to make his vision emerge.
Like Michelangelo, Váró has a manifestly high level of skill at his disposal — and unlike Michelangelo, a full set of modern power tools as well. But even today, some sculptors work without the aid of angle cutters and diamond-edged blades, as you can see in the video from the Getty above.
In it a modern-day sculptor introduces traditional tools like the point chisel, the tooth chisels, and the rasp, describing the different effects achievable with them by using different techniques. If you “lose your ego and just flow into the stone through your tools,” he says, “there’s no end of possibilities of what you can do inside that space” — the space of limitless possibilities, that is, afforded by a simple block of marble.
In the video above, sculptor Stijepo Gavrić further demonstrates the proper use of such hand tools, painstakingly refining a roughly human form into a lifelike version of an already realistic clay model — and one that holds up quite well alongside the original model, when she shows up for a comparison. The Great Big Story documentary short below takes us back to Tuscany, and specifically to the town of Pietrasanta, where marble has been quarried for five centuries from a mountain first discovered by Michelangelo.
It’s also home to hardworking sculptors well known for their ability to replicate classic and sacred works of art. “Marble is my life, because in this area you feed off marble,” says one who’s been at such work for about 60 years. If stone gives the artist life, it does so only to the extent that he breathes life into it.
Each of us now commands more technological power than did any human being alive in previous eras. Or rather, we potentially command it: what we can do with the technology at our fingertips — and how much money we can make with it — depends on how well we understand it. Luckily, the development of learning methods has more or less kept pace with the development of everything else we now do with computers. Take the online-education platform Udacity, which offers “nanodegree” programs in areas like programming, data science, and cybersecurity. While the nanodegrees themselves come with fees, Udacity doesn’t charge for the constituent courses: in other words, you can earn what you need to know for free.
Above you’ll find the introduction to Udacity’s Product Design course by Google (also creator of the Coursera professional-certificate programs previously featured here on Open Culture). “Designed to help you materialize your game-changing idea and transform it into a product that you can build a business around,” the course “blends theory and practice to teach you product validation, UI/UX practices, Google’s Design Sprint and the process for setting and tracking actionable metrics.”
I admit that the first and, for a long time, primary thing that compelled me about Michelangelo’s David ( 1501-1504) was the frankness with which a certain part of his anatomy was displayed.
Mugs depicting him with a strategically placed fig leaf that dissolves in response to hot liquid, Dress Me Up David fridge magnets, and an endless parade of risqué merchandise suggest that historically, I am not alone.
Kudos to gallerist James Payne, creator and host of the video series Great Art Explained, for his nod to the rabble in opening the above episode not with a view of David’s handsome head or miraculously detailed hands, but rather that most famous of male members.
Having gotten it out of the way right at the top, Payne refrains from mentioning it for nearly 10 minutes, educating viewers instead on other aspects of the statue’s anatomy, including the sculptor’s unusual methods and the narrow, flawed, previously used block of marble from which this masterpiece emerged.
He also delves into the social context into which Michelangelo’s singular vision was delivered.
Florentines were proud of their highly cultured milieu, but were not nearly as comfortable with depictions of nudity as the ancient Greeks and Romans.
This explains the comparative smallness of David’s tackle box. Perhaps Goliath might have gotten away with a gargantuan penis, but David, who vanquished him using intelligence and willpower rather than brute strength, was assigned a size that would convey modesty, respectability, and self-control.
The Bible identifies David as an an Israelite, but Michelangelo decided that this particular Jew should remain uncircumcised, in keeping with Greco-Roman aesthetics. It was a look Christian Florence could get behind, though they also forged 28 copper leaves to conceal David’s controversial manhood.
(This theme returns throughout history — the 1860s saw him outfitted with a temporary fig leaf.)
One wonders how much smaller things would have appeared from the ground, were David installed atop the Duomo, as originally planned. Michelangelo designed his creation with this perspective in mind, deliberately equipping him with larger than usual hands and head.
One of Payne’s viewers points out that David’s face, which conveys both resolve and fear as he considers his upcoming confrontation with Goliath, seems utterly confident when viewed from below.
Given that David is 17’ tall, that’s the vantage point from which most of his in-person admirers experience him. 16th-century Civic leaders, captivated by David’s perfection, placed him not atop the Florentine Cathedral, but rather in Piazza della Signoria, the political heart of Florence, where a replica still faces south toward Rome. (The original was relocated to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873, to protect it from the elements.)
Payne points out that David has survived many societal shifts throughout his 600+ years of existence. Fig-leafed or not, he is a perpetual emblem of the underdog, the determined guy armed with only a slingshot, and is thus unlikely to be toppled by history or human passions.
It’s impossible to resist a Spinal Tap joke, but the creators of the complete scale model of England’s ancient Druidic structure pictured above had serious intentions — to understand what those inside the circle heard when the stones all stood in their upright “henge” position. A research team led by acoustical engineer Trevor Cox constructed the model at one-twelfth the actual size of Stonehenge, the “largest possible scale replica that could fit inside an acoustic chamber at the University of Salford in England, where Cox works,” reports Bruce Bower at Science News. The tallest of the stones is only two feet high.
This is not the first time acoustic research has been carried out on Stonehenge, but previous projects were “all based on what’s there now,” says Cox. “I wanted to know how it sounded in 2200 B.C., when all the stones were in place.” The experiment required a lot of extrapolation from what remains. The construction of “Stonehenge Lego” or “Minihenge,” as the researchers call it, assumes that “Stonehenge’s outer circle of standing sarsen stones — a type of silcrete rock found in southern England — had originally consisted of 30 stones.” Today, there are 17 sarsen stones in the outer circle among the 63 complete stones remaining.
“Based on an estimated total 157 stones placed at the site around 4,200 years ago, the researchers 3-D printed 27 stones of all sizes and shapes,” Bower explains. “Then, the team used silicone molds of those items and plaster mixed with other materials to re-create the remaining 130 stones. Simulated stones were constructed to minimize sound absorption, much like actual stones at Stonehenge.” Once Cox and his team had the model completed and placed in the acoustic chamber, they began experimenting with sound waves and microphones, measuring impulse responses and frequency curves.
What were the results of this sonic Stonehenge recreation? “We expected to lose a lot of sound vertically, because there’s no roof,” says Cox. Instead, researchers found “thousands upon thousands of reflections as the sound waves bounced around horizontally.” Participants in ritual chants or musical celebrations inside the circle would have heard the sound amplified and clarified, like singing in a tiled bathroom. For those standing outside the monument, or even within the outer circle of stones, the sound would have been muffled or dampened. Likewise, the arrangement would have dampened sound entering the inner circle from outside.
Indeed, the effect was so pronounced that “the placement of the stones was capable of amplifying the human voice by more than four decibels, but produced no echoes,” notes Artnet. This suggests that the site’s acoustic properties were not accidental, but designed as part of its essential function for an elite group of participants, “even though the site’s construction would have required a huge amount of manpower.” This is hardly different from other monumental ancient religious structures like pyramids and ziggurats, built for royalty and an elite priesthood. But it’s only one interpretation of the structure’s purpose.
While Cox and his team do not believe acoustics were the primary motivation for Stonehenge’s design — astrological alignment seems to have been far more important — it clearly played some role. Other scholars have their own hypotheses. Research still needs to account for environmental factors — or why “Stonehenge hums when the wind blows hard,” as musicologist Rupert Till points out. Some have speculated the stones may have been instruments, played like a giant xylophone, a theory tested in a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the Royal College of Art, but this, too, remains speculative.
As the great Stonehenge enthusiast Nigel Tufnel once sang, “No one knows who they were, or what they were doing.” But whatever it sounded like, Cox and his colleagues have shown that the best seats were inside the inner circle. Read the research team’s full articlehere.
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