“The Cinematic Universe”: A Video Essay on How Films Cinematize Cities & Places, from Manhattan to Nashville, Rome Open City to Taipei Story

Los Angeles in Chinatown, Rome in Rome Open City, Manhattan in Manhattan: you could say that each of these films’ cities becomes a character in the story. You could say it, but you’d be making a cinematic observation that has, at this point, become severely clichéd. What do we actually mean when we call a setting something more than a setting? This question is at the heart of “The Cinematic Universe,” the new video essay from The Cinema Cartography, a MUBI-sponsored series by Channel Criswell creator Lewis Bond and Luiza Liz Bond. It explores not just how cities appear in film — a subject, to some of us, hardly without interest of its own — but the “cinemazation” of place itself.

Many count Fargo among the Coen Brothers’ masterpieces, but who counts it among the great city films? Its geographical scope exceeds the boundaries of the North Dakotan metropolis, granted, but more importantly, its concerns run deeper than telling a tale of kidnapping and extortion there. In a picture like Fargo, says Bond, “something has invaded what the place truly was and altered its very being”; its ostensible genre story is “elevated by the fact that it’s the least likely and least accommodating place for a crime narrative to take place.” Where “most people’s concern lies in staying warm, inertia “makes it nearly impossible for any progression to occur at all,” as both the people and the land have become frozen.

Far from Fargo‘s icy highways and snow-covered lots, Robert Altman’s Nashville depicts another America entirely. Less a portrait of the Tennessean capital than a series of “colossal showcases of humanity,” the film’s bustling action and overlapping voices, noises, and songs suggests the existence of a grander, even more flamboyant socio-cultural pageant carrying on, unseen and unheard, throughout the rest of the country. “We can learn a bit more about the United States as long as we understand Nashville first,” says Bond, and the same holds for a much quieter, smaller-scale movie like Edward Yang’s Taipei Story. “The more we learn about its people, the deeper the anatomy of the city reveals itself,” and the more clearly we see a changing Taiwan whose citizens “can’t decide, on either micro- or macrocosmic levels, where they want to be.”

A film can be about its city, but it can also be about the society that created that city. A film can be about a place, but it can also be about a place in time — that is, a place remembered, as in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, or Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. For some auteurs, the realization of a vision demands not just the return to a place in memory or the use of a place as it is, but the creation of a place unlike any seen before. In building a whole city for his magnum opus, Jacques Tati inhabited the role of the auteur to its fullest, crafting in cinema “a modern world we’re more than familiar with now, and how the change of the old world to the new can bring change within its people.” Playtime “is not a film where the setting is the character,” says Bond. “The main character is the futility of how we interact with our settings.” Naturally, it’s a comedy.

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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 12 Seasons of the Dick Cavett Show, 18 Seasons of Johnny Carson & Many Other Classic Shows on Shout! Factory

Dick Cavett was sometimes called the “thinking man’s Johnny Carson,” and he came up in a similar fashion—a stand-up, a joke writer for hire— until he was given a chance to host a late night show. But compare a Cavett episode to any late night host today, and it feels like a very different time. Sure, stars were booked to talk about their upcoming movie or album or television show, but Cavett was so laid back, so chatty and conversant, that it often felt like you were eavesdropping. It’s a style you find more on podcasts these days than television—Cavett is genuinely inquisitive. He never got high ratings because of it, but he certainly got an impressive guest list.

We’ve been writing about some of the clips here on Open Culture, but Shout! Factory, the DVD company that has pivoted to streaming, offers full episodes of Dick Cavett’s show to watch for free. They sometimes have ads, but these days so do most YouTube channels we feature. (Of the episodes I let run, I didn’t really see any commercials so your mileage may vary as they say).

And what a cultural trove is there on their site: a selected history of Cavett’s show, arranged into themed “seasons” that stretch from 1969 to 1995. There’s “Rock Icons” (Sly Stone, Janis Joplin, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, etc.),

“Hollywood Greats” (Alfred Hitchcock, Groucho Marx, Betty Davis, et al), authors, sports icons, politicians, visionaries (from Jim Henson to Terry Gilliam), film directors (including Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ingmar Bergman), and one called “Black History Month” although it’s from different months and different years, featuring interviews with Shirley Chisholm, Alice Walker, and James Earl Jones. (Let’s also mention that Cavett’s interview with John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara is one of the most anarchic television interviews in history). Enter the Cavett collection here.

Along similar lines, Shout! Factory features 18 themed “seasons” of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the man who refined the talk show template that late night has followed ever since. There’s “Animal Antics” with Carson encountering various zoo animals brought on by Joan Embery and Jim Fowler; a wide selection of stand-up comedians—The Tonight Show was considered the big break for any comedian (and sometimes future host); and a selection of Hollywood legends. (View the episodes here.)

In fact, the whole website is a fantastic time-suck of the first order: a huge assortment of Mystery Science Theater 3000, episodes of Ernie Kovacs, The Prisoner and its prequel of sorts Secret Agent, and much more.

And a special mention to hosting the first season of Soul! the 1968-69 performance/variety hour that exclusively focused on the African-American experience. In its heyday, Soul! was watched by nearly three-quarters of the Black population. And why not: guests included Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Bill Withers, Al Green, Gladys Knight, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and jazz legends Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, and Bobbi Humphrey.

Explore the entire Shout! Factory media collection.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross & Banksy: Watch Banksy Paint a Mural on the Jail That Once Housed Oscar Wilde

It would be difficult to think of two artists who appear to have less in common than Bob Ross and Banksy. One of them creates art by pulling provocative stunts, often illegal, under the cover of anonymity; the other did it by painting innocuous landscapes on public television, spending a decade as one of its most recognizable personalities. But game recognize game, as they say, in popular art as in other fields of human endeavor. In the video above, Banksy pays tribute to Ross by layering narration from an episode of The Joy of Painting over the creation of his latest spray paint strike, Create Escape: an image of Oscar Wilde, typewriter and all, breaking out jail — on the actual exterior wall of the decommissioned HM Prison Reading.

“The expansive and unblemished prison wall was a daring and perfect spot for a Banksy piece,” writes Colossal’s Christopher Jobson. “It’s best known for its most famous inmate: Oscar Wilde served two years in the prison from 1895-1897 for the charge of ‘gross indecency’ for being gay.” This experience resulted in the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture as read by Wilde himself.

Where Wilde converted his misfortune into verbal art, Banksy references it to make a visual statement of characteristic brazenness and ambiguity. As with most of his recent pieces, Create Escape has clearly been designed to be seen not just by passersby in Reading, but by the whole world online, which The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross & Banksy should ensure.

“I thought we’d just do a very warm little scene that makes you feel good,” says Ross in voiceover. But what we see are the hands of a miner’s-helmeted Banksy, presumably, preparing his spray cans and putting up his stencil of Wilde in an inmate’s uniform. “Little bit of white,” says Ross as a streak of that color is applied to the prison wall. “That ought to lighten it just a little.” In fact, every sample of Ross’ narration reflects the action, as when he urges thought “about shape and form and how you want the limbs to look,” or when he tells us that “a nice light area between the darks, it separates, makes everything really stand out and look good.” With his signature high-contrast style, Banksy could hardly deny it, and he would seem also to share Ross’ feeling that in painting, “I can create the kind of world that I want to see, and that I want to be part of.”

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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.

Haruki Murakami Has Created New T-Shirts Featuring Words & Imagery from Norwegian Wood, 1Q84 and More

Haruki Murakami is a novelist, but for some time his name has been no less a global brand than, say, Uniqlo’s. Though both the man and the clothing company happen to have come into existence in Japan in 1949, this comparison goes beyond mere nationality. In their homeland, both Uniqlo and Murakami came into their own in the 1980s, the decade when the former opened its first casual-wear shop and the latter published the name-making A Wild Sheep Chase and the cultural phenomenon that was Norwegian Wood. Having assiduously cultivated markets outside Japan, both have become internationally known in the 21st century: just as Uniqlo now has shops all over the world, Murakami’s books have been translated into at least 50 languages.

Therefore, perhaps Murakami and Uniqlo’s convergence was only a matter of time. “Haruki Murakami and Uniqlo have teamed up for a line of T-shirts inspired by the author’s novels like Norwegian Wood and 1Q84, as well as his radio program,” writes Spoon & Tamago’s Johnny Waldman.

With graphics contributed by sources like illustrator and frequent Murakami collaborator Masaru Fujimoto, “the collection showcases the world of his masterpiece novels, his love for music, and of course cats.” The reverse of the Murakami Radio shirt, seen at the top of the post, even features this unambiguous quotation of the man himself: “Books, music, and cats have been my friends from way back.”

More than a few of Murakami’s fans could no doubt say the same. They’ll also delight in the nuances of the words and images on the seven other Murakami shirts Uniqlo has created for sale from March 15th. Many have read Norwegian Wood, but relatively few will notice that Uniqlo’s shirt based on that book comes in the very same red-and-green color scheme as its two-volume Japanese first edition. Far from drawing only on the popularity of such big hits, the collection also pays tribute to Murakami’s lesser-known works: his sophomore effort Pinball, 1973, for instance, which went without a major English translation for 35 years.

Still unpublished outside Asia are most of Murakami’s essays, which he’s been writing on music, food, travel, and a variety of other subjects nearly as long as he’s been a novelist. But this November, Knopf will publish Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love, a book documenting his impressive collection including T-shirts “from The Beach Boys concert in Honolulu to the shirt that inspired the beloved short story ‘Tony Takitani,'” all “accompanied by short, frank essays that have been translated into English for the first time.” Writing essays or fiction, whatever the language in which they appear, Murakami’s work remains broadly appealing yet distinctively his own, belonging at once everywhere and nowhere in the world — more than a bit, come to think of it, like Uniqlo’s clothing. On March 15, purchase the shirts online here.

via Spoon & Tamago

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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.

Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids & How Did They Do It?: New Archeological Evidence Busts Ancient Myths

Although it’s certainly more plausible than hypotheses like ancient aliens or lizard people, the idea that slaves built the Egyptian pyramids is no more true. It derives from creative readings of Old Testament stories and technicolor Cecil B. Demille spectacles, and was a classic whataboutism used by slavery apologists. The notion has “plagued Egyptian scholars for centuries,” writes Eric Betz at Discover. But, he adds emphatically, “Slaves did not build the pyramids.” Who did?

The evidence suggests they were built by a force of skilled laborers, as the Veritasium video above explains. These were cadres of elite construction workers who were well-fed and housed during their stint. “Many Egyptologists,” including archeologist Mark Lehner, who has excavated a city of workers in Giza, “subscribe to the hypotheses that the pyramids were… built by a rotating labor force in a modular, team-based kind of organization,” Jonathan Shaw writes at Harvard Magazine. Graffiti discovered at the site identifies team names like “Friends of Khufu” and “Drunkards of Menkaure.”

The excavation also uncovered “tremendous quantities of cattle, sheep, and goat bone, ‘enough to feed several thousand people, even if they ate meat every day,’ adds Lehner,” suggesting that workers were “fed like royalty.” Another excavation by Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, famed Egyptian archaeologist and expert on the Great Pyramid, has found worker cemeteries at the foot of the pyramids, meaning that those who perished were buried in a place of honor. This was incredibly hazardous work, and the people who undertook it were celebrated and recognized for their achievement.

Laborers were also working off an obligation, something every Egyptian owed to those above them and, ultimately, to their pharoah. But it was not a monetary debt. Lehner describes what ancient Egyptians called bak, a kind of feudal duty. While there were slaves in Egypt, the builders of the pyramids were maybe more like the Amish, he says, performing the same kind of obligatory communal labor as a barn raising. In that context, when we look at the Great Pyramid, “you have to say ‘This is a hell of a barn!’’’

The evidence unearthed by Lehner, Hawass, and others has “dealt a serious blow to the Hollywood version of a pyramid building,” writes Shaw, “with Charlton Heston as Moses intoning, ‘Pharaoh, let my people go!’” Recent archeology has also dealt a blow to extra-terrestrial or time-travel explanations, which begin with the assumption that ancient Egyptians could not have possessed the know-how and skill to build such structures over 4,000 years ago. Not so. Veritasium explains the incredible feats of moving the outer stones without wheels and transporting the granite core of the pyramids 620 miles from its quarry to Giza.

Ancient Egyptians could plot directions on the compass, though they had no compasses. They could make right angles and levels and thus had the technology required to design the pyramids. What about digging up the Great Pyramid’s 2 million blocks of yellow limestone? As we know, this was done by a skilled workforce, who quarried an “olympic swimming-pool’s worth of stone every eight days” for 23 years to build the Great Pyramid, notes Joe Hanson in the PBS It’s Okay to Be Smart video above. They did so using the only metal available to them, copper.

This may sound incredible, but modern experiments have shown that this amount of stone could be quarried and moved, using the technology available, by a team of 1,200 to 1,500 workers, around the same number of people archaeologists believe to have been on-site during construction. The limestone was quarried directly at the site (in fact the Sphinx was mostly dug out of the earth, rather than built atop it). How was the stone moved? Egyptologists from the University of Liverpool think they may have found the answer, a ramp with stairs and a series of holes which may have been used as a pulley system.

Learn more about the myths and the realities of the builders of Egypt’s pyramids in the It’s Okay to Be Smart “Who Built the Pyramids, Part 1″ video above.

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

The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 1

Editor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kaufman has published The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, a book that takes a historical look at the powerful forces that have purposely crippled our efforts to share knowledge widely and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the coming days, Peter will be making his book available through Open Culture by publishing three short essays along with links to corresponding sections of his book. Today, you can find his short essay “The Monsterverse” below, and meanwhile read/download the first chapter of his book here. You can purchase the entire book online.

The Monsterverse – what exactly is it?  Like Sauron and his minions from Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, like Sheev Palpatine and the armies of the Galactic empire from Star Wars, like Lord Voldemort and his henchmen the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, it’s the collective force of evil, one that strives to shut down human progress, freedom, justice, the spread of knowledge –the dissemination of (let us just say it) open culture.  It’s the subject of the first chapter of my book, The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge – and its incarnations have been with us for thousands of years.

In 1536, which is when the book begins, it found its embodiment in Jacobus Latomus, who oversaw the trial and execution – by strangling and burning at the stake – of a translator and a priest named William Tyndale.  Latomus, who himself was overseen by Thomas More, who himself was overseen by Henry VIII (with Pope Clement VII in a supporting role), choreographed Tyndale’s formal degradation, such that a couple dozen apostolic inquisitors and theologians, university rectors and faculty, lawyers and privy councilors – “heresy-hunters,” as his biographer calls them – led him out of his prison cell in public and in his priestly raiment to a high platform outdoors where oils of anointment were scraped symbolically from his hands, the bread and wine of the Eucharist situated next to him and then just as quickly removed, and then his vestments “ceremonially stripped away,” so that he would find himself, and all would see him as, no longer a priest.  Death came next.  This scholar and polymath to whom, it is now known, we owe as much as we owe William Shakespeare for our language, this lone man sought and slain by church and king and holy Roman emperor – his initial strangling did not go well, so that when he was subsequently lit on fire, and the flames first lapped at his feet and up his legs, lashed tight to the stake, he came to, and, while burning alive in front of the crowd of religious leaders and so-called justices (some seventeen trial commissioners) who had so summarily sent Tyndale to his death and gathered to watch it, live, he cried out, less to the crowd, it would seem, than to Another: “Lord! Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”

What did Tyndale do?  He believed that the structure of communication during his time was broken and unfair, and with a core, unwavering focus, he sought to make it so that the main body of knowledge in his day could be accessed and then shared again by every man alive. He engaged in an unparalleled act of coding (not for nothing do we speak of computer programming “languages”), working through the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible’s Old, then New, Testaments to bring all of its good books – from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22—into English for everyday readers. He is reported to have said, in response to a question from a priest who had challenged his work, a priest who read the Bible only in Latin: “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” And he worked with the distribution technologies of his time – the YouTubes, websites, and Twitters back then – by connecting personally with book designers, paper suppliers, printers, boat captains, and horsemen across sixteenth-century Europe to bring the knowledge and the book that contained it into the hands of the people.

It wasn’t easy. In Tyndale’s time, popes and kings had decreed, out of concern for keeping their power, that the Bible could exist and be read and distributed “only in the assembly of Latin translations” that had been completed by the monk Saint Jerome in approximately 400 CE. The penalties for challenging the law were among the most severe imaginable, for such violations represented a panoply of civil transgressions and an entire complexity of heresies. In taking on the church and the king – in his effort simply and solely to translate and then distribute the Bible in English – Tyndale confronted “the greatest power[s] in the Western world.” As he “was translating and printing his New Testament in Worms,” his leading biographer reminds us, “a young man in Norwich was burned alive for the crime of owning a piece of paper on which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.” The Bible had been inaccessible in Latin for a thousand years, this biographer writes, and “to translate it for the people became heresy, punishable by a solitary lingering death as a heretic; or, as had happened to the Cathars in southern France, or the Hussites in Bohemia and Lollards in England, official and bloody attempts to exterminate the species.”

Yuckadoo, the Monsterverse, but very much still with us.  The strangleholds are real.  And Tyndale’s successors in the fight to free knowledge include many freedom fighters and revolutionaries – going up against the forces that seek to constrain our growth as a society.  Were Tyndale alive today, he would wonder about the state of copyright law and its overreach; the pervasive estate of surveillance capitalism; the sweeping powers of government to see and interfere in our communication.  And he would wonder why the seemingly progressive forces on the side of freedom today – universities, museums, libraries, archives – don’t fight more against information oppression.  Tyndale would recognize that the health pandemic, the economic crisis, the political violence we face today, are all the result of an information disorder, one that relies on squelching knowledge and promoting the darkest forms of ignorance for its success.  How we come to grips with that challenge is the number-one question for our time.  Discovering new paths to defeating it – overcoming the Dark Lords, destroying the Horcruxes, finally harnessing the Force – is the subject of the next two articles, and of the rest of the book.

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge.  This is the first of three articles.

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