As Star Trek‘s Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle Nichols (RIP) Starred in “TV’s First Interracial Kiss” in 1968

The original Star Trek ran for only three seasons, but in that short time it had, to put it mildly, an outsized cultural impact. That partly had to do with the series having aired in the late nineteen-sixties, an era when a host of long-standing norms in American society (as well as in other societies across the world) seemed to have come up for re-negotiation. Through its science-fictional premises and twenty-third-century setting, Star Trek could deal with the present in ways that would have been difficult for other, ostensibly more realistic programs.

In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” an episode from 1968, several members of the Enterprise’s crew find themselves captive on a planet of telekinetic, ancient-Greece-worshipping sadists. It was there that Star Trek staged one of its most memorable moments, a kiss between William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and the late Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura. It arises not out of a relationship that has developed organically between the characters, but out of compulsion by the powers of their “Platonian” captors, who force the humans to perform for their entertainment.

Despite that narrative loophole, the scene nevertheless worried the management at NBC. They imagined that, given that Shatner was white and Nichols black, to show them kissing would provoke a negative reaction among viewers in parts of the country historically hostile to the idea of romantic relations between those races. Ensuring that the scene made it to the air as written (Nichols later remembered in her autobiography) necessitated such tactics as sabotaging the alternate takes shot without the kiss: “Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his best ham-fisted Kirkian staccato delivery, ‘I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!'”

The Kirk-Uhura kiss did occasion a great many responses, practically all of them positive. That Nichols and Shatner — not to mention Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and all their other collaborators – pulled it off in the right way at the right moment is evidenced by its being remembered more than 50 years later as “TV’s First Interracial Kiss.” In fact there had been interracial kisses on television for at least a decade (one, on a 1958 Ed Sullivan Show, involved Shatner himself), but none had made quite such a convincing statement, even to skeptics. “I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races,” as Nichols remembered one viewer writing in. “However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.”

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Visit Great Cities in the 1920s in Restored Color Film: New York City, London, Berlin, Paris, Venice & More

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris stars Owen Wilson as a Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in the French capital. Alas, the City of Lights as it is in the twenty-first century doesn’t satisfy him. When he walks his streets he thinks only of the nineteen-twenties, when a traveler in Paris could easily cross paths with the likes of Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Edgar Degas — as well as expatriates from Pablo Picasso and Djuna Barnes to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Or so he imagines, at any rate, and so he goes on to experience when he finds himself transported back in time to the city of the “Lost Generation” at each stroke of midnight.

With the video above, you, too, can take a trip to nineteen-twenties Paris — as well as nineteen-twenties New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Nice, Geneva, Milan, and Venice. A compilation of period footage sourced from the Prelinger Archives, it lightly colorizes, adds ambient sound, and in other ways enhances its disparate materials to make them feel all of a piece.

And indeed, the clip plays almost as if shot by a single, and singularly ambitious, world traveler of one hundred years ago. That hypothetical traveler’s world is both ours — filled as it is with such recognizable and ever-photographable sites as the Eiffel Tower, the gondolas of Venice, and the non-latex-clad cyclists of Copenhagen — and not.

Whether traditional or modern, the dress of everyone on the street looks neater and more formal than that worn by urbanites in the main today. In some cities, horse-drawn carriages still make their way through the traffic of buses, trams, and waves of seemingly identical personal cars. (Ford manufactured more than two million Model Ts in 1923 alone.) The nineteen-twenties brought rapid urban development in both the New World and the Old, as well as rapid development in motion photography. Not for nothing was it the decade of the “city symphony” film; for equally good reason, it remains the decade of which many of us dream, even a century later, when we want to feel the exhilaration of modernity.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch 70+ Soviet Films Free Online, Courtesy of Mosfilm, the Hollywood of the Soviet Union

Recently we’ve featured films by Sergei Eisenstein, a pioneer of cinema as we know it, and Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the most respected auteurs in the history of the art form. They’re all free to watch on Youtube, as is Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic adaptation of War and Peace from the late nineteen-sixties and Karen Shakhnazarov’s eight-part Anna Karenina, which came out just a few years ago. For all this we have Mosfilm to thank. Once the national film studio of the Soviet Union — equipped with the kind of resources that made it more or less the Hollywood of the U.S.S.R. — Mosfilm remains in operation as a production company, as well as a Youtube channel.

Mosfilm’s playlist of Soviet movies now offers more than 70 English-subtitled features, each one labeled by genre. The dozen comedies currently free to watch include Leonid Gaidai’s massively successful crime-and-society comedy The Diamond Arm (1969) and Eldar Ryazanov’s satirical Carnival Night (1956).

The versatile Ryazanov also directed pictures of other types for Mosfilm, including the musical Hussar Ballad (1962) and the melodrama Railway Station for Two (1982). A variety of genres and subgenres: Abram Room’s “love movie” Bed and Sofa (1927), Karen Shakhnazarov’s “mystic drama” Assassination of the Tsar (1991), Vladimir Motyl’s “Eastern” (as opposed to Western) White Sun of the Desert (1970), and Georgiy Daneliya’s “distopia movie” Kin-dza-dza! (1986).

Of course, one need not search far and wide to see the Soviet Union itself described as a dystopia. Few today could deny the fatal flaws of Soviet political and economic systems, but then, those flaws were hardly unknown to Soviet citizens themselves, even those in positions of cultural prominence. Viewers today may be surprised at just how keenly some of these movies (Georgiy Daneliya’s “tragic comedy” Autumn Marathon from 1979 being one classic example) observe the nature of life behind the Iron Curtain. In this and other ways, Soviet film has a greater variety of sensibilities and textures than one might expect. And given that Mosfilm produced more than 3,000 pictures during the existence of the U.S.S.R. — including Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, from 1975 — there remain many more to discover, at least if the uploading continues apace. View the entire playlist of Soviet films with English subtitles here.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Behold! A Medieval Graphic Novel Carved on an 14th Century Ivory Box

The Châtelaine de Vergy, a courtly romance that was wildly popular in the mid-13th century, would’ve made a crowd pleasing graphic novel adaptation. It’s got sex, treachery, a trio of violent deaths, and a cute pup in a supporting role.

Seeing as how the form had yet to be invented, medieval audiences got the next best thing – a Gothic ivory casket on which the story is rendered as a series of carved pictures that start on the lid and wrap around the sides.

In an earlier video for the British Museum’s Curator’s Corner series, Late Medieval Collections Curator Naomi Speakman admitted that the purpose of such deluxe caskets is difficult to pin down. Were they tokens from one lover to another? Wedding gifts? Jewelry boxes? Document cases?

Unclear, but the intricate carvings’ narrative has definitely been identified as that of The Châtelaine de Vergy, a steamy secular alternative to the religious scenes whose depiction consumed a fair number of medieval elephant tusks.

In addition to the early-14th century example in the British Museum’s collection, the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Gothic Ivories database catalogues a number of other medieval caskets and casket fragments depicting The Châtelaine de Vergi, currently housed in museums in Milan, Florence, Paris, Vienna, New York City and Kansas.

A very graphic novelesque conceit Speakman points to in the British Museum’s casket finds the Duke of Burgundy breaking the frame (to use comics terminology), reaching behind the gutter to help himself to the sword the Châtelaine’s knightly lover has just plunged into his own breast.

Peer around to the far side of the casket to find out what the Duke intends to do with that sword. It’s a shocker that silences the trumpets, quiets the dancing ladies, and might even have laid ground for a sequel: Chatelaine: The Duke’s Wrath.

Read Eugene Mason’s early 20th century translation of The Chatelaine of Vergi here.

Watch more episodes of the British Museum’s Curator’s Corner here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Book of St Albans, One of the Finest Medieval Manuscripts, Gets Digitized and Put Online

This past month, on the eve of the June 22nd feast of St Alban, the library of Trinity College Dublin announced that it had digitized the “13th century masterpiece” the Book of St Alban, a richly illustrated manuscript that “features 54 individual works of medieval art and has fascinated readers across the centuries, from royalty to renaissance scholars.”

Created by the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, the manuscript “chronicles the life of St Alban,” notes The Irish Times, “and also outlines the construction of St Alban’s Cathedral in Hertfordshire.” The text and illustrations explain the origins of a cult of St. Alban, the first English martyr, that began to spring up after his 4th century death.

According to the Venerable Bede, the English monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the martyrdom of Alban involved a few miraculous events. Sentenced to die for his refusal to renounce Christianity, Alban supposedly petitioned God to dry up the River Ver so he could more quickly reach the place of his execution.

This miracle caused Alban’s Roman executioner to fall to his feet, spontaneously convert, and refuse to kill the saint. A second executioner stepped in to behead them both, whereupon this man’s eyes popped out of his head. “He who gave the wicked stroke,” writes Bede, “was not permitted to rejoice over the deceased; for his eyes dropped upon the ground together with the blessed martyr’s head.”

In the illustration of this grisly story (top) from the manuscript, we see the executioner holding his eyes in his hand, and Alban’s head appears to have been caught by the hair on a tree branch above. Another illustration, further up, shows a character named Heraclius making off with Alban’s head.

In a later legend, Alban’s head rolled to the bottom of Holywell Hill, and a well sprang from where it came to rest. On the supposed site of Alban’s execution now stands St Albans Cathedral, once St Albans Abbey, where the Book of St Albans remained for 300 years until Henry VIII dissolved Britain’s monasteries in 1539.

The book is written in both Latin and Anglo-Norman French, “which made it accessible to a wider secular audience including educated noble women,” Trinity College’s Caoimhe Ni Lochlainn writes. “It was borrowed by noble ladies of the period, including the King’s sister-in-law Countess of Cornwall, Sanchia of Provence, and others.”

The manuscript eventually made its way to Trinity College Dublin in 1661, where it has remained ever since, and where its “mostly framed narrative scenes” have been admired by a select few. Now everyone can access the book and its illustrations, made with a “tinted drawing technique,” Lochlainn notes, “where outlined drawings are highlighted with colored washes from a limited palette. This technique was distinctly English, dating back to the Anglo Saxon art of the 10th century.”

See all the grisly details of this fascinating artifact at Trinity College Dublin’s Digital Collections, and learn more about the manuscript in the video just above.

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

When Erik Satie Took a Picture of Debussy & Stravinsky (June 1910)

Erik Satie knew his way around not just the piano but the camera as well. This is evidenced by the image above, a 1911 portrait of Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky. Described by Christie’s as “an outstanding photograph of the two composers in the library at Debussy’s home,” it was taken by Satie at the time when Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were performing Debussy’s Jeux and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In the background appears what looks like Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, a work of art “used by Debussy on the front cover of the first edition of his symphonic sketches La mer.”

Just above appears another picture captured in Debussy’s home, this one of Debussy and Satie. “The photo was taken by Stravinsky, if my memory didn’t go wrong,” says one commenter on the r/classicalmusic subreddit. Another expresses confusion about the subjects themselves: “I thought they didn’t like each other?”

One responder explains that “they were friends at first, for quite some time, but later their relationship got worse.” Debussy’s orchestration of Satie’s Gymnopedies brought those pieces to prominence, but, Satie ultimately came to feel that Debussy had been stingy with the fruits of his great success.

Or so, at any rate, goes one interpretation of the dissolution of Debussy and Satie’s friendship. Different Redditors contribute different details: one that “every time they met, Satie would praise Ravel’s music to annoy Debussy,” another that “Debussy kept a bottle of the cheapest table wine for Satie for when he came over.” It can hardly have been easy, even in the best of times, for two of the strongest innovators in early-twentieth-century music to occupy the same social space for long stretches of time, let alone in company that included the likes of Ravel and Stravinsky. More than a century later, their artistic legacies could hardly be more assured — as, one faintly senses when looking at these photos, they knew would be the case.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Behold a Book of Color Shades Depicted with Feathers (Circa 1915)

Perhaps the 143 colors showcased in The Bayer Company’s early 20th-century sample book, Shades on Feathers, could be collected in the field, but it would involve a lot of travel and patience, and the stalking of several endangered if not downright extinct avian species.

Far easier, and much less expensive, for milliners, designers and decorators to dye plain white feathers  exotic shades, following the instructions in the sample book.

Such artificially obtained rainbows owe a lot to William Henry Perkin, a teenage student of German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, who spent Easter vacation of 1856 experimenting with aniline, an organic base his teacher had earlier discovered in coal tar.  Hoping to hit on a synthetic form of quinine, he accidentally hit on a solution that colored silk a lovely purple shade – an inadvertent eureka moment that ranks right up there with penicillin and the pretzel.

A Science Museum Group profile details what happened next:

Perkin named the colour mauve and the dye mauveine. He decided to try to market his discovery instead of returning to college.

On 26 August 1856, the Patent Office granted Perkin a patent for ‘a new colouring matter for dyeing with a lilac or purple colour stuffs of silk, cotton, wool, or other materials’.

Perkin’s next step was to interest cloth dyers and printers in his discovery. He had no experience of the textile trade and little knowledge of large-scale chemical manufacture. He corresponded with Robert and John Pullar in Glasgow, who offered him support. Perkin’s luck changed towards the end of 1857 when the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, decided that mauve was the colour to wear. In January 1858, Queen Victoria followed suit, wearing mauve to her daughter’s wedding.

Cue an explosion of dye manufacturers across Great Britain and Europe, including Bayer, producer of the feather sample book. The survival of this artifact is somewhat miraculous given how vulnerable antique feathers are to environmental factors, pests, and improper storage.

(The sample book recommends cleaning the feathers prior to dying in a lukewarm solution of small amounts of olive oil soap and ammonia.)

The Science History Institute, owner of this unusual object, estimates that the undated book was produced between 1913 and 1918, the year the Migratory Bird Act Treaty outlawed the hunting of birds whose feathers humans deemed particularly fashionable.

Peruse the Science History Institute of Philadelphia’s digitized copy of the Shades on Feathers sample book here.

via Messy Nessy

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Free Documentaries from Spain Let You Watch the Traditional Making of Wine, Cheese, Churros, Honey & More

The Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Monesma has dedicated his life to capturing the traditions of his homeland and its surrounding areas. He began his career by first taking up a Super-8 camera at age 25 back in the nineteen-seventies, and in the decades since, his mission has taken him to the furthest corners of Spain and beyond in search of ever-older ways to preserve in detail. This places his work in the tradition of the anthropological or ethnographic documentary. But in a still-unconventional move in his field, he’s united the old with the new by creating his own Youtube channel on which to make his documentaries free to watch around the world.

Launched in 2020, Monesma’s channel has become a surprising hit. At the top of the post you can watch its most popular video, his short 1997 documentary on the making of combs from animal horns — which, as of this writing, has racked up nearly 8.5 million views. This happens to be one of the productions that took him beyond Spain’s borders, if only just: to the French village of Lesparrou, specifically, which maintained its small horn comb factories until the end of the twentieth century.

Their process is narrated in the immaculate Spanish diction of Monesma himself, but you can also take your pick of subtitles in more than a dozen other languages. Other of his documentaries that have become popular on Youtube include documentaries on the traditional making of cheesesilk, wine, pottery, honey and wax, knives, and leather.

Many of these videos run under twenty minutes; some reach nearly feature length. All of them satisfy a desire, which now seems widely felt among viewers of Youtube, to witness thoroughly analog processes that have been in use, changing and evolving only gradually, for long stretches of history.

And the fact that the things made so often look delicious certainly doesn’t make Monesma’s work less compelling: take, for example, the artisanal churros of Pamplona’s Churrería de la Mañueta, whose appeal is surely universal. In Korea, where I live, the past decade has a fad for churros elaborately coated and topped with colors and flavors unknown to tradition, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious what Monesma would have to say about it.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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