When Andy Warhol & Edie Sedgwick, the First Couple of Pop Art, Made an Odd Appearance on the Merv Griffin Show (1965)

Andy Warhol adored television and, in a way, considered it his most formative influence. While his paintings, silkscreens, and films, and the Velvet Underground, might be all the legacy he might need, Warhol, more than anything, longed to be a TV personality. He made his first concerted effort in 1979, launching a New York public access interview show. In one of the show’s 42 episodes, Warhol sits in almost total silence while his friend Richard Berlin interviews Frank Zappa.

But Warhol hated Zappa, and hated him even more after the interview. When he talked to and about subjects he liked, he could be particularly chatty, in his deadpan way: see, for example, his interview with Alfred Hitchcock, whom he greatly admired, or early eighties Saturday Night Live spots for NBC and later eighties MTV variety show. In Warhol’s much earlier 1965 appearance on the Merv Griffin show, above, long before he made TV presenter a profession, he appears with the stunningly charismatic Edie Sedgwick, his beloved muse and original superstar, and he chooses to say almost nothing at all.

Sedgwick does the talking, informing the host that Andy, unused to making “really public appearances,” would only whisper his answers in her ear, and she would whisper them to Griffin. It’s an act, of course, but the performance of a persona that hid an even more shy, retiring character. In a textbook irony, the artist who ushered in the age of self-promoting influencers and invented the superstar could be about as engaging as a houseplant. Sedgwick, on the contrary, is characteristically enthralling.

Known as “girl of the year” in 1965, the California socialite had defected from her privileged surroundings to live in Warhol’s world. The two “fell in love platonically but intensely,” Karen Lynch writes at Blast magazine, “and their mutually beneficial relationship became the talk of the town.” Griffin introduces them as “the two leading exponents of the new scene. No party in New York is considered a success unless they are there.” This was no hyperbole, though the audience doesn’t know who they are… yet.

Sedgwick explains how they met at the Factory, where she arrived the previous year with her trust fund to introduce herself and join the scene. She more or less takes over the interview, selling Warhol’s superstar myth with eloquence and wit, and she seems so much more like today’s art stars than Warhol (who eventually gives a few one-word answers), and has arguably had as much or more influence on Gen Y and Z creators. Sedgwick was “more than aspirational stereotypes allow,” writes Lynch, and more than the fact of her untimely death at 28.

One online artistic statement of this fact, Edie’s Farm, a site for “counterfactual current events,” supposes that Sedgwick had survived her drug addiction and anorexia and continued making art (and giving makeup tutorials) into the 21st century, imagining her as her young self, not the woman in her 70s she would be. “Maybe no one’s ever had a year quite as amazing as my 1965,” the fictional Sedgwick says. “I loved Andy and his Factory. But it wasn’t a sustainable life for me”—a tragic irony impossible to ignore in watching her otherwise impossibly charming performance above.

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Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes: Discover the Postmodern MTV Variety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Television Age (1985-87)

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

Watch Ridley Scott’s Controversial Nissan Sports Car Ad That Aired Only Once, During the Super Bowl (1990)

Every commercial is a fantasy, but car commercials are more fantastical than most. Just look at the settings, with their roads, whether remote or urban, completely empty of not just other cars but obstacles of any kind: stop signs, street-crossers, speed traps. This leaves the heroic everyman behind the wheel free to take on the straightaways and curves alike just as he sees fit. But what the standard car commercial offers in driver wish fulfillment, it lacks in drama: how to tell a story, after all, about a featureless character who faces no obstacles, subject to no desires beyond those for comfort and speed? Commissioned to direct a commercial for Nissan’s 300ZX Turbo, Ridley Scott found a way.

“I’m in a Turbo Z,” says the narrator of the resulting spot “Turbo Dream,” first broadcast during Super Bowl XXIV in 1990. “These guys are after me, but they can’t catch me.” These mysterious pursuers first chase him on motorcycles, then in an F1 race car, and then in an experimental-looking jet. (We’re a long way indeed from Hovis bread.)

But “just as they’re about to catch me, the twin turbos kick in.” Those twin turbochargers constitute only one of the cornucopia of features available for the 300ZX, then the latest model of Nissan’s “Z-cars,” a series acclaimed for its combination of sports-car performance, luxury-car features, and high technology. The lineage goes all the way back to 1969, when the company introduced its Japanese Fairlady Z in the U.S. as the 240Z.

For most of the 1960s, “Japanese sports car” would have sounded like a contradiction in terms. But by the 1990s many once-loyal American drivers had been enticed to defect, not least by the promise of the Z-car. Taken by surprise, the colossal U.S. auto industry did not react charitably to its foreign competitors, and the 1980s wave of economic anti-Japanese sentiment swept America. Hollywood wasted no time capitalizing on these feelings: countless action movies began featuring corporate-raiding Japanese villains, and one of the least shoddy among them was Black Rain — directed by a certain Ridley Scott, who in Blade Runner had already realized one vision of a thoroughly Japanified America.

Black Rain had come out just four months before the broadcast of “Turbo Dream,” and anyone who’d seen the film would surely be reminded of its opening motorcycle race. The spot did draw a backlash, but the anger had nothing to do with Japan: “The commercial was protested by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Governors’ Highway Safety Representatives and others,” writes Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky. “The issue was that the ad was thought to glorify speeding,” and the commercial never aired again. The 300ZX itself would go on for a few more years, until the American SUV trend and the rising yen-to-dollar ratio temporarily retired it in 1997. When they bring the newly unveiled Z Proto to market, Nissan could do worse than enlisting Scott to come up with another turbocharged fantasy.

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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.

What Can Superhero Media Teach Us About Ethics: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast (#63) Discussion with Philosophy Professor Travis Smith

Is there no end to the seemingly endless fascination with superhero media? Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Travis Smith, who teaches political philosophy at Concordia University, to discuss. Travis sees their resonance as a matter of metaphor: How can we do more with the abilities we have? His book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes, 10 Ways to Save the World, Which One Do We Need Now? matches up heroes like Batman vs. Spider-Man for ethical comparison: Both “act locally,” but Batman would like to actually rule over Gotham, while Spider-Man engages in a more “friendly neighborhood” patrol.  What philosophy should govern the way we try to do good in the world?

Lurking in the background is the current release of season two of the Amazon series The Boys, based on Garth Ennis’ graphic novels, which assumes that power corrupts and asks what regular folks might do in the face of corporate-backed invulnerability. This cynical take is part of a long tradition of asking “what if super-heroes were literally real?” that goes through Watchmen all the way back to Spider-Man himself, who faces financial and other mundane problems that Superman was immune to.

Given Travis’ book, we didn’t really need supplementary articles for this episode, but you can take a look at this interview with him to learn more about his comic book loves and the Canadian heritage that led him to start fighting crime (you know, indirectly, through ethical teaching).

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts

Watch a Young Carl Sagan Appear in His First TV Documentary, The Violent Universe (1969)

Much of the world got to know Carl Sagan through Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the thirteen-part PBS series on the nature of the universe — and the intensity of Sagan’s own passion to discover that nature. First aired in 1980, it would become the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. But it’s not as if Sagan had been languishing in obscurity before: he’d been publishing popular books since the early 1970s, and 1977’s The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence won him a Pulitzer Prize. When Cosmos made its impact, some viewers may even have remembered its host from a series of similarly themed broadcasts a decade earlier, The Violent Universe.

Produced by the BBC in 1969 and broadcast just three months before the Apollo 11 moon landingThe Violent Universe (viewable above) explains in five parts a range of discoveries made during the then-recent “revolution in astronomy,” including infrared galaxies, neutrinos, pulsars and quasars, red giants and white dwarfs.

In so doing it includes footage taken in observatories not just across the Earth — England, Puerto Rico, Holland, Californa — but high above it in orbit and even deep inside it, beneath the badlands of South Dakota. One installment pays a visit to Kōchi, the rural Japanese prefectural capital where guitarist-astronomer Tsutomu Seki makes his home — and his small home observatory, where he had worked to co-discover Comet Ikeya–Seki just four years before.

All of this international material — or rather interstellar material — is anchored in the studio by television journalist Robert MacNeil, later of PBS’ The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and a certain professor of astronomy at Cornell University by the name of Carl Sagan. Despite exuding a more deliberate seriousness than he would in Cosmos, the young Sagan nevertheless explains the astronomical and astrophysical concepts at hand with a clarity and vigor that would have made them immediately clear to television audiences of half a century ago, and indeed still makes them clear to the Youtube audiences of today. Apart, perhaps, from its Twilight Zone-style theme music The Violent Universe has in its visual elements aged more gracefully than the 70s series that made Sagan into a science icon. And how many other other public-television documentaries about the universe include poetry recitations from Richard Burton?

via BoingBoing

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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.

Why James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano Is “the Greatest Acting Achievement Ever Committed to the Screen”: A Video Essay

The ongoing “golden age” of prestige television drama began more than twenty years ago, but how many shows have truly surpassed The Sopranos, the one that started it all? However many series come and go, raising large and often obsessive fan bases with their varying mixtures of crime, history, politics, science fiction, fantasy, and intrigue, none have shown the cultural staying power of this six-season tale of a mob boss in turn-of-the-21st-century New Jersey. That The Sopranos remains relevant owes in part to the vision of creator David Chase as well as to the tour de force performance of star James Gandolfini.

Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, has stronger words of approbation: Gandolfini’s is “probably the greatest acting achievement ever committed to the screen, small or big.” In the video essay “How James Gandolfini Navigates Emotion” he marshals in support of this claim just one scene, but a scene that features Gandolfini at the height of his dramatic powers.

Taken from the fifth-season episode “Unidentified Black Males,” originally aired in 2004 (and co-written by Matthew Weiner, later to create the prestige-TV franchise Mad Men), this selection takes place in the office of Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. (When The Sopranos debuted, two months before the premiere of Harold Ramis’ Analyze This, a mobster in therapy was very much a novel idea.)

“Tony Soprano is going to have a panic attack in this therapy session,” says Puschak, and “the way James Gandolfini builds to that attack” demonstrates “how he carries us with him through a complex sequence of emotions.” Here Gandolfini rises to the formidable challenge of lying convincingly: not convincingly in the sense that Dr. Melfi believes him, but convincingly in the sense that we believe the grapple with conflicting truths and untruths that characterizes Tony’s life. Tony must pin his recent spate of panic attacks on something other than his cousin Tony B, who committed a hit he shouldn’t have. That Tony doesn’t quite believe his own words Gandolfini transmits with “his tone, his eyes, and the tilt of his head.” He uses the musicality of Tony’s speech, “some combination of leftover Italian rhythms and a New York-inflected North Jersey accent,” to build to “larger and larger crescendoes.”

As it foreshadows the approaching emotional turmoil, his “rhythmic anger, like waves crashing on the shore, is hypnotic, drawing you deeper into his mental and emotional space with each new cycle.” Tony then doubles down on his lie, trying to cover for his cousin by inventing on the spot a story about having been beaten up by a gang of shoe thieves in 1986. Only later in the scene does the truth come out, or at least partially leak out, even as Gandolfini portrays Tony struggling to fight back the panic attack that has emerged as a result of telling these stories. For all the technique it showcases, the scene ends in a classically dramatic fashion, with a kind of catharsis — which, if you know The Sopranos, you know is hardly the word Tony has for 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.

Why The Wire is One of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever

There were a lot of moments during my first view of The Wire when I realized I wasn’t watching the usual cop procedural. But the one that sticks in my head was when an obviously blitzed and blasted McNulty, the Irish-American detective that you *might* think is the hero of the show, leaves a bar, gets into his car and promptly totals it. In any other show this would have been the turning point for the character, either as a wake-up call, a reason for his boss to throw him off the case, or to gin up some suspense. But no. McNulty walks away from the accident and…it’s never really spoken about. The cops took care of their own.

Life does not follow the contours of a television drama, and neither did David Simon’s groundbreaking HBO series. Beloved characters get killed, or not, or they just transfer out of the show as in life. Nobody really gets what they want. Neither good nor evil wins.

As Simon told an audience at Loyola University, Baltimore in 2007: ““What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

The Wire still feels recent despite premiering in 2002 and in 4:3 ratio, no widescreen HD here. It feels recent because the problems depicted in the show still exist: corruption at all levels of city government and governance, institutionalized racism, failed schools, a collapsing fourth estate, a gutted economy, weakened unions, and a general nihilism and despondency. Simon may not have seen the Black Lives Matter movement coming, but the recipe for it, the warning of it, is there in the show.

So there’s definitely a reason to give it a re-watch to see how we’ve changed. The above essay from 2019 makes the case for The Wire as a subversion of the usual cop show, with Thomas Flight noting it “doesn’t try to grab and keep your attention. It requires it. And if you give it your attention it will reward you.”

It also reminds us of the literary giants in the writers’ room: crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price were on the team, as was journalist Rafael Alvarez, and William F. Zorzi. That combined with David Simon’s years in journalism covering Baltimore and Ed Burns’ experience on the police force meant the show feels right, and the writers did research and actual Baltimore extras were encouraged to speak up if something didn’t.

If that video essay intrigues you, there’s more in the series, though with many more spoilers, such as this one on Character and Theme.

Not long after The Wire finished its fifth and final season, there were plenty of books published on the show. And now we’re nearly two decades in from its premiere, The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill and The Ringer’s Van Lathan decided to spend quarantine kicking off a podcast where the two black cultural critics give the show a spirited re-watch. Does the show feature too much “copaganda” as my leftist critics now contend? Does it hold up like white liberals (its biggest fans, let’s be honest, despite President Obama’s shout out) think it does? The hosts just wrapped up Season Three, but if you’re ready to start the show again with commentary, here’s their first episode:

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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 Pentagon Created a Plan to Defend the US Against a Zombie Apocalypse: Read It Online

For keen observers of pop culture, the floodtide of zombie films and television series over the past several years has seemed like an especially ominous development. As social unrest spreads and increasing numbers of people are uprooted from their homes by war, climate catastrophe, and, now, COVID-related eviction, one wonders how advisable it might have been to prime the public with so many scenarios in which heroes must fight off hordes of infectious disease carriers? Zombie movies seem intent, after all, on turning not only the dead but also other living humans into objects of terror.

Zombies themselves have a complicated history; like many New World monsters, their origins are tied to slavery and colonialism. The first zombies were not flesh-eating cannibals; they were people robbed of freedom and agency by Voodoo priests, at least in legends that emerged during the brutal twenty-year American occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century. The first feature-length Hollywood zombie film, 1932’s White Zombie, was based on occultist and explorer William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island and starred Bela Lugosi as a Haitian Voodoo master named “Murder,” who enslaves the heroine and turns her into an instrument of his will.

Subtle the film is not, but no zombie film ever warranted that adjective. Zombie entertainment induces maximum fear of a relentless Other, detached, after White Zombie, from its Haitian context, so that the undead horde can stand in for any kind of invasion. The genre’s history may go some way toward explaining why the U.S. government has an official zombie preparedness plan, called CONOP 8888. The document was written in April 2011 by junior military officers at the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), as a training exercise to formulate a nonspecific invasion contingency plan.

Despite the use of a “fictitious scenario,” CONOP 8888 explicitly states that it “was not actually designed as a joke.” And “indeed, it’s not,” All that’s Interesting assures us, quoting the following from the plan’s introduction:

Zombies are horribly dangerous to all human life and zombie infections have the potential to seriously undermine national security and economic activities that sustain our way of life. Therefore having a population that is not composed of zombies or at risk from their malign influence is vital to U.S. and Allied National Interests.

Substitute “zombies” with any outgroup and the verbiage sounds alarmingly like the rhetoric of state terror. The plan, as you might expect, details a martial law scenario, noting that “U.S. and international law regulate military operations only insofar as human and animal life are concerned. There are almost no restrictions on hostile actions… against pathogenic life forms, organic-robotic entities, or ‘traditional’ zombies,’” whatever that means.

This all seems deadly serious, until we get to the reports’ subsections, which detail scenarios such as “Evil Magic Zombies (EMZ),” “Space Zombies (SZ),” “Vegetarian Zombies (VZ),” and “Chicken Zombies (CZ)” (in fact, “the only proven class of zombie that actually exists”). It’s fascinating to see a military document absorb the many comic permutations of the genre, from George Romero’s subversive satires to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. No matter how funny zombies are, however, the genre seems to require horrific violence, gore, and siege-like survivalism as key thematic elements.

Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner, author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, has read the Pentagon’s zombie plan closely and discovered some serious problems (and not only with its zombie classification system). While the plan assumes the necessity of “barricaded counter-zombie operations,” it also admits that “USSTRATCOM forces do not currently hold enough contingency stores (food, water) to support” such operations for even 30 days. “So… maybe 28 days later,” Drezner quips, supplies run out? (We’ve all seen what happens next….) Also, alarmingly, the plan is “trigger-happy about nuclear weapons,” adding the possibility of radiation poisoning to the likelihood of starving (or being eaten by the starving).

It turns out, then, that just as in so many modern zombie stories, the zombies may not actually be the worst thing about a zombie apocalypse. Not to be outdone, the CDC decided to capitalize on the zombie craze—rather late, we must say—releasing their own materials for a zombie pandemic online in 2018. These include entertaining blogs, a poster (above), and a graphic novel full of useful disaster preparedness tips for ordinary citizens. The campaign might be judged in poor taste in the COVID era, but the agency assures us, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, “Never Fear—CDC is Ready.” I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide how comforting this promise sounds in 2020.

via MessyNessy

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

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