Watch “Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum,” a Short Satirical Film About the Invention of the Audiophile (1959)

Sometime in the mid-1990s, my father gave me his hi-end, hi-fi stereo system from the mid-1970s: a vacuum tube-powered amplifier, pair of stereo speakers in walnut cabinets, and a turntable. Heavy, bulky, and built with hardly an ounce of plastic between them, these components lacked all of the functionality we look for in consumer audio today: no 4K HDMI, no Bluetooth, no surround sound of any kind. As such features became de rigeur, my stereo migrated to the closet, piece by piece, then out the door, to make room for new, shiny black plastic boxes.

Now, a search for that same equipment turns up auctions for hundreds more than its worth ten, twenty, fifty years ago. Why does obsolete audio technology fetch such high prices, when there are appliance graveyards filled with CRT TVs and other relics of the analogue past? Blame the audiophile, a very specific kind of nerd who spends their days obsessing over frequency response curves, speaker placement, and the optimal tracking force of a stylus, immersed in magazine articles, online forums, and product reviews.

While the rest of the world contents itself with streaming MP3s and tinny computer speakers, audiophiles buy and restore old analogue stereo equipment, pair it with the latest in high-tech engineering, wire it together with connectors that cost more than your TV, and build specialized listening environments more like boutique showrooms than any run-of-the-mill man- or woman-cave. In short, they tend to orient their lives, as much possible, around the pursuit of perfect sound reproduction.

Audiophilia has trickled down, somewhat, in the renewed consumer love for vinyl records, but to compare the big box-store systems on which most people listen to LPs to the gear of the well-heeled cognoscenti is to spit upon the very name of Audio. The snobbery and endless dissatisfaction of the audiophile are nothing new, as the 1959 BBC short film above shows, addressing the question asked of audiophiles everywhere, at all times: “Do they like music? Or are they in love with equipment?”

The charming, satirical BBC portrait brings this character to life for non-audiophiles, who tend to find the audiophile’s obsessions unbearably tedious. But if appreciation for such things makes audiophiles just slightly better than ordinary listeners, so be it. Whatever the disagreements, and they are numerous, among them, all audiophiles “agree on the fundamental facts in life,” writes Lucio Cadeddu in a “Survivor’s Guide on Audiophile Behavior.”

Enjoyment of rhythmic, organized sound may be universally human, but for the audiophile, that pedestrian pleasure is secondary to “having a wide frequency response and getting a realistic virtual image, whatever that means.” Audiophilia, for all its privileged investment in equipment the average person can’t afford, can be seen as no more than an advanced form of conspicuous consumption. Or it can be seen as a life “devoted,” Cadeddu writes, “to formal perfection.”

via Ted Gioia 

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How Vinyl Records Are Made: A Primer from 1956

How Old School Records Were Made, From Start to Finish: A 1937 Video Featuring Duke Ellington

Conserve the Sound, an Online Museum Preserves the Sounds of Past Technologies–from Typewriters, Electric Shavers and Cassette Recorders, to Cameras & Classic Nintendo

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

Watch the “Greatest Juggler of the Ages,” Frances Brunn, Perform His “Painfully Exciting” Juggling Routine (1969)

When John Ringling North, then president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, saw a pair of German  jugglers and acrobats perform in Spain, he immediately invited them to join “the Greatest Show on Earth.” A brother and sister team, Francis and Lottie Brunn would astonish audiences. In 1950, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called Francis “the greatest juggler of the ages. Not many people in the world are as perfectly adjusted as Mr. Brunn is. He will never have to visit a psychiatrist.” If physical grace and balance are reflective of one’s state of mind, maybe he was right.

When Lottie left the act in 1951, Francis went on to popular fame and even more hyperbolic acclaim. “After he performed before the queen of England in 1963, The Evening Standard called his show ‘almost painfully exciting,’” Douglas Martin writes at The New York Times.

“Trying to describe Brunn’s act is like trying to describe the flight of a swallow,” writes Francisco Alvarez in Juggling: Its History and Greatest Performers. He became a regular performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, “played the Palace with Judy Garland,” notes Martin, “and went twice to the White House, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed him the best juggler he had ever seen.”

None of this should bias you toward the television performance, above, of course. (How many jugglers could Eisenhower have seen, anyway?) Judge for yourself. By way of further context, we should note that Brunn was known for perfecting “an austere but demanding minimalism. He was fascinated by controlling just one ball, and virtually compelled audiences to share this fascination.” Or as Brunn put it, “it sounds like nothing, but it is quite difficult to do properly.” As anyone (or virtually everyone) who has tried and failed to juggle can attest, this description fits the art of juggling in general all too well.

Brunn made it look laughably easy: “Large numbers of objects posed scant problem. He was believed to be the first juggler in the world to put up 10 hoops,” Martin writes. He also liked to incorporate flamenco into his act to compound the difficulty and the grace. “I do not consider myself doing tricks,” he said in 1983. “There is one movement for eight minutes. It’s supposed to be, let’s say, like a ballet…. I would love if the audience is so fascinated that nobody applauds in the end.” Brunn, I suspect, never got to hear the sound of stunned silence after his act.

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Discover Alexander Calder’s Circus, One of the Beloved Works at the Whitney Museum of American Art

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

Watch Blondie’s Debbie Harry Perform “Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show (1981)

Do you dig songs about rainbows?

The host of one of the very last episodes of The Muppet Show — Debbie Harry, lead singer of Blondie – does, and in 1981, she seized the opportunity to duet with Kermit the Frog on his signature tune, “The Rainbow Connection” — its only performance in the series’ five season run.

Many of us associate the folksy number with The Muppet Movie‘s pastoral opening scene. This rendition transfers the action backstage to the kimono-clad Harry’s dressing room.

Who knew her sweet soprano would pair so nicely with a banjo?

She also exhibits a game willingness to lean into Muppet-style hamminess, responding to the lyric “Have you heard voices?” with an expression that verges on psychological horror.

Midway through, the two are joined by a chorus of juvenile frogs in scouting uniforms.

A little context — these youngsters spend the episode trying to earn their punk merit badge.

No wonder. By 1981, when the episode aired, Blondie had achieved massive mainstream success, with such hits as “One Way or Another” and “Call Me,” both of which were shoehorned into the episode.

As creator Jim Henson’s son, Brian, recalled in a brief introduction to its video release:

…I was in high school and my father knew that Debbie Harry was, like, the biggest thing in the world to me. And he booked her to be on The Muppet Show during a vacation week from school and he didn’t tell me. We went out to dinner the night before shooting and they made me sit next to Debbie Harry at this fancy restaurant. And I just remember this whole dinner I was just endlessly sweating and all I knew was that I was aware of Debbie Harry sitting on the side of me. I don’t think I ever said a word to her, I don’t think I ever looked at her, but she did a great episode, she’s a great performer and she’s a lovely lady.

With punk permeating the airwaves, the fan site Tough Pigs, Muppet Fans Who Grew Up laments other guest hosts who might have been booked before the show ended its run:

It’s a shame Debbie Harry was the only member of her scene to make it to The Muppet Show. Can you imagine special guest stars, The Ramones, The B-52’s or even Talking Heads? … Harry’s guest stint reveals that the Muppets’ chaotic and textured world has more in common with the punk scene than one would initially expect.

The finale finds the Frog Scouts moshing to “Call Me,” with a reasonably “punk” looking, rainbow-clad backing Muppets band (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem sat this one out due to their pre-existing associations with Motown, jazz, and a more classic rock sound.)

Related Content: 

The Muppets Sing the First & Second Acts of Hamilton

Witness the Birth of Kermit the Frog in Jim Henson’s Live TV Show, Sam and Friends (1955)

When Debbie Harry Combined Artistic Forces with H.R. Giger

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 and the Oeuvre of Aaron Sorkin: An Assessment by Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast (#89)

In lieu of an Oscars episode, the Pretty Much Pop podcast this week considers one of the nominated films, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and the career of its writer/director, Aaron Sorkin, which started with A Few Good Men through four TV series (most notably The West Wing), and films like The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and Molly’s Game.

Your hosts Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer consider Sorkin’s stock recurring characters and their political diatribes, plots often based on true events, and how his writing creates drama. Do we feel uplifted or vaguely dirty after a Sorkin bath? It’s great to have characters that aren’t stupid, but are they actually smart or just designed to seem that way? Are the deviations from fact just good use of dramatic license or positively harmful? We touch on virtually all of Sorkin’s productions (well, except for the plays; he actually considers himself natively a playwright) and still have energy for a few Oscars musings and reflections about including real locations or news events in fiction.

Here are some articles we used to prepare ourselves:

Hear more of this podcast at This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at 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.

Buckminster Fuller, Isaac Asimov & Other Futurists Make Predictions About the 21st Century in 1967: What They Got Right & Wrong

Why bother with reason and evidence to make predictions when you can put your faith in a chance roll of the dice? These two methods could be said to represent the vastly divergent ways of science and superstition, two realms that rarely intersect except, perhaps, when it comes to fortune-telling — or, in the argot of the 20th century’s soothsayers, “Futurism,” where predictions seem to rely as much on wishful thinking as they do on intuition and intellect.

In the 1967 short documentary film, The Futurists, above, scientists and visionaries quite literally combine the scientific method with random chance operation to make predictions about the 21st century. Host Walter Cronkite explains:

A panel of experts has studied a list of possible 21st century developments, from personality controlled drugs to household robots. They have estimated the numerical probability of each, from zero to 100 percent. The twenty sided dice are then rolled to simulate these probabilities. A use of random numbers known as the Monte Carlo technique, often used in thinktank games. All of this is highly speculative.

Indeed. The glimpse we get of the future — of our present, as it were — is very optimistic, “and so very, very wrong,” writes Billy Ingram at TV Party — at least in some respects. “Sadly, those past futurists forgot to factor in human greed and the refashioning of Americans’ way to be less communal and more self-centered.” The very medium on which the documentary appeared helped to center selfishness as a cardinal American virtue.

Yet in 1967, the federal government still required major networks to run educational content, even if “network executives understood these programs would end up at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings.” Hence, The Futurists, which aired on primetime on CBS “when the 3 networks would occasionally preempt popular programs with a news feature/documentary.” Despite low expectations at the time, the short film now proves to be a fascinating document.

The rolls of the dice with which it opens are not, it turns out, a “crap game,” but a “serious game at the University of Pittsburgh,” Cronkite tells us before introducing the august panel of experts. We see a number of scenarios predicted for the coming century. These include the vague “increased importance of human concerns,” sci-fi “teaching by direct recording on the brain,” and ominous “tactical behavior control devices.”

Buckminster Fuller even predicts bodily teleportation by radio waves, something like the technology then featured in a brand-new TV show, Star Trek, but not scientifically probable in any sense, either then or now. Nonetheless, there is surprising prescience in The Futurists, as its opening panel of futuristic experts announces their conclusions:

We wind up with a world which has the following features: fertility control, 100-year lifespan, controlled thermal nuclear power, continued automation, genetic control, man-machine symbiosis, household robots, wideband communications, opinion control, and continued organization.

Apparently, in 1967, all the Futurists worth talking to — or so it seemed to the film’s producer McGraw Hill — were men. Theirs was the only perspective offered to home viewers and to the students who saw this film in schools across the country. Those men include not only Fuller, who gives his full interview at 14:30, but also frequent maker of accurate futuristic predictions Isaac Asimov, who appears at the 20:50 mark. Aside from the exclusion of 50% of the population’s perspective, and an overly rosy view of human nature, however, The Futurists is often an uncannily accurate vision of life as we now know it — or at least one far more accurate than most 21st century futurisms of the past.

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In 1964, Isaac Asimov Predicts What the World Will Look Like Today: Self-Driving Cars, Video Calls, Fake Meats & More

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Octavia Butler’s Four Rules for Predicting the Future

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

A Long-Lost Soviet Adaptation of The Lord of the Rings Resurfaces on YouTube–and Tolkien Fans Rejoice (1991)

When Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, it heralded a cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that would, at long last, possess scale, production value, and sheer ambition enough to do justice to the original novels. This set it somewhat apart from the version of The Fellowship of the Ring that had aired just ten years before on Leningrad Television — and hasn’t been seen since, at least until its recent upload (in two parts) to Youtube. An unofficial adaptation, Khraniteli tells a story every single Tolkien reader around the world will recognize, even if they don’t understand unsubtitled Russian. The production’s appeal lies in any case not in its dialogue, but what we’ll call its look and feel.

“Featuring a score by Andrei Romanov of the rock band Akvarium and some incredibly cheap production design, no one is going to confuse this Lord of the Rings with Jackson’s films,” writes /Film’s Chris Evangelista. “The sets look like, well, sets, and the special effects — if you can call them that — are delightfully hokey. This appears to have had almost no budget, and that only lends to the charm.”

Despite its cheapness, Khraniteli displays exuberance on multiple levels, including its often-theatrical performances as well as visual effects, executed with the still-new video technology of the time, that oscillate between the hokily traditional and the nearly avant-garde. Some scenes, in fact, look not entirely dissimilar to those of Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway’s high-tech vision of Shakespeare that also premiered in 1991.

That year was the Soviet Union’s last, and the prolonged political shakeup that ensued could partially explain why Khraniteli went unseen for so long. Until now, obscurity-hunters have had to make do with The Fairytale Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit (previously featured here on Open Culture), Leningrad Television’s earlier adaptation of Tolkien’s pre-Lord of the Rings children’s novel. It was the now long-gone Leningrad Television’s successor entity 5TV that just put the Soviet Fellowship of the Ring online — and in seemingly pristine condition at that — to the delight of global Tolkien enthusiasts who’d known only rumors of its existence. And as many of them have already found, for all the shortcomings, Khraniteli still has Tom Bombadil, for whose omission from his sprawling blockbusters Jackson will surely never hear the end.

Related Content:

The 1985 Soviet TV Adaptation of The Hobbit: Cheap and Yet Strangely Charming

Illustrations of The Lord of the Rings in Russian Iconography Style (1993)

Soviet-Era Illustrations Of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1976)

The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained in 10 Minutes, in Two Illustrated Videos

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.

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Documentaries: Meet the Artists Who Create the Sounds of Fish, Spiders, Orangutans, Mushrooms & More

We think of nature documentaries as primarily visual works. As well we probably should, given the countless, mostly dull and uncomfortable hours spent in the field they demand of their photography crews. But what comes to mind when we imagine the sound of nature documentaries — apart, of course, from the voice of David Attenborough? Listen closely during the breaks in his narration of such hit nature series as Planet Earth or Our Planet, and you’ll hear all manner of sounds: the sound of sharks swimming, of orangutans chewing, of spiders shooting their webs, of mushrooms sprouting. Hang on — mushrooms sprouting?

Nature documentaries, as narrator Abby Tang says in the Insider video above, are full of “sounds that would either be impossible to capture, or ones that are straight-up made up.” In this they differ little from scripted films, whose actual shoots usually manage to record only the actors’ dialogue, if that.

Working in the wild, far indeed from any studio, nature documentarians “might actually be shooting a subject matter that’s across a valley, or they’ll capture objects normally too small to have a registered noise to it.” Hence the need for a category of professionals previously featured here on Open Culture: foley artists, those inventive creators of footsteps, door-knocks, punches, sword-unsheathings, and all the other sounds viewers expect to hear.

Here foley artist Richard Hinton demonstrates his methods for breathing sonic life into a range of nature scenes. A shoal of mackerel? Old magnetic audio tape sloshed around in a tub of water. The vibrations of a spiderweb? A slinky, held perilously close to the microphone. The northern lights? A pair of cymbals and a set of wind chimes. Often, just the right sound emerges from those of two distinct objects layered together, a principle known to foley artists since the early days of radio drama. In fact, though foley sounds today go through a fair bit of digital editing and processing to make them more convincing, the tools and techniques used to produce them have changed little since those days. The next time you watch a bear onscreen open its eyes after months-long hibernation, consider the possibility that you’re hearing an Englishman making noises with scraps of fur and his mouth.

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How the Sound Effects on 1930s Radio Shows Were Made: An Inside Look

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.

The Aesthetic of Anime: A New Video Essay Explores a Rich Tradition of Japanese Animation

Giant robots, superpowered schoolgirls, berzerker martial artists: we all know the sort of figures that represent anime. Though clichéd, the widespread nature of these perceptions actually shows how far Japanese animation has come over the past few decades. Not so long ago, the average Westerner didn’t know the meaning of the world anime, let alone its origin. Today, thanks not least to the films of Hayao Miyazaki‘s Studio Ghibli, the average Westerner has likely already been exposed to one or two masterworks of the form. This viewing experience provides a sense of why Japanese animation, far from simply animation that happens to be Japanese, merits a term of its own: any of us, no matter how inexperienced, can sense “The Aesthetic of Anime.”

Taking that concept as the title of their latest video essay, Lewis and Luiza Liz Bond of The Cinema Cartography show us a range of cinematic possibilities that anime has opened up since the 1980s. I recall, long ago, staying up late to tune in to the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Saturday Night Anime” block to catch such classics from that decade as Venus Wars and Project A-Ko.

While Japanese animation in all its forms has gone much more mainstream around the world since then, it hasn’t resulted in a loss of artistic, narrative, and thematic inventiveness. On the contrary, Bond argues: over the past quarter-century, series like Neon Genesis EvangelionSerial Experiments Lain, and Death Note have not only pushed the boundaries of anime, but demonstrated a power to “re-signify storytelling conventions that go beyond the anime form itself.”

In the effort to reveal the true nature of “the misunderstood and often disregarded world of anime,” this video essay references and visually quotes dozens of different shows. (It stops short of the also-vast realm of feature films, such as Ghost in the Shell or the work of Satoshi Kon.) Its range includes the “existential meditation on loneliness” that is Cowboy Bebop, subject of another Bond exegesis previously featured here on Open Culture, and “city pop-fueled Superdimensional Fortress Macross,” which did so much back in the 80s to define not just giant-robot anime but anime itself. Trope-heavy, over-the-top, and “unapologetically weird” though it may seem (but usually not, as Bond implies, without self-awareness), anime continues to realize visions not available — nor even conceivable — to any other art form.

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The Existential Philosophy of Cowboy Bebop, the Cult Japanese Anime Series, Explored in a Thoughtful Video Essay

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The Philosophy, Storytelling & Visual Creativity of Ghost in the Shell, the Acclaimed Anime Film, Explained in Video Essays

How Master Japanese Animator Satoshi Kon Pushed the Boundaries of Making Anime: A Video Essay

The Philosophy of Hayao Miyazaki: A Video Essay on How the Traditional Japanese Religion Shinto Suffuses Miyazaki’s Films

The Origins of Anime: Watch Free Online 64 Animations That Launched the Japanese Anime Tradition

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.

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