Sally Schmitt, the Creator of the French Laundry & Unsung Hero of California Cuisine, Gets Her Due in a Poignant, Short Documentary

One of the New York Times’ most compelling regular features is Overlooked, which gives remarkable individuals whose deaths passed unremarked by the Times obit column a rousing, overdue sendoff.

Sally Schmitt – “one of the great unsung heroes of California Cuisine” as per Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle‘s fearsome former food critic – is not one of those.

When Schmitt died earlier this spring at the age of 90, a few weeks shy of the release of her book, Six California Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes, Stories, and Cooking Lessons From a Pioneer of California Cuisine, the Times took note.

Schmitt received a grand obituary that delved into her personal history, philosophy, and her connection to Napa Valley’s The French Laundry, a three star Michelin restaurant which Anthony Bourdain hailed as the best in the world.

The French Laundry’s renown is such that one needn’t run in foodie circles to be aware of it, and its award-winning chef/owner, Thomas Keller.

Keller, however, did not found the restaurant that brought him fame.

Schmitt did, with the help of her husband, Don and their five children, who pitched in in both the kitchen and the front of the house.

Family was important to Schmitt, and having deferred her dreams for the many years it took to raise hers, she was determined to maintain balance between home and work lives.

In Ben Proudfoot‘s New York Times op-doc, above, Schmitt recalls growing up outside of Sacramento, where her mother taught her how to cook using in-season local produce.

Meanwhile, her father helped California produce make it all the way to the East Coast by supplying ice to the Southern Pacific Railroad, an innovation that Schmitt identifies as “the beginning of the whole supermarket situation” and a distressing geographic disconnect between Americans and food.

The Schmitts launched The French Laundry in 1978, with a shockingly affordable menu.

Julia Child, a fan, once “burst into the kitchen,” demanding, “My dear, what was in that dessert sauce?”

(Answer: sugar, butter and cream)

Sixteen years after its founding, The French Laundry was for sale.

Schmitt’s facial expressions are remarkably poignant describing the transfer of power. There’s a lot at play – pride, nostalgia, fondness for Keller, a “really charming young chef, who’d made a name for himself in New York…and was down on his luck.”

Schmitt is gracious, but there’s no question she feels a bit of a twinge at how Keller took her dream and ran with it.

“In high school, I was always the vice president…vice president of everything,” Schmitt says, before sharing a telling anecdote about her best friend beating her out for the highest academic honor:

I went home and cried. Yeah, I thought that I should have it, you know. And my mother said, “Let her have her moment of glory. Don’t worry. There will be moments of glory for you.”

This documentary is one, however posthumous.

Accompanying it is a brief essay in which Proudfoot contrasts the lives of his workaholic late father and Schmitt, with her “delightfully coy candor a message about the rewards of balance and the trap of ambition:”

I made this film for all of us who struggle “to stir and taste the soup” that already sits in front of us.

Another moment of glory:

In Keller’s landmark The French Laundry Cookbook, the final recipe is Sally Schmitt’s Cranberry and Apple Kuchen (with the hot Cream Sauce that so captivated Julia Child.)

Sally Schmitt’s Cranberry and Apple Kuchen with hot Cream Sauce

Serves 8


6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup milk or light cream

3 to 4 Gravenstein or Golden Delicious apples

1 cup cranberries or firm blueberries

Cinnamon sugar: 1 tablespoon sugar mixed with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon


2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan.

2. For the kuchen: Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar and egg together until the mixture is fluffy and lightened in texture.

3. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Add dry ingredients and the milk alternately to the butter mixture; mix just until combined.

4. Peel and core apples. Slice them into 1/4-inch wedges

5. Spoon batter into the pan. Press apple slices, about 1/4-inch apart and core side down, into the batter, working in a circular pattern around the outside edge (like the spokes of a wheel. Arrange most of the cranberries in a ring inside the apples and sprinkle remainder around the edges of the kuchen. Sprinkle kuchen with the cinnamon sugar.

6. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the kuchen comes out clean. Set on a rack to cool.

7. Combine the cream sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, to reduce and thicken it slightly.

8. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature, drizzled with the hot cream sauce

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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.

Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name” Performed By the North Korean Military Chorus : A Clever Fake

Want to see North Korea’s Military Chorus perform Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name”? You really do? This may be the closest you’ll ever get.  Watch it, and thank YouTuber Lars von Retriever for the clever edit…

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

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Architect Breaks Down Five of the Most Iconic New York City Apartments

Real estate is a perennially hot topic in New York City, as is gentrification.

Above, architect Michael Wyetzner, breaks down the defining features of several typical NYC apartments.

You’re on your own to truffle up the sort of rent a 340 square feet studio commands in an East Village tenement these days.

The ancestors would be shocked, for sure. My late mother-in-law never tired of causing young jaws to drop by revealing how she once paid $27/month for a 1 bedroom on Sheridan Square…and her mother, who immigrated at the turn of the century, couldn’t wait to put the Lower East Side behind her.

He may not truck in final sales figures, but Wyetzner drops in a wealth of interesting factual tidbits as he sketches layouts with a black Pentel Sign Pen. His tone is more Lower East Side Tenement Museum tour guide than the comments section of a real estate blog where salty New Yorkers flaunt their street cred.

For instance, those enfilade tenement apartments–to employ the grand architectural term Wyetzner just taught us–were not only dark, but dangerously under-ventilated until 1901, when reforms stipulated that air shafts must be opened up between side by side buildings.

This public health initiative changed the shape of tenement buildings, but did little to stop the poverty and overcrowding that activist/photographer Jacob Riis famously documented in How the Other Half Lives.

(Another measure decreed that building owners must supply one indoor toilet …per 20 people!)

While we’re on the topic of toilets, did you know that there was a time when every brownstone backyard boasted its own privy?

Homeowners who’ve spent millions on what many conceive of as the most romantic of New York City buildings (then millions more on gut renovations) proudly display old bottles and other refuse excavated from the site where privys once stood. The former residents turn their outhouses into garbage chutes upon achieving indoor plumbing.

Laying aside its distinctive color, a brownstone’s most iconic feature is surely its stoop.

Stoops grabbed hold of the American public’s imagination thanks to Sesame Street, the Harlem photographs of Gordon Parks and the films of Spike Lee, who learned of Martin Luther King’s assassination as an 11-year-old, sitting on his.

“Not porch!,” he emphasized during a Tonight Show appearance. ”In Brooklyn, it’s stoops. Stoops!”

(Forgive me if I delve into NYC real estate prices for a sec: the Bed-Stuy brownstone from Lee‘s semi-autobiographical Crooklyn, above, just went on the market for $4.5 million.)

There’s no question that brownstone stoops make excellent hang out spots, but that’s not the reason they rose to prominence.

As Esther Crain writes in Ephemeral New York, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 which led to the city’s gridlike layout negated the possibility of alleys:

Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners. 

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side…And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. 

Flash forward a hundred and fifty some years, and, as Wyetzner notes, a stoop’s top step offers a highly scenic view of the Hefty bags the neighbors haul to the curb the night before New York’s Strongest roll through.

Wyetzner also provides the historical context behind such architecturally distinctive digs as SoHo’s astronomically priced light-filled lofts, the always desirable Classic Six residences on the Upper East and Upper West Sides, one-room studios both modern and original flavor, and our blighted public housing projects.

If you’re itching to play along from home, check out the New York Times’ regular feature The Hunt, which invites readers to trail a single, family, or couple deliberating between three properties in New York City.

A sample: “After a mouse infestation at her West Village rental, a single mother needed a better spot for her family, including a son with autism.”

Review the layouts and click here to see whether she chose a brand-new 127-unit building with a rooftop pool, a Harlem brownstone duplex with a backyard rights, or an updated one bedroom in a downtown co-op from 1910.

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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. She has lived in all manner of New York City apartments, but hopes to never move again. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Evolution of the Electric Guitar: An Introduction to Every Major Variety of the Instrument That Made Rock-and-Roll

The past century has seen many stylistic changes in popular culture, none more dramatic than in music. We need only hear a few measures of a song to place it in the right decade. The sound of an era’s music reflects the state of its technology: whenever engineering can make possible tools like multitrack recorders, tape loops, samplers, and synthesizers — to say nothing of listening media like cylinders, vinyl records, and online streaming — the soundtrack of the zeitgeist has been transformed. But in living memory, surely no development has made quite so powerful an impact on popular music as the electric guitar.

“Almost all guitars currently on the market are either a direct descendant of, or very similar to, a handful of instruments that came to life during the span of one decade: the fifties.” With these words, Dutch Youtuber Paul Davids launches into a video journey through the evolution of the electric guitar as we know it, beginning in 1950 with the Fender Telecaster.

Davids doesn’t just explain the components and construction of that venerable instrument, he plays it — just as he does a variety of other electric guitars, each with a sound representative of its era. Even if you don’t know them by name, they’ll all sound familiar from a variety of musical contexts.

The invention of the electric guitar made possible the birth of rock and roll, which shows no few signs of frailty even here in the twenty-first century. The earliest models produced are ever more highly valued for their sound, their feel, and their apparent simplicity, a quality many rockers hold in the utmost regard. But despite long adhering to the same basic form, the electric guitar has incorporated a great variety of innovations — in its pickups, its vibrato systems, and much else besides — whose combinations and permutations have given rise to entire subgenres like surf, heavy metal, rockabilly, and grunge. Like rock itself, the electric guitar arrived having already attained a kind of perfection, but possessed too much vitality to stand still.

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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.

The Clock That Changed the World: How John Harrison’s Portable Clock Revolutionized Sea Navigation in the 18th Century

In the early eighteenth century, a pocket watch could keep reasonably accurate time, give or take a minute per day. This may not sound too bad, given how we now regard even the most advanced technology of that era. But it certainly wasn’t good enough for marine navigation: each day, a ship could tolerate its clocks gaining or losing only a couple of seconds. Without proper reliable information about the time, sailors on the open sea had no way of knowing quite where they were. More specifically, the sun told them how far north or south they were, their latitude, but they didn’t know how far east or west they were, their longitude.

Theoretically speaking, the “longitude problem” was easily solvable. You could calculate it, writes Gear Patrol’s Ed Estlow, “by sighting the sun at high noon where you were, and if you had a good enough clock for the time back home, you could compare the two and, with some simple mathematics, determine your position.” But engineering such a good-enough clock in reality took about half a century. “In 1714, the British government offered the huge prize of £20,000 (roughly £2 million today) to anyone who could solve the longitude problem once and for all.” But the money wasn’t fully claimed until 1773, by a Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison.

Harrison’s name looms large in the annals of chronometry, and not without reason. His work of inventing an accurate ship clock involved the creation of five different models, known by historians as H1 through H5. H1 was a portable version of the kind of sizable wooden clock with which he’d already made his name. It was only in with H4, in 1765, that he realized small is beautiful, or rather accurate, at least if equipped with oversized internal balance wheels to hold up more reliably against the constant movement of a ship at sea. This design worked without a hitch, but even so, the Board of Longitude only saw fit to award him half the money offered.

Neither Harrison’s solving of the longitude problem nor his receipt of a disappointingly halved prize seem to have stopped his obsession with building ever-better timekeeping devices. This comes as no surprise given the qualities of mind that emerge in “The Clock That Changed the World,” the episode of BBC’s A History of the World at the top of the post. While working on H5, Harrison “sought the support of King George III” (he of the famous madness). “The King, a natural philosopher in his own right, tested H5 himself and promised Harrison his support.” That support finally got the elderly Harrison his promised amount and then some, but one senses that — like any pursuit worthy of one’s lifelong dedication — it was never really about the money.

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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 Opera Legend Marian Anderson’s Historic Performance on the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial (1939)

Nearly every Civil Rights icon becomes more of a symbol than a complex human being over time, a consequence of iconography in general. This has certainly been the case with opera singer Marian Anderson. “If Americans know one fact about the legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson,” Kira Thurman writes at The New Yorker, “it’s that she sang in defiance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in 1939.”

We probably also know that Anderson took to the steps of the monument again in 1963 to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington. In her official portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, she stands regally before the Lincoln Memorial’s columns in her fur coat, gazing resolutely into the middle distance, her hair gray with age and wisdom. It’s the defining image of an artist whose defiance has come to overshadow her art.

The image is an undoubtedly powerful one, a key moment in the seemingly unending struggle for justice in the United States, as well as “one of the most important musical events of the 20th century,” Anastasia Tsioulcas writes at NPR. Anderson “had never faced such an enormous crowd” — 75,000 people of all races and backgrounds. “She was terrified,” and later wrote, “I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.” She may have confessed to stage fright that day, but some characterizations do not do justice to her professionalism. Anderson did not fear crowds or bigotry.

When she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson was 42 years old and very much an international star. Four years earlier, she had returned from Europe “as one of the most revered people on the planet” and performed at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who arranged the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert — after resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the all-white group refused to rent the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall to Howard University for their annual concert event for Anderson.

Roosevelt had and would continue to intervene in many such instances of racism, using her power for democratic good. Anderson, while not an activist, was not new to musical protest. In 1935, her application to sing at the Salzburg Festival in Austria had been similarly rejected, on the heels of a Nazi riot over Black baritone Aubrey Pankey’s performance in the city earlier that year. “What Anderson did next illustrates a pattern of behavior that she would deploy as a weapon throughout her career,” Thurman writes. “She showed up anyway.”

Anderson held a small concert for a few devoted listeners at Mozarteum concert hall, then a few days later in a hotel ballroom for “hundreds of elite musicians, who applauded her act of defiance,” and shared in it themselves. After this concert, famed conductor Arturo Toscanini met her backstage and said, “What I heard today one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.” Anderson, “became an international superstar overnight.” She built a reputation through bold acts of defiance, but her greatest contributions were always to music.

The “dignified, stoic, middle-aged Black woman” who appeared at the Lincoln Memorial was young once, writes Thurman, and as much a sensation in Europe as Josephine Baker. She’s been characterized as “modest” and self-effacing, but she was also ambitious, an incredibly talented child prodigy who knew she would find too many doors closed in the U.S. Like many Black artists of the early 20th century, she became a confident, celebrated ex-pat: “Walking down Salzburg’s hilly cobblestone streets during her first day in the Alpine city, in the summer of 1925, Anderson was trailed by a cadre of journalists everywhere she went.”

Ten years later, Anderson would find things very much changed in Europe, and find herself feeling as alienated in formerly welcoming Austria as she had in her home country. (She was mourned by her Austrian fans. One critic wrote of her last performance, “[her] music makes those people happy who have not yet given up their belief that all men are equal.”) By 1939, Anderson was a veteran not only of opera and music hall stages around the world, but of facing up to racism and discrimination.

“A quiet, humble person,” writes NPR’s Susan Stamberg, “Anderson often used ‘we’ when speaking about herself,” referring to the “many people whom we will never know,” she once said, but who make our lives possible. In the first song she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she changed the words of the third line from “of thee I sing” to “to thee we sing,” a move that “can be heard as an embrace, implying community and group responsibility.” It could also imply Anderson’s consciousness of herself and her community as marginalized outsiders in the country of their birth, or her sense of herself as addressing an integrated nation in that chilly, November outdoor crowd.

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

When Is a Joke “Too Soon”? — Comedians Discuss on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #132


To honor the death of Gilbert Gottfried, Pretty Much Pop addresses jokes like the 9-11 one he was pilloried for. Can comedy really be “too soon” in relation to tragic subject matter? Is comedy really tragedy plus time, or are jokes most needed immediately when pain and discomfort are most acute?

Your host Mark Linsemayer is joined by three comedians: Adam Sank (of the LGBTQ-themed Adam Sank Show), Twitch-streaming songster Meri Amber, and returning guest Daniel Lobell (graphic novelist and podcaster). We get into tailoring jokes for an audience, coping with grief, and of course some talk about triggering, hyper-sensitive audiences, and cancellation (Chapelle, anyone?).

Watch Gottfried’s infamous joke yourself:

A few perspectives we may have reviewed before talking:

Follow us @AdamSank, @meriamber, @dannylobell, and @MarkLinsenmayer.

So maybe instead of the “Maccabees,” my Bible camp’s Polish jokes instead made the “Canaanites” the butt of their humor. (Unless that actually again refers some modern, extant people…)

Hear more Pretty Much Pop. Support the show and hear bonus talking for this and nearly every other episode at or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. 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.

How The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Invented Psychological Horror Film & Brought Expressionism to the Screen (1920)

Even if you’ve never actually watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you’ve seen it. You’ve seen it throughout the century of cinema history since the film first came out, during which its influence has manifested again and again: in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley — not to mention much of the filmographies of auteurs like David Lynch and Tim Burton. These are just some of the films referenced by Tyler Knudsen, better known as CinemaTyler, in the video essay above, Dr. Caligari Did More Than Just Invent Horror Movies.”

“A case can be made that Caligari was the first true horror film,” writes Roger Ebert. In earlier cinematic scary stories, “characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. Caligari creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.”

The techniques employed to that end have also convinced certain historians of the medium to call the picture “the first example in cinema of German Expressionism, a visual style in which not only the characters but the world itself is out of joint.” Knudsen places this style in historical context, specifically that of Germany’s Weimar Republic, which was established after World War I and lasted until the rise of the Nazis.

Politically unstable but artistically fruitful, the Weimar period gave rise to a variety of new artistic attitudes, at once enthusiastic and overwhelmed. “Whereas impressionism tries to depict the real world, but only from a first glance or impression instead of focusing on details,” Knudsen says, “expressionism tries to get at the artist’s inner feelings rather than the actual appearance of the subject matter.” Hence the bizarre sets of Caligari, whose every angle looks designed to be maximally unconvincing. And yet the film is entirely faithful to its particular reality: not the one occupied by Weimar-era Germans or anyone else, but the one it conjures up in a manner only motion pictures can. 102 years later, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a haunting viewing experience — and one expressive of the sheer potential of cinema. You can watch it above.

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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.

RIP Jean-Luc Godard: Watch the French New Wave Icon Explain His Contrarian Worldview Back in the 1960s

For almost forty years, we’ve been losing the French New Wave. François Truffaut and Jacques Demy died young, back in the twentieth century; Henri Colpi, Éric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol followed in the early years of the twenty-first. The last decade alone saw the passings of Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, and Agnès Varda. But not until yesterday did la Nouvelle Vague‘s hardiest survivor, and indeed its defining figure, step off this mortal coil at the age of 91. Jean-Luc Godard didn’t launch the movement — that distinction belongs to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, from 1959 — but in 1960 his first feature Breathless made filmgoers the world over understand at once that the old rules no longer applied.

Yet for all his willingness to violate its conventions, Godard possessed a thoroughgoing respect for cinema. This perhaps came from his pre-auteurhood years he spent as a film critic in Paris, writing for the estimable Cahiers du cinéma (an institution to which Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette also contributed). “It made me love everything,” he says of his experience with criticism in the 1963 interview just above.

“It taught me not to be narrow-minded, not to ignore Renoir in favor of Billy Wilder.” A contrarian from the beginning, the young Godard disdained what he saw as the formalized and intellectualized products of the French film industry in favor of viscerally crowd-pleasing pictures made in the U.S.A.

“We Europeans have movies in our head, and Americans have movies in their blood,” says Godard in the 1965 British television interview above. “We have centuries and centuries of culture behind us. We have to think about things. We can’t just do things.” To “just do things” is perhaps the prime artistic desire driving his oeuvre, which spans seven decades and includes more than 40 feature films as well as many projects of less easily categorizable form. But this went with a lifelong immersion in classical European culture, evidenced by a filmography dense with references to its works. The weight of his formation and ambitions took a certain toll early on: “I’m already tired,” he says in a 1960 interview at Cannes, where Breathless was screening. Did the permanent revolutionary of cinema suspect, even then, how far he still had to go?

Related content:

An Introduction to Jean-Luc Godard’s Innovative Filmmaking Through Five Video Essays

How the French New Wave Changed Cinema: A Video Introduction to the Films of Godard, Truffaut & Their Fellow Rule-Breakers

Jean-Luc Godard Takes Cannes’ Rejection of Breathless in Stride in 1960 Interview

How Jean-Luc Godard Liberated Cinema: A Video Essay on How the Greatest Rule-Breaker in Film Made His Name

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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.

The Hidden History of “Hand Talk,” the Native American Sign Language That Predated ASL by Centuries

No one person can take credit for the invention of American Sign Language. Its history reaches back to the early 19th century, when forms of sign developed among Deaf communities in New England. Early attempts at a signed form of English that replicated phonetic sounds gave way to a pure sign language with no reference to speech, combining forms of sign used by Deaf communities in New England with LSF (Langue des Signes Française), a French system invented in 1760. By 1835, ASL had become the standard language of Deaf instruction. 20 years later over 40% of teachers were also themselves deaf users of ASL.

The “origins of the American Deaf-World” — as Harlan Lane, Richard Pillard, and Mary French write in an article for Sign Language Studies – has “major roots in a triangle of New England Deaf communities.” Here, the first school for the Deaf that used ASL was founded by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc; annual conventions brought together Deaf students and educators from all around the country; periodicals were founded; and, at one time, a Deaf commonwealth was proposed and “debated at length at the 1858 meeting of the New England Gallaudet Association.”

However, as the Vox video explainer points out, there’s another, far deeper history – notably the previous existence of Indigenous sign languages all over North America. One form of “Hand Talk” called Plains Indians Sign Language (PISL) represents “one of the oldest languages in North America.” It was not only a system of sign for the Deaf but also operated as a lingua franca among different language groups. PISL “was the means for commerce,” says PISL educator Lanny Real Bird. “It was the means for economics…. Plains Indian Sign Language was the medium for communication of intertribal nations.”

Melanie McKay-Cody, Professor at the University of Arizona and member of the Cherokee Nation West, shows how many of the gestures of Hand Talk more generally — or “North American Indian Sign Language” — can be found in ancient rock writing. Hand Talk has regional variations all over the continent, including a Northeast Indian Sign Language covering what is now New England, the upper Midwest, and the Mid-Atlantic. Researchers like McKay-Cody believe that this variant significantly influenced ASL through Native American children forced to attend the American School for the Deaf, which was then called the American Asylum for Dead Mutes.

The video presents compelling evidence for North American Indian Sign Language’s influence on ASL, and on American culture more generally, including a 1930 film of the Indian Sign Language Grand Council, “one of the largest gatherings of intertribal Indigenous leaders ever filmed.” Organized by General Hugh L. Scott, the purpose of the council was to preserve PISL. Concerned that “young men are not learning your sign language,” as he signed to the tribal leaders, Scott worried “it will disappear from this country.”

It so happened that ASL itself might have disappeared in the 1870s and 80s when fierce opponents of sign language — called “Oralists” and lead by Alexander Graham Bell — attempted to ban ASL and force Deaf students to communicate with speech and lip-reading. Graham’s mother was Deaf; his father invented a system of symbols called “Visible Speech” which Graham himself taught at a private school. Despite his efforts, ASL thrived.

As you’ll learn in the video, however, Scott and the tribal leaders he gathered had reason for concern all the way back in 1930. Few users of Indigenous sign languages remain after the generation of students forced to assimilate “were told,” McKay-Cody says, “that ASL was superior to whatever their Native sign was.”

Related Content:

How Ingenious Sign Language Interpreters Are Bringing Music to Life for the Deaf: Visualizing the Sound of Rhythm, Harmony & Melody

Native Lands: An Interactive Map Reveals the Indigenous Lands on Which Modern Nations Were Built

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

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

The Beauty & Ingenuity of the Pantheon, Ancient Rome’s Best-Preserved Monument: An Introduction

Asked to name our favorite concrete building, many of us would struggle to hold back a sneer. Though the copious use of that material by mid-twentieth-century style known as Brutalism has lately gained new generations of enthusiasts, we still more commonly hear it lamented as a source of architectural “monstrosities.” But as a building material, concrete goes back much further in history than the decades following World War II. To find a universally beloved example, we need merely look back to second-century Rome. There we find the Pantheon, looking much the same as it does in twenty-first century Rome today.

The best-preserved monument of ancient Rome, the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Greek Parthenon) has remained in continuous use, first as “a temple to the gods, then sanctified and made into a church. Now, of course, it’s a major tourist attraction.” So says scholar Steven Zucker in the Khan Academy video above, a brief photographic tour he leads alongside his colleague Beth Harris.

“As soon as you walk in, you notice that there’s a kind of obsession with circles, with rectangles, with squares, with those kinds of perfect geometrical shapes,” says Harris. “Because of the Roman use of concrete, the idea [obtained] that architecture could be something that shaped space and that could have a different kind of relationship to the viewer.”

You can go deeper into the Pantheon (built circa 125 AD) through the tour video by Youtuber Garrett Ryan, creator of the ancient-history channel Told in Stone. Calling the Pantheon “arguably the most influential building of all time,” he goes on to support that bold claim by examining a host of structural and aesthetic elements (not least its sublimely spherical rotunda) that would inspire architects in the Renaissance, a time dedicated to making use of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, and in some sense ever after. This may come as a surprise to viewers with only a casual interest in architecture — more than it would to the Emperor Hadrian, commissioner of the Pantheon, who seems not to have been given to great doubts about the durability of his legacy.

Related content:

A Virtual Tour of Ancient Rome, Circa 320 CE: Explore Stunning Recreations of The Forum, Colosseum and Other Monuments

An Animated Reconstruction of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Virtually-Recreated Streets

What Happened to the Missing Half of the Roman Colosseum?

Rome Reborn: Take a Virtual Tour of Ancient Rome, Circa 320 C.E.

Roman Architecture: A Free Online Course from Yale University

Italian Street Musician Plays Amazing Covers of Pink Floyd Songs, Right in Front of the Pantheon in Rome

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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