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Posts Tagged ‘film

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads”*…

Olivia Fanny Tonge , A Toad, c. 1905

Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature – has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time – at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl…

From George Orwell (in 1946): “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” From The Orwell Foundation, via Berfrois.

* Marianne Moore

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As we appreciate amphibians, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that cartoonist John Randolph (J.R.) Bray first exhibited his animated film, “The Artist’s Dream” (later retitled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” for reasons that will be obvious).  Bray was not the first animator; indeed, he was following purposefully in the steps of fellow cartoonist Windsor McCay, who had added animations of “Little Nemo” and “How a Mosquito Operates” to his stage presentations.  But Bray earned a place in the history of the art by being among the first– arguably the first– animator to organize his work and his studio according to the principles of industrial production (that’s to say, with division of labor)– an approach that has survived to this day.

Bray

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“There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told”*…

… and some that do:

Edgar A. Poe landed in Philadelphia in 1838. He had been raised among the elite of Richmond, Virginia, but in Philadelphia he was an impoverished outsider seeking recognition and stability as a professional writer. Strikingly, Poe’s first publication in Philadelphia—and the one that sold the most in his lifetime—was a scientific textbook…

Poe’s best-selling book during his lifetime was a guide to seashells, and The Conchologist’s First Book was good enough to elevate the entire field: the fascinating story in this excerpt from John Tresch’s The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science (available June 15).

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we comb the beach, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that motorists lined up for the opening of America’s first drive-in theater, in Camden, NJ.

Park-In Theaters–the term “drive-in” came to be widely used only later–was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden. Reportedly inspired by his mother’s struggle to sit comfortably in traditional movie theater seats, Hollingshead came up with the idea of an open-air theater where patrons watched movies in the comfort of their own automobiles. He then experimented in the driveway of his own house with different projection and sound techniques, mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinning a screen to some trees, and placing a radio behind the screen for sound. He also tested ways to guard against rain and other inclement weather, and devised the ideal spacing arrangement for a number of cars so that all would have a view of the screen. [The first feature was a 1932 film, Wives Beware]

The young entrepreneur received a patent for the concept in May of 1933 and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. less than a month later, with an initial investment of $30,000. Advertising it as entertainment for the whole family, Hollingshead charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar…

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[For a more contemporary photographic update on the phenomenon, see here.]

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“Trivia is a fact without a home”*…

What makes for a good trivia question? There are some common-sense requirements. It should be clearly written, accurate, and gettable for at least some people. (Acceptable degrees of difficulty vary.) It must be properly “pinned” to its answer, meaning that there are no correct responses other than those the questioner is seeking. (This can be trickier than you might think.) In the opinion of Shayne Bushfield, the creator and sole full-time employee of LearnedLeague, an online trivia community that he has run since 1997, people should recognize the answer to the question as something worth knowing, as having a degree of importance. “Trivia is not the right word for it,” he told me recently. “Because trivia technically means trivial, or not worth knowing, and it’s the opposite.”

The idea that the answers to trivia questions are worth knowing is a matter of some debate, and has been more or less since trivia itself was born. The pop-culture pastime of quizzing one another on a variety of subjects as a kind of game is fundamentally a phenomenon of the past hundred years or so: its first appearance as a fad seems to date to 1927, when “Ask Me Another! The Question Book” was published. As the “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings notes in his book “Brainiac,” “Ask Me Another” was written by “two out-of-work Amherst alumni” living in Manhattan, who “were shocked to find that, despite their fancy new diplomas and broad liberal educations, the job world wasn’t beating a path to their door.” Their book was a hit, and newspapers began running quiz columns, a follow-up of sorts to the national crossword craze of a couple of years before. Quiz shows came to radio and television about a decade later. But none of these games were called trivia until a pair of Columbia undergraduates, in the mid-sixties, shared their version of the game, first in the school’s Daily Spectator and later in their own popular quiz book, which really did prize the trivial: the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew, the name of the snake that appeared in “We’re No Angels,” and so on. This version of trivia was all about the stuff one had read, listened to, or watched as a kid, and its appeal, according to one of the Columbia pair, was concentrated among “young adults who on the one hand realize they have misspent their youth and yet, on the other hand, do not want to let go of it.” The purpose of playing, he explained, was experiencing the feeling produced when an answer finally came to you, “an effect similar to the one that might be induced by a pacifier.”

Presumably, it has always been satisfying to know things, but the particular pleasure of trivia seems to depend on two relatively recent developments: the constant relaying of new information (i.e., mass media) and the mass production of people who learn a lot of things they don’t really need to know. (College attendance began steadily rising in the nineteen-twenties, before booming after the Second World War.) It is sometimes asked whether the popularity of trivia will diminish in the age of Google and Siri, but those earlier developments have only accelerated, and trivia seems, if anything, more popular than ever. In contrast to the mindless ease of looking up the answer to a question online, there’s a gratifying friction in pulling a nearly forgotten fact from your own very analog brain…

The quietly oppositional delight of knowing things you don’t need to know: “The Pleasures of LearnedLeague and the Spirit of Trivia.”

Don Rittner

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As we revel in the rarefied, we might celebrate the answer to a tough trivia question: today is the birthday of John McClane, the protagonist of the Die Hard films; he was “born” on this date in 1955.

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Written by LW

May 23, 2021 at 1:01 am

“I want people to walk into a movie theater and be transported to a different world”*…

In the fall of 1997, a blurb appeared in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. AMC Theaters was launching a “brand new concept… a fancy interior that transforms the otherwise plain theater into a science-fiction, high-tech experience,” replete with decorative planets, the colors teal, purple, and yellow, and a “generally upbeat design.” Its name: the Odyssey…

If you went to the movies around this time anywhere in the United States, you might’ve registered a similar aesthetic. Like cartoon corporatism and hypermodernism getting smashed through a cultural particle collider. It was ambient and nearly universal, and yet absolutely the opposite of timeless. One year into life without movie theaters and you might begin to wonder: What was that?

You might start thinking first about the carpets. Those frenzied, high-octane, blacklight carpets that took over movie theaters for a small, fixed period of time and then mostly just… went away. Like an obscure one-hit-wonder earworm, the carpets might keep bugging you, prompting you to wonder: How is it that we, as a society, spent that much free time in these bizarre wall-to-wall settings without ever wondering what acid-doused party monster’s fever dreamt them up? Who decided this is what movie theaters should look like? What was this “style” even called?

Do you think what you’re about to read is simply, like, an etymology of carpet? If only. If those carpets could talk, they’d tell you a story about late-90s economics, showbiz, multiplexes, and an era of world-building that changed moviegoing as we know it—maybe more than any other… 

If Y2K-Era Movie Theater Carpets Could Talk“: behind the ecstatic aesthetic of squiggles, stars, and confetti.

Genndy Tartakovsky

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As we settle on the extra-large tub of popcorn, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1941 that Orson Welles’ first feature film, Citizen Kane, premiered at the Palace Theater in New York. A quasi-biography (based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, with elements of those of Joseph Pulitzer and Chicago tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick), it was nominated for Academy Awards in nine categories, winning Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Herman Mankiewicz and Welles.

Considered by many critics and filmmakers to be the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane was voted number 1 in five consecutive British Film Institute Sight & Sound polls of critics, and it topped the American Film Institute’s 100 Years … 100 Movies list in 1998, as well as its 2007 update.

Citizen Kane is particularly praised for Gregg Toland‘s cinematography, Robert Wise‘s editing, Bernard Herrmann‘s music, and its narrative structure, all of which were innovative and have been precedent-setting.

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“I daydream about a high school where everybody plays the harmonica”*…

Lee Oskar, seen here performing with WAR in 1970, was so frustrated with the quality of Hohner’s harmonicas at the time that he eventually founded his own harmonica company

In the late 1960s, as the general manager of Don Wehr’s Music City in San Francisco, Reese Marin sold guitars, drums, keyboards, and amps to the biggest psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. His customers ranged from Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service to Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. Guitarists as musically diverse as Carlos Santana and Steve Miller could find what they were looking for at Don Wehr’s; so did jazz virtuosos George Benson and Barney Kessel, who would walk down Columbus Avenue from Broadway in North Beach—where the jazz clubs competed with strip joints for tourists—whenever they were in town.

These legends were some of the most demanding and finicky musicians on the planet. So it should have been easy for Marin to sell a couple of $5 harmonicas to Lee Oskar, whose melodic riffs on hits like “Cisco Kid,” “The World is a Ghetto,” and “Low Rider” gave one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, WAR, its signature sound. Oskar, however, heard imperfections in his chosen instrument that Marin didn’t know existed. Oskar was not tentative in his quest for what he considered a “gig-worthy” harmonica. “I spent all my money on harmonicas,” Oskar told me recently, “just to find 1 out of 10 that was any good.”

Marin says Oskar was exaggerating, but not by much. He was actually behind the counter when Oskar made his first of many visits to Don Wehr’s and asked to play all of the harmonicas the store had in stock in C, A, F, G, and E—the keys where rock bands live and die. On any given day, Marin maintained an inventory of 10 to 20 harmonicas in each key for each model they sold. That was a lot of harmonicas for Oskar to put his mouth on, so Marin decided to be firm. “I said, ‘You can’t play ’em unless you buy ’em,’” Marin told me, “and he said, ‘I don’t mind.’”

Shrugging, Marin rang him up, then Oskar proceeded to play every single harmonica on the sales counter, which he then divided into two piles—one for the gig-worthy harmonicas and another for the rejects, which were 80 to 90 percent of the total. “When he was done, I said, ‘Lee, what do you want me to do with all these harmonicas?’ and he said, ‘I don’t really care. I can’t use them.’” Marin ended up giving away a lot of used Lee Oskar-played harmonicas. “Lee did this over and over, every time he was in town,” says Marin. “It was crazy.”

Until relatively recently, playing a harmonica was sort of crazy, too, since doing so was essentially the same thing as destroying it. For harmonicas like the Hohner Marine Bands Oskar road-tested that day at Don Wehr’s, a player’s saliva would soak into the wood inside the instrument, causing it to swell. At the end of a gig, the wood would dry out and shrink. This process would repeat itself over and over, until the wood had swelled and shrunk so many times it would split and splinter, often causing a player’s lips to bleed. “I used to hack off the ends of the combs on my harmonicas with a carpet knife,” recalls Steve Baker, a London-born harmonica player and an authority on the Marine Band. Most players would never do that, of course, content to just toss their worn-out wrecks in the trash.

For Hohner, this must have seemed like a very good business model. After all, the Marine Band had been Hohner’s most popular harmonica brand almost since 1896, the year it was introduced. In the United States, in the first half of the 20th century, American folk musicians and blues artists alike embraced the Marine Band as their own, giving the instrument originally designed to play traditional German folk tunes an aura of cool. With sales soaring after World War II, Hohner found itself making an instrument everybody wanted, even though it needed to be replaced regularly. How could a manufacturer’s product get any better than that?

Well, answered harmonica players and a small but influential community of harmonica customizers, how about an instrument that doesn’t wear out, is built to be serviced and tuned to a musician’s needs, and is made out of materials that don’t cause our lips to bleed?

In the 1970s, Lee Oskar and Steve Baker were at the forefront of a movement to get those questions answered…

In the 1970s, Hohner, the world’s largest harmonica manufacturer, changed its flagship model– and in the process, its signature sound. A few musicians and harp customizers waged a quiet rebellion. And they won. The full (and elegantly told) story: “The Return of the Harmonica.”

* Richard Brautigan

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As we blow, we might recall that it was on this date in 1979 that the classic film Rock and Roll High School was first publicly shown. (Some sources report that the movie opened on August 4 or August 24 of that year– and “officially,” one of those dates is likely right.  But according to director Allan Arkush, in an interview with The Village Voice, the movie played in April in Texas and New Mexico, and did not reach New York City– and national consciousness– until August.)

A Roger Corman production featuring a remarkable cast, it is nonetheless probably best remembered as “the movie with The Ramones.” Amusingly, Corman originally wanted Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren to play the band, but schedules didn’t mesh, so he was forced to find an alternative… at which point Paul Bartel (who played a key role in the film) suggested The Ramones.

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Written by LW

April 25, 2021 at 1:01 am

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