Brain Pickings

Obsolete Occupations: 7 Short Films

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What fruit machines have to do with the last samurai armer and Louis Armstrong.

Buckminster Fuller famously said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” And the new models of the digital age have been making increasingly more old-timey crafts obsolete. But there seems to be something remarkably poetic about these dying professions. Over the past few months, we been noticing– and noting — a number of beautifully shot microdocumentaries romanticizing this impending obsolescence. Today, we’ve curated seven of our favorites.

THE ARCHIVE

Paul Mawhinney has the world’s largest record collection. And 83% of the music he owns is so rare you can’t find it anywhere else, at any price. But due to health issues and the general decline of the record industry, he is being forced to sell it. The Archive captures his touching and heartbreaking story, hinting at the tragic loss of something very real and rich as we rush all too hastily into our digital lust.

The music is a hundred times better on a vinyl album. And I’ve had problems with the kids, because they don’t believe me, they don’t believe that’s true. First of all, imagine this: They move the music by computers and what they do is they chop off the highs, they chop off the lows, and then they compress everything. How could that possibly be equal to the open sound you get on a record with the basses and the highs and the fullness in the middle?”

THE SHOE BLACK

Assen Ivanov Yordanov has been a shoe black for 40 years. The Roma widower he has been working at the Central Train Station in Sofia, Bulgaria, since the early 1990′s, supporting his three daughters, eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. Despite the inaccurate translation, which waters down some of the most poetic undertones of Yordanov’s words, The Shoe Black offers a fascinating glimpse of a lifestyle so remote to most of us, both geographically and ideologically, that it seems almost otherworldly.

I thank God for my children, who grew up even though I was just a shoe black.”

FACTS ABOUT PROJECTION

We’ve been longtime fans of British filmmaker Temujin Doran. In Facts About Projection, he takes us behind the scenes of his day job as a projectionist, which he truly loves and celebrates as the fulfillment of a childhood dream yet recognizes for its imminent obsolescence.

I switch on the neon lights, which turn on like a fruit machine, and then we let the customers in and try to self them embarrassingly overpriced drinks and snacks that apparently can double their enjoyment of the film.”

TAIWAN’S LAST SWORD-MAKER

Once considered the work of God, sword-making in Taiwan has today been reduced to one 65-year-old man. He spends months on end refining a single blade, earning $20-30 a month. Best known for crafting the Green Destiny Sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the skilled sword-maker cares less about fame than he does about passing on the ancient tradition.

I was only about 13 when I started learning from my father, who learned from his. Every day, I’ve tried to better the skills passed down through the generations.”

PRINTER’S BLOCK

We love all things letterpress. (Even though Apple may have just made the fringe craft painfully mainstream.) Naturally, anyone who makes a career out of not only doing it but also preserving its heritage is our hero. Printer’s Block is the story of Master Printer Robert Warner, who prints with the famous 1901 clamshell press, The Golding Jobber, out of his studio in Lower Manhattan’s historic South Street Seaport district.

If I’m printing a hundred cards, they’ll be seen by at least a thousand people because they’ll be sent out into the world. And to be able to send letterpress-printed images through the mail is just my idea of heaven.”

DAVID SMITH: SIGN ARTIST

Glass embosser David Smith is one of Britain’s last remaining glass artists. His reverse glass signs and decorative mirrors are a thing of beauty. In this short documentary, Smith takes us behind the scenes of his creative process and offers a fascinating glimpse of his truly masterful technique, bespeaking a level of patience rare, if not extinct, in the productivity-obsessed, multitasking-manic timescale of today.

You gotta have patience to do the word. Especially when you get to the cutting — you get one chance, really. You can tell when the cut’s going well and just hearing the noises, you get used to certain cuts the wheels make.”

WILL

Will Gains was born in Detroit and spent half a century in England. In his eighties, he remains one of the best tap dancers in the world, having danced alongside some of history’s most iconic musicians — Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan. Will is part of a Channel 4 series of three-minute shorts titled My Home Is My Shoes, documenting how dance has shaped different people’s lives.

Everything haven’t gotta be right, everything can come right when I’m dancing. My home is my shoes.”

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