Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

18 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Frank Capra: 5 Essential Films

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What war propaganda has to do with vintage Hollywood romance and the American political process.

114 years ago today, Frank Capra was born in Sicily, but soon enough immigrated to the United States — to Los Angeles, to be precise — where he grew up, studied chemical engineering, and became a nationalized US citizen in 1920. Throughout the next decade, Capra threw himself into writing and directing silent films, then switched to making “talkies.” By 1934, he was reeling off a string of classics — films that exuded an unbounded optimism that’s quintessentially American: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — they’re all part of the great Capra filmography. And, of course, you can’t overlook a string of propaganda documentaries that Capra directed (along with John Huston and John Ford) to galvanize support for World War II.

Thanks to Google Video and the Internet Archive, you can now revisit five Capra films online, plus many other great films from the same era. Let’s give you a quick tour:

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

This romantic comedy, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, won every major Academy Award in 1934. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. It was a first, and the feat has only been repeated twice since.

MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

This epic drama features Jimmy Stewart in one of his finest performances. Today, the film inspires the fanciful belief that one individual can effect change in Washington. But, when it was first released, American politicians and journalists attacked the film for merely suggesting that corruption might influence the American political process.

MEET JOHN DOE

Although less well known than other Capra classics, the American Film Institute ranks Meet John Doe 49th on its list called 1100 Years… 100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies. Needless to say, It’s a Wonderful Life, the all-time Capra gem, sits at the very top of that list.

WHY WE FIGHT: PRELUDE TO WAR

Once World War II broke out, Capra was commissioned by the US government to direct a seven episode propaganda series called “Why We Fight.” Prelude to War appears above. Other titles in the sequence include The Nazi Strike, The War Comes to America and beyond.

TUNISIAN VICTORY

Finally, later in the war, Capra was called upon again by his government. The mission this time was to explain what was happening on the war front in North Africa. And that he did. Tunisian Victory hit theaters in 1944.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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18 MAY, 2011

Field Notes: A Glimpse Inside Great Explorers’ Notebooks

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On the singular joys of observing nature firsthand, or the best way to draw a bilaterally symmetrical sphinx moth.

In our age of screens, pencil and paper have lost some of their cultural status, but a new publication wants to remind us of their value in recording and understanding our world.

Just out from Harvard University Press, Field Notes on Science and Nature is as much a scientific travelogue as a celebration of traditional methodologies for making sense of our natural environment. Full of beautiful reproductions of original journal pages, Field Notes takes us from Baja, California with eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman to the Serengeti with renowned mammalogist George Schaller.

In the words of the book’s editor, Michael Canfield (himself a biologist at Harvard), we can all “peer over the shoulders of outstanding field scientists and naturalists” through their brilliant annotations and illustrations.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

The twelve essays in Field Notes were written by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology, and their enthusiasm and experience are contagious. For the amateur naturalists among us, the compilation also contains essays on “Note-Taking for Pencilophobes” and basic instructions on color theory and sketching.

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

The simple satisfactions of mindfully documenting our surroundings are probably best summed up by E.O. Wilson, who penned the book’s introduction:

If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.”

Let Field Notes be your guide to seeing both the wonders of biology and your own backyard with new eyes.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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17 MAY, 2011

A Rare Look at Japan: Hand-Colored Images from the 1920s

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What Geisha parlors have to do with arranged marriages, Buddhist priests and earthquake recovery.

It’s been an incredibly trying year for Japan. Tragedy has brought a proud nation to its knees, making it difficult — yet all the more essential — to remember this ancient culture’s history of beauty and dignity. These remarkable hand-colored images from the early 20th century, unearthed from Oregon State University’s public domain archive, offer a rare look at Japan’s rich cultural legacy. From Tokyo city life to countryside landscapes to worship to play, the images — with descriptions from the verbosely titled 1923 educational book Japan at First Hand, Her Islands, Their People, the Picturesque, the Real, with Latest Facts and Figures on their War-Time Trade Expansion and Commercial Outreach, in which they originally appeared — emante Japan’s timeless pride and breathtaking beauty sleeping beneath the rubble of the recent devastation, awaiting awakening.

Learning To Write

'No such national furore for education has ever been seen elsewhere as that which has gripped the mind of Japan. Japan proper had a population of 59,138,900 as reported October 1, 1924. At the same time her school enrollment from kindergarten through the university was given as 8,221,615. Over a million and a quarter complete the elementary school work each year. There are sixteen colleges and universities, five being imperial universities. The largest of these -- Tokyo Imperial University-- had a student body of 5,283 and 414 faculty members in the autumn of 1924.'

The Barrel Maker

'This is one of the important trades of Japan. The average wage of coopers is only about fifty cents a day.'

Fujiyama from Omiya Village

Geisha Giving Entertainment

'The geisha houses, rather humble, certainly unpretentious abodes, group themselves in certain quarters, and the hiring of the girls is done methodically through a central office. The hiring should be accomplished by the restaurant keeper or by the housewife as early in the afternoon as possible, but not after six in the evening, unless absolutely unavoidable. For the preparation of the Geisha is an elaborate affair from the wonderful coiling and adorning of her hair to the fit of her white, heelless shoes. They are taken in rickishas (sic) to the house of entertainment and carried home in the same way when all is over.'

Danjuro

'Danjuro the greatest actor, the Irving of Japan, in his famous role of Kangoneho.'

Geisha Girl Playing the Samisen

'The geisha or singing girl to the Western mind fills out the romantic ideal of modern Japan. To the native she is simply a sublimated waitress with dancing and singing trimmings, but she is also a chosen vehicle of Japanese romance. Visions of her dressed in showy silken robes waving a large fan, her black hair marvelously coifed, a fixed smile on her face and moving in rhythmic steps with a special flowing elegance of gesture, rise before those who have seen her at her high functions. Ever to the accompaniment of the tinkling strings of the of the samisen and the full beat of the tsuzumi that picture comes back to the foreigner as the flower of his reminiscence of Japan.'

Tokyo

'Tokyo, the capital of the Empire is one of the foremost cities of the Orient. In spite of the terrible destruction wrought by the earthquake of September 1, 1923, Tokyo will soon be a greater city than before the earthquake. Tokyo city proper under census of August, 1925, had a population of 2,036,136. Including suburbs -- that is, Greater Tokyo -- the people numbered 3,859,674.'

Bridge of Iwakuni

Buddhist Priest

'When the Buddha priest of Japan seats himself among his congregation to preach, he wears the simplest of robes, a white or sober-hued cassock, but when he opens the sutra or recites the litany, his vestments are of brocade that would serve worthily to drape a throne. Buddhist priests live on contributions of their parishioners and on the income of their lands, now greatly reduced.'

Graves of Forty-Seven Ronins

'The 47 Ronins committed suicide to escape death by the executioner and in death have become popular heroes.'

Winter Costume

'The costume of women in winter is mostly of silk, coarse or fine according to the means of the wearer. The shoes are raised on pieces of wood, like stilts, about three inches above the ground.'

A Village Waterwheel

Japanese Woman

'The woman is taught from girlhood to be modest, retiring and obedient as daughter and wife, and as a rule she is almost certain to avoid spinsterhood, so well-planned is the marriage machinery in Japan. Courtship is unknown as we know it. The bringing about of marriages regularly the work of a private go-between, who brings the young people together after the parents on both sides, with additional precautionary inquisitorial go-between, have agreed to a proposed match.'

A Geisha House

'A Geisha House is not generally a large establishment-- six or seven to a dozen Geisha's and half as many musumes make it up. The mother or keeper is generally an old geisha, often a once celebrated dancer and entertainer, as one may guess fro the many middle-aged or aging men who will sit down beside her and swap stories with her about merry old times of other days.'

For more Japan love, don’t forget the lovely 2:46: Aftershocks “quakebook” project — a Twitter-sourced anthology of art and essays by and for Japan, benefiting earthquake and tsunami relief.

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