Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

08 FEBRUARY, 2013

Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction

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How the father of science fiction presaged airplanes, submersible warfare, space travel, and fuel cells.

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” Jules Verne, born on this day in 1828 and often regarded as the father of science fiction, wrote in his masterpiece Around the World in Eighty Days. And, indeed, many of the seemingly fanciful concepts Verne imagined were made real in the decades that followed. He conceived of an underwater vehicle “all powered by electricity!” at a time when only prototypes of submarines existed and electricity was known but not of wide use; he presaged the use of such a high-powered submersible in warfare and scientific research; with the help of an illustrator-friend, he envisioned a propeller-driven aircraft when hot-air balloons were the height of aviation; he depicted weightlessness when zero gravity was still a scientific guess and put humans on the moon a century before mankind’s giant step. But far more than a gifted fiction writer, Verne was also an amateur astronomer and amateur scientist. Obsessive research and fact-checking were core to his writing, and his immense curiosity about science and technology frequently drove him to seek out famous scientists and inventors passing through town.

Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction is a fascinating Discovery documentary, chronicling Verne’s seminal contributions to science fiction and his strikingly accurate predictions of the technologies that came to life a century after his death, as well as how he used his fiction as escapism from his troubled family and why he ended up destroying his own legacy.

Verne creates Nemo’s high-tech Nautilus at a time when even a can-opener is considered an exciting new concept.

Complement with the beautifully illustrated 1964 biography Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future.

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06 FEBRUARY, 2013

Obey: How the Rise of Mass Propaganda Killed Populism

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“A populace that can no longer find the words to articulate what is happening to it is cut off from rational discourse.”

British filmmaker and illustrator Temujin Doran has previously delighted and stimulated us with his visual love letters to language and illustration, his opinionated meditations on democracy and the art of protest, and his poetic documentaries about a small Arctic town and a dying occupation. His latest film, made entirely out of footage found on the web, is based on the book The Death of the Liberal Class (public library; UK) by cultural critic and foreign correspondent Chris Hedges and explores how the rise of the Corporate State precipitated everything from income inequality to environmental collapse to the mainstream media’s metamorphosis from a tool of public service into a weapon of private interest.

We unite behind brands, behind celebrities, rather than behind nations. We have become more than nation states — we are corporation states.

The opening of the film comes from the epigraph to The Death of the Liberal Class, in which George Orwell reminds us:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Complement with Adam Curtis’s excellent BBC chronicle of consumerism, The Century of the Self.

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30 JANUARY, 2013

Why Birds Sing

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Science vs. romance, or how evolutionary theory holds up against poetry and philosophy.

In How Music Works, David Byrne cites some scientifically controversial theories suggesting that music is a spontaneous rather than adaptive phenomenon and birds sing simply because they enjoy singing. At the front lines of the joy theory of bird song is new-age philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg, who argues that bird song has the formal properties of music and, just like human music, is motivated by pleasure — another manifestation of the emotional lives of animals. In the preface to his 2006 book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Birdsong (public library; UK), Rothenberg writes:

As a philosopher, I have long been wrapped in the question of what humanity must do to find a home in the natural world. The seemingly innocent topic of bird song shows us that we need a combination of many visions of nature to make sense of the whole. … I hope to inspire more scientists and musicians in engaged interaction with the natural world.

In 2007, BBC set out to pit the two leading explanations evolutionary biologists have of why birds sing — to attract mates and repel rivals — against Rothenberg’s theories of pleasure-driven bird song. The result is this fascinating documentary, available online in its entirety, with some delightful surprise-cameos by Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, and other celebrated musicians, artists and poets.

Why shouldn’t they be singing for pleasure? Who are we to assume that this kind of animal doesn’t experience joy?

Whether or not your fully subscribe to Rothenberg’s theories, his book comes with a twelve-track music compilation, which alone is more than worth it — a mesmerizing mashup of natural birdsong and virtuosic instrumentation.

Animal Madness @wendymac

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