Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

28 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Ways of Seeing: John Berger’s Classic 1972 BBC Critique of Consumer Culture

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Gender roles, the elusive promises of advertising, and what oil painting has to do with the publicity machine.

Forty years ago this year, BBC premiered a series of four 30-minute films written and anchored by art critic and author John Berger. Soon adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing (public library) went on to become a landmark postmodernist critique of Western cultural aesthetics, exploring not only how visual culture came to dominate society but also how ideologies are created and transmitted via images — a subject of pressing timeliness in that golden age of photography.

In the third episode of the series, Berger looks at oil painting and its formative role in the creation of consumer culture, showing that paintings are, before anything else, objects to be bought and sold, and admonishing that “we should be somewhat wary of a love of art”:

Berger writes in the book:

Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. There are several reasons why these images use the language of oil painting.

Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

The final installment in the series explores the world of advertising and its perpetual promise of an even-elusive alternative way of life, depicted through a language of words and images that never cease to seduce us.

This series began by considering the tradition of the European oil painting. It has ended by us looking at publicity images today. Because I believe that, in many respects, these images continue that tradition. I’ve been critical of many things in that tradition, of our culture, of some of the values which it celebrates, and I’ve illustrated my arguments by using the modern means of reproduction. But, finally, what I’ve show and what I’ve said, like everything else that is shown or said through these means of reproduction, must be judged against your own experience.

But one of Berger’s most memorable and lasting contributions is the discussion of how media culture shapes gender politics and woman as object. Though the series was produced four decades ago — shortly after the Good Girls Revolt, a time of tectonic shifts for women’s rights — and much has changed since, it remains a priceless piece of cultural anthropology, as well as a stark reminder of how deep-seated some of our cultural conditioning is, and how much more is still to change if we are to transcend those burdensome bequests:

To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Ways of Seeing is part The Century of the Self, part Christ to Coke: How Image Became Icon, and wholly recommended in its entirety.

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22 AUGUST, 2012

Story of a Writer: Ray Bradbury on Storytelling and Human Nature in 1963 Documentary

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“Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”

Beloved science fiction author Ray Bradbury, a passionate advocate of doing what you love and writing with joy, was the subject David L. Wolper’s 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer, in which he shares a wealth of insight on writing, some advice on perseverance, and his singular lens on the storyteller’s task. Enjoy.

Speaking to a group of students, Bradbury offers some priceless, timeless advice on the life of purpose:

The first year I made nothing, the second year I made nothing, the third year I made 10 dollars, the fourth year I made 40 dollars. I remember these. I got these indelibly stamped in there. The fifth year I made 80. The sixth year I made 200. The seventh year I made 800. Eighth year, 1,200. Ninth year, 2,000. Tenth year, 4,000. Eleventh year, 8,000 …

Just get a part-time job! Anything that’s half way decent! An usher in a theater … unless you’re a mad man, you can’t make do in the art fields! You’ve gotta be inspired and mad and excited and love it more than anything else in the world!

It has to be this kind of, ‘By God, I’ve gotta do it! I’ve simply gotta do it!’ If you’re not this excited, you can’t win!

On the vital role of subconscious processing in creativity:

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle — [these] are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.

I never consciously set out to write a certain story. The idea must originate somewhere deep within me and push itself out in its own time. Usually, it begins with associations. Electricity. The sea. Life started in the sea. Could the miracle occur again? Could life take hold in another environment? An electro-mechanical environment?

On significant objects as a storytelling device:

A writer’s past is the most important thing he has. Sometimes an object, a mask, a ticket stub — anything at all — helps me remember a whole experience, and out of that may come an idea for a story. So I’m a packrat — I’ve kept everything I’ve ever cared about since childhood.

On the practicalities of making a living with writing:

A story sells itself — but not when it’s sitting in the files. A writer needs an agent to go out into the marketplace and sell his wares.

On driving — which I, as a sworn lifelong non-driver, particularly enjoyed, and which Bradbury revisited four decades later in a rare 2003 audio interview:

I never learned to drive. As a kid, I saw too many fatal accidents and I grew up hating the idea. Automobiles slaughter 40,000 people a year, maim a hundred thousand more, and bring out the worst in men. Any society where a natural man — the pedestrian — becomes the intruder, and an unnatural men encased in a steel shell becomes his molester, is a science fiction nightmare.

On storytelling:

A story should be like a river, flowing and never stopping, your readers passengers on a boat, whirling downstream through constantly refreshing and changing scenery.

On the necessity of shifting mental tasks, taking creative breaks, and making “no effort of a direct nature” on the creative problem at hand:

Painting fulfills a need to be non-intellectual. There are times when we have to get our brains out in our fingers.

On motive, an alternative perspective on George Orwell’s four universal motives for creation:

I’m a storyteller — that’s all I’ve never tried to be. I guess in ancient times, I would’ve been somewhere in the marketplace, alongside the magician, delighting the people. I’d rather delight and entertain than anything else.

On the perils and promise of space exploration and our the relationship between technological progress and human nature in general:

We live in a time of paradox — man is confronted with a terrifying, magnificent choice: destroying himself utterly to the atom, or survive utterly with the same means. Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer. The very real fear is that now he’ll destroy himself just as he’s about to attain his dreams. Today we stand on the rim of space — man is about to flow outwards, to spread his seed to far new worlds — if he can conquer the seed of his own self-destruction. But man, at his best, is a mortal, and from his beginnings, he has dreamed of reaching the stars. I’m convinced he will.

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13 JULY, 2012

How a Bicycle Is Made

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All you ever wondered about how handlebars are bent, why mudguards exist, and where lubricant comes from.

The bicycle is indisputably one of humanity’s greatest inventions — a feat of design and engineering, a royal mode of transportation, a global canvas for art, a metaphor for computers, a vehicle for both subjugating and emancipating women. But how, exactly, does a bicycle come to life? This wonderful 1945 short film from the British Council traces the process of how a Raleigh bicycle is made, from raw material to the intricacies of craftsmanship.

Careful designing, reliable materials, and expert craftsmanship in every stage of manufacture turn out a British bicycle second to none.

Doobybrain

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10 JULY, 2012

North: How a Small Arctic Town Became a Global Epicenter of Climate Science

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A cinematic history of climate change by way of the North Pole.

From British filmmaker, designer, and storyteller Temujin Doran — who has previously delighted us with this cinematic homage to language, some advice to sink in slowly, a meditation on the art of protest, and a thoughtful take on the distortions of democracy — comes North, an exquisite short documentary about how Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Circle, became an epicenter of climate change science after the Svalbard Act was signed in 1920, an international treaty recognizing Norwegian sovereignty over the islands and declaring the whole region a demilitarized zone.

Doran shot most of the footage during a residency in the Arctic Circle in 2010.

In 1969, as the Swiss were marveling at the hazel trees that had been flowering since January, two men stared back at the world from the surface of the moon and took a photograph of the blue-rimmed planet they lived on — a small fragile planet, all they had, wrapped in life, yet enveloped by war — perhaps the most beautiful image ever made.

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05 JULY, 2012

Epilogue: Book-Lovers on the Future of Print

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“The central role of the bookseller is curatorial and….the intervening years have increased that role in terms of importance.”

EPILOGUE is a lyrical student documentary about the future of books by Hannah Ryu Chung, featuring a number of interviews with independent bookstore owners, magazine art directors, printers, bookbinders, letterpress artists, and other champions of bibliophilia. The conversation, though beautifully cinematic, bespeaks the classic deficiency of the same old print vs. digital debate — earnest enthusiasm and genuine passion for the printed page, but underpinned by stubborn reductionism of digital possibility and a certain self-importance. There is practically no exploration of how the love of printed books can, and does, live and thrive online — this isn’t a world in which our only choice is how to read, pitting analog vs. digital; it’s a world in which the more urgent and important choice is the one we’ve always faced: what to read and, above all, why to read. Increasingly, these decisions are being made online, whether their end objects manifest in bits or atoms.

Print, since 1886 — which would be Otto Mergenthaler invents the linotype — between here and now, the history of print has been all about change.

[ … ]

I feel like the central role of the bookseller has not changed: The central role of the bookseller is curatorial and I feel, if anything, the intervening years have increased that role in terms of importance.” ~ Brian Morgan, Walrus Magazine

The film’s Flickr stream is a treasure trove of book candy:

Monkey's Paw Bookshop, Toronto, ON

Eliot's Bookshop, Toronto, ON

KOZO Letterpress Studio Gallery, Akemi Nishidera

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