Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘film’

20 AUGUST, 2013

This Is Israel: Miroslav Sasek’s Iconic Vintage Children’s Book, as an Animated Short Film

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A bittersweet time machine of vibrant illustration.

Celebrated Czech emigre architect-turned-illustrator and author Miroslav Sasek is best known for his now-iconic This Is… series, which was enormously influential in the history of children’s picturebooks. (His This Is New York was among my 10 favorite books on NYC in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library.) Created between 1959 and 1970, the books explore some of the world’s most beloved cities in vibrant vintage illustrations, bringing the urban organism to life through charming anecdotal details.

In the 1960s, four 12-minute animated films were produced to accompany some of the books, using the signature “iconographic” method of Weston Woods Studios to create the illusion of animation from still images, including one based on This Is Israel (public library) — a bittersweet and perhaps idyllic piece of cultural memory, at once timeless and dated as we confront a half-century of conflict in the very land Sasek so beautifully depicted:

The entire This Is… series is a treasure — highly recommended.

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10 JULY, 2013

David Lynch on Using Meditation as an Anchor of Creative Integrity

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“It’s a joke to think that a film is going to mean anything if somebody else fiddles with it.”

“Mindfulness meditation is essentially cognitive fitness with a humanist face,” it’s been said. And what more essential cognitive fitness than that required to stay sane in a world that constantly demands more and more?

In 2005, the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, held the first annual “David Lynch Weekend for Peace and Meditation” — an initiative by the David Lynch Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars in teaching Transcendental Meditation techniques to students around the world. Lynch gave the keynote at the conference, which was followed by the typical audience Q&A. In this short video, he answers a young man’s question about the age-old tension between commercial pressure and creative integrity, pointing to meditation as a gateway to shaking free of the creativity-squashing discomfort that comes from practical pressures like deadlines and budgets. A year later, Lynch would come to collect his wisdom on meditation and creativity in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (public library).

I came from painting. And a painter has none of those worries. A painter paints a painting. No one comes in and says, “You’ve got to change that blue.” It’s a joke to think that a film is going to mean anything if somebody else fiddles with it. If they give you the right to make the film, they owe you the right to make it the way you think it should be — the filmmaker. The filmmaker decides on every single element, every single word, every single sound, every single thing going down that highway through time. Otherwise, it won’t hold together. When there’s even a little hint of pressure coming from someplace else — like deadlines or going overbudget… — this affects the film. And you just want support, support, support… in a perfect world… so that you can really get the thing to be correct.

Now, this doesn’t happen these days — so, “support, support, support” — when you do dive within and experience this pure self — atma — pure consciousness — it’s the home of all the laws of nature. You get more in tune with those and … nature starts supporting you. So you have that feeling, even if they’re breathing down your neck, and there’s pressure here and pressure here, it doesn’t matter — inside … I say, “Every day is like a Saturday morning” — you got a great feeling, and it grows and grows and grows.

Catching the Big Fish is excellent in its entirety. Pair this short teaser with David Lynch’s instructions for how to make a Ricky Board and Bill Watterson’s indispensable 1990 commencement address on creative integrity.

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18 JUNE, 2013

How to Make a Ricky Board: A Creative Exercise from David Lynch

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An avant-garde reminder that it’s all in a name.

It’s not uncommon for creators chiefly acclaimed in one medium to make lesser-known yet wonderful art in another: Patti Smith’s poetry, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, Marilyn Monroe’s unpublished verses, Richard Feynman’s sketches, René Magritte’s sheet music covers, J.R.R. Tolkien’s original drawings.

Though the leap between surrealist cinema and avant-garde art might not seem so great, there’s something especially striking about celebrated director David Lynch’s 1994 coffee table book Images — a collection of his private paintings, sketches, photographs, and short fiction that offered a never-before-revealed glimpse of the inner workings of his uncanny imagination. The most palpable unifying theme across the works were Lynch’s esoteric personal obsessions, from snowmen to suburban housewives, among which was his kooky concept of Ricky Board collages — dead flies neatly stacked in rows, a kind of morbid precursor of Ursus Wehrli’s The Art of Cleanup. Lynch writes:

The Ricky Board is my idea, right or wrong, of what the Japanese might do to organize controlled accidents in a formal environment.

From Do It: The Compendium (public library) — the fantastic collection of famous artists’ wide-ranging instructionals for art anyone can make, based on 20 years of legendary curator and provocateur Hans Ulrich Obrist’s project of the same title — comes a creative exercise from Lynch, who shows us how to make our own Ricky Board:

Do It: How To Make A Ricky Board (2012)

This board can be any size you want.

The proportions are dictated by four rows of five rickies.

Each ricky is, as nearly as possible, exactly the same as every other ricky.

The ricky can be an object or a flat image.

The thing about the rickies is you will see them change before your eyes because you will give each ricky a different name.

The names will be printed or written under each ricky. Twenty different names in all.

You will be amazed at the different personalities that emerge depending on the names you give.

Here is a poem:

Four rows of five
Your rickies come alive
Twenty is plenty
It isn’t tricky
Just name each ricky
Even though they’re all the same
The change comes from the name

Do It features contributions — from the kooky to the profound to the subversive to the sentimental — from beloved contemporary artists like Lawrence Weiner, Louise Bourgeois, Ai Weiwei, Douglas Coupland, and Sol LeWitt. See some of them here and complement with these activity books for grown-ups.

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23 APRIL, 2013

Meet Marty Cooper, Inventor of the Cell Phone

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“If you try to build a device that does all things for all people, it won’t do any of them very well.”

“Often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical,” Alexander Graham Bell observed in reflecting on his early work that would eventually produce the telephone. Yet how nonsensical the notion of a wireless phone must have seemed even to him at the dawn of the 20th century. But a mere seven decades later, in April of 1973, the first cellular phone made its debut. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the era-defining technology, filmmaker David Friedman has profiled inventor Martin “Marty” Cooper (b. 1928) in the latest installment of his wonderful series of portraits of inventors.

What’s important about any technology is that the technology is — hopefully — invisible, but at least transparent and maybe intuitive. … The purpose of technology is to make your life better. Most cell phones don’t do that very well — in fact, they force us to become engineers, to learn a bunch of new things. We shouldn’t have to do that. The ideal phone would be one where I would just talk to the phone — or maybe the phone would read my mind — and it would do things to make my life better. … If you try to build a device that does all things for all people, it won’t do any of them very well. So I think that’s where we are with cell phones today.

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05 APRIL, 2013

Beloved Film Critic Roger Ebert on Writing, Life, and Mortality

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“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.”

What a cultural loss to bid farewell to beloved critic Roger Ebert at the age of 70, after a long battle with the cancer that first claimed his jaw and, now, his life. Though I’d followed Ebert’s writing for some time, with the sort of detached appreciation one directs at cultural commentators, it wasn’t until I encountered him in the flesh at TED 2011, where he delivered his brave and stirring talk about learning to speak again, that I found myself in sheer awe of his spirit. A few months later, his memoir, Life Itself (public library), was released and I absorbed it voraciously. Today, some of its most resonant parts come back to mind, a bittersweet reminder of the incredible mind we’ve lost.

Roger Ebert (photograph by Anne Ryan, USA Today)

Ebert begins with an apt and beautiful metaphor for his existence:

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.

In recalling the mismatch between his memory of his childhood home and the reality of the house once he returned as an adult, he captures that ineffable feeling of questioning the very fabric of reality:

I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely. I doubt I’ve experienced it ten times in my life. I felt it at Smith Drugs when I was seven or eight and opened a nudist magazine and discovered that all women had breasts. I felt it when my father told me he had cancer. I felt it when I proposed marriage. Yes, and I felt it in the old Palais des Festivals at Cannes, when the Ride of the Valkyries played during the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now.

The shape-shifting quality of memory is something Ebert returns to again and again:

One of the rewards of growing old is that you can truthfully say you lived in the past. … In these years after my illness, when I can no longer speak and am set aside from the daily flow, I live more in my memory and discover that a great many things are safely stored away. It all seems still to be in there somewhere. … You find a moment from your past, undisturbed ever since, still vivid, surprising you. In high school I fell under the spell of Thomas Wolfe: ‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.’ Now I feel all the faces returning to memory.

[…]

I remember everything. All my life I’ve been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf. When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the stream of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn’t consciously thought about since.

Thomas Wolfe was, in fact, a big part of how fell in love with reading shortly after his high school graduation:

I read endlessly, often in class, always late at night. There was no pattern; one book led randomly to another. The great influence was Thomas Wolfe, who burned with the need to be a great novelist, and I burned in sympathy. I felt that if I could write like him, I would have nothing more to learn. I began to ride my bike over to campus and steal quietly into the bookstores.

Roger Ebert

Echoing E. B. White’s famous admonition that “writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” and Isabel Allende’s counsel to “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Ebert shares some invaluable advice:

My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

Much like his ability to summon memories without deliberate effort, Ebert’s mastery of the writing process is largely an unconscious act, a state of mesmerism experienced in finding your purpose and doing what you love:

When I write, I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share: In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.

He marvels at how the social web, despite his initial skepticism, liberated his impulse for self-expression as his writing took on an autobiographical life of its own:

My blog became my voice, my outlet, my ‘social media’ in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Into it I poured my regrets, desires, and memories. Some days I became possessed. The comments were a form of feedback I’d never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made ‘online friends,’ a concept I’d scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn’t intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. … the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I’ve always written that way. How can a movie review be written in the third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn’t subjective, there’s something false about it.

The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog forms. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.

Roger Ebert and wife Chaz, 2011 (photograph by Fred Thornhill/Reuters via The New York Times)

He captures the diverse spectrum of what we call “journalism,” sharply aware of where he plants his own stake:

I used journalism to stay at one remove from my convictions: I wouldn’t risk arrest but would bravely report about those who did. My life has followed that pattern. I observe and describe at a prudent reserve.

At the heart of cinema, Ebert sees a deep resonance with the human condition:

If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.

On the art of the interview:

My secret as an interviewer was that I was actually impressed by the people I interviewed … I am beneath everything else a fan. I was fixed in this mode as a young boy and am awed by people who take the risks of performance. I become their advocate and find myself in sympathy.

On writing as a substitute for the human pleasures that were taken from him by his illness:

What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.

On our relationship with mortality, at once rather complex and rather simple:

We’re all dying in increments.

Complement Life Itself with Ebert’s unforgettable TED talk:

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