Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘film’

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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14 MARCH, 2013

Wondrous the Merge: Why Love Knows No Boundaries

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“At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle.”

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Big Joy — a wonderful documentary about the life of the poet, filmmaker, gay liberation champion, and counterculture hero James Broughton (1913–1999):

Though Broughton was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s and left a powerful imprint on culture with his experimental cinema and expressive poetry, what makes the film most soul-stirring of all is Broughton’s remarkable and unlikely love story.

Already twice married and the father of two daughters and a son, it wasn’t until late in life that he met his soulmate.

James was 61. Joel was 26.

Exultantly besotted, James wrote Joel in a letter:

I did not think you would come to me in this lifetime.

On April 5th, 1975, James captured in his journal, preserved at the Kent State archives, a joyously disbelieving account of their first time making love:

And it was wonderful, truly wondrous. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I can still scarcely believe it. Such mutual joy. I was half my age. Age vanished. There was only lovingness. And connecting. And ecstasy. As if this were what I had been waiting for all my life, since … Littlejohn of boyhood. And thought had long since passed all opportunity by me.

And it was suddenly here. So very here. So tenderly and strongly. At the moment I cannot ask the future or the end. I am too exhilarant and purry. It is a miracle. It is from Hermes himself. It is a manifestation of so much that I have been feeling under surface in my soul so long: an incarnation. It had to become manifest. So much desire must create a reality.

Seven years later, in “Wondrous the Merge”, one of his many love poems for Joel, found in the sublime collection Special Deliveries: New and Selected Poems (public library), James offered a lyrical addition to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Wondrous Wondrous the merge
Wondrous the merge of soulmates
the surprises of recognition
Wondrous the flowerings of renewal
Wondrous the wings of the air
clapping their happy approval

* * *

I severed my respectabilities
and bought a yellow mobile home
in an unlikely neighborhood
He moved in his toaster his camera
and his eagerness to become
my courier seed-carrier and consort

Above all he brought the flying carpet
that upholsters his boundless embrace
Year after year he takes me soaring
out to the ecstasies of the cosmos
that await all beings in love

One day we shall not bother to return

The two remained together for 25 years, as muses for each other, until James departed this world on his flying carpet.

If you can, treat yourself to a local screening of Big Joy and consider helping the filmmakers crowdfund the film tour.

Donating = Loving

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