Last year, we took a look at Mondo Cane, the original shockumentary circa 1962. The following year, the same filmmakers — Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti — released La Donna nel Mondo (Women of the World), another genre-bender film whose tagline says it all: “Behind the Fancy Clothes Into the Most Primitive, the Most Provocative Affairs of Women!” — an arresting exploration of everything from tribal culture to Geishas to polygamy to the female form itself.
In the following excerpt, the filmmakers take us inside the gay and lesbian club scene of Paris in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s fascinating and unsettling to see the film treat homosexuality as symptomatic of some “underlying sadness” and a misguided attempt to emulate the physical characteristics of the opposite gender. At the same time, however, it’s hard not to revel in the disconnect between the narrator’s scorn and the merry good time these men and women seem to be having.
Women of the World bespeaks the era’s institutionalized sexism, devoid of any self-awareness, yet offers a fascinating perspective on both the women of the time and, in a rich meta kind of way, on the men who documented them.
They say London swings: It doesn’t. Not even the King’s Road, Chelsea. But here and there, among the conformist fat-cat crowds, is a lean cat or two, looking like it might swing, given some encouragement. And there among the chain stores and supermarkets is here and there a shop that may have something all its own to say. To the character who can send up a mass-production car. To people who can put living before a living.”
And the lollipop says what the toy car said: It’s all about that tiny colored womb, warm and gentle, in its way an escape from the H-bomb, television and other horrors of worker-day world.”
It’s particularly interesting to see the emergence of cultural phenomena we tend to see as nascent, from vintage revivalism to hipsterdom, in London’s “antique supermarkets,” predecessors of today’s vintage stores, and boutiques like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, an impressively more hipsterly-named then-version of Urban Outfitters. In fact, the program’s entire tone is oozing the same blend of genuine fascination, not-so-subtle condescendence and marginal mockery that you’d find in much of today’s media conversation on hipster culture.
One way of saying ‘no’ to authority is to parody it. Some of the young, with little to say ‘yes’ to, come to Soho — that pulsating heart of swinging London where girls join clubs to see old men strip… or is it vice-versa… and at the cutely named I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, buy uniforms of the past to affront the uniformity of the present.”
Filmed, narrated and scored with delightful cinematic retrostalgia, the series does for the history of cultural innovation what James Burke’s Connections did for the history of technological innovation.
For more on the subject, we highly recommend Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London — a sweeping review of the era that gave us mod, bob cuts, and a new paradigm for freedom of expression. From profiles of cultural icons like designer Mary Quant and photographer David Bailey to the sociology of Beatlemania to LSD, the book offers keen insight on a geotemporal phenomenon that crossed cultural borders and shaped the taste, style and sensibility of decades to come.
In 1898, British prankster W. Reginald Bray decided to test the limits of the Royal Mail. He began a series of experiments, mailing everything from turnips to rabbit skulls to Russian cigarettes — and, on three occasions, himself — up until his death in 1939.
Perhaps even more curiously, over the course of his long correspondence-pranking career, Bray also amassed the world’s largest collection of autographs, including ones from Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier and Maurice Chevalier.
The book, absorbing and visually captivating, also features a photograph of Bray being delivered to his own doorstep in 1900, when he became the first person to send a human being through the mail. (Though he did previously pilot-test it with an Irish terrier, who made it through the postal system in one piece, albeit a barking and disgruntled one.)
In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings — the blog, the newsletter and the Twitter feed — over which we could’ve seen 53 feature-length films, listened to 135 music albums or taken 1,872 trips to the bathroom. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right.
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Legendary Latvian-born American portrait photographer Philippe Halsman is one of the most innovative photographers of the 20th century. Over his lifetime, he shot 101 LIFE magazine covers, including the most famous photograph of Albert Einstein of all time.
But during the 1950s, he started a side project separate from the serious world of magazine cover photography: He began capturing some of the era’s most iconic artists, writers, actors, politicians and other public figures in a setup that defied the expectations of both their stature and the portraiture genre: Jumping. From Salvador Dali to Marilyn Monroe to Richard Nixon, his unmistakable, surprising and delightfully dynamic portraits survive in the form of a rare book plainly titled Philippe Halsman’s Jump Book.
When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears” ~ Philippe Halsman
Though the book is sadly out of print, you can score a used copy on Amazon or, if you’re lucky enough, your local library may carry it.
For a closer look at the iconic photographer’s creative process and quirk, we also highly recommend a companion read: Unknown Halsman, a fascinating exploration of Halsman’s lesser-known but remarkable work, including private and experimental photographs, decontextualized advertisements, and outtakes from famous photo shoots, many never before seen.
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