Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

19 MAY, 2011

How Shakespeare Changed Everything

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What Central Park wildlife has to do with Freud and Abe Lincoln’s assassination.

An ambitious and entertaining new book by Esquire columnist Stephen Marche explores the many, often unsuspected ways in which the great playwright shaped just about every facet of contemporary culture. How Shakespeare Changed Everything is equal parts homage to the iconic bard and rigorously researched, fascinating look at how his work permeated aspects of pop culture and everyday life far beyond his genre and his era.

From how Romeo and Juliet introduced the concept of adolescence to the 1,700 words Shakespeare coined (including lackluster, fashionable and the name Jessica) to how his plays provided the foundation for Freudian psychology and concepts of healthy sex life, Marche blends light trivia-worthy historical factoids with a deep respect for the legendary writer’s legacy.

Shakespeare is the foremost poet in the world. All of the scriptwriting books cite him as the dominant influence on Hollywood. He has had more influence on the novel than any novelist. The greater the artist, the more he or she was influenced by Shakespeare. Dickens and Keats were more inspired by Shakespeare than anybody, and their familiarity with Shakespeare seems to have made them more original, not less.” ~ Stephen Marche

Perhaps most fascinating of all is to consider how mind-boggling this wide-spanning influence would’ve been to Shakespeare himself. Unbeknownst to him, he “founded” spiritual movements, informed war strategies, validated romantic rituals, and shaped the very core of our moral codes. He even changed North American wildlife when, in 1890, one man decided to release 60 English starlings in Central Park in an effort to introduce every bird Shakespeare ever mentioned to North America.

[Shakespeare has] been the unwitting founder of intellectual movements he would never have endorsed and the secret presence behind spiritual practices he could never have imagined. He has been used as a crude political instrument by all sides in conflicts of which he could never have conceived. His vision has been assumed by saints and by murderers. At the bottom of all these slippery chains of consequences and perverted manifestations of his talent dwells the unique ability of Shakespeare to place his finger on people’s souls.” ~ Stephen Marche

For a taste of How Shakespeare Changed Everything, the National Post has a handsome excerpt.

Thanks, Julia

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18 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Frank Capra: 5 Essential Films

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What war propaganda has to do with vintage Hollywood romance and the American political process.

114 years ago today, Frank Capra was born in Sicily, but soon enough immigrated to the United States — to Los Angeles, to be precise — where he grew up, studied chemical engineering, and became a nationalized US citizen in 1920. Throughout the next decade, Capra threw himself into writing and directing silent films, then switched to making “talkies.” By 1934, he was reeling off a string of classics — films that exuded an unbounded optimism that’s quintessentially American: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — they’re all part of the great Capra filmography. And, of course, you can’t overlook a string of propaganda documentaries that Capra directed (along with John Huston and John Ford) to galvanize support for World War II.

Thanks to Google Video and the Internet Archive, you can now revisit five Capra films online, plus many other great films from the same era. Let’s give you a quick tour:

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

This romantic comedy, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, won every major Academy Award in 1934. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. It was a first, and the feat has only been repeated twice since.

MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

This epic drama features Jimmy Stewart in one of his finest performances. Today, the film inspires the fanciful belief that one individual can effect change in Washington. But, when it was first released, American politicians and journalists attacked the film for merely suggesting that corruption might influence the American political process.

MEET JOHN DOE

Although less well known than other Capra classics, the American Film Institute ranks Meet John Doe 49th on its list called 1100 Years… 100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies. Needless to say, It’s a Wonderful Life, the all-time Capra gem, sits at the very top of that list.

WHY WE FIGHT: PRELUDE TO WAR

Once World War II broke out, Capra was commissioned by the US government to direct a seven episode propaganda series called “Why We Fight.” Prelude to War appears above. Other titles in the sequence include The Nazi Strike, The War Comes to America and beyond.

TUNISIAN VICTORY

Finally, later in the war, Capra was called upon again by his government. The mission this time was to explain what was happening on the war front in North Africa. And that he did. Tunisian Victory hit theaters in 1944.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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13 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Velcro: From Nature to NASA, Animated

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Innovation that sticks, or how to turn nature’s aggravations into universal usefulness.

This year, Velcro — one of the world’s most beloved multipurpose inventions — celebrates its 60th birthday, and today marks the 53rd anniversary of Velcro’s US patent. The miracle adhesive was the brainchild of Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral. One afternoon, as he was taking a walk in the forest, he noticed the that burrs — the seeds of burdock thistle — stuck to his clothes and wondered how they did that. So he excitedly rushed home, stuck one under the microscope, and spent the next ten years perfecting nature’s brilliant hook-and-loop adhesion mechanism, eventually producing one of history’s smartest applications of biomimetic design.

To celebrate Velcro’s birthday, here are three different animated short films that tell the same great story of ingenuity and perseverance in just over a minute each.

From HowStuffWorks, here’s a characteristically short-and-sweet evaluation of the invention. Though I have to disagree with their 2/5 on the benefits-to-humanity scale — anything that’s good enough for NASA should be good enough for at least a 4.

From Pan-African media portal ABN Digital, a beat-by-beat recap on the chronology of Velcro’s invention and its impact as a zipper alternative.

And my favorite, from designer Antonio Alarcón Román, a delightfully fuzzy motion graphics narrative:

And a big “THANK YOU” to my wonderful intern, Adam Rubin, who is doing an admirable job of cataloging notable birthdays, deaths and historical anniversaries for me to find interesting content around.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

13 MAY, 2011

Before Muybridge: Pioneering Nineteenth-Century Motion Photography by French Scientist Étienne-Jules Marey

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What biking in the nude has to do with bird flight and the dawn of cinema.

French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey (March 5, 1830–May 21, 1904) made significant contributions to the development of cardiology and physical instrumentation in medicine, but he is best-known as a pioneer of chronophotography — an antique Victorian-era photographic technique that captures several sequential frames of movement, which can then be combined into a single image. In 1882, Marey invented a chronophotographic gun that was capable of taking 12 consecutive frames per second, recorded on the same picture. He used these pictures to study the gallop of horses, the flight of birds, the gait of elephants, the swim of fish, and the organic motion of many more creatures, and his work served as the foundation for Eadweard Muybridge‘s iconic animal locomotion studies and directly influenced the development of early cinema. Yet the background of his landmark images remains obscure.

Etienne-Jules Marey: A Passion for the Trace (public library) tells the extraordinary story of a man whose many interests and talents — scientist, physician, aviation researcher, motion studies pioneer and prolific inventor — are a living testament to our founding philosophy of cross-disciplinary curiosity as the root of creativity. This English translation by Robert Galeta is based on the writing of French philosopher of science Francois Dagognet, originally published in 1992.

Dagognet locates Marey at a crucial intersection of cultural, scientific, philosophical and technological modernity.” ~ Robert Galeta

Sample chronophotography, Marey’s and that of others he inspired, with this selection of images culled from various public domain archives.

Etienne-Jules Marey: A Passion for the Trace is part fascinating biography of a rare visionary, part cultural time-capsule of a landmark moment in history that shaped much of our modern visual literacy.

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