From balloon races to hidden microphones


Women welders (Shipbuilding Corp., Pascagoula, MS) – via NARA

NARA, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, has uploaded 100,000 images to the Wikimedia Commons area of Wikipedia. You can browse the images or even help categorize them. This digital outgrowth of the nation’s attic contains everything from Kiowa artwork on buckskin to aerial views of Cleveland and Los Angeles, images of WWI chemical warfare, prohibition-era Detroitballoon races, women working in WWII factories, a famous author holding his baby, V-bomb damage in London, and the Chapstick tubes that held hidden microphones, for use in the Watergate break-in…

We see the planet complete

Everything that’s powerful about Don DeLillo’s writing is contained in his short story “Human Moments in World War III,” about two astronauts orbiting earth during a futuristic conflict. DeLillo uses the science fiction genre to let blunt emotions mix with caustic social commentary:

The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.

I try not to think big thoughts or submit to rambling abstractions. But the urge sometimes comes over me. Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete. We have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to meditate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.

Read a longer excerpt of the story at the PEN American Center site. The story is also contained in DeLillo’s latest book, The Angel Esmeralda.

Scifi’s Golden Age

At The Library of America web site, Gary K. Wolfe discusses the Golden Age of scifi in tandem of the publication of the lavish boxed set American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s:

By the 1950s, science fiction had been writing for years about atomic power and the possibility of nuclear destruction, but after August 1945 these speculations became the matter of urgent public anxieties, exacerbated by the Soviet development of similar weapons, the testing of vastly more powerful hydrogen weapons, and the emerging Cold War. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists seemed to invite apocalyptic thinking with the introduction of its famous “Doomsday Clock” in 1947, and the 1950s was peppered with cautionary mainstream bestsellers such as Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow! (1954), Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959). A renewed interest in rocketry and space exploration was reflected by films like Destination Moon (1950), enthusiastic articles in popular magazines like Collier’s, and even theme park rides like Disneyland’s “Rocket to the Moon” (introduced in 1955). The launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union in 1957 lent a sense of public-policy urgency to space exploration as well as to nuclear fear.

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Remek/Gubarev (via Wikimedia)

Private Universe, Czech documentarian Helena Třeštíková’s latest film, records a single family over the course of 37 years, from the 1970s to the present day. It screened at the 10th anniversary of Silverdocs with little fanfare. No glossy postcards, no slick web campaign. When you spend nearly four decades creating a work of art – Třeštíková calls this one of her “time-collecting films,” according to Variety’s Eddie Cockrell – the result speaks for itself. The film documents Petr and Jana Kettner as they raise their kids amidst the historical gyrations of their country, from the era of Soviet domination – a time when, as the film puts it, “There was nothing to buy, nowhere to travel, and life was quiet” – through to the end of The Cold War and more recent developments in Europe. Honza, the Kettner’s son, belongs to a certain generation of children raised in the 1970s and 80s whose common reference points are often global: the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the passing of the Millennium, and so on. The subtly steely filmmaking decision is to avoid one specific moment in time – or one dramatic sequence in the lives of its subjects – in favor of a steady accumulation of years connected by leitmotifs and lyric patterns. The film weaves in television coverage of historical events, stamping it with a Czech impression by focusing on elements as various as the national coverage of the Challenger disaster and the ongoing career of the ubiquitous singer Karel Gott (his rendition of “Paint it Black” is available on YouTube). Space travel is used memorably throughout to suggest flights of fancy and imaginative outbursts that connect the personal with the public. The astronaut Vladimír Remek made the Czechs third into space, a point of national pride that also lends poignancy to the report, conveyed near the end of the film, of the first privately-funded excursion beyond Earth’s atmosphere. (This enterprise gives an additional twist to the film’s multivalent title, at least as it has been translated into English.) It’s sometime said that a person is “lost in their own private world,” but the film suggests that a private universe is an impossible dream.

Watch an Interview with Helena Třeštíková from the Institute of Documentary Film on Vimeo.


Keeping the Faith

Robert Frost’s cabin near Bread Loaf

One writer reflects on his time at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, “a curious mix of summer camp, trade convention, and religious retreat, all set in an idyllic meadow surrounded by forested mountain ridges.” As one of 220 guests at Bread Loaf this year, Michael Bourne of “The Millions” found solace and companionship:

Let’s say that you hold some passionate, but obscure belief. Maybe you believe God will fling a meteor at the earth and all the good people will be sucked up into heaven. Maybe you favor a return to the gold standard. Or perhaps you think Roseanne Barr should be elected president this fall on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Whatever it is, this belief animates your life, gives your daily existence shape and meaning, but no one you know really understands why you care so much about it. Then one day you drive to a mountaintop in the Vermont woods and spend 10 days in splendid isolation with several hundred other people who fervently believe the same things you do.

[Read “Keeping the Faith: Ten Days at Bread Loaf”]


Uta Briesewitz on The Wire

Kodak’s OnFilm series of interviews features cinematographer Uta Briesewitz on being hired to shoot The Wire:

One of the things that I love about my profession is that it puts me in environments and situations that I would never experience as a tourist or just a normal onlooker. I shot the pilot and the first two-and-a-half seasons of the series. The Wire explored the dark side of Baltimore where people were trapped in a vicious cycle of drug abuse and violent crime. We had situations where we’d be at a location and a S.W.A.T. team was two blocks away cleaning up a crime scene, or we would have to stop shooting for a while because there was a sniper on a roof. I used to say to myself, if I was a producer, I could have given Robert Colesberry 10 good reasons why he should not have hired a young woman from Germany to shoot a show like this. I thought how courageous it was for a producer to tell HBO that he wanted to hire this young woman, who they never heard of, to shoot this really tough show in Baltimore.

Read more:

Lost films

Image via Wikimedia

Real-life discoveries of lost films are rarely so suspenseful as the events depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, but exciting finds are being made. The story of how critical scenes from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis were rediscovered by Fernando Peña in a Buenos Aires archive, then restored to the film, is remarkable. The German project Lost Films, a site and archive created by the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), gathers images and evidence related to movies, titles, and filmmakers both lost and found. Browse the archive or have a look at a list of 50 films that have yet to be identified.

Abandon Everything, Again

The real-life inspiration for the ‘visceral realism’ poetry movement of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives was called ‘infrarealismo’. Check out the original infrarealist manifesto, written by Bolaño when he was twenty-three years old, here.

While multiple English translations are floating around the web, the version belonging to thealtarpiece blog contains this excerpt:

A new lyricism, which is starting to rise in Latin America, supports itself in ways that never fail to amaze us. The way in to matter is ultimately the way in to adventure: the poem is a journey and the poet is a hero revealing heroes. Tenderness like an exercise in speed. Breathing and heat. The shotgun experience, structures that are devouring themselves, crazy contradictions.

If the poet is mixed up, the reader will have to mix himself up.

[read more here]

The Roots of Luxury

The bottom diagram depicts a Syrian pistachio tree in an 18th century text scribed by Muhammad ibn Muhammad Shakir Ruzmah-‘i Nathani.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that the pistachio is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible? In case you were wondering, we are not metaphorically counting Nebuchadnezzar as one of these nuts, although he did grow them.

At JSTOR’s unexpectedly riveting Plant Science blog, managed by Michael Gallagher, arcane botanical facts, like the ones above, grow into rich histories of natural phenomena, including their interplay with literature, economics, and spirituality.  A post by Gallagher recounts how the pistachio was converted into one the world’s first recorded luxury goods:

The Queen of Sheba decreed pistachios an exclusively royal food, going so far as to forbid commoners from growing the nut for personal use. One wonders whether Sheba brought the pistachio with her to Jerusalem to impress Solomon along with the other gifts of spices, gold, and precious stones. Something must have worked as Solomon is reputedly supposed to have fathered her child (Menelik) and forever connected the two kingdoms in history (and perhaps the Ark of the Covenant).

In ancient Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar had pistachio trees planted in the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon… The enzymes of pistachios have been found in the remains of embalmed Egyptian nobility (most likely as an ingredient in the embalming fluid itself) (Kaup et al, 2001).

So, the next time you lick a pistachio ice cream or shuck the the once-prized nut, think of King Tut and the Queen of Sheeba. For more gripping botanical narratives, explore JSTOR Plant Science.

Get the following before the book

A thought-provoking essay at Her Kind, “Living in Parenthesis,” by Cris Mazza, discusses the outsourcing of just about everything to the writer in a literary world that increasingly blurs the lines between selling your work and selling yourself. After meeting with an agent who tells her to cultivate an online presence, Mazza’s student notes:

“What I find objectionable about that style of self-promotion is that it’s like you have to build a character out of yourself. You can’t blog something like, ‘Didn’t sleep well last night. Wrote a little. Will go buy a new broom now,’ because then your would-be readers think that you’d be dull at parties. You have to be fun! And quirky! Because that’s the only way to get the following before the book, right?”

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